Monday, June 03, 2024

Gary Habermas's Misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd, Part 3: Jesus' Appearance to his male disciples in Luke 24:36-49

Habermas on Dodd on Luke 24:36-49

This is Part 3 in a series on the misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd by Gary Habermas in Habermas's recently published volume on the resurrection. You can find parts 1 and 2 by going here here.

In those posts I've documented that Habermas radically misunderstands what Dodd says about the story of Doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29) and the stories of Jesus' appearances on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25) and to the group of seven male disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21). Habermas repeatedly implies that Dodd is granting some significant degree of historicity to stories that Dodd is in fact dehistoricizing. In this way he implies that Dodd's form criticism strengthens the case for the resurrection, which supposedly means that one can argue for the resurrection while using only things that critical scholars already accept. 

Here I'll focus on Habermas's over-optimistic understanding of Dodd's position concerning the first appearance to "the eleven" (possibly just a group title as used here) in Luke 24:36-49. Here is what Habermas says about Dodd's position on this passage:

An older but quite influential study on the appearance narratives in the Gospels was published in 1968 by the celebrated Cambridge University New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd. Distinguishing between “concise” and “circumstantial” Gospel resurrection appearances, Dodd argues that the former were “drawn directly from the oral tradition” and were shorter and more succinct, whereas other accounts involved greater freedom to give additional details. “Concise” resurrection appearance texts include Matt 28:8–10, 16–20; John 20:19–21; and probably Luke 24:36–49…. Applying Dodd’s influential study to our two texts here, Luke 24:34 is definitely an early tradition. Luke 24:36–49 is most likely considered a concise appearance account in the Gospels, at least in its core details. In the latter text, while apologetic aspects do appear, the core aspects of conciseness are also present, though modified. Habermas, On the Resurrection, p. 846, emphasis added.

As documented in a previous post, Habermas is aware that the designation of "conciseness" has some sort of relationship to historicity in Dodd, though he doesn't fully understand the ramifications of this. (For example, he thinks that if a narrative is designated "concise," that means it is fully historical, according to Dodd, which is not correct, and he thinks that if a narrative is not designated as a "tale," that means it's not entirely invented, which isn't correct either.) So Habermas's statements here that Luke 24:36-49 is "probably" or "most likely" a "concise" narrative according to Dodd give the impression that Dodd regards the narrative as probably historical, or probably mostly historical. The phrase "core details" is important, and I'll return to it shortly.

In point of fact, Dodd says that the passage is "of mixed character," and he does not list it in his examples of Class I (concise) narratives. His explanation of what he means by that "mixed" designation shows that he's calling into question the historicity of the narrative overall. Moreover, Dodd definitely regards those "apologetic aspects" of this passage, which are some of the most important in the Gospels, as unhistorical additions, which (if we're trying to use Dodd) rules out the use those very aspects (e.g., Jesus eating fish) to support the conclusion that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

C. H. Dodd on Luke 24:36-49

Here is what Dodd actually says about this passage:

Luke 24:36-49 We have here a pericope of mixed character. The main items in the pattern of ‘concise’ narratives re-appear, though much modified….The process of recognition is greatly spun out. At first the disciples are terrified (cf. Matt. 28:10) and think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus tenders proof by pointing to his hands and feet (cf. John 20:27). They are still incredulous, and He tenders final proof by eating in their presence….The concluding word of command is here replaced by a longish address consisting of (a) instruction regarding the use of testimonies from the Old Testament…(b) a commission to preach…and (c) the assurance of the help of the Spirit….It is clear that we have here an extensive working-over of the common pattern….The pericope is thus no longer a simple, traditional story of the appearance of the Lord: it is a piece of controversial apologetic set in the framework of such a story. The simpler narratives conveyed something of the na├»ve, spontaneous sense of the primitive believers that something almost too good to be true has happened. Here we are aware of something different: the faith must be defended by argument, not against the natural doubts of simple people, but against a reflective and sophisticated skepticism. Yet it would not be right to class this pericope with the ‘Tales’. There is no detail in the narrative (with one exception) which is not strictly necessary to it as a piece justificatif. The one exception is the statement that the Lord ate broiled fish. It would have been sufficient for the narrator’s immediate purpose to affirm that Christ ate food in the presence of His disciples. The added detail is the kind of trait that marks the story-teller….It may perhaps best be characterized as an example of the ‘concise’ type of narrative in which apologetic motives have caused everything else to be subordinated to an elaborate presentation, not indeed of the [anagnorisis—discovery, climactic dramatic moment] itself, but of the grounds upon which such recognition was based. It is certainly more remote from the original tradition, orally handed down, than the typical narratives of Class I, but the obvious work of an author has not altogether disguised the form of the tradition which underlies. Dodd "Appearances of the Risen Christ" in More New Testament Studies, pp. 111-113 (emphasis added)


