Beyond Tradition

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men." Colossians 2:8

Onward Christian Martyrs: The Beginning

by Sean D. Harmon

 
Part I of V:

 
"And he took up his parable and said, 'Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!' R. Simeon b. Lakish said: 'Woe unto him who maketh himself alive by the name of God.'" (Talmud, Sanhedrin 106a).

 
Imagine if a group of Americans wrote a series of documents about 100 years ago all of which claimed a man had risen from the dead. This group of Americans worshiped him as the Supreme One of all mankind. The movement was called the Bostonians. Even though the movement was a surprisingly very successful movement, and even though such documents had accurate historical details and factual information about the surroundings and events of the United States at the time of the movement, you would naturally and rightly dismiss it because you could come up with a myriad number of general explanations why this movement thrived even without much examination. After all, we have thousands of thriving religious movements that have outrageous beliefs, including many
that are based on factors that run against cultural norms or just outright kooky. But suppose you examined it deeper than just on an anecdotal level. You looked at the details and found out that there was a series of barriers that made the success of this movement even more improbable.

It wasn’t just any group of individuals who claimed his resurrection, but vast groups of people scattered throughout the United States. The Supreme One that the Bostonians all worshiped was a man who was raised up in a very disreputable part of town, and they didn’t just adhere to any particular principal he taught, social cause or political ideology he specifically stood for, but made him the very impetus of the movement and its theology. They adorned and worshiped the man himself as a savior and the answer to all of mankind's ills. The Bostonians were made up of a mixture of races, including both upper and lower classes, even different religious backgrounds, and though there were obviously religious contentions between them throughout the years of the movement based mainly on formality, they were all for the most part of one accord about the theology of the man himself.

This demographic mixture is something you find exceptionally odd in light of the societal and political friction between race and class relations at that time; a time white and black race, rich and poor relations often exploded into violent confrontations. The adherents were also a mixture of political ideologues, both conservative and liberal, and there were debates between these groups within the movement about these diverse conservative/liberal political views that were recorded in letters -- i.e. which views were more compatible to its adherents and how they should be integrated into the movement. How odd that such diverse political ideologues could disagree on these issues yet all maintain a consistent belief in this same absurd theology. They obviously faced harsh ridicule and even physical persecution from the rest of the communities and their own countrymen around them, but the movement thrived and never died out regardless.

What's even worse is that the Supreme One they worshiped was convicted as a pedophile and was executed thusly by the state. If you think I'm exaggerating and that the public stigma of someone crucified in the first century is not as potent a stigma as the analogy I'm using here, you need to read what the ancients thought of the fate of one crucified firsthand (discussed here: The Evangelists, The Roman disgrace). Moreover, not only did the group not try and cover up or hide the fact he was killed for this crime, but aggrandized the crime and made his fate the impetus of their theology. Now this has gotten extremely odd considering how Americans view such criminal as a pedophile, not just the fact that it's illegal, but the fact that such individuals are to be scorned and repudiated as the lowest form of criminality imaginable in western culture.

You might accept the fact they continued his legacy and their reverence to him if they believed he had been falsely charged and thus expunged the whole thing (that he is a pedophile) from their theology, but this isn't the case. They actually aggrandized the charges against him and confirmed he was a pedophile but that this was God's plan all along and the proof was that God brought him back to life after death. The first thing you’d assume about this group of Bostonians is that they had all gone mad. But how could this be with so many diverse Americans ranging within an assortment of demographics and of all walks of life?

Once we gain more and more knowledge and understanding of the historical details of this strange movement, the success of the movement becomes very difficult to explain outside of something so miraculous that it was able to supersede these seemingly impossible barriers in spite them.

Suppose you also discovered that the movement actually sparked in a community in Boston that was mostly made up of staunch conservatives who had claimed they witnessed him alive firsthand after he had died, and just within about 30 years, this strange movement spread out from this community into other areas throughout the state, then throughout most of the United States within less than a 100 years. Even though you don't have direct evidence to verify the actual resurrection of the Supreme One, you have quite a bit of extraordinary circumstances surrounding this movement that require an extraordinary explanation, particularly its origins, where and how it began and by whom. Obviously the cultural, societal, ideological and religious barriers against this unusual phenomenon that make up the historical framework have made it much more difficult, if not impossible, to find an alternative explanation in any sort of historically plausible capacity.

The historical framework that encapsulates Judeo-Christianity is just as profound and problematic. In light of this scenario, the historical framework is obviously where the debate must begin, which is why we need to take some time to explore the historical framework that surrounds Judeo-Christianity with a microscope.

The first century resurrection view

Though it is a hotly debated issue that doesn't come without various theories, the spread of Christianity is still a puzzling historical enigma, and an issue that has yet to be satisfactorily solved. Even though scholars always present natural theories why and how Christianity became an established state religion specifically in the Roman Empire three or four centuries later among the pagans, or even in the latter half of the first century, the real riddle of the problem that needs solving begins in Judea in the first half of the first century among Second Temple Jews.

