Resurrection and atonemenent

There’s an illuminating video on YouTube by specialist on the Resurrection, Dr Gary Habermas, entitled The Resurrection Argument That Changed a Generation of Scholars. Well worth the investment of 90 minutes. In it he outlines what he calls “the minimal facts approach” which has shifted the centre of balance in New Testament studies from skepticism to acceptance that the bodily resurrection of Christ belongs to the earliest strand of Christianity. So we have even unbelieving scholars like Bart Ehrman placing the tradition within a year or two of the crucifixion, and other leading scholars like James Dunn reducing that to as little as six months.

There may still be a need to counter allegations of fraud, swoon theories, and other ideas such as those found in Who Moved the Stone – but this does seem to deal a decisive blow to the conceit of the resurrection as a slowly developing wish-fulfilment legend or a concretisation of the subjective spiritual experiences of “the early Christian community.”
The argument, for those too lazy to sit out the lecture, is that even the most liberal academics accept 1 Corinthians and Galatians as being authentically Pauline, dated to c55 and c48 respectively. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

The scholars have established that all or most of vv.3b-7 are actually a credal formula, in an easily memorable form in Greek and probably translatable back to an equally memorable Aramaic original. This is what Paul says he received and passed on.

Meanwhile in Galatians Paul describes his 15-day stay with Peter and James in Jerusalem, three years after his conversion, the latter event being datable to three or four years after Christ’s death. Paul may therefore have received this teaching from Ananias in Damascus at his conversion, but at the latest on that first Jerusalem visit.

In turn, those who handed it on to him must have first learned it; prior to which it must have been put into this “teaching” format. In Habermas’s words, this puts us “right on top of the crucifixion.” Habermas uses this apologetically to argue for the truth of the bodily resurrection, which is absolutely right and proper. But I’d like to touch on three other aspects, in increasing level of importance.

Firstly, it’s a sad reflection on the hyperskeptical prejudices of a couple of centuries of New Testament scholarship. Apart from the close study of the text that revealed a didactic phraseology in the 1 Corinthians passage, the argument is hardly esoteric – all the information is there on the surface of the text, and just required tying up the chronology. Yet Habermas says that when he proposed his own PhD thesis on the resurrection in the 1970s, he was told there was no point trying to use the New Testament as evidence.

One can only be glad that there were millions of believers in the pews who paid scant attention to what their intellectual betters were teaching, because it’s proved to be built on sand. Some, sadly, did listen and lost their faith in the historicity of the Resurrection under false pretences. Jesus – or some would still say some prophet or redactor in the early church – said hard things about those who cause these little ones to stumble.

Secondly, and still harping on about the academy, I’m afraid, one has to ask about what implications the primitive nature of this witness about the Resurrection has for the other findings of critical scholarship. If belief in the Resurrection was so¬† fundamental, why would anyone subsequently bother to make up or exaggerate other tales of miracles? Why make up sayings of Jesus?

If Jesus had been a mere shop assistant who never taught anything other than to endorse standard Messianic Rabbinism, and had never done a single miracle, his Resurrecton would still secure the worship of his disciples. One could imagine the entire history of the Church proceeding quite happily on the basis of this creed, and the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, alone. Everyone would have known that adding false teaching or miracles to sound Scripture and the one central miracle would simply subtract from it.

Third, and more significant, is the equally “primitive” atonement message associated with this Resurrection formula.

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.

Within 2 years (Ehrman) or six months (Dunn) Christians were not only proclaiming the resurrection, but associating the Lord’s death with their salvation. That suggests not, as is so often claimed, the community’s reflection on how to bring good out of this catastrophe, but as the New Testament claims, the teaching of Jesus himself both before and after (Luke 24.44-48) the event.

Notice the phrase: “died for (Gk huper, “on account of”) our sins.” This is clearly not an exhaustive theory of atonement, but nevertheless does show that from the start (a) sin was the focus, rather than morality, or community, or fear of death etc and (b) that there is some substitutionary concept behind it, grounded ultimately in the curse of death imposed in Genesis 3. Jesus died because if he hadn’t, our sin would have led to our own death.

John Stott, in The Cross of Christ cites a powerful argument by Prof Martin Hengel that behind 1 Cor 15.3 lie the “ransom-saying” and “supper-sayings” of Jesus (Mark 10.45; 14.22-25), and that behind these in turn lies the message of Isaiah 53. That must certainly be part of the truth, but the passage also indicates that, as another writer points out, to the earliest Church and therefore probably to Jesus, the key to understanding Christ’s death for sin is to be found in the teaching on atonement of the Hebrew Scriptures. Just to remind you, this turns on its head the modern idea that we have to deliver our understanding the death of Christ from the cultural conditioning of the Old Testament. On the contrary, if our atonement theories cannot be argued directly from the Old Testament they will, in all probability, be disowned by the risen Jesus.

What then is of first importance in the Christian faith? According to the earliest Christian witness, maybe just months after the Passion:

  • The Davidic Kingship of Jesus
  • His substitutionary death for our sin
  • The teaching of the Scriptures
  • His burial and physical resurrection, as witnessed by the Church’s founders

A good checklist for our own priorities, maybe?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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