Saturday, December 27, 2014

Raymond Brown and the Resurrection of Jesus

Raymond Brown and the “Reality” of the Resurrection of Jesus: A Critical Analysis of a Christian Scholar’s Defense of Resurrection Theology

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“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

-         1 Corinthians 15:14

The alleged event of the resurrection of Jesus (peace be upon him) is by far the most important aspect of the Christian faith.  Among other things, it serves as “proof” to the faithful that Jesus was God and that by conquering death, he was able to provide a way for mankind to be free of sin, provided that mankind accepts his sacrifice.[1]  Yet the resurrection remains one of the most controversial and debated aspects of Christianity, with a gamut of viewpoints on it, ranging from a priori skepticism to apologetic fanaticism.[2]  On the other hand, this article will examine a view which lacks the blind assumptions of liberal skeptics and the blind acceptance of conservative believers: the scholarly view posited by the late Catholic scholar Father Raymond E. Brown (d. 1998).[3]  We will list Brown’s attempted refutations of various claims against the historicity of the resurrection first and then follow-up with an analysis of those refutations to test whether they hold any merit.[4] 

Raymond Brown and the “Reality” of the Resurrection

It must of course be stated from the get-go that Brown accepted the “historicity” of the resurrection, as he was a faithful Catholic.  In fact, he was unequivocal in his acceptance of the “reality” of the resurrection, as he stated in his book:

“…in my judgment, the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is strong…”[5]

            In his defense of the resurrection story, Brown attempted to refute some of the most common criticisms made by skeptics.  In the section of his book titled “General Objections to the Reality of the Resurrection”, Brown dealt with the following claims:[6]
  1. The apostles perpetrated a hoax (apostolic fraud) or credulously believed in the resurrection (apostolic credulity), 
  2. The resurrection story is similar to pagan myths of the resurrection of various gods,
  3. The resurrection was merely a “symbol of a spiritual truth” and could only have been understood by the Jewish-Christians as such and not as a literal bodily resurrection
  4. Medical science shows that after death, certain “irreversible” changes occur to the body, and hence the resurrection was impossible.
For the purposes of this article, we will not deal with Brown’s responses to the third and fourth claims.[7]  Furthermore, in the section titled “Difficulties Arising from the Biblical Narratives of the Resurrection”, Brown dealt with criticisms stemming from differences in the books of the New Testament regarding the appearances of Jesus and of the empty tomb.[8] 

Apostolic Fraud/Credulity –

            According to Brown, the accusation of “apostolic fraud” (i.e. the apostles “invented the stories” or stole the body) was first formulated in the time of the apostles themselves and was also refuted by them.  For example, he pointed to Acts 10:41 to show that Peter challenged those who claimed that the apostles were lying about the resurrection.[9]  Brown also referred to Matthew 28:13 to show that it was the priests and Pharisees who accused the apostles of stealing the body, a charge that was refuted by Matthew “with the story of the guards at the tomb”.[10]  Moreover, Brown asserted that the concept of the empty tomb “may have been implicit in the early preaching”, pointing to such New Testament passages as 1 Corinthians 15:4 and Acts 2:29-31.[11]     

            As for the accusation of “apostolic credulity”, Brown proclaimed that in response to this indictment, the Gospels emphasized the initial disbelief of the disciples that Jesus had been resurrected.[12]  Therefore, he suggested that the apostles could not have been the victims of their own gullibility because they clearly were skeptical when Mary Magdalene (or the “women”, depending on which Gospel we use) told them about the “risen Jesus”.  Some even “doubted” even after Jesus appeared to them at Galilee.[13]

Similarities to Pagan Stories of Resurrection – 

            The next claim of skeptics that Brown dealt with concerned the accusation that early Christians molded “the story of Jesus to the pagan legends and mystery cults surrounding the dying and rising gods (Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Dionysius)…”[14]  However, Brown attempted to refute this claim by asserting that although Jesus rose in the spring (like the pagan gods), his resurrection was different from the “annual natural cycle of winter dormancy and spring flowering”.[15]      
Differences Regarding the Appearances of Jesus in the New Testament –

            One of the most common reasons given by non-Christians for rejecting the historicity of the resurrection is the fact that the main sources on it tend to disagree over many details.  Among these are the differences in the New Testament books about Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection.  As even Brown put it:

“…the resurrection tradition consists of isolated appearances with little agreement among the various Gospels on circumstances and details.  A close study of the reports in the individual Gospels shows how numerous the variations are.”[16]

Moreover, he also noted in a footnote:

“Readers should be alerted that scholars tend to think of six different Gospel testimonies to the appearances: Mark 16:1-8; Matt 28; Luke 24 (plus Acts 1:1-11); John 20; John 21; and Mark 16:9-20.  In that arrangement there are two assumptions.  First, that Mark 16:9-20 was not written by Mark but was a later compilation (partly from material similar to Luke) added to the Gospel-the ‘Marcan Appendix’…Second, that John 21, although composed within the Johannine school, was not by the same writer as the rest of John, so that, despite a redactional attempt to make John 2o and 21 consecutive, John 21 contains an independent tradition about the appearances of Jesus.”[17]

The “variations” that Brown discussed concerned the people to whom Jesus appeared (just Mary Magdalene, or Mary Magdalene and other women, or Peter and “other members of the Twelve”),[18] and where he appeared (Jerusalem or Galilee).

