Monday, May 26, 2008

Re: visions of the Historical Jesus

One of the biggest shocks of my life came when I was listening to a taped debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, which has since been put into book format with comments by several other scholars. (William F. Buckley, Jr. moderated the debate, and I transcribed an interview he did afterwards here.) In the debate, I was very surprised by Craig's claims that much of the New Testament's description of events surrounding Jesus' death, such as his burial by Joseph of Arimathea, is considered demonstrably historical by the consensus of scholarship. But I almost fell out of my chair when I heard him say this:

"On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact that is almost universally acknowledged by New Testament scholars today."
In his rebuttal Craig reiterates that the claims he had made, including this one, are "established historical facts".

I couldn't believe this. Everything I had heard about "what the scholars say" was exactly opposed to this. In trying to make sense of it, my first thought was that Craig must simply be wrong that scholars almost universally acknowledge it: so I tried to research his justification for this claim.

I discovered that Craig earned his second doctorate at the University of M√ľnich in Germany under Wolfhart Pannenberg, arguably the greatest historical Jesus scholar of the second half of the 20th century. Craig's dissertation was published later in two parts by Edwin Mellen Press, an academic publisher. I was interested in the second part entitled Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (vol. 16 in Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity). This book included in-depth references in support of his claim, and any serious investigation into the "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus will corroborate it. Moreover, in retrospect, I realize that to suggest that a mistake of this magnitude could have been made in a doctoral dissertation written under Pannenberg is just not a serious option.

My study also removed another option, that perhaps by "New Testament scholars" Craig was referring to a small group of people who were (biased) Christians, and that a larger community of scholarship in this field disagreed with them. But this was not the case. The phrase "New Testament scholars" itself refers to the larger community of scholarship, and the majority of them don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

So I took another route: perhaps the scholars accept that people experienced what they understood to be appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. By this, I hoped to ward off the strength of Craig's claim by thinking that they experienced a nameless something which they mistakenly took to be Jesus (I didn't stop to ask myself what such a something could have been).

But of course, this didn't hold up. As Craig writes elsewhere, three years after the initiation of the Third Quest "the Marburg theologian Hans Grass subjected the resurrection itself to historical inquiry and concluded that the resurrection appearances cannot be dismissed as mere subjective visions on the part of the disciples, but were objective visionary events" (my emphasis). This conclusion quickly won the acceptance of scholarship and is still the consensus today (although a handful of scholars have recently renewed the claim that these appearances were essentially collective hallucinations). They further conclude that since the circumstances involved literally hundreds of people seeing Jesus at the same time, the only "objective visionary event" that could have reasonably given such an impression was Jesus himself.

But I was still confused: most scholars do not believe that Jesus was resurrected. But if they accept that Jesus himself appeared to groups of people after his death, then this is essentially an acceptance of the resurrection isn't it? I knew that the suggestion that Jesus may have survived the crucifixion has not had any scholarly acceptance since the early 19th century. So how do they account for Jesus' postmortem appearances if he didn't really rise from the dead?

The answer is very disappointing: the majority of them don't account for it. They basically don't mention it. Of those who are willing to offer an explanation, the most common suggestion is that these people saw Jesus' ghost. So it was Jesus himself, but they mistook it for a resurrection.

However, most scholars who do discuss the issue tend to admit that they can't explain the fact of Jesus' postmortem appearances without appealing to Jesus' resurrection -- but they still insist that the resurrection did not happen. Why? Because such an event could never happen. I thought this was interesting because this is a philosophical claim rather than a historical one, and these scholars are historians, not philosophers. In other words, in making this judgment, they are no longer speaking in their field of expertise. What would be required would be a scholarly assessment of the historical evidence on this issue together with a philosophical analysis of whether miracles can occur, whether they can be offered as historical hypotheses, and whether Jesus' resurrection fits the bill. But this would essentially require a scholar with two doctorates.

So you shouldn't be too surprised to learn that Craig earned his first doctorate in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham in England.

(reposted from OregonLive)


Steven Carr said...

Paul claimed to have gone to Heaven.

Should we accept the claim of Paul to have gone to Heaven?

And that Jesus appeared to him? (Perhaps in the way Jesus appears today on tortillas and nachos?)

Jim S. said...

I'm sorry, I don't see the connection. Could you clarify exactly what your objection is?

Anonymous said...

What would you say to this post here, which argues that Jesus was a first-century doomsday prophet, whose followers came up with the resurrection after his death?

Gary said...

How are the group appearances of Jesus to the first Christians any different from the group appearances of the angel Moroni to the first Mormons?