Reviews of

The Resurrection of the Messiah

In Christopher BRYAN, Early Christianity, Frederik S. Mulder, Oxford University Press, Resurrection on September 27, 2012 at 8:10 pm

2012.09.14 | Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah. New York et al.: Oxford University Press, 2011. X + 432 pp. ISBN: 978-0199752096.

Reviewed by Frederik S. Mulder, Radboud University, Nijmegen.

Many thanks to OUP for kindly providing us with a review copy.

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In the years following the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, a group of people who claimed to be his followers, later to be called Christians, established the Christian church. When asked why this happened, they often responded with the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead despite the fact that it initially would have sounded just as surprising and unlikely to Jews and Gentiles alike. These followers of Jesus seem stubbornly to have persisted with their claims, expecting to be taken seriously and even appealing to named eyewitnesses.

But why were these claims made? What did they mean? Why did these Christians stubbornly persist with them? What actually happened to Jesus of Nazareth? (pp. 3-4) Answering these questions form the heart of Christopher Bryans’ 432 pages, 937 endnotes volume: The Resurrection of the Messiah.

Bryan covers Second Temple Judaism, the Greco-Roman world (with e.g. interesting discussions about the legend of Alcestis), 1 Corinthians 15 and the four canonical gospels to answer these questions. Following this, he discusses five modern objections/ alternative explanations to the claim that Jesus rose from the grave in a transformed body, claiming to debunk all of them (especially the views of Bultmann, Borg, Crossan, and Lüdemann), followed by the implications of Jesus’ resurrection.

The main contributions of this work are probably: i) The way in which it makes serious and often technical scholarship more digestible for the relatively uninformed reader; ii) Some kind of middle ground position somewhere between the likes of Richard Bauckham and N.T. Wright on the one hand, and others like David Catchpole and C.H. Dodd on the other; iii) Its academic rigor in the extensive endnotes (a full 146 pages!); iv) And also  its creative and constant interaction with Anglo-Catholic liturgy, Reformed music, and poetry.

Much of what Bryan discusses has been covered in other major volumes. There are, however, instances where unique contributions and memorable creative articulations are made. One example of the latter will do, followed by a couple of the former:

Bryan’s giftedness with words is reflected well in his passionate discussion of what he holds to be the “temptation” (p. 184) of following Marcus Borg and Kirsopp Lake’s reductionistic  view of resurrection as only an experience of the new gift of the Spirit:

“Why do such views constitute a temptation? … because they fail fully to address the question of God’s justice. Of one thing we may be sure: it is in this world, this physical world, where we see evil done. It is bodies that are starved and raped and beaten and tortured and abused. It is in their bodies that Jews and others were enslaved and murdered at Auschwitz and Buchenwald … It is the bodies of Japanese men, women, and children that were destroyed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is in their bodies that African American men and women were humiliated and abused for generations … What of all those lovely women and men who died for the faith, who died to honor God and God’s Law? … we find Jesus’ followers … affirming that (Jesus’) resurrection did indeed involve the human totality, which is to say, it involved things ‘spiritual,’ … but also the redemption of his body, the body that had been tortured to death on the cross” (p. 185).

Some unique contributions:

Bryan argues that the reference to flesh and blood (sarx kai haima) that cannot inherit the Kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 15:50 reflects the Corinthian position which Paul counters with his corruption (phthora) and incorruption (aphtharsian) arguments in 15:50b-57. I found Bryans’ discussion of death being swallowed up in victory (katepothē ho thanatos eis nikos) in 15:54b quite significant, being one of only a few scholars (to my mind) who rightly explore Paul’s citation of Isaiah 25:6-9 with its rich and often overlooked meaning, in that swallowed up is found in the context of Yahweh’s promises to make for his peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine … and wipe away tears from their faces. All in all, I found Bryans’ exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 (pp. 45-63) the most convincing segment in the book.

As with most other monographs dealing with Jesus’ resurrection in Mark’s Gospel, Bryan deals extensively with the ever controversial chapter 16:8. He argues that Jesus’ command to the leper to say nothing to anyone (1:40-45), Peter who did not know what to say at the Transfiguration (9:2-8) etc., provides the background and interpretative lens that unlocks 16:8’s true meaning. As for the absence of resurrection appearances, Bryan argues that i) The angel’s statement about Jesus appearing to Peter and the Twelve refers to Jesus’ own prediction in 14:28; ii) In light of the latter, we should be mindful that in Mark’s narrative Jesus’ predictions always come true; iii) In light of the latter, the appearances recorded in the other Gospels did occur (Mark possibly being aware of them), while Mark focuses on the mystery and awe-fullness of the resurrection and its performative function as it was being read to congregations (pp. 65-81).

In dealing with the post-resurrection Jesus who eats in Luke 24:39-43, Acts 10:41 and possibly in John 21:10-13, Bryan joins a not so very uncommon group (cf. C.H. Dodd 1955) arguing for “apologetic”, “polemic” and “extraordinary vigor” (p. 115). Bryan claims to follow David Catchpole (the reference must be wrong, though: p. 67 is all about Matthew 28) who argues that 24:39-43 should or could be understood in the context of the evangelist’s contemporaries who held the view that angels did not eat (e.g. Tobit 12:19; Philo, On Abraham 115-118; Testament of Abraham 4:9). This, Bryan argues, could explain the “extraordinary vigor” with which Luke now insists on the risen Jesus eating in his disciples’ presence (ibid). Discussing the same feature in Acts 10:41 (and possibly Acts 1:4), Bryan reiterates Luke’s apologetic focus, but goes on to argue that it is important to “hear the evangelist’s central assertion” (p. 117) which is Jesus presenting himself alive to them. On the other hand, Bryan complicates matters when unpacking the John 21 resurrection narrative. His description of the 153 fish caught and the meal on the beach seem to suggest that Bryan rejects later “apologetic” here, after which he specifically links it to the “essential experience” of the kerygma found inActs 10:41, where the disciples ate with Jesus (p. 152).