            But what matters most for the purposes of the article is how Brown attempted to explain these “variations” and why, in his view, they do not challenge the historicity of the resurrection.[19]  He stated:

“Each community would preserve the memory of an appearance of Jesus to figures known to that community.  The important Palestinian Christian communities of Jerusalem and Galilee would retain the memory of appearances with local associations, or perhaps would have adapted to the respective local settings the tradition of a basic appearance to the Twelve.  The individual evangelists drew on one or the other of these local traditions.  Thus if one understands the function of the appearance narratives, the diversity in the accounts of the appearances constitutes no argument against their historicity.”[20]

Differences Regarding the Empty Tomb in the New Testament – 

            Brown noted that, unlike with the appearance accounts, the Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene (along with other women, according to a variant account) visited the tomb where Jesus had been laid to rest after the Sabbath and found it empty.  He also noted that there was agreement that the tomb was empty because Jesus had been “raised from the dead”.[21]

            However, as both skeptics and the faithful (including Brown) agree, the details of the empty tomb story in the Gospels vary.  Brown mentioned some of these variations (mostly having to do with the discrepancies regarding the angel/angels), and as with the disagreements regarding the appearances of Jesus, he offered an explanation for why such variations exist and why they do not necessarily disprove the historicity of the story:

“The simplest explanation is that in the oldest tradition the discovery of the empty tomb in itself did not enlighten those who found it as to the resurrection.  Only later when the risen Jesus appeared did it become clear why the tomb was empty.  When the discovery of the empty tomb was made part of the narrative, that revealed explanation was incorporated so that readers could understand the import of the tomb.  An interpreting angel of the Lord was a standard OT way of describing revelation and that was employed by the Synoptics, while John 20:14 and Mark 16:9 retain, whether intentionally or not, the original idea that the revelation came from the appearance of Jesus himself.  Understood properly, then, the differences among the tomb narratives really do not call into question the facticity of the emptiness of the tomb and what that contributes to the bodily character of the resurrection.”[22]

Analysis of Brown’s Defense of the “Reality” of the Resurrection

            Having summarized Brown’s responses to common arguments against the “reality” of the resurrection, let us now examine his claims and see if they can stand up to a critical analysis. 

Apostolic Fraud/Credulity –

            Brown took exception to the argument made by some skeptics that the disciples were either liars or incredibly gullible in accepting the resurrection story.  For the record, it should be stated that Brown is right to oppose the “apostolic fraud/credulity” theory, but for all the wrong reasons. 

He claimed that the Bible shows that the disciples faced accusations of having invented the resurrection story and defended themselves against such accusations, as with the episode in Acts 10 when Peter claimed that not everyone saw Jesus but only the “chosen” ones.  It is difficult to see how exactly this serves as a refutation of the fraud theory.  Assuming “Peter” actually said this (or that he even witnessed a real “resurrection” for that matter), who is to say that “Peter” was not lying?  One could argue that it was quite convenient that “all the people” did not see the risen Jesus, but only his inner circle of devoted disciples! 

Also, appealing to the Bible’s claims about the disciples clearly does not prove anything.  Rather, perhaps the simplest and best answer to the fraud theory (and also the credulity theory) is that it was not the disciples who lied or were credulous, but those that came after them.  The only sources for the resurrection theory (and indeed the entire saga of Jesus’ life and teachings) in the New Testament are the writings of Paul (a man who never met Jesus – aside from his alleged encounter on the road to Damascus), and anonymous books that were only attributed to the disciples or their students by later Christians.  This is why it was stated above that Brown was right to oppose the fraud theory, but for all the wrong reasons.  We simply don’t even know what the disciples actually believed, since we don’t have their actual first-hand testimonies, but rather only second-hand (or even third-hand) versions written by anonymous writers.  Even Brown himself acknowledged this in his other works.  When discussing the issue in an earlier work, Brown was abundantly clear on the authorship of the Gospels.  When discussing the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John, Brown admitted that:

“…in all likelihood neither the Gospel of Matthew nor the Gospel of John was actually written by the apostle whose name it bears – a position held by almost all the major Catholic commentators today.”[23]

