The Resurrection Debate: Silence, Converts

In this post, I want to address two arguments that Steven Carr makes in the Resurrection Debate.

First, Carr points out that Paul does not appeal to the Gospel traditions about Jesus’ resurrection, which indicates to him that they must not have existed yet. This argument allows Carr to distinguish what Paul says about the resurrection from the Gospels’ presentation. Not only would this demonstrate a contradiction within the New Testament on the subject (something fundamentalists cannot stand), but it also opens the door for Carr to dismiss the empty tomb as evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. For Carr, Paul did not conceive of an empty tomb, for he believed that Jesus’ soul left his corpse to go to a heavenly body. As far as Carr is concerned, Jesus’ tomb could’ve been full, and Paul would have still proclaimed that Christ rose from the dead. Consequently, according to Carr, the empty tomb stories do not represent the earliest Christian interpretations of Jesus’ resurrection, so they are not historically accurate.

Second, Carr argues that the earliest Christians did not believe that the corpse of Jesus rose from the dead, which means to him that it must not have happened. If it had occurred, then it would have been a part of the earliest Christian kerygma. Carr explains:

“From Paul’s letter to the Corinthians , we learn that converts to Jesus-worship simply scoffed at the idea that God would choose to raise a corpse. As Christians, they believed that Jesus was still alive, but they were baffled by the idea of corpses returning to life. From this we know that these converts were not converted by stories of corpses rising and eating fish. Converts believe what converted them. That is what conversion means. But these people did not believe in corpses rising. So they had not been converted by stories of a corpse rising and being touched. This in itself is enough to refute the idea that the corpse of Jesus rose from the dead. Because these converts to Christianity had no idea that any such thing was supposed to have happened. It can’t have been a core doctrine of Christianity that the corpse of Jesus rose from the grave, because converts believe the core doctrines of what they convert to, and these converts to Jesus-worship scoffed at the very idea of a corpse rising.”

Here are a few points:

1. Carr’s first argument is from silence: Paul does not mention the stories about the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection body, and so they must not have existed when he wrote I Corinthians 15.

The argument from silence is popular within scholarly and lay circles, on both the right and the left. When the Da Vinci Code was proclaiming that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, conservatives went in an uproar. One of them on the Bible Answer Man contended that Christ was not married through an appeal to I Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (NRSV). “If Christ had been married, then Paul would have mentioned it, since that could have helped his argument,” the conservative affirmed. The conservative concluded that Jesus was unmarried because Paul did not mention a wife of Jesus, in a time when that could’ve helped his case.

On the left, the argument from silence is used to ascribe a late date to various biblical writings. “Moses must be a late exilic or post-exilic invention, since his name does not appear in the prophets,” some have argued.

My problem with the argument from silence is that there is no way to determine what the biblical authors “would have” done. Can we base that much on a hypothetical? In addition, the biblical authors may have had a reason not to include a particular detail. Maybe it didn’t cross their minds while they were writing! That happens to me a lot. As I’ve said before, I’m a person, not a walking computer.

Let’s now look at I Corinthians 15. Carr states:

“Even when trying to talk about the nature of a resurrected body, Paul never draws on any alleged personal experience anybody ever had. The Gospels give a wealth of alleged facts about the nature of a resurrected body, but Paul never uses any, even when trying to refute the claims of people he calls ‘idiots’. Why doesn’t Paul simply rub their noses in the fact that their own Lord and Saviour, the very person they worship, had allegedly claimed that a resurrected body was made out of ‘flesh and bones’, and yet they still were asking with what sort of body a corpse comes back with?” (emphasis mine).

But Paul reports that he and others did have an experience of the risen Lord. I Corinthians 15:5-8 says: “and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

Carr doesn’t see these appearances as evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, for he says that “[a]ll the resurrected Jesus does is ‘appear’ in an unspecified manner to various people.” But notice something: Paul says that he and others have actually seen the risen Jesus, including (presumably) his resurrected body. Yet, Paul does not refer to what he saw when he addresses the Corinthians’ questions: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” He doesn’t say, “Well, we all saw Jesus with such-and-such a body, so there’s your answer.” Why not? Maybe he wanted to defend the resurrection on the basis of reason, not just personal experience. He did appeal to experience when he cited the people who witnessed the risen Christ. But he also wanted to demonstrate that resurrection was logically possible, since nature has an example of life emerging from death (plants grow from dead seeds). Paul did not defend the resurrection as many of us would, even though that option was available to him. Instead, he chose another way.

