Defending the Resurrection

The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, inded, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself.- N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (italics original)

N. T. Wright’s magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God is nearly a decade old now, and stands unparalleled as a defense of the historicity of the resurrection.  Some of the book is heavy lifting, academically speaking, focusing on the methodology of historical interpretation itself. (To be honest, I don’t even know a good book to nominate for second place, since every apologetic work I’ve read succumbs to the same errors of historical method Wright critiques in his work.)

It has been a long time since I’ve read the book, but here are a couple of methodological points that have stuck with me.

  1. Scientific approaches to history are always insufficient for historical understanding.  You cannot study some instances of history (say, cargo cults), deduce certain principles, and then apply those principles to other instances in history (say, Second-Temple Judaism).  That is not historical study, that is taking an unlikely anthropological assumption (all people must always do what some people have in fact done) and branding it like a blunt instrument.
  2. The New Testament does not necessarily stand as evidence that anything it claims in fact happened.  But it does stand as data in need of interpreting.  There may be historical reasons to doubt the truth of Mark’s account of Jesus’ doings, but the historian still has to explain why Mark would write such a gospel.

Taking this second point in particular, N. T. Wright spends several hundred pages exhaustively analyzing the two primary cultures out of which the gospel story arose: Judaism and Greek and Roman paganism.  He is looking at their beliefs about death, the afterlife, the soul, etc., to see what might have prompted the early Christians to believe that Jesus was resurrected.  Was the resurrection something that was long-anticipated?  Did it have echoes with Old-Testament or intertestamental imagery?  Was it a natural hope for a messianic group to entertain in the wake of their leader’s death?

And the answers are no, no, no.  The first Christians grew up in a culture (in terms of literature, religious liturgy, common superstition and artwork) that did not think in terms of bodily resurrection, except for some branches of Judaism, who expected a general resurrection of all people at the end of time.  As far as we can tell, the story of Jesus’ resurrection was entirely novel, and while it fits with many aspects of Old Testament belief, it was not the obvious direction in which the Old Testament scriptures pointed.

Now, perhaps there are some sources that existed at the time but no longer exist, that would make the story of Jesus’ resurrection more anticipated, but that’s guesswork, not history.  When you begin to make up hypothetical sources to avoid drawing a certain conclusion, you’ve left the field of history entirely.

So the early Christians came to believe Jesus was raised from the dead, or at the very least managed to convince others that he was, whether they believed so or not.  What made them come to believe that, or (and this is even more difficult to explain) what made them think this was a story others would come to believe?  Not only did they realize it was implausible, but such a story was not even on their radar.  Something had to convince them that “resurrection” was a thing you could tell a story about.

Toward the end of his book, Wright summarizes his argument like this:

  1. To sum up where we have got to so far: the world of second-Temple Judaism supplied the concept of resurrection, but the striking and consistent Christian mutations within the Jewish resurrection belief rule out any possibility that the belief could have generated spontaneously from within its Jewish context. When we ask the early Christians themselves what had occasioned this belief, their answers home in on two things: stories about Jesus’ tomb being empty, and stories about him appearing to people, alive again.
  2. Neither the empty tomb by itself, however, nor the appearances by themselves, could have generated the early Christian belief. The empty tomb alone would be a puzzle and a tragedy. Sighting of an apparently alive Jesus, by themselves, would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well enough known in the ancient world.
  3. However, an empty tomb and appearances of a living Jesus, taken together, would have presented a powerful reason for the emergence of the belief.
  4. The meaning of resurrection within second-Temple Judaism make it impossible to conceive of this reshaped resurrection belief emerging without it being known that a body had disappeared, and that the person had been discovered to be thoroughly alive again.
  5. The other explanations sometimes offered for the emergence of the belief do not possess the same explanatory power.
  6. It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.
  7. This leaves us with the last and more important question: what explanation can be given for these two phenomena? Is there an alternative to the explanation given by the early Christians themselves?

There are alternative explanations, of course.  The disciples were intentionally deceiving others, or hallucinated, or used Jesus’ resurrection as a metaphor for some spiritual insight.  Jesus was a hypnotist, or did not actually die on the cross, or never actually existed.  The more I study the actual context of the New Testament and the cultural milieu out of which it originated, the more implausible these kinds of accounts become.

Because it is simply not enough to say, “Resurrections don’t happen normally, so I don’t need to disprove this one in particular.”  It is equally true that movements like the early Christians don’t spring up everyday with ideas as radical as the resurrection story was, and that movement and its beliefs are something that cannot be safely ignored by anyone who cares about the god question.  Whether you believe in the resurrection of actively disbelieve it, you have to explain how the early Christian movement did come into existence, if not by being convinced through the resurrection of the son of God.

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