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The Resurrection of the Son of God: Chapter 1 – The Target and the Arrows

September 2, 2009

N.T. Wright, for almost a decade now has been revered as one of the foremost traditionalist Bible scholars in the world, with respect coming from all directions from Bart Ehrman to Marcus Borg to Gary Habermas. His magnum opus, a *projected* five volume work, now on it’s forthcoming 4th volume on Paul has been indispensable to me as a reference, a textbook, and a guide. For the next few weeks, I will be blogging through the massive 3rd volume on the historicity of the resurrection called “The Resurrection of the Son of God” for our discussion. And off we go.

Wright begins with a discussion of why he wrote the book and for what purpose, and initially he proposes this for the broad current stream of understanding for many non-Christians and Christians alike about the resurrection, and finds these to be the BIG misconceptions:

1. the Jewish context provides a eclectic setting in which ‘resurrection’ could mean a bunch of different things

2. that Paul did NOT believe in bodily resurrection, but in a “spiritural” resurrection

3. the earliest Christians invented the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a literary device to give an image to his exaltation/ascension/glorification by YHWH

4. the “seeings” of Jesus are better explained as a religious experience in line with the conversion of Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus

5. whatever happened to Jesus’ body, it was not resuscitated or raised from the dead.

Wright says that there are excellent, well founded, and secure historical arguments against these positions, and I can’t help but agree, but those will be discussed in further chapters.

To begin talking about the search for the history of the resurrection he proposes this parable to help us understand:

There was once a king who commanded his archers to shoot at the sun. His strongest bowmen, using their finest equipment, tried all day; but their arrows fell short, and the sun continues unaffected on its course. All night the archers polished and refeathered their arrows, and the next day they tried again, with renewed zeal; but still their efforts were in vain. The king became angry, and uttered dark threats. On the third day, the youngest archer, with the smallest bow, came at noon to where the king sat before a pond in his garden. There was the sun, a golden ball reflected in the still water. With a single shot the lad pierced it at its heart. The sun splintered into a thousand glittering fragments.

With this, Wright politely reminds many Christians that they need to proclaim what they preach. That if God is truly transcendent, the arrows of history are doomed to fall short of God, unless we take a serious pantheist approach that finds god in the natural world. Instead, the Christian hope lies within the idea that an image or reflection of God has and does appear throughout the natural world. Wright says this:

Some have supposed that by offering historical ‘proofs’ of the Easter event they have thereby proved, in some modern, quasi-scientific sense, not only the existence of the Christian god but also the validity of the Christian message. Turning their arrows into space rockets, they have forgotten Icarus and have set out boldly towards their idol, the Sun.

Wright says that we must define history before we proceed and finds five ways that “history” is used, of which four are really useful. First, there is history as an event, something that has happened, whether or not we can prove it, like the death of the last pterodactyl. Second, history as significant event, this is an occurence which carried momentous consequences. Third, history as provable event, in this sense, an event that is replicable, in the hard sciences. Fourth is history as writing-about-events-in-the-past, which is the historical sense that many talk about with the resurrection.

Wright goes on to discuss some views in Christianity that are unimportant in our discussion here, like Pannenberg’s insistence that all will be verified on the final eschatological moment when all our resurrected…yeah…not for the light hearted. For our discussion here though, we focus on Wright’s discussion of the “no evidence crowd”. Obviously, this will be discussed in detail later, but he reminds all of us to remain skeptics, of both Christian explanations of the resurrection that miss the mark and the history that Christianity emerged in, and the reconstructions of history done by both the Jesus myth proponents and by anti-Christian historians.

The most important section of this first chapter is a discussion on Resurrection and Eschatology, and an important discussion for our purpose to define what Christians mean by ‘resurrection’. He says that for Christians, resurrection and incarnation are often ‘muddled up’, and speak of the two as if resurrection connotes Jesus’ divinity, which obviously is an attempt to stop historical inquiry into the resurrection, especially for Christian historians, because the arrows can’t reach the sun. Wright reminds us that in this vain to call Jesus the “Christ” is to say first and most importantly that He is Israel’s messiah, not that he is the incarnate logos, the second person of the trinity, the only-begotten son of the father (homousios).

