- Introduction: The Target
- The Arrows
- Shooting at the Sun
- Resurrection and History
- The Senses of ‘History'
- No Access?
- No Analogy?
- No Real Evidence?
- Resurrection in History and Theology
- No Other Starting-Point?
- Resurrection and Christology
- Resurrection and Eschatology
- The Historical Starting-Point
- Introduction: The Target:
- Doubts about the historicity of the “evocative” Church of Holy Sepulchre as the site of Golgotha and the Garden Tomb
- Analogy with the Resurrection – which of the gaggle of historians has the correct account?; how do the “tantalizing narratives” of the Gospels fit together? What precisely happened – did Jesus really rise from the dead on the third day after his execution, as billions of Christians affirm?
- This question is similar to the fourth1 of five questions raised in "Wright (N.T.) - Jesus and the Victory of God" – why did Christianity begin and take the shape it did?
- This book will focus more on the primary sources than is usual, and is not a history of interpretation. Space limits the number of interlocutors Wright can interact with.
- Wright will mingle together questions about the historical beginnings of Christianity with questions about God more than is currently popular, despite the acknowledged different methodologies of History and Theology. To do otherwise is to side with a Deism in which God keeps out of history. The opposite position is a “rank supernaturalist” one wherein a miracle-working god routinely violates historical causation2. In between are positions (pantheism, panentheism and process theology) in which god is part of the space-time world and the historical process itself. Wright just notes the many-sidedness of the topic.
- He takes issue with Archbishop Peter Carnley (Link). I couldn’t quite make out what the objection was, exactly, but it seems that Carnley is happy with historical investigation provided it comes up with sceptical results, as this is good for faith, which should not rest on the mundane. Wright insists that historical investigation is important, and can be made without theological presuppositions. It looks like he agrees that there’s a balance to be struck – neither just pillaging history for apologetic purposes, nor writing off history for theological purposes, nor adopting a merely factual interest in Jesus. What actually happened has always been important, and interest in it isn’t a vote for liberal Protestantism. Demonstrably spurious reconstructions should be resisted. He notes in a footnote that early Christian writers made a distinction between the encounters with Jesus immediately post-resurrection and subsequent Christian experience of “the risen Jesus”.
- Wright will focus first of all on what the early Christians believed about God themselves and Jesus. Only in part V will he move on to the historian, being careful not to acquiesce to the historian’s own worldview, usually that of post-Enlightenment scepticism.
- The book divides into two questions:-
- What did the early Christians think had happened to Jesus, and
- How plausible are those beliefs?
- The two questions overlap – and Wright thinks that it’s difficult to account for the “striking” beliefs uncovered in Parts II – IV unless they were true. Hence, his conclusion in Part V will be positive. Even so, it is a priori possible that the early Christians believed Jesus had been raised bodily, but were wrong. Wright thinks the onus is on those who take this view to explain the early Christian beliefs, and notes (but doesn’t here detail) the variety3 of reasons given.
- He wants to challenge a “dominant paradigm”:-
Wright claims that there are “excellent, well-founded and secure historical arguments against each of these positions”.
- Resurrection was a fuzzy concept in contemporary Judaism.
- Paul held to a “spiritual” rather than bodily resurrection.
- The initial Christian belief was in Jesus’ heavenly exaltation; belief in the empty tomb came later.
- The resurrection stories are later inventions to bolster the latter.
- These experiences – like Paul’s – were “religious” experiences internal to the individual – effectively fantasy4 or hallucination.
- Whatever happened to Jesus’ body – and some doubt it was even buried – it was not “resuscitated”, let alone “raised from the dead” as a face-value reading of the Gospels requires.
- Positively, Wright will try to establish:-
(i) – (iv) correspond to Parts I-IV of the book, with (v) and (vi) corresponding to Chapters 18 and 19 in Part V.
- A new Jewish context
- A different view of Paul
- … and of all other early Christians
- A new account of the Gospel stories
- That the only explanation for the establishment of Christianity is that the tomb really was empty and people really did meet Jesus alive again.
- The best historical explanation for these phenomena is that Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead.
- It is important to survey the whole terrain, not just a few hot spots. Hence the length of the book.
- Wright will address two controversial preliminary topics:-
- What sort of historical task is an investigation of the resurrection? Answering this question is essential to avoid accusation of begging the question whether the investigation is possible at all.
- How did the Jews and gentiles of Jesus’ day think of the destiny of the dead? Chapters 2 & 3-4 will address this question.
