A Few Brief Words on N.T. Wright’s: The Resurrection of the Son of God

A Guest Article by Andrew Livingston



If there are any people out there more often and more confidently quoted by Christian apologists and their fans than N.T. Wright, there can’t be all that many of them. [1] And there is no work of his more often held in their confidence than “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. [2]

Perhaps that has misled me. Perhaps the title of that book, combined with its constant quotations or recommendations by evangelists and apologists, has given me the wrong idea about its target audience. Now that I’ve read it my take is that while converting outsiders was probably an item somewhere on Wright’s list of priorities it wasn’t very high up on that list. He mainly addresses people who already think of themselves as Christians but who have too liberal an interpretation of what that means. In other words, Wright has at most an ephemeral interest in persuading non-Christians to start believing that Jesus rose from the dead; he seems much more concerned with people who say, “Jesus rose from the dead,” but who mean those words in some wishy-washy, desperately metaphorical sense like, “If we let the memory of Jesus live on, he will always be alive among us. If we make his teachings the center of our moral philosophy, it’s as though God was walking among us.” You get the picture. You know the type.

But there is an evangelical element in there, however deemphasized it might be. And when I go about discussing and refuting this evangelism I find that the considerable length of the book automatically places me at an impasse. The text nearly reaches the 750-page mark, the print is tiny, the pages are huge, and the number of specific subtopics brought up might be three digits long. I want you to think about the position this puts me in. Any reader who’s ideologically committed to siding with Wright can easily deflect even the most detailed and accurate criticism with an accusation that the critic has obviously overlooked something important or even made a point of quote mining the author on purpose. Were my review twice as long as the book itself there’d still always be a way to do that. A comprehensive work is not necessarily a good one—but it can so easily feel like it is.

For that reason I’ve decided to forego any attempt to go over Wright’s book point by point even in the very most broad and succinct way. Instead I’ll simply show you a couple of underlying errors in Wright’s thinking which reveal enough all by themselves. His arguments are built on faulty foundations that render everything else moot on principle—even if he were to go into five thousand pages of detail about it.

Before I begin, though, let me unhesitantly compliment Wright on his writing skill. The man is known for being articulate, and not without good reason. His ability to effortlessly construct creative yet multifaceted analogies for any subject that comes up is on par with C.S. Lewis’s own. Just look at the book’s closing words:

“When we have shot our best and boldest arrows at the target reflected in the pool, the water may be so splashed and stirred that, for a while, we can see the image no longer. Scholarship sometimes has that effect. A voice may whisper that it was no image, but only imagination; it was a mirage, a fantasy. But as the water settles, with gentle ripples still visible where the arrows went in, the image will return. We will gaze at it once more, and know that in the Lord our labour is not in vain.”

Actually, I do have to hesitate a little with that compliment. You can have too much of a good thing. At times Wright’s instinct as a preacher to galvanize every point he makes with pomp and drama can cause him to get carried away and, frankly, make his writing unintentionally silly. At the beginning of chapter fourteen he says, in reference to the book of Mark and its ending where the women flee in fear from the empty tomb:

“A book of dark mysteries, we are told: secret revelations, flashes of light amid the gloom, the challenge of faith without sight, and finally trembling, panic and silence. A perfect ending for a book like this. Or is it?”

But enough about that. What matters is what Wright says, not how he says it. And what he says is riddled constantly by two commonplace yet inexcusable errors.

The first error is his stubborn refusal to accept that The New Testament constantly makes predictions about a first-century apocalypse that didn’t happen. (Indeed, the very few New Testament books that deny this belief, such as 2 Peter, are invariably books which historians had already commonly placed in the second century long before this issue became a standard talking point.) I’ve gone over the matter before time and again. It suffices now to show that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus was inextricably connected to that false prediction. Wright’s central argument [3] is that for first-century Jews a belief in one man rising from the dead (separately from the resurrection of the entire human race come Judgment Day) would be so mind-bogglingly out of left field that something extraordinary must account for it—and that something extraordinary can only be Jesus actually rising from the dead. But it is quite plain that for the longest time nobody did see Jesus’s own resurrection as existing apart from the general resurrection at Judgment Day. Mid-first century Christians believed the end times had already begun, Jesus was only the first man to be resurrected, and the rest of the dead would rise along with him in no time flat:

“[This is] the revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place…The time is near…Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is…the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. ‘Look, he is coming with the clouds,’ and ‘every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’; and all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of him.’” (Revelation 1:1-7)

