Sunday, December 11, 2016

How could Paul know?

I've just been listening to a debate between Atheist Dan Barker and Catholic William Albrecht, which I found on a random podcast while searching for something to do with Dan Barker. The subject of the debate was "Did Jesus rise from the dead?"

Barker's basic case was that historical methods can never lead us to a conclusion that a miracle happened, as they only operate in the realms of probability and repeatability. In general, he gave a good, but hardly spectacular defence of this.

Albrecht, on the other hand set out to prove that not only was Jesus raised from the dead, but that he was raised in a physical body. The main body of the discussion in the debate ended up arguing about the meaning of the phrase 'spiritual body' as used by Paul in several places in his letters. 

Albrecht seemed to think that if he could show that Paul meant something physical by using the phrase "spiritual body" that this would somehow prove the resurrection, and prove it was physical. Barker seemed to think that if he could show that Paul meant that Jesus was raised as a spirit (i.e. non physical) then this would prove that Paul's experience of Jesus was purely in the form of visions, which would not entail any kind of resurrection, physical or otherwise.

I felt that this whole aspect of the debate was utterly irrelevant. Because why should it matter what Paul meant by what he said in the letters? 

How on earth could Paul possibly know anything about the nature of Christ's resurrection body? 

He never knew Jesus pre-crucifixion, and he never met Jesus post-resurrection, except in the form of an appearance or vision. He did not touch Jesus.

So on what basis could Paul say anything at all, with authority, about the physical nature of the post-resurrection Christ? All he knew was what he has seen (but not touched), what others may have told him, what he deduced from the OT scriptures, and what he received by revelation or inspiration.

In a historical investigation of the question, we can't appeal to inspiration, revelation, interpretation of scripture, so the only authority Paul could have on this issue (the physical nature of Christ's resurrected body) would have to have come from others. Perhaps Cephas or James, both of whom Paul mentions speaking to in Jerusalem. Paul never says where he got this information. 

It is debatable whether or not Paul actually meant a physical resurrection, but even if he did believe this, his authority is entirely second hand. Paul believed it because some unspecified person told him. That's not great authority.

And going further down this line of thought, how could many of the people who apparently saw (and may have touched) Jesus in the period between resurrection and ascension could definitely say that his flesh was "incorruptible"? Did anyone try to corrupt it? According to John, Thomas didn't even take Jesus up on the offer of touching him. Nobody could make this claim on experiential grounds. It can only be made on the basis of deduction, revelation, or inspiration.

So how did Paul know? He didn't. He asserted it because it fit with his theology, but Paul's opinion can tell us nothing about whether the resurrection was a historical event.

1 comment:

Beau said...

I think these arguments hinge on how to interpret the 15th chapter of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, in which he describes a progression of witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, ending with himself. Later in the same chapter, he goes on to differentiate a spiritual body from a physical body.

You're right, of course, that Paul as witness is bogus as evidence of the resurrection; but I think that Dan Barker is taking it a step farther. He is arguing that, since Paul refers to the resurrection in this way (verse 44): "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body", then even the witnesses he references earlier in the chapter must be describing a resurrected "spiritual body". In other words, the earliest records that we have of the resurrection, not just Paul's but all early Christian witnesses, seem to be records of a "spiritual body", i.e. a visionary experience, dreamlike, hallucinatory, like Paul's experience on the road to Damasscas. It was only much later that these stories grew and involved into the physical body resurrection stories that are found in the gospels.

Albrecht, on the other hand, is that when Paul says "spiritual body" he does not mean "ghost" or "vision", he is still talking about something that a human would experience as solid and human.

Barker is arguing that the resurrection was probably first understood as an "otherworldly", visionary experience that later evolved into physical resurrection stories. Albrecht is arguing that they were always the same physical resurrection stories.