Book Review: Christ's Resurrection in Early Christianity

Markus Vinzent, Christ's Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament, (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011).

One of the critical aspects of Christian thought is the belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Belief in the risen Christ lies at the heart of Christian faith for, in the words of Paul, "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain." (1 Cor 15:14). This is why Markus Vinzent's Christ's Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament will make waves of tsunami proportions throughout Christian scholarship. To be clear, Vinzent's research is not about whether or not Christ rose from the dead. Rather when, how and to whom did it become important to confess the risen Christ? Vinzent's answer to this question is, to be frank, startling:
Had Marcion [of Sinope]... not picked up Paul's letters and put them together with a Gospel, the Resurrection of Christ would presumably never have made its way into the Christian creed. The myth of God incarnate gave way, though only slowly and never fully, to the other myth of Jesus, the Risen Christ. (pg 2)

Through careful and, it must be said, extremely meticulous research in early Christian writings Vinzent shows how, following Paul, there appears a "resurrection vacuum" (my words) until the mid-second Century. Importantly, this prompts the question "Why?". Throughout many of the early Christian writings there is an observable lack of reference to the resurrection. Or, at the very least, a greater importance placed upon the incarnation and death of Christ.

Vinzent's answer to this question is that it was Marcion of Sinope who provided the stimulus for the resurgence in importance placed upon the resurrection. Not just that, Vinzent also suggests that Marcion was the first to call a text "Gospel" (pg 82) and the first to suggest the need for a "New Testament" (in conjunction with his rejection of the "Old Testament"). New and Old Testament is, of course, common language in our modern Bibles, but was revolutionary at the time. Maricon proposed, for his New Testament, a version of Luke (which Vinzent calls "pre-Luke") combined with the writings of Paul. Marcion's strong emphasis upon the writings of Paul provided this stimulus for the resurgence in resurrection theology. Vinzent reminds us that Paul's apostleship was different to "the twelve" in that his only encounter with Jesus (and thus his right to be called an apostle) was with the Risen Christ on the Damascus road. This explains, for Vinzent, Paul's emphasis in his writings upon the Resurrection, and also provided a corpus of writings that appealed to Marcion's theological emphases.

What is particularly interesting, though, is just how far Vinzent takes his hypothesis, even suggesting that Marcion created "the Gospel", and did not just use it as a source.
With.. the noticed discrepancy in the reception of Paul and the non-reception of the Gospel narratives, we suggest taking the discussion one step further and ask, might it be the case that Marcion neither found, nor used, nor edited the Gospel, but produced it in his Roman classroom? (pg 86)
Working from this basis he then proposes that:
Marcion's venture was soon replicated by other teachers who contributed, altered, broadened or nuanced both the letters and the Gospel according to their respective needs and interests... In response to Marcion, others relying on him and on each other's texts and knowledge reworked Marcion's text, produced Mark..., Matthew..., Luke..., all with references to the added Old Testament. (pg 88)
In other words, there was in response to Marcion, and indeed because of Marcion, a kind of "Resurrection Mania"
Only as a result of Marcion's rediscovery of Paul, and his promotion of the 'Gospel' within his 'New Testament', did Christ's Resurrection regain a place in the memory of Christianity. As soon as the fourfold Gospel with Easter narratives was born, the Resurrection message, despite the inclusion of so many non-Resurrection letters in the broadened New Testament, began to grow in importance... Only in those circles that were heavily influenced by Marcion did a Resurrection 'mania' develop. (pg 111)
There is indeed much more that could be said about this monumental work. My own limited knowledge restricts my ability to fully engage with this work, simply because there is so much research that has gone into it. Scholars will debate this book for years to come. Not just historians, but theologians, Biblical scholars and indeed those interested in early forms of Christian worship. That is why this book will have a lasting legacy well beyond its publication year. I'm certain many will criticize Vinzent's thesis, methodology and conclusions, but one thing is for certain: this work will not and can not be ignored. His conclusions are wide-reaching and long-lasting and demand a considered and thoughtful response. For that alone, Vinzent's work should be respected. There is no greater way to do this, for a scholar, than to actually engage with it.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Vinzent or not, his research question remains highly significant and so demands an appropriate answer. Why, after Paul's death, is there an observable vacuum in references to the resurrection? When did this change? Who instigated this change? How did that change come about?

It is clear that by the fourth century the resurrection become central to Nicene faith ("On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures" - Nicene Creed). If indeed Marcion is the solution to this conundrum, as Vinzent proposes, then it will require a collective swallowing of pride to accept that one who is historically considered a heretic played such a vital role in the formation of Christian belief. Vinzent (in citing Stanton) reminds us of the pertinence of this often neglected aspect of the formation of theological belief.
Rivals often influence one another to a much greater extent that they - and scholars - are aware. (pg 79)
Those who would wish to disagree with Vinzent will need to keep that in mind.

This book will be necessary reading for Church historians, Pauline scholars (particularly those interested in the reception of Paul), historical theologians, liturgical scholars, Biblical Scholars (particularly those interested in the formation of the canon), and those interested in the interplay between orthodoxy and heresy. Did I miss anyone? I commend it to you.

Comments

  1. Dear Adam,
    I am humbled and honoured by your review, the very first that this book receives, and that you capture both nature and sense of what I tried to achieve with it. If the discussion continues on this level, the years of work were worth investing,
    yours Markus

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for coming and reading this review, Professor Vinzent, and for taking the time to comment.
    Every blessing
    Adam

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Adam,
    Thanks for posting this. I find these kinds of deep questions and challenges very good. At the very least, they force us to consider what we believe, and what is necesary for salvation etc.

    I think the time is right for these kinds of questions to be asked. I think that there are a number of 'tsunamis' that are surging through the church at the moment. This is good. The time is right for a lot of changes to come flooding through the church and doctrine.

    It gladens my heart to no end to know that there are Officers like yourself at the SFOT. When I was there in 1995/96, we were very resistent to this kind of thinking. We had the likes of Terry Grey, Bruce Domorow who challenged our thinking beyond measure - and they copped a lot of flack for it (bruce being proud of the label of 'heretic', and Terry's nick name in our session was 'Terry-shades-of-grey'). It's great to see that still happens. Maybe, as a result of these questions, the way will be paved one day for me to come back to Officership - at the moment, my theology is too liberal to be allowed to serve in Officership.

    Yours in Christ
    Graeme Randall
    Former Australian East.

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