Wright defines life-after-death like this:

1. the state (whatever it is) that immediately follows a bodily death

2. the state that follows a period of being bodily dead. -and-

3. the state of affairs after death has been abolished.

Importantly, the second and third point, is in fact what Christians believe the resurrection represents. It is commonly misunderstood, that Christians believe the first, that is what immediately follows death. (The reason were dabbling into theology is that the term “resurrection” is inherently a theological point, and its needs to be defined for this exercise)Resurrection is something new, God’s new work, a sign of the coming new age, and that resurrection in fact means life-after-life-after-death. Jesus resurrection is meant to be spoke of the second way, the state that follows a period of being bodily dead, and that it represents the coming of the third, the state of affairs after death has been abolished. With that, Wright says there is no difference between pagans, Jews, and Christians in the first century over the meaning of resurrection:

They all understood the Greek word anastasis and its cognates, and the other related terms we  will meet, to mean (2.):new life after a period of being dead.

Essentially, what pagans, but more specifically Jews and Christians, believed Resurrection to be an event that occurs after sheol, or for more common 21st century terminology, heaven is where you go to wait to be resurrected. Jesus’ resurrection was not a resuscitation, it was not like Lazarus who was to die again after coming back to life. Once Jesus was dead, he was dead, and would never come back alive like before, but the first Christians understood the empty tomb and the appearances to be his NEW body, transformed, not just a resuscitation of the old.

Next time…Shadows, souls, and where they go, and the beginning of the meat of Wright’s argument. Stay tuned.

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. Ray S. permalink
    September 3, 2009 10:28 am

    I’m confused already. Does Wright claim the following as true?

    1. the Jewish context provides a eclectic setting in which ‘resurrection’ could mean a bunch of different things
    2. that Paul did NOT believe in bodily resurrection, but in a “spiritural” resurrection
    3. the earliest Christians invented the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a literary device to give an image to his exaltation/ascension/glorification by YHWH
    4. the “seeings” of Jesus are better explained as a religious experience in line with the conversion of Saul to Paul on the road to Damascus
    5. whatever happened to Jesus’ body, it was not resuscitated or raised from the dead.

    I’m also confused about your definitions of ‘death’ and ‘life after death’. When you refer to second and third points, which list of three are you using? It concerns me that you have three definitions for each of these in that it makes it too easy to slide into equivocation.

    And finally, life after life after death makes no sense to me whatsoever. You claim that this is the meaning of ‘resurrection’ and that it was universally understood, yet you haven’t yet explained it to me.

    Perhaps I misunderstand your point in this exercise. I thought you were going to show how we could consider the resurrection as a historical event, yet you’ve wandered off into theology. Where are you going?

  2. ericworringer permalink
    September 3, 2009 11:01 am

    Ray-
    Sorry, I should have explained, this first chapter was kind of a working introduction, sort of a point where Wright gave working definitions. The meat begins next entry.

    Those aren’t my definitions, they are Wrights, although I agree with them. I was referring to life after death when I was talking about points 2 and 3.

    Finally, actually wait, I will go and update the post with your questions. How about that?

  3. ericworringer permalink
    September 3, 2009 11:11 am

    hopefully that will help, the book is really long, so this was the intro.

  4. ericworringer permalink
    September 3, 2009 11:13 am

    and on the first question, those are what Wright sees as common misconceptions.

  5. Ray S. permalink
    September 3, 2009 12:03 pm

    I’m sorry, but I’m still not getting it. Are you saying that ‘resuscitation’ was when someone died, like Lazarus and was entombed until Jesus did the miracle thing and he walked out but was still going to die again.? And that ‘resurrection’ is when you only get to die once? And are you further saying that this was a universal belief or that it was held by some number of people regardless of their other beliefs?

    Given that Christians generally seem to believe that all the dead will be resurrected, I don’t get the difference. Presumably Lazarus became a believer and would have everlasting life, according to the Christian message I keep hearing.

