The dead sure facts of history: C H Dodd’s slant on the Resurrection

In my post “Last-will-and-testament” I described one interpretation of why a mezuzah is placed at a slant on the door post of a Jewish house. The house is the home of a husband and wife. The slanting mezuzah teaches every couple how to create a happy peaceful home, shalom bayit. Each spouse  should be prepared to bend towards the other in helping to lead a harmonious family life. That is why the mezuzah should be placed at a slant. That’s fine, as long as they don’t bend over backwards for each other, as that would put the mezuzah out of kilter. Makes me think of the interpretive – often sentimental – excesses of  human nature. It’s not good enough to say that no one knows what’s under that kilt and so your interpretation is as good as mine. En passant (the doorpost), if we are to consider this happy home interpretation seriously, shouldn’t there be two mezuzahs on the door – one for him and one for her?

But more seriously, consider  the view of C.H. Dodd with regard to  the difficulty of knowing whether the events of history really happened. (He is preparing the ground for the the significance of the bodily resurrection of Christ, which according to Dodd has very little leg  to stand up on):

“To the serious historian (as distinct from the mere chronicler) the interest and the meaning which an event bore for those who felt its impact is a part of the event. This is now widely recognized in secular historiography. But it is of perculiar significance in a Christian context. In the Hebrew-Christian type of religion,  events are held to be the medium through which God discloses his ways to men. This is the belief that runs all through the Old Testament. In the New Testament the divine disclosure is held to be made supremely in what Luke calls ‘the facts about Jesus.’”  (p. 39).”[1] Dodds “facts about Jesus” refers to Acts 18:25, “This one (Apollos) was instructed in the way of the Lord, and being fervent in the Spirit, was speaking and teaching exactly the things about the Lord…”

Dodd continues (p. 39) – I emphasise parts I shall comment upon – “These facts are communicated with the intention of bringing out as forcibly as possible the meaning which our authors believed to be their true meaning. In that sense the gospels are an expression of the faith of the church. The hinge on which that faith turned was the belief that Jesus, having been put to death by crucifixion, “rose from the dead.” This is not a belief that grew up within the church, or a doctrine whose development might be traced. It is the central belief about which the church itself grew, without which there would have been no church and no gospels, at least of the kind we have. So much the historian must affirm; upon the truth or falsity of the belief he is not obliged, or indeed entitled, to pronounce. About this belief in the resurrection of Jesus more will have to be said later, but for our present purpose it is important to note that the various stories about the “appearances” of the risen Christ to his followers — which differ considerably in the several gospels and perhaps cannot be fully harmonized — have one constant feature in common. They clearly do not refer to anything in the nature of a vague “mystical experience”; they are all centered in a moment of recognition. You cannot recognize a person unless you remember him. Thus an act of remembrance — the remembrance of a real and well-known person — is a built-in feature of the faith that inspired the writing of the gospels. For the original “eyewitnesses and servants of the gospel,” the memory was quite recent. But it was a memory now illuminated by a discovery that left them at first gasping with astonishment: that the Leader they had thought irretrievably lost had got the better of death itself, in a way as inexplicable as it was indubitable. So at least they believed, and it put the whole story in a new light.”

Notice that Dodd puts “rose from the dead” and “eyewitnesses” in inverted commas, which are a giveaway of where he is going with this – unless he is quoting from the Bible without supplying the biblical reference. Hmmm.

Before I comment, let’s read what Dodd says later (in Chapter 9) about the resurrection (see the underlined selection above):

“Our gospels never set out to describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a concrete occurrence (though some apocryphal gospels do). The question with which we should approach them is, how did his followers, who knew that he had been put to death by crucifixion, come to be convinced that he was still alive? To this question they give two answers: first, that the tomb in which the body of Jesus had been laid was subsequently found empty; and secondly, that he was seen, alive after death, by a number of his followers.”

What Dodd seems to mean by “the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a concrete occurrence” is the actual description of how he rose. If the Bible accurately records that he was seen alive after his death, then surely this would be concrete proof (by a simple inference) that he who was dead had risen from the dead. That is all the concreteness one would need to believe in the fact of the resurrection on which faith in the resurrected Christ is based.

Dodd then describes the “problematic if not contradictory” accounts of  the various appearances of Jesus to his disciples (p. 176). He continues:

They were dead sure [Dodd’s italics; and humour] that they had met with Jesus, and there was no more to be said about it.  It was the recovery of a treasured personal relationship which had seemed broken forever. It was also, as we have seen, their reinstatement after their failure in the “hour of testing.” Now they were new men in a new world, confident, courageous, enterprising, the leaders of a movement which made an immediate impact and went forward with an astonishing impetus” (p. 176).

