XFiles Friday: The Mystery of the Missing TombAugust 22, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 9.)
We’ve gone back as far as the AD 50′s, and found that at least some of the New Testament documents are likely to have been written within a couple decades (give-or-take) of the death of Jesus. Today, Geisler and Turek want to push this back even further, and give us a glimpse into what they see as testimony dating back to within a mere eighteen months of the Crucifixion.
Some New Testament Books Were Penned in the 40s and 50s A. D., with Sources from the 30s (Only a Few Years After the Death of Jesus)—As certain as we are about the date of Luke’s records, there is no doubt from anyone—including the most liberal of scholars—that Paul wrote his first letter to the church at Corinth (which is in modern-day Greece) sometime between 55 and 56. In this letter, Paul speaks about moral problems in the church and then proceeds to discuss controversies over tongues, prophecies, and the Lord’s Supper. This, of course, demonstrates that the church in Corinth was experiencing some kind of miraculous activity and was already observing the Lord’s Supper within 25 years of the resurrection.
The “miraculous activity,” it should be pointed out, consisted of people talking. Some people were babbling and claiming to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to babble. Others spoke plain language and claimed to be revealing the mysteries of God (none of which, sadly, were preserved for our edification). But talking, nonetheless. Geisler and Turek are quick to leap to the conclusion that “miraculous activity” was being historically documented in 1 Corinthians, but the documents themselves do not actually support anything more than the kind of hokum you can watch on the 700 Club any day of the week.
That’s not Geisler and Turek’s main point, though.
But the most significant aspect of this letter is that it contains the earliest and most authenticated testimony of the Resurrection itself. In the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul writes down the testimony he received from others and the testimony that was authenticated when Christ appeared to him:
Geisler and Turek call 1 Cor. 15 “the most authenticated testimony of the Resurrection itself,” but it would be more accurate to call it the earliest reliable record of what Christians were originally saying about the Gospel. G&T are correct, though, about the significance of this account, and of the fact that this is the earliest known version of the Gospel story, significantly older than the Four Gospels themselves. But before we look at Paul’s record of the original gospel, let’s do some forwards thinking. We want to compare two scenarios, one based on a literal, physical resurrection of Jesus, and one based on a non-literal, spiritualized “resurrection.”
If we start with a literal resurrection of Jesus, leading to the apostles literally seeing Jesus alive and walking around after his burial, and eventually commissioning Paul as an apostle, what kind of gospel would we expect Paul to preach? What apologetic problems must his story address? Well, obviously the most important thing is to prove that it really happened. Paul would need to cite the names of people (preferably non-believers) who had seen Jesus alive after his burial, and list the ways in which they assured themselves that it was really Jesus and that he was really alive again. Second, given the superstitious culture of the times, he would need to demonstrate that this was not just a ghost or spirit appearing to believers (otherwise it’s an ordinary ghost story rather than a resurrection). Paul, therefore, would need to emphasize that what the witnesses saw was the same physical body as had been buried, healed and brought back to life, and not just some separate, spiritual manifestation like (for example) King Saul calling up the ghost of Samuel.
The “spiritualized” scenario, on the other hand, is based on the common Christian practice of interpreting reality itself in a non-literal way: claiming that Jesus is in their hearts, for instance, or that he is “present” whenever two or more gather in his name. Notice, these are not mere metaphors; Christians believe that Jesus really is in their hearts, not just that they’re thinking about him or having feelings that might metaphorically be called “Jesus in my heart.” So let’s suppose that the first Christians took a similar view of the death and “resurrection” of Jesus, and decided that (regardless of the state of Jesus’ material body) it was a spiritual truth that he spiritually rose from the dead in a spiritual body, just like it’s a spiritual truth that he’s in believers’ hearts.
What would Paul’s gospel be like if Jesus had a “spiritual resurrection,” and what apologetic problems would he need to address? The two gospels would be superficially similar, claiming that Jesus died, was buried, and rose (in some sense) on the third day. The apologetic problems would be different, though. Instead of needing to establish the physical reality of a physical resurrection, Paul’s primary apologetic problem is going to be convincing people that this “spiritual resurrection” was a valid resurrection and not just another ghost story. Again, given the culture of the times, one of the best ways to accomplish this task is to play up the idea that the heavenly/spiritual realm is higher, more pure, and more true than the carnal, fleshly, material world. A spiritual resurrection, thus, would not merely be “as good as” a material resurrection, it would be better. Paul’s gospel, under the spiritualized scenario, would thus want to emphasize the differencebetween the fleshly body that was buried and the spiritual body that was raised, and to make this new kind of “resurrection” the new standard to which we all ought to aspire.
Starting from initial conditions, then, we can see that the two scenarios would tend to produce different types of gospels. The “literal resurrection” scenario would tend to produce gospels that emphasized the physical reality of the physical body coming back to life (as the later Gospels do and as Geisler and Turek’s “empty tomb” argument does). The “spiritual resurrection” gospel, by contrast, would emphasize the difference between what died and what rose, rather than trying to prove that what died was what rose. These aren’t just arbitrary assumptions; they’re the natural consequences of the difference between the apologetic problems inherent in a literal resurrection versus a spiritual one. Now we’re ready to look at 1 Cor. 15, and see which type of gospel Paul actually preaches.
For I delivered to you as of first 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, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. (1 Cor 15:3-8)
Notice right away we seem to be following the “spiritual resurrection” scenario. Jesus’ physical, material body (i.e. the one that was buried) didn’t randomly appear and disappear. When we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry before the crucifixion, the writers don’t say that he “appeared” to people, they say that people saw him and heard him. Magical appearances and disappearances are part of the ghost story type of narrative, not the “I saw Elvis” type of “he’s alive” story. But let’s continue. Paul bemoans his own unworthiness for a while, then continues with several verses about why it is important that the resurrection be true (in some sense). And then we get to this part:
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, “The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL ” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly. [Emph. added]
Paul is arguing the contrast between that which was buried, and that which rose, and he’s saying that this new body, this spiritual body, is actually a better resurrection than if the perishable physical body were raised. This is exactly the sort of argument we would expect to arise if the original gospel were the story of a spiritual “resurrection” in which a ghostly Jesus “appeared” to his disciples after (and during) the lifeless phase of his physical body’s existence. Paul is selling the idea that spiritual resurrection is a valid form of resurrection. He continues:
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just to put the polish on the apple, Paul is selling the Corinthians the idea that this new, spiritual “resurrection” is a better resurrection. The old body is perishable, weak, and subject to sin and death. This new kind of resurrection is much better, because in your spiritual bodies you’ll be able to inherit the kingdom of God. Betcha yer OLD body couldn’t do that, eh? You need to trade it in and get one of them bodies like what Jesus came back in.
Naturally, Geisler and Turek look on this gospel account from the perspective of modern Christian piety and doctrine, and assumed that Jesus’ physical body was “transformed” just like Paul promises at the end of 1 Cor. 15. But notice, Paul never tells us that this is the case, and in fact Paul emphasizes the difference between what was buried and what “rose”, and consistently refers to the risen “body” of Jesus as something that magically appears and disappears, just like a ghost, and contrary to the apologetic need that would have accompanied a literal, physical resurrection.
As for the “empty” tomb, who cares? A savior who rises in a spiritual body is better than one who comes back in the same perishable body that originally died, so it doesn’t matter if the tomb is empty or not. It doesn’t even matter if the disciples move the body out of the rich man’s tomb. (Maybe the rich man wanted it back?) Venerating the materialistic corpse would be rather beside the point, if not an outright rejection of the Gospel of the Resurrection, so it’s entirely possible that the corpse disappeared through ordinary neglect. By the time the Church decided that it did want a physical, material resurrection of Jesus, the tomb was indeed empty, assuming they found the right tomb.
Some may say that this is speculation, and it is, but the question is: how is it that a mere speculation can fit the real-world facts so much better than the Gospel does? Especially when the evidence for the Resurrection boils down to believing the words of men who might not have had a literal interpretation of reality? Truth is consistent with itself, and if my story is more consistent with reality than the Gospel is, then the Gospel has a problem.
So Geisler and Turek are correct: the earliest known rendition of the Christian is indeed very significant. Unfortunately, it is most significant for the way in which it turns out to be more consistent with a “spiritual resurrection” than with a literal one, in contrast to the later Gospel accounts which go out of their way to follow the “literal resurrection” formula (though even then they can’t quite shake the magical appearances and disappearances). Paul ought to have emphasized things like the “empty tomb,” but the tomb isn’t there. Instead, Paul seems to be trying to convince people that the original, perishable body doesn’t need to live again, that a spiritual resurrection is better.
The Church today retrofits 1 Cor. 15 with an orthodox interpretation that essentially ignores the contrast Paul makes between the dead physical body and the raised spiritual body, in favor of the dogma that the spiritual body was the physical body, transformed. As backwards thinking, the Church’s excuse helps cover up the problem. But it can’t escape the fact that the inconsistency is there.