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The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3) Paperback – March 17, 2003
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Why did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape it did? To answer this question - which any historian must face - renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright focuses on the key question: what precisely happened at Easter? What did the early Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? What can be said today about this belief? This book, third in Wright's series Christian Origins and the Question of God, sketches a map of ancient beliefs about life after death, in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds. It then highlights the fact that the early Christians' belief about the afterlife belonged firmly on the Jewish spectrum, while introducing several new mutations and sharper definitions. This, together with other features of early Christianity, forces the historian to read the Easter narratives in the gospels, not simply as late rationalizations of early Christian spirituality, but as accounts of two actual events: the empty tomb of Jesus and his "appearances." How do we explain these phenomena? The early Christians' answer was that Jesus had indeed been bodily raised from the dead; that was why they hailed him as the messianic "son of God." No modern historian has come up with a more convincing explanation. Facing this question, we are confronted to this day with the most central issues of worldview and theology.
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About the Author
N. T. Wright is the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and one of the world"s leading Bible scholars. He is now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews and is a regular broadcaster on radio and television. He is the author of over seventybooks, including The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), and The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), published by Fortress Press.
- Publisher : Fortress Press; Later prt. edition (March 17, 2003)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 848 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0800626796
- ISBN-13 : 978-0800626792
- Item Weight : 2.44 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #43,398 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Wright sets the stage in the first part of his volume by giving a powerful allegory of a king who commanded his archers to shoot at the sun. With all of their might they attempted to pierce the sun, but in vain. All of their arrows fell short. A few days later, the youngest archer noticed the reflection of the sun upon the still water. With a single shot he shattered the sun. He uses this parable to illustrate the fact that all the arrows of history cannot reach God. However, Wright helps the reader to recognize that there are reflections that must be aimed at throughout history that tell the true story of the resurrection of Jesus.
According to Wright, aiming within the worldview and language of second-Temple Judaism is crucial to hitting the target. While he points his arrows momentarily at other targets outside this scope to better comprehend the historical context, he is careful to focus his direction back on the Jewish aspects that pertain to life after death and the resurrection. Furthermore, Wright shows evidence that the idea of resurrection was incomprehensible within the mindset of pagan cultures. Rather, for many of these ancient peoples, there was no tradition of life after death. Thus for Christianity, the fundamental claim that Jesus rose again from the dead was incoherent and unbelievable.
After establishing that a majority of second-Temple Judaism believed in a coming resurrection, Wright devotes two main parts of his text to the resurrection in Pauline correspondence. He wisely unpacks the epistles to the Corinthians, especially chapter fifteen of the first epistle that openly centers on the resurrection. This section transitions from merely a Jewish tradition in a coming resurrection to the resurrection of Jesus. His attention on Paul is intentional and essential to understanding the future hope and doctrine of Christendom.
In part three, Wright reveals how little the Gospels speak of resurrection traditions, outside of the empty tomb of Jesus. Additionally, he examines the other books of the New Testament to see what they say about resurrection. He discovered that there was a sudden rise of a resurrection movement among early Christianity that was turning the world upside down. Moreover, Wright hones in on what happened to this early Christian faith during the second and early third century. He found the same conviction formed and became clearly focused throughout this period of time. Therefore, Wright begs for a historical explanation for such a developing doctrine of the resurrection.
The final parts conclude where many Christians might begin–with the Gospels. He gives an articulate description of the Easter narrative according to each gospel account. As Wright determines, there is no doubt that each of these writers told the story in their own way with their own purpose in mind. But, what is remarkable is that their testimonies were consistent. Even though Wright admits that neither the empty tomb nor the appearances of Jesus in and of themselves proves the resurrection to be true, but together, they present a powerful reason for the development of the early Christian belief.
The Structure of Resurrection Belief. By Peter Carnley. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. Pp. xiii, 394, paper.)
The Resurrection of the Son of God. By N. T. Wright. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. xxi, 817, paper)
Resurrection in Retrospect: A Critical Examination of the Theology of N. T. Wright. By Peter Carnley. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019. Pp. xiii, 312, paper.)
