Saturday, March 31, 2007

More on the Jesus Tomb -- again

This morning I ran across the fairly new blog of Bruce Fisk, New Testament Professor at nearby Westmont College. Westmont is Evangelical and can be at times conservative, but it is also known for good scholarship. Bruce is one such scholar.
In a series of posts, Bruce deals with James Tabor's claims concerning the recently revealed discovery of a tomb with an ossuary with Jesus' name on it (and the TV show based on it). The most recent post is a guest contribution by Westmont's long time NT person, Robert Gundry, author of a significant commentary on Matthew.
If you are interested in this subject, Bruce's blog seems to be a good place to go. Gundry's piece helps clarify the early Christian understanding of resurrection and notes that the idea that physical resurrection is a later addition doesn't fit the evidence. Consider Gundry's challenge:

According to 1 Corinthians 15:1–7 Paul “received” information about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and appearances as resurrected to Cephas (Peter) and others, including James. On the basis of Galatians 1:10–23 Professor Tabor interprets this reception as a direct revelation from heaven rather than as the passing on of tradition by one or more earlier followers of Jesus.
But in Galatians Paul is talking about the gospel he preached before going to Jerusalem and conversing with Cephas three years after that direct revelation, whereas in 1 Corinthians he’s talking about the sort of information he’d get from one or more earlier believers. So contrary to Tabor’s earlier cited identification of Paul as “our earliest witness to the resurrection,” our
earliest witnesses to it are the ones or one (probably Cephas) who passed this information on to Paul. Or, rather, our earliest witnesses are those who claimed to have seen Jesus as resurrected before Paul did, as admitted by Paul in his phrases, “And last of all . . . also to me” (1 Cor 15:8). Therefore we have to investigate not only Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, whether it was physical or nonphysical, but also what was the understanding of it by the earlier witnesses and traditioner(s). “Cephas,” the Aramaic form of “Peter,” and the two instances of “according to the Scriptures” in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 favor that the tradition stemmed from Jesus’ original followers, Jews still closely tied to their ancestral faith, Judaism. Now Tabor correctly writes, “In Judaism to claim that someone has been ‘raised from the dead’ is not the same as to
claim that one has died and exists as a spirit or soul in the heavenly world. What the gospels [here we might substitute the witnesses and traditioners behind 1 Cor 15:3–7] claim about Jesus is that the tomb [in which he ‘was buried,’ according to the pre-Pauline tradition] was empty, and that his dead body was revived to life [‘raised,’ according to that same tradition]—wounds and all. He was not a phantom or a ghost . . .” (The Jesus Dynasty, 232). So it looks as though those witnesses and traditioners, given their Judaistic upbringing, would have understood Jesus’ resurrection as physical just as Paul did and just as we should expect in that by definition “resurrection” means the “standing up” of a formerly a supine corpse.

We’re left with this question: If Jesus’ bones were known to be lying in an ossuary near Jerusalem, how is it that the earliest literary tradition in 1 Corinthian 15:1–7, the even earlier oral tradition stemming from Jesus’ original disciples, and Paul’s properly exegeted understanding—how is it that all of them presented Jesus’ resurrection as physical? This question seems to me hard to answer.

I think that this is a good question to deal with. Physical resurrection appears to be an impossibility from a scientific perspective. I grant that, but . . . Well that requires much thought and discussion.


DaNutz said...

I think it is a good bet to assume Paul means a physical resurrection. It seems like the idea of spritual resurrection was more of a gnostic view and probably re-incorporated back into the mainstream much later into a post-enlightenment theology.

What I wonder is why anyone would look to Paul to understand how a resurrection might work. Did he have some advanced degree in biology that I didn't know about? Did he write a paper about quantum physics that might also be of some value to us today?

I look to Paul to understand how living out the message of Jesus worked (and sometimes failed) in the 1st century. I look to Paul to tell me how Paul incorporated Jesus' vision into his own life and the lives of those people he met. I don't give Paul much credit for understanding the universe or for making sense of what happens when we die. I wouldn't ask him for help debugging a C++ program either.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


The key to all of this talk about resurrection is to try to figure out what Jews of that age understood by resurrection. That would likely be something that entailed physicality. That the gospels all do make much of an empty tomb would, in my mind underscore that. If a spiritual/non-physical resurrection was the common understanding they would likely not have made those claims.

If, as I think a scholarly majority assumes, that gnosticism is a later (Greek influenced) development, it's no surprise that an emphasis on physicality emerged, something Paul likely had less reason to deal with.

What is interesting is that into the 2nd century as the debate with gnosticism becomes intense, there is a move toward emphasizing in the Eucharist that this is the body and blood of Jesus.

And, now I wouldn't turn to Paul to debug a C++ program (I don't think, but then I don't know what one is!)