Seeing Light: A critical enquiry into the origins of resurrection faith, by Peter Gant

17 April 2020

Henry Wansbrough on a study shying away from the miraculous

FORCEFUL and fair in his style of argument, the author seeks to analyse the earliest resurrection faith against the background of Jewish thinking at the time.

As a qualified physicist, he shies away from the miraculous; so he will not entertain any idea that, against the laws of nature, the decomposing body of Jesus was patched up again in the way in which a damaged car might be repaired after an accident. He concentrates on the earliest texts, which are, of course, not those of the Gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb, but are the texts of the Pauline corpus on the exaltation and glorification of Jesus.

After a neat and informative introduction to the changes in theological thinking occasioned by the Enlightenment, Gant surveys the development of biblical thinking on life after death in the later books of the Old Testament. It is a fluid concept of some sort of renewed existence after death. An important element in the background is the fascination in the literature of the first century with various angelic beings, who share, to a greater or lesser extent, in divine power: humans like Enoch, who pass easily between earth and heaven and are invested with angelic powers. Some of these angelic beings are merely messengers; others have at least a share in divine powers.

Many scholars discount any texts that come after the time of Jesus, but Gant insists that texts of the late first century constitute valid evidence, since the written texts will reflect earlier oral traditions. Evidence is drawn from Qumran texts, as well as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and 1 Enoch. In the Gospels, the prophets Moses and Elijah are transformed into heavenly beings at the transfiguration. It is against this background that the fragments of hymns in the Pauline writings such as Philippians 2.6-11, Colossians 1.15-20, and 1 Timothy 3.17 must be read, though I would myself say that none of the parallel texts comes near the attribution of full divinity to Christ Jesus in the Philippians hymn.

Perhaps the most important conclusion is that all this Pauline evidence concerns the exaltation and glorification of Jesus rather than his bodily resurrection. The same might be said, more strongly, of the treatment of the transformation of Christians after the manner of Christ’s transformation in 1 Corinthians 15, though here the expression “raised from the dead” is freely used.

What of Jesus in his lifetime? This too must be considered against the background of the figure of a heavenly redeemer-figure current in the first-century texts. Is this the implication of Jesus’s cryptic use of the title “son of man”, alluding to Daniel 7.13-14? The confession of Jesus during his lifetime as “Son of God” does not occur in Mark; it is an addition by Matthew. But what is the implication of the disciples’ calling him (in Aramaic) mar or “Lord”, translated into Greek as kyrie, the rendering of the divine Name? And of Jesus himself calling God his Abba? These are vital links to the Jesus of history.

Finally, we come to the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb and the meetings with the risen Christ. Gant insists that they are later deductions. The body of Jesus was cast into the pit with that of other executed criminals, and by the time the terrified disciples came to search for it, it could no longer be found. It should be regarded as an irrelevance rather than a puzzle; there is no way of reconciling the stories of the empty tomb with one another. The Gospel stories of the meetings with the risen Christ might be regarded as reflections on or authorisations of the apostolate. One is reminded of John Dominic Crossan’s epigram “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.”

This is a startling and challenging book; at the very least, it leads to an important new focus of resurrection faith.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


Seeing Light: A critical enquiry into the origins of resurrection faith
Peter Gant
Sacristy Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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