Monday, 3 August 2009

Tom Wright and the Resurrection

In an article on CiF, Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, has a go at Adam Rutherford over the latter's scepticism over the historicity of the resurrection, in The resurrection was as shocking then as it is now.

Tom Wright makes 9 points. Never let it be said that atheists don't seriously consider what is said by Christians in support of their faith.
1. The historical basis of Christianity is vital precisely because Christianity isn't just a moral philosophy or a pathway of spirituality, however much many in late western culture (including in the church) have tried to belittle it by treating it as such. Of course sceptics want Christianity to be "simply a moral philosophy". That's not nearly so challenging as what it actually is.
I'm perfectly prepared to judge Christianity by the claims that Christians make on its behalf. If you want to make a claim concerning the historicity of its founding events, that I'll judge that claim by the same standards of evidence as any other historical proposition. But I suspect you wouldn't like the answer I come up with!
2. The reason many of us refer to the New Testament in dealing with early Christianity is not just that it's "The Bible", but that it's the close-up, often first-hand evidence both for what happened and for what Jesus' first followers made of it all.
It's not first-hand evidence of what happened. None of the Gospels was written within 50 years of the death of Jesus. Most of the earliest books of the New Testament were written by Paul, who never met Jesus and strongly disagreed with those who had met Jesus in respect of what Christian doctrine should be. Paul was converted, made all his journeys, wrote all his epistles, was imprisoned and executed before any of canonical Gospels was ever written.
3. The historical evidence for Jesus himself is extraordinarily good. I have no idea whether the Alpha teachers have gone into the detail of how we know about things in Palestine in the first century, but the evidence dovetails together with remarkable consistency, as I and many others have shown in works of very detailed historical scholarship. From time to time people try to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but virtually all historians of whatever background now agree that he did, and most agree that he did and said a significant amount at least of what the four gospels say he did and said.
This is one of those weasel statements that can be interpreted a number of ways. One can argue that the evidence is pretty good that there were itinerant preachers in Palestine at about that time, and that one of them might have even had a name something like Jesus. And on that basis one can claim that the "historical evidence for Jesus himself is extraordinarily good", and extrapolate that to the claim that the evidence is "extraordinarily good" that the Jesus described in the Gospels lived and died and was resurrected as claimed there.

