Appendix B: Biblical Scholarship and the Resurrection: Did He or Didn’t He?
Anyone who wishes to propose a hypothesis for “what really happened” on Easter is taking on a difficult challenge. Besides the fact that this is an emotionally charged subject, we have no evidence except for accounts written down fifty or more years later by people who had a particular point to prove. Nevertheless over the past couple of decades “form criticism” has been able to learn much about the pre-Gospel sources that contributed to the New Testament, and scholars have put forth a number of hypotheses.
Let us state right here at the beginning that any hypothesis about the resurrection or the resurrection appearances must meet several criteria: (1) First, it must be consistent with the results of modern scholarship; (2) Second, if it is proposed as a conclusion based on the evidence, and not just as speculation, the evidence must in fact be persuasive enough to lead to this conclusion; (3) Third, it must be consistent with the Biblical evidence about the post-Easter Church; that is, it must explain the dramatic turnabout in the disciples and it must fir with the proclamation of the very early Church.
The purpose of this appendix, then, is to summarize the results of modern Biblical scholarship concerning the resurrection, to look at the conclusions reached by those whom I will call the “minimalists”, and to evaluate their arguments and proposals.
Who are the minimalists? First of all, we must say that no serious exegetes propose that the resurrection accounts as we have them in the Gospels are accurate representations of events that took place two thousand years ago in Palestine. It is generally acknowledged that the post-Easter appearance narratives are the end result of much elaboration. Some would maintain that these accounts point to after-death appearances of Jesus to the disciples, the precise nature of which is lost to history. The minimalists are those who do not think that these narratives point to any analogous historical event, who maintain that in fact there were no post-mortem appearances of Jesus at all, no experiences of Jesus after his death by the apostles.
We need to note that these people are not necessarily enemies of the faith. Some of them are exegetes and theologians who after careful consideration have felt compelled to conclude that this is what the weight of the evidence points to. As representatives of the minimalists I will consider Edward Schillebeeckx’s Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1979), a long and weighty study of current New Testament scholarship, and Thomas Sheehan’s The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (Random House, 1986), a more accessible argument based on the results of Schillebeeckx and a number of others. (Perhaps we should note a warning here, however, that another of Sheehan’s views — that Jesus’ purpose was to end religion by preaching that God is in our midst — is an idiosyncratic position not representative of modern scholarship. However, I confess a strong sympathy for what I see as his underlying purpose: to get people away from the teachings about Jesus and back to the teachings of Jesus.) Before we examine their arguments, though, we should remind ourselves of what the Gospel record is.
The Resurrection Appearances in the Gospels
All the Gospels agree that on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene, either alone (John) or with another woman named Mary (Matthew) or with her and also one or more other women (Mark and Luke), went out very early to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. They may have been taking spices with which to annoint the body (Mark and Luke). She (they) encountered either one angel (Matthew and Mark) or two (Luke and John). In the Synoptics the angel(s) tell them that Jesus has risen, and in Matthew and Mark that they should tell the disciples that Jesus is going before them to Galilee, where they will see him. Mark then says that the women “said nothing to anyone” — and this is the end of what we have of the original version of this Gospel. (More on this later.)
Matthew alone mentions that guards had been posted at the tomb and that they were bribed to spread the story that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body.
Then Jesus appeared to the women (Matthew) or apparently did not (Luke) as they went to tell the disciples, or else appeared to Mary Magdalene after she told Peter (John). The disciples either responded by going directly to Galilee where Jesus appeared to them once, though some still doubted (Matthew), or they experienced appearances of him in Jerusalem (Luke and John), perhaps not leaving for Galilee because they did not believe the women (Luke).
So only Luke and John report appearances to the apostles in Jerusalem. Luke tells of Jesus walking to Emmaus with two of his followers, who do not recognize him during the journey but only when he breaks bread with them, at which point he disappears. They return to Jerusalem and find the eleven gathered together, are told that Jesus has appeared to Simon, and then Jesus appears among them. He eats a piece of fish to prove that he isn’t a spirit, preaches to them, and then goes out with them to Bethany from where he ascends into heaven. (In the Book of Acts, though, Luke says that Jesus appeared among them for forty days.)
In John, Jesus also appears to the disciples, passing through locked doors, then appears again a week later to a group which this time includes Thomas, who previously doubted but now believes. Then John (unlike Luke) also includes a detailed account of an appearance in Galilee. Seven of the disciples were out fishing and were directed by a person on the beach to try on the other side of the boat, at which point they made a great haul of fish and realized that this person must be Jesus. Returning to the shore, “none of the disciples dared ask, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord?’ (John 21:12) (This strikes one as a strange way to describe recognizing someone as familiar to them as Jesus). Then Jesus passed out bread and fish and gave instructions to Peter.
