How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Part III: Resurrection in early Christianity (apart from Paul)

Hope refocused (1): Gospel traditions outside the Easter narratives

On the basis of a survey of a number of more or less overt references to resurrection in the Gospels in advance of the Easter stories themselves Wright draws certain general conclusions. The tradition that emerges belongs with Pharisaic Judaism over against both other Jewish positions and paganism: passages that speak of the disciples losing their lives in order to gain them, for example, are very much like the exhortations of the Maccabean leaders: ‘The implication is that the kingdom of god, or of the son of man, will involve the same kind of world as at present, but with god’s true people vindicated’ (407). But there are also differences. The theme is more pervasive than in second-temple writings and, as in Paul, it has undergone some redefinition.

i) ‘Resurrection’ is still ‘god’s gift of new bodily life to all his people at the end’. But ‘it can also be used, in a manner cognate with the development of metaphorical uses in Judaism, to denote the restoration of god’s people in the present time, as for instance in the dramatic double summary of the prodigal son’s being “dead and alive again” in Luke 15’ (448).

The examination of Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees about marriage and the resurrection is of particular importance here, not least because Wright uses it to oppose the traditional view that ‘resurrection’ is equivalent to, and indeed means, ‘life after death’ or ‘going to heaven’, where the dead will have an angelic form of existence (415-429). He stresses that resurrection is a political theme in the context of the gospels and that Jesus’ response to the Sadducees had profound political implications – that ‘Israel’s god was at work in a new way, turning the world upside down, going (perhaps) to the present Jewish rulers what Jesus had done in the Temple’ (427).

In Luke’s gospel the metaphorical use of ‘resurrection’ has a clear concrete referent: ‘Jesus is receiving sinners and eating with them, and, as far as these sinners go, this is a dramatic and vivid form of “life from the dead”, a real return from exile, in the here and now’ (437).

ii) There is the idea that the singular event of Jewish expectation has been split into two resurrections: first Jesus, then those who follow him. It is this development that the disciples found so hard to grasp at the time.

iii) The notion of resurrection is stretched beyond the conventional thought of a ‘return to the same kind of bodily life that people have had up to now’. It was not a ‘resuscitation into the same kind of life but rather a going through death and out into a new sort of life beyond, into a body that was no longer susceptible to decay and death’ (450).

Hope refocused (2): other New Testament writings

This chapter covers Acts, Hebrews, the general letters, and Revelation. For the most part the analysis emphasizes the continuity between these texts and the rest of the New Testament. Two particular areas stand out, however. i) There is an extended examination of certain difficult texts in the letters of Peter: the description of the ‘day of the Lord’ as an event of apparent cosmic destruction in 2 Peter 3:5-13 (462-463); the common misreading of ‘salvation’ in 1 Peter 1:3-9 as the departure of the soul to heaven (464-467); and the puzzling statement about the ‘spirits in prison’ in 1 Peter 3:18-22 (467-469). ii) The view of resurrection in Revelation presupposes the ‘worldview of second-Temple Judaism, and in particular of that end of the spectrum which, longing for the coming kingdom, saw judgment on the wicked nations and the vindication of God’s suffering people as the moment to be longed, prayed and worked for’. But we also find a Christian innovation in the distinction between a first and second death and between a first and second resurrection. For the beheaded martyrs the post-mortem experience has three stages (20:4-6): ‘first, a state of being “dead souls”; second, whatever is meant by the “first resurrection”; third, the implied “second” or “final” resurrection described… in chapters 21 and 22’ (475).

The chapter closes with a set of general conclusions about resurrection (476-479):

All the major books and strands, with the single exception of Hebrews, make resurrection a central and important topic, and set it within a framework of Jewish thought about the one god as creator and judge. This resurrection belief stands firmly over against the entire world of paganism on the one hand. Its reshaping, around the resurrection of Jesus himself, locates it as a dramatic modification within Judaism on the other.

There are five remarkable aspects to this statement which require historical explanation. i) In Judaism resurrection remained on the periphery of thought; in early Christianity it has moved to the centre. ii) There is not the diversity of beliefs about life after death in early Christianity that we find in Judaism and paganism: ‘from this point of view, Christianity appears as a united sub-branch of Pharisaic Judaism’. iii) The Pharisaic view, however, has been modified in two important respects: a split between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all his people; and the resurrection body is defined specifically as transformed, for which Wright coins the term ‘transphysical’. iv) Early Christianity was selective in its use of Old Testament texts to explain resurrection: surprisingly, for example, very little use is made of Daniel 12:1-3. v) The use of resurrection as a metaphor for ‘the concrete events of the expected return from exile’ (as in Ezekiel 37) is ‘totally absent in early Christianity’. Instead resurrection is used metaphorically to describe certain aspects of the Christian life: ‘baptism, holiness of bodily life, and Christian witness’.

