Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Resurrection in Acts

Elsewhere I have cited Paul as the earliest source on the resurrection. The books of Acts has comments that are reported to have been made even early, and it is worth looking at them, if only for completeness.

Paul in Acts 13

Acts 13:29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb.
It must be pointed out that Luke was written around 90 AD, perhaps 40 years after the event. No one can remember a conversation from that long ago verbatim; these must necessarily be a case of the author of Luke putting words in someone's mouth. I think it reasonable to assume Luke sincerely believed this was broadly what was said, but that could have easily been coloured by the author's own beliefs.

So does that show that Jesus was buried in a tomb? That could be the case, but a perfectly plausible explanation here is that Paul said Jesus was buried, and Luke, who clearly believed Jesus was buried in a tomb, and after forty years could not recall exactly what Paul said, misquoted him.

If you are claiming this as proof, then you are claiming that Luke could remember exactly what Paul said decades later, and further that Luke was more concerned with accurately recording those words rather than presenting an apologetic. I think both those claims are misguided.

Peter in Acts 2

This is the first text, which is a bit longer:
Acts 2:29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven,
The book of Acts is often attributed to Luke or perhaps another companion of Paul. As far as I know, no one believes the book was written by someone present when Peter was preaching. This is certainly not the best recollection of a man who was there, this is at best second hand information, recorded well over fifty years after it had happened.

In passing, it is worth noting that verse 30 would contradict the virgin birth. When Peter was preaching, the virgin birth had yet to be invented, and Jesus was claimed to be a direct descendant of David; this was a necessary requirement for the messiah, who was the expected King of the Jews, and so had to be of the royal line.

Peter is generally believed to be referring to Psalm 16:10, which is traditionally credited to David:
Psalm 16:10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful[b] one see decay.
According to Luke, Peter has changed this to apply to a distant descendant of David, rather than David himself. I can imagine this was not unique to Peter, and was quite a common belief among the Jews of the time, who longed for a messiah and had to deal with the fact that David was indeed dead, and his body had rotted away a long time ago.

Okay, but what does this tell us about the resurrection (if we assume for the moment that Peter actually said it)?

What we can see is that Peter believed Jesus had been resurrected, that Jesus' body did not see decay and that Jesus ascended to heaven.

The Ascension event is something that only appears in Luke and Acts, which makes me suspicious that Luke invented it. I cannot imagine the authors of Matthew or John skipping this very significant event if they were aware of it (I accept Mark could have). However, what Peter could be referring to is Jesus going to heaven in a more general sense, and presumably the belief at that time was that that had happened.

Obviously Peter believed Jesus had been resurrected in some form; was that a bodily resurrection, as the later gospels would have us believe? Or was it resurrection in a new body, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15? Christians will say that the point about the body not decayed indicates this was Jesus in his original body, but in fact this argues the other way. Paul is very explicit that the resurrected body, the new body Jesus received, would not decay, and this fits perfectly with what Peter is proclaiming here.
1 Cor 15:42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown [l]a perishable body, it is raised [m]an imperishable body; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

Peter in Acts 10

More from Peter's preaching:
Acts 10:39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
This again must be second-hand at best, and again recorded decades after the event.

It comes across are rather odd that Peter blames the Jews for killing Jesus, when he and all the rest of the disciples were Jews. It is doubtful that any of them saw themselves as founding a new religion; they preached to their fellow Jews, and that preaching was largely about how Jesus fulfilled the Jewish scripture. They would have considered themselves Jews, not Christians. By the time Luke was writing, the distinction had become rather more important, and the early church was trying to appeal to the Romans.

There are two points I find fascinating here is. The first is that the text says God appointed Jesus. This sounds like the adoptionism of Mark's gospel; Jesus was adopted as God' son at his baptism. Is this a trace of the earlier beliefs?

More germane to the resurrection is that Luke suggests God made Jesus visible to some people. That is not what we would expect from a guy in his original body... but it does fit the narrative of the Road to Emmaus, where two disciples are talking to Jesus, but fail to recognise him. This is not Jesus in his physical body, nail wounds and all, this is Jesus in a new heaven body.

Further reading

Not directly related to this post, but interesting nevertheless: