More than a Parable? (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly returns today with reflections on the Resurrection.  This essay follows up on a statement made earlier that unlike many Progressives he affirms a physical resurrection.  As one who also affirms the same, I asked Bruce to flesh this out.  In invite your thoughts and questions.  I appreciate as well Bruce's willingness to share his insights with this audience.



Bruce G. Epperly

Last week, I spoke about miracles without supernaturalism, asserting that there is a deeper naturalism that opens the door to transformative acts of divine power, grounded in the divine- human “call and response,” that can change bodies, minds, spirits, relationships, and the planet. I asserted that if “we live, move, and have our being” in God’s dynamic presence, there is no reason to see divine activity as supernaturally breaking into our world. God is already here, acting in each cell and thought. Bathed in God’s presence, the world is more wonderful than we can imagine. Indeed, I believe the naturalistic theism that I suggest is more hopeful and transformative than the popular Christian picture of God acting supernaturally from the outside, sometimes healing and sometimes not. In the dynamic synergy of divine action and creaturely response, acts of power may occur, revealing deeper possibilities within the realm of cause and effect than we had previously imagined.

When I suggested that even Jesus’ resurrection could be seen as a deeper reflection of the interplay of God’s action and human openness, understood perhaps in terms of an energetic body, lively enough to be liberated from typical physical constraints, I took a rare stand among progressives, asserting that the resurrection may actually have occurred in space and time, and might even, in the words of Borg and Crossan, have been videotaped or captured on a cell phone photograph!

Now, I am appreciative of the insightful work of Borg and Crossan and find their text,The Last Week, a spiritual and theological gem. Yet, I wonder if there indifference to factuality of the resurrection narratives testifies to an Enlightenment and Modern, rather than Quantum and Post-modern understanding of reality. While I do not the mechanics of Jesus’ resurrection, I believe that in an energetic, multi-dimensional universe, it is entirely possible that Jesus, to quote Borg and Crossan, “really did appear to his followers after his death in a form that could be seen, heard, and touched.” (The Last Week, 191) Although Borg and Crossan agree with Paul’s recognition that without the affirmation that Christ has been raised, our faith as followers of the Way is in vain, they “do not think that it intrinsically points to the historical factuality of an empty tomb” or the resurrection appearance stories. (191) Borg and Crossan believe that the Easter stories are parables, meaningful truths, that assert that Jesus lives and that his mission has been vindicated personally and politically.

I agree with Borg and Crossan that meaning is at the heart of the Easter stories, and while we cannot prove the factuality of the resurrection from proof texts or eyewitness accounts, I affirm the likelihood that Easter is more than a visionary experience, though it surely falls into the realm of the mystic, paranormal, and miraculous (as understood naturalistically). If visionary experiences occurred in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, I contend they may have reflected God’s movements in the life of Jesus and in the lives of those who had visionary experiences! (Visionary experiences can reflect divine guidance and initiative.)

Something happened that radically transformed the lives of Jesus’ first followers – something that was more than a parable, but was embodied meaning. While I see scripture as inspired rather than infallible, I believe that the resurrection and post-resurrection testimonies of the gospels, odd and diverse as they are, point to an encounter with the Holy that gave new life to Jesus’ frightened and hopeless followers. Could Jesus really have breathed on his followers? Could they have felt a gentle wind or a healing touch? Could his life energy have materialized in a way that enabled Mary of Magdala, the disciples at the seashore, and Paul on the way to Damascus to “see and touch” the Risen One?

Now, I recognize that I have said too little for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals and too much for Enlightenment-influenced progressives. But, I hope I have something that will nurture faith that Christ is alive and can still move through our lives today. Our visionary experiences today are not merely personal in nature, but may emerge from God’s touch in our senses and psyche.

The tradition of mystical theology asserts that every discussion of divine action must take into account the interweaving of the kataphatic and apophatic understandings of reality. The kataphatic, “with appearances,” proclaims that the world is sacramental and that, in the spirit of Borg and Crossan, “Emmaus always happens.” (201) Kataphatic theology truly sees Jesus on the road and at table. Apophatic, “without appearances,” proclaims that the Risen One is always more than we can imagine and can never be pinned down in space and time. Apophatic theology finds its inspiration in Jesus’ words to Mary of Magdala in the Garden, “don’t hold onto me.” Jesus is not localized, not tied down by embodiment, but is everywhere.

Borg’s and Crossan’s recognition that the resurrection appearance stories are “the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus’ followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death” (198) points to the “fact” that something happened, more than just a “parable,” in the lives of the disciples. The testimony from John’s gospel that “Jesus did many signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30) points to the recognition that Jesus is always more than we can imagine and that we may, in fact, live in a world in which lively, energetic, transformative, and meaningful resurrections are possible, and that in ways that we can’t fully encompass Jesus “met” his first followers and meets us today.

