The following are my notes from a lecture delivered this evening, 20th December, by N.T. Wright in the University of St. Andrews. The following provides a general idea of what the good bishop said, but should not be depended upon too much. Doubtless other eyewitnesses will come forward with conflicting accounts…
As someone who gave up studying physics and chemistry more or less as soon as he had the opportunity and devoted little effort to excelling in them when he did study them, Wright finds it odd to find himself in the position of being looked upon to provide an answer to such a question. The question itself is strange: it reminds him of the person who, when asked if he believed in infant baptism, responded in the affirmative, assuring the questioner that he had seen it happen with his own eyes. There are scientists who do believe in the resurrection. In answering the question, Wright wants to explore the fault lines between different ways of knowing, between the forms of knowing advanced by science and by history, and the way of knowing that belongs to faith, hope, and love. These ways of knowing overlap in various ways.
We are often told that over recent centuries we have enjoyed an upward path towards the light of reason—the narrative of the Enlightenment. While Wright has no desire to return to premodern dentistry or sanitation or transport, for example, he feels that the modern narrative is limited. Science has not proved sufficient to provide us with the wholeness of life that we really need.
Plato regarded ‘faith’ as a sort of intermediate form of knowing, a sort of cushioned knowledge, a sense that the terminology retains in much common parlance. We often use the term ‘knowledge’ in a positivistic sense and ‘believe’ in a loose sense, to refer to matters of mere private opinion, where any relation to external reality is somewhat lacking or doubtful. The disciples, however, believed in a resurrection with a real purchase on reality, a resurrection that left mementos behind, whether that was an empty tomb or footprints on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.
What does the term ‘believe’ mean in the question that we are answering? What sorts of questions and dimensions of reality are open to the scientific method? What sort of claim should the scientist’s science have on his approach to other areas of his life? Should he be ‘scientific’ about his relationship to his wife, or about his assessment of a piece of music? The question that we are dealing with assumes that this particular issue of the resurrection impinges upon the scientist’s particular area of concern in a manner and to an extent that questions of love and music generally do not. While there are some who have sought to locate the issue of resurrection alongside such issues of love and music, this is not a movement that should make. In the context of the first century world resurrection was very much understood as a public, space-time event.
To put things somewhat simplistically: history deals with the unrepeatable, while science deals with the repeatable. Scientists’ objections to the resurrection often focus on the lack of analogy. However, the disciples did not believe that the resurrection was just one of many analogous events. The whole issue of worldview raises itself at this point. The worldview of the scientist is the context in which such things become believable or not.
What is the resurrection? There were many ancient beliefs about life after death. Ancient paganism contained many beliefs on these matters, but they universally ruled out the possibility of resurrection. Wright has explored this whole area at considerable length in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God. The conviction that the dead do not rise is not a product born out of scientific discovery over the past few centuries: any first century person knew this fact. Ancient Judaism believed that God was creator and that he would set his world to rights, which for many was seen to involve bodily resurrection. Christianity belongs on this map. For Christians, resurrection was not a fancy way of talking about life after death, but a way of talking about a form of life after life after death. Christians certainly believed in a form of intermediate period, and might speak of it using terms such as ‘paradise’, but these beliefs are not to be confused with its belief in resurrection.
Beliefs about life after death are generally among the most conservatively held of all beliefs in the context of any given culture. It is in such areas that people tend to revert to the positions that they were taught in childhood. For this reason, any large scale change in the convictions of a society in this area needs to be accounted for. Such a large scale shift in beliefs about life after death is precisely what we see in the case of Christianity. Excepting the later movement of Gnosticism, the early Christian Church manifests several key mutations from traditional approaches to the subject of life after death.
1. In contrast to the Judaism of the day, there was virtually no variation on the issue of the resurrection in the context of early Christianity. Christianity has no trace of an established Sadducean view in its ranks.
2. While many Jewish groups held beliefs about resurrection, it was an issue for speculation and did not lie at the core of its belief system. In the early Church, belief in the resurrection moves from the circumference of belief to its very centre and heart.
