Sunday, May 29, 2011

Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Review)

Craig, William Lane. The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2000. ISBN: 1-57910-464-9. 156 pp.

In this short book William Lane Craig tackles the question of the resurrection of Jesus as a historical problem.  Craig is currently Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, having received doctorates in philosophy and theology. In addition to his academic work, Craig is a prominent Christian apologist having engaged in many debates from the existence of God to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Craig makes no secret of his evangelistic aims – the preface notes the intended audience as “those who may believe in some kind of God or Supreme Being, but doubt whether He has revealed Himself to us in any decisive way.” (7) To Craig, God has been revealed in history through the resurrection of Jesus. Craig writes that there are two ways in which the Christian can affirm the resurrection of Jesus. The first is the historical evidence and arguments; however, the failure of the historical evidence does not mean the resurrection did not happen. The second ‘evidence’ is the “assurance that Jesus is risen because God’s Spirit bears unmistakable witness…that it is so.”(8) While I was initially critical of the inclusion of this argument from the historical perspective, Craig’s purpose is not just the “historical evidence” but the confession that it is the “son” that rises. 

Chapter 1: Death and Resurrection is relatively brief. Craig tackles post-enlightenment thinking on the place of humans in the universe. Are we really just an insignificant product of natural selection? What are our options in this world? What is the meaning of life without resurrection? Craig proposes four which I will leap frog to the fourth as I did not pay close attention to the non-historical arguments. The final position is that an affirmation that there is God and immortality which gives life significance and value.  This idea of immortality is a segue into the crux of the chapter from a historical perspective, that is, the concept of “resurrection from the dead.” (20) Again we find a list of four but in terms of what resurrection is not. The biblical view of Resurrection is not : “immortality of the soul alone” but a state where “body and soul [are] in unity.” (20);  reincarnation but that “a man lives only one lifetime and then is raised from the dead and judged by God.”(21); resuscitation where an individual returns to earthly life to die again, but resurrection is to “eternal life, and a person raised from the dead is immortal.” (21); and finally resurrection is not translation – a Jewish view  of immediate assumption into heaven. Resurrection is the “raising up of the dead man in the space-time universe, and the resurrected man is still part of the created world.” (21) For the Christian, the resurrection is an end times event where God will “raise up all those who have died and so reconstitute them as whole men of body and soul in union.” (21). Craig presents the backdrop of resurrection as a physical concept of both body and soul. This understanding is important for an orthodox defence of the resurrection, and is one that accurately represents the resurrection belief in the time of Jesus and, as Craig and I would argue, the earliest Christians. 

Chapter 2: Some Blind Alleys deals with the alternative theories to historical resurrection that may be popular among skeptical treatments but are “unanimously rejected by contemporary scholarship.” (23) Craig deals with the “conspiracy theory” that the disciples stole the body (cf. Matt 28:13-15) as logically and ethically implausible. He goes on to cite 18th century scholar William Paley to provide an unsatisfying positive case – with some good and some bad arguments – for the reliability of the gospel accounts.  He briefly deals with the “apparent death” and “wrong tomb” theories which do not have much going for them in contemporary debate. Finally, he comes to the “legend theory”, that which is widely known in New Testament studies. The purpose of the following three chapters are to argue the positive evidence for the resurrection accounts as history in favour of the legendary theory. 

Chapter 3: The Empty Tomb is where Craig finally gets to the historical arguments. There are three lines of evidence for the resurrection: “the empty tomb of Jesus, the appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and the origin of the Christian faith. If it can be shown that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, that He did appear to His disciples and others after His death, and that the origin of the Christian faith cannot be explained adequately apart from His historical resurrection, then if there is no plausible natural explanation for these facts, one is amply justified in concluding that Jesus really did rise from the dead.” (45) 

In establishing the empty tomb, Craig begins with the burial of Jesus: “If it can be shown that the story of Jesus’ burial in the tomb is basically reliable, then the fact that the tomb was later found empty is also close at hand.” (46) He discusses the burial in 1 Cor 15, Acts 13:28-31 and Mark 15:37-16:8 while demonstrating a common Christian tradition on Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and appearances. Craig contends that the burial account is very early and shows no signs of legend, widely attested and the witness of the women to it is “historically probable.” (59) Craig’s sober use of historical criteria on the NT sources has him conclude that “If one denies this [the burial], then one is reduced to denying the historicity of one of the most straightforward and unadorned narratives about Jesus…”(63) On an aside, for an excellent short study on the burial of Jesus within his historical context I highly recommend Craig A. Evans’ essay in Jesus, the Final Days (ed. Troy A. Miller). However, this sound method comes to a temporary halt when Craig controversially defends the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. (63-7) I do not have the relevant knowledge to delve into the issue, but my understanding is against the authenticity of the Shroud.

