N. T. Wright on the Resurrection

on January 27, 2010

Wright’s approach, to the innumerable questions about the resurrection, is working with the historical and cultural setting in which the claim was made. His book makes the strongest arguments I’ve read that the resurrection was historical and not visionary experiences among devotees. Briefly, the idea of resurrection was an innovation in religious thought that came about during persecution of Jews by Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. When martyrs were unjustly killed by oppressive regimes, it left extreme dissonance about injustices that had occurred in light of religious faith. Most earlier theology, both Hebrew and Pagan, did not think resurrection of the body was likely or even a desirable conception of afterlife. Hebrew theology was a this-worldly hope for a legacy of land and progeny. Pagans thought in terms of the immortality of the soul, e.g. Greek metaphysics or Egyptian mythology. The idea of resurrection seemed compelling to Jews after the Babylonian exile and a series of revolts in which, with the exception of the revolt led by Judas Maccabeus, Jews became martyrs.

Jesus preached during a time when the potential for a new revolt was high. The ferment was held at bay by Roman occupation of Judea and collaboration by the Jewish upper class, the Pharasees, Saducees, and tax collectors who show up in the Gospels. Wright’s argument for a bodily resurrection rests on the difficulty the early supporters of Jesus would have encountered against their claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. People with high status in the Jewish community who turned Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified were not likely to be convinced. Zealots among the populace wanted a revolution, not a spiritualized hope based on visionary experiences by followers of a non-violent messiah. The working stiffs just wanted to be left alone, like most working stiffs, but couldn’t get much relief between the Roman threat and equally oppressive Jewish collaborators.

So, out of this mix, when thousands of people are crowded into Jerusalem for Passover, we find the claim that a peaceful prophet, who mocked the Jewish collaborators of the Romans until they turned him over to be crucified, has been raised from the dead. Who is going to believe it? Not the people who turned him over to be executed. Not the revolutionaries who are expecting the Messiah to lead their revolt. Not the fishermen, craftsmen, and sheep-herders who just want to be left alone. The only suspects are the disciples and a few religious fanatics who earnestly want to believe.

So, maybe a handful of the faithful, compelled by cognitive dissonance, do believe the resurrection occurred. How do they convince anybody else? Somehow they do convince thousands, and the movement in a hundred years is a pervasive force in the Roman Empire. New persecutions attempt to eradicate the movement. Eventually Emperor Constantine sees the political expediency of uniting his fragmented states by making Christianity the religion of Rome.

In two hundred fifty years Christianity is stronger than Rome, and it’s legacy, two thousand years later, is the core of Western Civilization. To investigate that claim, read Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart.

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