Resurrection: response to Wright’s arguments, 5

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by Neil Godfrey

apols for posting this before serious proof-reading — ongoing editing under way . . . (9th May)

Continuing from previous post:

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. Discussed one in previous post and attached comments. One more to go:

  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

One reason Jesus does not appear as anything other than a normal human after his resurrection in two of the gospels is because these gospels reflect the popular literature of the period by concluding with a series of dramatic recognition scenes at the end of their stories. It was a popular trope for novelists to conclude their stories of adventure with their long lost (and thought to be dead) hero appearing at the end, with his or her associates only gradually come to recognize their loved one through a series of recognition scenes. Homer’s Odysseus was only recognized by his former nurse when she, like Thomas in the gospel, placed her hands in his old wounds. But the pattern is repeated many times in other popular literature, too.

Luke does this first with the unrecognized and then flash in the pan appearance with the Emmaus disciples; and then finally in full bodily presence before the rest of the disciples. But even then they need to be shown ways to prove that it really is Jesus. Ditto in the gospel of John. Mary does not recognize him at first. It takes time and the speaking of her name before she can. Again Jesus has to show them the clues (his wounds) to prove that he really is Jesus. Scars, birthmarks, wounds were common clues to eventually identify the long lost hero in popular stories.

Another reason is specific to Luke’s gospel. Luke is using his narrative to address (counter) the claims of docetic views that rejected the humanity/fleshiness of Jesus. This is evident from the earliest chapters when he traced Jesus’ genealogy right back to Adam, the first human. Luke’s Jesus contrasts a spirit body with a body of flesh and bones. John’s Jesus does not make this contrast, but only shows his body, with its wounds, to identify himself as their earlier leader, Jesus himself, who has come back from the dead. This was discussed in my second post in this series. Additional novelistic motifs in the gospel of John were discussed previously in yet another post.

The fact that two of the gospels describe Jesus as appearing like a mortal after his resurrection is consistent with the novelistic or storytelling motifs and theological interests that shaped their authors’ world.

The gospel of Mark had no resurrection appearance. A missing corpse was another way for ancient literature to alert readers to a resurrection of some sort. Matthew’s gospel does not describe his appearance or body at all.

Wright argues that if the gospel authors made up the story of Jesus being resurrected from the dead they would not have told it the way they did. In fact, this appears to be a regular argument of Wright’s. If it were not true, they would not have written it like that. One is tempted to respond that such an argument really testifies to Wright’s lack of imagination or diligence in seeking to understand, through natural (as opposed to supernatural) scholarly constructs, the texts as we have them. A miracle, he concludes, offers the best “explanatory power” for the origins of Christianity. I suspect he can only get away with such claims because of the “force field” effect of writing hundreds and hundreds of pages alluding to scholarly arguments. The sheer weight of the reading may well bludgeon some less familiar with the arguments into assuming all these pages must really knock natural explanations for the rise of Christianity on the head. The purpose of this mini-series of posts is to expose the emptiness of just a few of the points Wright makes in the midst of his pages of digressions and elaborations of colour and multitudes of footnotes.

Wright claims that if the gospel authors made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearances they would have described him more like a shining star, a figure of glorified splendour like the angelic and worship-worthy figures in the Book of Daniel.

So Wright’s argument is based on his ability to read the minds of the authors. No matter that the many ancient authors who did describe living re-appearances of the dead described them as having the same appearance as when they were alive. Wright is confident that the biblical authors would never have written about the living appearances of the dead the way nonbiblical authors did. The nonbiblical authors wrote fiction, so if the biblical authors did write anything resembling pagan depictions of the living-dead, it must be because they were recording facts, and not fiction.

But, Wright argues, they did not write anything truly resembling pagan depictions of the dead-now-appearing-to-be-living, because the pagan bodies did not fit the same description of Jesus’ body. Even though both the pagan bodies and Jesus’ body could pass through material objects, could speak and eat, wear clothes and display their wounds, feel human emotions and care for the living, even (in at least one famous pagan story) be returned to flesh and blood bodily life, Wright insists there can be no legitimate comparison.

One reason he gives is that educated ancients did not believe in the historical truth of their stories. Well, yes, need one even have to raise the obvious? They didn’t believe the Christian story either!

Another reason he gives is that despite some similarities between the pagan and biblical narratives, there are also some differences. Well, there are differences among the various pagan stories, too. Without differences there would only be one story, not lots — by definition we could never have many stories around this idea unless there were differences. Here are some of the variations:

  1. Most remain as shadowy bodies unable to be grasped (Aeneid, Odyssey) — the gospel of Luke is possibly attempting to go one better and set Jesus apart from these by having him demonstrate his flesh bones body-ness (even though he can still go through walls)
  2. But even pagans had stories of their exceptions who indeed did return from dead in their physical flesh and blood bodies (Alcestis) — Wright says there is no comparison with Jesus here because Jesus was to live forever and Alcestis died again. Of course this is special pleading. The fact is that there is a direct comparison to be made, regardless of the subsequent fates of the characters.
  3. Others cower in fear at material swords (Odysseus holding the dead at bay with his sword)
  4. Others take no notice of swords (Aeneas is told he is wasting his time using his sword)
  5. Some can only scream in whispers
  6. And others can speak quite normally
  7. Most appear just as they did when alive
  8. Yet others can or do appear as another person entirely (Astrabacus appeared as Ariston)
  9. One ancient historian, Herodotus, even recorded an account of a dead hero, Astrabacus, returning to embrace and have sex with a living woman, and leave behind a part of his head-gear as a momento of the event. And there was a time when Romans sacrificed young girls so their souls could serve dead soldiers sexually.
  10. Some wrote that the dead were brought back up from Hades (Hercules rescued Alcestis)
  11. One ancient theologian wrote that Jesus went down to Hades to preach to the spirits and then returned with escorting angels to go up to heaven (The Gospel of Peter)
  12. Another wrote that some were raised by a word, others by a touch, others after some days in a tomb, one by touching the bones of a dead prophet, another after three rounds of body to body massage. (The various old and new testament biblical stories)
  13. Some wrote that many were persuaded that the dead reappeared to a mortal witness at dawn, and commanded that witness to go and report to others (Romulus, Jesus)
  14. Some departed dead reappeared in recognizable form with their first words being, “Peace, Take courage, Don’t be afraid.” (Scipio Africanus, Jesus)
  15. The dead would reappear to pass on instructions to the living (Romulus, Scipio, Patroclus, Samuel, Jesus)
  16. Many of them showed off their mortal wounds (Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Hector, Jesus)

