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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Resurrection and Scholarly Rhetoric: A Response to Wright

I was going to one day respond in non-blog print (mainly) to N. T. Wright’s comments on me in response to my comments on him. I’m not sure I have the will to write it up ‘properly’ (i.e. in article format) to be honest so instead, following the leads of e.g. April DeConick, Mark Goodacre and James Tabor, I will give a response here. And, after all, Wright posted his response on the web. Or again: it’s a popular topic. So collectively they seem good enough reasons, don’t they?

Just about all the references are to Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3 (2005) where I also reference Dale Allison’s introductory article. I know it is two years later but, in the words of Captain Jack, whatever.

Other bits will be found in the book I’m doing versus Bird.

So let’s begin…

While Allison has a lot of sympathy with the tradition of arguments based on visionary experiences and certain criticisms of Wright, he is critical of me on other points. He points out that legend can be parasitic on memory, pointing to legends surrounding the JFK assassination. Consequently legendary features do not discredit the resurrection stories entirely (127-128). Allison is of course right that miraculous/legendary/whatever stories can have a historical core and I would not argue otherwise. As I said, ‘These examples [of Jewish storytelling], which cannot be historically accurate, rewrite stories of figures in the past to justify a belief in the present. It follows that it is perfectly possible for the Gospel writers to do the same.’ My heavy emphasis on secondary storytelling in early Judaism was partly to counter Wright’s almost stubborn refusal to entertain the possibility that a story so laden with supernaturalism might just be an invention and as an alternative to some of the complex tradition histories in scholarly arguments against the empty tomb and resurrection stories (181). Against Wright, the fact that such stories would almost certainly be regarded as secondary in a non-Christian context should lead to a little suspicion in Christian document. That said, my argument is not so much to show that invention exists therefore the empty tomb story is necessarily secondary but more to build a plausible context upon which my more specific arguments could function.

Wright’s response is more evangelical apologetics and polemic than argument and this may explain why he frequently replaces arguments I made with ones he presumably thinks I made. And there are plenty of patronising remarks in the tradition of the posh Englishman who just knows he has an audience of sympathisers! Wright accuses me of ‘fine rhetoric but mere assertion…when the argument is weak we hear the repeated tell-tale word, “Surely”, which means more or less, “I very much want to assert this but I can’t at the moment tell you why”.’ (p. 220). Well, I didn’t recognise myself in that. I argued that there ought to be suspicious given that after Mark tells us that the women fled out of fear, Luke and John have Peter turning up at the empty tomb and the women immediately go and tell the disciples in Matthew. Then there is the inauguration of the gentile mission in Matt (cf. Matt 10:5-6!!!) and the replacement of Galilee with Jerusalem in Luke. And Thomas saying my Lord and my God (why would anyone have left that out if it was an early tradition????). This is nothing like Wright’s representation of me: he simply avoids the points and replaces it with sarcasm and no argument.

So no matter how hard Wright pleads, it remains a brute fact that I did explain the argument. Irrespective of whether I am right or wrong the argument for scepticism is not an assertion. Yes, the use of ‘surely’ was, obviously, for rhetorical reasons but that is academic as it does not follow from this that I did not argue. Besides, Wright appears to contradict himself by informing us that we do not need to be informed that the resurrection accounts should be approached with sceptical incredulity because countless readers have done so. So is it all built on argument or not? Or was that whole tradition built on no arguments? What’s more, if Wright can tell us that a meeting between a rabbi’s daughter and an emperor is no doubt fictitious yet cannot even bring himself to be so sceptical of a story which includes a lot of dead people rising from tombs (Matt. 27.51-53), a point which Wright, tellingly, did not answer when put it to him (I think Mark Goodacre initially put the point to him at BNTC a few years back and never got a proper answer), then I think Wright really does need to be reminded of just how incredible the resurrection accounts are.