3. In contrast to Jewish groups, within which many conceptions of resurrection circulated, from the very beginning the Christian Church held a very clearly defined understanding of resurrection. For instance, the resurrection body was thought of as a transformed—‘spiritual’—body and not just as a resuscitated one.
4. For Christians, the event of ‘resurrection’ has split into two. Outside of Christianity we do not find belief in the resurrection of one man in the middle of history. Such a theological movement is without precedent.
5. The Christian approach to ‘collaborative eschatology’ (Crossan) is also without precedent. Believing that the resurrection inaugurated the eschaton, the early Church believed that it needed to implement this event, in anticipation of the final consummation.
6. Within Christianity we also see a new metaphorical use of the language of resurrection. Within the context of Judaism the language had been employed as a metaphorical way of speaking about return from exile, for instance. In the context of Christianity, this metaphorical usage of ‘resurrection’ is replaced by the use of resurrection metaphors in the context of baptism and holiness.
7. Within Christianity belief in resurrection is connected with Messianic belief in a way that it is not within Judaism. Judaism did not have a place for a Messiah that would die at the hands of the enemies of the people of God and so, naturally, did not have the place for a resurrected Messiah that Christianity did.
Indeed, without the resurrection, how do we account for Messianic belief after Christ’s death? Within other Messianic movements more or less contemporaneous with the Jesus movement, the death of the supposed Messiah tended to lead to a quest for a replacement, often a relative of the supposed Messiah who had died. Within early Christianity there was a perfect candidate for such a position following Jesus’ death—his brother James. James was renowned for his piety and was a leading figure within the early Church, but was never thought of as the Messiah.
Twentieth century revisionist historiography has occasionally suggested that belief in the resurrection arose out of the subjective internal experience of early Christian disciples. A little employment of historical imagination should destroy any plausibility that such a suggestion might initially seem to possess. Anyone offering the suggestion that Jesus was raised from the dead, based purely on an internal experience of a warmed heart or even on the basis of witnessing him in the same room, would have been subjected to ridicule. First century people were well aware, as we are, of cases of dead relatives appearing to their grieving kin following their deaths. At this point we should note the common confusion that exists between the idea of resurrection and the idea of someone dying and going to be with God. The event of the resurrection is one that is not merely a matter of subjective inner feeling, but one that has considerable claim on the external public world. The point of the resurrection is that Jesus is Lord and that death and the tyrants who use its power are defeated.
Why did these mutations occur? Only one explanation truly suffices: the disciples genuinely believed that Jesus had been bodily raised.
As many have observed, the accounts of the resurrection in the gospels do not fit snugly together. There are a number of apparently conflicting details. A recent book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, provides a wonderful example of the surface discrepancies of eye-witness testimony. In a room containing many of the most brilliant minds of the time, Wittgenstein brandished a poker at Karl Popper and then left the room. The eye-witness accounts of this event differ markedly. However, what no one doubts is that something significant happened. The same can be said of the resurrection. Surface discrepancies between narratives is quite to be expected under such circumstances.
There are four important points of commonality to be noted between the resurrection accounts of the gospels:
1. The Scriptures are almost completely silent in the resurrection narratives, in marked contrast to previous stages of the gospel narratives, where quotations from the Scriptures occur with relative frequency. This suggests that the accounts of the resurrection are very early, going back to a very early oral tradition, established before the scriptural basis had been sufficiently explored (as it had been by the time of the later account of 1 Corinthians 15).
2. The presence of women as initial witnesses of the event is not what one would expect to find in the context of the culture of the day. Once again, the account of 1 Corinthians 15 would appear to be the later one here.
3. The portrait of Jesus himself is surprising. Jesus does not, for instance, shine like a star as we might expect him to. There is such an account, but it is found in the transfiguration, not in the resurrection accounts. Jesus’ body appears normal on occasions, but in other contexts it is clear that it has been transformed. For instance, we see the disciples having difficulty in recognizing him on occasions (e.g. John 21:12). This type of account is without precedent. The writers appear to be struggling to find the language appropriate to what they have witnessed and do not appear to be driven by a clear anti-docetic, or other agenda. The body of Christ is equally at home both in heaven and in earth. It also is clearly physical.
