By Tish Harrison Warren
An Anglican priest reflects on matters of faith in private life and public discourse.
Happy Easter! Easter marks the high point of the Christian liturgical calendar, when billions of Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the central hope of the Christian faith. Perhaps no one on earth has studied that event and the subsequent responses to it more than N.T. Wright. He serves as senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and is emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews. He has written over 80 books focused on Jesus and his first followers. He is also a Christian and a former bishop of Durham in the Church of England. One of his books, “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” is an exhaustive dive into the scholarship and debates around the resurrection of Christ. I asked Wright to speak with me about his research and this baffling, world-altering claim of resurrection. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tish Harrison Warren: Your book presents the resurrection of Jesus as an actual, physical, historical event, not simply a metaphor or spiritual experience. Why does the idea that this was an actual event matter to you?
N.T. Wright: I’m well aware that many people — including some in churches — have treated the resurrection and Easter as a general way of talking about the rebirth of hope or a spiritual metaphor. Indeed, in the New Testament, the idea of resurrection is sometimes used metaphorically to talk about a new moral life, a life where everything is going to be different. But in the New Testament, that’s always rooted in the claim that when they’re talking about resurrection, they’re talking about something that actually happened.
In the first century, the word for resurrection, the Greek word “anastasis,” was never about a vague sense of possibility or the rebirth of hope or anything like that. It was always about people who had been bodily dead now discovered to be bodily alive. I’ve shown in great detail in the book that all the early Christians for whom we have any evidence, right through until around 150 years after the time of Jesus, when they’re talking about resurrection, that’s what they’re talking about.
It’s beyond question that when the first followers of Jesus used that language about him, they intended to say something definite about his being bodily alive, albeit in a whole new way. He seemed to have gone through death and out the other side, but into a new world in which he was emphatically embodied. Unless we are prepared to acknowledge that, we’re simply not taking their words seriously.
Then, as now, claiming that somebody was alive again — particularly somebody who made the sort of claims that Jesus made or were made about him — was revolutionary. It was dangerous talk. So if people don’t like dangerous talk, then stay away from Easter is my advice.
There’s a funny line where you write, “The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.” That’s obvious, of course, but we sometimes assume that skepticism is a recent phenomenon. How would ancient Jewish audiences and Gentile audiences think about the apostles talking about the resurrection?
Early Christianity was born into a world where everybody knew that its central claim was ridiculous, and the early Christians knew it themselves. It’s not that they thought resurrection might just happen to a few people here and there. But they said it had happened in this case.
This claim seemed absolutely crazy. Ordinary, sober people knew perfectly well that dead people don’t get raised up again.
Many Jewish people for two centuries before Jesus and on for at least the next century believed that in the end, all God’s people would be raised because they believed that the God of Israel, the Creator God, would remake the whole world. But this is about one person being raised from the dead ahead of everybody else.
In the non-Jewish world, there is no evidence that anyone is expecting dead people to come back again. There’s lots of speculation about other places they might go. The Platonic speculation about going off to the Isles of the Blessed and having lovely conversations about philosophy all day. The Stoics believed that there would be a great Phoenixlike conflagration and the whole world would then be reborn.
But most people knew that when you died, that was basically it. That’s why when Paul, in Athens, said this had happened, most of them laughed at him. It didn’t fit their worldview. That’s crucial because you can’t fit the resurrection into the existing worldviews that we’ve got. The resurrection brings its own worldview with it and says, if you’re going to understand the way things are, you start with this and work out. If Jesus really has been raised, then everything is different.
You spend time in the book looking at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the Gospels. It seems that the disciples’ testimony about seeing Jesus matters to you. Why do you trust their testimony?
If you understand how people thought about death and life after death in the ancient world, you will need two strands of converging evidence.
On the one hand, there are extraordinary reports about people going to the tomb of Jesus and finding that there was no body in it. In that world, grave robbery was a common occurrence, so an empty tomb by itself says, “This is odd,” but we can tell some stories about this that are much more credible than the idea that he’s alive again.
However, if at the same time this person turns up and is seen and felt to be bodily alive and speaks to people and cooks breakfast by the shore, then that is totally unexpected as well. Those two things kind of interpret one another. We know many experiences that people have — and I’ve known of experiences like this in our own family — that somebody who recently died will suddenly show up in a room or somewhere, for a moment or two, to people that they have known, then disappear again. They knew about that kind of thing in the first century as well. They had language for that. It was like an angel visiting. There’s a place in the New Testament where the disciples think that Peter has been killed in prison in Acts Chapter 12, and he’s knocking on the door and they say, “It can’t be Peter. It must be his angel.” They think this is a kind of angelic visitation before he goes off to wherever he will go.
