S. Apollinare Nuovo Marys at TombFor nearly all of their religion’s history, the vast majority of Christians have taken for granted that the single most important of their beliefs, is that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Everything about their religion, they assume, revolves around that. This assumption goes back to the first century; the apostle Paul, for example, wrote:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. (1 Cor 15:13-14)

Yesterday, though, the Religion News Service asked what, for many Christians, is (WebCite cached article) an unthinkable question: “Can you question the Resurrection and still be a Christian?” RNS’s response to that question is a collection of nuanced views held by modern Christians. But having studied early Christianity, I can offer a different answer, one that goes back to the religion’s first decades and is based on scriptural scholarship.

Since the 19th century, scholars understand that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a good deal in common. That commonality gave these three the moniker “synoptic,” meaning they’re similar. The most common explanation for what they have in common, is that the evangelists who wrote Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, as well as another document which no longer exists. This other document is known as Q, which stands for German Quelle, meaning “source” (German being the native language of most Biblical scholars at the time). Q is sometimes referred to as “the Sayings Gospel” or “the Lost Gospel.”

Comparing and contrasting the content of the synoptic gospels provided a fairly good view of what Q must have been like. And based on what they found, it must have been a collection of Jesus’ sayings, with minimal — or possibly no — narrative content.

There was, of course, a rather glaring problem with this: Early Christian documents of this type were unknown. Nothing of that kind had been preserved by Christian communities. This hypothesis, then, appeared highly improbable.

That changed in 1945 when a cache of heretofore-unknown Christian documents was found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Among these was something called the Gospel of Thomas, and rather remarkably, it was precisely such a document: A collection of Jesus’ sayings. Thomas didn’t have the same content as Q, although up to half of Thomas’ content may have been the same as, or very similar to, Q. Finding a document of the same style, written in classical times, suggested that the hypothesized Q very well might have existed.

Now, because Q contained virtually no narrative, this meant it didn’t describe Jesus’ passion, death, or resurrection. Yet it probably existed by the late 40s CE (which is right around the time the earliest of Paul’s genuine epistles might have been written). It likely was based on an oral tradition, meaning it was even older than that.

So we know there were Christians collecting and recording Jesus’ sayings, but not, apparently, his resurrection. This is significant: They thought well enough of Jesus’ teachings to record them for posterity, but not enough of his resurrection to preserve that story. Assuming they believed in the latter, it’s difficult to account for such a choice. If Jesus’ resurrection were as central — and mandatory — to their religion as Paul said it was in 1 Corinthians, it seems truly odd that the authors of Q would have left it out, when they’d made the effort to preserve his teachings.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to conclude the earliest Christians, who’d contributed to Q and thence to the synoptic gospels, didn’t believe Jesus had been resurrected. We see, then, that at least one of the earliest Christian communities didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection. (Aside, of course, from the Corinth church, which Paul’s letter tells us also didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection.) Even so, the resurrection-less “Q community” managed just fine, without it.

Now, a lot of Christian apologists would condemn this reasoning because it’s based on speculation. And it is. The Q source no longer exists, and it hasn’t since around the turn of the 2nd century (and possibly before then). It’s true this is a lot of speculation, but it happens to be well-founded. The existence of a collection of Jesus’ sayings (i.e. Q) is currently the best explanation for how the synoptic gospels came into existence as they are; and given that it must have existed, it’s not hard to distill from the synoptics what its content must originally have included. We can, and should, feel free to reach conclusions based on this information … at least, until we discover flaws in this model. (To date, while this “two-source hypothesis” has some critics, especially among fundamentalist Christians, it remains the majority view of scholars.)

The final question that ought to be crossing your mind right now, is: How could one group of 40s CE Christians have been writing their own sayings gospel — which didn’t even mention Jesus’ resurrection, so that evidently they didn’t think it occurred — at nearly the same time the apostle Paul insisted the resurrection was a mandatory component of Christianity and its single most important facet? Here we stumble upon a rather profound problem, which is that, even in the earliest years of their religion, Christians did not all agree as to what Jesus’ teachings were or the meaning of his ministry. Different Christian groups, even in the religion’s initial decades, had very different approaches to the new faith. That much is incontrovertible. As for what that means … well, for the moment I’ll leave that up to you, Dear Reader.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Responses to “Is Christianity Possible Without The Resurrection?”
  1. JMC says:

    Some evidence and at least one point of view can be found in the book Christ's Ventriloquists. I have recently been reading it and am interested in other people's thoughts on it. If the author is right, Paul invented Christianity in order to keep his followers from leaving him. James wanted Paul to get his followers to cut off their foreskin to seal the contract with God. James, the leader of the Jewish sect Paul had been leading, said nothing of any resurrection, ever. Paul did. He did it in a way that created a false enemy (the very sect he belonged to before he invented the resurrection story in Galatians), and simultaneously created the trinity, putting jeans beside God and himself directly underneath them.

    • PsiCop says:

      Just a note about those theories that Paul "invented" Christianity … one must be careful with those. From what we know, based on the evidence we have, that can't really have happened.

      First, Paul was a convert to a movement that already existed, and while he may have innovated a bit within it, he obviously could not have created it. Second, as is clear from the existence of the Q community in Galilee, as well as others (and as I mentioned in the blog post) by the time Paul was missionizing for his Christ-cult, other Jesus movements already existed. So on that score, too, he could not have created them. Any "Paul invented Christianity" claim necessarily collapses, based solely on chronology. Third, while Paul definitely set the stage for some important notions buried deep within Christianity (such as, that the Gentiles need not obey Mosaic Law), additional materials, subsequent to him and quite independent of him, added to the religion. Some of this material was added by the evangelists, who wrote a few decades after he did, as well as the pseudo-Pauline authors, and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews. He could not have added those to the faith since, quite obviously, he wasn't alive to do so.

      When you get right down to it, while Paul was alive and missionizing, Christianity was still a collection of movements around the eastern Empire, only some of which were even aware of each other, and some weren't even very much like his own. There's no way he could have "invented" all of them, and decades after his own death, later welded them all into one religion of his own devising. Conspiratorial thinking of this sort rarely leads to any sound conclusions. It may well be said that later generations of Christians, within some of those other movements, later found some of Paul's writings and adapted their faiths to them, but that couldn't have been his doing.