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Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting: Surprised by Hope, Chapter 3

Let’s start at the very beginning, says a familiar song from a classic musical, it’s a very good place to start.. And start at the beginning N. T. Wright does in Chapter 3 of Surprised by Hope. In fact, Wright is in a supremely-qualified position to start at “the beginning” given his preeminence as a New Testament scholar. Wright’s question for chapter three is this: how did the early church talk about the resurrection? What was their view? The answers provide some keen insights into truths about the resurrection of Jesus.

In the ancient Jewish tradition, Wright says, they did have a concept of resurrection. But their view of resurrection wasn’t some vague concept of “life after death”. Instead, what they looked forward to was a bodily resurrection of the righteous at the end of time. When Jesus tells Martha that she will see her brother Lazarus again, and she replies “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”, that’s what they’re talking about. So when the early Jewish writers then spoke of Jesus resurrection and being bodily alive right now, they understood that they were describing something that had never happened before. The resurrection was the thing that set Jesus apart.

Wright then discusses seven ways in which the Christian view of resurrection soon mutated from the traditional Jewish view of resurrection:

  1. The Christians, though coming from a broad spectrum of philosophical and religious backgrounds, quickly agreed on a single, “two-step” view of life after death: a temporary, spiritual time with God until the final, bodily resurrection.
  2. The resurrection became more important – it moved “from the circumference to the center”.
  3. The understanding of the resurrected body moved from some vague Jewish beliefs to a solid belief in a material, transformed human body.
  4. The early Christians came to understand the resurrection as “split into two” – the prototype of Jesus resurrection, which points forward then to the resurrection at the end of days.
  5. Because God had inaugurated the resurrection in Jesus, the Christians now “believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness.”
  6. The metaphorical use of resurrection changed from being about the restoration of ethnic Israel to being about the restoration of humans in general.
  7. Resurrection became associated with the Jewish views of messiahship. To this point, no one had expected the Messiah to die and be resurrected; from this point on, they understood it to be the case.

It is important here, Wright says, to see this key development of a very early belief that “Jesus is Lord and therefore Caesar is not.” This, says Wright,

…is the foundation of the Christian stance of allegiance to a different king, a different Lord. Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated.

Resurrection was never a way of settling down and becoming respectable; the Pharisees could have told you that. It was the Gnostics, who translated the language of resurrection into a private spirituality and a dualistic cosmology, thereby more or less altering its meaning into its opposite, who escaped persecution. Which emperor would have sleepless nights worrying that his subjects were reading the Gospel of Thomas? Resurrection was always bound to get you into trouble, and it regularly did.

So, Wright says, there was a definite shift in the religious views as Jews became Christians following Easter. So what happened, really, on that historical Easter? That’s the question Wright will address in Chapter 4.


Also in this series:

  • Overview
  • Chapter 1: All Dressed Up and No Place To Go?
  • Chapter 2: Puzzled About Paradise?
  • Chapter 3: Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting (this post)
  • Chapter 4: The Strange Story of Easter
  • Chapter 5: Cosmic Future: Progress or Despair?
  • Chapter 6: What the Whole World’s Waiting For
  • Chapter 7: Jesus, Heaven, and New Creation
  • Chapter 8: When He Appears
  • Chapter 9: Jesus, the Coming Judge
  • Chapter 10: The Redemption of Our Bodies
  • Chapter 11: Purgatory, Paradise, Hell
  • Chapter 12: Rethinking Salvation: Heaven, Earth, and the Kingdom of God
  • Chapter 13: Building for the Kingdom
  • Chapter 14: Reshaping the Church for Mission (1): Biblical Roots
  • Chapter 15: Reshaping the Church for Mission (2): Living the Future

2 Comments

  1. Chris, I’m totally digging these chapter-by-chapter reviews of Surprised By Hope…it sounds like you could read this and Future Grace by Piper back to back for the big picture.

    I want to buy SBH now 🙂

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