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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 55, 2007

DALE C. ALLISON, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T & T Clark International, 2005). Pp. xi + 404. $59.95.

The steady stream of books and articles on the resurrection shows no sign of abating and now we have another substantial contribution to the ongoing debate by Dale Allison. Allison is probably best known for his co-authorship with the late W. D. Davies of the massive ICC commentary on Matthew (T & T Clark, 1988, 1991 and 1997). His latest book will further enhance his already considerable reputation.

Included in Resurrecting Jesus are five significant essays with the following titles: “Secularising Jesus,” “The Problem of Audience,” “The Problem of Gehenna,” “Apocalyptic, Polemic, Apologetics” and “Torah, Urzeit, Endzeit.” These are all well worthy of review, but I shall concentrate on the book-length essay which gives its title to the whole collection.

The range and depth of Allison’s scholarship is immediately apparent. The book does not include a full bibliography, but the index of modern names, which covers all six essays, runs to over fifteen closely typed pages and contains some 650 names.

What Does It Mean?

Allison begins by asking, “What might it mean to say that Jesus rose from the dead?” He then proceeds to survey the range of answers that have been given to that question from the Enlightenment onwards, ranging from acceptance of the conventional Christian account, still defended by some modern scholars, such as Wolfhart Pannenburg and N. T. Wright, through misinterpretation, hallucinations, deliberate deception, genuine visions, belief in God’s vindication, and rapid disintegration of the body plus visions.

In a review cited on the back cover, James D. G. Dunn praises Allison for “an engagingly fresh and self-critical honesty.” That praise is well deserved. Immediately after surveying the range of answers to the question, “What might the resurrection of Jesus mean?” he sets aside his usual authorial discretion and is candid about his own personal inclinations in the matter. He would like Jesus to have been literally raised because of his conviction that the teaching of Jesus, which, as a Christian, he is committed to, “may well hang in the air without a dramatic, postmortem endorsement” (214). His second reason is that he likes the sort of God who would do such a thing. Citing a phrase of Arthur A. Cohen, he writes: “I welcome a ‘ceaselessly imaginative God’ who comes out of hiding for a moment to break the monotony of death and to do something truly wonderful” (215f). And again: “I cannot believe in a good God and simultaneously disbelieve in a life beyond this one. Otherwise I find this world irredeemably bleak” (217).

In the next section headed Doubts, Allison faces various considerations which make him hesitate to believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus (219–28). Under this heading he lists some of the fantasies frequently associated with belief in the resurrection, such as the belief that, at the end of the world, God will gather the scattered particles of the saints from the four winds, reconstitute their bodies and then breathe into them the breath of life.

Formulas, Confessions, Appearance Stories

Then follows a lengthy section in which Allison asks what the texts themselves tell us and what we ourselves should think about them (228–69).

Seeing Things

Under this heading Allison questions “the assumption that the resurrection appearances are, because of their multiple witnesses and shared nature, without real analogy” (269–99). On the contrary, there are many firsthand accounts of several people seeing at once the apparition of a person recently deceased. These “seeings” are often experienced as quite vivid and real. In this section he includes accounts of how he himself and other members of his family “saw,” several times over a period of several weeks, visions of friends or relatives recently deceased. After a lengthy discussion, he agrees with Simon J. Sherwood that “our brains are capable of generating very vivid, realistic and compelling imaginary experiences” (293). At the same time, he concludes that, if the data are too meagre for the needs of the apologist, they equally do not suffice for the rationalistic antagonists of the Church. “One can establish without doubt the illusory character of the early Christian experiences only if one’s mind is so saturated by a materialistic naturalism that it cannot allow either divine intervention or paranormal phenomena” (298).

This discussion would have been enhanced by a reference to a paragraph in John Knox’s Chapters in a Life of Paul, which Allison refers to elsewhere (see also James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit 97–11). Knox points out that Paul makes a sharp distinction between “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor 9:1), which were still taking place, and his initial experience of seeing the risen Christ (see 1 Cor 9:1–2; 15:3–11; Gal 1:11–16). The former he regards as private, the latter as a fact of importance to the Church. To speak of the former may seem to be boasting; to speak of the latter is to bear witness to the resurrection of Christ. Paul, Knox concludes, must have felt there was a difference in kind between his “seeing the Lord”on the road to Damascus and subsequent visions. As to what this difference was, we cannot know for sure, but Knox suggests that, on the human side, the difference may have lain in “a feeling of complete matter-of-factness, as contrasted with the more ecstatic or visionary character of later appearances” (Chapters in a Life of Paul 122).

