From the very beginning Christianity claimed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Not in the sense of the internal mental and spiritual states of His followers a few days after His crucifixion, but about something that had happened in the real, public world.
This “something” left not only an empty tomb, but a broken loaf at Emmaus and footprints in the sand by the lake among its physical mementoes. It also left His followers with a lot of explaining to do, but with a transformed worldview which is only explicable on the assumption that something really did happen, even though it stretched their existing worldviews to breaking point.
What I want to do here is to examine this early Christian claim, to ask what can be said about it historically, and to enquire, more particularly, what sort of “believing” we are talking about when we ask whether we - whether “we” be scientists or historians or mathematicians or theologians - can “believe” that which “the resurrection” actually refers to.
What did “resurrection” mean?
Let me begin with a simple assertion about what all first-century users of the language of resurrection would have meant by the word.
As I have argued at some length in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “resurrection” in the first century meant people who were physically dead becoming physically alive again, not simply “surviving” or entering “purely spiritual” world, whatever that might be. The notion of “resurrection” therefore necessarily impinges on the public world.
But when we speak of the public world, this is the domain not of the natural scientist, but of the historian. To put it perhaps too crudely, science studies the repeatable, while history studies the unrepeatable.
Caesar only crossed the Rubicon once, and if he’d crossed it again it would have meant something different the second time. There was, and could be, only one first landing on the moon. The fall of the second Jerusalem Temple took place in AD 70 and never happened again.
Historians don’t of course see this as a problem, and are usually not shy about declaring that these events certainly took place even though we can’t repeat them in the laboratory. But when people say, “That can’t have happened, because we know that that sort of thing doesn’t actually happen,” they are appealing to a kind of would-be scientific principle of history, namely the principle of analogy.
The problem with analogy is that it never quite gets you far enough, precisely because history is full of unlikely things that happened once and once only, so that the analogies are often at best partial, and are dependent anyway on the retort, “Who says?” to the objection about some kinds of things not normally happening.
And indeed, in the case in point, we should note as an obvious but often overlooked point the fact that the early Christians did not think that Jesus’s resurrection was one instance of something that happened from time to time elsewhere.
Granted, they saw it as the first instance of something that would eventually happen to everyone else, but they didn’t employ that future hope as an analogy from which to argue back that it had happened already in this one instance.
So how does the historian work when the evidence points towards things which we do not normally expect? At this point, questions of worldview begin to loom up in the background, and the question of what kinds of material the historian will allow on stage is inevitably affected by the worldview within which he or she lives.
The surprising character of early Christian hope
So what did the ancients believe about life beyond the grave? Ancient paganism contains all kinds of theories, but whenever resurrection is mentioned, the answer is a firm negative: we know that doesn't happen.
(This is worth stressing in today’s context. One sometimes hears it said or implied that prior to the rise of modern science people believed in all kinds of odd things like resurrection but that now, with two hundred years of scientific research on our side, we know that dead people stay dead. This is ridiculous. The evidence, and the conclusion, was massive and massively drawn in the ancient world as it is today.)
Ancient Judaism, on the other hand, is rooted in the belief that God is the creator of the world and that God will one day put the world to rights; and this double belief, when worked out and thought through not least in times of persecution and martyrdom, produced by the time of Jesus a majority belief in ultimate bodily resurrection.
The early Christian belief in hope beyond death thus belongs demonstrably on the Jewish, not the pagan, map. But the foundation of my argument for what happened at Easter is the reflection that this Jewish hope has undergone remarkable modifications or mutations within early Christianity, which can be plotted consistently right across the first two centuries.
These mutations are so striking, in an area of human experience where societies tend to be very conservative, that they force the historian, not least the would-be scientific historian, to ask, “Why did they occur?”
The mutations occur within a strictly Jewish context. The early Christians held firmly, like most of their Jewish contemporaries, to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world.
“Resurrection” is not a fancy word for “life after death” - rather, it denotes life after “life after death.” There is nothing remotely like this in paganism. This belief is as Jewish as you can get.
But within this Jewish belief there are seven early Christian mutations, each of which crops us in writers as diverse as Paul and John the Seer, Luke and Justin Martyr, Matthew and Irenaeus.
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. 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’s 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.
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, rather 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.
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.
