God is Dead, Alleluia, Alleluia

Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. Today that seems odd and perhaps even unfamiliar to many Christians since in commercial terms it is a total failure. When I was a kid, some people sent Easter cards, but now that people don’t even send Christmas cards anymore—at least not many—Easter has been reduced to what it was in the beginning, a religious celebration.

Christianity began with Easter, or rather with belief in the resurrection: that’s why it is so central. The whole liturgical calendar vibrates to a forty-day preparation called Lent and a fifty day post-Easter period called Eastertide between Easter Sunday and the feast of Pentecost–which nobody pays much attention to outside the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

But start it did, with the news that Jesus rose from the dead, overcoming his human enemies on the one hand—conspiratorial Jews and corrupt Romans—and on the other (at a theological stretch) the powers of sin and darkness that brought death into the world and ensured the devil’s grip on humanity.

The gospels don’t say or promise any of this; the demi-apostle Paul does. But then, without Paul’s first century Easter Sale (Big Savings?) Christianity would have died out in a generation.

For about 1700 years, more or less, most Christians believed that Jesus rose physically from the dead–and so would they. More specifically, they would have learned to say that because Jesus rose from the dead, so could they (1 Cor. 15.13).

But by the eighteenth century, a number of theologians began to follow the lead of certain German philosophers and decided that it probably didn’t happen. There were three reasons. The invariability of nature’s laws, used to prove God, can’t be selectively overridden to prove doctrine (Spinoza), and more pragmatically, no one has ever seen a resurrection (Hume), and finally, the texts themselves seemed sketchy, contradictory, even legendary (Semler). Science, archaeology, and literary studies did their bit to fill in the information needed to show how the world did come about; that it was much older than the Bible made it; that many of the stories thought to be revealed were crude, analogous to other stories, and full of impossibilities and contradictions; that the worldview of scripture was a picture of its distant time and was destined to get more and more implausible as time marched on, as it has.

In the end, Christian theology was left not so much with an empty tomb but an empty story and millions of believers who clung to literal acceptance of the original Easter faith, and a hope for their own immortality. It was left as well with thousands of under-educated priests and pastors who believed it right along with them or kept very quiet if they didn’t. During the same period, an educated elite (including a church and theological elite) became increasingly skeptical that the Bible was anything but a tissue of myth and bad history. This elite focused especially on two ‘pivotal’ myths: the story of creation and the story of the resurrection—thematic bookends that, if discredited would eo ipso discredit everything in between—or most of it.

The response of Christian theology (whose theology? which theology?) was confused. It ranged from joyous to cautious to reactionary. In Tuebingen. Marburg and Heidelberg students laughed when their professors read the resurrection stories to them in jeering falsettos.

Deconstruction began then. In the British universities junior lecturers, in contact with Continental theology, politely accepted the German verdict and then reverently accepted their Church’s official rejection of it (F.D.A. Major, at Oxford, could still be tried for heresy for denying the bodily resurrection in the twentieth century); in New England, the Transcendentalists and Unitarians at Harvard went further by asking for the doctrine of the church to be rewritten along pantheistic lines, while in the conservative sectors of the former southern colonies and in bleak Scotland back on the Isles, a new form of apologetics (which by 1911 would be known as ‘fundamentalism’) was fashioned to reject the newfangled nonsense and get back to Scripture truth.

The fruit of this confusion gave us liberal theology, mainstream Christianity, and extreme protestant pieties of various shades and intensities. Liberal theology gave us a resurrection that never happened but a resurrection story that does—somehow—mean just the same thing. Mainstream Christianity gave us the laissez faire option of believing what we want to believe, only not too loudly, and with the approval of conscience. And the evangelicals gave us the defensive wars against science and reason that, unfortunately, infect our public discourse, ethical decisions, and educational planning to this day—largely if not exclusively in the United States. The last of these fruits should be sufficient proof of the danger of believing something that should no longer be believed in a literal way, since if it is true that good boys go to heaven, and heaven is our home, what is the point of peace on earth, learning science, or taking care of the planet?