Furthermore, when discussing the traditional attribution of the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, Brown admitted (emphasis in the original):

“I would regard such arguments as totally devoid of scientific value.  The ecumenical study Peter in the New Testament was quite right in refusing to base any conclusions on the Papias statement.  Mark may be older than the other Gospels, but we know nothing biographical about the writer.  And there is no way to demonstrate that he was directly dependent on any eyewitness preacher, e.g., on Peter.”[24]

Regarding the authorship of the Gospel of Luke (and also the Book of Acts), Brown observed:

“The tradition that the author of Luke/Acts was Luke, the companion of Paul, is often fixed in popular Catholic writing in English, despite the clear mistakes that Acts make about the career of Paul.”[25]

Finally, perhaps Brown’s clearest judgment on the issue of the authorship of the Gospels is provided in his book The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus:

“The Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus were written anywhere from thirty to sixty years after the events they narrate.  The evangelists were second-generation Christians who had not been eyewitnesses themselves.  I accept the common scholarly opinion that Mark was the first of our written Gospels (composed in the 60’s?).  The author of the Gospel that we call ‘according to Matthew’ was not Matthew the tax collector and companion of Jesus, but an unknown Christian who used as his source Mark’s Gospel (and other traditions) and who may have written in the 80’s.  Luke’s Gospel may be dated to the 80’s, give or take ten years, and is also dependent in part on Mark.  John’s Gospel was not written by the son of Zebedee nor by the beloved Disciple (if he was not the son of Zebedee), but by an unknown Christian who was a follower or disciple of the Beloved Disciple.  In its final form it was probably written in the 90’s.  Although not eyewitnesses themselves, the evangelists drew upon early traditions about Jesus.”[26]

It is clear, then, that Brown did not regard the Gospels to be the actual first-hand testimony of Jesus’ life and teachings, unlike his more conservative brethren who still tend to deny the clear facts.[27]  It is far more likely that the Gospels were either, like many early Christian writings, written by people who claimed to be authoritative figures (like the disciples),[28] or were erroneously attributed to authoritative figures like the disciples of Jesus by later Christians.[29]  How then can they be used to determine what Jesus actually said, let alone what his disciples said or believed about him?

            Before moving on to the next section, it should be noted that Brown’s appeal to Matthew 28:13 is problematic since the author clearly embellished and drew upon the material he took from the Gospel of Mark.[30]  The latter made no mention of the Pharisees’ instructions to the guards or that there were any guards at the tomb at all!  Mark 15:46-16:8 only states that the body of Jesus was handed over to Joseph of Arimathea, who placed it in the tomb and somehow managed to roll a big stone at the entrance.  Further proof that “Matthew” added the guards to the story can be seen from the fact that “Mark” has Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome going to the tomb in the morning and asking each other:

“Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”[31]

Clearly, they were not expecting any help, but if the guards were there, would it not be reasonable to assume that the women could have at least considered asking them to help roll the stone away?[32]   

            Furthermore, the 18th-century revolutionary and philosopher Thomas Paine noted another obvious flaw in “Matthew’s” version: how could the guards have known that the disciples stole the body when they were asleep?!  Paine observed:

“…for though the guard, if there were any, might be made to say that the body was taken away while they were asleep, and to give that as a reason for their not having prevented it, that same sleep must also have prevented their knowing how, and by whom, it was done; and yet they are made to say that it was the disciples who did it.”[33]

On a side note, the Gospel of Matthew was not the only document to mention the presence of guards at Jesus’ tomb.  To be sure, none of the other canonical Gospels mention the guards.  Amazingly, the only other source to agree with “Matthew” is a non-canonical Gospel (and an obvious forgery), known as the Gospel of Peter, which was written in the 2nd century![34]
Given these points, it should be clear that “Matthew” was embellishing the story for his own purposes.  Even Brown acknowledged that “Matt” had a tendency to change “Mark” in certain places, such as when the former altered stories in which the latter’s Jesus displayed “human weakness”, something that “Matt” was “uncomfortable” with.[35]

            Finally, what about Brown’s claim that the concept of the empty tomb “may have been implicit in the early preaching”, and his appeal to such passages as 1 Corinthians 15:4 and Acts 2:29-31?  Was the concept of the empty tomb really based on “early preaching”?  The answer depends on what we mean by “early preaching”.  Paul was certainly the author of the earliest “canonical” books of the New Testament, but there is little doubt among scholars that there was an even earlier source, known as the Q Gospel.  Even though there is no surviving manuscript of this source, scholars know that it existed, whether as a written source or as an oral tradition.  As Burton L. Mack states:

“…scholars discovered that both Matthew and Luke had used a collection of the sayings of Jesus as one of the ‘sources’ for their gospels, the other being the Gospel of Mark.  Scholars have known for over 150 years that something like Q must have existed, but they took it for granted until recently.”[36]

