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N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God
Minnneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




If you have seen any of a number of ABC or PBS documentaries on the historical Jesus question, you have certainly seen N.T. Wright. He is one of the “usual suspects” rounded up by Peter Jennings and his producers, along with John Dominic Crossan, Paula Fredriks, Ben Witherington, and others, all of whose views are comfortingly homogenized by the pleasant host (along with the pronouncements of Pentecostal choir directors and Middle Eastern tour guides) to reinforce the comfy prejudices of the audience. Wright always adopts the stance as of a career historian in the field of ancient history, as if approaching the gospel texts as an admiring outsider. In fact, he is a bishop of the Church of England celebrated there for his reactionary theological opinions. He has expressed these opinions in a number of books which seek to rehabilitate pre-critical views of the Bible by a sophistical appeal to recent scholarly research.

Wright’s massive book on the resurrection is, even for the garrulous bishop, an exercise in prolixity. It is several times longer than it needs to be, as if designed to bludgeon us into belief. One might save a lot of time and money by finding a copy of George Eldon Ladd’s I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1975), which used most of the same arguments at a fraction of the length, and without skimping. The arguments have not gotten any better. They are the same old stale fundamentalist apologetics we got in Ladd, essentially the same old stuff we used to read in Josh McDowell and John Warwick Montgomery. The same hash reslung. Only now it is getting pretty smelly. Perhaps that is why Wright seeks to perfume it, reminiscent of Joseph and Nicodemus attempting to fumigate the decaying corpse of Jesus by encasing it in an extravagant hundred pounds weight of spices (John 19:39). Wright backs up much too far to make a running start at the resurrection, regaling us with unoriginal, superfluous, and tedious exposition of Old Testament and Intertestamental Jewish ideas of afterlife and resurrection, resurrection belief in every known Christian writer up into the early third century, etc., etc. The mountain thus laboring is doomed to bring forth a messianic mouse, alas. All this erudition is perhaps intended to intimidate the reader into accepting Wright’s evangelistic pitch. But it is just a lot of fast talking. In the end, Wright, now Bishop of Durham, is just Josh McDowell in a better suit. His smirking smugness is everywhere evident, especially in his condescension toward the great critics and critical methods of the last two centuries, all of which he strives to counteract. He would lead the hapless seminary student (whom one fears will be assigned this doorstop) backwards into the pre-critical era with empty pretenses of post-modern sophistication, shrugging off the Enlightenment by patently insincere attempts to wrap himself in the flag of post-colonialism. Genuine criticism of the gospels he dismisses as the less advanced, muddled thinking of a previous generation, as if “cutting edge” scholarship like his were not actually pathetic nostalgia for the sparkling Toyland of fundamentalist supernaturalism. It is a familiar bag of tricks, and that is all it is. The tragedy is that many today are falling for it. Witness Wright’s own prominence in the Society of Biblical Literature, to say nothing of his ecclesiastical clout.

            The weight of this book’s argument for orthodox traditionalism is to be found, of all places, in the acknowledgements section, where Wright thanks the hosts of the prestigious venues where he first presented bits of this material: Yale Divinity School, South-Western Theological Seminary, Duke Divinity School, Pontifical Gregorian University, St. Michael’s Seminary, etc., etc. Wright is the mouthpiece for institutional orthodoxy, a grinning spin-doctor for the Grand Inquisitor. What credibility his book appears to have is due to the imposing wealth, power, tradition, even architecture, of the social-ecclesiastical world which he serves as chaplain and apologist. It is sickening to read his phony affirmations of the allegedly political and radical import of a literal resurrection (if you can even tell what Wright means by this last). Does Bishop Wright espouse some form of Liberation Theology? No, for, just as he emptily says Jesus redefined messiahship, Wright redefines politics. When he says the early Christians were anti-imperialistic, all he has in mind is the fact that Christians withstood Roman persecution, valiant enough in its way, but hardly the same thing. Like a pathetic Civil War reenactment geek, he is sparring at an enemy safely dead for centuries. In attempting to co-opt and parody the rhetoric of his ideological foes, Wright reminds me of Francis Schaeffer, a hidebound fundamentalist who began as a children’s evangelist working for Carl MacIntyre. Schaeffer, posing as an intellectual and a philosopher, used to stamp the floor speaking at fundamentalist colleges, shouting “We are the true Bolsheviks!” Right.

