December 3, 2020

The Event that Formed Our Family

God’s Marvelous, Massive, Messy House
Part 2: The Event that Formed Our Family

Throughout 2012, we are running a series of posts on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s marvelous, massive, and messy history of the faith, Christianity. The nature of his book reflects the nature of our household. We are a motley bunch and always have been. Nevertheless, there are certain core facets of our identity that make us part of the same family, even if we have to live at opposite ends of the house. And the most central element of our faith is the resurrection of Jesus.

When MacCulloch examines the beginnings of Christianity from a historian’s perspective, he accepts the basic skeptical conclusion modern critical scholars have set forth. The Gospels are not especially reliable sources of information but must be read and interpreted in light of the theological agendas of various parties in the early church: “We may pare away the non-historical from the probably historical elements in Christian sacred literature, but that is in order better to understand the motives and preoccupations which led to the shape of the good news constructed by the first generations of Christians,” he writes.

And so, throughout his examination of the beginnings of Christian faith, he tries to illuminate why Jesus is portrayed as being born in Bethlehem, though that is unlikely, what the agenda was of the unknown author of Matthew’s infancy narratives, the early Christian preoccupation with Mary’s virginity, which he views as a misunderstanding of the Hebrew text as translated through the Septuagint, and so on. MacCulloch accepts the standard critical approach: “But much of the history of the Gospels themselves is history of the time after the life of Jesus himself.”

I humbly disagree, believing Diarmaid MacCulloch has thrown out both baby and bathwater here. Of course those who wrote the Gospels for the edification of the early church selected and arranged the Gospel narratives so as to communicate to their audiences. The Gospels are both history and theology. They are proclamation of a message, but one that comes through eyewitness testimony, not merely literary composition. Though the shaping of the story doubtless tells us something about the situation of the audience — that John’s Gospel is designed to show how Jesus’ words and works counter forms of gnosticism, or that Matthew’s Gospel reflects a time of controversy between Christians and the Jewish community, or that Mark speaks to the fears of the persecuted church in Rome, or that Luke’s Gospel was an extended apologia for educated Greeks and the church that lived out its faith in the Greco-Roman empire — that does not mean that the Gospel narratives were made up whole cloth or changed so dramatically that their basic accuracy as historical sources is in doubt. At this point, the insights of a book like Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony would provide a needed corrective.

All of that makes good fodder for debate in MacCulloch’s history. But what impressed me in reading Christianity was the point at which MacCulloch, as a skeptical historian, got stuck. It is at precisely the point where Christianity finds its central event.

Diarmaid MacCulloch readily admits he has no answer for the resurrection.

What the Gospels tell us happened after the Crucifixion was the ultimate good news: Jesus came back to human life after three days in the tomb. Somehow a criminal’s death and defeat on the Cross, ‘Good Friday’, as Christian came to call it, were transformed by his followers into a triumph of life over death, and the Passion narratives ended with the story of Easter Resurrection. This Resurrection is not a matter which historians can authenticate; it is a different sort of truth, or statement about truth. It is the most troubling, difficult affirmation in Christianity, but over twenty centuries Christians have thought it central to their faith….

…Historians might take comfort from the fact that that nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection: it was beyond the capacity or the intention of the writers to describe it, and all they described were its effects. The New Testament is thus a literature with a blank at its centre; yet this blank is also its intense focus.

The beginning of the long Christian conversation lies in the chorus of assertions in the writings of the New Testament that after Jesus’s death his tomb was found empty. He repeatedly appeared to those who had known him, in ways which confused and contradicted the laws of physics: he showed witnesses that he could be touched and felt and could be watched eating grilled fish, but also appeared and disappeared regardless of doors or any normal means of exit and entrance. Many who at first found such claims absurd when others made them are reported as having been convinced when they had the same experience….

…Historians are never going to make sense of these reports, unless like some of those who first heard them they choose to regard them as simply ludicrous. Nevertheless they can hardly fail to note the extraordinary galvanizing energy of those who spread the story after their experience of Resurrection and Ascension, and they can reconstruct something of the resulting birth of the Christian Church, even if the story can never be more than fragmentary. Whether through some mass delusion, some colossal act of wishful thinking, or through witness to a power or force beyond any definition known to Western historical analysis, those who had known Jesus in life and had felt the shattering disappointment of his death proclaimed that he lived still, that he loved them still, and that he was to return to earth from the Heaven which he had now entered, to love and save from destruction all who acknowledged him as Lord.

