[This post is part of the Christian Origins and The Question of God series]
Last Friday, I told you we were starting a review series through N. T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God. After starting yesterday with a look at Jesus and The Victory of God, today we’ll have our first look at The Resurrection of The Son of God thanks to Fortress Press.
It is almost humorous to think that this book was once intended to be a single chapter in Jesus and The Victory of God since as it stands now, it is actually longer than JVG. Much like that book though, the introduction contains four chapters:
- The Target and The Arrows
- Shadows, Souls, and Where They Go: Life Beyond Death in Ancient Paganism
- Time to Wake Up (1): Death and Beyond in the Old Testament
- Time to Wake Up (2): Hope Beyond Death in Post-Biblical Judaism
Though they cover much ground, they are united in excavating the conceptual background needed to understand just how radical “resurrection” was in the first century world.
The Target and The Arrows
To demonstrate this, Wright lays out the preliminary issues in chapter 1. At stake is answering the historical question “so what did happen on Easter morning?” (4). Here, the shape of Wright’s work is determined by two further questions:
- What did the early Christians think had happened to Jesus?
- What can we say about the plausibility of those beliefs?
These questions are somewhat separable since a scholar could conclude that the early church certainly believed Jesus rose from the dead, but they were in fact wrong. Not too give too much away, Wright points ahead to a conclusion that will come after much evidence: “virtually all the early Christians for whom we have solid evidence affirmed that Jesus of Narareth had been bodily raised from the dead” (9-10). Wright intends to then argue that “the best historical explanation is the one which inevitably raises all kinds of theological questions” (10).
From here, Wright does some more ground clearing, this time as a way of demonstrating that the target (an historical account of the resurrection) is indeed something we can shoot at and even hit with our arrows. What is important to keep clear in our archery however is what “resurrection” really means. As Wright explains:
The meaning of “resurrection as ‘life after “life after death”‘ cannot be overemphasized, not least because much modern writing continues to use “resurrection” as a virtual synonym for “life after death” in the popular sense (31).
In other words, “resurrection” is a two-step process, a first period is being in the state of being dead (a kind of “life after death”) followed by a new state after that. Or, as Wright said above, resurrection is the life after life after death.
Life Beyond Death in Ancient Paganism
Using this definition of resurrection, chapter 2 engages in a careful study of the Greek (i. e. pagan) background. Through this, we find that any talk of “resurrection” usually referred only to the state of existence after death. As far as Homer, Plato, and any other important Greek thinkers were concerned, there was no returning to life after life after death, nor would anyone want to do so.
Wright demonstrates this by applying his worldview schematic: questions, praxis, symbols, and story (37). He applies this strenuously to the Greek background. For those interested in Greek mythology, his survey is fascinating as it digs into Homer, various plays, and other mythological accounts. Eventually coming to Plato, Wright finds that no one in the Greek world had a concept of “resurrection” as understood in the above sense, even if they employed the word “resurrection” to describe what they were talking about.
Death and Beyond in the Old Testament
If the conceptual background for life after life after death isn’t to be found in pagan Greek thought, what about the Old Testament then? Wright explores answers to this question in chapter 3. While resurrection find no place in the hope of pagans, it does within the world of Judaism, though with quite the prominence we might expect. In the Old Testament, “death itself was sad, and tinged with evil,” and contra Greek thinking, “it was not seen, in the canonical Old Testament, as a happy release, an escape of the soul from the prison-house of the body” (91). “The promise of resurrection is,” in Jewish thinking, “firmly linked with creation itself, which was the basis of the normal ancient Israelite celebration of life in the present, bodily life in YHWH’s good land” (122). For them, resurrection “involves not a reconstrual of life after death, but the reversal of death itself. It is not about discovering that Sheol is not such a bad place after all” (127).
Hope Beyond Death in Post-Biblical Judaism
Finally, to round out the introduction, Wright turns to post-biblical Judiasm in chapter 4. This involves looking into the developing thought in the intertestamental period seen in the books in the Apocrypha among other places. This leads to clarification of the beliefs of the Saducees and Pharisees. Wright points out that for many in Second Temple Judaism resurrection “is both the personal hope of the righteous individual and the national hope for faithful Israel” (153). However, it is also true that “there was a wide spectrum of belief in second-Temple Judaism regarding the fate of the dead, both in the short and the long term. By no means all Jews believed in a coming resurrection” (201).
Resurrection is still in Jewish thinking “one particular story that was told about the dead.” This story was one in which “the present state of those who had died would be replaced by a future state in which they would be alive once more” (201). In this sense, it was clearly not a redefinition of the state of being dead, but rather “the reversal or undoing or defeat of death, restoring to some kind of bodily life those who had already passed through the first stage.” It was strongly connected with the doctrine of God as creator and was an affirmation denied within the pagan world.
As Wright says:
Resurrection was not a strange belief added on to the outside of first-century Judaism. Except for the Sadducees and those who insisted on a final disembodied state, resurrection had been woven into the very fabric of first-century Jewish praying, living, hoping, and acting (204).
It is against this backdrop that we’re ready to look into what the New Testament and early church say about Jesus’ resurrection.