In this din, scholarship can scarcely matter. The human being is a hopeful believing animal—something St Paul knew in the 1st century and P. T. Barnum in the nineteenth, and every snake-oil-selling evangelist of the twentieth. Christianity as a middlin Pilgrim has traveled the road from literalism to myth to a post-Christian world in which myth no longer has the power to transfix and transform. Science, whatever else it is, is radically anti-mythical in its processes, though it sometimes speaks as though knowledge and discovery have something like the power—the fascination–that myth once exercised towards the human imagination and human will. But whatever else science knows it knows that nature abhors a resurrection.

For most people choosing a favourite religious holiday is a simple business now. Christmas—even if the circumstances of Jesus conception are tied up in mythology—a sky god impregnating an earth virgin—the actual birth and most of the life of Jesus doesn’t require imagination, or doesn’t require an excursion into the ‘supernatural’ as atheists like to call the imagination. It is impossible to celebrate the virginal conception of Jesus, and no feast day is given to it (nota bene: the Immaculate Conception celebrates Mary’s conception). But it is not hard to commemorate with love and feeling the birth of poor child, cut off from family by rumours and gossip, endangered by the jealousy of rich men, who has to be born in a shabby animal crèche and laid in a feeding trough. Even if it didn’t happen that way—or at all—it is a good story.

The Easter story, on the contrary, is drenched in human tears, wrapped in deceit and formulated without passion and conviction. It does not seem to be believed even by its writers. It is a story spread by peasants and told to salve the disappointment of a messianic cult that believed their day had come when it hadn’t. By the time it gets written into the gospels, all that remains is that the tellers of the tale were women, mainly, and that for some reason (as they told it) Jesus did not choose to appear to many people except his followers and a couple of paradigmatic doubters (Luke 24.13f). By the time Paul re-writes it, it five hundred people ‘at one time’, and even (later) Paul himself see the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15.6-7).

The canonical life of the miraculously-appearing post-Resurrection Jesus ends with that story, just as it begins with the empty tomb, and might have ended there except for the literary designs of the gospel writers and their later editors.

Wrapped in deceit? Well, maybe that is saying too much. People who spread rumours may not wish to deceive anyone. They are just repeating what they heard. The notion that the spread of the resurrection story is an example of mass hysteria is a tired but well-established genre in rationalist gospel criticism. But it probably isn’t a good example. It is merely a literary outcropping of human nature: our desire to impress and entertain and console sometimes trumps our need to refrain from exaggeration. But the conflicting details and inconsistencies of the gospel accounts are most easily explained as individual writers trying to bring unruly traditions (stories) under control without being able to consult a master template. There probably never was one. Just the women.

Once Paul began to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus as a play in two acts, the second being a caravan to heaven for all that believeth, it was impossible to recreate the circumstances under which the resurrection story came about. The original conditions had disappeared and even Paul seems ignorant of or deliberately silent about them. The new situation is that people were flocking to Christianity because it had become a salvation drama—a cult of believers–based loosely on a rumor of poorly remembered details from (perhaps) twenty years before. Paul does not waste time repeating those rumours. He has his own details.

The resurrection story is not a good story. It is an afterthought, an appendix; in dramatic terms, an anticlimax. Even as a kid I always preferred Good Friday in Holy Week, because I understood that this is something that happens to us all. Good Friday is solemn; Easter seemed contrived. Besides, whatever its sources and analogues, the Passion is a powerfully written tale. The Easter Story is vacant of emotion and conviction as it is told in the Gospels. An empty tomb; some frightened women; an appearance here, there, now you see him, now you don’t. It is better in symbolic and liturgical form; but as a narrative it simply reflects the defensive and apologetic reasons for its composition. But not the story of the Passion: Good Friday is a superb story.

I do not think Easter symbolizes anything: not new hope, new beginnings, the importance of starting over—none of that. In fact, in almost all historical religions, that is what the New Year celebration is all about, a holiday that Christianity more or less unsuccessfully tried to relocate to Pentecost.

Easter without belief in a resurrection, as Paul importantly wagers, is nothing: it is a vain, futile and useless holiday. For those people who still celebrate it, hide eggs, go to Church, buy new clothes (does anyone?) and eat ham (as my family always did), I wish you nothing but the best.

