Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Facts of Paul's Gospel

An excerpt from the book Christianity: Its Nature and Its Truth by Arthur S. Peake

“The reference to the fact of the Resurrection occurs many times in his [Paul's] Epistles, but it is only in I Corinthians xv that he gives a list of appearances of the risen Jesus. He says that He appeared to Peter, to His brother James, to all the apostles, and to five hundred brethren at once. Of these five hundred he asserts that more than half were still alive at the time he wrote. He tells us, further, that this Resurrection took place on the third day. He also insists that this fact of the Resurrection is one of the fundamental truths preached both by the apostles and by himself. Although this Epistle was written perhaps a quarter of a century after the death of Christ, it carries back the evidence much further. Paul had spent a forthnight [i.e. two weeks] with Peter three years after his conversion, and was therefore fully acquainted with his testimony. We are warranted, then, in accepting Paul’s statement – so far as this, at any rate – that almost immediately after the death of Jesus, Peter and others, to the number of five hundred, believed that they had seen the risen Jesus. We owe this list to the fact that in the restless intellectual atmosphere of Corinth there had been disputes about the Resurrection. Otherwise we should have been without this invaluable piece of evidence. It is our earliest documentary attestation to the fact of the Resurrection, and therefore critics rightly make much of it. Yet it must be employed with certain cautions in mind.
     First, it is only a bare list without details. This is due to the fact that Paul is not communicating fresh information to his readers, but reminding them of information he had already given them when he founded the Church. Secondly, it is not necessary to assume that the list of appearances is exhaustive. Paul chooses those which were best suited to his purpose. It was therefore natural that he should omit the appearance to the women and lay stress on the appearances to those who were, so to speak, the official witnesses of the Resurrection. Thirdly, we must not infer from the absence of detail that Paul knew of nothing but appearances; in other words, we must not argue that Paul’s sole ground for believing in the Resurrection was the fact that apparitions of the risen Jesus had been seen by His disciples. 
     It is now practically agreed that shortly after Christ’s death the apostles had reached the conviction that their Master was alive again. Those who refuse to admit that a physical resurrection had actually taken place generally explain the belief as due to visions which were not objective realities, but illusions of the disciples, and contagious illusions. Most of these scholars believe that the appearances of Jesus took place in Galilee. It was there amid the familiar scenes that the disciples recovered from their shock, and the memory of Jesus cast once more its enchantment over their minds. Faith revived and created for Peter the vision of his Master. His enthusiasm proved contagious, and the vision was seen by one after another, singly or in groups, and in one instance by more than five hundred at once. This is the most hopeful line for those to take who reject the physical resurrection. Yet it is open to the most serious objections, and has, indeed, been submitted to vigorous criticism by some who do not accept the fact of the Resurrection. Psychological illusions of this kind usually imply a condition of expectancy. But the Gospel shows us the disciples plunged in despondency, and quite incredulous when the news of the Resurrection was announced to them. If it be said that reflection on the life of Jesus created a reaction in which they attained assurance that the Cross could not be the end of Him, I must urge against this the shortness of the interval. [The German liberal theologian Karl Heinrich] Weizsäcker emphasizes very strongly that, as Paul is our oldest source, we must be guided by his account in our reconstruction of the events. Accordingly he holds that the first appearance was to Peter. But he sees quite clearly that visions could not have been conjured up by the third day; and what adds to the difficulty is the hypothesis now received by several of that school, that the visions took place in Galilee. If the disciples, as some suppose, fled on the arrest of Jesus, they would not know whether He had died; if they fled to Galilee, after His death, as Weizsäcker thinks, they could have had no visions there so soon. But the point which needs attention is that the attempt to lengthen the interval is quite illegitimate. It is Paul himself who tells us that the apostles proclaimed that Christ rose on the third day. Now there are two points of great importance to notice here. The first is that Paul insists on the Resurrection as distinct from the appearances of Christ. Weizsäcker urges that Paul says nothing of what happened at the grave, to prove that he knew nothing of it. It is, of course, true that he gives no account, as do the Gospels, of appearances at the grave. But the Resurrection itself is a concrete fact for him. And what he meant by Resurrection is clear. It immediately follows the mention of the burial, and therefore must be explained as a resurrection of the physical body; and in another place he defines it as a ‘quickening of the mortal body.’ But this can only mean that the earliest apostolic tradition knew not only of appearances, but of a resurrection of the body. Further, we may well ask, What would have been the point of a reference to the burial of Jesus [in I Corinthians xv. 4] if the body that was buried played no part in the Resurrection? If Paul's faith rested simply on appearances of Jesus, the body need have played no part, and resurrection would simply have meant a manifestation of the spirit of Jesus from heaven. But when we remember that for Paul resurrection meant a quickening of the mortal body, and when we read [in I Corinthians xv. 4] that Christ was buried and rose again the third day, we are not at liberty to interpret him as meaning anything else than that the body, which was placed in the tomb dead, was quickened into life, quitted the grave, and appeared to the disciples. On the other interpretation Paul need have said no more than that Jesus died and on the third day appeared to the disciples. But in a summary statement of this kind we are not entitled to treat the burial as irrelevant and the Resurrection as identical with the appearances; each of the four points – death, burial, resurrection, appearances – was vital to his case. And therefore we may conclude that Paul himself had no doubt that the death and burial of Jesus were followed by the resurrection of the body and the leaving of the tomb. 
     I pass on to another point which emerges from Paul’s statement. Paul asserts that Jesus was raised the third day. Let us remember that we are dealing with the evidence of a contemporary of Jesus who speaks after he has familiarised himself with the case for the Resurrection and against it, that he speaks while many of the original witnesses are still alive, including the greater part of five hundred disciples to whom Jesus appeared at one time. Let us also remember that the majority of those who disbelieve in the Resurrection allow that we must treat Paul as our primary witness and prefer him to the rest. If there is one detail in the narrative that may legitimately be pressed, it is this chronological note. On the basis of Paul’s account Weizsäcker asserts that the first appearance was to Peter, which Paul does not say; while he denies that anything happened on the third day, which Paul very definitely affirms. It is hardly critical [i.e. it is hardly analytical or scholarly] to play fast and loose [i.e. to behave recklessly, irresponsibly, or deceitfully] with chosen authorities in this way. If Paul’s testimony proves anything, it proves that the disciples believed that the physical resurrection of Jesus from the grave had taken place on the third day.” (Arthur S. Peake, Christianity: Its Nature and Its Truth [New York: Thomas Crowell and Company, 1909], pp. 198-204.)

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