To just sweepingly assume the resurrection story was a fabricated myth that took off because of its external popularity is rather easy for most, as this is naturally the default position to hold. But it's only as easy as the one who holds this view as long as they remain utterly clueless about specific details of both first century Greco-Roman and Jewish culture wherein the tradition was spawned, or in other words, understanding the historical framework that surrounds the story. If you want to get an understanding of how implausible a resurrection belief would have been to the Greco-Roman citizen, I covered that in some detail in another article (here: The Silent Texts; The Greek repudiation). Though Greco-Roman sentiment on bodily resurrection is pretty clear cut, Jewish views on the matter is a little more complex.

Though the Christian movement spread out among Gentiles in the Mediterranean decades later, the first historical fact one needs to understand is that Christianity began with Jews in Judea. Jesus was obviously Jewish, the disciples were Jewish, the first apostles were Jewish, the first authoritative church establishment was at Jerusalem, and the first converts to the movement from outside Jesus' inner circle were Jewish, thus Christianity during this time remained closely linked to pre-70 Judaism in and around Jerusalem. This is a very important fact because the origin of the movement is necessary for us to evaluate it within its proper cultural context. The fact that the movement sprung from Judaism is an indisputable fact that most top scholars pretty much concur, such as Joseph Fitzmyer...

 

“The Qumran texts, fragmentary though many of them are, supply us with firsthand information about the Palestinian Jewish matrix out of which early Christianity and its canonical writings emerged. Even though most of the Greek writings of the New Testament stem from extra-Palestinian or extra-Judean proveniences, a good number of them manifest their connection with that Palestinian Jewish matrix.”[1] 

 

Craig Evans...

“Not only is Jesus, the central figure of the Gospels, thoroughly Jewish, the Gospels themselves are Jewish to the core… The Dead Sea Scrolls have greatly added to our understanding and appreciation of the Gospels as Jewish literature. The Scrolls are Palestinian, early, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and are unquestionably Jewish. Significant parallels between them and the Christian Gospels should go a long way in confirming the contention here that the Gospels are thoroughly Jewish, even if at points they are at variance with aspects of temple and scribal Judaism as it existed prior to 70 C.E.”[2]

 

Martin Hengel...

“Along with these Jewish foundations of the new, messianic movement, one must note that the great majority of the New testament authors were Jewish Christians who for the most part either came from the Palestinian homeland or had some connection to it on account of their education and the groups to which they belonged.”[3] 

 

James D. G. Dunn...

“The perspective from the ‘inside’ Second Temple Judaism which such terms express indicates clearly enough that in the beginning, embryonic Christianity was self-consciously Jewish in its self-designation and claims and was so perceived during that beginning period. We recall, of course, that Second Temple Judaism itself was diverse in character. The point is that in the beginning, the new movement which was embryonic Christianity was part of that diversity, wholly ‘inside’ the diversity of first-century Second Temple Judaism.”[4] 

 

Ron H. Miller...

"This follows from the simple awareness of how vitally the Hebrew Bible lives in every verse of the Christian New testament. Furthermore, any serious student of the text soon comes to realize that not one major theological concept in the gospels originates outside the Hebrew Bible. Monotheism, creation, sin, repentance, Messiah, vicarious suffering, sacrifice, commandments, God’s reign, resurrection, and the final judgment at the close of human history – all of these are as Jewish as they are Christian."[5]

 

There are of course multiple ways to demonstrate why scholars such as these come to this conclusion. Just some of the factors consist of:

 

1) The book of Acts records that the first multitudes of converts occurred at Jerusalem (see Acts 2:41, 4:4, 6:7, 21:17-20).

 

2) Jerusalem became the epicenter in the first few decades of the movement. It was the location Paul himself acknowledged as an authority in his letters (Romans 15:31; Galatians 2:1-2), which are presumably the earliest written sources about the movement.

 

3) The Hebrews letter, which contains some of the most expressive Christology of any letter and goes into extensive exegesis of Jewish scripture, was obviously written to a Jewish Christian community (Hebrews 13:20-25), and it was clearly written prior to the Temple's destruction in 70 CE. The author not only addresses the sacrifices performed by the priest in the Temple in the present tense (Hebrews 10:11, 13:10-11), but spends two chapters repudiating sacrifices as something that was unnecessary since it was fulfilled in Christ; sacrifices that had ceased to be of any significance once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.

 

4) The movement was initially Jewish from the mindset of the early apostles: the general thinking being that this new Judeo-Christian faith was to be delivered exclusively to the "house of Jacob" first and foremost (Acts 3:25-26, 11:19); even Paul, the "apostle to the Gentiles," expressed this view (Romans 1:16).

 

5) Jewish Christians who adhered to the Mosaic law had a profound impact on the early movement, which we particularly see from letters of Paul that illustrate the feuds the early Christians had over issues of the Mosaic law and how it should apply to their Christian faith; as well as clear influences Judaism had on the churches around the Mediterranean Paul had founded, which left Paul frequently bemoaning their tendency to give into these influences (see Acts 15:1-5, 16:1-3, 21:15-21; Galatians 2:1-4, 2:11-16; Romans 2:17-29; Philippians 3:1-9; Titus 1:10-14).

