Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope 3

He is risen. He is risen indeed! A blessed Easter to all.

Today we look at the fourth chapter of Tom Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Previous posts are:

1-2. Introduction, Confusion about the Afterlife in the World and Church
3. Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting

Chapter 4 is "The Strange Story of Easter."

A lot of the material in this chapter, again, is familiar from The Resurrection of the Son of God, but in Surprised it is in a very accessible form. He begins with a number of notable features to the gospel resurrection stories that imply that they have a historical basis.

1. They do not quote the Bible much.
If, as some have argued, the early Christians invented these stories because of expectations from the Bible, they have not left a paper trail. Where are the fulfillment quotes, "This happened that it might fulfill..."?

2. Women as the principal witnesses doesn't seem something you would make up.
"Nobody would have made them up" (55) and they are silently dropped from the tradition in Paul.

3. The portrait of the resurrected Jesus isn't what you would have expected them to make up.
He doesn't shine like a star as in Daniel. He has a body, but he passes through locked doors. "No biblical texts predict that the resurrection will involve this kind of body.

4. These texts don't mention the future resurrection.
While this was what it was previously all about. "Easter has a very this worldly present-age meaning" (56).

"I conclude this first section of the chapter with the proposal that it is far, far easier to believe that the stories are essentially very early, pre-Pauline, and have not been substantially altered except for light personal polishing, in subsequent transmission or editing" (57).

Easter and History
This section corresponds to a chapter in Resurrection (a much longer chapter). Wright proposes a two pronged hypothesis: "first, Jesus' tomb really was empty; second, the disciples really did encounter him in ways that convinced them that he was not simply a ghost or hallucination" (58).

Wright dismisses the cognitive dissonance theory, that the disciples so wanted Jesus to be alive that they convinced himself that he really was. The problem, as he explores in much greater detail in Resurrection, is that lots of "messiahs" and military leaders die without their followers thinking they were raised. And they don't end up with religions named after them still 2000 years later (I'm embellishing a little).

He runs through several other alternative explanations and finds them all wanting. He is not suggesting that the math proves the resurrection, only that it is by far the best explanation. He spends a little time talking about the presumption that, because resurrections don't happen, this couldn't have been one. "Worldview issues are at stake here and cannot be dealt with by the old liberal strategy of pretending... that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is impossible for those who accept what one writer as called 'current paradigms of reality'" (69).

I suppose this is the key question from an evaluative standpoint. If resurrections can happen, then this event has all the markings of a true resurrection. If they can't happen, then there must be another explanation. Some of us are reading a book by John Polkinghorne that compares method in quantum physics with method in theology. He finds many parallels (he was a nuclear physicist who turned to the Anglican priesthood I think in his forties--physicists do their most significant work in their twenties, so I guess he retired to theology). He points out that quantum physics defies "common sense" regularly.

"What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science" (71). "The resurrection is not, as it were, a highly peculiar event within the present world (though it is that as well); it is, principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus" (73).

He ends with a quote from Wittgenstein: "It is love that believes the resurrection" (72). :-)


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The resurrection coninued in the tradition of the Church because of the power of the Church through the Middle Ages, before the Renaissance, and Reformation....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And we know that those who hold political power hold the keys "to the kingdom", before balance of power, as it was the divine right of kings... in government

Ken Schenck said...

Now those are relevant comments...

The question is not how it survived once it reached a critical mass. The question is how it even started or continued among those who had seen Jesus die.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am sure there is some psychological theory as to how those who had been through such disappointment would have "storied" their in Jesus transformed body after the resurrection...we all understand the phenomena of how stories get "passed on" orally and how "historical" from the original account they are...this may also be the reason why the accounts in the Gospels don't match...things are remembered differently, as well, as what each individual person notices, or finds important in the first place...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Since these accounts are written in Greek, by scribes (who were educated, and yet, the ones they wrote about were uneducated), would there be any possibility that "Greek ideals" such as justice was a illustrative way of "teaching" in the N.T.? Then, these "stories" would not be so much historical accounts, as understandings of justice in story form...using Jesus life's tragedy to giver "hope of justice" in the future?

Ken Schenck said...

The sort of hypothesis in your first comment is the sort of theory Wright addresses. He stories it something like this, using the leader of the Jewish revolt, Simon bar Giora, as a test case:

"Now, suppose we imagine a few Jewish revolutionaries, three days or three weeks later [after Simon was killed by the Romans]. The first one says, 'You know, I think Simon really was the Messiah--and he still is!'

"The others would be puzzled. Of course he isn't; the Romans got him, as they always do. If you want a Messiah, you'd better find another one.

"'Ah,' says the first, 'but I believe he's been raised from the dead.'

"'What d'you mean?' his friends ask. 'He's dead and buried.'

"'Oh, no,' replies the first, 'I believe he's been exalted to heaven.'

"The others look puzzled. All the righteous martyrs are with God, everybody knows that; their souls are in God's hand; that doesn't mean they've already been raised from the dead. Anyway, the resurrection will happen to us all at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of continuing history."

Wright's intent is to show that the psychological scenario really doesn't make sense. In his longer book he points out significant problems with the original research on cognitive dissonance that was first applied to the resurrection.

Anonymous said...

Where are the fulfillment quotes, "This happened that it might fulfill..."?

Isn't Matthew lousy with these scriptural references to the point where he flubs some of them?

Anonymous said...

One doesn't have to imagine any large number of people concluding the Jesus was still alive. You only need a small handful to be the core of the new movement. So even if your average Galilean would assume that "the Romans got him", it may be one of those accidents of history that this particular group of fishermen and tax collectors were just the right state of mind to follow events to this particular conclusion. What we see hints of in failed messianic movements, we find aligned just so in first century Jerusalem.

This is far-fetched but, as you pointed out, those who follow Hume on this will prefer it to the pseudo-physical body (normal ones don't materialize in locked rooms) of a resurrected Jesus. :{>

Anonymous said...

My final musing on the subject: the picture of Jerusalem Christianity presented in Acts is unrecognizable to most Christians through the ages. If the pillars of the church, those held up as the likely witnesses whose testimony is integral to the composition of the Gospels, were zealous for the temple then how much can we count on the received orthodoxy to be the true position of those who experienced Easter?

For me, Acts 21 throws everything awry with respect to how the earliest (can't get earlier than Peter and John) Christians believed. It places a certain amount of doubt on the nice tale told by the Gospel writers - including Luke! Why would Luke include this story and cast apostles he built up in his Gospel in such a bad light in the sequel? To uphold Paul? To denigrate the so-called Judaisers? Politics? Propaganda? It's more than a little messy and leaves me full of questions.

Just now I am imagining how Dr. Wright would comment if he encountered someone claiming to be a Christian and yet acting in the way James does in this chapter. A broad smile is spreading across my face... :^{)

... Thanks for the review. I find your writing quite enjoyable and almost always walk away better informed if not in complete agreement.