After my last post, I was asked what I believe is a key question. Rather than responding to the comment as a comment, I have chosen to provide a slightly more extensive response, and post it for everyone to read. I believe it sets up how I intend to proceed from here anyway. I need to apologise up front for what is going to be a loooong response (although it will still be too brief: scholars have given lifetimes and written enormous volumes to say what I will do in a few pages). But the question demands it. The question was this:
“Peter, I’m interested: if Messianic claims were fairly common at that time, what makes us think that Jesus Christ was any different to the others? In other words, what evidence is there that he was/a different from the ‘fakes’? I’ve always thought that the Bible was supposedly that evidence.”
I think that the first point I need to make is this: I have never dismissed the Bible as a legitimate way to investigate the question of God. On the contrary, it is indispensable. But it is not without problems. The Bible (although it is not one book but many) is not told through the single authoritative voice of God; it is told through many voices belonging to context-bound men with limited understandings and deep prejudices. In order to obtain value from it, we need to treat it as such. I will say it again, just so that nobody can misunderstand my position: I love the Bible: it is the source of enormous insight; it introduced me to Jesus and Paul. But it is a human construction, with all the limitations that being so carries. When approaching it, as with any other text, I would caution that we resist the urge to think dualistically. The Bible is not either all truth or all lies. It is dangerous to become so eager to defend it that you become blinded to the inherent problems arising from attempting to make so many disparate voices align completely. It is, by the same token, too easy to say that because the creators of the source material have opinions when writing (because they are biased, in other words), that we ought to disregard what they have to say. By that same reasoning, you would need to argue that because you have opinions when reading, that you do not want to believe what the sources are saying (because you are biased, in other words), that you ought to disregard your own opinions. That would be ridiculous. The truth is that all writing and reading is biased and limited in perspective. But that does not invalidate writing and reading altogether. Biased does not mean false, necessarily. What I am advocating, in other words, is that we ought to be cognisant of both our own biases and the biases of the sources when attempting to make meaning of texts. I am not saying there is no meaning in the texts at all, only that deriving that meaning requires a far more active and critical engagement with the text than we are often prepared to give.
When it comes to the Bible, I would suggest treating it as any other historical source. I think it is as irresponsible to blindly defend the idea that the Bible is inerrant and free of bias, when all the evidence points to the contrary, as it is to dismiss it altogether because of that. Take away all the emotional baggage – whether you are Christian or not – and you will find yourself in a better position to see what the writers are saying, and to evaluate their messages critically. My critique in recent weeks, if you have understood me correctly, is not of the value of Biblical texts; my critique is of our readings of them. I am not attacking God; I am attacking our understandings of Her.
My defence of why I believe Jesus rose from the dead will require you to attempt to see the world through 1st Century Jewish eyes. After all, that is the context in which the church originated and through which the early Christians understood Jesus. A lot of the arguments in popular literature for why Jesus could not have risen fall apart for this reason: they frame their arguments through modern worldviews and fail to take into account how the 1st Century Jewish paradigms influenced the early church.
When other self-proclaimed Messiahs were killed by the Romans – like Simon bar-Giora in 70 AD and Simeon bar-Kochbar in AD 135 – their movements simply died, or their followers found other messiahs. Jesus’ followers are unique in that they continued to claim that Jesus was the Messiah, despite the fact that somebody like James (Jesus’ brother), for example, would have made fine candidates for an alternative. Instead, unlike the followers of these other messiahs, the followers of Jesus insisted that he was alive again. The first issue the historian would need to account for, would be why this fierce loyalty to a figure, who had very publically been killed, continued. In other words, why did Jesus’ followers behave differently from the followers of these other messiahs after his death? The second question, which follows the first, is why Jesus’ following not only continued, but spread rapidly, taking root across the then-known “civilised” world in under two decades (Paul is writing to the churches in Greece and Rome by the 50s already). By any account, that is a remarkable achievement, and one that demands an explanation.
The rapidity of the growth is all the more remarkable because in that short time it crossed cultural barriers. It is noteworthy enough that so many Jews were willing to significantly shift their worldviews and ways of life (I will discuss this later), but that so many Gentiles (for lack of a better word) from the Greco-Roman world were willing to adopt an essentially Jewish Messiah simply cannot be explained by the various conspiracy theories that attempt to attribute the rise of Christianity to an elaborate hoax by the disciples. And those who claim that the resurrection was written retrospectively into the gospels also need to account for this.
