In my previous blog entry, I discussed the resurrection in the context of ancient Jewish Messianic expectations. In this blog post, I will discuss the ancient Jewish and pagan understanding of resurrection and how it relates to the resurrection of Jesus.
The Lack of Initial Theological reflection on the resurrection
The Gospel resurrection narratives contain certain key features, common to all four of them, demonstrating fairly convincingly that – though written down later – they go back in a way that has not been altered very much at all, to the very earliest oral tradition. This is, of course, of huge importance.
It has often been argued that Mark was written first (who doesn’t say very much about the resurrection); Matthew comes next (without much to add); and then towards the end of the century, Luke and John write their gospels involving stories of Jesus eating broiled fish, cooking breakfast by the shore, inviting Thomas to touch him, and so on. The theory – as propounded by many skeptical scholars – claims that, since there were Gnostics toward the end of the century who started to believe that Jesus wasn’t really truly human, Luke and John created these stories as a propaganda tool in order to confirm his manhood and that he had a bodily form.
The main problem with this theory is that the narratives in question have this same Jesus coming and going through locked doors, sometimes being recognized and sometimes not being recognized, appearing and disappearing at will, and finally ascending to heaven. If one were making up a narrative because one knew that some of the people were a little insecure on the question of whether Jesus was a solid human being, they certainly would not have put all that material in!
On the flip side of the coin, if you were a first century Jew wanting to invent a story about Jesus being raised from the dead, the natural source to drawn on would be Daniel 12 (one of the big texts on resurrection in second temple Judaism), which states that the righteous will shine like stars in the kingdom of their Father. Jesus quotes this passage in Matthew 13. It is therefore all the more intriguing that none of the resurrection narratives have Jesus shining like a star!
From these two points of view, then, we can conclude that the portrait of Jesus in the resurrection narratives is very curious. There is no portrait like that in the Jewish narratives of the time. Remarkably, however, it is consistent across all four of the gospels. As N.T. Wright puts it,“Something extraordinary has happened that’s left its footprints in the narratives. People would not have made these things up off the top of their heads. Anyone writing fictitious accounts of Easter would have made Jesus more clearly recognizable.”
Further still, there is an almost complete absence of allusion to the Old Testament in the resurrection narratives. In the passion narratives (those which concern the crucifixion), the text weaves Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, Zechariah, and other Old Testament prophecies into the story. But when you get to the resurrection narratives, such prophetic allusions are completely absent from all four Gospels.
Recall that Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ was raised from the dead according to the scripture. By the early 50’s, Paul already had a rich arsenal of prophetic Old Testament texts in terms of which to interpret the resurrection. Matthew especially loves recording that “This happened in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled that said…” But with respect to Matthew’s resurrection narratives, there is none of this! Similarly, John (20:9) records that when the disciples went to the tomb, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”
This is suggestive of the fact that these accounts go back substantially to an early oral tradition that precedes the theological and exegetical reflection.
Ancient beliefs concerning resurrection
There was a wide spectrum of beliefs about life after death in the ancient world. but ‘resurrection’ doesn’t feature in the Greco-Roman world. The Jewish theology of resurrection held that the righteous of Israel would be raised at the general resurrection which would occur at the end of the world.
Let’s take a brief look at the the Jewish understanding of resurrection. The Jewish Pharisees believed in resurrection, and this would appear to have been the dominant view in Palestinian Judaism at the time of Jesus. By contrast, the Sadducees had no concept of resurrection, or for that matter of life-after-death at all. Others (e.g. Philo) believed that one would simply progress into the afterlife, with no experience of a subsequent resurrection of the body.
In all of the cultures which have been studied, beliefs about life after death are very conservative. When confronted with the reality of death, people tend to seek refuge in the beliefs and practices they know. It is assuredly remarkable, therefore, that all of the early Christians known to us for, at least for the first four or five centuries, believed in an future bodily resurrection. This becomes all the more astonishing when you consider that the majority of them came from the pagan world, where this was regarded as nonsensical.
One can identify several departures, in Christianity, from the classic Jewish belief about resurrection:
1. Christians uniformly proclaimed that one man had been resurrected ahead of the general resurrection of the righteous at the end of the world. This is truly a radical innovation, for no first century Jew (so far as we know) would have entertained this idea. No first century Jew believed that one man would be resurrected in advance of everyone else.
2. The Christians believed and proclaimed that resurrection would entail the transformation of the physical body (Philippians 3:21). The Jewish traditions on resurrection appears to have bifurcated in two directions. Following the imagery of Daniel 12, some thought that resurrection would produce a body which would shine like a star in the heavens. Others believed that it would result in a physical body exactly like this one all over again. Interestingly, neither of those camps fits what the Christians were saying: They envisioned a new sort of physicality — a body which was still solid and substantial but that had been transformed so as to render it non-susceptible to pain and death.
3. While in Judaism the idea of resurrection had been used as a metaphor for ‘return from exile’ (e.g. Ezekiel 37), within early Christianity we find it being used in connection with baptism and various other aspects of Christian practice which were not a part of Judaism.
4. They believed that the promised Davidic Messiah had Himself been raised from the dead. This belief did not form part of the Jewish Messianic expectation.
5. The concept of Christianity moves from being a fairly non-significant doctrine to becoming the center-piece and focal-point of everything within Christianity.
6. In contrast to Judaism, there was essentially no spectrum of belief within Christianity about what happens following death, even while there were very clear divisions over a great number of things.
So, where am I going with all this? It seems fairly clear that if the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead only started to crop up after twenty to thirty years of Christianity, as many skeptical scholars have supposed, one would expect to find lots of strands of early Christian beliefs concerning the resurrection.
Thus, we can conclude that the wide extent and unanimity of early Christian belief in resurrection forces us to say that something definite happened, extremely early in the life of Christianity, that has shaped and colorred the whole early Christian movement.
In the next blog post, I shall discuss some of the circumstantial evidence surrounding the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples and others.