But the ancient proclamation, Resurrexit, Resurrexit sicut dixit ALLELUIA, belongs to another century, not even the last one, and not to ours.

POSTSCRIPT

Having written the body of this little essay, it occurred to me that I should say something about the trend in atheist and conservative Christian circles to debate “the resurrection of Jesus” in public.

Almost everyone with any reputation in this area has had a try. Even I have had more than my share of invitations to speak “against” the resurrection, and I have always refused to do it. Why? There are three reasons:

First, because the discussion is over and has been over for many Christians for two generations or longer. Debating the resurrection of Jesus is neither a debate about history nor about the Bible. It is an intellectual sideshow on the fringes of knowledge that tries to answer questions that no serious scholars are asking any longer.

Second, such debates normally (having forced myself to stay awake through several, both live and on video) are displays of ignorance butting its head against ignorance—skeptics who have just learned that the resurrection tales are inconsistent, against apologists who say the inconsistencies can be explained. Assuming our cognitive domain has limited capacity there is no room in it for that.

And finally this: what I have argued here is that the story of Easter is no longer of any importance. But that does not mean is has never been without importance. Lots of stories in human history have come and gone; we happen to be living through the passing of one. It will die by attrition not by debate. It ceases to hold our imagination—no one will fire a bullet to kill it with a perfect, fallacy free argument. I am for letting history take its life and extract its meaning because history knows how to kill things. Otherwise, like Orwell firing aimlessly at the elephant with the wrong weapon, we simply become part of a sickening spectacle that increases the mammoth’s agonizing suffering as it dies.

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16 thoughts on “God is Dead, Alleluia, Alleluia

  1. On Easter morning the first thing I did was read this, to my comfortable edification. Not that I harboured any fading beliefs, it is just such a wise and erudite recounting of Easter’s transit since my childhood days in Catholic Quebec.

    Given my own heresies, I do think the resurrection held/holds symbolic value, there’s an analogue in every religion, toward concepts of an afterlife, which I hold to now be in Man’s hands. As such, Easter is hand-off to that prospect, in my puddicat mind – humour me.

    Beautiful writing on a morning that will always be beautiful to me, in memory.

  2. I’m not sure that Easter is as irrelevant as you say here. The managers of Wal-Mart seem to think differently.

    I am wondering about this:

    “By the time it gets written into the gospels, all that remains is that the tellers of the tale were women, mainly, and that for some reason (as they told it) Jesus did not choose to appear to many people except his followers and a couple of paradigmatic doubters (Luke 24.13f). By the time Paul re-writes it, it five hundred people ‘at one time’, and even (later) Paul himself see the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15.6-7).”

    The Easter story gets written into the Gospels, then re-written later by Paul. Is it your position that the Gospels predate Paul’s epistles, specifically those epistles thought to actually have been written by the “demi-apostle” himself?

    • The empty tomb story may be original to Mark. The Easter story is a term scholars use to refer to that plus appearance legends. They are later, and then redacted to become more florid until the Fourth Gospel creates a fairly consistent legend from earlier bits and a redactor of Mark adds a pastiche of verses to bring the story into conjunction with others. The literary relationships have been exhaustively analyzed for more than two centuries. Paul does not refer to this tradition, though he does refer to appearances to others. Essentially the appearances are irrelevant to his theological use of the resurrection. We use the term primitive tradition to refer to the oral phase of the resurrection story and it is prior not just to Paul but to written gospels. It consisted primarily of an empty tomb story and the tradition that women were the earliest ‘witnesses’. I hope this information is helpful.

      As to Walmart’s exploitation of Easter, I assume you means eggs, basket grass, peeps and bunnies? I reckon they make a few pennies from kids but not as much as you can make on Valentine’s day from cards and chocolate; my specific point is that commercially Easter as a religious holiday has been a hard sell. Do you disagree, or are you talking not about Easter but bunnies?