All of this, of course, leaves one puzzled. Did he appear to the women or not? Did he appear to the disciples only in Galilee, only in Jerusalem, or in both? Why do the disciples have trouble recognizing him at times? Why does Mark mention no appearances at all? And why are we told nothing about the specifics of his appearance to Simon Peter when this is generally credited with being the formative event of Christianity?
While the defenders of a resurrection can point to a unanimity that Mary Magdalene discovered an empty tomb and (including Mark by inference) that Jesus appeared to the apostles, those who argue against it can point to all these inconsistencies. And while some discrepancies should perhaps be expected in descriptions of very unusual events that were written down in the form we have them some fifty years after these events, this can hardly serve as an argument for their accuracy.
At this point we will look at the arguments based on (1) the empty tomb; (2) the absence of appearance narratives in Mark; (3) the testimony of Paul; and (4) the evidence of the oral traditions. We will attempt to evaluate the various arguments as we proceed, before summarizing the evidence and then examining the hypotheses put forward by the minimalists.
1. The Empty Tomb
Even the minimalists grant there may very well be a historical basis to the account of the discovery of the empty tomb. There seem to be two separate traditions that point to Jesus’ body being put in a grave by Joseph of Arimathea. If it were a new tomb (Matthew, Luke and John) this would have met the requirements of Jewish law that the body of one who had been hanged on a tree not be buried with anyone else. Even Sheehan admits (p. 148) that the women may have seen where this was and that Mary Magdalene (either alone or with other women) visited the tomb early on Sunday morning and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Schillebeeckx further acknowledges what is to me the obvious conclusion about Matthew’s story about the guards being bribed: if Matthew is refuting a story that Jesus’ body was stolen, then even the Church’s enemies who spread this story acknowledged that the tomb was empty.
But it is generally accepted that an empty tomb didn’t prove anything. It certainly didn’t prove or even imply a resurrection in first century Palestine. The picture of Mary weeping outside the tomb because “they have taken away my Lord” is the kind of reaction one would expect. In fact, the disappearance of the body wasn’t even necessary for a resurrection according to many of the contemporary ideas.
Some scholars suggest that the account of the empty tomb was passed down by the early Christian community in Jerusalem, who may have known the location of the tomb and used it as the focal point in periodic commemorations, perhaps as a shrine. It is further suggested that the empty tomb was not even originally connected with the appearance narratives. Sheehan uses this to argue that Mark knew about the empty tomb but not about the appearances (see below), and that Paul may not have known of the empty tomb.
There is an interesting aspect to the minimalists’ argument here. Because the empty tomb is the most historically defensible element of the resurrection narratives, they point out all the reasons why this would not imply a resurrection. But this also deprives them of one anticipated hypothesis — that the fact of the empty tomb gave rise to the appearance stories — and it also explains very well why Paul would not bother to mention it when he had resurrection appearances to point to. It also corroborates the reactions related in the Gospel accounts.
Meanwhile we are left with no answer as to who rolled the stone away and why the body was missing. Did Joseph change his mind and want his tomb back? Did grave robbers or enemies of Jesus steal the body? Did his disciples? (This seems unlikely as it seems to have been only the women who knew where it was.) We shall never know. But since an empty grave does not a resurrection make, it doesn’t really matter.
2. The Gospel of Mark: No Appearances?
It is generally accepted that Mark 16:8 is the end of what we have of the original version of this Gospel and that verses 9 to 20 were added sometime in the middle of the second century AD to compensate for the lack of appearance accounts. It is also generally accepted that Mark is the oldest of the Gospels, dating from around 70 AD. Sheehan argues that the lack of resurrection appearances in the oldest Gospel indicates that in fact there were no resurrection appearances (pp. 98, 131 — 146). That is, the stories in the later Gospels (15 — 25 years later) are not just accounts that have become more specific, more physical and more elaborate over the years (which all scholars would admit), but they are in fact mythical stories not based on real events at all. While we cannot prove this one way or the other, there are several serious problems in arguing this based on Mark.
First of all, even though it is the oldest ending we have, we cannot be sure that 16:8 was the original ending of the Gospel of Mark. The majority opinion seems now to be that it was. I suppose one might ask, how does one lose the end of a book (or scroll)? However, I can see some strengths in the persistent minority view that what we have is not the original ending of Mark: even for a Gospel that tends to be abrupt in nature, the ending is very abrupt. The women told no one? It ends that way? It doesn’t make sense. And as for losing the end of a book — I have done this myself, and with bound books, so I am sure that it is possible to lose the last piece of a scroll. (But see Schillebeeckx’s argument below and Sheehan’s on narrative structure.) In any case, one must be somewhat tentative in making conclusions based on the end of a Gospel that may not have been its end. We shall never know.
