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Monday, January 7, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Burial of Jesus


I have already written once this year about how I can accept that the gospel nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are exegetical fictions – that is, that they are theological stories about the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Because the details of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s story cannot be harmonized with the details in Luke’s we cannot be certain which of the two is more accurate, more historical – in fact we cannot determine if either of the gospel nativities is historical.

And I can accept that. I can accept that these are theological stories and not biographical accounts. 

In fact the gospels themselves, though grounded in the historical reality of Jesus – are in many ways adapted and even fictionalized.  Some scenes have been created. Some dialogue has been supplied. Some characters have been combined.  Some events have been rearranged in order to tell the theological stories intended by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (whoever they might have been…)

I can accept this.  It took me a long time and some careful consideration, but it has not damaged my faith in Jesus.  I even thought well of myself (pride… nothing but pride) for being able to go beyond the baby steps of my faith.

However, I have not been quite as willing to concede that the same sort of exegetical adaptation and fictionalization occurred in the stories of Jesus’ passion – his arrest, trial, and execution – or in the accounts his resurrection.   

Yet I am being forced to reconsider my inconsistency. 

A few days ago I finished reading John Domminc Crossan’s book Who Killed Jesus? in which Crossan argued that the passion narratives in the gospel accounts are complete (or nearly complete) fabrications – that the gospel writers built the stories of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution and the stories of his resurrection from the writings of various Old Testament texts; that they were not in any way historical accounts. 

I do not agree with Crossan on this point.  I believe – still believe – that the passion narratives are grounded in historical realities. I do not believe that they were created whole cloth from the gospel writers’ imaginations, but I can allow that the details have been shaped by reflection on these Old Testament passages.   

Now I am reading my friend James McGrath’s short little book The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith.  (It was one of the books I bought with my Christmas gift card...) And he is causing me to reconsider the question: what if, like the stories of his birth, the various details of Jesus’ burial and resurrection can’t be completely harmonized either?   

First- I like that this little book (and I do mean little) is focused on the burial of Jesus.  Many books focus on the crucifixion.  Many books focus on the resurrection.  But few focus on that crucial event in-between. 

It is McGrath’s argument that the various details concerning the burial of Jesus were fabricated by early Christians who wanted to give to their leader (whom they believed to be the Messiah and to have been resurrected) the honorable burial that he deserved – but did not receive.

From the historian’s perspective it seems likely that Jesus was crucified and then given a burial in a common grave for criminals by the Jewish authorities – that none of Jesus’ followers were present or responsible for his burial.  And that is as far as the historian can go.  The historical Jesus lived and died and was buried. But we do not, and cannot know what did or didn't happen to his body after that.  The stories we have of that first Resurrection Sunday are as much theological stories as the stories of that first Christmas morning.   

But does that mean that there was no resurrection? Does that mean that Jesus’ followers didn't seem him alive after his death?  The historian cannot answer those questions.  The historian cannot prove or disprove the resurrection.  And even if we accept the argument that the burial stories and resurrection accounts are exegetical and theological stories rather than historical accounts, this does not mean that we are left without faith.  As McGrath points out, asking ‘what happened to Jesus’ body?’ is not the same as asking ‘Did God raise him from the dead.’

We should pay attention to the fact that in the gospel accounts of the resurrection there were no witnesses.  No one saw Jesus in the tomb dead one moment and alive the next.  No one saw it happen.  Even in the canonical gospel stories all we have is an empty tomb.  Whether it was an unmarked mass grave reserved for criminals or a borrowed tomb intended for a wealthy dignitary – no one saw the resurrection event.  And even in the gospel accounts, finding the empty tomb wasn't enough to convince Jesus’ followers of his resurrection.  It took something more for them to believe. 

To this point I am willing to agree with my friend. He’s challenged me.  He’s made me uncomfortable –but I’m willing to try taking those bigger steps.

But I do have at least one question to send back his way:

The earliest followers of the Resurrected Jesus were willing and even eager to declare their faith in this paradoxical and oxymoronic idea of a crucified and resurrected God /man– an idea that was foolishness to the Greeks and Romans  and blasphemy to the Jews.  It is usually argued by apologists that the disciples were unlikely to create such an embarrassing, oxymoronic story.  But if they were unlikely to create an embarrassing story of his dishonorable death – why would they feel it necessary to create stories to cover over the (assumed) embarrassment of his dishonorable burial?


** EDIT
James McGrath has responded to my question and an interesting discussion has begun in the comment section at his blog - Exploring Our Matrix.




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