Sunday, 27 March 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 13

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

It is interesting to see how Balleine tries to make sense of the resurrection appearances. There is a known phenomena, probably psychological, which he describes of a dead person being seen by someone alive, although care has to be taken to sift this, as sometimes memories can be mistaken - we know much more about the way in which memory is not like a fixed tape recording, but malleable, and falsifiable - one case of a judge and reporter being a case when memory went seriously astray. But none of these experiences involve more than one individual, something which Balleine fails to mention.

But Balleine does mention the countless messianic movements which die with their messiahs, which itself shows something strange at work: we know the disciples scattered, and that fits the pattern. But the emergence of the Christian movement afterwards is unexpected. And he also shows - from an apocryphal gospel - how relatively subdued the resurrection stories are. He might also have mentioned the Gospel of Peter, which actually has a description of the resurrection, and what appears to be a walking cross!

There are two oddities in the resurrection narratives not mentioned in Balleine's attempt to understand the resurrection appearances, one of which was done very well in the BBC series "The Passion", and that is that most of the stories are not about seeing and recognising someone dead, which is what the psychic research anecdotes give us, but about seeing and not recognising someone well known to the disciples.

There is this strange veil of ignorance, and in fiction, perhaps the best analogy can be seen when Gandalf returns from the dead, and the companions see an old man in white, but do not recognise him until he uses causes Legolas arrow in flight to catch fire, and suddenly they see him for their old friend again. He has returned, but he has changed, and it is only when he does something recognisable from his past, that the veil is lifted, something also seen most strongly in the Emmaeus story with the breaking of bread.

The other peculiarity (noted by NT Wright) is that the gospels are littered with references to past prophecy fulfiled, allusions or quotations from the Hebrew scriptures, up until the crucifixion, but the resurrection narratives have none of these. It is as if there is something new taking place, and there are no conceptual tools for understanding it. It has gone beyond the prophecies.

While he discounts the idea of hallucination, Balleine comes down very strongly against the physicality of the resurrection stories and regards those aspects of them as later redactions caused by Jewish belief in a physical resurrection. And there may be something in that, especially in narratives which have holes in hands where nails are pierced. But that doesn't happen in all the stories - some of the stories - especially the lakeside cooking of fish in John - are simply naturalistic. I'm inclined to think that the stories are so strange that we still lack proper conceptual tools to understand them.

The Renaissance Of Hope
By G.R. Balleine

JESUS was dead, disgracefully dead. Apparently He had utterly failed. Like every other Messianic movement His seemed to have come to nothing. This always happened when a would-be Messiah died.

When Theudas was beheaded in A.D. 45, nothing more was heard of his four hundred disciples. In A.D. 54 an Egyptian Jew gathered several thousand followers, but, when Felix scattered them, they too left no trace behind. More successful, Bar-Cochba reigned for three years and struck coins as Prince of Israel; but, when he fell, his movement collapsed like a pricked bubble. The same seemed to be happening to the disciples of Jesus. We see two on Easter Sunday trudging home to Emmaus. `We hoped,' they said, `He would have redeemed Israel.' They implied, `We were wrong.'

Yet nothing in history is more certain than that the Movement suddenly took a new lease of life. In Jerusalem it made hundreds of converts. It spread from land to land. What was the explanation? The disciples answered that on Easter Day they had seen Jesus alive. `We were born anew,' wrote Peter, `to a living hope by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.' If the resurrection of Jesus is a myth, who can explain the amazing resurrection of the Church?

Again, no one doubts that Sunday observance began in New Testament days. `On the first day of the week,' wrote Luke, `the disciples met for the Breaking of Bread.' Why the first day? To Jew and Gentile Sunday was an ordinary working day. The disciples had been trained from childhood to keep Saturday holy, and a habit like that is not easily broken. Something very soul-stirring must have happened on a Sunday. Christians had no doubt what it was. `We meet on Sunday,' wrote Justin, `because on that day Jesus rose from the dead.' If the Resurrection is a myth, what started Sunday observance?