            Part of Wright’s agenda of harmonizing and de-fusing the evidence is to smother individual New Testament texts beneath a mass of theological synthesis derived from the Old Testament and from the outlines of Pauline theology in general. He is a victim of what James Barr long ago called the “Kittel mentality,” referring to the approach of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in which articles on individual New Testament terms and words synthesized from all uses of the term an artificial and systematic semantic structure, leading the reader to suppose that every individual usage of the word was an iceberg tip carrying with it implied reference to all other references. In other words, each article in the TDNT composed a “New Testament theology,” topic by topic. In just this manner, Wright first composes a streamlined Old Testament theology of historical and eschatological redemption (akin to that of Von Rad, without the latter’s understanding that much of it was based on fictive saga rather than history); then Wright synthesizes a Pauline Theology, then a New Testament theology, then an early Christian theology; and finally he insists that the synthetic resurrection concept he has distilled must control our reading of all individual gospel and Pauline texts dealing with the resurrection. In short, it is an elaborate exercise in harmonizing disparate data. The implications of 1 Corinthians 15, for example, with its talk of spiritual resurrection, are silenced as the text is muzzled, forbidden to say anything outside the party line Wright has constructed as “the biblical” teaching on the subject. Another example is his insistence on translating the Greek “Christos” as “the Messiah” in Pauline passages, lending them a falsely Jewish coloring belied by their content. Wright even admits that the Pauline writings are already pretty much using “Christ” as simply another name for Jesus, yet he wants to tie Paul’s theology in with the grand arc of Old Testament theology, “redemptive history,” or whatever. Similarly, he sees everything in the context of second-temple Judaism. Again, we detect here a phony ecumenism, as if he thought Jews were not all going to hell for rejecting Jesus as the Son of God. The same is true with his cosmetic use of politically correct inclusive language and ecumenical mistranslations of “Jews” as “Judeans,” etc. It is all to butter up the reader, like a used-gospel salesman closing in for the sale. Wright is a better-educated Anglican Zig Zigler. In reality, the only value he sees in Judaism is the safe haven it gives him from taking into account the patent influence on early Christianity of Hellenistic Mystery religions, which are really all we need to account for the empty tomb legend and the resurrection myth. For Wright “Judaism” really denotes Old Testament and rabbinic interpretation of it. Here we spot the reason for, and the character of, the unholy alliance between mainstream Judaism and Evangelical Protestantism in the pages of the Journal of Biblical Literature and Bible Review. They are closing ranks against radical critics in both traditions: Old Testament minimalists and Jesus Seminar-type scholars alike. It is rather like the Moral Majority, uneasy allies with certain goals in common.

            There are three fundamental, vitiating errors running like fault lines through the unstable continent of this book. The first is a complete unwillingness to engage a number of specific questions or bodies of evidence that threaten to shatter Wright’s over-optimistically orthodox assessment of the evidence. The most striking of these blustering evasions has to do with the dying-and-rising redeemer cults that permeated the environment of early Christianity and had for many, many centuries. Ezekiel 8:14 bemoans the ancient Jerusalemite women’s lamentation for Tammuz, derived from the Dumuzi cult of ancient Mesopotamia. Ugaritic texts make it plain that Baal’s death and resurrection and subsequent enthronement at the side of his Father El went back centuries before Christianity and were widespread in Israel. Pyramid texts tell us that Osiris’ devotees expected to share in his resurrection. Marduk, too, rose from the dead. And then there is the Phrygian Attis, the Syrian Adonis. The harmonistic efforts of Bruce Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, Ron Sider, Jonathan Z. Smith and others have been completely futile, utterly failing either to deconstruct the dying-and–rising god mytheme (as Smith vainly tries to do) or to claim that the Mysteries borrowed their resurrected savior myths and rituals from Christianity. If that were so, why on earth did early apologists admit that the pagan versions were earlier, invented as counterfeits before the fact by Satan? Such myths and rites were well known to Jews and Galileans, not to mention Ephesians, Corinthians, etc., for many centuries. But all this Wright merely brushes off, as if it has long been discredited. He merely refers us to other books. It is all part of his bluff: “Oh, no one takes that seriously anymore! Really, it’s so passé!”

