Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
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Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

A New Transdisciplinary Approach

Andrew Loke

  1. 238 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

A New Transdisciplinary Approach

Andrew Loke

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About This Book

This book provides an original and comprehensive assessment of the hypotheses concerning the origin of resurrection Christology. It fills a gap in the literature by addressing these issues using a transdisciplinary approach involving historical-critical study of the New Testament, theology, analytic philosophy, psychology and comparative religion.

Using a novel analytic framework, this book demonstrates that a logically exhaustive list of hypotheses concerning the claims of Jesus' post-mortem appearances and the outcome of Jesus' body can be formulated. It addresses these hypotheses in detail, including sophisticated combinations of hallucination hypothesis with cognitive dissonance; memory distortion; and confirmation bias. Addressing writings from both within and outside of Christianity, it also demonstrates how a comparative religion approach might further illuminate the origins of Christianity.

This is a thorough study of arguably the key event in the formation of the Christian faith. As such, it will be of keen interest to theologians, New Testament scholars, philosophers, and scholars of religious studies.

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1 Introduction

1.1 Significance of the question

On Easter Day every year, millions of people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. But did this event really happen? The proclamation that it did stands at the foundation of traditional Christianity, and throughout the centuries there has been intense debate concerning its truth. The contemporary debate is hamstrung by difficulties concerning whether it is in principle possible to reason from empirical evidence to Jesus’ resurrection given its supposed miraculous nature, and whether all the naturalistic alternatives can be eliminated (Novakovic 2016; Shapiro 2016; Allison 2005a, 2005b). There is a lack of agreement concerning ‘what is the task of historical research and to what extent can someone’s faith convictions influence her evaluation of the available evidence’ (Novakovic 2016, p. 128).
Additionally, in spite of the vast amount of literature on the historical argument for Jesus’ resurrection—which has been the focus of at least 3,400 academic books and articles written since 1975 (Licona 2010, p. 19)—it has not yet been demonstrated in a single piece of work how all the naturalistic hypotheses can in principle be excluded. This problem is illustrated by the large monographs by Wright (2003), Swinburne (2003), Licona (2010), Bryan (2011), Levering (2019), and others. Although they make many good arguments, they do not consider a number of naturalistic hypotheses and various new combinations of them in recent literature, for example, swoon, remain buried, intramental, and mistaken identity hypotheses (Eisenberg 2016), and sophisticated combinations of hallucination hypothesis with cognitive dissonance, memory distortion, and confirmation bias (e.g. Philipse 2012; Carrier 2014; for discussion of these combinations, see Chapter 7 of this book). Now I am not claiming that demonstrating the exclusion of all possible naturalistic hypotheses is essential for the historical argument or for believing that Jesus resurrected—demonstrating that Jesus’ resurrection is as good as (or better than) the currently available alternative naturalistic hypotheses would suffice to show the rational permissibility (or reasonableness) of believing that Jesus resurrected. Nevertheless, where offering the historical argument is concerned it would be better if the argument can be made more rigorous.
This book offers a new contribution by addressing these and other issues using a transdisciplinary approach, that is, one which integrates different disciplines—in this case, historical-critical studies of the Bible, psychology, comparative religion, analytic philosophy, and theology—to create a new methodology that moves beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a problem. Utilizing an original analytical framework, I shall demonstrate that a logically exhaustive list of categories of hypotheses in relation to the claims of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances and the outcome of Jesus’ body can be formulated—indeed, this would be the first monograph on Jesus’ resurrection to demonstrate a comprehensive coverage of all the categories of hypotheses. I shall show how such a methodological procedure contributes to the contemporary debate involving historians, philosophers, and theologians concerning the recognition of miracles. I shall address all these hypotheses and their combinations in detail and offer a corrective to the problematic analyses that beset their supporting arguments in recent literature.
In addition to the tools and methods of analytic philosophy, this monograph uses the methods of historical-critical biblical studies, such as a consideration of the religious, social, and cultural background of the earliest Christians, their understanding of sacred texts, their religious experiences, their interactions with surrounding cultures, and the challenges that they faced. This monograph also incorporates insights from psychology and comparative religion. It advances the assessment of the relevant evidence by addressing recent psychological research concerning memory distortion and philosophical discussion concerning miracles. It incorporates the perspective of comparative religion by examining claims of resurrection in other contexts, including that involving cognitive dissonance in the case of the rabbi (‘Rebbe’) Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902–1994), some of whose followers claim his ‘resurrection’ in the context of religious ridicule and scepticism (Marcus 2001). By engaging with various disciplines, this book demonstrates how a transdisciplinary approach can be useful for bridging the divide between biblical, theological, and religious studies and contributing to the discussions in each discipline concerning the resurrection of Jesus.

