Gregorian Theologian challenges non-resurrection scholars

One of the Church's foremost theologians on the Resurrection, Professor Gerald O'Collins S.J., at a public lecture in Perth last night said that theories challenging the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, such as those by controversial Australian biblical scholar, Barbara Thiering, continue to pose a challenge for Christians and serious scholars. Citing a remark by the Nobel laureate, Albert Schweitzer, he said "Schweitzer was prophetic in saying these books would be issued every other year under another name!"

His comments came in response to a question at the end of the lecture entitled, Faith in the Resurrection - is it credible? The lecture was given to an audience of about 200 people at the University of Western Australia where he is Chair of Jesuit Studies. The audience included leading scholars from other universities and faiths as well as the Anglican Primate of Australia, Archbishop Peter Carnley, who caused controversy last year in the media across Australia with some views he aired on the Resurrection.

In the lecture, Professor O'Collins, who is also Professor of Systematic and Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, had argued the case for Christians continuing to have faith in the Resurrection of Jesus as an historical and physical reality. The outline of his argument as presented in the lecture notes Professor O'Collins distributed to the audience is appended at the end of this story.

The full question and response Fr O'Collins gave on the question of these alternative theories is as follows:

Questioner: I saw this program on the ABC Religious Affairs Television program Compass recently about some historians who had conjectured about whether Jesus had not died on the cross. From memory the argument was that Jesus was proclaimed dead by a Roman soldier who said earlier that he could bind him and take him to a cave. It was argued that Jesus might have walked up through the mountains to Kashmir where he met Mary Magdalene and in fact that might have been where he spent that long time before he appeared in Jerusalem. I was wondering if you are aware of these sort of stories and what you thought of them?

Gerald O'Collins: Once again thank you for that question. Many people would be aware of people like Barbara Thiering who wrote along those lines of Jesus surviving in the Tomb. She belongs to a large company there. In modern times there was a man by the name of Ventorini (sp?) at the beginning of the 19th Century who wrote a book along those lines. He linked Jesus up to the Dead Sea community - the Essenes. Albert Schweitzer, the great scholar and organist, wrote a classic book on the historical Jesus. He spent a whole chapter on this and what is wrong with it. He said no book has been so plagiarised. It is reissued every other year under another name.

There's a whole lot of people like this. Robert Graves, the novelist, he had Jesus reviving and finishing up in Rome. Then you had Holy Blood and the Holy Grail where you have Jesus reviving and slinking off with Mary Magdalene and becoming the ancestor of most of the Royal Houses of Europe. Then, as you say there is the story of him being despatched to Kashmir. John Updike, the American novelist, in awork that isn't widely read despatches Jesus to Japan. It's a wonder all these stories do not cancel each other out.

One of the curious things about people who run these lines is that generally speaking they produce it as though nobody has ever thought of these theories before. There's dozens of books along these lines. George Moore, the Irish novelist, he's another who had a book along these lines. Albert Schweitzer was prophetic in saying these books would be issued every other year under another name. What's wrong with them?

The Roman Historians are quite clear that Jesus died and he was buried. The Romans did not mess about. The terrible scourging you see in Mel Gibson's film. That happened quite often. It was left to their sadistic urges whether they scourged someone as badly as that or they died quickly, or they didn't really scourge them as badly and they stayed up on a cross for a day or two. The Romans knew what they were about.

I had to re-visit all that a few years ago writing an article on the Resurrection for the Anchor Bible Dictionary in looking at the evidence from the Ancient world. The Romans knew what they were about in putting people to death by crucifixion. All that literature that he wasn't crucified belongs to science fiction. You only have to read the real scholars - Jewish, Protestant, Catholic - who've written on the Dead Sea Scrolls to realise how people are just scandalised by Barbara Thiering's terrible misuse of the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls. People have spent their lives studying the Dead Sea Scrolls and she used the evidence in ways that is just bizarre.

More honourable are people like Muslims who argue that Jesus was a great prophet and prophets did not die that way. They honour Jesus. This other stuff though is from the bizarre fringe of Biblical Scholarship. Their misuse of the evidence follows no laws of historical scholarship.

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Published: 12Aug2004

Lecture outline distributed by Professor Gerald O'Collins SJ

Faith in the Resurrection — Is itcredible?

"The heart has its reasons" (Pascal); reasons from philosophy, history and experience.


Philosophy and background theories.


1.1 There is no all-powerful God, and hens no possibility of resurrection?

1.2 God created the world, but always respects the laws of nature?

1.3 "Jesus merely rose in the minds and hearts of the disciples?"

But the New Testament claims otherwise: Christ died, was buried, has been raised, and appeared (1 Cor 15: 3-5). Primarily the resurrection claim points to something which happened to Christ, and secondarily to something affecting the disciples (Rom 4: 25). The New Testament introduces a new attribute for God "who raised Jesus from the dead" (Gal 1:1). See also the Easter chapters in the Gospels.

Were the New Testament authors incompetent or deliberately deceptive?


Reasons for the New Testament claim about Jesus' resurrection.


2.1 The appearances to groups and to individuals (1 Corl5: 5-8; Luke 24:34 etc.). Divergences on secondary matters (the places and order of the appearances), but convergence on appearances to individuals and groups (esp. "the Twelve"). Ecstatic hallucinations (from Celsus in 2nd century)?

The major "ecstatic" group experience concerns the reception of the Spirit (Acts 2: 1-4). The disciples were not eagerly expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. What of Paul several years later?

2.2 The empty tomb by itself did not prove the resurrection (John 20:2). There are divergences about the number of women, their motive in visiting the tomb, the number of angels and what they did and said. Yet the primary datum remains. Many weak and even bizarre theories: the women visited the wrong tomb; they visited the right tomb but someone (e.g. a gardener) had shifted the body; and so forth.

The empty tomb story a completely fictional scenario (created by Mark or his source(s)) to illustrate faith in the risen Christ (which the appearances had triggered)? But careful comparison between 1 Cor 15: 3-8 and Mark 16: 1-8 shows that major elements in 1 Cor 15: 3-8 (e.g. death "for our sins" and the appeal to the scriptures) do not turn up in Mark, and Mark contains some items (e.g. women and the angel) of which I Cor 15: 3-8 knows nothing. The role of women in the tomb story speaks for its historicity. Also in Jerusalem proclaiming the resurrection could not have worked if the tomb was not empty. Enquiry. The theological significance of the empty tomb: redemption not escape to a better world; God is not a throwaway God; the unique dignity of Jesus' body; the importance of matter.


General arguments from observable effects to the only adequate cause


3.1 The explosive spread of Christianity, despite the crucifixion..
3.2 The novelty of preaching the crucified and resurrected Jesus as Messiah.
3.3 The novelty of preaching the glorious, final resurrection of one individual.
3.4 The remarkable switch from worship on the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday.


Going beyond the evidence


Through testimony and the experience of the risen Christ and his Spirit in worship. Morris West, The Clowns of God. The risen Christ interprets and transforms experience (John's Gospel).