Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem

(Originally published in Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998. Reproduced by permission of the author.)

N.T. Wright

 

Prologue

            The Question of Jesus’ resurrection lies at the heart of the Christian faith.  There is no form of early Christianity known to us that does not affirm that after Jesus’ shameful death God raised him to life again.  That affirmation is, in particular, the constant response of earlier Christianity to one of the four key questions about Jesus that must be raised by all serious historians of the first century.  I have elsewhere addressed the first three such questions, namely what was Jesus’ relation to Judaism?  What were his aims?  Why did he die?1  The fourth question is this: Granted the foregoing, why did Christianity arise and take the shape it did?  To this question, virtually all early Christians known to us give the same answer, “He was raised from the dead.”  The historian must therefore investigate what they meant by this and what can be said by way of historical comment.

            In this first lecture I shall examine the broad historical issue.  I shall do so by sketching out the beliefs about resurrection held within second-Temple Judaism, and then by looking at the shape of early Christianity to examine how the latter movement grew out of the former.  In the second lecture we shall close in on some of the detailed evidence by looking at the claims of the early Christian movement as reflected in key texts.  In the final lecture I propose to use on particular resurrection narrative, that of Luke, as a springboard for asking the question: What might the message of the resurrection have to say to the world and the church as we face the postmodern challenge in the closing years of the second millennium?  The three lectures thus work as follows: In the present lecture I shall sketch a big picture of Christian origins and argue that only the bodily resurrection of Jesus can explain them.  In the second I shall examine the detailed texts that speak of this event.  In the third I shall move forward from the Emmaus Road in the first century to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” in the nineteenth and into the twentieth.

            My theme for the moment, then, is to present the historical argument that results from looking at first-century Judaism on the one hand and first-century Christianity on the other.  We find ourselves, so to speak, contemplating two pillars on either side of a wide river.  By studying them both and their relation to each other, we should be able to work out what sort of a bridge might actually join the two together.  Christianity emerged from Judaism, but how did this happen?  How did we get from the one riverbank to the other?

Resurrection as Understood in Second-Temple Judaism

            How did the hope of resurrection function within Judaism’s view of the world?  And where does resurrection belong within second-temple Jewish beliefs about life after death in general? 

Hope for resurrection began in Judaism not as dogma but as a story—the story of Israel’s exile and restoration.  The first obvious passage in which we find it is Ezekiel 37:1-14, the vision of the valley of the dry bones.  There the hope for Israel’s restoration is expressed in terms of the vivid, almost surreal, metaphor of dry bones coming back to life, acquiring flesh, sinews, and ultimately breath.  The context makes clear that this image denotes return from exile; it also, by means of the previous chapters, sets up a series of connections, such as rescue, cleansing, and (particularly) covenant renewal.  The same is true, arguably of that difficult passage Isaiah 26:16-21.  Resurrection begins life, in other words, as a metaphor for return from exile and all that went with Israel’s hope for that. 

But the story as it was told by second-Temple Jews through Jesus’ day and beyond never suggested that the real return had actually taken place.  Nobody supposed that the prophecies of Isaiah or Ezekiel had yet been fulfilled.  Second-Temple Jews still lived within the narrative world of exile and restoration.  Within this narrative, exile became focused at certain points in the suffering of the martyrs, and resurrection became focused on their vindication.  In this context we must set Daniel 12 and, in particular, 2 Maccabees, with its grisly accounts of martyrs who taunt their torturers by assuring them that they, the martyrs, will receive back from Israel’s god the physical bodies that are now being torn apart (e.g., 2 Macc 7:1-23).

This is a development of—not a departure from—the metaphorical world of Ezekiel 37.  Exile continues, and in the early second century it took the form of brutal oppression by Syrian paganism.  The hope then was that Israel’s God would restore his people, and that those who died in the struggle, loyal to him and his Torah, would be raised from the dead to share in the eventual restoration.  Thus also, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD had intensified the sense of exile almost unbearably, we find 4 Ezra 7 articulating a similar hope.  The same is true, whenever we date them, of 1 Enoch and 2 Baruch.  Underlying all of these stories, of course, is the unshakable Jewish belief in the justice of the one true God.

