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Theological Publications





Is There a Place for Historical Criticism?

Robert M. Price


Modern historical criticism of the gospels and Christian origins began in the seventeenth century largely as an attempt to debunk the Christian religion as a pious fraud. The gospels were seen as bits of priestcraft and humbug of a piece with the apocryphal Donation of Constantine. In the few centuries since Reimarus and his critical kin, historical criticism has been embraced and   assimilated by many Christian scholars who have seen in it the logical extension of the grammatico-istorical method of the Reformers. The new views of New Testament exegesis and of early Christian history are important and well-known. Many New Testament scholars would now hold with Schweitzer and Bultmann that Jesus was a preacher of the imminent end of the world. He may have secretly considered himself to be the Messiah, or he may have simply sought to pave the way for another, the apocalyptic Son of Man. After his execution, his disciples' experiences of his resurrection forced on them a conclusion already implicit in his teachings and personal piety: that Jesus was indeed, or had become, the Messiah, and was in fact God's Son. They expected he would   soon return as the Son of Man he had predicted.         

            Early Christianity was from its inception a diverse phenomenon. There were significant differences over major and minor issues, including Christology, soteriology, the significance and even the reality of Jesus' death, the continuing role of the Torah, the work of the Spirit, etc. The New Testament writers debate these issues among themselves within the canon. The greatest division   was that between Jewish Christians who looked to Peter and James the Just in   the Jerusalem Church for leadership, and those Hellenistic Jewish and Gentile Christians whose major leader was Paul.         

            The foregoing sketch contains many points controversial even among critical scholars, but most of them are commonplaces, building blocks of the critical approach to the historical foundations of Christianity. Yet to a great   many traditional Christians this whole approach sounds strange, even un-Christian. And such traditionalists can see no important difference between today's biblical critics and yesterday's anti-Christian "free thinkers" and "rationalists." They cannot see how anything but a desire to subvert traditional faith could motivate such a reconstruction, since the critical approach seems to them entirely   arbitrary and historically unsound. To defend the traditional understanding of the life of Jesus and the foundation of the Church, traditionalists have set forth an impressive array of apologetics arguments. These arguments shield many   conservatives from perceiving the need, or even the possibility, of the historical-critical approach. I believe these arguments are not very cogent and that the   serious student of Christian origins needs to penetrate this barrier if he or she   is ever to wrestle with the real issues in New Testament scholarship. I will now attempt to facilitate the breakthrough.


Gospel Accuracy

In recent years, Conservatives have published reams of apologetics material defending the historical reliability of the gospels. Careful acquaintance with these works reveals certain stock arguments. These include the importance   of the short time span between Jesus and the writing of the gospels and the centrality of eyewitnesses in the formation of the gospel tradition. Such factors,   it is held, make it extremely unlikely if not impossible that the gospels contain fabricated or legendary material. These arguments usually start from generalized premises as to what is or is not probable in the development of   historical records. Such abstract criteria are then applied to the gospel narratives in a blanket fashion. There is a serious blind spot in this sort of approach. Almost completely deductive, it pays insufficient attention either to specific data in the documents   under consideration, or to outside documents which might cast doubt on these criteria. Will the criteria work on other materials analogous to the gospels? We begin with a representative statement by Josh McDowell: “One of the major criticisms against the form critics' idea of the oral tradition is that the period of oral tradition (as defined by the critics) is not long enough to have allowed the alterations in the tradition that the radical critics have alleged.”1  Similarly, John Warwick Montgomery confidently asserts: "With the small time   interval between Jesus' life and the Gospel records, the Church did not create a 'Christ of faith'....”2  This "small time interval" would be about thirty or forty years! Some conservatives protest that this is not really a long period at all. McNeile and Williams in their famous New Testament introduction state that "It is not unusual for men even of slight intellectual ability to recall and relate clearly important events occurring thirty-five years previously."3 But surely this is not the real point. Form critics suggest not so much that eyewitnesses forgot the details of what they saw. Their idea is that other people spun out legendary material during the same period, or that as Strauss suggested, people who witnessed only a little of Jesus' activity formed legendary "remembrances" to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

            In any case, if McDowell, Montgomery, Buell and Hyder, et al., are right, biographical records of similar religious figures written within a comparable time span should also be free of legendary embellishment. What do we find? Gershom Scholem's study of the seventeenth-century messianic pretender Sabbatai Sevi provides an instructive parallel here. Sevi was able to arouse apocalyptic fervor among Jews all over the Mediterranean during the 1660s. The movement suffered a serious setback when the messiah apostasized to Islam! But still it did not die away. The history of Sabbatai Sevi is more readily accessible to the modern historian than are the gospel events. Sabbatai Sevi lived much closer to our own era and much documentary evidence of various   kinds survives him. Here, too, according to the apologists, legends should have waited at least a couple of generations till they reared their heads. But Gershom Scholem speaks of "the sudden and almost explosive surge of miracle stories" concerning Sabbatai Sevi within weeks or even days of his public appearances! Listen to his description: “The . . . realm of imaginative legend... soon dominated the mental climate in Palestine [during Sevi's residence there]. The sway of imagination was strongly in evidence in the letters sent to Egypt and elsewhere and which, by the autumn of 1665 [the same year] had assumed the character of regular messianic propaganda in which fiction far outweighed the facts: [e. g.] the prophet was ‘encompassed with a Fiery Cloud’ and the voice of an angel was heard from the cloud.”4

           Letters from December of the same year related that Sabbatai "commanded a Fire to be made in a publick place, in the presence of many beholders... and entered into the fire twice or thrice, without any hurt to his garments or to a hair of his head." Other letters tell of his raising the dead. He is said to have left his prison through locked and barred doors which opened by themselves after his chains miraculously broke. He kills a group of highwaymen merely with the   word of his mouth.5 Interestingly, the miracle stories often conformed to the patterns of contemporary saints' legends.6 The spread of such tales recalls the statements by the synoptic evangelists that many of their miracle stories came from popular reportage (cf. Luke 1:65-66; 2:18, 38, 47; 4:14, 37; 5:15, 26; 6:17­  18; 7:16, 22; 8:3439, 47; 9:67, 9; 9:43; 12:1; 13:17; 18:43; 19:7, 37, 48).  

