Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Resurrection...Sort Of

Book Review: The Resurrection: History and Myth by Geza Vermes (Doubleday, 2008)

Geza Vermes is a foremost authority on first century Judaism and was for many years Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford. He has devoted several other books to the subject of Jesus in the context of Judaism including Jesus the Jew and The Religion of Jesus the Jew. In this brief book he devotes his attention to the resurrection of Jesus.
The first section of this book is devoted to a consideration of Jewish views of the afterlife from biblical to post-biblical Judaism. For most of the period of biblical Judaism (the Judaism reflected in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible), the common destiny of all people was Sheol, a gloomy, shadowy world of semi-conscious existence which was devoid of the presence of God. For this reason, most Jews before the sixth century BC had as their aspiration a long life, many children and material blessings because at death all this ended and one went to the oblivion of Sheol where both the just and the unjust were consigned. In the morose words of Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, "All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again."
Vermes notes that this began to change in post-exilic Judaism (the period following 539 BC). This is made clear in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Increasingly, the notion emerges of a life beyond death which involved vindication for the righteous and condemnation for the unrighteous. Daniel 12, for example, envisions a general resurrection at the end of time with the righteous inheriting eternal life and the unrighteous inheriting "everlasting contempt". This, of course, is the general picture put forth by early Christian writings. Two distinct forms of life after death emerge during this period. On one hand, the book of 2 Maccabees anticipates bodily resurrection (in which Jewish martyrs who died by torture under Greek rule will have their bodies restored) while the Wisdom of Solomon anticipates a spiritual form of eternal life.
What about Jewish attitudes toward the afterlife during the time of Jesus (early first century)? Vermes notes that Philo of Alexandria ( a hellenized Jewish biblical interpreter) understood death to be the moment that the soul was finally liberated from the body. Thus, for some Jews there was an afterlife but it did not involve resurrection of the body. Even among some Palestinian Jews the notion of bodily resurrection was rejected. For Vermes this is certainly true of the Sadducees (the priestly aristocracy which controlled the Temple) and probably true of the Essenes (the Jewish sect which probably produced the Dead Sea Scrolls). Of course, the former group discounted the afterlife while the latter did not. While the Pharisees (the sect from which Paul came) did hold to a notion of bodily resurrection, it appears that their influence in Palestine was fairly limited: "How widely and deeply did the concept of resurrection affect first-century AD Jewish society? The long and the short of the answer is that the notion of bodily resurrection propagated by the Pharisees was alien to first-century Hellenistic Jews and was on the whole unfamiliar in most layers of Palestinian Jewry."
Vermes moves on from here to examine the New Testament writings and here is where, in my judgment, he gets off track. Vermes is a historian and reads the New Testament for historical evidence which is perfectly fine. Unfortunately, like most purely historical readings of the New Testament, Vermes' tends to be wooden and largely unsympathetic to theology. Vermes concludes that the afterlife was not a great concern in the preaching of Jesus. This could very well be true since the focus of Jesus was on the kingdom of God which he understood to be breaking into human history with his ministry. However, Vermes moves from this to the conclusion that if an interest in bodily resurrection surfaced in early Christianity (which it did), then the notion must have been invented by the early Christian and by one early Christian in particular: Paul. But could the focus on resurrection not have come from another source such as Jesus' own resurrection? And here we come to one of the problems of Vermes' method: it essentially assumes that the resurrection of the body can not occur. In effect, Vermes assumes a huge gap between Jesus and Paul: Since Jesus did not focus on bodily resurrection and since we know that bodily resurrection does not occur, if the notion appears in Paul's letters it can only have done so because Paul essentially invented it. This leads Vermes into the land of unoriginal conclusions and he essential repeats the conclusions of David Friedrich Strauss from the nineteenth century: "...whereas the idea of the Resurrection lay at the periphery of the preaching of Jesus...Paul turned it into the centerpiece of his mystical and theological vision, which was soon to become quasi-identical with the essence of the Christian message." How did Paul accomplish this? Vermes never says.
Vermes' wooden reading of the New Testament becomes manifest in at least two ways. First, he can say without any sense of irony "The Resurrection does not appear to have had a major doctrinal impact on the Gospels." He seems to have missed the fact that without the Resurrection there would be no Gospels. Vermes assumes that because the Gospels do not expound the doctrine of bodily resurrection it can only be of peripheral significance to them. And, of course, because Paul does expound the doctrine (especially in 1 Corinthians 15) he must have invented it. Second, Vermes insists on Jesus' post-resurrection appearances being "visions" (read: subjective experiences not qualifying as historical evidence). There is nothing int the texts to indicate that Jesus' appearances to the disciples were visions and everything to indicate that they were not. One has the sense that these appearances must have been visions for Vermes because he operates with the assumption that bodily resurrection does not occur.
Where does all this leave Vermes? Essentially it leaves him back in the land of unoriginal conclusions. There was not actual resurrection of Jesus, instead "under the influence of the Spirit their self-confidence revived, prompting them to resume their apostolic mission, and they felt increasingly sure that they were not acting alone, but that Jesus was with them." Pentecost essentially replaces the Resurrection. Vermes comes to essentially the same conclusion reached by Rudolf Bultmann's existentialist theology which replaced an actual resurrected Jesus with the personal faith experience of the disciples. Vermes' purely historical method finally collapses into psycho-babble. If all the disciples meant by resurrection was that they believed Jesus was still with them, they certainly had a language to express this--they would not have spoken about resurrection. Vermes' argument ends at a seemingly pre-determined conclusion: " Whether or not they adhere to a formal creed, a good many men and women of the twenty-first century may be moved and inspired by the mesmerizing presence of the teaching and example of the real Jesus alive in their mind." In the end the results of "historical scholarship" are determined by what people who have no "formal creed" are willing to believe. The problem, of course, is that the "real Jesus" does not live inside the minds of people; he lives in the world outside the minds of people, the world which was created through him.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerning the sparseness of afterlife discussion in the Gospel, Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary says the following about Luke 23:43 (when Jesus says to the one theif, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (NASB)).

"It is a single instance in Scripture; it should teach us to despair of none, and that none should despair of themselves; but lest it should be abused, it is contrasted with the awful state of the other thief, who died hardened in unbelief, though a crucified Saviour was so near him. Be sure that in general men die as they live."

I think Vermes should see Jesus' Gospel deliberately aimed at teaching us to *trust* in (learning) His ways in this life, rather than grasp at some (faith trivializing) pay-off reward as in Pascal's Wager. Jesus does not offer a bartering transaction in the Gospel, but a means for transformation--and one occurring part and parcel within the bodies He created for each of us.

As for the continuous unity of an individual's integrated body, mind, heart and soul in the eternity to come; it makes good sense. One's faith emerges from their physical being at the core. And some are even stronger because of bodily weaknesses (e.g., recovering: war vet's, car crash victims, addicts, from any number of medical disadvantages). For all the suffering some have overcome--who are we to discount what may even be trophies in heaven--insignia for lives successfully lived in constant battle against some level of immediate evil to their person. Notice, in addressing Vermes, they never gave up on trusting in the Lord, or else they would not, in the end, even *be* in the category of the Resurrected.

May 9, 2009 at 9:17 AM  

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