Hope refocused (3): non-canonical early Christian texts

This chapter surveys early Christian thinking about resurrection from the apostolic fathers through to Origen, with a look also at the writings of early Syriac Christianity and the Nag Hammadi texts. The conclusions are straightforward. As distinct from paganism early Christianity affirmed the ‘future bodily resurrection of all god’s people’ and differed from developed Jewish views in that the raised body would be incorruptible, the messiah had been raised in advance of the whole people, an intermediate had been introduced conceived ‘in terms of the departed person being with the Lord until the resurrection’ (551).

Like the Jews, the Christians based themselves on the doctrines of creation and judgment, and they rooted themselves in a rereading of Jewish scriptures, not simply as prophecies of one-off events but as providing a foundation narrative which they believed had reached its climax in Jesus. They nevertheless developed the notion of resurrection in such a way that, without leaving its literal use and concrete referent, it abandoned the regular Jewish metaphorical use (referring to the concrete events of Israel’s national redemption), and they developed instead a different metaphorical use, referring to the concrete events of baptism and holiness of body and behaviour. (552)

It is remarkable that Christianity did not develop a spectrum of beliefs about resurrection but more so that within this quite narrow framework it developed ‘new ways of speaking about what resurrection involved and how it would come about which could not have been predicted from the Jewish sources’. These two observations raise the important historical question: ‘what caused this remarkable development, which brought resurrection not only from the circumference of belief to the very centre, but also from a semi-formed belief into a very sharply focused one?’

Hope in Person: Jesus as Messiah and Lord

This chapter examines two beliefs of early Christianity, both of which are surprising in view of Jesus’ recent execution by the Romans: that Jesus was the messiah and that he was the true ‘lord’ of the world.

i) Jesus as messiah

The argument that early Christianity was thoroughly messianic is directed principally against those scholars who argue that Q and the Gospel of Thomas are evidence for an very early strata of Christian belief that was not interested in Jesus’ messiahship (554-557).

Judaism did not envisage a messiah who would suffer a shameful death at the hands of Israel’s enemies.

…the Messiah was supposed to win the decisive victory over the pagans, to rebuild or cleanse the Temple, and in some way or other to bring true, god-given justice and peace to the whole world. What nobody expected the Messiah to do was to die at the hands of the pagans instead of defeating them; to mount a symbolic attack on the Temple, warning it of imminent judgment, instead of rebuilding or cleansing it; and to suffer unjust violence at the hands of the pagans instead of bringing them justice and peace. The crucifixion of Jesus, understood from the point of view of any onlooker, whether sympathetic or not, was bound to have appeared as the complete destruction of any messianic pretensions or possibilities he or his followers might have hinted at. The violent execution of a prophet (which, uncontroversially, was how Jesus was regarded by many), still more of a would-be Messiah, did not say to any Jewish onlooker that he really was the Messiah after all, or that YHWH’s kingdom had come through his work. It said, powerfully and irresistibly, that he wasn’t and that it hadn’t. (557-558)

‘Why then did the early Christians acclaim Jesus as Messiah, when he obviously wasn’t?’ Why did his followers not give up their ‘dreams of revolution’? Or why didn’t they look for another messiah – James, the brother of Jesus, for example? They preserved the basic shape of Jewish messianic belief but also transformed it: the messiah did not belong only to the Jews; the ‘messianic battle’ was not a military campaign but a fight against evil itself; the temple would be rebuilt in the community of believers; and the ‘justice, peace and salvation which the Messiah would bring to the world would not be a Jewish version of the imperial dream of Rome, but would be God’s dikaiosune, God’s eirene, God’s soteria, poured out upon the world through the renewal of the whole creation’ (563). Why was the messianic hope redefined around Jesus in this way?

ii) Jesus, the messiah, is Lord

The belief in Jesus as lord was ‘a function of belief in him as Messiah, not a move away from that belief’ (564). It is grounded in classic biblical portraits of the Messiah found especially in the Psalms, Isaiah and Daniel. On the basis of these texts Wright sets out three propositions:

(1) these texts all bear witness to a biblically rooted belief in a coming king who would be master not only of Israel but also of the whole world; (2) these are the passages drawn on by the early Christians to speak about Jesus not only as Israel’s Messiah (albeit in a redefined sense) but also as the world’s true lord, again in a sense which was redefined but never abandoned; (3) we must therefore understand the early Christian belief in Jesus as lord, not as part of an abandonment of Jewish categories and an embracing of Greek ones, nor as part of an abandonment of the hope for god’s kingdom and a turning instead to ‘religious experience’, nor yet as an abandonment of the political meaning of this universal sovereignty and a re-expression of it in terms of ‘religious’ loyalty, but as a fresh statement of the Jewish hope that the one true god, the creator, would become lord of the whole world. (565-566)

1. Jesus and the kingdom: just as Jesus was raised in advance of the resurrection of the people of God, so the kingdom of God has also been anticipated in the ‘reign of Christ’. The early Christians reused Jewish kingdom motifs in a transferred sense but not in such a way as to reduce to a private religious experience. ‘The transferred sense remained a public, this-worldly sense, a sense of the creator god doing something new within creation, not of a god acting to rescue people from creation’ (567).

