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