A while back, I purchase N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God in the hopes that it would shed some light on my long-held theory that Christianity would not have been able to succeed as a religion and eventually take hold root around the world if the primary event of Christian history – the resurrection – had not actually taken place.  Wright’s monumental work – part of a larger series called Christian Origins and the Question of God (this book is Volume 3) – seemed to be a likely place to find a detailed examination of that very question, and so far it has not disappointed.  In reality, it is much more detailed than I had anticipated.  The first 206 pages of the book are devoted to examining the question of how the peoples of the ancient world viewed the idea of “resurrection,” so as to set the context in which the early Christian church began to proclaim Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave.

I believe that I have finally reached the point in the book where it will begin to intensively examine the ideas that initially caused me to purchase it; as such, a small excerpt to set the stage:

Titian - Averdoldi Polyptych. Brescia. Santi Nazzaro e Celso

Titian; Polyptych of the Resurrection - Santi Nazaro e Celso, Brescia

One of the most striking features of the early Christian movement is its virtual unanimity about the future hope.  We might have expected that the first Christians would quickly have developed a spectrum of beliefs about life after death, corresponding to the spectrums we have observed in the Judaism from within which Christianity emerged and the paganism into which it went as a missionary movement; but they did not.

This observation forms the hinge upon which turns one of the central arguments of the present book.  This can be expressed in the form of a question.  Granted that the early Christians drew freely on Jewish traditions, and engaged energetically with the pagan world of ideas, how does it happen that we find virtually no spectrum of belief about life after death, but instead almost a universal affirmation of that which pagans said could not happen, and that which one stream (albeit the dominant one) of Judaism insisted would happen, namely resurrection?  Let us be quite clear at this point: we shall see that when the early Christians said ‘resurrection’ they meant it in the sense it bore both in paganism (which denied it) and in Judaism (an influential part of which affirmed it).  ’Resurrection’ did not mean that someone possessed ‘a heavenly and exalted status’; when predicated of Jesus, it did not mean his ‘perceived presence’ in the ongoing church.  Nor, if we are thinking historically, could it have meant ‘the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God’.  It meant bodily resurrection; and that is what the early Christians affirmed.  There is nothing in the early Christian view of the promised future which corresponds to the pagan views we have studied; nothing at all which corresponds to the denials of the Sadducees; virtually no hint of the ‘disembodied bliss’ view of some Jewish sources; no Sheol, no ‘isles of the blessed’, no ‘shining like stars’, but a constant affirmation of newly embodied life.  As Christopher Evans put it a generation ago, ‘there emerged in Christianity a precise, confident and articulate faith in which resurrection has moved from the circumference to the centre.’

This alone demands historical explanation. But there is more.  There are substantial mutations from within the ‘resurrection’ stream of Judaism.  In particular, the historian must account for the fact that, with early Christianity thus being so clearly a ‘resurrection’ movement in the Jewish sense, the well-established metaphorical meaning of ‘resurrection’ – the restoration of Israel in a concrete socio-political sense – is almost entirely absent, and a different set of metaphorical meanings emerge instead.  How does it come about, in other words, that early Christianity located its life-after-death beliefs so firmly at the ‘resurrection’ end of the Jewish spectrum, while simultaneously giving the word a metaphorical meaning significantly different from, though in long-range continuity with, the meaning it had within Judaism?  How do we account for both the strong similarity between Christianity and Judaism (there is no sign, in early Christian resurrection belief, of anything remotely like moving in a pagan direction) and the equally clear dissimilarities?

Intriguing.  This should be well worth diving into.

The New Year’s Update

On January 11, 2010, in Culture, General, History, Politics, Religion, Theology, by marc

So of late, I’ve been noodling around with a bunch of different books, as usual.  My primary concentration has been on Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, which was one of my Christmas gifts, and has been a great read so far.  I’d say I’m just over 1/3 of the way in, and North Korea is as utterly screwed up as I’d imagined it to be.  Aside from which, who would have thought that a guy like Kim Il-Sung (or Kim Jong-Il, for that matter) would be able to build a cult of personality so powerful that young women would consider it an honor to strip naked and be a component of a “living bed” for said totalitarian monsters.

Yeah, that’s… just wrong.  But it apparently happens.  (I long for some nutjob apologist for the regime to come along and leave a DPRK-style denunciation of me in the comments.)

In other news, I managed to snag a relatively cheap copy of Volume III of James Montgomery Boice’s commentaries on Romans (in the hardcover to match my copies of Volumes I, II, and IV).  Thank you, Amazon Marketplace.  I also picked up a copy of RC Sproul’s 1 volume commentary on Romans, and I’m hoping to get his commentary on John ASAP.  And I’ve made a goal of reading through the Bible from cover to cover this year, and I’m doing so using my new pseudo-leatherbound copy of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible from Zondervan, which was edited by a friend of mine.  As of now, I’m just past the giving of the law in Exodus.

After some wheeling and dealing, I managed to scrape together the cash for a copy of NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, which is – according to reviews – 700+ pages of glorious apologetics in defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That should also keep me occupied for a while.

So happy new year to all; I’ll keep you posted as I make progress.