Belief in the Resurrection shaped all the rest of Peter's life. So we must try to decide what really happened. The documentary evidence is strong. Paul's first Letter to Corinth, written only twenty-five years after the crucifixion, claims to be repeating what he had learnt in Jerusalem only seven years after the event: `I passed on to you what I myself was taught, that Christ died, was buried, and rose on the third day. He was seen by Kephas, then by the Twelve, then by over five hundred Brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Later He appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Finally He appeared to me.'

When we reach the Gospels, Mark fails us, for his last page is missing. (The last twelve verses in our Authorized Version are by a later hand.) He was, however, evidently leading up to an appearance in Galilee. Luke reports three appearances, `Matthew' two, and `John' four. Then there is the testimony of Acts, `He showed Himself alive after He suffered by many infallible proofs, and appeared during forty days.' Clearly the whole Early Church believed in the Easter appearances.

Can we explain this by the word `hallucination'? Did it seem so impossible that Jesus could be dead, that some imagined that they saw Him, and talked about it till others thought they saw Him too? Our eyes do trick us sometimes; but visions are not so easily produced by suggestion.

Early in the nineteenth century disciples of Joanna Southcott eagerly expected the coming of Shiloh, whom Jacob had foretold.'. To Turner, her successor, it was revealed that Shiloh would descend to earth on a certain day. A large London chapel was hired. Coaches brought Believers from the country. From midnight to midnight the crowded congregation prayed and watched. Every moment they expected him. If expectation could create visions, someone would have seen him. Seldom have enthusiasts gathered with more ardent faith. But nothing happened. Midnight struck a second time; and they dispersed bewildered. Suggestion is not as powerful as some suppose.

A decisive argument against hallucination is the disciples' frame of mind. No one had any hope of seeing Jesus alive. The women brought spices for His burial. The empty tomb only suggested grave-robbery. When some declared they had seen Him, `their words seemed as idle tales' to the Apostles. For a week Thomas refused to believe the evidence of his friends. Instead of a group of credulous dreamers imagining hopes to be facts, we see stolid, matter-of-fact peasants desperately hard to convince. Hallucination is no answer to the Easter riddle.

One type of evidence, however, may perhaps help. There are stories, that seem well authenticated, of people appearing to their friends after death. Lord Brougham, for example, who became Lord Chancellor, was a man of sceptical mind, accustomed to weigh evidence. As a boy he signed a compact with a friend, that the one who died first would, if possible, appear to the other. The friend went abroad. `For years,' wrote Brougham, `I had no communication with him, nor did anything recall him to my memory.' But one night he saw him in the room. Yet, when he spoke, the figure vanished. He at once entered this in his diary. Later he learnt that his friend had died that night in India. He told the story at the time, wrote an account of it, and repeated it later in his Autobiography.

Similar stories critically tested are given in Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death by Frederick Myers, President of the Society for Psychical Research. For example, he tells how a choir-master saw his soloist coming up the stairs holding a sheet of music. He went to meet him, and he vanished. At once he told his household. Later he learnt that the singer had been killed that morning. Possibly his last thought was a wish to let his choirmaster know that he could not sing that night.

If in certain cases quite ordinary people can appear to their friends after death, is it unreasonable to think that Jesus may have done the same? Myers makes the sweeping statement, `I predict that in consequence of the new evidence all reasonable men a century hence will believe in the resurrection of Christ.'

But a different tradition was superimposed on these Easter appearances. To every Jew resurrection meant resurrection of flesh and bones. In 2 Maccabees a Jew boasts, as his bowels gush out through a wound, that God will give him back those bowels at the Resurrection. Paul contradicted this, `Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God'; `there is a physical body and a heavenly body'; `as we have borne the likeness of the earthy, we shall bear the likeness of the heavenly'. This teaching fits well with the Easter appearances, the passing through closed doors, the appearing and disappearing.

