The Disinterment of Jesus?

The Disinterment of Jesus? April 5, 2015

Having blogged on Friday about my book The Burial of Jesus, which talks not just about the crucifixion and the burial but also the rise of resurrection faith, let me share another quote from the book, one more relevant for today, Easter.

Certainly an empty tomb is not crucial to the Christian faith, since it has nothing to do with what Christians have traditionally meant by resurrection. Imagine ancient Romans burning the bodies of Christian martyrs and scattering their ashes into a river in an attempt to prevent them from being resurrected. I presume no Christian would suggest that the Romans could so easily thwart God’s plans, and few today believe that, if there is to be a final resurrection of the dead, it will require God reassembling all the original molecules that made up one’s body. This would be resuscitation rather than resurrection, a return to a bodily existence akin to our present one, rather than entry into the completely new manner of being that characterizes the age to come. And so the Christian belief that Jesus was not just brought back to life to die again, but was raised to eternal life, means that the fate of Jesus’ body is ultimately irrelevant. The post-Easter Jesus is usually regarded by Christians as present to all believers everywhere, and is not felt to be limited spatially, unlike bodily existence as we now know it. When the New Testament Gospels depict Jesus appearing, locked doors do not present a hindrance for him suddenly being present in a given room. The focus of so much attention on the empty tomb is really something of a distraction, a side issue, as far as the resurrection of Jesus is concerned. The focus of the resurrection faith of Christians down the ages has not been a past event, but their experience of Jesus as a real, living presence in their lives.

And one more:

Resurrection faith…was not born from historical deductions regarding the whereabouts of a body, but from life-transforming religious experiences. For those of us who have had such experiences, faith is not primarily (if at all) a matter of doctrines but of what we can only speak of in symbolic terms as a life-transforming relationship to the ultimate. When the focus of Christian faith is placed there, then it becomes a realistic possibility to keep faith as about humble trust rather than arrogant claims to certainty.

You can read more in The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, and since it is an ebook which costs a mere $2.99, I hope that it is within a price range that makes it accessible to most if not indeed all readers of this blog.

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  • Cecil Bagpuss

    That was very eloquently put. The subject of the empty tomb brings to mind a remark made by a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. He said that the resurrection was not “a conjuring trick with bones”, which was taken as a rejection of the bodily nature of the resurrection. This was one of those rare occasions when God Himself decides to intervene in a debate:

    • Nick G

      Ah, I remember that one! But given God’s notoriously poor aim, isn’t it just as likely he was expressing his displeasure at the performance of John Pertwee in Dr. Who, or the Great Quackenbush Camel-Filleting Scandal of 2317?

    • Of course, another popular Bishop, N.T. Wright, makes precisely the opposite argument. That a soul apart from a body, and a heaven apart from earth are not the first century Christian understandings of resurrection and eternal life. To Wright, humans, like Jesus, will literally, physically, experience the reanimation of their dead corpses to enjoy a literal renewal of the kindom of God on earth.

      In other words, to Wright, it IS “a conjuring trick with bones” (though he probably would prefer to subsitute “miracle” for “conjuring trick”).

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        Indeed, and the fact that the good N.T. Wright was also Bishop of Durham is surely a sign of Providence 🙂

        • Hmmm … Bishops of Durham who providentially contradict each other …

      • guestposter

        The resurrection was not a magic trick but a miracle. Of course, if you presuppose that miracles don’t happen because of your personal convictions instead of the evidence than any sort of supernatural occurrence will be just another “trick”. Unless I see an argument against miracles, I have no reason to doubt them.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          I think the point made by David Jenkins was that a physical raising of the body would have been an unnecessary (and possibly vulgar) display of power, although he never denied the spiritual reality of the resurrection. As you can imagine, this was a controversial view. After the consecration of David Jenkins as bishop, the cathedral in which the ceremony took place was hit by lightning, and nearly destroyed. You can read about the story in the link that I gave.

          It is ironic that the post held by David Jenkins – Bishop of Durham – would later be occupied by N.T. Wright, the famous defender of the resurrection.

        • Nick G

          If the evidence were good enough, I would accept that something supernatural occurred. But it is not within light-years of being good enough.

        • You are welcome to believe in them. Which ones? Christian miracles? Hindu miracles? Islamic miracles? Zoroastrian miracles? All of them?

  • James, thank you for sharing from your book. Reading simply what you have presented here I think you are missing the point of the resurrection (or those against whom you are arguing have). The empty tomb is the affirmation of Jesus’s words regarding his identity and the confirmation of his words. Without that he is simply another pious teacher martyred by the authorities.

    True it also points to the resurrection that we will share and true the physicality of it is at best complicated (as you point out, appearing in locked rooms, etc.). And I agree also with your point that the “experience of Jesus as a real, living presence in their lives” is where we “live” with the resurrected Jesus. But the assertion of his resurrection is hardly a distraction, it is the confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah and that we may be “united with him in a resurrection like his.”

    • Nick G

      Then it’s very poor confirmation indeed. Consider the multiple contradictions between the gospels as to where Jesus was buried, who came to the tomb and what they brought with them, what they saw, who they told, who saw Jesus under what circumstances after his death… And then there’s the strange silence of the other three gospels – not to mention all other ancient sources – on the Great Jerusalem Zombie Invasion reported in Matthew 27:52.

