The Resurrection of the Son of God: A Review

Who is N.T. Wright?

N.T. Wright is a retired Anglican Bishop and one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars; he earned a Doctor of Philosophy and a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in 1981 and 2000, respectively.[1]  “He has broadcast frequently on radio and television, and has lectured at universities and colleges around the world, holding visiting Professorships at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Harvard Divinity School, and the Gregorian University in Rome. He has received honorary doctorates from several universities.”[2] He is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  A prolific author, Wright writes for the theologian and layman alike.  In the broader world of New Testament Scholarship, Wright it fairly considered a conservative scholar.  However, within the realm of evangelicalism, he is not viewed as writing from a conservative perspective given that he does not affirm the inerrancy of scripture.[3]

“The Resurrection” and “The Son of God”

The Resurrection of the Son of God (the book) is the third volume in “five-volume project on the theological questions surrounding the origins of Christianity.”[4]  Understanding how the ancients thought about the concept of “resurrection” and to whom they referred when they spoke about “The Son of God” is crucial to understanding the origins of the Christian faith.  Thus a book about this subject matter was an inevitable part of Wright’s overall series.  As is easily surmised from its title, the central theme of the book is the historical question, “What did happen on Easter morning?”[5] In order to help answer this query Wright divides it into two sub-questions:  “what did the early Christians think had happened to Jesus, and what can we say about the plausibility of those beliefs?”[6]  Wright recognizes that doing the work of history to answer these questions is a daunting task, one which he compares to shooting an arrow into the sun.  “Proposing that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today. The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.”[7]  Yet Wright clearly believes that there is something that can be said to answer the Easter question.  In painstaking detail, Wright provides a historical backdrop, biblical commentary, and a compelling case for the resurrection of the Son of God.

A Short Summary of a Long Book

To answer the question, “What did the early Christians think happened to Jesus?” one must understand the outlook of the afterlife that was held by his closest contemporaries, the adherents of Second Temple Judaism.  Jesus was a Jew of the Second Temple period, as were many of the earliest Christian converts.  Wright explores the worldview of Jews in-depth, utilizing both the canonical Old Testament as well as intertestamental literature such as the Book of Enoch and the Wisdom of Solomon.  To shed light on the earliest Christian views, Wright analyzes the canonical the New Testament as well as related literature written in the same time period and shortly thereafter.  To provide a more complete picture, Wright additionally examines the philosophical and religious beliefs present in the pagan Greek milieu that surrounded the people of God.

The earliest Christians knew that Jesus had been executed by Roman crucifixion (this historical event is attested to by biblical and extrabiblical writings alike), but did that mean that they believed his existence was over?  No.  Like the pagans who surrounded them, Second Temple Jews and early Christian believed in an afterlife.  While the pagan culture, as well as early “Christian” gnostic sects, believed that the afterlife involved an immaterial existence, Christians and their Jewish predecessors believed in a physical resurrection.  Their belief in a physical, bodily resurrection set apart, with great contrast, Judeo-Christians from the pagan Greeks who surrounded them.

For the Greeks, “The road to the underworld ran only one way… (the dead) were beings that had once been human beings but were now souls, shades, or eidola…They might occasionally appear to living mortals…but they were basically in a different world…the soul was well-rid of its body – a sentiment echoed by many non-philosophers in a world without modern medicine, and often without much justice.”[8]  Where eternity was concerned, the ridding of the mortal body was considered to be a favorable event.  This was not so in Jewish culture.  Life in the realm of the dead (Hades was to the Greeks what Sheol was to the Jews) was indeed disembodied.  However, this state was neither favorable nor permanent.  Using Jewish literature, Wright shows how the Second Temple Jewish belief in a physical resurrection of the dead developed.  From the Old Testament to the New Testament, Wright shows that God’s people expected a resurrection.  Not only that but they were unique in their expectation.  “The Biblical language of resurrection, when it emerges, is simple and direct; the belief, though infrequent, is clear.  It involves not a reconstrual of life after death, but the reversal of death itself…Creation itself, celebrated throughout the Hebrew scriptures, will be reaffirmed, remade.”[9]

This concept of “resurrection” is so essential to Christian belief that Wright dedicates nearly half of the book to understanding and exploring the concept itself.  As is made abundantly clear in the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (which Wright examines, along with other Pauline epsieltes, in-depth ), Christianity is nothing without the resurrection.  Thus, it is within the framework of the biblical belief of resurrection that story of Easter must be understood.  “The resurrection” does not refer only to the individual resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.  The Judeo-Christian expectation was of a general resurrection, of a remaking of creation itself.  Jesus’s individual resurrection was, as Paul put it, the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15: 23) of that general resurrection.  His resurrection, as the first fruits, solidified his status as Israel’s Messiah.  His resurrection “revealed him as the one true Lord”[10] who will conquer all of God’s enemies and fulfill God’s purpose for creation.  Jesus’ status as Israel’s conquering Messiah is why the Easter event can be understood as “The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

