This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Evidences for the Resurrection

Early Christianity was a kingdom of God movement, says historian N.T. Wright, and it was also a resurrection movement.

That may seem an exercise in the overly obvious: everyone knows Christianity claims Jesus rose from the dead. Don’t let the simplicity fool you. Where did that belief come from? Christians say it came from a historical reality: that Jesus actually did rise from the grave. If not, then it must have come from some other source.

In The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, N.T. Wright shows that other historical sources for belief in Jesus’ resurrection are hard to find. He spends no time on dying-god myths from non-Jewish cultures, for they are quite irrelevant to Jewish Jerusalem of the first century, where the Christian movement first got off the ground. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection has to be understood within a Judaic context or it cannot properly be understood at all.

The Jews (many of them, at least) believed in resurrection. So why does Wright say the Christian view comes out of nowhere, if not from an actual fact of Jesus’ resurrection? It is because of the manner in which Jesus was believed to have risen.

Resurrection in first-century Judaism had a quite definite meaning. This is somewhat complex and controversial, and we need to spell it out a bit more fully.

In this blog post I will not be able to follow every detail of that spelling out. I’ll try to summarize. First, there was a “spectrum of views” at the time regarding what happens to people after death, ranging from a “nonphysical bliss” to the restoration of the “physical bodies of … the righteous dead.” The party of the Sadduccees denied any life after death in any form.

Within this range of views, resurrection had a quite specific meaning: it was applied only to reembodiment, never to any state of “disembodied bliss.” It was not a general term for “life after death.”

Further, resurrection was tied up inseparably with the coming of the new age (see Ezekiel 37:1 and following).

When YHWH restored the fortunes of his people then of course Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, together with all God’s people … would be reembodied, raised to new life in God’s new world…. all the righteous dead would be raised simultaneously.

A Jew of the day might have said that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were currently alive in spirit, in the hands of God, but they would never have used the term “resurrected,” because that could only apply to being raised again bodily.

Now, though, in Acts 4:2 we have the disciples declaring the reality of the resurrection of the dead.

What is more, they busily set about redesigning their whole worldview—their characteristic praxis, their controlling stories, their symbolic universe, and their basic theology—around this new fixed point. They behaved, in other words, as though the new age had already arrived.

We resort too easily to 21st-century modes of thinking to explain a sudden surge of new religious thinking. We have grown accustomed to self-proclaimed messiahs coming with claims of various sorts. It is characteristic of our culture that this happens. It was not characteristic of first-century Judea. Ideas do not come from nowhere. Recently sprouted religions in the modern world have identifiable precursors. Historically among the Jews, there was no available precursors to the early Christians’ view of Jesus’ resurrection. [Note: paragraph corrected 9/8/09, with thanks to Earl Morton for raising a question about it.]

The disciples, in full contradiction of all prior Jewish thinking, proclaimed the reality of the resurrection and the arrival of God’s kingdom. They based this on Jesus’ bodily resurrection; when there was no prior conception of an individuals’ coming back to life in that way before the end of the age.

Darrell Bock, speaking at an apologetics conference at Saddleback Church in Orange County last Saturday evening, pointed out that the disciples could have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble by saying Jesus had risen in spirit rather than in body. They could have centered their new religious movement around him as easily that way as they could have by proclaiming his physical resurrection. It would have been consistent with Jewish thinking of the day, and it would have stirred up significantly less opposition. Wright makes it clear that the only way they could have been at all likely to think of Jesus outliving death would have been that he was alive in spirit. If they were only seeking to hold on to Jesus as the center of their fledgling religious community, as many skeptics have suggested, they could have found a more likely and a more simple way to have done so.

But they didn’t. They proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Christ as something that had happened. They said the tomb was empty; his body wasn’t there any more: it had risen. He was risen.

Their belief in one person’s resurrection came out of nowhere in intellectual or religious history of the time. Then where did it come from? Their answer: their belief came from the fact that it happened.


7 Comments

  1. Earl Morton says:

    Thanks for the interesting review of N.T. Wright’s book! I’m curious about your (or Wright’s) comment about self-proclaimed messiahs that come and go with little long-term effect, and this not being a characteristic of first-century Judaism. I’ve always taken Gamaliel’s speech in Acts 5:34-39 to imply that it was rather common. Are there reasons to understand Gamaliel’s examples as atypical?

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks, Earl.

    This is the second of three (at least) posts I’ll be doing on Wright’s book, and the next one has to do with Christianity as a messianic movement, and if you don’t mind, I’ll ask you to let me hold off on answering that until I write the third post. Preview: the other messiahs’ claims were not like Jesus’. I’ll explain the relevant differences soon, probably tomorrow.

  3. Earl Morton says:

    No problem–thanks!

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Earl, I have now posted on the messianic nature of early Christianity and I have returned here to respond to your comments in that context. I find myself as confused by what I wrote as you must have been! What I wrote was not what I was thinking. I have now corrected it, with a note in the text acknowledging the fact.

  5. snafu says:

    the disciples could have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble by saying Jesus had risen in spirit rather than in body…It would have been consistent with Jewish thinking of the day, and it would have stirred up significantly less opposition….

    But they didn’t. They proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Christ as something that had happened. They said the tomb was empty

    For my benefit as an ignoramus of all things biblical, can you give an example of explicit, early (i.e. not decades after the event), eyewitness, non-anonymous attestation of the empty tomb?

  6. Dave says:

    Hi snafu

    For my benefit as an ignoramus of all things biblical, can you give an example of explicit, early (i.e. not decades after the event), eyewitness, non-anonymous attestation of the empty tomb?

    The short answer… Nope.


Leave a Reply

Registration for the blog is optional, but registered/logged in users bypass the "reCaptcha" anti-spam character entry step. Log in here if you have already registered.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> , or follow these Formatting hints. You may also link to a prior comment with the @ symbol as explained here.

Please read the Discussion Policies before posting.