A similar phenomenon occurred with Jehudah the Hasid (died 1217). In his own lifetime, legends made him a great purveyor of religious magic, though   actually Jehudah was a staunch opponent of thaumaturgy7 More recently, African prophet and martyr Simon Kimbangu became another "living legend" despite his own wishes. One group of his followers, the "Ngunzists" spread his fame as the "God of the blacks," or "Christ of the blacks," even while Kimbangu himself   disavowed the role. Legends of Kimbangu's childhood, miracles and prophetic visions began within his own generation.8 A final example is more recent still. Researcher Ed Sanders encountered a number of legends about Charles Manson during the writing of his book The Family. On one particular bus trip in Death Valley, "several miracles were alleged to have been performed by Charles Manson." One story relates that "Charlie levitated the bus over a creek crag."9

          So it seems that an interval of thirty or forty years could indeed   accommodate the intrusion of legendary materials into the gospel tradition.  (Whether or not this actually occurred is of course a different question.) But   traditional apologists do not restrict their arguments to matters of dating and time intervals. They also appeal to the role of eyewitnesses in the gospel tradition. Montgomery, McDowell and some other apologists employ what they call the "external evidence" test, in dependence on military historian C. Sanders. Montgomery writes that "as to the authors and primary historical value of the Gospel accounts, confirmation comes from independent written sources.”10 He goes on to quote Papias and Irenaeus to the effect that the gospels of Matthew   and John were in fact written by the disciples of those names, and that Mark   was written in direct dependence on the apostle Peter. It would obviously be strategic for the apologetic task if these texts could be established as the direct   testimony of eyewitnesses. This would be even better than being able to say, as F.F. Bruce does, that the oral tradition underlying the gospels stems from eyewitnesses. (We will consider Bruce's approach momentarily.) But this   effort by Montgomery and company is dubious. This is something of which we   will see several more examples: the adducing of something as unambiguous evidence that is itself a matter of serious debate. For instance, Montgomery gives no hint of the relevance of source criticism (of which he seems to be aware11) for this whole question. By contrast, the fact that the first gospel makes use of the second almost in its entirety makes F.F. Bruce restrict Matthean authorship to the Q source of sayings, rather than extending it to the whole Greek gospel of Matthew. Montgomery also ignores the possibility of tendentiousness in ascription. In other words, Papias, Irenaeus and others may have attributed the gospels to apostolic individuals for reasons of theological pedigree. Evangelical New Testament scholar Ralph P. Martin doubts for this reason that the gospel of Mark is dependent on Peter as Papias claimed. But Montgomery's readers will suspect nothing of all this.         

Edwin M. Yamauchi assures his readers that

  There is some dispute over the identity of the authors [of the gospels], but it is generally held that Matthew, a converted taxcollector, and John, a fisherman, were two of Jesus' apostles. Mark was an eyewitness as Jesus and the apostles met in his home, and later he learned more about Jesus from Peter, whom according to Irenaeus, he served as interpreter.12


Veteran apologist Wilbur Smith echoes this opinion: "Most scholars believe that   the first Gospel, by Matthew, was written by a disciple of Jesus, who was an eyewitness of what he wrote.”13 Is all this "generally held" by "most scholars"? Hardly, yet if Yamauchi's and Smith's readers are not familiar with the relevant literature, they will not know any better.

           Yamauchi comments on the fourth gospel that "Although it has been customary to date John's Gospel approximately A.D. 90, some scholars have recently favored a date in the 70s or 80s.”14 Yamauchi is referring to what John A.T. Robinson has called "a new look on the fourth gospel." Thanks to the work of C. H. Dodd (see his Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel) and   others, several scholars have indeed rethought the dating of this gospel, or at least of the traditions underlying it. Apologists rejoice in this. It seems to them to lend support to their contention that this gospel was written by (or stems from) an eyewitness, as the book itself claims (19:35; 21:24). Conservatives have almost uniformly opposed the view held since D. F. Strauss, though   anticipated as early as Clement of Alexandria (cf. his remarks on the "spiritual gospel"), that John represents the theological musings of a later theologian, put into the mouth of Jesus. They reason that if the gospel actually stems from an eyewitness, then the discourses recorded there must represent an accurate   transcript of Jesus' words. I want to suggest that this does not follow at all.   The assumption is challenged by the existence of Plato's later Socratic dialogues. Plato was an "eyewitness disciple" of Socrates whom he portrays in debate. Yet scholars agree that in the later dialogues, Plato merely uses the figure of Socrates as a literary mouthpiece for his own ideas. By analogy, even if the fourth gospel's claim to eyewitness authorship were vindicated, the issue would   not be settled whether the Johannine discourses really represent Jesus or John. Considerations such as the differences of theology and idiom between John and the synoptics, the heavy stylization of the Johannine discourses, etc., could not be swept under the rug by any confirmation of eyewitness authorship. We would still have to ask whether and to what extent the fourth gospel represents the meditations of the evangelist himself.

