Is Wright Wrong?
The case against N.T.Wright’s assertion that Jesus’ resurrection should be accepted as a physical event. By John Baxter
Wright, Williams, McGrath and Welby
My paper takes issue with the formidable biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham and Professor of Early Christianity at St Andrews N.T. Wright. Now (2022) at Wycliffe Hall Oxford. 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, Professor Alastair McGrath and Archbishop (Former Bp of Durham) Justin Welby. Despite my respect for much of their work and many of their opinions 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, influenced particularly by reading Geza Vermes, and Karen Armstrong and Wright on Paul, and John Barton on dating attempts to suggest that historical and biblical study can be used to justify a very different conclusion to that of Wright.
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.
These 12 theses baldly state my conclusions. The paper that follows sets out the thinking which has led me to these conclusions
- In examining the resurrection experience we should start with Paul, because his letters are first-hand accounts written 15-27 years before any of the gospels.
- Paul’s experience of Jesus’ “appearance” to him (as in 1 Corinthians and Galatians as told by him in around 50CE and as written up some twenty years later in the Damascus Road account by “Luke”) was clearly a heart and mind visionary religious experience. Its authenticity was accepted by the other apostles, as was his authority to act as Apostle to the Gentiles. It did not involve an external tangible body, but took place in the mind of Paul.
- Written between 64 and 100 CE at the earliest the gospels are all the works of unknown authors who were not eye-witnesses and each differs significantly from the others. Unlike Paul’s letters they are secondary sources.
- Paul’s letters, designed to be read aloud to a largely illiterate audience, were read in the churches founded or influenced by him for years before the gospels were even written. Their writers accepted the theology and authority of Paul and they all express this.
- Paul’s Pharisaic background lead him to believe in “the resurrection of the body” not the immortality of the soul as something that would happen to those being saved in the immanent coming of the “end of the world.” Crucially he saw this as applying to those who accepted Jesus as Messiah, not just to Torah observers.
- 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 in the largely pagan world before this happened.
- The chief purpose of the gospels, of preaching and of the sacraments was to help bring about the experience of coming to know Jesus as Saviour in their minds and hearts before he came again. This meant the gospel writers set out to bring Jesus to life as vividly, movingly and convincingly as possible for their largely illiterate and in most cases pagan audiences.
- Writing at a time when everyone, Jew and pagan, accepted the existence of magical, inexplicable events (miraculous or diabolic) the gospel writers inserted into their accounts allusions and resonances to the Jewish sacred writings so Jesus’ story could be seen as being “according to the scriptures” and the will of YHWH. They also were happy to write up the stories they were told about Jesus as wonders, signs and miracles if these furthered their basic “evangelistic” purpose.
- To treat the gospels as if they are or were ever meant to be objective, accurate historically reliable records in the modern sense is a serious misreading and misunderstands their fundamental original purpose.
- The gospel writers all carefully used Paul’s teaching about the resurrection as involving a transformed body to illustrate Jesus “appearances” to his disciples after his death in a series of vivid, imaginable stories. Historically objective – they are not. They are evangelistic Christian works to propagate faith in Jesus.
- It remains reasonable to consider that in Jerusalem and Palestine disciples of Jesus had powerful, vivid, heart and mind experiences individually and in groups similar to Paul’s experience that Jesus remained with them, in them and amongst them despite his crucifixion – Such“conversion” experiences which have been happening to individuals and groups ever since.
- The Wright option, that the gospel resurrection stories about Jesus are objective, accurate accounts of observable historical events that were necessary to trigger belief and faith is not credible from a historical critical perspective, unbelievable from a scientific perspective, and morally flawed.
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 64 – 100 C.E. at the earliest, that is some thirty to seventy 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 about a quarter 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 emphasizes 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 from a sufficiently privileged background to have been able to have 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 “eschatological” texts as the book of Daniel and expected the coming of a Messiah to free them in some way from pagan and often very harsh 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, rich in memorised quotations, often intimidatingly hard to understand, but also at times brilliant and poetic as in his hymn on love or compassion. (1 Corinthians 13) His writings also show not only his formidable intelligence, but that he was also boldly 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 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 and literacy would have been limited at best, Paul must have appeared thoroughly intimidating with his fluency in Greek and Hebrew, cosmopolitan self-confidence and rabbinic learning. Add to that his spectacular success in bringing so many pagans into the Christian community and his relentless enthusiasm and conviction that this was the right thing to do. His presence for the Jewish followers of Jesus must have been 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 baptised Paul then travelled extensively and indefatigably 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 pagan god-fearers attracted by Jewish monotheism.
What drove Paul to do all this was not only his likely sense of guilt over his persecution of Stephen and other followers of The Way, but also that he was convinced (as it seems were others, both Jew and pagan) that the end of the world was at hand and that everyone, again Jew and pagan, should repent, accept Jesus as Messiah/Christ and be baptised into the “body of Christ” 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.
