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A.J.M. Wedderburn’s Beyond Resurrection, Hendrikson Publishers, 1999

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Back of Beyond
J.M. Wedderburn has nothing but credibility among mainstream biblical scholars. He serves on the Protestant Faculty of University of Munich, and his well-received books including Reasons for Romans and Theology of the Later Pauline Letters were not particularly liable to ruffle anyone’s feathers. The same, fortunately or unfortunately, cannot be said of his Beyond Resurrection. This one is sure to have pious heads shaking and praying for the author. In a sense, though, the newly radical character of Wedderburn’s take on the gospel narratives of the resurrection should not be surprising. The issues in the study of the gospels are rather different from those at stake in the epistles. It s a commonplace that evangelical scholars sometimes go into “safe” fields of biblical study such as textual criticism (“Lower Criticism”) because there they are liable to find little that will upset their own faith or that of their public. Truly scholarly, truly important, but not very controversial. The same is true of Pauline studies. There one may play the theologian more than the critic. I always wondered how brilliant evangelical theologian Clark H. Pinnock could say the things he said against New Testament critics and in favor of biblical infallibility since he himself had earned a PhD degree in New Testament. The answer, as I later discovered, was that he had studied the Pauline epistles under F.F. Bruce. Thus, for example, he never had occasion to read D.F. Strauss. If he had, I suspect he would have seen matters much differently. Well, A.J.M.Wedderburn here emerges from the safety zone of Pauline literature into the battlefield of gospel studies. And doubters will be as delighted as believers will be shocked to read Wedderburn’s views on the gospel Easter materials, for they are anything but conservative. In this book we are witnessing a milepost along the way that has led so many of us, as thoughtful Bible readers, from uncritical fideism to a critical standpoint that becomes inevitable as soon as one begins engaging the text on a technical level.

This book has a title that might be taken two ways: does he mean to take the resurrection of Jesus as an established point of departure and then ascend to ever higher realms? Or does he mean the resurrection somehow fails to pass muster and must be discarded in favor of something else? The latter, perhaps surprisingly, is closer to the truth, and as he anticipates, some colleagues will not much relish what they read here. Wedderburn writes as a scholar who has quietly taken seriously the professed zeal of his fellow New Testament historians and found himself passing beyond the rest, in the process charting the sandbars and rocks where each of his fellows has run aground. For instance, he writes knowingly and well of intellectual stratagems nearly ubiquitous in the world of "maximal conservative" evangelical scholarship, including the idea that any viable reconstruction of Christian origins must be theologically adequate, must meet the needs of preaching. This bizarre and arbitrary axiom is precisely why anyone refers to "evangelical scholarship" at all--tweedy rationalization at the service of teary-eyed revivalism. But Wedderburn will have none of it. Not that he is unsympathetic to the concerns of the pious pew-potatoes; he has simply come to the realization that the scholar’s role cannot be that of the Grand Inquisitor, shielding people from the uncomfortable truths they fear. (And in the last few chapters he strives manfully to reconstruct some sort of theological stance that will not fake the biblical evidence nor that of the senses. The result is inevitably pretty modest.)

In the same way, Wedderburn commendably repudiates the controlling axiom of all evangelical scholarship: if there remains any open space for doubting that the traditional view (of Petrine authorship, gospel accuracy, literal resurrection) has been refuted, then the believer need not yield to the critic. Now if one were honest about it and admitted one’s convictions were held by simple will power (C.S. Lewis’s old friend "obstinacy in belief"), this might fly. But to shut one’s eyes and chant "innocent until proven guilty," while pretending to be a historian is the very height of hypocritical posturing. And to his great credit, Wedderburn has had enough of it. One of the surprising cases he discusses of such will-to-believe masquerading as historical judgment is Pannenberg. He once enumerated a list of criteria that would serve to debunk the resurrection as history: "(a) if the Easter traditions were demonstrable as literarily secondary constructions in analogy to common comparative religious models not only in details, but also in their kernel, (b) the Easter appearances were to correspond completely to the model of self-produced hallucinations.... (c) the tradition of the empty tomb of Jesus were to be evaluated as a late (Hellenistic) legend" (p. 18). Pannenberg seems to think he has erected a strong fortress around his faith, like Warfield’s series of hurdles the denier of inerrancy must leap. But in fact he was crouching within a melting igloo and trying not to get wet. What was he waiting for? Have not all the criteria been long ago met? Pannenberg’s inability to see the obvious can only be compared to the supernatural blindness of the Emmaus disciples.


