Resurrection as History – An Apologetic and the Best Explanation
Easter Sunday was the hinge upon which a massive transformation and shift took place within Judaism.
- In fact, the effects of Easter Sunday can be, “best understood as a startling, fresh mutation within second-Temple Judaism” – N.T. Wright.
The earliest Christian descriptions of the source for these transformations and mutations are found in the Gospel resurrection stories and the resurrection creed of 1 Corinthians 15.
- We know that 1 Corinthians was written in the 50’s.
- And we know that the Gospel stories were written after Paul’s letters.
- And yet the Gospels and 1 Corinthians contain resurrection content faithfully passed on from within a handful of years after Easter Sunday.
- With respect to ancient history, this is stunningly remarkable.
- With respect to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, this is extremely significant.
1) 1 CORINTHIANS 15 AND GOSPEL NARRATIVES
1 Corinthians 15:3–7 (ESV) — 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
The earliest Christian community was so steeped in resurrection that there “arose” within this community the resurrection creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.
- “We are here in touch with the earliest Christian tradition, with something that was being said two decades or more before Paul wrote this letter” – N.T. Wright.
- This puts this creed within the two to five years of Easter scholars tell us.
The gist of the creed declares that the Jesus that appeared on Easter was in a resurrected, physical body.
- And that before His appearances, He was dead, as in dead and buried.
- And the resurrection creed that Paul cites is a who’s who of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrected body.
- “Cephas”, “the twelve”, “five hundred brothers”, “James”, “all the apostles” and Paul
- In fact, he says that (at the time of 1 Corinthians) most of these cited witnesses were still alive.
- The implication is, of course, that Jesus’ resurrection was not a spiritual event, it was a historical event.
- It happened in real space and time, and the witnesses can be consulted.
Gospel Resurrection Narratives – John:
As with the resurrection creed of 1 Corinthians 15, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, though written down later than Paul’s letters, are also based on extremely early Christian teaching.
“I suggest, in fact, that the stories must be regarded as early, certainly well before Paul…I propose, in short, that the four canonical resurrection accounts…almost certainly go back to oral traditions which provide the answer to the question of the origin and shaping of Christianity” – N.T. Wright.
Some reasons why this is so:
- (1) “The strange presence of the women” as the primary witnesses – N.T. Wright.
- Unlike the creed in 1 Corinthians 15, where they are absent.
- Women, as is well known, were not considered reliable witnesses.
- Making something up and inserting it into an earlier narrative is one thing.
- But to make something up with women as the primary eyewitnesses is something that would simply not have been done in a patriarchal, ANE culture.
- This would not make your story more credible.
- (2) “The strange portrait of Jesus” – N.T. Wright.
- He is not “a heavenly being, radiant and shining” like Daniel 12 or the Transfiguration – N.T. Wright.
- In fact, He was quite ordinary looking and sometimes barely recognizable.
- And He was described as having both a normal body that ate broiled fish and yet could appear or disappear at will, etc. – Wright.
- In other words, Jesus is not placed into any known categories.
- They don’t know what to do with Him.
- He is simply described as encountered.
- (3) “The strange absence of personal hope” – N.T. Wright.
- In stark contrast to Paul and the Church Fathers, there is no mention of “the future hope of the Christian” – N.T. Wright.
- There is no connection between what happened to Jesus and how it relates to our resurrection.
- Paul’s “prize” and “imperishable wreath” were resurrection; this teaching is remarkably absent.
- Wright argues it is virtually impossible that this central and predominate aspect of Paul and Christianity would have been left out, if the resurrection stories came from the middle of the 1st century onward.
- (4) “The strange silence of the Bible” – N.T. Wright.
- Unlike other Gospel narratives, there is no mention that any specific OT prophecy had been fulfilled.
- Two such OT texts one would have expected to see would have been Daniel 12 or Psalm 16.
- Wright suggests that if the resurrection accounts were later inventions, the angel at the tomb would have certainly been used to proclaim Jesus was raised in fulfillment of God’s OT design.