      • Mark

        That different accounts mention different facts doesn’t put them into contradiction; a contradiction is when one text asserts a proposition and another asserts its negation. In fact there is surprising uniformity on the propositions that a) he was buried b) in a tomb c) under the direction of someone named Joseph and d) that some women followers (most of them apparently named after Miriam, like most women in 1st c Palestine) found him missing.

        Everyone knows that these texts can be harmonized with enough energy. You share with enthusiasts for that game the inexplicable conviction that *the several gospels should cohere with each other*. This is already a faith proposition; it doesn’t have anything to do with rational historical inference.

        The sensible theory is presumably that the other gospels are replicating Mark, whom they find credible given what they have heard — deleting what they find dull and adding their own would-be knowledges and projections. That there are three, ten or a hundred other gospel stories is completely irrelevant. Once we form the opinion that one of them is prior to the others and employed as a source in them all, the existence of the others is a distraction.

        • Nick G

          No, they canot be “harmonised” in any honest way; they contradict each other in the ways I have already noted. Two accounts contradict each other when both cannot be accurate. How many women went to the tomb? Who was in it (a young man, an angel, two angels)? Who did they tell? Which disciples, if any, witnessed the empty tomb? To whom did Jesus make his first post-mortem appearance and where?

          I don’t expect them to cohere; but if they are to be taken as evidence of a miracle, we should expect something more than agreement on the three common points you mention.

          • Mark

            That several later accounts of an event conflict with each other doesn’t tell us anything that isn’t basically human life as usual. It is what we expect with eye-witnesses, and still more with a succession of events involving many different people whose stories must be harmonized, such as is the case with each gospel version. Only a faith doctrine could make you think otherwise. It is irrelevant that some sort of miracle is part of the content. Of course many of us aren’t going to accept a miracle report no matter how many similar reports there are.

            But on reflection, there isn’t any clear point at issue, since you misunderstood the use of the word ‘confirmation’ in Christian Brady’s remark, which was intra-Christian in character and not for us to intervene in.

          • Nick G

            It most certainly is relevant that a miracle is part of the content. Standards of evidence for a miracle must be higher than for an everyday event.

          • Straw Man

            “Can’t both be true” is actually a high bar. The standard harmonization is: people made multiple trips to the tomb; angels look just like people; and one account only mentions the one of the two that spoke. This could be correct, so it’s not true that the accounts “cannot both be accurate.”

            Accounts of “Ruby Ridge” differ, depending whether you’re a right-winger or the FBI: the FBI reported that they shot Samuel Weaver “in the arm,” while right-wingers reported that he was shot “in the back.” He was in fact shot in the shoulder. A fairly trivial contradiction, but one that turns out to be harmonized pretty easily.

          • Nick G

            The “standard harmonization” is obvious special pleading: different gospels say there were 1, 2, 3 or at least 5 women; that the tomb was open or closed, that they saw one or two angels, or one man, inside or outside the tomb (and if the witnesses cannot tell angels from people, how can they possibly be reliable when they report any supposedly supernatural event?), that they ran immediately to tell the disciples, or told no-one. These are not trivial contradictions, easily harmonized. Clearly the story has been told and retold before being written down, and three of the four at least have introduced false elements. So even where they agree, we cannot justifiably have much confidence in what they say.

          • Mark

            The propositions “Two women were there” and “At least 5 women were there” are flat out consistent. But my point was different: what does it matter what Luke & co say; they can’t show anything about the reliability of Mark as a reporter. The relation of Mark’s text to reality was not in the least affected by the later appearance or non-appearance of knock-off empty tomb passages.

    • Thank you, Christian, for your comment, and apologies for not responding sooner. What is behind what I wrote is my conclusion that we cannot argue to the resurrection of Jesus using historical methods. I see three main options for how to respond to that: (1) set aside what we cannot prove, (2) insist on the historicity of the resurrection despite our inability to prove it, in a manner that we would reject if someone of another viewpoint argued in the same way, or (3) find a way to affirm or hope which does not depend on our ability to make a historical case regarding what happened to Jesus.

      • Guest

        We can use philosophical methods to determine the explanation of the events that happened to Jesus after his death, to give us a conclusion that a miracle has occurred.

        That which goes beyond science/history is not always therefore false. That simply means we have to use other methods and tools of argumentation.

  • Just Sayin’

    Alas, I don’t have an e-reader!

  • What I appreciated most about “The Burial of Jesus” was the way you explained the process, techniques, and limitations of the biblical historian.

  • Gordon

    James – your quotes help me understand Marcus Borg’s take on resurrection. After 15 years or so it makes much more sense – thank you!

  • Ian

    The post-Easter Jesus is usually regarded by Christians as present to all believers everywhere

    Is that true? That’s not my understanding. My understanding is that, in orthodoxy, Jesus was physically localised post-resurrection. He was’t simultaneously in Emmaus, Galilee, Jerusalem, and appearing to the Native Americans in the future USA. He was transformed with special powers certainly, but still in his crucified body (Thomas and the nails, for example). And then after the ascension, Jesus returns bodily to heaven. And will come again.

    I understand that there is often a blurry boundary between Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the ‘where two or three are gathered’ types of thinking. And I admit there is not one consistent theology of the resurrection in the NT. But are there any churches whose doctrines declare that Jesus is directly and physically present to all believers everywhere?

    It not then surely the original point stands. The body that Thomas touched the wounds of, is somehow connected with the crucified body. It matters to that theology that there not be two of them.