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Book Reviews > Theology > The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God

Simon Gathercole
Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland

The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God
N.T. Wright
Details: 2003, Augsburg Fortress, Amazon.comISBN: 0281055505
Posted: August 12, 2004

As the plaudits on the back cover of this book have noted, it is difficult to describe Wright’s multi-volume project on the history of earliest Christian thought without using very grandiose language. This is even more the case with this third volume (following New Testament and the People of God, and Jesus and the Victory of God) on Jesus’ resurrection. This book really is a bomb thrown into the playground of the theologians. Not only that, it is perhaps even more unusual in being both a joy to read, and nearly 850 pages in length.

The book is divided into five parts. In Part I (‘Setting the Scene’) Wright outlines his method in approaching the question of resurrection, and also throws the net far and wide in his survey of resurrection in Greco-Roman paganism, as well as in the OT and post-biblical Judaism. He argues that resurrection is basically absent in the pagan literature, that is, it is always and everywhere presumed as an impossibility (with the possible and very unusual exception of Euripides’ Alcestis). The OT and early Judaism, by contrast, are strikingly different. Wright probably sees more evidence of resurrection in the Dead Sea Scrolls than most Qumran specialists, but on the Pharisees, there is no doubt that he is right to see a strong belief in bodily resurrection, and that there was not really any other kind. It is in the course of the discussion of the Jewish literature that Wright’s crucial definition of resurrection emerges: it is, he says, ‘life after life-after-death’. Early Judaism and Christianity both presupposed an ‘intermediate state’ after death, which was followed by a resurrection at the end.

Picking up on this, Part II examines ‘Resurrection in Paul’, who is important both for the early nature of the evidence he provides, and his omnipresent focus on the resurrection in the epistles. Here, Wright pursues his argument that the earliest Christian understanding of resurrection is really a mutation within early Jewish belief in the resurrection; of primary significance (Wright offers four elements in the mutation in all; p. 681) is the fact that ‘the resurrection’, which in Judaism meant the resurrection of all at the end of at the end of time, has been split into two. One person, the Son of God, has already risen from the dead in advance of everyone else. Incidentally, one of the best exegetical discussions in this section is of the problem of the so-called ‘spiritual body’ in 1 Cor. 15.44: here Wright shows that this usual translation, ‘spiritual body’, is in fact extremely unlikely not just because of Paul’s thought elsewhere, but also on linguistic grounds. The term usual translated as ‘spiritual’ in fact means ‘animated by the Spirit’, not ‘composed of spirit’ (pp. 351-352).

In Part III, Wright looks at the rest of the NT (excluding the Easter narratives) and early Christian literature up to the end of the second century CE. Here, he identifies a strong belief in bodily resurrection throughout the NT and in much of the second century literature as well; the Gnostic literature in this respect marks a clear departure from the mainstream. One of the key arguments here is against J.M. Robinson’s contention that the resurrection in earliest Christianity was really about Jesus rising ‘in disembodied radiance’, a view which was suppressed early on, but only rediscovered later by the Gnostic Christians (esp. p. 550-551). Wright shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the earliest Christians unanimously believed that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead.

In Part IV, Wright treats the actual Easter narratives, and chapter 13 (‘General Issues in the Easter Stories’) is perhaps the most significant of the book. It is here that the sacred cows of historical scepticism are really culled. The resurrection narratives cannot be explained away by reference to early Christian literary forms; Wright turns the objection on its head, and shows that the form of the resurrection narratives itself is a historical phenomenon which needs to be explained (597). He points out the basic incoherence of seeing the transfiguration as a misplaced resurrection account, and shows that the picture of the risen Jesus in the Gospels is simply nothing like the shining figure accompanied by Elijah and Moses (p. 604). Perhaps the most important contention of all with regard to the theology of the Gospels is to debunk the idea that the resurrection is code for Jesus’ exaltation; Wright astutely points out that the evangelists are perfectly capable of distinguishing the two (e.g. John 20.17; Wright, pp. 665-666). Again, there is plenty of language available to distinguish a bodily resurrection from the appearance of a person’s spirit, or angel, as is shown by Acts 12.14-16, to which Wright often refers. Neither can the resurrection narratives be accounted for as power struggles within the early Church, whereby each Gospel tries to give its favourite leader primacy by giving him the place as the first witness to the resurrection. The prominence of the women as witnesses is a serious problem for this line, and the view that John is trying to discredit ‘Thomas Christians’ is also inconceivable (677-678).

If part IV is the most significant, then part V is nevertheless the boldest section, in which Wright proceeds to argue that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is actually the most plausible explanation of the actual events. He proceeds from the two points of data which he has established: (1) there was an empty tomb, and (2) the earliest followers of Jesus really thought he had appeared to them. Wright argues that neither of these by themselves would lead of necessity to belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but the best explanation of the two facts is to see a bodily resurrection of Jesus. None of the alternatives, Wright argues, can really account for the emergence of such a belief in a Jewish milieu.

In addition to this devastating critique of both English-speaking and German scepticism of the Gospel narratives, there are certain important challenges which are more for the attention of conservative readers. There is the obvious challenge in Wright’s focus on resurrection, noted above, as ‘life after life-after-death’. The final hope of the Christian is not simply a spiritual journey to heaven, contrary to the views held in some popular Christian circles. A more searching criticism comes in the frequent reference which Wright makes to the theological relation between resurrection and creation. Bodily resurrection is the affirmation of God’s concern with the real world, and it is for this reason that Jesus’ lordship (announced in the resurrection) was a challenge to the very ‘real-world’ Roman emperors. A spiritual exaltation would not, Wright contends, have issued that same challenge to earthly powers. In the resurrection, God is reclaiming the creation that rightfully belongs to him, and not to others.

There are so many threads that could be picked up in a review, but it hoped that this outline of Wright’s argument highlights just how significant the book is. Every theological student should have a stab at reading as much of it as possible, and no scholar has any excuse not to digest the lot. It is not only an excellent argument, or series of arguments; it is a model for how scholarship should be done. Wright writes with a passion and conviction of the truth that inspires the Christian to rejoice, and that inspires the theologian to try and do the same kind of work.

Simon Gathercole

University of Aberdeen.

Previously appeared in Themelios 29.3 (2004), pp. 81-82.