by Edward T. Babinski
The article in Newsweekʼs Easter issue, March 28th, 2005, “From Jesus to Christ,” doesnʼt address questions that many theologians and historians continue to ask, it just lumps together the Gospels stories and cites some conservative spokespersons, and claims that Christianity “had” to have begun with a miracle. Well, it is Easter, and Newsweek wants to sell magazines to those 70+ percent of readers who believe in Jesusʼs resurrection, donʼt they?
I see that their article mentioned a theologian, N.T. Wright—a conservative Evangelical Christian and Anglican bishop in Britain. And it mentioned a sociologist, Rodney Stark. (Starkʼs calculations that over 50% of the Roman world was Christian when Constantine was converted are on the high exaggerated end according to a premier Roman and Christian historian, Ramsay MacMullin—who is Not mentioned in the Newsweek article. The same Rodney Stark recently also came out as an opponent of Darwin, but refuses to tell people his religious beliefs, though he accepted a job at Baylor, a school that has tried to get an I.D. institute and lots of religiously devout profs on staff during the reign of its president who resigned recently.)
When Newsweek does cite a well informed critical Bible scholar like Dr. Paula Fredriksen they stop far short of letting her explain her historical and theological doubts concerning the resurrection that she does in her books and articles.
As for Tacitusʼs remark about burning of Christians. Yes some were executed. But not as many as the Church later bragged about. Even Christian historians have agreed that Christian persecutions were not as intense nor ongoing as often portrayed in cinema or in martyrologies. Christians killed more Christians in a few years after the convert Constantine took over the Empire, than were killed by all the Roman persecutions in the previous three hundred years.
As for the beginnings of Christianity, read Paulʼs earliest two letters, Thessalonians, the earliest writings we have that are nearest the time of Christianityʼs origin. Notice what was expected. At most, Paul says Jesus appeared and would appear again soon, expectations being rampant of a soon coming general resurrection and final judgment, another reason Paul sought to preach all over the Roman world.
The whole of Jesusʼ work implied that the apocalypse was imminent; some of his sayings were quite explicit on the point…The prima facie view of the Jesus mission was that it was an immediate prelude to a Last Judgment. Hence the urgency of the Pentecostal task, an urgency which Paul shared throughout his life [“…brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly…” 2 Thes 3:1], so that his final hope was to carry the good news, while there was still time, to Spain - for him, “the ends of the earth.” [Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1979), p. 38.]
See also my article, “The Lowdown on Godʼs Showdown”.
About resurrection expectations, even the Gospels admit that they were rampant—the Gospel of John even talks about how some people said Jesus was “John the Baptist raised from the dead.” So according to even an inerrantists idea of the Gospels, the stage WAS set for people believing someone could be raised from the dead, whether or not it indeed happened.
And secondly, before people believed that anyone in particular had been raised from the dead, the belief was of a general resurrection. This was during the Intertestamental period, the period between the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures. Take chapter 12 of the Book of Daniel, a book popular with the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls who lived before Jesus was born. Daniel 12 discusses the dead being resurrected and then judged to live in either heaven and hell. But this view of a general resurrection did not catch on in Israel big time until the intertestamental period when the Greeks ruled Palestine. A Jew named Judas Maccabeus led a revolt, defying the Greek ruler who had put up an image of Zeus in the Jewʼs holy temple! The Jews prevailed and threw out the Greeks. After the revolt against the Greeks was over, the Jews set up a kingdom called the “Hasmonean.”
Yup, Israel was a nation before modern day Israel (167-64 B.C., thatʼs a little over 100 years!). Then the Romanʼs arrived around 63 B.C. and took over Palestine, and a hundred years later after another Jewish revolt took place, the Romanʼs destroyed Jerusalem (70 A.D.).