            Wright comes near to resting the whole weight of his case on the mistaken contention that the notion of a single individual rising from the dead in advance of the general resurrection at the end of the age was unheard of, and that therefore it must have arisen as the result of the stubborn fact of it having occurred one day, Easter Day. This is basically absurd for reasons we will attend to in a moment, but the premise is false. Even leaving out the resurrections of the savior gods, Wright even mentions that the resurrection of Alcestis by Hercules is an exception to the rule, but he seems to think it unimportant. Worse, though, is his utter failure to take seriously the astonishing comment of Herod in Mark 6:14-16 to the effect that Jesus was thought to be John the Baptist already raised from the dead! Can Wright really be oblivious of how this one text torpedoes the hull of his argument? His evasions are so pathetic as to suggest he is being disingenuous, hoping the reader will not notice. The disciples of Jesus, who was slain by a tyrant, may simply have borrowed the resurrection faith of the Baptist’s disciples who posited such a vindication for their own master who had met the same fate. Wright should really be arguing for the resurrection of John the Baptist, if it being unprecedented means anything!

            Equally outrageous is Wright’s contrived and harmonistic treatment of the statements about a spiritual resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, where we read that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 50) and that the resurrected Jesus, the precedent for believers, accordingly possessed a “spiritual body” (v. 44). Wright labors mightily and futilely to persuade us that all Paul meant by “flesh and blood” was “mortal and corruptible,” not “made of flesh and blood.” Who but a fellow apologist (like William Lane Craig who sells the same merchandise) will agree to this? What does Wright suppose led the writer to use a phrase like “flesh and blood” for mortal corruptibility in the first place if it is not physical fleshiness that issues inevitably in mortal corruption? How can the Corinthians writer have used such a phrase if he meanwhile believed the risen Jesus still had flesh and blood?  It is no use to protest that none of the “second temple Jewish” writers we know of had such a notion of resurrection. This supposed fact (and Ladd knew better: he cited apocalypses that have the dead rise in angelic form, or in the flesh which is then transformed into angelic stuff) cannot prevent us from noticing that 1 Corinthians 15:45 has the risen Christ “become a life-giving spirit.”

            Likewise, when he gets to Luke, Wright laughs off the screaming contradiction between Luke 24:40 (“Touch me and see: no spirit has flesh as you can see I have.”) and 1 Corinthians 15:50 and 45 (“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” “The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”). The contexts of both passages make it quite clear that the terms are being used in the same senses, only that one makes the risen Jesus fleshly, while the other says the opposite. Wright’s laughable hair-splitting is a prime example of the lengths he will go to get out of a tight spot. Similarly, when he gets to 1 Peter 3:18 (Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, etc.”), Wright rewrites the text to make it say what he wants: “he was put to death by the flesh, and brought to life by the Spirit.” This is just ridiculous. It is the exegesis of that faith that calls things that are not as though they were.

