In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Dale Allison joins Pete and Jared to discuss historical criticism and the resurrection. Together, they explore the following questions:
- What complexities are raised by the story of Jesus’ resurrection for historians?
- Why don’t miracles fare very well with modern historians?
- Why might Christians have an aversion to historical investigation in regard to biblical events/stories?
- From the perspective of modern historians, does evidence surrounding the resurrection demand a verdict?
- When you compile all the primary sources on the resurrection, how much data do you have?
- How do historians process the cultural impact and significant movement that stemmed from the Easter faith?
- Does disillusionment always lead to the end of a movement?
- Christianity began as a tiny movement and now it’s a worldwide religion. Isn’t that proof that Jesus rose from the dead?
- How do you bring Christian faith and historical analysis together?
- What impact does your worldview have on your interpretation of data?
- Can you believe in something that you can’t prove historically?
- Why is the series of events surrounding the resurrection so fascinating to historians?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Dale Allison you can share:
- “I’m a Christian, but I’m also a historian and I’m also a doubter. And I have questions. And somehow, over the years, I’ve been able to have these different parts of me be friendly with one another.” -Dale C. Allison
- “Here’s the problem. The resurrection may be the center of Christian theology, but that doesn’t mean it’s the epistemological foundation. You can have important beliefs that aren’t epistemological foundations.” -Dale C. Allison
- “Historical conclusions just aren’t the way most people get into the church door and they’re not the way most people end up coming to terms with Jesus. Faith has other sources and other origins.” -Dale C. Allison
- “It’s primarily Christians who have doubts because they’re modern people who want to prove the resurrection to themselves, but they’ve come to believe in it on other grounds beforehand. It’s this modern sense that if we can’t prove it historically, then we can’t believe it at all. But I don’t think that way.” -Dale C. Allison
- “We are always, whether we are conscious of it or not, reading scripture through experience and tradition and reason. There is no other possibility here.” -Dale C. Allison
- “Life is difficult for everybody. The Bible is part of life; it was produced by human beings. As helpful as it can be in many ways, and as inspiring, it is also difficult and it raises questions and things are just not clear. It’s like the rest of life. You have to work and struggle.” -Dale C. Allison
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: The Resurrection of Jesus
- Book: Encountering Mystery
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Welcome, everyone to this episode of the podcast. Today we’re talking about “Approaching the Resurrection of Jesus as a Historian,” and we’re talking to Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological, Dale Allison.
Pete: Yeah. And Dale wrote a book about a year or so ago called The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. And it’s really an amazing book and that’s really the basis for a lot of our discussion today. And I read this, and I was just so taken by his honesty and also with, I would say, not jumping to conclusions one way or the other about what he’s finding, because he’s also a person of faith, but he’s also looking as a historian. And that, you know, Jared, the other book, he mentioned, I want to mention, here at the outset, Encountering Mystery, which is coming out sometime this summer. I read an early version of that and it was, it’s a beautiful book talking about why he looks at the world the way that he does, and that affects how he looks at the Bible and it’s really quite fascinating stuff. But I thought it was a fantastic episode today.
Jared: I think is representative of what we do at the Bible for Normal People, which I think for some is frustrating. But I’ve found it over the years to be of great comfort that there is a lot out there in terms of what the Bible is. What is the resurrection? What happened in the Exodus? What about Jonah? There’s all these questions. And we end with, again, maybe more questions than we have answers, but understanding that maybe that’s also just the nature of reality, we better get comfortable with…
Pete: Yeah, and of being human.
Pete: Yeah, that we just, are we really expected to know.
Pete: Is this all kind of come down to one big theology exam one day? I don’t think so.
Jared: But also, I think too, the flip side of that is I appreciate folks like Dale, and I think you and I where just because maybe we can’t get to the black and white slam dunk answers doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook for learning and growing, and doing the research that we can do.
Pete: Quite the opposite. We were obligated to do that. But not out of a sense of maybe freedom and expectation rather than fear.
Jared: Fear. Exactly.
Pete: Yeah, you don’t want to be driven by that. And I mean, to hear Dale talk about himself as a person, but also as a historian, and living with that tension? That describes a lot of people I know, quite frankly, maybe for different reasons. But I know I’m a Christian. I’m supposed to believe this. I think I do, but intellectually, I have these questions. Well, that’s not uncommon.