Swatting the Plague of Flies

In a number of specific cases Wedderburn has seen how the Risen Lord is wearing no clothes. He is quick to point out the unfalsifiable game of "heads I win, tales you lose" as applied to the gospel resurrection accounts. Which is it? Are these stories more credible because their contradictions show there was no collusion between their authors? (Of course there was, in the sense that one may easily demonstrate how one has embellished and rewritten the other.) Or are the stories powerful evidence because they do not contradict one another? (The latter is a barely disguised instance of the absurd claim that an "apparent contradiction" may be treated as no contradiction at all so long as one can devise some contrived harmonization. In fact, the need to harmonize must itself count, and would in any other field, as a disqualification of the texts as evidence.) One cannot have it both ways (And I am saying one cannot have it either way!)

Wedderburn offers several other helpful refutations of the bombast of conservative apologists. Contra William Lane Craig and others, he shows that the Acts  13:29 tradition of Jesus’ burial by his enemies is more widely attested, occurring also in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 97:1 and the Gospel of Peter 6:21. Again, he explodes the claim of apologists that Paul knew of the empty tomb "tradition" because he says Jesus "was buried" in 1 Corinthians 15:4. Surely, Wedderburn points out, the "was buried" is intended to cap what precedes it, "Christ died," i.e., "dead and buried," not what comes after, "he rose." Indeed the situation is precisely parallel to the futile Protestant argument against the perpetual virginity of Mary (itself, of course, a legend). Protestants think that the fact that Joseph "knew her not until she had borne a son" (Matthew 1:25) implies they went at it afterward, when the point is not what followed Jesus’ birth but what preceded it: nothing! So the baby cannot have been Joseph’s. Does Luke 2:7 ("She gave birth to her first-born son") imply anything afterward, i.e., more children? No, surely the point is to underline her previous virginity.

James D.G. Dunn (who once seemingly strove for critical scholarship, but has seemed sorrier and sorrier to have hewn himself from the fundamentalist rock), Craig, and a multitude of others maintain that the lack of a known veneration of a tomb for Jesus attests the resurrection. The point seems to be that if there had ever been a time when a Jesus movement had not believed in the resurrection of Jesus (e.g., the Q community as envisioned by Burton Mack), we would hear of a pilgrimage site to where Jesus was buried. But I wonder: once the resurrection creed became ascendant, any such site might have been expunged with the ferocity of a King Josiah closing down the high places. That is, if anyone had regarded tomb-veneration as incompatible with belief in the resurrection in the first place. And Wedderburn astutely observes that no one would have seen any incompatibility. They never have since Constantine "discovered" the tourist-trap tomb site in the fourth century. Surely the best commemoration of the resurrection would be to visit the empty tomb! And yet, as Dunn and Craig and their fellows contend, there is no early tomb-veneration! Might this lack be construed as evidence that there was no dominant early belief in an empty one?