Second, Schillebeeckx argues that the reason that Mark mentions no resurrection appearances is not that he wasn’t aware of them, but rather because they didn’t fit with his theology. “If the assertion is correct that in associating exaltation with Parousia (thus not with resurrection) Mark does not see the celestial Jesus as presently operative, but affirms the complete absence of Jesus from his sorrowing and suffering Church, it then becomes possible to understand his not accepting the tradition of Jesus appearances: ‘appearing’ is what Jesus will do at the Parousia, not before” (p. 418). Thus, “he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7) does not in this understanding refer to a resurrection appearance (either implied or in a missing original ending), but rather to the Second Coming. If this is the correct interpretation of Mark then he may very well have been aware of resurrection appearance accounts.
Third, we have the insightful study of the narrative done by Sheehan himself. He points out that “the rhetorical structure of this narrative is calculated to hold the reader within the tale and, from within the tale, to confront the reader with the possibility of believing in the resurrection. The narrative effects that purpose in part by allowing the listener to understand more than the subjects of the story do. . . . It would seem, then, that the story is confronting you with a decision and inviting you to do precisely what the women did not do: to believe that Jesus has been raised rather than to flee in confusion.” (p. 141)
This may explain how 16:8 could have been the original ending of Mark, but it also points directly to a shared knowledge of the resurrection and so by direct implication to the resurrection appearances. The empty tomb was not enough. Therefore the readers, who know this was not the end of it, are indeed impelled back to their own faith and their knowledge: “we know what happened next, and why this was not the end of it!”, they say to themselves.
Sheehan, however, conjectures that the pre-Marcan oral version of this account was “content to leave the question unanswered” (p. 145) as to where belief in the resurrection came from. But this is to ask us to believe that Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem didn’t know about the appearances — with Simon Peter in their midst for a while? And Sheehan also claims that “it is clear that the narrative does indeed point beyond itself” — not, however, to an alleged happening in the past, since “the story’s purpose is precisely to show that such past ‘events’ do not bring about faith” (p. 144). But is not the opposite clear? The story’s point may be to show that the specific past event of the empty tomb did not bring about faith. But it then very clearly forces us to ask ourselves, “If the women said nothing to anybody, then how do we know he was raised? Then what happened next to change this, for here we are being told about it? What event transpired?” This is what the structure of the narrative impels us to do.
The minimalists could use Mark to argue against any resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, since he points to Galilee if he indeed implies this kind of appearance. In this understanding, Mark may have the women be silent either to explain why the apostles hadn’t heard of the empty tomb, or more likely, to emphasize that the empty tomb was not enough, that something else needed to happen. However, we must remember Schillebeeckx’s argument that Mark simply wasn’t going to admit resurrection appearances, no matter how many he knew of. (One also can’t help but wonder — if Mark is so careful to play down any causative role of the empty tomb, are we perhaps being too naive in agreeing that it played no role in belief in Jesus’ resurrection?)
Fourth, the final clincher against using Mark to argue that the appearance accounts were not known at the time of this earliest Gospel is the simple fact that Paul, writing two decades before Mark, makes specific mention of resurrection appearances. Not only that, Paul quotes what is recognized to be an earlier creed in I Corinthians 15:3 — 5: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve?’ He then goes on to mention appearances to more than five hundred brethren, to James, and then to all the apostles (which may be part of the creed passed on to him or else may be Paul’s own addition) before adding “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.” (15:8)
So there can be no doubt that resurrection appearances were known of by about 55 AD, at least fifteen to twenty years before Mark was written. If this creed was passed on to Paul near the time of his conversion then we are talking about a possible dating as early as 32- 34 AD. only a couple of years after Jesus’ death.
But there are a number of questions about Paul’s testimony and the conclusions that can be drawn from it. We will turn now to consider this.
3. Paul’s Testimony
“He was raised on the third day . . . and . . . he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (I Corinthians 15:4)
To judge from Paul’s early formulations of faith, then, the raising of Jesus from the dead has no chronological date or geographical location ascribed to it and no connection with an empty tomb. In fact, the raising of Jesus seems to be no event at all, but only an expression of what Simon had experienced in Galilee. And as regards the appearance to Simon, the text in First Corinthians, upon closer examination, calls into question the notions (1) that such an appearance was an ‘event’ that occurred after Jesus had physically left his tomb and (2) that Jesus was made manifest to Simon in any visible or tangible way. (Sheehan, p. 117-118)
On what basis does Sheehan make these claims, and how persuasive are the arguments that he and other minimalists put forth in regard to Paul? We will look at (A) the question of chronology (does “the third day” mean “the third day”?); (B) the accounts in the Book of Acts of Jesus’ appearance to Paul; (C) inferences from these accounts about the resurrection appearances; (D) Schillebeeckx’s view on Paul’s relation to the classical “conversion model”; and (E) inferences as to location and “event”.
(A) Paul’s Chronology: Does “The Third Day” Mean “The Third Day”?
