Historical Inquiry and the Resurrection

 

2eab493095ee421bc8eac13f07dd7035

Resurrection of Christ by Raphael

Historical inquiry into Jesus has not yet rigorously begun in our time[1]. It will not begin until the premise of theandric union–truly God, truly human–is entertained as a serious hypothesis by historians. The incarnate Son is always greater than our methods of investigating him. The living Lord breaks through the very historical limitations to which he voluntarily submitted. This is why historical inquiry is always to some degree puzzled by Jesus, for he is intrinsically puzzling to reductionist inquiry. The notion that novelty is proof of error–so prevalent in early Christianity–has been reversed in modern times by the conviction that novel is proof of truth. This is often linked with the judgement that all premodern reflection is prone to error precisely because of its antiquity. . . .

Historical inquiry into Jesus will not resume until that premise is grasped. To attempt a history of Jesus without the theandric premise is like attempting sculpture without stone or mathematics without numbers. The history of Jesus must be studied in the same arena in which any past event is studied: by historical methods. . . . The gospel insists upon the presentation of evidence, [but historicism has no place in proper historical inquiry.] By “historicism” I mean the bias that turns historical study unto an inquiry controlled by the historian rather than the events being studied. When the study of history becomes an ideology or bias toward a certain kind of knowing known only to an elite circle of researchers, it becomes historicism. Nineteenth-century Jesus research ended with the self-congratulatory conceit that modern Christianity had come to know Jesus “as no other age” so as to advance constructive though far above and beyond all previous world views. This conceit still plagues the study of Jesus in the twenty-first century. The twentieth century, which began with Schweitzer’s devastating critique of biased modern assumptions about Jesus, ended with the slow death of wearisome radical critical exegesis. More and more layers of fact have been uncovered about a less and less well-defined messianic figure who has become further and further distanced by the very methods that were presumed to be bringing him nearer. The waning momentum of modernity still wishes to reduce the Christ event to historical determinants, explaining the theandric mystery in terms of the gradual historical development of antecedent ideas or themes in the history of religions. Since Jesus comes to us as a concrete historical person, he must be studied historically, but he breaks through our finite assumptions about what is possible amid a history characterized by self-deception. The incarnation is a historical event, but a unique and unparalleled historical event that marks the pivotal point of history and furnishes the key to understanding all other developments in history. . . .

How are we to proceed to account for this particular life? Certainly by making full use of historical inquiry. But nor by preemptively weeding out all reference to the divine initiative and thereby destroying the central datum to be investigated. Historical judgement is not abandoned when the apostolic teaching is understood as having been itself raised up by the risen Lord. The apostles remembered better than they understood. We are able to know him now because they knew him and reported him with sufficient adequacy–sufficient for human salvation. The burden of classic Christian teaching is to show through argument and evidence that Christ was who he said he was. If he was indeed God incarnate, then an inquiry into Christ that accidentally missed that fact would be inadequate. The truth of his life–that he was God incarnate–was not fully realized by his closest disciples during his earthly life. It was only adequately realized after his resurrection. Once grasped, it became the fulcrum of apostolic teaching. The events of his life were events of the God-man. Apart from this fact, these narratives remain enigmatic and baffling. Any attempt to account for his life without accounting for this fact is, according to apostolic testimony, pitiable and untrue. Logos became sarx, flesh, historical person. The uncreated One assumed the life of a creature. God entered history and became a single individual in it. If so, the meaning of history is to be found not in ideas, not in the history of earthly power, but in a man born of women, a particular man as Son of God, Son of God as a particular man. Let this theandric premise be taken seriously and the study of the historical Jesus can once again be resumes.
Thomas OdenClassic Christianity, pages 495-498

—————————

[1]. This book by Oden was written 15 years before N.T. Wright persuasively argued, from the historical evidence, for the resurrection (which presumes the theandric union) as the only explanation of the historical data in his magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God. While Wright’s work has met with engagement by non-Christian scholars, many of them reject his conclusion on philosophical rather than historical ground, believing de fide in naturalism and hard materialism and thereby precluding resurrection as a valid interpretation of the data.

As Wright has noted in Surprised by Hope: I am offering, rather, a historical challenge to other explanations and to the worldviews within which they gain their meaning. Precisely because at this point we are faced with worldview-level issues, there is no neutral ground, no island in the middle of the epistemological ocean as yet uncolonized by any of the warring continents. Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, but historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have long been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity. The obvious fact that this remains hugely challenging at the personal and corporate level ought not to put us off from taking it seriously. Or were we only playing when we entertained the question in the first place? There are, after all, different types of knowing. Science studies the repeatable; history studies the unrepeatable. Caesar only crossed the Rubicon once, and if he’d crossed it again it would have meant something different the second time. There was, and could be, only one first landing on the moon. The fall of the second Jerusalem Temple took place in a.d. 70 and never happened again. Historians don’t of course see this as a problem and are usually not shy about declaring that these events certainly took place, even though we can’t repeat them in the laboratory. But when people say, “But that can’t have happened because we know that that sort of thing doesn’t actually happen,” they are appealing to a would-be scientific principle of history, namely, the principle of analogy. The problem with analogy is that it never quite gets you far enough. History is full of unlikely things that happened once and once only, with the result that the analogies are often at best partial. In any case, if someone declares that certain kinds of events “don’t normally happen,” that merely invites the retort, “Who says?” And indeed, in the case in point, we should note as an obvious but often overlooked point the fact that the early Christians did not think that Jesus’s resurrection was one instance of something that happened from time to time elsewhere. Granted, they saw it as the first, advance instance of something that would eventually happen to everyone else. But they didn’t employ that future hope as an analogy from which to argue backward that it had happened already in this one instance (“It’s going to happen to everyone eventually, so that shows it’s all right for it to have happened this once in advance”). So how does the historian work when the evidence points toward things that we do not normally expect? The resurrection is such a prime example of this that it’s hard to produce, at this meta-level, analogies for the question itself. But sooner or later questions of worldview begin to loom in the background, and the question of what kinds of material the historian will allow onstage is inevitably affected by the worldview within which he or she lives.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 60 other followers