Sunday, July 6, 2014

Bart Ehrman on What We Can and Cannot Know About the Resurrection

In his newest book, How Jesus Became God, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman spends two chapters discussing what he thinks we can and cannot know about the resurrection. What we can know is familiar territory to most who have studied the emergence of Christianity:

(1) some of Jesus's followers believed that he had been raised from the dead; (2) they believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and (3) this belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God. [p. 174]

These are relatively mundane points. They appear in the earliest Christian sources, require no commitment to an actual resurrection or actual postmortem appearances, and there is something to be said for their role in Christianity's historical survival.

More interesting are the two things Dr. Ehrman says he has changed his mind on regarding what we cannot know about the resurrection. Like his colleague John Dominic Crossan, Professor Ehrman now believes that the tradition of an honorable burial of Jesus is doubtful. He makes note of the suspicious backstory of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the same Jewish council that condemned Jesus to death, absent from the early Christian creeds, and a figure who is progressively portrayed across the four gospels as more and more of a sympathizer to the Christian cause. Citing a handful of ancient examples, he observes that Roman crucifixion victims were not usually given proper burials because humiliation was an important part of the practice, intending to deter potential criminals from committing acts of rebellion against Rome. Those who were crucified were often laid in common graves or left to decay and be eaten by scavenging animals.

It is sometimes remarked that Jesus was buried by Joseph in accordance with Jewish law, since the Sabbath was close at hand. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 gives instruction in this vein, but as Dr. Ehrman points out, it's an open question of whether or not the Romans, particularly Pilate, would have respected such a rule. Though the Pharisees and the Jewish Sanhedrin had accused Jesus of blasphemy, the charges brought against him in front of Pilate were more political - inciting crowds, forbidding payment of taxes to Caesar, and claiming to be king (Luke 23:1-3). If Jesus was executed as an insurgent, under certain circumstances perhaps he would have been left unburied. If, however, he was executed in accordance with Jewish law, it's not so obvious where he was buried. In a chapter of the anthology The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave,  Peter Kirby writes that there is some evidence for a dishonorable burial tradition in passages like Mark 12:8 and Acts 13:27-29, which allude to Jesus being buried by his enemies rather than by his followers. [1]

The second thing Professor Ehrman has come to change his mind about is the empty tomb tradition. Like many before him, he draws attention to the fact that no empty tomb is mentioned in the earliest New Testament sources, the writings of Paul. Christian apologists often claim that a burial followed by a raising from the dead a la 1 Corinthians 15:4 implies an empty tomb. Yet Ehrman elsewhere argues that Paul interpreted the resurrection in a spiritual and not a physical sense, which would make an unoccupied tomb unnecessary. Dr. Ehrman also counters another apologetic claim that the discovery of the tomb by women lends credibility, since no one at that time would have made up such a story, as distrusted as women were. One can rightly question why we ought to think the gospel authors intended the resurrection narratives to hold up as any sort of legal or quasi-legal testimonials. The gospels come from oral traditions, they're not court documents. Additionally, women may have been so featured in the resurrection narratives because they were the ones tasked with preparing the bodies of the dead, or because, as some sources note, the Christian sect was especially popular with women. As the author says, this objection seems to rest on nothing but a lack of imagination.

Bart doesn't offer much comment on the empty tomb, but after some reflection this doesn't quite seem as disappointing as it might initially seem. The case for the empty tomb is razor thin when you think about it, relying pretty exclusively on texts which scholars have known for a good while to be dependent on one another. [2] Earlier texts outside of this literary dependence, like the Pauline epistles, do not mention an empty tomb, or any of the familiar details of the empty tomb tradition. Furthermore, there is the strange fact that there is no indication from any ancient sources of veneration of Jesus' tomb - a point I'd like to have seen Ehrman make - which is baffling especially with characters like Paul, who never was able to meet Jesus before his crucifixion, who preached the extreme importance of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:17), and presumably would have wanted to see his lord and savior's tomb, if it had existed in his time.

Consider how damaging these two areas of doubt are to the case for the resurrection, even against the three areas of confidence Dr. Ehrman notes. The disciples may have believed that Jesus rose from the dead, that he appeared to them after his death, and that he was god in some sense, but why should any of this compel us to believe as they did? People believe things for all sorts of reasons. People can be mistaken, people can hallucinate, as Professor Ehrman discusses in chapter five. When most of us hear of a body missing from a grave site, we don't think resurrection, we think grave robbers, we think the body has been moved, or that we came to the wrong site. Ironically, even the gospels have the followers of Jesus entertaining some of these explanations first, finding the resurrection just too unbelievable (John 20:2, Luke 24:11).

If it's doubtful Jesus was buried, and doubtful there was ever an empty tomb, then what we're left with sounds an awful lot like what Dan Dennett has described as "belief in belief". Whatever the disciples actually experienced, whatever was or was not actually going on, one chooses to believe in the disciples' belief that god raised Jesus from the dead. Of course, this is what I have seen the picture to be for a good while now, and the same assessment has been made by many other atheists, many biblical scholars, many philosophers, and many non-Christians in general. I'm pleased to see Bart Ehrman planting himself more firmly in this camp.

However, the question remains: if belief in belief is all that's required, why not belief in Mormonism, in Islam, in Buddhism, in Hinduism, or in the traditions of any other religion? Despite what William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, and other apologists may call things like the belief in an empty tomb or the belief in postmortem visions, they are not facts. The reality of it has always been belief in belief, particularly belief in the reliability of uncorroborated beliefs. But without facts, without empirical data, without some independent means of assessment, Christian belief in the resurrection has nothing substantial distinguishing it from similar belief in the uncorroborated traditions of other religions. Building on his extant work questioning the reliability of the New Testament, Dr. Ehrman's latest book offers quite a bit of food for thought.

1. Peter Kirby, in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005, Prometheus), p. 246-247.
2. Stephen C. Carlson, Synoptic Problem FAQ (2004).

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