           We now move on to a kind of appeal to eyewitnesses that technically does not depend on the direct eyewitness authorship of the gospels themselves. Here apologists are content to argue that the gospels represent the end product of a process of oral tradition. Some, like F.F. Bruce, actually seem to accept this idea; others, like Montgomery, seem only to be accepting this premise for the sake of argument. But in either case the objective is to show that the formation of any such oral or communal tradition was firmly under the control of eyewitnesses all the way, and thus did not admit of legendary embellishment. For example, F. F. Bruce writes:  


... it can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of his disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened. 15


The idea, of course, is that the apostles and other eyewitnesses would have seen to it that the rank-and-file believers did not let their fancy run wild in creating stories about Jesus. It seems to me that this argument rests on a rather anachronistic picture of the apostles' activity. To prevent the sort of grassroots growth of legend envisioned by form-criticism, the apostles must have been a squad of ethnographers, ranging over Palestine, sniffing out legends and clamping the lid on any they discover. Again the story of Sabbatai Sevi offers an illuminating parallel to the situation envisioned here. In this case we know that the chief   apostle of the movement, Nathan of Gaza (a contemporary of Sevi), did repeatedly warn the faithful that the messiah would have to merit their belief without doing miracles.16 But, as we have seen, miracle stories gushed forth without   abatement! So in a very analogous case, the efforts of the chief apostle could do nothing to curb the legend-mongering enthusiasm of the faithful. I have already mentioned the deification of Simon Kimbangu in his own lifetime and despite his own wishes.

           Bruce and Montgomery go on to add a negative version of the eyewitness argument: what about non-Christian eyewitnesses who could have called the Christians' bluff? "Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.”17 Would it? Bruce is not reckoning with the contagious fervor of apocalyptic movements; one hears what one wants to hear. In the case of Sabbatai Sevi, we know that "hostile witnesses" tried to keep things under control but to no avail. The rabbis of Constantinople announced that during Sevi's stay there "... we have not beheld a single miracle or sign... only the noise of rumors and testimonies at second hand.”18  No one seemed to listen.          

The eyewitness argument is dubious in yet another respect. Evidence   shows that the proximity of eyewitnesses to the events does not even guarantee   the factuality of their own enthusiastic reports. Turning again to the Sabbatian movement, we note Scholem's description:  

    The transition from history to legend took place with extraordinary rapidity in what are practically eyewitness accounts. Already the earliest documents confuse dates and chronologies, and abound in legendary accounts of miracles.19 One may trace the growth of the legends in some cases by comparing different versions of what is known to be the same event.20

           We also find eyewitness attestation of numerous wonders in the battles of the Sudanese Mahdi in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Here, we are told, fire licked out from the wounds of enemy soldiers to finish them off.  The corpses of the unbelievers miraculously piled up into a huge mound within an hour of the battle, untouched by human hands.21 Are we to believe these stories on the strength of eyewitness testimony? Let us turn now to the related question of the tradition of the sayings of Jesus. Wouldn't special care have been taken to preserve Jesus' authentic   sayings and to exclude secondary ones? Form critics suggest that sayings were created by the early Christians by the prophetic inspiration of the Spirit, and   then were ascribed to Jesus. The idea is that it mattered little to them whether the saying came from the earthly or the exalted Lord. Conservatives resist this   suggestion strongly. F.F. Bruce is typical here: 


Indeed, the evidence is that the early Christians were careful to dis­tinguish between sayings of Jesus and their own inferences or judgments. Paul, for example, when discussing the vexed questions of marriage and divorce in I Corinthians vii, is careful to make this distinction between his own advice on the subject and the Lord's decisive ruling: "I, not the Lord," and again, "Not I, but the Lord.”22


But surely one text (and the same one is invariably quoted when apologists argue this point) is not enough to indicate what the general practice was. In fact elsewhere Bruce himself recognizes the very ambiguity stressed by the form critics. Citing I Thessalonians 4:14-18, Bruce says "We cannot be sure whether Paul is quoting a verbum Christi which had come down to him in the tradition... or one which was communicated by the risen Lord through a prophet.”23 Who knows if prophetic sayings were in fact later credited to the earthly Jesus? If they were, we do not need to deny the inspiration or reject the sayings. But my point here   is that the evidence is not so clear as to rule out this possibility.

           In this connection we should mention a related conservative argument. Montgomery, Charles Anderson, and I. Howard Marshall have pointed with   appreciation to the work of Swedish New Testament scholars Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson. Their hypothesis suggests that Jesus and his disciples must have   used the strict methods of repetition and transmission used in rabbinic tradition. The rabbis' teaching, as Marshall summarizes the argument, was transmitted with great fidelity, each pupil learning accurately by heart what he heard from his teacher, and then passing it on. There was, on this view, little scope for the wild developments and addition to the tradition which had been envisaged by some scholars [i. e., form critics]. Riesenfeld argued that if the tradition was treated in this sacrosanct manner, the explanation must be that it could be traced back to Jesus himself....24

           Let us grant for the sake of argument that Jesus and his circle of pupils did operate this way (though many scholars doubt that these rabbinic practices can be traced with certainty back to Jesus' day). At any rate, this argument   does not go as far as the apologists would have their readers believe. The work of Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson would effectively refute those theories which hold   that community-tradition was so creative and freewheeling that "the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the resurrection.”25 According to such critical theories, the primary transmission of Jesus-material was a popular and essentially creative one, fabricating countless new sayings and letting the authentic teaching disappear. This extreme view is probably something of a stereotype or even a caricature. But at any rate it is properly refuted by Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson. These scholars establish that there was a careful, custodial transmission of Jesus-material by people authorized to do this. The problem is that apologists think that these men have in effect not only refuted, but also reversed the stereotype. They assume that there was only such custodial transmission, with no creative folk-tradition alongside it. But the work of Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson certainly does not allow us to assume this. Nor does it allow us to assume that the gospels contain only the carefully preserved, authentic traditions stemming from Jesus' circle of disciples and not also some of the other (creative popular) tradition.

