Bible Review 20:1, February 2004

Bible Books

The Resurrection of the Son of God

N.T. Wright (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003) 842 pp., $49.00 (hardback)

When the earliest Christians talked about the resurrected Jesus, what were they talking about? Was it a vision? A spirit? Flesh and blood? It takes more than a little guts to take up a topic as important, complex and much discussed as resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Jesus. Fortunately, N.T. Wright is no fool rushing in. He stands firmly on the shoulders of many others who have gone before him, although none of his predecessors has dared such a comprehensive treatment of this controversial subject. A masterwork and a manifesto, this book is the most exhaustive (some might say the most exhausting!) English work on how the earliest Christians understood resurrection.

Wright’s method is not simply to mention but to discuss every relevant passage from the Old Testament and New, from wider Jewish and early Christian literature dating between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D, and from pagan literature. The texts are arranged in rough chronological order. Readers looking for insights into the resurrection accounts in the Gospels will be surprised to find that they aren’t even discussed until page 587.

When readers finally arrive at the gospel discussion, they will find Wright standing foursquare on the side of the traditional, orthodox view that Jesus rose bodily from the grave in about 30 A.D.

Wright has little sympathy for those who want to redefine the meaning of the term resurrection to make it more palatable or believable to some modern thinkers. Rather, he contends that for almost all Christians from the time of Jesus until the third century A.D., the resurrection was understood literally, not metaphorically. It referred to something that happened in space and time and in human history (and not in the afterlife, as some have suggested). Further, the resurrection was not about the immortality of the soul but about the body. For early Christians, the concept of resurrection was the ultimate outflowing of the doctrine of the goodness of creation. In other words, if God cared enough to re-embody Jesus, then material existence must be a very good condition to have indeed. Indeed, it may be said to be the highest form of existence, combining both the nonmaterial and material dimensions of reality.

One of the strengths of Wright’s argument is that he is able to show that the Pharisaic belief and concept of resurrection as involving embodied material existence is the belief adopted and adapted by early Christians, including Paul. According to Wright, the Pharisiac concept is somewhat redefined by the disciples around the person of Jesus and the surprising fact that he alone was raised on Easter. In other words, what happened to Jesus becomes the paradigm of what resurrection means and amounts to. Jesus’ resurrection was a surprise because Jews expected a general resurrection of the saints, not an isolated resurrection of one person, and certainly not an isolated resurrection of the messiah, since early Jews weren’t looking for a crucified and then resurrected messiah.

According to Wright, Christian belief in the resurrection of believers is the second stage in a two-stage process of afterlife. In stage one, the deceased is absent from the body and present with Christ in heaven. Wright does not see this as the final destination of Christians, however, or as what is promised to them in the New Testament. Rather, this is just a way station along the way to stage two—resurrection. In other words, “this widespread belief in the future resurrection [of believers] naturally generated a belief in an intermediate state ... ‘Resurrection’ entails some kind of belief in continuing post-mortem existence; this need not mean a belief that all humans have an immortal soul in the Platonic sense, since the belief in YHWH as creator which is necessary for belief in resurrection is also a sufficient explanation for the dead being held in some kind of continuing existence.” Wright thus stresses that the Greek Platonic concept of the immortality of the soul is definitely not what the New Testament is talking about when it refers to the afterlife and more specifically to resurrection.

It is clear that the letters of Paul—the earliest New Testament treatment of resurrection—are key to Wright’s conclusions about the resurrection of Jesus and his followers. Wright argues strongly and well that Paul at no point gave up his belief in the future resurrection of believers (not even in 2 Corinthians 4–5, where he speaks positively about being absent from the body and being present with the Lord). For Paul, in both his early and late letters, post-mortem life in heaven is a transitional state on the way to the resurrection (see, e.g., Philippians 3:10–11). Wright also rightly argues that when Paul speaks of a “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15, he is not referring to a nonmaterial body, a body made of spirit, as some have suggested. Rather, as the Greek form of the word pneumatikon itself suggests, the term refers to a physical body totally energized and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In short, the New Testament offers no hint of a nonmaterial resurrection body. From Paul right through to the end of the canonical period, the term resurrection, when used about Jesus or his followers, always refers to bringing someone back to life from death in a body.