Could it be that many progressives are simply too “conservative,” too caught up in the limitations of the modern world view? Perhaps, we need to open the doors of our imaginations so that we might experience nature, in Blake’s language, as “infinite,” holding within the causal relatedness of life unexpected possibilities, resurrection events, and healing power.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary; pastor at Disciples United Community Church, Lancaster, PA; theologian and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (


Danny Bradfield said…
Very interesting article. For some years now I've been interested in what some quantum physicists say about the miracles; things like, when you examine things at a subatomic level, there is no reason why a person who can walk on dirt shouldn't be able to walk on water, etc. and it all makes me wonder about some of the miracles in scripture, including the resurrection. I'm not an expert on either quantum physics or scholarly aspects of scripture, but this article is definitely food for thought.
John said…
Surely something happened.

Whether it was it physical or distinctively metaphysical, we cannot say from our vantage point in history. Each of the New Testament writers went to great lengths to confirm that it was a physical event - touching wounds, sharing a meal, etc. Many contemporary Christians want to dismiss the event as too fantastic and unrealistic to be genuine - but something happened, and the writers wanted us to know it was physical for them. The writers knew about visions and dreams, so it wasn't that they were at all confused about the factuality of the event - (their confusion about the metaphysical significance of the event notwithstanding).

What matter should it make to us whether it happened in the physical or metaphysical plane? Should we pay attention to the effort to prove the physicality of the event? Though I don't have a clear understanding as to why.

It occurred to me last week that the physicality of the resurrection may have been given to us as a sign - aren't all miracles are given as signs, and not as answers to prayers? - a sign that in our resurrection into eternity we would retain a certain integrity of person, and that we would not simply be merged into some cosmic consciousness wherein we would lose any sense of selfhood.

I am exploring the possibility that by the miracle of Jesus' physical resurrection, God was trying to signal to us that we would share in this resurrection, and during this process, while our glorified bodies may not be things which cold be touched, they will surround us and render us eternally individuated from God and from each other. And, in their glorified and sanctified state, they can join freely and completely into the glorified body of Christ, with knowledge and self-awareness.

Just a thought. I don't deny that I could just be projecting my Americanized spiritual agenda into the interpretation of scripture - who knows for certain?

Whatever the value of my personal explorations, I think it unfortunate that today so many well meaning people seek to discount the miraculousness of Jesus life, death and resurrection by accepting without question the operating assumption that Jesus' followers were too witless and gullible to discern fact from fiction and physical from spiritual. They were not stupid - they trusted their senses even perhaps more than we do. And for the most part they despised superstition and the superstitious.

Mike L. said…
I can appreciate Bruce's thoughts. I sort of agree, but from my perspective it sounds like Bruce is a bit guilty of what he accuses in the article. I think he may be "caught up in the limitations of the modern world view" himself. By that I mean that I hear him using language that hints at modern foundationalism.

For example, Bruce used terms like, "more than a parable". That implies a modern person's diminished view of a parable. It implies that something physical is "more". On the contrary, a postmodern view would get past that modern hangup with myths, stories, art, parabolic truth. A postmodern would probably recognize that a parable is much "more" than a historical event. A postmodern perspective would assume that the way an event is retold, embellished, or even created from thin air, is way more life changing than simply stating a fact about a historical event.

Anytime we start assuming the value of the story rests on the question "did it really happen", we've lost the larger story. Borg and Crossan spend a great deal talking about "historicity". But they don't do that to debunk or discount the stories. They do it so we can set the stories free from the chains of a historical account, and give them all the room they need to be living myths. So the stories can become something more than facts, and more than history.

Also, I don't think Quantum indeterminacy is an excuse to reintroduce substance dualism (ghosts, miracles, a literal spiritual realm, etc). I see that attempted all the time, but I don't think it is at all the way Quantum physicists use the term. Our current lack of all the details at the level of Quantum mechanics is not an opening to venture back to pre-enlightenment naivety.

Lastly, I think Bruce missed the boat with his last paragraph, when he assumed a progressive approach to scripture might imply...

"Jesus' followers were too witless and gullible to discern fact from fiction and physical from spiritual."

That is really missing the Borg/Crossan analysis of the stories. In fact, when Borg/Crossan show us how the stories were carefully constructed creative works of art, possibly liturgical, then we realize we have been the gullible ones, who missed their parabolic nature and tried to force them into the genre of history. The notion that they could "discern fact from fiction" is exactly what's implied when we suggest they were smart enough to transform their human experiences into grand myths for the ages.
bepperly said…
thanks all...I am quite aware of Borg, Crossan, and Spong's work, and appreciate their insights...and their gifts and limitations....I would argue that embodiment is not a matter of indifference nor is historicity and that historicity has value when it comes to resurrection...I would suggest that we need to explore a holistic approach which sees the whole universe as lively, dynamic, spirit-filled..."bodies" are more than we can imagine in the interdependence of all things....resurrections reveal the deeper energies of life...

