Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Hesitant but not Frustrated

Loren Rosson offers some thoughtful responses to my gripe about Allison’s proposal as to how to understand the origin of the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. My comments here are hesitant because I realise that Loren reads from the vantage point of having read Allison’s work, while I’m just guessing how and why Allison has come to the conclusions he has. Not having seen and grappled with the argument that Allison is proposing, this response seems almost pointless. I also realise that their are meta-issues here which are being side-lined which probably shouldn't. But in my quest to understand, let me push the boundaries of my understanding. As Wright states:
Simply to raise the question, let alone to address it, demands that we prepare ourselves for criticism on the level of method, before we get anywhere near content. Walking into the middle of this 360-degree barrage of cold epistemological water reminds me of playing golf in the evening and suddenly being bombarded, on the last green, by the automatic sprinkler system. Is there any chance to make the final putt? Or must we retreat, soaked and frustrated?
My first quibble is that what Loren presents in his first objection may almost succumb to similar dangers as that of parallelomania [Sandmel, “Parallelomania” JBL 81: 1962]. That is, the associative linking of similar words, phrases, patterns, thoughts, or themes, in order to claim the influence or dependence of one text or tradition on another. Many earlier studies on the resurrection used pagan sources to explain this phenomenon and were based on isolated and superficial similarities in very dissimilar texts. Now, using other apocalyptic groups throughout history to try and explain what is going on in a specific case within the worldview of 2nd Temple Judaism may prove useful in illuminating understanding, but I remain sceptical that it helps to actually explain what happened. Again, the question is not can we find groups that engaged in “secondary exegesis” or groups that coped with failed hopes. Of course we can. The question is rather, is early Christianity an example of such a group? No evidence thus far presented warrants this conclusion.
What is there to suggest “secondary exegesis”? Is there evidence of traces of prophetic tradition in the resurrection narratives? I was fortunate enough to read two chapters of RSG before it was published and Wright’s section on “issues” in the resurrection narrative was the first time I was alerted to what Wright calls a “surprise when we read the resurrection stories in the canonical gospels that they are told with virtually no embroidery from the biblical tradition.” Having written critiques of Crossan’s notion of “Prophecy Historicized” I was awkwardly surprised by this revelation in the resurrection narratives. If these narratives amount to nothing more than “secondary exegesis” then where are the traces of the Hebrew narrative? If early Christians believed that this happened, “according to the scriptures” then where are the scriptures that it happened according to? In other clear examples of such exegetical exploration, there are almost always traces of this influence, and yet it is here [and in four separate accounts?] curiously absent. Why?
Furthermore, as Wright goes on to extrapolate:
There is a third feature of the resurrection narratives which should surprise us, especially when we think back and reflect on the second-Temple Jewish expectation of resurrection. If, as the consensus view has tended to say, these stories developed as the church pondered scripture and expressed and re-expressed its faith, we should have expected the resurrection stories to reflect the kind of things that the favourite ‘resurrection’ passages in the Old Testament had been saying. But they do not.
While I would concur that the early disciples claim that Jesus had been resurrected may indeed sound "preposterous" that does not negate their claim. What I still want to know is why they made this preposterous claim? Whatever happened started an entire movement and I don’t understand how one or two or three disciples having a vision and seeing an empty tomb is enough to generate the kind of revolution in life, thought and praxis in most, if not all and more, of the disciples lives. That claim seems arguably more suspicious, than the one Wright makes.
If I may borrow from Howard Marshall then “it has not proved possible to offer a full reconstruction of the resurrection event…, although it has been possible to show the inadequacy of some of the possible ones offered to us. The pathfinder is no more than a pathfinder; he is on his way through the jungle, but has not yet emerged into the clear light of day at the other side; he has been able to write ‘cul-de-sac’ at the entrance to some other attractive paths, but he has not yet been able to construct his own highroad; but he believes that he can see the goal distantly in front and takes courage to press on towards it.” [See The Origins of NT Christology, pg. 128].
The bulk of Loren’s response is the claim that: “the disciples would not have seen Jesus' death as a failure. There's a difference between being demoralized and failing. Jesus' suffering and death would have squared with what he told them to expect in the tribulation period.”
This is incredibly hard to digest as the evidence is stacked so high against this position. Again, not seeing exactly how Allison mounts an exegetical/historical argument for this position puts me in a terrible place to offer a critique. But we work with what we’ve got.
Mark 14:50 is surely indicative of what actually happened: “All of them deserted him and fled.” Jesus had performed the kingdom, given them hope that he would restore them to their former position of greatness. But Jesus was apparently mistaken, as the Roman cross demonstrated. Without the actual resurrection of Jesus, I think Allison is right on the money: “Jesus the millenarian prophet, like all millenarian prophets, was wrong: reality has taken no notice of his imagination.” And the disciples, at his arrest, at his trial and surely at his crucifixion realised what the disciples of Judas the Galilean and every other messianic pretender who got crucified in the first century realised: we got it wrong. We backed the wrong horse. We trusted the wrong things. “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The implication and position is fully understandable: whether they liked it or not all their hopes for liberation, shalom, the Kingdom et. al. were now utterly worthless – Rome had demonstrated the bankruptcy of their hope by destroying their hope.
The movement should have dissipated like every other failed messianic movement. Or they should have elected James as Jesus’ successor but James never rose to so great a position as his esteemed brother. While I concur Wright’s rhetoric gets the better of him at times, Allison’s caution may be his Achilles heel.
These stories too, of course, provide evidence not directly for what happened but for what several different people thought had happened. (I do not wish to retreat from the critical realist position; I am simply concerned to be abso­lutely sure, here of all places, that I do not appear to smuggle into my historical argument anything more than it will bear.) The stories are, at this moment in our enquiry, answers to the question: why did early Christianity begin, and why did it take this shape? The answer is: because the early Christians believed that something had happened to Jesus after his death, something to which the stories in the four canonical gospels are as close as we are likely to get. I propose, in short, that the four canonical resurrection accounts, granted the presence in all of them of editorial features, almost certainly go back to oral traditions which provide the answer to the question of the origin and shaping of Christianity. The question which this then poses is, of course, the crucial one: what caused the earliest Christians to believe that something like this happened, and to tell this sort of story?
Because it actually happened?


Loren Rosson III said...


I appreciate the ongoing dialogue. Thanks. But with regards to the "parallelomania" you complain about, it's really just the way people behave everywhere. Why do you wish to insulate first-century Judaism from the phenomenon?

Sean du Toit said...

Greetings Loren.

I think this is a case of iron sharpening iron, and so I'm grateful for the interaction.

As to your question a] I'm not convinced it does happen everywhere, and if it did, would that automatically prove that it happened in this case? b] I don't wish to insulate Judaism from the phenomena, just question if it rightly applies to 1C Judaism and the first disciples more specifically.

The claim 'happens everywhere, so it happened here' just seems to hard for me to swallow. And given the other objections to 2nd exegesis, it seems even more unlikely that this is the case.

Thanks much for the reply, much appreciate the time and effort.

ciao, sean D.

Michael F. Bird said...


I have a PDF copy of Longenecker's ZNW article if you would like to read it! Just email me and I'll reply. :)

Mike Bird