I have to this point confined my thoughts on the “Jesus Family Tomb” (Talpiot A) and the more recent adjacent tomb (Talpiot B) to my PaleoBabble blog, but my thoughts on James Tabor’s recent blog post entitled, “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead” seems to fit this blog better. I want readers to know up front that Tabor’s post is quite good — stimulating, thoughtful, irenic in tone — just plain old good stuff for those who enjoy reading biblical studies scholarship.
For those unfamiliar with James Tabor, he is a New Testament scholar and part of the team that has been promoting the Talpiot tomb discoveries. He believes the Talpiot A tomb contained the bones of Jesus, and so he denies the resurrection of Christ as defined as the raising of Jesus’ dead body three days after dying on the cross. But the gist of his article is that ancient Jews and Christians conceived of resurrection as a reconstitution of the dead person in a new body, not a raising of the dead body, making the old body irrelevant. Hence he does not see his view that Jesus’ body was not raised on the third day as a repudiation of the idea of resurrection — and even a physical resurrection at that. Although I think his articulation of this view (as it involves a rejection of the more common view) suffers some coherence problems, I would not want anyone to pass on reading his essay. It’s well worth your time. Readers should digest Tabor’s article first before proceeding.
Lastly, before I proceed, I want to make it clear that what Tabor has produced is intended as a piece of conciliatory scholarship (see the last paragraph). For the record, I think he is entirely sincere in that regard. I have some criticisms of his thinking in what follows, but I want it to be understood that I appreciate what he’s doing here. I just see some coherence problems.
Tabor’s article was a delight to read as he succeeded in bringing out important nuances to how resurrection gets discussed, and how he sees that discussion aligning with, or departing from, primary material in the Old Testament and Hellenistic-Jewish context. He hits his stride about half way, making his contention clear (emphasis mine):
. . . Jews like Jesus, as well as the Pharisees, believed that on the ‘last day,’ the dead would be raised. What people mix up is the literal idea of resuscitation or the ‘standing up’ of a corpse, and the fully developed Jewish idea of resurrection at the end of days. The latter does not involve collecting the dust, the fragmentary decaying bones, or other remains of the body and somehow restoring their form. According to the book of Revelation, even the ‘sea’ gives up the dead that are in itwhich can hardly mean one must search for digested bodies that the fish have eaten and eliminatedas unpleasant as the thought may be (Revelation 20:11-15).
Corpse revival is not resurrection of the deadat least in its classic sense of what happens to all humankind in the end of days. . . . The fully developed view of resurrection of the dead among Jews in the time of Jesus was that at the end of days the dead would come forth from Sheol/Hadesliterally the ‘state of being dead,’ and live again in an embodied form.”
The highlighted portions bring into focus where Tabor diverges with what we might call a traditional view of resurrection. He sees incongruity between the Jewish/Judeo-Christian understanding of resurrection and the gospel accounts of the empty tomb because “corpse revival is not resurrection from the dead.” Tabor believes that Jesus’ body was removed from the garden tomb, which was intended as a temporary tomb, and then deposited in what has been called the Talpiot A tomb, where it remained until its discovery in 1980, whereupon all the bones in the tomb were removed and reburied in an unknown location (a practice that is normative in accord with orthodox Jewish wishes when such remains are found). Tabor considers the empty tomb reports in the gospels to have been written post-70 AD, “when the links with the faith of the Jerusalem community had been severed.” In other words, the empty tomb account is, for Tabor and others, in conflict with an original knowledge (and theology) of what happened after the death of Jesus held by the pre-70 AD followers of Jesus. Thus there is a conflict between the beliefs of the original Christians and some of the content of the New Testament.
I don’t follow this thinking since it is problematic in terms of coherence. I offer several items for consideration.