Brown also agreed with the scholarly consensus, though he questioned whether the Q Gospel “contained the oldest traditions about Jesus”,[37] while according to Mack:

“It is the earliest written record we have from the Jesus movement.”[38]

            So what can the Q Gospel tell us about the resurrection?  As shocking as it may be to Christians, it tells us nothing because the resurrection story is actually completely absent from this early source!  In fact, even later sources like the Didache,[39] placed no importance on the resurrection and failed to even mention it, indicating a gradual development of the concept among Christians.  As Russell Martin explains:

“The Didache, the epistle of James, the Gospel of Thomas and Sayings Gospel Q represent a stage in Christianity when the crucifixion and resurrection had not yet achieved any importance.  […] They show no significant interest in miracles as proof of Jesus’ divine status, and little influence of the Pauline teaching of justification by faith or the importance of the crucifixion or resurrection.”[40]

So, Christianity developed the concept of the resurrection over time!  The early Q community did not have such a concept.  Rather, they emphasized the teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him) and the importance of attaining the “kingdom of God”.[41]  As Mack explains:

“Instead of people meeting to worship a risen Christ, as in the Pauline congregations, or worrying about what it meant to be a follower of a martyr, as in the Markan community, the people of Q were fully preoccupied with questions about the kingdom of God in the present and the behavior required if one took it seriously.”[42]

Therefore, in the light of the evidence, there is no reason to accept Brown’s appeal to 1 Corinthians and Acts to show that the “empty tomb” story was “implicit in the early preaching”.  It clearly was not included in the preaching of the Q community.
            Finally, on a side note, it should be mentioned that some researchers have observed that the appearance accounts in the Gospels hint not at Jesus’ physical resurrection but rather his “assumption”, which Professor John S. Kloppenborg of the University of Toronto defines as “the taking up of the righteous”.[43]  In addition, Kloppenborg observes regarding the Q community that:

“…we can suggest that the Q people regarded Jesus’ death as the death of a just man or a prophet whom God had ‘taken up,’ pending some future eschatological function.  This accounts for the fact that Q accords Jesus’ death no special salvific significance, but jumps immediately to Jesus’ return as the one who is to come…”[44]

Hence, it could be that the “appearances” of Jesus (peace be upon him) in the Gospels were not of the resurrection of the previously dead Jesus but simply visions of a prophet who had undergone “assumption”.  For additional details, see note #44.

Similarities to Pagan Stories of Resurrection – 

            Many critics of the Christian religion have attempted to argue that Christian theology has been borrowed from pagan religions.  For the record, we do not hold to this view, for it simplifies a much more complex issue.  There is no evidence that the early Christians simply “borrowed” elements of other religions and merged them with Judaism and came up with their own religion.  It just seems too convenient.  Moreover, since Christians were critical of the pagan myths, it is difficult to imagine that its leaders would have simply copied those same myths and just hoped that their followers would be none the wiser! 

At the same time, this does not mean that Christianity could not have been influenced by the myriad cults and religions that circulated in the ancient world.  Indeed, as we will see shortly, most people (and certainly Christians) have underestimated the influence of Hellenistic culture on the development of Christian theology.  But this does not mean that a bunch of Christians came together and formed their own religion by incorporating other religious beliefs that they were familiar with.  Rather, what may have happened is that as time progressed, Christian theology evolved and became more and more Hellenistic in its outlook and drifted further away from the monotheistic roots of the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him). 

            To start, Brown rightly pointed out that the theory of the borrowing of resurrection myths of such pagan gods as Attis, Adonis, Osiris and Dionysius is without any foundation.  If the Christians had simply “borrowed” these myths, it stands to reason that there would be more similarities between these myths and Christian theology (the myths refer to continuous resurrections of the gods based on the changing seasons).  Yet, we find that they are vastly different in many regards, including on the details of the “resurrection” narratives.
            However, as we have already seen, there is no doubt that the Christian story of the “resurrection” of Jesus developed over time.  Even into the early 2nd century, the resurrection was absent from some important documents like the Didache.  And certainly, in the early years following the time of Jesus, the Q Gospel placed no importance on it.  Why would this be so if the people who used these documents actually believed that a supernatural and extraordinary event such as the resurrection of their beloved prophet actually happened?  Clearly, they must not have believed in it. 

