Is Wright Wrong?
This paper examines the work of Professor N.T. Wright and suggests a different way of interpreting the resurrection of Jesus. A long paper, read the first 12 theses and if they interest you print off the other 15 pages.
Summary of the case against an “objective,” materialistic view of the resurrection.
- In examining the resurrection we should start with Paul, not the gospels because his letters are first-hand accounts written 15-27 years before any of the gospels.
- The gospels are all the works of unknown authors who were not eye-witnesses and each differs significantly from the others. This makes them all secondary sources and of doubtful “historicity” in the modern sense.
- The gospels all agree with and express the theology of Paul.
- Paul’s experience of Jesus was a heart and mind religious experience accepted by the apostles, as was his authority as Apostle to the Gentiles.
- The gospels were written to express Paul’s theology rather than Paul being a commentator on the gospels. Paul comes first in time and authority in the early church.
- Paul’s Pharisaic background lead him to believe in “the resurrection of the body” not the immortality of the soul and in an immanent coming of the end of the world. These ideas he applied to Jesus.
- Paul’s belief in the immanent return of Jesus as Messiah with a resurrected “transformed” body to judge mankind and bring in YHWH’s rule spurred Paul to travel widely and seek converts.
- The purpose of the gospels, preaching and the sacraments was to help bring about in converts the experience of coming to know Jesus in their minds and hearts before he came again.
- The gospel writers used their sources more like historical novelists than historians to bring their accounts of Jesus vividly to life while at the same time inserting allusions and resonances to the Jewish sacred writings so his story could be seen as “according to the scriptures.”
- In doing this they carefully used Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the body to illustrate Jesus “appearances” to Paul and the disciples in a series of vivid, imaginable stories. Historically objective – they are not.
- The elephant in the room. The Wright option, that the resurrection appearances of Jesus were – following the gospels – objective , observable historical events is simply unbelievable from both a scientific and an historical perspective.
These 11 theses baldly state my conclusions. The paper that follows sets out the thinking which has led me to these conclusions.
Wright, Williams and McGrath
My paper takes issue with a most formidable biblical scholar so I do so with trepidation. He is also not alone in his views which on the resurrection appear to be shared by both Dr Rowan Williams and Professor McGrath. Despite my respect for the outstanding contributions to Theology all three have made, I find I cannot agree with them on the nature of the resurrection of Jesus. This then of course raises the whole issue of the credibility of miracles and special divine action (SDA).
My paper however, which relies to an extent on reading Geza Vermes, boldly attempts to suggest that historical and biblical study can be used to justify a very different conclusion to theirs regarding the resurrection which may be more believable and less divisive.
Wright’s Assertion of a Physical Resurrection
Basically I see the key issue centres on Wright’s assertion that Jesus was seen resurrected with a physical, tangible, transformed body and that this is the only satisfactory explanation for the faith of the disciples that gave them the conviction needed to go on and start the church.
The Primacy of Paul’s Witness to the Resurrection
Wright starts, like most scholars, with the empty tomb and the gospel accounts of the risen Jesus. (Meeting Mary Magdalene and other women, the meal at Emmaus, meeting Thomas with disciples, cooking 153 fish by the Sea of Galilee and his final encounter and ascension.) This I think is a mistake for the gospel accounts were all, scholars accept, written some time between 70 – 90 C.E. at the earliest, that is some forty years after Jesus death in around 33 C.E.
Priority however I believe should be given not to the gospels, but to Paul and not just because his writings take up almost a third of the New Testament, but because scholars accept none of the gospels were written by eye-witnesses. This makes them secondary sources. By comparison at least seven of Paul’s letters are regarded by scholars as genuinely written by him. This makes the only first person “eye-witness” primary accounts of the “resurrection” that we have – are made by Paul, as in his letter to the Corinthians composed scholars think in 52-54 CE and in his letter to the Galatians 49-50 CE.
Paul’s Claim to Apostolic Authority
In these letters he emphasises that his experience of the resurrection is as authentic as any witnessed by the other apostles individually or together. He claims that this is accepted by the others, “these leaders had nothing to add to the good news as I preach it.”(Gal 2:7) and this is backed up by Luke in Acts, that his teaching is the same as theirs. “I taught you what I had been taught myself — that he was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures, that he appeared to Cephas and secondly to the Twelve. Next he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died, then he appeared to James and then to all the apostles and last of all he appeared to me too; it was as though I was born when no-one expected it.” (I Cor 15:8f) and it gives him apostolic authority (authority direct from Christ) over his newly converted church communities of Gentile god-fearers and the relatively few Jews who joined them having accepted Jesus as Messiah.
Paul was a Greco-Roman Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia (Turkey), a Pharisee who had studied under the Jerusalem based sage, the Rabbi Gamaliel. The Pharisees, were the party who most prized learning in general, Torah study in particular and the meticulous practice of its precepts and were well known for their belief in the bodily resurrection of those who died who had been devoted to the Torah. (as both Wright and Vermes are agreed) They also discussed such “eschatalogical” texts as the book of Daniel and expected the coming of a Messiah to free them in some way from pagan Roman rule in a coming cosmic battle that would end history and Roman power with the triumph of YHWH.
Paul’s writings are fluent and challenging, not always an easy read, but at times brilliant and poetic as in his hymn on love or compassion. (1 Corinthians 13) His writings also show not only his intelligence, but that he was also very creative and the first full-blown Christian theologian with the imagination to develop ideas about Jesus being not just the Messiah sent by YHWH to inaugurate his Kingdom, but the pre-existent supernatural Son of God and Saviour not just of the Jews, but of all humanity and who would shortly return to bring on the Eschaton, the End of the World – a challenge to the likely monotheism of Jesus that might have surprised him.
