From the first lecture that hardly referred to Christian belief at all, to a second one that did in relation to its community and the related business of politics, the third Lent Lecture in Holy Week by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at Westminster Abbey, 19 March 2008, almost wholly concentrates on Christian claims. He focuses on how the Church came into being, and wants to reassert history.
Via a series of metaphors (the second Adam, the 'firstborn of all creation') the emphasis of the New Testament is not a conclusion but a new beginning here:
And that is the beginning of precisely that sense of an enlarged, expanded humanity, capable of things of which humanity was not capable before.
This must require history, thinks Rowan Williams:
[I]f certain things are not true about Jesus within the framework of history, there is no new definition of human destiny and there is no new possibility in being human.
Here are some historical aspects of Jesus's ministry as retold by the early Christians - after all, it is they who wrote the gospels and New Testament books.
- The recollection that Jesus addressed God with intimacy as a parent living in the parent's home
- Jesus recreated membership of the people of God.
- Jesus claims the freedom to declare that God has forgiven others.
- He is presented as knowing the risk of likely death and paying for it that connects him to the divine.
The first is that his intimacy regarding God is unprecedented within Jesus's own religious tradition and the community continues this.
The second is that:
The criterion of belonging with God is no longer an exact and complete observance of the law or the sacrificial system, it's no longer even ethnic identity, (although that doesn't come out wholly clearly in the Gospels themselves, it's followed through very promptly in the life of the early Church). Jesus is redefining what you need in order to belong with God, and redefining it in terms of trust in him as a person and in the words he speaks and the promises he gives. And on the basis of that, his first followers understand that the community of his friends and associates is potentially limitless.
The ethnic identity is altered because of Paul, of course: Jesus did nothing to alter ethnic identity. He is even, apparently, corrected regarding ethnic identity - the woman who wants at least the crumbs the dogs get - and Jesus learns from his mistake.
We simply do not know how many preachers, teachers and healers like Jesus took such religious initiatives upon themselves; however, given that many were associated with healing and miracle working, they would have to have associated themselves with God - and, as Jews, with the human agency of the forgivenness of God in that healing miracles removed the demons that carried sins. If we are doing history, for these to be original we have to have comparison with others, and we don't with other itinerant healers.
The same is needed with this:
By his act of reaching out, touching, healing, and forgiving, he establishes a relationship between a person and God. The Gospel stories reflect very sharply the controversy that this provoked, because of the obvious shock involved when someone claims to be able to establish relationships between human beings and God.
Jesus is simply not the only one going around Galilee and Judaea at the time. There were many of such people: the issue then is what sort of records were made of them, if any were, and if not why not. Well, if they were all tend-time preachers they, like Jesus, would not keep records. Do angels write? What we have are later, community, secondary records. Jesus left no instructions to write anything, we suppose, nor to leave any documentary evidence, and few of these others would have either. There are patches of external and (again) secondary evidence about Jesus and some other teachers and miracle workers, but that's it. My point is that, so far, here, we have what Jesus is said to have claimed and done, but so far nothing about unprecedented uniqueness - because for that we need to know about others. This is if we want to be historical.
Then there is the issue of understanding the risk. Well this, of course, is extraction from the Hebrew scriptures, of a kind of extraction that was happening at the time - the movement towards the eschatological. Jesus, or at least the understanding of Jesus afterwards, draws on different scriptural traditions to produce the suffering servant model, one that involves risk. He also, indeed, lives in edge-of-Empire Roman times when to carry out even a minimal resistance receives a harsh penalty.
It sometimes makes me wonder just how much those who focus on bloody atonement as historical (and Williams does not at all) realise that they have to rely on the existence of and the cruelty of the Romans in order to have Jesus killed by the wrath of the Father instead of the Father killing sinful people. In other words, it is still cruel to other people, having to have such a regime in place to carry out God's displeasure.
Is Jesus relying on the cruelty of the Romans then?
he is also presented to us as understanding that risk, that likely death, as significant, as something that unlocks or releases a future, that pays a price, that delivers a ransom, that in various other ways again establishes a relationship between humanity and the divine.
Notice the emphasis, however, on the community afterwards (Williams's words here placed into bullet points):
- It is a community which speaks to God in the language of intimacy.
- It's a community which sees its potential limits as set only by the limits of the human race itself.
- It's a community in which people speak to one another, in the name of Jesus, words of release - absolution in the technical language – because Jesus has spoken to them words of absolution, of release.
- And it's a community which looks to the execution of Jesus as a significant, vital, central moment or event in everything that it understands and does.
