In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright contends that “nowhere within [first century] Judaism…is a sustained claim advanced that resurrection has actually happened to a particular individual” (28). And so the early Christians were making an original claim when they said that Jesus rose from the dead, as many first century Jews expected a general resurrection at the end of time, not the resurrection of individuals beforehand. As far as N.T. Wright is concerned, the early Christians had to get their counter-cultural idea from somewhere, so they got it from its actual occurrence.
But N.T. Wright acknowledges at least one exception to his general rule about first century Judaism. In Matthew 14:2, Mark 6:14, and Luke 9:7, Herod Antipas speculates that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. So I guess some first century Jews did believe that dead people could rise before the end of time!
What does N.T. Wright do with this? He tackles this problem on pages 412-413. He doesn’t believe that the early Christians invented these stories about Herod Antipas, so he thinks they are probably historical. Wright’s ultimate answer is this: “We should not, I think, regard Herod and his court as the most accurate indicators of mainstream second-Temple Jewish belief; even if it is true that the Pharisees and Herodians made common cause on a couple of occasions, we may assume that they did not sit down and discuss the finer points of proto-rabbinic theology” (emphasis mine).
There are a few problems with this. First of all, Luke 9:7 says it was said by some that John the Baptist had risen from the dead. And, second, the Gospels affirm that elements of the general population speculated that Jesus was one of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 16:14; Mark 6:15; Luke 19:9). Luke 19:9 even fine-tunes the rumor as Jesus being an Old Testament prophet who had risen from the dead. The notion that an individual could experience resurrection before the end of time was not limited to Herod’s court. Even Jesus’ disciples knew about it when Jesus asked them who people said that he was.
N.T. Wright somewhat addresses the first point. He states: “Matthew and Mark use [Herod’s statement that Jesus is John risen from the dead] as the point of entry to their accounts of John’s death, whereas Luke, who has no such account, but who has already mentioned Herod’s imprisonment of John (3.19-20), contents himself with the reference to beheading in the final verse, distancing Herod, in 9.9 and 9.7, from the opinion which Matthew and Mark ascribe to him, that Jesus was a resurrected John the Baptist.” I don’t entirely follow N.T. Wright here. He seems to be saying that Luke tries to distance Herod from such an opinion out of a matter of necessity, since he doesn’t possess a full-blown tradition about John’s death. I’m not sure why the latter entails the former, but maybe I’m just confused.
As far as the second problem is concerned, I can’t find where N.T. Wright addresses it, and I checked the Scripture index of his book. So he may not consider the passages in which first century Jews commonly articulated a belief in individual resurrection before the end of days.
I think that N.T. Wright puts too much weight on originality. The resurrection of an individual or a Messiah does not need to be an original idea for it to have occurred. Something real made people think along those lines, whether they were the first to do so or not. In the case of Herod and first century Judea, it was Jesus’ miracles that convinced them he had to be someone important who had risen from the dead. In the case of the disciples, I believe it was the empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to them.
N.T. Wright is not totally wrong, however, since there are Gospel passages in which the disciples clearly do not expect Jesus to rise from the dead. It’s a shocker to them when he does! The disciples on the road to Emmaus despairingly tell a fellow traveler who turns out to be Jesus, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21 NRSV). As far as they were concerned, once Jesus died, their messianic expectations concerning him died too! The idea that the Messiah might rise from the dead did not really occur to them.
And this leads to an important point: different people can have different reactions. Just because there were some in the first century who believed that the Messiah or individuals could rise from the dead before the end of time, that doesn’t mean such a concept ever entered the disciples’ minds. Do you think every aspect of my culture is in my mind 24-7? It’s not. I’m only a human. I’m not an automaton or a computer. And neither were people in the ancient world.