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Can We Trust the New Testament? by J. A. T. Robinson

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  • Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


    THE TRIAL AND DEATH OF JESUS

    However, rather than criticize these theories in detail, I would simply invite the reader to compare the assessment to be found in Dodd's last book, The Founder of Christianity. This is how he sums up the situation that faced the Jews before the trial:
    Jesus must be removed by death; he must also be discredited. The death sentence therefore must be legally and formally announced by the governor. The surest way to secure such a sentence would be to cite the Defendant on a charge of political disaffection. But such a charge would by no means discredit him in the eyes of the Jewish public; quite the contrary. It was for the Sanhedrin to show that he was guilty of an offense against religion.

    Comment


    • Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


      THE TRIAL AND DEATH OF JESUS
      The one charge that met both these requirements was that of claiming to be the Messiah. This could be interpreted from the religious point of view as the blasphemous one of making himself the Son of God and from the political point of view as the seditious one of pretending to the throne of Israel. And the Gospels all agree on the fatal way in which these three terms, Christ, Son of God and King could slide, or be made to slide, into one another.

      Comment


      • Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


        THE TRIAL AND DEATH OF JESUS
        The first requirement of any satisfactory account of the trial of Jesus is that it should be able to show how the political charge, though recognized to be disingenuous, could still have seemed plausible. The strength of the interpretation that reads Jesus as a political revolutionary is that his position must have been open to the construction put upon it in Luke 23.2: 'We found this man subverting our nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and claiming to be the Messiah, a King'. The weakness of such an interpretation is that it does not do justice to the evidence that everyone in the drama (the Jewish leaders, Pilate and Jesus himself) knew that this construction was fundamentally a lie.

        Comment


        • Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


          THE TRIAL AND DEATH OF JESUS
          This is nowhere again made clearer than in the Gospel of John. No one is arguing that the Johannine account of the trial or anything else is primarily to be assessed by the canons of tape recorded accuracy (though if there had been a tape in the Praetorium would it have put the issue beyond doubt or suspicion any more than the tapes in the White House?). That is indeed to judge things 'as the eyes see' rather than with true discernment. Nevertheless, the truth of the history is nowhere, I believe, at this point brought out better than in John. Not only is the reader appraised unequivocally of Jesus's own position: 'My kingdom does not belong to this world. If it did, my followers would be fighting to save me from arrest by the Jews' (John 18.36)―and this still remains a decisive reply to any such construction. But the disingenuousness of the Jewish religious leaders over their charge against Jesus is subtly conveyed. They begin their dealings with Pilate by trying to get away without having to be specific at all: 'Pilate went out to them and asked 'What charge do you bring against this man?' 'If he were not a criminal,' they replied, 'we should not have brought him before you' (18.29f). When that fails, as it obviously must in a court o law, they go on for the capital charge of high treason (18.33―19.6). When Pilate finds no case on that one, they fall back on the real offense (for them) of his blasphemous claim to be the Son of God (19.7). Finally, with that getting them no-where, they return to the political tack and out-maneuver Pilate with the utterly cynical claim of being more loyal to Caesar than he (19.12-16). So far from John's account being the end-term of an increasing anti-semitic bias (he is after all a Jew writing to persuade Jews), it exactly preserves the balance of the earliest Christian summary, when Peter is made to say to the Jerusalem crowd on the day of Pentecost:'You used heathen men to crucify and kill him (Acts 2.23).
          Last edited by John Reece; 07-10-2015, 10:54 AM.

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          • Can We Trust the New Testament?
            Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


            THE TRIAL AND DEATH OF JESUS
            Whatever the interpretation, which of course is just as much a part of history as 'the facts', few historians (except those who claim from time to time to revive the desperate theory that Jesus never lived) would question the basic historicity of the arrest, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Yet what came of him in the end does not stop there: if it had there would have been no story to tell and no Church to tell it. But when we move in the last chapter of the Gospels to the story of the resurrection we find ourselves apparently in a very different world. Is this the point at which history leaves us and theology, myth and legend alone take over? Certainly not, according to the claim of the whole New Testament. But how, and in what sense, are we to trust it at this point above all?

