Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened

By Craig Evans and N.T. Wright
Louisville, Ky. : Westminster John Knox (2009). 116 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 264-266

The scholarly duo who co-authored this three-chapter book, first delivered its content as the first two lectures for the “Symposium on Church and Academy,” at Crichton College, Memphis, Tennessee, in 2003 and 2004. Evans contributes the first two chapters and Wright the third. Three essentials based on the Apostles’ Creed, namely the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, were chosen as the content aimed not at the theological scholar but clergy and interested lay-persons (ix). It was heartening to hear NT scholars speaking about the historical reality of Christ and the Easter events. Both men hold firmly to the actual events and do not just take them as theological ideas. Evans avers too, that no serious religious historian doubts that Jesus of Nazareth was a real figure. In chapter one, “The Shout of Death,” he also says that Jesus’ death is well attested in every writing of the NT and by early Jewish and Roman writings.

Since Evans presumes that most people do not know the reasons for the death of Christ, he presents four: (1) His Davidic-like entry into Jerusalem, (2) H is zealous actions in the Temple, (3) His recounting of the Vineyard parable from Isaiah, and (4) His anointing by the unnamed woman. Each of these reasons reflect negatively upon Israel’s leadership who in the end sought to kill the figure who had become a political threat (5-9). In the main, evidence of Jesus’ anticipating His death is presented from outside the formal passion predictions (11). Evidence for anticipating His resurrection arises from Jesus’ confidence that God would raise Him again (13). The interaction between Christ and the High Priest and with Pilate receive attention, and the different focus of the interrogations is also brought out. The trial, the offer of a Passover pardon, the mockery of Jesus, the crucifixion and death of Jesus, all receive concise attention, yet the reader senses that he has been given quite a bit of background and historical information in all these areas. “Theological Implications,” closes out the chapter, remembering that what appeared to be a loss— the Master is dead—was but the beginning of victory.

Chapter Two, “The Silence of Burial,” reviews Jewish burial practices of Christ’s time and summarizes what would have been done to criminals, the archaeological evidence of burial in the Roman era, and a survey of theories on the burial of Jesus. All the evidence has only one conclusion: Jesus was placed in a tomb according to Jewish custom (67). Again, one realizes that this chapter has much information, concisely and masterfully delivered.

In the final chapter, “The Surprise of the Resurrection,” Wright reacts to an understanding of the resurrection which lowers expectation of being ultimately in the new heavens and new earth to just going to heaven and being in God’s immediate presence (75). Resurrection never meant “disembodied bliss”; rather, the preferred definition is “the life after life after death” (76). No mention is made of the intermediate state other than to remark that “life after death” is a period of being asleep, resting or waiting (77). Wright points out that with the early Christians coming from every corner of Judaism and paganism, one might expect to find a host of ideas about life after death. What the researcher will discover is that from the apostle Paul and right through to the church fathers of the second century “we find a remarkably consistent set of beliefs about what will happen to God’s people ultimately after death” (82). Wright puts forward seven mutations or modifications from Judaism’s view of the resurrection on the part of early Christianity. These include there being almost no spectrum of belief about resurrection, and that it is not as important a doctrine during Second Temple Judaism. Associating resurrection with the Jesus of Nazareth who had been executed, meant that something extraordinary had happened to make such cross-identification more than acceptable. The seventh modification is proposed as being the “collaborative eschatology” view of Dominic Crossan, in which the believer, now that Christ is risen, has become a helper in the new creation (95).

Then Wright introduces the reader to “four strange features” of the resurrection stories in the Gospels: absence of Scripture used in the Easter accounts, the presence of women witnesses, the portrait of Jesus, and the absence of any mention of the future Christian hope. Unfortunately, the assumption is that these stories in written form must go back to a very early oral tradition. Stories told over and over again quickly assume fixed form, and although lightly edited by the evangelists, these stories reflect the four ways in which the stories were told from the start (96-97). To hold so strongly to an oral tradition base and to expend much effort in ferreting it out is an unfortunate little twist to the doctrine of inspiration.

That the tomb was really empty, and that the disciples really did encounter Jesus afterwards as bodily alive and not as a ghost, are solidly established historical facts. It is the only explanation to render. Quite unlike Schillebeeckx who thought it did no t matter whether there was a resurrected body or not, Wright assesses this writer to have stopped being a twentieth-century historian. Instead, he has become a twentieth-century fantasist. Right on!

This book could be used possibly as an introductory text on background material and other information on the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Add to this Wright’s contemporary definition and explanation and the reader might be pushed to seek out more in-depth material, historical and theological, on these important events at the end of Christ’s life on earth.