25 March 2011

Book Review: The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright

At the outset, Wright declares that “Our target is to investigate the claim of the earliest Christians, that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.” He then takes us under his wing and guides along a journey of scholarship of the highest order. Leaving no stone unturned, he first of all investigates the idea of resurrection, first of all being extremely precise about what he means by resurrection. We then review resurrection traditions in pre-christian paganism and of judaism, constantly asking the question “is it probable that the early christians adapted an earlier tradition to suit their own story, or did something really happen that was of major significance.” Towards the end of the first section, one can become bogged down in the detail. I think this section can be skipped over with little loss overall, but it is was necessary in order for Wright to be thorough in his work, so that any accusations of taking shortcuts or ignoring certain schools of thought would be unfounded.

Having finished his survey of Pagan and Jewish beliefs, he then moves on to look at the early Christian beliefs into resurrection, attempting to chart the writings in a roughly chronological order, thus analysing the writings of Paul before those of the gospel writers. The aim here is to contrast the views of this emerging religion with those of the old and ask what could have prompted the transformation. Then, having seen the changes, the inevitable question that must then be asked is this: what caused the change? Wright is not presumptive in his answer, as I can tell a great many christians would at this point be jumping up and down saying “I know the answer.” But Wright is far more considerate and gives due care and attention to his scholarship. This level of detail may frustrate some readers, as much of the early part of the book discusses resurrection in general, with very little mention of Jesus who only starts to come into the picture after about page 200; even then, much of the focus is really on the hope of a resurrection for all, rather than focussing on the resurrection of Jesus. So in that respect, those expecting a detailed analysis of Easter will have to get through several hundred pages of background before getting what they are looking for.

But it is certainly worth the effort of getting to, once his analysis of the gospel accounts finally begin at page 587. But once he gets under way with it, there seems to be no stopping him. Wright is in his element, giving well-considered, evidenced and thoughtful consideration to the claims and counter-claims that have surrounded Easter for many years. Here, as throughout the book, he uses footnotes to acknowledge and counteract the conclusions of many other theologians, whilst agreeing with some. Foremost in his crosshairs is Rudolph Bultmann. Because much of the groundwork had already been laid, the gospel accounts may appear to be a little short. But do not be deceived; these chapters are immensely rich and in order to take them in I have had to go over them in conjunction with several translations a few times, which takes a fair while to do.

Having finished his survey of beliefs and narratives, the question is then asked: So what? Even if you skip over the first 600 pages and jump straight to last section (though you will be missing out) what you will find is the work of an honest historian who, having looked at the best available evidence, concludes that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. Not only is this a striking conclusion, but the consequences of it, as expounded in the theology of the earlier sections (most notably Wright's exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15) demand careful consideration by everyone.

In his final flourish, Wright looks at the reasons for calling Jesus the Son of God and what this means both in terms of direct referent and its implications, though the latter part is the lead on to part 4 in his series which, at the time of writing this review, is currently due sometime in 2012.

This is certainly a ‘meaty’ book and though at times you may need a dictionary on hand, it is written in an accessible way and is an immense joy to work through. I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in resurrection theology and of the future hope (either in heaven or a new earth) for christians.

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