What Resurrection? Silence in the New Testament

The New Testament does not actually present the “bodily” resurrection of Jesus as historical fact. A lot of people don’t know this, either because they have not read the Bible carefully and critically, or because they have not read it at all. Every year, the churches and the apologists and the media get up in our faces and tell us in some crude but utterly confident tone (too confident, of course) that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Many of them, including people with college degrees, regard it as “historical fact.”

I’m not even talking about the miraculous, i.e. not believable, aspect of the resurrection. I kind of feel like an asshole just for writing this post. Why disturb anyone’s “harmless faith” in the afterlife? People need this stuff.

Right. Well for one thing, children do not need to believe in eternal punishment, which is historically inextricable from Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead (whatever people may tell themselves, wishing away the doctrine of hell from their minds as if it were a preference or a mental error.)

But the main problem is not even that the resurrection is unlikely to have happened, or that believing in it today is irrational. Forget all that. The problem is that the very text of the New Testament–a large chunk of it–indicates that the earliest Christians had not even heard of the story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, much less believed in it.

Approximately half of the texts of the New Testament–as many as 14–know nothing of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. By “Jesus’ bodily resurrection,” I mean that specific tradition (or proclamation) according to which Jesus’ dead body (a) was miraculously removed from its tomb, (b) appeared in living form to his disciples and/or the apostles, and (c) was exalted to heavenly glory. Each of these three aspects is fundamental for the 4 Gospel writers (including the author of Mark’s Gospel, let us suppose) and for Christian belief in general. It is a bit more complicated for the Pauline epistles (e.g. 1 Cor 15 and Philippians 2), but for the sake of argument let’s just assume that Paul’s account is essentially consistent with that of the Gospels and Acts.

The texts that know nothing of Jesus’ bodily resurrection include 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

These are the final 14 books of the New Testament, in their traditional (i.e. medieval) order. That’s quite a large chunk of the Christian Bible.

Geza Vermes, in his book The Resurrection: History and Myth (Doubleday, 2008), puts it more diplomatically. After writing 129 pages on the Gospels, Acts, Paul, and the Jewish background to the idea of resurrection, he observes laconically that “the remaining books of the New Testament contribute remarkably little to the problem of the resurrection” (emphasis added).

It should be noted that, in the weightiest of these 14 texts, Hebrews and Revelation, as well as in 2 Thessalonians, Jesus is indeed an exalted savior figure, who transcends death. But there isn’t a trace of the bodily resurrection narrative. Likewise, the Johannine letters do not mention the words “resurrection” or “risen,” or anything to do with the resurrection story. Nor do the epistles of the supposed brothers of Jesus, James and Jude.

The silence of 2 Thessalonians is particularly striking, since this text is widely thought by scholars to have been modeled explicitly on the structure, vocabulary, and theme of 1 Thessalonians. (Consensus opinion is that 1 Thss is authentic Paul, whereas 2 Thss is a forgery based on 1 Thss.) The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection is prominent in the first letter, but entirely absent in the second. If 2 Thss was in fact a cleverly crafted rejoinder to 1 Thss, then the omission of the resurrection theme must have been a conscious choice and not some sort of accident.

Some of these 14 NT books, in particular 1 & 2 Timothy and 1 Peter, seem to pass on a tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. But on closer inspection, it is evident that they do not. (Remember, the bodily-resurrection-of-Jesus narrative involves an empty tomb, appearances to disciples/apostles, and the heavenly exaltation. All three elements are involved, but the appearances are the most important.)

Let us consider the most prominent passages:

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.
(1 Timothy 3:16)

This is perhaps an early creed. But “vindicated in (the) spirit” is extremely vague language for so important an event. “Taken up in glory” is the generic language of apotheosis. Nothing here suggests the bodily resurrection tradition.

Grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher… (2 Timothy 1:9-11)
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel. (2 Timothy 2:8)

It is according to Paul’s gospel (“it has now been revealed”) that Christ “appeared” and that he “abolished death” (abstract) and “brought life and immortality” (generic). These are no more than vague assurances about an afterlife, based (through forgery) on the authority of Paul.

Of all these 14 texts, 1 Peter has the best claim to a bodily resurrection narrative, so let’s examine it in detail.

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable… (1 Peter 1:3-4; cf 1:11, 1:21)

The name of the thing is here, certainly, but nothing more.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)

Once again, “made alive in the spirit” is vague language. If Peter knew of a bodily resurrection tradition, as surely he did if we are to believe the Gospels and Acts, why be so vague about it? The heavenly exaltation is affirmed, but without any of the narrative context of the resurrection story. It is simply a bare doctrine.

We could say a lot about this “descent into hell” discourse, which only appears here in all of the NT. But all we need to point out is how mythological it is, and how far we are from any “eyewitness testimony.”

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you… (1 Peter 5:1)

The author claims to be an “eyewitness,” but not of the resurrection: only of the sufferings of Christ. The only glory that this Peter knows of is either in heaven, or is to be revealed in future times.

While it is true that the bare idea of Jesus’ resurrection, or the assertion of his heavenly exaltation, is found in many parts of the New Testament, we must recognize that such claims amount to little more than what is found in the OT stories about Enoch, or Elijah, or the general resurrection prophesied in the Book of Daniel. Or for that matter, in any number of religious texts and traditions of the Hellenistic era. But as Christian theologians and apologists have always asserted, no such vague or general ideas about an afterlife can be compared with the tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. That tradition is dominant in the “front part” of the New Testament, but starkly absent from the “back part,” i.e. from 2 Thessalonians to Revelation.

A fascinating but unfortunately expensive book on this topic is Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament by the German historian Markus Vinzent. According to him, it was only after the preaching and publishing activity of Marcion of Sinope in the middle of the 2nd century CE that the Christian Church and its scribes became seriously interested in the tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Marcion was reviving interest in the preaching of Paul, who for him was the only apostle. The publishers of the first edition of the New Testament, responding to Marcion’s challenge, made sure that all four evangelists were on the same page with the Pauline epistles. But as I have argued in this post, they still managed to pass along a lot of original Christian scripture that lacked Paul’s proclamation of the risen Jesus, or at least the Easter story of the Gospels.

Some days ago I posted a version of this essay on reddit, and the moderator of one subreddit dedicated to the “academic” study of the Bible (but in actuality a forum for a lot of evangelical bullshit) deleted it. Of course, moderator abuse is an abiding feature of that platform. Oh well, I thought, might as well stick it up here, since I haven’t been posting much lately. Thanks for reading!

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