            Comment


            • Can We Trust the New Testament?
              Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


              THE RESURRECTION
              Let us be clear that belief in the resurrection is in the first place a judgement of faith. It expresses the conviction 'Jesus lives!', that he belongs not simply to the dead historical past but is a present spiritual reality. Now this is not a judgement that the historian qua historian can make or take away. To that extent the resurrection is on quite a different level from the crucifixion. No one in the New Testament claims to have seen it happen. The crucifixion of Jesus was a public event, witnessed by all and sundry, whatever they made of it. The evidence for the resurrection rests on those who believed in it, and, with the exception of the appearance to Paul, was given only to those who had previously known and accepted Jesus. Yet the claim of the entire New Testament is that on the third day something happened. And, as Paul says, this is the hinge-event on which the whole Christian witness turns: 'If Christ was not raised, then is our gospel null and void, and so is your faith' (1 Cor. 15.14). If nothing happened, there is no more to be said. The historical evidence is not decisive in the sense that if it could be exploded there would be a hole at the heart of the Christian faith. To use the philosophers' distinction, the historical evidence is not sufficient, but it is necessary. So what are we to make of it?

              Comment


              • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


                THE RESURRECTION
                The evidence falls into three classes.

                1. There is first, in order of what was seen, the evidence of the tomb found empty. This looks like the most solid piece of evidence of all. Here is something the historian can really get his hands on: either it was empty or it was not. And, indeed, despite all its offense to our historical and scientific presuppositions, this is something that it is very hard to dismiss―so much so that for most people, as I discover from virtually every question I am asked on the subject, 'Do you believe in the resurrection?' means 'Do you believe in the empty tomb?'. Yet it comes as a surprise to most to be told that though the resurrection was the lynch-pin of Paul's whole gospel, never once does he mention the empty tomb nor does he appear to attach any significance to it. This is not to say that he knew nothing of it. Let alone that he denied it. It is a false conclusion to draw from his silence that it was a story that was only invented later. On the contrary, his statement in 1 Cor. 15.3f of the gospel as he himself first received it, that 'Christ died ...; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day'., clearly presupposes some connection of the resurrection with the tomb and not simply with the visions of the living Christ, which alone he goes on to narrate and which on his account might, like hos own, have taken place anywhere. Yet the fact that he does not take up this connection or stress its evidential value suggests that it did not in itself have the significance that has been attached to it. In the Gospels too it is notable that the empty tomb as such convinces no one, except one man, who looking back in faith, 'saw and believed' (John 20.8). Everyone else saw and was dismayed: by itself it persuaded no one.

                Comment


                • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                  Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


                  THE RESURRECTION
                  There is a school of New Testament scholars who argue that the empty tomb story is a subsequent creation of the Church's faith because this is what in Jewish hope 'resurrection' must have implied: believing on other grounds, the early Christians necessarily depicted it thus. But in fact it would have meant nothing of the sort. It would have meant a rising of the dead at the last day for final judgement―which is what the term 'the resurrection', in contrast with temporary resuscitation always continues to mean in the Gospels (e.g., in Mark 12.23, 'at the resurrection, when they come back to life, whose wife will she be?'). And the classic Old Testament image for this coming back to life was the breathing of life into dead bones (Ezekiel 37.1-14). That there would be a grave empty in the middle of history with no bones in it at all was not what anyone expected. Moreover, if the story of the empty tomb had really been invented to convince doubters, the Church would surely have made a better job of it. Except in the Fourth Gospel, it rested entirely on the testimony of the women (which in Jewish law was not binding and whose visions do not even rate inclusion in the Pauline list), and it did not involve the Apostles. In Mark (as far at any rate as the original text goes) the women did not tell them. In Luke they told them, but they disbelieved the report. In Matthew the women told them on Jesus's own instruction to leave for Galilee, and this they did without taking any action about the tomb. You do not develop―or even include― stories merely to throw away their point. On the contrary, I would again agree with Dodd's assessment in The Founder of Christianity:
                  It looks as if they [the evangelists] had on their hands a solid piece of tradition, which they were bound to respect because it came down to them from the first witnesses, though it did not add much cogency to the message they wished to convey, and they hardly knew what use to make of it.

