Quick overview of N.T. Wright’s case for the resurrection

UPDATE: Welcome visitors from Free Canuckistan! Thanks for the linky, Binky!

I thought I would just go over a paper from N.T. Wright, whose multi-volume case for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus seems to be getting a lot of respect from the other side, (although I strongly disagree with his economic and political views, which are naive at best).Wright has taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Duke, McGill, etc.. He’s published 40 books.

CV excerpt, all degrees are from Oxford University:

  • 2000 D.D.
  • 1981 D.Phil.
  • 1975 M.A.
  • 1973 B.A.(1st class Honours), Theology; Denyer and Johnson Prize (shared) for top first class of year; College Prize
  • 1971 B.A.(1st class Honours), Literae Humaniores; College Prize

Wright seems to get a lot of respect from skeptics like John Dominic Crossan (their debate is here: book, audio – note: buy the audio, don’t buy the book). I have never heard Crossan concede the empty tomb and the appearances before, but he did against Wright. In his debate (audio, book) against William Lane Craig, he denied all 4 of Craig’s minimal facts.

We have seen elsewhere how to argue for the resurrection using the minimal facts approach. The minimal facts are the handful of facts about Jesus that survive the standard historical criteria used in the evaluation of historical biographies. But Wright has a different approach.

Let’s take a look at a lecture (that link has PDF transcript, audio and movies) that Wright gave on the resurrection.

N.T. Wright’s historical case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus

Wright basically argues that the resurrection cannot have been a myth invented by the early Christian community, because the idea of the Messiah dying and being bodily resurrected to eternal life was completely unexpected in Jewish theology, and therefore would not have been fabricated.

In Judaism, when people die, they stay dead. At the most, they might re-appear as apparitions, or be resuscitated to life for a while, but then die again later. There was no concept of the bodily resurrection to eternal life of a single person, especially of the Messiah, prior to the general resurrection of all the righteous dead on judgment day.

Wright’s case for the resurrection has 3 parts:

  • The Jewish theological beliefs of the early Christian community underwent 7 mutations that are inexplicable apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The empty tomb
  • The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups, friends and foes

Here’s the outline of Wright’s case:

…the foundation of my argument for what happened at Easter is the reflection that this Jewish hope has undergone remarkable modifications or mutations within early Christianity, which can be plotted consistently right across the first two centuries. And these mutations are so striking, in an area of human experience where societies tend to be very conservative, that they force the historian… to ask, Why did they occur?

The mutations occur within a strictly Jewish context. The early Christians held firmly, like most of their Jewish contemporaries, to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world. ‘Resurrection’ is not a fancy word for ‘life after death’; it denotes life after ‘life after death’.

And here are the 7 mutations:

  1. Christian theology of the afterlife mutates from multiples views (Judaism) to a single view: resurrection (Christianity). When you die, your soul goes off to wait in Sheol. On judgment day, the righteous dead get new resurrection bodies, identical to Jesus’ resurrection body.
  2. The relative importance of the doctrine of resurrection changes from being peripheral (Judaism) to central (Christianity).
  3. The idea of what the resurrection would be like goes from multiple views (Judaism) to a single view: an incorruptible, spiritually-oriented body composed of the material of the previous corruptible body (Christianity).
  4. The timing of the resurrection changes from judgment day (Judaism) to a split between the resurrection of the Messiah right now and the resurrection of the rest of the righteous on judgment day (Christianity).
  5. There is a new view of eschatology as collaboration with God to transform the world.
  6. There is a new metaphorical concept of resurrection, referred to as being “born-again”.
  7. There is a new association of the concept of resurrection to the Messiah. (The Messiah was not even supposed to die, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to rise again from the dead in a resurrected body!)

There are also other historical puzzles that are solved by postulating a bodily resurrection of Jesus.

  1. Jewish people thought that the Messiah was not supposed to die. Although there were lots of (warrior) Messiahs running around at the time, whenever they got killed, their followers would abandon them. Why didn’t Jesus’ followers abandon him when he died?
  2. If the early Christian church wanted to communicate that Jesus was special, despite his shameful death on the cross, they would have made up a story using the existing Jewish concept of exaltation. Applying the concept of bodily resurrection to a dead Messiah would be a radical departure from Jewish theology, when an invented exaltation was already available to do the job.
  3. The early church became extremely reckless about sickness and death, taking care of people with communicable diseases and testifying about their faith in the face of torture and execution. Why did they scorn sickness and death?
  4. The gospels, especially Mark, do not contain any embellishments and “theology historicized”. If they were made-up, there would have been events that had some connection to theological concepts. But the narratives are instead bare-bones: “Guy dies public death. People encounter same guy alive later.” Plain vanilla narrative.
  5. The story of the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb cannot have been invented, because the testimony of women was inadmissable under almost all circumstances at that time. If the story were invented, they would have invented male discoverers of the tomb. Female discovers would have hampered conversion efforts.
  6. There are almost no legendary embellishments in the gospels, while there are plenty in the later gnostic forgeries. No crowds of singing angels, no talking crosses, and no booming voices from the clouds.
  7. There is no mention of the future hope of the general resurrection, which I guess they thought was imminent anyway.