Compared to the other apostles and disciples of Jesus whose education would have been limited at best, Paul must have appeared thoroughly intimidating with his fluency in Greek and Hebrew, self-confidence and rabbinic learning. Add to that his spectacular success in bringing so many non-Jews into the Christian community and his relentless enthusiasm and conviction that this was the right thing to do, something Jewish followers of Jesus must have found quite hard to take as they quickly became a minority in the Church.
So despite never having known Jesus during his life-time, after his conversion Paul came to the disciples convinced that Jesus had “appeared” to him some time (About a year? We cannot know) after he had been crucified at a time when Paul was bent on persecuting followers of Jesus’ “Way” for being Jewish heretics in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. The converted Paul travelled extensively and indefatigably on missionary journeys, sometimes with Peter and sometimes Barnabas and Silas. He visited urban centres in Syria, Turkey, Greece and Palestine preaching in the synagogues with limited success as regards the Jews, but much more success as regards the Gentile god-fearers attracted by Jewish monotheism.
What drove Paul to do all this was not only his sense of guilt over his persecution of Stephen and other followers of The Way, but also that he was convinced the end of the world was at hand and that everyone, Jew and pagan, should repent, accept Jesus as Messiah/Christ and be baptised if they were to escape the imminent damnation of YHWH. If they did this they could expect resurrection at the last day with a transformed body “in the twinkling of an eye when the last trumpet sounds. It will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed as well, because our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality” (1 Cor.15v52f) ready to go into the presence of YHWH and Jesus in Heaven.
Paul’s journeys ended in Rome. There, after the two years Luke mentions, he may have been executed in Nero’s reputed persecution of Jews and Christians in 67 CE. He may however have lived longer and visited the synagogues in Spain.
In all this travelling and preaching Paul showed himself to be a man in a hurry. He was not building a church to last for two thousand years, but a church whose members should not spend time thinking about getting married because they were about to experience the end of the world. His letters show he clearly spoke in his role as Apostle to the Gentiles and he expected his teachings to be accepted and obeyed. This I think we have reason to see had a considerable impact on how and why the gospels were written.
Luke Writes Up Paul in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles
To return to Paul’s Conversion. Whatever Paul’s actual experience was, some 20 years later based on the accounts he had heard, (which oddly did not appear to include Paul’s letters) Luke wrote up in Acts the unforgettably dramatic story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. This raises three vital points.
Was Paul’s Conversion Unique?
Firstly, contrasting the Acts account with what Paul actually says in his letters (ICor 15v5-8)(Gal.1v11-16) surely we have a record of a life changing religious experience taking place in the mind and heart of Paul. (Acts 9) Secondly, it is also a record which gives us no reason to believe it was dependent on him seeing or relating to Jesus as a physical objective presence. In fact he describes it somewhat differently. “God – YHWH – called me through his grace and chose to reveal his son in me (not as we might expect to me) so that I might preach the Good News (euangelion) about him to the pagans.” (Gal 1:16) Thirdly, this gives us no reason to believe his experience was in any significant way different from the innumerable experiences of countless Christians down the ages who have had powerful life-changing “conversion” experiences of coming to “know” Jesus as a living presence in their lives. All this Wright appears to have missed. In fact in the paper he gave on the resurrection to the Gregorian University he does not mention Paul’s conversion and speaks only of the gospels accounts.
Paul sees Jesus’ Body is now the Church
Paul says, and Luke corroborates, that he comes to see the presence of the risen Jesus as alive in his body, and that this is not just his personal body but the Christian community, the Church (I Cor. 12v12) and (Acts 9v4) “Paul, Paul why do you persecute ME?” For Paul the Church is the Body of Christ, home of Jesus’ Spirit and unlike Israel, open to all. His realisation of this meant he accepted Jesus as Messiah and Son of God and was baptised into the Church, was converted to “die to sin” and “be born again.”
Paul the First Christian Theologian
Paul says that after his conversion he withdrew into Arabia ( for an undisclosed time of contemplation and study?) Paul then emerged with what his letters reveal to have been the first carefully thought through Christian theology. Paul, while claiming that Jesus “appeared” to him, never mentions the empty tomb, the appearances to the women or any of the other accounts of the resurrection given in the later written gospels. He also never refers to Jesus birth, life, teachings or parables, but emphasises his death on the cross, his resurrection and immanent coming again.
As his letters and Acts show, these visits to various Greek speaking cities varied greatly in length from over a year to a very brief stay. In all of them however his role as leader of the churches and apostle to the Gentiles was accepted by the God-fearers and the letters he wrote to them were quickly venerated as authoritative guides both for their theology and practical advice as he described what to believe and how to behave and organise themselves while they waited for the imminent coming of Christ. Note, this was happening at least 20 years before any of the gospels were written.
Pharisaic Influences on Paul. Eschaton and Resurrection Body
Paul’s emphasis on the imminent action of YHWH to bring Roman domination and the world to an end was something he had learnt and explored in rabbinic Pharisaic discussion. To this he now added that when the world ended Jesus would return to fulfil God’s Kingdom, something they were already partially experiencing in their new lives as members of the Body of Christ, the Church, and secondly he promoted the Pharisaic teaching that then they would all be provided, as he considered Jesus must have already received, a special “resurrection body” with which they would enter “heaven.” (1 Cor.15v52) to be with YHWH, Jesus and his Holy Spirit. (The Pharisees preferred to think of immortality taking place in a resurrected body as opposed to the Greek idea of an “immortal” non-physical soul – (here Vermes and Wright agree.)
