Alright, let’s pick up the first part of chapter three in NT Wright’s recent book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, “Early Christian Hope in its Historical Setting.”
Wright begins with an illustration to present the point that while eyewitnesses commonly disagree, it doesn’t mean the thing didn’t happen. Further, it doesn’t mean that the thing didn’t happen. So, we begin talking about resurrection generally and the resurrection of Jesus in particular:
Wright begins with some questions:
He states that his “question now is clear: What sort of an event was it? Just how empty was the tomb on Easter morning?” (p. 33)
And again, “What should we believe about Jesus’ resurrection, and why?” (p. 33)
Finally, “What precisely was it that the early Christians believed? Why did they use the language of resurrection to express that belief?” (p. 34)
First, Wright addresses what persons in the ancient world would have believed “about life beyond the grave.”
“As far as the ancient pagan world was concerned, the road to the underworld ran only one way… Everybody know there was in fact no answer to death. The ancient pagan world then divided broadly into those who…might have wanted a new body but knew they couldn’t have one and those who, like Plato’s philosophers, didn’t want one because being a disembodied soul was far better.” (p. 35-36) In this milieu, “resurrection” referred to a new bodily life after an interim period of death but did not refer to existence in another realm/dimension immediately after death. Virtually everyone in the ancient world knew about and believed in spirits, visions, etc and did not refer to these when speaking of resurrection. Whether affirmed, as some Jewish groups did, or denied, as other Jewish groups and most if not all pagan groups did, the concept of resurrection was clear and consistent: “Resurrection meant bodies.” (p. 36) \
So, when reports surfaced and proclamation began to circulate about Jesus being resurrected, this was thoroughly unique to him and “quite unexpected.” Indeed, “most Jews of the day believed in an eventual resurrection–that is, tha tGod would look after the soul after death until, at the last day, God would give his people new bodies when he judged and remade the whole world.” (p. 37) This makes sense of Martha’s comments to Jesus on resurrection concerning Lazarus in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But the resurrection of Jesus was a unique proclamation because it meant that one had been resurrected in advance of that last day. While Jesus redefined key concepts like “kingdom” and “messiah,” he did not do so with “resurrection.” The only change, a major one though, was that one was resurrected prior to the last day and before the general resurrection of all persons.
So, Jesus’ crucifixion devestated the disciples’ hopes. Nobody said, “Well, at least he’s now in heaven with God.” (p. 40)
“What they said–and again this has the ring of first-century truth–was, ‘We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21), with the implication, ‘but they crucified him, so he can’t have been.’ …When Jesus was crucified, every single disciple knew what it meant: we backed the wrong horse.” (p. 40)
Within this world, Christianity came proclaiming something that rested on that Jewish foundation while paving radically new ground as well. The last section of chapter three (“The Surprising Character of Early Christian Hope”) in the next post.