Thoughts for Passion Week and Passover

Thoughts for Passion Week and Passover April 18, 2011

A happy holy week to Christian readers and happy Passover to Jewish readers. I’ve already shared previously some of the most relevant links I’ve come across – such as the social media Exodus – but a few things I’ve seen appear on blogs over the past few days seem to be worth sharing, and somehow interconnected.

On the one hand, Duane Galbraith is discussing Maurice Casey’s recent book Jesus of Nazareth: An independent historian’s account of his life and teaching. I admit I was rather astonished to find him characterizing as mainstream a New Testament scholar as James D. G. Dunn as a “Conservative Christian apologist.” Dunn, in his The Evidence for Jesus, actually makes much the same point that Casey does about belief in an exalted, vindicated and even a raised Jesus not requiring an empty tomb or a missing body. And I’m not as confident as Casey that there was a complete disinterest in the place of Jesus’ burial, whether empty or not. Be that as it may, Casey seems to accept that Jesus would have been buried in a common tomb for criminals, and that seems to me as well to be probably correct.

On the other hand, Brian LePort is blogging through Michael Licona’s book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. It seems to me that the attempt to find ways to get history to investigate and pronounce on miracles is misguided. It doesn’t seem that any methodological adjustments will allow one to claim that it is more probable that a miracle occurred than that either a miracle story was fabricated, or a mundane event took on supernatural interpretations in the course of retelling. History deals in probabilities, and miracles are by definition improbable.

Both of these books are on my shelf and will be reviewed as soon as I can get to them.

But I was struck by the fact that neither of these blog series made the impression on me that Ricky Gervais’ Easter message (HT Hemant Mehta). An atheist’s Easter message might immediately raise eyebrows among Christians, but there is something to Gervais’ description of himself as a “Good ‘Christian’ who doesn’t believe in God.” At the very least, I suspect that if there were more Christians like Ricky Gervais, there might be fewer atheists like Ricky Gervais. Rethinking notions of God in light of new scientific information and experience is something that Christians have always done and need to continue to do. It is far more often the hypocrisy and lovelessness of Christians – the unchristianness of Christians – that leads people to reject the whole package of Christianity altogether, rather than seeking to adjust and improve it.

On a related note, Jeri Massi suggests that if Paul were writing Romans today, he might write of today’s fundamentalist Christians that because of their evil and unrepentant attitudes, “God gave them over” to scandalous affairs, child molestation, and much else. Fundamentalists are fond of quoting Romans 1 in contemporary culture-war contexts, and miss the point, which requires, among other things, that one continue reading into chapter 2.

All of that can perhaps be disheartening. And so as we think about the past and the future, let me share a couple of more lighthearted items. The more serious of the two comes to me via Brad Matthies, and is in essence a timeline of the future based on what people typically search for about future years:

And finally (if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post) here’s the entirety of Doctor Who – all 47 years – reduced to 6 minutes!

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  • 14 blade razor! other news, the BBC now thinks that the Maundy Thursday dating has been effectively harmonised using, wait for it, a "forgotten egyptian calendar" which is conveniently un-named. And isn't the scientists that same guy who passed positive comment on the codes a few weeks back?

  • "codes" should have read "codices"

  • There have been so many claims about codes as well as codices that I didn't even pick up on the error! 🙂

  • James,I look forward to you reviewing Licona's book. I don't think you'll change your view on miracles (I doubt most will), but I do think Licona has some good insights worth considering, and it isn't as simple as that a miracle would be "more probable" in general than another explanation.

  • Thanks. I assumed he had more to say than that – especially given the size of the book! 🙂 I'm looking forward to reading it.

  • It is a bit massive, almost overwhelming.

  • Anonymous

    For anyone interested in the miracles topic, this website gives a link to Michael Licona interviewing Craig Keener about his upcoming book on the credibility of the New Testament accounts of miracles (and they talk about modern Christian miracles too.)Dr. Mcgrath,I have read that it would be difficult to establish historical or ancient miracles as 'probable.' What is your view about modern miracles that have been investigated? (several are mentioned in the interview above).

