Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Importance of the Empty Tomb: Allison vs. Wright

Tom Wright has repeatedly claimed that without the empty tomb, it’s inconceivable that the disciples would have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead. On this basis he further concludes that Jesus actually was raised from the dead. “I regard this conclusion as coming in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain, as the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p 710).

Bad judgments like these mar an otherwise fine piece of work, for Resurrection of the Son of God is on the whole a magisterial study. Plowing through mountains of Jewish and pagan literature, Wright argues convincingly that both Paul and the gospel writers fall in line with the orthodox view that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, in a transphysical body, the same body as before yet also changed. On this point he is entirely convincing, against those like Richard Carrier, on whose arguments see my review on the Crosstalk mailing list.

But Wright is not so convincing in other areas, and even when he is onto something, his arguments leave much to be desired. In this post I want to deal specifically with his contention that the disciples would doubtfully have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead if they hadn’t found his tomb empty.

I believe this statement is true, but it needs careful unpacking. Dale Allison, in his newly released and powerfully presented Resurrecting Jesus, shows why Wright is right only despite himself. We need to consider how the empty tomb relates to (I) cognitive dissonance and (I) the visions.

(I) Cognitive Dissonance When Wright says that the disciples would doubtfully have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead if they hadn’t found his tomb empty, he means that the disciples wouldn't have made the radical claim that their messiah had been raised from death without external evidence pointing to this; that the idea of an individual’s resurrection before the apocalypse was just too wild and blasphemous. No other Jewish groups, after all, claimed such things: when messiahs were killed, people either found another messiah, or just gave up.

But as far as I’m concerned, Wright has this backwards. Given what we know about millenial groups, it’s surprising that more Jewish groups didn’t make wild and offensive claims in order to make success of their failures. It's abundantly plain that apocalyptic groups become wildly creative, unpredictably creative, in the face of failed expectations (so Festinger). It’s no stretch of the imagination, at all, that the disciples could have invented a resurrection belief (and thus a tale about an empty tomb) in order to cope with broken dreams and keep their movement going.

But here’s the problem, says Allison, and why Wright is onto something, despite himself. The disciples’ dreams actually hadn’t been broken. Allison writes:

“Reinterpretation of eschatological expectations stems from dissonance bred by the distance between prophecy and event, and -- despite widespread scholarly assumption to the contrary -- before belief in Jesus’ resurrection, no such cause for dissonance existed.”

Jesus’ death was not a cause for dissonance in the minds of the disciples. It would have demoralized them, but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. Jesus, after all, had braced them for such tragedy: they were living in the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the kingdom. The shame and scandal of the crucifixion would have put them, as Dale says, "emotionally down but not theologically out". They would have gone on hoping for the imminent apocalypse and the general resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and reunited with their savior. Jesus’ martyrdom does not constitute a failed expectation, and that is why Wright, despite himself, is right. It’s not that revisionism itself is unlikely (for indeed it is); it’s that there was no need for revisionism in this case. For the disciples, things were still going “as expected”.

Contrast the early followers of Jesus with a group like the Lubavitchers, who recently split over the question of Schneerson’s messianic identity. Over on The Sword, Michael Turton used them as an example to show why it’s easy to believe the disciples invented the empty tomb and resurrection legend:

“While some people sensibly give up their beliefs when faced with reality, others simply deny that reality exists. Look at the Lubavitchers...”

To which I replied (citing Allison’s line of reasoning):

“Those who deny reality like this do so as a way of coping with failed expectations and broken dreams. For instance, the account in Jn 2 about the spiritual temple copes with the failed rebuilding of the actual temple. The radical idea of Jesus' resurrection would thus have been a way of coping with the failed arrival of God's kingdom and the general resurrection. But had the disciples actually given up on this expectation? Didn't Jesus' crucifixion conform to martyrdom theology -- all the sufferings and trials Jesus told them to expect? Unlike the case of Schneerson, whose strokes, illness, and death were hardly built into the original messianic expectations of the Lubavitchers.”

This is what distinguishes the case of the early Christians from other millenarian groups who revise in order to deny reality. Turton has the right idea: the early Christians were capable of denying reality as much as any other religious group. (Look at Jn 2!) But on this point they had no reason to.

(II) The Visions When Wright says that the disciples would doubtfully have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead if they hadn’t found his tomb empty, he also means that the visions of Jesus alone would not have produced the resurrection belief. It took the sight of an empty tomb in conjunction with the visions. Dale Allison agrees with this, particularly against Gerd Ludemann who says otherwise. Allison writes:

“It would have been easy enough for Peter and [others who saw the visions] to declare that God had vindicated and exalted Jesus without using the concept of the eschatological resurrection. If, as Ludemann contends, the first community knew nothing about an opened tomb, Peter and his fellow believers could have said, in a manner reminiscent of Jubilees 23:31, that while Jesus’ bones rested for now in the earth, his spirit was exalted into heaven. Or they could have spoken about Jesus the way the Testament of Job, without using the language of resurrection, speaks about its hero: Job’s soul was taken to heaven immediately after his death while his body was prepared for burial.”