To account for the astounding growth of the movement, a helpful place to start would be to look at the differences between 1st Century Jewish praxis (the way people conducted their everyday lives), theology (what they believed about God) and ethics (how their values and beliefs found expression in their behaviour), and the early Christians’ (who had their roots in Judaism). By looking at the key shifts, perhaps we can understand why so many people abandoned the comfortable spaces of their cultural paradigms for something quite alien and, for many, perilous. It is well established in psychological studies and in philosophical ones that people tend not to shift their paradigms until the evidence against their existing worldviews becomes too much for them to ignore. (A really good explanation of this is found in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is a landmark book in scientific philosophy, with broad application outside of the scientific field. It is, frankly, a must-read for anyone with a philosophical bent). Evidently something quite profound must have happened for so many Jews to redefine, essentially, their identities. It is critical to bear in mind that the shift from Judaism to Christianity, or for that matter from a Greco-Roman way of life to that of the early Christians, is more than just a shift in belief. It is infinitely more than the adoption of an idea. It is a complete and radical lifestyle change. It demands an explanation of the historian.
To fully appreciate the significance of these shifts, we need to understand 1st Century Judaism. This is going to be a woefully brief and inadequate summary, so I ask your pardon, but it will serve to illustrate the point. More detailed material is readily available for those who want more. I would recommend N.T. Wright’s series of books entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God, from which much of my argument is derived. Anyway, I will make just a few (too) brief observations that I hope will serve to bolster my argument, the relevance of which I hope to make clear later.
First, in the Jewish culture of the time, the Temple was the centre of Jewish life and identity. In modern times, where the temples and churches are regarded from a more utilitarian perspective, we can easily overlook just how vital the Temple was to Judaic identity. It was the place where God met people, and needed to be kept holy. The temple was indispensable to Jewish life and identity. The fact that the early Jewish converts to Christianity abandoned it is enormous.
Second, Jewish society was a patriarchal one, where men and women ate separately, and where women had few – if any – rights before the law. You can see this, for example, in the account in John 8, where the woman caught in adultery is brought before the rabbis for judgment. Interestingly the man (I presume the act takes two…) was not. There is no suggestion, in the text anyway, that this is unjust. Women at that time, in Jewish society and indeed much of the then-known world, did not occupy a position of equal social status to men. Indeed, it was inconceivable that they should. That the women play a central role in the resurrection story is, to say the least, curious, as is the re-ordering of such social norms that arises in the early church.
Third, we must understand that Jewish people did not use the Law as a means to attain salvation. They used it to distinguish themselves as a people set apart for God, amidst a world of “pagans” (I use the word with no derogatory connotations intended). In a time where that identity was under threat by a brutal Roman imperialist occupation, this nationalist agenda became even more pronounced. To this end, the Sabbath and various dietary laws were strictly observed. Jewish identity was preserved through strict adherence to the Torah, to the point, for example, that a Jew would not share a table with a non-Jew. In Galatians 2: 11-14, the following interesting incident is documented:
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Please understand that Paul does not see Peter as a hypocrite because he (Paul) believes that eating with Gentiles is wrong. After all, Paul himself was a Pharisee before his encounter on the Damascus road, and now he lives among Gentiles as equals. Rather, he calls Peter (it is interesting that he uses his Greek name, Cephas, here) a hypocrite because Peter, who has been pushing Gentile converts to become circumcised and to obey Jewish customs, a gospel which Paul calls “really no gospel at all” in verse 7, has himself been acting in unJewish ways, contrary to Peter’s own teachings. The early church, even though they struggled to let go of these customs, as seen above, discontinued these practices, abolishing the dietary laws and observing the Lord’s day on a different day. These are not inconsequential modifications in theology. For a Jew in 1st Century Israel, these are radical. Again, this requires an explanation. I, for one, am not content to write off such enormous shifts, not only in belief, but in the structure of everyday life and social relationships, to the maintenance of a hoax.
The question of the rapid spread of Christianity is clearly something scholars cannot ignore. It might be understandable for a person or two to abandon what must have been a very deeply ingrained sense of identity (we can see it in the way the church in Jerusalem struggles to do so) for a way of life that looks more like a Gentile (and therefore unholy) one. But for so many to do so would be exceptional and improbable indeed, barring something very compelling to persuade them to do so. No matter what we may think of it in modern times, it would have taken something extraordinary to compel any Jew to make such a monumental change.
