DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
Jesus on Resurrection


Anything Jesus says about resurrection is, I think, important in the light of the Church's traditional teaching that he rose from the dead. Perhaps Jesus indicates somewhere in the gospels what he thinks about resurrection.

In Mark 12.18-27 Jesus appears to accept resurrection as a given. This text is used by both Matthew (22.23-33) and Luke (20.27-39), each of whom makes his own minor changes. 

As the Roman Catholic scholar J P Meier remarks [1] it's "striking ... how carefully structured and balanced" this section is, a sign that it's been composed rather than reported as an actual happening in the timeline of history. He finds it 

difficult to accept the theory that this [passage] ... grew haphazardly in stages, with various verses being added by various hands at various times" as some others suppose. Rather, he says, "One gets the impression instead of various individual dispute stories ... that Mark has brought together as best he could ...

Unfortunately, in these passages the overlay of teaching material introduced by the gospel authors appears to be heavy, however well the various parts have been welded together. 

For example, whenever we come across a so-called "proof text" taken from the Old Testament (as in Mark 12.26-27) we have to be suspicious of the material's historicity. The reason is that this sort of "proof" was (and still is) a normal way of giving extra weight to Christian teaching. One clear instance of this is how the Book of Isaiah was used by the Gospel authors, and by Paul and later Christians to "prove" (in theological terms, that is) that Jesus was the Messiah [2]. Such "proof" is theology, not history.

This method may seem strange to some. And yet it is more often used than we realise. Political parties, for example, constantly affirm their policies and positions by reference back to founding members. Historians affirm their methods by pointing out that Thucydides (460-400 BCE) was among the first to try for an accurate rendering of "what really happened".

It turns out, however, that the gospel authors were asserting something very different. In essence (and putting it very simply) they claimed that [a] people were recorded in the Hebrew Bible actually forecasting what would happen later; [b] that they were being informed by God in so doing; and [c] that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were therefore part of God's great plan for humanity.

Not even politicians in their moments of most extravagant hyperbole would claim that because a founding member said or did something therefore certain current political events had to happen that way. Nor would an historian claim that because Thucydides recorded a particular event of the Peloponnesian War, therefore it is true that World War II followed the course it did.

In the case of Mark 12 the loose rendering of Deuteronomy 25.5-10 is mixed up with Genesis 38.8 and combined with Exodus 3.6 to lend authority to the author's theological intentions and - to take the extra step - to demonstrate that this was the way it had to come about.

On the other hand, we know from 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul (and no doubt other first-generation Christians) based their hope of a general resurrection of believers on the historical fact, as they believed, of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. 

The author of Mark's Gospel might well have adopted the same teaching, expressing it through the words of Jesus, a not-unusual method. We should, after all, always recall that the gospels were written long after Paul's letters. They were put together at a time when Christian teachings had already begun to take shape. That is, Paul's is the more "primitive" form of Christian theology.

Some (including J P Meier) think that for various technical reasons to do with the apparent coherence and discontinuity of the text, the way resurrection is dealt with in the gospels is indeed not typically Christian. That is, if an early Christian were to have addressed the matter they would have done so in terms similar to Paul's in 1 Corinthians rather than by quoting Deuteronomy and Exodus. This may be because by the time the gospels were written, Christians had been exposed far more to influences other than the earliest traditions about Jesus.

If that is correct, they argue, then this passage more likely than not reflects "what Jesus actually said". If so then we can reasonably suppose that Jesus thought that the dead will rise again. Traditional theology proposes that "Jesus was God" and could therefore not be wrong about such things. And if that's the case, then not only is it possible (even likely) that Jesus did rise from the dead, but we also can expect to be resurrected.

Many scholars propose that this passage is part of a more general reference by Jesus to the "last days" or eschaton - the final judgement which early Christians thought would soon come upon the world.  J P Meier writes in support of this view that 

... Jesus spoke at various times, in various ways, and under various images, of a final judgement on the last day and that, sometimes overtly or more commonly indirectly, he referred to the general resurrection of the dead as part of this eschatological event.

It seems to me, however, that the leading edge of modern scholarship is becoming more and more uncertain that Jesus did in fact address life in eschatological terms. If we strip away everything except those sayings and events which are certainly historical, nothing of the eschatological remains. In other words, the emphasis on the "last things" and on the general resurrection of every godly person may well have been that of Christians from the earliest times, rather than that of Jesus himself.

This is the only time the Sadducees are mentioned in Mark's Gospel. They are mentioned once by Luke's Gospel and nine times in Matthew's Gospel. This variable degree of attention alerts us to the possibility that the author of Matthew had a particular theological plan he wanted to get across to his readers. We ignore at our peril the way the gospel authors used their sources and invented their own interpolations.

We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Mishnah (Jewish sayings dating far back, but assembled finally only in 200) that teachers of the time debated the subject of resurrection. The Sadducees rejected the new-fangled teachings of other Jews about angels (the Greek word angelos means simply God's spirit messengers - not the winged humanoids of popular tradition), about spirits and about life beyond death. 

It seems likely, then, that the Sadducees are probably portrayed in the gospels as opponents of Jesus because they opposed the resurrection teachings of the early Church. There would have been nothing wrong or dishonest in doing this as far as people of the time were concerned. Their understanding of history and "truth" were very different from ours.

My reading of the present consensus is that the conflict between Jewish tradition and the early Christian communities was probably intense. The Acts of the Apostles renders some aspects of this conflict accurately. If so, it is hardly surprising that the gospels reflect the same conflict in a variety of ways, conflict with the Sadducees being one. Remember that the gospel authors sought to be theological, not historical.

J P Meier comments that 

One can understand why the Sadducees in particular and the Jerusalem establishment in general would find the Galilean upstart difficult to take or tolerate. 

He may be correct in this - but it is equally possible, and somewhat more likely, that the conflict was between the establishment and the first Christian communities. There is, I think, a mounting consensus that though Jesus may not have been liked much by his Jewish contemporaries, he fell victim to Roman rather than Temple powers. One must keep in mind that the early Christians were Jews and belonged to Jewish groups, not yet separated from the main body of Judaism.

The debate produced by Mark in this passage is congruent with the concerns of early Christian communities in conflict with the Jewish establishment. The upshot is that although we can't isolate the actual words of Jesus from this close-knit composition, a majority of scholars nevertheless thinks it likely that Jesus could have said something like this.
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[1] A Marginal Jew, 2001, Volume III
[2] The Fifth Gospel, J F A Sawyer, CUP, 1996

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