Two important details must be mentioned here.  First, we know from Josephus (War 2:163; Ant. 18:14) and the New Testament (Acts 23:7-8) what we might have guessed from the later rabbis, namely, that resurrection was an important feature of Pharisaic theology.  But we must remember that in Jesus’ day and Paul’s day the majority of the Pharisees were on what we could call the revolutionary wing of Judaism, longer for the restoration of Israel.2  Resurrection functioned for the Pharisees, not as an abstract doctrine about what happens to God’s people (or to anybody) after death, but as a statement about the great turn-around within Israel’s fortunes that would shortly take place, and about the fact that when this event happened those who had been loyal to Torah, but had died ahead of time would be raised to share in the blessings of the Age to Come.  Pharisaic belief, in other words, is to be seen as a development of the same underlying story that we see in Daniel and 2 Maccabees.

The second detail to be mentioned concerns the book known as the Wisdom of Solomon.  It has long been customary among scholars to declare that this book simply teaches the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection.  The opening verses of chapter three are quoted to this effect:

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.  In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. (3:1-3)

However, the passage continues a few verses later:

In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.  They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. (3:7-8)

These righteous Jews who have been martyred at the hands of the pagans are for the present at peace, safe with God, but the immortality of their souls is only the prelude to their rising again and being set in authority over the kingdoms of the earth, within the one kingdom of God.  What the passage offers, over and above the other evidence we have briefly considered, is an account of what happens to the righteous dead in the interval between their torture and death and their rising again: their souls are looked after by God.

            Resurrection belongs, then, within the revolutionary worldview of second-Temple Judaism.  What part does it play within the Jewish hope for life after death?  There was within Judaism a considerable spectrum of belief and speculation about what happened to dead people in general, and to dead Jews in particular.  At one end were the Sadducees, who seem to have denied any doctrine of post-mortem existence (Mark 12:18; Josephus, War 2:165).  At the other were the Pharisees, who affirmed a future embodied existence, and who seem to have at least begun to develop theories about how people continued to exist in the timelag between physical death and physical resurrection.  And there are further options.  Some writings speak of souls in disembodied bliss, some speculate about souls as angelic or astral beings, and so forth.  We cannot, then, simply assert that Greeks believed in immortality and Jews in resurrection.  Things were never that simple.

            The reason why the Sadducees were opposed not only to resurrection but to any notion of an afterlife is very interesting.  First, they insisted that the traditions did not contain this newfangled doctrine and that resurrection was not taught in the Torah itself.  But they went further.  Resurrection was a revolutionary doctrine, having to do with fiercely held beliefs about the coming climax of Israel’s history.  It was just the sort of thing, from the Sadducaean point of view, that those troublesome lower-class Pharisees would embrace to sustain their revolutionary dreams about the overthrow of the existing order and the establishment of the kingdom of God.  The Sadduccess’ main aim was not to ensure their own personal survival into a future life, but to deny a doctrine that seemed to them (quite rightly) to pose a threat to the survival of their power within the present order and within any coming changes therein.3

            I spoke before about the intermediate state between death and resurrection.  As we just saw, the Wisdom of Solomon spoke of the souls of the righteous being in the hand of God, against the day when they would rise again and rule over nations and kingdoms.  Alternatively, the dead, or at least the righteous dead, were thought to continue to live prior to their resurrection in a state comparable to that of angels or spirits.  In this connection, in addition to the various non-Christian Jewish texts, it is of interest to note a passage in Acts that points precisely in this direction.  I mean that wonderfully comic scene in Acts 12, in which the maid Rhoda hears Peter knocking on the door and speaking to her, and instead of opening the door, she runs and tells the assembled company.  They say, interestingly, “It must be his angel.”  They assume that Peter has been executed in prison, that he has entered into the disembodied state between death and resurrection, and that in this form he has paid them a sort of post-mortem visit that various people in various cultures have experienced when someone close to them had recently died.  Such a visit is entirely comprehensible in terms of the person’s “angel.”

            My point here is that Jews in this period had reasonable well-developed ideas about an intermediate state—or at least a range of concepts and vocabulary read at hand with which to refer to it.  Of course, if someone did not believe in eventual resurrection, believing instead in a continuing disembodied immortality, what a Pharisee would regard as an intermediate state might be though of as a final state.  But if a first-century Jew said that someone had been “raised from the dead,” the one thing they did not mean was that such a person had gone to a state of disembodied bliss, there either to rest forever or to wait until the great day of reembodiment.

