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The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, polemics, history, by Dale C. Allison, Jr

23 April 2021

Henry Wansbrough considers a scholarly assessment of the resurrection accounts

THIS is the fourth book by Dale Allison in which the resurrection of Jesus has played a significant part, and it is clear from the footnotes that the subject has been a chief object of his researches since 1985. It pulls no punches, cuts no corners, takes no prisoners. From start to finish, it is ruthlessly and fairly argued, with courtesy even to those whose positions are most comprehensively shattered.

Despite the seriousness of the treatment, the book offers plenty of humour and not a few trenchant epigrams; altogether, it is a model of North American academic argument at its best.

Allison himself is inclined to the view that the resurrection fits the earlier eschatological expectations of Jesus and his disciples, that the tomb was empty, and that the meetings with the risen Christ were real, but he grants that none of these points can be incontrovertibly proved. Nevertheless, from the start, he reassures the reader that he intends to be in church next Easter.

After a quick initial list of common but crazy ideas (the body was stolen, Jesus never really died, etc.), we are given the fundamental New Testament assertions of faith, among which 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 must take pride of place. The evidential weight of each of these statements is examined. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, typical of the clarity of Allison’s argument, that “Those lines are shorthand — like every other creed with which we are familiar — as opposed to a comprehensive account of everything somebody knew.” That is, they summarise the beliefs rather than attempt to substantiate them.

Next, Allison investigates scholarly theories about the evolution of stories first about the burial of Jesus on Good Friday and then about the empty tomb discovered on the Sunday. The chief difficulty throughout is to assess the extent to which — rather than narrate events themselves as a modern chronicler, wanting to record the “bare facts”, would — the writers have used Old Testament parallels to show their meaning.

A less neuralgic parallel is the account of the ascension, which, far from telling the reader just how Christ disappeared into a cloud, sets out to show the similarity with Elijah’s ascent into heaven. So Allison concludes: “Jesus was probably laid in a tomb which some women later found empty and Christian imagination turned their report into a dramatic story that grew in the telling.”

But, as he continually points out, Allison’s conclusions are far less important than his method of arguing. For this reason, perhaps the most important factor is Allison’s refusal to be thrown into a spin by the strange little incident of Matthew 27.51b-53, which leaves both Tom Wright and James Dunn puzzled. Enigmatically, Allison merely warns: “Once the nose of the camel of fiction is inside the tent of resurrection, who knows what else may enter?”

After this investigation of the biblical data, Allison turns to other factors that have some analogy with the resurrection stories. Part III is entitled “Thinking with Parallels”, and Allison stoutly denies that his aim is to show that Christian claims are bogus. He simply refuses “to ignore similarities because there are differences”; his objective is “to enlarge understanding” by comparing and distinguishing.

The phenomena compared fall principally into three categories: first, the SOP (sense of presence) of the beloved dead, which is remarkably widespread. The second is the claimed sight of persons already dead (and here he includes several such sightings within his own family). Allison insists that it is only logical to include claims of more recent meetings with Jesus.

The third is found in Tibetan Buddhism, and includes testimony of the Dalai Lama; it concerns the gradual diminution and disappearance of the body of highly revered holy persons. Allison’s final conclusion is that “the resurrection is not a topic unto itself but a part that cannot be evaluated apart from some larger whole.”

 Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, polemics, history
Dale C. Allison, Jr
Bloomsbury £34.99
Church Times Bookshop £30.50

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