Adam Christing writes: N.T. Wright has produced a staggering book in defense of Jesusʼ rez. A couple of nutty comments like these refute his case about as effectively as Jack Chick debunked Evolution with his cartoon tract “Big Daddy.”
Edward: I sense some dissatisfaction with what I sent. So hereʼs an assortment of reviews of Wrightʼs work by theologians. Thereʼs one review I have not included below, a critical review by a professor at Union Theological Seminary. Iʼll have to add that one later. Though I did add at the very end some questions that Wrightʼs fellow conservatives are asking concerning Wrightʼs theological views. *smile*
Asking The Wright Questions:
Reviews of N. T. Wrightʼs “Resurrection” Book by Theologians
One Third of Anglican Clergy (Wright is an Anglican bishop) Do Not Believe In The Resurrection
Daily Telegraph (England), July 31, 2002
By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent (Filed: 31/07/2002)
A third of Church of England clergy doubt or disbelieve in the physical Resurrection and only half are convinced of the truth of the Virgin birth, according to a new survey. The poll of nearly 2,000 of the Churchʼs 10,000 clergy also found that only half believe that faith in Christ is the only route to salvation. While it has long been known that numerous clerics are dubious about the historic creeds of the Church, the survey is the first to disclose how widespread is the scepticism. Few bishops would now share the views of the former Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev David Jenkins, who caused a scandal in the 1980s when he contrasted the Resurrection with a “conjuring trick with bones.” Nevertheless liberal clergy, who represent about one in eight of the total, remain profoundly uncertain about the Churchʼs core doctrines. In the survey, two thirds of them expressed doubts in the physical Resurrection and three quarters are unconvinced by the Virgin birth.
Similar levels of belief were found in organizations such as Affirming Catholicism, a liberal Anglo-Catholic group of which the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is a founding member. Although Dr Williams holds firmly orthodox views on the Resurrection and the Virgin birth, the proportion of members of Affirming Catholicism who believe without question in the two doctrines is 35 and 24 per cent respectively. (…)
The survey, carried out by Christian Research Off-site Link, did find that clergy were more orthodox on other doctrines. More than 75 per cent overall accept the doctrine of the Trinity and a similar proportion believe that Christ died to take away the sins of the world. More than 80 per cent were happy with the idea that God the Father created the world. Unsurprisingly, the organizations whose members were the most traditional were Reform, a conservative evangelical group, and Forward in Faith, a traditionalist umbrella body. The Rev Robbie Low, a member of Cost of Conscience, the traditionalist organization which commissioned the survey, said:
“There are clearly two Churches operating in the Church of England: the believing Church and the disbelieving Church, and that is a scandal.” (…)
Dr Peter Brierley, the executive director of Christian Research, said the survey had been undertaken among 4,000 churches and reflected a representative sample of clergy, in terms of churchmanship and belief.
The Resurrection of the Son of God
N T Wright, SPCK, 2003
What they believed
A sentence early on in Wrightʼs book ends with “… we must not be lured into a one-sided preoccupation with the attempt to establish factual propositions about Jesus”. The warning is apposite. This is not a book about Jesus nor is it a comprehensive attempt to establish the historicity of his resurrection.
Itʼs primary concern is to survey what others believed about Jesus, particularly what they thought about the possibility and nature of resurrection. The modern question about historicity is relegated to a minor section of the book.
Wright takes more than 700 pages to argue his case. He does not seem to be writing for ordinary people but for scholars like himself. Potential readers be warned - he is not economical with words. I found his prose difficult. The FOG Index of the text ranges between 14 and 20, at the high range of postgraduate academia .
It may be useful to briefly summarize the scheme of Parts I to III of the book.
First, the scene is set:
We know that the early Church engaged deeply with Greek thought. Itʼs therefore important to ask, “Does Greek thought include the idea of resurrection?” Wright answers that the Greeks plumped for life of the soul after death, not for physical resurrection.
Where then did the concept of resurrection come from? It began, says Wright, with powerful metaphor about the new Jerusalem after the Hebrew exile to Babylon. This metaphor eventually changed (though not in linear fashion) into a full-blown concept of resurrection held later by Jewish Pharisees.
This concept was, in Wrightʼs words, “… life after life after death”.
That is, it was thought that the dead were alive somehow “in God”. They would be resurrected when God brought about a new world order through the Messiah.
Then Wright considers the origins and early understanding of resurrection:
How did the Hebrew resurrection idea translate into Christian thought? Our first witness is Paul. He often refers to the resurrection. It is central to his thinking. As far as he was concerned Godʼs power raised Jesus bodily, maintains Wright.
This was more than mere resuscitation. It heralded a new creation. Godʼs people would be raised to a transformed life. In this, Paul is with most Jews of his time, and against current pagan beliefs. The idea of resurrection mutates well beyond anything typically Jewish into something specifically Christian.
There can be no doubt (reading the first letter to the Corinthian Christians) that Paul thought that Jesus had been resurrected. In Wrightʼs words, Paul thought Jesus had been “… transformed, changed, in an act of new creation through which [his body] was no longer corruptible”. But note that Paul also uses “resurrection” as a metaphor in relation to aspects and phases of the Christian life.
Early Christians believed, as a matter of fact, that Jesus had been raised in fulfillment of predictions in the Old Testament (“the Scriptures”). Not only that, but Paulʼs point in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 is “… about evidence, about witnesses being called, about something which actually happened for which eyewitnesses could and would vouch”.
At first Paul and others thought that the resurrection of Jesus heralded a more-or-less immediate general resurrection. But once believers had begun to die without this happening, Paul revised his position. The final resurrection was likely to be some time coming. This later approach “… to the topic of the Christianʼs future hope … meant that there is less explicit reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus” in Paulʼs later letters.
Paul speaks of himself as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus as “… someone untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15.8). There can be no doubt that Paul sincerely believed in the reality of his “Damascus” experience. Attempts to reinterpret it in modern or spiritual terms donʼt succeed. We should not use differing versions of the event as “… decisive evidence for a non-bodily ‘seeing’ of Jesus”. What Paul saw was “… a transformed but still physical body”.
Witness to the resurrection is continued in the Gospels:
Analysis of all the references to resurrection in the Gospels demonstrate that they harmonize with the Jewish rather than the pagan view.
In this vein, resurrection in the Gospels is similar (though expressed differently) to that of Paul. It is a divine gift to Godʼs people at the end of the age.
But the idea of resurrection is nevertheless developed somewhat. The Gospel authors interpret resurrection as available in the present to Godʼs people. One example of this, says Wright, is “… the dramatic double summary of the prodigal sonʼs being ‘dead and alive again’ in Luke 15. This is then dramatically acted out in the ‘raisings’ of people from death, that of Lazarus being obviously the most striking”. It seems that the Gospel authors envisage an all-embracing sort of resurrection in which those who share in it will have “… left death behind altogether”. They go “… through death and out into a new sort of life beyond, into a body that [is] no longer susceptible to decay and death”.
Then the author examines resurrection in other New Testament writings and non-Canonical early Christian texts:
Wright likens the voices of New Testament authors to a choir singing “… in close harmony” about the resurrection. He steadfastly denies any tendency to see resurrection as “life after death”. The resurrection he identifies “… stands firmly over against the entire world of paganism”. Resurrection moves from its position at the edge of Judaism to become central to Christianity. There is no debate about it in Christianity, as there was between Pharisees and Sadducees in Judaism.
Wright offers a new word, transphysical, to explain the nature of Jesusʼ risen body. The raised body is “… robustly physical but also significantly different from the present one”.
A long chapter (70 pages) deals with the beliefs of early Christian leaders. Also considered are early writings which have never been officially recognized by the Church, and the views of early theologians.
As Christianity spread, its expression naturally became more diffuse. But apart from minor exceptions, says Wright, there “… never seems to have developed even the beginnings of a spectrum of belief, either of the pagan variety or of the Jewish variety” about the resurrection. On the contrary, it developed from “… semi-formed belief into a very sharply focused one”.
By this point in Wrightʼs book, it had become plain to me that it was unlikely to provide any surprises.
The author is to be admired for the detail into which he has gone to make his case.
A note made while I was reading goes, “This book is for the in-crowd!”
What I meant is that it appears to be written from conviction rather than curiosity or doubt. It is likely to be most valued by those for whom the resurrection of Jesus from death as an historical fact is already sine qua non.
Wright seems not overly concerned with those who might disagree with him.
He frequently mentions contrary views. But his primary intention is not to give them serious consideration, but to refute them.
For example, one of the authorʼs central conclusions is that early Christian belief about the nature of the resurrection remained focused. It did not quickly diversify into a spectrum of views such as we have today. This, he maintains, was because the information they had to go on about the resurrection - unlike much other material in the New Testament and its sources - was factually credible and reasonably coherent. That the evidence he produces to support this contention could either [a] be interpreted differently or [b] be balanced by other, contrary evidence, isnʼt debated. One important disagreement is merely consigned to a
footnote in which he says that “Riley 1995 draws the exact opposite conclusion …”
A parting of ways
Wright examines Paulʼs Damascus experience as related in Acts and his Corinthian letters. One of his aims is to work out as a matter of good history exactly what Paul saw.
Paulʼs understanding in 1 Corinthians 4.5-6, says Wright, is that Jesus “…is perceived by faith” in the lives of most Christians. This contrasts with what really happened (that is, historically) to Paul on the Damascus road. Wright is adamant: “Paul says he saw Jesus, and that remains our primary historical datum”. His “vision” of Jesus was normal vision, just as we have every waking hour.
But says Wright, although the accounts of meeting Jesus in Paulʼs letters (vision through faith) and in Acts about the Damascus road (normal vision) dovetail quite well, we mustnʼt think that we can use the former to define the latter.
Just because Paul talks about the vision of faith in one context, it doesnʼt mean that what he saw in another was the same kind of vision. Wright emphasizes that “You can put apples and pears together to make a fruit salad; you cannot make a pork pie”. He later refers to Paulʼs “… meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus” without qualification. It is something which really happened as a matter of good history.
Wright, it seems to me, represents the culmination in all its inward-looking glory of traditional biblical hermeneutics. His is an interpretation of Jesus which assumes (but doesnʼt necessarily state) a near-infallibility of the Bible. The way he thinks is an example of the traditional diverging from the modern, a parting of the ways.
Itʼs hard to describe what appears to be almost a sleight-of-hand with which Wright accomplishes his task. I have no wish to denigrate his position. The reader must decide that. But it seems to me that Wright constantly shifts ground between Bible and history, between theology and reason, between subjective and objective, between hope and actual event without acknowledging or examining what heʼs doing. Unless the reader is careful, the facility and detail of his argument may baffle the eye of careful discrimination. His intense focus on a narrow band of concerns may persuade us not to look up and survey the wider scene.
He seems unaware that his world view canʼt harmonize with those who accept current paradigms of reality. His conclusions inevitably clash with theirs.
