Comments: More on the Holy Week lectures

"if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine I could not be a Christian in the way that I now am. I could not celebrate the Sacraments: I could not understand the life of the Holy Spirit as I do: I might still want to be associated with some of the insights and values of the Christian tradition but you would no longer have me as Archbishop of Canterbury (I rather hope you wouldn't have anyone as Archbishop of Canterbury!) because I actually don't think that the Church would be credible in its central historical shape."

Many theologians have a fall-back position to deal with the case in which the empty tomb story should turn out to be historical. The empty tomb like the virgin birth are "fitting" -- but their very fittingness is what makes one suspect them of being theologoumena.

"'could I believe in a faith whose foundations could easily be shown to have been fabricated?' well, I have to say that that is a risk that every Christian takes: the risk of believing that a difference truly has been made to the world: a risk which depends upon the fragility of these historical affirmations. History alone doesn't give you a knock-down argument for faith, but I couldn't do without it because of the very nature of that faith, that at some point God worked, specifically in this way, in human history, and that was the beginning of something different."

That God was at work in Christ is verified by the entire NT experience. But that does not verify the specific details of NT narrative, which in the case of the resurrection stories in particular bear the mark of theological and apologetical composition.

" Christianity has shown itself reasonably robust in seeing-off what some people have thought to be easy and obvious attempts to shake its historical credibility, but that there remains an element of risk I think is undeniable."

True, but need we heighten the risk by claiming that given historical details are non-negotiables? Many are ready to regard the miracle of Cana or the raising of Lazarus as parables or midrashim -- but they change their tune when it comes to the virgin birth and the empty tomb. But can we set a fence around the latter without forsaking the principles of historical inquiry that we embrace in regard to the former?

Posted by Spirit of Vatican II at Wednesday, 9 April 2008 at 8:45am BST

Spirit of Vatican II, as regards the empty tomb - "And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."
1 Corinthians 15:14

The ABC is right, how could you be a Christian if you didn't believe in the empty tomb? You'd have to throw out the rest of the New Testament as well, unless you want to interpret it against the intentions of those who wrote it.

That is probably why he says that he might want to be "associated with some of the insights and values of the Christian tradition", but as for the Church itself, it would have no warrant for existing.

Posted by James Crocker at Wednesday, 9 April 2008 at 11:02am BST

It seems to me that the Archbishop is a Doubting Thomas different only by time and space.

I have written about the first two question and answer sessions:

But separated these from the far more interesting and surprising answers to the third section, where he accuses more progressive believers of being inconsistent whereas, I think, he is being inconsistent:

He wants history, indeed wouldn't perform without it, but has not got the foundation to deliver it: in the end an argument that is not historically based at all.

By the way he is completely wrong about Islam. It is not a progressive revelation on a Bahai type explanation: for a Muslim, Islam started with Adam. Muhammad is not some completion, but the one whose reciting was preserved whereas The Book, recited to other prophets, was corrupted each time. Nonsense it may be, but we ought to say what is the given Muslim view - that there has been one revelation.

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 9 April 2008 at 1:02pm BST

"The ABC is right, how could you be a Christian if you didn't believe in the empty tomb?"

I couldn't be, but that has nothing to do with the reliabillity of the Bible, and certainly wouldn't require jettisonning the rest of the NT. Why do you think that it would? For at least forty years, people converted to Christianity without any written texts at all, after all. The Bible's truth does not depend on the literal truth of one passage, but the meaning of Christianity depends on the empty tomb. It has nothing to do with the reliability of the Biblical narrative, and everything to do with what the Resurrection MEANS. Jesus didn't rise from the dead to prove the Bible is historically accurate.

Posted by Ford Elms at Wednesday, 9 April 2008 at 2:04pm BST

James Crocker asks, "The ABC is right, how could you be a Christian if you didn't believe in the empty tomb?"

It happens I have no problem with the empty tomb, but I could imagine not believing in it but still believing that God did something on Easter morning. Some people speak as if the only choices were empty tomb or metaphor, but that's not fair. Why wouldn't it be possible to believe that God really acted -- really raised Jesus to life, whatever that means to God, in a body that could walk through locked doors -- that something really happened, but that it didn't involve removing the body?

Now you might say that that's not consistent with Paul's belief about the resurrection of the body, but I wonder if a modern understanding of the physics of the body (that is, the fact that my body today shares very little actual physical material with my body a decade ago, and the fact that all the physical material in my body has already been used by lots of other bodies) wouldn't already require some rethinking on Paul's part. The question of just what Jesus' post-resurrection body was is pretty vague in the Gospels, at least.