            This can easily be tested by asking whether someone in 150 BC who believed passionately that the Maccabaean martyrs were true and righteous Israelites, or someone in 150 AD who believed that Simeon ben-Kosiba was the true Messiah (if any such existed), would have said that they, or he, had been raised form the dead, intending by that statement to indicate simply that their cause was indeed righteous and that they were alive in a place of honor in the presence of God.  The answer is obvious.  Someone in the position we have described might well have said that the martyrs, or ben-Kosiba, were alive in the form of either an angel or a spirit, or that their souls were in the hand of God, but they would not have dreamed of saying that they had already been raised from the dead.  Resurrection mean embodiment; further, it implied that the new age had dawned.  Nobody suggested that the martyrs had been reembodied.  Nobody suggested that the new age had dawned—except, of course, the Christians, which will be my point in a few minutes.

            There was, then, no single universally accepted and commonly articulated second-Temple Jewish hope for the future.  It remains likely, however, that the Pharisaic belief, their way of telling the story, was popular with a good many Jews.  Be that as it may, however wide the spectrum may have been and however many positions different Jews may have taken upon it, “resurrection” always denotes one position within that spectrum.  “Resurrection” was not a term for “life after death” in general.  It always meant reembodiment. 

The Beginnings of Christianity

            Having examined very briefly one element of the historical puzzle, the pillar on the Jewish bank of the river, we must now turn our attention to the other bank, the early Christian pillar.  Then, in looking at both pillars together, we should be in a position to assess what sort of bridge could conceivably link two structures at once so similar and yet so different.

            There are three aspects to this inquiry.  Christianity began as kingdom-of-God movement, as a messianic movement, and as a resurrection movement.  In each case, this poses a considerable puzzle for the historian.  In considering each of these three aspects, my argument will fall into three steps.  First, I shall examine the way in which Christianity began as a movement of the type in question.  Second, I shall revisit Judaism to inquire what such movements looked like and what they hoped for.  Third, I shall show that the striking differences between the relevant movements in Judaism and the apparently equivalent movement in Christianity are such as to call for a particular sort of explanation.

A Kingdom-of-God Movement

            The three steps in this particular case may be summarized as follows.  First, early Christianity grew up as a kingdom-of-God movement.  Second, kingdom-of-God in Judaism had certain particular meanings.  Third, since these certainly had not come to pass, we must inquire why the early Christians said, nonetheless, that the kingdom of God had in fact been brought to earth.

            First, then, early Christianity thought of itself as a kingdom-Fog-God movement (Mark 1:14-15).  Already by the time of Paul the phrase “kingdom of God” and its equivalents had become more or less a shorthand for the movement, its way of life, and its raison d’etre (Rom. 14:17; 1Cor. 4:20, 6:9-10, 15:50; Gal. 5:21; 1 Thess. 2:12).  It is already woven into the structure of early Christian thinking.  The way Paul uses it shows that it is common coinage within early Christianity and that it belongs within the Jewish world of which I have spoken.  The early Christians told the story of the kingdom as their own story.  They reordered their lives—in the case of former pagans, quite drastically—around the new symbolic universe in which the Jewish hope that there would be “no king but God” had come true through Jesus the Messiah.  They engaged in a praxis that affirmed there was a different way of being human, a way that answered to the claims of this kingdom.  This is the first step of this first stage in my argument.

            The second step, then, is to consider what “kingdom of God” meant in Judaism (a large topic, of course, which we can here only summarize briefly and inadequately).  Within Judaism the coming kingdom of God meant the end of Israel’s exile, the overthrow of a pagan empire and the exaltation of Israel, and the return of YHWH to Zion to judge and save.  These are the motifs that emerge from that great kingdom-prophecy, Isaiah 40-55, and from numerous psalms and other parts of the Hebrew scriptures.  And, as Josephus makes clear, in Jesus’ day the conviction that their “only Ruler and Master” was God was a particular mark of the revolutionaries (Ant. 18:23).

            For a second-Temple Jew, then, the coming of the kingdom was not about a private existentialists or Gnostic experience but about public events.  At its narrowest, it was about the liberation of Israel.  At its broadest, it was about the coming of God’s justice and liberation for the whole cosmos.  Thus, if you had said to a first-century Jew, “The kingdom of God is here,” and had explained yourself by speaking of a new spiritual experience, a new sense of forgiveness, or an exciting reordering of your private religious interiority, he or she might well have said that they were glad you had had this experience, but why did you refer to it as the kingdom of God?  This, then, is the second step of this first stage in the argument. 