 

6) Peter, one of the chief apostles of the early Christian movement, was recognized as an apostle "to the Jews" (Galatians 2:7-8), and he and the other head apostles such as James (leader of the Jerusalem church) and John were still devoted to Jewish customs and practices (see Acts 3:1, 10:14; Galatians 2:11-14).

 

7) The church at Rome that Paul wrote his Romans epistle to, founded by others prior to Paul's rise to evangelism (Romans 15:20-22), had a prominent Jewish population during this time.[6] The Christian church itself was undoubtedly a mixture of Jews and proselytes (see Acts 2:10) who had practiced Judaism rather staunchly, indicative by Paul spending a great deal of time in this epistle repudiating total adherence to the Mosaic law and clarifying its relevance to the Christian faith more than any other letter besides his Galatians letter.

 

8) We know the Judeo-Christian movement was predominantly Jewish because of the Jewish influences we find throughout all four gospels. The only thing Greco-Roman about the gospels is the fact they were written in Greek, yet the actual content is "Jewish to the core." Though the traditions definitely express a strong anti-Jewish establishment sentiment, they are pro-Judaism for the most part, such as:

 

  • Whenever they bother expressing the role of Gentiles in the movement, which is hardly ever, it is in an unfavorable light (discussed here: A Jewish Messiah in a Gentile world), suggesting much of the content found in the gospels originated when the movement wasn't as Gentile-orientated as it had become later on.
  • The entire theology of the New Testament is saturated with first century messianism and Judaic themes closely related to the Dead Sea Scrolls (as expressed by some of the scholars quoted above), including Jesus' virgin birth, teachings, death and the resurrection (discussed here: The Jewish gospels).
  • There is an Aramaic substratum underlying all four gospels, including the gospel of John (discussed here: Problem #3), which firmly demonstrates the roots of the content in the gospels as thoroughly Judaic in nature.

 

9) We know there is at least a possibility that the gospel of Matthew may have been initially written in a Semitic tongue; and though this is highly speculative (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #1), without a doubt, we at least know that the author of Matthew himself was Jewish who wrote his gospel to a community of Greek-speaking devout Jews.

 

10) We know that the author of the gospel of John was a contemporary of pre-70 Judaism, was undoubtedly Jewish and most likely a native of Judea (discussed here: The Ghost Writers, John).

 

The fact that the resurrection story spawned purely from a first century Jewish matrix allows us a blueprint of the early Judeo-Christian movement, and once we understand this blueprint, from there we can form the framework and thus we are on our way to understanding the culture better wherein this tradition developed, how it developed and why it developed.

Whether one assumes the gospels were written after 70 CE becomes moot at this point, particularly in light of point #8 above and the strong underlying Judaic influences within the gospels. So, now that we've established the fact that Christianity began with Jews and that the traditions derived within Judaic culture, one of the first conundrums we must realize is that the resurrection of Christ was contrary to Judaic ideology and theology about resurrection in relation to the Messiah that the Jews held prior to Christianity (also discussed here: The Messianic Matrix, The first century Judean Messiah).

The subject of resurrection undoubtedly had some rather diverse views among different Jewish factions in the first century. Though most Jewish sects arguably had some belief in resurrection (with the exception of the Sadducees who denied physical resurrection of the body all together[8]) and a rather firm stand on Jewish totality (a connection of body and soul), the universal view associated with resurrection messianism among Jews was a cumulative happening during an eschatological or end time event (more on that in a bit). We also know at least the concept of this mass resurrection idea was hinted at in Old Testament scripture (see Daniel 12:2; Ezekiel 37:1-12; Isaiah 26:19), including apocryphal Old Testament books, such as the book of Ezra (4 Ezra 7:32) and the book of Enoch (1 Enoch 51:1). Joachim Jeremias writes...

 

"Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life. In no place in the later Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to doxa as an event of history."[9]

 

Bart Ehrman points out that "prior to Christianity there weren't any Jews, so far as we know, that expected Messiah to be raised from the dead."[10] He goes on to say that there are no historical records indicating that the Messiah would be resurrected prior to Christianity. Well, technically speaking, according to some Jewish circles, it was believed that Messiah ben Joseph would in fact die and be resurrected, though it is unclear whether this belief had culminated in the first century since it comes from the Talmud, a second century source, or how widespread it actually was at the time. However, the point Ehrman makes is a valid one because even a belief in the resurrection of ben Joseph was predicated on certain contingencies, both political and theological. It was viewed that he would die fighting in a great apocalyptic battle against the enemies of Israel only to be succeeded by Messiah ben David who would finish the job and resurrect ben Joseph himself, most likely on the Final Day of judgment.

The very fact that ancient Jewish thinkers argued the possibility that Messiah would come as two individuals who would fulfill the conflicting roles in Old Testament scripture they believed portrayed the personality of Messiah -- both a dying one and a conquering one -- suggests that the resurrection of a single Messiah who would fulfill both roles was a concept they didn't readily grasp (discussed here: The Messianic Matrix).