What I'm suggesting is the possibility that the post resurrection appearances were not just visions or stories meant to highlight what a good guy Jesus was, but actual experiences of Jesus alive -- Jesus *is* Lord, as the earliest creeds had it. And that the earliest disciples, having really experienced Jesus, just assumed that the tomb must therefore have been empty (or maybe, as Crossan says, there never was a tomb in the first place -- so the disciples assumed whatever happened to the body must have involved it no longer being around).

Again, my point is not that I believe this; just that it's not the same as saying, "no resurrection."

Posted by Mark at Wednesday, 9 April 2008 at 2:20pm BST

Mark commented "Some people speak as if the only choices were empty tomb or metaphor, but that's not fair."

I agree.

What is also not fair is that some people speak as if you accept the empty tomb then there is no room for metaphor, imagery, heurumentics, ethics, paradoxes, revelation, prophecy, dialogue. That is also not fair.

Jesus' life, death and resurrection was never the end of the story, the bible did not become a closed book, nor did the lessons of the OT no longer apply to the "new" priests. Jesus after the resurrection “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" (Luke 24:25)

God does not die. God was before humanity, will be here after humanity and is with humanity. The bible is the living word of God and we can go to the bible to find solutions and strategies for all our lives' dilemmas. Including trying to work out how to keep this biosphere alive and how to heal conflicts, famines or plagues.

A saying I like "Peace comes when you heal rather than judge".

God's peace is not just with your friends and those like you, it is also with your "enemies" and those that are not like you.

Posted by Cheryl Va. at Wednesday, 9 April 2008 at 9:05pm BST

I'm interested in what Ford Elms has put. Whilst I agree with the thrust of what he has put, there is the difficulty that statements like his leave people in some confusion. In what sense does the meaning of Christianity depend on the empty tomb - in a narrative sense (sort of importance of the body) that is independent of the history, or that it actually happened.

For the Archbishop, for all his narrative approach, he wants it to have happened. He cannot prove it happened, but if by some miracle of historiography someone was to demonstrate that it did not, then he would resign as Archbishop and stop celebrating the Eucharist. Presumably he could do Morning and Evening Prayer. Well he might become a Unitarian, though he might not bother to turn up very often. For him, I assume the clues have to be that the bones disappeared into transformation. I'm suggesting (ha ha, but he accuses people like me of inconsistency) that the clues go precisely the other way. Of course I could be wrong, there could have been one big zap and bang and all sorts, or quiet as a mouse, but the bones did an utterly unique vanishing act in order that a transformed body could move through doors etc. and act theologically in the fashion approved by the proto-orthodox early Church.

I don't believe that. I see the valuing of the body, the whole person, the objection to spiritualism. However, I like to be clear. In my speculative view, it didn't happen.

How do you value it: history and narrative or narrative?

Posted by Pluralist at Thursday, 10 April 2008 at 1:45am BST

That it actually happened, and will for all if us. Otherwise, what's the point? The Gospel is aboput God's restoration of Creation to the state it existed in prior to the Fall. This means death, one of the results of the Fall, must also be done away with. I do not accept the "Harpurian" idea of the "birth of the inner Christ" or some such, which is just rehashed Gnositicism. If the Resurrection is only metaphorical or alegorical in some sense, then can anything be said to actually be redeemed? If all we are talking about here is instructional legend meant to somehow inform how we live, then such ideas are far better developed in Buddhism, and I shall go there. In the words of an efriend, somewhat paraphrased, "Unless and until it can be demonstrated that Jesus was a mere man who did not rise from the dead, I refuse to sell my Incarnational birth right for a pot of message."

Posted by Ford Elms at Thursday, 10 April 2008 at 8:43pm BST

That "it actually happened" -- sure. But many of the representations of how it happened including many of those in the NT are clearly not literal.

"And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."
1 Corinthians 15:14.

Again, what is Paul actually saying here. Christ is raised, exalted to God's right hand etc. What is sown a physical body is raised a spiritual body. We are in the realm of the numinous.

The empty tomb -- even if its factuality is accepted -- is only a sign of this, not an explanation. Even had one photographic evidence of the disappearance of Christ's dead body that would still be only a sign of what cannot be grasped in adequate literal denotation.

Christ lives, Chirst will come again; death is not the final defeat of God's creative purposes; there is a New Creation. We are reduced to such "vague" and "misty" language and no amount of pounding the table about graves and bones can change that very much.

The story of the empty tomb could easily be a retrojection from the conviction that Christ lives. If Christ is raised from the dead, since in the conventional understanding of the time resurrection entails bodies emerging from graves, then Christ's grave must have been empty. So the story is a theologoumenon in all likelihood.

Posted by Spirit of Vatican II at Friday, 11 April 2008 at 8:18am BST
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