The point he wants to underline is continuation; but if follows that this can also be their innovation, at least in part, and certainly in having a further understanding of crucifixion. After all, Paul innovated on a Jesus, who put all his focus on to the Father, to put the focus on to Jesus as God's sole worker; in other words, Paul focuses on the ambassador as the only route to the King (and does this via crucifixion-resurrection salvation, a new development after Jesus himself and away presumably from the Jerusalem Church). So history is uncertain here, except, that is, the history of some of the early Churches, and specifically the proto-orthodox Church.
So we are back to the history, again, a history about a connection between this community and the source: using words about intimacy, potential, absolution and the centrality of the execution of Jesus.
The community speaks of itself in terms of its members being 'children' and 'heirs' of God, and, in looking at the cross, the community sets itself under and judges itself by the death of Jesus understood as an act of self-surrender, self-giving. So that is in part, the way in which the story of Jesus and the understanding of the first Christian community, interlocks. If none of those things was true about Jesus, the community would rest upon a fiction.
He states that the history does not give the argument itself for Christian faith, but without the history these stances would not stand up for long.
Yet there is something wrong here. History is not being shared, and if it was is is not particularly relevant: the relevance locates around interpretation. Rowan Williams is trying to establish facts, whereas (with the exception of an execution) he is not establishing facts but attempting to establish shared interpretations in two points of time. They apparently agree about intimacy of language, apparently, and about human potential (I'm not sure what this means), about absolution, and interpretations of crucifixion (which are not the same but become developed).
What would a historian make of this? Unfortunately, the records of the gospels and New Testament, and of what Jesus said, are conflated. The primary sources for the early Churches are the secondary sources for Jesus. But even if reliable, what is it that they demonstrate - for they have to demonstrate uniqueness, and this they cannot do. He says himself:
We have very little in the way of supposedly neutral records of Jesus in the first century. We have a couple of mentions in historians and others of the time, which tell us very little. We have the Gospels, written, it's fairly safe to assume, between twenty-five and fifty or sixty years after the crucifixion...
...these are records which came into existence within the lifetime of those who had been with Jesus. But that's only part of an answer to the question 'are these traditions trustworthy?'
It is not just this but whether the accounts give a picture of Roman and Jewish society at the time, he states.
So he is using credibility of the whole picture to decide the credibility of specific points. The problem is this: how strong a test are apparently credible accounts of the overall scene? How would it be if they were not credible? He says this:
[W]hat the Gospels present as central in the life of Jesus, fits into the context without too much strain. We know there were debates about whether it was possible for anyone to speak for God, debates about whether prophecy in the old sense happened any longer. We know there were debates about who counted as a member of the people of God and that there were rival systems and proposals for understanding that. We know that crucifixions – that is, executions for sedition – were widespread, and that anyone involved in challenging political authority in that context would have been very foolish indeed not to reckon on the possibility of execution.
To add to the credibility we have this:
Jesus of Nazareth was probably about five or six years old at the time of one of the great revolts against the Romans in Galilee, which produced, according to the historians, two thousand crucifixions along the roadsides. The young Jesus would have seen what a crucifixion looked like, many times over.
That Jesus would have seen many executions when young adds nothing; we have credible evidence far and wide that the Roman authorities crucified in mass numbers. What does it mean that Jesus would have seen crucifixions? Does it mean that Jesus would use the self-knowledge to exploit the opportunity to get himself killed in order to demonstrate the way of the suffering servant? Presumably not, though he may have done. That fact that he sees crucifixions is evidence of nothing but allows speculation.
What I am getting at here is an error being made: that events are events and interpretations of events are just that. So what? The history here is that a community has its interpretation and tells us that Jesus had their interpretations as well. So then Rowan Williams reverses this around, and states that Jesus must have had these original thoughts for the community to share the thoughts - and this makes it robust. It doesn't. Rowan Williams is doing on a small scale what some believers do on the larger scale: just as interpretation actually goes from New Testament to Old, and not some sort of Old to New prediction, so the community goes back to Jesus and selects what is significant. Nothing is of demonstrable consequence here.
Some documents, like the Gospel of Thomas, just describe Jesus's sayings. Because of this, and because of cultural shifts for others, Rowan Williams regards these documents as less useful:
...the Jesus who appears in many of these 'alternative' gospels is one who has a far less clear and specific historical anchorage than the Jesus of the Gospels...
[Jesus in other texts] might have been talking almost anywhere, whose specific engagement with the politics and society of first-century Judea is invisible. That in itself inclines me – you won't be surprised to hear – to feel unmoved by the claims of these alternatives.
