How the first century Jews understood the Messiah and resurrection
When we consider the resurrection of Jesus, usually two competing viewpoints come immediately to mind: either Jesus rose from the dead, or he did not. That makes sense. But there’s another option sometimes proposed that isn’t as familiar. This is the idea that Jesus was spiritually resurrected. These people accept that Jesus’ spirit didn’t die but returned to God, and that it was Jesus’ spirit that appeared to his disciples.
At first, this seems like an appealing theory. It doesn’t present the same challenge that a physical resurrection does, it accepts God as a real part of the story, and it still seems to respect the earliest accounts of Jesus . . . or does it? Does a spiritual resurrection do justice to what we know historically about Jesus and his earliest disciples? To properly weigh this proposal, we need to have a clear picture of how the first century Jews understood “the Messiah” and “resurrection.” What did they mean when they used these words?
The old Hebrew prophecies speak of a Messiah, a promised Deliverer from God who would rescue the people of Israel and lead them into a new golden age. The first century Jews were people in need of such a Deliverer. They had been conquered by Rome, their land was occupied by Rome, they were heavily taxed by Rome. They couldn’t escape the signs of the Roman occupation; Roman soldiers were everywhere, as were the political leaders from Rome. Rome even interfered with their priestly system, manipulating who would serve as the Jewish High Priest.
Because of the oppression they suffered, the Jewish people of Jesus’ time were keenly interested in anything having to do with the Messiah. They expected the Messiah to be another Moses or David, someone who would bring about spiritual and national renewal, leading them to drive out their Roman oppressors and re-establish their nation under the leadership of God and his Messiah. The Messiah was understood to be a spiritual, political and military leader.
We have many references to the speculation surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. Was he the One? Could he be the Messiah who would lead them to victory over the Romans? Was he just waiting for the right moment to unite his followers and take action against their enemies? Jesus attracted a large number of disciples, people who were convinced he was the Messiah, their long-awaited Deliverer.
But then something unexpected happened. Something unthinkable. Jesus was arrested, he was handed over to the Romans, he was tried, and he was executed. Their supposed Deliverer was publicly, shamefully crucified in the sight of everyone. And—at that point—there could be only one conclusion: . . . he wasn’t the Messiah after all. They had thought he was, but they were wrong. He hadn’t delivered them from their oppressors; their oppressors had defeated and killed him. To continue to believe that Jesus was the Messiah would be as nonsensical as continuing to believe after June of 1968 that Robert Kennedy would be the next president. He was dead. It was over. Jesus was not who they thought he was.
It surprises people to learn there were other men during this period of history who were thought to be the Messiah. They all met the same fate: They were defeated and killed, proving to everyone they were not, in fact, the Messiah. But the case of Jesus took a different turn. Something changed. Shortly after his death a movement exploded that hailed him as the Messiah, and more. How could they claim that a dead man—executed by the Romans like a common criminal—was the promised Messiah? What good was a dead Messiah?
The answer of course is the claim of resurrection, that Jesus had risen from the dead. But we need to understand what these Jews meant by resurrection. When the Jews of this time spoke of resurrection, they all understood exactly what they were talking about. They were referring to the end of time when God would bring his people back to life. This wasn’t the idea of someone dead being healed—who would then die again some day (as in the story of Lazarus). This was the receiving of unending life. And it wasn’t merely some spiritual presence with God. This was a new physical, bodily life.
Now, it’s true that not all first century Jews believed in a resurrection. The Sadducees famously did not, which caused frequent debate between them and the Pharisees. But it was this understanding of resurrection they didn’t believe in. They didn’t try to redefine resurrection to something they could accept. They just said they didn’t believe in it! But whether one believed in resurrection or they didn’t, when they spoke of resurrection they were all speaking of the same phenomenon. There was no confusion as to what they meant by this concept.
If the followers of Jesus began to claim they had seen visions of Jesus’ spirit talking with them and that he was now with God, this might have sparked some mild interest but the conclusion would be unchanged: So what? He’s still dead. That doesn’t change a thing. He’s still not the Messiah. The claim that his spirit remained alive and that he was somehow with God would not have been remarkable. It couldn’t have “resurrected” his reputation as the Messiah.
But his earliest followers—all first century Jews—claimed to their fellow Jews that Jesus had been resurrected. And they all knew exactly what was meant by this claim. They were saying he had somehow experienced resurrection life before the end of time. He wasn’t just alive in spirit; he was no longer dead! He had physically risen again, and would never again die. Their enemies had done their worst to Jesus, but he had defeated them by coming back to life. God had validated him as his Messiah by resurrecting him from death. Not all their contemporaries believed this testimony. But, again, there was no confusion as to what the claim was. It was the same claimed phenomenon of physical, bodily, unending resurrection life, whether they believed it or rejected it.
So why did Jesus’ followers suddenly begin announcing he had risen from the dead? Where did they get this idea that he had been uniquely resurrected before the end of time? What caused them to go from despair to this hope? Was it just wishful thinking? Self-delusion? We’ll next consider the question: Did Jesus rise from the dead?
The historical Jesus series:
What good is a dead Messiah? [see above]