Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened

JFD.jpgEvans, Craig A. and N. T. Wright.

Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened

Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009. Pp. xii + 116. Paper. $14.95.

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With thanks to Emily Kiefer at Westminster John Knox for this review copy!

It would be a bit deceiving to say that Craig A. Evans and N. T. Wright co-wrote Jesus, The Final Days (hereafter JFD) together.  JFD began as a series of lectures in the Symposium for Church and Academy lecture series that took place at Crichton College.  Wright lectured in 2003 (which comprises chapter 3) and Evans gave two lectures in 2004 (which comprise chapters 1-2) and if I read the preface correctly the lectures were revised for publication by editor Troy A. Miller.  For this reason there isn’t the flow that one would expect from a co-written project in which both authors consulted each other constantly with regard to the content of the book.  I don’t believe that this detracts from the quality of the information contained in this brief work, but it is something that readers should know before picking up their own copy.

In the first two chapters Evans mines a veritable treasure trove of ancient sources ranging from the Christian Scriptures to Philo to various Greco-Roman sources to early Rabbinic texts in order to sketch out the historical plausibility and reliability of Jesus’ life and death as portrayed in the Gospels.  Chapter 1 “The Shout of Death” focuses solely on Jesus’ life and death covering the obvious (i.e., Jesus’ existence contra the claims of ‘Christ Myth’ proponents) and reconstructing Jesus’ trial and crucifixion from the NT with accompanying support from those other sources I mentioned above.  Evans lists some reasons that Jesus aroused opposition which ultimately contributed to his death concluding that “[i]n the end, the Jewish authorities sought to kill Jesus not because he was a good man but because Jesus was perceived as a very serious political threat.” (p. 9)  He closes the chapter by noting the theological implications of Jesus’ death which for early Jews steeped in Messianism signified that he wasn’t the Messiah they expected, i.e., a warrior king who would prevail over Israel’s enemies.  “But from Jesus’ perspective, a perspective his disciples will embrace after the resurrection, his death has opened up a new understanding of sacrifice and atonement.” (p. 37)

In chapter 2 “The Silence of Burial” Evans turns to something that he knows very well, Jewish burial practices.  In his view it’s a lack of familiarity with these practices that leads to some of the more skeptical/outlandish theories of Jesus’ burial (or non-burial).  He gives a brief primer on burial and reburial in ossuaries (i.e., bone boxes) which was common in first century Palestine before mapping out the regular process which looked something like this:

Burial took place on the day of death, or, if death occured at the end of the day or during the night, on the following day. [...] Following death the body is washed and wrapped. [...] The day of burial was the first of seven days of mourning. [...] Mourning normally took place at the tombs entrance or within the tomb itself, [...] One year after death it was customary to gather the bones and place them in a bone niche or ossuary. (p. 43-4)

Evans tells us that the rules for executed criminals were different and while they were to receive a proper burial it was never to be in a place of honor like the family tomb.  In order to debunk the idea that Jesus wasn’t actually buried Evans turns to the necessity of burial in Jewish belief and practice and he examines a variety of ancient literature (mostly Jewish) and archeological evidence which all “points in one direction: the body of Jesus was placed in a tomb according to Jewish custom.” (p. 68)  Evans concludes that the Gospel narratives should be given a fair reading with regard to their accounts of Jesus’ burial based upon all of this evidence.

Enter N. T. Wright with chapter 3 “The Surprise of Resurrection.”  Wright opens by defining resurrection in the ancient world which always had reference to bodily resurrection.  His intention here is to correct a modern idea (that quite honestly seems like a caricature to me) that many Christians view resurrection as going to heaven.  He goes on to speak of the early Christians having a future hope in the resurrection which was articulated “within [a] very Jewish system of belief, but not without some significant alterations or mutations.” (p. 84)  He goes on to track seven of them:

  1. There is virtually no spectrum of belief about the resurrection (contra the spectrum of belief about life after death in paganism). (p. 85)
  2. Resurrection is not as important a belief in Second Temple Judaism as it in early Christianity, where it is central and vital. (p. 85)
  3. There is a much more detailed view of what precisely resurrection means. (p. 86)
  4. Resurrection as an event has split into two (i.e., Jesus first, everyone else second). (p. 89)
  5. Early Christians developed a quite new metaphorical use of “resurrection” (which could refer to the restoration of Israel). (p. 90)
  6. Resurrection was associated with messiahship. (p. 91)
  7. The early Christians believed not only that God had begun the long-awaited new creation, but that he had enlisted them, through the Spirit of Jesus, as helpers within that project. (p. 95)