Addressing this point what Paul has to say is quite interesting. Talking to the Corinthians he says, “How can some of you be saying there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ himself cannot have been raised, and if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless.”(I Cor 15:12) What he appears to be saying is not as is often thought: “Christ being resurrected from the dead (with a transformed body) gives us reason to believe we too will be transformed and raised from the dead and if this were not the case then our preaching is useless.” No. What he is actually saying is: “If there is no transformation of the bodies of the righteous as I have been taught (resurrection of the dead) Christ himself cannot have been raised, and if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless.” In other words Paul insists on his converts sticking to his Pharisaic thinking about what resurrection means, (a transformed body) and applying it to Jesus. He does this despite not having experienced such an encounter with a transformed physical Jesus himself.
The Post-Pauline Gospels
We should remember academic NT scholars are agreed that the four gospels were written between 70 and 90 CE, that is around a generation after Jesus’ death in about 33 CE and as crucially we should remember that is between 20 and 37 years after Paul had written his letters. All were written in “koine” Greek to be read aloud to Greek speaking largely non-Jewish congregations in Christian worship. That is they were to be used, as they still are today, alongside preaching and the sacraments of baptism and the breaking of bread, the Eucharist.
This paper assumes the dates taken From the Oxford Bible Commentary are reasonable
Mark was written in 70 CE plus a year or two. Its author a Hellenistic Jewish Christian. Matthew was written after 70CE and after Mark by a Jewish Christian. John’s redacted final version was written 90-100 CE. This shows he knows Mark and is the work of a well educated Hellenistic former Jew possibly from Ephesus. Luke and Acts was written by the same man, a Hellenistic, well travelled former Jew in the 80’s CE.
Paul’s letters. Corinthians 50-1 CE, Romans mid 50’s CE, Galatians 49-50 CE perhaps the earliest. Nero persecutes Jews in Rome 64 CE. The cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans takes place in 70 CE. James executed by the High Priest in 66 CE.
We do not know which gospel was written for which congregation, but all four gospels would have been written for churches either founded by Paul or strongly influenced by his visits, his letters or the letters like Ephesians that more or less reflected his teaching and style, but might not actually have been his.
How The Gospels Were Written
as already mentioned scholars do not consider any of the gospels to be the work of eye-witnesses, still study of these texts has led to considerable areas of agreement about them amongst academic scholars. Mark was the first and known to all the others to be copied from, adapted and re-organised as each saw fit.
Matthew knew Mark, John knew Mark and Luke knew Mark and Matthew. Possibly Luke and Matthew had a lost written extra source Q, which each of them mined and adapted to their needs. Each gospel writer did not just “cut and paste ” his sources, but set about adapting them, written and oral, to fit in with his own ideas and priorities. Each developed an individual style, outlook and “theology” in telling his story, so they each read rather differently, particularly John who writes long first person speeches as if spoken by Jesus and contrasts inspiring near philosophical passages with some of the most vivid and “realistic” descriptions of healings and miracles, which at the same time are also rich in symbolism and metaphor.
Tropes and Types “According to the Scriptures”
While the gospels vary from each other quite considerably, they also all appear to be very carefully constructed to echo tropes or types drawn from the Hebrew scriptures and to be rich in the use of symbols and metaphor designed to link Jesus with the Jewish tradition and portray his life, death and resurrection as being, as Paul puts it, “according to the scriptures” and so the culmination of Jewish sacred history. As any examination of the texts shows, this is not done in a crude literalistic way, but by using often subtle allusions – very rabbinic. Scholars also argue that the texts of each gospel show signs of “redaction” i.e. when they were copied, passed on or passed down, they were subjected to being further edited or added to.
Despite all this the result in each case is a vivid, dramatic and arresting literary work ideal for public readings to a largely illiterate audience of worshippers.
Paul’s Theology Comes First, Followed by the Gospels
Another point which NT scholars make is that the gospel writers do not contradict the theology of Paul, rather they show that they have been deeply influenced by it and express it. As regards Jesus’ “earthly life” as we have noted Paul refers only to his last supper, Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection and his coming again. This makes the stories in the gospels supplementary to what Paul taught and preached. (Paul makes no mention of Jesus’ teachings except on marriage and on love, though even that almost stands alone.)
The Gospels Illustrate Paul’s Theology
The dramatic stories in the gospels about Jesus’ birth, his parables, his missions, encounters with others, exorcisms and healings, resuscitations from the dead, the spectacular nature bending miracles, the whole drama of his “passion”, the empty tomb and the various resurrection “appearances”, all this gospel material, whatever its historicity, metaphorical value or symbolism was written up in the gospels to illustrate and drive home what Paul had taught and preached. This means I would suggest that the epistles were not written to elucidate the meaning of the gospels, but that the gospels were written to elucidate and dramatise in story form incidents in the life of Jesus that back up the theological teachings of Paul.
At the same time as many scholars have pointed out the gospels are not “biographies” of Jesus for they all lead up to and concentrate on and devote much of their coverage to what Paul considers is the most important elements of the Jesus story, that is his last supper, trial, crucifixion, resurrection and his immanent coming again. This is most dramatically expressed in Mark Ch 13. Again I think this reflects the priorities of Paul.
Resurrection According to N.T. Wright
Concentrating on N.T. Wright we find he totally rejects any explanation of the resurrection being in some sense based on an inner religious experience. He certainly ignores any reference to Paul’s experience of Christ “appearing” to him in what I have read and heard. Instead he asserts that for the disciples of Jesus their minds hearts and heads were radically changed not by some deep inner religious experience, but as a result of a series of fully physical, historical encounters and confrontations with the living, resurrected Jesus “appearing” in transformed bodily form. Concentrating on the gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, Wright appears to draw a clear and unbridgeable line between these events.
