These notes were derived from the following video on NT Wright. Though not fully comprehensive, hopefully they are an accurate sketch.
As follows are seven modifications of the concept of Resurrection that Christians made. Wright’s thesis is that these seven modifications did not arise out of any discernible source except that a man named Jesus was physically raised from the dead, that the tomb was empty, and that he was seen by witnesses.
- There is no spectrum of beliefs in early Christianity about life after death. Early Christians debated all sorts of points, but all agreed very cordially on resurrection. Essentially Early-Christianity was remarkably unified about bodily resurrection, what it was and that it existed as demonstrated by Jesus.
- Though peripheral in Judaism, Resurrection moved from the circumference of thought to the center, from 2nd Temple Judaism to Christianity.
- Christians agreed the new body is certainly a real body, occupying physical space and time, but it will be transformed, material created from the old material – incorruptible and incapable of dying.
- Resurrection is split into two. It happened to Jesus in the middle of time, and will happen again at the end of days. Judaism only held to the latter, and had no conception of the former.
- If Resurrection began with Jesus, God has called people to work with Jesus and anticipate the resurrection of Jesus in your personal and political life.
- The metaphorical use of resurrection in Christianity is linked with personal life (baptism), not just national life (as in Judaism – Ezekiel, Valley of Dry Bones). That takes time to develop, and does not find roots in Judaism.
- Nobody in Judaism expected Messiah would die (though there are NT passages that Christians point toward, they were not widely read in this way), and so no one thought the Messiah would be resurrected. Messianic belief is revised in light of resurrection.
What gives veracity to the Christian claim is that the Jews did not expect it either. Of course, there are other tried explanations, such as ‘were Jesus’ disciples so overwhelmed with grief that they made up the story of resurrection?’
But, ‘Why did Christians feel the need to revise the Jewish doctrine of resurrection?’ They would say because they saw Jesus. Real people saw Jesus, and they were not a vision, for there was an empty tomb.
Four features point that these stories are very early.
- Before the resurrection account, Matthew, Mark, and Luke draw heavily on the Bible, John being a later, longer reflection in light of Genesis 3. Before, they ransacked the Psalms and Prophets for anything that pointed to Jesus. But, when you get to the resurrection account, there is little reference to these same passages.
- The presence of the women at the tomb. Notice how Paul, when the churches had settled down, naturally airbrushes the women out of 1 Corinthians 15. He naturally tells this story without their presence. Even Paul naturally, according to his cultural, tends to naturally silence the women. But, the resurrection stories, proving to be early,
- The body itself is strange, which was not predicted by any OT text. It was material, yet passes through locked doors.
- The resurrection accounts never mention the future Christian hope, that we will be raised as he was raised. Matthew, Mark, Luke, nor John – it may be true, in the New Testament itself as in Paul’s letters. But, it is not in the resurrection directions. If the story was late, it would certainly have included details connecting later Christian hope. We can be confident the stories are fairly early because of the omission.
So, what does the historian conclude?
- The tomb was empty
- The disciples encountered him in ways that convinced them he was not a ghost or a vision.
(1) If only the tomb was empty, it was likely robbed.
(2) If only they saw Jesus, but the tomb had a body, it was a vision.
Is there an alternative explanation? Quite a few have been proposed, but many lack explanatory power.
(1) ‘Jesus only appeared to people who were believers’ – Paul and Thomas are people who did not believe to whom Jesus appeared.
(2) The emphasis of Sunday, the first day of the week, is very hard to explain against the backdrop of Sabbath Saturday
(3) This is a Red Sea event: for the historian behind us is like Pharaoh’s army, coming at us, and ahead is the water – and while reason, a burning flame, or empirical evidences of the plagues of the past can help us understand, we must press on to see whether the water will pass.
(4) Resurrection is not redescription of death, but the overthrow of death.
(5) Differences can be described by Wright’s ‘Breathless Eyewitness Theory’. Just because there are strange discrepancies doesn’t discredit the fact that something happened – actually, it might confirm it. If various people describe a traffic accident, it often is slightly different, but describes a genuinely real occurrence.