            Wright’s second mortal sin is his desire to have his Eucharistic wafer and eat it too. He takes refuge in either side of an ambiguity when it suits him, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other, and hoping the reader will not notice. For instance, Wright is desperate to break down the “flesh/spirit” dichotomy in Paul and Luke (not to mention that between Paul and Luke!), but he builds the same wall higher outside the texts. That is, he wants to say “resurrection” always meant bodily, not merely spiritual, resurrection. The latter would mean just “going to heaven,” and that will not do. But Wright confesses he has no clear idea of what sort of physical presence the risen Jesus might have had. He calls it “transphysical” and admits he cannot define it. What then is he arguing? He just knows he wants a bodily resurrection, but it has to be a body capable of passing through locked doors and teleporting, appearing and disappearing at will. Yet he despises the notion that the risen Jesus was docetic, a spiritual entity that could take on the false semblance of physicality. Wright doesn’t want any early Christians to have believed this. He doesn’t want it even to have existed as an heretical option that the evangelists were trying to refute! Because that would mean that a spiritual resurrection was one form of early Christian belief, which Wright is trying to rule out. Most scholars rightly see the business about the risen Jesus requesting a fish sandwich (Luke ) as demonstrating, against Gnostic docetists, that Jesus had a fleshly body. But Wright will have none of this. He is right to point out, as A.J.M. Wedderburn does in Beyond Resurrection (1999), that anti-docetism is inconsistent with the same narratives’ depicting Jesus walking through locked doors like Jacob Marley. But why cannot Wright see this simply attests the inconsistent piecemeal nature of the redactional attempts to “anti-docetize” the very same narratives? But Wright is stuck with both contradictory features as “eye-witness testimony” or “early tradition” which he seems to think mean the same thing. So his “transphysical” Jesus must be the equivalent to a comic book superhero like the Vision or the Martian Manhunter, possessing a physical body but able to vary physical density at will. But wait a minute… if this is not docetism, what does docetism mean?         

            The third strike against Wright is by far the most important. He loathes Enlightenment modernity because it will not let him believe in miracles. So he must change the rules of the game. Like all apologist swindlers, Wright makes a fundamental confusion. He thinks it an arbitrary philosophical bias that historiography should be “methodologically atheistic.” Why not admit that miracles might have occurred? It may be that a miracle turns out to be the most simple and economical explanation of the data. If we are unalterably opposed to that possibility, Wright says, we are bigots and arbitrary dogmatists. Freud would readily peg Wright as a victim of reaction formation. Long ago, the Ionian philosopher Thales understood that it explains nothing if we piously say that it rains because Zeus turned the faucet on. No, even if there is a God, it is to short circuit the process of scientific explanation to invoke divine fiat. The same point is made in the cartoon where a lab-coated scientist is expounding his theory with a chalkboard full of figures. He points his pencil to a gap in the long equation and says, “Right here a miracle occurs.” It is funny for a reason Wright apparently does not understand.

            To say that the rise of Christian resurrection faith requires a divine intervention is tantamount to saying we just do not know how it arose. One resorts to such tactics of desperation when all else fails, as Wright thinks mundane explanations have failed. But in that moment one has not found an alternate explanation at all. It is like the fundamentalists who say God must have ignited the Big Bang since scientists cannot yet account for what chain of causation led to it. How is “God” an explanation, even if there is a God? God is a mystery, unless one is an idolater. And to claim one has “explained” a problem by invoking a mystery is no advance at all. You are trying to invoke a bigger enigma to explain a smaller one. “I have the answer to X! The answer is XX!” Erudite Bishop Wright reveals himself to be on the same level with evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick who “explains” that the unknown Strong Nuclear Force is really Jesus Christ because scripture says “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). What’s the difference? The instant one invokes the wildcard of divine miracles, the game of science and scientific history comes to a sudden halt. But then that is just what Wright, unsuccessfully disguising himself as a humble historian, wants to do. The good bishop would reassure the faithful that superstition is really science, harmonization is criticism, fideism is evidence.

            And why does Wright think a miracle is necessary? Only a real space-time resurrection, he insists, can account for the birth and spread of resurrection faith. Of course there are many viable explanations, not least Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction, whereby more than one disappointed sect has turned defeat into zeal by means of face-saving denial. Wright suicidally mentions this theory, only to dismiss it, as usual, with no serious attempt at refutation. So totally does his predisposition to orthodox faith blind him that he cannot see how lame a gesture he makes. No argument against his faith can penetrate his will to believe. Every argument against his evangelical orthodoxy seems ipso facto futile simply because he cannot bring himself to take it seriously.