1. The Cart Before the Horse?
At the outset, I would object that one ought not arbitrarily dismiss the empty tomb accounts as late. Tabor would respond that such dismissal is not arbitrary. But I would ask what I think is a reasonable question: Other than the reconstructed theology that results from this division of the material, what empirical data from the text produce that division and the reconstruction? I have read a good deal of NT scholarship that presumes the division, but how do we actually know it is real? Is there something in the grammar or syntax or literary character of these accounts that betray such lateness? If so, I’d like to see it. In the absence of any specifically textual data that produce a pre-/post-70 AD dichotomy to which Tabor adheres, the only conclusion one could draw is that the dichotomy is merely a hermeneutical filter brought to the text. And on one level even if there was textual evidence of lateness it wouldn’t prove the point. Why? Because the fact that X idea wasn’t written about until some point does not prove X idea wasn’t embraced prior to it being written down. This is basic logic. But, in a nutshell, I don’t want a scheme that argues for stripping out the third day empty-tomb resurrection element just because it sounds workable by those who want to dispense with the third day empty-tomb element as part of a larger argument about what happened to Jesus’ body. If that particular element is to be stripped out of the accounting, I want it stripped out by the data of the text, not by virtue of a preconceived filter brought to the text. Coherence in interpretation isn’t based on the beauty of one’s conclusion in one’s own eye (or in collective eyes); it’s based on whether the conclusion actually proceeds from the data. Reconstructive opinion isn’t a substitute for data.
2. Chronological Comment out of the Ether?
Second, Tabor believes Paul’s theology was consistent with the “pre-70 AD reconstitution view” of resurrection which he embraces in his essay (Tabor: “Resurrection of the dead, according to both Paul and Jesus, has nothing to do with the former physical body,” and “Paul knows nothing of that first empty tomb. He knows that Jesus died and was buried and on the third day he was raised up” ). For Paul, Jesus was a “life-giving spirit” (quoting 1 Cor 15:34), and so Paul did not believe that Jesus’ corpse was revived.
But is that all Paul believed about Jesus? Is it impossible that Paul believed in both a corpse revival and a “spiritual body? Many of course would argue just that. But, one could say that, since it’s pretty certain Paul died before 70 AD, his theology could not have drawn from all that post-70 “dead body now standing up” late theology . . . if it’s late . . . right?
This trajectory is related to my first objection, but has tidiness problems of its own.
While it is true that Paul’s writings do not mention the “tomb” of Jesus with respect to his resurrection language, in 1 Cor 15:4 Paul writes that Jesus was buried and raised “on the third day.” A straightforward reading of this phrasing would have Paul’s language of resurrection linked to the “third day” idea that derives from the gospel portions that Tabor says were added after 70 AD. In other words, it seems clear that Paul’s chronological reference to the resurrection derives from the empty tomb description put by all the gospels as occurring on the “first day” of the week subsequent to the dead Jesus being removed from the cross before the beginning of the Sabbath.1 But how can that be if Tabor is correct? If Paul knew nothing of the first empty tomb, whence the third day reference? If we presume the chronological indicators in the gospels about Jesus being raised on the first day of the week after he was put in the tomb before the preceding Sabbath began were absent from any gospel material Paul could have seen to learn about Jesus’ death and burial, where did he get his “third day” chronology? If Paul was thinking only of a future bodily “reconstitution” resurrection “at the last day” subsequent to Jesus’ Talpiot A burial, the chronological reference makes no sense. It seems to me that the gospels are the logical source for Paul’s chronological wording.
But let’s think a bit about how this “third day” information got into Paul’s letter if the gospel material about the third day was post-70. I see two possible answers: (1) Paul got the idea from the OT, not the NT gospels, and so Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15:4 does not undermine Tabor’s view that the third day material in the gospels is post-70; (2) someone added that language after 70 AD to Paul’s pre-70 letter.
I’ll take the latter first since it’s my guess (and it’s only a guess) that Tabor would choose door number two. It seems akin to what he’s saying about the gospels, so it seems like a good guess. If so, I’d again like to see the empirical textual data for that. It’s a reasonable request. I want data to drive the conclusion, not a presupposed interpretive template.
I looked at several leading commentaries by respected critical NT scholars, all of whom place 1 Corinthians at roughly 50-55 AD, shortly before, and in conjunction with, the composition of Romans, which is dated to the mid-to-late 50s AD. For sure, many struggle with the third day language because they favor the dichotomy Tabor follows. But why? Do these scholars have a reason other than theological preference for finding the phrase in Paul uncomfortable? Without data that is the picture created.
