In Tents #41 He is Risen, and Other Texts That Don’t Behave as Textual Critics Think They Do, part II

At the end of #40 I suggested that both Stephen Mitchell and Reza Aslan dismiss the Resurrection on the grounds that there’s no Resurrection appearance in Mark. In looking for the passage where Aslan dismisses the Resurrection I found that he does mention the lack of a Resurrection appearance in Mark, but he also acknowledges that Christian belief in the Resurrection likely predates Mark by 30 years. But then he says, “Nevertheless, the fact remains that the resurrection is not a historical event. It may have had historical ripples, but the event itself falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith” (176).
That’s a jarring statement and I had to think about it for awhile to figure out why. Aslan does a very good job of separating Jesus of Nazareth the historical character from Jesus the Messiah and Savior of the World. There’s some value in doing that, but Aslan sees the two roles as incompatible, maybe mutually exclusive. He sees Jesus as a Zealot, an ultra-nationalist who wants to drive Rome out of his homeland by violence. So he sees the scene in Matthew 16 where Jesus foresees his approaching death not as a prophecy, but as a way of telling his followers what he knows will happen to him.

Because Rome always crucifies messiahs and revolutionaries.

Similarly, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives because that’s his hideout. I’ve oversimplified Aslan’s portrait. But anyone who reads the first chapter can predict the general argument because Aslan says that once you accept Jesus as a historical person in a specific time and culture, all the other stuff falls away, and you can see Jesus clearly as a human being. So of course the arc of the book is going to be stripping away all the other stuff.

But if Jesus was only one of many, many revolutionaries crucified by Rome, why did his movement survive? Why didn’t smiting the shepherd scatter the flock? The answer is that none of the other crucified messiahs claimed to be resurrected. Or had people claiming to have heard that claim from the resurrected Messiah’s lips (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

Aslan agrees with Paul that the claims of Christianity depend on the Resurrection:
“And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:17). So anyone who wants to explain Jesus as something other than the atoning Savior of the world has to explain the Resurrection away. But that’s not what’s jarring about the statement. What’s jarring is that “The resurrection is not a historical event,” does not logically follow from the statement that “the event itself falls outside the scope of history and into the realm of faith.” The logical implication of saying something is in the realm of faith, not history is, “Therefore I can’t make any historical claims about it.”

But to say something didn’t happen is to make a historical claim about that event, in the same way that my father’s colleague who told me that when we visited Mount Vernon the next day we would not find boy George Washington’s cherry tree stump was making a historical claim.

Paul makes a historical claim about the Resurrection. Negating that claim is still a historical claim—even if the negation claims to move the event into the realm of faith.

I’ve been puzzling over why Aslan feels the need to make a historical claim about something he says is not in the realm of history. And I’ve been puzzling—ever since I listened to his narration of Zealot—over what Aslan means by the realm of faith. It sounds like a benign phrase, but it feels like an insult, because the realm of faith is something you can’t make historical claims from, but you can make historical claims about.

That is, Paul makes his claim of faith as a historical claim, but Aslan discounts the claim because it belongs to the realm of faith. But Aslan doesn’t leave matters there. He goes on to make his own historical claim. Maybe he has to make his claim that the resurrection is not a historical fact because the claim that Jesus came back from the dead and did not die again like Lazarus is so powerful that it can’t just stay in the realm of faith. It requires explication.

So what does that have to do with the claim in my title that texts don’t always behave the way textual critics and other readers think they do?

Why not turn the question back to you? Aslan learned scriptural exegesis as an Evangelical Christian, and I ended up with the impression that he hasn’t moved as far from his Evangelical roots as he says he has in the first chapter. He may have dropped the belief, but not a lot of the assumptions. I’ll talk about this more next month.

Now here’s the question I want to turn back to you? Do you find that texts sometimes change their meaning for you, or that you for some reason adjust your understanding of a particular literary or scriptural or historical text? How does that affect you to find that a text isn’t behaving the way you thought it would?

Your turn.

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2 Responses to In Tents #41 He is Risen, and Other Texts That Don’t Behave as Textual Critics Think They Do, part II

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Have we mentioned yet in this series Tolkien’s insight to C. S. Lewis that Christianity was like the Baldur myth he found moving, except that it happened to be true?

    Honestly, I find that scriptural texts change their meanings for me all the time. Interestingly, I find that I’m more open to this for scripture than for texts I consider purely literary — maybe because I have more trust in the author, or in the importance of the meaning-making exercise.

  2. Harlow says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. You mentioned Baldur a few months ago, but I neglected to ask what what was so moving to C.S. Lewis about the Baldur myth, and what Tolkied thought was similar to Christianity in the story. I don’t know the Baldur story well, though the fount of wisdom, Wikipedia, did remind me about the poisoned mistletoe, but doesn’t mention a resurrection (of course, it doesn’t mention the commemorative 5K run either, the Baldur Dash).

    I keep thinking of that moment in Perelandra where Ransom thinks that things we think of as myths on earth may well have actually happened on other planets. Which raises a question. What if myths were created to allow people to think about things they wouldn’t normally take seriously? Putting Ransom on a different planet allows us to think about the need for ransom, to consider the idea in a non-threatening way.

    Robert Graves said in The Greek Myths that the myths are not great subconscious expressions of truth, they’re more like political cartoons written about particular times and places (like Thebes), for political ends.

    What if the original mythographers were using the form the same way Christian authors use sci-fi and fantasy to embody religious themes? What if audiences back them were just as skeptical as we are today?

    Another question, if you didn’t know that the authors of Speaker for the Dead and Perelandra were practicing Christians, could you derive their beliefs from the stories? Perelandra is pretty clearly a retelling of the Garden of Eden story. Very easy to see if you know the Eden story and what it means to Christians. But if you don’t what do you make of the story?

    If you don’t know anything about vicarious service for the dead, could you derive it from Speaker for the Dead? And what would you make of the priestly imagery in Ender’s visisecting the piggie?

    Could you derive the author’s beliefs about the Atonement from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? You can recognize, “The cup that my father hath given me to drink, shall I not drink it?” in HP and the Half-Blood (formerly and once again known as) Prince if you know the statement and what if means to Christians, but if you don’t, would you know its significance to the author?

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