James D.G. Dunn discusses the resurrection in a number of works that I will later discuss (namely, Jesus Remembered and Jesus and the Spirit). This first post will set out his position as presented in the shorter popular level book The Evidence for Jesus (1985).
What did the first Christians believe about the resurrection?
Dunn begins with a short(ish) discussion on the nature of history and that the historians task is to provide a reconstruction on the available data. This reconstruction will always risk being imperfect - it is an event in the past that cannot be repeated. The data/evidence is never enough.
Reports of the Empty Tomb
Dunn points to the gospel accounts of the empty tomb - Matt 28.1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 23.1-11, John 20:1-10. (57) There are inconsistencies with these accounts at different levels: Matt has two women discover the tomb/Mark has three/ John has one; was it discovered before dawn (Matt, John) or after dawn (Mark)? When was the stone rolled back? Did the women tell the other disciples of the discovery or not? Dunn contends that these inconsistencies are insufficient to dismiss the accounts, the litmus test being "is the degree of confusion more or less than we might expect where the participants were very emotionally involved?" (64) Secondly, are these differences any more significant than those we would usually find in the synoptic gospels? Furthermore, what do we make of Paul's silence on the empty tomb?
Dunn provides four key arguments in favour of the authenticity of the Gospel's testimony of the empty tomb.
- Discovery by women - all the gospels testify to the discovery of the empty tomb by women, in the historical context the testimony of women was not worth as much as a man's. It is unlikely that a contrived story would attribute the discovery of the empty tomb to women, especially if there was a high chance of their testimony being rejected. (65)
- "The confusion between the different accounts in the Gospels does not appear to have been contrived. The conflict of testimony is more a mark of the sincerity of those from whom the testimony was derived than a mark against their veracity." (65) The hallmark of a created witness would be a unified testimony. In Mark the empty tomb is ambiguous and does not lead directly to the realisation of resurrection. While the early creed of 1 Cor 15 has no empty tomb but has resurrection appearances, but Mark has an empty tomb and no resurrection appearances - both were independent in some sense and not contrived to apologise for or expand the other.
- Archaeology and burial practices. From the evidence we can say that resurrection beliefs had a lot to do with bones in tombs. "It follows that in Palestine the ideas of resurrection and of empty tomb would naturally go together for many people. But this also means that any assertion that Jesus had been raised would be unlikely to cut much ice unless his tomb was empty." (67) Without an empty tomb, the claim of resurrection would not stand and even the Jewish polemics at the time of Matthew witness this (Matt. 28:13-15)
- No tomb veneration - although this was current among Jewish contemporaries (e.g. Matt 23:29) This lack of veneration is explained quite easily: "The tomb was not venerated, it did not become a place of pilgrimage, because the tomb was empty!" (68)
The chief narrative data for the "sightings" are Matthew and Luke. Matthew contains two sightings in Matt. 28:8-10 and Matt 28:16-20. In addition to those there is the Emmaus appearance (Luke 24.13-35); an allusion to an appearance to Peter (Luke 24:34) and an explicit appearance to the disciples as a group (Luke 24:36-43.) In John there is Mary M at the tomb (John 20:11-18), an appearance to the disciples w/o Thomas (Jn 20:19-23), Thomas with the disciples (Jn 20:24-29) and a Galilee appearance (John 21:1-23). Finally, there are the sightings in the pre-Pauline creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8.
Like the empty tomb tradition, there is some confusion such as with the when/where of the appearances. Were there Galilean appearances or were they only in Jerusalem? Of the five traditions Dunn notes that "Each contain one or more reports of which the others make no mention. Indeed, almost the only common ground between two or more is that (1) the earliest appearances were to
women (Matthew and John), (2) one of the first appearances was to Peter (Luke 24.34; I Cor. 15.5), and (3) there was one or more appearances to 'the twelve' (all five, including Acts 1.2-3 and I Cor.
Dunn provides three positive considerations for the resurrection appearances.