Paul says (quoting a creed) that Jesus “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”. (I Cor. 15:4). Both Sheehan (p. 112) and Schillebeeckx (pp. 526-532) argue strenuously that Paul did not mean by this that Jesus was raised on a particular day which happened to be the first day of the week. This is one of the few areas in which it seems apparent that the minimalists have let their conclusions determine their assessment of the evidence instead of the other way around, but we will examine their arguments.
Sheehan supports his assertion only by assertion and by reference to the conclusions of several exegetes, so we must examine Schillebeeckx to discover the line of reasoning here. He points out first that the Gospel Easter narratives never mention “the third day”, but always “the first day of the week”, even when elsewhere these Gospels include earlier predictions of a rising on the third day. Therefore, he concludes, these were two different traditions.
But does that mean they don’t refer to the same day? Schillebeeckx argues that “on the third day” doesn’t refer to a particular day at all. He points out that in Jewish tradition “the third day” had special significance. It was the decisive and critical day, “the day of important, salvific events or of sudden overwhelming calamity” (p. 259). It indicates a decisive event after a short period of time. “On the third day” is a scriptural term, and may have been used by Jesus as part of his self-understanding. Thus, he says, to say that Jesus was raised “on the third day” affirms that God’s rule has come in Jesus (p. 531) and “is charged with immense salvific implications. It tells us nothing about a chronological dating of the resurrection” (p. 532). Sheehan even states that it “took place outside space and time” (p. 112), an argument often used by defenders of the resurrection to shield it from historical inquiry!
There are two problems with the minimalist position here. First, like Bultmann, they show a lack of appreciation for the flexibility of language (see Chapter 4). It is quite possible for a phrase to connote a great and decisive day and also to denote a specific date. Consider, for example, “Independence Day” — for citizens of the United States this means the signing of our Declaration of Independence, the victorious struggle for freedom and the beginning of the noble experiment of democracy; it also means fireworks and family picnics and a long weekend. But it also means, with no doubt whatsoever, the fourth day in the month of July in the year 1776. So even if Paul, and the creed he quotes, use “on the third day” to mean a great and decisive day, no one can show any reason to doubt that they also meant to pinpoint a particular day shortly after the crucifixion.
Second, one feels compelled to ask whether the minimalists are claiming that Paul and the Gospel writers couldn’t count. “On the third day” — not the third day after — does happen to be the first day of the week when they went to the tomb. And in fact one can see very clearly in Matthew’s version of the predictions of the Passion that he could count and that he has changed Mark’s “after three days” to his own “on the third day” in order that this would correctly designate the first day of the week. So for Matthew (and Luke), who were much closer to the thoughts of the early creeds than you or I or the minimalists, “on the third day” did refer to a particular chronology. Otherwise, they would have left Mark’s wording unchanged, which in Matthew’s case would have fit better with his reference to Jonah. One of the problems here was to get “in accordance with the Scriptures” to be compatible with the chronology that they knew. Mark apparently gives preference to the Scriptures, perhaps with Jonah in mind (who was in the belly of the whale three days and nights before being rescued). Either that or we must admit that Mark — unlike Matthew and Luke — is not concerned with chronology. But since these latter two never even allude to Hosea 6:2 (“on the third day he will raise us up”), and since Matthew would otherwise have remained consistent with the “after three days” of Jonah, we must stay with our conclusion that it was precisely their concern with chronology that caused them to say “on the third day” instead of “after three days”. To deny that any concern of this type is reflected in Paul’s use of this same phrase is to make a conclusion which there is no rational basis to make.
Meanwhile, of course, the point could be raised that what happened on the third day was the discovery of the empty tomb. The resurrection itself is not dated in the Gospels. Rightly or wrongly, Matthew and Luke seem to assume that if it had happened sooner the disciples would have heard about it sooner, or they simply fall into the common human habit of equating an event with our knowledge of it.
Jesus’ Appearance to Paul: The Accounts in Acts
All Paul says in I Corinthians (and elsewhere) is that Jesus appeared to him. To get any details about this appearance we have to turn to the Book of Acts, where accounts are found in Chapters 9, 22, and 26.
The account in Acts 9 relates that as Paul was on his way to Damascus to continue his persecution of the early Christians, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord”, asked Paul, and he was answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting?’ He was then told to go into the city where he would be told what to do. (Acts 9:3 — 5)
A virtually identical account is attributed to Paul himself in Acts 22. In both accounts he was led into Damascus blind. The only difference is that in the first account Paul’s companions heard the voice but saw no one, and in the second they saw the light but could not hear the voice. (We ought to note that in Acts 9 it doesn’t say they didn’t see the light, but that they saw “no one”.)
The third account is related by Paul as part of his speech to King Agrippa in Acts 26. Again, he says he saw a light — “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun” (26:13) — and he and his companions fell to the ground, and he heard Jesus’ voice. There is no mention of blindness, though this would be a not unusual temporary effect of a light brighter than the sun, and he was given his commission to bear witness to the Gentiles right then and there.