From here Wright goes on to list four strange features about the resurrection narratives in the Gospels.  The first is the lack of scriptural allusion/citation.  He sees this as evidence of very early “prereflective eyewitness accounts in which people had not even begun to wonder whether or not this strange set of events fulfilled certain Scriptures.” (p. 96)  The second is women being featured as witnesses since in the ancient world their testimony wasn’t considered reliable.  The third is the portrayal of Jesus himself.  He “appears as a human being with a body that is like any other body; he can be mistaken for a gardener, or fellow traveler on the road. In addition, the stories also contain definite signs that the body has been transformed.” (p. 98)  Wright suggests that nobody would have just invented stories like this.  The fourth and final feature that Wright considers strange is the absence of any mention of a future Christian hope from the resurrection narratives.  He sees this as a call to act now, in this world, on Jesus’ behalf.  Wright closes the chapter by talking about the empty tomb and admitting that it’s not “proof” of the resurrection, but he believes that the resurrection is the best explanation of the empty tomb.

Each chapter is rounded out with a list of books for further reading, there is an ancient sources index as well as a general subject index.  You won’t find a footnote or end note anywhere in this slim volume and references to other recently written works in the main text are slim to none.  In the preface Troy Miller says that this book is intended for a wide audience to include scholars, (undergraduate and graduate) students, and laymen alike.  Speaking as a layman who reads a little bit in this area I can’t say that I came across anything that I haven’t seen before.  I can’t imagine that the grad student or scholar will encounter anything fresh or innovative in this book either, so while intended for a broad audience I think it will best serve those who are just getting into the field.  Miller has done a great job converting Evans and Wright’s lectures into a written format and they read as clearly as I’m sure the lectures were originally presented orally.  It’s a nice little book.

B”H

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17 thoughts on “Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened

  1. What Paul really said … the last days, what really happened. I knew it – Tom was there. He’s one of the dead men risen from the tombs – one of the mysterious zombies still wandering the earth… :-)

  2. ‘The first is the lack of scriptural allusion/citation.’

    I see.

    http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Resurrection_Postmodern.htm

    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.’

    If it suits Wright, he has no problem finding Biblical quotations, allusions and echoes in the resurrection narratives.

    But if he wants to say the opposite, for apologetic purposes, those narratives then become almost entirely innocent of Biblical quotations, allusions and echoes.

    It all depends what he thinks will persuade his audience, a thought process that leads Wright to evntually writing things like this ‘When Mark says that the women ‘said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid,’ he does not mean they never said anything to anyone.’

  3. ‘The second is women being featured as witnesses since in the ancient world their testimony wasn’t considered reliable.’

    THE HOLY BIBLE
    John 4:39 any of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.”

    ‘ Wright suggests that nobody would have just invented stories like this. ‘

    Well,Paul didn’t

    Even when trying to explain the nature of a resurrected body to Christian converts who scoffed at the whole idea of their god raising corpses, Paul never uses one single detail of eyewitness testimony, although Wright can and does use them.

    Perhaps Wright is just much cleverer than Paul and knows the implication of these stories better than Paul did, as obviously these stories could not have been invented after Paul tried to explain what happened to the body of Jesus when it ‘became a life-giving spirit’

  4. ‘He closes the chapter by noting the theological implications of Jesus’ death which for early Jews steeped in Messianism signified that he wasn’t the Messiah they expected, i.e., a warrior king who would prevail over Israel’s enemies.’

    Why did the disciples follow Jesus for three whole years, never noticing that Jesus was not gathering an army to prevail over Israel’s enemies?

    What Biblical passages ever even begin to prophesy that the Messiah would be a warrior king?

    How on earth could Jews ever think the prophesied Messiah would be a warrior king, when the Old Testament says no such thing about the Messiah?