Apocalyptic ideas were most prominent during the times of Greek rule and Roman rule over Jerusalem. Daniel was written during the time of Greek rule, when the Jews were crying out to God to come and change world history (but parts of it may have been written earlier, based on some earlier old Hebrew stories and legends, augmented with newer apocalyptic ideas). Apocalyptic writers began reviewing Hebrew history and dividing it into periods making their own day seem the most pessimistic and woe-filled, history degenerating, and the near future liable to be so bad that God would have to restore justice to his people via supernatural means. Hence it was a period of BIG and wild supernatural expectations. Some Jews waited in the desert and wrote the Dead Sea scrolls and read the recently “unsealed” [sic] book of Daniel that introduced the Jews to the idea of a general resurrection and a “figure like a son of man.” That figure in Daniel, “one like a son of man” later evolved into a more than symbolic representation of Israel, but instead became an individual named “The Son of Man” in the later Enoch books. Another figure mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls sent by God from heaven to judge the earth was Melchizadek. The Scrolls also featured a translation of a verse in Isaiah that included a phrase not found in the original book of Isaiah, a phrase that goes, “…shall raise the dead.” The Gospel writers added that same phrase when Jesus quoted that verse “…raise the dead.” Itʼs unusual because the Hebrew Bible itself and oldest text does not contain such a phrase. Just some Dead Sea texts and the Gospels. And the Dead Sea Scroll appearance of that phrase preceded that of the Gospels. There was an expectation of the worldʼs final judgment going around (some Dead Sea Scrolls even spoke of “this generation,” meaning their own, being the last, and other scrolls predicted a final battle between the sons of light and darkness, and Israel gearing up and defeating the entire world via Godʼs supernatural help and setting up a kingdom in Jerusalem, all in a matter of a single generation). For more info see Professor James D. Taborʼs “Jewish Roman World of Jesus” website.
So there were supernatural expectations of God judging or sending another figure to judge, and also resurrection language being spoken before Jesus was even born. And this was fairly new stuff, intertestamental stuff, that arose and spread during times of trouble when the Jews were subjected as a nation by strong foes, first the Greeks, and then the Romans after a long hard fight with the Greeks! Hence the rise in pessimism and increasing need felt for a miracle, “Lord is this subjection going to end?” The book of Daniel itself was only “unsealed” [sic, “came to be know, read and widely circulated”] during the Greek occupation of Jerusalem. After the Greeks had been defeated, and the Romans moved in, the book of Daniel and apocalyptic became prominent once again.
Leaving the Dead Sea Scroll evidence aside, here is more about the book of Maccabees and the Maccabean rebellion against the Greeks who ruled Jerusalem. The pre-Christian “ransom” motif is very interesting as employed in these intertestamental works.
In the Books of the Maccabees [intertestamental works found in Catholic Bibles], we learn that the reason given for the success of the Hasmoneans in restoring Israelʼs borders and obtaining her freedom from the Greeks/Gentiles was the martyrdom under Antiochus IV Epiphanes of certain righteous individuals, a priest called Eleazar, as well as his wife and their seven sons, who refused to save their lives by violating the Torah. God is portrayed as rescuing the nation, and accepting these righteous mensʼ prayers that their lives be acceptable in atoning for the national sins:
“I, Like My Brothers, Give Up Body And Life For The Laws Of Our Fathers, Appealing To God To Show Mercy Soon To Our Nation… Through Me And My Brothers To Bring To An End The Wrath Of The Almighty Which Has Justly Fallen On Our Whole Nation.” (2 Macc 7:37-38 RSV)
“Therefore the creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.” (2 Macc 7:23)
“…the king of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” (2 Macc 7:9)
“Indeed it would be proper to inscribe upon their tomb these words as a reminder to the people of our nation: ‘Here lie buried an aged priest and an aged woman and seven sons, because of the violence of the tyrant who wished to destroy the way of life of the Hebrews. They vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death. Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine, for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The Prize Was Immortality in endless life. Eleazar was the first contestant…The tyrant was the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators. Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes. Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation ? Who were not amazed ? The tyrant himself…marveled at their endurance, because of which They Now Stand Before The Divine Throne and live though blessed eternity.’” (4 Macc 17:8-18)
“…because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified- They Having Become, As It Were, A Ransom For The Sin Of Our Nation. And Through The Blood Of Those Devout Ones And Their Death As An Expiation, Divine Providence Preserved Israel That Previously Had Been Afflicted.” (4 Macc 17:20-22)
This idea appears to lie behind the early Christianʼs interpretations of Jesusʼs death [over a century later], i.e., atoning for sin, and obtaining Godʼs grace.
