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by N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright takes us on a fascinating journey through ancient beliefs about life after death from the shadowy figures who inhabit Homer's Hades, through Plato's hope for a blessed immortality, to the first century, where the Greek and Roman world (apart from the Jews) consistently denied any possibility of resurrection. We then examine ancient Jewish bekiefs on the same subject, from the Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls and beyond.

This was the scene for a full-scale examination of early Christian beliefs about the resurrection in general and that of Jesus in particular, beginning with Paul and working through to the start of the third century. Wright looks at all the evidence, and into it aross the board significant modifications?

To answer this question we come to the strange and evocative Easter stories in the gospels and ask whether they can have been late inventions. Wright seeks the best historical conclusions about the empty tomb and the belief that Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead, recognizing that it was this belief that caused early Christians to call Jesus 'Son of God'. In doing so, they posed a political challenge as well as a theological one. These challenges retain their power in the twenty-first century.

Book Contents

Book Extracts

Chapter 1 Part 1
Chapter 1 Part 2

Book Review

Associated Press

Easter is a day not only of hope, but discord - at least among theologians.

Throughout modern times, liberal scholars have challenged a central tenet of Christianity: that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead after being crucified by the Romans on Good Friday.

Whether the Resurrection occurred, they say, is ultimately unimportant compared with Christ's message.

But to myriad Christians
who each Sunday profess faith in Jesus' Resurrection and, ultimately, their own that's heresy. Now, a conservative theologian is backing their viewpoint with a new book.

The Rev. N.T. "Tom" Wright, who will be consecrated in July as bishop of Durham, the fourth-highest Church of England post, has just produced the most monumental defense of the Easter heritage in decades.

Wright, 54, a prolific writer of both scholarly and popular books, is currently canon theologian of Westminster Abbey and a former university instructor at Cambridge, Oxford and McGill in Montreal. He often visits the United States, lecturing in his strong baritone.

Wright's 817-page
The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) marches through a clearly organized case that confronts every major doubt about Easter, ancient and modern.

He disputes those who think the Resurrection is "
beyond history."

There's a historical question, Wright insists, that is inescapable: Why did Christianity emerge so rapidly, with such power, and why did believers risk everything to teach that Jesus really rose?

He concludes the best explanation is that the earliest Christians held two strong convictions that worked in tandem:

Jesus' tomb was discovered empty on Easter morning.

Jesus then appeared to his followers alive in bodily form. In other words, they held the convictions that make up the unvarnished New Testament story.

Wright carefully sifts the New Testament and adds to that his circumstantial and logical arguments.

The best history can provide with ancient events is a "
high probability" they occurred, he says. The Easter story qualifies as true because all proposed alternatives fail to explain the early power of Christianity.

The oldest alternative, mentioned in
Matthew 28:12-15, was the claim Jesus' body was stolen from the tomb. Wright notes the New Testament writers presented that possibility even at the risk of "putting ideas into people's heads." They did so, he says, precisely because skeptics were trying to explain why the tomb was empty.

Some argue modern science has taught us the Resurrection was impossible, as were other miracles. To Wright, it's silly to think first-century Christians were "
ignorant of the fact that dead people stayed dead." They knew this, but were convinced Jesus was the one exception.

Wright dismisses claims that Christian belief echoed the dying-and-rising gods of ancient pagan farmers on grounds that Jews avoided paganism and that Jesus' Resurrection was a one-time occurrence totally unlike the annual, ceremonial rising of gods and crops.

Another standard challenge is that the Easter stories in the four Gospels conflict with one another: Different people arrive at the tomb, they meet different people and Jesus' first appearances are in different locations.

Wright turns that inside out. If the accounts were concocted, he said, "
you'd expect a better effort to have stories come into line with each other. No, this is the rough sort of way it came out" in the four independent accounts preserved in the Gospels.

He also thinks the Gospel reports about women as the first witnesses argue against fiction: The Gospel writers wouldn't have made this up because the ancients discounted women's testimony.

Wright also contests the many modern attempts to explain away the disciples' belief as human error or mass psychosis.

But that still doesn't exhaust all the Easter imponderables.

By the Gospel accounts, Jesus' resurrected body was like no other. He mysteriously appeared and disappeared (
Luke 24:31,36 and John 20:19,26). Also, his friends did not always recognize him (Luke 24:16, John 20:14, 21:4).

I have been very puzzled how to make sense of the stories," Wright said in an interview. "It is puzzling for the New Testament writers themselves."

In the New Testament portrayal, Jesus rose with a different, glorified body, which is promised to all believers as part of the Easter hope.

Wright's acceptance of that point runs into objections from Alan F. Segal, a Jewish historian at Barnard College who is completing a major work titled Life After Death covering Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Segal and Wright agree on many basic issues, including that the Gospels teach a material, physical concept of resurrection. But Segal opposes Wright's contention that first-century Jews and Christians all meant the same thing when they spoke about resurrection.

According to Segal, they "
all talk about a bodily resurrection but not all believe it is physical," and the Apostle Paul conceived of a "spiritual" body in the pivotal passage, 1 Corinthians 15, written about 20 years after the Easter events.

In this crucial and rather technical argument, Wright insists that what Paul meant by "
spiritual" was that after Resurrection the body is "animated by the spirit," not that it is a nonmaterial body.

Wright says Christianity has always believed that after death and an undefined period in the presence of God, each individual will receive a resurrection body like that of Jesus.

What difference does it make whether resurrection involves material bodies?

First, Wright says, because the church should teach what the first Christians believed. Second, the physical reality of a future world after death shows "
the created order matters to God and Jesus' Resurrection is the pilot project for that renewal."

Saturday, April 19, 2003

This review first appeared in Courier Post Online and is reproduced with permission.


The Resurrection of the Son of God
List Price (U.S.):
ISBN: 0800636155 and 0800626796
PUBLISHER: Augsburg Fortress

LIST PRICE: £30.00
ISBN: 0281055505
PUBLISHER: SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge)


International Orders

This version: 25th May 2003

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