February 12, 2017
Resurrections prior to the World’s End?
Fact 4, Point 2 in your opening statement of the debate with Bart Ehrman: you state that Jewish views of the afterlife precluded having a glorified existence prior to the general resurrection. Yet, the accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus, three disciples saw Moses and Elijah. Elijah, according to the account in Kings, never died, but Moses is recorded as having died at the end of Deuteronomy. Whether or not he was actually raised and glorified in the same sense they came to believe Jesus was, could they not have believed that to be the case? Apparitions of the dead (Samuel to Saul and the medium at En-dor) were not unknown in the OT.
Let’s set the stage for those who aren’t familiar with the debate you mention, Arnold. Among the facts about Jesus which are generally accepted by historical scholars (including Ehrman himself) is
Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
I mentioned three aspects of the historical situation in which the disciples found themselves following Jesus’ crucifixion. The second aspect is
2. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.
Since this is precisely what the original disciples came to believe, the question arises as to what caused them to believe something so unJewish and outlandish? N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) is an 800-page discussion of this question.
Your question challenges point (2) on the basis of the transfiguration narrative and the stories about apparitions of the dead such as the account of the witch of Endor.
Careful readers will see at once, I think, that you have not been sufficiently attentive to my statement of (2). Point (2) does not state that “Jewish views of the afterlife precluded having a glorified existence prior to the general resurrection.” Rather what it states is the fact that Judaism had no idea of a resurrection of the dead to glory and immortality prior to the resurrection at the end of the world. At best there were revivifications of the dead, a return to the earthly, mortal life, such in the case of Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back from the dead. Such persons did not have a glorified body and would eventually die again. The resurrection to glory and immortality would come only at history’s end when God raises all the dead for purposes of final judgement.
Now obviously neither the transfiguration story nor the story of the witch of Endor is a story of the resurrection of the dead. Resurrection involves the raising up and transformation of a dead person’s remains, principally, in Jewish belief, the bones. Rather these stories relate either visionary experiences or else a temporary embodiment of persons who are presently with God awaiting the final resurrection. Jewish belief in such stories goes no distance toward explaining why the disciples should have come to believe that Jesus was literally risen from the dead, apart from and in advance of the final resurrection. Why not say that he appeared to them in glory, just like Elijah and Moses?
Now, of course, a quite different question remains: Could visionary experiences of Jesus have led the disciples mistakenly to infer that Jesus was risen from the dead? See what I’ve written about the Hallucination Hypothesis for a discussion of this question. It seems very doubtful. As N. T. Wright so pithily puts it, in the ancient world a vision of a deceased person was not evidence that the person was alive. It was evidence that he was dead!