1.2 Introducing various theories concerning the origination of the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection

I shall begin by providing a brief historical overview of various theories concerning the origination of the doctrine that Jesus resurrected. These theories will be discussed in greater detail in the rest of this book.
The claim that Jesus resurrected was controversial right from the first century. The New Testament hints at the difficulty the first-century readers had with such a claim by portraying people scoffing it (Acts 17:32). Regardless of whether the account in Matthew 28:11–15 is factual (see Chapter 6), it indicates that first-century Jews could think of alternative naturalistic theories, such as Jesus’ disciples stole his body. The debate with non-Christian Jews concerning whether the body was stolen continued into the second century (e.g. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 108; regardless of whether Trypho was a real historical figure, Justin’s work indicates that the objection he discussed was present during his time). The early Christians also had to respond to the claim (attributed to the early second-century Gnostic Basilides) that Jesus was not resurrected but escaped crucifixion by miraculous powers:
He appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them.
(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.24.4)
The pagan philosopher Celsus, a prominent second-century opponent of Christianity, raised a number of objections to the resurrection. For example, he claims that discrepancies are present in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection which render them historically unreliable and suggests that the supposed eyewitnesses had hallucinations of Jesus (Origen, Contra Celsum 2.60).
Christian scholars responded to these objections. With the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century the debate subsided, and the attention given to the historical argument for Jesus’ resurrection declined subsequently. Craig notes, ‘As the events connected with the origin of Christianity receded further and further into the past, arguments from miracles and the resurrection rested necessarily more and more upon faith in the accuracy of the biblical documents’ (Craig 1985a, p. 49). A challenge was nevertheless raised in the seventh century by the Muslims, who defended the hypothesis that Jesus escaped crucifixion as a result of divine intervention (see Quran, Surah 4:157–8; the so-called Gospel of Barnabas, which proposes a similar hypothesis [see Ragg and Ragg 1907, ch. 217], is widely regarded as a late forgery written after the Quran).
With the advancement of historiography during the Renaissance, the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus received renewed attention. Debate between sceptics and believers was revived and became heated during the so-called Deist Controversy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries after the removal of censorship laws in various parts of Europe. The most popular naturalistic hypothesis among the sceptics at that time was the theory that the disciples deliberately started a hoax by stealing Jesus’ body, and it was defended with new arguments by Deists such as Thomas Woolston and Hermann Reimarus, the latter’s writings widely regarded as the starting point of the so-called Quest for the Historical Jesus. Apologists such as Vernet responded with various arguments for the historical reliability of the Gospels. These include the argument that the Gospels contain many references to proper names, dates, cultural details, historical events, and opinions and customs of the time and evince an intimate knowledge of Jerusalem before its destruction, and the argument that many eyewitnesses would have been available at the time of writing to verify their contents (Craig 1985a, pp. 322–323). Philosophical arguments against the plausibility of miracles were raised by the French rationalists and (most famously) the Scottish sceptic David Hume (1711–1776), while evidentialist-type responses to Hume were offered by other scholars such as William Paley (1743–1805). A number of quasi-theological and cultural considerations contributed to the subsequent decline in popularity of such responses. These include Lessing’s (1777) famous ‘ugly great ditch’ between history and faith (his claim