N.T. Wright on the Risen John

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.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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12 Responses to N.T. Wright on the Risen John

  1. Steven Carr says:

    ‘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”‘

    I see.

    So Moses did not return from the grave to walk the Earth again, then to return to Hevaen, never to die again.

    Strange, because the NT claims the disciples saw Moses return from the grave.

    Of course, the effect on Jews of seeing Moses return from the dead is pretty small, as would be expected even today, if some Jews had seen Moses return from the dead and speak to the person they followed.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    Matthew 17:9 calls the transfiguration a vision, and that’s the same Greek word used for dreams in Daniel and for Peter’s vision in Acts. So I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t see the resurrected Moses.

    I have wondered about that scene, though. If what they saw was real and not just a dream, I can understand them seeing Elijah, since the Jews believed he did not die. But Moses?


  3. Steven Carr says:

    Moses ‘appeared’ (ophthe) to the disciples.

    This is the same word as when Jesus ‘appeared’ (ophthe) in 1 Corinthians 15

    I guess those were also visions.

    Wright solves the whole problem of how the disciples could see Moses returned from the grave, when returns from the grave never happened.

    He just ignores it, or else claims Jews believed Moses never died (without saying why that solves the problem)

    But then Wright is a charlatan, who just spins away anything which he cannot sell to his followers


  4. steph says:

    I wonder why NTW fails to explain (away) the holy dead who rise from their tombs when the earthquake struck in Matthew 27.52-3. Perhaps he is one of the undead still walking around – that would explain why he knows what happened. He was there…

    He doesn’t of course pay enough attention to the Jewish and pagan sources and when he does he treats them with skepticism. He doesn’t treat the Christian narratives with any degree of skepticism.

    In the context of belief in the resurrection, visions interpreted as a bodily resurrection do not necessarily equate with historical fact, contra NTW.

    I don’t want to disprove the resurrection of Jesus (and nobody can). If you believe it that’s fine but I don’t think anyone can demonstrate that it is historical fact. You aren’t supposed to demand signs.


  5. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven and Steph.

    Do you know of anything in the ancient world that calls a vision a “resurrection”? I know Luedemann goes the opthe route, but Paul calls what Jesus did a resurrection.


  6. Steven Carr says:

    Paul claims Jesus became a life-giving spirit, and calls this a resurrection.

    That doesn’t mean he had any more than a vision, just as it is alleged he believed he saw a real man from Macedonia in a vision.

    Paul, of course, has no knowledge of other raisings from the dead, not even to teach his ‘idiots’ Corinthians the difference between the resurrection of Moses and the resurrection of Jesus.

    The Book of Revelation is nothing but a claim to have had a vision f a resurrrected Jesus (unless Jesus had stopped being resurrected before the claim to have had visions of the resurrected Jesus.


  7. James Pate says:

    But would a vision be enough to convince the early Christians that Christ was “resurrected” (not just a disembodied spirit). I think that’s why N.T. Wright thinks the empty tomb is important, even if he doesn’t see it as the sole piece of evidence.

    I still want to read the Resurrection Debate, and I’ll get to it soon.


  8. Steven Carr says:

    In Paul’s view spirits are no

    2 Corinthians 5 ‘For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands’

    A spirit was a body made of spirit.

    Even the NT thought people could see a body and assume it was made of a material that could pass through walls.

    The Jesus of the Gospels trashes the idea that his resurrected body was made of a material that had a nature that enabled it to pass through walls.

    However Paul’s whole point is that the resurrected body is not made from the dust that a corpse becomes.


  9. James Pate says:

    Hi Stephen,

    I agree. Paul’s resurrection is bodily, even if his version is that Jesus transforms into a spirit being. That would be consistent with an empty tomb.

    But the Gospels seem to have Jesus’ resurrected body morph and vanish into thin air. It’s obviously not the same kind of flesh and blood that all of us possess.


  10. Steven Carr says:

    In Acts , Philip disappears from the sight of the eunuch and then reappears at Azotus.

    I guess Philip must have had one of those resurrected bodies.

    And Paul seems to believe that Jesus left his natural body and moved into a spiritual body (or that his spiritual body was redeemed from the corpse holding it prisoner)

    Only that can explain his scolding of the converts in Corinth who seemed to think that their resurrection would have to involve a corpse returning from the dead, or from ash and smoke, or whatever.

    These converts scoffed at the idea of God choosing to raise a corpse , although they were happy with whatever converted them to Christianity, presumably tales of Jesus ‘appearing’ to people.

    The body of Jesus does not morph. It was the eyes of his onlookers which were changed. First they were kept from recognising him and then their eyes were opened.

    No suggestion that the body had changed.

    Indeed, the Gospels have the traditional Jewish view that resurrected people were unchanged from how they died.

    The Jesus of the Gospels knew that people expected to recognise him by his wounds, which obviously would still be present after resurrection. Everybody knew that the wounds would still be there. That is how Jesus could prove he was not an imposter.

    The face could be faked, but the wounds would be the sure sign of a resurrected being.

    Entirely different from Paul’s idea of moving into a transformed, glorious body.


  11. Steven Carr says:

    Did Jesus body morph?

    Luke 24:31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight (presumably in the way Philip did in Acts)

    Luke 24:45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

    Did the scriptures morph?


  12. James Pate says:

    But even you said that the face could be faked, Steven. Even you seem to have a problem with risen Jesus looking exactly alike pre-death Jesus, and the disciples not catching on.


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