Archive for April 2015

Resurrection and the Philosophy of Science   1 comment

Bonn, CDU-Friedenskongress, Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg

Last year I was watching a debate between Bart Ehrman and Michael Licona on the resurrection of Jesus. Ehrman was arguing that a historian cannot accept the possibility of the supernatural. Then he mentioned a contemporary example: the apparition of Mary above the dome of the Coptic Church of Zeitun district in Cairo.  While both disagree about everything they astonishingly met at one point:  this apparition is unreal. Ehrman, an atheist, said that miracles don’t happen, while Licona, a conservative evangelical, firmly refused it because it could give unnecessary veneration to Mary which is against his belief. zeitoun I used to pray at this very church for nearly 10 years before I move to the Greek Orthodox Church. So, the reference was very interesting to me. The point is that both refused, a priori, the event without discussing its details or the weight of evidence supporting it.

As a matter of fact, this apparition is supported by an astonishing bulk of evidence. The apparition was seen by pretty much everyone went there, from every nation and background… from the tough military Muslim president Nasser to American physicists, German professors, Anglican groups, an official papal Catholic commission, an equivalent Coptic one (included my grandfather), tens of thousands of recorded testimonies, spread over 3 whole years, pictures from every corner, scientific reports, no theological motive (she didn’t say that the council of Chalcedon was wrong, or that it is necessary to pray for those in the purgatory or any of this stuff), no agenda hidden or revealed … it ticks absolutely every box (for more click here). However, like a puff of smoke Licona and Ehrman dismissed it.

This begs an important question: is it really about evidence or dogmatism?  Indeed I could have used the same line of argument (if we can call it so) and dismiss this apparition which took place in the church that I left in 2006.However, I do not have the courage to ignore this amount of evidence which I need to disprove before I make my point. I must emphasise that I am not making case for the apparition, but for the phenomenon of deliberate negligence of evidence. This example is important for the case of Jesus’ resurrection. It is not the lack of evidence that makes some scholars refuse the possible reality of some sort of resurrection, it is something else lies in our definition of issues like history and our worldview. The case of ignoring this apparition, which is supported by every possible means of documentation available in 1968, is an evidence on that problem.

Indeed, I don’t think that we can get from history more than what Josephus summarised; that “his [Jesus’] disciples reported that he appeared to them after three days of his crucifixion.”[1] It principally depends on whether the disciples encountered the living Jesus or not and whether their testimony could be evaluated as it is found mainly in the NT. However, hermenutical methods to put the event “beyond history” as it is in Gunkel, Lietzmann, Bultmann  and his successors (mainly Conzelman) did, just do not do justice to the nature of the reports we have in the NT. Of course the empty tomb and apparitions (even the formula of 1Cor.15:1-11) are heavily loaded with Apocalyptic colours, but this does not deny the nature of the historiacl allegation behind them: it was meant to refer to a historical event, whether it is true or not, this is subject to evidence in the first place. The endeavour to turn the resurrection materials into some sort of a retrospective apocalyptic exegesis of Jesus’ life is the same driving force behind Ehrman and Licona’s judgment we referred to earlier.

All it takes is a comparison between the materials and second temple apocalyptic texts as well as other Jewish Messianic movements to see, as Hengel simply puts it, that we have a considerably different case.[2] Dale Allison who arguably ploughed everything said on this topic concludes :”one would still perhaps hesitate to explain the resurrection as the result of a refusal to abandon prophetic dreams.”[3] Even modern questers who came after the winter of WWII, like Bornkamm, (later my former mentor Helmut Koester) and others did not deny the  necessity of the existence of powerful experience that launched the post Easter belief. As Eduard Schweizer concludes: “something decisive at Easter cannot be reasonably doubted even from this purely historical point of view.”[4]

The problem of automatic dismissal is in motive and worldview rather than “lack of historical evidence.” This applies to the paranormal in general. After going through all of the materials on this topic, Allison shifts the problem towards the question of paranormal experiences. He referred to the subversive culture against sharing these experiences, but he was brave to start with himself.[5] This shifts the challenge of Easter to the wider zone of the philosophy of science which urges us to reflect on our definitions and limitations. Pannenberg is certainly right in showing the problem in our understanding of the concepts of natural and humanities sciences.

The German scholar Dilthey divided the field of science Wissenschaft into two branches of knowledge: the natural science Naturwissenschaften and human sciences Geisteswissenschaften. Both of these branches are equally scientific (wissenschaftlisch). According to Dilthey’s analysis: Geisteswissenschaften were concerned with the human endeavor to understand the nature of humanity and society. By its very nature, this enterprise involved a high degree of affinity between the investigator and what was being studied … Thus the aim of Geisteswissenschaften is a process of ‘indwelling’, in which the experiences of another are sympathetically explored and amplified in the mind of the interpreter. (ST-I p.29) On the other hand, Naturwissenschaften dealt with measurements and precise descriptions without any involvement from the human observer.

This understanding of nature becomes objective and external, based on physical rational physical investigation. (ST-I p.20) Both fed each other productively For instance, Allister McGrath refers to a blatant example about that in two steps (ST-I p.29-33). Firstly, he points out that Kant’s philosophy was shaped by natural scientists and his Critique of Pure Reason was clearly subject to Newtonian physics. That was clear in his dealing with the concept of space as ‘absolute a priori experience.’ That was later reconsidered by Einstein’s special theory of relativity which stated that time and space are mutually dependent, and superseded by the dynamically curved space-time notion. Another example is Kant’s philosophical reliance upon the classical geometry and mechanics. His works led the prominent scientist Niels Bohr, who was highly influenced by Kant’s philosophy, to emphasize the need for lucidity (Anschaulichkeit) through the formulation of visual atomic models, rather than more abstract theories.

This is how science, with its two arms, moves on. When we shrink into our dogmatic perspective of this science, refusing to do our part of investigating the philosophical and the historical evidence of an event under the fear of the other branch of science, it is science that will not move on. Consequently, our worldview won’t expand any further, leaving us within the same obsolete Laplacian deterministic view that cannot stand in the face of Quantum theories. We, history scholars, pretty much lost this integrative perspective of matters due to the dogmatism of our approach towards the Geisteswissenschaftlich issues under the fear of being accused of subejctivism.

Our approach to the question of paranormal events/claims such as resurrection should not be limited to or prejudiced by our limited worldview or our fears of mockery. It is not us only who will judge whether a contingent event like the supernatural (or even other contingencies in the formation of this cosmos) happened. We assess only the portion of evidence related to our discipline, while other disciplines in natural sciences can contribute to their portion of the data. Then, and only then, a discussion of whether something could be true or not becomes legitimate.

Otherwise, we will  find loads of illegitimate, and sometimes silly, affirmative statements that reflect either trumatised backgrounds or sheer arrogance.

[1] probably Antiquities 18.63. This is the most realistic version which is found in the 10th century Arabic Kitb al-Unwan which reads: ولذلك يوسيفوس العبراني فإنه قال في ميامره التي كتبها على شر اليهود أنه كان في هذا الزمان رجل حكيم يقال له يسوعاً… والذين تتلمذوا له يدعوا تلامذته وذكروا أنه ظهر لهم بعد ثلثة أيام من صلبه وانه عاش

[2] Ist der Osterglaube noch zu retten?’, Theologische Quartalschrift 153 (1973): 262

[3] Allison, D., 2013, The End of the Ages Has Come, Oregon: Wipf Stock, p.167

[4]1971,  Jesus, London SCM Press. p.46.

[5] Resurrecting Jesus, 271f.


Posted April 9, 2015 by Mina Monier in Uncategorized