Now, we must ask: since these accounts were not written down by Luke (the author of Acts) until about fifty years after the event they describe, should they be treated as any more accurate than the resurrection appearance accounts in the Gospels? In spite of the similar distance in time, exegetes give much more credence to these accounts of Paul’s experience, for some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. What is obvious is that these accounts in Acts are much less elaborate — there are no physical appearances of Jesus, for instance — and much more consistent. In addition, Schillebeeckx argues that we have two separate traditions represented here and that the account in Acts 26 is somewhat contrary to Luke’s own viewpoint, so that it probably represents “an already extant, authentic Pauline tradition” (p. 377). So perhaps we can conclude that Paul himself related his experience in terms such as those found in Acts.
(C) Jesus’ Appearance to Paul: Like the Easter Appearances?
Here is the crux of the argument from Paul. In Paul’s own words he links Jesus’ appearance to him with the Easter appearances to Peter and the twelve (actually the eleven). In Acts we have accounts of this appearance which may go back to Paul himself which make it clear that this appearance of Jesus was not an “appearance” as we would think of it. (There certainly is no reason to think that Paul claimed a more physical apparition than described in Acts; these accounts tend to grow in the telling, not diminish.) So if the appearances to Peter and the eleven were like the appearance to Paul, as Paul seems to imply, then we can infer that the Easter appearances were not “appearances” at all. The minimalists then go on to conclude that there was no “event” or at least no experience of Jesus. We must now examine this argument.
First, we have to acknowledge that in accepting the description of Paul’s experience in Acts we must do so with some tentativeness. It is at least possible that Luke, in telling the story, has exaggerated the difference between the Damascus event and the resurrection appearances in his Gospel in order to maintain a distinction between the original apostles and Paul. (But see Schillebeeckx, below.)
Second, even if we accept the accounts in Acts, it is quite possible that Paul exaggerated the similarity between the appearance to him and the appearance to the apostles in order to authenticate his claim to be also an apostle, one called independently by Jesus. Certainly this is an underlying theme of Paul’s. Did it have no effect on his claim for a similar experience of Jesus?
But suppose we grant that Paul is correct in implying that the other appearances were similar in nature to his. After all, he met Peter and others who had experienced these, and no doubt heard about what had happened. And Schillebeeckx argues that Luke presents the Acts 26 version of the appearance to Paul as “really an Easter” appearance of Christ, in the same sense as the formal, official appearances of Christ to Peter and the Eleven” (p. 377). So let us grant that Paul not only claimed but was indeed correct in claiming that his appearances and the Easter appearances were similar — we need to ask, similar in what way? Surely Paul means to say that in both cases they experienced the risen Jesus and that in both they received their official charge as apostles. But on what basis can we assume that Paul meant to claim any more similarity than that? It is indeed possible that Paul meant to imply that Peter, also, saw a bright light and heard Jesus’ voice speaking to him. But this is only one possible hypothesis which could be affixed to this chain of tentative conclusions. If we proceed any further we must recognize that we are well into the realm of speculation.
(D) Further Speculation: Paul’s Conversion
Let us grant for the sake of argument that Acts is accurate, that Paul is correct, and that Paul meant to imply that the Easter appearances were similar to his in content as well as in function. This could explain the uncertainty and doubt of some of the disciples and the fact that they did not recognize Jesus at first. However, this would still constitute an experience of the risen Christ of such force that it would also explain the dramatic turnabout of the disciples and the content of their preaching. The minimalists, however, wish to take us further.
Schillebeeckx says that in Judaism conversion was often called illumination and was “represented by what has become the classic model of a ‘conversion vision: the individual concerned is suddenly confronted with a brilliant light and hears a voice” (p. 383). He may be right, but he does not support this assertion with any references. It is true, as he notes, that Paul may have viewed conversion as enlightenment just as we often do, as “seeing the light”. I see no reason that Paul should have taken that any more literally than you or I, but Schillebeeckx proposes that what we have in Acts 9 is Paul’s conversion “expressed in the model of a conversion vision” (p. 384).
Schillebeeckx’s conjecture, then, is that what Paul experienced was a conversion, that this was expressed as a “conversion vision” (even though, he implies, Paul really didn’t experience Jesus), and that this evolved into the “Easter appearance” type of account in Acts 26. (This in spite of the fact that Schillebeeckx says that Acts 26 represents an older tradition than Acts 9 [p. 377].) You will have to judge for yourself whether it is reasonable to conjecture that Paul would relate his conversion, his experience of “seeing” that Jesus is the Christ, as an “appearance” to him of the risen Jesus. If this seems reasonable to you, then you have no good reason not to go along with Schillebeeckx’s next hypothesis: that this is also what happened to Peter and the eleven. They had a conversion experience. “Jesus was [not] made manifest to Simon in any visible or tangible way” (Sheehan, p. 118). We will consider this hypothesis again below and examine whether it satisfies the criteria that we set out at the beginning, in particular the need to explain the turnabout of Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion and the content of their message.