Jared: Yeah. That journey of integration of how do we, how do we live with these different parts of ourselves that sometimes are in conflict with one another? Yeah, right. All right. Well, let’s jump into it.
Dale: I am a Christian. But I’m also a historian, and I’m also a doubter. And I have questions. And somehow over the years, I’ve been able to have these different parts of me be friendly with one another. I don’t have to have certainty. And I don’t even have to have one dominant personality. I think we are all always reading the text through our experiences, whatever those experiences may be.
Jared: Well, welcome to the podcast, Dale. It’s great to have you.
Dale: Thanks for having me.
Pete: Yeah. Well, so Dale, we are wondering today about the resurrection. That’s a small topic, isn’t it? That’s not at all central to Christianity. But, you know, the resurrection is something that, you know, Christians have, I guess, in one form or another confessed for a very long time. And, you know, today it’s something that is usually said to be a very true historical event. But when historians look at this, it raises some complexities. And I thought we could just spend some time talking about some of those complexities that the reality of making historical claims like this.
Jared: Well, can I ask it as this way of saying—why is it a complexity for historians? What makes it complex for historians?
Dale: Well, there are at least two reasons that are obvious. First of all, when you look at the New Testament accounts themselves, they don’t seem to agree about things. So, Luke and John have the first resurrection appearances in Jerusalem. It looks like in Mark and Matthew, the first resurrection appearances are in Galilee. And there are all sorts of other details. These are famous or infamous.
And then the second thing, obviously, is that this is a so-called miracle and miracles haven’t fared very well among professional historians in the last three centuries or so. And this is an outstanding aberration, if you will, if it happened.
And by the way, I should add that historians, modern historians don’t just have doubts about miracles because they’re prejudiced secular people, they have doubts about miracles because of a history of learning that lots of stories people used to believe, just aren’t believable anymore. There are, for example, I’ll just stop here. But there are saints that used to be on the Roman Catholic calendar, and they took them off because the historians decided these people didn’t exist, or none of the stories about them are true.
So, since the Renaissance, and especially in the Enlightenment, we have case after case of things people believed and that people no longer believe anymore, or think we have good reason to doubt. So, there’s a long history here of story after story being doubted, or story after story being undone and that gives you a certain frame of mind for approaching history. And there are many historians who just take it for granted that you certainly can’t invoke God or the miraculous when you’re trying to figure out what happened in the past.
Pete: So, we have a certain kind of a historical consciousness now that might not have been shared by people many centuries ago and that raises different kinds of questions. And I guess the tension that many people feel is, I mean, not to put this too simplistically, but there are Christians who have a faith in certain aspects of the New Testament, let’s say miracles, the resurrection specifically, that are unquestioned, but they’re living in the modern world where people are questioning these things all the time. And I think that creates a tremendous amount of tension for Christians trying to wade through this stuff. And I think maybe it suggests an aversion for historical investigation and what that can give you or not give you. I think it also brings an apologetics industry to defend certain ways of thinking about the resurrection.
Dale: Yeah, that’s true. I certainly have students who take classes with me and then they never want to see me again. Or sometimes they’ll say, “Well, that’s really interesting, but I just can’t pursue it, because I think I will lose my faith. I’m just not one of those people.”
I don’t know how to think about this psychologically, but I’m a multiple personality of sorts. And so, I’m a Christian, but I’m also a historian, and I’m also a doubter. And I have questions. And somehow over the years, I’ve been able to have these different parts of me be friendly with one another. I don’t have to have certainty and I don’t even have to have one dominant personality. Maybe that’s hard to understand. But if you want to say I’m a conflicted personality, that’s true, in that I hold different points of view and I’m not certain about many things, but that doesn’t give me anxiety. I don’t know what the psychological explanation for that is, but I think I’ve been capable of looking at important religious beliefs and asking the honest question, is that really true? Should I give that one up? Yeah. I’ll just stop there.