But into these stories crept the idea that the Risen Christ had a solid body, `Handle Me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see I have.'

This belief in a corporal resurrection seemed endorsed by the empty tomb. The evidence for this is strong. All four Gospels record that on Sunday the women found the tomb that they visited empty. But two questions are possible: Did they go to the right tomb? They were Galileans in a strange city. They had watched the burial from a distance by fast fading light. Professor Macalister, Supervisor of the excavations of the Palestine Exploration Fund, says of the rock-hewn tombs round Jerusalem: `It is hardly an exaggeration to apply the adjective "honey-combed". The tombs are packed closely enough to make the identification of a particular one a matter of some difficulty.'

Or, if they went to the right tomb, had Joseph been there first? The Friday burial had been hurried, and the tomb chosen, `because it was close at hand'. The women did not arrive till Sunday. But on Saturday evening, when Sabbath ended, while the women were buying spices, Joseph and his servants may have moved the body to a more convenient resting-place. But, if either of these suggestions is true, when the Apostles proclaimed the Resurrection, why did not Annas confute them by opening the right tomb?

[If Joseph had removed the body, he may have re-dressed it more befittingly before reburial.]

The answer is simple. The Resurrection was not preached in Jerusalem till Pentecost. In Palestine fifty days after death a body would be unrecognizable. And Joseph may have shrunk from exposing his fellow-believers to ridicule, if on the main point he was convinced that they were right; the appearances proved that Jesus was alive.

But, if the bones of Jesus crumbled into dust in some unknown tomb, is the creed of Christendom a delusion? Not necessarily. To the disciples the empty tomb was a confirmation of their faith; but they did not base their belief on it. Paul did not even mention it, when recounting the proofs of the Resurrection.

It was the appearances that caused the Church to rise from the dead. Peter believed in the Resurrection, not because he had failed to find a dead Christ, but because he had seen a living one.

This long preamble has almost lost sight of Peter; but the evidence had to be tested. If the Resurrection was not real, Peter spent the rest of his life proclaiming a lie. But, if he did see Jesus alive after death, we can understand his eagerness to make this known.

What had he seen? Early on Easter morning he was roused by Mary of Magdala with the news, `They have taken the Master out of the tomb, and we know not where they have laid Him.' She fetched the Beloved Disciple too, and he and Peter ran to investigate. The younger man outran Peter, but paused at the mouth of the tomb. Peter characteristically went right in, and found the body gone, but the sheet and head-band left behind.' This merely mystified him. `He went back wondering what had happened.'

Then, before any other Apostle, Peter saw Jesus. Paul wrote, `He was seen by Kephas, then by the Twelve.' The disciples from Emmaus were told, `The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon.' Paul merely says, `He was seen.' If any word was spoken, it is not recorded. Peter suddenly realized that Someone was in the room. To his amazement it was Jesus. His Master appeared, and then perhaps vanished.

That Sunday evening some of them met behind locked doors for supper. Peter was there and nine other Apostles, and `others who were with them'. Most of them had no hope of seeing Jesus. When some of the women declared they had seen Him, this seemed to most of them `mere nonsense'. But Peter convinced them that he had seen Him. Mary of Magdala said that He had spoken to her. Two, who had left for Emmaus, arrived, asserting that Jesus had joined them on the road. Then with a gasp they saw Him in the room. No door had opened, but He was there. They could see His scars. Their first reaction was terror; but `He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.' They remembered perhaps such texts as: `Thou wilt not leave My soul in Sheol.' `Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.'

The Apostles stayed in Jerusalem all that Passover week; but one remained incredulous. Thomas had been absent from the Sunday supper, and he asked for tangible proof. `Nothing will convince me, unless I touch with my hand the wounds in His hands and side.' Peter and he probably had many an argument together. On the following Sunday, however, Thomas was with them. Again Jesus appeared, though the door was barred. He showed His hands and drew aside His robe, inviting Thomas to apply his test. But Thomas's doubts vanished. He cast himself adoringly at Christ's feet.

