Why Jesus can’t possibly have known he’d ‘rise from the dead’.

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I said at the start of this series of posts about the date of Jesus’ crucifixion that the gospel writers perhaps felt unable to exclude Jesus’ predictions about rising from the grave after three days because these were too well-known. On reflection, it seems more likely that Jesus didn’t make any such prophecies. It is more probable that the gospel writers introduced them into their stories about him decades later.

I’ve written before about how the Resurrection appearances were nothing more than visions and dreams. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus most certainly was – he says so himself – and Mary’s encounter with angels, telling her Jesus was no longer in his tomb, is described as ‘a vision’ in Luke 24.23. The subsequent accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances also bear all the hallmarks of hallucinations; he disappears at will; passes through closed doors; isn’t always recognisable, drifts up into the sky and so on.

These mystical experiences, those that really happened anyway (it’s safe to say some – the Emmaus story, for example – are complete inventions: see Alter, pp536-8) quickly became a conviction among Jesus’ early followers that he had somehow risen from the grave. By the time of Luke’s and John’s gospel, 50 to 70 years later, this idea had evolved into a full-blown bodily resurrection.

The question is, did Jesus know that this was what was going to happen? Could he have had foreknowledge that he would be seen again after his death? Could he, during his life, have predicted he would rise bodily from the grave?

Christians will tell you that as God or God’s Son, Jesus was omniscient and therefore of course he knew these things in advance. There are, however, several good reasons why we can be sure he didn’t:

  • According to Paul, it was the resurrection that elevated Jesus to his god-like status, not his divinity that enabled the resurrection. Christians who argue that Jesus rose from the dead because he was divine have it back to front. Paul says clearly that Jesus ‘was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead‘ (Romans 1.4; my italics). Without the resurrection, Jesus was, Paul argues, of no great significance (1 Corinthians 12.15-19). However, the only ‘evidence’ for the resurrection is the contradictory, incompatible accounts offered by only three of the gospel writers and by Paul himself. So implausible is this evidence that we can safely conclude, with Michael J. Alter, that there was no such event. How, then, could Jesus possibly ‘know’ he’d rise from the dead when in fact he didn’t?
  • While he suffered from the delusion that he was going to rule God’s imminent Kingdom, it is unlikely Jesus thought he would have to die and be resurrected in order to do so. There was nothing in the Jewish scriptures to suggest either the Son of Man (a figure from Daniel with whom Jesus appears to have claimed some affinity) or the Messiah would be put to death only to rise again. This wasn’t what these characters were about and it wouldn’t have been how Jesus thought.
  • The Kingdom of God did not come about in the way Jesus believed. His death therefore did not bring about the apocalypse, judgement and rule of God he predicted and anticipated. In fact, his death took his cult off in a completely different direction, thanks mainly to Paul’s intervention. Jesus, and to a significant degree, the synoptic writers appear to have little awareness of this seismic shift. The Jesus they portray has little cognisance of events following his demise. Any suggestion he foresaw the creation of the Church is anachronistic, written back retrospectively into the accounts of his life. This was not what his ‘good news’ was about.

  • From their reactions preserved in the gospels, Jesus’ execution evidently came as a shock to both himself and his followers. None of them appear to have been expecting anything like a resurrection. Immediately following his death and burial, not a single one of his followers recalled his supposed predictions of his resurrection, nor did they express the sure and certain hope he would be returning. Even the discovery of the empty tomb (if it happened at all) failed to elicit such an expectation, nor any recollection of his words. The gospels say all those who witnessed the empty tomb were ‘frightened’, ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ that the body was missing, but not that they believed he must have risen from the dead. All those who witnessed the empty tomb behaved as if they’d never heard Jesus’ predictions that he’d be returning – probably because they hadn’t

  • It wasn’t until the ‘visions’ started that some of them began to consider the possibility that Jesus had ‘risen’. Not all were convinced, however. Matthew 28.16 notes how a number ‘doubted’ that the apparition they were seeing was Jesus. Significantly, at no point do any of those who think they’re seeing the risen Jesus say, ‘I remember him predicting this would happen.’ On every occasion, either angels or the risen Jesus himself has to explain it to them. (Of course, it’s the gospel writers doing the explaining for those hearing these stories decades later.)