- (5) None of the surface inconsistencies were “ironed out” – Wright.
- Number of women, number of angels, etc.
- Again, four different accounts each with its own “surface” inconsistencies does not scream out, “later addition”.
The point of all of these is to show that the resurrection accounts are very primitive and thus early.
- They lack all the features of narratives that were made up and added to the Gospels at a later date.
- They have no theological development.
- They have no OT underpinnings.
- They contain primary witnesses that would not have been seen as credible.
- They contain surface inconsistencies that could have easily been “ironed out”.
- And Jesus is not neatly placed into existing OT categories.
- Angel of YHWH, Daniel 12:2, Psalm 16’s incorruption, etc.
It is clear that at the time of the resurrection, the witnesses simply didn’t know what to make of what they had witnessed.
- And so the narratives lack the meaning and implications that would be fleshed out later by Paul and others.
“The stories exhibit, as has been said repeatedly over the last hundred years or more, exactly that surface tension which we associate, not with tales artfully told by people eager to sustain a fiction and therefore anxious to make everything look right, but with the hurried, puzzled accounts of those who have seen with their own eyes something which took them horribly by surprise and with which they have not yet fully come to terms” – N.T. Wright.
- John 20:9 (ESV) — 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
Given the early date of both the resurrection creed and the Gospel resurrection narratives, it is clear that, from their very beginnings, Christians were centering their “movement” on the belief that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead.
- And, “When God raised Jesus from the dead, he declared him to be the Messiah, reversing the verdict of both the Jewish and the Roman courts” – JETS, Wright.
- This means that resurrection and Jesus as Messiah were not later inventions redacted back into the Christian story as many liberal scholars claim.
In fact, given all the “startling” Christian mutations of second-temple Jewish views of resurrection and the Messiah, the most disinterested onlooker could easily see that something monumental happened to cause them.
- And within the Gospel resurrection narratives (Matt. 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20 & 21), “…we would have known that our question had found its answer” – N.T. Wright.
- Jesus’ followers believed from the beginning that he bodily rose from the dead.
- So much so, that they even developed their resurrection creed shown in 1 Corinthians 15.
But, importantly, and in addition to the eyewitness testimony both in creed and Gospel narrative, there are other well established facts that all point to Jesus’ resurrection (and thus ours).
- And these facts are to be found in all that we learned over the last eight weeks or so.
- This was one reason we have spent the last 8 weeks understanding the second-temple view of resurrection and how it differed from the Christian view.
- There is no way to fully appreciate the significance of the shifts and transformations without seeking to understand them.
- For these “startling” mutations make one of the best cases for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.
2) THE DRAMATIC MODIFICATIONS AND STARTLING MUTATIONS SUMMARY
We are simply going to list out the mutations since we have already discussed many of them.
- We must keep in mind a few things as we list these out.
- (a) They all happened within a generation or less.
- (b) None of them existed within a Jewish or pagan worldview at the time.
- (c) The changes were massive; they are not the kind of changes that are spawned by “ideas” but that follow from “events”.
Miscellaneous Modifications and Mutations:
Concerning the day of worship…
- Jew – Sabbath was “Lord’s Day”
- Christian – Sunday became Lord’s Day
Concerning the cross…
- Jew – Cross and crucifixion was accursed and defilement
- Christian – Cross “lost its shameful scorn and became a sign of God’s love” – Wright.
Messianic Modifications and Mutations:
“The early Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah; and they believed this because of his resurrection” – N.T. Wright.
- And at least five modifications occurred by identifying Jesus as the Messiah based on His resurrection.
1) Concept of Messiah “lost its ethnic specificity” – Wright.
- Jew – Messiah was King for the Jews only (not what Scripture taught, btw).
- Christian – “the Messiah did not belong only to the Jews” but to the Gentiles as well – Wright.
2) Concept of, “The ‘messianic battle’ changed its character” – Wright.
- Jew – Messiah would fight and overthrow Gentile/pagan oppressors.
- Christian – Messiah would “confront evil itself” (think temptations of Satan, e.g.) – Wright.
