Thursday, May 21, 2009

whence the empty tomb?

At last we get to April DeConick's answer to the question, What about the empty tomb? I almost decided not to comment on this one, mostly because (a) I disagree strongly with her argument here, and (b) I have not done the necessary research regarding the empty tomb traditions to adequately answer her points. But not addressing this question, which lies at the heart of Christian claims about Jesus, would be weak. So instead I will structure this post as questions raised by her comments rather than rebuttals proving her wrong. Each question will be preceded by a quote from her post (linked above).
I hope that you noticed that I did not locate the empty tomb stories as an impulse for christology. Rather I view them as a reaction to christology already in the making.

Here I have two questions. First, Is the echo of Dunn's 1980 book, Christology in the Making, intentional? And if so, is Dunn's view of the empty tomb traditions informative of DeConick's view? I'm just trying to get a handle on where I should begin here. But second, If the empty tomb traditions are effects of early Christian christology (or, perhaps better, christologizing) rather than some of its causes, how do we explain the development of a christology that could imagine an empty tomb? To be fair, much of DeConick's post, I think, tries to answer this question, but I don't think she ever actually explains why stories of an empty tomb should be necessary (or simply useful) for those who claimed to have visions of Jesus after his execution.
The narratives and the letters of Paul suggest that the visions of Jesus were not originally connected to the empty tomb stories. The claim to visions of Jesus were not the same as the claim to the empty tomb. The two are merged in the gospel narratives. . . . [We also] have the confession of the eleven in Jerusalem that Jesus had appeared to Simon, a vision that has nothing to do with the empty tomb at all. We also have Paul's report that Jesus first appeared to Peter (nicknamed "Rocky"), an appearance that has nothing to do with the empty tomb narrative.

Here DeConick claims to find evidence of the merging of reports of postmortem visions of Jesus with stories of an empty tomb in both the gospels and the letters of Paul. But I question both of these claims. First, If Luke's gospel, for example, clearly refers to the empty tomb, then is it really legitimate to refer to the Lukan account of the eleven's report that Simon had seen Jesus as having "nothing to do with the empty tomb at all"? Perhaps we could say that, apart from the Lukan narrative, this account could be read apart from traditions of the empty tomb. But clearly Luke has ordered the eleven's report of Simon's sighting in a context in which the empty tomb is another important reference point. If we're going to read one part of Luke apart from the context of another part of Luke, don't we need to provide some evidence and/or justification for assuming that report was both earlier than and independent of stories of the empty tomb? Second, If we admit that Paul doesn't refer to stories of Jesus' empty tomb, does that necessarily mean that Paul didn't know those stories? Do we really think we know everything Paul knew?

In fact, I wonder if these two points, which serve as the foundation of DeConick's argument, could be pressed to serve the exact opposite point. Luke, written much later than Paul's letters (according to standard datings for the NT documents) clearly understands appearances of the risen Jesus in the context of stories of the empty tomb (if Jesus appeared to Peter then he wasn't lying in his tomb). So Paul's references to appearances of the risen Jesus may likewise assume that somewhere a tomb has more vacancy than it should. Now, this argument is, admittedly, very weak; but its weaknesses, I think, apply also to DeConick's argument. Both, that is, impose themselves on the data they're trying to explain. But I think we can confidently say that Paul's report of Jesus' appearance to Peter is compatible with (even if not evidence for) awareness of stories of the empty tomb.
I maintain that Jesus' physical dead body was not raised. This is not what happened, although this is one of the interpretations of what happened that was put into place by some of the early followers. And at that it isn't even the earliest interpretation! The earliest interpretation appears in the Gospel of Luke, "they supposed that they saw a spirit" (Luke 24:37). Now the Lukan author is going to make an argument against this interpretation, but this argument is later than the original holdings of the disciples. It is a corrective to an earlier tradition that Peter and Mary had visions of Jesus as a spirit (or ghost?!) after his death.

