Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Bones of Jesus of Nazareth

Is it possible that some archaeologist one day might turn up a bone-box discovery containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth? As always in matters of religion, the answer depends on who you ask. True Believers, who trust that the Bible always speaks Truth in matters related to faith and doctrine, will dismiss my question as ignorance of the nature and meaning of Jesus' resurrection.

The witness of all four canonical gospels is that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by the first visitors on that first Easter morning (Mark 16:4-6; Matt 28:5-6; Luke 24:2-6; John 20:3-9). The body of Jesus was gone! This is the basis for the argument that the body of Jesus was physically resuscitated and transformed, or as the writer we call Luke has it: the flesh of Jesus did not suffer corruption (Acts 2:24-32; 13:32-35).

The gospel writers double down on the physicality of the resurrection. John adds that Jesus cautions Mary not to cling to him (John 20:17)—a spirit is hardly substantial; there is nothing to cling to. Hence the caution to Mary only makes sense if Jesus' body is physical. And Jesus invites Thomas to "put out your hand and place it in my side"; spirits do not have sides (John 20:27; where the soldier had pierced his side on the cross, John 19:34)—another clue that the body of Jesus was physical and not spirit. In Matthew the women who had come to the tomb "took hold of his feet" (Matt 28:9); spirits don't have feet, but physical bodies do. Luke notes that the resurrected Jesus was given a piece of broiled fish "and he took it and ate before them" (Luke 24:39-42); spirits do not need food but bodies do.

            According to true believers, however, why would one doubt the resurrection? God can, and has done, many things more marvelous than raising Jesus from among the dead. For example, the Bible reports that God transported Elijah bodily into heaven in a chariot of fire by means of a whirlwind—body, blood, bones, calloused bunions, and all (2 Kgs 2:9-12).

            Paul, on the other hand, in discussing the concept of resurrection (1 Cor 15:35) specifically rules out a physical resurrection: the body is destined for corruption; it is only in the spirit that one may inherit eternal life (Gal 6:8). It is foolishness, Paul says, to conceive of resurrection in terms of a physical body (1 Cor 15:36-42). In short, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Cor 15:50). What can inherit the kingdom of God is the "spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:44), Paul argues, and that must include Jesus as well (1 Cor 15:45).

            Paul's idea of a spiritual resurrection does seem to make more sense than what is found in the gospels, but if we are transformed what happens to the old body? Paul argues that it will be changed (allag─ôsometha), like one changes a suit of clothes (1 Cor 15:52), and "puts on" the imperishable and immortal spirit (1 Cor 15:53-54). Nevertheless, there seems to be a continuum between the mortal and the immortal; the physical body is not divested but "further clothed" (2 Cor 5:1-4).

One of Paul's disciples, however, did not follow this last idea of the great apostle, and argued instead that "at death, the Elect are 'drawn' to heaven by the Savior (Treatise on the Resurrection, 45.34-39). The inner, spiritual self 'departs' and experiences a blessed 'absence' from the fleshly body" (Treatise on the Resurrection, 27.19-24, 35-38).1 In other words, the resurrection is a completely spiritual event. If the writer of this treatise on the resurrection is correct, it would seem that we might yet find the bones of Jesus buried somewhere in Israel.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Malcolm Peel, "The Treatise on the Resurrection," in Harold Attridge, ed., Nag Hammadi Codex I (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 142.

22 comments:

  1. In I Cor 15, Paul writes: For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    He considered the appearance of Jesus to him (Paul) to be the same as appearances made to Peter and the other apostles/disciples. Even if you consider the Acts account as a description of Paul's encounter (an no one should) it was not a physical appearance. Paul was a mystic who had dreams and visions and his only first hand description of an encounter with Jesus is found in II Corinthians 12: And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
    This wouldn't have made grand endings to Matthew, Luke, and John, but Paul, as the first of proto-Christian writers, didn't know about an empty tomb or a bodily resurrection and his experience of the resurrection of Jesus was a mystical and indescribably experience such as is common among mystics of all world religions.

    Paul wanted to believe that his experience held out some hope that death was not final.... a childish hope rooted in fear.

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  2. Good Morning Roger,
    The appearance of Being is an enigma: Why is there anything at all or why is there not anything at all (these are not the same question). We were (if one can use the word "were" for a state of non-being) not consulted when we entered into Being from Non-Being, and things being what they are we will not be consulted as to our certain absence from Being. The fact that we cannot explain Being (i.e. of the sum total of all that exists) should caution us about an overconfidence of what we cannot see or even know in the shadows of Non-Being. This singular datum offers us creatures in a state of Being a slender fragile hope for our Non-Being futures.
    Happy Easter.
    Charlie

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    1. Hi Charlie,

      A truly wonderful (and I would say accurate) description of our rawest life experience.

