Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Bird's-eye view of Easter

Some observations by Michael Bird on the Resurrection:

“Was belief in Jesus’ resurrection a way of compensating for his shameful and unexpected death? Probably not:

1 If Jesus predicted his death and relatively immediate resurrection then these resurrection hopes precede the disciples’ disappointment at his death.

2 Reinterpretation fostered by dissonance depends on a degree of temporal distance between the prophecy and its failure in order to allow hopes to fade and to force the mental cogs to click over to provide a reinterpretation of that failure. But belief in Jesus’ resurrection was immediately after his death–within days not months or years,” M. Bird & J. Crossley, How did Christianity Begin? (Hendrickson 2008), 44-45.

“But the biggest problem is why would the early Christian interpreters refer to a vision as a ‘resurrection’? They could have said that they witnessed Jesus either as a ghost or as an apparition or as an angel, or claimed that his spirit had been exalted to heaven, all of which were tenable options. If the appearances were visions why did the disciples think that Jesus had been resurrected when ‘resurrection’ would have generated a whole host of confusing corollaries in what was already a really bad week? The general resurrection was meant to be physical, it was supposed to include everyone (or at least the righteous/wise), and was programmed to occur at the end of the age. The Jewish and Christian language of resurrection does not fit well as a visionary experience,” ibid. 45.

“It has become increasingly common to regard these visions as projections of grief- and guilt-stricken persons experiences the presence of someone after death. I have three problems with the claim that the resurrection appearances were visions borne out of bereavement.

1 I never ceased to be amazed that scholars who take a minimalist approach to history in the Gospels, who believe that the stories are so overlaid with theology, who urge the utmost caution before pronouncing any story or saying as authentic, appear to suspend their skepticism as they make claims to know the interior mental events and psychological states of the disciples. I submit that it is these mental processes, if anything, that are inaccessible to us. I don’t have a problem with skepticism, as long as it is consistent skepticism.

2 I do not think that visions, appearances or a sense of personal presence during bereavement would have led to an instantaneous belief that a crucified man had been physically raised by God. There was a range of simpler options that would commend themselves for describing such visions during a time of grief. For instance, the disciples may have thought that Jesus had been transformed into an angel and visited them. Oddly enough, in Acts 10:1 during the imprisonment of Peter a group of Christians who had anticipated the worst were already beginning to experience emotional bereavement before Peter had even died. When Peter did turn up (quite unexpectedly) their grief at his apparent death led them to think that he had appeared to them as an angel, but no one thought that the resurrected Peter was at the door.

3 On the safe assumption that many people died in antiquity and their loved ones experienced the associated grief and loss, and people during this time would have had postmortem experiences of the deceased as they do now, why didn’t other mourners regard their loved one as resurrected? Why were the disciples the first, as far as we know, to claim that their recently departed friend had been resurrected? Again, why didn’t the family of every Tobias, Dinah and Hershel killed on a Roman cross proclaim the resurrection of the deceased? Most probably because resurrection was known to be a physical, eschatological, corporate and single event, and whatever feelings, emotions, thoughts, and hopes that grief-induced visions evoked they did not feel or look anything like a resurrection,” ibid. 46-47.

“So we are still stuck with the problem of why the disciples believed that their crucified leader was resurrected–not merely assumed into heaven, not translated to the bosom of Abraham, not morphed into an astral being, not transported to God’s throne on a fiery chariot–but resurrected. I suspect that those who think it is easy to pigeonhole the resurrection narratives into the category of bereavement visions are trying to force a square peg into a round whole. The terminology of resurrection is a clear mismatch for the phenomenon of bereavement visions,” ibid. 47.

“As for Mark inventing the story of the empty tomb, I confess that I do not understand why Mark would do it to begin with. If one can believe in resurrection without a physical appearance, as Crossley proposes, why is an empty tomb needed to prove a physical appearance? Other forms of Christianity did not need an empty tomb to find a living voice for Jesus in their own day (e.g. that form of Christianity represented by the Gospel of Thomas),” ibid. 66.

“Now Crossley argues that the content of visions of deceased persons is provided by culturally specific ways of understanding the vision itself. He also asserts that visionary experiences can be interpreted in any number of ways in different cultures. Let us grant as much. So what were the options for interpreting a vision: meeting a ghost, an angel, a spirit, an astral being, appearance of a person from heaven, &c.? Why didn’t the disciples and the Evangelists regard the appearance of Jesus in one of these categories? Why resurrection? Crossley states that resurrection was one of the culturally specific ways of interpreting a vision and he cites 2 Maccabees 7 as an example. But therein lies the problem. In 2 Maccabees the event envisaged is physical (i.e. receiving back maimed limbs), it is corporate and involves ‘all’ martyrs, and it happens at the end of history. Yet Crossley tells us that what happened to Jesus was non-physical, it happened to an individual and in the middle of history. While there are culturally specific ways of interpreting a vision surely there has to be some correlation between the event and its accompanying description,” ibid. 68.

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