The explanation offered for all of this by the early Christians is that Jesus had been resurrected. A crucial idea to examine, then, is the 1st Century Jewish understanding of “resurrection”. This is one of those terms that has acquired a slightly different meaning in the modern church from what it would have had for Christianity’s first Jewish converts. “Resurrection”, in ancient Israel, was not simply the reanimation of a corpse. If you have read the Old and New Testaments closely, you would have noticed that there is very little about life after death. That is simply because to the Jewish people, it was only a secondary issue. It was not a question of if it would happen, but when (see, for example, the discussion in Matthew 22, where the prevalent understanding is implied in the way the encounter with the Sadducees is narrated, as well as in Jesus’ response and the people’s response to his answer). The Resurrection was also tied up in the concept of the Messiah, who was a political figure more than a spiritual one (or at least the two were very much linked). Essentially (and I simplify hugely), there was a spectrum of belief regarding the resurrection. The Sadducees on the one end believed in no afterlife. On the other end were the Pharisees, who held that the Messiah would come, he would cleanse the Temple, conquer Israel’s enemies and usher in the resurrection, where the martyrs and the prophets and all of Israel would be resurrected in incorruptible bodies, and God would come down to dwell once again with humanity. Evidence of this belief is seen in the apocryphal book of The Wisdom of Solomon:
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)…
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)
What the writer is saying is that the souls of the Israelites are safe in the hands of God until the day when God will raise them again to become stewards of the Earth as intended in Genesis. Note that the life after death does not happen immediately after death. It is what Wright refers to as “life after life after death”. At the appointed time – once Israel’s glory has been restored (through the Messiah, if one looks at other Scriptures) – they will be raised again to rule over the new Earth. For Jewish people, “heaven” is not the place we go to in some ethereal realm when we die. It is where God brings His dwelling place to earth. This, by the way, is evident in one of the New Testament’s few references to heaven, in Revelations, where the restored creation involves a movement of God towards earth, rather than individual souls towards God. The point is that the final dwelling place of God is here, not in some arbitrary alternative dimension. When you reread the gospels in this light, you might suddenly notice that Jesus always preaches about the “Kingdom of God”, not about ‘Heaven’, and within the paradigm of 1st Century Jewish theology, Jesus’ ministry takes on a very different meaning from the one preached in modern pulpits.
Essentially, the Jewish belief is that the resurrection event ushers in the dawn of a new age where God dwells with Her people here on earth. What the early church believes is that Jesus’ resurrection is the ushering in of that new age. To the non-Christian Jews, this would be incomprehensible, because the resurrection is a single event: everybody is raised at the same time, starting with the Patriarchs. It is certainly not ushered in by one person being resurrected separately in what is essentially the middle of time. For the Jews, the resurrection is an end-time event. This, for me, explains an account in the gospels that I have hitherto found confusing: the Transfiguration (recounted by three of the gospel writers: Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9). Whether or not you believe it happened literally, it is indicative of the belief among early Christians that the patriarchs had been raised – the resurrection had come. When the gospel writers document Jesus’ clearing of the Temple and walking among the Patriarchs in the Transfiguration they are quite clearly (for readers at the time, anyway) framing Jesus as a messianic figure. What the early Christians do, then, is move the concept of the resurrection from a more marginalised position in theology to a central one. They proceed to reshape their praxis, their theology, their symbology, their ethics around the belief that the new age has come, and it is therefore unnecessary to use the Law to define a people set apart. God is already with people. Under this new dispensation, Paul states in Galatians 3:28, as the culmination of his argument, that “[t]here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He also argues that we have died with Christ and been raised with him (Romans 6:8; Colossians 2:20 and 3:3), that we have been made new (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). From the evidence we have available, we can see that where-as the early church leaders disagreed (sometimes quite sharply) on theological questions, they never differed on the issue of Jesus’ resurrection and its meaning, which is a significant departure from the spectrum of belief regarding the resurrection in Jewish culture at the time. This shifting of emphasis, this centralising and reformed understanding of the idea of resurrection in the early church’s theology, demands a new way of interacting, where everyone is equal under God. And that, indeed, is how the early church arranges itself. For me, this radical reshaping of worldviews and lifestyles alone is sufficient evidence to suggest that at the very least, the early Christians believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And because the Jewish understanding of the resurrection involved a corporeal resurrection, not merely a spiritual one, they would have believed that Jesus had been bodily resurrected.
The question is, was he? It’s not easy to answer. As with the validation of any other ancient historical event, we have to choose to what extent we trust the limited sources we have. Again I need to reiterate that the historical scholar needs to attempt to remove herself from the hype around the Bible. Whether or not we admit it, we all come to the Bible with emotively bound preconceptions. Many are either determined to defend its inerrancy or, conversely, are determined to disprove it altogether. Both are forms of bias. Treat this as you would any other historical investigation.