But is it possible that as Christianity developed in the shadow of the Roman Empire, it began to be influenced by some of the many mystical and pagan beliefs that circulated in those times?  As is already known, the belief in resurrections of both gods and men was very common in antiquity, though with obvious differences from the Christian belief.  We can see this in the cults of the pagan gods previously mentioned.  In fact, as the skeptic Richard Carrier states:

“…gods were expected to be able to raise people bodily from the dead, and physical resurrections were actually in vogue in the very 1st century when Christianity began.”[45]

Carrier also points to the obscure figure known as Zalmoxis, to whom some interesting myths were ascribed.  According to him:

“Then there is Herodotus, who was always a popular author and had been for centuries. He told of a Thracian religion that began with the physical resurrection of a man called Zalmoxis, who then started a cult in which it was taught that believers went to heaven when they died.”[46]

In a separate article, Carrier has further clarified the Thracian myths regarding Zalmoxis.  He states that:

“…they believed their one and only god Zalmoxis had visited a group of their ancestors, then died, and then appeared risen from the dead as a proof of his teaching that believers would live eternally with him in paradise. They must also have believed there was a sacred meal attended by the founders of the cult in which drink was shared with their god, sealing a promise that all who drank would receive eternal life. We can be fairly certain of all this because the slanderous account can only be aimed at explaining away these very beliefs--hence the conspicuous role of drink, on a past occasion of importance, with the god actually being present and teaching his disciples, then disappearing and being mourned as dead, and then appearing and proving his defeat of death.”[47]

We can easily see some parallels between the beliefs about Zalmoxis and those about Jesus (peace be upon him).  Both were believed to have risen from the dead, signifying their “defeat of death”, and both were believed to have shared a meal with their disciples.  But again, it must be stated that these similarities do not imply that Christians simply came across the Zalmoxian religion and decided to incorporate some elements of it into their own faith.  Rather, as Carrier explains:

“…none of this entails or is even meant to argue that Christians "borrowed" from Zalmoxis cult the idea of an incarnated, dying, and rising god promising eternal life through a sacred act of drinking at a meal. But it does entail that those elements of Christianity were not new, but had been elements of other cults long before (and possibly still in their day).”[48]

Hence, the similarities may not imply direct borrowing but perhaps the influence of such beliefs on the later development of the Christian religion.[49]

Differences Regarding the Appearances of Jesus in the New Testament –

            As we saw, Brown did not deny that there were contradictions between the Gospel accounts on the appearances of Jesus (peace be upon him), because it is an obvious fact that no rational person would deny.  However, he still argued that the differences did not in any way constitute proof “against their historicity”, claiming that “[e]ach community would preserve the memory of an appearance of Jesus to figures known to that community.” 

            But even if this argument is correct, what if “each community” was simply “preserving” a legend by applying it to “figures” that they had likewise known only in legend?  As we have already seen, the Gospels were written by anonymous people who had no connection to the disciples of Jesus (peace be upon him).  We also know that earlier groups like the Q community did not believe in the resurrection at all. 

            Also, one would think that differences regarding the details of an extraordinary event would serve as obvious proof that the event was simply a legend that was interpreted and embellished by different communities, based on their own points of view.  Thus, Brown may be right that “[e]ach community would preserve the memory of an appearance of Jesus to figures known to that community”, but to say that this does not prove that the appearances were unhistorical is an assumption for which no proof exists.  If the resurrection is so important for the salvation of humanity, the surely God would have provided much more persuasive evidence for it, instead of contradictory information based on hearsay evidence![50]  If this is the best “proof” for the resurrection, then what makes it more believable than other stories of incredible events and why do Christians reject such stories?  Would Christians be just as enthusiastic about the Roman emperor Vespasian’s alleged miracles, for which there are alleged “eyewitness” accounts and which are mentioned by at least two Roman sources within a few decades of their occurrence (though with some “variations”)?[51]  Probably not!

Differences Regarding the Empty Tomb in the New Testament –

            As with the contradictions regarding the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospel accounts, Brown did not deny that there were contradictions regarding the empty tomb as well.  And as with the former, he attempted to dismiss the latter as constituting no proof against the historicity of the empty tomb.

            First and foremost, as we stated above, if the empty tomb story is to be believed (given the alleged importance of the resurrection to mankind’s “salvation”), then surely God would have provided better proof than contradictory information from anonymous sources.  And yet, that is all we have!  Second, since the Q Gospel never mentioned the death or resurrection of Jesus (peace be upon him), then it obviously made no mention of an “empty tomb” either.  Therefore, to the Q community, the “empty tomb” was irrelevant.  Consequently, the only “evidence” we have that there was an “empty tomb” and that it was eventually interpreted as proving Jesus’ bodily resurrection are contradictory accounts in the New Testament and the absence of such a narrative from a pre-Pauline source.  How then is it a historically verifiable event?  Of course, the answer is that it is not.  It is strange then that scholars like Brown acknowledged these difficulties and yet still insisted on the “reality of the resurrection”.[52]