Yes, but on the other hand, just having sayings in the Gospel of Thomas reduces some of the variables: and The Jesus Seminar uses this Gospel to vote on what Jesus may well have said as the members do with the others.
Nevertheless the absence of primary documents means that we do rely on the overall portraiture of cultural surroundings and the credibility of settings. However, the cultural argument is not necessarily about recognising and understanding politics and social life, it also involves thought forms expressed and so many that we would find bizarre. These are often brushed aside for a core translatable message, here being the apparent originality on key matters and realistic politics with social settings. But what about beliefs like: the world coming to a rapid end, sin being a cause of illness, low social status and death, an interventionist God, a dome above on which there are the lights we call stars (and that God is there but getting nearer), the fulfilment of the twelve tribes of Israel (most of which are missing)? There is a whole collection of beliefs selected out in a decision of ours about what are the essential ones that matter. How come? What sort of history is this? Let's do the whole, bizarre portrait.
What history needs is an event, a documented event, that is not a selection of interpretations backwards (however important is interpretation) but one that demands a going forward and shifts thought forms. The historian needs to locate, to find documentation, to see interpretation at the time, and see a shift to the new.
This is why, for all the apparent and untestable originality of other things, the resurrection is important. It is the miracle, the big one: and resurrection gets subjective spiritual interpretations (which range from the atheistic in terms of a loose definition of spiritual to the fully ghostly) and objective spiritual and bodily interpretations by believers even today. Rowan Williams does not say all that, but he addresses the most sceptical subjective approach:
...it might still be possible to say that the Church existed because it was inspired by Jesus, but the New Testament from its very earliest layers, says more than that. It says that the Church is, presently, here and now, addressed by Jesus, activated by Jesus; Jesus is not a figure of the past, he is someone whose breath, whose spirit, here and now animates the community of believers. He is an agent, a subject, not a memory, he doesn't appear as passive or something/ someone who is thought about or remembered by believers who are active: he takes initiatives and is present as an agent, a judge, a friend, someone who invites and welcomes, someone who actively introduces us into the presence of the God he called Abba, Father, so that as we breathe his breath we say the same thing to God.
In other words, there is an objective Jesus present and active after his death, according to these early Churches records of belief. He also says that a priori miracles should not be dismissed:
The philosopher Wittgenstein (no great pillar of Christian orthodoxy) remarked on reading the Gospel of St John that we could have no prior idea what the Act of God would look like if translated into human terms, and therefore he was not at all prepared to approach the Gospel of St John with a set of ready-made, rationalist questions.
Yes, but what that says is not that we should believe in miracles, but that there is cultural untranslatability - that approaching the Gospel of John with rationalist principles does violence to a whole other thought form that created the gospel. Lack of translation is no proof of anything, other than they had different thought forms - and this we know because of all the beliefs these early Churches' writers are putting on display!
So we come to an event, the resurrection. It is in those same secondary documents. How are we to know that it is real, and not just part of a further mush of interpretations: interpretations inside a shifting and religiously charged culture altering a shifting culture? Rowan Williams says:
[T]he actual form of the narrative in the Gospels tells us a good deal.
...whereas in the rest of the Gospels you will frequently find what you might call 'well-polished' ways of story telling,... the stories of the Resurrection have about them a quality of 'rawness', an unpolished character, which is very striking when set against the rest of the Gospels.
So, about miracles within his ministry there is textual polishing, and also about his death too there is polished narrative, but there is a struggle in how to tell the resurrection stories and this lacks polish. He gives some examples:
You find in the various stories of the Resurrection - the story of the walk to Emmaus in St Luke's Gospel, and the story of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in St John's Gospel to take the two most marked examples - narratives that don't sound like anything else in the Gospels, or indeed anything else in the whole Bible. And I think that basic, literary fact about the way the Resurrection stories are told should make us think. We're not here dealing with events which fell into familiar patterns.
We get Rowan Williams's favourite word here bashed into use:
The level of sheer unclarity in some of the stories, particularly where they touch on the difficulty of recognizing the risen Jesus: the unclarity about the sense in which you can say that he appears as a body and yet clearly doesn't behave like a body (coming through locked doors); all these tensions and stresses within the story-telling itself suggest – at the very least – that what happened on the first Easter Sunday was surprising. It still is. It doesn't fit into the conventions, it generates its own forms of story-telling, so that it becomes far more plausible to say that, whatever happened on the first Easter Sunday, it was something which caused people to revise their perspectives, to cast around for new language and new images to speak about it, something which allowed the friends of Jesus to think through once again the story and the teaching and the death of Jesus, as a unit, and to leave a great deal of unfinished business which the whole of the New Testament seeks to deal with. It's what makes the story of Jesus' death not just a story about another martyr for a good cause:
Pause here, however, because he then partially self-destructs his own point:
it's what makes the story of Jesus' after-death reality not just a story about how he was spiritually exalted to heaven; there's something else going on which is about a return to the circumstances and relationships of this earth on the far side of death. And that is of course how the Jews of those days understood Resurrection - not a transfer to another realm above, but people standing again upon the earth.
