Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Gospels as myth?

One of my students recently made the point that critics will sometimes use John 20:19-21 and Luke 24:30-32 to try to prove that the Gospels are essentially myth. Below is my e-mail response:

Excellent point! You are absolutely correct that critics will use these passages to advocate for their mythological interpretation. In doing so, they are selectively pulling out passages (and ignoring others) they can press into service for their own predetermined view of what “really” happened based on their presupposition that dead people are absolutely, positively, never, ever raised from the dead (I can understand an atheist arguing this way, but for the critics who claim to believe in God, it seems a bit absurd to presume to say that God couldn’t possibly raise the dead).

The Gospel of Luke makes several things abundantly clear. Among them are:

First, the writer of Luke wants us to understand that the tomb was empty (Luke 24:3). No one doubts that this is what Luke taught.

Second, the writer of Luke wants us to understand that Jesus had risen from the dead (Luke 20:6) in bodily form! In Luke 24:36-43 Jesus appears to his disciples and says, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

Then, Luke says, the disciples offer Jesus a piece of broiled fish “and he took it and ate it in their presence.” Luke could hardly be more clear that he wants us to understand that the risen Jesus was a physical Jesus—the same one missing from the tomb—and not some kind of ghost. In fact, even in the Emmaus story the two disciples recognized Jesus when he physically broke bread with them.

Luke wants his readers to understand that while the risen Jesus was a physical Jesus, and while his body was the same body that was missing from the tomb, it was nevertheless a transformed and glorified body (we might also add that Luke takes great pains to ensure that his readers understand that he is writing about what really happened in space and time history, and not just some mythological story (Luke 1:1-4; Luke 2:1-2; Luke 3:1-3).

The Gospel of John is also clear.

First, the writer of John wants us to understand that the tomb of Jesus was empty (John 20:2).

Second, the writer of John wants us to understand that Jesus was risen from the dead (20:9) in bodily form: John says Mary was clinging to him (20:17), Thomas was invited to put his hand into the wound in Jesus side and his finger into the wounds in Jesus’ hands (20:27) and the risen Jesus cooked a breakfast of fish for his disciples with the implication that he ate fish with them (21:5-13).

These facts are so clear that even most of the critics who don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection will concede that this is what John and Luke are teaching (the critics just don’t believe it).

Within this framework, what do we do with the statement that Jesus just appeared to his disciples in a locked room (John 20:19)? Some critics have used the passage in an attempt to show that the whole story is a myth, but let’s be honest here. Even if this passage was not in John, the critics would still argue that the entire resurrection story is a myth—not based on what John teaches, but because they are convinced that the story simply cannot possibly be true so they must find ways to discredit it or explain it away. Using John 20:19 is one way they attempt to do that.

But let’s be clear. When John wrote 20:19 he was certainly NOT intending to say, “Oh, by the way, my readers can now ignore what I’m about to write about Mary holding Jesus, or Thomas being invited to touch Jesus, or Jesus cooking for and eating with the disciples, because it is all myth.”

What John was apparently pointing out is that while the risen Jesus was a physical Jesus, and while his body was in some sense the same body that was missing from the tomb, it was nevertheless a changed and transformed glorified body.

Luke and John were teaching the same thing that Paul had taught in First Corinthians 15 in which Paul makes it clear that Jesus was buried and raised on the third day, and that he appeared to his disciples (by the way, in The Resurrection of the Son of God” N.T. Wright conclusively demonstrated that in the ancient world, the word resurrection always mean bodily resurrection...the idea of some kind of "spiritual" resurrection without the body would have been viewed as an oxymoron).

Paul insists that if Jesus was not raised then your faith is futile, you are still in your sins, and those who have died believing in Jesus are lost! (in other words, Christianity is not just about love, joy, peace and compassion). But, on the other hand, Paul makes it clear that while the resurrection body is a body (not a ghost! I count at least 10 times that Paul uses the word body or bodies in First Cor. 15), it is a “spiritual body,” a transformed body.

Virtually all critics will acknowledge that Luke, John and Paul are independent sources. Based on the critics’ own criteria of multiple independent attestation (which says that events or saying attested in more than one source have more probability of being historical) we can conclude that the early church sincerely believed that Jesus had physically risen from the dead in some kind of transformed body (they were also willing to die for this belief).

In fact, even some of the critics like Bart Ehrman and E.P. Sanders will admit that it is historical fact that this is what the early church believed—but since Ehrman and Sanders don’t believe dead people raise they say there must be another explanation (though they have not come up with one).

Anyway, the idea that this is all myth is something forced onto the text based on the critic’s desperate attempt to explain away the data. It is not something that comes from the text—not even from John 20:19-21 or Luke 24:30-32.