I would suggest that when Crossan asserts that Jesus never "cured" anyone, he is still confined by the enlightenment world view....for a more holistic and, I believe, post-modern approach, I would suggest my "God's Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus"....the beauty of the conversation is that progressive Christianity, if we even want to use that word because it may seem too "foundational", is diverse and nuanced...and that we can embrace biblical scholarship as I do, but also spirit, holistic healing, acts of power, mystical experiences of all kinds and so forth...all in the wondrous interdependence of life....radical amazement, as Heschel says, is at the heart of the religious adventure...
tripp fuller said…
great post Bruce.

have you read the chapter in Tom Oord's new book that discusses a process account of the resurrection? i wondered what you thought.

@Mike When you said "Our current lack of all the details at the level of Quantum mechanics is not an opening to venture back to pre-enlightenment naivety," I thought it important to say a Process Relational person would say that our lack of all the details is not a lack of our knowledge or the current limits of science but a genuine metaphysical affirmation that the becoming of each event has potentialities for newness, gifted to it by God's luring presence. Most quantum physicists I have read (or people in the Rel/Phil/Science debate report on) assume that reality is structured such that we will not eventually be able to give a scientific account that reveals the openness to be a lack of knowledge. So the lack of all the details is not a temptation to go back to pre-enlightenment notions, but a scientific prodding to move beyond a silent but totalitarian materialist metaphysics.
John said…
If I am reading your post correctly you are suggesting that Jesus (God) may be interacting with us within the natural dynamics of cause and effect, but that these natural dynamics operate in a quantum universe rather than a Newtonian universe.

If my understanding is correct the a major problem for me with that proposition is that it suggests that God is just another creature, albeit one who comprehends and acts with knowledge of and with access to the potentialities of the operative principles of the quantum world.

I have grave reservations about trying to "naturalize" God or God's miracles.

John said…
I cannot embrace the notion that Jesus' post resurrection appearances were nothing more than a game of hide-and-seek accomplished through the manipulation of energy in a quantum universe.

This 'quantum-naturalizing' is that it opens up the possibility that any creature armed with enough information about the laws and potentialities of quantum physics could do what God did because it is a naturally possible event.

If so, then surely there are other species among the universes which are lightyears ahead of humanity in their grasp of the potentialities of quantum physics, and yet we know of no other creatures interacting with humanity in this fashion. (We could make the rather arrogant assumption that humanity is unique and there are no species more advanced than us among all of the various universes!!!)

Discounting the notion that humanity is unique, it appears that the only creature that has bothered to interact with humanity through the corridor of quantum interaction is this creature we have honored as "God".

Of course it could be suggested that such manipulation of the potentialities of the quantum universe can ONLY be accomplished by God and that other creatures cannot access the potentialities of the quantum physics, regardless of how far ahead of humanity in their grasp of quantum physics.

In which case the analysis has not really "naturalized" anything but instead simply removed the miraculousness one step further away. In essence such analysis implies that God preserved and otherwise did not miraculously interfere with the laws of the Newtonian universe (which our Enlightened minds cannot tolerate) and instead miraculously interfered with the laws of the quantum universe which is a form of magic that can be tolerated.

tripp fuller said…
@ john
most of what you are worried about isn't the case in process thought and those of us who find ourselves there would agree with you. without going into a long side conversation on science, what bruce and most process people are affirming is that it is completely natural for God to be in relationship to the world, that God's on-going relationship to the world is necessary for existence as we know it to continue as we know it and for new things to develop. In classical theology these are usually termed God's divine preservation and divine governance which are part of the larger doctrine of providence. what i hear bruce saying is that we if we think of the world as always already in relationship to God for the 'natural living' of the world then we don't have to imagine easter as God coming to a part of history which would otherwise have been without GOd. This particular event is more intense and revelatory because God transforms both the human tragedy of death and the particular tragedy of Christ's death. Doing so in a process-relational world doesn't have to be a violation of the world because the world is always already God's loved creation where is always present living and working for the good in all situations.
Mike L. said…

I agree with most of what you’re saying. However, I do offer a small challenge. I'd urge you to reconsider how you used the term "postmodern". Maybe filter it through the work of Derrida a bit and notice where deconstruction is actually aimed. Also, the way you refer to the modern enlightenment as if it is a restrictive view, when you said, "confined by the enlightenment world view". I do agree that some reactions to the enlightenment may be "confining", but the enlightenment itself has been a large opening, one that could only be confining if we decided to close it down now.