DeConick is right that the raising of Jesus' physical body wasn't the first interpretation of postmortem sightings/visions of Jesus, and she's right to refer to Luke 24.37 in this regard. But again this raises for me two questions. First, Can we really refer to Luke's report of the disciples' impression of seeing a spirit/ghost [πνεῦμα; pneuma] as a tradition? The Lukan account certainly frames the disciples' impression of seeing a spirit as mistaken, and their mistaken impression is quickly corrected [24.39–40]. Perhaps Luke is countering an earlier tradition here, but what evidence can we offer to support that way of reading Luke? Why is DeConick's reading better than, say, Luke admitting that the disciples at first thought they were only seeing visions but very quickly realized (or were informed of) their error? If Luke is polemicizing against some earlier tradition of Jesus' purely visionary appearances, why admit the disciples' first response was to suppose they had seen a spirit in the first place? Second, If the disciples really did think they encountered the risen Jesus in more spiritual terms and only later came to argue for a bodily resurrection complete with an empty tomb, what motivated this later development? In other words, what failure of a spiritual perspective of resurrection do we suppose (some? most?) early Christians perceived and sought to rebut with stories of an empty tomb? A purely spiritual resurrection is a problem for many Christians today precisely because of the stories of the empty tomb and the very emphatic claims to bodily resurrection in, among other places, Luke 24.39–40. But if these are later traditions, what created the problems that generated these stories and these emphatic claims?

Rather, couldn't the disciples' response in Luke 24.37 suggest that "physical, bodily resurrection" was not an easy narratival option for those trying to figure out how to tell Jesus' story (i.e., "creating Jesus")? And if bodily resurrection wasn't likely the first response to Jesus' post-crucifixion appearances, how do we account for it as a later, and eventually dominant, response to those appearances?
If I had lived in a society that understood dreams to be messages from God, visions to be interpreted, I might have understood my own dreams of my mother as a religious experience, rather than as one of the ways that my own psyche was trying to deal with and accept her death. Given what the gospel narratives tell us, the visions of Peter and Mary (and others?) were interpreted as religious experiences. The simple explanation that they saw Jesus' spirit appears to have not been enough of an explanation. It wasn't simply a ghost. They move to locate their visions of the deceased Jesus within their Jewish belief system, to align them with Judaism's teachings about what happens to a person after death. This is how and why the visions of Jesus' spirit begin to be perceived as visions of Jesus resurrected.

I read this paragraph as DeConick's answer to the questions I raised immediately above. But this really isn't much of an answer. I detect two responses. First, she says, "The simple explanation that they saw Jesus' spirit appears to have not been enough of an explanation" (my emphasis), but this just underscores the questions I've raised. Why wasn't it enough? What was the perceived problem with a spiritual rather than corporeal understanding of Jesus' continuing life? I think her second response tries to address this: "They move to locate their visions of the deceased Jesus within their Jewish belief system" (my emphasis). I agree completely that Jewish beliefs regarding resurrection, for those Jews who affirmed it, generally assumed bodily resurrection, despite the admitted variety of second Temple-era thinking regarding life after death. But do we really want to suggest that the disciples' first impression—that they saw a πνεῦμα—was outside their Jewish belief system?! The disciples, as Jews and within one possible Jewish perspective, first assumed a noncorporeal resurrection. So again, What problem with this assumption, if not the experience of Jesus' resurrected body (per Luke 24.39–40), motivated its revision toward the accounts of bodily resurrection with which we're all familiar?

We could, of course, claim that Luke was a gentile author (which I don't believe, but for the sake of argument), and as such he is responsible for claiming the disciples first thought they perceived Jesus spiritually rather than physically. In this way we would protect the notion that the spiritualized, non-physical perception of resurrection is non-Jewish (it came from the gentile author of Luke). But then this undermines, I think, DeConick's earlier argument that the earliest apprehensions of Jesus were spiritual rather than physical and that the gospels themselves moved the tradition toward corporeal resurrection.

So what have we achieved here? Admittedly, not very much. I certainly haven't proven Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead. But I have pointed out, hopefully, weaknesses in DeConick's explanation for New Testament traditions regarding his bodily resurrection and the empty tomb. In other words, if you're already predisposed to accept that Jesus rose from the dead, I've hopefully provided you some basis for continuing in that belief. But if you were already likely to prefer naturalistic explanations for the traditions of Jesus' resurrection, then all I've done is raise questions that I think still need some thinking through. That doesn't mean there aren't still questions that more traditional perspectives also have to address. And in all of this, let me admit plainly that it is far easier to do what I'm doing—raising questions that have yet to be addressed—than to do what DeConick has done—offering answers and explanations. I would hope we could continue to have respectful and honest dialogue about these potentially divisive topics, especially since that potential for polemic and vitriol is significant on both sides.

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