Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Did The Resurrection Accounts Develop Over Time?

In the comment section of a thread started by Matthew Green at Debunking Christianity, Ed Babinski writes:

So the stories of the Christian miracle of the resurrection originated with partisan believers (and even their stories of the "words" allegedly spoken by the resurrected Jesus kept growing numerically over time). The earliest tale of the empty tomb [Mark] ends with a mere promise of seeing Jesus. The next earliest tale of the empty tomb [Mat.] adds a handful of so-called post-resurrection words, a mere brief early creedal statement easily put into Jesus's mouth, and even adds, "but some doubted."

By the time the later written Luke/Acts and John came about, they had the resurrected Jesus speaking HUNDREDS of words, and in both cases they added stories that made sure the raised Jesus would not be confused with a "spirit" at all, having Jesus in both their late Gospels take pains to convince them he was "not a spirit." (There must have been some doubt somewhere for them to protest to much in the last written Gospels!)

So the story grew in stages. (Luke doesn't even bother to have the apostles run off to Galilee where Mark and Matthew claimed the raised Jesus first went and where the apostles had to go to first see him. Instead, Luke changes the message at the tomb. I invite all to go read how Luke changes the so-called sacrosanct "word of God" as found in Mark and Matthew.)

The sort of approach Ed is taking has recently been refuted at length by David Wood. I recommend reading Wood's article. And I'll add the following.

The material Paul cites when discussing the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 predates the gospels. That material, part of which comes from an early, pre-Pauline creed, has more resurrection appearances than any of the gospels (six). It also has Jesus appearing to more people than He appears to in any of the gospels (more than 500 people in 1 Corinthians 15:6). Does 1 Corinthians 15 have less than the gospels in some contexts? Yes. Ed Babinski cites the example of how many words the resurrected Christ spoke. Since 1 Corinthians 15 is part of a letter discussing a creed, it isn't going to have the sort of dialogue we would find in a Greco-Roman biography. But why only consider how many words the resurrected Jesus speaks? If you take other factors into account, such as the number of resurrection appearances and the number of people involved, 1 Corinthians 15 has more than the gospels in some contexts.

Mark's gospel ends with the empty tomb and a reference to upcoming resurrection appearances. We don't know how many words the resurrected Jesus would have spoken if Mark had decided to include resurrection appearances. How can Ed claim to know that a gradual development occurred? And how does Ed know that Matthew was written before Luke? What if Matthew's resurrection material is so brief because he was coming to the end of his scroll, as some scholars believe? Is the difference in word count between Luke and John significant? If so, then if John's gospel is written by an eyewitness, wouldn't we expect its author to have more knowledge of what Jesus spoke than Luke would have had? There are explanations of the data other than Ed's proposed explanation, and he isn't giving us any reason to prefer his.

Why did Mark end his gospel where he did? We don't know. One possibility that's been suggested is that he wanted to keep a lot of emphasis on the cross while not leaving out the resurrection, so he only mentioned a small amount about the resurrection. Another possibility is that he wanted the readers to get the impression that they're in the same position as the women at the tomb. The reader, like the women, has a responsibility to go and tell others about the resurrection. Whatever Mark's reasons for ending his gospel where he did, we know that he had a lot more material he could have included. Mark knew that resurrection appearances followed the empty tomb. He refers to them in Mark 16:7. And the resurrection appearances mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 had been widely known long before Mark's gospel was written. What we have, then, is a situation in which Mark chose not to include information he had. If he chose not to include it, then the fact that it appeared in later documents, but not in Mark's gospel, doesn't prove that some source after Mark fabricated it. Ed is making assumptions that are unproveable and unlikely.

In addition to the example of Mark's deliberately not using some information he had, we know that the other gospel writers did the same. Jesus' brother James was one of the most prominent of the early church leaders, and it was widely known that he had seen the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7). Yet, none of the gospels include an appearance to James.