Post-modernity isn't another alternative view of reality that negates the findings of the enlightenment. It isn't even a new view of matter based on quantum mechanics instead of Newtonian physics. After all, Quantum mechanics is still “modern” science. Post-modernism isn't about a different view of matter at all. I think it is a different view of language. It’s a realization that our perspective about how the language, stories, roles, and foundational themes (narratives) of our society radically change the way we relate to matters about matter. I think postmodern theology has more to do with looking at our words differently, than it does with simply looking at the matter differently. Not in a destructive way that carves the miracles scenes out of our stories (one of the worst modern traps), but a deconstructive process that searches for the underlying intentions and opens up the full "more than literal" meaning of those important scenes.

So if we simply use post-modern philosophy as an excuse to readdress the question of miracles, as if we should go back to the "did they really happen" question, then I think we miss the larger questions of post-modernity. Those larger questions revolve around how people living on this side of the enlightenment (postmoderns) might embrace these powerful stories written in a pre-modern world. If we are still arguing about "did it actually happen", then we haven't moved past the modern trap. At some point, I hope we get past the need to defend the historicity of the story, and the need to defend the underlying substance dualism embedded in classical interpretations and doctrines. At some point, I hope we get past a modern fixation on historicity, and begin asking what the miracle stories mean.

It sounds like you are suggesting the stories aren't as valuable to you if they didn't "really happen". If that is true, then I think it's a perfect example of a modern approach to religion, and it completely misses what is embodied in a more postmodern approach.
Mike L. said…

I really want to embrace process theology, and I'm with you right up to a point. My first reaction was that process theology says God is "the process", or at least an anthropomorphic image we use to talk about the process. I think I could really embrace that. But then I think process thought doubles back to something more like traditional theism or the "god of the gaps". I could be wrong, because I'm no expert on process thought, but that's what I hear when you start talking about "a genuine metaphysical affirmation". Does that make any sense?

When you use this "affirmation" on one hand, but also claim a vague agnosticism (inability to really know for sure) on the other hand, it seems contradictory. It seems like you've stopped referring to the process and you've started defining (labeling, affirming, claiming certainty for) a definite causation for the process. Labeling the cause (or claiming there even is one) seems to take us right back to classical theism. Am I the only one who views that as a contradiction?

I’m also struggling with the term “totalitarian materialist metaphysics”. The leading names in materialist thought right now may happen to be real jerks, but they don’t speak for all materialists. And materialists are not the ones arrogantly claiming to know the cause of every process with few reasons other than “well, it’s in my sacred book”. I feel like most materialists are very happy to say, “I don’t know” when they really don’t know. Supernaturalists (dualists, religious people, “believers”, etc) on the other hand, seem to be saying, “I do know, and it’s my God”. That seems like much more of a totalitarian response. I suspect it’s that kind of totalitarian “affirmation”, which makes the materialists blood boil.

I hope that makes sense. The more I favor a materialist view, the more the themes of scripture seem to take shape, especially themes like the incarnation of Christ. I’m beginning to agree with “Christian Materialist” Savloj Zizek when he says, “it takes a materialist view to fully comprehend the concept of incarnation”.
John said…

I am good with that (though I don't pretend to understand 'process theology'). The focus of my resistance is against attempting to understand and explain away the divine or the miraculous by resorting to quantum theory.

I am a child of the Enlightenment as much as anyone, and, for the most part, I do not reject the scientific gains of Enlightenment methodology. As a person of faith however, I find myself blessed with faith in the miraculous.

I believe God is ever-present in the natural world. Moreover, I believe that in addition to God's ongoing nurturing presence, at times God will exert God's extraordinary will in the natural order (whether Newtonian or Quantum). As a general rule I do not believe that God's extraordinary interventions will be permitted to upset the natural order. I believe that from the beginning God was committed to the Creation and this is buttressed by God's personal investiture into the Creation. (What God's larger purposes were/are is above my paygrade.)

To preserve the integrity of the natural order God's extraordinary interventions must typically involve natural processes or must be so subtle and nuanced as to defy human perception, except on a mystical level.

However, the overtly miraculous happens, that is, where the natural order is visibly affected, and my belief is that such happens as a sign and symbol of God's power and continuing presence - because God has determined that humans need the sign and symbol just then and in just that way.

[As an aside, I do not think God performs miracles as an answer to prayers or as reward or punishment. I believe that rewards and punishments are meaningless to God. I believe that "Life" is what is important to God, and especially human life. And Life, and especially human life, is nurtured and preserved by neighborliness and love. That was the message of the Prophets and the message of Jesus, and the underlying message of Scripture.

I also believe that each life, and especially human life, is meaningful to God, because it is inbreathed with God's spirit and beloved by God.]

