RSG 2: The Claim of Resurrection

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[This is part 2 of a series of posts that summarize NT Wright’s argument for the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus in The Resurrection of the Son of God.  You can read my overview of his argument here.]

For me, the best place to begin an explanation of Wright’s argument is with his account of what, exactly, early Christians claimed about the resurrection. This starting point is critical because of the tendency, on the part of modern historical and literary criticism, to de-mythologize scripture.

I spoke about this concept in a recent post. The last 100-200 years of Bible scholarship has been characterized by a growing trend to view scripture as a-historical. Bible stories, we are told, exist as myth, and we can best understand them if we recognize and remove the mystical elements and view them solely as history. Thus, it is argued to be unlikely that Jonah – if he existed at all – spent three days in a whale, that the Earth literally stopped spinning during a battle in the Old Testament, or that the Nile river actually turned to blood, as we are told in Exodus. It may be true that a small band of Hebrew slaves migrated out of Egypt during a particular Egyptian Dynasty, and that they later violently conquered territory that they claimed to be their own, but the fantastical accounts should often (or always) be dismissed as myth. Indeed, it is often argued, not even those who wrote the accounts intended for them to be taken literally and/or historically.

Wright recognizes many valid points from this trend. He does not understand that all of scripture should be treated as history in the sense that modern science would approach the subject. He might even concede (though I’ve not heard him do so) that Jonah may not have really been in a whale for three days. However, when it comes to the resurrection, he argues, we must conclude that something important, something extraordinary did, in fact, happen within human history during the days after the death of Jesus.

Be clear: Wright is not saying that every Gospel account of the resurrection in every detail can be seen as historically valid. We cannot know, for example, the exact names and number of people who saw the empty tomb on Easter Sunday (though the Bible tries to give us an account of that). Nor can we know whether Jesus himself had a conversation with Mary Magdalene at the tomb (only one gospel, John, tells us a story of this nature). Indeed, he recognizes that some of the accounts are contradictory. He is saying, however, that two broader points can be readily supported using basic, historical-critical tools:

  • That on Easter Sunday, a number of disciples discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
  • That, subsequently, a large number of Jesus’ followers had a series of extraordinary experiences involving “appearances” of Jesus, in which Jesus was physically present.

For me, it is Wright’s refusal to overreach and claim – as Evangelicals would – that every account is absolutely true in every respect, that makes his argument remarkable. Using my own experiences, I often illustrate it this way: in a lawsuit involving a car accident, there is often a dispute over an important fact – say – whether a traffic signal was red or green when someone entered an intersection. Clearly, someone got a particular detail wrong in their account. However, no one argues that, because of the dispute over the details, a collision did not occur at a particular time and place. In RSG, Wright argues in favor of the collision, so to speak, but not necessarily in favor of what people said about the stop lights. This gives us less certainty, perhaps, about exactly what happened, but – if we are willing to consider it carefully in this way – we soon begin to see a coherent picture that, while blurred on the edges, points to something very clear and extraordinary in the center.

The early Christian belief was very simple: the empty tomb PLUS the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus indicated that God had raised him from the dead on Easter Sunday. The earliest account of the resurrection, as I understand it, comes from Paul in I Corinthians 15:

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.

Here we have a standard teaching/formulation that, as Paul says, predates Paul’s involvement in the Christian community. Its something he has told the Corinthians before, and it is something that was given to him by the other Apostles. As such, it likely relates back to the very early days after Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus, he says, was seen by Peter and then the Twelve. Then, in an extraordinary event that is not recorded anywhere else, Jesus made an appearance to 500 people at the same time. Paul is clear that most of those 500 are still alive.

Pay careful attention to what Paul is repeating here. There is a list. Someone within this early Christian community is keeping count. There are people within the community who can point at someone – still living – and say: he was there when Jesus appeared to the 500, or she was there when Jesus appeared on the beach. Presumably, at the time, you could have gone over and asked one of these alleged witnesses to tell the story themselves.

