Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Quest for the Mythistorical Jesus (Part Two): The Witness of the Empty Tomb

Christians do not believe in the empty tomb, but in the living Christ. This does not mean, however, that we can believe in the living Christ without believing in the empty tomb. Is it just a "legend"? What matter? It still refers to the phenomenon ensuing the resurrection, to the presupposition of the appearance of Jesus. It is the sign which obviates all possible misunderstanding. It cannot, therefore, but demand our assent, even as a legend. Rejection of the legend of the empty tomb has always been accompanied by the rejection of the saga of the living Jesus, and necessarily so. Far better, then, to admit that the empty tomb belongs to the Easter event as its sign. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2)
(Note: Barth employs the term "legend" in the sense that this article employs "mythistorical." Click HERE to read Part One.)

In 1924, Karl Barth (1886-1968) published a small treatise entitled The Resurrection of the Dead. Little did he realize at the time just how misunderstood this aspect of his overall theology would become and just how tenacious the ensuing controversy would prove to be. This was not helped by the fact that Barth's early writings on the resurrection seemed to diminish the importance of the empty tomb. For Barth, a preoccupation with the empty tomb took the focus away from the true object of our faith: the resurrected Christ.  Yet to his detractors, especially evangelical theologians like Carl F. H. Henry, Barth's position sounded like an outright rejection of the gospel accounts, which in turn sounded suspiciously like a denial of the resurrection itself.

In time, however, Barth's growing concerns with the demythologizing project of Rudolph Bultmann would cause him to change his tune. Bultmann had regarded the resurrection as "a mythical event, pure and simple," grounded not in objective event, but rather in the subjective experience of the disciples. Increasingly alarmed that Bultmann's radical existentialist approach had stripped the resurrection of Christ of any objective significance, Barth in his later writings began to place considerable emphasis on the empty tomb as "the sign which obviates all possible misunderstanding."

This change in emphasis did not represent in Barth a fundamental shift in his theology of the resurrection as much as it did a development in his hermeneutical treatment of the gospel accounts. Barth had never held or insinuated that the resurrection of Christ had been anything but a physical resurrection or that the Church's faith in the resurrection was rooted in anything less than historical event. Barth's earlier statements that seemed to dismiss the "empty tomb" were not about denying the existence of a grave or a sepulcher located somewhere in or around Jerusalem, but rather about the legendary character of the resurrection accounts found in the gospels -- stories that differed greatly from one another in their details. Naturally, a physical resurrection would include an empty grave of some kind in its actualization in time and space.

Yet even if the tomb of Jesus could be located and identified this would in no way constitute historical verification of the resurrection, as there could be many possible explanations as to why the tomb was empty on the first Easter morning. Rather the resurrection of Christ could only be verified through the experience of the disciples and continuing faith of the Church. This is why the legendary character of the gospels posed no difficulty for Barth. Their stories of the empty tomb did not constitute actual eye-witness accounts, nor were they in any other sense historically verifiable, yet they bore witness to the Church's faith in Christ's resurrection in all of its objective significance, and thus the empty tomb stood as an indispensable sign that cannot "but demand our assent."

Naturally, such a nuanced position was bound to be misunderstood by fundamentalists and liberals alike. Generally speaking, in Barth's day there were but two ways of looking at the gospels: either in good literalist fashion as entirely historical accounts or as imaginative stories (more or less) crafted in the minds of the early disciples to explain the significance of their crucified master and/or the continuing experience of the "living Christ" within the early Christian communities. This is where Barth stood out as representing a via media or "middle way." Barth conceded that the gospel accounts of the empty tomb were not historical, per se, but rather were legendary in character. This did not mean that they were entirely fictional, but only that the stories bore the character of  imaginative responses appropriate for their time and culture. However, the living Christ to which they testified was the resurrected Jesus of history, not some otherwise existential figment of faith.

Barth's via media points the way forward in dealing with the gospel accounts as a whole. The true referent of the legendary witness of the empty tomb is the resurrected Christ, not the actual empty tomb itself or any of the other literary details of the different resurrection stories as they unfold in their telling. Hence, it stands to reason that we should not allow ourselves to get bogged down with attempts to explain other differences between the gospels: e.g. discrepancies, contradictions, different emphases, theological assumptions and the like. Such issues would be significant if we were dealing with competing historical accounts. But they do not matter in dealing with "mythistories." All that matters are the stories as stories and what they reveal to us about the Christ of faith. So, for instance, the question of whether Christ was entering or exiting Jericho when he encountered blind Bartimaeus, or whether two blind men met him there or just one (cf. Mark 10, Matthew 20, Luke 18), constitutes an unwarranted diversion away from what the "story-tellers" (i.e. the evangelists) actually want to tell us about Jesus, turning our attention instead towards fruitless considerations about the trustworthiness of texts erroneously regarded as historical accounts; as if to say that our faith was founded on a book (a Christian "Koran" if you will) rather than on the living Christ.

In the final analysis (as this post-catholic thinker sees things), Barth's via media rescues our faith both from the tyranny of textual literalism and from the relativism of radical demythology. The stories of the empty tomb are grounded in the resurrected Christ of faith, not the resurrected Christ of faith in the stories of the empty tomb. Likewise, the gospels are relative to the Church's faith in Christ, not the Church's faith to the gospels. Considered thus, the Bible assumes the nature of a truly revealed word from God en-fleshed in the words of its human authors.