                  Comment


                  • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


                    THE RESURRECTION
                    The evidence would suggest that while the finding of the grave empty was not invented by the early Church it neither created belief nor was created by it. It was simply part of what was indelibly remembered to have been discovered that morning. Why it was empty admits to no certain explanation, natural or supernatural. There are indeed some which can surely be ruled out as so improbable as to be incredible. In that class I would put deliberate fraud by the disciples (the best explanation, according to Matt. 28.12-15, that could be suggested by the Jews); or the theory that the women went to the wrong tomb and no one bothered to check (especially in the light of the women's careful observation in Mark 15.47); or that Jesus never really died but revived in the cool of the sepulcher (an old chestnut, raked up by D. H. Lawrence and many others. For even if he didn't die then, what happened to him? That he could just have lain low and disappeared passes belief); or that his corpse as that of a convict was simply dissolved in a lime-pit (the burial of Jesus is one of the best attested facts about him, being recorded in 1 Corinthians, all four Gospels, and Acts). But the first and most obvious thought, namely, of foul play ('They') have 'taken him away'; John 20.2) cannot be so easily dismissed. In a situation or rival nationalist groups, still only too familiar in Palestine, extremist fanatics could have remedied the Governor's unusual decision to release the body by removing the corpse under cover of night to one of the criminal graves. We shall never know for certain, and even the evidence of the grave-clothes in John 20.6f is compatible with their being left strewn around and bundled together. The fact that the body was not produced will never prove that it could not have been produced, any more than the absence of Hitler's corpse to this day proves that he rose from the dead. And in truth nothing depends on what happened to the old body. It may indeed have been subject to some molecular transformation unimaginable to us, but we can never be sure. Its disappearance, which at first produced doubt and dismay, was subsequently seen as a sign of what God had done. But the resurrection is not the shell of the cocoon but the butterfly. The bones of Jesus could yet be lying around Palestine and the resurrection still be true. For belief in it does not depend on―let alone consist of the fact that they do not. The empty grave cannot of itself be decisive either way.

                    Comment


                    • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                      Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


                      THE RESURRECTION
                      So we move to the second set of evidence.

                      2. What produced the faith―or at least turned the disciples around in their own tracks (quite literally in the Emmaus story) was not the tomb but the appearances. It is indeed very difficult to dismiss these and and still find a credible explanation for the utter volte face that produced the Christian Church. Mere wish-fulfillment as an explanation (against all the evidence that they were wishing anything of the kind) is itself the last refuge of those who do not wish to believe. Again, to say that the whole Christian movement rested on deception and yet survived without anyone exposing it from within or without is surely to stretch credulity. That something happened that was not purely hallucinatory (the equivalent of seeing pink rats) seems certain; and it is supported by the earliest possible witness―Paul's attestation of what was handed on to him within a few years of the crucifixion, which, as he says, could have been confirmed or confounded by many still living.

                      Comment


                      • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                        Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

                        THE RESURRECTION

                        Yet Paul's detailed list differs considerably from those in the Gospel accounts, which in themselves diverge in regard both to the location of the appearances (Jerusalem or Galilee or both―Paul mentions no places) and to the degree of 'materialization'. Above all, Paul appears to regard the rest of the appearances as belonging to the same class as his own on the Damascus road―a vision of the glorified Christ very different from that of a seemingly reconstituted quasi-physical body that could eat fish or pass through doors. That for Paul the resurrection body of Christians did not mean this is about as clear as it can be from his subsequent discussion in 1 Cor. 15―and what happened to Christ is seen as the first installment or typical sample of what will happen to us. The one thing he can say for certain is that our resurrection body will not depend in any way on this body of flesh and bones―for 'on the day' it will make no difference at all whether, like the living, we have one or, like the dead, we do not. Any kind of continuity or reconstitution is (not of course impossible but) irrelevant.