The variations we see in the Jesus narrative are all part and parcel of the constellation of mutations of the same basic idea. To make a special case for the unique features of just one of the above characters is pedantic nonsense and special pleading.

Virgil, Euripides, Herodotus and Homer speak of the dead, though “spirit”, still having the form and even feelings of their fleshly bodies. They wore clothes, they could eat and drink, they could play board games, they could inflict pain and death with weapons and their hands on the living, they could feel pain and be seriously threatened by the swords of the living, and they could even have sex both with each other and the living. (See Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, p.50ff)

The fact that Jesus is depicted by one or two of the evangelists as having a palpable as opposed to shadowy body is not a common portrayal of the returned dead, but it is not unique either.

Virgil argued with Homer over the latter’s portrayal of Odysseus being able to hold departed souls at bay with his sword. Virgil said that was a nonsense in his Aeneid. Aeneas was reminded by his companions that was silly to even try to threaten souls that way. In a similar dialogue with other narratives, Luke and perhaps John, decided to prove that their resurrected hero surpassed the pagan dead by being touchable — without stinking or looking like a zombie (if indeed the authors really did imagine him truly physical — not all early Christians interpreted Luke’s gospel that way) — yet still with all the other attributes of spirit (being able to pass through walls, turn invisible, live forever and travel to heaven).


By narrating a reappearance of Jesus after his death in a bodily form the evangelists are not struck by historical reality, but merely following the conventions of the times.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Resurrection: response to Wright’s arguments, 5”

  1. Thanks for a very entertaining mini series. The endurance of the Gospel images echoes the longevity of the images in the other myths(?). We can be touched very deeply by these situations. Archetypes I suppose Jung would call them. I hope I didn’t offend you by calling you Neil, at least your response answered my (unspoken) question.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful analysis of Tom Wright. I think your response is perfect. I like a few of the things that Wright says, but in the end, he simply comes across as fundamentalist with a British accent.

    Bishop Spong seem to be a much better representative for a rational type of faith that can survive in the 21st century.

  3. Wright’s ability to read the minds of anonymous people of 2,000 years ago is legendary.

    Wright announces ‘We can be sure however that this strange comment would not have occured to anyone telling this story as pure fiction….’ (page 643)

    Suffice it to say that Wright gives no sources, or methodology, or any way of testing his claim that we can be ’sure’ that it is not ‘pure’ fiction.

    Wright writes ‘Equally, Matthew, like the others, describes a Jesus who comes and goes, appears and disappears, and is doubted at the very end by some of his close and obedient associates….’ (page 646, of the Resurrection of the Son of God)

    Apparently it is historically plausible for some of the close and obedient associates of Jesus to doubt proofs supplied by the resurrected Son of God Himself.

    ‘We’, however can be ‘sure’ of the announcements of a Bishop of Durham about what would or would not have occurred to the anonymous person writing the Gospel of Matthew.

    I think that if close associates of Jesus can doubt proofs supplied by Jesus, then we can legitimately doubt the ability of a Wright to know what someone of 2,000 years ago would have written if he had been writing fiction.

  4. Certainly Spong is a rationalist, but rational? Not sure that the post-Bishop of Newark is in touch with the real 21st century.
    His account of Jesus cursing the fig tree on his way to Jerusalem comes to mind. Spong portrays this piece as out of place and nonsense and has no clues as to why it is included in the Gospel record. In like manner he treats the whole of the occurance of easter in spring, and he allocates it to autumn, with the additonal idea of a conspiracy theory (a la Dan Brown) embedded for good measure.
    The fig tree cursed symbolised Israel’s (and our) inability to see or read the signs of the times. The fig carried no fruit from the previous season (as fig trees can) or no buds, a sign of the coming summer season and therefore betrayed its purpose and function – just as Israel did in regards to God’s purpose and function for Israel in world history and salvation. That’s why the fig tree was cursed.
    In regard to Easter in spring. This relates to the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem, where people were laying down leafy branches of trees on the ground before Jesus passed by. Spong questions this as he feels leafy branches would not be available at that time of the year. For some reason he expects leafy braches to be more prevelant in the fall. For my money I’ll bet on spring any season of the year. Also the type of trees available, even Spong lists, are in fact evergreen!

    1. Homer’s epics, Iliad and Odyssey, remained classic texts for anyone learning to read and write Greek in the Hellenistic-Roman era of the centuries up to the time of Christ and even beyond.

      The Roman poet, Virgil, who composed the Aeneid, a history of the founding of Rome, around the time or just prior to the time Jesus was supposedly born. The influence of the Odyssey and Iliad is well-recognized in his epic. Aeneas in many respects is an emulation (superior imitation) of Odysseus.

      Odysseus, Achilles, such characters remained “contemporary” right through the first and second century ce of the Roman period. Students were given exercises in which they were expected to compose pieces from the points of view of such characters, or to write narrative episodes in imitation — with certain variations — of them.

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