Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Geza Vermes, "Six Theories to Explain the Resurrection of Jesus"

For many years scholars waited for Geza Vermes' contribution to the resurrection of Jesus, and he came around in 2008 with The Resurrection. First of all, at only $6 it is recommended for those interested in the resurrection narratives, beliefs and the historical background (more so than a historical hypothesis on the resurrection).

Vermes contends that neither the empty tomb or resurrection appearances satisfy the "minimum requirements of a legal or scientific inquiry. The only alternative historians are left with in their effort to make some sense of the Resurrection is to fall back on speculation..."(141) This speculation requires the dismissal of "two extreme" theories - (1) the "blind faith of the fundamentalist"  who accept the bodily resurrection and (2) the "unbelievers" who "treat the whole Resurrection story as the figment of early Christian imagination." (141) So what are the alternatives between this spectrum? 

1. The Body was Removed by Someone Unconnected with Jesus
The emptiness of the tomb was genuine, but there are a number of reasons aside from Mark 16:6. The swift nature of the burial in a tomb "obviously prepared for someone else" is explained  that someone - possibly the gardener (Jn 20:15) - "took the first opportunity to move the body of Jesus to another available tomb." (142) It was this innocent transfer of the body that later developed into the "legend of the Resurrection." (143) Vermes notes that this is itself problematic - those who organised the  burial were well known and could have explained this.

2. The Body of Jesus was Stolen by His Disciples
Those familiar with the narrative in Matthew will recognise this hypothesis as a current polemic against the empty tomb tradition (Matt 28:15). Vermes points out that this theory "presupposes that a fraudulent prophecy concerning Jesus' rising from the dead was widely known among Palestinian Jews." (143) Evidently, this is a "later Jewish gossip" circulating the time the evangelist was writing and its value for the Resurrection is "next to nil".

3. The Empty Tomb was not the Tomb of Jesus
Drawing on the fact that the witness of women was not very convincing, the disciples who investigated the report of the empty tomb (Luke 24:11) may have suspected the women had "gone to the wrong tomb." The disciples may have simply been mistaken, and the resurrection appearances that soon followed "rendered such an inquiry [as to the location of the tomb] superfluous." (144)

4. Buried Alive, Jesus Later Left the Tomb
This is self-explanatory, and is elaborately forwarded by Barbara Thiering. Josephus' Life 420 evidences crucifixion victims surviving. The theory is that Jesus was on the cross for such a short time that he was not dead when Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body. John's mention of the spear in the side was an apologetic to dispel these sort of doubts. (John 19:34) However, I would argue that John's mention, if invention, would have more to do with suffering servant styled prophecy fulfilled. Vermes sees this as implausible - a "semiconscious Jesus crept out of the tomb in the darkness of night..." (145)

5. The Migrant Jesus
A belief evident in contemporary Ahmadiyya Islam which believes Jesus was revived and eventually died in Kashmir, India. Others such as Thiering believe that Jesus wandered off to Rome where he died. Vermes concludes "In the absence of real ancient evidence, these modern musings need not retain us."(146) By real evidence, he is of course referring to Thiering's discovery by using "Pesher" to find whatever she wants in whatever document. For a brief review of pesher see my earlier post.

6. Do the appearances suggest spiritual, not bodily, resurrection?
Visions of the risen Jesus are abundant in the Christian sources (with a notable exception being the shorter ending of Mark.) These visions are separated into 4 categories:
  1. "In Matthew no concrete details are given" 
  2. John/Luke - unknown man such as the gardener and travel are later recognised as Jesus
  3. Luke/John - "a spirit mysteriously enters the apostles' residence despite the locked doors"
  4. "The ghost later becomes a stranger with flesh and bones, who says he is Jesus and invited the apostles to touch him, and eat with him." (146)
As the evangelists do not mention appearances to people outside the circle of his close followers Vermes takes these to imply that the Resurrection was not meant to be an extension of public ministry. In essence, the "Resurrection becomes a purely spiritual concept without requiring any accompanying physical reality." (147) The idea of spiritual resurrection accounts for the visions, but the Jewish bond of body and spirit spurred the empty tomb and physicality of the body in John and Luke. In appealing to the mystic tradition, Vermes contends that this view is no different from crosscultural experiences. [I didn't explain this option best although in my defence neither does Vermes.]

Vermes really does come to something quite unsatisfying - "All in all, none of the six suggested theories stands up to stringent scrutiny." (148)


  1. Thanks for sharing this. One question came to mind: why would we assume that, if someone (Roman or Jewish authorities, for instance) removed the body, we would have records indicating this? I'm not sure that, even if some authorities took the time to proclaim that they had done this, the earliest Christians would have believed them and recorded it.

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  3. Why dismiss the so-called extremes? the Blind-Faith scenario may be untestable but the Imaginary-Figment deserves at least the status of Null Hypothesis.

  4. James, Vermes seems to have only allowed that the people responsible for moving the tomb afterwards would have been connected to Joseph of Arimathea. As those who were responsible were probably well known, they would have been the first to ask (especially as the men doubted the women's testimony?). If they followed this line of investigation the implications would be no empty tomb proclamation and no record of it. Then again, as with the third option the resurrection appearances may have lead to a dismissal of an explanation or even them bothering to follow it up.

  5. Vermes' dismissal seems to have knocked out a number of capable dialogue partners such as N.T. Wright (and to a lesser extent Dale Allison?). I suspect his dismissal from the overly sceptical side has to do with his reference to The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, ed. Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder where he may have had contact with the typical overstepping of the mark I usually expect from the contributors to that volume.