           Let us take a look at another body of evidence. Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson applied rabbinic methods of tradition-transmission to the early Christian situation. But this is not the only possible analogy in the history of middle­-eastern religion. Early Muslims were concerned to hand down the hadith, or oral traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. How did they accomplish this? R. D. Smith has this to say:  

... regarding the character of the transmitters of the traditions, especially during that vulnerable century when they were transmitted only by word of mouth and memory, two ancient Moslem authorities agree that "a holy man is nowhere more inclined to lie than in the matter of traditions. " There are many venerated Moslems who actually are known to have succumbed to this temptation, some of them explicitly admitting that they did so. It is important to note, moreover, that in spite of the fact that these men were known as forgers, they were nevertheless revered as holy men because their lies were considered to be completely unobjectionable. It was a quasi-universal conviction that it was licit in the interest of encouraging virtue and submission to the law, to concoct and put into circulation sayings of the Prophet.26

          In other words, by ancient middle-eastern standards, it is not at all clear that faithful "ministers of the word" would never dare let a “phony" saying slip in. In fact this might be the very thing they should do! It is only a modern   Western distaste for this kind of thing that makes George E. Ladd gratuitously assume that the Spirit's guidance would have kept the gospel tradition "pure" of   new sayings. He arbitrarily dogmatizes that the Spirit could not inspire the attribution of new sayings to Jesus.27 Please note that I am not contending that ministers of the Jesus-tradition necessarily did follow the same practices as the transmitters of hadith. I mean only this: the existence of such a precedent in this milieu means that the creation of new sayings cannot be deemed a priori contrary to a concern for "faithfulness" in transmission.

        Well then, are the gospels in fact filled with legends, completely fictitious? I have not once addressed this question. I do believe that the major traditional apologetics for the historicity of the gospels are in error at virtually every point. But this conclusion in itself says nothing about gospel accuracy. Whether this or that item in the gospels is authentic must be settled case by case, and   on the basis of appropriate historiographical criteria. The quest for history in the gospels has been going on now for generations in mainstream New Testament scholarship. Such critical work has revealed, critics think, a hitherto­ unsuspected theological richness in the gospels. We can not only begin to see the dynamic message of Jesus of Nazareth freed from centuries of Churchly   preconceptions; we can also begin to see and appreciate the various and distinctive theologies of the early communities who transmitted and reshaped the material, and of the four evangelists Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. We are swimming in new exegetical possibilities for which we thank God and historical criticism.  


The Resurrection Accounts

Let us turn to a specific issue and show how historical criticism changes our understanding of a crucial area of the gospels, the resurrection accounts. I will continue in the approach used thus far, responding to traditional Christian apologetics from the perspective of criticism. I do this both to show what   apologists fear from criticism and to show how their defenses against it are not   cogent. Finally I will ask if there is really anything to be afraid of. At the outset of his widely circulated booklet, The Evidence for the Resurrection, J.N.D. Anderson considers the view that the resurrection   narratives are legends. Anderson decides that "this is... impossible.... because the records were too early for legendary growth.”28 We have already seen the fatal difficulties besetting such a claim. There is no point in repeating it all here, except to remind ourselves that the time interval between Jesus and the gospels is certainly sufficient to allow for the growth of legends.

           What suggests to many New Testament scholars that the resurrection narratives contain legendary elements? First there is a variety of apparent contradictions in the stories which in any ancient narrative would have to arouse the historian's suspicion. Perhaps the most detailed investigations of these are still to be found in Reimarus' Fragments and Strauss' The Life of Jesus

Critically Examined. They include the well-known discrepancies of which and how many women visited the tomb, and at what hour. Was it Mary Magdalene alone, or was she with others? Did she/they see the angel(s?) before or after she(they) called Peter and the others? Where was Jesus buried, in a tomb that conveniently happened to be nearby, or in Joseph's tomb? Did the risen Jesus   tell his disciples to go to Galilee, or to stay in Jerusalem? The most embarrassing divergence between the narratives revolves around the spectacular scene in Matthew. In this version, the women behold the sight of a brilliant angel flying down, causing an earthquake, and heaving the stone away from the empty tomb, and all this in full view of posted guards! The problem is that the other evangelists somehow seem to have forgotten to mention the guards and the whole sequence of events! Seemingly, if all this had really taken place, the women could not help but have included it in every telling of their story, and no gospel writer could have failed to use these "details" had he known them. In a gospel which otherwise smacks of midrashic expansion (e.g., the addition of Peter walking on the water, or the riding of two donkeys by Jesus), it would not be surprising if we had an unhistorical addition here.

           You have probably seen attempts to harmonize some of the discrepancies between the gospel accounts. The precarious and contrived nature of the   result should make anyone hesitant to base much on it. But let us suppose these texts could all be harmonized. The value of the accounts as evidence for the   resurrection would still be greatly lessened. The very admission of the need   to harmonize is an admission that the burden of proof is on the narratives, not on those who doubt them. What harmonizing shows is that despite appearances, the texts still be true. This is a rather different thing than saying that the texts as they stand probably are true, that the burden of proof is on the person who would overturn this supposedly unambiguous evidence for the resurrection. Traditional apologists often ignore all the discrepancies, or after they have   harmonized them, they continue to pretend the texts constitute unambiguously positive evidence.

