A CLARIFICATION AND RESPONSE TO TONY COSTA’S COMMENTS ON MIDRASH IN PAUL’S WRITINGS
By Sadat Anwar
I appreciate Tony Costa’s response to my review of his recent presentation at an interfaith symposium in Toronto. Here are three quick points I would like to immediately clarify before moving on to my longer response:
(1) My review was originally intended as a private email to some friends; it was hastily edited by me and uploaded to the MDI website. The title “Paul: The Art of Inventing Prophecy” was a quick suggestion from a colleague which in hindsight I should probably not have agreed to, since it does not accurately reflect the points made in the body of my article. The article itself was not necessarily arguing that Paul was the author or originator of the “third day motif”; rather my points can also be understood as arguing or implying that Paul was an accomplice, a participant or even a victim of the miscitation, misuse, and misquoting of Old Testament Scripture. Whether Paul is inventing certain details in 1 Corinthians 15:4 or whether that passage is a wholesale adoption of the wording from an early pre-Pauline Christian creed, my point was that the assertion that the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his death is prophesied in Old Testament Scripture is inaccurate and thus an error (unless of course we entertain the possibility that the early Christian community and/or Paul were quoting from a portion of the Old Testament that is now lost or corrupted, but I don’t think we want to go there). I do however accept responsibility for the misleading title under which my article was posted and would like to clarify that it is not important as to whether an erroneous prophecy being mentioned in the New Testament is due to the fault of Paul only or some third party.
(2) I regret that the term “BS-ing” remained in the posted version. I firmly believe that we should use the language of respect and civility in public forums and discussions, especially with people of other faiths, and so I apologize to anyone that this expression may have caused offence to.
(3) My reference to Tony as a “master apologist” should not be confused with me accusing him of being dishonest. In the very same review, I stated that Tony was honest enough to admit that there is nothing concrete (that is, explicit) in the Old Testament Scriptures about the Messiah dying and resurrecting on the third day. It takes honesty and courage to admit to this problem. I do however believe that Tony is a skilled and shrewd apologist, which is why he spent a greater amount of time explaining the possible esoteric interpretations of Old Testament passages as per “midrash” hermeneutical techniques that he thought might help to alleviate the problem of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. That is fine, but it no longer remains a “straightforward” answer to my question about the clear and exoteric meaning and implication of Paul’s words— ie. that a concrete and explicit prophecy about Jesus resurrecting on the third day should exist in the Old Testament. I am, of course, able to grasp Tony’s argument that this could have been an instance of a midrashic exegesis of the Old Testament. That is fine. But if we were to apply such subjective forms of exegesis in order to prove our beliefs, we could just as easily find “Ahmad” in the Bible. Or for that matter, Joseph Smith, the Aga Khan, Sai Baba, and so on and so forth. You just have to look hard enough, of course, and it is all there.
Basically then, Tony and I are in agreement about the basic fact that Paul states that Christ was resurrected on the third day “according to the [Old Testament] Scripture”, but that there is nothing concrete and explicit in the Old Testament which states such a prophecy. As to whether there are certain indications and foreshadowing hints that can beinterpreted to refer to a dying Christ who must resurrect on the third day, this is of course for each individual reader to decide based on his or her own reason and judgement. Take Leviticus 23:10, for instance, which Tony cited as an example of the three day resurrection motif in the OT. Could the “firstfruit” of the harvest in Leviticus be a veiled reference to Jesus and his impending death on the cross and subsequent resurrection? Of course it could. But then, the dragon with seven heads and ten horns in the Book of Revelation could also be Barack Obama, couldn’t it? It all depends on how badly you need to find Barack Obama in the Book of Revelation. We can find reasons for why such passages match the people we want them to suit, but we can also find reasons to the contrary.