            The third step is to put these two together and to notice the contrast.  It is clear that, whatever the early Christians said, the kingdom of God had not come in the way that first-century Jews had been imagining.  Israel had not been liberated, the Temple was not rebuilt, and—looking wider in the cosmos—evil, injustice, pain, and death were still on the rampage.  The question presses, then: Why did the early Christians say that the kingdom of God had come?

            One answer obviously would be this: The early Christians changed the meaning of the phrase so radically so that it now referred not to a political state of affairs but to an internal or spiritual one.  They had taken the apocalyptic meaning current in their world and had demythologized, dejudaized, spiritualized, or Hellenized it.  But this is simply untrue to early Christianity.  The early Christians acted as if the Jewish-style kingdom of God was really present: they organized their life as if they really were the returned-from-exile people, the people of the new covenant.  When they spoke of a new internal or “spiritual” reality, they used the language not of the kingdom of God, but of the new heart, the indwelling of the spirit, and so forth.

            The historical question is therefore posed: What on earth (and I mean that on earth) would have caused them to act, speak, and think this way?  Why, indeed, did they not continue the sort of kingdom-revolution they had imagined Jesus was going to lead?  How do we explain the fact that early Christianity was neither a nationalist Jewish movement nor a private existential experience?  How do we explain the fact that it is asserted, from within the Jewish worldview, that the eschaton had arrived, even thought it did not look like they had imagined it would?  The early Christian answer was, of course, that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  That was why they said that the kingdom had come and that the new age had dawned. 

            This brings us to the second stage in the argument.

A Messianic Movement

            I have argued elsewhere that Christianity was from the first a messianic movement.4  Let me summarize the case as the first step in this second stage of my argument.

            To begin with, the earliest Christian sources that we possess speak of Jesus as Messiah.  According to Acts, this assertion was central to the early proclamation that God had made Jesus “both Lord and Christ” (3:36).  As for Paul, I have argued elsewhere that Jesus’ messiahship remained central and explicit for him.5  But even if you insist that by the time of Paul the word Christos had become simply a proper name with a few distant messianic memories attached to it, you cannot evade the conclusion that if the former Pharisee Paul, within thirty years of Jesus’ death, was referring to Jesus as Christos—and especially if he was doing so without giving a thought to the Jewish meaning of that word—that only shows how firmly within the earliest tradition the idea of Jesus’ messiahship had taken hold.  How do we explain all this?  Why did they say that Jesus was Messiah?

            Various scholars have long recognized that the resurrection alone cannot explain why the early Christians thought of Jesus as Messiah.  If someone other than Jesus had been raised from the dead, there is no raised from the dead, there is no reason to suppose that his or her contemporaries would have thought them to be the Messiah.  We must, therefore, seek the reason in Jesus’ messianic execution, crucified as he was with the words “king of the Jews” above his head.  In Jesus and the Victory of God, I have argued that this, in turn, forces us to look further back and to see some of Jesus’ key symbolic actions, notably his action in the Temple, and some of his key riddles and parables, as both implicitly and explicitly messianic.6  (Let me stress, in case of confusion, that in second-Temple Judaism the word “messiah” carried no connotations of what we would call “divinity.”)  Again, even if you disagree and want to insist that Jesus came to be thought of as Messiah only at his resurrection, that, if anything, would tighten the screw of my argument still further.

             My point is—to move to the second step in this stage of my argument—a first-century Jew, faced with the crucifixion of a would-be messiah, or even of a prophet who had led a significant following, would not normally conclude that this person was the Messiah and that the kingdom had com.  He or she would normally conclude that he was not and that it had not.

            There were, to be sure, several variations on Jewish messianic belief in this period.  None of them envisaged a Messiah who would die at the hands of the pagans.  On the contrary, where Jewish expectations of a Messiah did exist, they regularly possessed a dual focus.  In a line of tradition stretching from David to Bar-Kochba, including the Maccabees and Herod, we find that the king would have to defeat the pagans, and that he would have to rebuild (or at least to cleanse) the Temple.  The two actions would, of course, go together: as long as the pagans remained undefeated, YHWH had not returned to Zion, presumably because his house was not ready.  If a messiah was killed by the pagans, especially if he had not rebuilt the Temple or liberated Israel, that was the surest sign that he was another in the long line of false messiahs.

