The Early Christian Understanding of Easter

An excerpt from N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 711-712.


The early Christian understanding of Easter was not that this sort of thing was always likely to happen sooner or later, and finally it did. It was not that a particular human being happened to possess even more unusual powers than anyone had imagined before. Nor did they suppose it was a random freak, like a monkey sitting at a typewriter and finally producing All’s Well that Ends Well (after, we must suppose, several near-misses). When they said that Jesus had been raised from the dead the early Christians were not saying, as many critics have supposed, that the god in whom they believed had simply decided to perform a rather more spectacular miracle, an even greater display of ‘supernatural’ power, than they had expected. This was not a special favour performed for Jesus because his god liked him more than anyone else. The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself.

The challenge for any historian, when faced with the question of the rise of Christianity, is much more sharply focused than is often supposed. It is not simply a matter of whether one believes in ‘miracles’, or in the supernatural, in general, in which case (it is supposed) the resurrection will be no problem. If anyone ever reaches the stage where the resurrection is in that sense no problem, we can be sure that they have made a mistake somewhere, that they have constructed a world in which this most explosive and subversive of events – supposing it to have occurred -can be domesticated and put on show, like a circus elephant or clever typing monkey, as a key exhibit in the church’s collection of supernatural trophies. The resurrection of Jesus then becomes either ‘a trip to a garden and a lovely surprise’, a happy ending to a fairy story, or a way of legitimating different types of Christianity or different leaders within it. No: the challenge comes down to a much narrower point, not simply to do with worldviews in general, or with ‘the supernatural’ in particular, but with the direct question of death and life, of the world of space, time and matter and its relation to whatever being there may be for whom the word ‘god’, or even ‘God’, might be appropriate. Here there is, of course, no neutrality. Any who pretend to it are merely showing that they have not understood the question.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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