Friday, March 11, 2005

Crossan vs. Wright in New Orleans, LA

This debate has been republished as part of a book, for those few who prefer the written word to the mellifluous tones of Wright and the brougish wit of Crossan.  In both the debate and the book, Wright lays out his affirmative case for the resurrection of Jesus:

Perhaps the most original aspect of the book—I’m honestly not sure now, my head was so full of it—is its compilation of six Christian mutations within first-century Jewish resurrection belief. My case here is that we can track with considerable precision and over a wide range of early evidence a phenomenon so striking and remarkable that it demands a serious and well-grounded historical explanation. Early Christian belief in resurrection is clearly not something derived from any form of paganism; it is a mutation from within Judaism, or rather six mutations.

First, belief in resurrection has moved from being a peripheral item of belief, as it is in Judaism, to the center.

Second, the meaning of resurrection has been sharpened up. Jewish sources leave it vague as to what form the new body will take, but the early Christian sources, again and again, indicate that the body will be transformed into a new type of immortal physicality.

Third, there is no spectrum of belief in early Christianity on what happens after death, as there is in both Judaism and paganism; there were many different opinions out there. But from Paul through to Tertullian, there is development and reflection about what precisely resurrection would mean, and how to argue it before a skeptical audience. But they all, except the Gnostics and the semi-Gnostics, believe in resurrection. No Christians known to us retain signs of the other main beliefs of the period.

Fourth, resurrection as an event has split into two. Those first-century Jews who expected the resurrection saw it as a single event, the raising to new bodily life of all at the very end. But it is central to Paul and, after him, to all other early Christian writers that the resurrection is now a two-stage event—or better, a single event taking place in two moments, as Paul puts it: Christ the first fruits, and then at his coming those who belong to Him.

Fifth, resurrection functions in a newly metaphorical way. Resurrection, the word or the concept, could be used in Judaism, as in Ezekiel 37, as a metaphor for the return from exile. That has disappeared in early Christianity. Instead, we find the term resurrection, still possessing its literal, bodily meaning, also functioning metaphorically, as in Romans 6 or Colossians 2 and 3 with reference to baptism and holiness.

Sixth, nobody expected the Messiah to be raised from the dead, for the simple reason that nobody in Judaism at the time expected a Messiah who would die, especially one who would die shamefully and violently. But not only did the early Christians believe that the Messiah had been raised from the dead, they made the resurrection a key element in their demonstration that he was the Messiah, developing several brand-new exegetical arguments to make the point, particularly from the Psalms and Isaiah, as in Romans 1, Romans 15, Acts 2, and so forth.

Wright goes on to argue that the best explanation for these six mutations (which together served to evolve the doctrines of first-century Judaism into those of second-century Christianity) is that a man must have been literally and physically raised from a tomb.  Wright does attempt to explain why these mutations would not be as easily explained by a deeply mistaken but profoundly sincere belief among Jesus' followers that he had been resurrected.  Such a mistaken but sincerely held belief would easily explain all of these subsequent theological and literary shifts, and in more or less the exact same way.  The only difference between the two hypotheses would lie at the root of the new dogmas, rather than the subsequent evolutions thereof.

Crossan tends to consider the question of bodily versus spiritual resurrection as really a bit of a distraction, and seems more than a bit hesitant to address Wright's arguments for or against the literality of the relevant passages.  I found this a bit puzzling, as he was more than happy to delve into these matters in great depth in his books.  Perhaps he is just too good-natured to turn an affable dialogue into a contentious debate.  The Irish generally hate to offend English sensibilities, after all.

Overall I’d give this debate a 3.5, mostly because these fellows involved are clearly learned, good-natured, and easy on the ears.  Had there been more valid arguments and substantive debate over the soundness thereof, it really could have been quite an event.

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