In the quotation from Dodd, we see immediately that Dodd is not saying that this passage is "probably" or "most likely" a "concise" narrative. That wording (Habermas's) gives the impression that Dodd is simply less confident in characterizing the passage as "concise" than he is concerning some other passages but that he thinks it probably is "concise."

On the contrary, Dodd is actually pretty definite about what he thinks of the passage. It is "of mixed character," which is to say that, on his view, it does not fit clearly and unambiguously into his category of Class I. This is because it has too much information in it. Dodd designates tiny snippets as "concise" (Class I) only when they include, within just a very few verses, all of the motifs that he has identified as being present in a "concise" form. Dodd explains at the beginning of the essay that a "concise" narrative in his form-critical taxonomy must use the "fewest possible words." It must tell nothing "which is not absolutely essential" (Dodd, "Appearances," p. 103). Luke 24:36-49 simply doesn't fit that form, because it's too long and, from Dodd's perspective, too elaborated. 

As in the case of the story of Doubting Thomas, the Road to Emmaus, and the meeting by the seashore, here too we find Dodd treating Jesus and the disciples as fictional characters subject to the manipulations of the author. The author thus "spins out" the process of recognition rather than recording a process of recognition that he has reason to believe actually happened. The author replaces the "word of command" by inventing the idea of Jesus' giving a longish address. Again, this all lies within the author's control.

Most important of all, all of the material in the story that is of value in actually defending the bodily resurrection is, according to Dodd, invented and added fictionally. The "unsophisticated" form of recognition (which apparently is supposed to be pretty epistemically uninteresting!) is here, says Dodd, replaced by fictional elements that are intended to create a "controversial piece of apologetic" with the intention of defending the resurrection against a sophisticated skeptic. 

Indeed, the very idea that the recognition by the disciples was based on something that made it reasonable for them to think that Jesus was present in a literal body is something Dodd rejects. According to Dodd, the "grounds upon which such a recognition was based" in the passage are precisely the elements the author has invented to expand the recognition motif to meet a sophisticated form of skepticism.

No slightest breath of a thought enters Dodd's mind that the resurrection might be really defensible against sophisticated skepticism! 

This point is going to be important in the next post as well, where we see how Dodd treats even the resurrection snippets that he calls "concise narratives." In a bizarre evidential reversal, Dodd back-solves to find and eliminate as an elaboration anything that has evidential value, even from those narratives. The five elements of a "concise" narratives are 1) the situation (the disciples bereft), 2) the appearance of the Lord, 3) the greeting, 4) the recognition, and 5) the word of command (Dodd, "Appearances," p. 104). But Dodd's assumption is that anything beyond the briefest and least evidentially helpful statements of these elements has definitely been added to the story. As I will emphasize again in the next post, once even the concise narrative has been further whittled down to its most non-specific elements, and once these are treated preferentially precisely because they are non-specific, there is nothing left that could not be well explained by an extremely brief, non-physical, visionary or ghostly experience.

I think we really need to challenge the identification of "of apologetic value" with "made up." This is undoubtedly the way that Dodd thinks of the matter, and it is in a sense a kind of question begging against the very possibility of an evidentially robust case for the resurrection. If Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead, it's not at all improbable that he would make this manifest to at least some of his followers, in which case they would likely make known to others the means by which they recognized that he was risen bodily. An indispensible step in rejecting the assumption that anything of apologetic value is historically dubious is to recognize when someone (in this case, Dodd) is making that assumption. Trying to co-opt Dodd's form criticism as a tool to strengthen the apologetic case for Jesus' bodily resurrection, rather than recognizing what Dodd is really doing, is therefore misguided.