            In this article, we have considered the views of the late Father Raymond E. Brown on the controversial matter of the alleged resurrection of Jesus (peace be upon him).  While Brown embraced a scholarly approach to the New Testament, he still became a victim of Christian dogma, as we have seen.  Indeed, he went to great lengths to reduce the significance of the many difficulties regarding the resurrection story, insisting that they did not disprove its “reality”.  However, it should be clear to the reader that the evidence that has been presented above has certainly proven that it is more accurate to label the resurrection as a “legend”, rather than a “reality”.  Only those who already believe will be convinced that the resurrection actually happened.  But for those seeking the truth, the “evidence” for the “reality of the resurrection” is disappointingly weak for something that has been declared by apologists (including Father Raymond Brown) to be a historical fact that everyone should believe.  Thus, it certainly does not behoove the truth-seekers to stake their salvation on such flimsy foundations.  And Allah knows best!

[2] By “a priori skepticism”, we mean the view of some people that the resurrection could not have been a historical event because it involves the “supernatural” and that because such things are not “real”, then it could not have happened.  This view is based not on historical investigation but is simply an assumption.  Proponents of this view seem to be content to simply rejecting claims of the supernatural because they just don’t believe in supernatural events.  It is, ironically, a type of faith-based ideology.

By “apologetic fanaticism”, we are referring to the viewpoint of Christians who believe in the resurrection because it is part of their religious beliefs and in spite of any evidence against it, whether from the Bible itself or from outside of it.  This view is also based on an a priori assumption.
[3] Specifically, the article will deal with Brown’s brief defense of the resurrection in his book: An Introduction to New Testament Christology (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1994), pp. 162-170.

[4] Readers may ask why we feel the need to discuss Brown’s views on the resurrection, given that he was obviously a Christian and indeed believed that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead three days later, and is thus “biased” in some way.  The answer is that unlike most Christians, Brown was a respected scholar who was actually viewed with suspicion and derision by many fundamentalist Christians, including fellow Catholics.  In fact, to some Christian apologists, Brown was “the modern Catholic heretic” (

Hence, his views need to be considered since they are based on a more scholarly approach to the story of the resurrection and not merely on faith, an approach that earned Brown many detractors among his fellow Christians.

[5] Brown, op. cit., p. 163.

[6] Ibid., pp. 163-166.

[7] The reason for not discussing #3 is that it really does not have any relevance to whether the resurrection actually happened or not, which is the main topic of this article.  However the Jews interpreted resurrection, whether bodily or not, does not determine if the bodily resurrection of Jesus (peace be upon him) actually happened.

The reason for not discussing #4 is that it is an argument based on a priori skepticism.  The assumption is that since there is no medical explanation for the resurrection, it could not have happened.  Yet this argument fails since the resurrection clearly did not need to conform to medical explanations, as it was meant to be a miraculous event.  It is an assumption that seeks to dismiss the event without any serious investigation.

[8] Ibid., pp. 166-170.

[9] Ibid., p. 163.  In Acts 10:41 (NIV), Peter states:

He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

[10] Ibid., p. 163.  In Matthew 28:13, the Pharisees say to the guards:

You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.

[11] Ibid., p. 164.  1 Corinthians 15:4 states (NIV):
“…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

Acts 2:29-31 states (quoting Peter):

Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.   Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.

As we will see later, the idea that the resurrection, let alone the “empty tomb”, was “implicit in the early preaching” is contradicted by other sources.  

[12] Ibid., p. 164.

[13] Matthew 28:17.

[14] Brown, op. cit., p. 164.

[15] Ibid.  While this may be true, we will see later why it fails to exonerate resurrection theology.

[16] Ibid., p. 167.

[17] Ibid., fn. 21.

[18] Brown also claims (p. 167) that the Gospels “are much more in agreement…that the risen Jesus appeared to Peter and other members of the Twelve.”

[19] It is not even a matter of contention that there are contradictions in the New Testament accounts.  No serious person would deny that.  Unfortunately, many Christians, and especially the laypersons, still tend to deny any contradictions.  To attempt to respond to such people would be a waste of time and is not worth any serious consideration.

[20] Brown, op. cit., p. 169.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 170.

[23] Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible: How a Modern Reading of the Bible Challenges Christians, the Church, and the Churches (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1981), pp. 69-70.

[24] Ibid., p. 70.

[25] Ibid., p. 71.  In other words, there is good reason to doubt that the author of the Gospel of Luke was the same person who wrote the Book of Acts.  And even if a Pauline disciple named “Luke” wrote the books that bear his name, how does that make him a reliable witness, when he (like his teacher), never met Jesus or witnessed the crucifixion or the resurrection? 

[26] Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), pp. 16-17.

[27] It is easy to see, then, why many Christians were suspicious and critical of Father Raymond Brown.  He simply did not subscribe to the conservative and traditional views regarding the origin and history of the Gospels.  Of course, as a scholar, he had no reason to subscribe to such views.