2. The Corinthians’ rejection of the resurrection does not indicate its absence from the earliest Christian kerygma. Why not? Because Paul explicitly tells them that they are rejecting the kerygma by not believing in the resurrection! Paul says in I Corinthians 15:12-16:

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ–whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.”

The Corinthians are not the best source for the earliest Christian kerygma, especially when Paul tells them that they’re not following what he handed down to them.

They may have believed that Christ rose from the dead, but they were unwilling to carry that doctrine to its logical conclusion: that the dead in general will be raised. Their Gentile bias against the resurrection inhibited them from taking that step.

Tomorrow, I’ll look a little more at I Corinthians 15. Specifically, we will ask why Paul calls the Corinthians fools. Stay tuned!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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9 Responses to The Resurrection Debate: Silence, Converts

  1. Steven Carr says:

    At least you agree that Paul is silent about corpses rising from tombs, flesh not seeing corruption and empty tombs guarded by soldiers.

    They appear later in Christian history, in anonymous sources.

    As I pointed out in the debate, the very first thing John Twisleton did when trying to prove the resurrection is to have Gospel stories in his reasoning.

    That is what Christians do. Paul would have done the same if his heart had been burning with the news that the resurrected Jesus had walked the earth.

    There are several summaries of Christian beliefs in Paul’s letters.

    They never include or allude to any corpse leaving a tomb or resurrected Jesus walking the earth.

    Why would Paul be silent about what he believed when giving a summary of what he believed?

    Surely a creed is a statement of what you believe, and you don’t leave important bits of your beliefs out.

    And how could Paul be silent about people scoffing at the idea of God choosing to raise a corpse?

    If people scoffed at the idea of God reconstructing a coprse from ash and smoke, then Paul would have had to defend such a thing explicity.

    Just as other Jews actually did.

    See A short Bible quiz for exmaples of how Jews defend against scoffers.

    How would Paul’s ‘silence’ answer the questions of people who scoff at the idea that a corpse could be resurrected after dissolving into dust?

    These Christian converts must have crowed in triumph.

    Look, they would have said, Paul has no answer to how a corpse can be transformed when it has lost its head or been eaten by fish.

    He is silent.

    Actually, Paul is not silent.

    Paul’s answer to how God will reform the dust that corpses dissolve into is to trash the very idea that that would happen.

    ‘The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…’

    It is amazing that you can seriously put forward that all these people worshipped somebody who ‘proved’ the resurrection in Matthew 24, yet nobody thought their Lord and Saviour was an authority on the subject.

    Paul doesn’t have to prove the resurrection is logically possible to people who converted to Christianity – they already believed Jesus was alive?

    And where does Paul ever prove that it was logically possible to reform a corpse that had been cremated into smoke and ash?

    He never attempts any such thing.

    Why does Paul not defend the resurrection like any Christian would, by pointing to empty tombs, Jesus eating fish etc?

    Because all that was irrelevant.

    WHat was relevant to POaul was that the body that goes into the ground is not the body that will be.

    What was relevant to Paul was that a corpse was as different from a resurrected body as a fish is different to the moon and that those idiiot Corinthians imagined that a corpse was supposed to turn into a resurrected being.

    Paul is clear about the destruction of the body.

    2 Corinthians 5 ‘Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’

    Paul is silent here again about how the earthly tent Jesus lived in never saw corruption…

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  2. Steven Carr says:

    Paul’s logic is like somebody claiming ‘How can you say Obama is not the best candidate? If Obama is not the best candidate, then he won’t win the election. But we taught you that Obama would win the election and we would be telling lies if Obama does not win.’

    Clearly, that person is not writing to Republicans who think Obama won’t win.

    That person is writing to somebody who still believes Obama will win, yet denies that Obama is the best candidate.

    That person still believes the kerygma that Obama will win.

    This is exactly like how Paul writes to the Corinthians, who believed Jesus was alive, yet denied that resurrection was possible, because corpses could not rise.

    Let us read what Paul says :-

    ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised…’

    This is exactly the same logic as my Obama analogy.

    The Christians in Corinth are not saying that Jesus was not raised.

    Or else Paul would never even have written to such non-Christians.

    The Corinthian Christians logic is not ‘Jesus was not raised, therefore there is no resurrection.’

    Paul is claiming that the logic works the other way around ‘If there is no resurrection, then Jesus was not raised.’

