N.T. Wright, New Testament scholar and former bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is by far the most formative influence in my movement away from the liberal Protestant mainline five years ago toward conservative evangelicalism. If you could blame just one person, blame him. And if you could blame one of his books, blame his magisterial work The Resurrection of the Son of God.
It’s not that I hadn’t been exposed to scholarly apologetic defenses for the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Among other things, my Systematic Theology professor, Steffen Lösel, a student of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s, believed in bodily resurrection and offered a defense of it on historical grounds. (I’m deeply indebted to Dr. Lösel; his was the most positive influence on my thinking in seminary.) But even Dr. Lösel’s (and, by extension, Pannenberg’s) defense mostly sold the Bible short as a resource for that defense.
By contrast, Wright, an evangelical writing and ministering well within the Protestant mainline, acknowledged Pannenberg’s contributions, while saying that he didn’t go nearly far enough. Scripture, alongside many extrabiblical sources, enables us to say a great deal about the extreme likelihood of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.
Needless to say, the more confident we are that Jesus’ bodily resurrection happened, the more confident we can be about everything else that the Bible says. Thus, in my case, an evangelical was born. If we get squishy on bodily resurrection, it’s easier to get squishy on everything else—the virgin birth, salvation through Christ alone, final judgment, hell—and, while we’re at it, even God’s intentions for human sexuality.
But enough of my story…
At nearly a thousand pages, I appreciated the nice summary chapter of Wright’s arguments for resurrection in his new book aimed at general audiences, Surprised by Scripture. After dismissing the popular contemporary idea that resurrection is coherent within the worldview of ancient paganism, he talks about seven important “mutations” of ancient Jewish belief, each of which was universally held by early Christians. What accounts for these significant revisions to traditional Jewish thought—by many people who were, after all, previously faithful Jews? Nothing, Wright says, other than that these early Christians believed that Jesus was really bodily resurrected.
These mutations are the following:
1. No spectrum of beliefs about life after death.
Early Christians came from Jewish and pagan backgrounds that held diverse beliefs about life after death, yet they held to one common belief about resurrection.
2. The centrality of resurrection (both Jesus’ and our own future resurrection) in Christianity.
“In Second Temple Judaism,” Wright says, “resurrection is important but not that important… Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is four chapters of the Gospels. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second-century fathers as well.”
3. No spectrum of belief about the kind of body that the resurrected will possess.
Ancient Jews held different beliefs about what resurrection means. Not so within Christianity: resurrected bodies will be physical and in continuity with our present bodies, but transformed and incorruptible, possessing new properties.
4. The belief that resurrection splits history in two.
In other words, prior to Jesus, Jews who believed in resurrection believed that it was an event that happened to everyone at the end of history as we know it, not an event that first happened to one person in the middle of history.
5. The belief in “collaborative eschatology.”
Eschatology refers to events that relate to the end of the world or the end of history as we know it. Early Christians believed, uniquely, that they were to live now in anticipation of God’s new world. “If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in the light of that future.”
6. A new metaphorical use of the word “resurrection.”
In the Old Testament, the word resurrection was used as a metaphor exactly once: to describe the Jews’ return from exile in Ezekiel 37. This metaphorical usage disappears in the New Testament, and a new one replaces it: resurrection is used in relation to baptism and holiness, “though without, importantly, affecting the concrete referent of a future resurrection (Romans 8).”
7. The association of resurrection with Messiahship.
No one in first-century Judaism expected the Messiah to be killed, much less raised from the dead. Yet early Christians believed that Jesus was Messiah precisely because of his resurrection.
To illustrate the improbability of first-century Jews believing that Jesus had been resurrected, let me excerpt Wright extensively:
We know of several other Jewish movements, messianic movements, prophetic movements, during the one or two centuries on either side of Jesus’s public career. Routinely they ended with the violent death of the central figure. Members of the movement (always supposing they got away with their own skins) then faced a choice: either give up the struggle or find a new messiah. Had the early Christians wanted to go the latter route, they had an obvious candidate: James, the Lord’s brother, a great and devout teacher, the central figure in the early Jerusalem church. But nobody ever imagined that James might be the Messiah.
This rules out the revisionist positions on Jesus’s resurrection that have been offered by so many writers in recent years. Suppose we go to Rome in AD 70 and there witness the flogging and execution of Simon bar Giora, the supposed king of the Jews, brought back in Titus’s triumph. Suppose we imagine a few Jewish revolutionaries three days or three weeks later.
The first revolutionary says, “You know, I think Simon really was the Messiah—and he still is!”
The others would be puzzled. “Of course he isn’t; the Romans got him, as they always do. If you want a messiah, you’d better find another one.”
“Ah,” says the first, “but I believe he’s been raised from the dead.”
“What d’you mean?” his friends ask. “He’s dead and buried.”
“Oh no,” replies the first, “I believe he’s been exalted to heaven.”
The others look puzzled. “All the righteous martyrs are with God; everybody knows that. Their souls are in God’s hand, but that doesn’t mean they’ve already been raised from the dead. Anyway, the resurrection will happen to us all at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of continuing history.”
“No,” replies the first, anticipating the position of twentieth-century existentialist theology, “you don’t understand. I’ve had a strong sense of God’s love surrounding me. I have felt God forgiving me—forgiving us all. I’ve had my heart strangely warmed. What’s more, last night, I saw Simon; he was there with me….”
The others interrupt, now angry. “We can all have visions. Plenty of people dream about recently dead friends. Sometimes it’s very vivid. That doesn’t mean they’ve been raised from the dead. It certainly doesn’t mean that one of them is the Messiah. And if your heart has been warmed, then for goodness’s sake sing a psalm, but don’t make wild claims about Simon.”
1. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 47.
2. Ibid., 48-9.
3. Ibid., 49.
4. Ibid., 50-1.