The Resurrection: History and Myth
by Geza Vermes
New York: Doubleday, 2008 192 pp.
Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened
by Craig Evans and N.T. Wright
Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009 126 pp.
Reviewed by John Merrill
What happens to a person following death is a mystery that has provoked as much intense speculation as any subject pondered by humankind. The notion that Jesus of Nazareth, after being crucified by Roman soldiers, was subsequently raised bodily from death posits a singular form of so-called resurrection. This event, as reported in the New Testament, is a cornerstone of Christian faith, as well as a source of seemingly endless commentary and debate.
Two recent books offer fresh and engaging insights on the subject of resurrection, based on archaeological evidence as well as Biblical and extra-Biblical sources. One is The Resurrection by Geza Vermes, a highly regarded scholar and professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford. The other is Jesus, the Final Days, a joint effort by Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College (Canada), and N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham (England), both widely published and respected scholars.
Professor Vermes begins with a useful survey of attitudes toward death during the Biblical and post-Biblical periods. He finds that, on the whole, Jews considered death to be a final state (cf. Job 14:10–12; Ecclesiastes 4:2–3). Nevertheless, perhaps in response to extreme adversity in life, some Jews began to imagine a reward beyond life, initially in a metaphorical sense (cf. Ezekiel 37:5–6) and subsequently, during the Maccabean era, in a more literal sense (cf. 2 Maccabees 7:1–41, esp. verses 7–11).
By the time of Jesus, the aristocratic Sadducees continued to maintain the finality of death and this, Vermes argues, was the mainstream Jewish belief. However, certain sectarians, notably the Pharisees, advanced the notion of bodily resurrection at the end of time. On this point, Vermes’s discussion becomes somewhat blurred, because none of the sources provide a satisfactory definition of resurrection. Also, his failure to consider the beliefs of John the Baptist is a puzzling omission. Clearly John the Baptist and probably Jesus himself were among those Jews who foresaw a new era in which the pure would be rewarded with eternal happiness and the sinful condemned to eternal suffering.a But the key point that Vermes makes is that, for Jesus, resurrection meant spiritual survival, while corporeal resurrection “played no significant part” in his thinking.
Thus, the perceived fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection came as a huge surprise to his disciples and became, indeed, a transforming event in which his previously cowardly followers became bold and eloquent witnesses. Professor Vermes dissects the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, noting the wide variation in the different accounts with respect to the time and place of appearances and the identity of the visionaries. He also assesses the various explanations that have been offered to account for the apparent miracle—that is, that Jesus’ body was removed by third parties or by the disciples themselves, that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and so forth—and dismisses all of them as lacking substantive support. What remains is an event, however interpreted, that had a powerful effect on the disciples and led to the formation of an enduring religion.
Jesus, the Final Days begins with two chapters by Craig Evans that offer a thorough review of ancient sources describing Roman execution practice and Jewish burial practices. Taken together, these discussions suggest that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, execution and burial represent remarkably authentic descriptions. A seeming omission from Professor Evans’s otherwise comprehensive catalogue is Dio Cassius’s account of the flogging and crucifixion of Antigonus, the last Maccabean king, who had attempted to overthrow Roman rule and reestablish an independent Jewish state two generations before Jesus.1
In the third and final chapter, Bishop Wright takes on the formidable challenge of addressing whether the resurrection really happened. As in the case of Vermes’s commentary, the discussion is blurred by the lack of a clear definition, but, like Professor Vermes’s final comments, Bishop Wright concludes that the New Testament witnesses believed in the authenticity of their perceptions, whether visionary or otherwise, and this constituted a powerful mystical experience that has been a source of inspiration to followers throughout history.
In sum, both books provide balanced and thoughtful discussions of this challenging subject and a full menu of insights that will whet the intellectual appetites of readers of all beliefs.
1. Dio Cassius, Roman History XLIX 22.6 (Loeb edition).