Can One Simply “Believe The Bible” About Easter?

Can One Simply “Believe The Bible” About Easter? March 22, 2008

One could begin simply with the question of what Easter is, and that would be enough to make one realize that the question of “what happened” is a historical question, even if we mean “what happened to change the lives of the disciples?” and not “did Jesus enter the resurrection age?” When it comes to questions about the past, prior to the time of anyone alive today, historical study is the only approach open to us, and provides the only tools available for addressing such topics.

The claim to simply “believe the Bible”, when it comes to Easter, is not in fact simple at all. It is in the end dishonest, since the person who makes the claim either has not read the Bible carefully enough to realize the problems, or is willfully ignoring them or denying their existence.

A fundamentalist will pick and choose while denying they are doing so. The stories of Jesus eating fish will be chosen, ignoring the fact that the earliest stories lack such details. The fundamentalist will allow the honorable burial in John to completely obscure from view the dishonorable one in Mark. The fundamentalist apologist will take Matthew’s addition of guards at the tomb at face value, even though it forces him to change the goal of the women who go to the tomb, and to attribute to the Jewish leaders an understanding of Jesus’ claims that even the disciples are acknowledged not to have had. The fundamentalist apologist will never focus attention on those stories in which Jesus doesn’t look like Jesus, in which those who had the experience of seeing him doubted, or in which the focus is clearly symbolic and eucharistic as he is discerned to be present in the breaking of the bread. The fundamentalist will ignore the fact that the Gospels are evenly divided over whether Jesus was first seen in Jerusalem or Galilee (In Mark and Matthew they are told to go to Galilee; in Luke, they are told to stay in Jerusalem).

A historian must also pick and choose, but does so because of an honest assessment of the state of the evidence. One cannot simply believe what the Bible says on this subject, since the Bible says diverse things that do not come together into a coherent whole. A historian takes the oldest sources, the ones most likely to contain reliable data because they are closest in time to the events themselves, and gives them priority.

I am a Christian, and as such I value truth. And thus I must choose the honesty of history to the dishonesty of fundamentalism, no matter how painful or disconcerting the path it places me on may be.

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  • The question is never so much of what the bible says word for word as it is what is the tradition of each Gospel trying to teach us… Fundamentalists lose the didactic presence of the text as something there to teach us about God. Fundamentalists do not want to be taught. They assume there is really nothing to learn. There are just a set of propositions to which one must assent. The catch is that the assumptions are always extra-biblical. So there is a strange and somehow cruel irony there.This is why I really enjoyed Kazantzakis’ thought experiment at the end of The Last Temptation which looks at the question: What if Jesus had pulled himself down from the cross?

  • ER

    I don’t get your drift. If you are declaring yourself a historian – your argument is about the different points of view from different people – yet because they are different, somehow they lack something. I wish I could put my finger on what you are really saying other than you have a rant against fundamentals and that term has been used so much I am not sure I even know what that means anymore.

  • I’m not sure who you are accusing of ranting, or why your failure to understand should be considered evidence that ranting has occurred. This was a post that continued a train of thought going back several posts, and so not taking that context into account might be part of the problem. In a nutshell, my main point was that those who claim to “believe the Bible” when it comes to Easter, are often simply giving evidence that they don’t really know what the Bible says. They have (whether they know it or not) picked and chosen various details to believe, and in so doing have ignored others.A historian must also “pick and choose”, but does so self-consciously, knowing that when sources disagree, they cannot all be correct. One assesses reliability, and all other things being equal, those sources that are the earliest and closest to the actual events are given priority.A Christian who wants to take the Bible seriously – about Easter or anything else – has to choose between the fundamentalist’s approach, which claims to “believe the whole Bible” when that claim is in fact dishonest, and a historical approach, which acknowledges that there are problems and in facing up to them, takes the Bible much more seriously, and treats it with much more respect, than the fundamentalists do.

  • James, I am neither a theologan or a historian, so I’m not qualified to contribute to the discussion. Instead I’ll ask a question.In you post, you refer to the various level of information, or angles on the Easter story provided by the different gospels, and indicate that they are not in sync with each other. My question is: Should the gospels be in sync with each other, or is it acceptable for each writer to depict different views? And following on from that thought, does it diminish the core of the gospel story if they do have variations due to each writer’s perspective?

  • It depends what sort of question(s) you are asking. From a historian’s perspective, if the Gospels do not agree in depicting appearances of Jesus, where they were seen (Galilee or Jerusalem), whether the person they saw looked like Jesus, whether the appearance was visionary or tangible, then a historian will not be able to draw a confident conclusion about what happened.As far as the story/stories go as such, variation is precisely what we’d expect in a folkloristic, oral culture.

  • Thank you for your comment on my blog.Historians ‘pick and choose’ in the same way that people would automatically differentiate between an official Moonie church history of the Reverend Moon, and private letters written by church officials.One set of documents is likely to be less frank than the other.In the same way, there are obvious differences in genre between the New Testament Gospels and the New testament Epistles, so that historians cannot help but pick and choose if they are to follow their trade,

  • John MacDonald

    James said: “The fundamentalist apologist will take Matthew’s addition of guards at the tomb at face value”

    I think the addition of the guards at the tomb may have been to counter objections that Matthew had been hearing that the disciples stole the body (perhaps apologetically addressed at Matthew 28:11-15). Here are some interesting thoughts I found from Wikipedia on the subject:

    Alternatively, the entire account of the guard and the chief priests can be discounted as likely to be an ahistorical addition written by Matthew to make the stolen body hypothesis appear implausible. Among scholars, it “is widely regarded as an apologetic legend”;[17] L. Michael White and Helmut Koester argue the story was probably added as an attempt to refute the Jewish claims that the disciples stole the body which were circulating at the time.[18][19] Atheist and historian Richard Carrier writes:

    —- “The authors create a rhetorical means of putting the theft story into question by inventing guards on the tomb … it is most suspicious that the other gospel accounts omit any mention of a guard, even when Mary visits the tomb (compare Matthew 28:1-15 with Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1-9), and also do not mention the theft story—this claim is not even reported in Acts, where a lot of hostile Jewish attacks on the church are recorded, yet somehow this one fails to be mentioned. Neither Peter nor Paul mention either fact, either, even though their letters predate the gospels by decades. Worse, Matthew’s account involves reporting privileged conversations between priests and Pilate, and then secret ones between priests and guards that no Christian could have known about (27.62-65, 28.11-15). This is always a very suspicious sign of fiction… (Matthew) had the motive to make it up, to answer the objections of later skeptics (just like the Thomas story in John), and the story looks like an invention, because it narrates events that could not be known by the author.[20]” ——

    I wonder how prevalent an objection it was to Christianity in ancient times that they stole the body?