Karl Barth on the Historicity of the Resurrection

The Passion Narratives are notoriously difficult to harmonize, and despite ingenious solutions, there remains to be discovered a satisfactory harmonization of the events. A natural conclusion is that these conflicting narratives are not intended to be harmonized.  These conflicting narratives should not be smoothed out in the same way that it would be wrong to flatten the terrain of a National Park. The Early Church understood that there is beauty in diversity, and this is why the Early Church did not allow Tatian's Dissertation to supplant the four Evangelists.

Evangelicals assume a defensive pose anytime biblical criticism suggests that the Passion Narratives are any other genre than objective eye-witness reporting or that they may allow contradictory elements. If two of the Evangelists contradict each other on the exact moment the resurrection was witnessed (before dawn, at down, after dawn, etc.), will the Resurrection really be disproved? This is absurd! Karl Barth has provided criticism as such, and this has caused many Evangelicals to hastily pronounce "Aha! See, Karl Barth denies the Resurrection, because he admits that the witnesses to the Resurrection cannot be harmonized."

In The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostle's Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, Karl Barth provides a helpful remark on the Apostles' Creed regarding the Passion Narratives that is concise and easy to understand.

REMARK on the "Historicity" of the Resurrection.

Unquestionably, the resurrection narratives are contradictory. A coherent history cannot be evolved from them. The appearances to the women and apostles, in Galilee and Jerusalem, which are reported by the Gospels and Paul, cannot be harmonized. It is a chaos. The evangelical theologians of the nineteenth century--my father, for instance--were wrong in trying to arrange things so as to prove the historicity of the resurrection. Their intention deserved praise. But they should have remembered that even the early Church had not tried to harmonize the resurrection stories. She had really felt that about this unique event there was something of an earthquake for everybody in attendance. The witnesses attended an event that went over their heads, and each told a bit of it. But these scraps are sufficient to bear witness to us of the magnitude of the event and its historicity. Every one of the witnesses declares God's free grace which surpasses all human understanding. God alone can prove the truth of that history since he himself is its subject. Fortunately, God has never ceased to work in men's hearts and send the faith needed to those things.

Barth, Karl. Ed. Jean-Louis Leuba. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostle's Creed According to Calvin's Catechism. Trans. Gabriel Vahanian. New York: Meridian, 1963. 108. Print.

For more information, see Karl Barth's demythologizing the Empty Tomb.

"Chora Anastasis1" by Gunnar Bach Pedersen - Self-photographed. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. As the quoted text clearly reveals, Karl Barth’s use of language and rhetoric is existentialistic. He is detached from time-space correlation which does not have continuity with that of the resurrection event and the present. Of course, it is impossible to prove or disprove something that does not exist in Humean context in the first place. Reasonably, he must stay fully in the realm of historical critical perspective. He is obviously detached indeed.

  2. I think for Barth the matter of God acting in in history is a paradox of sorts. Any act of God has various at which one can look upon it. Only the eyes of faith will see resurrection instead of contradiction, hallucination, and so on. Yet, in his argument on Bultmann, he makes it clear that something happened to the crucified one that stimulated the faith of the disciples. He would not argue for historical in the sense of the fundamentalist evidence that demands a verdict. He would, and I think does, argue that the story of Jesus in its fullness, his preaching of the nearness of the rule of God, his death, and his resurrection, generated the faith of the apostles. He argues this in CD IV.2, 64.2/3.

    • George, this is the center of Barth’s debate with Bultmann. Bultmann defined the resurrection as the rise of Easter faith in the disciples and doesn’t require a historical resurrection event. Barth said yes to the resurrection but he is a bit dodge as to how Jesus first appeared and then the disciples believed due to his appearance. Barth was willing to demythologize away the empty tomb and ascension and other parts of the passion narratives. It is captured in this interesting and intimate reference to his own father. I don’t wish to fall into the Josh McDowell or other fundamentalist methods for verification but do believe that the resurrection was a real event in space time history. I’m looking forward to learning more about Pannenberg’s apologetic for his theology from below. I expect it to help me.

      • Figuring out how ‘time-indicators’ are being used by the Gospel writers is one of the most difficult problems that modern interpreters face in explaining the series of the passion, crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ. Each of the authors has a theological viewpoint and an agenda in presenting the fact of what happened that is very sublime and difficult to follow, especially for modern readers. Still, the term ‘contradiction’ is thrown around much too easily and is often, as I have stated before, an excuse for sheer intellectual laziness. I like and respect Karl Barth as a great theologian, but he is falling into the trap of skeptical games if he claims that ‘if I can’t figure it out, then no one else can either.’ True, modern evangelical apologists need to re-think the way the evidence is presented; the other side has to be sure that they have the facts strait before pontificating about what the bible affirms and what it rejects as facts. Ps: using circumstantial ad hominem and straw man attacks to discredit people you disprove of is a no no.

  3. If I am understanding Barth correctly, he is not demythologizing at all. He is saying that the resurrection itself is unquestionably historical, but that the testimonies to this historical event are a little bit mixed up, because the people that witnessed such an amazing thing were overwhelmed and found it diffult the remember all the details and sequence correctly.

    It is as if 4 different people witnessed a traffic accident, and each was overwhelmed by what he saw. Their accounts may be somewhat inconsistent, owing to the storm of feelings which they felt, but their testimony leaves no doubt whatsoever about the occurence of the accident. (Wish I had a more positive example).

    Even those who believe in Biblical inerrancy will allow that there may have been, 2000 years ago, different standards as to how historical narrative was presented, and perhaps it was then considered acceptable to present things out of sequence (for whatever reason), and this should not be seen as an “error”.

    So it is not clear that Barth is saying anything much different than the fundamentalists, though many of them certainly thought so.

    • In this quotation, you are correct. Barth said the resurrection was an event larger than anyone could comprehend, so it’s not possible to organize all the eyewitnesses into an inerrant police report. Barth says that it’s better to allow the contradictions in the Bible to remain, and not try to argue them away because they are Bible difficulties. The nature of the resurrection is a miracle comparable to the creation of the world, so it’s totally expected that the witnesses would contradict each other at times.

      In this quotation, Barth isn’t specifically demythologizing. He does demythologize the passion narratives elsewhere. For instance, the ascension is described as Jesus floating up into the sky. This is more of a relic of the three-decker worldview of the witnesses. Jesus didn’t fly through space like superman. The ascension did happen, but it is beyond what we can comprehend fully. Barth said we see in an engimatic word, or see in part. See here: http://postbarthian.com/2015/03/15/karl-barth-demythologizing-empty-tomb-ascension/


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