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Close up, silhouetting the cross at Llanddwyn Isle (Angelsey, Wales).

The Resurrection Series: The Gospel Review

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By Corbin Croy

We looked at the Gospels when we considered the historicity of the Empty Tomb and the women witnesses. I do not plan on an in-depth approach to what we already concluded about them. I do want to note, however, why the Gospels have serious flaws in them when considering their material for historicity, especially when it comes to the resurrection.

One good thing, for those “historical resurrection affirmers” is that the Gospels are most likely ancient biographies. One thing you will hear quite often from apologists and evangelical Bible scholars is that the Gospels are reliable because they are ancient biographies, which was a historical literary genre of the time. Does this mean that the Gospels are historical? Yes. Does it mean that they are history? No. Unfortunately, the Gospels are still not history, and while we can construct historical events from the pages of the Gospels we are unable to consider them as being as reliable as we would want them to be.

Spend some time comparing birth, death, and resurrection narratives and it will be become plain how inconsistent these narratives are with one another, and while the argument of collusion does support the claim that each author operated independently of one another, it lends no strength to the claim that what they were writing is actually historical. The problem with ancient biography is that it was still common to use anecdotal embellishment to make a dramatic point about the person they were writing about. One such example, for our modern mind, would be to the historicity of the claim that George Washington cut down a cherry tree. We all know that the story is mostly anecdotal, yet we gravitate to it as some historical gesture of how George Washington behaved.

Now there is one deep flaw that must be corrected at the earliest juncture and that is the misconception of how ancient biographies and competing narratives functioned. There is this rather dubious assumption that the Gospel writers were free to embellish and “tweak” their stories to their desired ends, but the general core or similarities are proven historical because they exist inside an ancient biography. So, when we examine, for instance, the many various ways in which the Gospel writers change the story, we can still note that in all cases Jesus still comes out of the Empty Tomb. Thus, the hasty conclusion is that the Empty Tomb is historical. This is a complete bastardization of historical criticism.

Since, we recognize that ancient biographies contain anecdotal references we cannot leap to the conclusion that because an event is described the event itself is historical while the peripheral details are only anecdotal. The event itself could be anecdotal along with the peripheral details. Just because the event is shared in all Gospels with a common core does not grant any strength to the historicity of the claim itself, given that we doubt it. Consider the cherry tree of George Washington. That event is anecdotal in itself. It most likely never happened. But, the event tells us something about George Washington, something historical even. He was an honest man, even when he did wrong, he was honest about it.

Given this, we would have no problem recognizing what is being said of Jesus’ Empty Tomb narratives in the Gospels, if we take them as anecdotal stories which reflect the power of God that early believers saw in the life of Jesus. It would not be a betrayal in the slightest for the author or his audience of his time to write such a narrative in an anecdotal fashion. So the genre of ancient biography, unfortunately, does not lend any strength to the claim that Jesus physically rose from the dead.

Also, there is the liturgical function for which the Gospels would have been originally written. It has been theorized by some Bible scholars that the Gospels follow a set liturgical pattern which most of the stories are contrived to follow. In Matthew there are five separate divisions which follow the five Jewish festivals. In Mark the Passion story follows a twenty four hour vigil pattern, and in Luke a similar pattern has been recognized by John Shelby Spong, in his book “Liberating the Gospels.” This liturgical theory provides incredible insight into why the Gospels were written and why the authors felt the need to contrive the Empty Tomb narrative to complete the liturgical cycle.

Passover was symbolized in baptism through John the Baptist. Basically the same meaning existed for Jews as it did for Christians, except, for the Jew passing through the water was symbolic of the angel of death passing over the houses with the lamb’s blood on it, and it was symbolic of the passing through the Red Sea. So, when Christians began to be baptized they had to construct a new narrative to follow. The resurrection of Jesus became the prime example for all Christians to follow. He passed through death and rose to new life. And he was killed on Passover. So all that was needed for the first Gospel writer was to craft a convincing narrative which could bring his readers back to a baptismal theology and that is exactly what Mark does.

Baptism is the liturgical instrument that Mark uses to craft and express his Jesus reality. Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and ends with the Jewish Passover which was the Judaic underpinning of Baptism. This Passover is set against a liturgical time structure of eight three-hour segments to be observed during a vigil, and it ends with a man in a white robe standing inside an empty tomb. Who is this man? In later Gospels this man is called an angel and among most Bible readers it is simply assumed that the man in a white robe is an angel-like figure, but this would only have persuasive merit if the angel narratives came first. Mark was the first writer of this tradition and the man in a white robe most closely resembles a man who serves a liturgical function to baptize other believers. He was a pastor. The author of Mark inserts a literary figure who is entirely contrived to convince his audience of the need to be baptized. The correlation is clear. Jesus rose from the dead and we will rise from the deadness of our sin when we get baptized. Mark has no great commission, because the Empty Tomb narrative is his stylized version of a call to be baptized.

There is more here than just the liturgical component used to craft the Gospels. There is a thematic component as well. The writers inserted stories and narratives which served a thematic role to depict Jesus as either resolving or repeating sacred history from what the Jews of the time knew. Walking on water, feeding 5,000 people, the Sermon on the Mount can all be seen as allusions to a presupposed belief that Jesus was the New Moses. Just as raising children’s lives, controlling the weather, and confronting religious hypocrisy can all be seen as allusions to a presupposed belief that Jesus was the New Elijah. And there is more in the Suffering Servant passage, he eschatological prophet motif, and the Davidic heritage. These would have all been thematic and stylistic influences upon the composition of the Gospel material at the time of writing and can all be identified within the structure. The use of these tools is not deceptive or fraudulent, rather it can be argued that such craftsmanship demonstrates the authors’ passion and commitment to communicate the dynamics of the Jesus reality.

So, for instance, when we read about the Empty Tomb we can look to Daniel in the Lion’s Den, or to Joseph in the Well and see interconnected themes that may have influenced the writers at the time. We do see a Joseph figure at the time of Jesus’ burial, and Daniel does make use of angelic figures in his book as well, which does get incorporated into the Empty Tomb narrative at a later date.

So, there are three good reasons to not consider the Gospels as good sources of historical information. First, ancient biographies were free to employ anecdotal material. Second, there was a liturgical motive in the composition. Third, they are laden with thematic and stylistic influences. None of this is bad, nor does it mean that the resurrection never happened, for we can see in the Epistles what resurrection belief was like for the early Christians and it seems from there we find no reason to think that these thematic or liturgical motifs would conflict with the standing position that an experience with God is sufficient for saying that Jesus rose from the dead.

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  • James Downard

    The limits of historical accounts become inevitably stretched whenever they are called upon to support supernatural events (those extraordinary events that require extraordinary evidence). Short of a TARDIS to permit direct observation, Jesus’ resurrection will remain a matter of faith rather than undoubtable historical event. But from my skeptical perspective the failure of the expected Parousia is an indicator that weighs on the doubt side of the Resurrection equation, a point I noted at various points in the “Cuz the Bible Tells Me So” section of the TIP (Troubles in Paradise) work, eg pp 797, 715, 769n113, 777n137, 778n140-141, 779n143, 780n150 in pdf at http://www.tortucan.com.

  • Christian

    Are you even saved? Your comments are outside orthodoxy. Scripture is God breathed. If you call yourself a Christian, what authority are you basing it on? Because it certainly is not based on God’s Word.

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