            It is surely clear what follows.  If the messiah you had been following was killed by the pagans, you were faced with a choice between two courses of action.  You could give up on the whole idea of revolution and abandon the dream of liberation.  Some went that route, notably, of course, the rabbinic movement as a whole after 135 AD.  Or you could find yourself a new messiah, if possible from the same family as the late lamented one.  Some went that route: witness the continuing movement that ran from Judas the Galilean in 6 AD to his sons or grandsons in the 50s; to another descendant, Menahem, during the war of 66-70; and to another descendant, Eleazor, who was the leader of the ill-fated Sicarii on Masada in 73.7

            Once again, let us be clear.  If, after the death of Simon bar-Giora in Titus’s triumph in Rome, or if, after the death of Simeon ben-Kosiba in 135, you had claimed that Simon, or Simeon, really was the Messiah, you would invite a fairly sharp response from the average first-century Jew.  If, by way of explanation, you said that you had had a strong sense of Simon, or Simeon, as still being with you, still supporting and leading you, the kindest response you might expect would be that their angel or spirit was still communicating with you—not that he had been raised from the dead.  So far as we know, the followers of the first-century messianic or quasi-messianic movements were fanatically committed to the cause.  They, if anybody, might be expected to suffer from cognitive dissonance after the death of their great leader.  In no other case, however, right across the century before Jesus and the century after him, do we hear of any Jewish group saying that their executed leader had been raised again from the dead.

            So—and here is the third step in the second stage of my argument—granted that Jesus of Nazareth was certainly crucified as a rebel king, it is extremely strange that the early Christians not only insisted that he was actually the Messiah, but they reordered their worldview, their praxis, their stories, symbols, and theology around this belief.

            They had, after all, the two normal options open to them.  They could simply have gone back to their fishing, glad to have escaped Jerusalem with their lives.  They could have switched to a different tack, given up on messianism (as did the post-135 rabbis), and gone in for some form of private religion instead, whether of intensified Torah-observance, private gnosis, or something else.  They clearly did not do that.  Anything less like a private religion than going around the pagan world saying that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel would be hard to imagine.

            Equally, and perhaps even more interestingly, they could have found themselves a new messiah from among Jesus’ blood relatives.  This is not, I think, normally considered.  It deserves to be.  We know from various sources that Jesus’ relatives were important and well-known within the early church.  One of the closest, his brother James, though not part of the movement during Jesus’ lifetime, actually appears to have become the anchorman in Jerusalem while Peter and Paul went off around the world (Acts 12:17; 15:13, 21:18; Gal. 1:19, 2:9).  James was widely regarded in the early church was the person at the center, geographically and theologically.  Yet—and this is the vital clue, like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark in the night—nobody in early Christianity ever dreamed of saying that James was the Messiah.  Nothing would have been more natural, especially on the analogy of the family of Judas the Galilean.  Yet James was simply known as “the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19; cf. Mark 6:3).

            We must, then, ask once again: Why did Christianity even begin, let alone continue, as a messianic movement, when its Messiah so obviously not only did not do what a Messiah was supposed to do but suffered a fate which ought to have showed conclusively that he could not possibly have been Israel’s anointed?  Why did this group of first-century Jews, who had cherished messianic hopes and focused them on Jesus of Nazareth, not only continue to believe that he was the Messiah despite his execution, but actively announce him as such in the pagan as well as the Jewish world, cheerfully redrawing the picture of messiahship around him but refusing to abandon it?  Their answer, consistently throughout the evidence we possess, was that Jesus, following his execution on a charge of being a would-be Messiah, had been raised from the dead. 

            Before we can examine what they meant by this, we must look at the third, and clearly the most important, of the three stages within this present argument.

A Resurrection Movement

            Christianity began as resurrection movement.  As I have already remarked, there is no evidence for a form of early Christianity in which the resurrection was not a central belief, as it were, bolted on to Christianity at the edge.  It was the central driving force, informing the whole movement.  In particular, we can see woven into the earliest Christian theology we possess—that of Paul, of course—the belief that the resurrection had in principle occurred and that the followers of Jesus had to reorder their lives, their narratives, their symbols, and their praxis accordingly (see, classically, Rom. 6:3-11).

