About three years ago when I started looking into the apologetic arguments for the resurrection of Jesus a particular name cropped up fairly regularly. That was how I was introduced to work of Nicholas Thomas Wright who has since in such a short time become one of my biggest theological influences, as any regular reader of this blog would have observed. There are many great evidential arguments for the resurrection such as the minimal facts argument of Habermas and Licona. Wright takes a non-traditional approach and deals with it from an epistemological and hermeneutical stand point, that is, how you know what something means, before looking at the traditional data for it in its original historical milieu. The result is he has produced the most sophisticated and formidable defence of the resurrection in recent years: The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), the third title in his projected six volume series Christian Origins and the Question of God. You can go here to find the lecture on which this post based which also summarizes his massive 800 page tome on the resurrection, which is well worth the read.
One of the central thrusts of his argument is that resurrection meant a return to bodily life after being deceased. This was not resuscitation or reincarnation where the individual inevitably dies again. It meant returning to bodily life in a post mortem existence. Across the board in the world of the Roman Empire in which Christianity arose, among pagans and Jews, they all agreed resurrection was a bodily event. Now the pagans denied it could happen. Among the Jews there was a spectrum of beliefs but belief in the resurrection was the dominant one. It is from this Jewish worldview that early Christianity freely borrows but with seven unprecedented mutations within their resurrection beliefs.
- UNIFORMITY: Within second Temple Judaism there are a spectrum of beliefs about the afterlife. In early Christianity there is no such range of views. There is Jesus who was bodily resurrected and those who trust in him will also be resurrected like him at the end of time. This is remarkable considering Christians came from different backgrounds in and outside of Judaism. For almost two centuries there is near unanimity when it comes resurrection beliefs even though there are many debates on other issues.
- CENTRALITY: Within second Temple Judaism resurrection was a peripheral belief but in early Christianity it is absolutely central. When you survey Jewish literature of that era resurrection does not feature prominently. In Christian writings however it is foundational and non-negotiable.
- DEFINITION: Even among Jewish people who accepted it, there was a lot of speculation on the nature of the resurrection body. Early Christians on the other hand had very specific expectations based on what had happened to Jesus’ body. Resurrection bodies would be like Jesus’, a transformed physical body immune to decay, that recognizably retains individual identity. From vague beliefs resurrection became clearly defined in Christianity.
- BIFURCATION: Jewish resurrection beliefs anticipated a single large scale event at the end of time. No one expected anyone to be raised ahead of this. Christian eschatology on the other hand began with Jesus being resurrected in advance, in the ‘middle of time.’ This split level event was central in Christianity because the single resurrection ahead of time, anticipated and guaranteed the final mass resurrection on the last day.
- COLLABORATION: Those who believed in the resurrected Jesus were called to live in anticipation of the final resurrection. Wright calls this ‘collaborative eschatology’ a term he borrowed from his friend and fellow scholar John Dominic Crossan in a debate/dialogue they had on the resurrection. (You can read the fascinating exchange here.) Collaborative eschatology means since the transformation of the world had begun in Jesus, those who followed him are charged to participate with him in this project of renewal, through the spirit that resurrected him, until God himself brings it to completion on the final day. Following from the previous mutation, this collaborative eschatology was without parallel in the Jewish world.
- SYMBOLISM: Even though resurrection was a belief in a literal event it was used metaphorically without eschewing its concrete referent. In post-exilic writing it was a metaphor for the restoration of Israel. Early Christian resurrection beliefs modify this, moving away from a nationalistic, ethnic focus to a new set of metaphors such as baptism and new birth. Again these new metaphors have a literal concrete referent in bodily resurrection. However, there is a radical change in resurrection symbolism from second Temple Judaism to early Christianity. New and different metaphorical meanings emerge in the early Jesus movement, shedding the old usages.
- MESSIAHSHIP: There were myriad resurrection beliefs and movements within second Temple Judaism. However, none of them were associated with resurrection because the Messiah was not supposed to die in the first place, especially not by crucifixion, the most ignominious way to die in the ancient Roman Empire. Messianic movements simply did not survive the demise of their leader. Either they completely disbanded or chose a new messiah. Jesus’ resurrection vindicated his messianic claims which would have been invalidated if he had remained dead and completely terminated early Christianity as a messianic movement. If Jesus had remained dead Christianity, the claim that Jesus is God’s Messiah therefore we should follow him, would simply not have happened.
Among other things, Wright argues that these unprecedented theological developments within this era cannot be accounted for without the resurrection actually happening. For the purposes of this post, these seven mutations help clearly define what resurrection means in the New Testament within its original historical context.