For example, Wright convincingly describes the Jewish vision of the Messiah. He asks “Why then did the early Christians acclaim Jesus as Messiah, when he obviously wasnʼt?”
If one examines the Messianic teachings of the Hebrew faith, says Wright, a man such as Jesus, of humble origins and who had been shamefully crucified, would not qualify as the Jewish Messiah. Simon Bar-Kochba of the second Jewish rebellion (132-5) died in very similar circumstances. Yet nobody ever thought he was the Messiah. Why should they conclude that about Jesus?
Again, Jesusʼ disciples could have done what Bar-Kochbaʼs followers did - creep back home, declaring that they were finished with revolution. Or, in Wrightʼs words, “… they could, of course, have found another Messiah”. But, it seems, nobody dreamed of saying that James, Jesusʼ brother, was the Messiah when he was (according to Hegesippus) martyred.
The historical fact of resurrection was what tipped the scales towards the recognition of Jesus as Messiah by the first Jewish-Christians, maintains Wright.
Wright continues with what amounts to a statement of faith:
We are forced to postulate something which will account for the fact that a group of first-century Jews, who had cherished messianic hopes and centered them on Jesus of Nazareth, claimed after his death that he really was the Messiah despite the crushing evidence to the contrary … to this question, of course, the early Christians reply with one voice: we believe that Jesus was and is the Messiah because he was raised bodily from the dead.
Doesnʼt he miss the point? No matter what early Christians affirmed, great numbers of people today cannot in good conscience affirm the same. That is, they are forced to postulate something very different because their world view doesnʼt admit resurrection. Theirs is a definite, distinct and honest parting of the ways. Wright seems unconscious of this and doesnʼt address it.
Belief and history
To do him justice, Wright immediately goes on to say “But this argument simply takes us to the belief” of the early Christians. That is, by his own admission it doesnʼt address whether or not a resurrection really happened.
I caution readers to be alert at precisely this point. Wrightʼs argument that belief in resurrection was important in early Christianity is persuasive.
It is true that we should try to work out what gave rise to Christianity and its subsequent success. But it seems to me that Wright does not acknowledge as he should that there might be highly compelling reasons for the rise and ultimate success of Christianity other than belief in the resurrection of Jesus. For example:
[A] We know that the perceptions by early Christians of the world differed radically from ours. So we would be wrong to assess their beliefs according to our own paradigms. It may not be true that they found the idea of physical resurrection quite as staggering as we do today. As it turns out, what we today call facts and history were of relatively little or no concern to Paul and the Gospel authors.
For Pharisaic Jews (the first Christians), authority was not focused primarily on what we now call “fact” (science) or “proven events” (history) but on a supernatural world which communicates with us via human agency and holy writings. This implies that ultimate truth is derived from the past not the present .
Paulʼs writings were not intended to expound either a new Christian theology or “what really happened”. They were primarily pastoral, addressed not to theologians but to ordinary people in the pew.
The Gospels were likewise not written as history. Their primary purpose was to teach. Their context was liturgical . The Old Testament (the “Scriptures”) was proffered proof of their truth. Only a residue of history as we know it resides in them. We have to carefully sort it out from the main body of writing.
So it is not remarkable, as Wright says it is, that Jewish-Christians regarded resurrection something utterly amazing, a miracle which splits the fabric of the universe. Given what first century Christians thought about the world, about how God works in it, and about the source of truth, it is more likely that the concept of resurrection harmonized with the way they thought things worked in their world. It would have been remarkable and marvelous - but entirely natural.
On the other hand, it is strikingly remarkable and entirely unnatural to a majority (in the West). Our world view (I talk of Western culture) doesnʼt accommodate what the author proposes and the first Christians accepted.
[B] A similar error arises out of Wrightʼs proposal that the Church as an organization arose primarily or even necessarily out of belief in resurrection. Though superficially compelling, his contention doesnʼt withstand examination.
Given what we know about the beginnings, growth, consolidation and death of large movements, itʼs more likely that Christianity arose out of a particular confluence of social currents and (in this case, mistaken) theological suppositions, than out of a single and (in that culture) unremarkable theological belief.
That is, itʼs more probable that the Church began as organizations normally do; that it has changed over time as do normal organizations; and that it may peter out and perhaps disappear as many organizations do.
Occamʼs Razor applies in this case. This principle states roughly that “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity” or, as Occam actually said, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”. Wrightʼs thesis meets the principle of parsimony only on the face of things.
Wright is guilty of attributing simplicity to the wrong factor. To propose that belief in a resurrection alone, or even as a primary factor, resulted in the Church is not the simplest argument available.
An argument from resurrection is less likely than one which depends upon normal processes, albeit highly complex. A theory of resurrection involves us in many more assumptions and speculations than one of normal organizational development in the context of first-century Palestine.
To summarize: only if we stick entirely to a previous worldview is it possible to conclude as does Wright. And even then evidence internal to the Bible is not as clear-cut as he makes out.
Rolling back the stone
Having rolled back the stone of belief from the death of Jesus, Wright now feels sufficiently prepared in Part IV (page 587) to excavate the resurrection narratives for history. He calls them “… the oddest stories ever written” - a nice bit of hyperbole.
We have a number of accounts of the resurrection. They all differ. We might be forgiven for thinking, says Wright, that the writers of the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) seem to “… set out to see how different from one another they could possibly be”.
But it is feasible, according to Wright, to sift out from the New Testament some powerful indications of the historicity of the biblical accounts of the resurrection.
A number of persuasive arguments indicate that the resurrection narratives are early, maintains Wright. He thinks they pre-date both Paulʼs letters and the Gospels. They are also, he says, strangely free of any connection to the Old Testament, unlike the rest of the Gospel narratives. The Gospel authors appear not to have developed them theologically very much from the original sources.
Wrightʼs detailed consideration of the resurrection narratives in each of the Gospels contains nothing particularly new. So, for example, Matthewʼs account is not derived from Paul or anyone else. It is … as though Matthew himself had mulled over the early stories for a long time and retold them in this form while allowing them to remain, essentially, early stories.
Wright does not emphasize the degree to which Matthewʼs author may have embroidered these early stories for his own ends.
He adds that the resurrection stories are not metaphor. They are intended to relate to an historical event, something which really happened. Similarly, Lukeʼs more detailed resurrection account was never intended to relate to anything other than “what really happened”, says Wright. As far as Luke is concerned, then, we need have no doubt: he believed in the one-off, unique event of Jesusʼ bodily resurrection, and he believed that the entire story of the creatorʼs dealings with the world and with Israel had come into new focus as the result of it.
Despite this, the three synoptic authors have
… felt free to shape and retell their [resurrection] stories in such a way as to bring out their own particular emphases and theological intentions.
Johnʼs Gospel is dealt with so ambiguously by Wright that I am unable to decide quite what he has concluded about its resurrection story. He appears satisfied with the statement that “… Johnʼs resurrection stories appear more like the root of a vine than its newly grown fruit”.
His main points about the Gospel accounts are:
In them the resurrection has moved from the borders of the Jewish religion to the center of the Christian faith.
Resurrection changed during this process from a single event into two. The first is Jesusʼ own physical resurrection, the second a general resurrection.
Resurrection is not mere resuscitation. It is transformation of the normal physical body into a “transphysical” state. This “transphysical” body is different from the physical body. It can move through physical objects, including the wrappings left lying in the tomb. It can eat and drink, but appears to need neither. It can be touched but can also disappear.
Resurrection language refers to something real and (trans) physical. On the few occasions when resurrection language is used as metaphor by Christians, its referents are baptism and holiness. Otherwise the term refers to an historical event, one which really happened in the same way that I had breakfast this morning.
The resurrection belief of early Christians led to their confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord of the world.
I canʼt help thinking that the Gospels are considerably less coherent and much more untidy than Wright makes out. Itʼs all very well to draw out neat conclusions. But the Gospels are, I think, less structured and more fuzzy than Wright acknowledges. If they were as clear as he makes out I suspect that there would be far greater consensus about them than actually exists.
What caused the belief?
At last (after 684 pages) Wright cuts to the chase. For the final 53 pages of the book, he likens the move to investigate the historicity of the resurrection to “Walking into the middle of [a] 360-degree barrage of cold epistemological water …”
I was startled at the abrupt way Wright seems to immediately turn off the tap on all but his own conclusions. Early on in this section he writes:
Two things must be regarded as historically secure … the emptiness of the tomb and the meetings with the risen Jesus.
These are “firmly warranted” he says. Together, but not singly, they increase the likelihood of Jesusʼ resurrection to “high probability” in an historical sense. Wright seems to mean, however, that it is early Christian belief which is firmly warranted.
When we ask the early Christians themselves what had occasioned this belief, their answers home in on two things: stories about Jesusʼ tomb being empty, and stories about him appearing to people, alive again. Or is belief his referent? In a typical twist of emphasis, Wright asserts a few paragraphs later that
The other explanations sometimes offered for the emergence of the belief do not possess the same explanatory power … It is therefore highly probable that Jesusʼ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.
Perhaps Iʼm asking too much. Perhaps itʼs unfair to suggest that Wright sacrifice words for clarity. What does he actually mean, for example, when he says that Jesus gave “every appearance” of having come to life after first dying?
Despite the apparent swings of viewpoint, it seems to me that Wright thinks [a] he has firmly established strong warrants for his position and [b] that he has dealt with all the arguments against them. I donʼt think he has but, once again, the reader must decide.
Let us be crystal clear about one thing, however. Wright does not claim to have established as a matter of good history that Jesus came alive again after death - what is normally thought of today as “resurrection”. Wright correctly points out that at the level of history as such “… when our primary datum is a widely held belief for which we are seeking causes” matters remain open-ended. If it can be shown that the primary datum - in this case the resurrection - isnʼt necessary (though for some it may be sufficient) then the verdict on the historicity of the resurrection must be an open one.
For the purposes of the enquiring mind, therefore,
This is the point at which we must declare that the matter lies beyond strict historical proof. It will always be possible for ingenious historians to propose yet more variations on the theme of how early Christian belief could have arisen, and taken the shape it did, without either an empty tomb or appearances of Jesus.
This admission is extremely important given the nature of the discussion up to this point in the book. Despite everything that he has asserted before, he now admits that the resurrection canʼt be strictly proven in the sense that it can be shown to be good history!
Wright explains what he means by “strict” historical proof. It is of the sort required to demonstrate that the Duke of Wellington and his allies did indeed beat Napoleonʼs army at the Battle of Waterloo, for example. That is, by “strict” history he means what I think most people mean by “historical”.
The evidence Wright has produced is, by his own admission, not strong enough to persuade other historians that the resurrection is good history (Wright says several times that heʼs an historian). In normal parlance, then, Wright appears to admit that we canʼt establish the historicity of the primitive belief that Jesus came alive in some way after having first died.
