What good is a dead Messiah?

How the first century Jews understood the Messiah and resurrection

Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)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 Messiah
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.

5634185825_612998e5f6But 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.

Empty TombBut 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:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah? [see above]

The search for Jesus

[I originally posted this on July 28 of last year, but I wasn’t able to finish the series at that time. Because this is a vital topic, I’m “rebooting” this series to give it the attention it deserves.]

For quite some time, I’ve wanted to lead a discussion group on the search for the historical Jesus. Who was Jesus? What can we truly know about him? How can we sort through all the different claims and controversies that seem to be popping up everywhere? I originally planned to invite everyone in our community to this study, to encourage the active involvement of not only Christian believers but also seekers and skeptics as well. The timing and logistics for such a group haven’t fallen into place, so I’ve decided—for now—to write a series of blog posts on this topic.

Why is this important?
Beyond merely responding to the amazing amount of books and articles that have been produced in the last few years on the quest for the historical Jesus, these questions have profound significance for anyone interested in discovering what is really true. Christianity has always been an historical faith. By that I don’t mean it’s recorded in history, but that it claims as the basis for its existence an historical event. Christians who subscribe to the historic, orthodox Christian faith claim that Jesus lived, taught specific things (including dramatic claims regarding himself), was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. We believe many other things as well, but the basis for everything we believe comes back to an historical Jesus: his life, teachings, death and—most crucially—his resurrection. Christians believe in this resurrection of Jesus as a literal, space/time event. The Christian apostle Paul, writing to other Christian believers, declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God [1 Corinthians 15:14-15].”

Most Christians today would still echo this sentiment. If the claims in the New Testament are true, they change literally everything and have huge implications for the lives of every single person. If the New Testament accounts are not true, then this calls the entire Christian faith into question, at least in its historic, orthodox form. The stakes in resolving these questions are enormous, and this is why the academic study of these issues has garnered so much attention.

So how do we even approach this kind of subject? Can we know anything at all about the historical Jesus? That’s what we’re going to be exploring in the next few posts. But first, a few ground-rules.

Common courtesy
Unfortunately, courtesy isn’t always that common anymore.  I understand this topic may be very emotional for some people, but be warned now: hostile, insulting or vulgar comments will be deleted. I won’t censor the comments as far as real content—you can make any sincere assertions or challenges you like—but do so with respect and grace. Remember, this isn’t a debate, it’s a discussion. The idea isn’t to win an argument, it’s to seek truth, whatever the truth is and wherever the search may take us.

Stay on topic
This is a very broad-ranging area for discussion, and it will be really easy for the comments to begin losing focus. I’m going to try to cover all of the relevant issues (let me know if you think I’m missing something), but I’m going to post on only a single, specific aspect of this study at a time. So I’m asking you guys to keep your comments focused on the specific, limited issue we’re discussing at that time. For example, one of the questions we’ll examine early on is whether we can know that Jesus even existed. This is an important question we need to explore. When I do post on this issue, feel free to fire away with questions and challenges regarding the existence of Jesus. But don’t respond now to this current post with a diatribe on why Jesus couldn’t have existed (or, conversely, why no one should doubt his existence). We haven’t got there yet! I’m going to be extra vigilant at policing the comments because I don’t want our discussions to become derailed by trying to discuss too much at one time. I appreciate your help in this.

Absolute proof?
One misperception we should dispel right way is the idea that I’m trying to prove the Christian claims regarding Jesus are true. Some people demand proof beyond a shadow of a doubt before they’ll believe. Of course, we can’t absolutely prove anything, and this is especially true when we’re dealing with historical claims and evidence. When we’re examining history, what we’re looking for is more of a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ to borrow a legal term. I can’t absolutely prove when and where I was born. But I can present a fairly compelling case that would likely convince anyone willing to believe. We don’t know absolutely that George Washington was the first U.S. president, that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, or that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. But we’re relatively certain these things occurred. In this discussion, we’re not expecting absolute proof (or at least we shouldn’t be); but we are looking to see if the evidence exists, and whether it’s compelling enough to reach a certain conclusion.

Perfect objectivity?
The philosophical term is ‘presuppositions,’ and we all have them. The idea that we can examine a subject and be completely impartial and objective is simply naive.  Each of us has been raised with, or has accumulated, various perceptions and viewpoints, and these presuppositions (what we naturally assume to be true) color how we think about any subject. We need to just be honest about that. But this doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of our presuppositions, that we can’t temporarily set them aside, and even consider the possibility we’re wrong. If we couldn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to change our minds about anything! As one of my favorite sayings puts it: If you never have to change your mind, you’re probably not using it. We have the capability to see past our own viewpoints and fairly consider the claims of others. This is what I’m asking all of us to do in this discussion.

Specifically, for you evangelical believers, I’m asking you to reexamine why you believe what you believe. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined faith is not worth holding. Don’t merely refer back to what the Bible says. We need to be willing to explain why we believe the biblical account. It’s healthy for us to sincerely wrestle with these questions.

For you skeptics, I ask you to consider the possibility the New Testament accounts may be true. You don’t have to be convinced—but are you open to the possibility? Many have professed they were examining the claims regarding Christ in a fair, scholarly manner—but ruled out ahead of time any possibility of the supernatural. This isn’t intellectually honest. The conversation below is just an illustration, but these kinds of exchanges are actually not that uncommon:

skeptic: The miracles in the Bible never happened.

believer: How can you be sure?

skeptic: Because we don’t see miracles happening today.

believer: But what about all the reports of miracles happening today in people’s lives?

skeptic: Those reports aren’t valid.

believer: Why not?

skeptic: Because miracles don’t happen!

The unbelieving person can rely on logic that is just as unsound and reasoning that is just as circular as the person who believes the Bible just because the Bible tells them to believe the Bible. Let’s all of us set aside our presumed conclusions, consider the possibility we may be wrong, and see where the evidence leads us.

Accessible, non-technical language
I confess that I enjoy reading dusty tomes on theology and philosophy. But if we were to carry on this discussion using technical philosophical terminology, a lot of people would get headaches trying to follow us and eventually drop out of the discussion. It’s important and right to challenge each other to think more deeply, but that doesn’t mean we have to use twenty-dollar words to do it. C.S. Lewis once said that if we can’t present our viewpoints in a simple, understandable manner, then we probably don’t really understand them ourselves! If you lapse into technical, philosospeak in the comments section, I may respond in kind for clarity. But let’s try to communicate as simply and clearly as we can so everyone can follow the conversation. We’re not here to impress each other, but to dig deeper for the truth.

In accounts recorded in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus is reported to have asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the question we’re seeking to answer. So hang on, ’cause here we go.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus [see above]

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?