The Resurrection of the Son of God

  • N.T. Wright
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. London: SPCK; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003. xxi + 817 pp. $49.00. ISBN 0-8006-3615-5

Tom Wright's ambitious six-volume series on "Christian Origins and the Question of God" has taken another giant leap forward. This volume (the third to date) began as what Wright thought would be an additional seventy pages at the end of volume 2--Jesus and the Victory of God (1996)--but it has ballooned into a major work in and of itself. We should be enormously thankful that it did! This will be the defining work on the resurrection for decades to come.

Two questions guide the outline of the entire volume: what did early Christians think happened to Jesus, and how plausible are their beliefs from a historical perspective?

Wright surveys Old Testament teaching, Jewish and Greco-Roman developments between the testaments, New Testament documents, and key post-New Testament thinking on the resurrection. He shows that bodily resurrection is by far the dominant and pervasive hope in pre-Christian Jewish sources and that the New Testament witness unanimously refers to hope of new embodiment--indeed of new creation--in their teachings on the resurrection. After a predictable chronological sequence for his surveys of pre-Christian Greco-Roman and Jewish thought, Wright adopts a more creative outline for dealing with the New Testament material. He begins with Paul, our earliest written source, but surveys all of Paul's teaching on resurrection outside the Corinthian correspondence first, since key texts in 1 and 2 Corinthians are usually those pointed to by scholars who would argue that Paul believed in something other than a bodily resurrection. The he surveys those two letters more generally before finally dealing with 1 Cor. 15 and 2 Cor. 5:1-10 in the greatest detail. After clearly presenting the signs for Paul's belief in re-embodiment in the less detailed or controversial texts, he stresses that the key Corinthian texts yield nothing materially different. Paul insists that his experience with the resurrected Christ matches the form of the apostles' encounters (not vice-versa), he knows of the empty tomb, and his language of "spiritual resurrection" refers to the new glorified, incorruptible nature of resurrection bodies not their immateriality. While Paul probably changed his perspective on the possibility that he might die before the Parousia between 1 and 2 Corinthians, he did not change his theology about the nature of his resurrection hope.

Nothing in Acts' three accounts of Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus demonstrates that we should change the conclusions derived from Paul's own autobiographical testimony in the epistles. The language of "seeing" is that regularly used of objective, historical events. The differing details in Luke's three retellings of the event reflect standard stylistic variation among ancient historians and do not jeopardize the historicity of the event in general. If one wants to see how an ancient writer described subjective visionary experiences, one should compare Paul's testimony in 2 Cor. 12:1ff., datable to a quite different period in his life.

After finishing his treatment of Paul, Wright turns to resurrection in the rest of early Christianity. Again he deviates from conventional sequence, for good reason, saving the controversial resurrection narratives at the end of each of the four Gospels for last. First he sweeps rapidly through pre-crucifixion testimony in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament writings, the Apostolic Fathers, early Christian apocrypha, early apologists (Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilus and Minucius Felix), "the great early theologians" (Tertullian, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Origen), early Syriac Christianity and finally the Nag Hammadi and related texts. Only when one comes to the very last of these bodies of literature does one find resurrection radically redefined as ongoing spiritual existence apart from re-embodiment. This observation makes it highly unlikely that this Gnostic and Gnostic-like literature gives us any interpretive window into what the Christians in the New Testament believed or that it is anywhere as early as the first century.

Finally, Wright is ready to survey the canonical Gospels' resurrection narratives, though even then he does so only after discussing the larger portrayal in those Gospels of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Both convictions should have died (or, if they didn't predate the crucifixion, should never have arisen) apart from resurrection. No other Messianic pretenders were ever still thought of in these exalted terms after their deaths; their failures (humanly speaking) meant that no Jew would now think of them as the long-awaited deliverer, much less in the even more exalted language of Lordship. On the other hand, the closing chapters of each of the four Gospels show numerous signs of historical authenticity. Women, whose testimony was largely inadmissible in ancient Jewish law courts, are described in all four accounts as the primary witnesses. Mark's ending has probably been lost (Wright thinks), but even if not, the young man's prediction that the resurrected Jesus would appear in Galilee can be taken to be reliable based on the predictions that have already come true throughout Mark. No other ancient Jew ever argued that an individual was raised in advance of the general resurrection depicted in Daniel 12:2; some remarkable event must have stimulated this deviation. Whatever one does with the bizarre story of resurrected saints in Matt. 27:51-53, its theology is congruent with this observation. The distinctive addition in Luke 24 (the Emmaus road encounter) shows the same kind of continuity and discontinuity between Jesus, pre- and post-crucifixion, as does 1 Corinthians 15. The definable end of the resurrection appearances in both chapters shows that the early Christians believed they were describing unique, datable events, not some mystical spiritual communion with the Risen Lord which they might continue to have. Even John, with all of its apparent theological overlay, goes out of the way, with Mary, Thomas, and the appearance in Galilee, to stress the bodily nature of Jesus' resurrection.