All of this points to the fact that, while he was alive, Jesus didn’t make any predictions about rising from the grave on the third day, after three days, or after three days and nights; these prophecies, incompatible with each other and with the synoptic timeline, were created later, probably much later, after belief in the resurrection had become a central plank – the central plank – of the new cult. They were subsequently written back into the gospels, and placed on Jesus’ lips on the basis to show that of course he knew he’d rise again and knowing would have spoken about it.

The circle was thus complete; his early followers created the myth of Jesus’ return while later ones invented the ‘prophecies’ to bolster the belief that Jesus must have known he would. He said so, didn’t he?

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In which the witnesses try to get their story straight

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Mary: Well, the other Mary and me (Matthew 28.1) were first to go down to the cave where somebody said they’d put the body overnight.

Salome: I was there too, don’t forget (Mark 16.1).

Mary: Were you? I don’t remember that.

Salome: Bloody was, I’m telling you. So were a bunch of others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Anyway, we get there and the entrance stone has been rolled away (Mark 16.4).

Peter: Wait a minute… I thought you said that happened after you got there. I thought you said there was an earthquake nobody else could feel and an angel came and rolled away the stone in front of your very eyes (Matt 28.2).

Mary: Did I? Oh yes, that’s right. That’s what happened. And the guards fainted out of sheer fright (Matt 28.4)

Thomas: They did? You didn’t mention any guards the first time you told this story (Mark 16.4).

Mary: Didn’t I? I must’ve forgotten. Oh well. And there was this strange young man sitting inside the tomb (Mark 16.5).

Salome: There were two young men and they were standing outside (Luke 24.4).

Mary: Really? I saw only one and he was definitely inside.

Peter: It wasn’t a young man, it was an angel (Mark 28.5).

Mary: Angel? Oh yes, I suppose you’re right. It must have been an angel. And he said the Master wasn’t there, that he’d risen or something (Matt 28.7).

John: That’s funny, I don’t remember anyone being there at this point. I certainly don’t remember anybody speaking to us (John 20.4-5).

Mary: That’s strange, because the young man in the tomb definitely spoke to me.

Salome: And the two men outside the tomb spoke to me.

Peter: And the angel… don’t forget the angel.

Thomas: So what happened then?

Mary: We were so frightened, we just ran away.

Thomas: You ran away? And then what?

Mary: Nothing. We said nothing to anybody (Mark 16.8).

Thomas: You said nothing to anybody. Then how did Peter find out? ‘Cos the next thing he was running hell for leather to the garden to see this empty cave for himself.

Peter: Oh, she must’ve told me. Yes, that was it, she said something to me and some of the others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right. I told Peter and he went to see the empty tomb.

Peter. Ran all the way on my own, I did (Luke 24.12).

John: No, you didn’t. I went with you. In fact I overtook you and got there first (John 20.3-6).

Peter: Did you? I don’t remember that. Are you sure you haven’t just added yourself in here?

John: So anyway, we ran to the tomb…

Peter: And we see that the body has gone. I’m telling you, we couldn’t work out what had happened (John 20.9).

John: Though the most logical explanation seemed to be that he’d risen from the dead. I mean nothing else made sense (John 20.8).

Mary: It’s a shame you didn’t see the young man/men/angel. They’d have spelt it out for you like they did for us.

John: Don’t worry, we’ll bring them into the story later and we’ll have two angels for good measure. (John 20.12).

Mary: So while I was waiting there alone…

Thomas: Wait, you were there alone? I thought you said you ran away with the other women (Mark 16.8)?

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right, I did. I must’ve gone back later just to hang about (John 20.11) and suddenly I see this, like, apparition. At first, I thought it was the gardener…

Thomas: You mean you didn’t know who it was?

Mary: No, I didn’t, which I agree was a bit odd, but then I realised it must be him, the Master, I mean. Who else could it have been?

Thomas: Well, if it was anyone at all, I’d have thought it more likely it was the gardener than a body back from the dead.

Mary: I suppose, but it just felt like the Master to me. I so wanted to see him again.

Thomas: Did he have holes in his hands and a wound in his side (John 20.27)? Surely that would’ve told you it was him.

Mary: Erm, I can’t recall now. But anyway, it was him.

Thomas: How’d you know?

Mary: ‘Cos he spoke to me. He said, ‘Keep your hands off me, woman, because I’ve not yet, erm… ascended’ (John 20.17, 20).

Thomas: What did that mean? If he was back like you said then how come you couldn’t touch him?

Mary: Well, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him.

Thomas: And how we gonna do that, him being dead and all?