  5. Steven: I think your objection here suffers from two things: (1) You’re reacting to my abbreviation of Wright’s point, and (2) your interpreting Wright’s essay wrongly. With regard to #1 Wright goes on to note that “Luke has Jesus expound the Scriptures to the two on the road to Emmaus, but even in that story he never actually quotes or mentions one of them.” (p. 96) This seems consistent with the essay you linked to since Wright says that “We will use the language and imagery the poem [i.e., Ps. 42-43] supplies as the visual backdrop, or perhaps the musical accompaniment, to the story we are now going to examine, the story of the two disciples, on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35.” He’s not said that this poem is alluded to or quoted in Luke 24 but rather that he wanted to use it as a backdrop for reading Luke 24. Likewise, in the portion you quote Wright says that the story invites us to compare and contrast with Genesis 3, because he sees some similarities between the narratives, not because he thinks that Luke is alluding to Genesis 3. I’m not an expert on Wright’s writing or anything, but I hear that he’s very concerned with the ‘grand narrative’ so this kind of interpretation on his part seems in keeping with that.

    As far as women as eyewitnesses go, I’m not sure what the appeal to John 4:39 is supposed to prove. It’s a pretty well established fact that on average a woman’s testimony was not considered as valid as a man’s in antiquity (see e.g., Josephus Ant. 4.219). Perhaps John 4:39 is the exception that proves the rule. I’m also unclear on your point with regard to Paul. He begins 1Corinthians 15 with an appeal to eyewitnesses to establish the fact of the resurrection (vs. 5-8). That he doesn’t give a detailed resurrection narrative seems beside the point since he claims to himself have encountered the risen Lord. Wright sees evidence of smoothing out the story in Paul because of the lack of reference to women as witnesses in 1Cor. 15, so while the Gospels were written later they’re based on a tradition that’s earlier (see JFD, p. 97).

    That the Messiah was expected to be a warrior king in the line of David comes from 1Sam. 2:4; 2Sam. 22:30-48 (cf. the Targum translation); Is. 11:5; Ps. 17:29-47; 45; Pss. Sol. 17:22-24; and a whole host of Qumran texts. I’m sure there are many more but I’m not near any books that speak to the subject at the moment and this is what I could rustle up in BibleWorks. So while you may interpret the OT and other ancient Jewish literature one way, it seems they interpreted it another.

    philosophickle: If you end up reading it let me know what you think. And if you plan to purchase it from Amazon I’d greatly appreciate you using the link in my review. Thanks. :-)

  6. ‘The first is the lack of scriptural allusion/citation.’

    ‘ Wright goes on to note that “Luke has Jesus expound the Scriptures to the two on the road to Emmaus, but even in that story he never actually quotes or mentions one of them.”
    Thanks for your detailed and courteous reply.

    What is the difference between putting in references to scriptures and alluding to them?

    I stand corrected on the idea that the Old Testament prophesied a warrior Messiah as in 1Sam. 2:4; 2Sam. 22:30-48 (cf. the Targum translation); Is. 11:5; Ps. 17:29-47; 45; Pss. Sol. 17:22-24…’

    So where are the scriptures alluded to in Luke 24, which predict a dying Messiah? Daniel?

    NICK
    ‘It’s a pretty well established fact that on average a woman’s testimony was not considered as valid as a man’s in antiquity’

    CARR
    Well, no wonder, when the women in the Gospels come to the bizarre conclusion that somebody has taken the body, and don’t even recognise the risen Jesus!

    Only a woman would have seen the empty tomb and thought someone had taken the body.

    Happily, there were men there to go and examine the tomb and correct her foolish interpretation.

    The first person to tell the reader in each Gospel of the resurrection is a young man, an angel, two angels and Jesus himself.

    And, of course, the Gospellers had zero problems with the idea that people would believe Jesus was the Messiah (presumably a warrior king , as everybody expected), before the resurrection, based on the testimony of a woman.

    NICK
    As for Paul,’ That he doesn’t give a detailed resurrection narrative seems beside the point since he claims to himself have encountered the risen Lord.’

    CARR
    Yes, if you are trying to explain what a resurrected body is like, and you yourself have seen the risen Lord, you are hardly going to give a detailed account of what you saw.