For him the gospels and Acts accounts of the dead coming to life he refers to as mere “resuscitations”, not resurrection, and subsequent Christian experiences of the resurrection and conversion he does not seem to explore.
Do the gospels illustrate the teachings of Paul, or Paul the gospels?
For Wright the evidence for his claim are the accounts in the Christian gospels, the writings of Paul are it seems used by Wright as subsequent illustrations, clarifications and explanations as to what these events mean – as Wright delights in elaborating. I am suggesting that since Paul wrote before the gospels, the sequence is the other way around and the gospels are deeply influenced by and illustrate Paul’s teachings.
Wright and Religious Experience
While not denying the claim of Christians that the gift of faith and the coming of the Holy Spirit into their hearts has given them the conviction that Jesus is alive, Wright appears to see such experiences as erroneous or insufficient if applied to the resurrection compared to a faith based on accepting the resurrection appearances as physical events. He says this while at the same time describing in a video how he came to an awesome awareness of God and Jesus when he was a child of about five. I find this contradictory.
The Israeli Archaeologist and Paul’s Conversion
A serious consequence can be drawn from this physical focus. This is that if Israeli archeologists were to dig up the identifiable bones of Jesus today, this would invalidate Wright’s faith completely. This consequence Wright appears to accept, but seems “certain” it could not happen. Here he differs from his predecessor bishop of Durham, the formidable t David Jenkins.
The problem with this conclusion of Wright is that it insists on a very narrow and materialistic understanding of what might cause a deep and lasting shift in religious conviction, i.e. that only an unexpected physical confrontation with Jesus as alive could work to do that. This I would suggest is powerfully disproved by the conversion of Paul as it is by the innumerable examples of those who have died for their faith certain that Jesus is “alive” with them and that his example is worth following in the worst of conditions. “Take up your cross and follow me.” There is also something fundamentally wrong in thinking that faith in Jesus should be based on him demonstrating supernatural/magical/inexplicable powers rather than on his radical teaching and moral example.
Secondly it attempts to insist that only a reading of the gospel resurrection stories as essentially accurate historical accounts of what happened is credible. To do this Wright argues that the gospel writers were dependent on reliable, highly trustworthy, historical evidence. This is far easier to assert than to prove or consider credible.
What were the gospels based on?
Surely what the gospel writers were faced with was a mixed bag of memories and accounts up to a generation old, some very convincing to them, others less so as communicated by those who had come to see Jesus to be the Messiah. Some accounts may have come from those who had some eye-witness encounter with Jesus. Many, even then, would have been garbled and confusing and many may not have come from eye-witnesses at all, but were second hand, uncertain, sometimes or often contradictory and sometimes embellished with personal views and attempts to understand as we see in the gospel treatments of the “parables.” Such is the nature of oral traditions. We can further assume they all reflected the world views and beliefs of those who expressed them.
A many faceted powerful impression
Taken together these memories and oral traditions would have conveyed a powerful impression of the character and teachings of the young charismatic rabbi whose life had brought him to such a terrible end, an end which inspired them to see him not as a failure, but to follow him as “the suffering servant” Messiah. Surely however these primary oral traditions were sufficiently varied and equivocal as to give the gospel writers good grounds to arrange, interpret and adapt what they heard and what they read in each other’s works in ways each of them saw made the best sense to them and the congregation they served.
Again it seems clear they did this influenced by and bearing in mind the teaching and theology of Paul about the centrality of the passion, cross, bodily resurrection and coming end of the world.
If one stands back to contemplate all this one can see that bearing in mind these factors it is extremely difficult to construct a picture of the “historical Jesus” separate from and preceding the gospel accounts. We only “know” Jesus through the writers of the gospels who all wrote under the influence of Paul our earliest “witness.”
Wright and Vermes
Wright’s research and production of books and videos on U Tube is prodigious and his work is expressed in an extremely self-confident no-nonsense style (with a dislike of metaphor and symbol and a bias towards taking texts literally?) clearly backed by a great deal of academic study and linguistic fluency and it has found favour with many Christians of a conservative or evangelical bent across denominations, particularly in the US. There are however other biblical scholars who have come to different conclusions. In particular I have been impressed by the work of Geza Vermes.
As Oxford Professor of Jewish Studies he was a specialist in and first translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a formidable expert on rabbinic Judaism and its relationship to the Christian scriptures. From the time of his publication of Jesus the Jew in 1973 until his final work Christian Beginnings from Nazareth to Nicea 2013 he has been showing, as no one ever had before, how both Jesus and Paul relate to and were influenced by the teaching of the rabbis and the speculations that were going on amongst them and particularly amongst the Pharisees. (Both Wright and Williams acknowledge his pioneering work. See Williams review https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/11/christian-beginnings-geza-vermes-review .) Aware of Wright’s 800 page work on the resurrection he came to a very different conclusion which is that the resurrection is something that happens “in the hearts of men.”
After years as a Catholic priest Vermes reverted to his origins and died a liberal Jew, something that may not have gone down too well with Wright. Following on from Vermes Wright has also studied the Jewish roots of Jesus and Paul and the role played by Pharisaic thought.
On my reading it appears that Wright comes to the opposite conclusion to that of Vermes. Starting with the empty tomb and Mary in Gethsemane he uses the Pharisaic belief in resurrection as involving a transformed but physical body to explain what Mary Magdalene was seeing in the garden. Why Wright thinks we should take this Pharisaic teaching about the “righteous” receiving a transformed physical body during the “eschaton” as anything more than speculation puzzles me.
