No matter how Jesus lived, no matter what he said or did, if he had simply died on a Roman cross like so many other Jews in the first century A.D., then that would have been the sad ending to his story. We would never have heard of Jesus. He wouldn’t even have been a blip on the radar screen of ancient history.
But Jesus’ story didn’t end with his crucifixion. No matter how you explain the rise of early Christianity, something extraordinary motivated the followers of Jesus not only to remember him, but also to proclaim him as the Jewish Messiah, the Savior of the World, and, yes, as God in the flesh. Even if you deny the historicity of the resurrection – and there are plenty of historians who do, mostly on the assumption that dead people just don’t come back from the grave – you’ve got to posit some fantastic experience that turned the followers of Jesus from a dejected and defeated bunch of cowards into one of the most effective propaganda machines in all of human history.
Yet the simplest explanation for the incredible rise of early Christianity is the traditional one, though it involves what we call a miracle. Jesus, having been crucified on Friday, was raised from the dead on Sunday. One of the very oldest pieces of Christian tradition we have affirms this fundamental story. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, the Apostle Paul passed on the basic outline of the Christian gospel in the same terms as he had received it. Here it is, in a nutshell:
For 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 (vv. 3-5).
To this Paul added a curious nugget: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died” (v. 6). We don’t know of this appearance from any other ancient source. Paul’s point seems to be: “Look, lots of people saw Jesus alive after his death. And, as you know, most of them are still alive. You can ask them yourselves about the resurrection of Jesus.” (Photo: The resurrection scene from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, 1505-1515).
Christians of a more progressive stripe, supported by the efforts of some New Testament scholars, have tried to explain the rise of early Christianity without appeal to an actual resurrection. They’ve claimed that the language of resurrection was simply a mythological or poetic way to talk about the rising of the spirit of Jesus among his early followers. But such fly in the face of the obvious meaning of the New Testament texts. Moreover, they make no sense in the context of first-century Judaism, as N.T. Wright has conclusively shown in his epic treatment of this subject, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Though the earliest Christians might have been mistaken, of course, they surely believed that Jesus had really been raised from having been really dead. (He was not raised like Lazarus, however, to the same sort of existence as before. Rather, Jesus had entered what we might call some new reality. Paul uses the language of “spiritual body” rather than “new reality” in 1 Corinthians 15.)
Later in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul deals with the problem of people denying the resurrection from the dead, including the resurrection of Jesus. “If there is no resurrection of the dead,” he explains, “then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (vv. 13-14). Take the resurrection away from early Christianity and all you’ve got left is vanity.
Now if you’ve been reading this series from the beginning, you may wonder why I’m making such a big deal of the resurrection. After all, in an earlier post I rejected the argument that moved from the resurrection of Jesus to his deity. Now I seem to be resurrecting that argument (sorry!). What’s going on?
I am not claiming that the resurrection of Jesus immediately proved that he was God. The early Christians didn’t make this argument, nor did they believe this way (except, perhaps, for “Doubting” Thomas). What the resurrection proved was that God had vindicated Jesus. It proved that the message and ministry of Jesus weren’t for naught, but were in fact the means by which God was bringing his kingdom to earth. The resurrection showed that Jesus wasn’t just full of hot air – or full of himself – when he forgave sins, or when he spoke of his death as a new exodus. For early Christians, the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Jesus.
But if, therefore, God validated the ministry of Jesus, then it was right for Jesus to have spoken with God’s own authority, and to have forgiven sins without recourse to the temple, and to have beckoned people to come to him as if he were the embodiment of divine Wisdom, and so forth. So, though one mustn’t jump immediately from resurrection to deity, the path from one to the other was clear enough for many of the earliest Christians to believe that he was divine, even though they were fervent monotheists.
In my next post, I’ll offer a few more interim conclusions about the divinity of Jesus in early Christianity.