    One other thing you might could clear up, if Jesus was given a new body upon his resurrection, why did the old unusable one not remain in the tomb?

    I still don’t see how we’re doing history speculating about new and old bodies, life after death and resuscitation/resurrection. Hopefully we’ll get to that soon.

    Thanks for the other clarifications so far.

  6. ericworringer permalink
    September 3, 2009 12:14 pm

    Yeah it’s super complex, ill give more deatils for you in a minute, I am at work with my youth at Church.

  7. Andrew permalink
    September 3, 2009 5:01 pm

    There’s a number of problems here already.

    Firstly, there’s already the fallacy here of treating Jewish beliefs as uniform when we already know they were not; the Sadducees apparently did not believe in resurrection at all. (At least the NT and Josephus say they did not).

    Secondly there’s no acknowledgment of the diversity of pagan belief either. Even amongst the intellectual elite we find a range of positions in Greek thought; and the common beliefs will have been more diverse.

    Thirdly, we’ve already discussed the fact that both “anastasis” (meaning roughly “to stand or rise up”, in a range of senses from getting up out of a chair, to being raised from the dead, to being evicted or evacuated, to recover from an illness, and so on), and “egeiro” (meaning “to awaken”, including meanings “awaken from sleep”, “raise from the dead”, “raise from a sick-bed”, “to be roused to act”, “to be excited”, etc.) are used more or less interchangeably in the NT, and specifically that Paul uses “egeiro” in what is highly likely to be a recitation of existing oral tradition about Jesus’ resurrection.

    (Unfortunately my Greek fonts are broken in this browser for some reason.)

    Fourthly, those Jews who did believe in resurrection (the Pharisees certainly did, and their beliefs largely survive as Rabbinic Judaism), did not necessarily believe that everyone would be resurrected at the same time. We can see this from Matthew (remember that Matthew’s main point is explaining how Jesus fulfills many OT prophecies), in Matthew 17:10 “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (presumably citing Malachi 4:5, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.”. Matthew also claims that “many saints” arose on the same day as the resurrection.

    It’s absolutely critical at this point to remember that Christianity was an apocalypse cult; the early Christians (and indeed many other Jews of the time) were quite convinced that the world was ending, in fact that it would do so within their lifetimes. Therefore it’s quite possible that Jesus’ resurrection fits into the frame of Jewish eschatological beliefs anyway, as simply the first stage of what will become the general resurrection.

  8. ericworringer permalink
    September 3, 2009 5:23 pm

    Andrew-
    Appreciate your well though out input, I can’t get my Greek working either, but it is a fun dabble into biblical languages for me. Has my grey matter moving.

    On your fourth point, I absolutely agree. While I disagree that it was an apocalyspe cult, they certainly believed themselves to be at some sort of major eschatological point in the history of Israel, which I believe, the resurrection represents the Climax in history, and we live after that climax. But yes, it is very possible it fits into eschatological belief, in fact, I would say, it is definetley in that framework.

  9. Ray S. permalink
    September 4, 2009 9:39 am

    Eric, are you going to redefine ‘apocalypse’ too? Christians grabbed that idea from earlier cultures and made it their own, much like they appropriated the winter festival for a birthday celebration.

    This is not starting out well.

  10. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 9:47 am

    Yeah, I can do that. I am unsure about what you mean that they appropriated apocalyspe, as far as I understand it, and from the classes I have had at Ohio State, its understanding within Judaism and Christianity is uniquely Judeo and Christian. If you mean they took it from Judaism then yes. I know I have heard the argument that it was stole from Zoroastrianism, but most of the history I have read of it commit different understandings to it.

    What do you mean it’s not going well, we can finally define some terms that get tossed around all of the time! 🙂

  11. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 4, 2009 10:12 am

    Apocalypse doesn’t mean end of the world. It means revelation, or to reveal. The book of Revelation is not so much about the end of the world as a “divine” eye view of human history. Sadly, the Left Behind folks have hijacked the word.

