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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Modification of the Jewish Belief in the Resurrection by the early Christians

N. T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, is well known for making the argument that Jesus must have been raised from the dead bodily because nothing short of a literal resurrection could explain how the disciples came to believe it, in spite of the Jewish theology of that time. He argues that in Second Temple Judaism the concept of the resurrection was that it would happen at the "last day," (Greek is eschaton) and would usher in the "new age" (i.e., the kingdom). On that last day, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other saints would be raised and the kingdom of God would begin. Since that obviously didn't happen when Jesus was said to be raised from the dead, no Jew would have believed that Jesus was really raised from the dead unless they were eyewitnesses of it. Thus, according to Wright, Jesus must have been raised from the dead literally and bodily or the Jewish disciples would have never believed it because it ran counter to their expectations about the timing of the resurrection.

Wright is correct that Second Temple Judaism believed that the resurrection would occur at the last day at the inauguration of the Kingdom. They also believed that it would be the Messiah who would usher in that kingdom. The disciples of Jesus were of the same mind. Note that in the Gospels they are continually asking him when he is going to bring in the kingdom and what positions they will have in that kingdom. When he was executed by the Romans, their whole belief system was exploded. They had to re-think everything. They came up with a new twist on the Jewish beliefs. Using certain OT passages, they came to believe that the Messiah had to die first before the Kingdom could come. He died as a martyr. Second temple Judaism believed that the martyrs would be vindicated by being resurrected (see Daniel 12 and 2 Macabbees).

The Christian theology that evolved said that Jesus was the first-fruits of that resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-23). The eschaton, therefore, had begun. The Christians believed that within their lifetimes, Jesus would return, they would be changed or raised (1 Cor.15:51-52) and the kingdom would be realized. Thus, when you read the NT, you find that the writers believed that the last days (eschaton) had begun. This is how they reconciled the Jewish belief in the timing of the resurrection with their belief that Jesus had been raised.

In Matthew 24:34 (I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened), Jesus tells his followers that the kingdom will come in their generation.

In Acts 1:5 (So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" ), the disciples ask Jesus before he ascends to heaven when he is going to establish the Kingdom.

In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, Peter explains that the "speaking in tongues" that have just occurred are proof that the last days (eschaton) have begun. He says: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:" 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams...'(2:14-17).

In Galatians 4:4 (But when the time had fully come (lit. "the fullness of time") God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law. ), Paul states that birth of Jesus came at the end of the age.

In 1 Thess. 4:15-17, Paul indicates his belief that he will still be alive when Jesus returns. He says: According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

The author of Hebrews states that the the last days began with the incarnation. He says: In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days (eschaton) he has spoken to us by his Son... (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Interestingly enough, since Jesus didn't return in the lifetimes of the first generation of believers, some began to doubt the truth of what they had believed. The author of 2 Peter attempts to squash the doubt.

2 Pet. 3:3-4, 8-10: First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." . . . But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since Jesus still has not returned, Christians have had to re-think their eschatology (doctrine of last things) and have come up with several alternative explanations on when Jesus will return and when the kingdom will be established. They have also debated the nature of that kingdom. Conservative Christians today have a variety of beliefs on these matters, all insisting, of course, that their particular view is the correct one. Just to list some of the views held by conservative Christians today:

Premillennialism is the view that Jesus will return and reign on the earth for 1000 years before eternity begins. Within this view, there are at least 3 variations: 1) Pretribulational rapture says that Jesus will snatch up all believers before a 7 year tribulation period begins on the earth. After the 7 year tribulation, Jesus and his followers will return together to establish the 1000 year kingdom. 2) Midtribulational rapture says the same things as the pretribulational view except that the rapture will happen at the mid-point (3.5 years) of the tribulation. 3) Posttribulational rapture says the same things as the above views except that the rapture will happen at the end of the 7 year tribulation.

Postmillennialism is the view that the church will bring in the kingdom (not necessarily a literal 1000 year kingdom) itself and then Jesus will return. Again there are many variations within this view.

Amillennialism is the view that there will be no literal, physical kingdom on earth but that it is a spiritual kingdom and has already begun. This view, sometimes called Preterism, is becoming more popular among conservatives.

So, Christian theology, and especially eschatology, is continuing to evolve. Just as the original disciples had to re-think their theology in light of Jesus death, Christians through history and even today have had to re-think their eschatology in light of the fact that Jesus still has not returned.


  1. Ken,
    You're really helping me understand the N.T. better. Thanks.

    I am still confused, though, because once I got that Jesus seemed to be an apocolyptic prophet, I heard about the Jesus Seminar and what they said re what he actually said and didn't say.

    Then, I just finished John Shelby Spong's book, "Jesus for the Non-Religious." I think he's saying the gospels are liturgies, not history for the most part.

    It's all pretty confusing. As a layperson, your head starts to hurt after awhile.

    But I love your blog, cause I'm interested in this stuff and feel like I'm getting a college education in it. So, thanks again.

  2. Lynn,

    Thanks for your kind words. Yes, it is confusing. The problem is that there are hundreds of different intepretations of the Bible. I deal mostly with the conservative ones and try to show why they are internally inconsistent. The Jesus seminar and Spong are examples of very liberal interpretations.