            But suppose a miracle were required. What sort of a miracle might it be? Wright maintains that the earliest evangelists must have been galvanized, electrified, by something mighty convincing! Set aside the fact that all manner of supposed eyewitness enthusiasts, not least UFO abductees, have equal and equally sincere zeal. This is not nearly enough; Wright needs to account for the spread of this improbable-seeming belief among those who had not themselves seen the risen Christ, if he thinks the spread of the faith requires a miracle. He himself is at pains to show how resurrection seemed absurd and distasteful to nearly everyone. If that were so, and I am not convinced it was, what Wright needs to posit is something like the Calvinist notion of the effectual call, a supernatural mesmerism whereby God makes the gospel attractive to sinners. The miracle is needed at a later stage if it is necessary at all, not that I think it is.

             Wright (though by this time one is tempted to start calling him “Wrong”) uses sneer quotes, dismissing with no argument at all Crossan’s claim (which I deem undoubtedly and even obviously correct) that the empty tomb traditions stem from women’s lament traditions like those mentioned in Ezekiel 8 and attested for the Osiris cult and others. Having ignored rather than refuted this contention, Wright insists that the empty tomb narratives are eyewitness evidence, evidence that is all the stronger for the supposed fact that ancient Jews did not admit legal testimony from women. How’s that? Wright’s early evangelical Anglican Christians in togas just felt they had no choice but to include this vital eyewitness testimony even though it would surely invite ridicule by Celsus and his ilk. They were stuck with it. But why? Wright himself imagines that the framers of the 1 Corinthians 15 list of resurrection appearances knew the empty tomb tale but omitted it so as not to invite ridicule. It was thinkable to do so. But the unwitting logic of Wright’s whole argument presses ineluctably toward saying that the empty tomb story is not even supposed to be evidence and is not offered as such. It must be there for an entirely different reason. Crossan had it right. He made sense of it. Wright doesn’t, because he does not want anything to link the Easter story to the Mystery Religions.

            Wright’s insistence on limiting himself to the canonical Judeo-Christian continuity blinds him to other crucial parallels to the Easter stories. The Emmaus story is cut from the same cloth as numerous ancient “angels unawares” myths, but it bears a striking resemblance to a demonstrably earlier Asclepius story where a couple returns home dejectedly after failing to receive the desired healing miracle at Epidauros. They are intercepted by a curious and concerned stranger, the divine savior incognito, who ferrets out the reason for their sadness, reveals himself, performs the hoped-for healing after all, then vanishes. The miraculous catch of fish in John 21 is patently based on an earlier Pythagoras story in which the no-longer relevant detail of the number of the fish made some sense. As Charles L. Talbert pointed out years ago (What Is a Gospel? 1977), the abrupt ending of Mark (as it seems to readers familiar with the other gospels) fits quite naturally as a typical apotheosis story, where the absence of the body combined with a heavenly voice is sufficient to attest the hero’s exaltation to heaven. Talbert showed how an empty tomb story made sense by itself, and how the gospel tomb scene may have originated as window-dressing for an apotheosis narrative. We are not stuck with the empty tomb as a stubborn historical fact as Wright would like us to think.

               These Hellenistic parallels tell us that we hardly require eyewitness testimony of miracles to explain the origin of the gospel Easter stories. Occam’s Razor makes that altogether unnecessary. But they also explain something else Wright thinks explicable only by miracles: the absence of scriptural allusions in these stories. Wright throws down the gauntlet to Crossan, who says that the gospel Passion Narratives are historicized prophecies from the Old Testament, rewritten as New Testament stories. Why, then, is there so little scripture reflected in the burial and Easter stories? Well, there is a good bit. Matthew has supplemented Mark with Daniel, as Randel Helms shows in Gospel Fictions (1988)—and as Wright himself eventually admits! But Crossan has also shown how similar Mark’s burial and resurrection stories are to the entombment alive and subsequent crucifixion of the enemy kings in Joshua 10:16-27. Helms also shows how John 20:17 is based on Tobit 12:16-21. But there is a good bit of the gospel story that is not derived from scripture—and that is because it comes from pagan mythology and novels where prematurely entombed heroines are inadvertently rescued by tomb robbers and heroes survive crucifixion (another body of highly relevant textual evidence that Wright haughtily laughs off).