The Reconstruction of Resurrection Belief. By Peter Carnley. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019. Pp. xiv, 335, paper.)
Forty-some years ago an Australian Anglican scholar, Peter Carnley, set out to write a study of Christian faith in the resurrection. The book was delayed by his selection as Archbishop of Western Australia, but he took a sabbatical to complete the book and publish it in 1987 as The Structure of Resurrection Belief. It remains a clear and valuable statement of the structure of a Christian faith grounded on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. Carefully analyzing the then popular writing of such theologians as Barth, Bultmann, Knox, Schillebeeckx and many others, Carnley insisted that the resurrection cannot simply be labeled a “myth” on the one hand, nor a matter to be evaluated by historians on the other, but must nevertheless take a central role in the formation of Christian faith, and, whether in the first century or in our own time, must be carefully analyzed and proclaimed. “The Jesus story,” Carnley wrote, “points us to the quality of the self-giving remembered to have been in his life; the Easter stories of the empty tomb and the first appearances in turn raise the possibility of knowing that same self-giving still in the ongoing life and work of the Christian fellowship . . .”
Some ten years later, N. T. Wright, not yet a bishop of the Church of England, began work on a multi-volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Although he had thought of writing about the resurrection in one chapter of one of those volumes, he produced, in fact, an entire volume of over 800 pages titled The Resurrection of the Son of God. Wright’s approach is encyclopedic: one quarter of the book is devoted to ideas about resurrection in the pagan world, the Old Testament, and post-Biblical Judaism; two hundred pages are then given to Paul’s teaching about the resurrection, one hundred and fifty pages to non-Biblical sources from the first century, and the final two hundred pages to “the Easter story” as found in the Gospels and as Wright understands it. Along the way, Wright gives particular attention to Carnley’s book and his fundamental disagreement with Carnley’s perspective. In his analysis of the resurrection faith, Wright concludes that “the historian of whatever persuasion, has no option but to affirm both the empty tomb and the ‘meetings’ with Jesus as ‘historical events’ (and) in the normal sense required by historians, provable events . . .” He argues that Second Temple Judaism believed in a resurrection body of flesh and blood and the first Christians could only have understood Jesus’ resurrection in those terms.
Carnley, in turn, having completed his service as an archbishop, “retired” to a visiting professorship at the General Theological Seminary in New York and responded to Wright in 2019 with a new volume, Resurrection in Retrospect, a Critical Examination of the Theology of N. T. Wright, in which he speaks of Wright’s perspective as “‘the reigning paradigm’ of the approach to the Resurrection evaluated as an event of past historical time” and expresses his appreciation of Wright’s “generous response” to the news that his work was to be “subjected to critical public scrutiny.” In providing that scrutiny, Carnley argues that “we are asking too much of ourselves” if, “at two thousand years remove and with only meager fragments of evidential reports to work with” we insist on grounding our faith on those reports, but “if I come to trusting faith in the raised Christ, whom I claim to know by acquaintance as the life-giving presence of his spirit of self-giving in the distinctive form of life that is characteristic of the Christian community . . . then I know that he must have been raised from the dead.”
Carnley then reasserted his views in the same year in another volume titled The Reconstruction of Resurrection Belief in which he updated his earlier work with reference to some hundred and fifty works written since 1987.
The differences between Carnley and Wright are real and important, but both, it might be noticed, are distinctively Anglican in their emphases. Wright, for example, speaks of “the goodness of the created order,” and Carnley ends his first volume by noting the priority of worship in our response to God’s action in Christ: “One of the glories of Anglicanism, perhaps the glory of Anglicanism, is its preference for liturgy as a way of expressing truth over the Latin proclivity for defining doctrines and dogmas.”