Jared: So, when it comes to the resurrection, what’s the process that you’ve gone through as a historian? You know, what are the main pieces of evidence, if you will, that helped you wade through whether this is a historically accurate account? Not historically accurate account? What are the options? What was that process like for you? And what did you do? How did you do that?
Dale: So, I don’t know that I can describe that because I really think that would cover the better part of 1,2,3…5 decades. So, when I was in college, I read a book by a famous theologian named Wolfhart Pannenberg and this was his Christology—a book on who Jesus was, Jesus’s identity. And he has a section in there in which he argues that the resurrection of Jesus is the, or the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead is actually the best explanation for the data. And I remember very vividly reading this and standing up at some point and saying, “What did this guy just do?” I’m not convinced, but what did he do and what’s wrong with what he did? And so, I started reading books on this subject, and I’ve been reading books and articles on this ever since, as a sort of appendix or epilogue to my doctoral dissertation. I had a few pages on resurrection. And then I ended up I think, in 2005, publishing a book where I had a long long essay on Resurrection, about a 200-page essay.
And then this book that just came out is much longer than that. So, I’ve just been thinking about this for decades and decades. I can tell you if this is what you’re looking for, I can tell you some of my conclusions at this point.
Jared: Absolutely, yeah.
Dale: As a historian, I do think that at the end of the day, the arguments in favor of an empty tomb are better than those against it. But this is not a conclusion that I hold with 100% assurance. There are arguments to be made for and against. I’m also very sure that some of Jesus’s followers—and my bet would be the first one was Mary Magdalene and the second was Peter—there were people who believed that they saw Jesus after He was dead after he had been crucified. And I also think that they were operating with the expectation of resurrection, before the crucifixion, so at least that’s how the Gospels present things. That is, they actually have Jesus predicting his resurrection ahead of time.
Now, as a historian, there are lots of things I can say about those passion predictions, but I do think the basic point is that Jesus expected to suffer and die. And then he looked forward to vindication, which in his time and place took the form of resurrection. So, the category is already there.
So, I think once the tomb is empty, and then once people have these experiences of seeing him, however you explain them, it’s natural because of their expectations to say, “Oh, he’s risen from the dead,” or “the resurrection of the dead has begun.” You need to remember that Luke himself, I mean, one of the Gospels just makes it clear, Luke 19, it says that the disciples when they went up to Jerusalem, were expecting the kingdom of God to appear immediately. And one of the things that they must have expected, given who they were, was the resurrection of the dead. So, it’s a category that’s there for them to draw upon and once they have an empty tomb. And these experiences, of course, as a historian, it’s not clear how much that that gives you because there are multiple explanations for an empty tomb. And actually, tomb robbing was not uncommon in antiquity, as odd as that may seem to us. And then the whole question of what exactly people were seeing, and how would you explain these testimonies is very, very difficult. Once you look into the literature, let’s say, on visions and collective visions, it’s all very confusing and very hard to know what to do with.
So, the conclusions I just shared with you, which put the origin of this belief down to three things: to the discovery of the empty tomb, to these visions or encounters with Jesus, and pre-Easter expectations. Those three things don’t add up to the Christian conclusion, because you can give if you want to a skeptical, or a non-Christian interpretation of that data.
So, on the one hand, my conclusions are conservative as a historian, because I think the tomb was probably empty and actually think the belief in Jesus’s resurrection goes back to the first week after the crucifixion. And those are conclusions that apologists or conservative Christians are happy with. But the apologists don’t agree with me when it comes to my, I think it’s just recognition, that those facts themselves don’t prove that God raised Jesus from the dead. There are multiple options here for what I would say, are reasonable people.
Pete: Right, right. Many years ago, you may be familiar with a book by an apologist Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict.
Dale: Uh huh.
Pete: I think what you’re saying is, well, there’s evidence but it doesn’t demand a single verdict. There are multiple models or paradigms we can use to explain these things. Again, I want to stress from the point of view of let’s say, the modern historian. Right, would you say that’s a fair way of putting it?
Dale: Yeah, that’s a fair way of putting it. I would also say that if a modern historian looks at the data, the data is a lot, let’s say, thinner, than a lot of apologists make out. So, we do have this reference in 1 Corinthians 15 to Jesus appearing to 500 people. Now there’s nothing, apparently, about this in the Gospels. I think the reason for that is that whatever this experience was, it probably took place after Pentecost. So that’s why it’s not in the Gospels, because they don’t cover or go into the later period.