In a seminar at the SNTS conference in Birmingham in 1997, I cited this argument of Knox’s in a discussion with Gerd Luedemann. His reply was, in effect, that Paul’s efforts to have his “seeing” of the risen Christ on the way to Damascus considered to be on a par with the experiences of Peter and the others were due simply to his determination to have his apostleship recognised as being every bit as valid as theirs. I remain unconvinced.

The Empty Tomb?

On the vexed question of the empty tomb, Allison is once again engagingly candid. He writes, “My personal philosophy, rightly or wrongly, has no pressing need for an empty tomb. I do not believe that our life in the world to come in any way depends on the recovery of our current flesh and bones; and, if not for us, why for Jesus?” (344). The point may be stated thus: the kind of resurrection that Paul envisages for believers in 1 Cor 15:35–44 does not require the using up, without remainder, of their mortal bodies. In v. 35 Paul begins to address the perplexity of some of the Corinthians about the nature of the bodies of the resurrected dead. His first move is to appeal to the process of growth from a seed. At first sight, this may seem to be little more than an argument by analogy, but what looks like a simple analogy leads into a jubilant celebration of the variety and fecundity of God’s creation. God, who gave us a body in the first place, will also give us a new body, when we are raised from the dead. Such a concept of resurrection does not require the using up, without remainder, of our mortal bodies. In other words, it does not require the emptying out of our tombs on the last day.

But the argument of the whole chapter is undergirded by the conviction that the resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection of believers. What we will be is what Christ already is. Does it not follow, then, that the resurrection of Christ himself did not require the using up, without remainder, of his mortal body, in other words, did not require the tomb to become untenanted? Certainly, by the time that he writes 2 Corinthians, Paul appears to contemplate, with equanimity, the prospect of the dissolution of the present body of flesh and blood and its replacement by a new body, “a building from God” (2 Cor 5:1).

Some would argue that since, strictly speaking, the seed is used up, without remainder, in the shoot of corn that springs from it, so the decayed remains of our mortal bodies will be used up, without remainder, in the general resurrection. I doubt whether the people of Paul’s time and place would have seen it that way. Writing about parables of growth in the gospels, Jeremias observes that “the modern man, passing through the ploughed field, thinks of what is going on beneath the soil and envisages a biological development. The people of the Bible, passing through the same plough-land, look up and see miracle upon miracle, nothing less than resurrection from the dead” (The Parables of Jesus 91).

But Was the Tomb Really Empty?

Allison’s own evaluation of the accounts of the empty tomb is carefully nuanced. In his considered judgement, a decent case can be made for a “yes”and a respectable case for a “no” (331). But he finds the case for a “yes” to be slightly stronger. There are two arguments for the tradition which carry most weight for him.

First, visions of Jesus, without evidence of an empty tomb, would probably have led only to faith in Jesus’ vindication and assumption to heaven, not to belief in his resurrection from the dead. There were a variety of ways open to first century Jews of expressing the conviction that God will deal creatively with the dead. Resurrection is but one of these and is at the more physical end of the spectrum. For example, the disciples could have drawn on the Book of Jubilees and declared that the spirit of Jesus had been taken up to heaven, while his body rested, for now, in the earth. As Allison observes, “half of the Jewish texts from 200 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. that speak of an afterlife do so without mentioning the resurrection” (243). Yet these first followers declared, “He has been resurrected.” This is an argument especially emphasised by N. T. Wright (see, for example, The Resurrection of the Son of God 686).

Allison’s second main reason for a conservative evaluation of the stories of the empty tomb is that no one in the early church is likely, without good reason, to have attributed the discovery that the tomb was empty to women. He cites Josephus, Antiquities 4.219: “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex” (328).

A Counter Argument?

This is not a new argument, and Michael Goulder, a professed sceptic, advances a counter argument. According to Goulder, influential people in the early church foresaw that someone might say, “I’ve been a believer for twenty years and I never heard this twaddle.” So they attributed the discovery of the empty tomb to women, to women who “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). That, it was hoped, would explain why the discovery of an empty tomb did not form part of the earliest proclamation (“The Explanatory Power of Conversion Visions,” in Jesus’ Resurrection, Fact or Figment? [eds Copan and Tacelli] 101).

For my part, I do not find this theory at all convincing. What did Mary of Magdala and Joanna and Mary, the mother of James, have to say about it, when rumours began to circulate in the early church that they had found the tomb of Jesus empty on the morning after the Sabbath? If these women were already dead, what did their daughters have to say about it? Were they all silent? I cannot believe that. I submit that Goulder is operating with a totally male-centred view of the history of the primitive church, according to which men were totally in control of the developing tradition. I do not accept that for a moment.

Allison is to be congratulated on an exceptionally valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion.

Review by
Nigel Watson
10 Chatham Street
Flemington VIC 3031