Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God. London: SPCK, 2003.
This is the best of Wright’s “big books” in my reading thus far. It contains insightful, well written observations like this one, found at the beginning of the book:
Proposing that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today. The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The historian who wishes to make such a proposal is therefore compelled to challenge a basic and fundamental assumption—not only, as is sometimes suggested, the position of eighteenth-century scepticism, or of the ‘scientific worldview’ as opposed to a ‘pre-scientific worldview’, but also of almost all ancient and modern peoples outside the Jewish and Christian traditions. (10)
It also contains detailed and rigorous argumentation. Wright takes particular aim at those who hold that the earlies Christians held to some kind of “spiritual resurrection,” that the appearances of Jesus to his followers were visionary (akin to Paul on the Damascus Road), and the idea of a bodily resurrection developed later. In arguing for the bodily resurrection Wright begins by looking at Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish materials as well as pagan materials on death and the afterlife. He establishes that resurrection refers to something bodily. Further, the Jewish material reveals that real expectation for a bodily resurrection existed among the Jews of Jesus’s day. Wright then surveys New Testament writings from Paul to the Gospels. He argues that the New Testament authors reveal that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. He notes that this belief required both an empty tomb and appearances. If the tomb was empty, but Jesus did not appear in his body, resurrection would not be the resulting belief. Likewise, if there were appearances but the tomb still contained the dead body, resurrection would not have been affirmed. Wright therefore concludes: “It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive” (687). He then makes a case for these being both necessary and sufficient reasons for finding a bodily resurrection “highly probable.”
The argument is compelling, but a few flies in the ointment should be noted. First, I found Wright overly skeptical of finding bodily resurrection in the early Old Testament texts. Second, though Wright often challenged critical orthodoxy, there were places where his approach was itself too critical. Third, I agree with Van Til that Christian apologists ought not simply argue from evidence that the Christian religion is probable. In other words, I would start with the affirmation of the resurrection because it is revealed and mount the apologetic from that ground. Many of the arguments that Wright uses would be the same, but the standpoint of the apologist would be different.