Resurrection in Early Christianity

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[This post is part of the Christian Origins and The Question of God series]

Two weeks ago, thanks to Fortress Press we were able to start into a review series through N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of The Son of God with a look at the first century background context. Last week we were able to survey the writings of Paul for his take on the resurrection. Now, we’ll move to other first century and even second century writers.

This section has three chapters titled “Hope Refocused” that deal with the relevant literature, and then close with a chapter on how the Christian hope was shaped around Jesus. Just to make it easier to follow below, I’m only going to use the first three chapters’ subtitle:

  • Gospel Traditions Outside Easter Narratives
  • Other New Testament Writings
  • Non-canonical Early Christian Texts
  • Hope in Person: Jesus as Messiah and Lord

As is our custom, let’s unpack each in turn.

Gospel Traditions Outside Easter Narratives

Here Wright is interested in what hints and teaching about resurrection show up in the Gospels. He starts with Mark and devotes significant space to the Sadducees’ question to Jesus (Mark 12:18-27). Then Wright turns to Matthew and Luke’s material. Depending on how deep your background is in New Testament studies you’ll know what I mean when I say Matthew + Luke – Mark = Q. Wright is skeptical of Q’s existence (403) which is probably a smart move until the hypothetical document is discovered (which probably won’t happen). In the end, Wright doesn’t get sidetracked in speculating about background source documents for the additional material in Matthew and Luke (which is what “Q” is) but instead looks at the parts in Matthew and Luke that are similar to each other but absent from Mark, before looking at the unique material to Matthew and then the unique material in Luke.

It is only after this exhaustive survey is done  that Wright turns to the John, and specifically John’s use of signs. In conclusion to it all, Wright says

When we place the entire gospel tradition on the map of life-after-death beliefs we sketched in chapters 2-4, it is obvious that, as we just said about John, they belong with the Jewish view over against the pagan one; and, within the Jewish view, with the Pharisees (and others who agreed with them) over against the various other options (448).

Additionally, similar to what we found in Paul, the idea of resurrection has been split in two. Also, while Jesus raised people from the dead in the gospel accounts, they are still treated as somehow different from Jesus’ own resurrection. The people Jesus raised from the dead returned to their previous bodily state, whereas Jesus somehow entered a new one.

Other New Testament Writings

Having looked at the Gospel accounts minus the Easter narratives, as well as the writings of Paul, Wright has surveyed 2/3 of the New Testament before even getting to Acts and the General Epistles. He begins by noting that the remaining material, while new ground to cover, is written by some of the same authors (Acts by Luke) or stand in some kind of family relationship to other material (Revelation and 1-3 John to John’s Gospel). As you might guess then, there is not many new details and emphases that emerge in this survey so much as the foundation already laid is deepened and strengthened.

As Wright concludes his survey:

The New Testament itself speaks, if not with one voice, certainly with a cluster of voices singing in close harmony. All the major books and strands, with the single exception of Hebrews, make resurrection a central and important topic, and set it within a framework of Jewish thought about the one god as creator and judge. This resurrection belief stands firmly over and against the entire world of paganism on the one hand. Its reshaping, around the resurrection of Jesus himself, locates it as a dramatic modification within Judaism on the other (476).

Non-Canonical Early Christian Texts

What’s left then is to look beyond the canonical New Testament writings and see what can be found in the early church fathers. The writings Wright surveys can be broken into 6 categories:

  • Apostolic Fathers (e.g. 1 & 2 Clement, The Didache, Polycarp, Papias)
  • Early Christian Apocrypha (e.g. Ascension of Isaiah, Apocalypse of Peter)
  • The Apologists (e.g. Justin Martyr, Athenagoras)
  • The Great Early Theologians (e.g. Tertullian, Irenaeus)
  • Early Syriac Christianity (e.g. Odes of Solomon, Acts of Thomas)
  • Nag Hammadi and Elsewhere (e.g. Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip)

The latter category is important because it deals with the texts that typically are consider Gnostic distortions of Christianity by conservatives (and conversely a suppressed early voice by liberals). Looking at those texts though are seeing the solidarity of thought about resurrection in the NT and early church writers shows why historically speaking, Christians have rejected books like the Gospel of Thomas. As Wright says:

“Resurrection,” in the main sense that we have seen the word and its cognates used in the first two centuries of Christianity, is in these texts either denied or radically reinterpreted. If “resurrection” is seen as in any sense a return, at some point after death, to a fully bodily life, it is denied (547, emphasis original).

He goes on to say that where the language is used, it is typically reinterpreted to be some kind of non-bodily glorification or exaltation. It seems that Wright’s survey has the unintended (or intended?) effect of demonstrating that people who argue that Gnosticism represents the earliest form of Christianity, or is somehow compatible with it, haven’t really read the texts in question well. If nothing else, Gnosticism is a return to a more pagan understanding of “resurrection” and not a Christian one.

This would mean then that belief in a literal, bodily, future resurrection is a benchmark view for Christianity. Those who deny this, or reinterpret it in a non-literal, non-bodily, or non-future sense, have denied a key tenet in Christianity that receives unanimous support in the New Testament and early church writings.

Hope in Person: Jesus as Messiah and Lord

Finally, Wright concludes this section exploring how Jesus was understood to be the Messiah and Lord in early Christianity. Taking the worldview questions together, here is how Wright says the early church would have answered on the basis of his survey (581):

  • Who are we? Resurrection people: a people, that is, formed within the the new world which began at Easter
  • Where are we? In God’s good creation, which is to be restored; in bodies that will be redeemed
  • What’s wrong? The work is incomplete: the project begun at Easter has not yet been finished
  • What’s the solution? The full and final redemption of the creation, and ourselves with it, which will be accomplished when Jesus reappears
  • What time is it? In overlap of the ages: the age to come has begun, but the present age still continues.

Wright then says this concerning the uniqueness of this worldview over against Gnosticism:

All this means, of course, that the early Christians embraced a completely different view of the world, and of its creator, from that which we find in the Nag Hammadi documents [Gospel of Thomas, etc]. And it generated a different set of aims: instead of the cultivation of a private spirituality, the resurrection-shaped worldview of the early Christians gave strong impetus to forming communities across traditional barriers, and to a way of life which, both by example and by spoken word, spread quickly, to the alarm of Roman officials, local magistrates, and others (582).

In short, if early Christians radically re-oriented their worldview around Jesus as Messiah and Lord, it clearly meant Caesar got a demotion. The connection between Jesus being Messiah and Lord hinges on the resurrection:

Jesus’ resurrection, as we have seen earlier in this chapter, vindicated or validated his Messiahship; and if he was Messiah, he was the world’s true lord. Resurrection was every bit as radical a belief for the early Christians as it had been for the Pharisees, in fact more so. The Christians believed that “the resurrection” had already begun, and that the one person to whom it had happened was the lord at whose name every knee would bow (583).

This then leaves us with only one place left to survey: The Easter stories. Next Friday, we’ll look at what we can see there and think over the weekend about how the resurrection completely reshaped the world.

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Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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