Monday, July 21, 2008

Resurrection: Not a New Concept?

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Time magazine recently published a short article under the title “Was Jesus’ Resurrection a Sequel?” (To read the article, click here.) Written by David Van Biema and Tim McGirk it discusses a “first-century BC tablet, thought to originate from the Jordanian bank of the Dead Sea, that tells the story of a Messiah who rose again after three days from the grave.” The hyped drama here is based on the idea that, if the proposed reconstruction is correct, “Jesus' followers had access to a well-established paradigm when they decreed that Christ himself rose on the third day — and it might even hint that they could have applied it in their grief after their master was crucified.” The authors suggest this reconstruction “undermines one of the strongest literary arguments employed by Christians over centuries to support the historicity of the Resurrection (in which they believe on faith): the specificity and novelty of the idea that the Messiah would die on a Friday and rise on a Sunday. Who could make such stuff up?”

Funny thing is, I have to confess I don’t recall ever hearing or using that argument before. Only now, am I discovering it is supposedly one of our strongest arguments to support the historicity of the resurrection and it is being undermined.

The authors think it provocative and shocking to suggest that when they proclaimed the death and resurrection of Christ “maybe the Christians had a model to work from.” Israel Knohl (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) points out that “for the first time, we have proof” that the concept of a dying and rising Messiah “was there before Jesus." This, he thinks, “should shake our basic view of Christianity. ... What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."

OK, I guess I should be panicking. But wait…. Thankfully (to the authors’ credit) they do check with Ben Witherington (Gordon-Conwell graduate and Asbury Seminary professor). His reported responses are (as usual) right on point. Among other things he points out that the verb Knohl wants to translate from the tablet as "rise!" could as easily mean "there arose," as in “showed up on the scene“ (cf. Matt. 11:11; 12:42; 24:11; Mark 13:22; Luke 7:16; 11:31; John 7:52). Oh yes, and “Witherington notes that if he is wrong and Knohl's reading is right, it at least sets to rest the notion that the various gospel quotes attributed to Christ foreshadowing his death and Resurrection were textual retrojections put in his mouth by later believers — Jesus the Messianic Jew, as Knohl sees him, would have been familiar with the vocabulary for his own fate.”’ But according to the main thrust of the article this last possibility is supposed to be undermining one of our most important arguments for the resurrection!

This last of Witherington’s points highlights the silliest part of the article’s hype. Matthew 14:2 indicates Herod thought the reports about Jesus suggested that he was actually John the Baptist, risen from the dead. Here again the New Testament itself suggests Jewish people of his day considered the possibility that God might vindicate a righteous man by raising him from the dead. According to the gospels Jesus himself indicated that his followers should have known ahead of time, based on the Scriptures, that he, as the Messiah would die and then be vindicated by being raised by God from the dead. Luke 18:31-33 says Jesus told his disciples that “everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again" (NRSV). After the resurrection we are told that Jesus told the disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke says Jesus then “opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem‘“ (Luke 24:44-47 NRSV). Mark and Matthew both record Jesus referring to his upcoming death in the words “the Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21; emphasis added).

Paul also indicates that Jesus and the rest of the early church had a scriptural model to work from. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul says,
“I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (NRSV).

Here again it is understood that Christ’s death and resurrection took place “according to the [Old Testament] scriptures.” This was not thought to be a new idea. Just exactly which Scriptures Jesus, Paul and other early Christians might have had in mind is debatable. Certainly Daniel 12:2-3, Hosea 6:1-2 and Ezekiel 37 must be included in the mix. For a full discussion of the resurrection, see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God [Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003]). He provides a fine discussion of the Old Testament background on pages 108-28. Part of the key turns out to be that God had done for Jesus, in the middle of time what he had been expected to do for Israel at the end of time [raise them from the dead after suffering oppression at the hands of pagans]: “In and through Jesus Israel’s hope had been realized. He had been raised from the dead after suffering and dying at the hands of the pagans” (N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997], 127).

Christians do not base the belief that Jesus died and rose from the dead on the uniqueness of the idea or because we can’t imagine anyone making the story up. We believe it because of the testimony of those who saw him (see again 1 Cor. 15:3-8 above) and gave their lives for the sake of that message and because of the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection life demonstrated in and through his disciples down through history and into our own time and our own lives. It is not part of the Christian message to say Jesus had such an idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture that no one else could have understood it before hand. Jesus himself said his disciples should have understood the Scriptures to teach that the Messiah must experience Israel’s destiny: He must die and rise again.

I am not suggesting that Knohl’s interpretation of the tablet will turn out to be correct. That may be unlikely. What I am suggesting is that believers do not have a horse in this race. Clearly most Jews did not expect the Messiah to die and rise again, but Jesus and the authors of the New Testament suggest they should have. If we ever find (or have just found) an ancient Jewish text suggesting the/a Messiah would rise from the dead, it will make clear whether or not others had come to understand that as well as Jesus and the other early Christians. That would be an interesting discovery. But undeserving of the “this completely undermines the Christian faith” hype that publishers hope to work up about such things. If there is any hype to be made about the tablet being discussed, perhaps it should go more like this: News from Jerusalem! Perhaps Jesus was right! His disciples should have understood that he needed to die and then rise again!

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