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Two scholars battle it out over the resurrection

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 26 July 2019

The Resurrection of Jesus is a central event in Christianity upon which hangs how we understand the nature of God, the basis of faith, and how Christ is present to His Church.

But what kind of event was it? The answer to this question falls into two quite different camps; those who insist that Jesus shrugged off his grave clothes and walked out of his tomb to meet his disciples as he would have before his death, and those who believe that the Spirit of Christ remained with them after his death as it remains to the Church to this day.

The first view asserts that he was raised from death to return to this world but never to die again. It must be said that this is a traditional interpretation that is enshrined, for example, in the third Article of Religion of the Church of England: "Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature." It is also fiercely defended by the Roman Church and evangelical churches of all denominations.


Thus the nature of the Resurrection of Jesus is still a burning issue surrounded by vigorous debate. At the risk of misinterpretation, I will call these two views of the Resurrection, the physical and the spiritual.

N.T Wright, in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), takes the physical view which means that it may be investigated by secular historians in the same way that any other historical event may be investigated, i.e. the Resurrection may be perceived without the eyes of faith. This effectively excludes the activity of the "Spirit as a datum of Easter Faith".

Wright takes this physical view from the traditions of Israel. He asserts that Jews of the time of Jesus could only perceive of the Resurrection as the physical raising of bodies from the dead, a heritage of Second Temple Judaism. He rejects any talk of "spirit" as being foreign and unwelcome contamination from Greek thought, particularly Platonism. This makes much talk of the Spirit in the New Testament problematic and would seem to exile the third Person of the Trinity. Wright clings to a narrow dictionary definition of the word "resurrection" and refuses to deal with the spread of Greek thought throughout the civilised world.

There is now a growing consensus that rather than Platonism taking over Christianity, it was the case that Church fathers took what they needed from Platonism. For example, they could affirm the unity and transcendence of the Logos while rescuing the material world from being mere shadows of the Ideal. As Boersma has written: "The Platonist-Christian synthesis made it possible to regard creation, history, and Old Testament as sacramental carriers of a greater reality."

Peter Carnley, erstwhile Anglican Archbishop of Perth, entered the discussion of the nature of the Resurrection with his book The Structure of Resurrection Belief (1987). This appeared early in his time as archbishop and was the occasion of much dispute not only among Evangelical Anglicans but also with those of more traditional persuasion. The spur for a new book: Resurrection in Retrospect: A critical examination of the theology of N.T.Wright (2019) is, as the title suggests, a response to Wright's support for the physical view.

Carnley's book is a detailed and systematic taking apart of Wright's view and awaits a second volume to complete his study. I have to say that I found such taking apart laughably easy. Carnley first attacks the relevance of a dictionary definition of Resurrection attributed to Second Temple Judaism. He demonstrates that Platonism penetrated the consciousness of the early Church, including the thought of the earliest Christian writer, St Paul. It becomes evident to the reader that the early Church borrowed what it needed from Judaism and Hellenism and that its understanding of the Resurrection was the product of both. This explains, to some extent, why texts regarding the Resurrection are ambiguous and often contradictory.


Carnley leads us into the maze of biblical texts that deal with the Resurrection, many of which are at cross purposes, even to themselves as to the nature of Jesus' risen body. For example, the appearance of Jesus in the locked room in John 20:19-28 both affirms the bodily reality of the risen Christ as the one bearing the wounds of crucifixion and, in contradiction, one who can appear and disappear at will. Similarly, the lovely story that Luke gives us set on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) allows the risen Jesus to walk and talk with his disciples on the road without them recognising him and he vanishes after he reveals himself in the breaking of the bread.

These two texts seem to want it both ways, that the risen Jesus is the crucified one and that he is also non-material. None of the resurrection appearances deals with the reality of Jesus being alive again, having to sleep somewhere, sustain himself and have continuous contact with his disciples. All of the appearances of the risen Jesus are episodic and have puzzling aspects. They are also loaded with theological meaning in a way that ordinary events are not, such as the Eucharistic reference to the breaking of the bread in the Emmaus story.

It is obvious that there has been a period of development in the resurrection tradition from Paul, who does not seem to know about the empty tomb, to the earliest Gospel of Mark in which there is only the empty tomb but no appearances, to the more fully blown accounts of meetings with Jesus in the later gospels.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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