[28] Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p. 9. 
Such writings are classified as “pseudonymous”, meaning that they were written under a false name.  Shockingly, Ehrman notes that (emphasis in the original):

“At present we know of over a hundred writings from the first four centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians” (p. 19).

[29] Ibid., p. 220.  Ehrman is of the view that the Gospels were written by anonymous people and were later ascribed to the disciples (false attribution).  Hence, they were probably not outright forgeries like other early documents. 

[30] There is consensus among scholars that both “Matthew” and “Luke” used “Mark” to write their respective books.  Brown accepted this view as well:

“…the writers of Matt and Luke independently knew and used Mark, without knowing each other’s work” (Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, op. cit., fn. 34, p. 32).
[31] Mark 16:3.

[32] It cannot be argued that they would have been unaware that the guards were present, for Mark is clear that they witnessed Jesus’ burial in the tomb.  They certainly would have witnessed the guards as well.

[33] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, ed. Moncure Daniel Conway (San Bernardino: Wildside Press LLC, 2010), p. 135.

[34] Ehrman, op. cit., pp. 58-59.

[35] Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, op. cit., p. 32.  See also footnote 35 on the same page. 

[36] Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth (San Francisco, HarperOne, 1995), pp. 47-48.

[37] Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, op. cit., fn. 79, p. 62.

[38] Mack, op. cit., p. 47.

[39] According to Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), the Didache was composed around 65-80 CE (

But dates as early as 50 CE and as late as 120 CE have also been suggested.  See the following:

Burton Mack puts its composition in the early 2nd century and also notes that there isn’t “…the slightest association with the death and resurrection of Jesus” (Mack, op. cit., pp. 239-240).

[40] Russell Martin, Understanding the Real Jesus (West Conshohocken: Infinity Publishing, 2006), p. 111.

[41] Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the Q Gospel was the authentic version of Jesus’ life and teachings.  It simply means that the Q community, which predated both Paul and the canonical Gospels, did not believe in the resurrection, which argues in favor of the view that the resurrection story developed over time, and thus fails a key historical test.

[42] Mack, op. cit., p. 240.

[43] John S. Kloppenborg, Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 82.

[44] Ibid., p. 84.

Naturally, some people may point out that if the Q people believed that Jesus (peace be upon him) had died, then this contradicts the Islamic position that he had not died but was raised by Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He), as stated in the Quran, Surah An-Nisa, 4:157:

“That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-” (Yusuf Ali Translation).

But as Kloppenborg observes, the Q Gospel “…lacks any explicit description of Jesus’ death” (p. 65).  So, it actually does not tell us much about his last days anyway. 

Moreover, Professor Daniel A. Smith of Huron University College explains that:

“Assumption…was usually considered a bodily removal of a person from earth to heaven while still alive” (The Post-Mortem Vindication of Jesus in the Sayings Gospel Q (New York: T&T Clark International, 2006), p.2)

Smith, however, did argue that Jesus’ “assumption” occurred after he had died, basing this on “evidence from Graeco-Roman and Jewish sources that assumption language could be applied to someone who had died” (Ibid.).  But it seems that Smith assumed Jesus’ “death” from the beginning, rather than determining this from the Q Gospel, which as we already pointed out, did not describe Jesus’ death at all.  Furthermore, as Muslim scholar Shabir Ally observes, some scholars came to the conclusion that the Q Gospel implied that Jesus had been raised alive.  Commenting on Daniel Smith’s claim that the assumption of Jesus occurred after his death, Ally states:

“But whereas Smith insists that Jesus was taken up dead in the manner of Moses and Isaiah, his study also highlights the fact that the Q Gospel which served as a source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke do not speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The German scholar Deiter Zeller argues on the basis of the Q Gospel, that the early belief entailed the assumption of Jesus alive, as was the case with Enoch and Elijah” (

Therefore, the Q Gospel raises no serious objections to the Quranic view that Jesus (peace be upon him) did not die. 

Carrier points to the example of the pagan god Asclepius, who was called “Soter”, which means “The Savior”, for being able to heal the sick and also resurrect the dead.  Due to the similarity with the miracles ascribed to Jesus, Carrier surmises whether they “implied a deliberate rivalry with Asclepius”.  Indeed, Islamic scholars mention that whenever a prophet was sent to a specific people, he was often given abilities that would have relevance to the time in which he was sent.  As the website “Darulfatwa” explains regarding Jesus (peace be upon him):

“…Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) son of Lady Mariam was supported with Miracles when he called the people to the religion of Islam and to believe in the oneness of Allah. The people at the time of Prophet Jesus were renowned for their high level of skill in Medicine. The people could not match what he did by the will of Allah as He supported him with miracles such as reviving the dead and curing blindness and leprosy” (

