Monday, March 25, 2013

N. T. Wright: Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection? Part Two

More from NT Wright on Resurrection
This is part two of a three-part lecture that the world-renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright delivered on science and belief in the Resurrection of Christ.

I have sketched elsewhere the map of ancient beliefs about life beyond the grave. Ancient paganism contains all kinds of theories, but whenever resurrection is mentioned, the answer is a firm negative: we know that doesn’t happen. (This is worth stressing in tonight’s context. One sometimes hears it said or implied that prior to the rise of modern science people believed in all kinds of odd things like resurrection but that now, with two hundred years of scientific research on our side, we know that dead people stay dead. This is ridiculous. The evidence, and the conclusion, was massive and massively drawn in the ancient world as it is today.) Ancient Judaism, on the other hand, is rooted in the belief that God is the creator of the world and that God will one day put the world to rights; and this double belief, when worked out and thought through not least in times of persecution and martyrdom, produced by the time of Jesus a majority belief in ultimate bodily resurrection. The early Christian belief in hope beyond death thus belongs demonstrably on the Jewish, not the pagan, map. But 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, not least the would-be scientific historian, to ask, Why did they occur? 

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. There is nothing remotely like this in paganism. This belief is as Jewish as you can get. But within this Jewish belief there are seven early Christian mutation, each of which crops us in writers as diverse as Paul and John the Seer, as Luke and Justin Martyr, as Matthew and Irenaeus.

The first modification is that there is virtually no spectrum of belief within early Christianity. The early Christians came from many strands within Judaism and from widely differing backgrounds within paganism, and hence from circles which must have held very different beliefs about life beyond death. But they have all modified that belief to focus on one point on the spectrum. Christianity looks, to this extent, like a variety of Pharisaic Judaism. There is no trace of a Sadducean view, or of that of Philo. For almost all the first two centuries resurrection, in the traditional sense, holds not only centre stage but the whole stage.

This leads to the second mutation. In second-Temple Judaism, resurrection is important but not that important. Lots of lengthy works never mention the question, let alone this answer. It is still difficult to be sure what the Dead Sea Scrolls thought on the topic. But in early Christianity resurrection has moved from the circumference to the centre. You can’t imagine Paul’s thought without it. You shouldn’t imagine John’s thought without it, though some have tried. Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is four chapters of the gospels. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second century fathers as well.

The third mutation has to do with what precisely resurrection means. In Judaism it is usually left vague as to what sort of a body the resurrected will possess; some see it as a resuscitated but basically identical body, while others think of it as a shining star. But from the start the early Christians believed that the resurrection body, though it would certainly be a body in the sense of a physical object, would be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, would have new properties. That is what Paul means by the ‘spiritual body’: not a body made out of non-physical spirit, but a physical body animated by the Spirit. And the point about this body is that, whereas the present flesh and blood is corruptible, doomed to decay and die, the new body will be incorruptible. 1 Corinthians 15, one of Paul’s longest sustained discussions and the climax of the whole letter, is about the creator god remaking the creation, not abandoning it as Platonists of all sorts, including the gnostics, would have wanted.

The fourth surprising mutation within the early Christian resurrection belief is that ‘the resurrection’, as an event, has split into two. No first-century Jew, prior to Easter, expected ‘the resurrection’ to be anything other than a large-scale event happening to all God’s people, or perhaps to the entire human race, at the very end. There were, of course, other Jewish movements which held some kind of inaugurated eschatology. But we never find outside Christianity what becomes a central feature within it: the belief that the resurrection itself has happened to one person in the middle of history, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of his people at the end of history.

I am indebted to Dominic Crossan for highlighting what I now list as the fifth mutation within Jewish resurrection belief. In a public debate in New Orleans in March 2005, Crossan spoke of ‘collaborative eschatology’. Because the early Christians believed that ‘resurrection’ had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed also that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his Spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in the light of that future.

The sixth mutation within the Jewish belief is the new metaphorical use of ‘resurrection’. I have written about that elsewhere. Basically, in the Old Testament ‘resurrection’ functions once, famously, as a metaphor for return from exile (Ezekiel 37). In the New Testament that has disappeared, and a new metaphorical use has emerged, with ‘resurrection’ used in relation to baptism and holiness (Romans 6, Colossians 2—3), though without, importantly, affecting the concrete referent of a future resurrection itself (Romans 8).