A Man in a Hurry
In all this travelling and preaching Paul showed himself to be a man in a hurry ready to accept suffering and take risks. 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) the evangelist we call Luke wrote up in Acts the unforgettably dramatic story of Paul’s “vision” of Christ 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 in both 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 subsequent 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.
Has Wright Changed His Tune?
All this Wright appears to miss. In fact in the paper he gave on the resurrection to the Gregorian University (2002) he does not mention Paul’s conversion and speaks only of the resurrection accounts in the gospels. He did however add to his paper this footnote. “Paul’s conversion .. was, and he and the others knew it was, peculiar, in other words we cannot assimilate all encounters with the risen Christ to the blinding light on the Damascus road.” This seems to go right against what Paul has to say that although his experience came later, it was essentially the same as that the original disciples had experienced.
More recently however in his book on Paul (2017) Wright suggests that on the road to Damascus Paul was meditating upon Ezekjiel’s vision of YHWH when he came to see that the figure on the throne of YHWH was Jesus. Wright does not seem to see that by so equating and accepting Paul’s experience of the resurrection with a mystic vision he has completely undone his claim that only if the resurrection was experienced by the disciples as an external to the mind physical event could they have been able to go on and bring about the Church. This is even more the case when one recognises as Wright does, that Paul’s visionary experience is the one which is the key to his theology and that no-one except Jesus has had more impact upon the church which so carefully followed him, than Paul.
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 “Jew and Greek, bond and free, male and female” 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, writing twenty years before the gospels, 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 which Wright regards as so crucial it is to take literally. 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. Again 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, with 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 resurrection of the dead (i.e. transformation of the bodies of the righteous as I have been taught ) 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 way of thinking about what resurrection means, (a transformed body) and applying it to Jesus. He does this not on the basis of him having seen Jesus as it were walking around as in John ,Luke and Matthew, but on the basis of his mystical experience. (see p1131 Oxford Bible Commentary)
Where do the Post-Pauline Gospels Fit In?
All were written in “koine” Greek to be read aloud to Greek speaking largely non-Jewish congregations in Christian worship who we should assume were largely illiterate and many ground down by Roman taxes for life in the Roman colonies ( as Karen Armstrong in her book on Paul empahsises) could be very tough. They were used, as they still are today, alongside preaching and the sacraments of baptism and the breaking of bread, the Eucharist.
Assuming the dates taken From the Oxford Bible Commentary are reasonable we can say 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 written 50-1 CE, Romans mid 50’s CE. Galatians 49-50 CE is 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 which claim his authorship and or authority, 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. Some scholars think Luke and Matthew had a lost written extra source Q, which each of them mined and adapted to their needs. Others think this assumption is not necessary. 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 and described by him as signs.
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, (as modern “fundamentalists” attempt to do) 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
An important point, easily forgotten, is that while each gospel has its own “theology” and selection of stories and teachings about Jesus, none of the gospel writers contradict the theology of Paul, that Jesus was the pre-existent Son of God , Messiah and Saviour, rather they show that they have been deeply influenced by it and express it.
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 years later to illustrate and drive home what Paul had taught and preached. This means that the epistles were not written to elucidate the meaning of the gospels as many easily assume, (because in the NT they come after 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 the “little Apocalypse” of Mark Ch 13.
Resurrection According to N.T. Wright
N.T. Wright it seems has had his liberal predecessor as Bishop of Durham David Jenkins firmly in his sights for having rejected the resurrection as a physical event rather than being in some sense based on an inner religious experience. Concentrating on the accounts in the four gospels until this his most recent book on Paul, he has asserted 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.
By concentrating on attempting to argue that the gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus are historically reliable, Wright appears to draw a clear and unbridgeable line between two ways of interpreting these events, the heart and mind approach and the physical event approach.
In attempting to do this, for him the many gospels and Acts accounts of the dead coming to life apart from Jesus, he refers to as mere “resuscitations”, not resurrection, and subsequent Christian experiences of the resurrection and conversion he does not seem to explore.
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 when it comes to their credibility, that big a deal. For us however, if all these events described in the gospels and Acts refer to real deaths, they contradict the predictable scientific based world view our society is based on.
Wright sees 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 for unlike Jesus they had no “transformed body” which would never die. 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. Surely also all the cases of “resuscitation” are there to provide an encouraging foretaste of the Christian resurrection hope. At the same time these stories in their profusion weaken the idea that the gospels should be treated as giving us historically reliable evidence that these scientifically inexplicable (impossible?) 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 goy god-fearers who attended the synagogues, though attracted to monotheism, remained illiterate – unlike the 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 refer to.
It should also be noted that among those regarded as heretics like the Gnostics or Greco-Roman pagans there is no evidence that for either of 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.
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. As someone who had similar early experiences I sympathise, but think they contradict the need for a faith to be based on a physical inexplicable event.
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. This is where he differs from 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/re-orietation of Paul as it is by the innumerable examples of those who have lived by his teachings and have died for their faith certain that Jesus is “alive” within them and that his example is worth following in the worst of conditions. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Surely there is something fundamentally wrong in thinking that faith in Jesus and his Way should be based on him demonstrating supernatural/magical/inexplicable powers rather than on the inspiration of his radical teaching and moral example and an acceptance of the suffering doing so might involve.
