Part I: Setting the scene

We gain an initial impression of the scope of this book from Wright’s sketch of the ‘paradigm for understanding Jesus’ resurrection’ that he believes has dominated scholarship in recent years:

In general terms, this view holds the following: (1) that the Jewish context provides only a fuzzy setting, in which ‘resurrection’ could mean a variety of different things; (2) that the earliest Christian writer, Paul, did not believe in bodily resurrection, but held a ‘more spiritual’ view; (3) that the earliest Christians believed, not in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, but in his exaltation/ascension/glorification, in his ‘going to heaven’ in some kind of special capacity, and that they came to use ‘resurrection’ language initially to denote that belief and only subsequently to speak of an empty tomb or of ‘seeing’ the risen Jesus; (4) that the resurrection stories in the gospels are late inventions designed to bolster up this second-stage belief; (5) that such ‘seeings’ of Jesus as may have taken place are best understood in terms of Paul’s conversion experience, which itself is to be explained as a ‘religious’ experience, internal to the subject rather than involving the seeing of any external reality, and that the early Christians underwent some kind of fantasy or hallucination; (6) that whatever happened to Jesus’ body (opinions differ as to whether it was even buried in the first place), it was not ‘resuscitated’, and was certainly not ‘raised from the dead’ in the sense that the gospel stories, read at face value, seem to require.” (7)

Wright intends to argue that there are sound historical grounds for rejecting this position and for replacing it with an alternative paradigm:

The positive thrust, naturally, is to establish (1) a different view of the Jewish context and materials, (2) a fresh understanding of Paul and (3) all the other early Christians, and (4) a new reading of the gospel stories; and to argue (5) that the only possible reason why early Christianity began and took the shape it did is that the tomb really was empty and thatbbbb people really did meet Jesus, alive again, and (6) that, though admitting it involves accepting a challenge at the level of worldview itself, the best historical explanation for all these phenomena is that Jesus was indeed bodily raised from the dead. (8)

The main part of this introductory chapter is an examination and rebuttal of six objections to a historical study of the resurrection: i) we have no access to the resurrection as an event in history (Marxsen); ii) historians cannot write about events for which there is no historical analogy (Troeltsch); iii) there is no real textual evidence for the resurrection (¼demann, Crossan); iv) the resurrection cannot be investigated historically but it is the fundamental ground or presupposition of Christian epistemology (Frei); v) the resurrection is a demonstration of Jesus’ divinity and therefore beyond historical investigation; and similarly vi) the resurrection is an eschatological event and therefore beyond historical investigation (15-28).

The necessary starting point for this study is the attempt to locate the claims about Jesus’ resurrection within the thought-worlds of paganism, second-temple Judaism, and early Christianity.

It will become clear – and this is among the first major conclusions of our historical study – that the early Christian worldview is, at this point at least, best understood as a startling, fresh mutation within second-Temple Judaism. This then raises the question: what caused this mutation? (28)

A general observation is also made at this point: resurrection was understood by both pagans and Jews not as ‘life after death’ but as ‘life after life after death’ – as a two-stage process involving death, a period of ‘death-as-a-state’, and a re-embodiment (31).

Life beyond death in ancient paganism

Chapters two and three provide extensive surveys of beliefs about life after death in paganism and post-biblical Judaism. Both chapters have good concluding sections which can be useful summarized here.

In paganism ‘the road to the underworld ran only one way’ (81). Attempts to return were invariably prohibited or punished. The dead were thought of as disembodied souls or shades who, for the most part, inhabited Hades, the Isles of the Blessed, or Tartarus. Death was all-powerful: ‘One could neither escape it in the first place nor break its power once it had come.’ Resurrection, as a re-embodiment, was regarded as both impossible and undesirable. It would have been seen not as a form of life after death but as a step beyond life after death.

This has three major implications for this book. i) The resurrection of Jesus would have been seen by the ancient pagan world as an unprecedented event, not merely as a variation on beliefs about the afterlife. ii) Belief in the resurrection of Jesus could not have been based on belief in his divinity: divinization did not require resurrection. iii) Some writers within second century Christianity reinterpreted the notion of resurrection as a ‘state of blissful disembodied immortality’ (83).

Death and beyond in the Old Testament

Wright repeats the point that resurrection was a ‘life after “life after death” ’ (201).

‘Resurrection’, with the various words that were used for it and the various stories that were told about it, was never simply a way of speaking about ‘life after death’. It was one particular story that was told about the dead: a story in which the present state of those who had died would be replaced by a future state in which they would be alive once more.

‘Resurrection’ in the Old Testament has a primary metaphorical meaning, for which Ezekiel’s allegory of the dry bones is the supreme example: resurrection is a figure for the restoration of Israel. It was, therefore, a revolutionary doctrine because it ‘spoke of the concrete hope of national freedom’ (202). An earlier passage is worth quoting at length:

The real problem was that resurrection was from the beginning a revolutionary doctrine. For Daniel 12, resurrection belief went with dogged resistance and martyrdom. For Isaiah and Ezekiel, it was about YHWH restoring the fortunes of his people. It had to do with the coming new age, when the life-giving god would act once more to turn everything upside down – or perhaps, as they might have said, right way up. It was the sort of belief that encouraged young hotheads to attack Roman symbols placed on the Temple, and that, indeed, led the first-century Jews into the most disastrous war they had experienced. It was not simply, even, that they thought such beliefs might lead the nation into a clash with Rome, though that will certainly have been the case. It was that they realized that such beliefs threatened their own position. People who believe that their god is about to make a new world, and that those who die in loyalty to him in the meantime will rise again to share gloriously in it, are far more likely to lose respect for a wealthy aristocracy than people who think that this life, this world and this age are the only ones there ever will be. (138)

From the 3rd century BC the metaphor of resurrection took on a new meaning, largely through ‘reflection on the suffering of those who withstood the pagans in the hope of national redemption’. This develops as a reaffirmation of the Jewish belief in the ‘goodness and god-givenness of the created world and of bodily human life with it’ (202). By the time of 2 Maccabees the metaphor has become quite literal, expressing the hope of a return to physical wholeness, though still within the frame of the wider hope for national restoration.

Belief in a future resurrection led naturally to the development of beliefs about an intermediate state between death and resurrection, which could sometimes have a hellenistic or Platonic character. The dead ‘are, at present, souls, spirits or angel-like beings, held in that state of being not because they were naturally immortal but by the creative power of YHWH’. Where are they? ‘They are in the hand of the creator god; or in paradise; or in some kind of Sheol, understood now not as a final but as a temporary resting-place’ (203). In conclusion:

Resurrection… seems to possess two basic meanings in the second-Temple period, with considerable fluidity between them. In each case the referent is concrete: restoration of Israel (‘resurrection’ as metaphorical, denoting socio-political events and investing them with the significance that this will be an act of new creation, of covenant restoration); of human bodies (‘resurrection’ as literal, denoting actual re-embodiment)…. ‘Resurrection’ in its literal sense belongs at one point on the much larger spectrum of Jewish beliefs about life after death; in its political, metaphorical sense it belongs on a spectrum of views about the future which YHWH was promising to Israel. Both senses generated and sustained nationalist revolution. The hope that YHWH would restore Israel provided the goal; the hope that he would restore human bodies (especially of those who died in the cause) removed the fear that might have undermined zeal. No wonder the aristocratic Sadducees rejected resurrection. Anyone who used the normal words for ‘resurrection’ within second-Temple Judaism would have been heard to be speaking within this strictly limited range of meaning. (204)