How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’

Authenticity in Strange Places

Upper Room DiscourseI recently moved office and in the process uncovered my copy A. N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. In this imaginative biography, replete with dogmatic scepticism, Wilson plies the tired view that without Paul’s theology, or more specifically his Christology, Jesus was little more than a ‘moderately pale Galilean.’ That is just one incarnation of historical incredulity towards the four Gospel accounts. Popularly it is presented, most often ignorantly, like this: “The Gospels are documents written much later than when Jesus lived and are undoubtedly loaded with the faith of the church, later traditions, and developed doctrine.” In this post I hope to challenge that myth by turning to the Gospel accounts themselves, something most sceptics fail to do. As the title suggests, my arguments will come from peculiar features in the Gospels that indicate authenticity.

The Gospel of Luke’s underdeveloped Christology
In his brilliant but concise work, Jesus and the Logic of History, Paul Barnett shows that the Gospel writers had a different focus to the letter-writers. Anyone who has read both the Gospel accounts and the epistles will notice how the Gospels reflect an ethos of ‘Jesus back there’ whereas the epistles address issues specific to life in the early church, as a believer. Barnett speaks of the noticeable contrast between proclamation and tradition. Jesus’ teachings clearly relate to the circumstances of people in Galilee and Judea in the 30s. They are unconcerned with the issues that the epistles address. The Jesus that we meet in the Gospels is not recast in order to settle the many apparent issues that developed in the life of the apostolic church; he is surely Jesus in his own historical setting, ‘then and there’. Picking up on a point made by C. F. D. Moule, Barnett suggests that this is perhaps most pronounced when we look at Luke’s two volumes. It is hard to ignore the difference between pre-Easter Jesus (in Luke) and the resurrected Lord (in Acts). Barnett, following Moule, argues that in his Gospel account Luke refused to inject Jesus with the high Christology of Acts, because the former is a historical work dealing with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Sketchy details surrounding the Upper Room Discourse
Our small groups have worked slowly through John’s Gospel this year and almost came to a standstill in John 14-16. The conversation is often terse, at other times convoluted, and is evenly enigmatic. Interestingly, D. A. Carson, in his invaluable work Jesus and his Friends, believes that the vague and ambiguous discourse is one of the strongest arguments for the authenticity of John. While Carson thinks the theological freight in these three chapters is direct and clear, he writes, “In referring to historical events placed ahead of the Discourse, they are amazingly sketchy. Someone who was out to manufacture a Farewell Discourse after the events would in all likelihood have succumbed to the temptation to be far more precise than Jesus in the days of his flesh often chose to be.”

Women witnessing to Jesus’ resurrection
In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright remarks that the presence of women as principle witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is arresting and strange. For women were simply not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world, whether we like it or not. They are, significantly, dropped from Paul’s account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, because they were “apologetically embarrassing.” Yet, in each of the Gospel accounts, they are front and centre; Wright goes as far as calling them “the first apostles.” This is quite a convincing argument for an extant oral tradition of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection before Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Wright finds these features compel any serious reader or historian to take the four Gospel accounts seriously, as early accounts and not later inventions.

The Single Story Behind Numerous Sources
Four EvangelistsIn a work I frequently find myself returning to, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd notes that even though the authors of the Synoptic Gospels drew on different traditions a single narrative thread can be traced through them. Dodd argues that this proves a story about Jesus from the earliest days of the church existed, when memories of his ministry were fresh. The Evangelists are committed to that story, with its strange details yet without embellishment, “The tone is one of sober, unemotional realism, allowing the events to make their own impression by their inherent weight.” Consider Luke’s stated purpose for writing, unless he set out to grossly mislead his readers and at the same time open himself up to serious criticism, he was offering an account of what had recently taken place. And despite his varied sources, one of which was undoubtedly the Gospel of Mark, the same credible story of a historical man called Jesus is told.

Biblical Historicity and African Folklore

One fairly appealing argument for the historicity of Old Testament narratives is that Jesus/Paul/Some-author viewed treated them as historical. By this, we mean that they make arguments from them. One example from the Old Testament is Exodus’ use of the creation account in the Ten Commandments: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy” (Ex 20:11).

Thandi, a young South African Zulu woman came to her mother with a complaint.
— “I don’t want to go to church today,” Thandi told her mother, “it’s boring …”
You must go Thandi,” her mother tenderly replied.
— “But why?”
Look at the moon, my daughter.
— “What?”
Long ago there was a woman like you who didn’t want to go to church. She thought that her time would be much better spent collecting wood which she did. She took her child on her back and went to the forest and began bundling up logs of wood. Later in the afternoon, when lunch was to be served her family realised that she had not done any preparation. They looked for her far and wide all day long. It was only in the evening that they found her though.
— “Where was she?”
She had been swallowed by the moon. Later in the evening, her family looked up …” At this, Thandi’s mother pointed to the moon and passed her hand over it’s strange shadows, “… and there in the moon, they saw her, a young woman with her child on her back and carrying a bundle of logs.

That’s why you should go to church, my girl.

Admittedly, there is a moon. What’s more, one could probably identify the silhouette of  a woman carrying a bundle of sticks and a child (in a “what do you see in the clouds?” kind of way). However, those hardened in Zulu culture believe the story to be true no more than skeptical Westerners. It’s simply rhetoric of Zulu culture: “look at the moon – that’s why you should go to church.” For some skeptical Westerners, “look at the rainbow, that’s how we know God is merciful,” is not that different.

My concern, and it is simply a concern, is that our claim for historicity on the basis of the way arguments worked in the first century AD (or before that) may miss the rhetorical style of author’s culture.  It’s simply food for thought and an attempt to sharpen our arguments by cutting the dead-wood. If you can think of other/better arguments, please let me know (comments are good) – a while ago I jotted down a few thoughts on the importance of historicity here.

P.S. Tempering these thoughts is the rhetorical value of historicity. Job, for example, seems a far more powerful argument to endure suffering as historical narrative than as parable. Could this just be my Western rhetorical style though?