To conclude, Wright makes the argument that the best explanation of all of these changes in theology and practice is that God raised Jesus (bodily) from the dead. There is simply no way that this community would have made up the single resurrection of the Messiah – who wasn’t even supposed to die – and then put themselves on the line for that belief.

And remember, the belief in a resurrected Jesus was not a belief in a flying spaceship that was going to come and pick them up if they drank the kool-aid. This was a belief they held based on personal experiences. They were able to confirm or deny their belief in the resurrection of Jesus based on their own personal experiences with the object of those beliefs.

Additional resources

For more debates on the resurrection, see here for William Lane Craig, here for Mike Licona, and here for Gary Habermas. I am a big fan of all these guys, but Craig hasn’t lost any resurrection debates, while Licona tied against Richard Carrier and Habermas lost against Arif Ahmed. In particular, I recommend these 3 debates:

UPDATE: Also, I have a more recent post on the earliest source of historical facts about the resurrection.

15 thoughts on “Quick overview of N.T. Wright’s case for the resurrection”

  1. Great Site! I’m going to add you. I came across this site weeks ago and forgot to do it.

    I posted something similar on this topic Sunday. Glad to see you sharing ideas from credible experts. I try my best to do the same.

    Our sites have a lot in common and look forward to linking to some of your articles.

  2. <<>>

    You could claim that Matthew’s description of darkness from noon until three o’clock isn’t a legendary embellishment, I suppose, but how about this, also from Matthew?

    “The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”

    So it wasn’t just Jesus who rose from the dead, it was a whole gang of “saints.”

    And it must be true, every word of it, because, after all, who’d make up such a story?

    I’m stunned by the persuasive power of such reasoning, and plan to use it whenever I can in the future.

    1. Thanks for you comment. I appreciate your tone and the quality of your challenge. This passage, and other passages like the guard at the tomb, cannot be used in any case for the historicity of the bodily resurrection. I am a conservative evangelical Christian, so I believe that these passages are historical, so long as they are in the autographs.

      The point of N.T Wright’s argument is that there were seven massive mutations in the concept of resurrection. How are young going to get Torah-believing Jews to totally redefine their theology, and their behavior, (e.g. – death-defying care for lepers), without positing a resurrection.

      They were also willing to die for that belief – a belief whose truth they were personally able to verify through the appearances to eyewitnesses, which are discussed in the extremely early creed of 1 Corinthians 15. (We are talking about a creed that goes back to 1-2 years after the crucifixion, here – no time for legends to appear)

      But let me be clear: I make a distinction between minimal facts and facts accepted on faith. I wrote about the tests for extracting minimal facts here, and the passage you cited does not pass those historical tests. So don’t let a passage like that stop you from accepting a minimal facts argument that concludes God raised Jesus bodily from the dead.

      Also, I sense that you may need a refresher on the evidence for a creator and designer of the universe. Please check this post or some others from my index of Christian posts.

  3. Wright basically argues that the resurrection cannot have been a myth invented by the early Christian community, because the idea of the Messiah dying and being bodily resurrected to eternal life was completely unexpected in Jewish theology, and therefore would not have been fabricated.

    For two centuries before Jesus was born, the Pharisees (a cult outside of the Temple authority) was trying to add the concepts of resurrection, angels and demonic spirits to Judaism. The Temple authorities opposed them. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the concept of resurrection and an imminent end of the world became enormously popular. Stories were invented about men coming back to life, all over the place. Paul was raised as a Pharisee, and he told a wonderful story about the dead being resurrected and then levitating up into the air to meet Jesus. Wright is mistaken when he says there was no prior resurrection myths in Jewish mythology. The clue… the missing clue… is that Jesus was not identified as “the Messiah” until AFTER the resurrection accounts were written. So, there was never any problem with a Messiah dying.

    1. Now that’s a better comment. (I cleaned it up a bit for you) Have you got a source? I need a citation and a reputable scholar. You’ve made a lot of claims there, and I want proof for each line! And not from a fringe guy either! Good job, though.

  4. If your message box was a decent size, I might play your game. However, typing into this thing is too much trouble for scholarly results.

    Matthew 22:23 On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him,
    Mark 12:18 Some Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) came to Jesus, and began questioning Him, saying,

    Luke 20:27 Now there came to Him some of the Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection),

    Acts 23:8 because the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection and that there is no such thing as an angel or spirit, but the Pharisees believe in all those things

    The Sadducees (sedûqîm) were one of the three main Jewish political and religious movements in the years between c.150 BCE and 70 CE. They accepted only the written Law of Moses. Many wealthy Jews were Sadducees or sympathized with them.

    The Pharisees taught that the written Law had been given to the Jews and that they were free to interpret the Law. After all, the world had changed since the days of Moses.