The seventh and final mutation from within the Jewish resurrection belief was its association with Messiahship. Nobody in Judaism had expected the Messiah to die, and therefore naturally nobody had imagined the Messiah rising from the dead. This leads us to the remarkable modification not just of resurrection belief but of Messianic belief itself. Where messianic speculations existed (again, by no means all Jewish texts spoke of a Messiah, but the notion became central in early Christianity), the Messiah was supposed to fight God’s victorious battle against the wicked pagans; to rebuild or cleanse the Temple; and to bring God’s justice to the world. Jesus, it appeared, had done none of these things. No Jew with any idea of how the language of Messiahship worked at the time could have possibly imagined, after his crucifixion, that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Lord’s anointed. But from very early on, as witnessed by what may be pre-Pauline fragments of early credal belief such as Romans 1.3f., the Christians affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.

We note at this point, as an important aside, how impossible is it to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection. We know of several other Jewish movements, messianic movements, prophetic movements, during the one or two centuries either side of Jesus’ public career. Routinely they ended with the violent death of the central figure. Members of the movement (always supposing they got away with their own skins) then faced a choice: either give up the struggle, or find a new Messiah. Had the early Christians wanted to go the latter route, they had an obvious candidate: James, the Lord’s brother, a great and devout teacher, the central figure in the early Jerusalem church. But nobody ever imagined that James might be the Messiah.

This rules out the revisionist positions on Jesus’ resurrection that have been offered by so many writers in recent years. Suppose we go to Rome in AD 70, and there witness the flogging and execution of Simon bar Giora, the supposed king of the Jews, brought back in Titus’s triumph. Suppose we imagine a few Jewish revolutionaries, three days or three weeks later.

The first one says, ‘You know, I think Simon really was the Messiah – and he still is!’

The others would be puzzled. Of course he isn’t; the Romans got him, as they always do. If you want a Messiah, you’d better find another one.

‘Ah,’ says the first, ‘but I believe he’s been raised from the dead.’

‘What d’you mean?’ his friends ask. ‘He’s dead and buried.’

‘Oh no,’ replies the first, ‘I believe he’s been exalted to heaven.’

The others look puzzled. All the righteous martyrs are with God, everybody knows that; their souls are in God’s hand; that doesn’t mean they’ve already been raised from the dead. Anyway, the resurrection will happen to us all at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of continuing history.

‘No,’ replies the first, ‘you don’t understand. I’ve had a strong sense of God’s love surrounding me. I have felt God forgiving me – forgiving us all. I’ve had my heart strangely warmed. What’s more, last night, I saw Simon; he was there with me . . .’

The others interrupt, now angry. We can all have visions. Plenty of people dream about recently dead friends. Sometimes it’s very vivid. That doesn’t mean they’ve been raised from the dead. It certainly doesn’t mean that one of them is the Messiah. And if your heart has been warmed, then sing a psalm, don’t make wild claims about Simon.
That is what they would have said to anyone offering the kind of statement which, according to the revisionists, someone must have come up with as the beginning of the idea of Jesus’ resurrection. But this solution isn’t just incredible; it’s impossible. Had anyone said what the revisionists suggest, some such conversation as the above would have ensued. A little bit of disciplined historical imagination is all it takes to blow away enormous piles of so-called historical criticism.

What is more – to round off this final mutation from within the Jewish belief – because of the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah, we find the development of the very early belief that Jesus is Lord and that therefore Caesar is not. This is a whole other topic for another occasion. Death is the last weapon of the tyrant; and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated.
We have thus noted seven major mutations within the Jewish resurrection belief, each of which became central within early Christianity. The belief in resurrection remains emphatically on the map of first-century Judaism rather than paganism; but, from within the Jewish theology of monotheism, election and eschatology, it has opened up a whole new way of seeing history, hope and hermeneutics. And this demands a historical explanation. Why did the early Christians modify the Jewish resurrection-language in these seven ways, and do it with such consistency? When we ask them, they reply that they have done it because of what they believe happened to Jesus on the third day after he died. This forces us to ask: what then must we say about the very strange stories which they tell about that first day?

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