Try as he might, Diarmaid MacCulloch simply cannot explain away or dismiss the resurrection of Jesus. For critics of the Christian faith, this is the sticking point. For followers of Jesus, it is the central event that forms our identity. This mysterious, inexpressible occurrence, its reality witnessed to by a large number of ordinary people in Gospel accounts that are as full of bewilderment and questions as they are of belief and certainty, is the One True Story that won’t go away, won’t leave us alone, won’t let us rest content in our own little stories.

Let us proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.


  1. Jack Heron says

    I think you and MacCulloch are really in agreement here. To me, he didn’t come across as trying to dismiss or explain away the Resurrection – it looked like he was pointing out the ‘stuckness’ at this juncture rather than finding himself necessarily stuck. (I mean, he may find himself a little stuck, but his personal beliefs weren’t so much what he was trying to convey)

    One of the things I suspect he was broadly trying to get across here is that the Resurrection is not merely the primary fact of Christianity as a belief system, but also the primary fact of Christian literature when considered historically. The earliest Christians became so because of a single event – the Resurrection – around which all else fell into place. So too it is with the writings that went on to become the New Testament. The Resurrection is the mystery, the central point, the thing so inherent that it becomes almost impossible to analyse. Everything else can be analysed by the historian and looked at in the light of the early Christians and their world-view. But the Resurrection is so much more problematic. We cannot look at it in the light and world-view of early Christians because it *was* the light and the world-view of those early Christians.

  2. “…When the accusers [of Paul] stood up, they began bringing charges against him not of such crimes as I was expecting, but they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive. Being at a loss how to investigate such matters…”
    Festus, to King Agrippa, Acts 25:18-20

  3. Yes, in the resurrection, God tells us that our deaths are not the end of us, no matter how it looks at the time. And it’s not like our life just gets “recycled” the way those who believe in reincarnation would have us believe. We, personally, will exist for eternity. The details of all that are really beyond us to understand. If they WERE understandable, then the reality of it would be less amazing than it is. The older I get, the more I realize my lack of understanding and the more comfortable I get with that knowledge of my lack of understanding! As a younger person, I wanted answers and I wanted them now. I didn’t know how I could get on with my life without having answers first.

  4. David Cornwell says

    The resurrection becomes the interesect between the old reality and the new hope. It will never be explainable because it is at this interesection that the New Heaven, meets the old created order. Jesus, the second Adam, the firstfruits of this new Kingdom, doesn’t behave according to the rules of the old order. The resurrection thus becomes that point over which historians must stumble, or else throw away their Ph.D’s.

    When much younger I’d sometimes attempt to logically explain this to someone else. The best we can do is testify to the hope that is within us.

    I’d be more concerned with the accounts of the ressurection if they all fell into lockstep, and the event was explained one, two, three, etc. by those who were witnesses. As it is we have an unexplainable mystery. To those of us who have not seen He will someday appear again. And all creation will bow before Him.

  5. Well, who CAN explain the Resurrection???

    As once explained to me by a awesome Catholic chaplain (who tended our tiny military flock in the boondocks of about 35-if NO ONE was sick or on duty) the early Chruch didn’t care much about Christ’s childhood and birth, because it was small peanuts next to a “dead guy” coming back and still saying He was God. AND, of course, they expected Him back within the generation!!!

    Only as the first Believers started to die off did it seem important to get down all the information that would otherwise die with the Apostles and Mary. Of these, ONLY Mary could have shared about His Conception and childhood.

  6. Christianity without the resurrections is nothing…. It’s probably the most important part of the faith. Anyone can die for their belief. You see that from the 9-11 hijackers to Joseph Smith. But the resurrection is what makes Christianity different. I don’t know why it is…but I am not as skeptical about the resurrection. I’ve torn apart other aspects of Christianity, but the resurrection doesn’t bother me like the problem of evil, God’s exclusive salvation, and God’s practice of genocide. (Just to name a few…)

    Yet the resurrection doesn’t bother me as much. I don’t know why…

    I would be curious to know the rest of the book. I hope John Piper was left out of the book as well as those Christian sex toys that Jeff and others spoke about in the ramblings a few weeks back! 😯

    • “Anyone can die for their belief. You see that from the 9-11 hijackers to Joseph Smith. But the resurrection is what makes Christianity different.”
      Eagle, that was really profound.