           Surely the greatest difficulty with the character of the gospel resurrection narratives must be that a much earlier understanding of Jesus' resurrection differs sharply from them. This is 1 Corinthians chapter 15, where the resurrection of Jesus is used to refute Corinthian errorists who denied the   future resurrection of believers. Paul was able to appeal to his preaching of Jesus' resurrection which his readers had accepted years before. In fact the   list of appearances there can be pushed back with reasonable probability to within a few years of the crucifixion. (Paul's material does not describe any appearances, however, and this will be important to keep in mind.) Though Paul's own writing does not go back so far, it is still several years earlier than the gospels' resurrection narratives. Any divergences between the two sets of material (i.e., between 1 Corinthians 15 and the gospels) may prove to be significant.

          Apologists usually focus on the list of appearances quoted by Paul from tradition in verses 6-7. But it is important not to stop there. They way he goes on to use this material in the rest of his argument helps us reconstruct his understanding of the resurrection. In describing the future resurrection of believers, Paul raises the question, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" (verse 35). The answer is that it will be a "spiritual body," not a natural or corruptible body such as we have in life (verse 44). Paul says he knows this because believers will recapitulate the resurrection of Jesus himself (verses 48-49). He had a "spiritual body" of the kind Paul describes. Though Paul is not so presumptuous as to try and plumb this mystery completely, there is one thing he can say in description of this "spiritual body"--it does not have flesh: "I tell you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (verse 50). It follows that Jesus' body was not flesh either. In fact, Paul can say that Jesus by his resurrection "became a... spirit" (verse 45). We may have a similar idea   expressed in I Peter 3:18, "In the body he was put to death; in the spirit he was   raised to life." The conception in the gospels is exactly the opposite. Whereas Paul had   said that the risen Jesus was "a spirit," not "flesh," Luke reports Jesus saying, "It is I myself! Touch me and see! No spirit has flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39). To underline the point even more, the three evangelists who record appearances of Jesus describe the tactile reality of his flesh, even of his wounds (Luke 24:39-40; Matthew 28:9; John 20:27). They make Jesus "flesh," not a "spirit"!29

           The implication should be evident, as in fact it has been to several   generations of New Testament scholars. Serious doubt must be cast on the   historical reliability of these narratives; they are not only chronologically later   than the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition but they seem to be based on a later and contradictory understanding of the resurrection. If the gospel resurrection narratives turn out not to be factual accounts based on eyewitness reporting, what is their origin? Apologists suppose that   the only alternative is that they formed part of some kind of hoax as suggested   long ago by the hostile skeptic Reimarus. This is evident from statements like the following: “‘Legends’ put in circulation and recorded by the original eyewitnesses are [tantamount to] deliberate inventions” (Anderson).30  ... what would have motivated the disciples, in the face of their overwhelming discouragement, to create imaginary--yet closely detailed--resurrection accounts such as [Luke 24:36-43]?” (Montgomery)31

           There are two controlling yet unfounded assumptions at work here. The first is that if the resurrection accounts are not factual reports, then this must mean the resurrection itself never happened. The second is that if these accounts are not factual reports, they still were written by the immediate disciples of   Jesus, and therefore must be lies. The apologists are only able to make these   assumptions on the basis of their mistaken conclusion that the gospels are too early to admit of the intrusion of popular legends. Therefore they must realize that popular legends would not involve anyone in a charge of intentional fraud. Yet if the unbeliever can be induced to see the alternatives as "history or hoax," the apologist's task is easier. It is a little difficult for any intelligent person to imagine that Christianity is based on a huge fraud.

           Let us look at some data which make it not unreasonable to see the   resurrection narratives as legends. Charles Talbert, in a recent volume What is a Gospel?, has demonstrated   that in Jesus' era philosophers, kings, and other benefactors were often glorified in terms of ancient legend. Heroes of antiquity such as Romulus and Hercules were rewarded for their labors by "apotheosis"--i.e., they were taken up into heaven and divinized. Their ascent into heaven was supposedly seen by gaping eyewitnesses (as in the case of Romulus) or was at least evidenced by the absence of any bodily remains from the site where they were last seen. The hero might even reappear to his mourning friends to encourage or direct them. Not only   were such legends circulating about mythical figures of the past, but the same stories would be applied in popular imagination to more recent or contemporary figures such as Apollonius of Tyana, the Emperor Augustus, and the prophet Peregrinus. In fact, so many contemporary figures were divinized that the whole practice came to be satirized, e. g., in Seneca's The Pumpkinification of Claudius. Thus Michael Green is simply mistaken when he reassures his readers that "nobody had ever attributed divinity and a virgin birth, resurrection and ascension to a historical person whom lots of people knew.”32 The application of this kind of glorification legend to Jesus (as to other historical figures like Augustus and Apollonius) is, please note, to be distinguished from the older, untenable, theory that Jesus' resurrection was derived from vegetation cults centering around mythical dying-and-rising deities like Adonis, Sandan, or Attis.