      It's amazing how one's younger life experiences maintain their influence over the years. I won't be going to church tomorrow, and I haven't been active in any religious community for some years now. But I can still sing "Up from the grave he arose" with fervor and satisfaction.

      Happy Easter to all.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  3. Good Easter Morning Charlie and Roger,

    One of the fathers of the modern discipline of Psychology, William James, 1842-1910, suggested, "The best argument for an immortal life is the existence of a man who deserves one."

    James also developed the notion of tough-mindedness as a personality trait, defined as empirical, materialistic, skeptical, and fatalistic (Longman’s Dictionary of Psychology and Psychiatry). Speaking personally, but hopefully nonjudgmentally, your messages seem to lean strongly in that direction. Over the years since James, many instruments of psychology have attempted to measure the strength of the trait in a given individual (e.g., Cattell's 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire).

    I wonder, however, how much objectivity anyone of us can claim for a viewpoint. Like the philosophers Fichte and Nietzsche, James thought that intellectual and rational constructions are expressions of individual temperament, dependent upon the kind of person that one is rather than upon a claim to achieved skills of objectivity.

    Is it possible that truth lies somewhere in a dialogue between the tough-minded and the tender-minded (also a Jamesian category)?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      For the record I did go to Bible Study on Easter Sunday, although I did not go to church. The former situation I consider a seeker situation; the latter I consider a propaganda situation. In Bible study, as my class does it, an issue is discussed after the teacher presents "the lesson"; in church there is only one viewpoint and no discussion.
      You (and the psychologists) may be correct about the difference between Roger and me.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie and Roger,

      An inquiry for you "tough-minded" guys. Last night NBC news featured a human interest story about a young girl (9 or 10?) who, to cope with her father's death, writes him letters attached to balloons which then ascend toward the heavens where her father reads them and continues to support her. This view has been reinforced at least once by someone finding a letter and rewarding the girl's wish for horse-back riding lessons. The adults no doubt support her in this venture. If asked, how would you approach these "tender-minded" folks.

      [1] Would you agree with James, et.al., that intellectual constructions are expressions of individual temperament and there is no value in challenging the girl's thinking or behavior, or [2] do you think that each human has an objective rational capacity which would kick-in if the girl was appropriately educated regarding the ways of reason, or [3] Would you make an intervention at a later age because you think that tender-minded is more likely a characteristic of children, and tough=minded is more likely an adult characteristic.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Good afternoon Gene,
      I saw the incident of which you speak in the evening news a couple of days ago. I would not make an intervention even if the parents asked me to do so and would advise them to let the "make believe" run its course. In my home while the kids were growing up we celebrated Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and one of my daughters had an imaginary friend. We did not discourage these childhood fantasies and eventually the matter resolved itself. So I guess #1 and #2 would apply. Trying to intervene would not turn out so well I think.
      Even with adults I have learned not to try to persuade people to see things as I do. I answer questions honestly and hope that people will work things out for themselves.
      There are times however when intervention is necessary with both juveniles and adults in order to try and protect them from themselves and their bad choices.
      Good question,
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    4. Hi Charlie,

      Those are pretty much my thoughts, as well.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  4. Charles, I must protest. Falling back on Descartes to cast doubt on existence is too easy a ploy for this conversation. While you cannot prove a negative and you cannot substantiate sensory perception beyond philosophical skepticism, it also doesn't make any sense to have conversation about anything at all if you dismiss existence and perception. The issue about whether or not there is life after death in any form has to account for why you would believe it. Lightening may come from the hand of Thor but I have no reason to believe it. Star Wars may actually be a factual documentary of what happened in a distant galaxy long ago, but I have no reason to believe that. Similarly, while no one can prove a negative, I have no more reason to believe in life after death than I do the Easter Bunny. The evidence supporting the existence of either is exactly the same.

