The Resurrection of the Son of God
by N.T. Wright.
Fortress. 740 pp. $39 paper.
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.
What has emerged as radically different in the recent past is that appropriate historical questions have left the domain of theological faculties and entered the world of an increasingly post- and often anti-Christian culture. In the wake of this trend, proposals about the nature of the early Christian movement have begun to emerge that contradict completely even the most generously liberal interpretations of Jesus’ identity. John Dominic Crossan, for instance, has suggested that Jesus was an itinerant peasant-sage who died a tragic death in Jerusalem. His body, abandoned on the Cross by his dearest friends, was dragged away by dogs and left to rot. The resurrection narratives are a relatively late attempt to put a good spin on a sad tale. Even worse, Crossan argues that they were constructed in order to buttress competing claims to authority in the nascent Church.
Secular and politicizing perspectives like these have not sprung forth fully formed from the pens of recent writers. Their way has been paved by a tendency among modern scholars to view the resurrection from a purely naturalistic standpoint. N. T. Wright helpfully summarizes this approach at the very beginning of his book The Resurrection of the Son of God. In his view it is made up of several interlocking parts: the Jewish background provides only the fuzziest setting for constructing a doctrine of the resurrection; the earliest Christian movement, whose outlook is captured in Paul’s vision of the risen Lord, believed in a spiritual resurrection; hence the early “sightings” of Jesus were nothing more than highly vivid religious experiences, not genuine witnesses to a person raised from the dead; these spiritual experiences are best characterized as a form of heavenly exaltation; lastly, the Gospel narratives about a bodily resurrection arrive relatively late in the game—a decade or two after the appearance of the earliest Pauline letters—and were written to explain this transformation from “glorification” to “the raising of Jesus from the dead.”
The task of this formidably long volume (which runs to almost 750 pages) is to examine critically each of these claims and then, on purely historical grounds, to defend the veracity of the New Testament account against them. Wright thus concludes that Jesus was indeed resurrected from the dead and for a limited period of time appeared in bodily form to his disciples.
Establishing this orthodox interpretation is no easy task for Wright. Nor is it for his readers. Beginning with a lengthy consideration of the pagan and Jewish evidence, he considers every New Testament witness to the problem. In his last two chapters he gets to the heart of the matter—the argument for the resurrection itself and its implications for Jesus’ divine identity.
Wright’s bold argument is extensive and detailed, but it can be summarized in simple form. While Second Temple Judaism supplied the concept of resurrection to Jesus’ followers, it did not do so in the specific manner in which it was deployed in early Christianity. In other words, the Christian position, while grounded in Jewish tradition, did not spring spontaneously from it. Furthermore, while neither the empty tomb nor the appearance of Jesus could have generated belief in the resurrection on its own, taken together these accounts demand an explanation. And in Wright’s view the simplest explanation is what the New Testament writers profess: Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.
The argument that the stories about the empty tomb and the subsequent appearances should be considered historical “facts” (but not yet given their Christian interpretation—the bodily resurrection of Jesus) is grounded for Wright in the principle of double similarity and dissimilarity. By these terms, Wright means that stories like these, with the kind of explanation the early Christians offered, make sense in the context of first-century Judaism (similarity), but nobody within first-century Judaism was expecting anything precisely like this (dissimilarity). At the same time, stories like these do indeed explain the rise of early Christianity (similarity) but they cannot be explained as something projected backward by early Christian faith, theology, and exegesis (dissimilarity).
One example should suffice. Because the Gospels establish the claims of the evolving Church that Jesus has risen, one might dismiss them as pious legends. Yet there are a sufficient number of narrative elements that are so problematic that it would be difficult to explain them as post hoc constructions.
To begin with, one of the most common elements in early Christian preaching is the great effort to show that the crucified Jesus was Israel’s messiah as testified to by her scriptures. Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost (Acts 2) is a good example of this. Yet despite this strong ecclesial interest, the telling of the resurrection in all four Gospels remains “biblically unadorned and thus distinctly different from a good many of the other stories throughout the Gospels, not least the crucifixion narratives which immediately precede them.”
Second, a major feature of the ecclesial use of the resurrection is to establish the claim that Christians will also rise with Christ at his parousia. The point for early Christian preaching was clear: the power of the doctrine of the resurrection was the ground it laid for one’s personal hope of personal immortality. Yet the Gospels “are about something else altogether: the vindication of Jesus [and] the validation of his messianic claim.”
Third, Jesus is not portrayed in his appearances in a way that would comport with Jewish expectation. For example, the radiant character of the resurrection body so vividly described in Daniel 12:2-3 is not part of the Gospel narrative. If the appearance stories were fictionalized back-projections based on Jewish expectations, why was the picture of Daniel ignored? Finally, the presence of the women at the tomb on Easter is totally inexplicable. As the debate between Origen and Celsus in the third century reveals, the critics of Christianity “seized upon these stories in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction? If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being first at the tomb, they would have done it.”
What are we to make of this? One option is to presume that the Gospel writers have inherited a theology of the resurrected body that they have read back into the life of Jesus. Yet the purveyors of such a thesis—the majority of critical scholars—must account for why this piece of fiction is so different from available Jewish templates; why it avoids citation or allusion to Israel’s scriptures; and why it puts a group of women in a position of such prominence in place of the disciples-turned-church-leaders. As Wright puts it, “If you try to imagine three such people doing it independently and coming up with three different stories which nevertheless all share the[se] remarkable feature[s], I think you will find it incredible.”
Wright closes his book with the posing of a question that rests at the heart of the entire Christian enterprise. If we can accept as historical fact that the tomb was empty and that the disciples claimed to have seen their Lord on Easter day and for some time afterwards, how do we understand the relationship between the two? The doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus would provide a sufficient condition to explain their coherence. But Wright is bolder: “The bodily resurrection of Jesus provides a necessary condition for these things.” In other words: no other explanation will do.
Wright’s argument is certainly not going to convince many biblical scholars. This is so, at least in part, for a reason Wright himself gives: such a proof of the resurrection cannot be offered or accepted on purely neutral terms. To say that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead “is not only a self-involving statement, it is a self-committing statement.” Yet Wright has honestly placed the historical problem front and center: if one accepts as a historical fact that the tomb was empty and that early Christians claimed to have seen Jesus in a new form, then some sort of explanation must be made to make sense of these two pieces of data.
I believe that Wright has shown with utmost clarity that the doctrine of the resurrection was deeply embedded in the fabric of the early Christian movement. The tendency among certain scholars to claim that a wide swath of early Christianity, represented by the circle of “Q” (a presumed common source of the synoptic Gospels) and the Gospel of Thomas, advanced a view of Jesus bereft of crucifixion and resurrection is just not tenable. Whatever one makes of “Q,” it should be clear by the close of this volume that the thought-world of the Gospel of Thomas is a late development and best understood against the backdrop of second-century Gnosticism. Indeed, most serious scholars of Gnostic sources have been saying this for some time. The explanation for why the books of Crossan and Elaine Pagels have such currency lies within the realm of the sociology of knowledge, not the history of early Christianity. That story has yet to be told.
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 Wright’s 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.
But this criticism of Wright’s larger project should not be understood as detracting from the lucid historical reasoning of the present volume. As François Bovon remarked while reviewing the work of Crossan: “The earliest known Christian sentence is not a saying of Jesus but an archaic affirmation quoted by Paul in the oldest text of the New Testament: ‘God raised him from the dead’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10; see also 4:14).” Wright’s book is an attempt to return this ancient claim of the nascent Christian movement to its proper place of honor.
Gary Anderson is Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.