So it does fit into conventions then! It clearly is related to conventions. On the more general point: is he right? Are these unpolished?
We should not confuse confusion and ambiguity with lack of polish. For example: why does Paul's resurrected Jesus have a body, and no body? The answer is because Paul claims spiritual experiences, but has the language of Judaism which is that of the body. So he talks of a spiritual body. We might equate this with a square circle. Nevertheless, this resurrection gives Paul what he needs to have a salvation scheme, to participate in the acceleration of the titles relating to Jesus (about whom, the human, he is remarkably ahistorical).
Why is there with Paul a resurrection like a roll-call of Jesus visiting leaders and includes, in effect, the congregation? Luke has the same with the very significant synagogue quota of 120. It would not be polished writing that suggests legitimacy and authority for the leaders, would it?
In John's gospel, the disciples are shut indoors for fear of the Jews. This is clearly a reference to the division with Jews decades later - it is meaningless otherwise. He gives a Church saying, Peace be with you, more than once, and the body is emphasised (that is, here is the same Jesus). He then breathes on them power to do what he did, putting into them the Holy Spirit - a Church term and use. This is surely polished writing, because it is about, again, authority and legitimacy from a Church stance. That the body is recognised is one reason why John's gospel did make it into the canon - the importance of the body (and also the tomb in later proto-orthodox Christianity as it struggled with the Gnostics) as Christianity struggled with those who would have departed from Judaism more completely than John was doing.
The encounter with Thomas in John is to tell the community who have not seen Jesus (after all, the resurrections stopped with the Ascension) to have faith, and it is better to have faith without such evidence. It is rather a well polished and concluded piece.
In John he meets the disciples who have caught little fish. He gives advice and they have too many. This is rather polished - evangelism is from him. It gets all eucharistic too.
In Luke why does someone walk with Jesus and is unseen, and yet on having the meal that matches the eucharist is seen, recognised and disappeared. This suggests polish: that until they 'get the point' they don't see Jesus; then it links up with the eucharistic meal, and they see him, and once they have got the point and seen him, he is gone. It is very well written. It is indeed written.
So the argument that these texts, unlike the earthly ministry texts, are unpolished, won't wash. They are full of theological content for the early Churches, indeed they are all about the early Churches.
The difference of course is that with Jesus as the first of the resurrected there has to be some sort of adaptation, and this is what happens in new movements in religion: somewhere the new does not fit into the old (otherwise it would not be new!).
Over and again the appearances suggest not just presence but absence, and this is an important element of the stories. In fact the writing is not just polished, it is sophisticated.
What is actually historical then?
Some say "something happened" by which is meant a spontaneous event or events. But we simply cannot get behind the texts. All is speculation. A body thrown into a pit rots very rapidly, a body not thrown into a pit rots quickly. This is why, today, organs for transplant must be removed at speed. We have tomb stories that, reliant on women for first evidence, are perversely more credible; or we have tomb stories that, because they are reliant on women as witnesses, explain their lateness into the community memory; they can be evidence of loss (but bodies cease to be recognisable quickly) or evidence of a later secondary story to affirm the bodily nature of resurrection as well as the absence of any tomb worship - he ascended into heaven, as risen, not waits (again) in a tomb. We have there continued messianic expectation (we have an unknown time gap but limits between his death and the Church); we have a situation where, once dead, Jesus is either the Messiah himself or nothing (before he died the coming of the Son of Man could have been him or another person - he was likely thinking he was crucial to bring either about); we have that the disciples would have continued religious observance; there is the fact that various Jewish movements continued and the militant ones all failed, and here is an expectant movement using the way of peace (possibly); and remaining is a key religious ritual element around food, which is a focus for spiritual presence.
Looking at this historically means looking at it from when the documents were produced. History is about documentation in the end, preferably primary documentation, of which there is none.
All of this is part of what makes me continue to take the stories of the Resurrection in the Gospels with complete seriousness, as reflecting a historical reality. In spite of endless scholarly investigation and debate it's proved very hard indeed to move the stories of the empty tomb and the apparitions 'out of focus'; they won't easily be dissolved or rationalized. And it's interesting that the Gospels themselves already anticipate the sort of objections you might raise.Actually they don't raise many. The raise some. I have raised far more, and here there is a difference with science. Science looks for simpler explanations: cultural explanations can be as complex as you like.