Part One: The Problem Stated
See also: "Mythopoeia: Ancient & Modern"


  1. Very thought-provoking. This might provide a way forward for me. I do not think there is a problem treating the gospels both as "legendary" in the sense you put forward, and at the same time viewing them as accounts that make historical claims, even if those claims rest in the perspectives and memories of those in the early Christian communities who wrote them down. The gospels are not modern court testimonies under oath.

    I particularly love the bit about the gospels being relative to the Church's faith in Christ. I have always suspected that there is a certain amount of "biblolatry" among literalists, who at times, may actually get Christ wrong in their zeal to defend inerrancy from enlightenment attacks that assume the modern court testimony in their criticisms of the gospels as history.

    It makes one think more carefully about HOW the Scriptures are the word of god: Jesus IS the Word of God, and the Bible, insofar as it testifies and points to Jesus is the word of god. Is that a poor man's summary of Barth?

  2. All of this continues to become clearer to me as I read your blog, Fr Thomas, and pay attention to reality around me. I believe, now, that it is the literalists who live their lives wrapped up in myth and legend (in the full non-literal sense). It doesn't matter if they believe such things to be true. If they are not in fact true then they are following myths and fables.

    I've experience such a tremendous relief in learning to trust my senses about the world around me. When I was in bondage to that view that says I have to discount everything that seems clear and obvious in favor of the literalist interpretation of the Bible, I was miserable and felt like such a hypocrite all the time. Never ending guilt was my companion and I did not know how to get rid of him.

    I met a man a few years ago, with whom i have since lost touch, who told me when i was at a critical juncture in my life, that i should simply let reality itself mold me. This was about 2 years before i had a very helpful phone conversation with Dan Dunlap on a similar topic. Both of those things together, being told to submit to reality as well as that phone conversation, have radically changed me from the inside out. I am not the same person i was just 5 years ago. I feel liberated. I feel honest. And I do not feel guilty, I feel justified.

  3. Of course, if your'e a Protestant Evangelical of the hard shell variety, making the Gospels relative to the faith of the Church is setting the cart before the horse. But that isn't a problem for me; quite apart from the obvious chronological primacy of the Church in relation to the Apostolic writings (and you cannot possibly imagine an uncanny thing like the New Testament Church without presuming what St. Jude calls "The faith once delivered to the saints")the NT itself testifies to the existence of the one Church of Christ long before Paul wrote his first Epistles. Anyhow, I think Iv'e missed the reason why the empty tomb accounts aren't necessarily historical. Nevertheless, it is also quite apparent that the gospels contain not only Christ's own exegesis of Old Testament texts in relation to himself as ultimate referrant, but the post-ascension exegesis of the Apostles as they applied Christ (and the Church) to the promises contained in the law and prophets as their true fulfillment.

    Chickenry Anglicanus

  4. Thank you all for your comments, your feedback, and you very kinds words.

    After posting on Saturday, I decided to take a bit of a hiatus as I'm lecturing three times in the next two weeks, and have much to prepare. That being said, I should be able to post something by week's end next week.

    I have more to say on hermeneutics. Indeed, I've just scratched the surface of the "Christ Hermeneutic." However, before I can get back to that I feel compelled to tackle the issue of the atonement in view of the understanding of theosis that I've set forth in other articles on this blog.

  5. "Chickenry", your question on the historicity of the resurrection accounts is an important one. Let me make two general remarks.

    First, the concept of "legend" does not entirely preclude historical elements. Indeed, legends can be replete with historical features, or at least the appearance of history (verisimilitudes), which is what distinguishes them from "myths." But legends also contain symbolic and literary embellishments that help "tell the story," and when specifically conveying stories about people who actually lived and events that actually happened legends are characteristically unconcerned with chronological or geographical precision (often inventing scenarios when the actual details are otherwise unknown).

    Second, the 4 gospel accounts differ greatly with each other in the details of the resurrection, making them notoriously difficult to harmonize. None of the evangelists envisioned that their respective accounts would ever exist side-by-side with other accounts within the same book for later generations to compare. The differences are too great and too many to conclude otherwise than that they are not entirely historical. That being said, the great similarities between them seem to point to a strong historical core of information common to all

  6. Fr. Thomas, spot on. In modern criminal eye-witness testimony forensics, suspicion of collusion or conspiracy is aroused when multiple eye-witness testimonies describe an event with exactly the same details. It is in the diversity of testimony that the truth of the event is established. The Gospels are ancient texts that contain eye-witness testimony (or at least orally handed down), and the diversity of accounts rules out conspiracy and at the same time establish that something quite extraordinary happened that early Sunday morning long ago. Was Mary Magdalene the first to the tomb? Or someone else? Was there one angel or two? These differences simply reflect the oral traditions that existed in the different early Christian communities in that first generation of the Church. They cannot be harmonized as a seamless "historical" account. They needn't be. No doubt, the disciples and followers wrapped up in the events themselves were "blown away" by what they experienced and so as they related those events to others over the decades, different aspects of their experiences waxed and waned depending upon the contexts they were in. When these were finally written down (whether by them directly) or compiled by others, certain features of each eye-witness came to the fore, and became a part of the written Gospels. So, yes, "legend" is not a pejorative of the truth. Something extraordinary happened. The variety of accounts actually highlights that event's significance, not calls it into question.

  7. Good response, Jay. That was helpful.