XFiles Friday: Legends and Urban LegendsAugust 29, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 9.)
Last week we looked at 1 Cor. 15, which Geisler and Turek hail as being a record of a very early version of the resurrection story. Unfortunately for their apologetic, the reason Paul wrote chapter 15 is because, as verse 12 tells us, he was unhappy with the number of believers who did not buy this whole resurrection business. His response was first to emphasize that the resurrection was central to the gospel, and second to argue that a spiritual resurrection was better than merely bringing back the original, perishable body. And that’s a pair of arguments that’s actually more consistent with the idea that the resurrection story was originally about a spiritual resurrection, and only later morphed into an orthodox dogma of a literal, physical resurrection.
Obviously, Geisler and Turek didn’t explore any of that, and talked about something else instead. They see the 1 Cor. 15 account has having a different significance entirely.
Why is this important? Because, as Gary Habermas points out, most scholars (even liberals) believe that this testimony was part of an early creed that dates right back to the Resurrection itself—eighteen months to eight years after, but some say even earlier. There’s no possible way that such testimony could describe a legend, because it goes right back to the time and place of the event itself. If there was ever a place that legendary resurrection could not occur it was Jerusalem, because the Jews and the Romans were all to eager to squash Christianity and could have easily done so by parading Jesus’ body around the city.
Notice that Geisler and Turek are preaching a literal resurrection, so right away they bring up the empty tomb argument that is so conspicuously absent from Paul’s early testimony about the content of the gospel. If the issue is whether or not Jesus’ physical body returned to life, the most direct and obvious place to start is with the current disposition of the corpse. And, while it’s a bogus argument—given the climate, it wouldn’t be too hard for the disciples to keep the body out of Jewish/Roman hands until it had decayed to the point of being unrecognizable—it’s still quite effective in persuading the unwary, which is why Christians keep using it.
I can’t help but notice, too, the extra emphasis on “eighteen months” versus “eight years.” (Gee, I wonder which option they prefer?) G&T want to make the Corinthian gospel as early as possible, in order to give rebuttal to the idea that the Gospel emerged out of some murky period of long decades in which there was no record of the gossip and oral traditions that were circulating about Jesus and his ministry. According to G&T, we know that the Gospel was not a legend because we have actual, written records of early eyewitness testimony, as reported secondhand to Paul. I don’t believe it has occurred to them that an earlier date for the Corinthian gospel means it actually had more time, and thus more opportunity, to evolve from a spiritual resurrection into a physical one, but let’s look some more at this argument that an early record of the gospel means the resurrection could not be a legend.
Geisler and Turek seem to be thinking of legend in the more classical sense of a romanticized account invented long after the fact, as in the Legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There’s another type of legend, however, that they ought to be looking at: the urban legend. An urban legend is a story that is presented as true, and that circulates because it provokes some kind of strong, emotional response in the people who hear it, motivating them to repeat it (and possibly improve it) so that they can get the same reaction from others. In contrast to classic legends (in the Arthurian sense), urban legends need almost no time to be born, and not much time to be spread. (On 9/11, for example, there were rumors of a missile striking the Pentagon almost before the fires were out—an urban legend that still has its believers to this day.)
There’s no question that the disciples believed that Jesus rose (in some sense), and that they first began to believe this within days after his death. Geisler and Turek do a good job of documenting the fact that this rarely-disputed fact is true, but they haven’t really grappled with the question of whether or not this early story is not merely the same kind of quick-to-sprout, easily-spread urban legend that we see all the time. They make a big deal out of the “eyewitnesses” of the resurrection, as for example in this passage:
If the resurrection had not occurred, why would Paul give such a list of supposed eyewitnesses? He would have immediately lost all credibility with his Corinthian readers by lying so blatantly.
The problem with this argument is that, whether or not Jesus’ physical body returned to life, Paul was safe in giving the names of people he knew would testify that they had seen a post-crucifixion “appearance” of Jesus. The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of people willing to claim that they “saw” something, the problem is that the “risen savior” was seen only by believers who were members of a religion that is well-known for taking a non-literal view of reality, to the point that some of them would sincerely believe that stealing a communion wafer was kidnapping. Also, interestingly, none of the witnesses claims to have actually seen the physical body of Jesus return to life. That all (supposedly) happened off-camera somehow—prematurely, according to Jesus’ prediction that he would be buried for three nights and three days.
In other words, the “eyewitness” testimony that G&T make so much about is somewhat exaggerated. The most detailed accounts are also the ones that were recorded latest and thus had the longest to evolve and mature. And while Paul claims that Jesus was seen by 500 witnesses at one time, the details are curiously missing. When did this happen, and where, and who were the 500? Clearly, it was an event that happened long enough ago that Paul would think it remarkable that “most of [them] are still alive.” Was it supposed to be the same event as the “Ascension” in Acts 1? If so, why doesn’t Paul say? and why don’t we have any first-hand accounts of the event from any of the 500? Luke’s account in Acts is second or third hand, and Paul’s mention is so vague that we don’t even know for sure if he’s talking about the same thing.
Paul’s reference to 500 witnesses, in fact, has the same kind of detail deficit and off-hand assertiveness we typically find in unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay. And even if it is the same event as Acts 1, that story, too, has some problems. The Mount of Olives, where the event is supposed to have happened, is just across the valley from the Temple. If this miracle literally, physically happened, then we have a crowd of 500 gathering within visible distance of the most heavily-trafficked part of the city, and nobody in the city noticed that they were there or that a man took off from the middle of the crowd and flew up into the sky! And only a few days later, when Peter preached his Pentecostal sermon, nobody in the city was saying anything about a flying man, and not even Peter had anything to say about it!
Geisler and Turek know that skeptics have some objections to their argument, and they say they’re prepared to deal with them. We’ll save that for next week though. Stay tuned!