Itʼs true that fashions come and go in history just as in theology. But, it seems to me that a residue is eventually left which becomes in some real sense an abiding truth. Thus not only will the broad outline, relevance and meaning of the Battle of Waterloo have been agreed, but the evidence on which those conclusions are based will have been acknowledged by most historians.
This has never happened in relation to the resurrection of Jesus from death. Nor, despite Wrightʼs magnum opus, and by his own admission, is it likely to.
If Iʼm correct in this conclusion, this is a serious failure of Wrightʼs overall case. Broad consensus in any discipline is a critical indication that a proposal has succeeded. Such a consensus may change. But it must be there for any historical claim to succeed.
All in all I conclude that Wrightʼs mammoth effort succeeds only within the restricted boundaries of traditional biblical hermeneutics. His analysis, as far as it goes, is conducted in great depth but exceedingly limited width. In the final analysis, all he has done is to reconstruct the mindset of some early Jewish-Christians.
But - and hereʼs the rub - he has not reached the heart of modern humanity. He has not satisfied the doubtful and enquiring mind of today. Let me be more specific and say that even his limited case has a serious hole in it. It seems to me that historical sidesteps will not do. The ultimate sidestep, of which Wright is guilty, is to escape by redefining the point of contention and giving it a new and special meaning. What the Church has held for millennia and what is widely understood today by most Christians as resurrection is not, according to Wright, what the early Christians believed. It cannot now be true, and was not true for the first Christians, that dead people are resuscitated, says Wright.
The Christian story does not try to suggest otherwise … The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.
To be fair, the author takes this line all along. That his meaning is almost certainly not the meaning given throughout most of Christian history is, I think, important to note. He has, in essence, escaped the dilemma of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus from death by redefining it as “transphysical”.
This path is all the more dubious because Wright pans those who reinterpret the resurrection as a psycho-emotional insight of the disciples. I donʼt think the author is justified in drawing his conclusion quite so hard and fast. He argues that the concept of resurrection developed over some centuries. He does not deal with the possibility that the concept has continued developing and mutating throughout Christian history.
In what sense, then, are we to face the challenge of resurrection? Wright is specific that this challenge “… comes down to a much narrower point [to do with] the direct question of death and life, of the world of space, time and matter …”
At this point in the book I read on somewhat anxiously. Was I going to have to deal with more answers which, however consistent and self-contained, seemed to fail to address my world of space/time and physical realities?
Does it matter?
Disappointingly, the answer turned out to be that the author doesnʼt address it. To have fully engaged me, if only in the few final pages of his book, Wright would have had to respond to at least some of the following points:
Why, even if historically certain (which he admits it isnʼt), should the resurrection of Jesus be important? Wrightʼs entire case revolves around the assertion that resurrection has nothing to do with life after death as so many fondly assume.
So why should his version of resurrection matter to me? I will one day die and so will we all. That one man came to life again in some strange “transphysical” way, defined at last by a 21st century theologian, has little or no impact on me. I see no reason why it should impact anyone else, to be frank.
I can understand why Christians should so quickly after the early period have switched to a Greek view of resurrection as life after death. Eternal death for sentient, self-reflective beings like ourselves tends to be an uncomfortable prospect, sometimes acutely so.
But I fail to understand why “life after death after death”, as Wright puts it, should be a gripping, life-altering revelation - either to first-century Christians or, more damagingly, in the context of a 21st century worldview.
It is cold comfort indeed that the traditional prospect of life after death should be replaced by Wrightʼs - and perhaps the early Churchʼs - perception of [a] the resurrection (in “transphysical” form) of one person two thousand years ago and [b] the resurrection of some so-called righteous people at some undefined point in the future.
Moreover, to be somehow meanwhile dead but alive, as Wright suggests, is a dull prospect. How likely was it that this wishy-washy version of resurrection became the powerful driving force of a vibrant, world-conquering new faith? The suggestion boggles my mind. Wright proposes that Jesus came “alive” in some new way. He doesnʼt say how this can be in terms, for example, of modern physics or biology. He proposes that the “transphysical” bodily resurrection of Jesus is the start of a new sort of life in our universe. He goes so far as to call it a “new creation”.
How can this new creation operate without a complete change in the nature of the universe? If it is some sort of “now but not yet” new creation, has it any effect on the way things normally work in our lives? Does the “new creation” perhaps exist only as some sort of abstract cognate in humanity? Or is it perhaps a matter of “faith”?
Wright makes much of the point that resurrection is “life after life after death”. That is, the resurrection of Jesus (which is good history) is the first fruits of a general resurrection yet to come (as the first Christians believed).
Will you or I be part of the final resurrection of which Jesusʼ resurrection is the harbinger? Does he or anyone else know what it means to die and yet be “alive” until that final resurrection? Are not these ideas empty theological formulae?
Wright doesnʼt ask this sort of question, reinforcing my impression that his focus is far too narrow to relate much to the normal life I know. Letʼs assume that Wright has proved his case about early Christian beliefs beyond reasonable doubt (recall that he concedes the question of historicity). Why should early Christians be better qualified to pronounce on Jesusʼ resurrection than you or I?
We know far more about the world and the way things work than any first-century person ever did. In fact, we know more about the first-century as a whole than did any person then living! Resurrection of one person - even if “transphysical” - would have required suspension or negation of natural processes. There is no sign some 2 000 years later that these natural processes have been changed or suspended. First-century Christians were anyway unaware of these processes. Are they not more likely than we to have made a mistake in this respect? Why should we take their word that Jesus was resurrected? Why must we ditch all we know about physical reality in order to remain true to Jesus? It doesnʼt make sense to me.
Some critics argue that itʼs not valid to proclaim the one-off resurrection of Jesus as both historical and unique. To do so, they would say, is merely to avoid the need to show how it relates to all other events, as historians normally do.
This criticism, says Wright, is unjustified. All historical events are unique. Nothing ever happens twice in exactly the same way. Even if it does, it happens at a different time and in a different context (though he doesnʼt put it quite like this).
But is the uniqueness of the resurrection of the same class as all other unique events? Isnʼt it unique in an entirely different way?
All historical events are unique in the sense that no event ever recurs.
But letʼs note that the notion of an “event” is artificial. We have invented it for our own convenience, to make thinking about history a little easier. In fact, the flow of “events” is seamless. So also with “cause” and “effect”. Every “effect” is also a “cause” and vice-versa. But a one-time resurrection from death is unique in a different sense as well. Its uniqueness rests in being an “event” which, by Wrightʼs own admission, suspends or changes the entire natural system of the universe. This is the sort of uniqueness weʼre debating - not normal historical uniqueness. Is this universe-shattering type of uniqueness credible on the basis of the imperfect, incomplete and biased evidence contained in the New Testament?
People in Jesusʼ times did not think as we do about the need for evidence.
We now know [a] how easily we are subject to cognitive error ; and [b] we have learned that our quality of knowledge is radically improved by modern science and other disciplines (such as history) which use similar analytical techniques. This is not to say that any of the many modern intellectual disciplines yields absolute truth.
One of the cardinal rules of evidence is that if a claim is extraordinary, it must be supported by equally extraordinary evidence. For example, a claim that the moon is made of cheese would be extraordinary. It is self-evident that such a claim would require evidence of equally extraordinary power.
Does Wright think that the evidence he presents is powerful enough to adequately support his claims for the resurrection of Jesus? Isnʼt his evidence actually extraordinarily weak in relation to an event which heʼs claiming is no less than “a new creation”?
Wright makes light of the notion that the resurrection, which was by his own admission an extraordinary historical event (if it happened), had to be caused by something.
It is a fundamental characteristic of the universe that every “event” is seamlessly connected to every other “event” which precedes it. Jesusʼ resurrection may have in fact been one such event - though everything we know about the universe indicates that it is so improbable as to be confidently labelled “impossible”.
Wright pays no attention to this basic aspect of history as a world-wide discipline. How was this event caused? Was it a one-off natural event? Wright seems to assume that it was.
Or does traditional theology prevail in its assumption that it was caused by God? If God caused it, how did that come about? How can we distinguish a God-caused event from a natural event?
Far from considering such matters, Wright asserts that there is no need for a hypothesis of supernatural origin to account for the resurrection. If so, what is his evidence (apart from flimsy biblical material) that such a radical reorientation of natural processes has occurred? Where did it start, how is it presently operating, and where will it finish? Ernst Troeltsch, who wrote in the early part of the 20th century, is increasingly known for having argued for the holistic nature of the universe.
He did so specifically in relation to history. If, he said, the universe is a consistent whole and all its parts share an essential nature, it is not logically possible to split history into normal events (which can be examined) and supernormal events (which canʼt be examined). Nor is it valid to split history into times when one sort of thing can happen (like some miracles), and others when the same sort of thing cannot happen. Thus whatever claims are made for “what really happened” in the past, they must be treated with extreme caution if they relate something which we now know is impossible.
The story of Icarus, for example, is rightly called a fable because we know itʼs impossible. Until very recently we did not know that. Even in the latter part of the 19th century men were still trying to fly with their own muscle power. It can be now demonstrated that power-to-weight ratios are too small to allow this, whereas before that wasnʼt known. The same applies to resurrection interpreted as a dead person coming to life again in terms of the usual (and traditional) way resurrection is understood. We now know that cellular activity in the human body cannot be restarted once it has progressed to the state we call death. Troeltsch pointed out that the holistic nature of everything doesnʼt allow history to change from allowing resurrection previously but not now. Regardless of how Wright redefines resurrection, on what grounds does he think that something which cannot happen now could once happen? Alas, he doesnʼt acknowledge the problem, much less offer a solution. His thesis of a “transphysical” resurrection is, I think, a cop-out.
One final question. What sort of God are we talking about here?
Whether a natural event or a God-event why should it all be so obscure?
Why should resurrection from death so difficult for moderns to accept if itʼs essential to right faith? Why must Wright write 750 pages to tell us about it?
Wouldnʼt it be so much more convincing if God had seen to it that Jesusʼ resurrection was well-attested? Why, if it was an event which really happened in the same way that the Second World War happened, has it been so poorly remembered and transmitted? If the early Christians were so riveted by it, why did they not emphasise it more than they did? Why did they not ensure that those who came after them could be more certain? The resurrection of Jesus from death may be central to early Christianity, but why is it not more central if itʼs so crucial?
Paul, for example, does stress resurrection. But despite that stress it would be wrong to claim that resurrection is his primary focus. A casual examination of his letters is enough to disprove that. In short, if resurrection was as central to the lives of early Christians as Wright claims, why do we know so little about it? Wright deals with none of these questions. Technically interesting though his book is in terms of biblical material, it is likely to be of use mainly to scholars and those who donʼt need to explore the difficult aspects of the resurrection story.
 See FOG Index
 The Death of the Past, J H Plumb, 1969 and The Discarded Image, C S Lewis, 1964
 See A Guide to A Liturgical Jesus and Midrash and Lection in Matthew, M D Goulder, 1974
 Inevitable Illusions, M Piatelli-Palmarini, 1994
ABOVE REVIEW FROM
More Reviews of Wrightʼs Book Below
The Resurrection of the Son of God. By N. T. Wright. Fortress.