Without a doubt, the unanimous reason early Christians gave for the formation of all these narratives was their conviction that Christ was genuinely, bodily raised from the dead. Historians today must next ask if this conviction is plausible. Wright surveys all of the alternate explanations and finds each seriously wanting. The combination of the empty tomb accounts plus the narratives of the resurrection appearances form what he labels both a necessary and a sufficient criterion for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is inadmissible for historians to claim that we can't weigh in with respect to historical probabilities with narratives of this kind. It is misguided for theologians to argue that we shouldn't--the oft-debunked view that faith and history must be kept separate from each other in entirely different compartments should be laid to rest once and for all. The Thomas narrative in John 20 points a way forward for the skeptic who doesn't currently have room for a resurrection in his or her world view. There are times when historical evidence is so strong that one must allow one's world view to be challenged or admit that what one writes in the name of doing history is sheer presupposition or even prejudice.

But if Jesus be raised from the dead, then the early church's convictions about him being the Christ (Messiah) and Lord are justified; indeed we may move very close to what later eras of theology would elaborate under ascriptions of divinity--that "Jesus is the one sent by God, from God, not only as a messenger but as the very embodiment of his love. To send some one else is hardly an ultimate proof of self-giving love" (p. 732). Against the accusation that classic orthodox Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection reflects an inappropriate theological triumphalism (so esp. Dominic Crossan), Wright reminds us, "Such charges have a habit of rebounding--not least on those who insist on promoting the unstable worldview of late-modern or postmodern western culture to a position of pre-eminence, and then try to climb on top of it, claiming it as high moral ground, and looking down on all who went before them" (p. 735).

Along the way appear all kinds of gold mines of other information. Repeatedly Wright stresses that ancient Jewish and early Christian belief in resurrection was not the common contemporary notion of dying and going to heaven. At best, that reflected the intermediate state of what happened to a believer after death before the final resurrection. Rather, resurrection is about a new kind of embodied life, after "life after death." Recent claims that Judaism had a broad spectrum of views about what happened to a person's body after death and that bodily resurrection was actually common in Greco-Roman thought both prove false. The Sadducees were a lone, minority voice in denying resurrection within Judaism; Euripides' Alcestis stands alone in dissenting from disembodied immortality as the standard ancient Greek hope. Another recurring theme is the socio-political significance of resurrection. Not only does it tie in with the Jewish conviction (redefined but not jettisoned by Christians) that God was freeing his people from exile, but it proves the greatest threat and response to tyrants of every kind who think they wield ultimate power over life and death. Not surprisingly the clearest and most extensive presentation of resurrection in pre-Christian Jewish sources comes with the Maccabean martyrs in 2 Maccabees. Hope of life after life after death enables believers to remain faithful to God even when it costs them their lives in this life.

Many of the oft-cited apologetic points in the defense of Christ's bodily resurrection reappear in this book, with creative twists or locations--the change of worship from Sabbath to Sunday and the use of "third day" language, both suggesting something objective and datable; the defeated nature of the disciples, hardly psychologically postured for visions or hallucinations of any kind; the oxymoronic nature of a crucified Messiah in general; the fact that a Greek narrative later reclothed in Jewish garb might describe a purely spiritual "resurrection" in bodily form, but not vice-versa as in the actual historical development of early Christianity from Jewish to Greek circles; the Nazareth warning against grave robbing coupled with the improbability of such a ruse accounting for the disappearance of Jesus' body in the first place; and so on. Other points are comparatively new, often in response to new challenges. The Gospel of Peter shows no signs of being early or of having influenced the canonical resurrection narratives (again contra Crossan); whatever one makes of the pervasiveness of Old Testament quotes and allusions in the Passion Narratives (Crossan calls them historicized prophecy and thus deems them largely fictitious), references, even allusive ones, to the Old Testament are almost entirely absent from the resurrection narratives.

One of many indicators of the breadth of Wright's work is his 28-page bibliography of secondary literature, with a couple dozen entires per page, almost all of which Wright engages at some point. Yet numerous pages of text contain footnotes only to biblical or other ancient primary sources; Wright is conscious of referring to secondary literature very selectively! His thesis could in fact have been bolstered had he interacted with studies of resurrection in the ancient Near East that make it more plausible that what look like mere hints of resurrection in the earlier Old Testament books perhaps reflect a more robust hope after all. Curiously missing from the bibliography are any of Murray Harris' or Bill Craig's important works on the resurrection. Harris sums up much of the ANE and related material; Craig convincingly develops the pneumatikos-psychikos contrast of 1 Cor. 15 as contrasting "supernatural" with "natural" bodies (not spirits vs. bodies). It is not clear to me as to Wright that we can abandon (or that any consensus has abandoned) Tony Thiselton's magisterial defense of overly realized eschatology (and, to a lesser extent, problems between rich and poor) behind 1 Corinthians; neither of these observations threatens Wright's reading of the key texts. John Wenham may have tried to harmonize too much (and, refreshingly, Wright adopts several key harmonizations of the Gospels' accounts), but Ladd's more cautious harmonizations in his I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus seem unassailable to me--another small lacuna in Wright's volume.

But these are mere quibbles. My overall response to a volume like this is a combination of astonishment, awe, admiration (and not a little bit of jealousy at Wright's gifts and brilliance!), but most of all profound gratitude for his commitments to both scholarship and the church (as his recent appointment as the new bishop of Durham further attests). Doubtless many studies of resurrection will continue to be written; it seems inconceivable that any will prove nearly as important and convincing for a long, long time.

Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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