None of these four volumes is easy reading, but all are valuable assertions of the centrality of the resurrection to Christian faith and the historical reality of the events, with or without an empty tomb, that produced that faith. Of the four volumes, Carnley’s 1987 volume may still be the most valuable of the four and the clearest in its statement of the meaning of a resurrection faith. “Resurrection theology,” Carnley tells us, “is . . . the foundation of all theology in the sense that secondary affirmations of belief are drawn from it concerning Christ’s messianic role and divine status . . . The experience of the presence of the raised Christ marks the historical beginning of the telling of the Christian story.” The problem, from Carnley’s perspective, is that Christians have not always grounded their faith on that experience, but rather on the stories of the empty tomb. The challenges to those stories in the last two centuries have left Christians with an array of views ranging from a continuing assertion of historical fact to various interpretations of the resurrection as “a religiously useful story or myth.” Carnley gives us a summary of these developments and then provides his own analysis of the historic events that culminated in the stories of resurrection. Important to his analysis is Paul’s testimony in the epistles, written prior to the Gospel accounts, which never speaks of an empty tomb, but centers instead on a series of appearances. Paul’s account of these appearances does not include any appearances at the tomb to the women, but does include the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, which took place well after the forty post-Easter days of appearances leading to the Ascension. The historicity of an empty tomb seems unimportant, indeed unknown, to Paul. Carnley does not dismiss the gospel stories, but, like Paul, does not ground his faith on them. Stories of an empty tomb, he contends, are valueless apart from the evidence of a living Lord in the life of the church. When that faith is encountered, Carnley tells us, it is possible to say, “‘This is what they are talking about. This is none other than the Spirit of the living Christ’ . . . The more immediate response is to stand in his presence in the silent awe of worship . . . for Christ is risen . . .”
Christopher L. Webber San Francisco, California
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Wright is well aware of the two hundred-year fight to keep history and theology at arm’s length. The resurrection accounts in the canonical gospels have almost routinely been treated by post-Enlightenment scholarship as mere back-projections of later Christian belief, with only shaky claims to historical veracity, he claims. This understanding of Jesus’ resurrection is still widely accepted in scholarship and many mainline churches: ‘resurrection’ could mean a variety of different things; Paul, did not believe in bodily resurrection, but held a ‘spiritual’ view; the earliest Christians used ‘resurrection’ language initially to denote such a belief but underwent a kind of fantasy or hallucination; and, finally, whatever happened to Jesus’ body, it was certainly not ‘raised from the dead’ in the sense that the gospel stories seem to require. Wright challenges this by saying that the resurrection of Jesus was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today. The discovery that dead people stay dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Wright shows that this position, fashionable as it has been, leads to enormous historical problems which disappear when treated as descriptions of what the first Christians believed actually happened. They are not the leaves on the branches of early Christianity. They look very much like the trunk from which the branches themselves sprang.
Is there an alternative explanation for the rise of the early church? Early Christianity was a ‘resurrection’ movement through and through and Wright states precisely what ‘resurrection’ involves (going through death and out into a new kind of bodily existence beyond, happening in two stages, with Jesus first and everyone else later). Early Christianity’s answer was based on a firm belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead, his tomb was empty, and several people, who had not previously been followers of Jesus, claimed to have seen him alive in a way for which the readily available language of ghosts, spirits and the like is inappropriate. If one takes away either of these historical conclusions, the belief of the early church becomes inexplicable, Wright claims.
So, what is the ultimate theological impact of the resurrection? Wright offers some hints in the final chapter: "Death—the unmaking of the Creator’s image-bearing creatures—was not seen as a good thing, but as an enemy to be defeated. ... The early Christians saw Jesus’ resurrection as the act of the covenant god, fulfilling his promises to deal with evil at last" (727). Furthermore, "[c]alling Jesus ‘son of god’ ... constituted a refusal to retreat, a determination to stop Christian discipleship turning into a private cult, a sect, a mystery religion. It launched a claim on the world ... It grew from an essentially positive view of the world, of creation. It refused to relinquish the world to the principalities and powers, but claimed even them for allegiance to the Messiah who was now the lord, the kyrios" (729). And, finally: "The resurrection, in the full Jewish and early Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter" (730).
These powerful messages, emanating from the historicity of the resurrection, offer the grounds for preaching the message of hope to a distressed and desperate humanity, a message that proves that the resurrection in fact is the reason behind the powerful start of Christianity as a world-changing grassroots movement that it truly has been.
Dr. Erastos Filos, Physicist, Brussels, Belgium