But every question you want to ask about this appearance to 500, just, you just can’t answer it. So, you don’t know who these people were. You don’t know who gathered them together or for what purpose. You don’t know how they saw Jesus? Did they see him in the clouds like Constantine and his army, you know, saw the sign to conquer in the sky? Or you know, what else is going on? Is there a receiving line? Who counts the people?
I mean, it’s just every single question you want to ask, you can’t answer. All you have is this bear statement by Paul, that you know that this happened, that’s it. And for a historian, that’s nothing but frustrating. And if you are familiar with religious history, you know that Roman Catholics, for example, will frequently refer to sightings, collective sightings of Mary, or to experiences that multiple people have witnessed. And it just doesn’t prove anything.
If somebody says, “Well, you know, there were 100 Roman Catholics in Venezuela 25 years ago, who saw Mary,” and that’s the end of the sentence, you don’t say, “Okay, I’m convinced.” You just say, “Okay, can I learn anything more than that?” So, Paul’s statement there, I think is a dead end. It’s a dead end for apologists, but it’s a dead end for it for everybody. And much in the Gospels, when you think about it, historically, is very thin.
Jared: And I think that’s a good word. Because I think what I, from what I know of historical processes in terms of understanding what happened, there’s also this idea of having corroboration so that you’re, the evidence is strengthened when you have other sources saying similar things. And thinking about putting the pieces of history together, as more of a process that is on the spectrum of we’re more and more confident of it and we’re less than less confident of it rather than it definitely happened or definitely didn’t happen. I think the whole framework of doing history is unsettling for maybe some more conservative Christians who want it to be black and white, or it did or it didn’t. And here’s the slam dunk. Like the “evidence that demands a verdict,” I would say, would you say the historical process itself rarely comes up with evidence that demands a verdict. But it’s, again, this process of building evidence over time and corroboration. And the New Testament, there’s not a lot of outside corroboration for some of these things.
Dale: Oh, that’s absolutely true. And I would just add that the farther back in history you go, the harder things are. So, we have a lot more materials to work with, let’s say for Winston Churchill, or World War II than we have for absolutely anything in the first century. And so, one of the problems is that the sources come from a long time ago. And they’re just, look, Mark has eight verses on the resurrection. That’s it. And Matthew has 20. And if you add, Luke, you’ve got another chapter. And John has chapters 20 and 21. And then Paul has, you know, this little creed, it’s very short, in 1 Corinthians 15. And those are our primary sources of data. And when you add them up, they’re really not much of any, I could put them all I could photocopy those chapters and put them all on my desk and I could have all the data right there. Compared to modern sources, that’s just, it’s just nothing.
And you know, things happen in modern times, which are not susceptible to proof or disproof. I was alive when President Kennedy was assassinated. And once in a while, I’ll read a book on the Kennedy assassination. And I’ll wonder whether the Warren Commission got it right. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t look to me like a slam dunk that they got it right. But the point is, the data for that is unbelievable. We have all sorts of investigations and eyewitnesses and reports from the scene and so on and so on and so on. And even in a case like that, people disagree. So compared to that mountain of material that people are still wading through and unearthing and so on, we just have very little to go on. So, again, I prefer the word frustrating. I’m often just frustrated, if I’m honest.
Let me add, though, as a sort of footnote here, that I think we make progress even among my friends, the apologists. So, a couple of people recently have forwarded what they call a minimal facts approach to the resurrection. And what they’re sort of confessing is we can’t just take the sources at face value. So, let’s start with two or three facts that everybody agrees on. And then we’ll see what the interpretation is. And I think that’s a better way to go about this than people have in the past. Now, I’m still not on board. I think that there are, I don’t see anything here that demands a verdict, or that would compel, let’s say, an atheist to change his or her mind. But it is a recognition that the sources are really thin, and we’re going to have to draw our inferences from very little data.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, something came to mind just now. And I want to ask you something. And I don’t want our listeners to misunderstand my motivation. I’m not trying to slam certain arguments, I just want to ask you, again, as a historian, how you would process this. But a common defense that I’ve heard of the resurrection, which I have to say, is not utterly uncompelling to me. I mean, to be honest with you, but it’s the impact that the Easter faith had on the communities and how that started a rather significant movement in world history. So, from a historic, again, I’m asking you as a historian, from a historical point of view, how do you process that? I know Tom Wright, for example, that’s a large element of his talking about the historicity of the resurrection. But how do you process that?