First, remember that the Bible is not one source. It is several documents collated into one anthology. So in essence we have five accounts of Jesus being seen to have been resurrected (the four gospels and the Pauline letters). Paul even claims to have encountered the risen Jesus personally. The key question is “how far can we trust those claims?” As far as I know, there is little evidence outside of the claims of these “witnesses”, so we need to interrogate their stories to make a judgment about their claims. As I have argued, I am convinced that at the very least they believed they had seen him, and seen him bodily. Further than that, we need to draw our own conclusions. In history, the evidence never speaks for itself. The historian is always required to make a judgment. Here are some of my reasons for believing that Jesus was, as the early Christians claimed, resurrected.
First, Paul’s theology shifts from a Pharisaic outlook, with its zealous and often violent fanaticism, its desire to preserve the integrity of Jewish identity and consequent persecution of the Jews who are perceived to be selling out, to a non-violent theology based on inclusivity. In other words, he dramatically reshapes his entire worldview, based – as he claims – on an encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road (Galatians 1:11-24). Whatever you believe about his claim to have met Jesus, that is a radical transformation. Do we accept his explanation? Certainly very many people throughout the ancient world did. We will never know, I don’t think, exactly what they found so convincing about his story, but – undeniably – they believed it, because the early church positively mushroomed.
As far as the gospels are concerned, several things intrigue me about the accounts. I know that many of the critics would claim that the resurrection claims in the gospels are written retrospectively into the accounts in an effort to breathe life into a movement that is breaking apart after the death of its central figure. They claim that because the earliest we can date these accounts is between 65 and 110 AD, they have had ample time to revise their stories.
My first response to that would be that, as I have argued earlier, the growth in the early church is due almost entirely to the fact that people believed Jesus to have risen. Since Paul’s letter to the Galatians can be dated to the mid-50s, around 20 years after Jesus’ death, and since by that stage the church had already spread across the ancient world, the belief must have already been in existence a long time. It could not have been introduced later. A later introduction of the of the resurrection certainly does not account for the radical shift in the converts’ worldviews and behaviour, nor for the rapid spread of Christianity in the years following Jesus’ death.
But some aspects of the narrative constructs of the gospels themselves intrigue me. For example, if you are making up a story and intend for it to be taken seriously by your Jewish audience, why make the first witnesses to the risen Jesus women? All four gospels agree on this (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20), and it needs to be remembered that these accounts are separate, even though we have become accustomed to viewing them together in the Bible and thinking of them as one. It seems implausible to me that no fewer than four separate accounts name the women as the first (and least convincing) witnesses of the resurrection if they were attempting to fabricate a believable story.
I am also interested in how the risen Jesus is described. First, it is clear that the disciples were not expecting him to return from the dead, and don’t believe what they see. To this end, whereas there are constant references to how Jesus fulfilled various Scriptures through his actions in other parts of the gospel, even in his crucifixion, there are few, if any, scriptural references used to justify the resurrection story. I think this is significant. If a writer intended to validate his interpretation of Jesus as the Messiah by invoking sacred texts, which the gospel writers do frequently, why do they cease to do so at the critical point? Surely if they were only writing this in retrospectively and at a much later date, they would have had ample opportunity to find scriptural justification for their stance, and it would be logical to do so if the aim was to persuade a Jewish audience of the veracity of the claims? But they do not, which suggests to me an immediacy of response.
Also, the descriptions of the risen Jesus are not what one would expect. The disciples both recognise him and do not recognise him simultaneously (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24; John 20:15 and 21:4). Jesus has a body that they can touch, yet which does things bodies cannot (John 20: 19). The point is that while the body of Jesus conforms to their expectation of a bodily resurrection at the end of time, the form Jesus’ glorified body takes is entirely unexpected, and unprecedented in Jewish literature. I need to ask why, if they were making that up, they would innovate. Surely, if your aim is to persuade others to your point of view, it would be more natural to construct a narrative that your listeners would find plausible within their religious frameworks?
I don’t believe that an historical investigation alone can ever lead us to the truth about an historical event. There would always be questions about the reliability of the sources. And there will always be (too) much that has been lost, leading to an incomplete picture. History is fraught with subjectivity, both in the telling and in the interpretation. As Tom Wright puts it, “[w]hat the candles of historical scholarship will do is to show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn’t look like it did last night, and that would-be ‘normal’ explanations for this won’t do”. We have to do the rest. When we explore the origins of the Christian church, we find a people who radically transformed not only their beliefs and creeds, but their lifestyles, their social interactions, their ethics, their deeply entrenched cultural identities, virtually overnight in historical terms, to embrace something dangerous and alien. To us, two thousand years later, donning academic ‘detachment’ like a familiar cloak, it is easy to overlook the fact that for them, that was a life-and-death decision, and most people don’t make those decisions lightly. They claim to have done so based on testimonies that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That’s the evidence. What we conclude from that evidence remains open.