Holy Week and Easter turns our minds naturally to the events in Jerusalem in either AD 30 or 33, and to the Christian contention that Jesus of Nazareth, after his death by crucifixion, was raised from the dead. It is an historical rather that merely religious claim. Christians contend that it happened in time and space
One of the challenges to this claim is the alleged discrepancies between the various accounts in the Gospels. And that’s what I want us to think about here.
What is history?
History, argues E. H. Carr in his seminal book What is History?, is the study of causes. It is not, as popularly believed, the study of what happened, but more precisely the study of what caused what happened.
Historians don’t just list off past events in bullet point. They work to create a reasoned and evidenced account of what happened and what caused it. Why was Gough Whitlam dismissed? Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? What caused World War I? This is the stuff of history.
Case One: Sydney Anglican Preaching
In Australia, in about the middle of the twentieth century, the way Anglican clergy in the diocese of Sydney prepared and delivered their sermons changed.
Before the 1960s, preaching in Sydney Anglican churches was overwhelmingly “textual preaching”— a meditation on a single verse of scripture. Sometimes this would be a sustained meditation on just that verse. Other times it would use the verse to launch to other parts of scripture or to the wider doctrines suggested by that verse.
But by the 1970s, this method was being largely abandoned in favour of “expositional preaching”— a style and method of preaching which takes a whole section of scripture (a paragraph or a chapter) and attempts to explain and apply it, making the main message of the sermon the main message of the passage.
We see here a distinct “before and after” in the history of preaching amongst many Sydney Anglicans. The change is too marked, too dramatic and too widespread to put down to coincidence. Something happened. The question is, what caused it?
According to several sources, the catalyst for this change was the 1958 visit of English preacher John Stott. Stott came to give the Bible studies on 2 Corinthians at the CMS Summer School at Katoomba in January of that year. Leaders like Australian evangelist John Chapman (“Chappo”) and leading clergyman Dudley Foord were so impressed by his expositional method that they set about learning, and then teaching other Sydney clergy, this new way of preaching.
And so, we have a change (the style of preaching), we have a cause (John Stott) and we have a date (January 1958).
Or do we?
Amazingly, even though this happened in the twentieth century, and even though this was only about 50 years ago, there is actually a debate in the historiography about some of these details.
Michael Orpwood’s biography of John Chapman (which uses Chapman’s own oral history) dates the change at 1958, and several other histories have followed in nominating this date and the Summer School as the cause of the change.
However, as Jonathan Holt and Adrian Lane have cogently argued in a recent Lucas articles, this is almost certainly not correct. For one, John Stott was not giving the Bible studies in 1958 at CMS Summer School in Katoomba!
From Timothy Dudley-Smith’s two volume biography of Stott, The Making of a Leader and A Global Ministry we know that Stott was in Australia in June-July of 1958, not January. Moreover, as Holt shows, minutes of the CMS Summer School committee confirm that Stott taught on 2 Corinthians in 1965, not 1958. Both the Dudley-Smith biography and the CMS Committee minutes are highly credible documentary evidence, not least because in neither case do they write to weigh in on the particular question of preaching in Sydney. The information they provide is incidental and therefore highly valuable.
What seems to have happened, argues Holt, is that John Chapman conflated in his memory the hugely significant 1958 visit of Stott with the later and also significant 1965 sermons. It is a completely understandable and innocent error of memory.
But notice: 40-50 years after the events described, there is a real and fascinating case of minor contradictions in the historiography. The solution offered by Holt and Lane clears things up, though it’s always possible that further documentation will emerge which will cast new light on the matter.
However—and here’s the point—there is no doubt about the basic facts: Sydney Anglican preaching changed. Stott was a significant catalyst for the change. And John Chapman was instrumental in ushering in that change.
Case Two: Belief that Jesus was raised
Now consider a second case study, the resurrection of Jesus. Somewhere in the first half of the first century a radically new belief emerged from within Judaism: a group of people came to believe that their Rabbi, who was killed by crucifixion, had risen from the dead.
What caused this change?
The Gospels of the New Testament are (by scholarly consensus) written about 40-50 years after the events they describe (though they contain sources that go back much further). And, just like our question about Sydney Anglican preaching, when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus:
1. We have multiple sources for those events (the Gospels and their sources, and Paul).
2. There are seemingly minor contractions and hard-to-reconcile claims in those sources about the resurrection of Jesus (who was at the tomb? No one? One man? Or two angels?)
3. There is a strong consensus on the basic shape of the claims (the tomb found empty by women on the first day of the week, and subsequent appearances of the risen Jesus).
4. There is important “disinterested” testimony in Paul. Paul is not writing history. He is writing pastoral letters to sort out churches in which people are getting drunk at communion and sleeping with people they’re not married to (those old chestnuts). He doesn’t set out to write the history of Jesus, and so anything he says about the history of Jesus is especially important.
5. There is no question that something happened. The only question is: What caused it?
Somewhere between 1958-1970 preaching amongst Sydney Anglicans radically changed—no question. And between AD 30-40 a group of people came to a radical and unexpected conclusion about what had become of their Rabbi after his crucifixion—again, no question.
It is historically naive to look at the alleged discrepancies between the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus and conclude—“There are discrepancies, therefore nothing happened.” In our Sydney example, no one would say, “there is a contradiction in dates between 1958 and 1965, therefore nothing happened.”
Whether or not the discrepancies in the New Testament accounts turn out on closer inspection to be contradictions or not, there is no escaping the historical task—to acknowledge that something happened to the followers of Jesus (they came to believe he was raised) and to work out why. What caused that change?
And, for what it’s worth, in the Sydney Anglican case, I think it was Stott’s preaching at Katoomba in 1965, planted in the fertile soil of the biblical theology already present in Sydney. And in the case of Jesus’ followers, I think it was his empty tomb and his resurrection appearances, planted in the fertile soil of Jewish scriptural understanding. In short, I think the resurrection of Jesus caused belief in the resurrection of Jesus. If you don’t, well, sure. Just give me a better account of what did.