- While the early Christians remained within the Jewish spectrum of opinion on the topic of resurrection, their ideas were clarified to a unique degree – and Wright puts this down to their belief that Jesus had been raised bodily. The historian needs to account for this “sudden and dramatic mutation from within the Jewish worldview”.
- Wright will reverse the usual treatment by leaving the Gospel accounts until last, as they are both amongst the most difficult passages, and were written last. All the earlier witnesses took the affirmation that Jesus had been raised literally, and this evidence should be taken when approaching the Gospels.
- So, what can historians say about Easter? Wright thinks that the best explanation for the “Christian mutation” was that:-
- The tomb was found empty, and
- Several people – including at least one who had not previously been a follower of Jesus – claimed to have seen him alive in a way for which they were unprepared by their previous ideas about life after death5 (including about resurrection) and for which the language of ghosts, spirits, etc. was inappropriate.
- Wright will argue that the best historical explanation is that the tomb was indeed empty, and Jesus was indeed seen alive because he had truly been raised from the dead. .
- That the dead remain dead wasn’t a belief invented by Enlightenment scepticism or “the scientific worldview”, but was as much common-sense in NT times as today. So, to justify challenging this “basic and fundamental assumption”, Wright will advance historical arguments – but also the theological argument6 that arose from early Christian reflection on Jesus as God’s Son, and that God is to be known as Jesus’ father.
- So, is the project even possible …?
- The Arrows:
- Shooting at the Sun: Folk-tale analogy between the sun and its water-reflection and God and pantheistic explanation. Invocation of passages from Deuteronomy & Romans 6 on divine immanence, but suspicion of quasi-historical “proofs” along the lines of Josh McDowell.
- Resurrection and History:
- The Senses of ‘History':
- Wright gives five senses used in this context:-
- Events that really happened, whether or not anyone was there to witness.
- Significant events in the first sense. “Historic” events. Bultmann’s distinction between geschichte and historie.
- Provable events - “by analogy with mathematics and the hard sciences”.
- Writing about events in the past as well as oral tradition (once considered as the more reliable).
- What “modern” – ie post-Enlightenment – historians can say about (the past) that fits into the post-Enlightenment worldview7.
- So, when we consider the resurrection of Jesus, which sense are we considering it in? The book will be taken up mostly in sense (I), but sense (V) will cause the most trouble, though sense (III) is also difficult. No-one takes the other two senses to be problematical in the context of Jesus’ resurrection.
- So, the focus will be on whether the resurrection was something that happeed – and just what did happen?
- Wright quotes the “rightly famous” "Crossan (John Dominic) - The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant" as saying – of the Quest for Jesus – that some scholars said it couldn’t be done, which others said it shouldn’t be done, and that some who said the former intended the latter; he suggests this is even more true of the resurrection.
- Wright says there are six objections8, and he will divide them into those raised by the “couldn’t” camp and those from the “shouldn’t” camp.
- He returns (unhelpfully, in my view9) to the “arrows and the sun” analogy.
- The “couldn’t” camp thinks there’s either nothing to find, or it’s invisible.
- The “shouldn’t” camp thinks the quest is doomed and a kind of hubris – it is out of our range.
- No Access?
- Marxsen: no ancient source – bar the fabulous Gospel of Peter – purports to describe Jesus’ exit from the tomb, and even this text doesn’t describe the resurrection itself. The target may exist, but it is out of sight.
- While this appears cautious and scientific, Wright claims it is neither: it says both too little and too much10.
- Too little: a positivistic demand of direct access – “first-hand witness accounts” – is not how historians work. They deduce that certain inaccessible events took place because they follow from others to which we do have access. Otherwise there would be silence and no “history” at all. In a footnote he quotes the analogous methodology of scientists and textual critics, citing "Polkinghorne (John) - Science and Christian Belief: Theological Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker" for the former.
- Too much: All we have are texts, so we don’t even have direct access to the disciples’ faith. Again, if we apply the same “relentless suspicion” in “regular postmodernist11 fashion” we have “a long and stony road ahead”.
- Wright says that Marxsen persistently mixes12 up the senses of “history” that Wright has distinguished. So – with respect to “Jesus’ transition from death to life” – no-one wrote about it (IV), so nothing can be proved (III), so “we modern historians” can say nothing about it (V) – whatever “it” is (I) – though it is certainly significant (II).
- No Analogy?
- Ernst Troeltsch: Historians can only write about things that have some analogy with their own experience; we’ve not come across a resurrection before, so nothing can be said – though the Resurrection might be historical for all that.