This brings us to the fifth mutation within Jewish resurrection belief, for which I am indebted to John Dominic Crossan: “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.” 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, the Christians affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.
But let me underscore at this point how impossible is it to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection. We know of several other Jewish movements, messianic movements, prophetic movements, during the one or two centuries either side of Jesus's public career.
Routinely they ended with the violent death of the central figure. Members of the movement (always supposing they got away with their own skins) then faced a choice: either give up the struggle, or find a new Messiah. Had the early Christians wanted to go the latter route, they had an obvious candidate: James, the Lord’s brother, a great and devout teacher, the central figure in the early Jerusalem church. But nobody ever imagined that James might be the Messiah.
This rules out the revisionist positions on Jesus’s resurrection that have been offered by so many writers in recent years.
What is more - to round off this final mutation from within the Jewish belief - because of the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah, we find the development of the very early belief that Jesus is Lord and that therefore Caesar is not.
We have thus noted seven major mutations within the Jewish resurrection belief, each of which became central within early Christianity.
The belief in resurrection remains emphatically on the map of first-century Judaism rather than paganism; but, from within Jewish theology, it has opened up a whole new way of seeing history, hope and hermeneutics. And this demands a historical explanation.
Why did the early Christians modify the Jewish resurrection-language in these seven ways, and do it with such consistency? When we ask them, they reply that they have done it because of what they believe happened to Jesus on the third day after he died. This forces us to ask: “What then must we say about the very strange stories which they tell about that first day?”
The stories of Easter
We now plunge in to the stories of the first Easter Day - the accounts we find in the closing chapters of the four canonical gospels. And here I draw attention to four strange features shared by the accounts in the four canonical gospels. These features, I suggest, compel us to take them seriously as very early accounts, not, as is often suggested, later inventions.
First, we note the strange silence of the Bible in the stories. Up to this point, all four evangelists have drawn heavily upon biblical quotation, allusion and echo. But the resurrection narratives are almost entirely innocent of them. Why?
We could say, of course, that whoever wrote the stories in the form we now have them had gone through, cunningly, and taken material out to make them look as if they were very old, rather like someone deliberately taking all the electric fittings out of a house to make it look like it might have done a century or more ago. That might be marginally plausible if we had just one account, or if the four accounts were obviously derived from one another. We don’t, and they aren’t.
You either have to imagine four very different writers each deciding to write up an Easter narrative based on the theology of the early church but with the biblical echoes taken out; or you have to say, which is infinitely more probable, that the stories, even though written down a lot later, go back to extremely early oral tradition which had been formed, and set firmly in the memory of different storytellers, before there had been any time for biblical reflection.
The second strange feature of the stories is better known: the presence of the women as the principal witnesses. Whether we like it or not, women were not regarded as credible witnesses within the ancient world. Nobody would have made them up. The gospels must therefore embody the earliest mode of storytelling.
The third strange feature is the portrait of Jesus himself. If, as many revisionists have tried to make out, the gospel stories developed either from people mulling over the scriptures following Jesus’s death or a new experience of inner illumination, you would expect to find the risen Jesus shining like a star. We have such a story in the Transfiguration.
But none of the gospels say this about Jesus at Easter. Indeed, he appears as a human being with a body that in some ways is quite normal, and can be mistaken for a gardener, or a fellow traveller on the road. Yet the stories also contain mysterious but definite signs that this body has been transformed. It is clearly physical, using up (so to speak) the matter of the crucified body; hence the empty tomb.
The fourth strange feature of the resurrection accounts is the entire absence of mention of the future Christian hope. Almost everywhere else in the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus is spoken of in connection with the final hope that those who belong to Jesus will one day be raised as he has been. Once again, had the stories been invented towards the end of the first century this interpretation would certainly have included a mention of the final resurrection of all God’s people.
What should be concluded from all this? That the stories, though lightly edited and written down later, are basically very, very early. They are not, as has so often been suggested, legends written up much later to give a pseudo-historical basis for what had been essentially a private experience.
And when we ask how such stories could have come into existence, the obvious answer all the early Christians give is that, though it was hard to describe at the time and remains mind-boggling thereafter, something like this is what happened.
Easter and history
I would argue that the only way we can explain the phenomena we have been examining is by proposing a two-pronged hypothesis: first, Jesus’s tomb really was empty; second, the disciples really did encounter him in ways which convinced them that he was not simply a ghost or hallucination.