Dale: Well, I. So here, I think you have to look at the sociologists, and the sociologists are able to look at different religious movements, and to show us how they sometimes overcome or survive, failure and even prosper. So, you know, that Seventh-Day Adventism actually begins with a couple of failed prophecies. And many people were disillusioned and left the movement, but many of them found the strength, or the resolve to carry on. And we see the same thing today with some Hasidic Jews whose leader they thought was the Messiah and who departed, who died in the 1990s. And they were totally devastated by this, because they expected him to rule and set up the kingdom. But their movement is thriving as much as ever. And people report experiencing his presence and some people report seeing him and they carry his throne into the synagogue still. So, he’s an invisible presence for them. Anyway, the point is that as dismaying as I find this, I mean, I’m not thrilled by this. But if I’m just being honest, as a historian, it really is the case that human beings in some contexts can find the resources to rally and to continue. It is just not the case that disillusionment always is the end of a movement.
Pete: Yeah, it seems like, it depends on what you want to get out of that. That fact that there was a strong resurrection, let’s call it a fact. There was a strong resurrection faith on the part of the early followers of Jesus, we have early documentation of that in much of the New Testament. There’s a lot of the declaration and assumptions of Jesus being raised from the dead. But there are multiple understandings of how to account for those, let’s say, biblical data.
Dale: Yeah. So, look, I’m gonna get in trouble here. But, so I am a Christian, and I’m somebody who professes faith in Jesus’s resurrection, but I’m also somebody who doesn’t think that he can prove this to the satisfaction of all reasonable people. So, if you’re talking about the disciples rallying, and you know, being dismayed that their leader has died and how do we get this lively movement? Again, I think an atheist could just say, well, they were eschatologically excited. They were expectant. Luke 19 is absolutely right.
They thought that the last things were starting or that they were at hand and among which would be at the resurrection. And then they found the tomb empty. And then Mary and then afterwards Peter said, “Yeah, I’ve seen Jesus.” And then the enthusiasm began.
You know, I guess we like to think that good fruit comes from good trees or good roots. But you know, it’s just not always the case. So, I know some Mormons that are lovely people and bright and so on, I but I don’t buy their story. I don’t buy the Mormon story. I’m a skeptic. And I don’t believe in the golden tablets, and all sorts of things follow if you don’t believe in the golden tablets. But the fact that Mormonism did not begin with what I take to be real miracles doesn’t mean that it hasn’t become a world movement, that it hasn’t produced lots of wonderful people, and it hasn’t produced lots of good things for people. So I’m skeptical, again, as a historian of that sort of argument.
It reminds me a bit of the argument that you’ll occasionally run into that, you know, Christianity began with this tiny little movement, and now it’s a world religion. And isn’t the proof of that, that Jesus rose from the dead? Well, you know, Islam is also a world religion, it spread all over the globe, it seems to be doing pretty well, right now. Do you need God to explain that? So, you know, again, everything is complicated, right? And for every argument you want to make there’s an argument on the other side. That’s just the way the world is.
Pete: Well, let me, can I ask you, I mean, this is piggybacking on something you said just a few seconds ago, how, and I’m asking this, I’m gonna qualify this a little bit. I’m asking this because I know there are people listening who are in a similar place, as you are, and they say, you know, I’ve got my left brain is turned on. And I think these things and my, you know, right brain is turned on, and I’m much more comfortable with intuition and belief and things like that. But how, how do you bring together in some sense, your Christian faith and your historical analysis? Because that’s something that many, many people, frankly, have to live with. You know, and I don’t think there’s one answer to that question. But I’m just sort of asking, you know, help our listeners think out loud by bringing these two worlds into some sort of, you know, de taunt or something, you know, just where they can sort of live or coexist together.