3) Concept of Messiah’s relationship to Temple changed.
- Jew – Messiah would liberate, cleanse and rebuild Temple
- Christian – “The rebuilt Temple would not be a bricks-and-mortar construction in Jerusalem, but the community of Jesus’ followers” – Wright.
4) Concept of, “The justice, peace and salvation which the Messiah would bring to the world” changed – Wright.
- Jew – Manifestations of these things would be political and geographical.
- Christian – Manifestations of these things would be a spiritual renewal and regeneration and the “now and not yet” of “the renewal of the whole creation” as signified by Jesus’ resurrection – Wright.
5) Concept of Messianic victory changed.
- Jew – Messiah would not be defeated and certainly not killed; and certainly not crucified.
- Christian – Victory came through a Messiah “who died a criminal’s death having been executed by the pagans he was to overthrow and having been framed by the temple establishment of the very temple he was to free” – N.T. Wright.
- And the victory that came was over death and sin
Intermediate Stage Modifications and Mutations:
Jew – For many second-Temple Jews, as we discussed, there was a two-stage view of death.
- The first stage was the “life after death”, known as Sheol.
- Sheol was the intermediate stage, the stage before resurrection (life after “life after death”).
- Entering Sheol was commonly referred to as being asleep in the dust.
- Sheol was not considered better than current life.
- Especially if one died young, without children or without grandchildren.
Christian – the intermediate stage, “life after death”, for the Christian is called Heaven.
- Though similar to Sheol, in that the concept was not highly developed, it does contain some dramatic differences.
- Heaven is seen as “far better” than this life.
- Heaven is being present with the Messiah.
- And, importantly, Heaven is seen as the place where future purposes are “stored up” – especially resurrection and judgment.
Resurrection Modifications and Mutations:
We learned that during the second-Temple period, many Jews began to embrace the concept of a bodily resurrection.
- A resurrection that would follow the intermediate stage of Sheol.
- A resurrection that came out of the hope they never lost for the Return and Restoration of the nation of Israel from exile.
Jew – Specifically, we saw that second-Temple views of resurrection contained at least 10 things.
- (1) The hope of an actual bodily resurrection for the individual.
- (2) Judgment of the wicked – the pagan.
- (3) Vindication of the righteous – the Jew.
- (4) It is grounded in YHWH’s power – the same power that led the Jews out of Egypt; the same power that created the world and everything in it.
- (5) It serves as a metaphor for Return and Restoration of the Nation, Land and People of Israel.
- (6) It’s corporate in scope – all the righteous Jews and wicked pagan’s we be resurrected at one time for judgment or vindication.
- (7) No one thought the Prophets, Moses or David were already raised or would be ahead of anyone else.
- (8) Resurrection hope was separate from Messianic hope. “There are no traditions about a Messiah being raised to life: most Jews of this period hoped for resurrection, many Jews of this period hoped for a Messiah, but nobody put those two hopes together…” – N.T. Wright.
- (9) There are two “ages” the “present age” and the “age to come” – resurrection was the dividing line so no resurrection means still the “present age”.
- (10) Likewise, with resurrection comes the “age to come” where, importantly, everything would be “put right”.
Christian – Not surprisingly, Christian resurrection is dramatically different.
- (1) Belief in bodily resurrection is shared.
- (2) Judgment of the wicked – though the wicked would include Jews and pagans.
- And Jesus even taught that pagans would stand in judgment of Jews.
- (3) Vindication of the righteous – though along with Jews, righteous Gentiles would also be vindicated.
- (4) YHWH’s power, but specifically the Holy Spirit raised Jesus and will raise us – resurrection is Trinitarian.
- (5) Metaphor for Return and Restoration completely replaced by metaphor for Christian living.
- “Paul frequently used the language of resurrection, in a metaphorical way, to denote the concrete, bodily events of Christian living, especially baptism and holiness; and also, on at least one occasion, to denote the renewal of the ‘inner human being’” – N.T. Wright.
- Christians could endure suffering and persecution because of the surety of resurrection.