            Wright piously tells us that, faced with the resurrection narratives, we ought to bow in awe and wonder. That may or may not be so, but we must blink in astonishment at Wright’s comments upon them! In another case of his “both/and” harmonizations (one found frequently with Evangelical scholars, i.e., apologists) Wright both claims that the resurrection narratives lack artifice (hence must be authentic “raw footage”) and that they have been thoroughly worked over by each evangelist so as to function as consistent extensions of themes and even narrative structures running through each gospel. This sort of analysis, demonstrating the thorough permeation of Mark’s Passion story by themes ubiquitous throughout the previous chapters led the contributors to Werner H. Kelber’s symposium The Passion in Mark (1976) to conclude that Mark had no preexistent passion tradition but composed the whole thing. Such an obvious conclusion never occurs to Wright. For him, each narrative is both early unadorned tradition and thoroughly modified. It is either one as he needs it to be.

            He throws source criticism out the window when he needs to, claiming, astonishingly, that there is so little apparent interdependence between the tomb tales of Mark, Matthew, and Luke that we cannot be sure they are not independent tellings of the same story, learned by each evangelist via different channels. This is a way of discounting the great degree to which Luke and Mathew have rewritten Mark, maintaining they are all separate collectors of “early traditions,” a slippery repristination of the old Sunday School notion that the four evangelists are independent witnesses, as if to the same auto accident. Again, there is no stale crust of apologetical sleight-of-hand that Wright will not claim as a “critical advance” upon Enlightenment scholarship.

            For Wright, Matthew’s accuracy is demonstrated by the fact that he seems to have added no new stories to the resurrection plot-line. What about the repeated earthquakes, the descent of the angel, the guards at the tomb, the embassy of the Sanhedrin to Pilate, the rising of the dead saints on Good Friday? Without a word as to the improbability of other evangelists omitting it if it had happened, Wright confesses himself ready to swallow the historical accuracy of the guards. Wright thinks it makes sound sense that the guards are to tell that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep? How did they know what happened while they were snoozing? Wright seems not to recognize comedy if there is no laugh track.

            Wright insists that the gospel writers must have believed in a literal resurrection (whatever that would be: Jesus becoming the Martian Manhunter again?). But can we be so sure of that, given certain elements of their narratives? Luke’s Emmaus scene is transparently symbolic of the invisible presence of Christ among his followers every Sunday at the breaking of the bread. (Wright finally admits this, but he insists that it also really happened, more of his both/and-ism.) Matthew ends not with an ascension to get Jesus off the stage of history (as in Acts), but with Jesus assuring the readers (at whom the Great Commission must be aimed) that he will continue with them until the end of the age. Does this not imply that the resurrection was after all the inauguration of the metaphorical/spiritual sense in which Matthew’s readers, like modern Christians, sense Jesus intangibly with them? John’s story of Doubting Thomas concludes with Jesus making an overt aside to the reader: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.” Can this writer have seriously intended his readers to think they were reading history? Such asides to the audience are a blatant and overt sign of the fictive character of the whole enterprise. As Barr pointed out long ago (Fundamentalism, 1977), the fact that Luke has the ascension occur on Easter evening in Luke 24 but forty days later in Acts chapter 1 (something Wright thinks utterly insignificant!) shows about as clearly as one could ask that Luke was not even trying to relate “the facts” and didn’t expect the reader to think so.

            One could easily go on and on and on, even as Wright does, and because Wright does. What we have in this book is not a contribution to New Testament scholarship, any more than Creationist “Intelligent Design” screeds are contributions to biological science. Both alike are pseudo-scholarly attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of readers, most of whom will be happy enough for the sedation.


Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
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