  3. The empty tomb story may be original to Mark, in the sense that he was likely the first to put into written form the oral tradition that you mention toward the end of the paragraph, or are you figuring an entirely new bit of work which may have been his own creation? I’ve wondered for years how the “empty tomb” story developed, as it doesn’t seem to me to have been among the earliest legend of the resurrection story — I’d guess the earliest would have been more or less just appearances with no concern for the tomb. I have no scholarly credentials, so I’m left to learn from those of you who do.

    • That’s how I’ve understood it from the research I’ve done as an amateur student of the subject. Paul, in the earliest accounts, makes no mention of an empty tomb, even though he was in contact with the Jerusalem church, which would have been familiar with such an empty tomb tradition.

      • As I’ve said and others as well, Paul uses tradition selectively. His contact with the Jerusalem Church was brittle at best–read Galatians and 2 Corinthians again, esp 8-11; he does, in fact represent early tradition in 1 Cor 15 3 when he says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve….” But the phrase “died for our sins” is the giveaway that he the tradition has entered a new phase of theologizing in which early legend and detail, like the empty tomb tradition, have fallen into disuse and are unimportant–that is to say, irrelevant to the broader purposes of Paul’s mission. But even within this snippet Paul still bears a grudge, placing the appearance to the hyper-apostle James after a more general appearance to 500 brethren ‘at one time’ thus minimizing James’s priority, and including himself in the list of worthies, ‘as one born too late.’ In any event, Paul’s reference to the third day suggests he knows a bit of the tradition–but he does not mention any women at all and the empty tomb detail is of no significance considering the point of his reflection (or reminder here). Why do you assume that absence of what you would call ‘evidence’ here is evidence of absence as opposed to evidence of overlap? That is a curious way to do history because you would have to presuppose that everything mentioned by one writer was of equal weight and importance to another writer reflecting on the same events; and we know that weight and importance vary not only fro writer to writer, for different reasons, in this case personal, but over time. Hence, the absence of the empty tomb story in Paul points not just to his intentions being different but to the tomb story being early. That btw does not make it factual or not legendary; it simply makes it early.

  4. J.H. “Why do you assume that absence of what you would call ‘evidence’ here is evidence of absence as opposed to evidence of overlap?”
    J.H. “Hence, the absence of the empty tomb story in Paul points not just to his intentions being different but to the tomb story being early.”
    Huh? You’re doing exactly what you accused me of doing. The absence of the tomb story in Paul is evidence that the story is early and pre-dates his letter?

    Well, as I said, I’m an amateur. The point was made by the late Prof. Howard Teeple in his book “How Did Christianity Really Begin”, which I thought was the most valuable book I have so far read on Christian origins.
    As he states in the book…”The supreme effort to support the faith in a physical resurrection is the empty tomb story. It originated later than Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, for if Paul had known of it, he surely would have used it as evidence to support his argument that God raised Jesus and therefore there will be a general resurrection of the deceased Christians. Paul personally knew Peter and some other leaders of the Jerusalem church, and if there had been an empty tomb, they certainly would have told him about it. Thus the foundation of the resurrection faith was not an empty tomb attended by angels, but Peter’s vision.”
    Perhaps Teeple is mistaken, but since I don’t have the credentials to cross swords with you, and Teeple died a number of years ago…well.