The Impact of Paul’s Expectation of a Physical Resurrection on the Gospel Writers
In particular with regard to the gospels what I have been arguing here is that with his Pharisaic understanding of resurrection as agreed by both Wright and Vermes, Paul when he heard that Peter, James, the Twelve, the 500 and the women had all had experiences of Jesus continuing presence in and among them after his death, imagined they must have seen Jesus in a transformed resurrection body even if this was not what they had experienced or what he had actually experienced.
The gospel writers then following on from what Paul had written and preached on the resurrection and his expectation that he and all Christians would have special bodies when the Parousia arrived, wrote up their accounts in the gospels, not to agree with each other, which they do not, but to tie in with Paul’s thinking. This led Mark first and then the others to posit an empty tomb and to illustrate what Paul said there must have been, that is stories of Jesus appearing complete with a transformed body.
In each case they seem both to bear in mind what Paul had said in his letters and to load their stories with symbols and metaphors – for Mark and Matthew, Paul’s 500 are placed in Galilee, For Luke Peter’s experience is described and the Emmaus appearance to apostles is loaded to refer to the Eucharist. The meeting with the apostles is graphically described, and he eats fish, (the acrostic Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour). Luke’s 500 are placed at the outskirts of Bethany and in Acts he has Jesus around for 40 days (very symbolic – temptation and wilderness) in Jerusalem before “ascending.” (Luke just loves dramatic miraculous stories). John places Mary in his resurrection story – perhaps she really was the first person to have an overwhelming experience of Jesus presence – possibly something not to Paul’s taste as Pharisees did not go for equal rights when it came to trusting the word of a woman, but John has Jesus mistaken by her for the gardener – an allusion to Jesus as the Second Adam, a great Pauline idea. We then have Thomas, encouraging the weak to have faith, as Paul does, and again all those fish 153 by Galilee . (An obscure number but this explanation from the web intrigues. “The number 153 is “17 factorial” – that is, it is the sum of adding the first 17 numbers together (1+2+3+…+17 = 153). In Hebraic numerology, the number 17 refers to the concept of “overcoming” or “total victory”. When Peter hauled 153 fish ashore, he experienced “total victory” by following Yeshua’s command. (b) the word בצלאל(betzlel) has the numeric value of 153. Betzlel means “in God’s shadow” or “under God’s protection”. One could extrapolate from that fact that when the disciples caught those 153 fish at Yeshua’s command, it was a sign to them that they were in God’s shadow and under His protection.)
To summarise then with regard to the gospels what I have been arguing here is that with his Pharisaic background as agreed by both Wright and Vermes, Paul when he thought of resurrection expected that because Peter, James, the Twelve, the 500 and the women had all had experiences of Jesus continuing presence in and among them after his death, he thought they must have seen Jesus in a transformed resurrection body even if this was not what he had experienced or what they had actually experienced which was a conviction that Jesus presence was with them in their hearts, minds and bodies personally and communally as members of his church.
Here we need face, apart from the gospel writers rich use of metaphor and symbolism in the Jewish and rabbinic style which may not come easily to us, that between “us” and them and all inhabitants of the Greco-Roman Jewish world there is a gulf which should never be forgotten or ignored. In particular they all, regardless of religion, background or culture, believed in the existence of magic, events without any natural explanation, miracle if from YHWH, sorcery if from paganism or the Devil.
This gulf surely is that educated thinking people of today (let’s call ourselves “modern”) know (with practical certainty) many things that were not known at the time of the Roman Empire. What is more, scientifically literate people can no longer believe as credible many things that were taken for granted at that time – even by the most sophisticated and educated.
Of course in saying that we should not forget that many of the magical elements of the Greco-Roman Jewish world views continue to be taken for granted as quite credible by those for whom scientific literacy is either missing or not regarded as important. I talk of course of those who take what we might broadly call “supernaturalism” seriously. It should also be noted that while in Western Europe church membership has fallen, in the countries where supernaturalism remains for many a “normal” way of thinking as in Africa, South America and the Philippines, Christianity thrives at “grass roots” level and with a strong “charismatic” emphasis, almost regardless of denomination.
To be specific, here is a list of what I am referring to. Theistically caused good magic called miracles. Satanically caused bad magic called demonic sorcery. Both can appear in astrology, special signs, fortune telling, tarot cards, special dreams and visions which predict the future. Demon possession causing physical and mental illness. Charismatic glossolalia, magical and prayer induced healing. Naturally inexplicable events, i.e. as the result of demonic powers or divine retribution, (like the AIDS plague) and victories in battle seen as the work of divinity or defeats as coming from “the powers of darkness.” Add to all this belief in “real” angels, devils, Satan, witchcraft, ghosts, and intervening ancestral spirits and you get the picture.
The Irreversible Nature of Death
One of the most obvious of the differences which lies between a modern (dare I say secular?) world view and theirs is that our way of thinking would be quite unintelligible to them. We now know as a result of the development of science why the physical death of every human organism is final and irreversible. It is well established that within a few minutes of the brain being denied oxygen, its cells deteriorate and liquefy. With that the individual person dies. This process is irreversible. There is no possible way of bringing dead people whose brains have disintegrated physically back to life again.
Wright in a video seemed to argue that quantum mechanics has destroyed certainty about what is or is not possible and that an infinitely powerful creator God (who we can never fully understand) could certainly so arrange things as to bring about the physical resurrection of Jesus if it were part of his plan. I Hope I have not misquoted him. Certainly many do use this argument.