Mary: He’s not dead, I tell you, and you’re all just jealous ‘cos I did better than all of you. I saw him in person and he talked to me!

Peter: All of you, just stop a minute and listen. Can you hear it?

Thomas: No.

Peter: Can you feel it?

Mary: Yes, I can. I can sense his presence (Luke 24.36-37).

John: He’s here with us. He’s back. Hallelujah!

Mary: It’s as if he’s standing right in front of us, talking to us.

John: Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. He’s here with us. I can feel him. He’s back from the dead, I’m sure of it (John 20.19).

Peter: Let’s tell people we’ve seen him. They’re bound to believe us. I mean, we don’t live in a superstitious first-century backwater for nothing.

Thomas: Jesus Christ! Next you’ll be trying to convince everyone that this cockamamy story is true.

The original ‘good news’ had nothing to with any mystical salvation plan (part two)

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Last time, I provided evidence that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical salvation plan constructed around his supposed resurrection. My six references demonstrated that, even after his death, the disciples adhered to Jesus’ original message: God’s Kingdom was coming soon and they were going to rule over it. Here are six more reasons we can be sure this was the case:

7. Our earliest sources, Q and the gospel of Mark, do not give much credence to the resurrection as an actual event: Q records no sayings of the risen Jesus and Mark has no resurrection appearances; it ends with the women who discover the empty tomb deciding not to tell the disciples about it. In Mark’s gospel, then, the disciples are not even aware the tomb is empty, let alone that Jesus has returned from the dead. We can conclude from this that the community that produced Mark’s gospel, the supposed resurrection was not significant in and of itself.

8. Paul tells us that the disciples’ gospel was not the same as his, despite the fact he too believed the Kingdom wasn’t far off (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The disciples, he says in 2 Corinthians 11.4-5 and Galatians 1.6; 2.11-21, were preaching ‘a different gospel’. Different from his, certainly, but the same as the ‘good news’ Jesus proclaimed: Jewish people should prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mathew 9.35; 15.24), when, as Jesus himself had promised them, the disciples would judge the restored tribes of Israel and rule over them. It is, as we have seen, out of the question that they would jettison this aspect of the ‘good news’, given to them by Jesus himself.

9. Because the disciples – and Jesus’ brother James – saw the new Kingdom as intended for Jews only, as Jesus had before them (Matthew 10.23), they insisted that any Gentile converts must be circumcised; must become Jewish (Galatians 2.7). Paul, of course, objected to this requirement and throws tantrums about it in his letters (Galatians 5.1-12; Philippians 3.3). But like Jesus, the disciples saw no place for Gentiles, the unrighteous, in the new age; those who didn’t convert would, of necessity, be dispatched to eternal punishment (Matthew 25.31-46).

10. As far as the disciples were concerned, therefore, it was entirely for their own good that converted Gentiles be circumcised (Galatians 6.12-13) as this was their only guarantee of a place in the new Kingdom. What this tells us is that a salvation formula, such as that dreamt up by Paul, had no part in the disciples’ ‘good news’.

11. Wherever they appear – in Paul’s writing, the gospels, Acts – the disciples are portrayed as being at odds with an incantational, faith-based Christianity. The Bible attests, even with Paul’s new religion superimposed, that they held to a different gospel, a different sense of what Jesus’ life meant and a different notion of their place in the coming Kingdom. And wouldn’t they be the ones to know? They knew Jesus, spent time with him, listened to his teaching, bought into his misguided mission and had sufficient understanding of it to spread his ‘good news’ to fellow Jews, both while he was still alive and afterwards (Matthew 10.23; Luke 9.1-2).

12. The New Testament is testimony to the failure of everything Jesus and the disciples stood for; their ‘news’ that God was soon to turn the Earth over to the meek and that they would then rule the only people who mattered, the twelve tribes of Israel, with everyone else thrown into outer darkness (Luke 13:28). Jesus himself, of course, would return at some point to be top dog, God’s representative on Earth – his anointed one. None of this happened.

If only it had been allowed to rest there, we might not know today of Jesus and his mad ideas. Instead, Paul stepped in, reinterpreted the whole ridiculous enterprise and bequeathed the world a set of different but equally absurd beliefs. And the rest is history: religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, suppression, superstition, clerical child abuse, Pat Roberston. Is this the Kingdom that Jesus and his closest associates foresaw? Decidedly not. But it is their legacy.