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 much less so. They consisted of the stories of those, Jew and pagan synagogue attender, who had come to see Jesus to be the Messiah, though what that meant was immediately interpreted in different and contradictory ways as the controversy over circumcision shows. Some accounts may have come from those who had personal memories. 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 in public torture and execution, an end which inspired them to see his “shameful death” not as a failure, but as a victory, as the ultimately heroic figure 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, final resurrection of Jesus and his followers in transformed bodies, and the 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, a rejection of “liberalism” and “secularism” and a bias towards taking texts about miracles literally. This is 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 Wright 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 recognised 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 actually experienced or what Paul had actually experienced.
The gospel writers then following on from years of reflecting on what Paul had written and preached that Jesus first, and all Christians when the Parousia arrives, would have special bodies, 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 where Jesus was active, 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 Magdalene first in his resurrection story – perhaps she really was the first person to have an overwhelming experience of Jesus’ living presence when she visited his tomb – possibly something not to Paul’s taste to dwell on 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. Bearing all this in mind should the story, for all its vividness, be read as historical or primarily symbolic/metaphorical?
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 quite what he had experienced in his mystical encounter or what they had actually experienced. Perhaps when they heard Mary Magdalene’s testimony they too, either individually or when they were gathered together, came to feel that Jesus’ presence remained alive within and around them and was with them in their hearts, minds and bodies personally and communally as members of his ecclesia.
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 is because we know many things about how the world works that were not known two centuries ago, let alone at the time of the Roman Empire. As a result scientifically literate people can no longer believe as credible many things that were taken for granted by them 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 millions in our world and not only by those who live within cultures or subcultures which take “supernaturalism” seriously as so many in the southern US, Africa, South America and the Philippines do, but also by many who feel “there may be more to life than what the scientists tell us.” In Western Europe church membership has fallen, but even in our culture the religion that remains is strongest not amongst the “theological liberals” but amongst the Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostalists.
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. Then there is Demon possession causing physical and mental illness, charismatic glossolalia, magical and prayer induced healing. Then there is the fear that behind what appear to be naturally inexplicable events, there may lurk demonic powers or divine retribution, (like the AIDS plague) and victories or defeats in battle seen as the work of God or 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 “science based” world view and the Greco-Roman-Jewish world views 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. In his book on Paul he asserts “the steady hand of God” being ultimately behind all causation and able to bring about what he wants. I Hope I have not misquoted him but such language makes it difficult to see how any sort of dialogue is possible with Wright or those who agree with him for evidence, probability and rationality all crumble in the face of such “faith.” Certainly many argue and think like this. Why this is so is interestingly explored by Professor Bruce Hood in Supersense in which he argues that the tendency to interpret reality using supernaturalism is hard wired into our brains and is very difficult to counter, be we secular or religious, scientifically literate, highly educated or not.
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 just not intellectually honest, 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. Exploring this goes far beyond this paper but 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 his influence remains enormously powerful. 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 integrity, courage, forgiveness, love and respect for all regardless of sex, religious affiliation, class, wealth or power built on a recognition of our common humanity, fragility and weakness.
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 whatever their educational level.
It is pretty clear all of them set out to induce and encourage in the minds of listeners and readers a turning to Christ. (Something thy continue to do over and over and cross-culturally) 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 amazing “miracle” whenever he wishes to drive home a point. (see M Goulder) The gospel writers in fact I would argue are more like historically inspired propagandists 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 are keen to interpret events today is understandable, but unnecessary. We should never forget John says both Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee (Jn 19:38f) were prepared to put their lives and reputations at risk by asking Pilate for permission to bury Jesus while Mark in his gospel has the centurion who supervised his terrible execution saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” They did not it appears need an apparition with a transformed body to goad them into “having faith.”
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 find meaning in the traditional claims that Jesus is in a special sense Son of YHWH and God in human form, the Word made flesh.
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.
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.
Paul , A Biography by Tom Wright 2017.
Karen Armstrong. St Paul, the Misunderstood Apostle. 2015
Rethinking Life After Death (NT Wright on U Tube)
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.”
Christian Beginnings from Nazareth to Nicea by Geza Vermes 2012.
The Resurrection. Geza Vermes 2008.
The Book of the People. How to Read the Bible by A.N. Wilson 2015
Supersense by Bruce Hood. 2009. From Superstition to Religion. The Brain Science of Belief.
This paper can be found on my on-line blog www.johnbaxter.org under the Religion page and would be delighted to receive comments. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
John Baxter 2018 revised and checked May 2022 8,595 WORDS
PS., BBC Sounds April 2022. See Justin Welby Archbishop interviews with Susan Blackmore. She asks why he believes in God and he refers to good people he has met and the resurrection, saying that if the body of Jesus were found, “I would drop the whole thing.” She presses him on the physical resurrection, He answers again: “Yes. It would go. Finished.”
My response is how very sad and how very wrong.