The former alternative — that Paul’s “third day” language derives from the Old Testament (and not the gospels), is adopted by some NT scholars I referenced while reading Tabor’s article. Conzelmann is illustrative. After listing four other speculation-driven options that are offered to defend the lateness of the phrase, he writes (sorry for the imprecision of the transliteration due to Greek font problems): “So there remains a fifth possibility, alongside the first: 5) The date was derived from Scripture. The phrase kata tas graphas according to the Scriptures, presumably again refers here, too, not only to egegertai he was raised, but to the whole statement. The allusion is indicated in the same general way as that to Isa 53. It can only be to Hos 6:2.”2
This OT source option is a possible choice for Tabor, but I wonder how comfortable he is with it. That a Jew and not a Christian could get a three-day resurrection from the OT undermines his argument elsewhere that certain “resurrection symbology” from Talpiot B (i.e., the “Jonah fish” symbol on an ossuary) is evidence for its identification as a Christian tomb.3
But the OT option has internal problems of its own. The “third day” reference is immediately followed by the reference to Peter seeing the resurrected Christ, and then the twelve — a chronology that proceeds from the gospel chronology involving the third day resurrection. Although appealing to the OT seems a better option, that option has far less explanatory power than just saying Paul got his chronology of events from the gospels, and that means their content was pre-70 AD. Unless Tabor can provide another explanation for Paul’s chronological comment, the notion of this information being added to Paul’s thinking after 70 AD lacks coherence.
Another internal problem for the OT option is probably apparent to readers. If Paul could look at Hosea 6:2 (per Conzelmann above) and perhaps marry it to Jonah 1:17 and Jonah 2:2 (cf. the reference to Sheol), then how is it that the gospel writers could not have done the same thing prior to 70 AD? Why does Paul’s interpretive observation from the OT become unreasonable when the observers and interpreters happen to be a group of Jews who believed Jesus was the messiah, but who were living before 70 AD? On what exegetical, grammatical or syntactical grounds (i.e., grounds that aren’t a theological statement) are we concluding that the third day wording found in the gospels could not have had the same source as that of Paul’s phrasing (and any Jonah fish symbol in Talpiot B)? Again, this strikes me as a very reasonable question.
3. The Either-Or Fallacy
Another coherence problem in Tabor’s articulation is that it presents the reader with an either-or fallacy. Tabor presents his readers with a choice between two options: either embrace the notion that Jews and the original Christians thought of resurrection as a “corpse revival” (the “standing up” of the original, now dead, body) or embrace the fact that Jews and original Christians conceived of resurrection as a remote, future, physicalized re-constitution of the dead person, making the status of anyone’s earthly bones (including those of Jesus) irrelevant to the discussion. There’s actually at least one more option: Jews and early Christians accepted both these notions as resurrection and did not set the two in opposition to each other.
Let’s consider Ezekiel 37:5-6, cited by Tabor in his essay:
“…And I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.
Tabor takes this vision of the dry bones as a reconstitution (“Resurrection of the dead here, clearly, is a reconstitution of the physical body”). But I would suggest it is not reconstitution. It simply does not describe or presume the same circumstances as Tabor’s other (better) examples that certainly require reconstitution. What I mean is that, in Ezekiel’s vision, there are bones in the valley, and those same bones become enfleshed and re-animated. The bones are not re-created from dust in the vision (that would be reconstitution). The vision is one of fallen victims whose skeletons lay exposed, or who were perhaps buried (Ezek 37:1). Other examples Tabor notes, or could note, such as bodies lost at sea or immolated bodies, would obviously require reconstitution. But one cannot coherently use Ezek 37 as reconstitution since the bones of the dead are in fact the starting point for the resurrection depiction — just as bones in a grave would be the starting point for a corpse revival resurrection. Tabor apparently (?) presumes that one can only speak of bodily resurrection (i.e., the original body “standing up in corpse revival”) before the flesh has rotted. But on what basis could this view be parsed so precisely? It cannot, and so his categories for resurrection are somewhat contrived, though the nuancing is merited. My view, as noted earlier, is that the Jewish (and Judeo-Christian) view of resurrection included both “standing up” of the old body and reconstitution where that was logically necessitated. I need Tabor to prove that a Jew or early Christian would have rejected one of those before I can begin to see this approach as making sense. I think everyone could agree that there was no uniformity of opinion among Second Temple Judaisms regarding the resurrection, a mode of resurrection, or definition of resurrection. Any argument based on that presumption is tenuous.