            I want here to note on interesting phenomenon in particular.  This thinking about the resurrection has a remarkable precision and consistency.  Unlike the Jewish beliefs we glanced at earlier, from the very beginning Christian re-use of resurrection language is astonishingly free of vague and generalized speculation.  It is crisp and clear: resurrection means going through death and out the other side into a new mode of existence.  This whole position is comprehensible only within the thought-world of Judaism, but it is much more precise than anything that non-Christian Judaism had at that stage produced.

            Christianity, then, began as a resurrection movement.  That is the first step of this third stage in my argument.

            The second step builds on what I was saying in the first part of this lecture about Jewish expectations of the resurrection.  As we saw, “resurrection” in second-Temple Judaism functioned within a controlling narrative about the exile and restoration, and about the suffering and vindication of the martyrs.  Let me remind you again: it began life as a metaphor for the return from exile, the renewal of the covenant, and the cleansing of Israel from her sins.  “Resurrection” was referred to in various ways, and it took its place within quite a wide range of speculation about the future of humankind in general and Israel in particular after their actual bodily death.  The resurrection of the dead was thus both a symbol for the coming of the new ages, and itself, taken literally, one central element in the package: when YHWH restored the fortunes of his people, then of course Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, together with all God’s people down to and including the martyrs who had died in the cause, would be reembodied, raised to new life in God’s new world.  Where second-Temple Jews believed in resurrection then, that belief concerned on the one hand the reembodiment of formerly dead human beings, and on the other the inauguration of the new age, the new covenant, in which all the righteous dead would be raised simultaneously.  Resurrection meant both that the dead would be alive again with new of renewed bodies and that the Age to Come had at least been inaugurated. 

            If therefore at any time in this period you had said to a Jew, “The resurrection has occurred!” you would have received the puzzled (or irritated) response that it obviously had not, since the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs were not walking around alive again, and since the restoration spoken of in Ezekiel 37 clearly had not occurred either—not to mention the great prophecies of Isaiah and the rest.  And if, by way of explanation, you had said that you did not mean all that, that what you meant was that you had had a wonderful new sense of divine healing and forgiveness, or that you believed the former leader of your movement was alive in the presence of God following his shameful torture and death, your interlocutor might have congratulated you on having such an experience, and discussed with you such a belief, but he or she would still have been puzzled as to why you would talk of “the resurrection of the dead” in referring to either of these things.  These things imply were not what “the resurrection of the dead” was about.

            Nevertheless—and this is the third step in this third stage of the argument—although, aw we have stressed, the new age had not dawned in the way that first century Jews imagined, and the resurrection of all God’s people old had not taken place, yet the very earliest church persisted in declaring roundly not only that Jesus was raised from the dead but also that “the resurrection of the dead” had already occurred.  What is more, as we have observed, members of the church busily set about redesigning their 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.  That was the inner logic of the Gentile mission: since God had now done for Israel what he was going to do for Israel the Gentiles would at least share the blessing (Isa. 66:18-23; Zech. 14:16).  They did not behave as thought they had had a new sort of religious experience or as if their former leader was alive and well in the presence of God, whether as an angel or a spirit or whatever.  The only explanation for their behavior, their stories, their symbols, and their theology is that they really believed Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead.  This conclusion is so well grounded that, today, even those who would like to insist that the body of Jesus in fact remained decomposing in the tomb agree that the early Christians believed him to have been bodily raised, leaving an empty tomb behind him.

Conclusion: The Questions and the Options

I have argued that Christianity began as a recognizably first-century Jewish movement: it was a kingdom- of-God movement, a messianic movement, and a resurrection movement.  The Jewish context for all these movements indicated certain expectations that decidedly had not been fulfilled. Indeed the crucifixion of Jesus was the symbol not merely of hope deferred but of hope crushed and trampled upon.  The historian is therefore bound to seek an explanation not only as to why early Christianity began in the first place, but also as to why it took the shape it did.  In the final part of this lecture, let me quickly review some of the options that have been canvassed within the debate.

There are, to begin with, some fairly well-known false trails.  Some, for example, have suggested that Jesus did not really die on the cross.  Against all the proponents of this so-called “swoon” theory, as it has often been called, we must stress that the Romans knew how to kill people.  The reappearance of a battered and exhausted Jesus would hardly have suggested that he had gone through death and out the other side, that the kingdom of God had indeed come, that “the resurrection” had occurred, and that he was indeed the Messiah who had defeated God’s enemies and would rebuild the Temple.