- The earliest testimony is very early. Paul recorded the 1 Cor 15 creed in the 50s while those purporting to be witnesses would still be alive. By providing the appearances Paul is inviting cross examination. Furthermore, the creed is itself is what Paul had earlier received. Most likely within 2-3 years of the crucifixion/resurrection when Paul converted.
- First sightings reported by the women, as with point 1 for empty tomb. For these reasons it is most likely authentic, and the omission in 1 Cor 15 may reflect a bias in including them as witnesses in the "fairly formal list".
- As for note two under empty tomb - the divergence in the appearances does not reflect a uniform contrived story. The inclusion of unresolved doubt in Matt 28:17 whereas Luke and John resolve the doubt. In Matthew it is is not a literary technique but "it was introduced simply because it was part of the original eyewitness testimony." (70) The honesty of confusion and doubt in the appearances is in favour of authenticity.
- Up to the crucifixion, the disciples were demoralised - Peter disowned Jesus (Mark 15:66-72), the disciples on the road to Emmaus lamented (Luke 24:21) and the disciples returned to Galilee lacking purpose (John 21:2-3). This is in contrast to the disciples as presented in Acts as bold and charismatic individuals. According to the preaching, it is the resurrection of Jesus that was the source of this transformation. "From the Christian perspective 'the resurrection of Jesus' is a central part of that explanation." (60)
- "But already within the first generation of Christianity we see Jesus being spoken of in divine terms."(61) But why? "For Paul the Christian, confession of Jesus as Lord evidently
arose out of belief that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 10.9)." (62)
Dunn emphasises the innovation regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Firstly, although many Jews at the time held to a resurrection belief, this belief was a "final" and "general" resurrection at the "end of history" (72, cf. Daniel 12:12). However, the Christian's belief was that Jesus was resurrected before the end. Secondly, "the first Christians believed that with Jesus' resurrection the general resurrection had already begun." (73) Romans 1:4 has Jesus resurrection as "the resurrection of the dead" and 1 Cor 15:20-23 describes Jesus resurrection as the "first fruits" for all; it was "the beginning of the harvest." This understanding is incompatible with the visionary claims as it is from these sightings that the first Christians came to believe "that God had actually begun the resurrection of the dead is without any real precedent." (73)
This brings us to the meaning of resurrection and the NT writer's conception of a resurrected body.
- Luke - a very physical body (Luke 24:39)
- Paul - distinguishes between the "body of this life (='physical or natural body') and the resurrection body (= 'spiritual body') (I Cor. 15.42-46). And he concludes his discussion on the
point with the ringing declaration: 'I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God . . .' (I Cor. 15.50). What Luke affirms (Jesus' resurrection body was flesh and bones) Paul denies (the resurrection body is not composed of flesh and blood)!" (74) How do we reconclise this? In 1 Cor 15 Paul was addressing a Greek audience who were not fans of bodily resurrection. However, Paul continues to emphasise the bodily aspect but there is both continuity and discontinuity.
Dunn lists five conclusions to take away from his examination.
- It is impossible to deny that the origins of Christianity lie in some visionary experience of Jesus that lead to the belief that God raised Jesus.
- The empty tomb was a "contributory fact" to this belief "
- In the terms Paul has given us, Christian belief in resurrection is not properly speaking belief in a physical resurrection. Nor is it properly speaking belief in immortality (the true 'me' will never die). The Christian believes rather that death is followed by resurrection more in the sense of recreation." (75-6)
- (1) At the historical level it is hard to explain the resurrection belief w/o the empty tomb but (2) at the theological level it is not necessary. But as both these statements can be made independently, they both strengthen the historical and theological significance. Evidently, whether one emphasises one or the other should not mean they are breaching orthodoxy.
- The Christian interpretation of the data (empty tomb/appearances) that "God raised Jesus from the dead" is the best explanation of the alternatives.
Sorry if this needs to be proof read but it is 2.30am here and they are mostly for my own benefit. Next posts will probably be on the Markan burial tradition, Fitzmyer's discussion in To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies (The Biblical Resource Series) or an almost completed review of The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus