Monday, September 12, 2005

Rude Reality and Reinterpretations

Sean du Toit objects to many arguments set forth in my post on the empty tomb. Sean wrote:

Why is it surprising that more Jewish groups didn’t make wild and offensive claims in order to make success of their failures? I don’t think that it is. Jewish groups weren’t in the habit of making things like this up to compensate for failed dreams. They didn’t do this with other messianic failures, why should we suppose that they did it with Jesus? Following this, I’m not at all sure that it is abundantly plain that apocalyptic groups become wildly creative, unpredictably creative, in the face of failed expectations.

But of course they do. Many apocalyptic movements die, but many survive. Those which do survive always find ways of coping with their dashed hopes. Dale Allison has noted many cases of such "secondary exegesis" (see Millenarian Prophet, p 94 and The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, pp 87, 103). When the Guarani prophecies failed, for instance, shamans attributed the failure to messenger birds being killed so that the ritual dancing couldn't achieve its goal. William Miller calculated the date of Jesus' second coming, and when Jesus didn't show up some of Miller's followers said that Jesus had gone instead to a "heavenly sanctuary" in order to begin a new phase of salvation history. Members of a Baha'i sect predicted earthquakes and a meteor striking the earth in 1991, and when nothing happened, the leader explained that there had been a "spiritual earthquake" instead. Muhammad Ahmad preached that Allah would come to earth and destroy the oppressors of humanity; when that didn't happen, his later followers said that Ahmad himself had "destroyed oppression" as a reformer of Islam.

There is no difference -- none whatsoever -- between these preposterous claims and that of the early disciples, that their leader had been resurrected in the middle of history before the apocalypse. Meaning, there was no more precedent for these particular claims than there was for that of the early Christians. Wright makes a big deal out of the "lack of precedent", but there's no obstacle here.

"Rude reality reinterprets prophecies," as Allison says (The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, p 87), and as the gospels illustrate. Jesus' prediction that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days is a glaring example of a failed prophecy given forced reinterpretations. What's the difference, really, between John's bodily temple (Jn 2) and the Bahai's spiritual earthquake?

Sean continues:

The thought that transphysical visions of the dead are common is also hard for this student to digest...Now how does one have a vision of transphysicality? I may be arguing semantics, but I’m confused as to how one can say that you can “see” [vision] transphysicality. Just because one has a vision that is interactive [hear, see & touch], does not make the vision transphysical. So this is a misnomer.

Allison's point is simply that reported visions share a lot in common with "transphysicality" as Wright defines the term, despite the fact that Wright supposes Jesus' transphysicality to have been rather unique. That's all.

My last quibble with Loren’s comments is that I’m not convinced that because of this mysterious vanishing act, we today have the doctrine of the resurrection. Maybe I’m being pedantic, and if so please forgive me, by the doctrine of resurrection precedes Christianity by some time. Wright and others have demonstrated this well.

I'm talking about the sectarian (Christian) doctrine of the resurrection, not the standard (Jewish) one. Because of the empty tomb, we today have the Christian idea that Jesus rose from the dead before the apocalypse.

Why did the early Christian movement believe this had already happened to Jesus? Why did they not just die out like many other messianic movements that lost their leader? Why make the daft claim that God had acted so decisively, if he clearly hadn’t?

Let's try this again. History shows us plainly that some millenarian movements die while others continue in defiance of reality. The latter are perfectly capable of "secondary exegesis", or creative revisionism, as mentioned in the examples above. However, people generally resort to such revisionism in the face of failure (cognitive dissonance), and the disciples would not have seen Jesus' death as a failure. There's a difference between being demoralized and failing. Jesus' suffering and death would have squared with what he told them to expect in the tribulation period. So the disciples had no need to resport to revisionism after all -- that is, until such revisionism was imposed on them by the sight of Jesus' empty tomb. It took the empty tomb to do this.

So it's in this sense that Allison believes Wright is correct, but only despite himself. The Christians made a "daft claim", as you say, because the revisionism was imposed on them. Allison and Wright both think it took the empty tomb (in conjunction with visions) to yield the radical resurrection belief. But they arrive at this conclusion very differently -- Allison, I think, with better sense and caution. Allison also happens to be more humble about what we can say actually happened to Jesus' body. Answer: any number of things.

Thanks to Sean for engaging these important issues.


Blogger Vegan Hunter said...

I'm linking you from my modblog - hope that's okay.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Yes, that's fine. Thanks.


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