4. Servant-King, Corporate and Individual
Another angle to the either-or fallacy presented by Tabor is the incident in Matt 27:51-53, which is seen by many as an allusion to Ezek 37:1-14. This is important since the resurrective events of Matt 27:51-53 are overtly connected to the resurrection of Jesus by the gospel writer.
The above consideration becomes weighty when one factors in some stock elements of OT theology. For an Israelite (and for later Jews wanting a royal deliverer) the anointed king represented the nation. Consequently, the messiah, the ultimate king figure, represented the nation (this individual-to-corporate representation is basic to an OT theology of kingship, and was hardly unique in the ancient Near East). A close reading of Isaiah 40-55 reveals the same thinking about the “servant” in those chapters. The titular servant of God is most often corporate Israel, but is also an individual (most notably, in Isaiah 53). That would mean that anyone associating Isaiah 53 with the messiah (right or wrong — the point is that NT writers did just that) would see the messiah as representing Israel as the servant (and, as noted above, also as king).
So what’s the point? Just this: if the vision of Ezekiel 37 describes the resurrection of the nation of Israel, it could quite easily have been interpreted as being connected to a resurrection of the individual that represented the corporate nation: the servant-king-messiah. And if it is possible to see “standing up corpse revival” in Ezekiel 37 (which is basically described in explicit terms there), that could have fed an expectation or belief that this is what happened to Jesus (for those who saw Jesus fulfilling those roles). These connections are, as I noted above, stick elements of OT and NT theology. There is nothing new here to which I can lay claim.
If the above is the case (that NT writers thought along these lines, or that any Second Temple Jew who knew the Scriptures relatively well) then no one would be surprised at any literary and conceptual connection made between the individuals in Ezekiel’s vision and Matthew 27:51-53 being raised (“stood up” in their original bodies) and the representative of Israel (Jesus as messiah) being raised in the same manner.
5. Front-loading a Question
I want to briefly add a note about the Matthew 27:51-53 episode and include the raising of Lazarus (John 11). One of the reasons Tabor rejects these passages saying anything useful about resurrection is because he presumes (probably correctly, even though the text is silent) that these individuals died (again) later on. Tabor contends that this isn’t the sort of resurrection Jews were expecting has some validity (“What is important to note about all these stories of resurrection is that these people returned from death to live again, but they then they subsequently died again”).
The logical problem here concerns how far to press that point. Tabor’s rejection rationale is only valid if the stories reflect the intellectual parsing (on the part of the writers and early Christian readers) Tabor ascribes to them. For Tabor’s objection to have real weight one would have to be sure that there wasn’t a mere point of analogy behind the story (and the episode, for those who assume it happened). That is, while Lazarus and the saints of Matt 27:51-53 were going to die again, how do we know the Jewish writers and readers mostly and exclusively thought “that’s not the sort of thing I’m looking forward to, so that can’t be what my Bible is talking about by resurrection,” and not rather, “this power is a wonderful foretaste of what will happen at the last day, when the kingdom of God comes”? The latter perspective is accompanied by the theological element of the OT that the eschatological kingdom will be an Edenic restoration, a time when there are no more tears due to there being no more death (Isa 25:6-8; 30:19; cp. Hosea 13:14). In other words, there is an “comparing apples and oranges” element to Tabor’s assumption here. He has to assume a certain amount of theological ignorance on the part of the pre-70 Jewish biblical writers. But that hardly seems coherent given the theological-literary output of the Second Temple period, unless one wants to argue the gospel writers had no exposure to that, which would be a hard sell.
I want wrap up by repeating that, despite these criticisms, Tabor’s effort deserves attention and commendation. I wouldn’t have spent the time on it I did if I didn’t believe that. By way of a probably awkward illustration (and I don’t mean any irreverence here), if I died tomorrow and met Jesus in heaven, and he said, “Mike, I’m glad to see you, but I have to tell you that Tabor was right about my resurrection — you see me embodied but I’m really just a life-giving spirit now, preparing to reconstitute all those who believed in what did on the cross, and to be reconstituted myself by my Father when that time comes,” I’m not going to take a rain check or ask Jesus if he’d read this review. Reconstitution the way Tabor describes it would still be a miraculous, gracious act of God, and Tabor’s NT would still have Jesus as the center of that plan. But as things stand now, I’m not persuaded of Tabor’s position.