Resurrection Logic

How Jesus' First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead

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Bruce D. Chilton
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , September
     2019.
     319 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481310635.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Bruce’s Chilton’s Resurrection Logic pursues the question of how Jesus’ early followers “explained their conviction [that Jesus was raised from the dead] and related his resurrection to the hope of their own” (xii). Chilton’s stated concern, in other words, is to describe how one’s view of the end or the afterlife affected the way early Jesus-followers conceived and related his resurrection to others within the framework of their own cosmology and anthropology. This is what the author seems to designate as “resurrection sciences,” a confounding term he never sufficiently defines. Chilton believes the individuals discussed in the traditional list of resurrection appearances reported in 1 Corinthians 15 each reflect distinct “resurrection sciences,” and he sets as his task to disambiguate those sciences and so describe the pluriformity of resurrection belief.

Following a survey of texts as disparate as Gilgamesh and the Isis and Osiris cycle (chapter 1) alongside the Hebrew Bible (chapter 2), Chilton concludes that, until the Hasmonean period, belief in a generalized resurrection/afterlife did not exist for ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian peoples. Such things were reserved in these sources for exceptional individuals. By contrast, the Maccabees generalize resurrection/afterlife hope, though these hopes lack conceptual uniformity (chapter 3).

Hence, Chilton discerns five discrete resurrection “sciences” attested by Second Temple Jewish sources that are reproduced (with modifications) in the New Testament: resurrected spirits, resurrected like the stars, resurrected like angels, resurrected with flesh, and resurrected immortal souls. If, however, one expects to see these “sciences” mapped onto the New Testament as the book progresses, that expectation will go unfulfilled. Chilton’s analysis of certain “resurrection sciences” (especially in relation to “Cephas” and “the twelve” in chapter 5) moves away from these five conceptually discrete “sciences” to the utility of the resurrection and how it was used to justify apostolic teaching and authority.

Chapter 4 outlines Paul’s resurrection belief. For Chilton, Paul believes in neither a purely physical nor a purely spiritual resurrection. Resurrection involves not the dead flesh revivified but a new, pneumatic body. (This conclusion will undoubtedly generate debate among Pauline specialists.) While compelling, the language of this chapter is overconfident in what it proposes by presenting its claims as though they were self-evident. For instance, Chilton characterizes some with whom he disagrees as “ignoring” what Paul says plainly (70). In fact, Paul is rarely so clear as Chilton suggests.

Now following the order of appearances listed in 1 Corinthians 15, Chilton treats the “resurrection sciences” that he believes are represented by Peter and the twelve. For these figures, the resurrection functions as legitimation: it grants Peter the authority to forgive sins and grants didactic authority to the twelve. Chilton culls data for his claims primarily from the Synoptics and John, and he finds the unnarrated appearance to Peter particularly important, even though it is not narrated in the Gospels.

Chapter 6 evaluates the appearance to the 500 and James. Neither tradition is narrated in the New Testament, Chilton takes the traditions about Pentecost, the inclusion of gentiles in Acts, and James’ reported piety as representative. For the 500, resurrection provides the basis for including gentiles and receiving the Holy Spirit. (Paul’s own mention of the 500 seems apologetic in nature, and it is surprising that this aspect does not feature in Chilton’s discussion.) Drawing upon Acts and 2nd-century apologists, Chilton brings attention to James’ purity and emphasizes his Nazarite spirituality, which regarded Jesus’ resurrected existence as angelic, the embodiment of purity that allowed others to participate in the Spirit’s life. James’ mode of resurrection belief passed away with the Jerusalem Temple, which served as its lifeblood.

Chapter 7 deals with the appearance to “all the apostles” by treating Silas, Barnabas, and Mary Magdalene. For Silas’s views, Chilton evaluates the Thessalonian correspondence, concluding that Silas’s resurrection “science” was apocalyptic, emphasizing Jesus’ physical body. For Barnabas, the resurrection is revelatory or prophetic, revealing the “true” meaning of scripture. Luke’s “Emmaeus Road” story figures prominently for his reconstruction of Barnabas’ resurrection “science.” (Luke’s story, however, never mentions Barnabas by name.) For Mary, Chilton looks to Mark 16, John 20, and the later Gospel of Mary, concluding that her “resurrection science” is visionary: she sees but does not touch Jesus, apparently “contradicting” accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the flesh. Chilton use of varied, sometimes-distant sources to reconstruct these beliefs borders on haphazard. Chapter 8 follows the threads identified in chapter 7, tracing the ways “Christians” after Paul regarded the resurrection according to these apocalyptic, prophetic, and visionary models.

Finally, chapter 9 discusses the resurrection’s historicity. Chilton distances the experience of resurrection from narratives of the empty tomb, which does not reflect the earliest strands of resurrection proclamation. These early strands, in contrast, conceived Jesus’ resurrected existence as something other than, or not merely, physical. Here, Chilton claims that we may only regard the resurrection as “historical” if our interpretation of it accepts that Jesus transcends death and can still be experienced as alive. Chilton’s claims will likely prove contentious, particularly among those who perceive early and/or reliable traditions in the empty tomb narratives as well as among those who regard these narratives as literary inventions (e.g., John Dominic Crossan) or conventions (e.g., Robyn Faith Walsh).

Chilton’s work is sensitive to the manifold traditions and concepts at play in the sources, though extant sources are few, and his expertise in Semitic languages and thought is perceptible throughout. But his attempt to discern and disambiguate different and contradictory sources in a single text represents an older—one might even say outmoded—approach to biblical scholarship, and his methodology is largely left to the reader to discern. A few other shortcomings warrant mention: His choice of relevant comparanda is curious. While Mesopotamian parallels are brought forth in detail, Chilton neglects any discussions of Greco-Roman resurrection or translation stories. Surely the post-mortem appearances of figures like Apollonius of Tyana, Heracles, and Peregrinus Proteus are more relevant to the Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus’ resurrection than ancient Mesopotamian texts since the former belong to the same “literary culture” as the Gospels.

As noted at the outset, Chilton’s peculiar language of “resurrection sciences” will likely prove confounding for many since it is inadequately defined at the start and later used in ways that do not reflect the earlier use. Finally, Chilton’s argument supposes not only that various views of the resurrection can be mapped onto the individuals and groups in Paul’s traditional list (1 Corinthians 15) but also that those listed represent discrete resurrection “sciences.” Chilton never convincingly demonstrates the truth of this supposition but rather assumes it from the start. Nonetheless, the work proves to be a learned, if imaginative, approach to the variety of ancient Christian resurrection beliefs.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel B. Glover is assistant professor of New Testament at Lee University.

Date of Review: 
September 1, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce D. Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Philosophy and Religion in the Department of Religion and Executive Director of The Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College. He is also the author of Visions of the Apocalypse: Receptions of John's Revelation in Western Imagination, co-author of The Targums: A Critical Introduction, and co-editor of In Quest of the Historical Pharisees.

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