The typical resurrection belief was viewed en masse of all souls on the Last Days of judgment, a universal view that was certainly foreign to any belief in an individual resurrection of the Messiah himself. In fact, the expected Messiah in many cases was believed to be the source behind this pivotal Last Day event. James Charlesworth concurs that Messiah would have some part in the resurrection, and points out that even one of the Dead Sea scrolls titled "On Resurrection" indicated that the dead would be resurrected by God through the Messiah.[11]

This strange belief in a single resurrected human Savior was not just foreign to Jewish thought but Greek thought as well. Though there may have even been Greco-Roman cults outside of Judaism that celebrated cyclic dying and rising of mythological gods, goddesses and demigods (which is a highly debatable subject), Greek philosophy generally deviated from Judaic theology and supported the persistence of the soul, not the physical mortal body -- of which these immortal deities didn't typically possess.[12] This fact correlates with the incident in Acts where the Stoics and Epicureans at the Areopagus in Athens disdainfully dismiss Paul when he preaches to them about the resurrection of Jesus on Mars hill (Acts 17:31-32). The very thought of a risen mortal body to a Greek was nonsense and confusing.

For the most part, since we know from other articles that the national Jewish hope was a political Messiah and deliverer (discussed in its entirety here: The Messianic Matrix), the first century Judean community was clearly not expecting an individual resurrection of Messiah himself before the final day of divine consummation. His crucifixion was an event they were expecting even less. In fact, their own law from the Torah deemed any man whose corpse was strung up in such a manner a sure sign he was condemned by God for such a fate (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

Resurrection beliefs of Herod

The facts about resurrection belief have become somewhat challenged with the incident of Herod Antipas (not to be confused with Herod the Great, his father), after he had executed John the Baptist, where he thought Jesus was John the Baptist who had actually rose from the dead (Mark 6:14), and Luke (9:7) further points out there were more than others who may have influenced Antipas' belief.

However, not only do we not know who those "some" were (they could have merely been those of Antipas' inner circle, not necessarily common Jews), but it is doubtful that this equates to a Jewish messianic ideology in and of itself. Secondly, the Jews didn’t believe John was resurrected, Herod Antipas did, and that’s a big difference. The reason there is a difference is because it's unsure where Herod got those beliefs and what he meant by it.

We know His father (Herod the Great) didn't hold theological beliefs of your everyday Jew because he had to consult Jews about the nuances of the Messiah that he didn’t know (Matthew 2:1-6). We also know his father grew paranoid of this messianic king he thought would usurp his throne (Matthew 2:16), yet his son Antipas actually looked forward to seeing Jesus
(Luke 23:8). Thus, from this we can deduce that Herod Antipas wasn’t exactly expressing a theological belief he picked up from Jews outside his inner circle, and we could strongly assume Antipas didn't actually believe John or Jesus was anything more than just one among many charismatic philosophers, entertainers, and magicians of that day. Clearly, the common expected Messiah ben David was a political one who would usurp both Rome and Herod and reestablish the Davidic throne as his own rightful inheritance, so it's highly doubtful Antipas would have shared this same sentiment about Messiah even if he was familiar with these common Jewish beliefs outside his own.

Now let's look specifically at what Antipas could have been saying. The Herodian dynasty was notorious bedfellows with heathen authority and intermingled with many various foreign elements of other cultures. Antipas himself was apparently shunned by Jews as a Samaritan -- considered a "half Jew."[13] It is most likely that Antipas and others believed that the spirit of Elijah or John the Baptist was working through Jesus (2 Kings 2:15), or even a belief in reincarnation that he picked up hobnobbing with political allies of the east.

Whether either of those is the case or not, in light of Antipas’ incestuous marriage to Herodias, his niece, we can assume he wasn't exactly schmoozing with any typical pious Jewish circle in and around Judea and sharing their theological views. While Herod's beliefs remain unclear, we clearly know what orthodox Jews believed about resurrection and the Messiah and need to make no assumptions about that based on what we've already covered about biblical and extrabiblical sources, and this is was clearly what Jesus' followers also believed.

Resurrection beliefs of Jesus' followers

Looking at the incident where Jesus resurrected the official's dead daughter probably gives yet another glimpse into what the common Jewish orthodox belief in resurrection may have been, which is compatible with the views of resurrection and Messiah we just discussed. In this incident Jesus is scorned and ridiculed by the crowd of mourners because he had claimed the girl was only sleeping even though she had died immediately prior to Jesus arriving (Matthew 9:23-24; Luke 8:51-53). The resurrection of Lazarus definitely gives us a glimpse into the religious ideology of his followers…

 

John 11:20-24 "Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, 'Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.'  Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha said to Him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.'"

 

Even though Martha believed Jesus was capable of healing Lazarus while he was alive, an individual resurrection after four days of decomposition (John 11:39) seemed inexplicable and the furthest thing from her mind or anyone else outside of a Last Day resurrection tradition and is why there was so much consternation over the event from those who had witnessed it. As I mentioned, there are miracle resuscitation immediately after death that are clearly recorded in the Old and New Testament, but this was apparently distinct from resurrection after days of death and burial.