Indeed, Judaic belief easily accommodated ideas about the immortality of the soul. The visions of Jesus, by themselves, hardly account for the resurrection belief, especially with no cognitive dissonance in place.

What’s curious here is that Wright actually undercuts the importance of the empty tomb by claiming that the visions were exceptional in their transphysicality. The idea of a body appearing out of nowhere, disappearing, and transcending physical barriers is bizarre, according to Wright, and so the resurrection belief must have come about from reflecting on encounters with this unexpectedly transphysical Jesus.

But Allison strikes a heavy blow against the so-called uniqueness or exceptional nature of the visions. As recorded in the gospels, they show every sign of pointing to a widespread phenomenon. There is abundant documentation for the recently bereaved reporting contact with the dead, and far from ghostly shades, they are more often reported to be transphysical: being seen and heard (even touched); seen first by one person, then another, or by more than one person at the same time; seen by individuals who did not know them in life; creating doubt in some recipients; offering reassurance and giving comfort; giving guidance, making requests, or issuing imperatives; being seen less and less as time goes on (most apparitions are seen following shortly after death). Even more so than Ludemann, Allison makes a powerful case for grief-induced visions, however exactly they are to be understood.

Acknowledging this, of course, only strengthens the importance of the empty tomb in accounting for the resurrection belief. But for Wright, the gospel visions have to be unique, since he believes Jesus actually was resurrected.

(III) Conclusion Bearing these two caveats in mind -- that wild revisionism is common and to be expected of millenial groups, and that transphysical visions of the dead are common; both against Wright -- Dale Allison agrees with Wright’s conclusion, if not how he got there: It could only have been the empty tomb (when taken in conjunction with visions) which caused the disciples to make the claim that their messiah had been raised from death before the apocalypse, and before the general resurrection for which they obviously kept hoping.

So what happened to Jesus' body? Wright thinks it's historically evident that Jesus was resurrected by God. Historically evident? One is hard pressed not to laugh. Allison, who describes himself as a “reluctantly cryptic deist”, likes the idea of Jesus being resurrected while acknowledging there is obviously no way of knowing what happened to the body. Richard Carrier entertains the idea that the body was stolen (that is, on days when he’s not claiming the empty tomb is pure legend), since grave robbing was a common problem in antiquity. Jeffery Jay Lowder suggests that Joseph of Arimathea kept the body in the tomb for a day and then moved it to a final resting place after the sabbath.

I personally like the grave-robbing explanation, but Dale is right, there's no way of knowing what happened to the body. All we can say is that it was missing from the tomb when later visited by the women. And because of this mysterious vanishing act, we today have the doctrine of the resurrection.


Allison, Dale. Resurrecting Jesus. T. & T. Clark, 2005. [Note that page numbers are not cited above, since the page numbers I have come from an unpublished draft. I still haven’t received my official copy of the book.]

Ludemann, Gerd. The Resurrection of Christ. Prometheus, 2004.

Price, Robert & Lowder, Jeffery Jay. The Empty Tomb. Prometheus, 2005.

Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Augsburg Fortress, 2003.


Blogger Scot McKnight said...

A pretty long and involved post to comment on, but let me say this to see if what you are saying is what I think you are saying.

The one thing the early Christians were not saying was that Jesus' resurrection (life after life after death) was confirmed by visionary experiences. (This, I think, is important to Tom Wright.) Visionary experiences were common; always have been. But, claims for a body to come back to living is unique.

Do you think Wright is saying this?

Blogger Scot McKnight said...

I tend to forget where I've commented, so heads-up to me if you do comment back.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Yes, Scot, this is important to Wright. He allows that visionary experiences are common, yet at the same time appears to want to get some "uniqueness" out of the visions of Jesus, based on their transphysicality. See ROSG, pp 608-615. I think this is Dale's point in discussing the transphysicality of visions of the bereaved.

Blogger J. J. Ramsey said...

One thing bugs me a bit. I realize that grief hallucinations of the deceased aren't that uncommon, but vivid visual grief hallucinations are still at least somewhat unusual, and an empty tomb is a thoroughgoing fluke if there was no resurrection. I can see it as reasonable that either hallucinations or an empty tomb had happened, but that both together would happen seems like such dumb luck, a confluence of two improbable events.

Blogger steph said...

what empty tomb? The women didn't tell anyone for they were afraid ... even if they had, they were only women so who would have believed them?

Anyway James Crossley has written an excellent and convincing article on this in the latest JSHJ - maybe the idea of Jesus as risen would not have been so bizarre after all and an empty tomb not necessary.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Steph, how does James Crossley reason that a resurrected Jesus isn't so wild and far-fetched?

J.J., I too used to be under the impression that "vivid visual grief hallucinations are still at least somewhat unusual" -- but no more. The professional documentation for this phenomenon is overwhelming, as Allison shows in Resurrecting Jesus.

Blogger James Crossley said...

My reasoning is that if visions (which I also believe are not that unusual) had been seen by all those people as 1 Cor. 15 shows and if the Jewish culture had dictated the content of the vision influenced by ideology of bodily resurrection then an empty tomb can be assumed even if there never was such a thing and the vision could be interpreted as a bodily raised figure. Different cultural contexts dictate the content of a vision. As Mk 6 shows there was potential to confuse 'ghost' and bodily figure. I agree with Wright that 1 Cor. 15 assumes an empty tomb but notice that Paul provides eyewitness support for the visions but not for the empty tomb. Moreover, Mk 16.8 has the women famously not telling anyone out of fear. Does this not suggest that the empty tomb was not in fact that well known?

I personally think a genuinely bodily raised Jesus in Wright's sense is wild and far fetched but I don't think the idea of people having visions and interpreting it as a bodily raised figure is.

Incidentally, I was as shocked as you seem to be Loren about that quote from Wright on Augustus and fall of Jerusalem and also picked up on it.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

James, thanks for sharing this. I look forward to reading your article.

Blogger Andrew Criddle said...

On the issue as to whether or not the crucifixion of Jesus would have caused 'Cognitive Dissonance' it would depend on what the disciples pre-crucifixion beliefs were.

If they regarded Jesus as the prophet of an imminent but entirely future Kingdom of God then his crucifixion although distressing would probably not have caused major 'Cognitive Dissonance'.

If, However, they regarded the Kingdom as already in some sense present in the words and deeds of Jesus then IMO it would have been a different matter.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...


You're obviously right, and I acknowledged as much to Michael Turton a while back on his blog (see link to The Sword in my post, and then look at the comments section). I take for granted that the early Christian movement was millenarian in nature. Others, like Turton, naturally disagree.

Blogger Bilbo Bloggins said...

I will probably finish reading Allison's new book tonight. I had a feeling that this would be an excellent contribution to the ongoing debate. Dale's confessions concerning his own biases and philosophical presuppositions are refreshingly honest, and his excursion into a detailed encounter of his own (and several members of his family) with the recently deceased was fascinating. Having read much of the secondary literature he cites concerning bereavement visions, it is my opinion that Allison (though certainly not Ludemann) has hit the nail right on the head with his balanced treatment.

I concur that Tom thinks something unique is going on in the resurrection visions in contrast to visions of bereavement. He has spoken with many people who have had these experiences in modern times, and from what I remember of the Greer-Heard lectures, he seems to be hesitant to dismiss them as mere hallucinations, much as Allison is. He thinks, though, that the commonality of "ghost stories" and such visions in the ancient world is one thing that mitigates against their having inspired resurrection talk. The ancients already had categories for such things. But he misses that, in tandem with an empty tomb, they just might.

Wright (and any other Christian for that matter) should not have any theological issues with visions of bereavement as a category of explanation for the res. appearances, precisely because, as
Allison points out, such visions are often indistinguishable from normal sensory perception. Theologically, he can still maintain that God physically raised Jesus from the dead, and revealed this in such a vision, which, combined with the empty tomb, was sufficient for the disciples to accept Jesus' physical resurrection.

As for Wright's strong claims about the evidence for the resurrection, I think this arises mainly from a misuse of language on his part. He really is not making a deductive argument. He's making an abductive argument, so it is misleading to use strong deductive language that implies some sort of necessary inference, when really, he simply believes inductively/abductively, after considering the alternate hypotheses and finding them improbable, that the resurrection is the best explanation. Given his presuppositions regarding the Gospels, theism in general, etc., I don't have any problems with this inference. It is certainly not a deductive inference that all rational people must accept though.


Blogger Steven Carr said...

How can anybody show 'convincingly' that something was the same body yet became 'transphysical', when 'transphysical' is a meaningless piece of gobble-de-gook, invented merely to have the word 'physical' in an apologetic?

Wright is only 'convincing' because nowhere in his 700 plus page book does he ever quote in full Paul's statement 'the last Adam became a life-giving spirit'.

And Wright is only 'convincing' on his invented resurrection/resuuscitation false dichotomy, because he never says whether Moses was resurrected or resuscitated when Moses returned from the dead to walk the Earth at the Transfiguration, and never died again.

Presumably, Wright would have to invent a false trichotomy and say Moses was neither resurrected nor resuscitated.

If resurrection means returning from the grave, walking the earth, ascending to heaven and never dying again, then either Moses was resurrected, or Wright has to do even more word-chopping to make Jesus the first person resurrected.

But a book consisting of ad hoc rationalisations, word chopping, false dichotimies and partial quotations , is not convincing by any means.


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