Monday, 29 November 2010

Controversial new hypothesis about Christ's Resurrection in the Early Church - prof Markus Vinzent

Today I attended the Patristics Seminar in Cambridge, UK. Markus Vinzent, professor and chair of History of Theology from Kings College London, gave a paper entitled: "The Resurrection of Christ in Second Century, Early Christianity".

It's certainly an understatement to say that the paper was controversial. Reflecting back, I cannot even imagine that professor Vinzent will have tea with professor NT Wright soon. Well, who knows? They just might...

Vinzent's paper was to a large extent a condensed summery of a commissioned new monograph which he has already submitted for publication (due sometime next year). The full title is: "Christ's Resurrection in Early Christianity, and the making of the New Testament." He claims that it is the first monograph on the resurrection of Jesus by a Patristics scholar.

Vincent started off by saying that he, as a church historian, is not interested in the resurrection of Jesus as an historical event. Neither in the kind of resurrection body Jesus allegedly had. Rather, his focus is on WHEN, for WHO, WHERE, and WHY Jesus was regarded as the risen Christ. And also HOW this belief impacted on Christianity. In order to address all these questions, Vinzent analysed "all" of the available evidence of the first two centuries.

I list some of the interesting and challenging statements he made. (See it as a little taster of what will be developed more fully in the monograph to come):
• Although Christ's resurrection was important to Paul, it was not important after his death. It took some 100 years for Irenaeus and Tertullian to take it up again. Our view of the second century (as it relates to the resurrection) is distorted by the apologetic literature. They i) knew each other; ii) each wanted to be the best; iii) they borrowed from each other; iv) they developed their positions building on each other.

• Had Marcion not taken up Paul's letters and one gospel, the resurrection of Christ would never have been taken up by the Christian Church.

• "Even if the Lord himself wrote the gospels, Marcion was the first to use them."

• Mark, Matthew and John (MMJ) might have been composed in the same city and in reaction to Marcion's Lukan gospel. The resurrection narratives in MMJ in particular might have been an orthodox reaction (thus creation) against Marcion's rejection of bodily resurrection.

• The first commentary on John is by a Valentinian. It is only later that Origen was commissioned to write a more orthodox commentary. Thus, it is likely that the gospel of John has a Valentinian origin.

• Maybe Marcion received a pre-version of Luke and others changed it

• Prior to Marcion there is not a single reference to the gospels. Before Irenaeus, no one (including Ignatius) claimed that Marcion changed the gospel.

• With Marcion comes the first discussion about the resurrection. Luke 24:36-42 in particular is significant. Here the idea of a phantom is not altogether impossible. Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Justin try to take on Marcion on this point.

• The women as first witnesses of Jesus' empty tomb is not significant and unique, as the testimony of women was taken seriously in other contexts. The prophetess traditions within Judaism and the other roles they sometimes played in the New Testament confirms this.

• The earliest baptismal creeds/formulae referred to the incarnation and death of Jesus but not his resurrection

• The apostolic creed's reference to the resurrection is late

• In the Didache, the reference to worship on a Sunday (the first day of week) is linked to Jesus' death, and not his resurrection. It was only Justin who later used it in First Apology

• Easter is first used by Melito to argue against Marcion's interpretation of the resurrection

• Up until 177 (Irenaeus) only Paul is used in defence of the resurrection. The gospels are not used in defence of the resurrection. This "embarrassed" even Kurt Aland, Vinzent claims.

• The Bar Kogba revolt in 136 CE is highly significant. "Only slowly does the resurrection make its way into the Christian narrative."

• The first theologian of the resurrection is Apollinarius of Laodicea in Constantine's time.

In short, if I understood Vinzent correctly, he wants to argue that belief in the resurrection of Jesus was of no significance after Paul died, until the likes of Irenaeus and Tertullian challenged Marcion's interpretation of the resurrection. Marcion is key to understanding the early church. The so-called orthodox faith in the resurrection of Jesus was a later heretical reaction against Marcion - particularly the empty tomb narratives in Matthew, Mark and John. Apparently, the incarnation and death of Jesus was significant in the early phases of the Church, but not the resurrection of Jesus.

There was unfortunately not enough time afterwards to discuss all these claims. We will have to wait until the monograph is published to analyse the way in which Vinzent's arguments are build up and developed. Some issues were raised however during Q & A. I mention some:

  • Virtually all critical scholars acknowledge that 1 Cor. 15.3-5b represent a tradition going back to the first few years after the resurrection (including Gerd Luedemann). Reference is made to Jesus being 'buried'..
  • The resurrection of Christ is significant in 1 Clement 24-34, most probably relying on 1 Cor. 15, and probably also the parable of the sower in the Sinoptic gospels
  • There is reference to the resurrection in Ignatius (+-110 CE).
  • Polycarp and other martyrs died for their faith in the risen Jesus.
  • Had the gospel writers wanted to create the perfect resurrection narrative, they would certainly not have picked the women as the first witnesses.

Vinzent did critique the above, though most who attended were probably not convinced by all his explanations. But let's wait for the monograph so that we can follow his arguments carefully.
* I should state that what I reported here, is a few reflections and interpretations of the lecture and does not necessarily represent a thorough enough and systematic analysis of the paper. Keep this in mind please!

* I just saw a new book on Michael Bird's blog that might offer an alternative to Vinzent's main hypothesis:

* Given the discussion above, it might also be worthwhile for those interested and challenged, to have a look at NT Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003); Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ, Devotion to Jesusin Earliest Christianity (2003); and more recently Michael Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach (2010).


klatu said...

A new interpretation of the moral teaching and Gospel of Christ has redefined the significance of Christ's Resurrection: Making ours possible!

"Using a synthesis of scriptural material drawn from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the world's great poetry, as in the beginning, it describes and teaches a single moral Law, a single moral principle, a single test of faith, and delivers on the Promise of its own proof; one in which the reality and will of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a demonstration of his omnipotence, an individual intervention into the natural world, 'raising' up the man, correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where 'death' and darkness are ignorance and 'Life' and light are knowledge,  this personal experience of omnipotent transcendent power and moral purpose is our 'Resurrection', and justification for faith. From here, on a perfectly objective foundation of moral principle, conduct and virtue, true morality and 'Life' begins."


Frederik Mulder said...

Hi Klato,
Thanx for your thoughts. I've wrestled with the apostle Paul's understanding of the resurrection and its moral implications for some years now. As a New Testament exegete, I am convinced that his faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the objective foundation of his moral principle, conduct and virtue. Check out texts like 1 Cor. 6:12-20, 1 Cor. 15.30-34, 58; 2 Cor. 4:9-16; Rom. 6:8-13.
Without the bodily resurrection of Jesus, Paul in my opinion would say - let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die...

Andrew Loke said...

Hi Frederik,

This is Andrew. I was with you at Durham, if you remember. My friend Ray Yeo referred me to your blog. Thank you so much for your thoughts, which helped me in my preparation for my recent engagement with Markus Vinzent at King's College, London, where he presented on the same topic. We continued our discussion on this open-access facebook page:

Frederik Mulder said...

Good to hear from you. I will certainly have a look at your interactions with Vinzent!

Frederik Mulder said...

I'm so glad I will finally be able to read Vinzent's book soon - I'm doing a review for a journal in England who just let me know the book is in the post....