that the accidental [i.e. contingent] truths of history can never become the proof for the necessary truths of reason), the prevailing mood of Romanticism in the nineteenth century, and the emphasis on subjective religious experiences by influential scholars such as Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard. Lessing’s ‘ugly great ditch’ in particular has had a huge impact on subsequent thinkers. Among these, Ernst Troeltsch (1898/1991) argued that historical judgments are always probable and open to revision (the principle of criticism). Many theologians therefore concluded that the certainty of faith cannot be based on the results of historical study.
In the meantime sceptics continued to propose various naturalistic hypotheses. Interestingly, their proponents would often offer compelling arguments against other naturalistic hypotheses in the process of advancing their own. For example, the deliberate hoax hypothesis by Reimarus et al. was refuted by German rationalists Karl Bahrdt (1784) and Heinrich Paulus (1802), who defended the swoon (Scheintod) hypothesis (i.e. Jesus did not die on the cross). These hypotheses were in turn refuted by David Strauss (1808–1874). Strauss rejected the historicity of the Gospels’ account of the empty tomb and offered an alternative naturalistic explanation for Jesus’ ‘resurrection appearances,’ claiming that the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus was the Messiah and were deluded in thinking that he rose and appeared to them. Strauss’ naturalistic intramental hypothesis was vigorously criticized by Theodor Keim (1883), who argued that the appearances were visions but they were miraculously caused by God in the form of heavenly ‘telegrams’ (I shall call this the supernatural vision hypothesis).
Nevertheless, various forms of naturalistic intramental hypothesis continued to be proposed. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, it was held by Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, and others. Bultmann (1965, pp. 47–48), for example, thought that the ‘Jesus’ resurrection appearances’ refer to the experiences of the first Christians that were visionary and internal, i.e. the conversion of their hearts rather than their witnessing of a bodily resurrected Jesus. On the other hand, Keim’s supernatural vision hypothesis was defended by Hans Grass (1956), who rejected the empty tomb accounts but held that Jesus appeared in Galilee through visions. Meanwhile, neo-orthodox theologians who were strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, such as Karl Barth (1956, pp. 334–336, 351–352) and Emil Brunner (1952, pp. 366–372), affirmed that Jesus was resurrected miraculously, but regarded this conclusion to be held by faith without historical argument.
Against all the above, Wolfhart Pannenberg (1968) dropped a bombshell in German theological scholarship in the mid-twentieth century when he used historical and philosophical arguments to defend the empty tomb and the miraculous bodily resurrection of Jesus against the criticisms of Troeltsch et al. (see further the discussion on the problem of miracle in Chapter 8). In more recent years, similar arguments have been defended by many scholars (e.g. Craig 1989; Davis et al. 1998; Peters 2002; Habermas 2003; Swinburne 2003; Wright 2003; Licona 2010; Levering 2019).
These scholars would argue that, regardless of the ‘theological’ concerns of Lessing, Barth, and others and whether faith depends on proving the historicity of the resurrection appearances (Carnley 2019, p. 239), such arguments can in fact be offered to show that Jesus’ resurrection is the best explanation for the historical phen...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Dedication
  7. Contents
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. 1 Introduction
  10. 2 The earliest Christians claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus
  11. 3 The earliest Christians experienced something which they thought was the resurrected Jesus
  12. 4 The earliest Christians witnessed an extramental entity
  13. 5 The extramental entity was Jesus who died on the cross
  14. 6 What happened to Jesus’ physical body?
  15. 7 Combination hypotheses
  16. 8 Problem of miracles
  17. 9 Conclusion
  18. Bibliography
  19. Index
  20. Index for Ancient Sources
  21. Index for Scripture and Apocrypha