Credible Faith

Review of Christopher Bryan's 'The Resurrection of the Messiah'

Some thoughts on Bryan's book on the Resurrection.

Text Publication: June 2012

Author(s): Paul Larson

Christopher Bryan's The Resurrection of the Messiah contains three main sections with an appended series of vignettes on various topics. The first main section examines beliefs about death and the afterlife in the Old Testament and then in the Greco-Roman world before moving to an explanation of the Christian claim about Jesus' resurrection. In the second, Bryan provides a running commentary on relevant sections of the gospels and Paul. The third, after covering five types of alternative explanations for the resurrection, sides with the resurrection's historicity and then expounds on the significance, the so-what, of the resurrection. To take only a few of the issues addressed, the post-script vignettes discuss whether Passion narrative material is an example of historicization of prophecy or prophetization of history, the historical value of New Testament narrative material, and varieties of faith in early Christianity.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ has been so thoroughly covered that a new book on the topic might make one wonder if it adds anything substantive to the literature. I suppose that the response to this train of thought would be the same as to the objection that, because Liszt used the same notes as Bach, Beethoven, or Chopin, it is not worth listening to his Totentanz or La Campanella. What one says matters, but so does how one says it. And with Bryan, an academic veteran who draws from an impressive storehouse of classical and historical knowledge, the subject is covered in a refreshing style and adds a wealth of interesting tidbits that other works, in their aim to present their case for the historicity of the resurrection, generally overlook. On style, he is generally brisk and engaging. At time's he's funny, at others courteously scathing in terse critique, and sometimes he shows that mix of praise and criticism characteristic of well bred thinkers, as when he hollowly lauds a proposal of Augustine as being "ingenious and totally unconvincing." (339).

As for content, though using endnotes may overall have been the best decision in regards to formatting and may make the body of the work less imposing for a casual reader, it is a discouragement to actually reading them. If that is the effect, it's unfortunate for the reader, because the frequent endnotes often are as interesting as the text itself. In them, Bryan demonstrates just how much classical, linguistic, and historical expertise he has, drawing from new and quite old sources, disagreeing with major scholars, distant and recent, on matters of exegesis, and generally demonstrating such acumen in historical knowledge and method that when the reader finally gets around to the assessment of alternative theories related to the resurrection, he has already granted to Bryan a significant amount of trust in Bryan's judgment.

What is surprising about that assessment is how quickly Bryan brushes off alternative theories. In two paragraphs with endnotes (163-164), he dismisses four of the five types of alternative explanations for the resurrection (deception by apostles, misunderstanding or misconception about the tomb, swoon theory, and subjective visions or hallucinations), calling the first two "simple implausible," quoting for the third Chilton's statement that Jesus-survived-the-crucifixion theories represent a "combination of fantasy, revisionism, and half-baked science," (163), and insisting for the fourth that Lüdemann fails to live up to his dictum that a theory should explain all the texts. The fifth type, the theory that the disciples experienced genuine, veridical visions, is rejected, but it at least has the honor of soliciting from Bryan a substantive amount of discussion. Even though there are multiple areas where I disagree with Bryan on historical or theological issues, my historical complaint usually is that Bryan has gone farther than necessary towards skepticism or a refusal to harmonize, which makes his generous positions on questions of historicity the more robust.

The (in)attention that Bryan gives to alternative theories is striking. It is as if no one informed him that this is a most important subject for Christians requiring sustained and lengthy defense in the tradition of N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God or Mike Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. This is not a criticism, but a revelation about the nature of the work, and of Bryan. He's interested not just in the resurrection's historicity, as if that apologetic issue was all that mattered, but even in small details, like a child whose fascination with the ordinary is contagious, a boy at Christmas who plays with the cardboard container and then the toy truck it enclosed because no one told him that it is the truck in which he should be interested. This is particularly true of his running commentary, which occupies a large portion of the book. There, the style is far more lively commentary than polemic, though in his attention to detail, Bryan makes contributions that many other books on the resurrection do not.

On the whole, then, The Resurrection of the Messiah is a welcome contribution to the topic. It is well-informed, well-written, and deserves to be well-received.

In place of a comments section, Dr. Larson accepts and encourages letters to the editor. If you would like to write a letter to the editor, then feel free to submit your letter here.