What N.T. Wright should have said last night (imho…)

Posted on December 21, 2007


Jon (Hi Jon; don’t you get more than enough of my ramblings in class?!) left a comment on the previous post, saying he wanted to ask Tom Wright a question: ‘Can a scientist believe in the resurrection?’ I wasn’t at the lecture, so can’t assess the implied criticism that it didn’t adequately address the title, but the comment got me thinking in the watches of the night. It is/was an odd question to address in a lecture, in that it admits of a trivial empirical answer:- even on the strictest possible definition of ‘scientist’ (say, doctorate; published research; currently employed in the field), there are several dozen scientists in my acquaintance who do believe in the resurrection, and actuality entails possibility (if they do, they clearly can…).

So, why might this have been an interesting question for Tom to ask, or to be asked (if the title was given to him)? I think I can see an answer; before outlining it, I ought to confess that, not only was I not at the lecture, but (embarrassing confession time) I haven’t yet read the third of Tom’s series on Christian Origins, The Resurrection of the Son of God, so I really am flying in the dark here!

Wright’s project is, even in his own estimation, a renewal of the quest of the historical Jesus. That is, it is an attempt to discern what can be known of Jesus by the methods of historical scholarship alone. Hence the various debates with the Jesus Seminar: they are about the same task with the same tools, if disagreeing how to use them. Hence also the enormous apologetic value of the project, if it works: the aim is to develop a body of knowledge about the person of Jesus Christ that is certain, and not dependent on a faith-perspective or prejudice or anything else.

Hence, finally, the various debates about the appropriateness of the project: can we really abstract questions of fact from questions of perspective so easily? The question of the resurrection is somewhere near the heart of these. Wright has tried to argue that the existence and nature of the early Christian movement is sufficiently remarkable that it demands explanation, and that it can only be explained historically by an astonishing event happening very soon after the crucifixion of Christ. He has, in the past, cautiously suggested that the account of the resurrection of Jesus, would, if true, be an adequate explanation for this fact. He has further suggested that no other proposed explanation is remotely adequate.

This, however, presents us with a big question: can the event of bodily resurrection be part of a historical reconstruction? There is a response to Wright’s programme that sees it as magnificent, but fatally flawed at precisely this point. Historical scholarship operates with a ‘methodological naturalism,’ that is, it refuses to accept, a priori, any explanation that does not accord with a purely naturalistic account of what may happen in the world. On such an account, Tom Wright’s work then becomes at best a massively elaborate reductio ad absurdum: purely naturalistic history cannot explain the existence of the Christian churches, one of the major facts of world history, without denying its own premises by accepting the possibility of bodily resurrection. It may be that Tom can demonstrate the premises of this argument, but even if he can, all he has proved is the inadequacy of naturalistic historical scholarship, not the truth of the resurrection—that’s the way the logic of a reductio works.

This response, however, probably credits the generality of historical work with more philosophical self-awareness than it in fact possesses. I suspect that most historians, if pressed, would not reach for words like ‘naturalistic’, but for words like ‘plausible’: they seek to give an account of events, and the connections between them, which is ‘plausible’ to the intellectual culture in which they write. Thus, eighteenth-century historians might have appealed to ‘extraordinary operations of Providence’ (at least until Gibbon), and nineteenth-century historians might have assumed the inevitable evolution of all human cultures until they mirrored the civilization of (Protestant) Europe, but such ideas are no longer culturally acceptable.

If this is right, then to shift the cultural plausibility status of the resurrection from ‘impossible’ to ‘extraordinarily unlikely’ would be a major gain for Tom Wright’s argument. And a discussion of the science of resurrection is probably the best way to attempt to do that.

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