Tuesday, November 19, 2013

God raised Jesus and other eccentric historiography

Though unacknowledged, the resurrection of Jesus looms large over the work of biblical scholars (yes, even also Old Testament/Hebrew Bible ones).

There is it that a mess of questions about God’s agency and historical science comes to a very fine point. The resurrection of Jesus in my experience usually stays off the conversational table at disciplinary functions: it is kept even by confessional scholars in a kind of sequester of piety, a privately sustained parenthesis amidst the running work of historical reconstruction. If in their research scholars provide exhaustively this-worldly explanations for all the phenomena preserved in the Bible, in a whisper they will sometimes make one exception to God’s activity: the raising of Jesus.

But this – as it stands – may not really be possible or responsible. Whatever the claims mounted, legitimately, from the side of theology for the absolute singularity of this event, like all other events the Bible describes, at least in theory, it either left some empirical residue – or it did not. Under all the strata of tradition and theologizing, some ancestors of later Israel came out of Egypt in a way that is detectable, in principle if not in practice – or they did not. Likewise, under all the supercharged layers of reception, some event with a detectable profile catalyzed the New Testament’s preaching about the resurrection of Jesus. And, crucially, something in the character of this event as experienced by its first witnesses called for an explanation that centrally featured God’s agency. What about the shape of the resurrection event demanded from the disciples that they point to God as its primary actor? And would we now accept that this shape demands the same causal explanation from us?

I ask because “uniqueness” is a quality often ascribed to the resurrection, but which does not qualify an event for modern historiographers as God-generated. At a trivial level, each event ever is “unique” and, strictly speaking, unprecedented; analogy functions conceptually to bridge and coordinate each singular moment of human experience. But these instances of uniqueness, clearly, do not suggest God’s activity in any special way. At a larger level, in my own work, I encounter many potential forms of historical uniqueness. The nations that bordered Israel and Judah to the east (Ammon, Moab, Edom) shared with them nearly identical languages, very similar religions, and comparable histories of national development. And yet none of them produced a Bible in the wake of the crisis caused by Babylonian destruction and vassalage. Their religions did not survive as such. But the genuine historical oddity of Israel’s religion – its scripturalization – does not prima facie indicate that God had anything to do with it. Other, this-worldly explanations are available – but even if they are not easily forthcoming, at what point can God be invoked responsibly as a cause? We are never reassured that any gap in our set of explanations is sufficiently durable that God can permanently fill it.

But if – as I think is true – God’s activity is never directly, incontestably readable from the surface of history, then what does this mean for the resurrection of Jesus, which is clearly, on the New Testament’s interpretations of it, meant to generate faith in God’s intervention and not depend on it? How can we at once affirm the paradoxical character of God’s presence in human history – veiled and revealed, visible by faith and not by sight – and also the faith-catalyzing (indeed, literally visible) quality of Jesus’ resurrection? Must we with Bultmann repudiate Paul’s reference to the 500 living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, since the apostle certainly intends there to provide a verifiable basis for belief in God’s raising Jesus?
I will leave that question open to finer theological minds than mine. But the point I wished to raise at the outset of this post is that if it is ever responsible to call on God’s activity in connection with a this-worldly phenomenon – be it Jesus’ reappearance or the escape of slaves from Egypt etc – then we biblical scholars (including Old Testament/Hebrew Bible people) need to lay down our embargo on invoking God and develop suppler means of ascribing him agency. More pointedly: if we wish still to say with the New Testament that God raised Jesus (rather than only that Jesus' disciples somehow experienced him again after death, for which there are doubtless various immanent explanations), then we must attend to the thousand other places in the Bible where God’s work in human affairs is remembered and celebrated. We can’t be theistic readers of the Bible at one place only, even as singular a place as it is. 

(If this whets your appetite, one of the older posts of which I am proudest is also about the resurrection).


  1. I'm not quite sure how much this parallels your point, but I often think to myself about the nature of God's interactions on Earth - how much is He directly involved in an exact moment, and how much comes about because of plans He's put in motion using "natural" phenomenon? In other words, direct divine action vs. careful natural planning. (Then again, is it sometimes both?)

    In viewing your discussion of the resurrection through that lens, I would be harder pressed to submit to the "planning through selection of natural events" view instead of the "direct divine action" view. With the information and belief I currently possess I have no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the resurrection or God's role in it, although that is based more-so on relevant testimony received through the Bible and appreciation for the importance granted to it through the church.

    I feel like I'm diverging from your discussion a bit! Perhaps my point is that, while "God's activity is never directly, incontestably readable from the surface of history," it is possible and/or probable depending on where your thoughts and beliefs lie. One of my initial premises would be a belief in God (which I hold), and from that stems the idea that if there is a God, then interaction with human reality and history is possible. Considering my follow-up beliefs regarding the Bible, I would add the adjective "probable."

  2. Hey Nate -- thanks for stopping by! and for your perceptive feedback.

    In response to your comment: you said that, granted certain theological premises, explaining an event like the resurrection in terms of God's action is possible (maybe even probable). This post queries the point at which theological premises (made in faith, i.e., within a circumscribed community) and historical data (demonstrable to a larger public) intersect. The difficulty with resurrection isn't its fit within certain theological coordinates about God's fidelity, justice, power, etc. It makes good sense within those! The difficulty is in its supposed persuasiveness to those not yet convinced -- those who do not share the same theological premises (particularly if in fact the resurrection of a crucified man itself fundamentally determines those premises)! In the end, what is demonstrable about the resurrection by public criteria is theologically mute or ambiguous, and the resurrection as Christians preach it remains mostly a statement of faith (see the other post I cited). But then how can the resurrection establish faith, as Paul and other NT witnesses propose that it does? I don't know. In the end, my larger point was that God's activity may be imperceptible except to faith -- but that students of the Bible shouldn't for that reason hesitate (as they do) to invoke it as they read, since the Bible itself does not share their historiographical reticence.