So, bottom line: miracles happen and we should honor them for what they are and not try to minimize or dismiss them with clever naturalizing explanations.

John said…
If I am reading Mike correctly, he is also saying that if we feel pressed to ask whether a miracle happened, then we risk missing out on the substance of the miraculous event.

The question for me then is not whether it happened but what can it mean to me and to the rest of us.

Robert Cornwall said…
On matters of history and science, I recognize that some things must be taken parabolically or metaphorically, even if perhaps they were not originally taken as such. But there are other questions that require more thought. Although, we cannot hope to explain everything by way of science, it is appropriate to ask whether something is in the realm of possibility. As I read Bruce, I hear him saying that resurrection need not run counter to science, and therefore we need not simply opt for the safety of metaphor. On whether there was a physical resurrection and its importance, I'm just not convinced that a vision would have been sufficient to take dispirited followers of a crucified man and turn them into people willing to sacrifice life and limb to tell the story. At the same time, I'm not sure God contravenes nature's laws.
Mike L. said…

You said: "I'm just not convinced that a vision would have been sufficient to take dispirited followers of a crucified man and turn them into people willing to sacrifice life and limb to tell the story."

A vision might not be that powerful, but a story would probably do the trick. Maybe even a whole grand myth.

If you really don't think that's possible, then are you implying that nobody would give their life for Islam unless Muhammad ACTUALLY ascended to heaven, and that Jim Jones is really the messiah or else nobody would have ingested the poison, and I guess Joseph Smith REALLY found the book of Mormon on golden plates buried in the earth, right? It is not only possible, but I'd say it is highly probably that myths can inspire people to great action, even life and death decisions. N.T. Wright tries to use that same line of "logic", but it seems fairly illogical. I could be missing something, so please elaborate if you had something else in mind.

I don't think there is any evidence that Christians sacrificed their life for any metaphysical claim. They seem to have done it for political reasons, which is precisely the only reason Rome would have crucified so many of them. They used the stories to express their politics. Rome didn't go around killing people for having odd metaphysical views or suggesting people rose from the dead. But if you repeat stories about Nero as a beast who will be destroyed by your own leader in a great war and returns Jews to power, that probably would get you killed as political revolutionary. If Roman soldiers killed every Roman citizen who believed in miracles or resurrections, there would be no Jews or Romans left.

I think the myth of resurrection meant something very clear to everyone who heard it. It wasn't a "new" metaphysical claim. It meant that the followers of this political revolution, were not going to stop their protest. It meant that even though Jesus died, the protest lives on. That's why they were killed, because they kept up the protest and kept insisting on justice. That kind of thing still gets people killed today.
John said…

I don't think Christians were executed for 300 years for their revolution political beliefs. They were executed as a demonstration of Roman political power yes, but not because they posed a physical threat to the empire. They were executed because they would not 'submit' to the empire and Caesar. Their persecution was not unlike the persecution of the Jews by Nazi Germany, a marginalized group, with little or no public sympathy, targeted and pursued as an object lesson in state terror.

I agree that 'story/myth' can drive a community. After the death of the Jesus' first witnesses everything that happened was driven by the strength of the 'story/myth' and not by what actually happened. In truth, without the vehicle of a compelling story/myth the actual events will very soon dissipate like a gunshot in the wilderness, loud and powerful at first but soon forgotten.

But I don't think the first Christians were sufficiently sophisticated to be able to compose such a comprehensive myth, nor do I think that as a group they were such pathological liars that they would have made the story up out of whole cloth.

Robert Cornwall said…

I think that the Christian movement had political implications because it declared Jesus to be Lord, rather than Caesar. But to reduce their movement to politics makes little sense in light of the biblical texts. Paul's writings aren't political and they predate the gospels.

I think John is right as well that the early disciples weren't sophisticated enough to create a grand myth -- though Paul might have been. But Paul's conversion follows the first thrust of the movement.

As for other leaders you mention. First Jim Jones -- yes people died, but the movement died with him. There are no Peoples Temple devotees today. Mohammed didn't die a martyr and left a fairly strong governmental structure in place. I think that in many ways, despite his murder, Smith might correspond to Mohammed. There was a strong leadership structure in place -- with one amongst the leaders quickly emerging on the top.

So, the question how does a Galilean religious teacher get executed and then his followers quickly take up the cause and push it beyond its natural boundaries? Something more than a story in my mind.
Mike L. said…

Do you really need to be a viable threat in order for your rebellion to be squashed by an empire? Are we really concerned that millions of Taliban soldiers are going to swim from the middle east and invade America with no navy or air support? Yet we spend trillions of dollars squashing that rebellion.