  12. September 4, 2009 10:30 am

    Hey Eric,
    Can you clarify this for me? I really see no difference between ‘resurrection’ and ‘resuscitation.’ In each case, you are proposing the physiological reversal of death by unexplained mechanisms. Both cases are equally implausible – except in the case of Jesus, you add the additional idea that he lived eternally (whatever that means) after his resuscitation.

    To use two different English words to describe identical circumstances on the basis of a future hypothetical miracle just seems silly to me. Why not call Jesus’ circumstance a resuscitation followed by ______ (your term for the miracle)? Perhaps you can explain how Jesus’ reversal of death was distinguishably different from Lazarus’ at the time it happened. If there is no difference, then one term (resuscitation) should apply.

    Now, I understand that different words were used by the NT authors. But my point applies to those words also. Our words are only useful insofar as we agree on the phenomena that they describe. Let’s not unnecessarily complicate communication by using multiple words to describe identical circumstances.

    You may reply by saying that these are not identical circumstances – to that I would ask the question: how could it be demonstrated that, at the time of death reversal, there was any difference between Jesus and Lazarus?

  13. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:06 am

    Im with Jonathan on that comment.

    Matt-
    I think Christians would agree they are implausible, while I would guess Mary and Martha believe in resurrection in some sort, there is a reason why Mark ends his gospel by saying the angel told them that he is risen, and they left frightened and told no one. Also, i think the implausibility is part of it for Christians, as we believe only God could do such an action.
    The difference between the two is significant. Lazarus was to die again, and was resuscitated in his own body, no transformation, he just came back to life. Resurrection, as understood by 1st century Jews and eventually Christians, mean a coming back to life, but in a transformative way, like how Jesus could walk through walls, for instance. Jesus has his old body, but it had been transformed into something new.
    That’s the best way I can explain it, from a scientific standpoint, I think physiologically they would be different if they could be examined, if that makes sense. Lazarus would be a normal human body, but would have died again. Jesus would be a human body, but in a whole new way, and would not be subject to death.

  14. Andrew permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:06 am

    I should clarify that I meant “apocalypse” in the sense of “eschaton” in 1st C. Greek – the word “apocalypsis” originally meant “revelation” in the sense of actually revealing something (“lifting a veil”); the modern meaning comes from the use of the word in early Christian eschatological literature (the Greek title of the book of Revelation is “Apokalupsis Ioanou”; some other (non-canonical) books such as the Apocalypse of Peter just import the Greek word rather than translating it).

    “Eschaton” means roughly “end of the age”. While the concept does appear in a few other religions (e.g. the Norse “Ragnarok” or some modern Hindu beliefs), I’m not aware of it featuring as a significant point in 1st C. pagan beliefs (but I could be wrong). On the other hand, it features strongly in Zoroastrianism, and in post-exilic Judaism (there are no clear indications that the Jews believed in it prior to the Babylonian exile, where they would of course have been heavily exposed to Zoroastrian ideas, so it’s usually reckoned that that is where they picked up the concept). Christianity and Islam of course inherit it from Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

    The basic features of Zoroastrian eschatology are very similar to Christian ideas: an entity comes to defeat widespread evil, death is abolished, a general resurrection happens, the resurrected dead are judged, the worthy get to live in a perfect world forever, etc. Judaism doesn’t necessarily share all these features (and we know that some sects at the time denied almost all of them), but the coming of a prophet and/or messiah, abolition of death, general resurrection and subsequent eternal perfect life are all featured in the OT prophetic works.

    It’s possible, I would say, that early Christianity added back in Zoroastrian ideas that the Jews had rejected, or that some part of the original Christians had been Jews who had a more Zoroastrian eschatology than survived in post-Christian Judaism.

    As for early Christianity: it’s clear from all available records that at least the first two or three generations of Christians expected the “end of the age” to come in their lifetimes; Paul for example says “the time is short” and promotes short-term behaviour such as celibacy as preferable to long-term behaviour such as marrying and raising children.

  15. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 4, 2009 11:12 am

    Most modern Zorastarian scholarship discounts the similiarties as superficial. The leaps of historical connection that you make here, Andrew just don’t hold up at all.

