It is impossible to do justice to Wright’s book with only a few posts. It is not an overstatement to describe it as magisterial. He covers in 800+ pages everything from the attitudes and beliefs about bodily resurrection in the ancient world to the challenges of those who seek to redefine it in the present. In a later post I will include some links to some notable reviews of the book.
The resurrection of Christ as a literal, physical event is not a universally held belief. This is easy to understand when considering those who claim no connection with the Christian movement. What some might find surprising, however, is the fact that there are those within Christianity who have sought to redefine the resurrection as a different kind of event. Many have redefined it as being symbolic or figurative only and not something that is a proper subject of history.
One of the many strengths of the The Resurrection of the Son of God is Wright’s insistence upon examining the resurrection from an historical perspective. (He covers the various meanings of “historical” on pg. 13. That page is worth a post in and of itself.) He does this by asking the important question: “what did the early Christians believe about the god of whom they spoke?” (pg. 6) From this beginning point Wright carefully examines the literature. He begins by exploring the beliefs and attitudes that the various ancient peoples held toward the concept of resurrection. This includes the Jewish community from which Christianity was born.
Outside of Judaism most of the ancient world believed resurrection to be a falsehood. “Proposing that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today.” (pg. 10) Within Judaism itself there was a diversity of belief regarding resurrection and these beliefs seemed to evolve over time until the centuries just before the birth of Jesus when the two primary constituencies of Judaism, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, formally expressed their views on the subject. The conservative and aristocratic Sadducees rejected the notion of resurrection. The Pharisees on the other hand believed in the ultimate resurrection of the righteous.It was from this mix of worldviews that belief in Jesus being bodily brought back to life, along with the righteous at a later time, arose. The fact that virtually no one in the ancient world, outside the relatively small Jewish sect of the Pharisees, believed that the dead would rise again speaks to the timeliness of the event. Jesus’ resurrection both reflected and reinterpreted this Jewish belief in resurrection by applying it to God’s prototype of this ultimate resurrection, Jesus.
From an historical perspective Wright makes the case that the claims of early Christians stating that Jesus’ had risen from the dead could only mean what traditional Christianity has understood it to mean. That is, after Christ’s death on the cross he was placed in a tomb and after three days came back to life in a physical, corporeal and transformed sense. He was not a phantom nor a collective hallucination. There were words in the language used to describe such things. Resurrection was not one of them.
The notion of Christ’s resurrection being merely symbolic doesn’t pass muster either. A Jesus who was only symbolically or figuratively raised could hardly garner the following he did after his core group of followers and closest friends were scattered in fear and despair. The multiple records of Christ’s empty tomb and numerous appearances together form a narrative that immediately dismisses the symbolic explanation as without support. This does not mean that the resurrection of Christ does not have symbolic implications. Of course it does. But, all of the symbolic implications of Christ’s resurrection point back to and rely upon the event of the resurrection itself.
There are those who have claimed that it is illegitimate to write about the resurrection as if it were history and even crazier to attempt to prove it so. Wright eschews both of these very modern tendencies and begins the process of validating the resurrection, not in a mathematical or scientific sense, but in an historical one. When he does this he presents the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as not only a plausible event but one that best explains all the available evidence.