I never said Christians stood a chance against Rome. I just said they were killed because their stories were very political and they imply serious insubordination. Even to the point of Jesus teaching people exactly how to conduct non-violent political protests. Do you really think a Jewish peasant staging a protest, which shuts down commerce in the capital building during a Jewish festival is "no threat" to Roman authority?

You said NT authors were not , "sufficiently sophisticated to be able to compose such a comprehensive myth". I find that hard to swallow. Who do you think was reading Paul's letters? They were no dummies. You think whoever read those was not sophisticated enough to create a myth? Have you read the Jewish commentaries by people like Rabbi Hillel (who probably taught Paul's great grandfather in Pharisee school)? Creating myths on top of history is such a common Jewish practice. Have you read the vast library of Midrash texts that fill in the gaps of the biblical myths? Creating stories, and even stories about stories, is such a common Jewish idea. It would be hard to imagine anything else from a community with Jewish roots.

Lastly, myth writers are not "pathological liars". They are storytellers. They cared enough about Jesus to mytholgize him. Why wouldn't they? Caesar had myths (even including a miraculous birth and ascension to the right had of god). Those myths were carved on stone for all to see. Why wouldn't we expect Christians living in the shadows of those carvings to follow suit and create their own set of counter-myths. Myths where Jesus is Lord, prince of peace, the son of God, and Caesar is not.
John said…

Christians were not executed for their politics or for the threat they posed to the empire - they were killed because they were an easy victim, and power is always looking for an easy victim. Of course they didn't pose a threat, that is one of the factors that made them such good victims.

Also, I did not mean to suggest that First Century cultures were incapable of weaving a lasting myth, nor that First Century Jews or even First Century Christians were incapable. I was saying that the Galileans who followed Jesus were not. Perhaps Paul was, but he didn't weave myth, but preached theology.

By the way, the writers you cite, while they left lasting literary legacies, did not initiate whole new religions or even turn their own faith into a whole new direction. They were also deeply respected on some level by their peers - Josephus by his Roman peers. The Galileans were respected by no one - except perhaps as being uneducated and brutish.

If anyone was involved in myth weaving, it was the original disciples who communicated the myth orally until the gospel writers entered the picture. Moreover, the original gospel writers did not pool their talents to accomplish the myth - it was the later church which pooled their stories - but by then the myth was fully generated.

My use of the term "pathological liars" was in the context of the first disciples communicating a myth created out of whole cloth to their friends, neighbors and acquaintances, thus assuming there was no resurrection and no genuine miracles by Jesus. To accomplish the selling of such a myth it would seem that they had to put together this fantastic story, get their story straight between them, and then go out and sell it. If it were all based on nothing, or on a single person's vision, it defies reason to believe that the first disciples were bright enough, all sufficiently on the same page, all buying into the same objectives, so that they could accomplish either the 're-booting' of Judaism on a Christian trajectory, or the initiation of the whole new religion of Christianity. It is also difficult to accept that they could do so based on a fabricated story with less than wholehearted support from Jesus' brother James, who was the nominal head of the Church for thirty years after Jesus death an who seems at best ambiguous about his brother's claims to divinity. That is of course unless they were all brilliant liars, including James, or unless they were led by the Holy Spirit.

Mike L. said…
"Christians were not executed for their politics or for the threat they posed to the empire"

John, Do you have an example or any evidence that Rome ever executed anyone for any other reason than political? Do you have any evidence of Rome executing anyone for "religious" beliefs? It seems unlikely. All the evidence I've seen points to the contrary. The Christian political protest is cloaked in symbolic terminology, but the message is highly political. What could you say more political than "the kingdom of God"? I don't think you could event a more political term. Rome certainly heard it that way loud and clear.

"I was saying that the Galileans who followed Jesus were not. Perhaps Paul was, but he didn't weave myth, but preached theology."

What evidence do you have that any of the Galileans who followed Jesus created the Gospel stories or the myths they contained? Do you have any evidence that the "elaborate" nature of the stories (the bits that tie Jesus to OT prophesies, the intricate plot points that echo other pagan myths) were created by first hand witnesses? Your whole line of reason depends on certainty about the "oral tradition" of the story. How do you know what was in that oral tradition? The only evidence we have seems to point to earlier stories WITHOUT the mythological points (Gospel of Thomas and "Q"). Are you sure you can speak about what was in "oral tradition" with such certainty? What foundation do you have for those claims?