So what does Rowan Williams go on to claim?
And so if we're talking about breakthrough - the sheer literary shape of the Gospels, the way they're written, the way the story is told – this seems to prompt the question of what it was that caused this explosion of new story-telling and new language strong enough to persist in a way that allowed the first Christian communities to say without ambiguity, He is alive.
...If the tomb was not empty and the stories of apparition and encounter are fiction, it is indeed very hard to understand how and why the conviction of Jesus alive became so dominant. You have to come up with a better theory.
The cultural theory is better. It is better because it is encompassing, and has the means to deliver the explanation. Of course it has no historical documentation either, but he is making a claim to history - and I am not. And what is this explosion? This won't do either. There was no explosion. The explosion is (again looking backwards) given to be Pentecost, the Church's birthday. The resurrection itself is not so dramatic.
My theory is this (and it is not original): that culture shifts and yet exerts a powerful grip on reality. This was expectant Jewish sub-culture and a bereavement situation of a charismatic leader who may well return to institute that Kingdom. His death may or may not have been disappointing; it may have been seen as tragically necessary (afterwards). By the time Jesus didn't return to institute the Kingdom, a religious-cultural shift was on again to focus more upon him as himself the eschatological fulfilment, who would still deliver all that change in a later future. And still we wait.
Movements arise and also fall not based on history but based on belief. Interpretation is all you need, whether there is anything behind it or not. People are gripped under such made reality. Most of the Jewish beliefs of the time we would find bizarre, but they gripped Qumran, John, Jesus, untold others, and the early Churches, and after Jesus's death come shifts along the way into Hellenistic space.
In the end, what is required is some stance of faith, not in an impossible history, but in groups and oneself.
Coming to the evidence in the way that any historian might, perhaps all the historian as such can say is that something happened, obscure to the processes of investigation, which generated a new community and a new language. But neither the historian nor anyone else has a set of neutral facts lying around, waiting to be interpreted once they've been carefully catalogued. Ultimately, belief that the Resurrection happened remains a step of trust, of faith, a step associated with understanding yourself, your humanity and your future, in the context of this new community.
Sceptics do not need a different theory, actually. I am one - a believing sceptic. All we need to say is that reality is in culture-grips. We today cannot see how future generations will believe so differently from ourselves. Yet they may well, and regard our overarching Darwinian ideology as inadequate. Culture evolves: and just like in evolution, stressful times means beliefs shift. An individual and a movement finds the moment, and a junction is made, and more.
The question is what we do with faith. Faith is about trust, and should be transforming:
If the Church claims that humanity has been renewed, does it look as if it has been? Because if we were able to point only to two thousand years of conspicuous moral failure by the Church, there would be – at first blush – a case for saying 'whatever you might think ought to have been possible for humanity turns out not to have been: we've gone on much the same as ever'.
This is evidence for two things: that we are indeed pretty much muddling along as we have before, and have periods of conflict with moments of goodness within and between. Related to this is the second evidence that no Kingdom of God has yet arrived.
So what is Rowan Williams's qualification for this failure: that something actually is different?
...yet the Church continues to say every time it acts liturgically, performs public worship, we believe we have been made anew, created afresh in and through Jesus. We believe Jesus is active in his spirit here and now. It is said very particularly in those actions that Christians call 'sacraments'. And that is one of the things which might perhaps give us a little bit of pause before we assume that the history of Christianity is simply one massive dis-proof of the claims of Christ.
This is indeed a leap of faith: these sacraments cannot of themselves make up for a failure of a different renewed humanity. The sacraments make no difference about proof or disproof in any historical sense.
On the other hand, as Marcel Mauss has shown, a ritual of passing a token in exchange, of material giving for a spiritual gift, the latter being greater than the former, has the consequence of binding people one to the other. This is reciprocity. This is not history either, but it is open to anthropological research at points in time. It does not have to be Christian, but the Christian sacraments fit this scheme quite neatly, as do the Jewish rituals that came before. The spiritual gift is a form of presence.
Thus I would say the whole history debate is fruitless; in Rowan Williams's case it comes down to narrative (look how he tackles the something in history - leads to stories being told) and it does partly for me too. For me it is therefore about culture, language with symbolism, the body, the tribe and the institution as an extension of the body. History is but recordings of moments on the way and this is what is lacking, and given the need for faith, such recording was always going to be lacking.