Just as the priest Eleazar refused to violate Torah, so Jesus was portrayed as never violating Torah. Jesusʼs ability to fulfill Torah, along with his death, frees man of the curse of the Law according to Paulʼs interpretation. To a degree, both Paul and the writers of Maccabees are using similar motifs, Torah fulfillment and observance, and atoning deaths of righteous men.
Paul however turns the Maccabean moral or lesson upside down and on its ear. Whereas the Maccabean writers stress continued observance of the Torah for their people, Paul stresses that Christʼs death has fulfilled Torah, Christians are not to attempt to establish their own righteousness by obeying Torah, faith in Christ via works of love, is enough for Paul.
Hence, the New Testament is reinterpreting certain motifs found in Hellenistic Judaism of the 2nd century BCE -1st century CE in regards to a righteous individualʼs death being an atonement and expiation for a peopleʼs sins. Whereas the writers of Maccabees stress atonement for only their nation, Christianity stresses atonement for the world.
Another point to remember is that no one who is devoutly religious wants to believe a good young person following Godʼs will for their life can simply be executed both unjustly and painfully for no good reason, or that such a person has simply died in vain. People didnʼt even want to believe Elvis, who died young and loved Gospel music, was taken by drugs. They kept seeing him everywhere. How much more so Jesus living in his apocalyptic-minded day and age and dying as he did? Jesus himself may have been predicting the final apocalyptic judgment soon, which people tied together with the idea of a general resurrection.
The writers of Maccabees and Paul also shared the notion of a heavenly reward for those who endured lifeʼs trials. Eleazar and his sons were regarded as athletes who won a crown for their loyalty to God (4 Macc 17:8-18 RSV). The enemy, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was to be punished after death in eternal fire with eternal tortures (4 Macc. 12:11-12 RSV), similar notions appear in the Book of Revelation (Rev 20:10). But the notions of eternal torture, like resurrection and eternal life, only spread greatly and in any well defined fashion during the Intertestamental period.
“You profane tyrant…justice has laid up for you intense and Eternal Fires And Tortures And These Throughout All Time Will Never Let You Go.” (4 Macc 12:11-12 RSV)
“…the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, And They Will Be Tormented Day And Night For Ever And Ever.” (Rev 20:10 RSV)
“…I call upon the God of our fathers to be merciful to our nation; but on you he will take vengeance both in this present life and when you are dead.” (4 Macc 12:17-18 RSV)
Further Food For Thought From The Web
An article that includes numerous poll results of what Christians believe concerning the resurrection.
From what I have read, a lot of moderate Christian historians accept a spiritual form of resurrection and have abandoned trying to harmonize all the discrepancies between the Gospels or between Paul and the Gospels. The earlier Gospels, Mark and Matthew, contain very few words and actions of the resurrected Jesus, though even in the story in Matthew plenty of features not found in Markʼs simple tale of the empty tomb have been added. While Luke and John have Jesus speak even more words, appear more times, and they also introduce stories about “touching” the risen Lord, and his “body” ascending into the clouds. Historically speaking, scholars point out that the story of Jesusʼs resurrection appears to have grown more elaborate over time as each Gospel was produced. The Gospel of John, the last written, features the most elaborate and numerous resurrection appearance tales and the most post-resurrection words of the risen Jesus. It even ends by hinting that plenty more stories were being circulated about further sayings and doings of Jesus, thus setting the stage for yet more Jesus stories collected in additional Gospels like the Gospels of Peter and Nicodemus. For further discussion of such points.
The Secular Web also has numerous articles on the topic of the resurrection.
See Dr. Robert M. Priceʼs central chapters of his online work, Beyond Born Again:
Section II— The Evangelical Apologists: Are They Reliable?
Chapter 5: Evidence That Demands a Mistrial
Chapter 6: Guarding an Empty Tomb
Chapter 7: A False Trilemma
Print them out, itʼs well worth it:
Price also reviewed Habermasʼs and N.T. Wrightʼs Christian apologetics works on the resurrection.
But you should read Priceʼs three chapters from Beyond Born Again, first, since they provide a broader understanding of the issues involved, both theologically and historically.
Also of note, a recent debate on DVD: Licona vs. Carrier: On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ— Recorded at UCLA before a crowd of half a thousand. Historian and skeptic, Richard Carrier, defends his latest hypotheses about how Christianity began, with slide shows and new evidence from the Bible.