           In the light of these tendencies it is not difficult to understand the gospels' resurrection narratives as based on legends that had grown up to glorify Jesus. To recognize the possibility of this, one need not assume that there was no resurrection. Indeed it was precisely because of experiences of some kind (such as those intriguingly listed but not described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15) that anyone cared to glorify Jesus. But the growth of legends describing   appearances of Jesus in physical terms would help explain the development between Paul's "spiritual body" version of the resurrection and the physicalized conception in the gospels. It should be obvious that such historical data go a long way toward stultifying apologetical standbys like the old "empty tomb argument." One hardly need exercise himself over whether "either the Jewish or Roman authorities or Joseph of Arimathea removed the body,"33 (Anderson) if the whole story may be under­stood as an apotheosis legend.34  The research done by Talbert and others makes the set of alternatives   proposed by the apologists ("hoax or history") a false one. It is considerations like this which make works like Anderson's The Evidence for the Resurrection hopelessly out of date. In this book, and a large number of others like it, the apologists manage to effect a resurrection of their own--they bring back the Deists and Protestant Rationalists of the eighteenth century as their opponents in debate. The apologists assume that their opponents, the imagined advocates of the "wrong tomb" and "swoon" theories, etc., agree that the gospel resurrection accounts are substantially accurate even down to the details. Otherwise, for instance, Edwin Yamauchi could hardly dismiss the possibility that grave-robbers removed Jesus' body, merely by an appeal to the Johannine notation that Jesus' shroud was left behind. 35 Yamauchi assumes that his opponents will accept the Johannine narrative at face value as he himself does. Unfortunately, such easy targets have long since vanished. Rationalists and deists like Paulus and Venturini used to argue this way since, oddly, they held to the near-inerrancy of the texts' reportage of events, yet claimed that apparent miracles were to be explained naturalistically! That Anderson has such people in mind is obvious from a quote like this: "The only rationalistic interpretations of any merit admit the sincerity of the records, but try to explain them without recourse to the miraculous.”36 New Testament scholarship has long since left both Anderson and Venturini behind, since it has shown at least that the facticity of the resurrection narratives cannot be simply taken for granted. Granted they are not lies, they may yet be legendary.

I believe that a brief note is in order here on the question of verisimilitude. Montgomery, Stott, Lewis, and others point to the "vivid detail" in the narratives as proof of eyewitness authorship. A favorite text adduced in this regard is John 20:3-8, "[an] eyewitness account in a vivid, yet restrained, passage [which] … records the visit of Peter and John to the tomb."37 (Anderson) "The account [John] gives of this incident... bears unmistakable marks of first-hand

experience.”38 (Stott) I invite the reader to open his New Testament to this text and compare it to a passage from Chariton's Chaireas and Kallirroe, a fiction novel written probably in the first century B.C. It concerns a girl, mistakenly entombed alive, who has been removed by grave robbers.  

Chaireas was guarding and toward dawn he approached the tomb.... When he came close, however, he found the stones moved away and the entrance open. He looked in and was shocked, seized by a great perplexity at what had happened. Rumor made an immediate report to the Syracusans about the miracle. All then ran to the tomb; no one dared to enter until Hermocrates ordered it. One was sent in and he reported everything accurately. It seemed incredible--the dead girl was not there.... [When Chaireas] searched the tomb he was able to find nothing. Many came in after him, disbelieving. Amazement seized everyone, and some said as they stood there: "The shroud has been stripped off, this is the work of grave robbers; but where is the body?"39


Of course I am not suggesting that John or the other evangelists used this novel as a source. I mean only to show that vivid descriptions of empty tombs and abandoned grave clothes prove nothing about "eyewitness authorship" since we find them also in an admitted work of fiction.

There is another whole group of arguments once the question of whether the resurrection appearances might have been hallucinations. One point here demands our attention. Clark H. Pinnock says, “It is striking that all of the factors favorable to the hallucination hypothesis are absent from the New Testament. The resurrection caught everyone off guard. The disciples were surprised and disbelieving for joy (Mark 16:8; Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19). They needed convincing themselves. Jesus did not come into an atmosphere of wishful thinking.” 40 Or to put it slightly differently, C. S. Lewis maintains that: “... any theory of hallucinations breaks down on the fact (and if it is invention it is the oddest invention that ever entered the mind of man) that on three separate occasions this hallucination was not immediately recognized as Jesus (Luke xxiv. 13-31; John xx. 15, xxi. 4).”41 Pinnock and Lewis mean to say that while hallucinatory visions are supposed to occur only to those primed for them by sentimental or enthusiastic longing, the disciples are pictured as being so disillusioned as to be skeptical that it was really the risen Christ they were seeing! If the resurrection appearances were really the result of wishful thinking, how could the disciples have been doubtful, as the narratives depict?

          Once again, these arguments are considerably weakened by their assumption that the resurrection accounts must be historically accurate. What if these narratives are legends? In this case the picture changes considerably. I propose that in the context of religious legend, the reported skepticism of the disciples is "the oddest invention that ever entered the mind of man" (Lewis). In fact such an "invention" would not be odd in the least. We find several other examples of it in miracle stories glorifying Asklepios, Apollonius of Tyana, and Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, that I believe no one would deny are legendary. In all these stories, the skepticism of the characters functions as a literary device to magnify the miracle worked by the hero. He was able to "pull it off" despite   the doubts of everyone! By his mighty works the hero (Asklepios, Apollonius, or Hanina ben Dosa) silences the skeptics.42 If the gospels' resurrection accounts are legendary in character then "the disbelief of the disciples" would be a perfectly natural element in the story. Their disbelief functions to highlight the glory of the resurrection, since it is able to overcome their skepticism. If much critical gospel scholarship is anywhere near the mark, it becomes clear that there was a significant evolution of, or at least diversity in, the resurrection idea within the New Testament. Was Jesus "spirit, not flesh," or "flesh, not spirit"? Was he slain in body and raised in spirit, or raised in a spiritual body, or raised in a body of flesh, nail scars and all? Or was he "exalted" or "raised" to heaven directly from the grave, so that ascension and resurrection are one?                                                          

What all New Testament traditions agree on, however, is that the crucified Jesus was exalted to heavenly lordship, and "raised" at least in this strategic and fundamental sense. The various secondary differences may be seen as different ways of picturing or articulating this good news. And notice that the speculations and hypotheses of New Testament critics merely concern the sifting and analysis of these ways of presenting the resurrection message. And I am convinced that the central affirmation can quite easily bear the scrutiny of its manifold expressions. Here I am reminded of C. S. Lewis' wise thoughts on the various theories of the atonement: “The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.”43 I believe this all applies equally to the New Testament message of the resurrection--the various expressions of the central fact are not the important thing.