For the disciples to see, or think they saw, someone they took to be Jesus would not by itself have generated the stories we have. Everyone in the ancient world (like many today) knew that people sometimes had strange experiences involving encounters with the dead, particularly the recently dead.
However many such visions they had had, they wouldn’t have said Jesus was raised from the dead - they weren’t expecting such a resurrection. And nobody in the Jewish world would have spoken of such a person being already raised from the dead. Without the empty tomb, they would have been as quick to say “hallucination” as we would.
Equally, an empty tomb by itself proves almost nothing. It might (as many have suggested) have been the wrong one, though a quick check would have sorted that one out. The soldiers, the gardeners, the chief priests, other disciples or someone else might have taken away the body.
Unless the finding of the empty tomb had been accompanied by sightings of, and meetings with, the risen Jesus, that is the kind of conclusion they would all have drawn. The meetings on the one hand, and the empty tomb on the other, are each therefore necessary if we are to explain the rise of the belief, and the writing of the stories as we have them.
All this brings us face to face with the ultimate question. The empty tomb and the meetings with Jesus are, in combination, the only possible explanation for the stories and beliefs that grew up so quickly among his followers. How, in turn, do we explain them?
In any other historical enquiry, the answer would be so obvious that it would hardly need saying: the best explanation is that it happened that way. All the signposts are pointing in one direction.
I have examined all the alternative explanations, ancient and modern, for the rise of the early church, and I have to say that far and away the best historical explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth, having been thoroughly dead and buried, really was raised to life on the third day with a new kind of physical body which left an empty tomb behind it because it had “used up” the material of Jesus’s original body, and which possessed new properties which nobody had expected or imagined but which generated significant mutations in the thinking of those who encountered it.
Christianity appeals to history, and to history it must go. And the question of Jesus’s resurrection, though it may in some senses burst the boundaries of history, also remains within them.
That is why, for a complete approach to the question, we need to locate our study of history within a larger complex of human, personal and corporate contexts, and this of course forms a challenge not only to the historian but to all humans in whatever worldview they habitually live.
What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history, and science, for that matter. Faith of this sort is not blind belief which rejects all history and science. Nor is it simply a belief which inhabits a totally different sphere, discontinuous from either, in a separate watertight compartment, as proffered by Stephen Jay Gould.
Rather, this kind of faith is faith in the creator God, the God who has promised to put all things to rights at the last, the God who has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving evidence which demands an explanation.
What love believes
Let me conclude with one final Easter story: Jesus’s encounter with Peter in John 21. Peter, of course, rather infamously, has denied Jesus. He has chosen to live within the world where the tyrants win in the end, and where it’s better to dissociate yourself from people who get on the wrong side of them.
But now, with Easter, Peter is called to live in a new and different world, a world defined by a new kind of love. Recall one of Wittgenstein’s most famous and haunting aphorisms: “It is love that believes the resurrection.”
“Simon, son of John,” says Jesus, “do you love me?” There is a whole world in that question, a world of personal invitation and challenge, of the remaking of a human being after disloyalty and disaster, of the refashioning of epistemology itself, the question of how we know things, to correspond to the new ontology, the question of what God’s new world is like.
The reality which is the resurrection cannot simply be “known” from within the old world of decay and denial, of tyrants and torture, of disobedience and death. But that’s the point. The resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world, though it is that as well; it is the defining, central event of the new creation, the world which is being born with Jesus.
If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing which involves us in new ways, an epistemology which draws out from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-historical or scientific research, but the whole-person engagement for which the best shorthand is “love.”
That is why, although the historical arguments for Jesus's bodily resurrection are truly strong, we must never suppose that they will do more than bring people to the very questions faced by Peter, or Thomas, or Paul: the questions of faith, hope and love.
We cannot use some “objective” historical mode of knowing as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like someone who lit a candle to see whether the sun had risen.
All knowing is a gift from God - historical and scientific knowing no less than that of faith, hope and love. But remember, the greatest of these is love.
Source: N.T. Wright
Formerly Anglican Bishop of Durham, in 2010 the Rt Revd Dr N.T. Wright was appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He is one of the world's most distinguished and influential New Testament scholars. Among his many books are The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), Surprised by Hope (2007) and Virtue Reborn (2010).