[This post is part of the Christian Origins and The Question of God series]
Three 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. Then we looked at the writings of Paul for his take on the resurrection before last week examining the early Christian thought on the resurrection.
Now, almost 600 pages into the book, N. T. Wright is ready to tackle the Easter stories we find in the Gospels. This section of the book has five chapters:
- General Issues in the Easter Stories
- Fear and Trembling: Mark
- Earthquakes and Angels: Matthew
- Burning Hearts and Broken Bread: Luke
- New Day, New Tasks: John
Compared to some of the earlier extensive surveys, these chapters were a quick and relatively easy read. They are still however very persuasive in their argumentation for the validity of the Easter story.
General Issues in the Easter Stories
Wright starts by tackling some framework issues for reading the Easter stories. He opens by noting the importance of having the right context in mind before reading them:
Whatever we think of these stories, it is clear that they were told and retold, and finally written down, within the ongoing life of the early church, and it is therefore important that we come to them having already acquired as clear an understanding as possible of what that early church seems to have believed about resurrection in general and that of Jesus in particular (587).
Wright is often faulted on this kind of thing when it comes to reading Paul (making too much of a certain background context being “necessary”). Here however, I think it helps root the reading of the gospel stories firmly in the Christian worldview and helps show how so called “lost” gospels really do not fit at all.
After surveying several issues (origin of the stories, the multiple strange aspects of the stories), Wright begins offering historical options for interpreting the stories correctly. He concludes that it makes the best sense to see the theology in the NT epistles arising in explanation to the stories, not the other way around. Noting the solidarity of the stories, Wright points out that all agree that (613):
- The key events took place early in the morning on the first day of the week on the third day after Jesus’ execution
- Mary Magdalene was at the tomb
- The stone presented an apparent problem, but it was solved without the women having to do anything
- An unusual stranger, an angel or near equivalent, met and spoke to the women
Wright then suggests
in fact, the stories must be regarded as early, certainly well before Paul; and that, when placed side by side, they tell a tale which despite the multiple surface inconsistencies, succeeds in hanging together (614).
To then answer the question, “Why did early Christianity begin, and why did it take this shape?” Wright responds:
The answer is: because the early Christians believed that something had happened to Jesus after his death, something to which the stories in the four canonical gospels are as close as we are likely to get (615).
Fear and Trembling: Mark
Having said this, Wright embarks on a survey of each Gospel account, starting of course with Mark. Wright sees the longer ending to Mark that we have to be inauthentic, but thinks there was an original longer ending. We can speculate on the content of this longer ending by looking at Matthew, who more or less follows Mark. Wright outlines 6 points on the Easter story from Mark’s perspective (628-629):
- The complete story is told from the perspective of the women
- The emphasis is on the unexpectedness of the event as a whole and its parts
- The empty tomb is presented as a puzzle in need of explanation (not the other way around)
- The role of the young man is striking and similar to the angel in Matthew
- The story implies the disciples will be rehabilitated
- The narrative grammar of 16:1-8 indicates that it cannot simply have arisen as a separate unit of tradition
He then says that “the implicit story within which Mark 16:1-8 finds its meaning cannot, for these reasons of narrative grammar, be intended to end in failure, in a silence with nobody telling anybody anything” (630).
Earthquakes and Angels: Matthew
In turning to Matthew, Wright spends the bulk of the time exploring the nature of the earthquake and rising corpses, as well as the bribed soldiers. In doing this, he spars with Rudolf Bultmann for a bit, and concludes that this story could only arise in the case when there was an actual empty tomb that needed an explanation. He then looks at the narrative itself in Matthew 28, splitting time between the first appearance in 28:1-10, and then the ascension in Galilee in 28:16-20.
I could say more here, and some of you may be aware that Mike Licona’s recent book tackled the subject of the earthquakes and the saints raised. There, Licona said that he thought those appearances may not be historical and some felt that this denied inerrancy. I think that’s a ridiculous charge, but Wright somewhat sidesteps the issue completely by saying that we can’t know for sure whether they were historical or not, and even then, that’s not the point of their inclusion in the story. More conservative evangelicals will probably bristle at Wright suggesting “we can’t know for sure” when Scripture “plainly” says that it happened. I’d rather not get into that discussion here, so let’s keep moving.
Burning Hearts and Broken Bread: Luke
In the section on Luke, Wright deals with both Luke 24 and Acts 1. I found it fascinating the connections Luke draws between the Greek rendering of Genesis 3:7 and Luke 24:31. In both cases, the people involved have a meal and their eyes are opened to some new revelation. In Genesis of course it is to nakedness and shame, but in Luke it is to the risen Jesus. As Wright puts it, “This, Luke is saying, is the ultimate redemption; this is the meal which signifies that the long exile of the human race, not just of Israel, is over at last” (652). Wright then spends considerable time on the Emmaus road story. Here he sees Luke drawing connections between Jesus breaking bread and opening the disciples minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45 and Acts 2:42).
New Day, New Tasks: John
In coming to John, Wright spends time dealing with the ending of John which causes some interpretive difficulties. Laying aside interpretive issues with John 21 though, Wright does a rather compact survey to demonstrate that the resurrection story in John 20 ties together multiple themes in the gospel as a whole. In this case, it would make little sense for the resurrection to simply be a fictional story tacked onto the end. No, says Wright, it is rather the climax of John’s whole gospel and wouldn’t make any sense as a stand along account severed from what John has been saying up to that point.
From here, Wright offers some summary thoughts on the gospel stories taken together. I think he’s worth quoting at length:
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. The evangelists have exercised considerable freedom in retelling and reshaping the narratives so as to bring out themes and emphases that were important to them throughout their work…
If you were a follower of a dead Jesus, in the middle of the first century, wanting to explain why you still thought he was important, and why some of your number had (inexplicably) begun to say that he had been raised from the dead, you would not have told stories like this. You would have done a better job.
We are left with the conclusion that both the evangelists themselves, and the sources to which they had access, whether oral or written, which they have shaped to their own purposes but without destroying the underlying subject-matter, really did intend to refer to actual events which took place on the third day after Jesus’ execution. The main conclusion that emerges from these four studies of the canonical evangelists is that each of them, in their very different ways, believed that they were writing about events that actually took place(680).
In that case, there only one thing left to discuss, and that is whether or not you believe it to be true or not. We’ll dig into that though next week to wrap things up.