The Jewish eschatological doctrine of that day was attached to Messiah and was so indelibly fixed that incidental resuscitation of other individuals was viewed separately from an actual theological belief in the Messiah himself, and we see this similarly expressed in the gospels elsewhere (see Mark 9:9-10; Matthew 16:21-22; Luke 18:31-34; John 12:34).

Now we know why the Jewish antagonists mocked Jesus while he was being crucified, defying him to deliver himself from the situation in order to prove his messianic credentials, because even in their wildest dreams Messiah ben David was simply not supposed to die this way, nor would God allow such a vulgar event to happen to his anointed and then miraculously resurrect him after being buried.

Though Matthew records that the Jewish authorities were concerned that his followers would try and steal the body -- recalling a claim Jesus made about his resurrection prior to his death -- stealing his body is not relevant here because the concern was specifically to keep such a potential scandal from happening (Matthew 27:62-66, 28:11-13), not to prevent any sort of genuine miracle from occurring, which was obviously the furthest thing from their expectation.

The collective Jewish resurrection hope that was associated with any concept of Messiah was for all of Israel in an eschatological event, not one individual, which is a belief still held by many orthodox Jews today.[14] Since I discussed what political expectation first century Jews held about Messiah ben David in a previous article (here: The Messianic Matrix, The first century Judean Messiah), I won't elaborate here, but this expectation and the specific political aspersions they believed he would fulfill becomes even more potent when coupled with the topic of resurrection.

In other words, the Messiah they were expecting wasn't supposed to die, but would politically conquer and triumph, so there was no need for him to resurrect. In fact, there are no clear passages outlining a third day resurrection of the Messiah even foretold in Old Testament scriptures; scriptures they considered the authority above everything else. The three popular Christian resurrection references from the Old Testament are: Isaiah 53:9-12; Hosea 6:1-4; Psalm 16:10-11. The first passage wasn't seen as a resurrection and not cited specifically in regards to the resurrection in New Testament scripture. Though the Psalm passage is cited a couple of times in Acts, it was still somewhat ambiguous to a pre-Christian Jew outside of perhaps a metaphor or poetic expression. The Hosea passage is especially metaphoric and thus was also not cited because it is in the third person "we," which is an actual reference to Judah and Ephraim, not the Messiah.

When Jesus was seized by sentries, bound with chains and taken before the Sanhedrin, now we can plainly see why his followers more than likely feared that perhaps Jesus was being punished by Yahweh as a false prophet or a "dreamer of dreams" that Moses had warned their ancestors about in scripture (Deuteronomy 13). Then when Jesus was "hung on a tree" (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), accursed and thus a plague to the entire land of Israel, executed in one of the most shameful deaths imaginable and by the very regime his followers thought he would conquer and subject to himself and Israel, we can imagine the psychology at play here -- that any prior claim of resurrection was lost in a sea of this tragic reality.

And as I pointed out earlier, we distinctly see where these contrasting preconceived socioreligious beliefs of resurrection in relation to Messiah in the minds of his Jewish followers are resoundingly expressed throughout the gospel accounts (Mark 9:9-10; Matthew 16:21-22; Luke 18:31-34; John 12:34) up to the time of his death and even after his death. Other examples of this include:

 

  • The two Emmaus men stating that they "had hoped" Jesus was the one they were expecting right after his death (Luke 24:21).
  • His followers perceiving what they thought was a failed messianic program and thus deserted Jesus when he was apprehended (Mark 14:48-50).
  • The women returning to the tomb after the Sabbath assuming they were going to anoint a corpse (Mark 16:1-2).
  • Magdalene assuming someone had taken the corpse when they discovered the tomb empty (John 20:14-15).
  • His followers unconvinced by just an empty tomb (Luke 24:10-11).
  • Compelled to examine the empty tomb for themselves (Luke 24:12; John 20:3-10).
  • Thomas and others demanding physical proof (John 20:24-25; Luke 24:40-43).

 

What we've established is that Jesus' resurrection was an entirely new concept to first century Jews, which went against preconceived political and ideological religious norms of that era. New Testament literature perfectly exemplifies and what we would expect in typical situations and the reactions of those who interacted with Jesus based on these preconceived political and ideological religious norms.

First obstacle: X/Y historical framework

With the groundwork I've laid out so far by analyzing historical Judeo-Christianity, all this leads to the inevitable question: why did this resurrection belief catch on to such an immense degree as to actually serve as the theological foundation of the whole movement if it didn't actually occur, and why were so many of Jesus' followers, who were Jews, convinced it had happened in spite of their reactions against it after crucifixion and based on it being a concept removed from their religious expectation of not just the concept of resurrection itself, but the political expectations of the role of Messiah? There are a variety of barriers against alternatives used to explain this, but there are two primary nuances to consider before trying to find an alternative.

