Tuesday, 19 February 2008

John Twisleton's First Reply

I am grateful to Steven for engaging with some of my arguments.

The presuppositions in any resurrection debate are important and one of them is whether people are open to what is called ‘metaphysics’, science that is ready to look beyond the material order. This is why the main thrust of my leading article was that what usually happens doesn’t always happen. It was an attempt to soften folk up to what is really at issue in my way of looking at the subject.

This is why I started with such a broad brushed picture touching on philosophical and legal evidence as well as eye witness evidence and its corroboration outside the New Testament.

I am particularly grateful to Steven for filling out my own argument through bringing in St. Paul. Fancy my painting a picture of the resurrection from Christian tradition which ignored the ‘least of the apostles’ (Paul’s phrase – not mine)!

It seems from Steven’s response built on Paul that for him what is at issue is whether a corpse can be raised then or now i.e. whether there is metaphysics (in my jargon). For me the resurrection is something far more than resuscitation of the dead. It’s about a whole new order of things opening up as in the volcano image I related from Karl Rahner.

All of that being said I am bound from Steven’s response to engage with St. Paul’s witness to the Resurrection and how it harmonises with the eye witness accounts related in the Gospels.

Before I do that let me deal with the three lesser matters Steven challenges me about.

‘The Emperor Constantine…changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday’. The regulation came because of a dynamic that flowed from Christian origins. Revelation 1:10 speaks of the Lords’ day. Acts 20:7 has Troas Christians assembling to break bread on the first day of the week. 1 Corinthians 16:2 has new converts setting apart their alms on the first day of the week. This hallowing of Sunday rather than Friday/Saturday evidently links with a widespread conviction among Christians that Christ rose from the dead ‘on the third day’ (1 Corinthians 15:4). Second century writers like Ignatius and Justin Martyr affirm this hallowing of Sunday as the Christian holy day, long before Constantine’s edict of 321AD that Sunday should be made a public holiday. My point about the significance of pious Jews being persuaded to change their holy day still stands as corroborative evidence of something tremendous impacting upon their lives.

I wonder if Steven might have swallowed Dan Brown’s logic in Da Vinci Code that Christ’s divinity was a Constantinian construct? Constantine is important but he only became so because he made space for ascendant Christianity. That ascendancy, and the public affirmation of Christ’s divinity, lifts from a community which flows forward from that recorded in the New Testament, a community of the resurrection – we might argue more here I’m sure.

Another lesser point I must answer is related. Steven is right that Tacitus does not mention the resurrection directly but, as I wrote, he is a reliable witness to the extraordinary growth of Jesus’ followers following his crucifixion. This is consonant with his death not being the end of the story in the literal sense. Christians know it was not.

The analogy Steven makes between Mark’s dismissal of Jesus’ trial and his own invited dismissal of the four gospel accounts of the resurrection, both on the grounds of contradictory evidence is over ambitious to put it mildly. We can no doubt return to the eye witness accounts and their disparities – I mentioned some – but I repeat my own sense that an invented tale would be far neater than the consequences of a metaphysical out-of-this-world event. More down to earth, what the lawyers have to say about the evidence is also important here. I stand with the opinion of a former Lord Chief Justice that In its favour there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in a verdict that the Resurrection story is true.

So to the real meat of Steven’s argument against mine: St. Paul’s witness to the Resurrection, how it harmonises with the eye witness accounts related in the Gospels, and whether ‘for early Christians resurrection did not involve a corpse rising’.

‘Is John cleverer than Paul?’ Steven writes of me disputing my going to the eye witness accounts of the resurrection as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John before examining 1 Corinthians 15. I grant that the latter, written around 56AD, is a shade earlier than the four gospel accounts but I would dispute with Steven that, because this is so, the gospel accounts are less credible. The evangelists and Paul were handing on oral traditions linked to eye witness accounts so when things were actually written down is not so vital.

It is true that St. Paul does not mention the empty tomb in his 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 gospel reminder but this was a reminder and not a full argument towards conviction. Paul is assuming he has done that persuading for his readers before. On this occasion he does not need to give the whole history of what God has done in Jesus. ‘That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day’ implies Jesus’ ‘corpse rising’ and leaving an empty tomb even if that is not spelled out.

Steven Carr’s discussion of what makes converts and his disavowal that there ‘corpse rising’ had anything to do with this leaves us with a series of inner illuminations granted to individuals. Paul’s talk is of appearances, of which he was granted an exceptional one years later. When he writes though of how ‘Christ appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time’ how can we explain such a sight without a physical element?

I agree with Steven that there are evident inconsistencies between talk of the resurrection as a spiritual and as a physical event. As I set out at the beginning we are talking metaphysical truth if we are talking truth at all. Christian tradition holds the physical element of Christ’s resurrection (‘corpses rising and eating fish’) alongside the spiritual element (‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’) as surely as it holds God and the world together through what is seen as characteristic of reality following God’s being made incarnate in Christ.

If Christ is raised and human being are to be raised historical examination will only take us so far because we are talking about the very end or purpose of history – history as His Story (and ours as well by incorporation into Christ)! This does not mean our debate should end of course because the consonance of Christianity with historical evidence demands debate.

I know of people who have been in this debate and like the former Lord Chief Justice come to admit the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ yet without following its logic, as many would see it, into commitment to the risen Lord Jesus.

This brings us back to philosophical considerations about the nature of love and free will which are latent in the resurrection accounts which do not compel allegiance. Astonishing as they are they left people then as they leave people now with a free choice that goes beyond the evidence any debate brings to us. ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted’ (Matthew 28:17).

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