Now I've finished Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Some of the last few chapters on his theory that John the Elder and not John Son of Zebedee wrote the fourth gospel got a little long, although it's an interesting idea more proved in the negative than in the positive. The last chapter was more philosophical, about the process of history and the nature of truth. I got a new perspective on one of the questions that's been nagging me for a while: namely, if Jesus rising from the dead is the central event of history, why can't we know about it more directly?
I mean, even the Muslims claim to have the footprint of Muhammed's horse on the rock in the Dome of the Rock on the night he climbed on a steed and ascended to heaven (needless to say, that claim has not been subjected to rigorous chemical analysis and it might be just a chip in the rock ...). For Christians, our evidence is literary: four gospels, Paul's letters, and the social phenomenon of the spread of the Way. Why not something physical, some "this is the empty tomb" claim or ... well, the Shroud of Turin isn't and shouldn't be the cornerstone of anyone's faith. Why, in the end, do we just have testimony?
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life ... That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you. (1 John 1:1,3)
Personally, I'd like some camera evidence, a post-resurrection interview or two. I'm sure Oprah would book Jesus. But he rose before cameras existed. You know, as soon as there was photography, there was altered photography. So even photographic or camera evidence would be debated, I'm sure. I'm reminded how in the fantasy series I read, The Wheel of Time, the central Messiah-like figure the Dragon Reborn is declared at the end of book 4 or 5 and we're on book 11 and lots of people don't "believe in" him even with direct evidence. Even if Moses came back from the dead, some wouldn't listen to him ...
Seeing that many others have undertaken to draw up accounts of the events that have reached their fulfilment among us, as these were handed down to us by those who from the outset were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, I in my turn, after carefully going over the whole story from the beginning, have decided to write an ordered account for you, Theophilus, so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is that you have received. (Luke 1:1-4)
What we do have in the case of the gospels are claims to eyewitness accounts, claims to history. We have the physical account of the empty tomb paired with the spiritual account of interactions with the risen Jesus. The physical evidence we have is a negation (apaphatic?), an empty space. Like in John 20, two angels at each end of the empty slab form a new Ark of the Covenant, a new holy of holies, and we're left with the words of people who say "Trust me," and the lack of evidence to the contrary. Also, the changed, dynamic nature of the people asking to be trusted. But why does it have to be trust?
The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had myself received, was that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried; and that on the third day, he was raised to life, in accordance with the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; and later to the Twelve; and next he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still with us, though some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to me too, as though I was a child born abnormally. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
As much as I'd like to biopsy the resurrection body and find out how it runs (reversed entropy?), I'm not given that chance. As much as I'd have liked Jesus to have, I don't know, carved YHWH into the moon rock as some universal, untouchable sign, I have not been given that evidence either. What I do have depends on a community and writings that claim this is true, and people's lives that have been changed, as well as the occasional obvious miracle and the constant miracle of a rational, good, and fertile universe. It must be necessary to know about Jesus through words and not experiments. It must be important to trust others, and not be able to run out and touch the wounds yourself. Blessed are they who do without. Blessed is the empty space.
Now we are witnesses to everything he did throughout the countryside of Judaea and in Jerusalem itself: and they killed him by hanging him on a tree, yet on the third day God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen, not by the whole people but only by certain witnesses that God had chosen beforehand. Now we are those witnesses-we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead- and he has ordered us to proclaim this to his people and to bear witness that God has appointed him to judge everyone, alive or dead. (Acts 10:39-42)
My academic education has been into a culture of suspicion. Peer reviewers slam a work if all the controls aren't run. Even so, some scientists fake their advances and net temporary gain, which hopefully gets found out in a few years. Science is dealing with the problems of fraud, and the fact that, no matter how suspicious you become, you have to trust somebody sometime. At some point, you have to say I trust that you actually ran that experiment or that control. I trust that you checked that it's the right protein. You can't be all positivist all the time. And the choice comes down to, not whether you trust, but who you choose to trust. And then, whatever you choose, you're let down in some way. Is the proper response more suspicion, or a tempered trust? How?
This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony is true. There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would be written. (John 21)
Bauckham's claim is that everything comes down to testimony, maybe testimony about an experiment, or maybe the testimony of a peer-reviewed paper, but testimony nonetheless, believing in second-hand experience. You can't do everything yourself. So maybe all we have of the risen Jesus is testimony, because all we have of anything is testimony. Testimony that can be tested, in a legal mode, but it can't always be repeated, and therefore it can't be experimented upon.
I think this is at the root of what people believe to be the science-religion conflict. Not a question of practice, but epistemology, how you know about the universe. Scientists trust the repeatable, the faithful trust the testimony of the unrepeatable. Both have flaws because humans are finite and incomplete, and so is any knowledge about the world. But they can co-exist: trusting the gospels and understanding/trusting experiments are actually not as different as they seem. Both must be corroborated with other information and put into a single framework.
So I'm left trusting that the things I read about in Isaiah, the prophecies Jesus himself trusted in (and was vindicated for on Easter Sunday), that these things both are coming true and will be brought about by YHWH someday, that God moved on Easter Sunday and he will move again, with Jesus as Judge and Redeemer. That as all the quotes before are in the past tense, the following is still future, but is begun by the resurrection and the church:
In this mountain will Yahweh of Hosts make to all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. He will destroy in this mountain the surface of the covering that covers all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He has swallowed up death forever; and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Yahweh has spoken it. It shall be said in that day, Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is Yahweh; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
One raised from the dead so far, many more to come, some day. It will happen, by His hand. We trust and wait. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.