First of all, the most shameful and undignified execution to the ancients was a crucifixion (discussed here: The Evangelists, The Roman disgrace), and a crucified Messiah was no Messiah at all, but just one more humiliated delusional soul among the dozens of others in history put in check by Rome's power and absolute rule. Crucifixion was Rome's definitive acquisition over the individual's potency and status, and this message was loud and clear to the whole community including all those who supported the victim prior.

To try and equate this to our own modern political and societal perception, think of something despicably looked upon in our culture and the exposure this would have on a certain political figure. Imagine, for example, what effects a rendezvous with an underage child would have on an ultra conservative politician and the definitive end to his career and the abandonment of his political party in his defense that would likely result. It would be foolish, pointless, let alone politically (in the case of our example) dangerous for other conservatives and their own political and societal reputations to continue being associated with such a "toxic" individual as a result of this outcome.

It isn't just the stigma of crucifixion alone that's the problem, which is bad enough, but the assertion of a crucified Messiah which was something unthinkable in first century Judaism from a social, religious, and political point of view.[15] Jesus certainly wasn't the only influential leader or proclaimed messiah prior to being crucified, but he was the ONLY Jewish religious leader declared a deity (kyrios) by second Temple Jews; the ONLY crucified victim deified by anyone in this culture, and the ONLY proclaimed Messiah whose legacy his followers dared to continue endorsing post-crucifixion. Of course, there are always exceptions in history that might explain this unusual phenomenon, but the historical circumstances are already stacked up against it just based on these facts alone. Without a rather extraordinary exception, the alternative possibilities to explain this are remote, if that.

But the implausibilities stack up as we delve even further. Coupled with the problem of figuring out where this resurrection/Messiah belief came from and why, Jesus also wasn't the only teacher and spiritual Jewish leader of that era who expressed devotion to the God of Israel, supported the Torah, advocated an ethical lifestyle, and had a rather large following of adherents, so he certainly wasn't any different from others who came before, during and after him such as Hillel, John the Baptist, the Teacher of Righteous, Shammai, Gamaliel, etc. In fact, some of these men were even more politically influential to the nation of Israel, yet none of them died the repugnant and dishonorable death Jesus died and none of whom were proclaimed to be resurrected messiahs. In addition, there were also teachers that were declared messiahs prior to their deaths who actually did aspire to fulfill the political messianic goal they were expecting him to accomplish, yet were never honored or revered as resurrected messiahs after their failed attempt. Bar Kokhba, for example, who led the second revolt against Rome, was also proclaimed a messiah until this was unequivocally and irrevocably extinguished by Roman legions who defeated his attempts at conquest of Roman rule, which made the messianic belief surrounding him impossible by his followers and thus absurd to continue as a proclamation.

Without an actual resurrection to set Jesus apart, why this particular circle of Jews (particularly outsiders like Paul and James) picked him to bestow this unusual resurrection/Messiah honor out of the pool of other great men is simply an inexplicable problem. It's no wonder Paul could empathize with those who considered honor and worship of such an individual utterly foolish in this society…

 

1 Corinthians 1:22-23 "For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness" -- And -- 1 Corinthians 15:14-15 "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain... If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied."

 

So far we have a Messiah that was killed in an unexpected manner and one that was the most repugnant way imaginable, a Messiah that resurrected when they had no beliefs about such a resurrection prior, and a man they considered their Lord who wasn't even the best Jewish candidate among other more prime picks in the pool of influential Jewish men around that era.

Another primary factor to consider is that Jews prior to Christ were not expecting a spiritual Messiah, but a political one; one who would defeat the imperial government and rule in Israel as a perpetual political hero, which I briefly touched on earlier but established as fact in another article in much more detail (here: The Messianic Matrix).

Yet in spite of Jesus' fate, in spite of the political shape of Israel that was still contrary to this expectation after his fate, and in spite of the fact that Jesus never offered any remedy for Israel or to the Jewish people in a political sense even before his crucifixion, his followers still continued to proclaim him as being the fulfillment of what they were expecting prior. In other words, they strangely never abandoned these expectations held by Jews of that era, even though it was a view that contradicted everything about Jesus and Israel.

In a nutshell, the first major obstacles can be broken down into a simple historical framework that make up the historical facts we can confirm are true. First, we need to establish the basics of fact X; a fact that the consensus of most current scholars, both skeptic and apologist, generally agree on:

Historical framework X =

A Jewish man named Jesus, who was crucified around 36 CE or earlier, inspired a movement among citizens of Judea in honor of his name and in the belief he had resurrected, coupled with a basic theology of salvation surrounding him and this event. It had pretty quickly spread from Jerusalem among Jews into scattered areas of Judea and Asia Minor, eventually including a mixture of Jews and Gentiles well within the timeframe of 70 CE.