4. The resurrection has a very much ‘this-worldly’, present age meaning. Had the stories been written later, they might well have contained references to the future resurrection of all God’s people. As they stand, the accounts include a number of clearly pre-reflective elements.
When dealing with the issue of the relationship between Easter and history we need a two-pronged approach of explanation: (a) the tomb really was empty; (b) the disciples really did encounter Jesus after his death. People were aware of the occurrence of post-mortem appearances in visions in the ancient world. Jesus’ burial was also (a fact often unrecognized) a primary burial, which would have later been followed up by storing his remains in an ossuary. Apart from sightings, the empty tomb would have not been a sufficient argument for the possibility of resurrection; in the absence of an empty tomb, nor would sightings. The only explanation sufficient to support resurrection must involve both of these things. All of the signposts point in the direction of resurrection. Denials of the resurrection often preclude on the basis of worldviews that preclude its possibility from the outset. The event of the resurrection is that which explains the future shape of the early Church.
Here the issue of a form of knowing beyond scientific and historical knowing presents itself. This new way of knowing must involve some sort of overlap with scientific and historical forms of knowing. Wright gives the example of the donation of a magnificent work of art to a college in a university. The college, lacking any place in which to display the work of art, dismantles the current college building and rebuilds it around the donated work of art. All of the things that used to make the college special are retained and, indeed, enhanced by the presence of the work of art. The negative features of the college are removed by the redesign of the college around the work of art. However—and this is the crucial point—there must be some initial reception of the work of art prior to the redesigning and rebuilding of the college around it. It is of such an overlap that we speak of with the bearing that the issue of resurrection has upon the scientist or the historian.
The resurrection poses such a challenge to the scientist or the historian, for it is the utterly characteristic, protological event of the new world that is coming to birth. It is not an absurd event occurring within the system of our own world, but an event that belongs to a new reality. No other explanation of a satisfactory character can explain the empty tomb. Nevertheless, if someone chooses to stay between the Pharaoh of scepticism and the sea of faith, they cannot be pushed any further by the historian.
God has given us minds to think. Despite the fact that the resurrection bursts the bounds of history, it also belongs within history, which is precisely why it is so disturbing and unsettling to us. In seeking to understand the resurrection, we need to situate it within a broader context. The apostle Thomas is a good example to follow here. Thomas starts out looking for a certain form of knowing—“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe”—but ends up transcending this sort of knowing in a greater form of knowing. This is not an anti-historical or anti-scientific belief. There is epistemological weight borne by history. Faith transcends—but includes—historical and scientific conviction.
The faith by which we know, like all other true forms of knowing, is determined by the nature of its object. The fact that faith is determined by the nature of its object corresponds to the methodology adopted by science. In order to know certain things, scientists occasionally have to change their ways of seeing to a way that is more appropriate to the reality with which they are dealing. Changing paradigms involves finding a bigger picture within which to see things. Christian faith involves much the same sort of movement.
If we see an epistemology of faith in the example of Thomas, we see an epistemology of hope expressed in the work of the apostle Paul, a matter that is explored within Wright’s most recent publication, entitled—with apologies to C.S. Lewis—Surprised by Hope. Hope is a way of knowing in which new possibilities are opened up. There is also within Scripture an epistemology of love to be found, perhaps exemplified best by Peter. Wittgenstein once remarked in a profound statement: ‘It is love that believes the resurrection.’ So it was in the case of Peter.
The question of how we know things is related to the new ontology of the resurrection. The resurrection cannot be known properly in terms of our world of death, detachment and betrayal. The knowing of love must have a correlative outside the knower in the external world. This is the knowing that is needed in the world of the resurrection. ‘Objective’ historical epistemology leads us to the questions faced by Thomas, Paul and Peter: are we able and prepared to adopt a knowing of faith, hope and love? All forms of knowing are given by God; all forms of knowing can be situated within the broader setting of knowing established by faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.