Reviewed by Gary Anderson (Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the
University of Notre Dame)
First Things 137 (November 2003): 51-54.
The past decade or so has produced numerous challenges to reading the Bible as a trustworthy historical witness. Scholars in the field of Old Testament studies question every detail of the pre-exilic corpus. As for the New Testament, there is the infamous Jesus Seminar and the seemingly annual appearance of its heretical claims festooned on the cover of a prominent national periodical. For many orthodox believers, these problems are rooted in the historical-critical enterprise itself. Yet one should recall that the move to read the Bible historically took root in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily among devout Christian thinkers. Rather than attempting to harmonize the differences between conflicting biblical accounts, these interpreters tried to let each voice speak reverently on its own.
More troubling for me is just what the theological gain will be from the project Wright has set out for himself. An objective, hard-hitting critique of the Jesus Seminar on purely historical grounds is certainly welcome. An objective historian can find reasons to affirm the resurrection stories. But the theological task of accounting for the identity of Jesus Christ must rest on something larger than just an historical affirmation of the resurrection. Can the larger question of identity move forward along the purely historical path that Wright proposes? The criticisms that Hans Frei made of historical approaches such as this one in his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974) are hard to answer.
In Wrightʼs view the only path forward is the establishment of a sequence of events in the life of Jesus that stand up to the scrutiny of historians. This historically reconstructed sequence of events will not conform fully to the telling of the story that the Gospel writers themselves have offered the Church. The Gospel writers wrote in the context of the evolving Church and sometimes skewed their portraits to match ecclesial interest rather than historical reality. In this particular volume these worries are not so weighty, since all Wright sets out to determine is whether the resurrection as an event is true or not. But when the same set of methods is turned on the full Gospel narrative, the reader has to accept a whole set of historical judgments that Wright makes in order to proceed to the plane of theological reflection and affirmation. Having read a good deal of Wright, I, for one, am not prepared to follow all of his historical reconstructions. No doubt they are learned; but as examples of historical imagination they remain speculative and somewhat idiosyncratic.
“What Happened That First Easter? Can There Be A Literal Truth to Resurrection?”
By A. E. Harvey (former canon and subdeacon of Westminster, who has authored several books on Jesus and the New Testament) TLS. Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2003, issue 5220, p. 5-6.
[Snipped introductory outline of Wrightʼs book]
…A number of significant and early New Testament texts summarize the story of Jesus without any reference to the resurrection: he was “exalted to the right hand of God” — this statement about one who had been condemned as a dangerous sectarian by his compatriots and executed as a criminal by the Romans was evidently felt by some to be a sufficient expression of a momentous claim: again all appearances, Jesus had been vindicated and glorified by God. Wright would reply that it was nevertheless the resurrection that was the primary article of faith and proclamation: if it is not explicitly stated, it is simply taken for granted, and explanations (ingenious if not always entirely persuasive) can be proposed for its omission. But This Hardly Settles The Question. [emphasis added by E.T.B.] If some early creedal formulations (as many believe these passages to be) fail to mention it at all, can we say that the resurrection — in the sense of the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus on earth — was always and from the very beginning the essential focus of Christian belief to quite the extent that is claimed throughout this study?
But if not, what are the consequences? Might not the ascension and exaltation of Jesus be an alternative way of describing the mysterious truth of Jesusʼ continuing existence? Here, once again, we are up against the constraints of logical analysis. In logic, the statement that one thing is the case excludes the opposite. But is this true of the language of the afterlife? Wright begins with a clean logical distinction. The pagans, he says, denied resurrection; the Jews believed in it [though that was not true of all Jews — E.T.B.] It follows that those who proclaimed Jesusʼ resurrection were speaking within a Jewish context of belief. But here logic is surely misapplied. The Greeks had a word for a person coming back to life: anastasis, resurrection. Of course they “denied” it — in principle. Everyone agreed that the dead are dead and do not come back to life. Yet strange things seemed to happen. In a culture where burial or cremation were carried out within a day or two after death, there were instances of wrong diagnosis — people thought to be dead revived just in time to escape their own funerals. Stories circulated of revival after a longer period, and some people evidently believed them. Similarly among the Jews: it was not thought possible that Lazarus could be brought back to life when his body had been in the tomb long enough to be noisomely decomposing. Yet stories of such “resurrection” could still be told with some possibility (however small) of being believed. [Actually lots of stories of various miracles, even Matthewʼs “raising of the many” from “many opened tombs” passed muster as believable back then. — E.T.B.] The study of vocabulary in different ancient cultures is not enough to define the boundaries of credibility. [Emphasis added. — E.T.B.] And it was not long before people of Greek and Roman background found themselves prepared to believe in Jesusʼ resurrection [another miracle in a world of them — E.T.B.] without a preliminary course in Jewish beliefs about resurrection and the “afterlife.”
But logic also stumbles in the face of “resurrection” itself. The word, as Wright readily admits, was capable of metaphorical use. In Jewish literature it was a metaphor for national revival, the return from exile and the renewal of a covenant relationship with God. In Christianity it became a metaphor for a “radical change of behavior.” But to speak in this way is to assume that there was a determinate meaning of the word that was not metaphorical. This “literal use and concrete referent” Wright finds, not in the rare and barely credible cases of people apparently coming back to life, but in the resurrection of Jesus. It was this factual event which allowed the word to have a metaphorical career in Christianity comparable with, but different from, that which it had in Judaism. What can be said about this factual reality? Wright extrapolates from the resurrection stories in the gospels. These are full of details, he suggests, that are both surprising and unlikely to have been invented for dogmatic or apologetic purposes.
[Details of dreams, and hearsay, also feature “surprising” and “unlikely” details. Certainly early Christians, eager for more information than the limited number of sayings and doings preserved in the earliest Gospel and Q, went on to create not only the infancy narratives, but the resurrection narratives as well (neither of which are found in Mark, the earliest Gospel). People were dying to know more, and every little tale or idle experience that someone related to someone would be magnified by that desire. Take the example of the three added endings to Mark, or the many Gospels and Acts that followed. — E.T.B.]
In brief: Jesus was both like and unlike his former self; he was recognizable but not recognized; he was physical enough to cook food and eat it, but had no difficulty passing through locked doors; he spoke with magisterial authority and yet “some doubted.” [The mention of “doubt” normally accompanied stories of miracles. It was part and parcel of telling a miracle story. — E.T.B.] What sort of existence is this? Wright struggles to find appropriate words and suggests “metaphysical,” “transphysicality,” then, was the “literal use and concrete referent” of the word “resurrection.” This is what happened to Jesus, and this is what will happen to us. But can he really mean this? Is it the Christian hope that we shall ourselves cook and eat and pass through doors and be sometimes recognized, sometimes not, by our friends? [Emphasis added. — E.T.B.]
Is this a “literal” description of the resurrection that is promised to all? Surely we must allow here for some epistemic distance between an utterly mysterious happening and the ability of human being to put it into words? [And surely those who are not Christians must be allowed doubts concerning such tales and their “details,” especially in lieu of the fact that the later the Gospel the greater number of post-resurrection tales it contained, the greater number of post-resurrection words spoken by Jesus, and the more numerous the “details.” — E.T.B.]
Surely we must be ready to admit an element of “as if” [an element not of reality but of metaphor — E.T.B.] in the accounts of the empty tomb and of supernatural appearances? The suggestion that the gospel stories of the resurrection of Christ provide a kind of template for imagining the resurrection of each one of ourselves surely crosses the bounds of credibility. Are we not mistaking imaginative narrative and metaphorical language for literal description? Similarly, when Wright castigates those Christians (the majority!) who confuse resurrection with going to heaven, may this not be a matter of preferring one metaphor to another when describing the same mysterious reality?
But it may be that the issue is a more fundamental one. This book is the third (and is promised not to be the last) in the impressive series of his scholarly studies to which Wright has given the title, “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” If the real question is indeed “the question of God,” then the kind of language one believes it is appropriate to use about the mysteries of life beyond the grave may also be the kind of language one will use about God himself. Here Wright appears to endorse a certain Evangelical Literalness. [Emphasis Added. — E.T.B.]
His God is intensely personal, imagined as adopting the strategies of a human being. He is a God who can be described as having “dealt with the problem” of evil, or of sin, or as one whose promise has “got stuck at the point of Israelʼs rebellion.” Accordingly (in relation to the present subject) we read that God “accomplished” the resurrection. We are to believe, that is to say, not just that something was experienced on the first Easter day, which enabled the disciples to believe that Jesus was in some sense alive — something that by its very nature must elude definition or precise description — but that God literally “accomplished” a unique and decisive intervention in human history, involving the removal and subsequent transformation of a human body. [Emphasis added. That statement neatly defines a division between Christian theologians.—E.T.B.]
“Book of the Month” section, a review of N.T. Wrightʼs The Resurrection of the Son of God
by L. W. Hurtado (New College, University of Edinburgh)
The Expository Times 115:3 Dec. 2003, p. 83-86. [This review includes synopses of each major section of Wrightʼs book, and much praise, though the reviewer added the following cavats, much as the other two reviewers had in their reviews that I have previously emailed the group. — E.T.B.]
…One curious matter to mention is that, whereas on one page Wright agrees that ‘there was a wide spectrum of belief in second-Temple Judaism regarding the fate of the dead.’ (p. 201), a few pages later he contends that, except for those like the Sadducees who resisted the idea, ‘resurrection had been woven into the very fabric of first-century Jewish praying, living, hoping and acting’ (p. 204), and that in Jesusʼ time ‘most Jews believed in resurrection,’ although there remained a certain diversity about what the resurrection body would be like (p. 205). /snip
Part Four (chaps. 13-17) is a detailed analysis of the canonical Gospelsʼ accounts of Jesusʼ resurrection… One question that readers may judge less than adequately handled is whether the variations among the Gospel narratives relfect ‘only minor development’ (p. 611) in traditions about Jesusʼ resurrection in the first century.
N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God Volume Three (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) xxi = 817 pp. ISBN 0-8006-2679-6. paperback $39.00.