It seems to me however that to use references to the way quantum mechanics works as giving grounds for accepting miracles of all types and the resurrection in particular as being possible, is unfounded. Why? Basically because there is no good evidence that such an inexplicable event as the physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened and secondly that it is quite possible to put forward plausible cultural and psychological explanations as to why such supernaturalist thinking and explanations continue to count as credible for so many.
Surely it needs to be recognised and emphasised that from a scientific perspective the physical resurrection of dead people is simply impossible. (This of course does not stop some scientists accepting a physical resurrection of Jesus from their personal faith perspective.)
Physically dead, yet Jesus lives
Once dead Jesus, like all of us, was and remains physically dead. This does not diminish how powerfully and importantly aspects of his mind, the pattern of his personality, his example, teaching and values continue to resonate across time inspiring and entering into our minds, as a result of our exposure to the gospels and as a result of the contact we have with those who in some way embody in their lives something of his Way. I would add to that what is truly inspiring and challenging about Jesus is not his reputed capacity to do inexplicable things, but to set an example of forgiveness, love and respect for all regardless of sex, religious affiliation, class, wealth or power but based on a recognition of our common humanity, fragility and weakness.
Evidence and Explanations
There needs to be very strong evidence that an event – such as Jesus or anyone else physically coming to life again – has actually happened and so requires either acceptance or explanation – and here the scholarly conclusions about the second-hand hearsay evidence of the NT documents makes reliance on them as evidence regarding resuscitations and resurrection decidedly shaky.
Assumptions About Death Have Changed
In the Jewish Greco-Roman and early Christian world view there seems to have been little doubt that while death was generally accepted as final and inevitable, there was very little understanding as to exactly why death happens. There was also a belief that there were exceptions. For the Jews Elijah and Enoch were generally considered to have been swept up into heaven and three other cases are claimed in the Jewish scriptures.
The gospel stories list a considerable number of resuscitations by God and by Jesus facilitated by the faith in YHWH or Jesus by those involved. These are the daughter of Jairus, the centurion’s servant and son of the widow of Nain. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a particularly dramatic portrayal by John of what happened to one who was a special friend of Jesus and Matthew (27:50) mentions many Jews who had died (he gives no names or numbers) wandering around Jerusalem after Jesus died on the cross and then both Paul and Peter we are told by Luke also raised people from the dead. (Eutychius and Dorcas) It is as if for all these writers the resuscitation of dead people or even their assumption into heaven – though wondrous acts of YHWH, are really not that big a deal when it comes to their credibility, when for us if all the events described refer to real deaths the predictable scientific based world view our society is based on would be broken.
Wright attempts to draw a clear distinction between the NT accounts of resuscitations of dead people by Jesus or his apostles and the resurrection appearances of Jesus on the grounds that those resuscitated went on to die in the normal way and unlike Jesus had no “transformed body.” This is hard to apply to Mathew 27 when good Jews come up out of their graves to be seen around Jerusalem. Does not Mt intend us to believe that they are resurrected in the Pauline sense? Surely he does. What all these cases both of Jesus resurrection appearances and the “resuscitations” taken together do is to weaken the idea that the gospels should be treated as historically reliable, as good evidence that these scientifically inexplicable events actually took place.
Dying and Rising Again
It was also the case that in Greek, Roman and Egyptian religion the interplay between gods and men involved dying and rising again and all manner of divine-human interactions which were taken more or less seriously and interpreted more or less literally by different individuals and groups. It should also be remembered, a point often not mentioned by biblical scholars, that many, if not the majority of the pagan god-fearers who attended the synagogues, though attracted to monotheism, remained illiterate – unlike male Jews (post Bar Mitzvah) who had learnt to read some Hebrew. This can make a considerable difference to what such people would find credible and why. This Wright also does not accept. It should also be noted that among those regarded as heretics or Greco-Roman pagans there is no evidence that for them accepting miracles or the supernatural was a problem as it is for many modern educated westerners who find such claims simply unbelievable. They took inexplicable events in their stride as part of the generally mysterious world they lived in as and when they needed to.
The Awesome Mystery Continues
In contrast to the world-views of the Greco-Roman Jewish world for us “moderns” there is still much for scientists to investigate and thinkers to reflect on. WE are faced with no shortage of genuine mysteries such as what is meant by consciousness, identity and the relationship between mind and brain, dark matter, black holes, gravity, time, space and energy, and how religious, political and moral beliefs and values are actually learnt and communicated. So far however these have not been the issues theologians concerned with the resurrection of Jesus have shown much interest in – or so it seems. Instead when it comes to Wright, McGrath and Williams their focus is on the “evidence” of the Gospels, that there was an objective, historical empty tomb and objective historical physical reappearances of the risen Jesus to his female and male disciples and Thomas, in Galilee, at Emmaus and at Pentecost.
In accepting these documents as credible evidence for the physical coming to life again of Jesus after his terrible death I respectfully think our theologians appear to me to be far too quick to set aside the evidence of science regarding death. They seem to think of it as something not to be taken too seriously and in the name of “faith” to be far too ready to read the gospels as if they were written by “trusty” historians like Suetonius and Josephus (who were not really that trusty) and with a near modern approach to evidence rather than the work of writers with a very different objective, assumptions, and beliefs – many that are no longer tenable.