          It is this realization that explains a state of affairs that is usually puzzling to conservatives--how can "liberal" critics profess faith in the resurrection, yet sit so loose as to the factual accuracy of the gospel accounts? To conservatives, such criticism carries the foul odor of debunking. But this is surely not the intent of liberal critics. Why is it perceived as such? One suspects the presence   of an insecure faith: some apologists almost give the impression that they themselves would not accept the resurrection faith if they could not prove it to them­ selves. Many conservatives regard the resurrection as the "clincher"; why believe in Christianity if you can't prove that Jesus rose from the dead? But this is surely not Paul's conception in 1 Corinthians 15. He says not that if we cannot prove that Christ rose, our faith is in vain, but that if he did not rise we are in trouble. There is quite a big difference between the two! How did Paul expect believers to achieve certainty about the resurrection? Did he rely on arguments involving "the evidence for the resurrection"? Would he not rather have considered such argumentation reliance on "wise and persuasive words" instead of the "demonstration of the Spirit's power"? Wouldn't a faith established on such apologetical arguments "rest on man's wisdom" instead of "on God's power"? (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). And such a faith will naturally find threatening, even destructive, the critical sifting of the resurrection traditions. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that this instinctive retreat to conservatism is a cloak for a "faith" that will not believe unless it can see the nail holes and put its hand in his side. Seen from this perspective, a new critical openness on the part of conservative Christians might result not only in greater scholarly honesty, but in a more courageous faith as well. What a surprise if New Testament criticism were to bring the challenge of faith rather than the challenge of doubt!


l. Josh McDowell, More Evidence That Demands a Verdict ([n. p.] Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1975), p. 205. 

2. John Warwick Montgomery, History & Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1974), p. 37. 

3. A. H. McNeile and C. S. C. Williams, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1960), p. 54. 

4. Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 252, 265. 

5. Ibid., pp. 390, 535, 375. 

6. Ibid., p. 605. 7. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), pp. 82, 99. 

8. Vittorio Lanternari, The Religions of the Oppressed, A Study of Modern Messianic Cults (New York: The New American Library, 1965), pp. 25-26ff; see also G. C. Oosthuizen, Post-Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 40; see also Marie-Louise Martin, Kimbangu, An African Prophet and his Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 40. 

9. Ed Sanders, The Family (New York: Avon Books, 1972), p. 133. 

10. Montgomery, History & Christianity, p. 32. 

11. Ibid., p. 37. 

12. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Jesus, Zoroaster, Socrates, Buddha, Muhammed (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1974), p. 9. 

13. Wilbur Smith, Have You Considered Him? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 6. 

14. Yamauchi, Jesus, Zoroaster, Socrates, Buddha, Muhammed, p. 10.  

15. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), p. 45. 

16. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah, p. 252. By invoking this parallel, have I just negated my own argument above, that the apostles would never have tried to curb the spread of miracle-tales? I don't think so, because the apologists envision the apostles of Jesus safeguarding a sort of canonical list of true miracle stories, and fending off any "counterfeits" as if they had foreseen precisely the situation of the modern apologists and were trying to make things easier for them. What Nathan of Gaza did is quite parallel in effect but hardly in intent to the hypothetical efforts of the apostles. What he was doing was to explain why there were no miracles. Similarly, the Koran contains several rationalizations by Muhammad as to why, though a genuine prophet, he did no miracles. So if we were to grant that Jesus' apostles might have made similar disclaimers about miracles attributed to Jesus, it would be even more embarrassing for the apologists, since such efforts, we have just seen, are made when no miracles have been performed. My principle point was merely that such efforts at denial, in a known case, proved to be unsuccessful. 

17. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p. 46. 

18. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah, p. 612. 

19. Ibid., p. 215. 

20. Ibid., p.411. 

21. Haim Shaked, The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi (New Brunswick: Trans­action Books, 1978), pp. 60-61. 

22. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p. 46. 

23. F.F. Bruce, Paul and Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), p. 70. 

24. I. Howard Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 195; see also John Warwick Montgomery, History & Christianity, pp. 37-38. 

25. Vincent Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: Mac­millan, 1957), p. 41. 

26. Robert D. Smith, Comparative Miracles (St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Company, 1965), pp. 131-132. 

27. George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), pp. 153, 163. 

28. J. N. D. Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1974), p. 9. 

29. I am quite aware of the harmonization offered here. As a matter of fact this harmonization is taken so much for granted that conservatives do not realize that it is a harmonization. It so controls their reading of the texts that they never seem even to see the problem. Not noticing the "spirit" vs. "flesh" problem, they just assume that the "spiritual body" in 1 Corinthians 15 refers to Jesus' "ability to walk through walls" and his inability to be recognized at first glance as allegedly reported in the gospels. However, I am afraid this harmonization rests on too superficial a reading of the gospel accounts. The sudden appearances and disappearances of the risen Jesus have little necessarily to do with any changed quality of his body. Rather, what seems to be in view is spatial teleportation. The same thing happens elsewhere in Hellenistic religious biography, such as in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, where the philosopher Apollonius suddenly vanishes from the courtroom of the Emperor Domitian only to reappear elsewhere among his friends. His companions are startled, but Apollonius laughingly reassures them that despite his mode of travel, he is a flesh and blood mortal like themselves. In fact Luke himself, who makes the most of Jesus' teleportation, gives another example of it in Acts. There Philip (who certainly has no risen "spiritual body") is supernaturally caught up after he baptizes the Ethiopian, reappearing near Azotus (8:39-40).

