Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope 2

Yesterday we began reviewing Tom Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church

Today we look at Chapter 3: "Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting."

In this chapter Wright brings us up to speed on Jewish thinking on the afterlife at the time of Christ. This is a very, very abbreviated of the 78 page chapter 4 dedicated to Jewish "intertestamental" literature in his much longer work, The Resurrection of the Son of God.

He starts with a fun review of a 10 minute argument between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper at Cambridge in 1946 with lots of witnesses. Nevertheless, even to this day it is not completely agreed exactly what happened or was said in those 10 minutes. There is agreement on some basic elements, but disagreement on others. Wright's point seems pretty clear. He wants us to see the diversity of the gospel resurrection accounts as a potential indication of their historicity. The accounts, he suggests, are not developments of each other but are independent accounts that vary accordingly.

The question for him is "What should we believe about Jesus' resurrection and why" (33). On the other hand, "The issue is not whether the Bible is true or not. The issue is not whether miracles occur or not. The issue is not whether we believe in something called the supernatural or not. The issue is not whether Jesus is alive today and we can get to know him for ourselves. If we treat the question of Easter simply as a test case in any of those discussions, we are missing the point" (33-34). For Wright, these are subsidiary issues, not the main issue, which is the fact of the resurrection itself and its implications.

Now he gets into the ideological background. Two types of pagan belief, he says (this is chapter 2 of Resurrection, 52 pages). Some believed we become shades in the underworld who wish they had a body (e.g., Homer, Virgil). Others like Plato were disembodied souls and didn't want another body. In either case, there was no return. I question this sentence, "Most of the ancients believed in life after death" (36). I don't know if the images of mindless shades in the underworld really constitutes any real sense of afterlife, and there is the R.I.P. of the ancient world: non erat, eram, non sum, "I was not, I was, I am not."

Then he dives into Jewish background. "Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense" (36). Yes, there were the Sadducees who didn't believe in any life after death. Yes, there was Philo who believed in diembodied souls after death. But resurrection meant embodiment.

Alas. I did a lot of thinking on these things while I was in Germany in 2004, but I never got it into published form. Argh. I'm open, but I'm not fully convinced that this was the only way the word resurrection could be used. In Resurrection, Wright makes a lot of good points, I think, with the evidence. I think it was he, for example, who convinced me that the book of Wisdom affirms resurrection.

But while I largely agree with him, I do have some questions about the way he argues that resurrection always means embodiment. He has this "every instance" tendency (we've seen it with the phrase, "the righteousness of God," for example). I agree quite a bit with Wright's reading of Acts 23:8 on "angels" and "spirits" being immediate states at death. But the fact that they are in apposition to the word resurrection makes me think we cannot disassociate spirit and angel afterlife forms from the notion of resurrection. I also believe that the Enochic tradition tended toward some sense of spirit resurrection, whatever that might mean (e.g., 1 Enoch 104 and 22).

Wright ends the chapter with 7 indications of how surprising the nature of early Christian resurrection belief is in the light of its background context. And "the early Christian hope centered firmly on resurrection" (41). Then notes these seven things:

1. In early Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of belief about life beyond death. "There is no trace of a Sadducean view or of that of Philo" (42). I think there may be a little more complexity than he allows for, but I substantially agree with him.

2. Resurrection is a far more central belief for the early Christians than it was in second Temple Jewish literature.

3. Early Christianity was far more clear about the transformed body of Jesus than Jews were about what sort of body those resurrected would have.

4. The resurrection event, which was a single event in Judaism, has become a two stage process.

5. Early Christianity is unique in seeing the resurrection as something that believers should participate even now, working with Jesus in the power of the Spirit to implement what Jesus has already achieved.

6. The idea of resurrection as the restoration of Israel has disappeared as a meaning for the word.

7. Resurrection has become associated with the Messiah, which arguably it had never been prior to Christ.

In short, it is impossible "to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection" (48). And "this demands a historical explanation" (51). I completely agree. If I try to get into the mind of an atheist looking at this data, I believe that faith in Jesus' resurrection is absolutely essential to explaining the early Christian movement. No wimpy Q community or Gnostic spirituality will account for the origins of Christianity. Whatever you believe about what really happened, I believe we are compelled to conclude that the early Christians sure thought Jesus had physically risen from the dead.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

So, does Wright understand resurrection as fulfilling one's life calling? This is embodiment of purpose, which is becoming a "moral model" in the domain one is called...

The heaven looked forward to is the goal of attaining one's purpose...and the cross is the "costs" of fulfilling purpose?

Human development is allowing individual individuality and choice, as embodiment would underline the importance of desire, as resurrection motivation ("hope")...

That is helping others to attain to their "hope" of resurrection...which is like any leader's desire to empower and enable another to attain...that brings fulfillment...and hope in on's own life...

Ken Schenck said...

"So, does Wright understand resurrection as fulfilling one's life calling?"

Absolutely not. Completely irrelevant to the post.

"The heaven looked forward to is the goal of attaining one's purpose..."

Again, this is so dramatically different from anything he's saying that I don't even know what to say.

Human development is allowing individual individuality and choice, as embodiment would underline the importance of desire, as resurrection motivation ("hope")...

And again, a tangent completely unrelated to anything in the post.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"The accounts, he suggests, are not developments of each other but are independent accounts that vary accordingly."

To maintain that the Gospel's are independent accounts that just happen to quote each other verbatim would be perverse. Does Wright have a preferred position on the synoptic issue that justifies a conclusion of independence? The issue is not the only one worthy of investigation but it seems to me that without a solid answer to this question, Wright is treading on some thin ice.