In Jesus, The Final Days, N. T. Wright and Craig A. Evans set out to bridge the gap between academic and devotional discussions of the Passion. The third — and last — chapter of the book is based on a lecture Wright gave at Crichton College. He discusses the "Surprise of the Resurrection," including four unusual features of the Gospel accounts.
First, as we read the Easter stories, we note the strange absence of Scripture in them. When you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' last days — of his arrest, his trial, and his crucifixion — you find Old Testament echoes, quotations, and allusions all over the place. The Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, and other books have provided material that has then been woven into the structure of the narrative.
Turn over the page to the Easter accounts, and what has happened to all that scriptural allusion and echo? It is just not there. John tells us that the two disciples who went to the tomb "did not yet know the Scripture that he must rise again from the dead," but he does not tell us which Scripture he is talking about.
Luke has Jesus expound the Scriptures to the two on the road to Emmaus, but even in that story, he never actually quotes or mentions one of them. This is extraordinary because as early as Paul (e.g., 1 Cor. 15), we can see a very sophisticated hermeneutic of several biblical texts already firmly embedded in early Christian theology. But in these Gospel narratives there is no mention of particular passages, scarcely even an echo of the Old Testament.
One could suggest, I suppose, that this scriptural absence has come about because the people who wrote down those narratives in the second generation had gone through the stories and taken out all of the biblical allusion and echo. That won't work when we have four independent narratives telling the story in different words and different ways.
It is much more plausible to argue that these stories, though written down later, actually reflect the very, very early, pre-reflective eyewitness accounts in which people had not even begun to wonder whether or not this strange set of events fulfilled certain Scriptures. They were, it seems, too eager to tell their friends and neighbors and families the extraordinary things they had just seen and heard.
I therefore regard that as one piece of evidence indicating that the stories, though written down later, must go back to very early oral tradition fixed in that form. Once you tell a story like that (and believe me, if you had experienced something like that, you would tell it over and over again), the story would very quickly acquire a fixed form, just as when you repeat an anecdote two or three times, you tend to settle down into one particular way of telling it.
Though the Resurrection stories have been lightly edited by the different evangelists, they reflect quite closely four of the ways in which that story was told right from the start.
* * *
The second strange feature of the Resurrection stories is the presence of women as the primary witnesses. Whether we like it or not, women were simply not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world.
Now when the tradition had time to sort itself out, as we see reflected in the first paragraph of 1 Corinthians 15, the women have been quietly dropped. When it came to public apologetics, in that world, it would have been very embarrassing to think that your main witnesses to this extraordinary event were women, not least someone with the extraordinary reputation of Mary Magdalene.
But there they are in all four Gospel stories, front and center: the first apostles, the first people to tell others that Jesus was raised from the dead. In concert with what is noted earlier in this book, it is simply incredible to suppose that the tradition began with the male-only form that we find in the tradition Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians, and then developed, in significantly different ways, into the four female-first stories we find in the Gospels. Here again, the stories really do look as if they are very, very early.
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The third strange feature, which goes with the third modification of the Jewish resurrection belief, is the portrait of Jesus himself. Many people have tried to make out over the last century that the Gospel stories developed in the following manner. First, people after Jesus' death were so overcome with grief that they really did not know what they were thinking. Second, they gradually acquired a new spiritual consciousness, a new belief that Jesus' cause continued. Third, from this new religious experience, they gradually started to explore the Scriptures. Fourth, from this they then (and only then) started to use the language of resurrection to articulate their experience. Finally, toward the end of the first century, some people began to invent stories about an actual resurrection, which the early church had never envisaged.
Capping this proposed progression of thought is the idea that, in Luke and John (which are supposed on this theory to be the last Gospels to be written, perhaps toward the end of the first century), people were so concerned to stress that Jesus really was a real physical being, a real embodied being, that they invented stories about him eating broiled fish, cooking breakfast by the shore, being able to be touched, and so on.
The problem is that this proposed development is very strange, even in Jewish terms. If the early Christians had gone this route, searching the Scriptures and inventing stories on that basis, you would have expected them to envisage the risen Jesus shining like a star. That, after all, is what the popular text in Daniel 12 says about people being raised from the dead. They do not. They describe him like that in the Transfiguration, for whatever reason, but none of the Resurrection stories even hint at that. Indeed, Jesus appears as a human being with a body that is like any other body; he can be mistaken for a gardener, or a fellow traveler on the road.
In addition, the stories also contain definite signs that the body has been transformed. Nobody, I suggest, would have invented them just like this. The body is clearly physical. It has, so to speak, used up the matter of the crucified body — hence the empty tomb. But, equally, it comes and goes through locked doors; it is not always recognized; and eventually it disappears altogether into God's space (which is how we ought to think of "heaven").
This kind of account is without precedent. No biblical text predicts that the Resurrection will involve this kind of body. No speculative theology laid this trail for the evangelists to follow, and to follow in such interestingly different ways.
In particular, this should put a stop to the old nonsense that suggests that Luke's and John's accounts, which are the most apparently physical, were written late in the first century in an attempt to combat docetism — the view that Jesus was not a real human being but only seemed to be.
Granted, if all you had was Jesus eating broiled fish and inviting Thomas to touch him, we might have thought that Luke and John were trying to say, "Look! He was really a solid physical person!" However, those very same accounts are the ones in which Jesus appears and disappears, passes through closed doors, and finally ascends into heaven.
These stories are extremely peculiar, and the type of peculiarity they possess is not one that would have been invented. It looks as though the Gospel writers are struggling to describe a reality for which they didn't really have adequate language.
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The fourth and final strange feature of the Resurrection narratives, which may call into question many of the Easter sermons that I and others regularly preach, is the absence of any mention of the future Christian hope.
Almost everywhere else in the New Testament, where you find people talking about Jesus' resurrection, you find them also talking about our own future resurrection, the final hope that one day we will be raised as Jesus has been raised.
But the Gospels never say anything like, "Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death" (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, "Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die" (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, "Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last."
No: insofar as the event is interpreted in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it has a very "this-worldly" meaning, relating to what is happening here and now. "Jesus is raised," they say, "therefore he is the Messiah; he is the true Lord of the whole world; therefore we, his followers, have a job to do: we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world."
It is not, "Jesus is raised, therefore look up into the sky and keep looking because one day you will be going there with him." Many hymns, prayers, and Christian sermons have tried to pull the Easter story in that direction, but the line of thought within the Gospels themselves is, "Jesus is raised, therefore God's new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen."
Excerpted with permission from Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened by Craig A. Evans and N. T. Wright, edited by Troy A. Miller, published in 2009 from Westminster John Knox Press.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
N. T. Wright goes further into the bodily Resurrection in "Heaven Is Not Our Home."
More articles on the Resurrection are in our Holy Week and Easter section.
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