    Sources
    No Sadducee texts are known; their ideas and opinions are only known from hostile sources. The Pharisees were usually vehemently opposed to the Sadducees and as a consequence, the few passages in the rabbinical literature that refer to the Sadducees almost always portray them as enemies. For example, when Pharisee teachers were discussing whether a good person could become an evil person, the example of a Pharisee who went over to the Sadducees was quoted as proof that people could become evil (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 29a).

    Matthew 16 Now when his disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’

    Matthew’s passage is derived from the gospel of Mark (8.11-13), where only the Pharisees are mentioned: the author of the gospel of Matthew has added the Sadducees.

    many sources state that they maintained that souls die with the bodies (e.g., Flavius Josephus, Jewish antiquities 18.16; Mark 12.18-27). The rabbinical text known as ‘Avot de rabbi Nathan states that a discussion about this subject was the cause of the schism between Pharisees and Sadducees.

    [The Pharisee teacher] Antigonus of Sokho had two disciples who used to study his words. They taught them to their disciples, and their disciples to their disciples. These proceeded to examine the words closely and demanded, ‘Why did our ancestors see fit to say this thing? Is it possible that a laborer should do his work all day and not take his reward in the evening? If our ancestors, forsooth, had known that there is no other world and that there will be a resurrection of the dead, they would not have spoken in this manner.’
    So they arose and withdrew from the [study of the oral] Torah, and split into two sects, the Sadducees and the Boethusians: Sadducees named after Zadok, Boethusians after Boethus.
    [‘Avot de rabbi Nathan, version A, 5;
    translated by J. Goldin]
    The historical value of this anecdote is questionable, although it may be noted that the date of the schism (two generations after Antigonus, i.e., c.140 BCE) neatly fits the probable date of origin of the Sadducee movement (below). Whatever its reliability, the story proves that the refusal to believe in the resurrection was considered a very important aspect of Sadducee thought.
    The Pharisees and Christians, on the other hand, believed in the resurrection of the dead. When the Christian teacher Paul had to explain his ideas to a court in which some members were Pharisees and others Sadducees, he found it easy to create division among his judges.

    When Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!’
    And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, ‘We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.’
    [Acts of the apostles 23.6-9]
    Another aspect of the ideology of the Sadducees has been introduced in the quote above: they did not believe in angels. However, the author of Acts exaggerates a bit. No Sadducee would deny that messengers of God (Mal’ach Adonay) are mentioned on several places in the five first books of the Bible.

    1. But I think that Wright’s point is that no one expected the resurrection of one man, and especially no one expected the Messiah to be killed. Let me explain: the Pharisees didn’t expect the resurrection of one man, and the Sadducees didn’t expect the resurrection of anyone. Therefore, as Wright says, the early belief in the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, a few years after the cross, requires some sort of event to produce this belief in the death of the Messiah, which was unexpected and the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection, which was unexpected.

      Your job is to show me that there was widespread belief in an individual resurrection of the Messiah before it happened, so that it would be plausible to make up the story and claim that this is what happened to Jesus, and therefore, he was vindicated. I don’t see anything in your last comment that does that. Am I making sense? We need the fact of the resurrection to explain the early belief in the death of the Messiah and the resurrection of one man.

      1. Wint: Why do all proponents of this theory give the same exact
        option of either, it’s true or you have to prove it was made up?
        Clearly, those aren’t the only possibilities. People very often believe things that are not true without making it up. Many people believed the sun and planets rotated around the Earth before the Copernican revolution. Did that mean, people made it up or is it more likely people relied on some purported consensus without examining what the consensus is based upon.
        Since this is such a nuts and bolts observation, you have to ask how so many Christians miss it.

        1. It’s a good question, so you have to ask what is the thing that is being assessed. In this case it’s 2 things:

          1) Jesus died at time X
          2) Jesus was seen alive at time X + Y, for some Y > 0

          Are these things hard to assess so that a person could think that they are true, while they are actually false? No historian doubts 1. And atheistic historians all agree that the disciples had post-mortem experiences of Jesus alive. When I say atheistic historians, I mean Gerd Ludemann and James Crossley. Jesus Seminar leftists think that the early Christians had visionary experiences. So the question is, is this a hard enough thing to assess that they could all be mistaken?

  5. Hi Wintery,

    You mentioned in one of your comments above that Jesus’ original followers (I mention original followers because they are the ones responsible for starting the oral tradition on their encounters with a resurrected Jesus) “were also willing to die for that belief”

    I hope u can help with these two questions:

    1. Do u know of two or more non-evangelical scholars who explicitly agreed to the idea that Jesus followers were willing to die for their belief in resurrection?
    [e.g. if they died because they happened to be caught in an accident fire, then it would not be them dying for their belief in resurrection]

    2. What evidence are there to show that the original followers died, or were willing to die, for their belief in resurrection? (e.g. they were threatened with death if they do not recant their belief in Jesus’ resurrection and they chose death instead of recant – this would mean that they died FOR their belief in Jesus’ resurrection)

    Thank you :-)

  6. Could you please expound on “the existing Jewish concept of exaltation” in some detail? I am unfamiliar with this concept and it’s foundation and would like to understand what this is in order to understand mutation #2 to the traditional Jewish teaching.

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