It is not surprising, given his assumptions, that Dodd strips away from Luke 24:36-49, quite systematically, all elements of the story that make this appearance a unique event taking place at a particular time and place and involving particular details of interaction between Jesus and the disciples. He treats all these as ipso facto unhistorical. This is especially evident when we remember that, as shown in the previous post, the story of the Road to Emmaus is, per Dodd, one of the "tales" and completely fictional. The day and time of this appearance to "the eleven and those who were with them"--evening of Easter Sunday--have been set by the Emmaus story immediately previous. Recall that Dodd even said that the dialogue between the two from Emmaus and the group back in Jerusalem (after they run back to Jerusalem) has been "made" by the author, so that those in Jerusalem are made to "cap" the story told by Clopas and his companion by saying that Jesus has appeared to Peter. Luke 24:36 says that Jesus is suddenly there among them while they are having that discussion. Since that is fictional, and since that is the way in which the time and day of this appearance in vss. 36-49 is indicated, this one is cut free from any specific location in space and time.

Did you want to make this appearance specific, unique, by reference to the reaction of the disciples, their fear, their thought that they are seeing a ghost, and Jesus' response to it? Nope, none of that is left either. That is all a part of the "elaborate presentation" that the author has invented to defend the resurrection against sophisticated skepticism.

But Dodd says this doesn't belong with the tales. Doesn't that mean that he considers it probably historical or somewhat historical, or something exciting?

Not really. We saw this issue in the case of Doubting Thomas. Recall that the Doubting Thomas story is, in Dodd's view, completely invented, but that he doesn't class it with the "tales" only because Doubting Thomas is (he thinks) a stock character and not psychologically sophisticated and because the story doesn't seem to him to be literarily interesting. Since "tales" is not only a historical designation but also a literary designation for Dodd, a pericope that doesn't have a lot of the "storyteller's art," a lot of realism, doesn't get designated as one of the "tales" even if Dodd thinks it is invented.

Something similar is going on here. Dodd explicitly says that the reason he doesn't designate this as one of the "tales" is that the story contains only one extra detail (the specific statement that Jesus ate broiled fish) that goes beyond what is required to fulfill the author's apologetic motive. So everything that makes this scene unique is (according to Dodd) invented as part of its apologetic embellishment, but only the broiled fish is made up in a way that Dodd considers artistic. The author could have fictionally included the fictional claim that Jesus ate (for apologetic reasons) without saying what he ate. Without more such purely artistic inventions, Dodd decides not to characterize this story as one of the "Tales."

To quote again the sentences that say that in some sense or other this is sorta kinda a "concise" narrative, "It may perhaps best be characterized as an example of the ‘concise’ type of narrative in which apologetic motives have caused everything else to be subordinated to an elaborate presentation, not indeed of the [anagnorisis—discovery, climactic dramatic moment] itself, but of the grounds upon which such recognition was based. It is certainly more remote from the original tradition, orally handed down, than the typical narratives of Class I, but the obvious work of an author has not altogether disguised the form of the tradition which underlies." In other words, it's neither literarily concise nor literarily a tale, in Dodd's form-critical terms. It's invented, but not invented in the particularly literary style of a tale, and Dodd believes that he can still descry, deeply buried under the author's fictionalizations, some of the elements of "tradition," such as an entirely generic appearance, greeting, recognition, and word of command.

This statement about not entirely disguising the form of the tradition is the only thing actually found in Dodd that Habermas could mean by "most likely a concise narrative at least in its core details." But this is a confusing use of the phrase "core details." How many people who are familiar with this passage would spontaneously say that the disciples' fear that Jesus is a ghost, his assurances to the contrary, and his eating are not "core details" of the story? Indeed, the very word "details" (in Habermas's phrase) contradicts the word "core" here if by "core" one means the same thing that Dodd means by the "form of the tradition that underlies." For by that phrase Dodd means only those generic elements that are not detailed

Dodd's conclusions about Luke 24:36-49 are 1) that it isn't really a concise narrative because it is so apologetically embellished and hence so "remote from original tradition" but 2) that one can abstract a few wholly generic elements that it shares in common with the narratives he designates as concise, and 3) that one can't call it a "tale" because, though it's heavily fictionalized, it isn't literarily interesting enough. 

That's it.

Once again, we see that Habermas's intense desire to interpret Dodd as optimistically as possible has led to a confused and confusing summary of what Dodd actually says.

Next post: The bad news (for the apologist wanting to use Dodd) even about the "concise" narratives, according to Dodd.

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