2. Jesus and Caesar: if Jesus was lord, then Caesar was not. This does not mean that the early Christians were not prepared to ‘respect legal authorities as constituted by the one true god’. The remarkable thing is that the early Christians persisted in this belief for two or three generations at least despite the overwhelming superiority of Rome. The only explanation is that they believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

3. Jesus and YHWH: ‘when the early Christians called Jesus kyrios, one of the overtones that word quickly acquired, astonishing and even shocking though this must have been, was that texts in the Greek Bible which used kyrios to translate the divine name YHWH were now used to denote Jesus himself, with a subtlety and sophistication that seems to go back to the earliest days of the Christian movement’ (571).

Wright cites the quotation of the ‘fiercely monotheistic’ Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2:10, the inclusion of Jesus in the frame of the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6, the description of Jesus as the one through whom all things were created in Colossians 1:15-20, the quotation of Joel 2:32 in Romans 10:13, of Psalm 34:8 in 1 Peter 2:3 and Isaiah 8:13 in 1 Peter 3:15, and Thomas’ confession in John 20:28. He asks whether this identification has anything to do with the resurrection and concludes that with the exception of Thomas’ confession the resurrection was not interpreted as a straightforward argument for Jesus’ divinity.

Wright puts forward, however, a more complex ‘sequence of moves, each step of which is comprehensible within second-Temple Judaism’ (575). The first conclusion that the disciples would have drawn from the resurrection ‘was that he was indeed the prophet mighty in word and deed, and that he was, more particularly, Israel’s Messiah’. Paul came to understand that through Jesus ‘Israel’s one true god had been not merely speaking, as though through an intermediary, but personally present’. Wright stresses that the early Christians ‘determinedly spoke of Jesus, alongside the creator god and as his personal self-expression, within categories familiar from the dynamic monotheism of second-Temple Judaism’.

…within second-Temple Judaism there were various strategies for speaking of how Israel’s god was God, the one, true and only divine being, who remained the creator, distinct from the world and responsible for it, could nevertheless be present and active within the world. Various writers spoke of God’s word, God’s wisdom, God’s law, God’s tabernacling presence (shekinah), and God’s Spirit, as though these were at one and the same time independent beings and yet were ways in which the one true God could be with his people, with the world, healing, guiding, judging and saving. At a different linguistic level, they spoke of God’s glory and God’s love, God’s wrath and God’s power, not least in the eschatological sense that all these would be revealed in the great coming day. The New Testament writers draw on all these to express the point that, I suggest, they had reached by other means: that Jesus was the Messiah; that he was therefore the world’s true lord; that the creator God had exalted him as such, sharing with him his own throne and unique sovereignty; and that he was therefore to be seen as kyrios. And kyrios meant not only ‘lord of the world’, in the sense that he was the human being now at the helm of the universe, the one to whom every knee, including that of Caesar, must bow, but also ‘the one who makes present and visible what the Old Testament said about YHWH himself. That was why the early Christians ransacked texts about God’s presence and activity in the world in order to find appropriate categories to speak of Jesus (and of the Spirit, though that is of course another topic). The high Christology to which they were committed from extremely early on - a belief in Jesus as somehow divine, but firmly within the framework of Jewish monotheism - was not a paganization of Jewish life and thought, but, at least in intention, an exploration of its inner heart. (577)

The starting-point for all this is the belief that Jesus was the messiah, ‘son of god’ in the sense of Psalm 2; 89; 2 Samuel 7:14, because God had raised him bodily from the dead.

The chapter concludes with a summary of resurrection belief within the early Christian worldview. i) Praxis: the early Christians behaved as though in some sense they were already living in the new creation, the belief may have been reflected in burial practice, and the first day of the week replaced the sabbath. ii) The symbolic world of early Christianity focused on Jesus himself: baptism, eucharist, the cross, the fish. iii) Stories about the resurrection ‘can be plotted on a grid of Jewish-style stories of the vindication of the covenant people after suffering’. iv) The worldview questions also ‘elicit a set of resurrection-shaped answers’.

This worldview finds expression in early Christian beliefs, hopes and aims. The early Christian view of god and the world is, at one level, substantially the same as the second-Temple Jewish view: there is one god, who has made the world, and who remains in an active and powerful relationship with the world, and whose primary response to the problem of evil in the world is the call of Israel, which itself generates a second-order set of problems and questions (why has Israel herself apparently failed? what is the solution to Israel’s own problems, and hence to the world’s problems?). But the resurrection of Jesus, and the powerful work of the Spirit which the early Christians saw in that event and in their own lives, has reshaped this view of the one god and the world, by providing the answer, simultaneously, to the problems of Israel and the world: Jesus is shown to be Israel’s representative Messiah, and his death and resurrection is the proleptic achievement of Israel’s restoration and hence of the world’s restoration. The first Christians, despite what used to be said in the heyday of existentialist theology, were thereby committed to living and working within history, not to living in a fantasy-world where history had in principle already come to a stop and all that remained was for this to be worked out through the imminent end of the space-time universe. The promised future, both for themselves and for the whole cosmos, gave meaning and validity to the present embodied life. (581-582)