    He is pointing out a contradiction in their beliefs.

    They believe Jesus was raised, yet deny a general resurrection.

    Paul points out that if they deny a general resurrection, then they must deny that Jesus was raised.

    But they are Christians, and so believe Jesus was raised.

    Therefore, Paul claims they also have to believe in a general resurrection, or else they would be acting contrary to their Christian beliefs.

    Paul’s logic is ‘If A is not true, then B is not true.’

    But you believe B is true, and we preached to you that B is true.

    Therefore, A must be true as well.

    The Christians in Corinth claimed there was no resurrection because corpses could not rise.

    Paul thinks they are foolish for having such a model of a resurrection.

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  3. Steven Carr says:

    ‘They may have believed that Christ rose from the dead, but they were unwilling to carry that doctrine to its logical conclusion: that the dead in general will be raised.’

    Why is that a logical conclusion?

    Jesus was alive as a spirit before he was incarnated.

    He was a god and so could live on after leaving his earthly body.

    But how could mere mortals survive the death of their body?

    It is not a logical conclusion if all you had to go on was ‘appearances’ of Jesus, while his corpse lay rotting.

    Their attitude is perfectly consistent with the hypothesis that Paul has to tell them what they did not know , that if their present body was destroyed, they would get a body made in heaven.

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  4. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your responses, Steven.

    Why is it a logical conclusion? To you, it may not look like that. But that was Paul’s whole point: The Corinthians believed that Christ rose from the dead, according to the kerygma that Paul taught them. Yet, they denied the resurrection of the dead for everyone else. Paul saw that as inconsistent.

    But if the Corinthians believed Christ rose, and their conception of resurrection was a corpse coming out of the grave, did they believe in Christ’s physical resurrection? In the debate, you seem to say that they did not.

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  5. Steven Carr says:

    Their concept of resurrection for themselves must have been a corpse rising as Paul puts forward the sort of questions they must have been asking.

    We never learn exactly how they thought Christ was still alive.

    But there must have been something about the way they believed that Jesus was still alive, that made them doubt that they would have an after life.

    Jesus was different, as Jesus was a god and they were not.

    Gods can survive the death of their body, but could they?

    That seems to be the only thing which makes sense.

    Paul never attacks any belief in an immortal soul, or that God does not have the power to resurrect people, or that flesh was evil and so could not enter the kingdom of heaven.

    So they could not have been the stumbling blocks for the Corinthians.

    The only thing Paul does defend is the idea that there are 2 bodies – a natural body and a spiritual body.

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  6. James Pate says:

    “Paul never attacks any belief in an immortal soul, or that God does not have the power to resurrect people, or that flesh was evil and so could not enter the kingdom of heaven. So they could not have been the stumbling blocks for the Corinthians. The only thing Paul does defend is the idea that there are 2 bodies – a natural body and a spiritual body.”

    Maybe not, but they still had problems with the flesh, I think. They saw it as perishable and mortal. That’s why Paul tried to show them that they’ll be getting new bodies, not coming back up in their old ones.

    Did they question the power of God? On some level, yes. They simply thought that the dead could not come back to life. But Paul tried to show them that God brings life to dead seeds all of the time, so they shouldn’t allow their worldviews to limit what God could do.

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  7. Steven Carr says:

    I’m sure the converts did think of flesh as perishable.

    ‘All flesh is grass’ writes the author of 1 Peter, blissfully unaware that the flesh of the person he worshipped never saw corruption.

    For Paul, the seed analogy is to point out how what goes into the ground is not what comes out.

    The seed is a ‘naked’ seed. It has no material of its own, which is why ‘God gives it a body as he has determined’

    God creates a body and the seed is a marker to tell God what to create.

    Plant wheat seeds and God creates wheat.

    Plant corpses and God ‘gives it a body’ and it becomes a resurrected being.

    But the seed was ‘naked’. It is not transformed, because it was bare.

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  8. James Pate says:

    I don’t know why Paul calls the seed “bare.” I know his point is what you said: what goes in is not what comes out. The new body is different from the old body. But I have a hard time saying the seed is immaterial, since Paul says that it dies. The seed is the corpse.

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  9. Steven Carr says:

    The body is a naked seed, the chaff to the wheat if you like.

    The chaff is dead,and gets burned.

    The seed analogy seems only to emphasise that the corpse really is dead. It is dead matter, like chaff.

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