    • ‘Grog’ Well at least I can see now the source of your confusion: ‘For if Paul had known of it [the empty tomb story], he surely would have used it as evidence to support his argument that God raised Jesus and therefore there will be a general resurrection of the deceased Christians.’ I do not know where to begin with this assumption. The facts are, Paul does not use it in the letters we possess. He does not use it either because he does not know about it or because he considers it useless. Given the shape of Paul’s theology, the story would have been useless because he has no interest in a physical resurrection: he never describes a physical Jesus, a physical scene of the crucifixion, or even details of appearances (Luke’s and Paul’s different versions of Paul’s conversion shows a dispute over what Paul may have seen/heard, but is certainly wasn’t an Emmaus experience).If you read Paul’s discourse on flesh elsewhere in 1 Cor. you can see that he does not regard the resurrection of the body as a zombie apocalypse either. In any event, there is no reason to argue as you do and the unestimable Dr Teeple does that there is a reason to think Paul SHOULD have known about the empty tomb narrative or WOULD have used it if he had. That is called, I believe, hypothesis contrary to fact, and in textual studies we don’t proceed on assumptions. I know there is a temptation among mythtics and amateurs to find this a seductive way to approach the NT but in fact the theory that the gospels in written form are a bit later than Paul’s epistles has nothing to say about the materials in the gospels being later than Paul’s epistles. It almost certain that the oral packets called forms existed long prior to anyone being able to write them down. Perhaps the only question is how early. The empty tomb story is early legend. It is useless to Paul’s theology. Even if he knew it, he probably wouldn’t have used it because runs counter to the tradition he invents about MANY people seeing Jesus before his sworn enemy James does. That bit of invention is perfectly in keeping with Paul’s negative relationship with Jerusalem. So both personal hostility and ambition and theology combine to explain why he would have neglected the empty tomb narrative, even if he knew it. In addition, it was probably displaced, by his day, by more elaborate views of resurrection since the mere resurrection of one crucified Jew with no relevance to anyone else’s afterlife is a mere story, not a promise of salvation from death and judgement, which is Paul’s project. Your friend Teeple states, Paul surely would have used it as evidence to support his argument that God raised Jesus and therefore there will be a general resurrection of the deceased Christian.” No. There is no logic or warrant to support this claim, and plenty of reasons to reject it.

      • Not a big fan of Dr. Teeple, I take it? What does “unestimable” mean when you apply it to him? Not worthy of esteem? I can’t find the word in my dictionary. I thought I learned a great deal from him, but maybe I was mistaken. I had dinner with he and his wife once many years ago when he was
        visiting those people who supported his work at the Religion and Ethics Institute in Evanston, which he established as an educational project a number of years earlier. He was always patient and considerate with my endless questions, and kindly responded to them at length by mail, at a time when you had to use a typewriter to correspond. I’ll always remember that. I thought his credentials impeccable, but what do I know, right? By the way, he was no mythicist.
        Well, at any rate, I’m familiar with all the points you make, because Teeple raises them as well and would not disagree with most of what you said. Perhaps only about the period at which the empty tomb story developed.

      • The word unestimable is in most dictionaries, even online ones, and it does not mean inestimable. It means hard to estimate not of infinite esteem or value. I think you mean “I had dinner with him and his wife…” I do not call Teeple a mythtic; I suggest that he uses the “Paul COULD have known so SHOULD have known” fallacy beloved of mythologists like Wells. What could he have known? What texts would we base our knowledge on about what they knew? Acts? Where in Acts is the source for the resurrection tradition of the early Jerusalem community that Paul could have/should have known? Does this absence of an absence point to reasons for Paul’s silence? Do you think for a minute that Paul’s inflated account of a resurrection (if it is his) in 1 Cor 13 is the account that was given to him by Jerusalem–one that would include him among the seers or put the princely James in an inferior position? It is an annoying fallacy because it includes disregard for reading important contextual clues that tell us about why Paul does what he does and doesn’t do what he might have done, and careful analysis requires us to do both. For all I know, Teeple began as a fundamentalist minister who got excited by what in his days were the “new” biblical studies and ended up (many did) seeing Christianity as an ethical option. For me to say he’s wrong is nothing more than scholars do all the time–many have said it about me, especially on certain issues of dating. However I think his reasons for dating the tomb story early are absurd because the story does not even do what he claims for it–the gospels make no link at all between the “discovery’ and a general resurrection of the dead, and Paul who makes a link between the non-physical event of the resurrection and a resurrection of the dead uses no detail to support it because it would run counter to his theology of the “body.” Even if Paul were relevant to any discussion of the empty tomb (and he is not) the story itself looks, smells and walks like a primitive legend developed in hearsay and prior to theologizing. As I’ve already said, an early date does not make it more reliable–traditions are just that–but there shouldn’t be any reason to deny it its antiquity in gossip and folklore. Why isn’t Matthew 28 the Jerusalem account? And if it is, why doesn’t Mark (16) know about it? He could have, so he should have. Perhaps you see my point.

