Geza Vermes' "Resurrection"

Leading New Testament scholar Geza Vermes in this volume takes the reader on a brief though enlightening tour of the concept of "resurrection" as it developed from "Ezekiel's valley of the dry bones" (Ezek. 37:5-6) to the inter-testamental period and finally into the New Testament era and beyond. Close to half the book is devoted to background material on the subject, stretching from the various canonical-OT and apocryphal-OT texts to some later rabbinic texts (included is a very interesting discussion of various and relevant inscriptions found on tombstones of the era, a feature unique to this book, pp. 51-55), with the remainder being devoted to an examination of the topic as it appears in the New Testament, from Jesus' own predictions of his vindication, the resuscitations of individuals within the New Testament performed by Jesus, Peter, and Paul, to the New Testament epistles (esp. that of Paul), the book of Acts, and finally the post-resurrection narratives in the Gospels.

As the title of the book would make one anticipate, the latter half of the book also contains Vermes' estimation of the worth of the New Testament data (particularly the closing chapters of the Gospels) in regards to the historicity (or lack thereof) of Jesus' resurrection.

Overall, this is a helpful book. Vermes does an excellent job of surveying the relevant ancient texts and grounding the concept of "resurrection" within its appropriate historical context. As such it serves as a solid introduction to the topic of "resurrection" according to the ancient Judeo-Christian world, and in fact would potentially serve as a better choice for those wanting only a brief treatment of this topic (rather than, say, a more substantial volume like that of N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God).

My main bones of contention with Vermes' conclusions regarding the more controversial topics would be in two specific areas: 1) Vermes' denial of the historicity of Jesus' predictions of vindication and 2) his dismissal of the essential historicity of the resurrection based on the discrepancies within the Gospel post-resurrection accounts.

Regarding the first issue, Vermes finds the disciples' persistent lack of understanding of Jesus' "clear predictions" of vindication, their abandonment of Jesus at the time of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and their skepticism of the women's report of the empty tomb to be inconceivable if Jesus truly did make such predictions. Because of the unlikelihood that the disciples' behavior (at the time of the crucifixion and beyond til Easter Sunday) as described in the Gospels is ahistorical given the potential embarrassment it could have caused the early Christian community, he concludes that the predictions are not historical. In the same vein, he also asks why Peter (in Mark 8:32) would have rebuked Jesus for a prediction that included the latter's vindication.

Although on the surface Vermes' argument against the predictions of vindication seems reasonable, I don't think his objections hold up when we dig beneath this surface.

First, despite Jesus' predictions of his arrest and death coming to pass, a supernatural return from death is much more spectacular and thus a priori more difficult to believe, hence the disciples' initial skepticism does not seem that unwarranted even if we maintain the historicity of the predictions (certainly here of all places Skeptics of Christianity can sympathize).

Second, I think it is evident from certain Gospel passages that the disciples eventually came to accept the possibility of martyrdom not only for Jesus, but for themselves as well. The primary Messianic hope of first-century Judaism was for the arrival of someone that would bring liberation from Roman oppression, among other things. I think it probable (prior to the crucifixion) that the disciples were expecting that Jesus, in light not only of their current circumstances but probably more so that of Jesus' predictions, would die an honorable death in the imminent, eschatological Messianic battle, with vindication awaiting those that suffered martyrdom (see here for discussion of the relevant Scriptural passages). They certainly were not expecting Jesus to suffer the disgraceful fate of crucifixion, a death considered so dishonorable that enduring it would have been considered by the ancients as proof-positive that one in fact was NOT the Messiah (see e.g. Deuteronomy 21:23, Luke 24:13-21). This would almost certainly have removed any hope of post-mortem vindication from the minds of the disciples regardless of the historicity of the predictions.

Finally, it is probable that Jesus' predictions of vindication would have been understood as either a direct assumption (i.e. exaltation) to heaven after death or a resuscitation (along the same lines as what happened to Lazarus) rather than that of eschatological resurrection, as the latter was not expected to occur to just one individual and was also not anticipated until "the end of time" (so to speak). Furthermore, Jesus being vindicated in any of these ways would have done nothing, by itself, to help matters here on earth with the Jews and their Roman oppressors, which explains why Peter could rebuke Jesus for the latter's passion prediction in Caesarea Philippi despite the inclusion of vindication within that prediction.

As for the second issue, Vermes believes that not even the most credulous of non-believers are likely to be persuaded by the Gospel post-resurrection accounts given that the accounts could not withstand "legal or scientific inquiry" (p. 141). Once again, this is seemingly due to the numerous, well-known discrepancies among the various accounts.

One can certainly sympathize with Vermes to a degree regarding the discrepancies. Although numerous harmonizations have been performed (see here), for example), I do not find reluctance in concluding that the accounts have completely escaped the charge of inaccuracy unreasonable. That being the case, the four accounts do share a broad consistency with the discrepancies being located primarily in the secondary details. This indicates the likelihood of multiple early traditions (which in light of this general consistency supports the probability of general historicity).

Does Vermes' claim that the Gospels would not withstand "scientific or legal inquiry" rule out their withstanding "historical inquiry"? Vermes seems to think so. On the other hand, one wonders whether or not any independent, parallel accounts of the same event as told by different historians would also withstand "scientific or legal inquiry" (in whatever way that Vermes would define this) and whether or not this would truly matter when assessing general historicity. But, regardless of what one makes of the Gospel post-resurrection accounts, scholars such as William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona have demonstrated the probability of the historicity of the resurrection with minimal to no interaction with the data from the post-resurrection accounts in the Gospels. In debates about the historicity of the resurrection in general (as opposed to that of this or that account of it), this is a very important consideration.

This is all the more pertinent when considering some of Vermes' other relevant conclusions. Like virtually all scholars he accepts the historicity of the (apparent) post-resurrection encounters of the disciples with Jesus (though he also states that these are no different than the visions that mystics have been experiencing for centuries, p. 146). He also seems to accept the historicity of the empty tomb (pp. 140-141), and finds the typical alternative theories (e.g. "the wrong tomb theory", "swoon theory", "theft theory", "migrant Jesus", etc.) wanting (pp. 141-148). In the end, Vermes seems to conclude that the belief in resurrection resulted from the hope instilled within the disciples by the "tale of the empty tomb and the apparitions of the lost Lord" followed by the charismatic experiences that occurred when they later preached the Gospel. This led them to believe that "the crucified Master was close to them as in the old days" and "The helping hand that gave them strength to carry on with their task was the proof that Jesus had risen from the dead." (pp. 150-151) Coming from one on the liberal end of the scholarly spectrum, Vermes' ultimate conclusions on the resurrection of Jesus are not that surprising.

At the end of the day I felt that this was a solid book from which one can learn much, even if (in the eyes of this particular reviewer at least) the author's contentions on these particular controversial issues were not always well-supported.