Texts Not Facts

Wedderburn shows how the Easter tales of Matthew and Luke stem from their rewriting of Mark, and to show this is to show the purely literary character of at least Matthew and Luke. The problem with the contradictions between the gospel Easter stories is not that they are goofs casting doubt on the details of stories we might otherwise be inclined to take seriously. No, the point is that the contradictions are keys enabling us to trace the purely literary history of the narratives. (Think of the case Bart Ehrman makes in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: textual variants can often be shown not to be mere slips of the pen but rather possessing a redactional Tendenz). And Wedderburn pursues the point. It is not only glitches between gospels but also within them that betray a literary rather than historical origin. For example, it is simply by crude authorial fiat that Luke 24:16, John 20:14, and the longer ending of Mark (16:12) make the resurrected Jesus unrecognizable to the mourning disciples. Try to picture the scene (as Strauss bade us try to envision Jesus multiplying loaves of bread by stretching them out like sponges!) and you wind up with absurdities. Was Jesus heavily robed? Was he flogged and bruised into hamburger meat and thus unrecognizable? (Never mind that Jesus should have been recognized precisely by means of his wounds, as in John 20:25, 27.) In one sense the literary gimmick here is an excellent one: the element of uncertainty preserves the supernatural chill of the scene without resolving it into pat certainty, a technique Tzvetan Todorov explains in his The Fantastic. But on the other hand, it is done artlessly: no narrative explanation is given for the uncertainty. The evangelists just baldly tell us the disciples did not recognize him, something as abrupt and arbitrary as their incredible failure to grasp what the passion prediction meant (Mark 9:32). There, Mark was just trying to account for why the passion and resurrection predictions did not prepare the disciples, as they are supposed to do for the reader, for the subsequent events.  But all this, both the stories’ skill and their lack of it, is a matter of literary composition, not of historical reporting.

Similarly, the question in John and Luke is whether the Risen One is solid flesh or can pass through locked doors like Jacob Marley. If what Jesus wanted was to demonstrate was the physical reality of his body, that he was not a ghost, he certainly had a funny way of showing it! But the incoherence arises from the literary character of the story: the evangelists wanted to show two things: that Jesus was corporeal, and that, as a resurrected being, he could make a heck of a surprise entrance! The two contradict one another, but that does not occur to the storyteller as long as both individual goals are met. It is just like the Transfiguration story in Mark: did Elijah appear personally in the time of Jesus? Yes he did: you just saw him with Moses. And no, he didn’t: he appeared only in a manner of speaking, as John the Baptist. Mark inherited both apologetical arguments and decided he might as well include both. Never mind that they are incompatible; he couldn’t bring himself to choose between them. Nor here; hence a fleshly Jesus who can nonetheless walk through walls! The only explanation is that we are dealing with fiction, whether well told or badly, or both.


Blindness and Insight

It is perhaps surprising to see the limits of Wedderburn’s critical vision, for he still seems trapped in the clinging Lazarus-bands of conservatism, more individual assumptions than modes of argument. For instance, he imagines that "It is an indubitable historical datum that sometime, somehow the disciples came to believe that they had seen the risen Jesus" (p. 13)--I should say not! Any more than that we know about any "changed lives" of these disciples from before to after the resurrection. As Pannenberg feared and Wedderburn seems to realize, the gospel resurrection accounts are secondhand or, worse, completely fictive. And what other evidence do we have about what the first disciples may or may not have experienced? 1 Corinthians 15:5 and 7 are hardly firsthand evidence. It is after all, a pair of formulas, standardized, official credential lists that even seem to undercut one another, one presupposing James as the leader of the apostles, the other Peter (as Harnack knew and Wedderburn seems aware). We have this set of formulas from a third party, even if we regard the text in which it appears as genuinely Pauline. As for Paul’s own vision, Wedderburn recognizes the difficulties in knowing what Paul may have experienced and how similar or different it may have been to the experience (if any!) of the "original disciples." Burton Mack is right: the empty tomb and appearance stories can simply no longer be taken as either univocal or equivocal ("it might have been hallucinations") evidence of a "Big Bang" that started Christianity. No, these stories are themselves growths from one of the several kinds of early Christianity, whose origins are unknown. The stories of the apostles and the dawn of their faith are a product of one particular "apostolic" Christianity and betray an agenda that makes sense best in the second century where well-defined sects (including "catholic" "orthodoxy") vied with one another and made parallel boasts of "apostolic" succession. In the gospel Easter stories we are seeing not the root of the plant but the tip of the iceberg.

