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Book Review: N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God

N.T. Wright, Anglican scholar and Bishop of Durham, has gained for himself the reputation as a strong “reasserting” scholar, especially with his massive book series Christian Origins and the Question of God. The Resurrection of the Son of God-dealing with the most important point of the debate-is the third book of the series.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event of the New Testament. Because of that, it is the central focus of both attack and defence of Christianity. The attack not only comes from sceptics on both sides of the Enlightenment, but also from Biblical scholars who attempt to form a hypothesis of what the New Testament says and means and prove their hypothesis based on the evidence they have. Unfortunately that evidence isn’t as copious as they would like, and many of them undermine their own hypotheses by challenging the reliability of their own evidence. Wright spends a great deal of time evaluating the various theories; his evaluation is one reason why the tome reached its length and made me glad I picked another line of work over modern Biblical scholarship.

The adverse theories on the resurrection were best summarised in Wright’s citation of one of those scholars, John Dominic Crossan: “…there were some scholars who said it couldn’t be done, and some who said it shouldn’t be done, and that there were some who said the former when they meant the latter.” (p. 14) Some have posited that the resurrection was physically impossible, but others (and there’s some overlap) have also said that physical resurrection wasn’t what either Jesus, or Paul, or the other New Testament writers actually meant.

Wright studiously avoids the “proof” method of showing the truth of the Resurrection, and in fact denigrates it from time to time, although the results he ends up with aren’t as different as he would like to think they are. What he does do is take the “scenic route” to get there. He starts by reviewing pre-Christian views of the afterlife, both those in classical paganism (I’m glad I digested the Aeneid first before getting into that) and in Second Temple Judaism. From there he moves to Paul, but he takes on Paul’s most important discussions of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 4 and 5) until the last. From there he discusses the resurrection as it appears in the Gospel narratives outside of the resurrection accounts, and then goes to Patristic and other post-Apostolic evidence. Only after all of this does he tackle the Resurrection accounts themselves. Finally he evaluates the evidence based on a “necessary/sufficient” line of reasoning (I was introduced to this in first semester Calculus, it took Wright a little longer) and shows that the only reasonable explanation as to the early church’s belief regarding the bodily resurrection of Jesus is because the sources of the accounts saw (or believed they saw) the risen Saviour, rather than having seen an apparition or having had some kind of nebulous religious experience.

Along the way Wright makes two important points.

The first is that Jesus, Paul and others in the early church were products of Second Temple Judaism, and that they were in accord with each other and with Pharisaical Judaism as to what resurrection meant, i.e, a return to a living bodily state after death. This put them in opposition not only to the Sadducees, but also to much of paganism as well, and especially Platonic concepts of a disembodied afterlife. Uniting Jesus and Paul in this way is a response to the long-running effort in New Testament scholarship to separate the two. Wright underscores the distinction between simple, disembodied afterlife and physical resurrection, to say nothing of those who set forth the idea that all the disciples had was some kind of “religious experience.”

An important result of this is Wright’s repeated insistence that Christianity isn’t just about “going to heaven when you die.” He shows that the waiting period between death and resurrection is just that: a waiting period, not always well defined but certainly a transitional one. Beyond that Wright puts himself firmly in the Evangelical camp by showing that the aftermath of the first resurrection was a call to action by the disciples and those who came after them. Resurrection turns the Christian life from an escapist longing for eternity to a series of transitions where action is called for, and one of those transitions is this life itself. Although that puts Wright into opposition with much of the Christian heritage which surrounds him in Europe, he might stop and consider that, on this side of the Atlantic, Evangelicals have taken this to turn the church into a purely performance based proposition, which may be undermining its appeal to some (especially when fund raising is involved.)

That leads to Wright’s next point: resurrection is a revolutionary doctrine. It was certainly so with its Jewish advocates, who used it to inspire resistance in the Maccabean period and beyond. In the Hellenistic East, the monarch was a divine figure, and the Romans picked up on this very quickly. Resurrection was a slap in the face to every absolute monarch, as not even putting opponents to death could defeat them. That leads to another of Wright’s favourite points: resurrection proclaims that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. Putting Jesus as Lord over death through resurrection was the ultimate power challenge to Roman rule, one that the Romans themselves came to see and oppose. Wright is entirely correct in this assertion, both for Roman despots and modern ones (even ones “democratically” elected,) which explains the virulent opposition by New Atheists and their allies to the whole concept of the afterlife, let alone resurrection. (This is a reversal of the “pie in the sky when you die” concept that many Christians held to and was criticised by the likes of Karl Marx as drugging people into accepting their lot and not wanting to change it.)

As mentioned earlier, Wright spends a great deal of time opposing many of the concepts that his fellow Biblical scholars set forth. He also attempts to distance himself from his more dogmatic Evangelical counterparts, with mixed results. For example, in his discussion of 1 Thessalonians 4, he derides the whole concept of the pre-Tribulational rapture, only to offer up a nice demonstration of a post-Tribulational one. (And there are more people out there who are post-Trib than care to admit it.) He is emphatic that Jesus’ resurrection was not a proof that he is the Son of God, but he states earlier that it “was the divine vindication of him as Messiah,” which for many Evangelicals (if not for Wright) is a distinction without a practical difference.

One issue where Wright’s treatment doesn’t quite get to the point comes in his discussion of the resurrection accounts. Although he demonstrates that the accounts reflect an authentic memory of the events and not a reconstruction based on any “faith of the church,” he simply throws his hands up concerning the variances between them. That gets to an issue that Wright and those like him are going to have to face more squarely: the nature, level, and practical implication of the inspiration of the Scriptures. In the case of the resurrection accounts, he could have used another technical concept, namely that of precision vs. accuracy. But he doesn’t. This is a more critical issue that Wright wants to admit, but sooner or later it must be resolved.

That having been said, The Resurrection of the Son of God is a monumental work. It’s a long, winding road that he takes, and the fact that he keeps it together is a tribute to his scholarship and writing capabilities. If one has the time to take the voyage, the Resurrection of the Son of God is a tour well worth taking.

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