Equally, there arc plenty of people who produce wild and fantastic theories to explain that Jesus did not really rise from the dead at all or leave an empty tomb behind him.  I think of a book called The Tomb of God, published two years ago, which ends up saying that the bones of Jesus now lie in a sealed tomb in southwestern France.8

Among the more serious objections to Jesus’ resurrection—and perhaps the most famous in this century—has been that of Rudolf Bultmann.  In a much-discussed passage, Bultmann asserts that the resurrection-language of the early church was used to denote not a separate event from the crucifixion but the early disciples’ faith that the crucifixion was not a tragic defeat but the divine act of salvation.  Easter is thus about the arising, not of Jesus, but of the faith of the early church.9                      

My whole argument thus far tells very heavily against this.  If we are to think in first-century Jewish terms, it is impossible to conceive what sort of religious or spiritual experience someone could have that would make them say that the kingdom of God had arrived when it clearly had not, that a crucified leader was the Messiah when he obviously was not, or that the resurrection occurred last month when it obviously did not. However strong the disciples sense may have been that Jesus had been vindicated, that they had been forgiven, or whatever, they would still not have said he had been raised from the dead. They might, perhaps, have written a new version of 2 Maccabees 7. They might have suggested that Jesus had predicted his own resurrection. They would not have said that it had actually happened yet.

This failure to think in first-century terms also vitiates those who have offered variations on the Bultmannian scheme.  Edward Schillebeeckx, for instance, declares that when the disciples went to the tomb their minds were so filled with light that it did not matter whether there was a body there or not.  What happened in the Easter appearances was a conversion to Jesus as the Christ, who now came to them as the light of the world, and this was the “illumination” by which the disciples were “justified.”10  Schilleheeckx fits out Bultmann’s suggestion with a more precise one; that the dimples, who were overcome by deep feelings of guilt at having run away and let Jesus down, experienced on Easter morning a wonderful sense of the forgiveness of God and the continuing presence of Jesus. This then became the start of the characteristically Christian experience knowing the forgiveness of God and/or knowing the presence of Jesus.11  

The trouble with this is that if you had said to a first-century Jew that you had had a wonderful experience of the forgiveness (or the love and grace) of God, she or he would have been delighted for you.  But if you had gone onto say that the kingdom had come, that a crucified leader was the Messiah or that the resurrection had occurred, they would have been deeply puzzled if not downright offended.  This language is simply not about private experiences, even communicable private experiences, of forgiveness.  It is about eschatology, about something happening within history that resulted in a world being now a very different place.  Neither Bultmann nor Schillebeeckx can explain from the texts the rise of Christianity as we know it.

A further twist has been given to Bultmann’s hypothesis by Gerd Lüdemann.12  He suggests that Peter was so deeply grieved over Jesus’ death that he experienced what, as we noted earlier, people in such a state often report: a sense of the loving presence of the recently deceased person, perhaps even a sense of him speaking and reassuring him.  Peter then, so Lüdemann asks us to believe, communicated this experience to the others, who were spontaneously filled with joy at the thought that Jesus was still alive.13 Meanwhile Paul underwent the opposite sort of hallucination: having been vehemently opposed to the new movement, he was overcome by guilt and experienced a guilt-induced fantasy which he, too, was able to share with others to remarkably powerful effects.14

My response to this proposal is (a) that it requires enormous credulity to suppose that, even allowing Peter and Paul to have had such fantasies or hallucinations they would have generated more than a passing comment of sympathy among their colleagues or contemporaries; (b) that psychological theories of this sort—about people two thousand years ago in a different culture—are at best unprovable and at worst wildly fantastic.  But, and most important, (c) the proposal simply does not make sense within the world or first-century Judaism.

As we see from the story of Rhoda in Acts 12, first-century Jews knew about post-mortem visitations from recently deceased friends, and they already had Language systems for speaking of suck phenomena.  “It must be his angel,” they said, when they thought they were having a visit of just this sort from Peter.  They did not say that Peter had been raised from the dead.  To put it another way, if we had been members of that group in Acts 12, and if we had been made aware of a recently executed Peter as a ghostly or spiritual presence with us, we would have concluded, certainly, that Peter was now alive with God. But we still also would have thought that we would have to claim his corpse for burial the next day, and we still would have believed that it remained for him actually to be raised, along with the rest of God’s people, at the last day.