Bryan’s writing style is creative, passionate, detailed (in the endnotes), often inviting, but sometimes also straight “in your face”. I found a handful of possible typographic errors (pp. 120, 153, 162, 165, 196). I found it odd that there was no interaction with Michael R. Licona’s monumental Resurrection volume. The limitations of focussing primarily on 1 Corinthians 15 and the canonical gospels does give the impression that the Resurrection of the Messiah should have included most, if not all, of the other canonical scriptures. But then again, that would have added hundreds of pages, which was probably not the intention of the author and or publisher.

Concerning the content of the volume, my initial (and enduring) impression is that both more critical and evangelically inclined readers will find things to agree and disagree with. The former, for instance, would welcome Bryan’s discussions of: i) “apologetic” and “polemic” in relation to the post-resurrection Jesus eating in Luke 24:40-43 (pp. 115-7); ii) Some form of “redactional additions” in Matthew 27:53, 62 and 28:19-20 (pp. 89, 92, 96, 297 n50); iii) “parabolic fictions” in relation to e.g. the book of Jonah (and its undeveloped implications for interpreting Matthew 12:38-41, Luke 11:29-30 and the resurrection narratives? [p. 166]); iv) And the rejection of resurrection unto some form of “ultimate and transcendental violence” (p. 232) by way of conscious, embodied, and eternal damnation.

More evangelically inclined readers on the other hand, would probably appreciate such things as the i) Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 where Bryan argues for “transformed and perfected … bodily existence” (p. 60), rejecting visionary and overly spiritual views; ii) The focus on the historicity of the empty tomb traditions in general; iii) The historicity of the Guards at Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28:1-11); iv) Emphasis on the reliability and canonicity of the tradition found in John 21; v) And perhaps also, apart from the historical evidence, the theological claim that one requires belief in a God who can transcend natural laws in order to believe in the resurrection (p. 171).

Scholars on all sides of the theological spectrum have, and will, as always, continue to debate these and related issues for a long time to come. A review of this sort is not the place to get tangled up in those debates, valuable and necessary as they are. Instead, I will briefly mention a few possible inconsistencies/ weaknesses in relation to both more critical and evangelical positions which Bryan develops. (Thus, in my opinion, it seems there are a few instances where Bryan argues a particular case, but elsewhere in the volume either contradicts it, making his case vulnerable, or he ignores counter claims or texts that should be part of the discussion. I will start with such examples that more critically inclined readers might put forward).

More critical concerns

i) In relation to the future bodily resurrection in Paul, some might feel he gets off the hook too easily as he never discusses contentious texts such as 1 Corinthians 5:5, 6:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Phil 1:22-23, Acts 9:3-5, 22:6-11, and 26:12-15.

ii) The discussion of John 21 and specifically the mention of the “essential experience” (p. 152) of the kerygma in Acts 10:41, where the post-resurrection Jesus eats with his disciples, seems to contradict Bryan’s exegesis of Luke 24:39-43, where he talks of “apologetic”, “polemic” and possibly unhistorical elements (p. 115).

iii) If Bryan is correct in arguing that the empty tomb and resurrection narratives are broadly speaking reliable and describe history, what about e.g. Matthew 12: 39-41, where Jesus regards Jonah (which Bryan describe as “parabolic fiction” [p. 166]) as a historical person, arguing unambiguously that the men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgement, linking it directly to his own resurrection? The genre in Matthew 12 seems to communicate history, not “parabolic fiction”, as does the resurrection narratives.

More evangelical concerns

i) Bryan’s argument that the post-resurrection Jesus, who eats in Luke 24:39-43, could be apologetic, containing possible unhistorical elements, reflecting a later more physical development, can be challenged in light of: i) Bryan’s allusion to the eschatological banquet in Isaiah 25:6-8, where Yahweh will prepare a feast of rich food and well-aged wine for Israel, when describing the context of 1 Corinthians 15:54b (p. 62); ii) Luke (as does Mark 14:25!) predicts Jesus will eat and/ or drink after his resurrection (Luke 22:16, 18, 30); iii) The discussion of John 21 seems to indicate the reliability of the post-resurrection Jesus eating, with Acts 10:41 being mentioned (p. 152); iv) And Genesis 18:8 does in fact refer to a Jewish tradition, where angels can eat;

ii) Bryan’s strong plea for some form of universal reconciliation (1 Corinthians 9:7 aside), and the specific rejection of any “ultimate and transcendental violence” (p. 232) by way of conscious, embodied, and eternal damnation is perhaps, more reminiscent of an official report of the Church of England from 1995, in which it is argued that the notion of everlasting damnation is incompatible with the affirmation that God is love, than an honest wrestling with such texts as 1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Mark 9, Matthew 5-7, 18, Luke 17 etc. Bryan’s marvellous discussion about God’s justice comes into play here. Is it really reasonable to maintain that there should be no ultimate, conscious, embodied, and eternal damnation if one thinks of e.g. Auschwitz and Buchenwald (p. 232)?

Are Bryan’s labours in answering the four questions he asks in the beginning persuasive? Readers will have to decide for themselves, but my general impression is that both more critical and evangelically inclined readers might answer: yes and no. Yes, overall, one could make a case that Bryan leans more towards the evangelical side (in the British sense of the word), yet several evangelicals would have difficulties with the points mentioned in the evangelical concerns section above.

Frederik S. Mulder
Radboud University, Nijmegen
f.mulder [ at ] rs.ru.nl

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