What do you think was the most significant event in human history? Unquestionably, the greatest event was the faint sound of a heartbeat in a cold lifeless body in a tomb two thousand years ago. The sound of blood rushing through the heart of Jesus of Nazareth is a sound which will undoubtedly thunder throughout eternity owing to its profound implications
Its significance lies in the fact that it constituted evidence that the Judge of the Universe had acknowledged that the payment for our sins had been accepted.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s public vindication of his Son’s radical claims to divine authority. According to Acts 17:31, “God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” The credibility of Christianity thus hangs on one straightforward question: Did Jesus Christ come back to life a few days after he died and was buried? His character, his claims and his relevance for today all hinges on this crucial issue.
The spin-off is stupendous. If Jesus is now no more than a handful of dust and bones slowly crumbling away somewhere on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the entire Christian faith lies buried with him; all its martyrs were mistaken; all its reformers deluded; all its church buildings are monuments to a myth; all its services are senseless and Easter Day is wishful thinking.
So how can one ascertain the answer to this critical question? Fortunately, as a worldview rooted in history, the Bible makes claims that can be investigated and verified academically.
In this blog series, I am going to approach the accounts of the resurrection not primarily as inspired Scripture, but rather as a collection of Greek documents purporting to have been written by first-hand eye witnesses of Jesus’ life and public ministry in the first century A.D. Laying aside any theological bias or presupposition we may have, let us approach these documents with objectivity – in the way that we would commonly regard any source of ancient history. In doing so, I aim to present the facts with integrity and allow readers to make up their own minds with respect to the grander claims and personhood of Christ, to whom I believe these facts decisively point.
Jewish Messianic Understanding
There exists a very compelling and multifaceted case for the resurrection of the Christ. In this blog series, I am going to argue that the dynamics of Christianity’s origin (and, indeed, the precise shape that early Christianity took) becomes extremely difficult to account for unless indeed Jesus rose from the dead.
In this first blog entry, let us start by considering the situation immediately facing the disciples following Jesus’ crucifixion. Their messianic leader had just been executed. And a shamefully executed criminal was utterly foreign to the typical Jewish Messianic expectations. Rather, the role of the Messiah, in their view, was to lead Israel in a military and political campaign against the Romans and re-establish a Davidic reign.
But it gets worse. Not only was a dying Messiah foreign to the first century Jewish expectations, but to be executed by hanging on a tree was to be rendered literally a heretic: a man who was accursed and forsaken by God (see Deuteronomy 21:23). Indeed, this is one of the leading reasons why it remains virtually beyond doubt that Jesus really was crucified in that manner: If he hadn’t been executed in that manner, a death by crucifixion is the very last thing that the disciples would have attributed to Jesus.
Not only would it have been inherently unconvincing to (and utterly unnecessary to persuade) the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, but it, in effect, demonstrated that the Pharisees and Jewish council had been right all along: the disciples had left their homes, families and possessions to follow a heretic!
Even more intriguingly, Jewish beliefs concerning the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory & immortality before the general resurrection at the end of the world. It is thus significant that the disciples had no necessary predisposition toward a bodily resurrection, for it was counter-cultural given the prominent Jewish mentality. This is perhaps why, as John testifies in his account (20:9) that – upon discovery of the empty tomb – “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”
Moreover, the transformation of the disciples from a terrified bunch of individuals who felt themselves betrayed, into a fearless group ready to proclaim the message to Rome and to the rest of the world cannot be explained with a mere shrug of the shoulder.
Furthermore, it was the post-resurrection appearances that made the ultimate difference to not only the church-persecutor Paul and Jesus’ younger brother James, but also the skeptic Thomas, who asserted that he would not believe that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead until he had a chance to put his fingers into the nail-marks in his hand and feet.
As H.D.A Major explains, “Had the crucifixion of Jesus ended His disciples’ experience of Him, it is hard to see how the Christian church could have come into existence. That church was founded on faith in the Messiahship of Jesus. A crucified Messiah was no messiah at all. He was the one rejected by Judaism and accursed of God.”
In the next blog post, we shall consider, in further detail, ancient Jewish ideas concerning resurrection and how they relate to the proclamations of the early Christian movement.