Wedderburn still lingers in the pleasant shade of the historicizing bias when he arbitrarily retains individual elements of the resurrection narratives seriously as history. He thinks the women looked for the body, probably without much luck. Isn’t it obvious by now that the whole scenario parallels and is derived from ubiquitous Mystery Religion myths where goddesses (Isis and Nephthys, Ishtar, Anath, Cybele) seek for the slain god (Osiris, Tammuz/Dumuzi, Baal, Attis) and anoint him to raise him from the dead? Let Occam’s razor rip! Granted, women’s testimony may not have been worth much in the ancient world, so the empty tomb stories wouldn’t have begun as apologetics--Celsus showed the futility of using them for that. But surely they began instead not as factual reports but rather as mythic scripts for women’s mourning rituals such as those long familiar in Israel for Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14) and Haddad-Rimmon (Zechariah 12:11).

Wedderburn thinks there may be some reliable tradition underlying the Sea of Tiberias story in John 21, but the whole thing must be based on the famous tale of Pythagoras, a vegetarian, who came upon a group of fishermen unloading a huge catch, whereupon he made them an offer. If he could guess the right number of fish, would the fishermen free them? He was right, and back they went. The miracle wasn_t the size of the haul, but rather the Rain Man-like acuity of the sage_s calculations. The point has been shifted in the Johannine version, but that it stems from the Pythagorean legend is still apparent from the fact that the number of fish, one hundred fifty three, not only presupposes someone counting them (pointless in the Johannine version we now read) but happens to be one of the holy Pythagorean "triangular" numbers. 

Wedderburn wrestles with the origin of the "third day" motif and wonders if something did not after all happen that day. Hosea 6:1-2 ("on the third day he will raise us up") seems insufficient to have fixed the day if there had not also been some event that day, even if that should prove to have been the failure of the women to find the body! The "earliest Christians were convinced, thanks to their experiences at Easter and afterwards, that Jesus’ fate was according to God’s will. Because they also believed that God had revealed that will in the Old Testament scriptures, they... searched in those scriptures for the proof that the anointed one of Jewish expectations had indeed to suffer and die and be raised again, that his fate was therefore according to the scriptures (plural). As a result of this basic enquiry which convinced them that Jesus’ fate did correspond to what the scriptures had foretold, they... sought for the confirmation of their basic search in as many details of the passion story and its sequel as they could.. Even when only one passage could support, rather precariously, a detail like the third day, it confirmed the general character of the story as scriptural. But this analysis leads to the conclusion that the [Hosea] passage did not originate the date, as some have claimed; on the contrary, the date led to the discovery of the text that showed its basis in scripture" (p. 52).

But this seems superfluous and unnatural. What would have been the point if the event of the resurrection, the experience of the risen Jesus, had first convinced them? Would these Easter morning believers and their immediate heirs have been dissuaded if they had not been able, like the Pharisees of John 7:52, to document every detail from scripture? No, the whole scenario bespeaks a scribal atmosphere like that of the rabbis or of Qumran, where new secrets are coaxed out of the sacred page by means of esoteric combinations and out-of-context exegetical atomism. Surely a more natural picture is the one hypothesized by Earl Doherty whereby early Christians sought to historicize their spiritual messiah by filling in details from scripture peshers. When they said Christ died for sins, was buried, rose, etc., according to the scriptures, they probably, like Matthew with the 30 pieces of silver, the two donkeys, etc., derived the supposed events from reading texts out of context for their secret predictive value. Thus most likely either Hosea 6 was the origin of the third day motif, or it was invoked to supply a Jewish, biblical pedigree for a mytheme derived from a Mystery Religion (Attis, too, rose on the third day).

Has Wedderburn abandoned his one-time evangelical compatriots? Or, as I deem more likely, have they abandoned him? That is, someone here has taken seriously and consistently the exhortation all evangelicals hear to love the truth above all, but not everyone has seen that the truth cannot be identified with a given dogmatic-exegetical party line. I should say Wedderburn has chosen the better part.


Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
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