[This post is part of the Christian Origins and The Question of God series]
Last Friday, 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. Today we’ll continue on to the next part and see what the early Christians believed about the resurrection.
From the first line of this section, Wright sets the stage:
“One of the most striking features of the early Christian movement is its virtual unanimity about the future hope.” (209)
In both this section and the next, Wright is investigating two questions (210):
- What did the early Christians believe about life after death?
- What metaphorical meanings did “resurrection” have, and how did they relate to Judaism?
To give a clear conclusion up front that will be demonstrated by exhaustive detail, Wright explains that for early Christians:
Their future hope for ultimate bodily resurrection and the various ways in which that hope had been made more precise, their redefinition of the metaphorical meanings of “resurrection,” and their sense of who they themselves were and who Jesus was, were based on their firm belief that Jesus of Nazareth had himself been raised from the dead. (211)
To demonstrate this truth, Wright turns to Paul, and presents a thorough investigation of the resurrection theme in Paul’s writings. I was impressed after finishing reading this section by just how central the resurrection is to Paul’s thought. Wright’s survey starts at the periphery and spirals closer and closer to the central Pauline texts on the resurrection.
Outside the Corinthian Correspondence
He begins then by a chronological survey of the passages outside the “Corinthian correspondence,” which means basically he is leaving 1 Corinthians 15 for last. The investigation centers around these questions:
- Where does Paul’s belief about the ultimate Christian hope belong on the spectrum of possibilities in the ancient world?
- What does Paul mean by resurrection?
- Did Paul develop ways of speaking about an intermediate state between death and eventual resurrection?
- How did he handle the question of continuity and discontinuity between the present life and the ultimate future one?
- How does the resurrection function within his larger picture of the future which God had promised?
- In what ways did Paul use “resurrection” and similar language and ideas metaphorically?
- What does he say about Jesus own resurrection and what does he mean by it?
The general view that Wright is trying to undercut, he summarizes and forecasts his rebuttal just after presenting these questions (213):
It is commonly asserted, often indeed simply assumed, that Paul held what in the modern sense is called a “spiritual” view of the resurrection, that is, one for which a body, and an empty tomb, would be irrelevant. This whole Part of the book is designed not least to argue conclusively against this idea, and in particular against a disastrous mistranslation in 1 Corinthians 15 which has given it wide currency.
In other words, rather than show how the particular translation of 1 Corinthians 15 is incorrect (which is the central Pauline text on the resurrection), Wright is going to doa full scale survey of Paul’s work to show that the mere idea that the text could be translated that way would be preposterous.
Starting with 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Wright moves on through Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon before giving an extended treatment of Romans (as you might have guessed). Before closing out the chapter, Wright pauses on the Pastoral Epistles. Just from this survey, Wright concludes the following (271-274):
- Paul had a rich understanding of the resurrection
- The only development in Paul’s understanding of the resurrection was his coming to grips with dying before Christ returned
- Paul’s view of resurrection was firmly rooted in Judaism (which stood against the rest of the known world on the topic)
- Paul’s entire worldview was firmly grounded in Judaism but entirely reoriented around Christ
Since as Wright says, “he is our earliest witness for our understanding of early Christianity as a whole” (276) it is important to do his thought justice and try our best to understand him on his terms. It seems from this initial survey though that Paul more or less developed the view of resurrection he inherited from Judaism, but radically and progressively re-worked it around Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
Resurrection in Corinth
Having established the foundation in Paul’s thoughts on the resurrection, Wright begins a chapter that looks at references to the resurrection in the Corinthian letters, but still not 1 Corinthians 15 or 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10. What follows is more or less a mini-commentary on the Corinthian letters, which ends with this summary of the answers to the questions from above:
- Paul’s view of resurrection stands within Judaism against pagan culture
- Paul saw the Spirit in the present as the guarantee of the resurrection to come, in which believers would have new bodies
- His letters to Corinth don’t say much about an intermediate state, but don’t conflict with what he says elsewhere
- There is definite continuity between the present Christian life and the future resurrection life, but there is also significant discontinuity (i.e. thorn in the flesh)
- Paul places resurrection within the larger framework of new covenant and new creation
- He significantly develops the present meaning of resurrection, developing metaphors rooted in the actual, historical resurrection of Christ
- Paul seldom address what happened at Easter, and what Jesus’ resurrection actually consisted in
Resurrection in Corinth: The Key Passages
This then brings the survey to the key passages in the Corinthian letters and Wright devotes an entire chapter to the discussion. While the previous chapter was a mini-commentary on the letters to Corinth, this chapter includes a 40 page in depth exegetical analysis of 1 Corinthians 15 alone. Significantly less space is devoted to 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10, but it still gets detailed analysis. In short, Paul’s teaching on the resurrection in these passages is just a more extended discussion of the material we find in his other letters that confirms he believed in life after life after death, and the Christian life was metaphorically like the resurrection, but that resurrection was an actual historical event that was a pre-cursor to our own eventual resurrection.
When Paul Saw Jesus
As a kind of denouement, Wright concludes the section by looking at Paul’s conversion accounts. He starts with those notable passages in the letters of Paul before turning to Acts. Some of his discussion gets into whether we are to interpret the accounts of Paul’s letters in light of those in Acts, or vice versa. Wright notes that Luke’s aim is to align Paul’s conversion with experiences similar to prophets and visionaries in Israel’s history, as well as to place him alongside accounts of penitent pagans who had conversion experiences. (393) In this light, we shouldn’t try force one account onto the other since, if Luke is stylizing his narrative, then we would expect there to be some amount of divergence between Acts 9, Paul’s other accounts in Acts and his accounts in his letters. The bottom line, at least in this discussion is that Paul clearly believed Jesus rose from the dead, and by a survey of his letters, he clearly reoriented his whole understanding of theology around that historical fact.