Like a belief in the afterlife, the concept of a “son of God” was not unique to Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.  For example, the sons of Roman emperors, their fathers having been deified, were understood to be “sons of god”.  The inbreaking of the messianic kingdom, as a result of Christ’s resurrection, was a direct challenge to the authority of such earthly kings.  As he closes the book, Wright explores the various meanings of the phrase “son of God”.  He makes it clear that when the earliest Christians used this terminology to describe Jesus, they were not speaking of a man who had been deified (or the son of such), but of a man who is the embodiment of Deity itself.  Jesus is the “Son of God” in a way that one else ever can be.  His divinity, Wright demonstrates, is not a development of later Christianity but a concept that is squarely grounded in the New Testament itself.  This concept, one that challenges the ultimacy of earthy rulers (1 Cor 15:24), is one that put the earliest Christians in earthly danger; it does the same for modern Christians.  Living dedicated to the “Son of God” in a dangerous world, Wright asserts is a demand of the Christian life.  “Nothing less is demanded by the God of creation, the God of justice, thee God revealed in and as the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth.”[11]

Evaluation

The space permitted by the scope of a review like this one is insufficient to provide the depth of analysis that would do truly the book justice.  The book is 739 pages long and covers thousands of years of history and thousands of pages of ancient writings.  Wright does the subjects he covers justice and writes with care.  The Resurrection of the Son of God is a good book.  It’s a very good book.  It is a fine resource for theologians, historians, and Christian apologists alike.  Whoever reads it will be better educated and (presuming he is regenerate) a more effective Christian apologist for doing so.  That being said, it is a book written by N.T. Wright.  Those familiar with his work understand that he can often be wordy and painfully unclear.  Another scholar could have written a book that did the material just as much justice but with fewer words and more clarity.  Another scholar would also cause less trepidation among evangelical readers, especially the reformed.  As Matthew might say, “ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω” (let the reader understand). N.T. Wright, because of his “New Perspective on Paul” is (understandably) considered a dangerous influence by many.  This book, of course, (safely) does not advocate for the New Perspective.  However, whoever recommends this book to his Christian friends should keep in mind that they may not appreciate the tacit endorsement of Wright.  Any recommendation of a book by Wright should be done carefully.  This particular book is one of his safer ones.  In it Wright answers the question “What did happen on Easter morning?” in a through historically and theological faithful way – the Son of God rose from the grave.  The Resurrection of the Son of God is one of the best books in the world about the most important event its history.

Bibliography

Amazon.com, Inc. . “Christian Origins and the Question of God Series (4 Book Series).” Amazon.com. 2017. https://www.amazon.com/Christian-Origins-Question-God-Book/dp/B011M9AUFW (accessed February 25, 2017).

Merrit, Johnathan. “N.T. Wright on the Bible and why he won’t call himself an inerrantist.” Religion News Service. June 2 , 2014. http://religionnews.com/2014/06/02/n-t-wright-bible-isnt-inerrantist/ (accessed February 25, 2017).

School of Divinity, St Mary’s College. “N T Wright.” University of St Andrews. 2017. https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/rt/staff/ntw2/ (accessed February 25, 2017).

University of St Andrews. N. T. Wright appointed to Chair at St Andrews. April 27, 2010. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/about/news/title,50688,en.html (accessed June 6, 2012).

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Kindle Edition. Fortress Press.

[1] University of St Andrews. N. T. Wright appointed to Chair at St Andrews. April 27, 2010. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/about/news/title,50688,en.html (accessed June 6, 2012).

[2]  University of St Andrews. N. T. Wright appointed to Chair at St Andrews. April 27, 2010. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/about/news/title,50688,en.html (accessed June 6, 2012).

[3] Merrit, Johnathan. “N.T. Wright on the Bible and why he won’t call himself an inerrantist.” Religion News Service. June 2 , 2014. http://religionnews.com/2014/06/02/n-t-wright-bible-isnt-inerrantist/ (accessed February 25, 2017).

[4] Amazon.com, Inc. . “Christian Origins and the Question of God Series (4 Book Series).” Amazon.com. 2017. https://www.amazon.com/Christian-Origins-Question-God-Book/dp/B011M9AUFW (accessed February 25, 2017).

[5] Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Kindle Edition. Fortress Press (p. 4).

[6] Ibid (p. 6).

[7] Ibid (p. 10).

[8] Ibid (p. 81).

[9] Ibid (p. 127).

[10] Ibid (p. 332).

[11] Ibid (p. 737).

 

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

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@gsethdunn

Seth Dunn

Editor at Pulpit & Pen
Host of the Christian Commute Podcast
Member, Evangelical Theological Society
@gsethdunn

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