Of course, this does not mean that other prophets were unable to perform miracles like healing the sick, for it is well-known that Muhammad (peace be upon him) also healed people.  What it means is that each prophet had specific abilities which were relevant to the time, but could also have other abilities.  Hence, while Carrier seems to be implying that the stories of Jesus’ miracles were deliberately invented to “rival” the cult of Asclepius, he is actually on the right track (though for the wrong reasons).  Jesus (peace be upon him) would have performed the miracles precisely because they were “in vogue” at the time, and would have had the most effect.  Similarly, while Muhammad (peace be upon him) did perform miracles like healing the sick, his greatest miracle was the Quran, which was presented as an inimitable book to a people who were renowned for their literary and poetic prowess.  

[48] Ibid.

[49] Some people may argue that “influence” still implies “borrowing”.  However, that is not necessarily true.   It could be that the concept of the resurrection of Jesus developed partly as a result of the influence of Hellenistic converts to Christianity.  Scholars recognize, for example, that Paul was heavily influenced by Hellenistic culture, despite the fact that he was a Jew.  There is no doubt that his outlook had Hellenistic overtones.  As Professor Delbert R. Burkett of Louisiana State University states:

“Paul’s ethical instructions may reflect the influence of Hellenistic moral exhortation.  In many respects, Paul’s ethical teachings resemble those of Greek and Roman philosophers in content, form, and terminology. […] Some scholars have suggested that Paul’s teaching on baptism and the Lord’s Supper owes much to Hellenistic mystery religions” (An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity (Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2002), p. 300).

Of course, it should not be surprising that because Jews lived in the shadow of Hellenism, many of them eventually incorporated some aspects of the culture into their worldview.  In modern times, we can see the influence of western, secular culture leading to reinterpretations and “reforms” among some religious people (a good example is the current controversy regarding homosexuality and gay marriage in some churches).  It is not surprising at all that a dominant culture or society exerts considerable influence on the people living in its shadow.  That does not mean that aspects of the culture are directly “borrowed”.  So, with regard to the resurrection theology of Pauline Christianity, it could be that as the resurrection story circulated (possibly due to embellishments of the “empty tomb” story or simply a misinterpretation of the visions of Jesus), it gradually took hold among some Christians, and eventually became dominant.  It would explain why documents from the time show an inconsistent approach to the resurrection.  Some documents simply failed to even mention it!

It could also be that as time went by, the early stories of Jesus’ “assumption” (see note #44) were reinterpreted as his “resurrection”.  In that regard, the Christians could have interpreted the stories from a Hellenistic point of view, since resurrection of gods and men were very common in the ancient Hellenistic religions.

For more on the influence of Hellenism on Christianity, interested readers should see Mack, op. cit., pp. 50-60.  

[50] As the late Biblical scholar Geza Vermes succinctly stated:

“To put it bluntly, not even a credulous nonbeliever is likely to be persuaded by the various reports of the Resurrection; they convince only the already converted.  The same must be said about the visions.  None of them satisfies the minimum requirements of a legal or scientific inquiry” (The Resurrection: History and Myth (New York: Doubleday, 2008), p. 141).

Thomas Paine was even more “blunt”.  He stated:

“…if the writers of these four books [the Gospels] had gone into a court of justice to prove an alibi…and had given their evidence in the same contradictory manner as it is here given, they would have been in danger of having their ears cropt for perjury, and would have justly deserved it.  Yet this is the evidence, and these are the books, that have been imposed upon the world as being given by divine inspiration, and as the unchangeable word of God” (Paine, op. cit., pp. 134-135).

[51] See Tacitus, Histories, 4:81 and Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, Chapter 7. 

While Tacitus states that one of the men who pleaded with Vespasian to heal him had a defect in his leg, Suetonius states that he had a defect in his hand.  Using Brown’s attempted dismissal of the difficulty that “variations” in the post-resurrection appearance accounts should invariably raise, it could be argued that just because there are “variations” between Tacitus and Suetonius, they constitute no argument against the historicity of Vespasian’s miracles.  Yet it seems unlikely that Brown or other Christians would have been so generous!

[52] It is understandable, then, why Geza Vermes criticized Brown as:

“…the primary example of the position of ‘having your cake and eating it” (The Nativity: History and Legend (New York: Doubleday, 2006), p. 21).

Brown was unwilling to reject outright the most important stories of the Christian faith, like the nativity and the resurrection, while simultaneously acknowledging the difficulties present in such stories.  In the end, though Brown was a respected scholar, he unfortunately became a victim of the same dogmatism of his more conservative brethren, even though he recognized the evidence for the errant and uninspired nature of the resurrection story unlike his brethren.

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