Ed tells us that the gospels of Luke and John "take pains to convince them he [the resurrected Jesus] was 'not a spirit.'". Actually, Luke's gospel has only one brief section on Jesus' comments about His not being a spirit. How does that one brief section prove that Luke was "at pains" on the subject? All four gospel authors refer to physical evidence produced by the resurrection (Matthew 28:9, Mark 16:4-6, Luke 24:42-43, John 21:9-13, etc.). They were writing in the context of first century Israel, a context in which there was a physical concept of resurrection. When people are told that a physical resurrection has occurred, a desire for physical evidence will be present all along. It's not something that wouldn't arise until the gospels were written. The concern for physical evidence that we see in the gospels is what we would expect to have occurred if there was a resurrection. Jesus' comment in Luke 24 about His not being a spirit would be a response to the possibility that the disciples were seeing a ghost. It had nothing to do with responding to a belief in spiritual resurrection. Physical resurrection was the mainstream Jewish view, and the Christian belief in resurrection was of a physical nature from the start (see here and here). The gospels' concern for physical evidence is what we would expect to see if they were giving historically reliable accounts. The suggestion that such a concern for physical evidence is evidence of inauthenticity rather than authenticity is absurd.

Ed comments that "Luke doesn't even bother to have the apostles run off to Galilee". The sequence of resurrection appearances mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 would require that a lot of time passed. Peter seems to have been present during at least three of the appearances Paul mentions, so there had to have been time for Peter to repeatedly leave one place and go to another, where other people joined him. Similarly, John refers to significant time passing (John 20:26). Luke mentions that Jesus appeared to people over a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3). A lot could have happened during that much time, and surely a lot did happen. There's far too much time involved and too many people involved for the reasonable reader to conclude anything other than that an author like Luke would be summarizing events, compressing things, and leaving out some information that could have been included. We see such compression, leaving out of details, etc. frequently in both ancient and modern literature, in both Christian and non-Christian sources. See J.P. Holding's examples here and Glenn Miller's discussion here. And it's worth noting that Miller's article gives several examples of proposed harmonizations of the resurrection narratives. It's not a matter of our not being able to harmonize them. Rather, it's a matter of many plausible harmonizations being available, and we don't have enough information to answer every question.

In other comments Ed makes, which I don't quote above, he raises some common objections that have already been answered by Christians (and sometimes by non-Christian scholars) many times and in many places. It would be easy for Ed to find credible answers to his objections in the scholarly literature, as well as online.

In closing, I want to respond to one other comment Ed made. He wrote:

Psychological studies of people in other religions that wound up at dead ends prove that in such cases some give up, but others take their beliefs to a new level of insistance and persistance, raising the stakes in invisible holy realms, and in spite of all earthly disappointments. That appears to be what the apostles did to solve their problem of cognitive dissonance.

Psychological studies also show that hallucinations and other psychological disorders occur under conditions different from those of the resurrection witnesses. See, for example, here, here, here, and here. And the early Christians didn't just make claims about "invisible holy realms". They made claims about a physical resurrection that involved a physical empty tomb, physical eyewitnesses who were named, etc. And I doubt that skeptics like James, Paul, and Paul's travel companions were desiring to see a risen Jesus.

As far as Ed's speculative appeal to "cognitive dissonance" is concerned, the research has already been done. N.T. Wright, after studying religious movements in Israel around the time of Jesus' death, commented:

"So far as we know, all the followers of these first-century messianic movements were fanatically committed to the cause. They, if anybody, might be expected to suffer from this blessed twentieth century disease called 'cognitive dissonance' when their expectations failed to materialize. But in no case, right across the century before Jesus and the century after him, do we hear of any Jewish group saying that their executed leader had been raised from the dead and he really was the Messiah after all." (cited in Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, editors, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000], p. 183)

It seems that the problem here is the cognitive dissonance of Ed Babinski.

1 comment:

  1. This sort of "logic" on Babinski's part is truly amazing. For one who thinks he is a critical thinker, he accepts higher critical literary theory without a hint of criticism.

    On this theory, the text accretes material over time. There are a number of problematic items here. First, it defies the external evidence by overstating internal evidence. Second, it fails to account for the fact that the earlier gospels often contain details the later ones do not. Third, on this scheme Mark is first, John is last, yet John contains the least "miraculous" stories and Mark the most such material, exactly opposite the form critical theory. Fourth, if the early Christians put words in Jesus mouth, where are his words about such things as circumcision, eating food sacrificed to idols, etc? These were the issues of greatest concern in that day. Why didn't those early Christians invent words of Jesus to address those issues? Sixth, this theory would necessarily depend on some sort of original reconconstruction (at a minimum) of the original material from which to compare all the other iterations. Where is this material? Atheists constantly tell us that there is no evidence for the Resurrection, yet here is one propounding a theory that has no evidence in the documentary record, and that material is necessary to sustain the theory.