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Surprised by Hope 4

posted by xscot mcknight

Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope is the closest thing to C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity I have seen. Sure, it’s a different kind of book, but it has the same level of immediacy and insight. Chp 4 is called “the strange story of Easter.” Here are some highlights:
The lack of consensus in the Gospel accounts … what do these differences indicate? “Indeed, they are a reasonable indication that something remarkable happened, so remarkable that the first witnesses were bewildered into telling different stories about it” (53).
In other words, the confusion indicates a lack of collusion. How do you deal with the variations in the Gospel accounts: one young man, two young men, one angel or two angels? That sort of thing.
Four strange elements:
1. The strange silence of the Bible in the resurrection accounts. No reflection like this: “See here, this fulfills Isaiah; and see there, that’s Hosea.” None of this. (By the way, that’s not a quote from Tom Wright.)
2. The strange presence of women as the principal witnesses.
3. The strange portrait of Jesus himself. Thus, “… the one thing you would expect to find is the risen Jesus shining like a star” (55).
4. The strange absence of the future Christian hope. Nothing about “So, then, we too will be raised” or “See now, you needn’t fear.” (My prose, not Tom’s.)
Here is where Tom’s prose got me: “But this is like what you get when different artists paint portraits of the same person. This painting is certainly a Rembrandt; that is indubitably a Holbein. The touch of the individual artist is unmistakable. And the yet the sitter is fully recognizable” (57).
Tom gives some standard alternative explanations and then launches into a little bit about historiography (and in this book this section stands out as difficult to follow).



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Ben Wheaton

posted January 30, 2008 at 5:34 am


I wonder if it’s necessary to say that the witnesses were mistaken. Might it be possible to explain the discrepancies between the accounts by looking at the emphases of the authors? Like, say, Mark only mentions one angel because he only refers to the spokesman? But it’s true that the small differences tend to accentuate the truthfulness of the account in general.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 30, 2008 at 7:13 am


Ben,
This is how rumors start, friend. Who used the word “mistaken”? I don’t recall Wright used such a word; I did not use such a word; you suggest such a word; someone goes along and starts telling others that Wright (or I) say the resurrection accounts are mistaken.
Nor did he use the word “discrepancy” that I recall.
Wright says “different.” You move from “mistaken” to “discrepancy” to “small differences” — these are not the same thing.



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Diane

posted January 30, 2008 at 7:27 am


Wright is not the first (and surely won’t be the last!) to argue that the confusion in describing the resurrection lends the accounts an authenticity. Elise Boulding comes to mind as one who made the same argument … and the accounts do lack the slickness of a product from a group getting together to “make it up.” It seems that the gospel writers were grappling with a phenomenon difficult to put into words and difficult to domesticate. While the presence of the women is often remarked, I had not thought at all of the lack of scripture-fulfillment references. That is very interesting!



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Ben Wheaton

posted January 30, 2008 at 9:00 am


Scot,
this: “the first witnesses were bewildered into telling different stories about it” made me make that judgment. However, I take back the word “mistaken;” that is indeed how rumours start. However, I think it can be maintained that the gospel writers all told the truth of what they saw (or what their witnesses saw) in the resurrection.



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Bob Brague

posted January 30, 2008 at 9:50 am


Scot, now you’re gonna get it with your “the strange presence of women as principal witnesses.” What’s so strange, even in first-century context? I think they going to the tomb to anoint the body with spices after the “three days” were up for the guards. After all Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Someone in Pilate’s entourage might have heard about that. I don’t think the Roman guard was going to be there forever. Or maybe the women just wanted to go back to the grave to mourn. People still do that today. And maybe women were more willing to reveal their emotions in public than men. What I find so strange is why you find it so strange? (If I am being sexist in my comments, please forgive me; I don’t mean to be.)



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Scot McKnight

posted January 30, 2008 at 10:07 am


Bob,
The word “strange” is Tom’s.



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ChrisB

posted January 30, 2008 at 10:21 am


Bob,
The strange thing about the women finding the empty tomb first is that this society had a low opinion of women. Even if it were true, you’d expect this detail to be glossed over. That it is included 1) tells us that it’s true (they wouldn’t make this detail up) and 2) gives us a glimpse of the Christian community’s changed (if still imperfect) views of women.



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David B Johnson

posted January 30, 2008 at 10:44 am


Scot,
I struggle also with the strange absence of Christian hope in the Gospels. At least a more obvious reference to it. Is Bishop Wright struggling with it also, or does the absence serve an apologetic purpose? I struggle because of the proposed dates of the gospels compared with the dates of some epistles such as Romans, 1 Thessalonians, and I Corinthians, which all have a message of distinct Christian hope. Why if the gospels were “supposedly” written later than these Epistles, would it not fit the purposes of the gospel writer to include a distinct message of Christian hope (i.e. resurrection and new creation)?
BTW, doesn’t Wright argue for an inauguration of new creation through the resurrection of Christ? I guess that could be a subtle message of Christian hope. Anyway, I would love your comments. Thanks. I can’t wait to get the book!



