Shuck and Jive

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dead and Buried...

Today is Holy Saturday. Two years ago on Holy Saturday we had snow on the Dogwoods. The text is Mark 15:42-47.
When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

And from Jesus Christ Superstar, John 19:41:

This would be a good time for a mini-review of a book on this topic,
The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith by James McGrath.

James is the Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University and a prolific blogger at Exploring Our Matrix.

His short book is divided into five chapters,
  1. Introduction,
  2. Beyond Reasonable Doubt: How History Works,
  3. Death Before Dishonor: The Burial of the Historical Jesus,
  4. Jesus Beyond the Tomb: Matters of Death and (After)life,
  5. Conclusion: Beyond History

In the introduction, James states the purpose of this book:

This book will seek to clarify precisely how historical study works, and will argue that the very common approach of taking Biblical stories uncritically at face value, and using them as a reason for dismissing evidence not only from history but from science and other sources of knowledge, is fundamentally misguided. P. 8
In the second chapter, James covers a lot of ground, including the relationship between who Jesus was and who Jesus is (history and faith), how historians weigh evidence, authorship of the gospels, the synoptic problem, and the difference between a literary and an historical approach to the gospels. This is an excellent introduction to the basics of higher criticism. James writes that...
...the New Testament Gospels do not give us direct access to firsthand accounts of eyewitness testimony. P. 35 (emphasis his)
Given that, how do scholars determine whether statements made by Jesus (or any of the characters) are historical reporting or literary creations? How do you know when the authors are giving us the facts or spin? That is why we need historical study:
Historical study is not the only way of approaching the Gospel, and depending what one hopes to accomplish, it may or may not be the best way. But if one wants to ascertain what we can know about Jesus as a historical figure "beyond reasonable doubt," then historical study is the only way to accomplish that. p. 58 (emphasis his)
In chapter three, James makes his unique contribution by discussing the burial of Jesus. According to James, if there is one piece of data more reliable than all others, it is that the historical Jesus was executed.
The brute fact that Jesus was executed by crucifixion is essentially beyond doubt. If there was anything normally would have automatically excluded someone from serious consideration as having been the Messiah, it was being executed by the foreign power ruling over the Jews. P. 63
An executed Messiah (Christ) would need to be explained at least. Historians say it is probable that Jesus was thought of by some as a Messiah before his death and his execution created an embarrassment that needed to be explained. Paul and the Gospels were put into service to explain this oddity. Therefore historians are confident that a crucified messiah is not something you create, but an historical reality you try to understand.
All in all, the Gospels give us a core of historical information (Jesus was crucified) overlaid with theological interpretation, and further development of the narrative based on elements drawn from the Jewish Scriptures. P. 65.
So we have him dead. How do we get him alive again? What happened to his body? Each Gospel has a narrative of going to the tomb and finding no body. What is a reasonable conclusion? In addressing that question James evaluates the Gospel accounts, Paul's witness, and ancient burial practices (including burial practices of criminals executed by the Romans). Executed criminals if buried at all were buried in a common grave. This is probably what happened to Jesus, as the earliest gospel, Mark, tells us. Joseph of Arimathea (who is not a disciple) takes the body and puts it in a tomb.
Burial in a common grave for criminals was itself dishonorable, even though not nearly as much so as being denied burial altogether. For this reason, later Christians considered it important to honor Jesus by giving him as honorable a burial as possible in their literary depictions of the event. P. 77.
The empty tomb narratives are not historical reportage. Neither are they fabrications out of whole cloth. They are literary elaborations on an historical event. Apparently, Jesus' body wasn't where it was supposed to be when the disciples went looking for it. How do you explain a missing body? Ask your local police detective. Would a detective assume that God raised it from the dead and it is wandering around your neighborhood? A police detective would find a more mundane answer and if unable to determine the mundane answer would leave the case open rather than say God did it. This is how an historian approaches the question of Jesus' body and claims of resurrection as well. That is as far as history can go.
...since most religious believers would agree that resurrections are both unusual and improbable events, for that very reason no historian will ever be able to say "the body was probably missing because God raised Jesus from the dead." P. 95 (emphasis his)
An empty tomb narrative proves nothing. It does however, show that the missing corpse coupled with personal visions (as attested by Paul), and experiences of a mystical nature by his followers led them to affirm that Jesus was in a very real sense, alive. That is the mystery of resurrection faith that James discusses in his final two chapters concluding:
Resurrection faith, we have suggested in this book, was not born from historical deductions regarding the whereabouts of a body, but from life-transforming religious experiences. For those of us who have had such experiences, faith is not primarily (if at all) a matter of doctrines but of what we can only speak of in symbolic terms as a life-transforming relationship to the ultimate. When the focus of Christian faith is placed there, then the possibility of keeping faith about humble trust rather than arrogant claims to certainty becomes realistic. P. 142 (emphasis his)
This is a fine book that helps those grappling with these early texts and the central claims of faith to discover an approach that nurtures both mind and heart and sacrifices neither. I would recommend this book for both religious and non-religious people. It would make a fine text for your book club or church school class.

Thanks, James. Happy Easter!


  1. hey John - the Maters of Death that you have written about in Chap 4 - is that a spelling mistake, or is he referring to tomaters or crematers?...;)

  2. thanks for this, john!
    very helpful revue and looks very interesting (matter of fact, indeed!)
    am intrigued with this quote:
    "All in all, the Gospels give us a core of historical information (Jesus was crucified) overlaid with theological interpretation, and further development of the narrative based on elements drawn from the Jewish Scriptures. P. 65."
    I have met an interesting man who has written about going beyond BOTH history AND theology, looking at the gospels from a 'spiritual formation' perspective. I've heard him speak and recommend his books (to be re-published into one book by Harper and released -- to much fanfare -- in Jan 2010). check out Dr. Alexander Shaia:

    This reader speaks for me:
    Valerie Andrews
    San Rafael, CA
    "I am enthralled by every word of this book... This book takes the Christian journey back to what it was meant to be: a pilgrimage through different stages of life development.

  3. John,

    I've met Dr Shaia and read his books too. I also think you would like his approach and recommend it. Not sure he gets all his facts straight, and he is kind of an odd ball, but his model for how to read the Gospels is really cool:

    They never were history books.

    They were never meant to talk about the past. They were always meant to talk about the present, the Jesus who lives, and our lives in Him, present tense. I like that.

    His presentation on the origin and significance of the gospel of Mark is awesome.

  4. Happy Easter John - blessings in abundance for you and all the amazing good work you do, both in the blogworld and in your own world!

  5. 'An executed Messiah (Christ) would need to be explained at least.'

    So Paul at least needed to explain why Jesus actually was the Messiah, rather than state it?

    Where does he do that? Where does he state why Jesus was the Messiah , and not just a resurrected person?

    The only place he does that surely is Philippians 2

    And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
    and became obedient to death
    even death on a cross!
    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
    that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth...

    So after the man was killed, God exalted him and gave him the name of Jesus?

    Isn't that what Paul thought had happened?