Let’s return to Leviticus 23, which apparently provides Tony and other Christians with some glimmer of hope in this regard. Consider that the firstfruit of the harvest is actually distinct from the “lamb without blemish” (23:12), which is supposed to be sacrificed as a separate offering on the same day. Is Jesus still the “firstfruit” of the harvest, or is he the “lamb without blemish”? (And what we are to do with the “fine flour”, “bread”, and “wine” also mentioned in these passages I will not ask Tony to elaborate on just now). Also consider that the firstfruit of the harvest and the lamb are offered as a sacrifice on Sunday, not Friday afternoon which is when Jesus was supposed to have died. In other words, the third day motif breaks down when even the midrashic esoteric symbolism of the days from the two sets no longer correspond. In Leviticus, the sacrifice and hence the salvific act is carried out on a Sunday, whereas per Christianity the ultimate salvific act of Jesus’ death is carried out on a Friday. As I understand it, Christians do not believe that their sins are forgiven because “Jesus rose up for us [on Sunday]”, but rather because “Jesus died for us [on Friday].” The belief in the resurrection of Jesus may very well form part of the universal creed that Christians adhere to, but it is not believed to be the cause of forgiveness per se, at least not according to my understanding of this issue (and I am open to correction). Moreover, even if the sacrifice of the firstfruit and the lamb symbolize Jesus’ death, what exactly in Leviticus 23 refers to or symbolizes his resurrection, which was the original point of contention? My question, again, was where in the OT does it say that Jesus must die and be resurrected on the third day?
Again, I concede to Tony that Paul may not have been the inventor of this motif. But to ascribe it to someone else– whether it be the author of the Gospel of Luke (which was of course not written by an eyewitness disciple of Christ), Jesus’ supposed statements (as reported in that same Gospel of Luke), or the primitive Christian community in general from which the creedal statement in 1 Corinthians 15:4 may have been (partially or fully) derived– does not evade the persisting problem that no such explicit prophecy exists anywhere in the Old Testament, as any Jewish scholar will tell you. It is a not-so-straightforward and elliptical answer to tell us that Jewish interpreters saw “salvific ramifications” in Genesis 22:4 where Abraham sees the place of sacrifice on “the third day”. Never mind that Jesus was not sacrificed on the third day and that Isaac (or Ishmael) actually miraculously escaped death (the “miraculous-escape-from-certain-death motif” of Genesis 22 and the Book of Jonah, we should call it!). The real question for Tony would be, which Jewish scholar, especially before Christianity, ever interpreted Genesis 22 as an indication that Israel’s Messiah must be resurrected on the third day after his execution?
We may ask the same question about Hosea 6:2, as well as the Book of Jonah. Where in the Jewish scholarly tradition were these passages viewed as a Messianic prophecy, and specifically as a foreshadowing of the execution and subsequent resurrection of the Messiah on the third day? Also, if chapter six of Hosea can be characterized as a poetic portion of that book, Tony would do well to remember the words of Christian apologist William Lane Craig when he says, “It is an interpretative principle that you cannot use poetic books as a basis of doctrine. Poetry must always be interpreted in light of the didactic or teaching portions of Scripture. It is the nature of poetry to use hyperbole, metaphor, and personification.” Incidentally, Tony will probably agree that the author of Hosea is using either poetic hyperbole or metaphor only three passages later where he writes, “For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (6:6) Indeed, Hosea 6:2 is an odd passage to choose from in order to try to show the foreshadowing of a human-god sacrifice when only a few sentences later, quite ironically, the Divine Will is expressing a repulsion to sacrifices. It is nothing short of theological gymnastics based on subjective preconceived notions to insist on the literal and theological significance and application of the one passage and not of the other.
In summary, Tony and I can agree that there is no concrete or explicit passage in the Old Testament Scripture that states or in any clear and meaningful way teaches and instructs the Israelites to believe in the future salvific act of the Messiah who will die and resurrect on the third day after his execution, which is in fact why Jews throughout history never held this belief. Tony’s candid admission of this fact is the type of reasonable and academic common ground that interfaith dialogues can meet on, agree on, and develop further dialogue on. Warm feelings and fuzzy hunches about the possible esoteric interpretations of poetic works– for better or for worse– cannot ever perform that same function.