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Scot McKnight

posted January 30, 2008 at 10:50 am


David,
Wright’s point, and one we need to take in deeply, is that the Gospel writers — for all the attention they get for their redacting so as to bring out their theology — rarely consciously bring out the theological or pastoral significance of what Jesus said and did. So, the text comes off as “this is what happened” rather than “this is why what happened is of value.” That’s his point; they are not theologizing and this indicates they are recording what they think happened.



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David B Johnson

posted January 30, 2008 at 11:48 am


Scot,
I know this is a monumental question; but how then do we as pastors and theologians bring out the significance of what Jesus said and did, if the human authors didn’t, or only did so rarely? Are the theological and pastoral implications that we draw from the Gospels grounded then in our own interpretive authority instead of the biblical authors? Again, I know this a monumental question!



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Doug

posted January 30, 2008 at 1:45 pm


sweet-
how’d you get this so soon?
thanks for posting!



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Matthew

posted January 30, 2008 at 2:07 pm


Mere Christianity was given to me as a gift when I was a new Christian. I was never a reader before, but after this book I began a journey of reading. I will check this book out for sure. The other book serious shaped my life.
http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org



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Chris Zoephel

posted January 30, 2008 at 2:36 pm


I guess that Tom Wright guy is pretty smart. Maybe I should read the book:)



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Steven Carr

posted January 30, 2008 at 3:06 pm


”The strange silence of the Bible in the resurrection accounts..’
WRIGHT
‘The way in which Luke has told central story of this chapter (Luke 24) invites us to compare and contrast it with Genesis 3….Following Jesus? astonishing exposition of scripture, they come into the house; Jesus takes the bread blesses it, and breaks it, ?and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him? (the Greek is very close to the Septuagint of Genesis 3:7).’
‘In framing his gospel narrative in this way, Luke has given us a historical version of Psalms 42 and 43.’
That is from http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Resurrection_Postmodern.htm
Of course, although the resurrection accounts claim that Jesus showed that all had been prophesied, Christians could not find any prophecies of a Messiah dying and being raised from the dead after 3 days.



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Steven Carr

posted January 30, 2008 at 3:16 pm


‘The strange thing about the women finding the empty tomb first is that this society had a low opinion of women. ‘
Of course, John 4:39 says that a woman’s testimony was sufficient to persuade some people to believe in Jesus.



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Scott M

posted January 30, 2008 at 3:38 pm


Steven, the NT has a lot to say about prophesy being fulfilled, the Christian hope as a result, and the theology behind it. You see that especially in Paul (who most believe predates the gospels) and you see it in the Gospels again and again (so that prophecy might be fulfilled) until you get to the resurrection narratives themselves. The narratives then become silent about theology, hope, prophecy fulfilled, and the rest. It’s not because the gospel authors didn’t know it. Clearly the Church had been thinking and teaching about it for decades. Rather, that quality about the resurrection narratives lends credence to the idea that the gospel authors are simply recording the various accounts as they had been told by the eyewitnesses from the various earliest days. They have that eyewitness quality about them. The fact that they all record the women as the first witnesses reinforces that idea. We see already by the time Paul records an early creedal formulation in 1 Corinthians 15 that the women are omitted. Peter is the first witness. Culturally, they would never have been inserted later if they had not always been present in the stories.



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Michael Cline

posted January 30, 2008 at 4:05 pm


I was reading a bit of early church history today and was reminded about the response the Church had to the gnostics (particularly Marcion). Due to the private and secretive nature of their teaching, most gnostics believed the “knowledge” was passed from Jesus to a select disciple. So some claimed Thomas. Others claimed Luke (Marcion). In opposition to this, the orthodox teachers figured that by including differing accounts of primarily the same thing, it would show that Jesus’ knowledge was not so “secretive” and that the gnostic teaching was not apparently passed down in apostolic fashion. We worry about the discrepancies and silence, but the early church embraced them!
Two more things are on my mind:
(1) How does Wright’s take compare to those of the Jesus Seminar, such as Spong, who say the disciples were writing what they “thought happened” in the language they had–but it’s all just metaphor. It didn’t really “happen” like that?
(2) Could the silence be another spot where those championing the return of a “sanctified imagination” could put in their two sense? Perhaps the writers purposely left “gaps” for our hermeneutical imagination?



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Michael Cline

posted January 30, 2008 at 4:05 pm


“two cents” not two sense…sorry



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sheryl

posted January 30, 2008 at 4:55 pm


Scot,
In your response to David you write, “Wright?s point, and one we need to take in deeply, is that the Gospel writers ? for all the attention they get for their redacting so as to bring out their theology ? rarely consciously bring out the theological or pastoral significance of what Jesus said and did.”
I would have to part ways with Wright on this view. I think the purpose of the Gospel writers is a both/and, not an either/or, i.e., there are two-levels to the Gospels. The first would be as Wright says, the concern that this is who Jesus was and this is what he said and did. Second, the concern for the communities to which the writers wrote. The gospel fits a unique genre, but it is also sermonic in nature. This is apparent in the variations of the same stories, notably in the Synoptics.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 30, 2008 at 4:59 pm


sheryl,
You wouldn’t be disagreeing with Wright or me on this one … there are two levels, but the startling fact is the lack of intrusion (of course, they shaped the whole and that is a form of intrusion). The Gospels aren’t simply objective description, but the absence of interpretive comments — like “let the reader understand” — is worthy of note.