                        Comment


                        • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                          Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

                          THE RESURRECTION

                          Yes if the 'appearances' belong, as in some sense they must, to the realm of paranormal psychology, or extraordinary perception, then that there should be wide differences in the experiencing and in the reporting of them is scarcely an objection. In fact the divergences in the stories both of the tomb and of the visions are precisely the kind that one would expect in any authentic as opposed to concocted accounts. If the visions were veridical psychic phenomena, that is, genuine communications with the spirit-world, then the degree of materialization and their location are neither here nor there: these will depend on the experiencing subject. The association of such phenomena especially with the period immediately following death, and with those who knew the dead man best, is certainly not incredible, however (still in these enlightened days) inexplicable. What is significantly different however is what they were taken to mean. This was not the temporary survival of a loved one (whether in the mind of the beholder or in some kind of etheric body) but resurrection; and by resurrection, not resuscitation (as in the case of Jairus's daughter or Lazarus) only to die again, but the abiding presence of a life-giving power, signaling a new world-order and the beginning of the End. And for that conviction the appearances may have been necessary triggers, but they were not and are not sufficient explanation.

                          Comment


                          • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                            Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

                            THE RESURRECTION

                            3. It was this third strand in the evidence that was really decisive for the early Church. For belief in the resurrection was not confined to those who had seen the appearances, let alone those who had viewed the tomb. It was founded not on other people's tall stories but on a corporate spiritual awareness of Christ no longer as a dead memory, however vivid, but as a vivifying presence. When Paul spoke to his converts, who like himself had never met Jesus, of knowing him and the fellowship of his sufferings and the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3.10), it was this fact of 'the new being' 'in Christ' to which he made his appeal. The appearances he appealed to for credentials of his own apostleship (1 Cor. 15.8-11), the empty tomb never.

                            Comment


                            • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                              Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

                              THE RESURRECTION

                              The evidence for the resurrection is indeed strongest where it looks weakest and weakest where it looks strongest. The empty tomb, even if it could be certified empty and the shroud produced (and I regard the famous Shroud of Turin as by no means to be dismissed out of hand), would finally prove nothing: the body still could have been removed from it. The appearances have about them a large element of subjectivity and at best add up to a reasonably well-attested case of temporary survival: They certainly do not of themselves spell resurrection. The ongoing spiritual experience―this looks the most intangible fact of all. Yet without it the other two would not have been interpreted as they were and the Christian Church would not have been born, let alone survived. And this is the most incontrovertible historical fact of all. The historian in trying to compass the phenomenon is left at most with the linen garments in his hands, the tracks of a phantom across his pages, the external institution of the Christian Church. The inner reality escapes him, and it must, because, if it is true at all, it is a reality that belongs not to the level of flesh but of spirit. That Jesus lives, now, is a conviction that cannot finally be substantiated by any evidence from the past―only from the present.

                              Comment


                              • Can We Trust the New Testament?
                                Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

                                THE RESURRECTION

                                Yet the resurrection is also claimed by the New Testament writers to be an event in history―as real as the crucifixion―and if the history is discredited the faith cannot but be eroded. There are indeed those who would be content to say that something happened but only to the disciples: the rest is the language of symbolism and picture-story to describe the spiritual transformation that for them turned the cross from defeat into victory. Now clearly there is such a function in the language they used, as in the language they used in telling the stories of the birth of Jesus or his ascension. In fact most thinking Christians would now agree that (whatever its historical basis) the ascension story is primarily to be seen as a symbolic representation of the spiritual truth the Christ is not only alive but Lord: it describes his ascendency from now on, not a moment in time or a movement in space. But here the language employed―of angels and clouds and going up in glory―is stock symbolism (derived largely from the Old Testament) whose significance everyone at the time would have understood. There is indeed some of this also in the resurrection stories, particularly in the introduction, and multiplication, of angelic figures, whose recognized literary function, as at the birth of Jesus, is to interpret events of otherwise such doubtful interpretation as acts of God. But I am not persuaded that it is so easy to explain away the other language, of spices and stones and sweatbands. This was never part of a stock of symbolic imagery and would not have been taken for such.

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