Dale: Okay, so here’s the problem, the resurrection may be sort of the center of Christian theology, but that doesn’t mean it’s the epistemological foundation in the sense that that’s the one thing that you can prove, or should be able to prove and then everything follows from that. You can have important beliefs that aren’t epistemological foundations.
So, for me, the data, and I argued this clearly in the book, I say the data can be interpreted in multiple ways. So, what you end up doing, everybody just does this, it’s just a fact…you interpret the data according to your worldview. And I have a worldview, which includes a God with a Christian character, I have a worldview that allows for miracles and really weird and strange things. I actually have a worldview which allows for unexpected things that at every turn. So that’s a way of saying that we resolve the data or we interpret the data in the text, especially since it’s thin data by what we otherwise believe.
Now, once we come to the conclusion or think that we can reasonably hold or think because of our worldview, that Jesus rose from the dead, then that can become a central theological idea from which to work. But I don’t think you start with a sort of blank slate and say, “Okay, I have to prove the resurrection of Jesus, or my Christianity can’t get off the ground.” For me, faith has other sources, other origins, and history, you know, historical conclusions just aren’t the way most people get into the church door and they’re not the way most people end up, you know, coming to terms with Jesus.
Pete: Mm hmm.
My sense, actually, is that it’s primarily Christians who have doubts because they’re modern people who want to prove the resurrection to themselves, but they’ve come to believe in it on other grounds beforehand, right? But it’s this modern sense that if we can’t prove it, you know, historically, then we can’t believe it at all. But I don’t think that way. Again, I think that you can have a worldview, and you can defend it on rational grounds. And then you can use that worldview to interpret certain things that are not perfectly, perfectly clear. And by the way, I should say, the resurrection, it is amazing. That is, as a historian, I don’t know exactly what analogy is to this. I mean, you do have, you have an empty tomb. I think you do, and you have people reporting, seeing this fellow after he’s dead, and you have multiple people doing this. And you have a couple of occasions on which it appears more than one person thought they encountered this individual. And you have at least one, maybe two, we don’t know about James, but you know, at least one person who’s an outsider who gets converted by an encounter or vision. That’s a really fascinating series of events. And it has no obvious reductionistic explanation, you can come up with one. But it is an amazing series of events.
And so, I think it’s consistent with a Christian worldview, but I, again, I don’t see how, you know, the New Testament data, or the New Testament explained by a historian is going to convert people who are trying just to think through things rationally.
Pete: Right, yeah.
Dale: I haven’t. I’m not convinced. So maybe I’m just reading myself into other people, but the apologists don’t convince me.
Pete: Well, I think what you said before about worldviews, you know, sort of what we bring into this discussion. I know from reading a view elsewhere, books of yours, that you’re very clearly not a scientific materialist. So, could you just riff on that a little bit, explain what that means? And how that might give you, let’s say, more flexibility in looking at things like resurrection than other people who might be more of a scientific materialistic bent.
Dale: Okay, well, that actually leads to the next book I wrote, which will be out, I guess, this summer, which in part is a sort of attempt to share why I have the worldview that I have. But yeah, I am not a reductionistic materialist. I’m not a fan of what William James called medical materialism. I don’t think everything in the world can be reduced to chemicals and electricity as we currently understand them. So, there’s actually, I’m not going to do it here. But there’s a section in the book where I recall a totally outrageous experience that happened to me. Now, of course, I was the sole witness. So, nobody else should believe this. But I witnessed this event. And…
Pete: Well don’t you want to tell us what it is?
Dale: Oh, no, no, no. It’s too long a story.
Pete: Okay, okay.
Dale: But the gist of it is that I think an object dematerialized in one side of the room and then showed up on the other side of the room. So, I actually believe this, I have no explanation for it. I don’t think it was God. I don’t have an explanation for this at all. But I also have had visions myself, I’ve had mystical experiences myself, I’ve had a couple of encounters a parent, ostensible encounters with dead people, I personally don’t think they were simply projections. I think they were projections in response to incoming data.