Reviewed by Robert M. Price
copyright, The Journal of Higher Criticism (not yet published in that journal, visit them online)
This massive book is an exercise in prolixity. It is several times longer than it needs to be, as if designed to bludgeon us into belief. One might save a lot of time and money by finding a copy of George Eldon Laddʼs I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1975), which used most of the same arguments at a fraction of the length, and without skimping. The arguments have not gotten any better. They are the same old stale fundamentalist apologetics we got in Ladd, essentially the same old stuff we used to read in Josh McDowell and John Warwick Montgomery. The same hash reslung. Only now it is getting pretty smelly. Perhaps that is why Wright seeks to perfume it, reminiscent of Joseph and Nicodemus attempting to fumigate the decaying corpse of Jesus by encasing it in an extravagant hundred pounds weight of spices (John 19:39). Wright backs up much too far to make a running start at the resurrection, regaling us with unoriginal, superfluous, and tedious exposition of Old Testament and Intertestamental Jewish ideas of afterlife and resurrection, resurrection belief in every known Christian writer up into the early third century, etc., etc. The mountain thus laboring is doomed to bring forth a messianic mouse, alas. All this erudition is perhaps intended to intimidate the reader into accepting Wrightʼs evangelistic pitch. But it is just a lot of fast talking. In the end, Wright, now Bishop of Durham, is just Josh McDowell in a better suit. His smirking smugness is everywhere evident, especially in his condescension toward the great critics and critical methods of the last two centuries, all of which he strives to counteract. He would lead the hapless seminary student (whom one fears will be assigned this doorstop) backwards into the pre-critical era with empty pretenses of post-modern sophistication, shrugging off the Enlightenment by patently insincere attempts to wrap himself in the flag of post-colonialism. Genuine criticism of the gospels he dismisses as the less advanced, muddled thinking of a previous generation, as if “cutting edge” scholarship like his were not actually pathetic nostalgia for the sparkling Toyland of fundamentalist supernaturalism. It is a familiar bag of tricks, and that is all it is. The tragedy is that many today are falling for it. Witness Wrightʼs own prominence in the Society of Biblical Literature, to say nothing of his ecclesiastical clout. The weight of this bookʼs argument for orthodox traditionalism is to be found, of all places, in the acknowledgements section, where Wright thanks the hosts of the prestigious venues where he first presented bits of this material: Yale Divinity School, South-Western Theological Seminary, Duke Divinity School, Pontifical Gregorian University, St. Michaelʼs Seminary, etc., etc. Wright is the mouthpiece for institutional orthodoxy, a grinning spin-doctor for the Grand Inquisitor. What credibility his book appears to have is due to the imposing wealth, power, tradition, even architecture, of the social-ecclesiastical world which he serves as chaplain and apologist. It is sickening to read his phony affirmations of the allegedly political and radical import of a literal resurrection (if you can even tell what Wright means by this last). Does Bishop Wright espouse some form of Liberation Theology? No, for, just as he emptily says Jesus redefined messiahship, Wright redefines politics. When he says the early Christians were anti-imperialistic, all he has in mind is the fact that Christians withstood Roman persecution, valiant enough in its way, but hardly the same thing. Like a pathetic Civil War re-enactment geek, he is sparring at an enemy safely dead for centuries. In attempting to co-opt and parody the rhetoric of his ideological foes, Wright reminds me of Francis Schaeffer, a hidebound fundamentalist who began as a childrenʼs evangelist working for Carl MacIntyre. Schaeffer, posing as an intellectual and a philosopher, used to stamp the floor speaking at fundamentalist colleges, shouting “We are the true Bolsheviks!” Right. Part of Wrightʼs agenda of harmonizing and de-fusing the evidence is to smother individual New Testament texts beneath a mass of theological synthesis derived from the Old Testament and from the outlines of Pauline theology in general. He is a victim of what James Barr long ago called the “Kittel mentality,” referring to the approach of Kittelʼs Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in which articles on individual New Testament terms and words synthesized from all uses of the term an artificial and systematic semantic structure, leading the reader to suppose that every individual usage of the word was an iceberg tip carrying with it implied reference to all other references. In other words, each article in the TDNT composed a “New Testament theology,” topic by topic. In just this manner, Wright first composes a streamlined Old Testament theology of historical and eschatological redemption (akin to that of Von Rad, without the latterʼs understanding that much of it was based on fictive saga rather than history); then Wright synthesizes a Pauline Theology, then a New Testament theology, then an early Christian theology; and finally he insists that the synthetic resurrection concept he has distilled must control our reading of all individual gospel and Pauline texts dealing with the resurrection. In short, it is an elaborate exercise in harmonizing disparate data. The implications of 1 Corinthians 15, for example, with its talk of spiritual resurrection, are silenced as the text is muzzled, forbidden to say anything outside the party line Wright has constructed as “the biblical” teaching on the subject. Another example is his insistence on translating the Greek “Christos” as “the Messiah” in Pauline passages, lending them a falsely Jewish coloring belied by their content. Wright even admits that the Pauline writings are already pretty much using “Christ” as simply another name for Jesus, yet he wants to tie Paulʼs theology in with the grand arc of Old Testament theology, “redemptive history,” or whatever. Similarly, he sees everything in the context of second-temple Judaism. Again, we detect here a phony ecumenism, as if he thought Jews were not all going to hell for rejecting Jesus as the Son of God. The same is true with his cosmetic use of politically correct inclusive language and ecumenical mistranslations of “Jews” as “Judeans,” etc. It is all to butter up the reader, like a used-gospel salesman closing in for the sale. Wright is a better-educated Anglican Zig Zigler. In reality, the only value he sees in Judaism is the safe haven it gives him from taking into account the patent influence on early Christianity of Hellenistic Mystery religions, which are really all we need to account for the empty tomb legend and the resurrection myth. For Wright “Judaism” really denotes Old Testament and rabbinic interpretation of it. Here we spot the reason for, and the character of, the unholy alliance between mainstream Judaism and Evangelical Protestantism in the pages of the Journal of Biblical Literature and Bible Review. They are closing ranks against radical critics in both traditions: Old Testament minimalists and Jesus Seminar-type scholars alike. It is rather like the Moral Majority, uneasy allies with certain goals in common. There are three fundamental, vitiating errors running like fault lines through the unstable continent of this book. The first is a complete unwillingness to engage a number of specific questions or bodies of evidence that threaten to shatter Wrightʼs over-optimistically orthodox assessment of the evidence. The most striking of these blustering evasions has to do with the dying-and-rising redeemer cults that permeated the environment of early Christianity and had for many, many centuries. Ezekiel 8:14 bemoans the ancient Jerusalemite womenʼs lamentation for Tammuz, derived from the Dumuzi cult of ancient Mesopotamia. Ugaritic texts make it plain that Baalʼs death and resurrection and subsequent enthronement at the side of his Father El went back centuries before Christianity and were widespread in Israel. Pyramid texts tell us that Osirisʼ devotees expected to share in his resurrection. Marduk, too, rose from the dead. And then there is the Phrygian Attis, the Syrian Adonis. The harmonistic efforts of Bruce Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, Ron Sider, Jonathan Z. Smith and others have been completely futile, utterly failing either to deconstruct the dying-and-rising god mytheme (as Smith vainly tries to do) or to claim that the Mysteries borrowed their resurrected savior myths and rituals from Christianity. If that were so, why on earth did early apologists admit that the pagan versions were earlier, invented as counterfeits before the fact by Satan? Such myths and rites were well known to Jews and Galileans, not to mention Ephesians, Corinthians, etc., for many centuries. But all this Wright merely brushes off, as if it has long been discredited. He merely refers us to other books. It is all part of his bluff: “Oh, no one takes that seriously anymore! Really, itʼs so passé!”
Wright comes near to resting the whole weight of his case on the mistaken contention that the notion of a single individual rising from the dead in advance of the general resurrection at the end of the age was unheard of, and that therefore it must have arisen as the result of the stubborn fact of it having occurred one day, Easter Day. This is basically absurd for reasons we will attend to in a moment, but the premise is false. Even leaving out the resurrections of the savior gods, Wright even mentions that the resurrection of Alcestis by Hercules is an exception to the rule, but he seems to think it unimportant. Worse, though, is his utter failure to take seriously the astonishing comment of Herod in Mark 6:14-16 to the effect that Jesus was thought to be John the Baptist already raised from the dead! Can Wright really be oblivious of how this one text torpedoes the hull of his argument? His evasions are so pathetic as to suggest he is being disingenuous, hoping the reader will not notice. The disciples of Jesus, who was slain by a tyrant, may simply have borrowed the resurrection faith of the Baptistʼs disciples who posited such a vindication for their own master who had met the same fate. Wright should really be arguing for the resurrection of John the Baptist, if it being unprecedented means anything!
Equally outrageous is Wrightʼs contrived and harmonistic treatment of the statements about a spiritual resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, where we read that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 50) and that the resurrected Jesus, the precedent for believers, accordingly possessed a “spiritual body” (v. 44). Wright labors mightily and futilely to persuade us that all Paul meant by “flesh and blood” was “mortal and corruptible,” not “made of flesh and blood.” Who but a fellow apologist (like William Lane Craig who sells the same merchandise) will agree to this? What does Wright suppose led the writer to use a phrase like “flesh and blood” for mortal corruptibility in the first place if it is not physical fleshiness that issues inevitably in mortal corruption? How can the Corinthians writer have used such a phrase if he meanwhile believed the risen Jesus still had flesh and blood? It is no use to protest that none of the “second temple Jewish” writers we know of had such a notion of resurrection. This supposed fact (and Ladd knew better: he cited apocalypses that have the dead rise in angelic form, or in the flesh which is then transformed into angelic stuff) cannot prevent us from noticing that 1 Corinthians 15:45 has the risen Christ “become a life-giving spirit.”