Then we have an additional set of facts that dovetail this:

Historical framework Y =

  1. His adherents aggrandized the crucifixion and made it the crux of their salvation theology (yet aggrandizing a crucified individual this way was seen as "foolish" and repugnant by the socioreligious and political culture).
  2. Early Jewish Christian converts, illustrated in both the book of Acts and Paul's letters, strangely disregarded a critical aspect of Mosaic law that firmly stated God's unequivocal curse on anyone who was a victim of a crucifixion (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), yet continued as zealous adherents of the other aspects of the Mosaic law even after accepting the Christian faith (see Acts 15:1-5, 16:1-3, 21:15-21; Galatians 2:1-4, 2:11-16; Romans 2:17-29; Philippians 3:1-9; Titus 1:10-14; James 2:8-11). In other words, there were Jewish converts to the faith that didn't abandon their fervent adherence of the Mosaic law in order to adapt to a new belief about a crucified individual that would have been in direct opposition to what was stated by the law.
  3. Paul, a former Pharisee and radical fundamentalist of Judaism himself (Galatians 1:13-14) and a former enemy to the movement, inexplicably converted to the movement and for some strange reason was convinced this crucifixion victim, Jesus of Nazareth, who he also recognized as his contemporary (Romans 1:3; Galatians 1:9; 1 Corinthians 9:5) was the Messiah and Lord of Israel (Romans 11:26).
  4. The Jews were clearly expecting a political Messiah, not a spiritual one, who would defeat Rome, gather the tribes of Israel throughout and restore the nation of Israel back to its preeminence and sovereignty wherein he would then rule as a political king (discussed here: The Messianic Matrix, The first century Judean Messiah). Obviously this was antithetical to the fate of both Jesus and Israel, so we would have to expect a radical modification of views and ideas about this messianic expectation, at the least, a total abandonment of this expectation. Yet his followers never abandoned the view that he was the king of Israel and kept promoting him just as they had been expecting prior (examples: Matthew 19:28; Mark 11:8-11; Luke 1:46-55; John 1:49-50; 1 Corinthians 15:23-25; Romans 11:25-26) in spite of his fate and the fate of Israel that came shortly after.

X is generally agreed by any historian or scholar taken seriously on this subject. Y is usually the area most people will immediately attempt to distort or just ignore. However, Y is simply not up for debate either, as the Y historical framework can be proven beyond doubt both from biblical and extrabiblical sources, thus these are the bare minimum historical facts surrounding the history of Judeo-Christianity.

It is also important to note here that the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke or John are not necessarily required to prove Y anymore than we need them to prove X. In other words, we can derive a good deal of the information that support both X and Y from the epistles and extrabiblical sources that describe and give us ideas of ancient Judean culture of the first century, their political and religious beliefs and views. Therefore, before one throws around alternative natural theories to explain how X happened, it needs to fit within the entire additional scope of of Y.

Whatever theory that is proposed to explain the reasons for X -- The Jesus-myth theory, the hallucination theory, the delusion theory, the rumor theory, the guilt and remorse theory, the unrecognized corpse theory, the wrong tomb theory, the stolen body theory, the unexpected removal of the body theory, the evolving-resurrection-legend theory, et al. -- must provide an adequate explanation within the Y historical framework that surrounds X (The ENTIRE framework, not just one or two selectively). For example, Y forces us to ask questions such as:

 

  • Why would devout Jews, who were still adherents of Judaism and the law and who never abandoned these beliefs, covert to a movement that honored a man as the expected Messiah who was accursed according to Mosaic law if he had never actually been raised by God?
  • Why did anyone from this culture, for that matter, Jew or Gentile, worship a man as Messiah and Son of God who died via one of the worst and most repugnant deaths imaginable (this must be understood in the historical context of what they thought about crucifixion)?
  • If the resurrection and other miraculous things about Jesus were fabricated, why would anyone fabricate these things about Jesus just to lift him on a Jewish pedestal of religious stardom when they had a much better pool of political and religious candidates before and after Jesus?
  • Why would they continue to believe Jesus was the Messiah of Israel that they were expecting prior when he not only offered no political solutions for Israel while he was alive, but when any expectations of these aspirations were seemingly impossible after 70 CE?
  • What made devout Jewish outsiders like James and Paul completely reverse their animosity towards the movement to actually become the most fierce defenders of the movement?

 

Does the stolen or misplaced body theory explain this? Does the mass hallucination theory explain this? One must find an alternative explanation for X with Y if they are to reject the official explanation for X that we find in the New Testament. Something extraordinary and unassailable had to have happened to end up with X in spite of Y. To disregard Y completely from the equation makes an explanation for X a rather simple task because strange cults have always popped up out of nowhere for a myriad number of reasons and against a vast number of historical odds. But X is usually as far as most skeptics take it when they attempt to give X a natural explanation for why it occurred and why and how it thrived.