They were dead sure and that’s the end of it. Take it or leave it. That’s what Dodd seems to be saying about the “witnesses’s” attitude.”

I must confess, I’m getting crosser and crosser with Dodd. But what is there left to get cross about? This:

“Clearly something had changed these men. They said it was a meeting with Jesus. We have no evidence with which to check their claim. To propose an alternative explanation, based on some preconceived theory, is of dubious profit. What was the nature of this meeting we cannot pretend to know. What actually happened, if by that we mean what any casual observer might have witnessed, is a question that does not admit of an answer. But the events that make history do not consist of such “bare facts.” They include the meaning the facts held for those who encountered them; and their reality is known through the observable consequences. In this instance we may be clearer about the meaning and the consequences than about the “facts” in themselves, but this would be true of other momentous events in history.”

As Dodd says, clearly something had changed these men’s lives, even if it wasn’t something concrete or clear or factually factual (in contradistinction to Dodd’s “historically factual”). Who cares; as long as Jesus rose in our hearts? Is that what I’m hearing? And how do we know this: Because, the Bible tells me so. Who will save me from this body of theological and historical death?

Dodd’s book, we know,  is about the Founder of Christianity as portrayed in the Gospels. He mentioned “the facts about Jesus”  in Luke’s book of Acts (see third paragraph above); but Dodd seems to be using “facts” not in the sense of objective reality but as a hybrid of objective truth and subjective feeling – is the truth in the rose or in the nose?: the great conundrum of knowledge. What about the beginning of Luke’s gospel?:

“Since many have undertaken to set in order a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us,  even as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us,  it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus; that you might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke’s “things” are his facts – and it goes without saying, facts are never brute, if they were we’d all be brutes, rational brutes, which what happens when you rationalize facts. Luke’s term “certainly” is the assurance of Theophilus (and every Christian whose salt has not lost its savour) that the Saviour has risen not only in the heart but in-deed.

Although Paul, like Dodd and myself, did not witness the resurrection, I think I’ll go with Paul on this one:

“…if Christ hath not risen, then void is our preaching, and void also your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Not just risen in our sceptical – if not slushy – neo-orthodox hearts.

Not to forget that Dodd’s book is about the Lord of history. But that is matter  of my belief based on His Resurrection. Not an undaringjewish belief, of course.

Maimonides states (Foundations of Torah, ch. 8): [the emphasis is mine]

“The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the miracles he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on seeing miracles, he has lingering doubts, because it is possible the miracles were performed through magic or sorcery. All of the miracles performed by Moses in the desert were because they were necessary, and not as proof of his prophecy. What then was the basis of [Jewish] belief? The Revelation at Mount Sinai, which we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears, not dependent on the testimony of others… as it says, “Face to face, God spoke with you…” The Torah also states: “God did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us ― who are all here alive today (Deut. 5:3).”

Aish comments that Judaism is not about miracles. It is the personal eyewitness experience of every man, woman and child, standing at Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago. And what about this? “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42). No they won’t. Aish is correct;  it takes more than seeing a miracle – it takes a miraculous disclosure from God; a totally sovereign act. It’s not just light we need, but new eyes, new ears.

“And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:7-8).

What is the Holy One of Israel’s first and immediate instruction?

“And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10).

To sum up my view of Dodd’s position: what happened between the two roles (and rolls) of the stone – one before the burial, the one after, is at sixes and sevens. What we do know is  that very soon after some people were wildly running all over the place, historically and perhaps hysterically as well, while others were just bothered and bewildered.  Dodd would, I think, say that they all thought that they had seen Jesus and they probably did. But whether it was a physical manifestation or a spiritual manifestation, who can be sure?  After all what does a glorified body consist in, a body that can eat fish, walk through walls and be touched (when Thomas touched the wounds of Jesus). For me, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is central – as Paul stated – to the Christian faith. Without a resurrected body, Christian falls into the mystical ocean. Now if someone says that in this quantum era, no one really knows anymore what is physical. I’ll respond, perhaps irrationally: go take a leap – a quantum leap.


[1] C.H. Dodd. 1974 (first published in 1971). The founder of Christianity, Fontana books. Foreword by J.A.T Robinson. You can also find Dodd’s book online.

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One thought on “The dead sure facts of history: C H Dodd’s slant on the Resurrection

  1. Pingback: The resurrection in Scripture: If no historical bones then no spiritual muscles | OneDaring Jew

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