  16. Andrew permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:12 am

    Apocalypse doesn’t mean end of the world. It means revelation, or to reveal. The book of Revelation is not so much about the end of the world as a “divine” eye view of human history. Sadly, the Left Behind folks have hijacked the word.

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to blame the LB folks for that; the modern use of “apocalypse” to mean “eschaton” is much older than that.

  17. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 4, 2009 11:14 am

    The reason for this is because most of our sources for Zorastarian thought doesn’t come until well after CHristinaity has been established, so it’s impossible to know who influenced who.

  18. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:16 am

    Eschaton though, as explained by a couple of well-know scholars, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, but the end of the current age, and many scholars, including those in E.P. Sanders and Schweitzer’s line of thought agree that this could very well have been what they were expecting, a whole new age inaugurated by YHWH.

  19. Andrew permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:37 am

    Most modern Zorastarian scholarship discounts the similiarties as superficial. The leaps of historical connection that you make here, Andrew just don’t hold up at all.

    [citation needed]

  20. Andrew permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:41 am

    The reason for this is because most of our sources for Zorastarian thought doesn’t come until well after CHristinaity has been established, so it’s impossible to know who influenced who.

    We have Greek sources (Theopompus in particular) from the 4th c. BC which attribute the belief in a general resurrection and subsequent immortality to the Persians.

  21. Andrew permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:53 am

    Eschaton though, as explained by a couple of well-know scholars, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, but the end of the current age, and many scholars, including those in E.P. Sanders and Schweitzer’s line of thought agree that this could very well have been what they were expecting, a whole new age inaugurated by YHWH.

    Right. But the belief in the “end of the age” implies some radical upset of the existing natural order, such as the abolition of death, the resurrection of people previously dead, a “perfect” world replacing the current imperfect one, etc., etc., so while it isn’t the end of existence, it’s certainly the end of the world as we currently know it.

    A belief (even without evidence) that a prophet or religious leader had been unjustly killed and then resurrected as the first step in an eschaton fits exactly into the kinds of expectations that likely existed at the time (as shown by (a) the OT prophets, and (b) Matthew’s application of the OT prophecies to Jesus).

  22. Ray S. permalink
    September 4, 2009 12:04 pm

    The reason I say it’s not going well is probably because I have no idea where you’re going or what you’re trying to accomplish.

    From my first post this thread:

    Perhaps I misunderstand your point in this exercise. I thought you were going to show how we could consider the resurrection as a historical event, yet you’ve wandered off into theology. Where are you going?

    From a later post this thread:

    I still don’t see how we’re doing history speculating about new and old bodies, life after death and resuscitation/resurrection. Hopefully we’ll get to that soon.

    Perhaps I misunderstand your purpose in tackling this topic. Do you just want to do a book review? Because if you want to approach doing history, you’ve got to wander back into the realm of the possible. You’ve already admitted that the Lazarus and Jesus stories are implausible, so I don’t see how you’re going to make history out of them without now redefining ‘historical’. If you instead want to indulge in fantasy speculation, I’ll stay out of your way.

  23. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 12:09 pm

    ray-
    we will get there, I promise. The topic obviously has generated a lot of good discussion already, which is what I was looking for.

  24. Ray S. permalink
    September 4, 2009 1:12 pm

    Where is there? Since I don’t believe in life after death, not to mention life after life after death, I’m afraid I won’t be around for the finish. I don’t have eternity after all.

  25. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 1:18 pm

    fine then. jerk. 🙂

  26. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 1:18 pm

    there is Wright’s argument for the historical evidences.

  27. Andrew permalink
    September 4, 2009 1:45 pm

    Wright is a theologian, not a historian. What historical sources does he cite?

  28. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 4, 2009 2:22 pm

    Um, Andrew, have you ever read any of Wright’s stuff? I think he would more than qualify as a historian AND a theologian. There is nothing wrong with either.

  29. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 3:04 pm

    Yes, Wright is actually trained as both from Oxford, with a B.A. in Theology and Humanities.

  30. ericworringer permalink
    September 4, 2009 3:04 pm

    while his MA and D.Phil are in NT Theology, they are in specific reference to the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.

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