Time to Consult U Tube on Modern Miracles
Those who would put more faith in “scripture” than in “science” I would suggest are in danger of entering into the territory where 2 plus 2 can equal 5 if you want it to or have enough “faith” to believe it can. A visit to Miracles Today on U Tube is a salutatory experience. There you will have a sharp reminder that many who possess Smartphones are all too ready to see 2+2=5 and accept contemporary accounts of miraculous healings on the basis of thin or manipulated evidence. Go to the web and there is also much evidence to be found of continuing accounts of demon possession, mindreading, telepathy, astrological predictions and levitation. In fact the full supernaturalist package is alive and well and flourishing across continents and cultures. The reasons for this persistence deserve to be explored and properly understood. Will neuroscience and psychology help us?
Again, the first century world views, though many and varied, were all, with the exception of some critical Greek thinking, pre-scientific as were the religions then used to make sense of things and as were the first Christian texts. They all made assumptions about gods, YHWH, angels, spirits, demons, magic, miracle and astrology in their attempts to make sense of, explain or predict, inexplicable events such as sickness, mortality, madness, dreams, nightmares and natural catastrophe. In addition the Jews, some pagans and the early Christians and it seems Jesus, faced with the harsh reality of the pagan Roman rule of Palestine that was so quick to resort to mass crucifixion were influenced by and indulged in wild speculations about the coming end of the world, a legacy the monotheist religions continue to explore. Sadly.
The Purpose of the Gospels, to induce and Encourage Faith in God and Jesus
Why then were the gospels written? They were not primarily written as philosophical or theological texts, though they contain both philosophy and theology. Nor would I suggest were they written to provide for an imagined long term posterity, an historical record to last for thousands of years. Rather they were written to help convert as many contemporaries as possible, as quickly as possible, be they Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female, learned or illiterate, before the imminent Second Coming of Jesus the Messiah. Hence they were written as engaging, moving, vivid narratives to be easily imagined by those who heard them read.
It is pretty clear all of them set out to induce and encourage in the minds of listeners a turning to Christ and an acceptance of Jesus as “Lord and Saviour.” Even more than Paul’s letters the Gospels were intended primarily to be read aloud in Christian worship. Being so powerful and dramatic they have proved very good at inspiring those who hear them read to come to Christ and accept him as personal Lord and Saviour. They are not however in any modern sense works of history and they do not constitute on their own good evidence that any of their stories of Jesus performing miraculous acts and of him and many others coming to life after death again actually happened in the physical sense as so vividly described. Rather they were referring, as did the ceremony of baptism that they underwent, the need to repent and die to their old pagan (or Jewish) life and be “born again” in Christ.
This process of making inner religious experience (something that happened in the mind of Paul) into an easy to imagine story can be seen in Luke’s Acts. Paul while insisting in Corinthians and Galatians that he has had an experience of meeting Jesus, never actually describes this. Instead it is Luke in Acts who gives us the easy to imagine and brilliantly memorable story of his very visible conversion on the road to Damascus. In fact throughout his gospel and Acts Luke shows himself a great story teller with a love for the “wow!” of drama and miracle whenever he wishes to drive home a point. The gospel writers in fact I would argue are more like historically inspired novelists than historians and they were writing carefully crafted accounts to convey their stories and get across religious teaching as vividly and engagingly for their audience as possible.
I would thus suggest that Jesus is reborn and comes alive again each time someone comes to feel that his spirit is within them and guiding them. To think that this process is dependent on extraordinary inexplicable miraculous events having actually happened in Greco-Roman times (or are currently happening as charismatics and Pentecostals see things today) is understandable, but from an informed (modern?) perspective unnecessary.
If the body of Jesus was discovered tomorrow in an Israeli dig, it should make no difference to Christian faith in Jesus as an exemplar to follow and the head of the community that remains to this day inspired by his spirit and experienced by many as a living presence. It also does not make it difficult or impossible to see Jesus as in a special sense Son of YHWH and God in human form, the Word made flesh.
The only claim to originality in this paper goes alongside my emphasis on the primacy of Paul in shaping the practice and theology of the first Christian congregations. It strikes me that Paul’s thinking also had a huge impact on how and why the gospels were written. They all strike me as being amazingly vivid and imaginable. They are narratives written with the intention of helping church members meet Jesus and experience and feel the “resurrection” for themselves as quickly as possible to prepare them for the coming of the “parousia” and that this explains their enduring power to bring people to faith and to believe that they “know Jesus” and that he is “Risen.”
Basically I see now that I have in the past both underestimated and in practice ignored Paul when it came to making up my mind about Jesus and Christianity, concentrating instead on the gospels and hoping and attempting to find a miracle free historical Jesus (Yeshua). I now see particularly from looking at articles in Jesus the Complete Guide edited by my old tutor Leslie Houlden and the Oxford Bible Commentary that such an approach was a mistake, particularly when you look at the near unanimous conclusions of Biblical scholars concerning the dates and authorship of the gospels and the dates and authorship of Paul’s letters.
One is also thrown off scent by the way the NT starts with the gospels and then has the epistles which makes one think of them as commentaries on the gospels. One really should wake up to the fact that nearly a third of the NT is the words of Paul and that they were delivered to the early churches a good generation before the gospels were written and that their authority and use in the church predates the gospels.
Bearing this in mind much falls into place. Again the biblical scholars seem agreed that MT, Mk, Lk and Jn all knew Mark and that Mark’s shape and focus is in line with Paul’s emphasis on the “passion” and that none of the gospels contradict the theology of Paul even though they differ in elements of content, e.g. the birth stories, the parables, the death and resurrection accounts. What I have not read the scholars say – and I may have just missed it – is that in all cases they sat down to compose their gospels using the materials they had about Yeshua, his life and teaching as expressions of the theology of Paul or at least as not being in contradiction to it. That is reflecting his concentration on Jesus as Messiah, “according to the scriptures”, his suffering, betrayal, death and resurrection and coming again together with origin stories for the two sacraments of baptism and eucharist that enact Paul’s theology in ceremonial or ritual form.
