Thursday, 13 April 2017

A few comments from James McGrath on Resurrection and Claims of History

A few comments from Prof. James McGrath I want to share pertaining to the historical method and the way Christian apologists try to argue for the resurrection story historically.

Since historical study deals only in probability, if Christians’ affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection is about the historical question of what happened to his body after being placed in the tomb, then the most Christians can affirm is that the body of Jesus had almost certainly vanished from the tomb. They could presumably further assert, without transgressing the limits of historical inquiry, that it is not impossible that Jesus rose from the grave. Clearly such language will seem a poor and inadequate expression of Christian faith. Even if it were possible to have more confidence about the matter using historical tools, it would still only allow one to say that Jesus probably rose from the dead – a statement that would still be judged a far cry from a Gospel that one can proclaim!

The problem is not with either history or faith at this point. The problem is that Christians often wish to make historical claims without having sufficient historical evidence, as well as at times confusing theological affirmations with historical ones. The question will need to be asked therefore whether resurrection faith is really supposed to be about history at all, whether it is an affirmation about the whereabouts of a corpse. To many Christians, resurrection faith seems to be an affirmation of a different sort altogether.

I am grateful to Kris Komarnitsky for sending me a copy of his book
Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? For some, the title may seem appealing, while to others it may be disturbing, but when it comes to historical study, the simple fact is that there is no way for a historian not to doubt the resurrection – or to put it more precisely, a historian cannot but raise questions about the historical factuality of the early narratives that tell the resurrection story. To paraphrase Bart Ehrman (the actual quote is here), there are any number of improbable historical scenarios for which there is no evidence whatsoever, but which are nevertheless inherently more likely than that an individual who had been dead entered into the resurrection life of the age to come. In addition to legitimate skepticism about unparalleled claims, a historian is trained to ask about cultural-historical dynamics and other forms of explanation on a human level.

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