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So Just How Dumb Were Jesus’ Disciples? The Resurrection, Part VII.

By Robert Conner ~

The first mention of Jesus’ resurrection comes from a letter written by Paul of Tarsus. Paul appears to have had no interest whatsoever in the “historical” Jesus: “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, we know him so no longer.” (2 Corinthians 5:16) Paul’s surviving letters never once mention any of Jesus’ many exorcisms and healings, the raising of Lazarus, or Jesus’ virgin birth, and barely allude to Jesus’ teaching. For Paul, Jesus only gets interesting after he’s dead, but even here Paul’s attention to detail is sketchy at best. For instance, Paul says Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4), but there are no scriptures that foretell the Jewish Messiah would at long last appear only to die at the hands of Gentiles, much less that the Messiah would then be raised from the dead after three days.

After his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus—an event Paul never mentions in his letters—Paul didn’t immediately hie himself to Jerusalem to meet with Jesus’ family, or retrace Jesus’ steps, or sit at the feet of Jesus’ apostles. Au contraire, “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:17) And when, after a number of years, Paul suddenly decided he’d been born to preach Jesus, he says in no uncertain terms, “ I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12, NIV) In short, like other early Christian writers, Paul appears to have had casual relationship at best with historical details.

Here is Paul on the resurrection:

“I passed on to you as of primary importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the Twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, the greater number of whom remain until now, but some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared even to me, as to one born before his time.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

In Paul’s account there is no mention of an empty tomb, no women witnesses, and no Men in White. Instead, “more than five hundred brothers”—not mentioned in the gospels—see Jesus “at one time.” Apologists have cranked out a veritable mountain of verbiage attempting to paper over the several cracks in this narrative, but the opinion of George Riley summarizes the general conclusion of mainstream scholars: “a simple comparison of the Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 shows that the two traditions cannot be reconciled.” (Resurrection Reconsidered, 89.) Even apologetic writers are forced to admit, “Paul’s list of appearances in 1 Corinthians and the resurrection narratives in the gospels are remarkably—and puzzlingly—ill-matched.” (Richard Bauckham, The Laing Lecture at London Bible College, 2.)

The core of the 1 Corinthians passage—“that Christ died...that he was buried...that he was raised...that he appeared”—almost certainly derives from early Christian liturgy like a similar passage in 1 Timothy 3:16, falsely attributed to Paul: “Who was manifest in the flesh, vindicated by the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on by the world, taken up in glory.”The phrasing of the text of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 raises several questions. First, did Paul even write it?

There is no way to know if the texts in our copies of the New Testament are reliable representations of what the authors—whoever they were—originally wroteCiting “tensions” between the passage and its context, Hans Conzelmann concluded, the “language is not Paul’s.” (Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 20 (1966), 22.) The inconclusive debate over what, if any, part of the five hundred-witness story could be traced back to Paul raises the possibility that none of it was written by Paul and that it is instead an interpolation, a pious forgery inserted into a genuine letter to bolster belief in the resurrection. As Peter Kearney observes, the mention that “some have died” marks the letter as addressed to “a community moving toward an expectation of fulfillment, but already marked by death.” (Novum Testamentum 22 (1980), 282.) Indeed, 1 Corinthians 15 addresses what appears to be acute anxiety provoked by the death of believers who expected an imminent Parousia as a comparison with 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 suggests.

Scholars have proposed as many as seven instances of interpolated text in 1 Corinthians—a forged passage inserted into a genuine letter or a marginal note included in the text due to careless copying. (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981), 582-589.) Robert Price has identified a number of reasons for regarding the 1 Corinthians passage as suspicious: Paul’s dependence on “revelation” rather than “historical” sources, the absence of the five hundred witnesses in the gospels, and the speculative and unconvincing efforts by apologists to harmonize Paul’s account with the gospel material. (The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, 69-104.)

In short, there is no way to know if the texts in our copies of the New Testament are reliable representations of what the authors—whoever they were—originally wrote. Eldon Epp, a respected textual scholar, calls the surviving form of the New Testament text the “interpretive text-form,” noting that “it was used in the life, worship, and teaching of the church” and therefore subject to “reformulations motivated by theological, liturgical, ideological, historical, stylistic, or other factors.” (Harvard Theological Review 92 (1999), 277.) Anyone who doubts this was the case can take a gospel parallel in hand and compare how Matthew and Luke alter Mark, adding, subtracting, and editing Mark’s text to suit their whim, even while preserving much of Mark’s original wording and timeline.

Textual scholars believe Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around 55 CE. Our first continuous-text manuscript that contains the passage in question is P46, tentatively dated from the late 2nd to early 3rd century (175-225 CE)—there is no known original of any New Testament document or, for that matter, of any book of similar antiquity. So we have, at the very least, a century between the composition of 1 Corinthians and our first surviving copy of real significance. To claim, as apologists usually do, that the text in question is authentic and that it reliably reflects “what happened” is a convenient assumption, nothing more.

And that raises a second question: assuming Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, was he primarily making a historical claim or a theological claim? Samuel Brandon, in an article entitled “The Historical Element in Primitive Christianity,” concluded, “the Eucharist, as set forth by Paul, in effect lifts the historical event of the death of Jesus completely out of its setting in time and space and confers upon it that transcendent significance that characterizes...the various mystery cults.” (Numen 2 (1955), 167.) That Paul was writing theology, not history, is clear and the verdict of historian Robert Grant remains secure: “No word in this account [1 Corinthians 15:3-8] suggests that the appearances of Jesus were other than ‘spiritual’: it was not the ‘flesh and blood’ of Jesus which the witnesses saw...what [Paul] saw, and what he believes other Christians saw was the ‘spiritual body’ of Jesus.” (Journal of Religion 28 (1948), 125.)

Inconsistent and internally contradictory, the resurrection accounts are by turns hallucinatory and comically improbable, bearing all the marks of folklore and ad hoc invention. The original “witness” of the women at the tomb is by turns disbelieved and dismissed. An angel rolls away the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb, yet Jesus walks through locked doors. Jesus is palpable to the touch, yet suddenly appears and disappears. The disciples see Jesus, but mistake him for someone else, or see him and yet continue to doubt or react with fear. Jesus repeatedly foretells his resurrection, but the disciples have to be reminded of his prediction and when confronted with evidence, do not know what to make of it. If this potpourri of contradiction is really the sine qua non of Christian faith, we must ask, just how dumb are Jesus’ current disciples?

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