The scene now shifts to Galilee. `On the last Day of Unleavened Bread,' says the Gospel of Peter, `we, the disciples, went each to his own home.' In the North the appearances continued.

An Appendix to `John' describes one by the Lake of Galilee. The fishermen had resumed their trade. If Judas had decamped with the common purse, funds were perhaps running low. One morning Peter and six others, as they returned from fishing, saw Someone on the shore. The Beloved Disciple exclaimed, `It is the Lord,' and Peter sprang overboard, and waded ashore to greet Him. The others followed in the boat. All through their breakfast, Jesus remained visible; but `no one dared ask, Who art Thou? for they knew it was the Lord'.

As He moved away, Peter followed; and the Report says that thrice Jesus asked, `Do you love Me?' Thrice Peter reaffirmed his love; and three commissions were given him. `Feed My lambs'; `Shepherd My sheep'; `Feed My flock.' He was to be no longer merely a fisher of men, a recruiting agent, but a shepherd, guarding, guiding, and feeding the flock. Then came a veiled prophecy, that Peter would be crucified: `When you were young, you buckled your belt, and went wherever you wished. When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will bind you, and take you where you do not wish.'

When he asked the fate of the Beloved Disciple, he received a gentle rebuff, `If I want him to stay till I return, is that your business?' This story shows what was remembered about Peter in the generation that followed his death, his many-sided pastoral work and his crucifixion.

`Matthew' records another Galilean appearance: `The Eleven went to the hill which Jesus had appointed. When they saw Him, they bowed to the ground; but some doubted.' The last words verify the story. No romancer would have pictured the Apostles as still in doubt. This may be the meeting of which Paul said, `He was seen by more than five hundred of the Brethren at once.' A lonely spot in the Galilean hills was the most likely place for so large a gathering. The resurrection rumours must have excited many Northern disciples. A word from the Eleven would collect them. They saw Him coming down the hill. If some doubted, it was but for a moment, for Paul implied that all were ready to declare they had seen Him.

There were possibly other Galilean appearances, for Acts says, `He showed Himself alive, being seen during forty days.' But Pentecost, the next Feast of Obligation, drew them back to Jerusalem. Ten days before the Feast Jesus appeared once more. He told them, `Wait in the city till you are clothed with power from on high.' Then He led them to the Mount of Olives. Here a wild hope seized them. Zechariah had foretold a dramatic coming of Messiah to that spot, `His feet shall stand on the Mount,' and then, after certain startling physical convulsions ('the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, and the land shall become a plain'), `the Lord shall be King over all the earth'. So they eagerly asked, `Is it today that You are going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?' He replied, `No one knows the dates which the Father has reserved for His own decision.'

Then He lifted His hands, and blessed them, and quietly disappeared; but, instead of fading away as on former occasions, He seemed to rise upwards, till a cloud hid Him from their sight. The quietness of this story helps to confirm its truth.

The Epistola Apostolorum (written about A.D. 150) shows how a myth-maker would have told it: `As He spoke, there came thunder and lightning and earthquake, and Heaven opened, and a glowing cloud appeared and carried Him up, and voices of many Angels sounded, exulting and singing His praise.'

As they walked back, Peter pondered on this new way of departure. He had a knack of recalling Old Testament texts, when faced with a puzzling problem. He remembered now a Psalmist's words, `Jehovah said to my lord, Sit at My Right Hand, till I make thy foes thy footstool.' To him this explained everything.

`God has taken Jesus,' he said, `to share His throne, till His hour of triumph arrives.' His friends accepted this theory, and `returned to Jerusalem with great joy'. And this is taken for granted in the rest of the New Testament, e.g. `He sat down at the Right Hand of the Majesty on High' (Heb. i. 3); `Seek those things that are above, where Christ sits at the Right Hand of God' (Col. iii. I). Hence they ceased to expect appearances, and they saw none.

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