Likewise, when he gets to Luke, Wright laughs off the screaming contradiction between Luke 24:40 (“Touch me and see: no spirit has flesh as you can see I have.”) and 1 Corinthians 15:50 and 45 (“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” “The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”). The contexts of both passages make it quite clear that the terms are being used in the same senses, only that one makes the risen Jesus fleshly, while the other says the opposite. Wrightʼs laughable hair-splitting is a prime example of the lengths he will go to get out of a tight spot. Similarly, when he gets to 1 Peter 3:18 (Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, etc.”), Wright rewrites the text to make it say what he wants: “he was put to death by the flesh, and brought to life by the Spirit.” This is just ridiculous. It is the exegesis of that faith that calls things that are not as though they were. Wrightʼs second mortal sin is his desire to have his Eucharistic wafer and eat it too. He takes refuge in either side of an ambiguity when it suits him, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other, and hoping the reader will not notice. For instance, Wright is desperate to break down the “flesh/spirit” dichotomy in Paul and Luke (not to mention that between Paul and Luke!), but he builds the same wall higher outside the texts. That is, he wants to say “resurrection” always meant bodily, not merely spiritual, resurrection. The latter would mean just “going to heaven,” and that will not do. But Wright confesses he has no clear idea of what sort of physical presence the risen Jesus might have had. He calls it “transphysical” and admits he cannot define it. What then is he arguing? He just knows he wants a bodily resurrection, but it has to be a body capable of passing through locked doors and teleporting, appearing and disappearing at will. Yet he despises the notion that the risen Jesus was docetic, a spiritual entity that could take on the false semblance of physicality. Wright doesnʼt want any early Christians to have believed this. He doesnʼt want it even to have existed as an heretical option that the evangelists were trying to refute! Because that would mean that a spiritual resurrection was one form of early Christian belief, which Wright is trying to rule out. Most scholars rightly see the business about the risen Jesus requesting a fish sandwich (Luke ) as demonstrating, against Gnostic docetists, that Jesus had a fleshly body. But Wright will have none of this. He is right to point out, as A.J.M. Wedderburn does in Beyond Resurrection (1999), that anti-docetism is inconsistent with the same narrativesʼ depicting Jesus walking through locked doors like Jacob Marley. But why cannot Wright see this simply attests the inconsistent piecemeal nature of the redactional attempts to “anti-docetize” the very same narratives? But Wright is stuck with both contradictory features as “eye-witness testimony” or “early tradition” which he seems to think mean the same thing. So his “transphysical” Jesus must be the equivalent to a comic book superhero like the Vision or the Martian Manhunter, possessing a physical body but able to vary physical density at will. But wait a minute. if this is not docetism, what does docetism mean? The third strike against Wright is by far the most important. He loathes Enlightenment modernity because it will not let him believe in miracles. So he must change the rules of the game. Like all apologist swindlers, Wright makes a fundamental confusion. He thinks it an arbitrary philosophical bias that historiography should be “methodologically atheistic.” Why not admit that miracles might have occurred? It may be that a miracle turns out to be the most simple and economical explanation of the data. If we are unalterably opposed to that possibility, Wright says, we are bigots and arbitrary dogmatists. Freud would readily peg Wright as a victim of reaction formation. Long ago, the Ionian philosopher Thales understood that it explains nothing if we piously say that it rains because Zeus turned the faucet on. No, even if there is a God, it is to short circuit the process of scientific explanation to invoke divine fiat. The same point is made in the cartoon where a lab-coated scientist is expounding his theory with a chalkboard full of figures. He points his pencil to a gap in the long equation and says, “Right here a miracle occurs.” It is funny for a reason Wright apparently does not understand. To say that the rise of Christian resurrection faith requires a divine intervention is tantamount to saying we just do not know how it arose. One resorts to such tactics of desperation when all else fails, as Wright thinks mundane explanations have failed. But in that moment one has not found an alternate explanation at all. It is like the fundamentalists who say God must have ignited the Big Bang since scientists cannot yet account for what chain of causation led to it. How is “God” an explanation, even if there is a God? God is a mystery, unless one is an idolater. And to claim one has “explained” a problem by invoking a mystery is no advance at all. You are trying to invoke a bigger enigma to explain a smaller one. “I have the answer to X! The answer is XX!” Erudite Bishop Wright reveals himself to be on the same level with evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick who “explains” that the unknown Strong Nuclear Force is really Jesus Christ because scripture says “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Whatʼs the difference? The instant one invokes the wildcard of divine miracles, the game of science and scientific history comes to a sudden halt. But then that is just what Wright, unsuccessfully disguising himself as a humble historian, wants to do. The good bishop would reassure the faithful that superstition is really science, harmonization is criticism, fideism is evidence.
And why does Wright think a miracle is necessary? Only a real space-time resurrection, he insists, can account for the birth and spread of resurrection faith. Of course there are many viable explanations, not least Festingerʼs theory of cognitive dissonance reduction, whereby more than one disappointed sect has turned defeat into zeal by means of face-saving denial. Wright suicidally mentions this theory, only to dismiss it, as usual, with no serious attempt at refutation. So totally does his predisposition to orthodox faith blind him that he cannot see how lame a gesture he makes. No argument against his faith can penetrate his will to believe. Every argument against his evangelical orthodoxy seems ipso facto futile simply because he cannot bring himself to take it seriously.
But suppose a miracle were required. What sort of a miracle might it be?
Wright maintains that the earliest evangelists must have been galvanized, electrified, by something mighty convincing! Set aside the fact that all manner of supposed eyewitness enthusiasts, not least UFO abductees, have equal and equally sincere zeal. This is not nearly enough; Wright needs to account for the spread of this improbable-seeming belief among those who had not themselves seen the risen Christ, if he thinks the spread of the faith requires a miracle. He himself is at pains to show how resurrection seemed absurd and distasteful to nearly everyone. If that were so, and I am not convinced it was, what Wright needs to posit is something like the Calvinist notion of the effectual call, a supernatural mesmerism whereby God makes the gospel attractive to sinners. The miracle is needed at a later stage if it is necessary at all, not that I think it is.
Wright (though by this time one is tempted to start calling him “Wrong”) uses sneer quotes, dismissing with no argument at all Crossanʼs claim (which I deem undoubtedly and even obviously correct) that the empty tomb traditions stem from womenʼs lament traditions like those mentioned in Ezekiel 8 and attested for the Osiris cult and others. Having ignored rather than refuted this contention, Wright insists that the empty tomb narratives are eyewitness evidence, evidence that is all the stronger for the supposed fact that ancient Jews did not admit legal testimony from women. Howʼs that? Wrightʼs early evangelical Anglican Christians in togas just felt they had no choice but to include this vital eyewitness testimony even though it would surely invite ridicule by Celsus and his ilk. They were stuck with it. But why? Wright himself imagines that the framers of the 1 Corinthians 15 list of resurrection appearances knew the empty tomb tale but omitted it so as not to invite ridicule. It was thinkable to do so. But the unwitting logic of Wrightʼs whole argument presses ineluctably toward saying that the empty tomb story is not even supposed to be evidence and is not offered as such. It must be there for an entirely different reason. Crossan had it right. He made sense of it. Wright doesnʼt, because he does not want anything to link the Easter story to the Mystery Religions.
Wrightʼs insistence on limiting himself to the canonical Judeo-Christian continuity blinds him to other crucial parallels to the Easter stories. The Emmaus story is cut from the same cloth as numerous ancient “angels unawares” myths, but it bears a striking resemblance to a demonstrably earlier Asclepius story where a couple returns home dejectedly after failing to receive the desired healing miracle at Epidauros. They are intercepted by a curious and concerned stranger, the divine savior incognito, who ferrets out the reason for their sadness, reveals himself, performs the hoped-for healing after all, then vanishes. The miraculous catch of fish in John 21 is patently based on an earlier Pythagoras story in which the no-longer relevant detail of the number of the fish made some sense. As Charles L. Talbert pointed out years ago (What Is a Gospel? 1977), the abrupt ending of Mark (as it seems to readers familiar with the other gospels) fits quite naturally as a typical apotheosis story, where the absence of the body combined with a heavenly voice is sufficient to attest the heroʼs exaltation to heaven. Talbert showed how an empty tomb story made sense by itself, and how the gospel tomb scene may have originated as window-dressing for an apotheosis narrative. We are not stuck with the empty tomb as a stubborn historical fact as Wright would like us to think.
These Hellenistic parallels tell us that we hardly require eyewitness testimony of miracles to explain the origin of the gospel Easter stories. Occamʼs Razor makes that altogether unnecessary. But they also explain something else Wright thinks explicable only by miracles: the absence of scriptural allusions in these stories. Wright throws down the gauntlet to Crossan, who says that the gospel Passion Narratives are historicized prophecies from the Old Testament, rewritten as New Testament stories. Why, then, is there so little scripture reflected in the burial and Easter stories? Well, there is a good bit. Matthew has supplemented Mark with Daniel, as Randel Helms shows in Gospel Fictions (1988)-and as Wright himself eventually admits! But Crossan has also shown how similar Markʼs burial and resurrection stories are to the entombment alive and subsequent crucifixion of the enemy kings in Joshua 10:16-27. Helms also shows how John 20:17 is based on Tobit 12:16-21. But there is a good bit of the gospel story that is not derived from scripture-and that is because it comes from pagan mythology and novels where prematurely entombed heroines are inadvertently rescued by tomb robbers and heroes survive crucifixion (another body of highly relevant textual evidence that Wright haughtily laughs off).
Wright piously tells us that, faced with the resurrection narratives, we ought to bow in awe and wonder. That may or may not be so, but we must blink in astonishment at Wrightʼs comments upon them! In another case of his “both/and” harmonizations (one found frequently with Evangelical scholars, i.e., apologists) Wright both claims that the resurrection narratives lack artifice (hence must be authentic “raw footage”) and that they have been thoroughly worked over by each evangelist so as to function as consistent extensions of themes and even narrative structures running through each gospel. This sort of analysis, demonstrating the thorough permeation of Markʼs Passion story by themes ubiquitous throughout the previous chapters led the contributors to Werner H. Kelberʼs symposium The Passion in Mark (1976) to conclude that Mark had no preexistent passion tradition but composed the whole thing. Such an obvious conclusion never occurs to Wright. For him, each narrative is both early unadorned tradition and thoroughly modified. It is either one as he needs it to be. He throws source criticism out the window when he needs to, claiming, astonishingly, that there is so little apparent interdependence between the tomb tales of Mark, Matthew, and Luke that we cannot be sure they are not independent tellings of the same story, learned by each evangelist via different channels. This is a way of discounting the great degree to which Luke and Mathew have rewritten Mark, maintaining they are all separate collectors of “early traditions,” a slippery repristination of the old Sunday School notion that the four evangelists are independent witnesses, as if to the same auto accident. Again, there is no stale crust of apologetical sleight-of-hand that Wright will not claim as a “critical advance” upon Enlightenment scholarship.
For Wright, Matthewʼs accuracy is demonstrated by the fact that he seems to have added no new stories to the resurrection plot-line. What about the repeated earthquakes, the descent of the angel, the guards at the tomb, the embassy of the Sanhedrin to Pilate, the rising of the dead saints on Good Friday? Without a word as to the improbability of other evangelists omitting it if it had happened, Wright confesses himself ready to swallow the historical accuracy of the guards. Wright thinks it makes sound sense that the guards are to tell that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep? How did they know what happened while they were snoozing? Wright seems not to recognize comedy if there is no laugh track. Wright insists that the gospel writers must have believed in a literal resurrection (whatever that would be: Jesus becoming the Martian Manhunter again?). But can we be so sure of that, given certain elements of their narratives? Lukeʼs Emmaus scene is transparently symbolic of the invisible presence of Christ among his followers every Sunday at the breaking of the bread. (Wright finally admits this, but he insists that it also really happened, more of his both/and-ism.) Matthew ends not with an ascension to get Jesus off the stage of history (as in Acts), but with Jesus assuring the readers (at whom the Great Commission must be aimed) that he will continue with them until the end of the age. Does this not imply that the resurrection was after all the inauguration of the metaphorical/spiritual sense in which Matthewʼs readers, like modern Christians, sense Jesus intangibly with them? Johnʼs story of Doubting Thomas concludes with Jesus making an overt aside to the reader: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.” Can this writer have seriously intended his readers to think they were reading history? Such asides to the audience are a blatant and overt sign of the fictive character of the whole enterprise. As Barr pointed out long ago (Fundamentalism, 1977), the fact that Luke has the ascension occur on Easter evening in Luke 24 but forty days later in Acts chapter 1 (something Wright thinks utterly insignificant!) shows about as clearly as one could ask that Luke was not even trying to relate “the facts” and didnʼt expect the reader to think so.