Anyway, the point is, is that as I look at the world, you can’t stuff everything into the reductionistic box, and you can’t stuff everything into current scientific explanations. In fact, I think that the world is, if we could get rid of the social censorship that we have, I think people are constantly running into things that are inexplicable and actually running into some sort of religious or invisible or spiritual realm. So, this is part of my very, very important part of my worldview.
So, when I turn to the New Testament, a lot of the things for me are actually ho hum that make other people think, wow, could that have possibly ever happened? So let me just say one more thing, and I’m happy to do this, whether people think I’m nuts or not. But we need to be honest about our own experiences and what we think really happens.
So, I think on two occasions, only two, but I think on two occasions I saw things happen before they happened. In one case, a day before it happened in the other case, two weeks before it happened. I, honest to God, think this actually, I’d say I know it. And so, if that occasionally happens, it doesn’t boggle my mind that Jesus at points in the Gospels might say something about what’s going to happen in the future. And it comes to pass, that doesn’t mean that, you know, his prophecies are all historical, or he said them all just as they stand, and so on. But it does mean that when I look at them, my mind isn’t boggled. I don’t say from the start, well, that’s ridiculous, that could never happen so they all must be predictions after the fact. I just don’t start from that place. And I don’t start from that place with the resurrection.
So my own experiences, and those of people I know, in my study of visions, makes me think that some visions have vertical elements. That is, I don’t think all visions are simply subjective projections. And if you start with that, say, if you also think that when people are dead, they’re not dead, then you just come to the texts with a different point of view, a different starting place, a different presupposition.
There are people who come to the text, and they know that the dead are dead. And they know that all visions are hallucinations and that guides what they do. I start in a different place, and it guides what I do, even though I’m framing all my arguments in such a way that they can be understood by everybody, no matter what point of view, but there are going to be people who can’t follow me here or there because I simply have a different worldview.
Jared: I think that’s an important thing to talk about, which is how our personal experiences shaped that. Because it’s interesting to me, I’m kind of doing the logic here of I grew up in a Christian tradition that said we can’t trust our own experiences, we have to just trust the Bible and what it says or whatever. There’s this sense of objectivity, where my personal experiences actually don’t matter in the truth of things. And usually, that’s said in such a way that we need to believe in the miracles of the Bible, even if your personal experiences wouldn’t affirm that and how your story kind of flips that on its head a little bit to say, well, I believe these things because of my personal experiences, and you’re giving weight to that. And I just think that’s important to understand that in this mix of things, and you talk about different personalities, or different persona or frameworks that you utilize throughout your life when interpreting data, that one of those is your own personal, maybe in many cases, like deeply personal experiences, and how that can be valid. And I think that flies in the face of a lot of modern thinking. Do you run into people where you’re like, how do you talk to people in such a way that… I guess my question is, can you convince people that their personal experiences are valid, and that they can be trusted? And how do you do that?
Dale: Well, that’s a huge topic and I don’t think I can address that directly. Let me just say a couple of things. One is that I don’t believe in the dichotomy between Bible and experience. That is, I think we are all always reading the text through our experiences, whatever those experiences may be, just as we are always reading the text through a tradition, whether we’re aware of it or not. Actually, if you go back to the old so called Methodist quadrilateral—how do you get your theology? How do you come to your conclusions? Well, the Bible, reason, tradition, and experience. And this is a sort of a prescriptive way of going about things. I think that’s wrong, because I think this is just descriptive. I think we are always, whether we are conscious of it or not, reading scripture through experience and tradition and reason, there actually is no other possibility here.
This is actually, I guess you could say, a theological current right now. People talk about how to talk about, let’s say, African readings of the Bible, or Asian readings of the Bible, and so on. And it’s a recognition that people from different places see things differently. That seems to me to be inescapable. But the other thing I wanted to say was that usually when people discourage you from paying attention to experience, they’ll say, well, that’s subjective, or it just lands you, you know, in a mess, and then every person is their own authority. But, you know, Protestantism, had the priesthood of all believers, but it also has the priesthood of all readers.
And if you look at it, the history of Protestantism is just a history of splits, of theological splits and divisions and denominations, splintering.