Having firmly established the likelihood of Jesus’ burial Craig presents 9 arguments in favour of the discovery of the empty tomb. He begins with the early pre-Pauline creed of 1 Cor 15 stating that “When Paul then says “He was raised,” he  necessarily implies that the tomb was left empty.” (67) This is the best way to understand the linguistic choice, especially in the context of  physical resurrection expectations.  The gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb are pre-Markan and it is early and historically likely due to – Aramaic expressions, lack of legendary development, the discovery by the women, etc. He notes that both Luke 24:11-12, 24 and John 20:2-10 contain independent witness to the “investigation of the empty tomb by Peter and John”  (78), with special attention being given to the Gospel of John as having access to the eyewitness testimony of the beloved disciple who Craig identifies as John the son of Zebedee. (81) Craig defends the historicity that some of the disciples investigated the tomb (78), and that the Matthean apologetic  Matt 28:11-15 evidences that polemics against Christians acknowledge that the tomb was in fact empty. If it was not, we would expect Christian’s to partake in tomb veneration. Craig believes that these (and other) points “constitute a powerful case for the fact that Jesus’ tomb was actually found empty on Sunday morning by a small group of His women followers” and that objections to this are not on historical grounds, but theological/philosophical ones.(85-6)

Chapter 4: The Appearances of Jesus is the next piece in the puzzle for the historical argument in Craig’s positive argument for the resurrection of Jesus.  He follows the “testimony of Paul” in 1 Cor 15 in order to demonstrate that the disciples had appearances of Jesus. He notes the appearances to Peter and the twelve which are also attested to in the gospels. He discusses the appearance to the 500 – Craig speculates it does not appear in the gospels as it took place in Galilee, and there appears to be no reason to make up such a large number if it simply did not happen. Significance is found in the evidence related to James and Paul who were both transformed by their experience to join the Jesus movement. Following these more scanty appearances he turns his attention to the gospel accounts contending that they are “fundamentally reliable historically.” (100) His first contention in this regard is that there was insufficient time for legends to develop, citing Muller’s critique of Strauss and more recently A.N. Sherwin-White. By arguing an early date for the Gospels as well as authoritative control by the apostles and presence of eyewitnesses within the Christian communities Craig tries to squeeze out any plausible opportunity for legendary developments.

Craig defends the view that the appearances were physical appearances, beginning with Paul.  While many in favour of Jesus’ physical resurrection will separate Paul’s experience as visionary, Craig contends that unlike Stephen’s vision of Jesus (Acts 7:54-58), Paul’s was an appearances manifested by light and sounds. But this aside, Craig’s view of resurrection was one that was physical in nature balancing the whole 1 Cor 15 future body debate. Similarly, “the gospels prove that the appearances were bodily and physical.” (110)

Chapter 5: The Origin of the Christian Faith draws on the explanatory power of the resurrection in light of the fact that “even the most sceptical scholars admit that at least the belief that Jesus rose from the dead lay at the very heart of the earliest Christian faith.” (127) The resurrection of Jesus explains how the disciples came to see him as Messiah (and re-imagine the role) and Lord (e.g. Acts 2) Craig believes that the onus is on those denying the resurrection to provide a satisfactory origin for the Christian faith from Jewish precedents. The argument is that the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection is a mutation of the expectations held by the Jews (such as Jesus’ resurrection being separate from end times resurrection of the Jewish people). While it has been argued elsewhere that it was the empty tomb that lead to the belief that Jesus was resurrected, Craig believes that this would have simply lead the disciples to believe Jesus was translated such as with Enoch and Elijah.(132)

Craig concludes the chapter summarising his conclusion from the three sets of historical evidence. He writes, “Each of these three great facts – the empty tomb, the appearances, the origin of the Christian faith  - is independently established. Together they point with unwavering conviction to the same unavoidable and marvellous conclusion: Jesus actually rose from the dead.” (134)

Chapter 6: Finding the Resurrection Faith acts as an epilogue for those who have been convinced by the historical evidence. Citing 1 Corinthians 15 Craig notes that a Christian faith without the resurrection would have been “simply false” (135) and the proclamation that Jesus was Lord, Messiah and Son of God would have been “stupid” for he would have been simply another Jewish prophet meeting an unfortunate end. The resurrection is a necessary truth to the Christian message and Christian life where (1) God acted in time resurrecting Jesus from the dead, (2) confirmed Jesus’ claims about his unique relationship with the Father and divine authority and (3) shows “Jesus holds the key to eternal life”(141ff). The last 11 pages are essentially an alter call bringing the work back to the evangelistic aims noted earlier on.

Apologies for the Apologist: This book was first published in 1981 and according to my constructed chronology of Craig’s life this was relatively early in his doctoral study on the resurrection. It was not for another 8 years that his 400+ page Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. (Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press. 1989.) was published. I suggest that this may explain a number of the drawbacks in this book regarding Craig’s critical engagement with the gospel tradition. For example, in my opinion Craig failed to adequately defend his assumption on the reliability of the gospel tradition, or at the very least the historical reliability of the resurrection narratives he was working on. 

That said, the work is adequate and is representative of what I would view as a standard historical apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus. Those with an interest in the resurrection will find it easy to understand and follow, while those with a background in critical Gospel studies will find themselves disappointed at times.More thorough treatments for those with a lot more time on their hand include N.T. Wright's  The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3) and Michael R. Licona's recent The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach 

Note: This review was mostly written in July last year so I have not been able to remember any errors in need of proof.

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