Comparing the Historical Jesus: Resurrection

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.

ResurrectionWhile thus far in this series Crossan and Wright have differed on their reconstructions of the Historical Jesus, it is the resurrection that truly demonstrates the divergent perspectives of these two scholars.[1] Crossan writes concerning historicity of the canonical resurrection appearance accounts that, “Jesus’ burial by his friends was totally fiction and unhistorical. He was buried, if buried at all, by his enemies, and the necessarily shallow grave would have been easy prey for scavenging animals… Resurrection is but one way, not the only way, of expressing Christian faith…. Apparition… Is one way, not the only way, of expressing Christian experience…. Christian faith experiences the continuation of divine empowerment through Jesus, but that continuation began only after his death and burial.”[2] Crossan understands the Pauline message of the importance of the typological resurrection of Christ[3] as one way that the message of Christianity could be interpreted and preached in the early first century Greco-Roman context, and that such an understanding should not be taken as normative for the entirety of the early Jesus movement.[4]

For Crossan, canonical accounts of resurrection material exist as the result of apparition experiences, symbolism, or communal conferral of authority within the early Church.[5] Crossan clearly places an emphasis upon the impact of Jesus of Nazareth following his death under Pontius Pilate, though in a non-traditional manner which places a great deal of importance upon his continuing ecstatic vision and social program for the world.[6] Crossan argues that Christian belief consists of an act of faith in the historical Jesus as a manifestation of God,[7] and that his understanding of the historical Jesus allows for Christian faith to remain faithful to the vision and purposes of the historical Jesus without the later corrupting practices of imperial Christianity.[8] Summarizing Crossan’s argument concerning the resurrection, he argues that there was no historical bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that post-resurrection canonical accounts are theological constructions, and that Christian faith must return to its historical roots as believing in Jesus as a manifestation of God whose open commensality and radical egalitarian form the basis for a revolutionary social program that can still save the world.

The Resurrection of Jesus, Licona
The Resurrection of Jesus, Licona

In addition to their views on the resurrection, a clearly obvious difference between Crossan and Wright is the amount that each scholar has written on this topic. Crossan, especially in the works considered here, does not devote more than a few chapters to his view of the resurrection accounts. Conversely, historian Michael Licona, in his tome The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach,[9] writes concerning N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God [10] that it has given “unprecedented consideration to hermeneutics and method”[11] and has given scholarship concerning the historical Jesus, and specifically studies of the resurrection, an invaluable tool for future study. Due to the large amount of material the Wright has written concerning the resurrection, it must be understood that the perspective as summarized below entails just that, no more than a summary.

Wright argues that the theme and hope of resurrection was one of the great focal points of the early Jesus movement, a message that finds itself inculcated not only within the writings of Paul,[12] but also within the normative canonical Christian writings,[13] as well as non-canonical writings, both orthodox and heterodox in nature.[14] After considering the historical datum available to scholars, Wright concludes that the faith of early Christianity was founded upon the belief “that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. This belief was held by virtually all the early Christians for whom we have evidence. It was the centre of their characteristic praxis, narrative, symbol and belief; it was the basis of their recognition of Jesus as Messiah and lord, their insistence that the creator god had inaugurated the long-awaited new age, and above all their hope for their own future bodily resurrection.”[15] Wright concludes that, “When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, he rose as the beginning of the new world that Israel’s God had always intended to make.”[16] This understanding of the historical Jesus, that he was crucified, died, and historically and bodily resurrected from the dead, forms the basis for Wright’s perspective of the impact and importance of the historical Jesus, not only for historical consideration, but for Christian theology as well.

[1] It should be noted that Robert Stewart, in conjunction with Crossan and Wright, published a work entitled The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue, which deals directly with these scholars’ perspectives on the resurrection, and engages their views more fully than time and space allow for here. See Robert B. Stewart, John Dominic Crossan, and N.T. Wright. The Resurrection: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue. Augsburg Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2006.

[2] John Dominic Crossan. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994. 160-161.

[3] Though many theologians and New Testament scholars would undoubtedly take issue with Crossan’s apparent understanding of Paul’s view of resurrection as only typological.

[4] Ibid., 165. It must be noted that Crossan presents here no early evidence that substantiates this claim of competing understandings of the message of Christianity. Even examples from such sources as the Shepherd of Hermas, which do not explicitly examine the topic of resurrection, frame the hope of the Christian faith upon the second coming of Christ Jesus following his resurrection and signaling the general resurrection.

[5] Ibid., 170-192.

[6] Ibid., 196.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] Ibid., 201.

[9] Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2010.

[10] A magnum opus in its own right with over 800 pages.

[11] Ibid., 20.

[12] N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. 209-398.

[13] Ibid., 401-479.

[14] Ibid., 480-552.

[15] Ibid. 685.

[16] Tom Wright. Simply Jesus. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. 187.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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