What shape was this body in? Wright largely follows the lead of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 in stressing there is both continuity and discontinuity between the old body and the new body. For example, the body is no longer subject to disease, decay and death. It’s still a body, though; the resurrected Jesus is not luminescent, or stellar or angelic; resurrection texts like Daniel 12:2–3, which describes the resurrected as shining like stars, do not influence the New Testament. Rather, the description of the future resurrection body of believers is derived from the early descriptions of Jesus’ own resurrection body. That is, the resurrected could walk and talk, eat and drink, be touched and clung to, as was the case with Jesus in Luke 24 and John 20.

Wright is not simply launching a theological argument in this work. His is a profoundly historical argument. He believes that on historical grounds it can be shown not only that Christians throughout the first century believed that Jesus rose from the dead bodily, but that this was the one event which provides a necessary and sufficient explanation for the rise of Christianity after the disaster on Golgotha.

What does this view of resurrection demonstrate about Jesus? Wright argues that it demonstrates that God had vindicated Jesus’ claims to be Israel’s messiah and that it also vindicated him to be Son of God, designated Lord over all the nations, and, indeed, the embodiment of God’s presence on earth. In other words, resurrection underwrites the essential Christological claims of the New Testament about Jesus.

Wright also stresses the revolutionary nature of the claim not only that Jesus was risen, but that he was the risen Lord, standing firmly against imperial claims that Caesar was the Son of God. But if it was so revolutionary to call Jesus the Son of God, how could Paul and Peter also exhort their audiences to respect and indeed submit to the governing officials because all authority is from God (cf. Romans 13; 1 Peter 2:13–16)? Were there not “lords many, and gods many” in the Roman Empire, and wouldn’t most polytheists, if they were charitable, be inclined to simply add Jesus to the pantheon on Mt. Olympus? Perhaps on this point, Wright has drunk too deeply from the well of Richard Horsley, but he is correct that claims about the resurrection of a crucified Jew from Nazareth would have been regarded as unbelievable by pagans in the Greco-Roman world. It makes one wonder how so many Gentiles came to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Wright is no fundamentalist. This often pejorative term does not do justice to this fine scholar’s work, which is both critical and respectful of differing opinions even when he is attempting to dismantle them.

And lest one think that this is some lugubrious tome that is as boring as the resurrection was exciting, there are wonderful analogies, and humor and poetry, throughout. For example, the quote from John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (“Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages; let us walk through the door”) is particularly apt, and the reference to “cocking a snook” (that’s British for thumbing your nose) is fun.

The Resurrection of the Son of God is the second book in Wright’s series on Christian Origins and the Question of God. He intends to do a volume on Paul next. As Wright begins his new life as Anglican Bishop of Durham, U.K., we may hope that he will indeed be able to complete this monumental series, of which this volume is clearly the best. If not, he has still thrown down the gauntlet and left us all with a stirring challenge as he closes the volume with these words:

“What if the resurrection, instead of (as is often imagined) legitimating a cosy, comfortable, socially and culturally conservative form of Christianity, should turn out to be, in the twenty-first century as in the first, the most socially, culturally and politically explosive force imaginable, blasting its way through the sealed tombs and locked doors of modernist epistemology and the (now) deeply conservative social and political culture which is sustains? When I said that there was no neutral ground at this point, I was not only referring to patterns of thought and belief. Indeed, the holding apart of the mental and spiritual on the one hand from the social, cultural and political on the other, one of the most important planks in the Enlightenment platform, is itself challenged by the question of Jesus’ resurrection.”

The resurrection has, so to speak, been put back on the front burner once again. It will be interesting to see whose pots simmer and whose boil over as a result.

Bible Review