  • Just interested in your comment about Jesus probably being buried in a common tomb for criminals. The thing is, the only documents we have – the Gospels – that write about the burial of Jesus all agree that he was buried in a tomb provided by a Joseph of Arimethea. And that it was new. You can't, I think, just ignore what was written and posit something else without good reason. So, what is the good reason?

  • Tolkien, if you take a look at the Gospel of Mark, you'll see that those very details, that it was Joseph's own tomb and that it was new, are absent. Later authors added them, perhaps to reduce the degree to which Jesus' burial seemed dishonorable. In addition to various blog posts and online articles of mine on this topic, I also produced a little volume on The Burial of Jesus that discusses this in more detail.

  • Thanks for responding.You could, of course, be right. But that assumes you can disregard Luke, Matthew and John. Perhaps you can, but I don't see that, say Luke, doesn't have access to reliable witnesses/tradition. After all, he claims he does.Whether or not he was buried in a separate tomb (the Gospels) or a criminals tomb (no written evidence) the point is that he was buried, disciples went to find him and he was gone. As you rightly point out, it wasn't the absence of the Tomb that made his disciples Christian, it was their later experiences of meeting him.I can say the Creeds perfectly contentedly whether or not Jesus was buried in a criminal's tomb or that of Joseph.But if that's the case, then why bother making up a story about Joseph, who doesn't figure later anywhere, unless it was true?Again, if the Joseph tomb story is wrong, then why, when Helena organised the dig for the tomb did they find, under the Temple of Venus, what looks awfully like the right sort of rock tomb?I agree that it doesn't matter what kind of tomb Jesus was buried in. But if it doesn't, why are you probably sure that it was in a criminal's tomb?As you can tell, I'm interested in this, not just because I'm Christian, but also because I studied the period as part of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, and have stayed interested ever since.

  • Thanks for replying. I can fully appreciate why anyone would find this topic interesting! I am not comfortable simply lumping the Gospels together on this point. They do not all agree on other points, such as whether Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple, whether the women went to anoint Jesus' body and indeed, whether Jesus was indeed given an honorable burial complete with anointing/spices.It is my understanding that what evidence has not been obliterated in the process of constructing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher supports this view. Beneath the church there are a network of tombs, and so it might more aptly be described as a "graveyard" than a family tomb. Of course, the context of the tomb they identified as the tomb was eliminated (Martin Biddle thinks that even so a closer examination of the edicule might yield important clues). Even without such evidence, I think it would be unlikely that a member of the Jewish council would maintain a personal or family tomb adjacent to a site the Romans used for executions.But at any rate, even if Luke researched the matter, that doesn't necessarily mean that he came up with additional accurate information beyond what he found in Mark. There is definitely a trajectory running from Mark to John in which Christian authors increasingly sought to give Jesus the burial they felt he deserved but were unable to give him in reality.

  • Thanks for replying so courteously and promptly.I've got Biddle's book – it's wonderful.I think what I'm thinking is that, given it doesn't really matter whether Jesus was in a criminal's tomb or in Joseph's, and that I'm sure one could find a proof text for either case in the OT if you looked, why discard the written evidence we DO have in favour of a surmise?I'm not worried by the different categories of individual in which the Gospel writers place Joseph. He may not have fitted neatly in one anyway, and the tradition would have been more interested in what he did than the precise relationship to Jesus. As far as I can tell, little stands on this.Your other points are well made. The tapestry of ancient history is woven such that there are alway threads that are loose and point in strange directions. But I think that as too little hangs on the status of Jesus's tomb, that Casey is, like Crossan, being deliberately provocative about the nature of the tomb. Which is a shame, as it makes me think he wrote it to make a bit of a fuss.Again, thank you for troubling to reply. I shall continue to visit your blog.Happy Easter.

  • Thanks for your reply. I think that the question of whether Jesus was buried in a tomb for criminals is a separate one from (although perhaps still relevant to) the question of whether his body was missing early Sunday morning. As for the question of why I think the historical evidence points towards Jesus having been buried in a tomb for executed criminals, it has to do for the most part with a combination of the evidence from our earliest Gospel (seemingly confirmed by Acts, which makes the burial of Jesus the last act the Jewish leaders perpetrate against Jesus), probability, and the archaeological data from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.Raymond Brown has a good treatment of this, as does Byron McCane, and the latter's article on the subject is online.