- So, the Resurrection satisfies senses (I) and (IV) but not (III) or (V).
- A footnote refers to Hume’s general point about the miraculous13: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that it’s falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which is endeavours to establish.”, but Wright thinks Troeltsch’s point is “more nuanced”, in that it’s not rejecting the historicity of the Resurrection, only saying we can say nothing about it.
- Pannenberg claims the analogy will only arise when we are resurrected at Christ’s return, but Wright (correctly) thinks this gives too much away.
- Historians can talk of one-offs – such as the first space flight (prior to the second one). While this might be countered by reference to analogous “flights”, Wright thinks there were at least partial14 analogies to Christ’s resurrection in the Jewish tradition.
- Wright claims that taking Troeltsch’s point seriously would leave us with nothing to say about the rise of the early church15, which was also unprecedented and no analogous event has since occurred.
- So – if we accept the above point about the early Church – then Troeltsch’s argument tells us that the events after the crucifixion require explanation, analogy or no analogy16.
- No Real Evidence?
- Resurrection in History and Theology:
- No Other Starting-Point?
- Resurrection and Christology:
- Resurrection and Eschatology:
- The Historical Starting-Point:
PART I: Setting the Scene - Chapter 1
Footnote 1: The first three are fascinating:–
- Where does Jesus fit in to Judaism?
- What were his aims? and
- Why did he die?
Footnote 4: Presumably there are other causes for “internal” experiences than these two options. “Visions” are – presumably – internal as not everyone can see them, but not thereby “fantasy”.
- Bart D. Ehrman disagrees with this, though I can’t remember where.
- Ehrman’s view is that all sorts of things might have happened, and it’s not possible to know which. Each individual hypothesis might be objectionable, but it’s not up to the critic to select one to nail his colours to.
- Wright makes no mention of Ehrman in his extensive bibliography.
Footnote 6: We’ll have to wait and see what this comes to. I’m suspicious.
Footnote 7: This can’t just be dismissed, as maybe Wright wants to do.
- Wright doesn’t seem to say at this point either what these objections are, or what they are objections to.
- But one may presume that the three subsequent sub-sections (b) to (d) in this section and the three (a) to (c) in the next are the six, and correspond to the division between the camps.
Footnote 10: As usual, I don’t understand this turn of phrase, but it doesn’t really matter.
- It doesn’t really matter how the objections are forced into these categories.
- The divide amongst the “objectors” seems to be between the “hard headed” who think the problem is a “this world” one that we just can’t solve for lack of evidence and the “spirituals” who think it impious even to look.
- This seems a bit random. Can one be both a positivist and a postmodernist or are these just used as terms of abuse?
- I agree that you can set the bar too high, and be excessively sceptical, but not all historians who adopt a “healthy scepticism” to outlandish claims are positivists or postmodernists.
- It just is the case that the bar has to be set higher in evaluating the miraculous, and the gaps left by absent or inaccessible evidence can filled in in different ways.
- Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is such a pivotal event (if it was one) that it deserves special treatment.
- But, even so, we can’t say how it occurred – which is why people are so keen to believe that the Shroud of Turin is genuine and was created by “resurrection radiation”.
- Finally, I’m not impressed by the choice of an extreme sceptic as the only opponent in this regard. Presumably many moderate historians would adopt a “no access” stance.
- Wright says “fails to distinguish the senses”.
- Without reading Marxsen, who can say, but the sentence I’ve compressed out of Wright’s text seems reasonable enough, and not a muddle.
- If we’re strictly talking about the “transition” then we strictly have to remain silent as we really are cut off from the event.
- I think Hume’s point is entirely right, and think that all right-thinking people should share this view.
- The issue then – of course – is whether Hume’s stricture is ever satisfied (as Hume denied, but which Wright thinks happened in this case – the rise of the Church being inexplicable without the Resurrection, he claims).
- We’re referred to resuscitations & healings.
- But I’d have thought that these are also equally – if not more – doubtful.
Footnote 16: I think I agree that the “no analogy” argument isn’t that important, but don’t accept Wright’s rejection of it.
- Wright gives a long – and to my mind unconvincing – paragraph in support of this claim.
- The point is that the rise of the early Church is (to a naturalist) entirely natural and (as Wright admits) can be explained in terms of a portfolio of partially analogous events – even if there is no exact parallel (and this might be debated).
- But in the case of the Resurrection we’re talking about a supernatural event, so finding an analogy – without begging the question – is difficult.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)