In my view, and a large number of scholars, the more probable chain of events is that the stories didn't exist at all, in anything like the form we have them, until after Paul created that "theology". I think (as do people like Borg, Crossan, Spong, and others) that the gospels weave Paul's writings into narrative form, adding the intricate elements that tie Jesus to Moses, David, Jacob, and compete with Caesar. They seem more likely to be later creations. That's why you won't see those narrative elements in Paul's writings. Just because we arrange the NT with Paul after the gospels, we can't assume the stories existed before he wrote. The evidence points to the contrary.
Mike L. said…
Bob, I think Paul was highly political. I think he was focused on extending access to power (access to the temple, their religion, forgiveness, care of widows and orphans, etc) beyond the confines of the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. I agree with John that this was not a "new" religion. It was about extending power (religious inclusion and access to the temple was how they brokered "power"). It was about changing the temples relationship with Rome (their abusive tax policy that hit peasants hard). Religion was politics. The temple was the political capital. I don't think we can read our separation of church and state back into a culture that had no wall. Paul's lobbying to modify religious rules about inclusion was exactly an economic and political power play. Had it been merely about who "gets to heaven", then it would have been trivial to the Roman authorities. If it effected how the Temple collected taxes or controlled the crowds on behalf of Rome, then it was political. When a movement enticed large crowds to assemble for meetings or even protest, then it was political.

I also agree with you that I'd like to imagine it was "more than a story". But it's our modern mindset that makes us assume history is "more" than a story. I think if we look through the lens of an ancient myth writer, we'd understand that a myth is much "more" than history. Why do we modern people assign more value to "history"? That's my main point here. That's the question that post-modernity is asking. To assume history has more weight, more power, more value, is to be beholden to modernity. So I think that's why Bruce shouldn't apply the "postmodern" label. I think he's speaking from a modern mindset when he makes his apologetic argument for "history".
John said…

"... a large number of scholars, [conclude] the more probable chain of events is that the stories didn't exist at all, in anything like the form we have them, until after Paul created that 'theology'. ... the gospels weave Paul's writings into narrative form...."

I obviously am not a scholar nor do I have any credentials to give anything like a scholarly response. However, I am not certain you are correct in your assumption that a 'large number' of scholars would agree that the stories, parables and sayings recorded in the gospels did not exist at all until after Paul's letters were written, or that the gospels were written to place Paul's writings into narrative form. Nor am I sure that there is any consensus even that all of the Gospels were crafted with knowledge of Paul's letters.

Wasn't the point of the Jesus Seminar to try to discern which Gospel sayings were original to Jesus and which were mere attributions. Even among the skeptics in the Seminar (including Borg and Crossan) there was a shared assumption that at least some of the sayings were original to Jesus, thus contradicting the thesis that the gospel stories were all crafted in response to Paul's writings.

Based on your assessment of scholarly consensus, one would expect the Seminar to have been attacked for allowing for the possibility that ANY of the sayings were original. But in fact substantial scholarly criticism was because the Seminar failed to allow that more of the sayings were original. (Yes, there were methodological criticisms as well.)

This is just one avenue of response to your claim.

John said…

You ask for evidence that the gospel stories predated Paul. Would you agree that the Pauline letters are trustworthy and convey relatively truthful information? Then I assume you accept the truth of Paul's statements when he speaks about being told about Jesus by the twelve and by the other disciples in Antioch. I assume that you also accept Paul's statements regarding the number and identity of witnesses to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. These communications to Paul constitute a part at least of the oral traditions which I contend informed the Gospel writers.

You claim that the Gospels were post-Pauline attempts to construct a Jesus myth around the already existent Pauline theological writings. Logically then you would expect the Gospels, and at the very least the most original of them, to consistently reflect Pauline thought and Pauline Christology.

Other than in the Gospel of John, the Christology of the Gospels is not significantly developed. This circumstance would be surprising if the writers were consciously attempting to craft myth around Paul's teachings, or as you say weave Paul's writing into narrative form.

My understanding is that Mark was the earliest and, in the sense of sequence only, the most primitive of the Gospels, and the platform upon which Matthew and then Luke were written. If we assume a Pauline frame of reference for the writer of Mark, why then does Mark contain virtually nothing to tie it to Paul? I may be going out on a limb here but it seems to me that the writer of Mark appears unacquainted with Paul's letters. Tradition has it that Mark was a disciple of Peter - perhaps that explains why Paul may have been overlooked. Whatever the origin of Mark's Gospel, it is a difficult case to even make the claim that Mark was a retelling of Paul's letters, let alone prove the matter.

And while Matthew spends a great deal of time weaving together the life, death and resurrection of Jesus into the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, there again seems to be little connection to the theological themes and teachings of Paul.

While Luke-Acts obviously knows about and reflects Pauline thought, I wonder if Paul would even recognize the Jesus of the Gospel of John.

I am not a scholar but in my humble opinion I think it is a stretch to conclude that the bulk of the content of the Gospels was conceived of only after and only in response to the letters of Paul.