Interestingly Wright follows Vermes in seeing Paul when he speaks of resurrection meaning not the survival of the spirit beyond death as Platonic Greeks thought, but the gift of a transformed body awarded by YHWH, not as for the Pharisees, to faithful Jews, but rather for those within the Church, the Body of Christ at the Parousia. As the creed says, “the resurrection of the body”.
The point I make is that Paul’s meeting with Jesus who “appears” to him is a heart and mind conversion experience and that this happened to Mary, the apostles, the 500 e.t.c. without any multiple, tangible, or able to be videoed “appearances” of a “transformed” Jesus. Never forget John says both Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (Jn 19:38f) were prepared to put their lives at risk for recognising Yeshua (as Messiah?) BEFORE they had buried him. They did not need an apparition with a transformed body to goad them into “having faith.”
So I think Paul on the basis of his Pharisaic learning or tradition expected an empty tomb and Jesus appearing in a transformed body and the gospel writers accepting his teaching obliged by writing up accounts that went beyond accounts of heart and mind conversions to describe a transformed Jesus. Vermes thinks they met Jesus in their hearts and minds, and I do to. Wright says no and goes for the full supernaturalist view that Jesus appeared in a transformed body and takes the gospels literally. Not a necessary conclusion Ithink.
Why does this matter? If McGrath and Williams, not to mention Pope Francis agree with Wright then inter-religious dialogue with them and those who agree with them becomes very difficult or pointless for it means they are asserting that Christianity is the one and only true religion because revealed directly and unambiguously by ultimate divinity. For many such claims are simply in the light of modern knowledge – scientific, historical and cultural – irrational, unbelievable and in the end arrogantly intolerant and wrong. It also makes difficult or impossible for those Christians who see and have always seen experiencing the resurrection of Jesus as a heart and mind, deeply personal conversion experience based on the impact upon them of the life, teaching, character and terrible death of Jesus. This divides the Church deeply. Open, liberal minded, reflective Anglicanism badly needs a new David Jenkins.
I am also well aware that a great deal more could be said. The following books beside the New Testament have helped me.
Jesus The Complete Guide edited by Leslie Houlden. Much dipping in and out. Particularly the essays there on Paul.
The Oxford Bible Commentary on the gospels, on Paul, Corinthians and Galatians.
Christian Theology, An Introduction. By Alister McGrath. My time with this book however was limited. I hope I have not misunderstood him.
The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright. “Wright seeks the best historical conclusions about the empty tomb and the belief that Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead.” Williams quotes him and this book with approval. I have not read his 800 pages, but I have read his Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins published on line from the Gregorianum 2002 very carefully. I have read sections of his books and listened to many of his videos.
Rethinking Life After Death (NT Wright on U Tube) Listening to him talk on U Tube about the Resurrection Body amazed me.
God With Us. 2017 by Rowan Williams. This book is admirably clear and readable. He sets out to show that “Belief in the resurrection is what makes the Church more than just the Jesus of Nazareth Society.” He talks of the resurrection stories as “historical reportage”. Williams also wrote an excellent review of Geza Vermes Christian Beginnings. 2012 This faithfully recounts Vermes seeing Jesus as a charismatic teacher who was accepted by some Jews as the Messiah but who has been exalted by Paul into the Son of God in ways that he would not recognise, At the same time Williams suggests that this might not be the whole story and hints that “resurrection changes everything.”
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/11/christian-beginnings-geza-vermes-review. Did he come to fall in with NT Wright’s view that the resurrection is a physical historical event only after he had studied Vermes?
Christian Beginnings from Nazareth to Nicea by Geza Vermes 2012. This book sums up a life-time of studying Christianity against its rabbinic Jewish and Dead Sea Scrolls background. It is a fascinating and compulsive read fastidiously and relentlessly argued showing not only where Jesus stands as a charismatic messiah figure calling the Jews to a simplified and more open form of obedience to the Torah in expectation of the coming of the Kingdom, but he shows how Paul uses tropes from the Jewish scriptures to apply them to Jesus and in particular uses the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as the key to understanding the cross and the resurrection. He never seems to find it necessary to argue that a literal, historical resurrection is impossible for he considers that he has explained that the resurrection of Jesus “is in the hearts of men.” This is most clearly set out in his earlier book The Resurrection 2008. In it he reports NT Wright’s view, but is not convinced by his “800 pages”.
The Book of the People. How to Read the Bible by A.N. Wilson 2015 This is an amazing and beautiful book by a very accomplished writer and historian who has studied Theology deeply and who while rejecting traditional Christian faith and all talk of SDA, sees the whole Bible as a rich cultural resource that has affected our civilisation, culture and values more deeply than we realise and which deserves to be studied not just by “believers” but also from an open humanistic perspective. As regards Jesus he worked with Vermes and the BBC and became convinced that the search for the “historical Jesus” is doomed to failure. He has also written a book on Paul which I have not read. He sees the gospels as rich and many layered, containing historical nuggets and in a fundamentally non historical form. He is against both religious and secular “fundamentalists” who grossly oversimplify both belief and unbelief and the richness of the scriptures. The NT is the product of the faith of Church members for the Church existed before the gospels. This I think ties in well with my emphasis on the importance of the Apostle to the Gentiles.
I shall place this paper on www.johnbaxter.org and would be delighted to receive comments. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
John Baxter 27-1-2018