      • “Anyone can die for their belief. You see that from the 9-11 hijackers to Joseph Smith. But the resurrection is what makes Christianity different.” What is stated is true, however “dying for a belief” and “dying for a lie” are two totally different things. Jihadists and followers of Joseph Smith “believe” that things they’ve been told are true. The disciples and other eye witnesses of the resurrected Jesus knew whether it was true or not. As mentioned, the resurrection is the central tenant of our faith. The early christians suffered persecution and death for their convictions that the resurrection really happened. It goes against human nature to die for something that you know with certainty is a lie.

  7. This is Good News. 🙂

  8. Jack Heron says

    Incidentally, Diarmaid MacCulloch was knighted only last month for ‘services to scholarship’. This book was probably a major component in that.

  9. Welsh Willie says

    What’s all this talk of “eye-witnesses”? The ones who said they saw something, weren’t too sure of what it was they saw. By the time the gospels got written, a generation or so later, these stories must have been circulating for quite some time as oral literature, or what we would call urban legends. And even if there was such a witness, sober folk wouldn’t believe him, given the befuddled nature of his report.

    No, there’s nothing in the gospels that would make a historian believe it, if he were not already inclined to belief. The resurrection is, as Tertullian wrote, an absurdity (a supernatural event, a miracle) for which no rational explanation would be entertained. What point is there, then, in trying to argue for it? The fact that lots of people believe it is no special evidence in its favor–witness all the other religions of the world.

    • “The ones who said they saw something, weren’t too sure of what it was they saw.”

      Don’t think so. One of the earliest NT witnesses to the resurrection, 1Cor 15, makes it very clear who they saw. And the resurrection narratives themselves, though expressing a deep sense of mystery and amazement at what was happening, don’t express any ambiguity about who it was they were interacting with.

      Technically, of course, no one saw the resurrection event itself. They saw the One who had been raised.

      • Welsh Willie says

        Or, the gospel stories claim that various people saw the resurrected Christ, except they didn’t always recognize him, and at one point confused an angel with the gardner. Isn’t there just a wee bit of room here for human hysteria? If it was Elvis they was talking about, you wouldn’t believe it for a minute.

  10. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

    Amen, amen.

    I especially love that quote that you posted from his book (which I considering purchasing, massive tome that it is). It may be presumptuous of me to say, but what he said there may take the cake and be the best part of the book.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    …the resurrection of Jesus. For critics of the Christian faith, this is the sticking point. For followers of Jesus, it is the central event that forms our identity.

    Not YoungEarth Creationism.
    Not Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist.
    Not Speaking in Tongues.
    Not Taking Back America.

    • Welsh Willie says

      So, Headless Unicorn, why believe in one absurdity (a man rising from the dead–supernaturally, without any scientific explanation being allowed), and not all the others you listed? You’re obviously an intelligent man–are you just looking for a group to belong to? The Evangelicals will never accept you–you should be an atheist.

      • Willie, you showed your hand of being totally unfamilar with this site or the beliefs of anyone here!!!


        You’ll ger bored here soon enough…its all grownup talk.

  12. In the Gospel of Matthew, after the resurrection, Matthew writes, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16-17, NIV) The Message writes it as, “Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.”

    Do you think Peterson got the meaning of the passage correct? I find it odd that some of those eleven people doubted after all that had happened up to that point. What were they doubting? Were they doubting it was Jesus? Were they doubting his resurrection? Were they doubting he was the Messiah they were waiting for? What did they doubt? Or, perhaps “some” was referring to different people and not the 11 disciples. If I knew the original language, I may know better whether that is a possibility or not. Those of you who do know the Greek language can perhaps enlighten me.

  13. Group hysteria is usually a temporary condition that builds, hits a peak, and then dissipates as people come back to their senses.
    But what you have in the case of the very early church are original followers and students of this odd Jewish Rabbi proclaiming His resurrection, not just for a day or a week or a month or a year, but for the rest of their lives. And, in most cases, these people willingly suffered death rather than deny what they said they had seen with their own eyes.
    If the first eye witnesses didn’t thoroughly believe that Jesus had risen from the dead — and agree among themselves about what they believed they had seen and experienced — then the whole sham or delusion or deception would have fallen apart pretty quick, in my opinion.