This is a difficult editorial to put together, not because its conclusions are likely to be wrong, but because its argument is likely to be misunderstood. Nevertheless it is important that its point should be made. It invites the reader to consider a situation in which some document is discovered, which proves conclusively that Christ did not rise from the dead, whether on the first Easter Sunday or at any subsequent time, and the consequences which would follow among those who regard themselves as Catholic Christians.
The writer, of course, does not for a moment believe that such a document will be discovered. It is merely a supposition for the sake of proving a point, which, however belatedly, may one day be recognised as an important truth, and its consequences both understood and acted upon.
The noted Jewish Biblical scholar, Geza Vermes, who retired from Oxford's Oriental Institute some time ago, regards the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in 1947 in Qumran on the Dead Sea) as "the greatest manuscript find of modern times." Vermes holds strongly to the view that, unlike a number of Biblicist publicity-hunters, the documents are not about Christianity, but about the Essenes. The Essenes were a strict Jewish sect which sought to instil "a thorough knowledge of the Torah ... and to combine a strict observance of the externals of the [Jewish] Law with inner spiritual authenticity" (Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls, p.220). Their religious objective, he writes, was totally opposite to that of Jesus who addressed himself to "simple country people, including publicans, sinners and whores." Vermes, being a Jew, admires Jesus as one of the familiar type of Jewish holy man, but rejects any claims to Christ's divinity.
Last month, new diggings were begun in Qumran of four partly collapsed man-made caves, which the archaeologists hope will yield a further rich store of religious material. That, however, remains to be seen.
Consider, for a moment, the supposition - which this writer, being a Catholic, is certain will not materialise - that the newly-dug sources reveal indisputably that Christ did not rise on Easter Sunday, but that, through some delusion, his Apostles, overwhelmed by the force of his personality while he was alive, actually believed that he had risen and spread that belief throughout the then-known world. They were so thoroughly convinced that they were prepared to die for it.
How would hitherto believing Christians react to a document which seemed to prove that their belief in the Resurrection was the product of a delusion?
Obviously one does not know. However, some reactions would be almost certain to occur.
Some, like the present writer, would sorrowfully revise their hitherto Christian convictions, depart the family of the faith, and do their best to continue to live by what appears to be "the law of man's nature," even though there would no longer be any divine foundation on which to rest it. One cannot continue honestly to profess belief in what is known to be untrue. As St Paul wrote: "If Christ be not risen from the dead, then is our teaching vain, and your faith is also vain."
Some would do this, but one suspects that many others would not. The new situation would not be so different from what they already believed - and in many cases professed - even before the discovery of the hypothetical document.
Some have already asserted that Christ himself did not originally know that he was God, the knowledge dawning on him only gradually. This belief, of course, raises the problem formulated by Professor Michael Dummett, the former Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford: "If Christ did not know that he was God, how do we know?" However, the new - hypothetical - document would seem to sustain it.
Others have asserted, with Arius, that Christ was neither totally God nor totally man, but something in between. Others have summed him up as an essentially political revolutionary fighting to liberate the Jewish masses from the Roman yoke. His real message was that his followers should devote themselves to solving the social problems and thus liberate the poor. This is the foundation of Liberation Theology. The new - hypothetical - document might seem to justify it.
Other beliefs would equally fall by the wayside. The miracles would go by the board. The doctrine of the Eucharist - whether confined to Real Presence or extended to Transubstantiation - would have been proved to be a mirage.
The old doctrine of the Mass - centring on the Sacrifice of Christ's life - would have been proved to be nonsensical. But many contemporary Catholics, even if they have heard of it, obviously do not believe it, preferring the concept of a meal, an occasion for a Christian community to come together in memory of Christ's passion and death.
In other words, many of the conclusions which would flow from our - hypothetical - new document are effectively believed already. It need not occasion any change in belief by any of them. For others, it would require some minor adjustment of belief. As Professor Geza Vermes believes - logically for a Jew - Christ would remain what he is already in their minds - a traditional Jewish holy man, with his own particular emphases. But God? No.
One difficulty which the Catholic Church faces is that many of these beliefs do not require the discovery of any new document. They are actually held by many - although certainly not all - of those who occupy high teaching positions in the Church, in Catholic universities, seminaries, colleges and schools. Some teach that Christ had brothers and sisters; that Mary was not a virgin; that Christ's conception was due to Mary's rape by a Roman soldier. And so on - and on.
If Christ did not rise from the dead, any - even all - of those views are tenable. So, with only minor adjustments, they could continue teaching and controlling the Church's institutions. But Christianity - whatever the sacrifices of the martyrs and its universal success in the early centuries - would have rested on a fraud.
That these beliefs already exist and are widely held in influential Catholic circles creates the problem which today confronts many Catholic parents: namely, that a good number of Catholic schools, gradually, imperceptibly, but relentlessly are becoming indistinguishable from State schools, whether in their religious, ethical, even sexual teachings. Which, perhaps, helps to explain why increasing numbers of parents have been withdrawing their children.