I’m a Presbyterian, I can’t tell you how many Presbyterian churches are here in North America, dozens and dozens. And the point is they’re all reading the same Bible. But that doesn’t guarantee they come to the same conclusion. So, the notion that somehow the Bible is objective and leads to objective results, just isn’t the case. Arias and Athanasios had the same Bible, they came to very different conclusions. So, you know, if you’re arguing that we’ll all come to agreement if we just read the Bible and ignore experience, I don’t I don’t think that’s true.
By the way, it occurs to me. One more thing I should add here is that the people who usually are saying, don’t pay attention to your experiences, just pay attention to the Bible? They are usually the channels of the Bible and the interpreters of the Bible. So functionally, this is a way of saying don’t pay attention to your experience. Pay attention to me.
Pete: To my experience. Yeah, right. Exactly.
Dale: Well, to my authority.
Dale: It’s, it’s a way of promoting themselves, if you want to be cynical.
Pete: Pay attention to my subjectivity, not your own.
Well, pay attention to my sermons and my theology.
Pete: Which is your subjectivity, right? I mean, they will never say that. They’ll never say it’s their subject. They’ll just say this is absolute truth. But, you know, like you’re saying, it’s much more complicated than that.
Pete: Yeah. So, who we are matters, our experiences matter and that includes being modern people, thinking of history in certain ways. And we do the best that we can. But just don’t be a reductionist materialist and you’ll be fine.
Dale: Yes, well.
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Dale: No, no, no!
Pete: I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.
Dale: Yeah, yeah. Okay, I was gonna say, it just makes things harder. So, somebody like me, who has a truly open mind and thinks inexplicable things happen. I also know that people lie. And I know people deceive themselves. And I know people believe in myths. And I know that people misinterpret. And I know that lots of stories are bogus. So, it doesn’t make anything, you know, easier.
Jared: Well, and through that, too, I think what I’m hearing, again, is that the data, whether we’re talking about the data that we get in our personal experiences, the biblical data—I think it’s frustratingly inconclusive. And I think when we talk to people often about the Bible or any of this, it’s that we want there to be black and white answers, and almost nothing, as I get older, I’m learning, can be slam dunks. It is always, well, here is the data. Here’s the facts. Even if you’re a Ph.D. in history in this one specialty and area, like you said with the JFK assassination is, we can have mountains of data and yet still be a little gray, maybe more, maybe less on certain things. But there can still be room for having to make that leap of faith or make some conclusion, draw some conclusion out of the evidence. And I think that can be frustrating for a lot of people. I know I’m still frustrated with it. And I’ve had many years of trying to live with it.
Pete: I’m fine with it. I’ve given up.
Well, so, the point is, I think that life is difficult for everybody. At least everybody I’ve ever met, life is difficult. And we’d like to think that there’s some area where things are clear, and it’s not difficult. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bible is part of life, it was produced by human beings, and so as helpful as it can be it in many ways, and as inspiring and so on, it is also difficult, and it raises questions, and things are not, they’re just not clear. It’s like the rest of life. You have to work and struggle.
I live literally across the street from one of the great theological libraries. And it is full of people writing about the Bible. And, you know, if I don’t know a martian were to land and read 100 of these books, I think the martians first conclusion would be they’re all writing about the Bible, but they’re all saying different things about it. It’s just obvious that we have a commentary tradition. And if you are familiar with it, it has multiple voices. It has conflicting voices. Yeah, it’s just the way it is.
Pete: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s actually, I think that’s a great note to end on, because it’s very realistic, and I think it can relieve people of the pressure of having to sort of nail down in an apologetic sort of way. So, we’re gonna thank you, Dale, for taking It’s time to be with us today. And we’re also very excited about your next book that’s coming out pretty shortly. I’ve read it already and I think it’s fantastic. Everybody should buy it. But, for now we’re talking about resurrection and you should buy that book too. Don’t read it. It’s too hard. It’s too long. And it’s got a lot of little font. But buy it. Is that good? Can I say that? I always tell people, I don’t care if you read my book, just buy it.
Dale: No, I want people to think…
Jared: Dale has integrity.
Pete: It’s because your books are good. That’s the main reason. So anyway, but thank you for your time, and we really appreciate it.
Dale: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.
Stephanie: Well, that’s it for this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout-out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you.
If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marking Director, Savannah Locke; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
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