Wednesday, September 10, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part One)

Over the next few weeks I am going to share some thoughts on N. T. Wright's new book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. The rationale for this series is rooted in three factors: (1) my current research focus is Christ's resurrection and this book has much to say on the matter, (2) I am using it as a textbook in a course I am teaching this semester at SCC, and (3) a friend recommended it saying it's "the best book of '08." Regarding the third factor, I'll let you be the judge regarding the truth of such a claim. As for me, I at least agree that it is among the best books to come out this year, not because of its originality but because in it Wright draws together a number of key arguments found throughout his work and presents them in a concise and clear manner. This week I will highlight the key moves he makes in Part One of Surprised By Hope, which briefly presents the main contours of the argument of his 800-page tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, then raise some questions for discussion.

Wright's argument goes something like this. At the time of Jesus, there was a clear spectrum of options concerning human fate after death. The spectrum ran from the Greco-Roman one-way street, in which post-mortem bodily existence was neither promised nor desired, to the Jewish hope of a general resurrection at the fulfillment of history. Early Christian hope fell decidedly on the Jewish end of the spectrum, yet with a number of major modifications centered around the belief that God raised Jesus ahead of the rest. After so locating early Christian hope, Wright asks after the best possible explanation of such a belief. He contends that the best possible explanation of the rise of early Christianity is that God did in fact raise Jesus from the dead.

The last step is the most important and the most complex, so let me lay it out it greater detail. Wright argues that the twin elements of the Easter narratives (the meetings and the empty tomb) are each necessary conditions for belief in Jesus' resurrection while neither alone is a sufficient condition for such a belief. The meetings without the empty tomb could be explained as mere apparitions; the empty tomb without the meetings could be explained by a stolen body. The two together provide a sufficient explanation for the rise of Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection and are themselves best explained by the fact of Jesus' resurrection. Wright rehearses a number of other explanations to show that they are all less coherent the belief that Jesus was in fact raised. Of course, believing that a dead man was raised from the dead is a claim of world-view shaking proportions, challenging even the presuppositions upon which historical arguments (like the one rehearsed above) are made. In light of this, Wright concedes that his argument functions negatively: clearing the ground of alternative explanations, exposing their skeptical bias, and thereby pointing readers toward a whole new way of thinking rooted in the surprising fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. Within these limits, however, Wright contends that he has made a strong historical argument for the probability of Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

So there it is, Wright's argument in a nutshell. Although he ends there in Resurrection of the Son of God, in the context of Surprised by Hope this argument is just setting the stage by introducing the central character of Christian hope: the risen Jesus. We'll move on to the implications of Easter for Christian hope in the following weeks. But for now, let's consider this argument on its own terms by raising a series of questions:
  1. Is Wright's spectrum of options concerning human fate after death accurate?
  2. Can early Christian belief be located on the spectrum as a "modification" of Jewish belief? Or is there a more significant break?
  3. Is asking after the best possible explanation of the rise of Christian belief in resurrection the best possible procedure? Does this put the cart (belief) before the horse (resurrection)?
  4. Do you agree that both the meetings and the empty tomb are necessary conditions for belief in Jesus' resurrection? What are the consequences of removing one or the other?
  5. Do you agree that neither the meetings nor the empty tomb are sufficient conditions for belief in Jesus' resurrection? Could a case be made for resurrection belief on the basis of one alone?
  6. Does conceding the purely negative function of his argument undermine the weight of his argument?
  7. Does conceding the purely negative function of his argument adequately address the problem of faith and history?
  8. Is the question of belief in Jesus' resurrection the same as the question of belief in the risen Jesus?
  9. What does Jesus' resurrection tell us about Jesus?
  10. What does Jesus' resurrection tell us about God?
Any thoughts?

1 comment:

James F. McGrath said...

I was sorry I didn't get to read Wright's book before my own new one, The Burial of Jesus, was finished, I was disappointed that he dismissed as irrelevant the apparent trajectory in the development of the Gospel traditions about appearances. Since physical encounters are crucial, in his view, to accounting for the rise of resurrection faith, the stories in Luke and John are not late developments.

I can imagine one arguing that John's account is independent, or that John 21 reflects early tradition in places (I certainly would agree on that), but he doesn't make such an argument, and that left a blemish on my impression of what is otherwise a rather excellent book!