Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

N.T. Wright lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

Here’s a lecture from N.T. Wright, whose multi-volume case for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus seems to be getting a lot of respect from the other side, (although I strongly disagree with his economic and political views, which are naive at best). Wright has taught at Cambridge University, Oxford University, Duke University, McGill University, and lectured on dozens of prestigious campuses around the world. He’s published 40 books.

Here’s the video:

For those who cannot see the video, here is a written version of the lecture that Wright gave on the resurrection. And please note that I do not endorse anything that N.T. Wright says on any topic outside of history. History is his field of expertise, and I think he has no authority outside of the field of history.

N.T. Wright’s historical case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus

Wright basically argues that the resurrection cannot have been a myth invented by the early Christian community, because the idea of the Messiah dying and being bodily resurrected to eternal life was completely unexpected in Jewish theology, and therefore would not have been fabricated.

In Judaism, when people die, they stay dead. At the most, they might re-appear as apparitions, or be resuscitated to life for a while, but then die again later. There was no concept of the bodily resurrection to eternal life of a single person, especially of the Messiah, prior to the general resurrection of all the righteous dead on judgment day.

Wright’s case for the resurrection has 3 parts:

  • The Jewish theological beliefs of the early Christian community underwent 7 mutations that are inexplicableapart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The empty tomb
  • The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups, friends and foes

Here’s the outline of Wright’s case:

…the foundation of my argument for what happened at Easter is the reflection that this Jewish hope has undergone remarkable modifications or mutations within early Christianity, which can be plotted consistently right across the first two centuries. And these mutations are so striking, in an area of human experience where societies tend to be very conservative, that they force the historian… to ask, Why did they occur?

The mutations occur within a strictly Jewish context. The early Christians held firmly, like most of their Jewish contemporaries, to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world. ‘Resurrection’ is not a fancy word for ‘life after death’; it denotes life after ‘life after death’.

And here are the 7 mutations:

  1. Christian theology of the afterlife mutates from multiples views (Judaism) to a single view: resurrection (Christianity). When you die, your soul goes off to wait in Sheol. On judgment day, the righteous dead get new resurrection bodies, identical to Jesus’ resurrection body.
  2. The relative importance of the doctrine of resurrection changes from being peripheral (Judaism) to central (Christianity).
  3. The idea of what the resurrection would be like goes from multiple views (Judaism) to a single view: an incorruptible, spiritually-oriented body composed of the material of the previous corruptible body (Christianity).
  4. The timing of the resurrection changes from judgment day (Judaism) to a split between the resurrection of the Messiah right now and the resurrection of the rest of the righteous on judgment day (Christianity).
  5. There is a new view of eschatology as collaboration with God to transform the world.
  6. There is a new metaphorical concept of resurrection, referred to as being “born-again”.
  7. There is a new association of the concept of resurrection to the Messiah. (The Messiah was not even supposed to die, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to rise again from the dead in a resurrected body!)

There are also other historical puzzles that are solved by postulating a bodily resurrection of Jesus.

  1. Jewish people thought that the Messiah was not supposed to die. Although there were lots of (warrior) Messiahs running around at the time, whenever they got killed, their followers would abandon them. Why didn’t Jesus’ followers abandon him when he died?
  2. If the early Christian church wanted to communicate that Jesus was special, despite his shameful death on the cross, they would have made up a story using the existing Jewish concept of exaltation. Applying the concept of bodily resurrection to a dead Messiah would be a radical departure from Jewish theology, when an invented exaltation was already available to do the job.
  3. The early church became extremely reckless about sickness and death, taking care of people with communicable diseases and testifying about their faith in the face of torture and execution. Why did they scorn sickness and death?
  4. The gospels, especially Mark, do not contain any embellishments and “theology historicized”. If they were made-up, there would have been events that had some connection to theological concepts. But the narratives are instead bare-bones: “Guy dies public death. People encounter same guy alive later.” Plain vanilla narrative.
  5. The story of the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb cannot have been invented, because the testimony of women was inadmissible under almost all circumstances at that time. If the story were invented, they would have invented male discoverers of the tomb. Female discovers would have hampered conversion efforts.
  6. There are almost no legendary embellishments in the gospels, while there are plenty in the later gnostic forgeries. No crowds of singing angels, no talking crosses, and no booming voices from the clouds.
  7. There is no mention of the future hope of the general resurrection, which I guess they thought was imminent anyway.

To conclude, Wright makes the argument that the best explanation of all of these changes in theology and practice is that God raised Jesus (bodily) from the dead. There is simply no way that this community would have made up the single resurrection of the Messiah – who wasn’t even supposed to die – and then put themselves on the line for that belief.

And remember, the belief in a resurrected Jesus was something that the earliest witnesses could really assess, because they were the ones who saw him killed and then walking around again after his death. They were able to confirm or deny their belief in the resurrection of Jesus based on their own personal experiences with the object of those beliefs.

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3 Responses

  1. JMG says:

    I would add two further items which center on the radical change that took place among those who became believers in those early days of Christianity. I’m talking about a change that took place in the thinking of believers of Jewish background and the mirror image of that change that took place among gentile believers, two changes that though different are most certainly interrelated.

    First, coming from the camp of extreme monotheism, Jewish believers in the early church elevated Jesus Christ to a devotional level on an absolute par with Jehovah God. This phenomenon cannot be ignored. It is a profound and radical shift that does not simply happen by chance or without a significant catalyst. The fact that a bi-theistic Christianity arose suddenly in Jerusalem, the core center of a resolute monotheistic Judaism, is a historical fact that calls for an adequate explanation.

    Secondly, and in direct correlation with item #1, gentile believers coming from within what can only be characterized as a sea of polytheism, came to see Jesus Christ as the only true God, excluding all other “deities” from any possible devotion. This took place among peoples who were more than accustomed to multiply revered “Gods”, adding them left and right as they were imported primarily from the new civilizations with which their Greco/Roman world came into contact. Why the radical shift from the routine belief in a pantheon of Gods to only one God, one who demanded and deserved their exclusive worship and devotion, leading them to see all others as false? And likewise, this radical change was in large numbers, often affecting entire towns and regions (see Pliny’s letter to Trajan, where he describes the spread of Christianity through his region in terms that equate to a mass trend). Again, this type of thing is not something that happens without an adequate cause.

    The simple answer, as N. T. Wright, Craig, and others have cogently argued is: The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the living eyewitnesses of the factuality of that event, and the willingness of those eyewitnesses to endure persecution, torture, and even death as a testimony to the truth of their claims.

    With this all in mind, Christians should be able to respond very effectively to a common argument skeptics commonly propose against the validity of Christianity by turning around the argument upon the skeptics themselves. Skeptics often suggest that a person’s belief is dictated by his upbringing. In other words, if you are born and raised in a Christian society, you are more likely to be a Christian than a Muslim (for instance) and vice versa. However, if this is true, then the skeptic unwittingly places himself on the horns of an eye-opening dilemma. What could possibly make Jews raised in a strict culture of monotheism as well as Gentiles raised among a dizzying array of deities found in Greco/Roman polytheism, suddenly and in large numbers make a radical change in their beliefs toward the unique position of Christianity? Its a serious question that Christians need to ask more, and skeptics need to ponder carefully.

  2. JMG says:

    Actually, I believe “Bi-nitarian” would be a better term to use than “Bi-theism”. I did not mean to imply two separate deities, but rather a two (and later three) fold understanding of the nature of the one true God.

  3. Bishop N.T. Wright proves that the Church of England can still produce outstanding defenders of the faith. Loved reading his tome, Resurrection of the Son of God.

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