As for what was contained in the oral stories passed on by Jesus' original followers, I don't think I previously suggested any specific content - or at least I didn't intend to. But to answer the question, I always assumed that those stories for the most part did not include tie-ins with Hebrew Scriptures. I would have guessed they included sayings, teachings, parables, healing stories, miracle stories, and the stories surrounding the death and resurrection. I would agree with the understanding that the allusions to Hebrew Scripture were likely original to the individual Gospel writers themselves or to those who taught them about Jesus.

Also, it would not surprise me if the oral stories included veiled and not-so veiled counterpoints to Caesar and the Empire.

John said…

As for why early Christians were killed, my point is that they were not killed for the most part for what they believed or for what they said; they were not political revolutionaries. Instead, they were killed quite simply because the empire and its local minions needed a handy target for persecution. Routine exhibitions of violent power is how empire retains control; domination is maintained by fear and by force, which is most safely exerted against unsympathetic victims drawn from the margins of society. That way the point is made while commerce and those most likely to pay taxes are not directly affected.

They were different and they made little or no effort to assimilate. Kind of like Mexicans in Arizona, or Jews in Europe, or blacks in America, or Christians in Nigeria, Sudan, and the Middle East.

Mike L. said…

I think you are confusing my statement that the gospels were written later by people who were not eye witnesses, with the idea that NONE of the events happened. I never said the later. I said the former. What I won't try to do is claim certainty in any of the history without the same level of evidence that we would routinely require as proof of any other event.

I didn't say "stories, parables and sayings recorded in the gospels did not exist at all until after Paul's letters were written"

I said the gospel narratives themselves were not created until after Paul, in their present form with the miracles, allegory, and developed themes. And I didn't mean they were literally writing based solely on Paul's theology, but that Paul's theology (and other views) were available to the writers and influenced the growing legends of Jesus.

I think the idea of "trusting" Paul's letters (or any of these texts) is really important to you. Is that fair? I'm not interested in "trusting" them if that means believing they are historical. I don't that that's what it even means to "trust a story". I don't think that's what the authors would hope we'd be looking for in their work. I don't trust any of them to be accurate history. But I don't think that changes their real truth or value. I trust them to contain truth about a different way to live.

"I wonder if Paul would even recognize the Jesus of the Gospel of John."

Paul never met Jesus, so I'm not sure what he'd compare it to. I do agree those would be very different characters. I also wonder if Paul would recognize the "Paul" character in Acts. However, I guess he'd probably be less consumed with that than modern apologists seem to be.
John said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said…

Apparently I read your statements too literally when you said:

"In my view, and a large number of scholars, the more probable chain of events is that the stories didn't exist at all, in anything like the form we have them, until after Paul created that "theology". I think (as do people like Borg, Crossan, Spong, and others) that the gospels weave Paul's writings into narrative form, adding the intricate elements that tie Jesus to Moses, David, Jacob, and compete with Caesar. They seem more likely to be later creations. That's why you won't see those narrative elements in Paul's writings. Just because we arrange the NT with Paul after the gospels, we can't assume the stories existed before he wrote. The evidence points to the contrary." [Emphasis Supplied.]

So apparently you are willing to accept that the original disciples passed along stories of some sort, which were eventually reconstructed into the myth preserved in the Gospels.

Are you still asserting that the synoptic Gospels were constructed in support of and as vehicles for Pauline theology?

Paul himself claims to have met Jesus. The comparison he would have to make is between the Jesus whom he claims to have met along with the Jesus Christ whom he came to construct his teaching around, as compared to the Jesus described in John's Gospel. In any event, my point was merely rhetorical.

As for 'trusting Paul', you asked for evidence that the Galileans who followed Jesus created the gospel stories - I guess as opposed to the post-Pauline Gospel writers. My 'evidence' is the writings of Paul himself, who claims to have learned the stories about Jesus as well as about his post-resurrection appearances from those Galileans. In terms of sequence, it hardly makes sense to suggest that stories (whatever their content) mentioned by Paul in his letters were actually written after Paul's letters. So my 'evidence' is purely internal. I acknowledge that the more sophisticated theological content could very well have been inserted into the stories later.

Mike L. said…
John, I don't think the mistake was in your reading too literally, it was in omitting the second half of my sentence...

"the stories didn't exist at all, IN ANYTHING LIKE THE FORM WE HAVE THEM"

The gospels are such great stories, I'd hate to ruin them by finding out they really happened.
David Mc said…
However ideal and strong and well-accepted a theory may
be, it will in time give way to a better one. Newtonian physics was once accepted in just this way: it was said that there was no need
for another theory, and that its laws could explain the whole universe and even tell us
what God was thinking. This theory ruled supreme for 300 years, but it fell in an instant. In fact, this is the natural course of
science, but many people who did not realize this suffered great disillusionment.

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