The Burial of Jesus | James F. McGrath

You can’t use the right tools for the wrong job. You can’t open a paint can with a Phillips screwdriver, you can’t cut a steak with a butter knife, you can’t pull a shot of espresso in a percolator, and you can’t make historical claims about the bible using theological methods. That’s the most important thing I learned from this book.

Here’s my favourite quote, which summarizes the general perspective of the work:

Biblical Christianity . . . takes fully seriously the differences between Biblical writings and the development between them, rather than forcing their divergent perspectives into the idolatrous straightjacket of a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. (139-40)

There are some words in that quote that will make a lot of believers uncomfortable. How can Biblical inerrancy be idolatrous? Read the book and and find out! (Here’s a hint: God is the only proper object of our faith.)

This book is essentially about two related issues, reflected by the title and subtitle of the work:

  1. How should history and faith interact?
  2. What happened to Jesus’ body when he died?

I found the discussion of how faith and history interact more compelling than the primary focus: Jesus’ burial. By the time the burial was directly discussed, it felt like a mere case study of McGrath’s historical method. That’s not a criticism, either. A well-reasoned argument of what happened to Jesus’ body after his death may convince some people on that issue. However, when you give people the critical apparatus to make those sort of investigations on their own, you’ve equipped them to rethink their entire belief systems.

Although McGrath’s conclusions on the second question (above) will disturb a lot of evangelicals, it’s simply the logical outworking of his method. History and faith are different, but complimentary.  McGrath refers to them as necessary partners (10). Listen to his words on the relationship between them:

The problem is that Christians often wish to make historical claims without having sufficient historical evidence, as well as at times confusing theological affirmations with historical ones. (97)

When you look at many of the popular apologetic works of the last century, you’ll see this problem in action. Believers love to make historical claims based on their theological presuppositions. The use of real historical method can feel threatening, because it doesn’t respect our theological safety zones. But is all truth God’s truth, or not?

Faith may go beyond historical data, but it should never either ignore such information or be in contradiction to it. (20)

Admitting that we have partial historical data that is open to misinterpretation and restructuring, this statement holds. If we cherish a theological view that is clearly and obviously contradicted by the evidence, then the God—who is truth—demands we reconcile the dissonance. The case of Galileo and heliocentricity is a telling case study here.

This book will make people uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing. If you’re ready to question your assumptions and drop some defensive posturing from your faith, McGrath is a steady guide.

One Response to The Burial of Jesus | James F. McGrath

  1. Digital Aura November 9, 2008 at 6:26 pm #

    This looks like an intense read. Another book for my list…

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