One could easily go on and on and on, even as Wright does, and because Wright does. What we have in this book is not a contribution to New Testament scholarship, any more than Creationist “Intelligent Design” screeds are contributions to biological science. Both alike are pseudo-scholarly attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of readers, most of whom will be happy enough for the sedation.
Dr. Robert M. Price has two Ph.D.s, one in N.T. theology, and the other in N.T. history, and he is coming out with a book of essays on the resurrection question, co-edited with Jeffrey J. Lowder, which will be published by Prometheus Books, titled, Jesus Is Dead. Priceʼs other works from Prometheus include, Deconstructing Jesus [a detailed discussion of questions concerning Christian origins raised by members of the Jesus Seminar], and, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man [a work geared toward the general public as was Priceʼs much earlier online book, Beyond Born Again]. Above review.
More Moderate Christian Doubts
James D. G. Dunn, a moderate Evangelical scholar from Britain, who undoubtedly knows N.T. Wright personally, seems almost as pessimistic as Dr. Albert Schweitzer concering how poorly the “historical Jesus” matches up with “orthodox Christian dogmas about Jesus.” James D.G. Dunn in his latest monumental work (both he and Wright like writing thick books), Jesus Remembered, argues that The Gospel of Johnʼs narrative is not reliable, nor the claims it makes for Jesusʼ quasi-divine status. (In his earlier work, Evidence for Jesus, Dunn didnʼt imagine that Jesus spoke even one word reported in John.) Dunn admits there is little to support the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles, and no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah. (The term does not even appear in Q.) Nor is there much left of the “Son of Man,” except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions. Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. “If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead.” There is astonishingly little support for what Jesusʼ last words were. Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events.” Dunnʼs account of the resurrection notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: The link of Jesusʼ resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet “some doubted,” not just Thomas), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (in Jerusalem and Galilee? On earth or in heaven?).
MY OWN DOUBTS
I have also argued the matter of the resurrection with a conservative apologist, Dr. Gary Habermas at Liberty University. My final letter that summed up the various aspects of my doubts appears here.
TITLE: Rising to the challenge
SOURCE: U.S. Catholic 69 no7 18-22 Jl 2004
The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
THE EDITORS INTERVIEW Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright
Choose the best answer:
Christʼs Resurrection changed things because:
a) it assures-us that weʼll go to heaven when we die.
b) Godʼs new creation has begun, and itʼs our job to tell people about that.
Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England has strong views on that question. Wright, one of todayʼs leading scripture scholars who taught at Oxford and served as canon theologian at Westminster Abbey, backed up those views in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), one of his many books on the New Testament.
For Wright, debates about the meaning of the Resurrection (and even about whether it actually happened in the first place) go to the heart of our faith as Christians. If Christ really rose from the dead, as Wright insists that he did, then that changes everything. For one thing, it makes Jesus the Lord of the whole world. Not just Lord over our spiritual landscape either, but over every hill and dale and highway and pothole in the United States and the world over—a reality that Wright claims will change your life a lot more than getting a ticket to heaven. St. Paul says,” If Christ is not raised from the dead, then our faith is futile.” Why is that so?
Christianity is about something that happened, as a result of which the world is a different place. It takes faith to see that because, particularly in our era, the normal Enlightenment rhetoric shrieks at us that the world is not a different place, that nothing changed through Jesus.
Itʼs quite clear in the New Testament that the Resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of Godʼs new world, the beginning of a new creation. In all four gospels, read the Resurrection stories: They donʼt say, “Jesus is raised, therefore you can have a new spirituality,” or “Jesus is raised, therefore you can go to heaven when you die ‘What they say is,” Jesus is raised, therefore you have a job to do. The world needs to know about this”
Ever since the Middle Ages, in the Western world we Christians have tended to focus on sin. Because we need to be forgiven our sins, the Resurrection of Jesus takes care of that forgiveness. I think instead that the New Testament prefers to see the Resurrection as the inauguration of a new creation in which sin has been dealt with, so that forgiveness follows from the fact of a new creation. The two go together.
Many modern scholars agree that something happened on Easter but seem very reluctant to say exactly what that something is. What do you believe was that something?
Two things happened that must be historical phenomena, otherwise you cannot explain the rise of Christianity. The first is the empty tomb—and it really was .the right tomb. Letʼs not fall for that tale about them going to the wrong tomb; they would have found that out straight away. The second is that the disciples did have repeated meetings with someone they took to be the risen Jesus, even though those meetings were extremely strange. The accounts of those meetings in Matthew, Luke, John, and fleetingly in Paul all imply that there was a strangeness to them that the writers were struggling to find words to express.
This was not just a resuscitation. It wasnʼt that Jesus magically came back to the same sort of life as before, as Lazarus and the widowʼs son at Nain and Jairusʼ daughter did. What must this have been? All the sources converge on the claim that Jesus had broken through into a new kind of life. And that new life was still of the body-he could break bread, he could cook fish-and yet he could appear and disappear. The sources are very strange. Thatʼs as far as we can get.
Arenʼt there conflicting reports about the Resurrection in the gospels? The reports do and donʼt conflict, just like the birth narratives of Jesus, each of which includes certain quite different details-the wise men, the shepherds-but that agree on other points, such as, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Some say the gospels conflict because one shows Jesus after the Resurrection appearing in Jerusalem and another in Galilee. Actually both John and Matthew describe Jesusʼ appearance in both places, while Luke chooses to concentrate on one place and Mark on the other. Thatʼs not a problem historically. The gospel stories do not attempt to say, “This is the full account of everything we possibly know” but rather, “This is the particular narrative that I am going to tell you”
Did the disciples have any expectation that resurrection was something that might happen to Jesus shortly after he died?
By the time of Jesus, the majority of Jews seemed to believe in resurrection as a large-scale, end-time event that would happen at some point in the future. All of Godʼs people would be raised. Not all Jews believed this, but most did. Believing in this kind of resurrection meant you also believed in a disembodied interim period, after oneʼs death and before the last resurrection.
This belief was accompanied by a revolutionary ideology that in the end God will make a new world and bring everything out right: The rich will be humbled and the little people brought to the top-very much like the Magnificat.
As for the disciples, they are truly puzzled when Jesus says, “Weʼre going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man is to be executed and on the third day be raised” I think theyʼre scratching their heads saying, “We donʼt know what heʼs talking about. Obviously he doesnʼt mean literal death because whoever heard of a Messiah who dies?” As far as theyʼre concerned, the resurrection is the big thing thatʼs going to happen at the end of the world. Jesus, however, seems to be describing a Resurrection that would happen only to him. Thatʼs just not on their radar screen.
So they had no anticipation of Jesusʼ Resurrection?
Absolutely none. No sense of experiencing his death as, “Well, that was very nasty, but in three days heʼs going to be back again.” This, to me, has a very strong ring of truth.
Think of the road to Emmaus where Jesus says to the two disciples, “Donʼt you realize this is how it had to be?” The only way they can realize it is by having another trip right through the Old Testament to see the pattern of suffering and vindication woven all the way through. Then they realize this had to happen even to the Messiah. Nobody had dreamed of that. What was the significance of Jesusʼ Resurrection for his disciples? The first thing the Resurrection meant was that Jesus really was the Messiah. Messiah is not a specifically divine title-it really means he was the one in whom Israelʼs destiny and Godʼs purpose for Israel were summed up.
Second, if he really was the Messiah, then somehow his death must have been a victory, not a defeat. It must have been a saving event. I mean, a crucified Messiah would normally have been very bad news. And third, since he is the Messiah and since his death was a saving event and not a disaster, then therefore he is now constituted as the Lord of the whole world.
This is a deeply Jewish belief found in Psalms 2 and 89 and many other places: that when the Messiah comes, he will be the one to rule the nations. The early Christians didnʼt give up on this Jewish belief, they just said that now the Messiahʼs rule will be shaped and defined by the cross and Resurrection. So the early Christians redefined power and redefined empire, and that gave them a peculiar and previously undreamed-of mission.
Now think of what I havenʼt said. I havenʼt mentioned forgiveness of sins. I havenʼt said,” The Resurrection means that we go to heaven when we die?” People today sometimes talk about Easter as if the great message is that there really is life after death after all. Thatʼs a very modern perception,-which would occur only to somebody who had been brought up with the secularist denials of life after death. If thatʼs where youʼre starting from, Easter is still good news.
But for the early Christians, that was not their issue. They knew if they were Godʼs people they would be raised from the dead. For them the issue was, is Jesus the Messiah or is he not? Had Godʼs kingdom been decisively launched or hadnʼt it? The answer was yes, he was, and yes, it had; and here we go.
The dominant note in the early Christian worldview was joy, because something has happened as a result of which the world really is a different place. Theyʼre living out of that; they donʼt really care if they get put in prison or beaten up or whatever because something has happened that now determines who they are.
What do you make of Christians who donʼt believe in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus?
People say again and again, “Now that we live in a modern scientific age, we know the Resurrection is impossible “ That is complete rubbish. Go back to Homer. Go back to Aeschylus. Go back to the ancient Greek myths. Everybody knows that dead people donʼt rise. So it is not modern science that makes us skeptical about the Resurrection-it is universal human knowledge.
And actually, it is part of Christian theology that dead people donʼt rise and that Jesus did. Christian theology doesnʼt say, “This was always likely to happen to someone?” We say that Jesus was precisely the first and so far the only one to break through the death barrier. His Resurrection means that at some point in the future, death and corruption-which right now are still ruling-will be reversed.
Does the New Testament have anything to say about what happens to us right after we die?
John Polkinghorne, the great Cambridge scientist and theologian, has a lovely image: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run our own software again?” Iʼm comfortable with that. Itʼs as good a metaphor as any to say that there is an interim period between when we die and when we are all resurrected together into Godʼs kingdom.
But Iʼm fascinated with the fact that the New Testament is remarkably uninterested in this question. Paul says in Philippians 1, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” Our salvation is in Godʼs hands, in Godʼs space. And on the day when God renews the world, we will experience it fully.
What about those who feel the presence of a loved one who has died? The short answer is, I donʼt know. Thereʼs no sense in the New Testament that this is something we ought to cultivate, nor something to beware of. The early Christians donʼt seem to bother much about it either.
But I would be quite gentle and open pastorally about people who have had such an experience. For example, my daughter, in her late 20s and recently married, had incredibly vivid dreams about her late grandmother for a year or two before she got married. In these dreams, her Granny, to whom she was very close, was saying things to her about what was important in life. The night before her wedding, she had one of the most vivid dreams of all. She woke up and, in a flash, she had the thought that this was actually not her grandma talking to her, it was God talking to her, using the image of her grandmother as a very deeply emotional way of addressing her. I want to say that God can and does use all sorts of experiences. If God wants to use those who have died, thatʼs Godʼs business.
