I just finished re-reading one of my absolute favorite scholarly books: Christopher Bryan’s The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Bryan is an Anglican scholar whose other works include Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford, 2005) and And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (Cowley, 2002) — both of which are high on my to-read list!
The Resurrection of the Messiah is the rare kind of book that hits all the right notes for me. Masterfully nuanced and abreast of all the critical scholarship, while also eminently readable and chock-full of deep insights. It’s a tragedy this book isn’t more well-known.
Sure, at the end of the day it is essentially another apologetic for the traditional Christian understanding of the resurrection of Jesus (in line with N. T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, and others, and over against those who would try to dismiss or allegorize the resurrection a la Rudolph Bultmann, John Dominic Crossan, etc.). But Bryan manages to strike a rare balance of presenting careful, nuanced arguments while also being mercifully brief (the main text of the book is only 234 pages, with the academic details and debates relegated to endnotes for those interested).
What’s more, the way Bryan structures his work effectively takes readers on a comprehensive and enriching journey through the key ancient texts relevant to the question.
In Part One, he surveys the various perspectives on death and the afterlife in ancient Jewish, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman cultures to show both the uniqueness of the Christian claim as well as the fact that language was available if the early disciples wanted to depict their encounters of the risen Jesus as merely a spiritual/visionary experience or parable, but they explicitly and repeatedly do not.
In Part Two, he undertakes a deep-dive into the most important New Testament witnesses to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the Christian claims about its implications (Paul in 1 Corinthians 15; Mark 15:37-16:8; Matthew 27:50-28:20; Luke 23:44-Acts 1:14; and John 19:25-21:2). It’s essentially a verse-by-verse commentary on these passages, and Bryan offered many new and interesting connections and observations in his mining of the texts.
Part Three is the apologetic meat of the book, where Bryan shows the weaknesses of alternative modern explanations of the resurrection and explains why the traditional Christian Easter claim is the most plausible. Most helpfully, he also goes on to unpack the important implications of that claim for our lives, and then follows it up with a series of “Additional Notes” (basically short chapter essays) on important topics related to the discussion (like why we can trust the Gospels as historical accounts, why Paul’s understanding of the resurrection is physical and not merely spiritual, etc.).
This book is beautiful. Go read it. I think even those who aren’t Christian or aren’t persuaded by his thesis will still find that it is a treasure trove of knowledge and one of the finest articulations of the Christian faith out there. Plus Bryan does a remarkable job of modeling how to do careful scholarship in a way that incorporates his spirituality with both authenticity and humility.