But the historical evidence for that is not nearly so good.
4. Just as Christian faith is far more than a moral philosophy or spiritual pathway (though it includes both as it were en passant), so it is more than a "how to get saved" teaching backed up by a dodgy "miracle". Christian faith declares that, in and through Jesus, the creator of the world launched his plan to rescue the world from the decaying and corrupting force of evil itself. This was (if it was anything at all) an event which brought about a new state of affairs, albeit often in a hidden and paradoxical way (as Jesus kept on saying): the "kingdom of God", that is, the sovereign, rescuing rule of the creator, breaking in to creation. If this stuff didn't happen then Christianity is based on a mistake. You can't rescue it by turning it into a philosophy.
I think the key phrase here is "Christian faith declares". It can declare all it wants to so far as I'm concerned, but unless you are going to produce a bit of evidence to support the truth of the declaration, I'll take it about as seriously as a declaration that the moon is made of green cheese.
5. Of course, this was nonsense in the ancient pagan world, as it is nonsense in the modern pagan world. Nothing new there. The Jewish worldview (in which there is a creator God who has promised to rescue the world, and whose people are somehow a vehicle of this rescue operation) was and is always offensive to pagan worldviews of every sort. The sceptics of today add nothing to the sceptics of the first and second century AD.
Well it depends what you mean by "add nothing". I would suggest that the sceptics of today have a far better understanding of how the world works as compared to those of the first century AD, and that this improved understanding adds something to the the basis for their skepticism.
6. And, of course, we all know that dead people don't rise. Actually, the early Christians knew that too; they didn't suppose that people did rise from the dead from time to time and that Jesus just happened to be one of them. (The other "raisings" in the NT are of course what we would call "near death experiences" – people who are clinically dead and then find themselves called back.) Rather, they claimed that Jesus had as it were gone through death and out the other side into a new form of physicality for which there was no previous example and of which there remains no subsequent example. They knew as well as we do how outrageous that was, but they found themselves compelled to say it. As one of the more sceptical of today's scholars has put it, "It seems that they were doing their best to describe an event for which they didn't have the right language."
Quite frankly, a far more plausible approach to this is that they made the classic is/ought error. When Jesus was crucified, they collectively decided that it couldn't possibly have happened that Jesus was dead, therefore he must have risen. When they had concluded that, it is easy to see how the stories of his rising would have grown in the telling.
7. You can't explain how they came to say what they said unless there were both several "sightings" of and meetings with someone they took to be Jesus, alive again, and an empty tomb where he had been. Without the first, they would have said the grave had been robbed. Without the second, they would have known it was a hallucination (they knew as much about those as we do). But if both occurred, how do we explain them? All other explanations fail to account for the reality of what they said and the change in their lives and their sense of call. (Which can't, by the way, be rubbished by likening it to Jones or Koresh; read Acts and compare and contrast with that sort of stuff.)
You are making the unjustifiable assumption that the events actually happened precisely as described in the Bible. There is every reason to think that this is not so. Therefore your claims that other explanations fail to account for the sense of call of the early Christians isn't true. Many of the followers of Jesus would have had a great emotional investment in believing that nothing bad ultimately could happen to him, and so it is easy to see how miracle stories would grow up around him. For a story to spread it doesn't have to be true, it merely needs to be persuasive.
8. Jesus' resurrection was not, for them, a kind of odd phenomenon which validated a particular atonement theology (though of course all these things are joined up). It isn't an extra thing, bolted on to the outside of a moral philosophy. It is the launching-pad for God's new creation. "Christian spirituality" is learning to live in that new creation. "Christian ethics" is learning to let the power of that new creation shape your life. A Christian political theology is discovering what it means that, through the resurrection, Jesus is the world's true Lord.
Wrong way round. The atonement theology grew up as a result of Jesus death and th stories of his resurrection. And so the atonement theology would be consistent wit the stories that had already developed, wouldn't it? It would have to be, otherwise it wouldn't be persuasive.
9. Ridiculous? Of course. It was in AD 35 and it is today. But actually it makes sense – historically, culturally, philosophically and even dare I say politically. We've tried all sorts of other stuff recently and got fairly stuck, haven't we? But actually that shoulder-shrugging pragmatism, though it might alert people to the fact that normal western scepticism may not have the last word, isn't enough. It is possible to argue historically for the truth of Jesus' resurrection. I and others have done so and the case is remarkably good. But I'm not sure, to be honest, that the writer attending the Alpha course is really interested in the historical argument. If he is, he might look at Surprised by Hope, especially chapters 3 and 4. And if he wants a fuller account, he could tackle The Resurrection of the Son of God.
You seem to want to have your cake & eat it. You want to claim that the historical evidence is good (and therefore good enough to overcome Western shoulder-shrugging pragmatism) and yet it seems to me that you would in such an article would want briefly to put the best of your case, and yet the case is curiously unmade except for ad hominem attacks suggesting that Adam Rutherford isn't interested in the historical argument.


  1. The early Christians inventing something they didn't expect and then convincing people that it happened? Gospel of Mark written as late at year 80? Paul did not meet Jesus on the road to Damascus? One wonders if you actually have had much conversation with New Testament scholars (both believing and unbelieving).

  2. I slaughter Wright's arguments on the Guardian comment page.

    I even quote Bishop Tom (put one house on top of another) Wright from his books, showing how he has to spin away the Bible.

  3. Gosh Jonathon, you've been busy. I was going to comment on your latest Spong post, and you've already written three new posts!

    Jesus was invented by Paul and... but wait, there's actually no "independent" evidence that Paul existed... soooo? Well somebody must have written this stuff, and this is the point, Paul and the gospels are all part of an extensive Middle Eastern literature which includes Hebrew, Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts. All of these literatures have similar themes, including that of the ideal king. Jesus is just another of these. The Mediterranean world, not long united under the Roman empire was ripe for the development (invention) of a syncretic religion and there were several candidates including the Isis cult and Mithraism. Probably Christianity evolved in the Jewish diaspora with close links to Hellenic and Egyptian ideas. Paul, if he ever existed, gives us the Christ, but interestingly says virtually nothing about Jesus. No doubt the gospel writers felt the need to flesh out the story.

    The early christians were clever at the time to insist on the historicity of Jesus - "Ok, there are lots of dying and resurrecting gods, but this one is the real deal". Unfortunately for them this insistence is now the biggest stumbling block, and it is really impossible re-mythologize the story now.

  4. "We've tried all sorts of other stuff recently, and got fairly stuck, haven't we?"

    Ah, the old Anglican ad hominem appeal to fear and ignorance. Gotta love it..