How should our belief in the Resurrection affect our reaction when someone we love dies?
In Britain, there is a reading that has become enormously popular with people planning funerals. It goes something like: “Death is nothing at all. I have just slipped away into the next room. Think of me, speak to me just as you always did. Iʼm just close by. All is well,’ etc. Many people think that because it seems to be comforting in a time of grief, this must be a good and Christian thing. In fact, it is profoundly unchristian. The Christian faith is about facing the reality of evil, the reality of death, the reality of pain, of loss. Then we name it as a beaten enemy, and we claim the defeat of death by the Resurrection of Jesus as the ground for future hope. That gives us a much more robust way into a proper grief process than the denial of saying, “I shouldnʼt grieve because this person went to heaven.”
Sometimes we even misinterpret what job it is that the Resurrection gave us. We think our job is telling other people theyʼre going to have a ticket to heaven, too. Whereas the real job presented to us by the New Testament is much tougher than that.
And it is?
Implementing “on earth as it is in heaven’ “At the end of Matthewʼs gospel, Jesus says,” All authority in heaven and on earth is given to meg” If you believe that, it means that Jesus is actually in authority over Great Britain and the European Union and North America and Saudi Arabia and Africa and everywhere else. What does that mean?
Our clue is in what Jesus says next, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” The way to implement Jesusʼ authority is to make disciples. Now because we are so attuned to the dangers of triumphalism, we fear what that vision asks of us. The fear of triumphalism can scare us into making Christianity just a private spiritual option. That really isnʼt the New Testamentʼs vision. The new project that begins at Easter is very open-ended and it depends on us.
So how do we recognize when Christians are succeeding at the job that Easter gave us?
Since I became a bishop, Iʼve visited a dozen projects in my diocese that nearly make me weep when I see them because I think theyʼre an example of what youʼre asking.
Thereʼs a really rough area in Gateshead, which is very socially deprived. Ten years ago a priest at St. Chadʼs Church in Gateshead realized that many of the children in the area were quite literally out on the street from morning till night. This priest bullied and harried the church and raised enough money to start a childrenʼs project right beside the church. Itʼs become a place of enjoyment and education and security, where children can come after school and stay until their mothers get home. I could name half a dozen places like this that offer child care, literacy classes, job training, credit unions. The people say, “Nobody told us to do this, but as we were praying about it and celebrating the Eucharist, we found we had to do something about these problems. We knocked on a few doors and to our surprise they opened” I can just see resurrection happening in these communities. Itʼs hugely powerful.
Youʼve said that the Resurrection is an event with political consequences.
What does that mean?
Let me begin by saying that when people talk about politics in the Western world, we always fall into a spectrum of political opinion, the basic left and right. At one end of the spectrum youʼre in favor of strong government, the “powers that be” being very powerful and everyone obeying and not revolting. At the other end, youʼve basically got anarchy.
Whenever you talk about the political implications of the gospel, people assume youʼre going toward the left end of the spectrum. We need to move beyond this.
It seems to me that the church needs to develop a more robust theology of how to critique the powers that be without collapsing into the trivial left-wing end of the spectrum. And we need to affirm the fact that God wants there to be authority without collapsing into the trivial, shoulder-shrugging right-wing end of the spectrum.
Remember that the Messiah of Israel is supposed to be the Lord of the whole world. Other power structures are OK, but they need to know that they are not divine. In Romans 8, Paul says that the powers that be are ordained by God and that Christians should submit to them. It would have been news to Caesar-if he ever read Romans, which he didnʼt-that he was there because the Jewish God put him there.
You see the same when Jesus stands before Pilate. Pilate says, “Donʼt you realize that I have the power to have you killed or released? “Jesus says, “You couldnʼt have any power over me unless it were given to you from above”
God wants there to be power structures, otherwise the bullies will always win. If you take away all constraint, all law, itʼs only five minutes before someone says, “Whoopee, I can go rob that little old lady in the next street because nobody will stop me.”
How does evil fit into this view of the world?
Part of the problem is that ever since the Enlightenment, we have separated the spiritual from the political. Our rhetoric has claimed that we will do away with evil through better social programs, more democracy, and so on.
Then we have a century like the 20th, with two extraordinary world wars and a Holocaust. Somehow the Enlightenment ideas still carried on in many quarters; people said, “Now that we live in the early 21st century, weʼve advanced and progressed” How could anyone possibly say that after the 20th century?
And then a thing like September 11 happens. People shouldnʼt have been surprised, but they were because they hadnʼt thought that evil was all that serious. Evil was something that happened somewhere else. We are the West. We are free. We are nice people. Nasty things donʼt happen here. So how should we view evil instead?
Evil is out there. Thatʼs a critical thing to remember. If we think evil is not so real and so potent, when it suddenly does happen, we react in deeply immature ways. We tend to assume that we are the good guys and “they” are the bad guys. That is a criminally naive way of thinking, leading to criminally naive ways of behaving. It all goes back to the failure of the Western world to deal with evil, and the failure of the church to articulate the proper analysis of evil.
The church has in some cases tended to go along with the liberal wing and say, “Letʼs face it, people are not as bad as all that. God loves you just as you are” That is just crass, because obviously God loves us as we are, but equally obviously, God does not want us to stay as we are. Another part of the church has become dualistic and banged on about sin all the time, saying, “Youʼre all just a bunch of miserable sinners and thereʼs no hope for you. Youʼre all going to hell’ That is equally hopeless.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who was imprisoned and then exiled by the Communist Soviet Union, after his time in exile took a train ride from the far eastern edge of Russia all the way west to Moscow. He stopped and talked to people wherever he went, including some people who had been running the towns under the Communists.
Some people said to Solzhenitsyn, “How dare you talk to them, after what they were responsible for?” It isnʼt a matter of us and them, he answered. The line between good and evil runs down the middle of each of us and down the middle of each human society.
Little Passion For The Passion
Whatʼs your take on the atonement discussion that began as a result of The Passion of the Christ film?
Anything that gets people talking about Jesus in the public square has something to be said for it. Also, many people forget just how horrible torture and crucifixion in the ancient world were. Itʼs a good thing that they are reminded of that.
It appears that the implicit theology in the film is that if you meditate on the graphic violence that Jesus suffered, that will somehow be good for your soul. People have often asked, ‘How can the death of one man 2,000 years ago be a saving event for me?” But thereʼs no answer to that in the film.
It reminds me of a certain type of medieval Catholicism that emphasized meditating on the instruments of the Passion: the hammer, the cat-o-nine-tails, etc. I donʼt think thatʼs healthy, and pastorally I would try to move someone who meditated in that way into a more biblical kind of meditation. The atonement theology in the film, such as it is, is very dubious and worrisome.
Subject: N.T. Wrightʼs views are damnable say these Christians
N. T. Wright and Presbyterian Churches Posted: 12/26/2002
Friends, Nicholas Thomas Wright, a high-ranking cleric in the apostate Anglican church, appears to be growing in influence in the Presbyterian Church in America. Some sessions of PCA churches are showing his videotaped lectures in their churches; and one session, that of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana, has published a lecture by Wright in their churchʼs newsletter (see the October 19, 2002, excerpt from the Horror Files). Writing to defend their action and their views, and to accuse this writer of slander, the AAPC session expressed this opinion of Wrightʼs views: “We published Wright because we believe his anti-Gnostic approach to New Testament theology is one of the pressing needs of the hour.” The AAPC endorsement of Wrightʼs Antichristian theology reveals more about the AAPC than it does about Wright, especially since Gnosticism has not been a threat in centuries. One wonders if the members of the Auburn Avenue Church are aware of the actions their elected officers are taking in their name. Providentially, there are some other Presbyterians who understand Wrightʼs views and the threat they pose to the Gospel. Take, for example, these paragraphs from a review of Wrightʼs book, “What Saint Paul Really Said” by Dr. Sidney Dyer of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary: “The most disturbing material in Wrightʼs book is that which sets forth his view of justification. His effort to take the doctrine out of the realm of soteriology and to put it in the realm of ecclesiology is undoubtedly motivated by his desire to tear down what divides Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. “His view of justification is an attack on the very heart of the Gospel. Paul warned of the danger of preaching another gospel in Galatians 1:8, ‘But if we, or an angel from Heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached, let him be accursed.’ Paul, by using the words ‘any other gospel’ (emphasis added), shows that he is attacking all other forms of the gospel, including therefore a proto-Pelagianism in the book of Galatians… “Wrightʼs view of justification is an attempt to reverse the Reformation. We must resist such attempts. The issue is one of life and death—eternal life and eternal death. When theological professors and pastors abandon the Biblical and confessional doctrine of justification, they sacrifice the Gospel and the souls of men.” And that is exactly what those Presbyterian churches are doing that publish and teach Wrightʼs Antichristian views.
John Robbins The Trinity Foundation
Ed noted: A third of Church of England clergy doubt or disbelieve in the physical Resurrection and only half are convinced of the truth of the Virgin birth, according to a new survey.
I also saw this recently about some people in the Anglican church itching for making priests suffer through heresy trials.
Lloyd Geering at How Did Jesus Become God - and Why writes: “There is general agreement, among all but conservative scholars, that the Easter faith began with visions in Galilee and not with the discovery of an empty tomb in Jerusalem.” To quote the radical bishop John Shelby Spong “The defensiveness of the hierarchy [of the Church of England to the revelation that many bishops do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus] revealed a startling unwillingness to share common-place biblical scholarship with a questioning public. Most biblical scholars regard the emptiness of the tomb to be an early Christian legend but they donʼt actually believe there ever was an identifiable tomb in which Jesus was buried in the first place.” Also, as Anthony Freeman says “How is it, for example, that not a single professor of divinity in Cambridge is currently an ordained member of the Church of England? And how is it that the English clergy have so effectively insulated their congregations from the fruits of critical scholarship over the past hundred years? Is the reason perhaps that ‘no priest dare admit officially to things which every first year theological undergraduate needs to know’?
More evidence that current scholarship rarely filters through to the Christian laity is the following from religious tolerence.org. “The beliefs of mainline Christian clergy and academics tend to be between those of the liberals and conservatives. A survey of mostly mainline Protestant clergy shows that many doubt Jesusʼ physical resurrection.
Percentage of doubters are:
- American Lutherans: 13%
- Presbyterians: 30%
- American Baptist: 33%
- Episcopalians: 35%
- Methodists: 51%
There is a massive gap between the beliefs of the clergy and laity in mainline and liberal churches. A recent survey of randomly selected Christians revealed that 96% believe the resurrection to have been an historical event.” It would be interesting to see the results of a similar poll in the UK.
Following the bishop of Durham Dr. David Jenkinsʼ doubts aired on national TV, a poll was taken of the UKʼs 31 diocesan bishops. Two-thirds of them were of the opinion that it was not necessary to accept the divinity of Christ to be a Christian and one third denied a belief in the physical resurrection.