The beginning

Once we move on from there, even the naturalistic theories used to explain X are themselves faulty. But first we need to adequately cover the basics. What we need to consider in the next stage of this is that the resurrection proclamation did not historically grow underground or in isolation and gradually develop as time went on but in the full glare of Judea and Roman publicity. It started in the very city Jesus had been sentenced and buried from day one… Jerusalem. Unlike other religions, including even Judaism and Islam, the earliest doctrine and theology of the movement was not centered around a set of teachings or principles, but was primarily centered around one Galilean Jew and the resurrection proclamation that justified the worship, deification, and theological creed they built entirely upon this Jew (discussed here: The Christology of Paul). The eyewitnesses to the resurrection didn't just consist of a few people, but multitudes (see Acts 1:15; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

The Pauline resurrection creed

The Corinthian passage in Paul's letter (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) likely dates to the early to mid 50s and is known as the "Pauline Resurrection Creed" or "Corinthian Resurrection Creed," and was a creed he declared that he "also received," meaning an earlier creed taught to him once he converted. Creeds were short or basic outlines, typically oral, of early foundational tradition of which the movement was based on and often times expressed in hymns and song. This traditional crucifixion, burial, and resurrection outline that Paul laid out in his Corinthian letter is firmly believed by many scholars to date well within a decade of the crucifixion, based on nuances within the creed like syntax, peculiar primitive words and phrases, stylized poetic form and Hebraic parallels, distinct non-Pauline terms that are Semitic in nature, etc.[16]

The creed is centered around a multitude of eyewitnesses that saw Jesus alive and whom Paul indicates were still alive, thus available for confirmation. In other words, the time Paul wrote this letter, he was practically begging the Corinthians to confirm this themselves. Paul would not have been stupid enough to claim within an immediate letter that most of the witnesses existed and were still alive if he didn't firmly believe it was true. It would not have been a difficult task for anyone to travel from Corinth to Jerusalem in order to confirm this themselves if they had any doubts. Jerusalem before the fall was still very much an important city to early apostles, most of whom still worshiped there and attended the Feasts and celebrations, thus we can certainly assume Christians at Corinth were just as fascinated by a place their Lord and Savior had walked, taught and celebrated the same feasts. Would you claim today that pope John Paul resurrected from the dead and that there were 500 eyewitnesses that saw him alive in the city of Rome and that many of them were still alive in Rome today to confirm it if it wasn't true?

This was an oral culture, where everything including the news of the day was proclaimed from one person to another via word of mouth, on the streets, in the synagogues, in the Temple, in the market places, in the Senate and town hall meetings, in the royal halls. There is no conceivable way to escape the inevitable reality of public scrutiny of this movement at the point of its conception.

The gospels claim there was an empty tomb days after Jesus had been killed and buried followed by sightings of him alive. Needless to say, this event has been the focus of much contention and dispute between skeptic and apologist. The skeptic, however, needs to get passed the first set of barriers discussed earlier (discussed here: X/Y historical framework) before even thinking of tackling this subject in depth. But we'll move on and cover just what could have happened in regards to that event and how it happened.
 

Click here for Part II, or here to go home

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Source References

1. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea scrolls and Christian origins, pp.4-5; 2000

2. Craig A. Evans, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewishness of the Gospels, p.2, 3-11; pdf (www.craigaevans.com).

3. Martin Hengel, Charles Kingsley Barrett, Conflicts and challenges in early Christianity, p.4; 1999

4. James D. G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, pp.16-17; 2009.

5. Ron H. Miller, The hidden Gospel of Matthew, pp.19-20; 2004.

6. Greg MaGee, The Origins of the Church at Rome; 2008  (https://bible.org).

    Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson, Judaism and Christianity in first-century Rome, p.120-127; 1998.

7. Evans, ibid., p.2.  

8. See Sadducees: Beliefs.

9. Joachim Jeremias, cited by William Lane Craig ref #41 (www.reasonablefaith.org).

10. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p. 218; 2001.

11. James H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide, p. 54; 2008.

12. Celsus stated of the physical body after death: "more worthless than dung." Origen, Contra Celsus, book 5,  chap. 14 (www.newadvent.org).

    Plutarch stated that it was a violation of nature to believe that bodies were sent to heaven instead of freeing themselves completely of morality after death; The Life of Romulus, section 28:8 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu).

    Plato taught that the body is the chief hindrance to wisdom and truth; The Phaedo (http://classics.mit.edu).

    Pheme Perkins argues that Christianity's earliest pagan critics considered bodily resurrection as a ridiculous notion, which they attributed to, at best, Christian's misunderstanding of the philosophical process of metempsychosis (transmigration of the soul from life to death); Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection, p.61; 1994.

    Edwin Yamauchi states that Grecian "Epitaphs reflect an almost universal pessimism about life beyond the grave;" Ancient Concepts of the Afterlife (http://www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/yama.html).

13. Josephus, War of the Jews, book 1, chap. 28:4 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).

14. See Resurrection: Orthodox Judaism.

15. Simon J. Joseph, The Nonviolent Messiah, p.106; 2014.

16. Francis Beckwith, William L. Craig and James P. Moreland, To Everyone an Answer: a Case for the Christian worldview, pp.182-183; 2004.    

      R. E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p.81; 1973.    

      Thomas Sheehan, First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, pp. 110, 118; 1986.   

      Renald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, p.10; 1971.

      Evans, Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus (pdf), p.12; 2005.

      Phil Fernandes, No Other Gods, p.241; 2002.