Schillebeeckx would have a stronger argument if there were an established cultural tradition of a specific type of conversion experience such as can be found in certain Christian denominations, particularly in “evangelical” sects and in the southern United States. People growing up in these churches are taught to expect a “born again” experience that makes them really Christians. As a consequence they tend to have these experiences. But I know of no information that would lead us to believe that a faithful Jew of the first century would have been prepared to have such an experience.
(E) Location and Event
We have not yet addressed Sheehan’s contentions that we can conclude from Paul that the resurrection had no geographical location or connection with the empty tomb, and that neither the resurrection nor the appearances were “events”. First, as we noted previously, there was no reason for Paul to mention an empty tomb that — as everybody agrees — meant nothing one way or the other about a resurrection. Second, Paul gives us no hint whatsoever as to his thoughts about the location of the resurrection, either where or whether. He may well have thought he didn’t need to, that people knew.
Third, while he does not directly address the question of whether the resurrection itself was an event, this is so curious a question that I would not expect him (or anyone) to address it unless this question were directly posed to them. And if the accounts in Acts are at all correct, Paul certainly considered the appearance to him to be an event that happened at a certain time in a certain location on the road to Damascus.
4. The Oral Tradition: Early Christologies
We noted earlier that form criticism attempts to go back behind the Gospels and the letters to infer the earlier traditions and strands. Some scholars who use this method believe they can discern four early Christologies. We must point out that these are very early indeed, antedating not only Paul’s letters (just over two decades after the crucifixion), but also antedating a consensus on the creed which was received by Paul (cf. I Cor. 15:3-5) — and if Paul converted in 32-34 AD or shortly after, would one not think that this creed was delivered to him reasonably close to this time? So if in fact the form critics can discern Christologies that existed before this, what they have given us is a window on the turmoil of the first few months and years right after the crucifixion, as Jesus’ early followers were struggling to find ways to explain what had happened. (To be fair: it is possible that Paul received this creed later, or that it did not yet represent the consensus view, but both of these seem unlikely to me.)
With this in mind, let us examine what Schillebeeckx has to say about these earliest creeds:
Of four ancient credal strands . . . only the various Easter Christologies make Jesus’ resurrection explicitly an object of Christian proclamation; in the other three early Christian creeds the resurrection is at any rate not an object of kerygma. This is broadly admitted by a good many scholars, but with the proviso: the resurrection is of course presupposed; yet not a single argument is ever advanced for this; it is simply postulated (apparently on the strength of the resurrection kerygma present everywhere in the New Testament, which is indeed the unitive factor of the canonical New Testament). But it is another question whether for some Jewish Christians the resurrection was not a “second thought”, which proved the best way to make explicit an earlier spontaneous experience, without their initially having done so. (p. 396)
While on the one hand we need to recognize the tentativeness of any conclusions about these very early pre-Gospel strands, on the other hand we do not wish to underestimate the work of the form critics. They have indeed accomplished a great deal. So let us grant Schillebeeckx his point, at least for the sake of argument. Let us suppose that not all of the earliest Christians explained the Easter experience(s) by concluding that Jesus had been raised. Some may well have thought in terms of exaltation: Jesus had been exalted to God, by God.
What implications would this have for the Easter appearances? It would mean that those aspects of the Gospel accounts which make it so clear that this was a resurrection (and not something else) were probably later additions and elaborations — but we had already concluded this anyway. Take away the angel(s) who said he was raised, Jesus’ exposition on the way to Emmaus on how a resurrection was according to the Scriptures (and his earlier predictions of the resurrection), the ascension into heaven, perhaps the eating of fish and showing of his wounds. We are still left with some pretty unusual appearances: to Mary, to Simon, to the eleven (though with fewer details). Since there was no universal expectation of an immediate resurrection, it would not be at all surprising if an experience of Jesus’ presence after the crucifixion were interpreted in some cases as an “exaltation” instead.
But I cannot see how it bears on our interpretation of the Easter event either way. Whether those who experienced this interpreted it first as a Jesus raised by God or as a Jesus exalted by God, in either case this is to make a remarkable claim: Jesus, who was dead and buried, made himself known to them! If this is indeed what happened, it would be surprising if they had not had some difficulty in interpreting this!