Wright does try to counter: ‘Haggadic legends about figures in the distant past, written to justify a belief in the present, are in fact very significantly different to the resurrection narratives. The latter…concern a figure of very recent memory, not Moses or Abraham or someone else from long ago…’ (219-220). Well, that is an extremely misleading account. Have a look at what I did say (which includes unambiguous reference to figures of more recent memory) and I’ll put in bold the clear enough point I made which is ignored by Wright. And just to add, Wright quoted me from in the immediate context of my article! As I said:

While it is true that much of the rewriting of history concerns distant figures, this alone does not prove that creative storytelling could not be done in the case of more recent historical figures. In fact historically inaccurate storytelling was done for fairly recent historical figures. Stories of rabbis are one example. Another notable parallel is the rapid emergence of miraculous and legendary traditions surrounding pagan figures such as Alexander or Augustus, even within their own life times. It is regrettable that these points still need to be made. (181)

Moreover, there is a clear case of inventing history with reference to resurrection right there in the gospel tradition. In Matt. 27:51-53 we are told: ‘The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.’ If one story about people being resurrected and appearing to others can be invented within decades after Jesus’ death then why cannot more?

But significantly, and as mentioned, Wright is hesitant to accept that even Matt. 27:51-53 is secondary! I do not think it is going too far to suggest that his evangelical agenda interferes far too much when he claims, ‘Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out’ (RSG, 636). Leaving the question of precisely where this would leave us in terms of historical criticism, the basic argument against historicity is put well by Allison,

That an earthquake opened the tombs of some long-dead saints, who then awoke from their collective slumber, entered Jerusalem, and appeared to many – all of which is solely attested by a document coming from perhaps sixty years after the alleged events – does not clearly commend itself as solemn fact to the sober-minded historian…Mt. 27.51-53 is a religious yarn spawned by the same source that gave us…other transparent fictions – the human imagination. (217)

Yet there is another criticism which should further point to the weirdness of entertaining the idea that a lot of dead people rose from tombs and wandered around: where are they now? By Wright’s model of resurrection in early Judaism, would these people not still be walking around to this very day? I am inclined to let my sceptical nature get the better of me here and say that if it is correct that they would still be around according to Wright’s reconstruction of early Judaism, then I would be amazed if they were walking around today and that this also implies that Matthew or someone else invented a story involving resurrection just decades after the time of Jesus. I would also repeat the following argument to Wright: why is the story of a rabbi’s daughter no doubt fictitious but the same degree of suspicion is not applied to a story of a lot of dead people rising from tombs?

Wright also claims that ‘the resurrection stories are not of the same type as those which seek simply to “make heroes greater”. They were written to declare that something had happened’ (220). We can pass the second sentence because it is an irrelevant point as it is something I actually accepted in my article and it is not an either/or situation as Wright comes close implying. But the first sentence is a strange claim (‘type’?) and directly contradicts the primary sources. Why does Peter suddenly get the premier viewing? Why is else is Jesus called my Lord and God? Is there not a general theme of how wonderful Jesus is after being crucified??? And so on…

Wright also repeats the old conservative argument that ‘there were plenty of people around who could back them up, or indeed controvert them.’ (P. 219) But as I said this confuses modern notions of truth with ancient ones. It is hardly controversial to say that people made up stories in the ancient world and were not always as worried about historical accuracy like most modern historians. Then Wright says that Crossley does ‘somewhat shoot himself in the foot’ when he declares that stories of the Patriarchs etc. were invented with one eye on the present but, as we saw, this counter argument only works by ignoring the fact that I explicitly mentioned stories written by contemporaries/near contemporaries of some hero or event. But then Wright attacks my highlighting of the Esther tradition saying why I think this is relevant is ‘beyond me’: ‘traditions developing over three or four centuries can hardly be compared with traditions which, as I have argued, show remarkably little development over three or four decades.’ (219). Wright has once more missed the point. Among others, a key point of using the Esther traditions was to give a culturally very close parallel to how closely related traditions can change and do not require us to make arguments of historicity. This is reason why I felt this point should not have to be made but if a scholar is going to make such arguments as Wright’s then they have to be repeated and I make no apology for that. And as for remarkably little development, where do we begin (a dead man rising and eating with people, gentile mission, claims of divinity, name checking top figures and so on…)

Then we get to the discussion of visions which Wright, and skipping over his pointless polemic, Wright claims:

What he [Crossley] seems to mean…is that (a) when people have visions, the content of the vision is determined by the cultural context they are already in… (c) that these visions, and this context, were very different to the supposedly ‘Hellenistic’ visions which I have rejected as an explanatory grid. I am not sure how secure (a) is; there are many accounts of people from utterly non-Christian contexts experiencing visions of Jesus; and there may well be, for all I know, similarly cross-cultural phenomena in quite other traditions. This calls into question, too, the absolute disjunction postulated by (c).