Based on this, and a considerable array of other indicators, Wright argues, it can’t be said that early Christians were claiming that the resurrection was merely mythology or metaphor. Rather, it was something that happened before their very eyes. The community was saturated in stories from multiple witnesses who claimed to have had a real experience of Jesus.

So what were they claiming to have seen? A ghost? Unlikely, he says. First, like our own culture, the culture in which the early Church existed had its own, unique language for ghosts. The accounts of Jesus walking on the water (in which Jesus is at first believed to be a ghost) illustrate that they knew full well how to describe an experience involving an encounter with a ghost. These are not the stories that we are told. We are instead told stories about Jesus eating bread and fish, of Jesus inviting doubters to reach out and touch him. Plus, he reminds us, we are told about an empty tomb. There is no need to emphasize an empty tomb if you want to talk about a ghost. Both corpse and ghost can exist at the same time.

Having said that, it is also important to recognize that what the witnesses claimed to have seen was more than a resuscitated corpse. The risen Jesus appears in rooms with closed doors. At one moment, he is unrecognizable, and then can be readily identified at the next. He vanishes in plain sight. He has a physical reality to be sure, but he is more than that. He is, as Wright coins the term, transphysical; more than a physical being, but not less. (He observes that the Church came to believe that these properties were manifestations of God’s new creation, a new kind of world, or reality. To put it in terms that would be used in connection with modern physics, Jesus was thought to be the first bit of matter, the first human, to exist in this new state.)

Finally, and most startlingly, Wright asks us to consider the beliefs that early Christians held about life after death. Here, perhaps, is the most brilliant move of all. It is developed in remarkable detail.

I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but in the Jew-plus-Gentile world of the early Church, there were three competing views about life after death. They were as follows:

  • The Pagan View. Under this view, the dead become spirits or ghosts, diminished versions of the people they once were. Their spirits are then consigned to Hades, the realm of the dead, where they remain for eternity. They do not come back.
  • The Sadducee’s View. The Sadducees viewed death as an end. Once one is dead, they are gone forever. No spirit remains, and certainly no one returns from the dead.
  • The Pharisee’s View. The Pharisees believed that one does, indeed become a spirit after death. They also believed, however, that God would eventually raise the righteous dead (and/or all of the dead) to life again, in the “last day.” Then, the dead would be judged and God would renew his creation for the benefit of the resurrected.

The disagreements between these viewpoints were not minor. Strident, heated debates were known to break out, particularly in the Jewish community – and at least two accounts of such a debate can be found within scripture itself. Think, if you will, about the major schisms that exist today about atonement theories in the theological realm, or even about subjects like health care in the political realm, in which emotions run high. People were highly opinionated and entrenched when it came to the question of life after death.

So what does this have to do with the early Church? Isn’t it bizarre, he argues, that you don’t see this debate raging within the early Church? One would expect, he says, in a relatively large community of Jews and Gentiles to see strident debates continue on about which view of life after death is appropriate. But you don’t get that. Instead you get – quite consistently – an agreement/belief that endorses the view of the Pharisees, a view which holds that people can, in fact, rise from the dead.

What could this community have possibly experienced that would so convincingly convert everyone to this one view?  To hold this view, they would have to be convinced, at a bare minimum, that physical resurrection is possible. This is not a belief in a metaphor of resurrection, nor an endorsement that ghosts of the dead can sometimes appear to the living (both of which would be consistent, at least, with the Pagan view). This is a belief that people really can – and will – physically rise from the dead.

The conclusion of this line of thought is that there ought to be very little doubt that the Christian community believed – and was deeply convinced – that a resurrection had actually happened within their realm of immediate experience, and that it involved a transformation of a human corpse into a physical-plus-more state. No metaphors. No parables. No ghosts. They were quite serious and quite clear about what they claimed had happened.

Having established that this was the belief/conviction of the early Christian community, Wright can now turn to explore the possible explanations for their conviction – chiefly, the possibility that someone successfully falsified the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. If none of those possibilities are satisfying, he argues, we can conclude that what they claimed had happened is what actually happened.

We will turn to some of those alternative explanations in the next post.