There is No Such Thing as Detached Objectivity (N.T. Wright's "Resurrection" Study #1)
Fully Alive is studying N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God for the Easter season!
Wright's essential book lays out the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection in a fair, readable, and serious way. His reputation as a scholar and historian is undeniable, even to non-Christians.
Notes and quotes from the book are featured on our Twitter account throughout the week. Every Friday, Fully Alive founder Erik Ritland posts an article summing up the chapters and giving insights on them. Find out more here.
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Part I: Setting the Scene of Resurrection (p 3-206) is split into four chapters: one about studying the resurrection as history and Wright's methodology, one about ancient pagan beliefs about life after death, and two about Jewish beliefs about the subject.
This initial blog focuses on Part I, Chapter I: The Target and the Arrows (pg. 3-31).
Throughout the years, both Christians (of all types) and non-believing scholars have given many reasons why studying the resurrection either doesn’t make sense or isn’t beneficial. Wright spends the first chapter of his book debunking each of them thoroughly. He also lays out his methodology and outlines how the book will unfold.
Was Jesus' Tomb Empty?
The entire thrust of his book is summarized on pages 7-8. Wright is out to show that, contrary to popular scholarship, a close look at the evidence proves that Jesus’ original followers believed and taught that he was resurrected bodily from the dead. This is over and against the idea that they could have meant the resurrection spiritually or as a metaphor for Jesus’ continued presence among them in his teaching. Wright is out to prove that this doesn’t make sense in the context of pagan and Jewish belief of the time.
Separating History and Theology is a Pipe Dream
The results of his findings are outlined on page 10: that “the best historical explanation” is the that tomb of Jesus “was indeed empty.” Some might argue that he is conflating history and theology. Wright expertly responds that they are “inevitably intertwined,” and that “not to recognize this, in fact, is often to decide tacitly in favour of a particular type of theology, perhaps a form of Deism, whose absentee-landlord god keeps clear of historical involvement” (5). To throw out the possibility that God can work in the world is as theological an assumption as the idea that he can.
Can the Resurrection even be Studied as History?
I wish that I had the time and space to describe what follows, but a short summary will have to do. Pages 11-30 are prime N.T. Wright. In this section, he decisively and thoroughly disproves every major argument against studying the resurrection as history. The two camps are those who believe that it can’t be done and those who believe that it can be but shouldn’t be. Each is cooly and systematically proven as inadequate.
What's to Come
Having dispensed with each reason not study the resurrection as history, Wright explains how is going to do it in The Resurrection and the Son of God on pages 28-30. Most studies of the resurrection begin with the texts that discuss it, the Gospels and the writings of Paul. Wright is going to begin a bit further back than that, laying out the pagan and Jewish beliefs about life after death in order to show what the Christian belief about resurrection could and couldn’t realistically be.
Obviously, the Christian idea of the resurrection wasn’t taken directly from either the Jewish or pagan understanding. So the question becomes: what caused the Christian mutation of the resurrection? And then, finally: what happened at Easter?
There is No Such Thing as Detached Objectivity
Wright ends the chapter by outlining his methodology. In a way, this is a foundation of his genius. As if anticipating the claim that he can’t be objective because he’s a believing Christian, he lays out a clear and convincing case that “there is no such thing as detached objectivity”:
This method recognizes that all knowledge of the past, as indeed of everything else, is mediated not only through sources but also through perceptions, and hence also the personalities, of the knowers.
There is no such thing as detached objectivity. To say, therefore, that we can investigate other historical claims in a neutral or objective fashion, but that with the resurrection an element of subjectivity inevitably creeps in, is to ignore the fact that all historical work consists of a dialogue between the historian, in community with other historians, and the source materials; and that at every point the historians’ own worldview-perspectives are inevitably involved.
But this does not mean that all knowledge collapses into mere subjectivity. There are ways of moving towards fair and true statements about the past.
Getting the Whole Picture
The final piece of Wright’s methodology is his emphasis on praxis, story, and symbol. It’s not just a community's ideas that explain who they were and what they believed: it’s their customs, the stories that they told, and the symbols of their culture. Each part of the book will use these benchmarks to get closer to the heart of what each group thought and believed.
#2 in our study, which will cover Part I, Chapter 2, coming soon.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician. The founder of Fully Alive Christian Media, he also created The Minnesota Sport Ramble and is a writer and copy editor for Music in Minnesota. He was Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Curious North and Hometown Hustle. Reach him via email.
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