    BTW, all of these interpretations is another reason why I de-converted. If God was real, and the Bible was really His revelation to man, don't you think he would have made it all a little clearer? If my children were separated from me and I could write a letter to them telling them how to find me, I would make it as plain as possible. I wouldn't write it so that it could be interpreted a thousand different ways.

  3. Ken, you know the answer to that one - he did make it plain, but A) People are blinded by sin; and/or B) They insist upon misunderstanding so they can fool themselves into thinking they can sin and not be held "accountable" (the latter is my favorite).

    There is no end to human denial. If we could harness it as an energy source, we'd never run out. People have an inexhaustible capacity for talking themselves into believing whatever they want to believe.

  4. More good stuff, Ken. Interesting, isn't it, that a widespread realization of just how prominent was apocalyptic thinking in Jesus' time, and how the NT reflects his (apparent) core belief in it... the truly imminent intervention of God... didn't come about until the 20th century! Apparently, partly due to Albert Schweitzer's classic of 1906 (Sidebar: don't try this at home: reading "The Quest of the Historical Jesus," unless you are very into details of historical theology... I tried some months ago, and gave up before finishing, even tho I recognized most of his reviewed scholars; but interesting to take a browse through!)

    One point on resurrection details I find fascinating and generally passed over: The fact that Matthew (and only that gospel) adds that "many holy people who had died were raised to life..." and after Jesus' resurrection, in Jesusalem they "... appeared to many people." (MT 27:52-53, NIV). I haven't read Wright to know if he deals with this, and in the context of the other VERY dramatic, memorable events described in the same passage, some of which are in other gospels, or all of them. But my point here is in relation to Wright, and many other apologists similarly, as you summarize their contention re. only-eyewitness-would-do to transform the disciples. This Matthew story certainly seems to me to actually diminish the credibility of supposed "eyewitness testimony" of a risen Jesus... i.e. seen physically, not in vision.

    Here we have a claim by "Matthew" that these many saints (KJV), presumably noteworthy, recognized people, appeared to many people in Jerusalem, which would certainly magnify whatever "buzz" was raised over Jesus' resurrection, the crucifixion-day 3 hours of darkness, the thick temple veil totally torn in obvious symbolism, the great quake that split rocks and opened the graves for these saints to emerge (what would that take... at least a 6.5 or 7, no?... but no other damage to the walls or city reported!), etc. And BTW, ("many" saints) x ("many" witnesses) = (many, many sightings). And just imagine the elation over finding your favorite saint (or relative) alive again in the flesh, presumably teaching, prophesying, etc.! Now we're talking BUZZ!

    It becomes quite evident that resurrection(s) and its (their) validation by "many" could be claimed between 70 and 90 CE or so, and the text not be laughed out of copying and circulation. But further note, that, like the claims re. Jesus' resurrection, this is not a direct eyewitness report, but a claim that there WERE eyewitnesses.

    So what kind of historical evidence/validation would one have very reasonable expectation of? Let's suppose a moment that all the reported events at crucifixion time and in the several days following (or maybe years?? Mt. does not bother to mention how long these raised saints lived) are meant literally, as historical. Are they not extraordinary and massively impacting enough that SOME historian not a part of a Jesus' following Jewish or Jewish/Christian group would report them or at least pick up the traces of their occurance? The most likely candidate is Josephus, in that we indeed don't have much "historical" or non-sectarian religious literature surviving from the late 1st into 2nd century. He's the main guy, tho Tacitus or others would also be expected to have said at least a bit about such events, if they happened at all, and esp. if they were germane in founding Christianity as well.... (to be concluded in a short followup post)...

  5. (continued from 3-21, 3:52 PM post):

    Now, Josephus does at least seem to validate Jesus' existence and that he still had a following around his writing (ca. 91).... But one apparently less worthy of note than the 3 prominent Jewish sects Josephus DOES explain in detail. (I refer to the generally accepted "core" of the "testimonium flavianum"). He also has actually a bit more to say re. John the Baptist and tells of the killing of James the Just (presumed leader of the Jerusalem "church"). This is the context. And note that while Josephus, a Jew, spun things as generally pro-Jewish without slamming Rome (his employer), he was quite thorough and detailed, apparently not one to miss or purposely bury any major events or trends. So if all the massively extraordinary events mentioned in the Gospels as tied to Jesus' death and resurrection happened just several decades prior (and probably just about 8 years prior to Josephus' birth), how could the vivid tales, and their profound impacts on both believers and unbelievers NOT come forcefully to the attention and make it into the history of a meticulous "researcher/investigative reporter" (not of modern style, but still a fair description) like Josephus? Maybe because it was "insider" mythology rather than history?

    Howard Pepper

  6. I attended an Evangelical bible study and once the leader asked, who believes in pre-trib, who believes in mid-trib, who believes in post-trib, and who has no idea what I'm talking about? My lone lapsed RC hand shot up to the final question. I still have a lot to learn, or unlearn but I always ask if the idea is written down in the bible, or is it a man made philosophy.

    "Wright is correct that Second Temple Judaism believed that the resurrection would occur at the last day at the inauguration of the Kingdom."

    What do you mean by the inauguration of the Kingdom? Where does it say that Judaism says the resurrection of the dead takes place on the last day?

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