       As for Jesus' ability to go unrecognized, Luke attributes this not to any quality of the risen Jesus, but to an interference with the faculties of the wit­nesses. Luke 24:16 says, "They were kept from recognizing him," in practically the same terms as Luke uses elsewhere, in one of the passion predictions: "It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it" (9:45). Traditionalists who use this argument are probably subconsciously influenced most by the spurious passage Mark 16:12: "Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country." Even if this text were originally part of Mark, the context indicates that for some reason Jesus' appearance on this one occasion was different from that of the other resurrection encounters where he was recognizable. 

30. Anderson, Evidence for the Resurrection, p. 9. 

31. John Warwick Montgomery, Where is History Going? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 82. 

32. Michael Green (ed.), The Truth of God Incarnate (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 36. 

33. Anderson, Evidence for the Resurrection, p. 11. 

34. The inability of anyone to find a single one of his bones had convinced his companions that Hercules had indeed been taken to Mt. Olympus. Men assumed that Aristeaus had gone into heaven because he was no more to be seen. Aeneas was known to have joined the gods when after a battle his body was nowhere to be found. Romulus ascended from another battlefield as evidenced by the fact that no one could find so much as a fragment of his body or his clothes. One might include here the Old Testament stories of Enoch and Elijah (both of whom were the objects of considerable speculation in Jesus' milieu). Both were taken up to be with God, the result of which was that no trace of either could be found. (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:16-18; cf. Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

       In more recent (i. e., non-mythical) times, the philosopher Empedocles disappeared after an evening meal with his friends and could not be found, and together with a voice from heaven, this proved he must have ascended. Another philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus, was said by later legend to have heeded the summons of heavenly voices to "go upwards from earth"; his friends searched the temple from which he had disappeared but could find no remains. Is it surprising that Christians would eventually circulate a story wherein mourning friends came to Jesus' tomb only to find no trace of his body and to be told by an angel that he had been "raised"? Stories of the physical reappearance of Jesus to comfort or command his followers would also fit into this pattern. Ovid records this appearance of Romulus, after he had ascended from the battlefield.

Proculus Julius was coming from the Alba Longa; the moon was shin­ing, he was not using a torch. Suddenly the hedges on the left shook and moved. He shrank back and his hair stood on end. Beautiful and more than human and clothed in a sacred robe, Romulus was seen, standing in the middle of the road. He said, "Stop the (Romans) from their mourning; do not let them violate my divinity with their tears; order the pious crowd to bring incense and worship the new [god] Quirinius .... He gave the order and he vanished into the upper world from before Julius' eyes. (David L. Dungan and David R. Cartlidge, Sourcebook of Texts for the Comparative Study of the Gospels [Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1974), p. 155.


 In another text strikingly reminiscent of the gospel accounts, Philostratus tells the story of a doubting pupil of the departed Apollonius of Tyana:


This young boy would never agree to the immortality of the soul, "I, my friends, am completing the tenth month of praying to Apollonius to reveal to me the nature of the soul. But he is completely dead so as never to respond to my begging, nor will I believe he is not dead. " Such were the things he said then, but on the fifth day after that they were busy with these things and he suddenly fell into a deep sleep right where he had been talking .... he, as if insane, suddenly leaped to his feet ... and cried out, "I believe you ! " When those present asked him what was wrong, he said "Do you not see Apollonius the sage, how he stands here among us, listening to the argument and singing wonderful verses concerning the soul? . . . he came to discuss with me alone concerning the things which I would not believe." (Dungan and Cartlidge, Sourcebook of Texts, pp. 295-296.)


35. Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?" Christianity Today, March 31, 1974, p. 16. 

36. Anderson, Evidence for the Resurrection, p. 10. 

37. Ibid., p. 19. 

38. John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. 52. 

39. Dungan and Cartlidge, Sourcebook of Texts, p. 157. 

40. Clark H. Pinnock, Set Forth Your Case (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973), p. 97. 

41. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 153. 

42. At the ancient healing shrine of Epidauros, there survive numerous testimonial inscriptions, left there for advertisement purposes. One tells of a man whose fingers were crippled. He came to the healing temple, but "he dis­believed in the healings and he sneered at the inscriptions. " Yet in his mercy, the healing god Asklepios restored his hand, despite the man's unbelief. Similarly, the one-eyed Ambrosia of Athens came to the shrine with doubts in her mind: "as she walked around the temple of healings, she mocked some things as incredible and impossible, that the lame and blind could be healed at only seeing a dream." Yet Asklepios takes pity and heals her anyway. Another suppliant who actually has an empty eye-socket goes to the shrine for help. This time it is the bystanders who mock--surely this is too great a task even for Asklepios. Nonetheless the man is given a completely new eye! In Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the hero pinpoints the cause of a plague in Ephesus as a demon. We are told that Apollonius points out an old blind beggar and directs the crowd to stone him to death! Understandably, the crowd is skeptical! But Apollonius knows best. He prevails, and the old man is revealed as a "devil in disguise"; beneath the heap of stones is found no human corpse, but rather that of a huge dog ! Another example occurs in a legend about rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who lived in the first century A. D. Some friends are on their way to his house to ask him to pray for the recovery of a sick boy. But as they arrive, the rabbi meets them with the announcement that the fever has left the boy! They are sur­prised and a bit skeptical, since they haven't even made their request! They retort, "What? Are you a prophet?" But Hanina is right--it turns out that the fever left the boy "in that moment." (Dungan and Cartlidge, Sourcebook of Texts, pp. 51-52, 278-279, 61.) 

43. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 57.


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