And in any case, as Schillebeeckx himself points out, “early Christian local churches did nevertheless all have an experience of Easter, that is, knew the reality which other churches explicitly referred to as ‘resurrection’.” (p. 396) And the general adoption of this explanation for what had happened, of the name of “resurrection” for this reality, took place very early on — as Schillebeeckx also says — “precisely because it so aptly articulated” the reality. (p. 396)
In conclusion, then, while there may have been some early Christologies that interpreted the Easter experience as “exaltation” instead of “resurrection”, this would not be a surprising response to “appearances” of Jesus after the crucifixion, and so does not address the nature or the probability of these appearances nor the question of whether the exaltation interpretation somehow evolved separately from the appearance traditions. Furthermore, within a very few years, those local groups who began with the “exaltation” interpretation had joined the consensus behind “resurrection”.
The minimalist case that there were no resurrection appearances, and in fact no post-crucifixion experiences of Jesus at all, rests on several lines of argument. But the strength of these arguments must be determined by examining each of them separately, not by lumping them together as if that would overcome any weaknesses. At this point we will review the evidence:
(1) The Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances are confused and contradictory. In addition, elements such as angels, teaching by Jesus, and his physicalness appear certain to be myth.
(2) There is, however, a general agreement in the Gospels on the empty tomb and on appearance(s) to Simon Peter and a group of apostles.
(3) The “empty tomb” may have originally been an independent tradition, but seems to imply nothing about a resurrection.
(4) If we have the original end of the Gospel of Mark in 16:8 — of which we cannot be sure — then Mark did not include an account of any appearances. But this may be a result of Mark’s theology (Schillebeeckx), or Mark may assume the reader’s knowledge of appearances (narrative structure). In any case the appearances were certainly known much before Mark, in a creed made known to Paul. So we can draw no conclusions here.
(5) Some doubt has been expressed whether the creed quoted by Paul meant “on the third day” to be a chronological reference to an event. This argument is not credible, however. Even if it were, there is no reason adduced to think that Paul did not think of the appearances as events that happened in a particular time and place.
(6) Form criticism has discerned evidence of four different early Christologies, only one of which seems to have included “resurrection”. But no argument can be made from an “exaltation” interpretation of the Easter experience that it did not involve appearances of Jesus, and within a short time the adherents of “exaltation” had subscribed to resurrection as the proper interpretation.
(7) Finally, this leaves Luke’s account in Acts of a Jesus appearance to Paul (which may have originated with Paul himself), and Paul’s classifying this with the appearances to Peter and the eleven. If we grant that Paul meant to claim a similarity in the nature of the appearance, and that he was correct in doing so — both of which are far from certain — then we have here the first evidence that addresses the nature of the resurrection appearances, aside from the unbelievability of the Gospel accounts themselves. But even if we acknowledge our tentativeness here, what sort of conclusions can we make? We will look at the minimalist proposals, at whether they are inferable from Paul, and then at whether they meet the criteria we adopted at the beginning of this appendix.
The Minimalist Hypothesis
Perhaps we should call this the “minimalist hypotheses”, for Schillebeeckx and Sheehan present somewhat different proposals as to what likely constituted the Easter experience for Simon Peter. Neither of them allows for actual resurrection appearances, but Sheehan is rather more minimalist than Schillebeeckx. He begins by allowing for an ecstatic vision:
In his despair, when he felt like a drowning man pulled to the bottom of the sea, the Father’s forgiveness, the gift of the future which was God himself, had swept him up again and undone his doubts. Simon ‘saw’ — God revealed it to him in an ecstatic vision — that the Father had taken his prophet into the eschatological future and had appointed him the Son of Man. (p. 105 — italics Sheehan’s)
But then Sheehan begins to back away from the idea of a vision: “It was an experience that could have been as dramatic as an ecstatic vision, or as ordinary as reflecting on the meaning of Jesus.” (p. 108)
And two chapters later he completes his denial of a special experience by Simon:
After his failure, Simon ‘turned again’. He did see Jesus again — but only in the sense of remembering, re-seeing, the present-future that Jesus, by living out his hope, had once become. (p. 124)
What Simon experienced — both before and after Jesus’ death — was not a ‘vision’ but an insight into how to live. (p. 124-125)
But Sheehan has now gone from an experience — an ecstatic vision — that he could have argued was paralleled by what actually happened to Paul, to a remembering or an insight, to nothing dramatic at all. Whatever else you may say about the appearance to Paul, it was certainly dramatic, for Paul could name the time and place of this event that caused (or was) his conversion. So Sheehan has gone beyond arguing from the evidence to simply stating his own hypothesis: Simon remembered. Sheehan, of course, is free to do this, but we will see below it does not meet the requirements we set for a credible hypothesis, besides not being consistent with Paul.
