Monday, April 11, 2011

The Shocking Truth about Jesus' Death and Resurrection (They Are Historical Events)

Book Review: Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened by Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright (Westminster/John Knox, 2009)
"Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. But historical argument is remarkably good a clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity." N.T. Wright

"The Shocking Truth About..."
This book is composed of three essays by New Testaments scholars Craig Evans and N.T. Wright which deal with the historicity of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. Taken as a whole, the essays aim to show the essential reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion, death and resurrection

Recent years have seen a flood of skeptical/revisionist books about Jesus which are of the "shocking truth about Jesus" genre: Jesus did not really teach that...Jesus did not really say...The early church surely invented... Books of this genre have indeed been written by biblical scholars (Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, etc.) but it is often forgotten that biblical scholarship does not speak with one voice and it always takes place in a context. There is no such thing as biblical scholarship without presupposition and the presupposition of this genre of biblical scholarship is that Jesus is a very interesting figure but that the faith of which he is the center must be replaced either by "enlightened thought" or a vague "spirituality". "Shocking truth about Jesus" books sell not so much because they original works of incisive scholarship but because they conform to a cultural mood, a mood which assumes that "the church" must have gotten Jesus all wrong.

The Reality of Jesus' Death
The first essay in this book makes the case for Jesus' death being a historical event. The actual death of

Jesus by crucifixion is taken to be a historical event not only by New Testament writers but also by the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus both of whom mention it. The main argument for the historicity of Jesus' death is that both the fact and the manner of his death constituted an enormous embarrassment since messiahs were not supposed to die much less to die in the most degrading way possible--crucifixion. The New Testament is very clear about the fact that not only are Jesus' followers surprised by his death but also they are surprised by his resurrection. At every point in the four gospels mention of Jesus' death is met with resistance or incomprehension.

As the first essay by Craig Evans makes clear, there were ample historical reasons for the Jewish leaders and the Roman authority to cooperate in putting Jesus to death. The events of Palm Sunday (cf. Mark 11:1-10) clearly echo the enthronement of Solomon as king of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 1:32-40) and show Jesus to be a messianic figure: the citation of Zechariah 9:9 makes this plain. Furthermore, Jesus' actions in the Temple (cf. Mark 11:15-19) challenged the very existence of the Temple itself. Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah (but in a way that dramatically differed from available expectations) and has having an authority to pronounce judgment on the Temple. Scenarios which present Jesus as merely the teacher of a humble spirituality or as a mere political revolutionary simply ignore inconvenient evidence: "In the end, the Jewish authorities sought to kill Jesus not because he was a good man but because Jesus was perceived as a very serious political threat. His message of God's rule threatened the status quo...Jesus entered Jerusalem as the anointed son of David, he assumed authority int he temple precincts as though possessed of messianic authority..."

Evans also makes a case for the historical reliability of Jesus' trial before Pilate. He argues that both Pilate's behavior and the offer of a pardon fit with our historical knowledge. Pilate's first concern would have been to avoid a riot at the Passover as the population of Jerusalem swelled with pilgrims. As the Roman procurator of Judea he needed to work with the priestly aristocracy to keep order but he would not have wanted to execute Jesus without first being certain that such a move had popular support. Roman officials did offer pardons at important feasts as a way of gaining popular favor. Pilate's offer of a pardon is both a way of honoring the Jewish Passover and a way of making sure that the execution of Jesus will have popular support. In response to the view that the gospels present a falsified picture of Pilate, Evans responds that when "we remember the political and social setting of Jewish Palestine in the time of Pilate,we should not be surprised that Pilate was reluctant to execute in such a public and provocative manner a popular prophet from Galilee, whose many followers were present in Jerusalem." Evans concludes that what the gospels tell us about Jesus arrest and trial coheres with historical reality: "Everything we are told about Jesus' arrest, trial(s), and mockery is consistent with what we know of Roman practice in the first century and consistent with the political and social establishment of Judea in the time of Jesus." The Roman killing machine was unleashed on Jesus and this seems to render nonsensical claims that somehow Jesus survived his crucifixion and later presented himself to his disciples as "resurrected".

Was Jesus Really Buried?
John Dominic Crossan and others have made the argument that Jesus' body was never actually buried and that it was simply left to be eaten by dogs. This is part of Crossan's argument that the accounts of Jesus' burial and resurrection are wholly fictional. Here Crossan is on very shaky ground. While it is true that the Romans did sometimes leave the bodies of crucified people to be consumed by animals, it is highly unlikely that they followed this practice in Jerusalem because Jews had strong sensibilities about the burial of the dead and because Jerusalem was regarded a holy; the leaving out of corpses would constitute pollution of holy ground. Crossan's theory holds that the bodies of crucifed Jews were left unburied but this theory runs into trouble in light of the fact that the Sanhedrin did arrange for the burial of executed Jews and the fact that in 1968 the skeleton of a crucified young Jewish man was discovered placed in a family tomb (the young man was crucified most likely during the administration of Pilate). As Evans concludes, "The literary, historical, and archaeological evidence points in one direction: the body of Jesus was placed in a tomb, according to Jewish custom. Furthermore, there is no good reason to think that family and friends of Jesus has no idea where Jesus was buried or hand no plans eventually to recover his skeletal remains and transfer them to his family bomb or to another place of honor."

In short, the portrayal of Jesus' trial, execution and burial is thoroughly believable and are consistent with what we know about the period from history and archeology.

Was Jesus Really Raised From the Dead?
The third and final essay in this book is by N.T. Wright on the resurrection. Wright argues that the resurrection of Jesus can be treated as a fundamentally historical event for several reasons. The most important of these reasons is that the Gospels offer an understanding of resurrection which departs significantly from Jewish views. Central to Jewish expectations was the belief that resurrection would happen to all at the consummation of history. The Gospels present a very different picture: in Jesus resurrection has happened in one person in the middle of history. Resurrection was in Judaism an essentially eschatological concept. If the disciples had simply experienced fond memories of Jesus after his death or if they simply wished to express the fact that he was still real to them, they would not have spoken of resurrection. All of this means that in speaking of the resurrection of Jesus the Gospels are not simply writing Jesus' name into an already existent narrative, a narrative which Jews simply were waiting to be fulfilled. The question is: What would have made the disciples depart so radically from standard Jewish expectations? This is an especially pressing question since such a departure would have made their claims about Jesus only more unbelievable not more credible.
Wright also notes that both before and after Jesus there were figures who became the center of a messianic movement. In each case, however, the execution of the figure resulted either in the movement evaporating or in the movement locating another messianic figure. Why did neither of these things happen in the case of Jesus' movement?

Wright's conclusion here, argued more at length in his substantial book The Resurrection of the Son of God, is this: One can propose historical answers to these two questions but "there is nothing that comes remotely near explaining these phenomena, except for the following proposal: Jesus of Nazareth really was raised from the dead on the third day, leaving an empty tomb behind him".

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