      • While I am thinking about it, which i don’t very often, since we know the book of Acts is very late–as late as 110 or 120 (and conceivably later; Irenaeus is the first Father to use it in about 175), why do you suppose Luke’s Peter makes no reference to the empty tomb in the preaching ascribed to him about the resurrection in Acts 2 and 3? Do you think that Luke doesn’t know the tradition? But clearly he does. A more interesting question is why do you think Luke represents Peter not using it. He could have–especially preaching to Jews in Jerusalem he is asking to “remember” things that are familiar to them. Do you think the empty tomb story is later than Acts because Peter does not use it? Or do you think that there might be other reasons why Peter/Luke do not use it there?

  5. Dr. Hoffmann —

    Comment and question — the comment first. Thank you for, over the course of the past several messages, giving a coherent overview of your thoughts on the chronology of these various ideas relating to the tomb and resurrection. I have no commitment to any particular conclusion and had asked the original question out of genuine desire to get your thoughts because you happen to be one of those scholars whose views I respect as being driven by an apparent desire to understand “what probably happened” rather than “what I can fit to my ideological commitments”.

    The question — You mention that Acts is as late as 110 or 120, and at least conceivably later, though the Gospel of Luke is typically dated (by the many/most mainstream scholars — and I am aware of the alternative views both earlier and later) somewhere around 85-90. Going with somewhere around that range for the gospel, an Acts dating of 110-120 would either mean quite a bit of time passing before being written by a much older “Luke”, or authorship by a different hand in a very similar style. What are your thoughts on this? I’ve assumed you also favor the 85-90 dating for Luke, but I do not mean to take that for granted. I’ve personally just accepted the majority dating of the gospels, but I leave open the option to change my mind.

    • R. Joseph Hoffmann, Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity. An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century. American Academy of Religion/Oxford University press, 1984/2001

  6. You’re asking the wrong person these questions. I have no credentials in the field, so I would not be so foolish as to comment. And yes, I should have used “him” instead of “he”, as I suspected at the time.

    If if the term “inestimable” has the definition you ascribe to it, what makes Teeple’s scholarship “hard to estimate”? Is that judgment based on a reading of his works? If not, how do you arrive at such a conclusion? I’ll be careful though….absence of evidence that you’ve read his scholarship is not evidence of your never having read him. Of course, neither is it evidence that you have.

    As far as the rest of your observations, as always I remain confused. In regards to Teeple, you state…”I think his reasons for dating the tomb story early are absurd because the story does not even do what he claims for it.” But as quoted above, Teeple says no such thing. Teeple says the story “originated later than Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.” He may be right, he may be wrong. I leave it to you to judge.

    • “I would not be so foolish as to comment…” Oh. But you continue… “Is that judgment based on a reading of his works? If not, how do you arrive at such a conclusion?” Obviously critique is a consequence of analysis of Teeple’s work. Your question is redundant. In fact, so is the whole comment as implied in the statement I quoted above. Rather similar to Kloppenborg conceding in his introduction that simple hypotheses do not reflect historical reality, yet he spends the next 400 pages pretending it does, in that infamous tome, Excavating Q… Teeple, by the way, is dead and out of date.

  7. 17th- and 18th-century philosophers (Yes, and theologians, there was so much less distinction between the two disciplines 300 years ago) were the first in Christendom to hint at and then openly express atheist positions publicly without getting killed for it, but how much private atheism was there before them? Of course, we can never know for certain what anyone else believes, we can only take notice of what they say, and we don’t know how much what was privately said centuries ago differed from what was written for publication, and in reading things written in times of strictly controlled expression we must read between the lines whenever the author is not a perfectly simple dolt. It just seems to me that, as soon as atheism was no longer a capital crime, there was suddenly quite a lot of it, suggesting that perhaps it had not actually gradually developed so much as it had been suddenly released. So, how much of the work of Descartes (I recently drew someone’s bitter ire for suggesting that Descartes may’ve been an atheist), Spinoza, Hobbes, Hume, etc was actually theological, and how much of it was political, not arguing against God’s existence so much as against the justifications for limiting free expression? How much of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus really was theological, and how much was political? How much did those authors merely approach frankness as much as they dared so that those who followed them would be more free to speak?

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