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sheryl

posted January 30, 2008 at 5:18 pm


Perhaps the problem is the all-things-different between that culture and ours. As a predominantly agrarian, oral, class-structured society, they obviously understood the gospels differently than us. Additionally, if each gospel was written to a specific community, they wouldn’t need the interpretive comments like we need them, because they would recognize them as they listened. Granted they are not as direct as the epistles.



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Daryl

posted January 30, 2008 at 9:38 pm


#10, David.
I don’t think anyone else has tackled this question, so I thought I’d throw out a comment or two. In reference to the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Jesus there are two points: 1) while the Gospels don’t spell out the Christian hope of resurrection as following Jesus’ resurrection, the rest of the NT does (especially Paul), and 2) the Gospels do connect our missional calling to Jesus’ resurrection.
In the broader discussion of ‘what Jesus said and did,’ we bring out the meaning by mining what was said and done in light of Scripture and under the guidance of the Spirit of God. At one level what we say will be based on our own interpretive skills. At the same time, we aren’t interpreting in a vacuum: we have the community around us to bring some correction, and we have the ability to keep returning to the text to see if our interpretation ‘fits.’
I’m not sure why ‘authority’ comes into play here though. Even in those cases where the authors have given us interpretations of what happened (, we are still left with the process of interpreting what they said. (If nothing else, the letters of the NT exhibit this.) Our comments are always based on our own ability to read and to listen.
Thoughts?



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David B Johnson

posted January 31, 2008 at 12:35 am


Daryl,
I guess we are left then with theologizing about the text in the gospels by appealing to how Paul and other writers of the epistles theologized with the tradition they possessed (i.e. 1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5.16-21). I guess in my simple way of thinking about such things, I struggle with why the Synoptic writers didn’t spell out the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for the communities to which they wrote. I was always told in seminary to let Mark be Mark and not read him in light of Paul. As it relates to Mark’s account of the resurrection, I guess if I am to draw any pastoral or theological implications, besides of course, “Jesus is risen,” I must rely on implications that Paul spelled out in his letters.???
I appreciate what you wrote about interpreting the text in the context of community and allowing them to offer correction. I guess authority comes into play because I want to subject my interpretation to some authority to make sure I am not contradicting the God-intended meaning of say the Sermon on the Mount that we are presently studying in my Faith Community. Thanks for tackling my “monumental” question!



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alan

posted January 31, 2008 at 10:26 am


Scot,
This is a great discussion, but one that seemingly needs to ask itself the question, “What sort of books are the gospels?” Could you graciously begin a thread that could lead us that way?



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Scot McKnight

posted January 31, 2008 at 10:47 am


alan,
Good question; we’ve done a bit of this before. And I really didn’t expect the conversation to go in this direction when I summed up this part of Wright’s book.
The Gospels are what I call “didactic, kerygmatic biographies.” That is, they teach and they preach as they write out the “life” of Jesus. Theology shapes the whole but the authors do not intrude in pastoral ways very often; instead, they shape the story so that the story tells the theology. Sure, they nudge it along; they add and redact and subtract and modify — but they don’t intrude as Tom is indicating.



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Jim Martin

posted January 31, 2008 at 4:39 pm


Scot,
I was about to comment on your post when I noticed your comment above. I find your explanation of the gospels and their work to be very helpful. I hear what you are saying. The Gospels do not intrude in pastoral ways very often yet at the same time, the whole is being shaped by theology.
Regarding the book—I really like the line you quoted:
?But this is like what you get when different artists paint portraits of the same person. This painting is certainly a Rembrandt; that is indubitably a Holbein. The touch of the individual artist is unmistakable. And the yet the sitter is fully recognizable.
Wow…



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Raffi Shahinian

posted January 31, 2008 at 8:14 pm


Hello all,
Glad to see that you’re talking about Wright’s latest. I actually got the UK version (cause I’m such a buff I couldn;t wait for the 2/5 U.S. release date, and I don’t have as much “pull” as Scott does to get advanced copies, and all) and I’m starting a series on it on my site. Thought you might be interested.
Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian



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Ted M. Gossard

posted February 3, 2008 at 4:48 pm


I wonder, Scot, if you would say that this is the best N.T. Wright book, or your favorite of his books, up to now?
(Of course his books do differ in that some of them are scholarly tomes, yet all are accessible through his clear writing.)



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Scot McKnight

posted February 3, 2008 at 4:56 pm


Ted,
His best books for me are his big books — Jesus and the Victory of God, etc..
But this is best (by far) of his more lay level books.



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