“The time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away…Christ has…been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31, 15:20-26)

“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:24-26) [4]

It’s as plain as the light of day. Now here is Wright’s overview of the issue:

“Ever since Albert Schweitzer, most scholars have done their best to come to terms with an ‘eschatological’ perspective. That has meant very different things to different people, but at the heart of it lies the recognition that Christianity was born into a world where people were expecting something to happen. Because it was assumed by many scholars that nothing much had happened in the world of space-time events—because, in other words, it was taken for granted that the bodily resurrection did not happen—all the weight was put at another point, the imminent ‘second coming’. In fact, though the early Christians did indeed hope for a great future event, which might, they thought, happen at any time, they rested the weight of their theology on the event which, they firmly believed, had already happened.” (Page 582)

Look, it is a very real problem that the academic world makes it a rule that any proper, scholarly approach will always involve at least pretending (because otherwise you’re not being professional) that you’re a hardcore atheist and unyielding rejecter of the paranormal. The common attitude is that the way to avoid being biased when studying one religion is to be biased against all religions. Christian apologists did not invent this complaint out of their self-centered paranoia about liberalism and modernism, it’s a genuine problem. It must also be noted that while passages like Matthew 10:23 are exactly what they look like they still can’t be traced to Jesus’s actual teachings—meaning the ones he gave in real life as opposed to ones the text falsely attributes to him. John Kloppenberg has very effectively demonstrated that. But according to Wright the reason most historians claim early Christianity centered itself on a false prediction that the world would end while the original Christians were still alive is not because their texts depicted Jesus as saying, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matthew 24:34) It’s not because these texts include statements like, “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18) Nor because of Mark 9:1, nor 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16, nor the many passages I quoted above. It’s because of a liberal bias against miracles. Do you see now what I mean when I tell you that N.T. Wright’s skepticism about there being any such thing as cognitive dissonance can be easily disproven by his own behavior?

Funny I should mention Kloppenborg. Let’s use that as a segue and take a look at error number two. No analysis of early Christianity can be complete without a full discussion of Q. For those who don’t normally read books about these things “Q” (an abbreviation of the German word for “source”) is the name scholars have given to a lost first-century Gospel the existence of which is clearly indicated by a number of passages in Matthew and Luke. In a nutshell: verbatim agreements between those two books will very nearly always take the form of dialogue and not narrative, and this dialogue will very nearly always take the form of a single, self-contained statement that can easily stand on its own as a pithy proverb without any surrounding context. It’s hard to imagine that these patterns are the result of pure coincidence—especially when yet more patterns can be found if you compare the style and content between said proverbs. So what we have here is traces of a lost collection of Jesus’s teachings—one which certainly predated three out of the four canonical Gospels and which might very well predate any surviving Christian text. A reconstruction of Q can be found at this link:

http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/iqpqet.htm

But what’s particularly interesting is that Kloppenborg and some others have found distinct indications that multiple layers of tradition lie within Q. That is to say, some of the Q sayings can be shown to be older than others. (It may sound at first like these people are trying to squeeze blood from a stone but the more you know about the subject the more believable you’ll find their analysis actually is.) This stratification of Q is essential: if at the time of the earliest layer of Q tradition the belief in Jesus’s resurrection existed at all, the overall theology still doesn’t line up with the central focus later texts would give to the doctrine. Whatever you think we should conclude about that the fact itself mustn’t be overlooked.

But Wright will have none of that. The existence and importance of the Q document is necessarily a blow to his pride. It must feel to a bishop like him as though people have discovered a missing book of The Bible. How then can The Bible be the complete Word of God? And so Christian apologists and conservative Christian academics invariably keep themselves at arm’s length from the topic. Even when they cite Q as part of a historical argument they still make sure to hem and haw about the document’s genuine existence. [5] Or in the best case scenario they’ll acknowledge that it existed while also making it clear that the letters of Paul are still the way to get at the original facts. And under no circumstances whatsoever will they agree that Q can be legitimately stratified into multiple layers. It’s just not going to happen.

Now you’d expect that in a 738-page book in which discussion of the Gospel Easter narratives doesn’t begin until page 587 you’d find a pretty lengthy discussion of Q. Even if it’s just a detailed attempt to debunk Q’s existence there’s plenty of room for such a thing in six hundred pages. What we get instead is a passing mention here, a sentence or two there. Fleeting references, snide dismissals, brief diversions. I don’t seem to remember seeing an entire page on the topic when rightly there should be an entire chapter.

