Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Strauss and the Credibility of Alternative Theories to the Resurrection

Over the last few weeks, Michael and I have done several radio shows on the Resurrection, in which we spoke about the credibility of the Christian belief in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus.

One of the themes that emerged over and over again in our discussions was this: Although the bodily resurrection of Jesus cannot be empirically "proved" as if it were subject to scientific analysis, it can be historically verified on the basis of the extant evidence. (If the word "verified" here makes you tremble, check yourself in to the doctor; you are most certainly suffering froma bad case of Empiricism.) That is to say, the Christian belief in the resurrection is the most credible position because it makes the best sense of the most historical evidence. To the extent that alternative theories fail to do justice to all the historical data, they fail as credible or satisfactory hypotheses.

Although I don't have the space to go here into a full discussion of the issue (it took N. T. Wright 700 pages or so in his Resurrection of the Son of God), I was pleased and suprised to see David Friedrich Strauss--certainly no believer in the Resurrection--admit this point his work on the Life of Jesus (German orig., 1835-36). When he comes to the question of the Resurrection, Strauss admits that the Rationalist position--which does not admit the possibility of miracles--must bear the burden of proof and be able to solve the riddle of the origin of Christianity apart from the Resurrection. To the extent that it fails to do this, the entire skeptical project fails:

Strauss states: "We stand here, therefore, at the decisive point where we, in view of the reports of the miraculous resuscitation of Jesus, either confess the inadequacy of the natural-historical view for the life of Jesus, consequently retract everything said hitherto, and give up our whole undertaking, or we must pledge ourselves to render comprehensible the content of those reports--that is, the origin of the faith in the resurrection of Jesus--without a corresponding miraculous fact." (Leben Jesu fuer das deutsche Volk, 20th ed. 1:148, cited in Hilarin Felder, Christ and the Critics, 2:297).

The question I have for you is this: which alternative theory to the bodily resurrection accomplishes this? The "Swoon Theory", in which Jesus, who was not dead--despite the spear being thrust into his side--"miraculously" revived in the cool of the cave? Or the "Stolen Body" theory, in which the same cowardly disciples who fled from Gethsemane Friday night and hid in fear on Easter Sunday somehow mustered up the courage to take on the Roman guard on Saturday night? Which naturalistic explanation is able to explain all the data without explaining away the data?

Felder gives an excellent survey of them in Christ and the Critics 2:397-432. I personally find all of them far more incredible and implausible than the Resurrection itself.

And note well: I'm not talking about mere doubts that can be raised or simple possibilities. Doubts are not arguments, and one could certainly imagine a plethora of alternative possibilities, but that is not how history works. History works with evidence. So on the basis of the evidence, is there any other alternative that makes better sense of the actual data? Can Strauss and Co. really able to provide a credible explanation for the origin of Christian faith "without a corresponding miraculous fact"?

And if not, shouldn't we follow young David's advice? (As an aside, I just learned that Strauss was only 27 when he wrote the Life of Jesus!) Shouldn't we dispense with the alternative theories and accept the hypothesis that makes the best sense of the historical evidence?


Steven Carr said...

Somebody is attempting your approach Here

Of course, he isn't doing very well....

dan said...

Dr. Pitre,

I hope that you'll pardon my tardiness in getting back to you with my question about your understanding of the phrase "lead us not into peirasmos."

Let me just summarise what you wrote and then raise my question.

Basically, you argue that the term peirasmos refers to the "Great Tribulation" that would precede the "end of the age" and the "restoration of Israel." Furthermore, since such an event would be a "New Exodus," the peirasmos could be understood as "a paschal time of trial that would precede the final ingathering" (152-53). Thus, you conclude that it is "this eschatological peirasmos, from which Jesus instructs the disciples to pray to be delivered" (153). You then go on to suggest that the disciples are to pray for deliverance from the tribulation itself (as Wright argues), and not from the apostasy that characterises the tribulation (as Jeremias argues).

Later on you connect this interpretation with Jesus' petition in Gethsemane. You write: "just as Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that the kingdom might come without their being led into the peirasmos... so here too in Gethsemane he offers one final plea to the Father for the kingdom to come without him having to drink the cup of tribulation" (486).

However, you also make the important point that, in both cases, the one making the petition accedes explicitly to God's will (Mk 6.10 with Mk 14.36).

I hope I haven't done an injustice to your argument by summarising it in this way.

My question is this: how does this understanding of "lead us not into peirasmos" fit with the call to cruciform discipleship?

It seems to me that Jesus is constantly reminding his disciples (and others who are interesting in becoming disciples) that following him is quite costly -- involving the loss of one's possessions, the loss of family, insults, persecution, the bearing of crosses, and so on and so forth. This leads me to think that Jesus might have been seeking disciples who would be willing to journey into the Great Tribulation alongside of him.

Furthermore, it may be that Jesus was seeking disciples who would continue to journey in the Tribulation, even after he was gone! Perhaps this is taking us too far afield, but I think of when Jesus' gives the "keys of the kingdom" to the disciples (Mt 16) and breathes the Spirit on the disciples, empowering them to forgive sins (Jn 20). These passages also make me wonder if there is not a salvific element to the way in which the disciples are called to participate in the Great Tribulation. Thus, bringing these thoughts together, I would like to suggest that Jesus is seeking disciples who will continue to move into the heart of the Tribulation, even after he is gone, so that the New Exodus can continue to occur (perhaps I am stretching the definition of the "Tribulation" by making this argument?).

If this is true, if disciples of Jesus are called to participate (salvifically) with him in the Great Tribulation, then I wonder if Jeremias' reading of "lead us into peirasmos" might not be more accurate.

Furthermore, I wonder if "lead us not into peirasmos" and "but deliver us from [the] evil [one]" end up sounding redundant from the perspective that you and Wright take. Doesn't Jeremias' reading make better sense of both sides of that statement?

I should, perhaps, mention that I am not altogether unbiased in the discussion of these things. I am a member of an intentional Christian community that is seeking to move into the "groaning places" of the world, with the hope of being "agents of God's new creation" (Wright's language). As a community we pray the Lord's Prayer together on a daily basis, and how we understand such things as "lead us not into peirasmos" are significant for both our identity and our mission.

I apologise for the length of this question and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with you (perhaps the way in which you connect the Lord's Prayer with Jesus' Gethsemane prayer is particularly relevant here... but I am not sure how).

Grace and peace.

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Dan,

GREAT questions! This is one of the issues I've wrestled with regarding the eschatological interpretation of the final petition, which I agree leaves some unanswered questions and can be misunderstood if not properly nuanced.
Unfortunately, I'm moving homes today, so I don't have time to respond! Please check this post sometime next week and I'll get back to you with a longer response. (Or you can forward me your email address by emailing me through the email link at brantpitre.com. I'll get the email and return it to you directly when I get the chance.)

Suffice it to say for now that I think you are absolutely correct about salvific participation in the suffering of Jesus in the tribulation (cf. Col 1:24). I do, however, think there is an important connection with Jesus' command in Gethsemane, but I'm still working this through in my own thought. Let's talk soon!

Anonymous said...

Please post your response here too. It would be a shame to miss it!

Jeremy Priest--Detroit, MI

David said...

I agree, please post the answer to Dan's question.