Schillebeeckx, on the other hand, agrees with us that “something happened”. After Jesus’ death and the disciples’ loss of nerve and before we find these disciples “boldly and confidently proclaiming that Jesus was to return to judge the world or had risen from the dead . . . something must surely have happened to make this transformation at any rate psychologically intelligible?” (p. 380) “That the New Testament bases itself on specific experiences after Jesus’ death (however they might be interpreted) seems to me, on the strength of the foregoing analysis, undeniable.” (p. 394)
What does Schillebeeckx then propose as these specific experiences? He follows his argument from Paul: that Acts 26 is an “Easter appearance”, that this developed from the account in Acts 9 and 22 which is a “conversion vision”, and that what lay behind this was Paul’s conversion experience, expressed here according to the classic model. So he proposes the same scenario for the disciples: conversion experiences that later, over time, developed into the official resurrection appearances that we have in the Gospels:
These disciples did of course come to realize — in a process of repentance and conversion which it is no longer possible to reconstruct on a historical basis — something about their experience of disclosure that had taken them by storm: their ‘recognition’ and ‘acknowledgment’ of Jesus in the totality of his life. This is what I call the ‘Easter experience’ . . . And then we may indeed say: at that juncture there dawns the experience of their really seeing Jesus at last. (p. 387)
This is at least arguably consistent with the evidence from the appearance to Paul. And it certainly avoids the problems of the Gospel accounts and the demands that we believe in the supernatural appearances of a dead man. It is also consistent with the results of modem scholarship.
But it there not something missing? Does it meet our other criteria? Is this persuasively consistent with Paul? And does it explain the dramatic turnabout of the disciples and the content of their proclamation?
The Argument from Paul (Again)
Is it credible to argue that a process of conversion is what Paul alludes to in I Corinthians 15? We can infer that Paul himself would disagree. Whether “appearance” means “visual” or not, it certainly refers to the intrusion of something outside oneself. Schillebeeckx himself says “The four differentiated instances in I Cor. 15 relate to Jesus; what is called the ‘appearing’, therefore, is obviously not to be characterized as an occurrence deriving merely from human psychology; on the contrary, it is described as an initiative of Jesus himself.” (p. 347)
A further problem with Schillebeeckx’s hypothesis that in Acts we see an Easter appearance account develop from a conversion experience account (aside from this problematic interpretation itself) is that Schillebeeckx himself recognizes that Acts 26 is based on an older tradition, not a more recent one.
Therefore, neither Schillebeeckx nor Sheehan can support their own hypothesis with an argument based on Paul. The most we can say based on I Corinthians 15 in conjunction with Acts is that the earliest accounts of the resurrection appearances may very well have been less explicit and elaborate than the present ones in the Gospels (which we had already assumed), and were perhaps analogous to the accounts of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as we find them in the Book of Acts.
How Do We Explain the Conversion and the Content?
We said at the beginning of this appendix that any hypothesis about the resurrection appearances, besides being consistent with modern scholarship and arguable from the evidence, must also explain the dramatic turnaround in the disciples and the content of their preaching. By postulating that the Easter experience of the disciples was the conversion process, how does Schillebeeckx explain this conversion? That is the big gap that I see in Schillebeeckx’s hypothesis (and of course also in Sheehan’s even more minimalist proposal). The question is, “what happened after Jesus’ death and before the conversion that we see evidenced in the bold and joyous preaching of the disciples? What brought about this conversion?” To this question, Schillebeeckx can only answer: the conversion itself. Under the circumstances, in the wake of a crucified, dead and buried — and apparently failed — prophet, Schillebeeckx’s answer does not meet his own requirement of making this transition “psychologically intelligible”. I cannot avoid the conclusion here that something else had to happen to occasion this conversion.
What was this something? And what hypothesis would explain the content of the post-Easter preaching of the disciples? Even Sheehan points out that there was a dramatic shift between the content of Jesus’ preaching and that of the disciples shortly after Easter. As Sheehan puts it, “Simon and the first believers . . . focused not on Jesus’ way of living but on Jesus himself?’ (p. 125) The content of their preaching was an exalted or raised Jesus, one who was not defeated on the cross but who was instead victorious.
What could the “something” be that not only brought about the turnaround in Jesus’ disciples — for surely something happened to do this — but which also changed the content of the proclamation from the message of Jesus to the message about Jesus, the message that he was triumphant, was exalted and/or raised from the dead? Is not the answer obvious? Only a modern minimalist over-reaction against the resurrection accounts could prevent us from seeing this: Simon Peter and the apostles experienced something that they could — and did — understand as the presence of Jesus.
What was this something? I don’t know. Certainly we owe a debt to form criticism and the minimalists for pointing out that this experience was probably more akin to the accounts in Acts of Paul’s experience than to the appearance accounts in the Gospels. (This would also explain the attendant confusion and doubt mentioned in the Gospels.) But the evidence does not allow us to agree with the minimalist thesis that nothing extraordinary happened. It is clear that something very extraordinary did happen to propel the apostles and to transform the content of their proclamation. Other than that it signified Jesus’ presence and so his resurrection to his disciples, I doubt we shall ever know the nature of what it was that transpired — but, as we concluded in Chapter 6, whatever it was is not of theological significance to us today.