Did It Happen on 9 April?

Frank Kermode

  • The Resurrection by Geza Vermes
    Penguin, 168 pp, £7.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 14 103005 0

In about 56 AD, St Paul writing to the Christians of Corinth, made his position very clear. Somebody had been suggesting that the dead cannot be resurrected, and this was his response: ‘If there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen; and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain and your faith is also vain.’ The creeds still require the faithful to declare their belief that Jesus died, was buried, descended into hell, and on the third day rose again. Paul explains that the requirement is reasonable: provided the dead can rise, there can be no reason to suppose Jesus did not do so. In fact if he didn’t, ‘we are of all men most miserable.’ Like Paul, the creeds also insist on ‘the resurrection of the body’, though Paul had in mind not every body but those of the brethren who had died between the death of Jesus and the postponed but imminent day of judgment. As Geza Vermes remarks, he seems not to have given any thought to the very large numbers of dead between Adam and his own day.

Paul summons other arguments and witnesses against the incredulous. The Christ who rose on the third day was seen by Cephas (alias Peter) and ‘above’ five hundred others, some of them still alive; also by James, and indeed by ‘all the apostles’. Finally, by a special grace, he was seen by Paul himself, unworthy as he was to be counted an apostle, en route to Damascus.

A prodigiously learned Hebraist, Vermes has written many books about Jewish culture and history in the first century and about the significant part played in that period by nascent Christianity, at that time still a Jewish sect. He is an authority on another charismatic movement, the Qumran sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, which he translated into English. Born in Hungary in 1924, Vermes was baptised as a child, lost his parents in the Holocaust and, after the war, became a Roman Catholic priest, though he later reverted to Judaism. It would be difficult to invent a scholar better qualified to write on Judaism and its relation to early Christianity. Having dealt impartially, in little books uniform with this one, with the Nativity and Passion, he now studies the biblical evidence for the Resurrection. Some of it he cannot help regarding as curious.

The biblical accounts of the Resurrection mix what passes for fact with what is certainly, or almost certainly, fiction in a fashion familiar from biblical narrative in general. Texts called endlessly for interpretation, for the resolution of ambiguities or archaisms or doctrinal obscurities, and interpretation often took the form of amended or interpolated narrative. A well-known example is the early Christian interpretation of the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, and the way so much that happens in the gospels is said to be ‘according to the Scriptures’. James Kugel, in his book The Bible as It Was, shows that Old Testament interpretation sometimes effects a complete change of sense, as in Genesis 34, where Dinah’s brothers, playing a dirty trick on her rapist, Shechem, are said to have spoken ‘deceitfully’, a word which must, considering the context, really mean ‘cleverly’ or ‘wisely’. Paul, like the evangelists after him, was insistent that the resurrection of Christ occurred ‘according to the Scriptures’, and they assumed that Old Testament texts could or should be converted into prophecies calculated to validate the new narrative. Paul himself gave Old Testament texts allegorical senses when it suited his case.

Vermes, however, is less interested in arrangements of that kind than in the inconsistencies, the flaws in testimony, the narrative faults, of the New Testament record, treated as evidence, however flawed, of something that happened. As he remarks, he feels his responsibility to be judicial in character; his main business will be to see whether the stories told by the witnesses stand up in court. For the gospels report the Resurrection as a historical fact. The Christian creeds emphasise the presence in their accounts of an undoubtedly historical character, Pontius Pilate, as if to back up the claim not to verisimilitude but to truth. In a different sort of narrative he might not have a proper name but be simply the Governor, the Procurator or the like, and we should not need to be told as much as we are about him, or about his wife’s dream, or his interview with Jesus. In The Passion Vermes considers that conversation to be a proof that the charge against Jesus was sedition (the Messianic claim); but surely, properly considered as an interpretative interpolation in John unsupported by any of the Synoptic Gospels, it could not be given this important historical endorsement. The episodes of the wife’s dream and the philosophical chat are better seen as fictions of the kind called, in Rudolf Bultmann’s phrase, ‘apologetic legends’.

There is always a risk of this sort of confusion, arising from the coexistence of historical and ahistorical realism, though it is less of a threat in this new book. A fair example of Vermes’s handling of confusing ‘evidence’ is provided by his study of the various explanations for the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the cave chosen as his temporary tomb. He provides a useful ‘synopsis of parallels’, from which, noting some serious and some trivial confusions, we may see at a glance that in John, Mary Magdalen arrives at the tomb alone and without spices, but in Mark with spices (to anoint the body), and with two other women.

Also in John, Mary Magdalen reports to Peter that the body has been removed; Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb to see, and having done so, implausibly do and say nothing but just go home. Only in Matthew do the guards report that the body has been stolen. Only in John does Mary Magdalen have her meeting with the risen Christ, whom she takes to be the gardener. In Luke the women report their discovery to the apostles, who do not believe them. In Matthew they are frightened and joyful. In Mark they are scared to death, run away, and omit to pass on the message of the angelic young man they find in the tomb that they should all proceed to Galilee. Luke alone has the post-Resurrection journey to Emmaus. John and Luke both report the appearance of the risen Lord to a company of apostles; but John alone has the story of doubting Thomas, surely a strong apologetic fiction designed to demonstrate that the entire body, wounds and all, has been resurrected. At some point, either in the evening of Easter Sunday or forty days later, having forewarned the apostles of the visitations that are to follow at Pentecost (Acts), Jesus goes to heaven, either from the Mount of Olives (Acts) or from Bethany (Luke) or from Jerusalem (the ‘long’ spurious ending of Mark).

