I have said many times that my favorite New Testament scholar, by far, is N.T. Wright. And this is despite the fact that I find his view on Israel and Jewish people sadly deficient. He is a conundrum on this point, a man who knows his Judaism better than almost any Christian scholar and yet who continues to cling to an Anglican supersessionism (the common Christian view that the church replaces Israel).
Anyway, in this article, I am explaining just another little piece of brilliance from Wright . . .
In December 2007, N.T. Wright delivered a lecture called, “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?” The article is brilliant without being difficult, a rare balance of clarity and genius. In other words, it’s the kind of thing we have come to expect from N.T. Wright. Access the full article by Wright HERE.
In one portion of his paper, Wright explains seven developments in the concept of resurrection from Judaism to the New Testament. What I will do is list and briefly summarize these seven developments and then include Wright’s own words for your reading pleasure.
To meditate on these seven developments will expand your concept of resurrection and bring you into the pleasures of good theology.
Listing and Describing the Seven Developments
1. Moving from Judaism’s diversity of resurrection concepts to the unified theology of resurrection in the New Testament. Whereas Second Temple period (500 B.C.E to 70 C.E.) Jewish texts record varying concepts about the details of resurrection, the New Testament concept of resurrection is remarkably unified and detailed.
2. The vastly increased importance of resurrection for Yeshua’s followers as compared to its lesser importance in Second Temple Judaism. Resurrection is not a frequent or central topic in ancient Jewish texts, but is the backbone of New Testament faith.
3. Moving from an unspecified view of the resurrection body to a specific view: that we will have transformed bodies both continuous and discontinuous with our present bodies. The key text is 1 Corinthians 15, where we learn the resurrection body will be perfected, sinless, and immortal as well as the concept that it will be a spiritual body (Wright interprets this as a body animated in a different fashion, by the Spirit). By contrast, Second Temple Jewish texts show variation about the kind of body we will have.
4. Moving from a one-stage resurrection to one that is two-stage. Whereas Judaism anticipated a general resurrection at the end of the age, the New Testament introduces a novel development: Yeshua first and the rest of the redeemed at the end of the age. This would have been a surprising twist, for example, for Paul when he heard Yeshua’s voice on the road to Damascus.
5. Moving from the not-yet resurrection of ancient Judaism to the now-and-not-yet resurrection of the New Testament. Since Yeshua has already inaugurated the age to come, his followers believed that God had called them to make this world better in the present. This is nearly identical to the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, but I believe Wright is saying that the New Testament thought of the concept first.
6. The development of a metaphorical use for resurrection. Just as in Ezekiel 37, where resurrection is a metaphor for the nation of Israel being reborn, so in the New Testament, resurrection is used metaphorically for the new life a person lives when following Yeshua.
7. The development of resurrection as a cardinal doctrine of Messiahship. As Paul says in Romans 1, Yeshua was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection.” In ancient Judaism, there was no idea that Messiah would die and be raised. Though this concept is in Isaiah 53, it was not fleshed out in Jewish texts from the Second Temple period and never became part of Judaism. It is in the New Testament that resurrection and Messiahship come together, so that the resurrection is the primary evidence that Yeshua is Messiah.
Wright’s Own Words
The following excerpt is from N.T. Wright’s paper (mentioned above):
The first modification is that there is virtually no spectrum of belief on this subject within early Christianity. The early Christians came from many strands within Judaism and from widely differing backgrounds within paganism, and hence from circles which must have held very different beliefs about life beyond death. But they have all modified that belief to focus on one point on the spectrum. Christianity looks, to this extent, like a variety of Pharisaic Judaism. There is no trace of a Sadducean view, or of that of Philo. For almost all the first two centuries resurrection, in the traditional sense, holds not only centre stage in Christian belief about the ultimate future but the whole stage.
This leads to the second mutation. In second-Temple Judaism, resurrection is important but not that important. Lots of lengthy works never mention the question, let alone this answer. It is still difficult to be sure what the Dead Sea Scrolls thought on the topic. But in early Christianity resurrection has moved from the circumference to the centre. You can’t imagine Paul’s thought without it. You shouldn’t imagine John’s thought without it, though some have tried. Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is four chapters of the gospels. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second century fathers as well.
The third mutation has to do with what precisely resurrection means. In Judaism it is usually left vague as to what sort of a body the resurrected will possess; some see it as a resuscitated but basically identical body, while others think of it as a shining star. But from the start the early Christians believed that the resurrection body, though it would certainly be a body in the sense of a physical object, would be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, would have new properties. That is what Paul means by the ‘spiritual body’: not a body made out of non-physical spirit, but a physical body animated by the Spirit, a Spirit-driven body if you like: still what we would call ‘physical’, but differently animated. And the point about this body is that, whereas the present flesh and blood is corruptible, doomed to decay and die, the new body will be incorruptible. 1 Corinthians 15, one of Paul’s longest sustained discussions and the climax of the whole letter, is about the creator god remaking the creation, not abandoning it as Platonists of all sorts, including the gnostics, would have wanted.
The fourth surprising mutation within the early Christian resurrection belief is that ‘the resurrection’, as an event, has split into two. No first-century Jew, prior to Easter, expected ‘the resurrection’ to be anything other than a large-scale event happening to all God’s people, or perhaps to the entire human race, at the very end. There were, of course, other Jewish movements which held some kind of inaugurated eschatology. But we never find outside Christianity what becomes a central feature within it: the belief that the resurrection itself has happened to one person in the middle of history, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of his people at the end of history.
I am indebted to Dominic Crossan for highlighting what I now list as the fifth mutation within Jewish resurrection belief. In a public debate in New Orleans in March 2005, Crossan spoke of ‘collaborative eschatology’. Because the early Christians believed that ‘resurrection’ had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed also that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his Spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in the light of that future.
The sixth mutation within the Jewish belief is the new metaphorical use of ‘resurrection’. I have written about that elsewhere. Basically, in the Old Testament ‘resurrection’ functions once, famously, as a metaphor for return from exile (Ezekiel 37). In the New Testament that has disappeared, and a new metaphorical use has emerged, with ‘resurrection’ used in relation to baptism and holiness (Romans 6, Colossians 2—3), though without, importantly, affecting the concrete referent of a future resurrection itself (Romans 8).
The seventh and final mutation from within the Jewish resurrection belief was its association with Messiahship. Nobody in Judaism had expected the Messiah to die, and therefore naturally nobody had imagined the Messiah rising from the dead. This leads us to the remarkable modification not just of resurrection belief but of Messianic belief itself. Where messianic speculations existed (again, by no means all Jewish texts spoke of a Messiah, but the notion became central in early Christianity), the Messiah was supposed to fight God’s victorious battle against the wicked pagans; to rebuild or cleanse the Temple; and to bring God’s justice to the world. Jesus, it appeared, had done none of these things. No Jew with any idea of how the language of Messiahship worked at the time could have possibly imagined, after his crucifixion, that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Lord’s anointed. But from very early on, as witnessed by what may be pre-Pauline fragments of early credal belief such as Romans 1.3f., the Christians affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.