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The Strange Story of Easter: Surprised by Hope, Chapter 4

Having noted in chapter three that something happened to cause the early Christians’ belief in resurrection to be vastly different from their former religious or cultural beliefs, in chapter 4 N. T. Wright sets out to make the case for a real, historical Easter. He starts out be listing four “strange features” shared by the accounts in the canonical gospels which, he says, should compel us to take them seriously as early accounts. Those features:

  1. The “strange silence” of the Bible in the stories. Up to this point, the gospel writers consistently used allusions to and quotations from the Old Testament to show that Jesus’ death was “according to the scriptures”. The resurrection narratives, though, have almost no such references. If the resurrection accounts were invented much later, you would expect the writers to stay consistent.
  2. The presence of women as principal witnesses. As has often been remarked upon, women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world. Yet there they are in all the resurrection accounts.
  3. The portrait of Jesus himself. If the resurrection stories were written later, you’d expect a shining, transfigured Jesus. Instead, you get Jesus mistaken for a gardener and as a human being with a body that was in many ways quite normal.
  4. The resurrection accounts never mention the future Christian hope. In every account since then and in every Easter sermon preached, the conclusion is drawn: Jesus is raised, therefore there is life after death. But in these accounts, no such conclusions are drawn.

Wright goes on to address with great clarity some of the other common objections to the resurrection, including hallucination, cognitive dissonance, the swoon theory, mistaken identity, and the like. Each of them is reasonably discarded.

Finally, Wright concludes,

In any other historical inquiry, the answer would be so obvious that it would hardly need saying. Here of course, this obvious answer (“well, it actually happened”) is so shocking, so earth shattering, that we rightly pause before leaping into the unknown. And here indeed, as some skeptical friends have cheerfully pointed out to me, it is always possible for anyone to follow the argument so far and to say simply, “I don’t have a good explanation for what happened to cause the empty tomb and the appearances, but I choose to maintain my belief that dead people don’t rise and therefore conclude that something else must have happened, even though we can’t tell what it was.” That is fine; I respect that position; but I simply note that it is indeed then a matter of choice, not a matter of saying that something called scientific historiography forces us to take that route.

Wright’s other main argument in chapter four is for those who discount a “real” resurrection based on “science”. He notes that

…there are different types of knowing. Science studies the repeatable; history studies the unrepeatable… historians don’t of course see this as a problem and are usually not shy about declaring that these events certainly took place, even though we can’t repeat them in the laboratory.

But when people say “But that can’t have happened because we know that that sort of thing doesn’t actually happen,” then they are appealing to a would-be scientific principle of history, namely, the principle of analogy. The problem with analogy is that it never quote gets you far enough. History is full of unlikely things that happened once and once only, with the result that the analogies are often at best partial.

There’s a lot more to this chapter but it would be uncharitable to just quote the whole thing. Suffice it to say that Wright very convincingly argues that there is really no good explanation for all that has happened since other than that Jesus was truly resurrected from the dead. “Sometimes,” he notes, “human beings – individuals or communities – are confronted with something that they must reject outright or that, if they accept it, will demand the remaking of their worldview.” Having thus set out the framework in part one of Surprised by Hope, Wright will continue to discuss what that worldview looks like when it comes to future things.

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