“A fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer,” or so goes a Chinese proverb. I entered college with a simple faith and quickly found myself assailed in the classroom by numerous detailed questions challenging some of my most basic Christian beliefs. “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures.” The Nicene Creed had slipped effortlessly past my lips a thousand times but now the professor challenged the definition of resurrection. The authors meant Jesus rose in their hearts, or the spirit of his memory lived on. But certainly no modern scholar still advocates the barbaric notion of a bodily resurrection . . .
N. T. Wright recounts in his introduction that The Resurrection of the Son of God was intended to be a final chapter in his previous work, Jesus and the Victory of God. But as he considered the multiple challenges that modern biblical scholars present against an historical reading of the resurrection accounts, the work ballooned into the current 817 page tome. These are just the two most recent additions to N. T. Wright’s ambitious six-volume series on “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” that will certainly be one of the defining series on Jesus’ resurrection.
N. T. Wright’s research is extensive and detailed, but his argument can be summarized simply. While Judaism supplied the general concept of resurrection to the early Christians, it did not do so in the specific manner found in the writings of the early Church. In other words, the Christian understanding and description of resurrection, while grounded in Jewish tradition, was significantly distinct from the Jewish notion. Furthermore, while neither the empty tomb nor the appearance of Jesus could have generated a belief in the resurrection on its own, taken together these accounts are evidence that demand a verdict on the claim of bodily resurrection. Accordingly, the simplest explanation is what the New Testament writers profess, namely, that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.
The conspiracy theory revolving around the Catholic Church having re-written history after suppressing embarrassing testimonials and documents, is this year’s blockbuster bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. The book is outselling N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God by roughly a factor of 10,000:1. Brown’s novel is supported by the basic anti-Catholic slander, with the typical charges that the early Church deliberately lied about Jesus and his divine resurrection in order to keep women subjugated. Jesus was not an itinerant preacher, but a wealthy religious intellectual with aspirations to claiming David’s throne. His royally inclined and opportunist lover, Mary Magdalene, is the “holy grail,” because she bears the blood and child of Jesus within her. And of course, there’s the whole myth of the resurrection thing, invented by the Emperor Constantine as a way of shoring up his power. While Constantine legalized Christianity, the Catholic Church rewrote the story to inject their claims to authority into the gospels. Thus the truth about Jesus and the origins of Christianity can only be found in gnostic gospels, and other ancient texts that were never incorporated into the New Testament, because the Catholic Church violently suppressed the real history for fear that revelation of the truth would lead to the end of Roman Catholic power.
One would expect The Da Vinci Code to be dismissed as the most ludicrous rubbish were it not for the fact that in our world of an increasingly post and often anti-Christian culture, recent academic study in the field of biblical scholarship has tilted, in a more refined and nuanced way of course, toward similar conclusions. Biblical scholars such as the popular trinity of John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong, have challenged a central tenet of Christianity: that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead. Historians have claimed that one can’t weigh the testimony of the gospels since their authors clearly had a religious bias while writing.
N. T. Wright presents the perfect response to both the Jesus Seminar and The Da Vinci Code. In The Resurrection of the Son of God he surveys the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures, ancient Jewish beliefs, Greek and Roman intertestamental developments, New Testament documents, and key texts from Church Fathers. He shows Jesus is not portrayed in his appearances in a way that would correspond with Jewish expectations. For example, the radiant character of the resurrected body so vividly described in Daniel 12:2-3 is not part of the Gospel narrative.
Modern biblical scholarship often assumes those primitives who lived in the first century knew little about the world or how it operates, therefore their understanding of the world needs correction through our modern enlightenment lenses. Thus unfortunately N. T. Wright must document the observation that it was common knowledge in the ancient world that dead people stayed dead. N. T. Wright’s argument is that the only historically satisfactory explanation of the rise of the Church and the only satisfactory reading of Paul’s letters and the four Gospels, lead one to the conclusion that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead. As he summarizes "...the only possible reason why early Christianity began and took the shape it did is that the tomb really was empty and that people really did meet Jesus alive again." Just one of many indicators of the breadth of this work is his 28 page bibliography of secondary literature. Amazingly, N.T. Wright uses the methods of historical-critical scholarship to affirm the historicity of the resurrection of the Son of God.