“We preach Christ crucified,” writes St. Paul. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a riveting reminder of this central truth, forcing the viewer into a harrowing encounter with the blood-soaked torture and suffering undergone by Christ before and during his crucifixion. It is a timely and necessary reminder in an age in which the reality of the cross is all too often obscured by prettified art, flowers and the like.
Yet St. Paul also wrote that, “If Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching is in vain.”
Less than a month Easter, it is worth emphasizing that, when all is said and done, it is the resurrection that holds the central place in the Christian message.
Christ’s resurrection from the dead, his ascension to the Father in heaven were all seen by the early Christians as real events.
Yet when did Jesus’ disciples and followers mean by resurrection? What is it that they claim to have witnessed?
This is the theme of N.T. Wright’s massive new book The Resurrection of the Son of God. Formerly Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey and now the Anglican Bishop of Durham, Wright has acquired a reputation as one of the foremost Christian theologians on the scene today.
This book, in fact, is the third in a series, titled “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” (The first was titled The New Testament and the People of God, the second, Jesus and the Victory of God). The whole provides perhaps the most comprehensive and definitive study ever made by a writer on the New Testament.
Wright begins with a detailed examination of the beliefs prevalent in the 1st Century world about death and resurrection.
He demonstrates that the Greeks, Romans and other pagans held a variety of beliefs about the afterlife, with some such as Homer, believing that the soul died with the body, while others believed in a shadowy existence in Hades.
Others believed in the continued life of the soul after death. No pagan culture, however, believed in a physical resurrection.
Wright shows that in Judaism too there was a spectrum of beliefs about life after death. In most of the Old Testament books there is scant mention of the concept of life after death and in some of the limited number of allusions to it the descriptions of Sheol, the abode of the dead, are reminiscent of the shadowy existence of Hades
In the latter books of the Old Testament, however, (especially in Ezekiel and Daniel and later in 2 Maacabees) we see an evolving belief in the idea of a physical resurrection. In the time of Jesus the Pharisees affirmed it, while the Sadducees denied it.
The early Christians, says Wright, were fully familiar with these concepts and possessed a vocabulary that fully equipped them to describe precisely what they meant by Jesus’ resurrection. If they believed that Jesus’ soul was “with God” or “had gone to heaven”, Wright says, they were perfectly capable of saying so.
Instead, Wright demonstrates, by a detailed examination of the four gospels the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s writings, that the early Christians believed something very different. Based on the observation of post-resurrection appearances they believed that Jesus was physically raised from the dead but that his body had been transformed.
Now it possessed both a physical property — allowing him to eat and interact with his disciples as he had before — and a dual spiritual property that allowed him to go through walls and vanish at will. Wright calls this quality “trans-physicality” and he contends that all those who encountered the risen Jesus were astonished and fully unprepared for what they saw.
This is the reason the accounts in Paul and the Gospels are so stark and unaccompanied by Old Testament context — the nature of Jesus’ “transphysical” body had no analogue in history and was totally unforeseen.
The followers of Jesus struggled to explain what they had witnessed. Wright says the shock and bewilderment registered in their accounts are the opposite of what one would expect from people fabricating a story.
Other factors that Wright contends, argue for the authenticity of the resurrection:
- The first witness to the resurrection were women. In 1st-Century Israel the testimony of women had very little credibility. Had the Gospel writers set out to fabricate a story, they would have selected men, and indeed men of some standing, as their witnesses.
- The Gospel accounts differed amongst themselves on the details. Two women at the tomb? Three? More? Jesus goes to Galilee? Or stays in Jerusalem? And so on. These differences, says Wright, are exactly what would be expected from numerous eyewitnesses to a traumatic event. Again, a fabricated story would have aimed for consistency and uniformity.
- The early Christians, mostly pious Jews, changed the observation of the Sabbath — the holy day ordained by God — from the seventh day of the week to the first in order to commemorate the resurrection. Nothing short of a world-changing event — the resurrection — could have prompted this seismic break with tradition.
- The impact on the disciples.
- Nothing short of the reality of the resurrection — not a soul going to heaven, not the burial of a corpse or even its mere resurrection, not the powerful memory of a beloved teacher — could have energized a small frightened, dispirited band of disciples and give them the power to eventually overcome the power of the Roman empire.
Wright says that Jesus, the first born of all creation and the “second Adam, ” is the prototype for what will happen to God’s people. After death they will spend a period of blissful life in God’s presence and then in a “life after life after death” their bodies will be restored to a glorified “transphysical” body.
“The created order matters to God,” says Wright and in the death and resurrection of Jesus its eventual redemption is prefigured and indeed accomplished.
Yet as the author notes, the risen Christ doesn’t dwell on this question. Instead he puts his followers to work: “Here see what happened. Go and spread the good news.”