Part V: Belief, event and meaning

Easter and history

The historical datum now before us is a widely held, consistently shaped and highly influential belief: that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. This belief was held by virtually all the early Christians for whom we have evidence. It was at the centre of their characteristic praxis, narrative, symbol and belief; it was the basis of their recognition of Jesus as Messiah and lord, their insistence that the creator god had inaugurated the long-awaited new age, and above all their hope for their own future bodily resurrection. The question we now face is obvious: what caused this belief in the resurrection of Jesus? (685)

Wright’s aim in this chapter is to demonstrate that the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances constitute together, with qualifications, both sufficient and necessary conditions for the emergence of the early Christian belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. He proceeds by way of a seven step argument.

1. The first step draws together the context of belief about resurrection in second-temple Judaism and the claims of the early Christians that the tomb had been found empty and that Jesus had appeared to his followers after his death.

2. Neither the empty tomb nor the appearances alone is sufficient condition for the rise of the resurrection belief.

3. These two conditions together, however, are sufficient to account for the emergence of the belief within the community of Jesus’ followers.

4. The empty tomb and the appearances also constitute necessary conditions for the rise of early Christian belief. ‘Without these phenomena, we cannot explain why this belief came into existence, and took the shape it did. With them, we can explain it exactly and precisely’ (676).

5. At this point two rival theories of the origins of the resurrection belief are considered: i) a ‘cognitive dissonance’ theory, according to which ‘individuals or groups fail to come to terms with reality, but live instead in a fantasy which corresponds to their own deep longings’ (697-701); and ii) the argument (associated here with Schillebeeckx) that the resurrection stories were a later objectification of an original experience of grace (701-06).

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’ (687).

7. Lastly, it is necessary to ask what sort of explanation can be given for these two phenomena. At this point Wright takes on Enlightenment rationalism head on. If the ‘larger dreams’ of the Enlightenment (colonialism, western capitalism, etc.) have been shown to be ‘politically, economically and culturally self-serving on a massive scale’, perhaps the rationalist refusal to take the resurrection seriously may also prove to be ‘part of that intellectual and cultural hegemony against which much of the world is now doing its best to react’.

What if the resurrection, instead of (as is often imagined) legitimating a cosy, comfortable, socially and culturally conservative form of Christianity, should turn out to be, in the twenty-first century as in the first, the most socially, culturally and politically explosive force imaginable, blasting its way through the sealed tombs and locked doors of modernist epistemology and the (now) deeply conservative social and political culture which it sustains? (713)

The risen Jesus as the Son of God

The last chapter addresses the question of the meaning of the resurrection within the larger Christian narrative and worldview. The starting point is the early Christian belief that the resurrection demonstrated that Jesus was the ‘Son of God’. Wright separates out three layers of meaning.

1. Within the Jewish world the phrase ‘son of God’ referred either to Israel as a whole or to a representative figure such a the king or a messiah. The first level of meaning, therefore, was that in Jesus, as Israel’s messiah, ‘the creator’s covenant plan, to deal with the sin and death that has so radically infected his world, has reached its long-awaited and decisive fulfilment’ (728).

2. In the pagan world the phrase would most naturally have referred to the Roman emperor. The coin that the Pharisees offered to Jesus in Mark 12:13-17 would have borne the inscription AUGUST. TI. CAESAR DIVI AUG. F.: ‘Augustus Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus’. Therefore: ‘The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the “son of god” who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world: its pilot project, indeed its pilot’ (731).

3. The early Christians took a further step, on the basis of their reflection on Israel’s scriptures and with some tentative precedent in Judaism, and came to see Jesus as ‘the unique “Son” of this God as opposed to any other’. ‘They meant by this not simply that he was Israel’s Messiah, though that remained foundational; nor simply that he was the reality of which Caesar and all other such tyrants were the parodies, though that remained a vital implication. They meant it in the sense that he was the personal embodiment and revelation of the one true god’ (731).

No wonder the Herods, the Caesars and the Sadducees of this world, ancient and modern, were and are eager to rule out all possibility of actual resurrection. They are, after all, staking a counter-claim on the real world. It is the real world that the tyrants and bullies (including intellectual and cultural tyrants and bullies) try to rule by force, only to discover that in order to do so they have to quash all rumours of resurrection, rumours that would imply that their greatest weapons, death and deconstruction, are not after all omnipotent. But it is the real world, in Jewish thinking, that the real God made, and still grieves over. It is the real world that, in the earliest stories of Jesus’ resurrection, was decisively and for ever reclaimed by that event, an event which demanded to be understood, not as a bizarre miracle, but as the beginning of the new creation. It is the real world that, however complex this may become, historians are committed to studying. And, however dangerous this may turn out to be, it is the real world in and for which Christians are committed to living and, where necessary, dying. Nothing less is demanded by the God of creation, the God of justice, the God revealed in and as the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. (737)