The story of Thomas, and perhaps the Emmaus episode, look particularly like interpretative interpolations. So, most obviously, does the posthumous appearance of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee in the spurious ending of John. Belated inventions of this sort are to be expected. One reason for them may have been the brevity of Mark, whose Resurrection narrative contains nothing very persuasive about the apparitions of Jesus, only the empty tomb, the mysterious young man, and the instructions ignored by the frightened women. Since Mark was their principal source, Matthew and Luke lacked guidance and information when he was silent. Moreover, not all testimony could be trusted. Women play a larger part in the action than one might expect, and Vermes more than once points out that women were in those days regarded as unreliable, even useless witnesses, especially by Luke.

The unsatisfactory and scattered nature of the evidence compounds the problem, already difficult enough in that the event under consideration has no parallel in history (though it has in myth and fiction). Vermes remarks that it is possible to date the Resurrection with some exactness: it occurred ‘before daybreak on a Sunday, probably on 9 April, AD 30’. But this exactitude is self-defeating, because it stands alone with nothing else chronologically labelled to give it validity. Vermes mentions the Jewish martyrs of the Maccabean period, men who died for the Torah and were presumed, like modern suicide bombers, to receive a heavenly reward, their bodies fully restored in the afterlife. But, as he admits, such cases have in the end no bearing on the Resurrection. However, Vermes’s account of Jewish attitudes to the afterlife does give one some idea of the impact on Jews of the first Christianity, and what must over time have seemed its increasing strangeness. The Pharisees, a minority, believed in bodily resurrection, but the Sadducees opposed it. It was also alien to Hellenistic Jewish thought. Altogether resurrection was a Christian, not a Jewish, preoccupation.

Predictions of the Resurrection are clearly and repeatedly offered in the gospels. The Son of Man would be killed and rise again after three days, and this promise was fortified with allusions to the Old Testament prophecies. But it is remarkable, Vermes says, that the disciples either failed to hear or misunderstood this clear message. The women appear, surprisingly, to have forgotten ‘their Master’s most momentous statement’ until reminded of it by two angels (Luke 24.8). It would seem that if the people most concerned were taking any notice of these unusual prophecies, the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection must have been seen as ‘dead certainties’. But it was not so. Nobody appears to have expected the Resurrection. The apostles were unwilling to believe what they saw and what the women told them they had seen. His friends found the risen Jesus hard to recognise. There are, Vermes says judicially, ‘two sets of evidence which contradict one another with no possibility of reconciliation … One must conclude that the predictions by Jesus of his death and resurrection are inauthentic. They appear to represent the tracing back to Jesus of some of the weapons of the apologetic-polemical arsenal of the Jewish-Christian Church.’ This was always the likeliest explanation.

John, the latest of the evangelists, the most remote from the events, is the only one who tells the story of Lazarus, restored to life four days after death – by far the most vivid of these fictions, an image of life meeting death in a rotting body. John’s stories of the risen Jesus are distinctive; not only is he the only one to include the account of Mary Magdalen’s meeting with the supposed gardener, but he alone includes the tale of Doubting Thomas, who converted from his initial scepticism when he actually touched the wounds of the risen body.

The last account of a post-Resurrection appearance is in the concluding chapter of John. Luke has the Emmaus episode, which repeats the story of the empty tomb and provides a narrative occasion for a lecture on the Old Testament scriptures. Later Luke shows Jesus eating, again to prove his humanity; there follows another lecture. And Luke, who also wrote Acts, is alone in postponing the Ascension. Mark, oldest of the four, breaks off the story, with powerful if unintended effect, when the women flee in terror from the empty tomb. He, too, could write.

The different versions have this much in common: Jesus is nowhere identified at once as the resurrected master. Mary Magdalen acknowledges him but says nothing about resurrection. The travellers to Emmaus failed to recognise their guest. In Jerusalem the apostles thought they were seeing a ghost. Yet Lazarus was seen ‘by all and sundry’ to move, eat and drink; ‘nothing similar is voiced about Jesus,’ though he is reported to have eaten a fish. He does not seem a life-in-death, death-in-life nightmarish figure like Lazarus. Perhaps none of the authors knew quite what to do with him.

Vermes believes that over the seven or eight decades between the death of Jesus and John’s gospel Christians grew more and more certain about the Resurrection. Over the same period the idea won far less acceptance or development in Judaism. He attributes the most mature version to Paul, whose primary mission was to the Gentiles.

Vermes dislikes the idea, current half a century ago, that ‘the empty tomb saga’ is ‘an apologetic legend’. For one thing, the inventor of such a legend would not have allowed women so important a part: their evidence would have had no standing. Moreover, if the story were an invention they would surely have produced ‘a uniform and foolproof account attributed to patently reliable witnesses’. Yet the evidence before Vermes suggests a serious lack of ability to produce such a work.

Surveying the narrative muddles he has helped to expose, Vermes says ‘bluntly’ that ‘not even a credulous non-believer’ will be persuaded by these reports, which will ‘convince only the already converted’. Does this mean the whole idea must fail in today’s world? In his final chapter Vermes thinks not. The apostles believed that in the period after the Resurrection they had inherited the true spirit of Jesus, and they were right. The charisma, enhanced by the ‘doctrinal and organisational skill’ of Paul, enabled Christianity to grow into a powerful resurrection-centred world religion. On his last page he makes a civil bow to Jesus the teacher, ‘the real Jesus’. He had done much the same at the end of his book on the Passion. Homage is due to the Jewish teacher even when the judge has dismissed the case for his resurrection.