If at this moment you’re thinking to yourself, “Excellent! I’m proud of Wright for knowing better than to waste much of his time on such purely theoretical drivel,” let me inform you right now that he’s perfectly willing to spend a fair amount of time on the relatively much more obscure and rejected theory of the Cross Gospel (a pre-Markan source John Dominic Crossan claims he can partially reconstruct using the text of the apocryphal Gospel of Peter). Starting on page 592 Wright goes into an extensive point-by-point rebuttal to Crossan, explaining why there never was any Cross Gospel and how unhelpful the Peter text is anyway for historical analysis. On that particular matter Wright may very well be correct (though I don’t claim to be sure). But it still throws into strident contrast his unwillingness to do much more than just scoff at Q studies. Wright keeps accusing people like Crossan of having some kind of anti-canonical bias when he himself couldn’t any more obviously be biased in favor of canonical texts. [6]

So is Wright worthy of being a common go-to reference? While you can hardly at this point expect me to say yes I will concede that it isn’t difficult to understand why another person might do so. People might find a book more persuasive than they should if happens to be either emotively and eloquently written, or detailed and complex, or telling them exactly what they want to hear, and Wright’s book is all three at the same time. I think I’d be surprised if it didn’t get such a reputation. It’s still unearned—but then again, I mean it when I say I’m not sure if the book is even meant for me at all.



FURTHER READING: If you want to know about Q and its layers, read Kloppenborg’s book “Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel”. If you want to know more about the historical Jesus and the arguments over whether he rose from the dead, the Dale Martin-Mike Licona debates are a good starting point.

NOTES:

[1] Mostly, though, there’s just that one quotation: “That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” If you’ve heard this sentence on any less than thirty different occasions you’re obviously new to the world of interfaith debate.

[2] The title page reads: “Christian Origins and the Question of God Volume Three: The Resurrection of the Son of God”. The key info from the next page: “First published in Great Britain in 2003. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Copyright Nicholas Thomas Wright 2003. First printed in Great Britain by CPI—The Bath Press. Reprinted in Great Britain by Ashford Colour Press.” I wonder what country this book may have come from.

If you, say, turn to page 50 and find that the first words on this page are “Platonized Christianity”, my citations should line up with the page number in your own copy of the book.

[3] I recognize that you can’t very well summarize the argument flawlessly with a single sentence—but first off, I again ask: what am I supposed to do about it? And secondly, this is exactly the same way the point gets summarized by Christian apologists who cite the book.

[4] My biblical quotations in this article are from the New International Version.

[5] Every time a Christian debates a Muslim over whether Jesus believed that he was God he always cites Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22—and then always adds, “Now some people think that this came from a hypothetical source called Q…” But if he doesn’t think that himself then why is he bringing it up in the first place? Why isn’t he simply citing the verse as coming from Matthew and Luke and then giving some argument for these Gospels’ reliability?

[6] I mean in terms of The New Testament. There’s no alarm bell that goes off in Wright’s mind when he deconstructs Second Temple apocrypha given that doing so, he believes, will help him set up the belief in Jesus’s resurrection as some startling new “mutation” (as he puts it).

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Categories: Bible, Biblical scholarship, Christianity, Islam, Scholarship

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3 replies

  1. What an excellent review!

    I completely agree with Andrew’s criticism of Tom Wright’s unconvincing spin on the failed end-times predictions. From what I can gather few New Testament scholars have been persuaded by Wright’s arguments which are in reality apologetic in motivation.

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  2. It is interesting to know that Kloppenborg has found a layered stratification in the “Q” sayings which indicates that the overall resurrection theology doesn’t line up with the central focus later texts would give to the doctrine.

    It is easy to see why Christians would prefer to avoid the subject of Q since it indicates the following:
    1- Bible is incomplete and not divinely preserved (there is a missing Gospel or sayings of Jesus tradition now referred to as “Q”).
    2-It portrays Jesus as a man not a God.
    3-It does not support Trinitarian theology.
    4-there is no focus on atonement by sacrifice on the cross.
    5 -it brings into question the resurrection which is the cornerstone of Christian faith. If the resurrection never happened, then Christian faith and doctrine are all lies.

    Although Kloppenborg can be a little technical to read, it is well worth the time and effort to understand more about Q source theory.

    Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel
    https://www.amazon.com/Excavating-History-Setting-Sayings-Gospel/dp/080062601X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1520273094&sr=1-1&keywords=excavating+q

    “Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus”

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