This misses the point. People have visions and have had visions in different cultural contexts. That is undeniable of course. Also undeniable is that the content of each vision is different according to cultural context. Therefore, the early Christian context, with all its particularities, including the death of Jesus who had predicted his death, would have dictated the content of the vision. It is the content that is different from cultural context to cultural context. That is the point Wright misses. Whether there are people from utterly non-Christian contexts experiencing visions of Jesus we would need a much more detailed argument than Wright’s assertion (I am sceptical because it has been used as an evangelising tool, on me too – though I know of course that this does not disprove the case) and, crucially I think, we would need to see how they are interpreted as Jesus, by whom and in what context. If we take Wright’s argument, are we then saying that there is something miraculous about people seeing Jesus even though there have not been any cultural links, despite the disclaimer that it could be possible in other traditions? Finally, it seems to me that looking at the cultural assumptions of a vision is standard practice in critical studies or religion and cultural contexts. Consequently, this functions as a perfectly plausible explanation without having to resort to the supernatural.

Wright then fires at my use of the confusion between ghostly figure and bodily figure in Mark 6. This ‘was not an indication,’ Wright retorts, ‘that people in that culture could not easily, under normal conditions, tell the difference between the two, but rather that the conditions abnormal.’ (…and therefore supernatural is the better explanation????) Whether Mark 6 is an indication of people in general not being able to distinguish between ghosts and bodily figures I leave to one side but the fact that it occurs in a very early Christian document is one indication that there could be confusion in this context. Moreover, and I may well be letting my own scepticism get the better of me again, I would be prepared to suggest that people claiming to see, or claiming people have seen, the bodily raised Jesus, who eats and passes through walls (among other things) is an abnormal situation. But even so the very fact that the earliest Christians acknowledged the possible confusion between ghost and body means that we have the basis for a perfectly naturalistic interpretation of the resurrection appearances which does not have to resort to making judgments of divine intervention. If believers want to say that this was the result of divine intervention I really couldn’t care less but when it gets to the level of historical argument and the claim that it virtually has to be explained with reference to the supernatural, well that really does not necessarily follow.

Against Wright’s argument that the lack of scriptural embellishment in the resurrection narratives, I suggested that the absence could be explained with reference to scripturally ignorant gentiles and the resurrection being central to faith. Wright responds by saying, ‘Why should the evangelists, who have made such dramatic use of scripture throughout the rest of their narratives, suddenly refrain from doing so here? Were Gentiles supposed only to read the final chapter?’ (p. 221). On the first question, well that was precisely what my argument was designed to answer. As for the second question involving gentiles only reading the final chapter, why would I argue that (note: I did not)? As I pointed out, resurrection was a key aspect of faith in early Christianity and as not all gentile converts would have been scripturally aware then it is possible that this could be a reason why there is little scripture in the resurrection stories. It still remains that I provided evidence from the Aeropagus speech in Acts to scripturally ignorant gentiles which does not invoke the scriptures in contrast to when Jews are addressed in Acts. I freely admitted (as Wright acknowledged) and freely admit that this remains a speculative argument but it would certainly work as a historical argument and Wright have provided no serious counter argument. The main purpose of this kind of argument is to show that there is an alternative explanation and one which does not have to resort to something as dramatic as the implication of a bodily resurrection. What is really more speculative: people modified texts to suit the audience or modified texts points in some part to supernatural intervention in history??!!!