- This change is profoundly significant since the “R and R” metaphor was fundamental the Jewish view of resurrection.
- It was from this that the idea of bodily resurrection “arose” to begin with.
- (6) Still corporate in scope but the nation of righteous Jews replaced by the Church containing Jews and Gentiles.
- (7) Not all raised together, Jesus the Messiah was raised ahead of everyone else – the firstfruits.
- “The Christians believed that ‘the resurrection’ had already begun, and that the one person to whom it had happened was the lord at whose name every knee would bow” – N.T. Wright.
- (8) Christian resurrection hope profoundly linked to the resurrection of the Messiah.
- We saw that last week in 1 Corinthians.
- (9) The “age to come” was split in two by Jesus giving us the “the now and not yet” of the “age to come”.
- (10) Similarly, everything will be put right, including creation.
- And it will be at this time that the Messiah will rule politically and geographically over the new creation.
POI – I need to highlight one further point on Paul’s use of resurrection as a metaphor for Christian living.
- “He believes that he is living between Jesus’ resurrection and his own future resurrection. He therefore claims, and discovers in practice, that God’s power to raise the dead is at work in the present time” – N.T. Wright.
- I can’t emphasize enough that Paul’s greatest hope was resurrection.
- And it “powered” him through his Christian life in the Spirit.
- Paul lived knowing that any suffering and persecution would result in all things being put right at his resurrection.
- Resurrection was the “prize” and “imperishable wreath”.
But wait…there are more “dramatic modifications” that we need to cite.
- (1) “There emerged in Christianity a precise, confident and articulate faith in which resurrection has moved from the circumference to the centre” – Christopher Evans.
- Not the case with second-Temple Judaism.
- (2) A clarification in “the nature of the future resurrection body” – N.T. Wright.
- Not just “glorified” as in Daniel 12, but also “incorruptible”.
- A new type of physical body animated by the Spirit.
- “The present body is corruptible, decaying and subject to death; but death, which spits in the face of the good creator God, cannot have the last word. The creator will therefore make a new world, and new bodies, proper to the new age” – N.T. Wright.
- (3) A reinterpretation of many OT texts as typologies for Jesus’ resurrection.
- Psalm 16 being primary for Peter and Paul in Acts.
As we said earlier, all of these modifications and mutations were dramatic.
- They required the disciples to completely transform their worldview to accommodate them.
- They required Paul, an enemy of Christ, to completely transform both his loyalties and his worldview to accommodate them.
- They required James, a skeptic of Christ, to completely transform both his loyalties and his worldview to accommodate them.
- And these modifications and mutations were foundational aspects of their worldview, not peripheral things without much meaning.
When the historian is faced with all that we have just reviewed, they must offer an explanation.
- What solution carries with it the explanatory scope large enough and powerful enough to be responsible for all of them?
The following regularly offered alternatives are just “weak sauce”.
- Jesus didn’t really die.
- He was given something that knocked Him out.
- The women went to the wrong tomb.
- The disciples merely had hallucinations.
- The disciples were in such shock over Jesus’ death, they dealt with it by “bringing Him back to life”.
- The resurrection accounts were made up later to serve the purposes of the church.
- The resurrection was a “spiritual resurrection”.
- The disciples died for something they personally knew not to be true, something that was a lie.
The simplest and single most efficient cause for what happened within Judaism 2000 years ago is that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.
“…the bodily resurrection of Jesus provides a necessary condition for these things [the modifications], that no other explanation could or would do. All the efforts to find alternative explanations fail, and they were bound to do so” – N.T. Wright.
“The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity” – N.T. Wright.
IT IS THE BODILY RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST THAT IS THE BEST EXPLANATION!
One more thing for us:
“When they said that Jesus had been raised from the dead the early Christians were not saying, as many critics have supposed, that the god in whom they believed had simply decided to perform a rather more spectacular miracle, an even greater display of ‘supernatural’ power, than they had expected. This was not a special favour performed for Jesus because his god liked him more than anyone else. The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself” – N.T. Wright.