You need those two bits of evidence put together and then the testimony makes sense. Otherwise, empty tomb? Somebody has taken the body. That’s what Mary Magdalene thought. Appearances? “Oh, yeah, we know about those. Just go and check in the tomb. You will find there’s still a body there.” But if there isn’t, then we are into something different. So that’s why that evidence is so important.
It seems like these appearances meant something to the apostles themselves. Paul reminded people in his letters that at the time of his writing there were people still living who had seen Jesus after his resurrection.
Exactly. At the beginning of the 15th chapter of Paul’s First Letter to Corinth, he mentions the people to whom the risen Jesus appeared. To Peter and to the rest of the apostles, and various others. And then he says that Jesus appeared to 500 people all at once. And most of them are still alive. The implication strongly being: “You go and ask them. You find out what they saw.” In other words, they can’t all be just making it up or all be deluded.
We have evidence of other revolutionary or messianic movements whose founder or leader was killed by the authorities. In such cases, either the movement died out or they got another leader. The central and undisputed leader of the early Jerusalem Christians was James, known widely as the brother of Jesus. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian who was in Jerusalem at the time when James was killed in the early 60s, refers to James as “the brother of the so-called Messiah,” i.e. Jesus. But nobody ever suggested that James was the Messiah. Had Jesus stayed dead, this makes no sense. An executed Messiah is a failed Messiah.
Was there a time that you didn’t believe the resurrection occurred? Was there a moment for you or a series of moments over time that tethered you to belief?
I think until I was probably in my middle or late teens, I’d assumed that resurrection was more like a kind of Platonic “going to heaven” hope, souls going to heaven, and that Jesus had to be raised from the dead in order to lead the way to heaven or something like that.
When I was a student studying ancient history in Oxford I read C.S. Lewis’s book “Miracles.” Lewis is very good on the appearances of the risen Jesus and how the people who first saw Jesus did not immediately recognize him. He was definitely embodied but his body seemed to be different. The way they cash that out is that he’s gone through death and out the other side, beyond the reach of pain, corruption, decay or death itself.
That did not comport with the sermons I was hearing in churches, which were more or less, like the hymn says, “You asked me how I know he lives. He lives within my heart.” I realized that actually, that’s not good enough. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus within your heart. But the truth of the resurrection is a truth about something that actually happened in history.
Let’s say that what the Gospels claim is true: Jesus is risen. It seems that the world keeps going and there’s still oppression, suffering and grief. There’s still death. So what difference does it make that Jesus is raised from the dead?
It’s exactly the same objection that people made right at the beginning, including during the public career of Jesus. He went about saying, “This is what it looks like when God becomes king.” And people would say, well, there’s still an awful lot of bad stuff going on. Caesar is still ruling the world. And Jesus constantly told stories to say, no, this is what God’s kingdom looks like: It’s like a seed that grows secretly. It’s like somebody planting lots of seed and some go bad. But look, there’s a huge harvest coming up over here.
People regularly say, if there really was a God, if he really wanted to sort the place out, then he would come and, bang, it would be done. He would send in the tanks — metaphorically speaking, or perhaps not — and sort out the evil and wickedness in the world. But the Sermon on the Mount says that when God comes to sort out the world the Jesus way, he doesn’t send in tanks. He sends in the poor and the brokenhearted and the hungry-for-justice people and the meek and the people who are ready to suffer for getting the world sorted out. The way the Sermon on the Mount works is exactly the same way that the gospel of the resurrection works. Jesus, risen from the dead, is the planting of that great seed. And now the plant has spread in all directions.
Obviously bad things happen. Bad things happen in and through the church. We all know that. I know that as well as anyone. But all sorts of great and good things do happen. Healing happens, hope happens, and ultimately it all goes back to this single seed of the raising of Jesus from the dead.
How did the resurrection change the disciples’ lives? And is that instructive for how it would change Christians’ lives today?
It’s hugely instructive because even Jesus’ most loyal disciples clearly had not expected him to be raised from the dead. They were flattened by his death. But then his resurrection, plus what happened afterward, which was Jesus doing this very strange thing of somehow bequeathing them his own personal presence, which they came to call the Spirit, or the Holy Spirit. This absolutely revolutionized them. And it’s not just that they were fearful before and completely emboldened and ready to go to the ends of the earth afterward. It’s that the agenda changed.
When Jesus was arrested, one of his closest followers had a sword and was prepared to do battle. But as soon as the resurrection happens, we find that everything has changed and they are embodying Jesus’ agenda, which is to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. So that when the first Christian martyr is killed, Stephen, in Acts Chapter 7, as he’s dying, he says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
The deep spirit of Jesus’ way of going about doing God’s kingdom has changed within them because the resurrection has shown them that the way to victory is not by fighting, is not by force of arms, but is by the Way of the Cross and the resurrection which follows. And that is as radical today as ever it was.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
I’m sharing this from today’s edition of the New York Times, which I subscribe to.