It speaks volumes that my doubting of the historicity of resurrection accounts can lead to these kinds of comments:

The key thing to note in all these four points, which Crossley never really begins to come to terms with, is that the normal account of the resurrection narratives within mainstream New Testament scholarship – namely, that after a brief and dubious statement by Mark the other evangelists created their stories out of whole cloth in the post 70 period – is simply incredible. These stories, for all they have been lightly edited by the evangelists, go back to the very early oral period, and were regarded as all too important, in this character of primary testimony, to be significantly altered. (221)

Lightly edited? Referencing scholarship is not really much of a counter argument (especially as the ‘mainstream of New Testament scholarship’ would reject many of Wright’s arguments – so where does that leave us?) but more alarming is the idea that these narratives have been lightly edited. Peter suddenly being there? Matthew and the gentiles and the mountain? An additional angelic man? The shift from Galilee (Mark) to Jerusalem (Luke)? The story of Thomas? I don’t know if the evangelists were responsible for all this or earlier tradition but that they did edit seems a plausible scenario to me and so the argument that many of these stories were largely created is not ‘simply incredible’, at least not by a standard use of ‘incredible’ in historical reconstruction (for what it is worth, the supernatural in historical research is widely regarded as simply incredible). Yet as it turns out I don’t know if the idea of the gospel writers more or less inventing the stories is accurate but then I have never made such claims and I do not rely on this scholarly tradition. It may well be the case that they go back to early oral or written traditions. But whatever way we look at it the stories remain wildly implausible for the reasons I have outlined here and elsewhere. We ultimately do not know if these were traditions from the early oral period of if they were invented close to the time of the evangelists.

Two incidental points: 1) I am not sure of how much relevance to me is the argument that the post-Markan stories were created in the post-70 period and, John’s gospel aside, I would be surprised if I did given that I date Matthew and Luke close to 70 CE. 2) The idea that a scholar can claim that the argument of the invention of ideas surrounding dead people rising from tombs, a man risen from the dead eating with his living disciples, etc. is ‘incredible’ while the argument that it all more or less happened is true brings us back to the ideological make up of the discipline. I just wonder if that kind of argument would ever see the light of day in another discipline.

Wright says my argument that women did have a more significant role and could therefore be acceptable in the resurrection accounts ‘simply will not do’. This apparently contradicts my point that I apparently made that the resurrection accounts were written for gentile outsiders (I actually think there were mixed audiences but we will let that pass) but these people were ‘as we know from Celsus’ were ‘quick to mock such an unlikely story “verified” by such an incredible set of witnesses’ (221). Firstly, the second century Celsus does not equal ‘the gentiles’ as the logic of Wright’s argument would have to go. And Celsus actually points to the oddity of the role of women so Christians could have seen some women as plausible witnesses. Moreover, it is perfectly clear that in some sections of earliest Christianity women did have a more prominent role than might be expected and that this gradually diminished. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the socio-economic upheaval which provided the context for the emergence of the Jesus movement was conducive to a temporary shift in gender relations. Furthermore, Jews could and did write stories of women like Esther and Judith who played much more prominent roles than some might expect. So once again we have a perfectly logical explanation to explain that someone somewhere in earliest Christianity could use women to do things of high importance in the narrative and which does not require resort to supernatural implications.

That alone ought to be good enough but, typically, Wright missed off a crucial part of my argument which pointed out that the women were not the only ones present in the earliest narrative account. I can only repeat my argument and add that the italics are original at a time when I assumed they would highlight the point: ‘this point cannot be stressed enough, the man dressed in white, presumably an angel, may have provided all the authority Mark’s audience required’ (184).

And finally note the typical polemic of Wright when he adds that he gets the impression that ‘it is Crossley who is driven by his ideology to say that, since bodily resurrection cannot have happened, something wrong with the argument that says it did, though to date he has not been able to figure out what it is.’ (219). He may be correct that my ‘ideology’ makes me think that the resurrection did not happen – at a push I would accept that I use conventional historical methodology – but if ever an argument could be turned against the arguer this would have to be it! Seriously though, I have given a series of arguments which show that we do not have to resort to the supernatural and Wright really should pay more attention to the details of that argument instead of excessive misrepresentation, ignoring arguments and ultimately resorting to cheap polemic.

NOTE: I find myself coming closer to the view that I am only really showing that there are countless other explanations which mean we do not necessarily have to resort to the supernatural. I wish that some people would just recognise that calling ‘naturalistic’ explanations of the resurrection stories ‘speculative’ etc. is not half as speculative as saying ‘well, it must be the supernatural then’. Theological types (I’m looking at YOU Jim West), does this make me more Barthian or Bultmannian?