on 3 March 2012
"The Empty Tomb" is a collection of articles discussing the resurrection of Jesus. Some of the contributors are associated with the Jesus Seminar, often regarded as an ultra-liberal Christian group. Others are independent. I don't think it would be unfair to call this volume atheist, rather than simply agnostic. The authors believe that the historical character Jesus of Nazareth (if he even existed) never rose from the dead. The editorial claim that the book isn't anti-Biblical therefore feels somewhat disingenuous. Of course it's anti-Biblical.
The stellar contribution is Richard Carrier's article "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb". While Carrier is a materialist and atheist, I admit I was deeply intrigued by both his book "Not the impossible faith" and the article in this volume. He somehow seems to understand the Christian and spiritual worldviews. I wasn't surprised to learn that Carrier is a former liberal Christian and ex-Taoist. That would explain a lot of things. In fact, Carrier's historical-critical attack on the physical resurrection of Jesus is perfectly compatible with liberal or Gnosticizing strands of Christian theology. I presume it's also compatible with Taoism, Advaita Vedanta or the New Age. His article sounds like a carefully crafted Biblical exegesis, something surely unheard of in the history of atheist polemics. Naturally, I was hooked!
According to Carrier, Paul and the earliest Christians did believe that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. They also looked forward to a general resurrection of the dead. In that sense, they were different from Gnostics or Platonists, who held that only the soul or spirit survives, while the body decomposes. However, Paul didn't believe that the body of Jesus was "physical" in the sense of being composed of earthly matter. Rather, it was a supernatural body, a heavenly or spiritual body. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God". So far, Carrier hasn't said anything out of the ordinary - after all, it would seem that the resurrected body of Jesus was different from the resuscitated body of Lazarus. The former was heavenly and "spiritual", the latter earthly and "material". Jesus could change appearance, move through walls, etc. Lazarus could not. Presumably, the earthly body of Lazarus was still mortal.
Carrier's next move is the controversial part. He claims that Paul didn't see any continuity between the earthly body and the heavenly body. The Gospel stories imply that the physical body of Jesus was transformed into a heavenly body. Thus, the tomb was empty. Paul, according to Carrier, had a different conception: the heavenly body is an entirely new creation. When Jesus acquired a spiritual body, he simultaneously left the physical body behind. If so, the tomb of Jesus *wasn't* empty - the decomposing remains of the physical body were still there. However, this wasn't a problem for Paul, who believed that the soul of Jesus had entered the newly created heavenly body and hence had been "resurrected" anyway. It was this heavenly body which showed itself to Paul at the Damascus road. Carrier believes that the other sightings of the resurrected Jesus were of a similar character, i.e. a kind of visionary experiences. Since Carrier is an atheist, he believes that these visions were really a kind of hallucinations. Here, religious believers who like the idea of a spiritual resurrection will part with the author, but his arguments up to this point are interesting and quite convincing.
Carrier points out that Paul's idea of resurrection had other original traits as well, such as the idea that Jesus was somehow collectively "resurrected" into his Church. I think the author suspects that Paul had a pantheistic tendency. However, he doesn't develop this interesting theme further. Thus, he says nothing about Paul's statements about God being "all in all" at the final consummation, etc.
Carrier seems to regard the original story of the empty tomb as a symbolic or dramatic device, which was interpreted literally by a growing body of believers who considered the idea of a physical resurrection more appealing than Paul's more spiritual vision. Eventually, a tradition developed emphasizing the physical aspects of the resurrection: Jesus eating fish to prove that he isn't a ghost, Thomas touching the wounds of Jesus, etc. (Note, however, that the Jesus of the Gospels also have certain "ghostly" traits.) To some extent, this tradition was a polemic against incipient Gnosticism (which seems to have distorted Paul's position in the other direction).
On some points, Carrier parts with modern Biblical scholarship. For instance, he seems to regard all epistles attributed to Paul in Protestant and Catholic Bibles as genuinely Pauline. I believe most theologians outside evangelicalism consider the Pastorals and (sometimes) the Deutero-Pauline epistles to be non-Pauline. I'm not sure why Carrier sounds like a conservative evangelical on this point!
"The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb" is a tour de force of major proportions. Everyone should read it, come to terms with it or...well, respond to it.
Unfortunately, the rest of "The Empty Tomb" comes close to being landfill material. Carrier's article on Jewish burial practices makes interesting points, while his piece on the plausibility of theft is mostly a thought-experiment. The other contributors to this volume are much weaker. Robert Price comes across as somebody with a lot of personal grudges, especially against William Lane Craig. To some extent, he does make up for this in the article on post-Pauline interpolations. Other writers sound like "village atheists" or smart alecs. Michael Martin has discovered a mathematical formula according to which the resurrection is only 32% certain. Therefore, belief in it is irrational. Come again?
Despite this, I think "The Empty Tomb" is worth procuring for Carrier's article on the spiritual body, which is also the longest in the entire volume.
Had I been a Christian, I would almost be tempted to quip: "Carrier, you saved my faith". ;-)