  7. Steven: Wright contends that:

    When you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days—of his arrest, his trial, and his crucifixion—you find Old Testament echoes, quotations, and allusions, all over the place. The Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah, and other books have provided material that has been woven into the structure of the narrative. Turn over the page the the Easter accounts, and what has happened to all that scriptural allusion and echo? It is just not there. (p. 95-6)

    To answer your question about allusions and citation I can only give my understanding which may differ from Wright’s. But I’d say that allusions are indirect or implied references to Scripture whereas citations are direct and overt references to Scripure. Apparently Wright finds no evidence of either, at least here. Let me say this though: while I don’t think that his essay conflicts with the book I don’t think that the good bishop is above contradicting himself. His views might have changed from one writing to the next, I don’t know.

    One interesting thing about the women’s testimony in Mark and Luke is that the disciples didn’t believe her at first (see Mk. 16:10-11; Lk. 24:10-11).

  8. I don’t understand Wright’s argument about a lack of scriptural allusions being a sign that a tale is not invented.

    Has he read the Gospel of Peter? Doesn’t that contain both invented stories and zero quotes from scripture?

    Why did the disciples not believe the women, when the disciples knew Jesus had prophesied what would happen, and they had seen Moses return from the dead, never to die again?

    Did the disciples not believe Mary M. when she said that someone had taken the body?

    Why did they disbelieve her and run to the tomb to check what had happened?

    Is it because women were not credible so if Mary M. said someone had taken the body, that testimony would be automatically discredited in the ancient world?

  9. Steven: He’s saying that they recorded these things before they had time to reflect on them and think how it fulfilled the OT Scriptures. He says:

    They were, it seems, too eager to tell their friends and neighbors and families the extraordinary things they had just seen and heard. I therefore regard that as one piece of evidence indicating that the stories, though written down later, must go back to a very early oral tradition fixed in that form. (p. 96)

    When you read the Gospels it doesn’t seem like the disciples really understood the whole Jesus as the firstfruits of the resurrection idea. Look at John 2:18-22. Jesus talks about being raised after three days but it wasn’t until after the resurrection that the disciples understood what he was talking about. Likewise, in Luke 18:31-34 Jesus tells the twelve apostles how he would be killed and rise again on the third day but it goes on to say that “they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” (Lk. 18:34)

    I’m not familiar with what you’re saying about Moses. When did he rise from the dead never to die again? And I think that the way a woman’s testimony was viewed in the ancient world probably did play a part in their not believing Mary M.’s original report, but then again, Thomas doubted everybody until he saw it for himself.

  10. I think the reason he refuses to explain what happened to the risen zombies is because he is so modest ;-) Mind you his appearance is a bit of a giveaway – have you ever looked into his eyes? Pure zombie. :-)

  11. ‘When you read the Gospels it doesn’t seem like the disciples really understood the whole Jesus as the firstfruits of the resurrection idea. Look at John 2:18-22. Jesus talks about being raised after three days but it wasn’t until after the resurrection that the disciples understood what he was talking about. ‘

    Is that because they had been given the secret of the Kingdom of God in Mark 4?

    How come the Pharisees are alleged to have understood perfectly that Jesus prophesied he would be raised after 3 days, and that some people would believe false reports to that effect?

    Did they understand what the words of Jesus meant because they did not have the personal relationship with Jesus that the disciples had?

    And why were Christian converts in Corinth scoffing at the idea of their god choosing to raise corpses…..

    NICK
    I’m not familiar with what you’re saying about Moses. When did he rise from the dead never to die again?

    CARR
    At the Transfiguration, when Moses rose from the dead. I assume Moses did not die again….

    Of course, the disciples weren’t really transformed by seeing Moses return from the dead. After all, they were Jews and seeing Moses return from the grave would have little effect on their faith in the person Moses and Elijah spoke to.

    They would still desert Jesus, as he had spent the last 3 years with them, not making an attempt to be the warrior Messiah they expected.

    Only the Samaritan woman in John 4 had enough insight to spot Jesus as the Messiah he truly was, not as this warrior Messiah.

    These stories are all absurd surely? I find it hard to comprehend how anybody can take them seriously….

  12. Steven: If you have anything else to say about the book reviewed then I welcome your comments but past that I think we’re done here. I’ve allowed the conversation to head away from the topic of this particular post. Stop back one day when I blog about the resurrection. Thanks.

  13. Hey thanks for reviewing the book!

    May be old news, but Evans and Wright actually did compose the written chapters themselves based on the material they presented during the lecture series, so they are the authors. Miller oversaw the project.

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