You see, it would have been very natural for first-century Jews, especially if they bad belonged to a kingdom-of-God movement already, to say of a leader who had paid the ultimate penalty at the hands of the authorities, that his soul was in the band of God, that he was alive to God, that he had been exalted to paradise, and that be was therefore among the righteous who had been unjustly put to death but who would rise again to rule the world in God’s good time.  (This is, of course, exactly what Wisdom 3:1-9 does say?)  And if Jesus’ followers had indeed had a sense that he was alive in a nonphysical way, and even that he was still present with them in some fashion, this is how they would have expressed it.  But in so doing they would not have been claiming (to stress the point again) that the eschaton, the longed-for kingdom of God, had now arrived; they would not have been saying that their crucified leader was the Messiah; and above all they would not have been saying that he had been raised from the dead or that “the resurrection of the dead” had now occurred.

In particular, we have no reason to suppose that after the crucifixion of a would-be messiah anyone would suppose that he had been exalted to a place either of world rulership or divine lordship.  Nobody, so far as we know, ever suggested that this was the case after the deaths of Judas the Galilean, Simon bar-Giora, or Simeon ben-Kosiba.  Actually, such a suggestion would most likely have been regarded as at best ridiculous and at worst scandalous.  The failure of such men to lead a successful messianic movement debarred them from further consideration as candidates for such a position. Even if someone had made such a suggestion, however, they would not then have gone on to say that this person had been “raised from the dead.”  Belief in exaltation alone would not lead, in the world of first-century Judaism, to belief in resurrection.  If, by contrast, we suppose that the followers of a crucified would-be messiah first came to believe that he had been bodily raised from the dead, then we can trace a clear line by which they subsequently would have come to believe that he must be the Messiah.  And if he was the Messiah, then he was also the world ruler promised in Psalm 89 and Daniel 7, and thus he was exalted over the world, and so on.  All our texts suggest that this actually was the train of thought that the early Christians followed.

It will be obvious that I have dealt with only a tiny fraction of the theories that have been advanced as to what happened at Easier, but I hope I have said enough to show that the proponents of any theory that the body of Jesus remained in the tomb while the early Christians said the resurrection had occurred have a formidable task ahead of them, simply in terms of first-century history.  What we find, rather, is the universal early Christian claim that Jesus had gone, as it were, through death and out the other side, that he was not just in some intermediate state or wine disembodied existence, but that his body had been transformed m a way for which they, his followers, had been quite unprepared, but with which they had had to come co terms.  And they gave this as the reason why they believed his kingdom-announcement had indeed reached its climax, its fulfillment, in his death and resurrection. They gave this as the reason why they continued to regard him as Messiah despite his shameful death. They gave this as the reason for saying that “the resurrection” had in principle already happened.  What is more, they wove this belief so firmly into their theology, their praxis, their stories, aid their symbols that (unless we are prepared to stop writing history and start writing fantasy instead) we cannot envisage their communal life without it.

I propose, therefore, as the result of this broad-canvas treatment of second- Temple Judaism and early Christianity, that there is in fact no other solution to the historical problem than to conclude that something remarkable had happened to the body of Jesus.  No other bridge will carry the historian across the river from one pillar to the other.

But what was it that happened, and how did the first Christians describe it?   That is the question that will occupy us in the second lecture, as we look in more detail at the actual rise of Christianity in the light of the key texts from Paul and the gospels.

 



1 See N.T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2: Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

2 See further N.T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1: The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 189-99.

3 For further information on the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection, see Wright, New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 211-212.

4 See Wright, New Testament and the People of God, 309-10.

5 See N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 41-55.

6 Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, chapter 11.

7 See Martin Hengel, The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 A.D., David Smith, trans. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989 [2nd edition, revised, 1976]) 331-32.

8 Richard Andrews. The Tomb of God: The Body of Jesus and the Solution to a 2000-Year-Old Mystery (Boston and London: Little, Brown, 1996).

9 See Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of its Re-interpretation,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Reginald H. Fuller, trans. (London: SPCK, 1953), 38-43.

10 Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, Huber Hoskins, trans. (New York: Crossroad, 1979), 384.

11 Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 380-97.

12 Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, John Bowden, trans. (London: SCM, 1994).

13 Lüdemann, Resurrection of Jesus, 95-100, 176-77.

14 Lüdemann, Resurrection of Jesus, 82-84.