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    1. Good morning Roger,
      I am fully persuaded that our present form of existence is not a dream--that is to say there are things all around each one of us--things "are" whether we deny them or not. Even though we all share, in part, a common view of reality the fact remains that, at least in part, reality is what every one perceives it to be.
      With regard to your last sentence: I was not talking about life after death. Those were your words used to deny such a state of "life after death."
      I was talking about the enigma of Being and Non-Being. To repeat myself slightly differently: Our history as a species has been a quest to understand Being, but we know nothing about Non-Being and the nexus between Being and Non-Being. And the fact that we know nothing provides, I think, the human species a slender ephemeral thread of hope (nothing more; and certainly not life, as we know it, after death, or eternal life for that matter) about the condition of Non-Being. Because we do not know and apparently have no way of finding out means that we can scarcely speak authoritatively one way or the other. I do agree, however, that death pretty much ends our participation in Being--but also must insist that our ignorance itself offers a tiny glimmer of hope.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. My complaint remains. As in Kerry's comment below. He states that he has chosen to believe that his father's spirit remains and he could add the classic existential qualifier, "Because it pleases me to think so," but other than personal preference, there is no reason to believe that either our parents or former pets, nor the chickens, pigs, cows, and fish we have consumed live on (or the trees we have burned in the fireplace). Not knowing about non-being provides the same slender glimmer of hope that we have that unicorns also might exist and there could be a leprechaun's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not everything can be known with certainty but still, a serious individual must have a reason to believe anything. Frankly, I personally find the reason of either wanting it to be true or simple fear of mortality to be far too thin to waste time on.

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    3. And yet you are!
      Tell me: why is it that there is nothing at all?
      Charlie

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    4. I am not wasting time or emotional energy in hoping for some wished for solution to mortality. I never feel that I am wasting time in conversation with you (unless you compel me to repeat myself). Why is anything not the opposite of what it is? Why are you and I not coconut palms standing isolated on an island in the South Pacific? All we know relates to the "isness" of our experience and we have no knowledge of the "not isness" of our imagination.

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    5. Hi Roger,
      Always a pleasure to dialogue with you! I agree completely with your last sentence: we know nothing except the world of experience.
      Hope, however, is not something we must work at. Hope is something we have if we have it in the face of everything to the contrary.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  5. As I read the comments I think about my dad who passed away in 2010 and he was cremated. His remains are with my mom, under her bed none the less. :) However, I do believe his spirit body lives on.

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    1. Hi Kerry,
      I believe you are in good company with this view--at least the apostle Paul will agree with you. The question then becomes how can one be completely sure that he knows what he is talking about when he mentions the "spiritual body"? Did you find his arguments in 1 Cor 15:35-50?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  6. I left off the word "convincing." Did you find his arguments convincing? (The last sentence should have read.)

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  7. Good afternoon Charlie,

    Thank you as always for your well written and well sourced blog post. I am quite certain that the apologists for Christianity would concoct an explanation that when Jesus rose from the dead, he left behind his bones and received new and improved spiritual bones in Heaven... It would be a very interesting situation, that's for sure.

    1) One apologist for Christianity made in interesting argument: He or she asserted that if Jesus had indeed remained in his tomb, that it would have become a religious shrine and been visited by his followers for generations afterwards. I had never heard that one before.

    2) This apologist also claims that historical documents cite the appearance of Jesus after his death- those documents being the NT manuscripts. Do you know of any other historical documents that acknowledge the existence of Jesus- before or after his death? Other than the NT? I don't know of any off the top of my head.

    3) My parents' pastor of over 30 years (who had retired recently) sadly lost his wife to suicide. She jumped off a bridge near my parents home, a bridge they drive over nearly everyday. No one saw it coming. She was born in 1932 and was in remission from colon cancer.

    She taught many classes at the church and was a very active and involved member in the community. How would you respond if your Sunday school teacher who had taught you about the Bible and prayer and witnessing to others- up and did such a thing out of the blue? What do you put more weight on- a teacher's words or their actions? Would something like that make you question the validity of their teachings?

    It's ok if you cannot answer that.

    Many thanks as always, Elizabeth (hope its warmer and drier in your neck of Missouri!!)

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    1. (Correction- the lady I mentioned who passed away was born in 1950, not 1932)

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    2. Good Morning Elizabeth!
      In answer to your first question: we know of at least 34 gospels, most of which are fragmentary. Two off the top of my head are the Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of the Savior.
      Your last question is tough. I could not judge the lady negatively even for committing suicide, since I don't have enough information. One must at least walk in her shoes a bit to understand her act. People of deep religious faith are still imperfect creatures and subject to all kinds of failure.
      I would judge what she taught on the basis of whether or not it made sense. Her inability to face whatever she thought was coming at her, does not necessarily in itself invalidate the things she taught her students.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    3. I don't know whether you can answer this or not, Charlie, but of those 34 gospels... which do you think are the most reliable historic documents? Elizabeth

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    4. Good afternoon Elizabeth,
      I think that all of these early gospels, including the canonical four, are more propagandistic than historical. Nevertheless they can all contribute to our understanding of the early Christian movements. If you mean which of these gospels contribute the most to our understanding of the sayings tradition of the historical man Jesus of Nazareth, then it would be the synoptic gospels and the gospel of Thomas.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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