Was the Early Christian Claim of Jesus’ Resurrection the Novelty that Modern Christians Believe It to Be?

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Excerpt from a post on Matthew Ferguson’s blog:

One of the most common arguments in the popular brand of [Christian] resurrection apologetics is the idea that the resurrection of Jesus was some kind of unprecedented “anachronism.” Because Jesus was said to be resurrected individually and in advance of the collective resurrection many ancient Jews expected in a future age, no one would have ever imagined Jesus’ resurrection on their own. As N.T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop, popular New Testament theologian, and one of the most noted apologists for the resurrection today, states (“The Surprise of Resurrection,” Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, pp. 89f.):

Nobody ever imagined that this final event would be anticipated in the case of one person in the present. No first-century Jew, prior to easter, expected it to be anything other than that large-scale, last-minute, all-people event” [1].

This point is emphasized heavily in N.T. Wright’s landmark tome on the resurrection of Jesus [2]. Wright takes this to be evidence the resurrection of Jesus really happened, for only perceptions of Jesus appearing alive again after his death and an empty tomb being discovered (i.e., what the gospel stories narrate) would have generated such a belief. The best explanation for these twin phenomena is that Jesus really was resurrected [3]. This is far from the only argument mustered by apologists, including Wright, to defend the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, but to Wright it appears to be especially important.

But do people come to believe only what they “expect” to believe, for instance? This is obviously not the case, or new religious beliefs (to say nothing of beliefs in general) would never occur to anyone. People come to hold all sorts of novel religious beliefs for a variety of reasons: theological debate, changing social conditions, individual creativity, rationalization, and so forth. It’s characteristic of new religious movements to believe things nobody believed before pretty much by definition. Although they draw from existing religious traditions, they are unconventional, and often deliberately so [4]. That typically doesn’t require that people have good reasons to hold their beliefs, or require us to posit, if a precise explanation for the logic of how those beliefs were formed is unavailable, that those beliefs are best explained as true.

To read the rest of this article, click here.







End of post.


2 thoughts on “Was the Early Christian Claim of Jesus’ Resurrection the Novelty that Modern Christians Believe It to Be?

  1. Bass’ article is interesting, but, his reliance on non-canonical books is, to me, something I’m not entirely comfortable with.

    The reason being this: Bass *seems* (at least, at my first reading) to be approaching the whole topic of resurrection from a very “heady” view; he (and the author he quotes) are using references that the more learned, upper-echelon types would have used in their theological discourses.

    But, there is an enormous difference in what Vatican Cardinals write to one-another, and what the Average Catholic gets to see in the Catechism. (and yes, for all you very literal-minded people, this is an analogy). The average peasant-level Jew in Palestine would have little knowledge of the ramblings of the scribes and scholars as they debated their views in the more lofty circles.

    Most Christians today believe “you die and you go to heaven”. Yet, there is scant little scriptural evidence to support such a view. Yet, it’s the popular view, the common view, and truly the non-scholarly view.

    My take on the Jews of the first century was that the majority of them had no better knowledge of the scripture than what the average Sunday-school pupil gets – which is essentially the “Noah and the Flood Coloring Book” level of knowledge. There were certain stories, certain commonly-held “traditional beliefs”, and so on, and these are the things that the broader populace believed.

    And, by the first century, the Pharisaic view of “a resurrection at the last day” – with no qualifiers, no greater explanations, no real answers as to “how all this works”, etc – was the common belief. It was the Jewish version of “We (Christians) die and go to heaven”.

    In short – most of the stuff that Bass asserts (using that other author as reference) is, I believe, far outside what the average Galilean fisherman or Bethlehem shepherd would have any knowledge of all. For them, they believed “you die, and at the last day, you get resurrected and live in the New Heavens and New Earth — End Of Story”.

    So, for the average, “commoner” Jew, Jesus’ resurrection would have been viewed as entirely out of sequence. But, they wouldn’t know that if they read Enoch 1 (which they might never have heard of), or read some Talmudic responsa by R. Gadden, they might see some “commonality” between Enochs suppositions regarding Isaiah and this “resurrection event” of Jesus… (or, whatever).

    So, it’s not as if, in upper-echelon scholarly / rabbinical circles, all kinds of theories & ideas about resurrection, the afterlife, and so on weren’t discussed. They certainly were. And there were lots and lots of such ideas and theories.

    But for the more common Jew, a much simpler picture had developed: We die, and we sleep until the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection.


    1. The point of the article is this: We should not be surprised that a new religious group in first century Palestine came up with a radically new interpretation of “resurrection”: That is what new cults/sects do! They invent new, never heard of before concepts.


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