The Resurrection of the Son of God
(Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3)
N. T. Wright
Fortress, 817 pages, $49
N. T. Wright wrote his most recent book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, while canon theologian at Westminster Abbey. He is now the bishop-elect of Durham, a providential irony, given that in the 1980s newspapers trumpeted (inaccurately, it turns out) that his predecessor David Jenkins had called the resurrection a conjuring trick with bones.
Unlike Jenkins, Wright takes the bodily resurrection of Jesus literally, though he is not woodenly literal-minded. He could never be mistaken for a "fundamentalist" (with all the connotations of unimaginative flatness carried by that f-word).
Resurrection language is used metaphorically in the Bible, but Wright is eager to point out that those biblical metaphors are grounded in concrete historical referents. For example, Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones is, in Wright's view, a metaphor for God's restoration of Israel as a nation. But to recognize it as a metaphor for a concrete historical hope is not to regard it as a symbol for some hazy religious experience. Likewise, the rich interplay of resurrection language with the church's rite of baptism and the believer's entrance into the life of the age to come is not a free-floating metaphor for just any religious thrill. It has a concrete referent in a particular kind of new life imbued with the power of a specific Spirit, bringing with it new ethical demands for life in this world.
Wright argues that all of this metaphorical richness can only make sense if we understand the Bible writers to mean what they say when they write about the bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easter and of believers at the last day. The resurrection is rich with overtones, he says, but one only hears overtones when one strikes a fundamental.
What resurrection means
Wright devotes most of The Resurrection of the Son of God to repeatedly striking the fundamental. His target is the liberal scholar who reads wooly-headed modernist notions of Jesus' resurrection back into Paul. (Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan show up occasionally in the footnotes, but he doesn't flog them in his text.) Wright wants to show that anything other than an honest-to-goodness resurrection body just wouldn't have been thinkable to a first-century Pharisee like Paul. And if Jesus had experienced some other kind of life after death, there was plentiful vocabulary for that in the ancient world. Indeed, if the early Christians had merely thought that Jesus had "died and gone to heaven" or that his message had taken on renewed life in their midst, such beliefs would not explain either their testimony or the shape and growth of the early church.
The book's (admittedly crooked) trajectory zigzags through Homer (the "Old Testament" of "the ancient non-Jewish world") and Plato to the Hebrew Bible to the intertestamental literature to the epistles of Paul to the Apostolic Fathers to the Gospels. At each point along the way, Wright shows how the spectrum of pagan beliefs about the afterlife simply did not include resurrection. Indeed, within the Platonic tradition, there would have been hostility to the idea. He also shows how within Judaism, belief in bodily resurrection developed naturally as part of its fundamental affirmation of the goodness of creation and the justice of Israel's covenant God. If the body is a prison (as Plato and others taught) and death is a welcome release, resurrection (a re-embodied life after life after death) would be a bad idea. Conversely, if embodiment is "very good" (as Moses and others taught), any other kind of life after death would be second-rate.
To put those liberal critics in place, Wright needs to establish the fundamental Jewishness of resurrection teaching. Thus he gives readers a Rick Steves tour of the biblical and Second Temple literature as it relates to resurrection. Not all Jews believed in the resurrection. The Gospels report the recalcitrance of the Sadducee party on this point. But resurrection was definitely a point on the Jewish spectrum of belief, and by the time of Jesus it had become a dominant one. Paul and other early Christian writers then transformed the idea of resurrection in four ways: (1) they move it "from the circumference of belief to the center"; (2) they treat it "no longer as a single event" but split it "chronologically into two, the first part of which has already happened"; (3) they teach that "resurrection involves transformation, not mere resuscitation"; and (4) when they use resurrection language metaphorically, "it no longer refers to the national restoration of Israel, but to baptism and holiness."
Many readers will find The Resurrection of the Son of God daunting in its length, its detail, and its scope. Fortunately, they will not find it off-putting in its prose. Wright is always clear (though he occasionally uses technical language that those who haven't been to seminary will have to look up). But his prose is winsome and colorful as well. For example, in commenting on how each Gospel's resurrection narrative suits that particular evangelist's message and purpose, he says: "You could not take Luke's ending and substitute it for John's or John's for Matthew's, without creating an absurdity, like the picture books for children in which heads, bodies, and legs are swapped around between characters with ludicrous results."
Wright's overarching purpose in this book is historical. He calls it a "ground-clearing exercise" designed to remove the historiographical obstacles to study of Jesus' resurrection. Wright is more concerned with the failures of historians than he is with the long list of skeptics' objections to the resurrection. For rebuttal of those arguments, Wright gladly refers readers to the apologetic works of Gary Habermas. As for the failures of historians, Wright successfully shows how many have ignored the evidence, confused categories, and marshaled silly arguments. ("The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief," he writes emphatically, "not an objection to it. The fact that Jesus' resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself.")
Many scholars have misapplied the historian's tools by ruling out a priori the possibility of a one-off event like Jesus' resurrection. As a result, they have engaged in fanciful reconstructions that have far less explanatory power than does traditional Christian teaching. This bad historiography stems from an Enlightenment desire to keep God out of human affairs.
But can such a methodological atheism survive in a perspectivalist postmodern era? As Wright points out, statements about Jesus' resurrection are self-involving. You cannot affirm his resurrection without saying something about yourself and your future. But it is precisely because of the self-involving nature of the material that Wright's challenge is so important. Will his fellow scholars overcome their methodological malaise and treat the evidence for Jesus' resurrection the same as they would the evidence for the fall of Jerusalem or the death of Augustus? If they don't, they have a lot of explaining to do.
Next month: Chuck Colson and Ellen Vaughn update their call for church-centered Christianity.
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The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Other sites of interest include:
Read our extended interview with author N.T. Wright