In the previous post in this series, I described the earliest witnesses’ testimony about the resurrection of Jesus. I argued from this testimony to two conclusions: belief in the resurrection of Jesus stands at the very origin of Christianity. Belief that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead is the lens through which the original disciples interpreted all their previous experience with Jesus. Apart from this faith, Christianity would not exist. Additionally, we can conclude that Paul, Jesus’ closest associates, and many others really experienced appearances they believed to be the resurrected Jesus.
I want to delay addressing the question about the truth of the resurrection faith, that is, the question did Jesus really rise from the dead. We need to deal with another issue first: what did it mean to the first witnesses that shortly after his death and burial Jesus’ tomb was found empty and he appeared to them alive? Christianity is not built on the brute fact of the resurrection miracle. The resurrection faith is a belief about an event within the flow of history, and historical events manifest their meaning in relation to their immediate and remote historical contexts. And as we read Paul, Acts, and other New Testament writings, we see the far-reaching significance the first Christians perceived in the event of the resurrection of Jesus.
What is the historical context that gives the resurrection its significance? I have to oversimplify matters a bit, but I think the most important aspects of that context are: (1) the life of Jesus as experienced and remembered by his disciples; (2) contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people; and (3) the impact of the resurrection appearances themselves.
Clearly, it matters who died, whose tomb was found empty, and who appeared alive and to whom. Apart from a few references in the New Testament letters, Acts, Revelation, and Hebrews, we know the disciples’ experiences and remembrances of Jesus from the Four Gospels. Without going into great detail, let’s consider how they remembered Jesus, limiting ourselves to the Gospel of Mark. Jesus enter the public eye when he began preaching “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1:15). He calls disciples to become “fishers of men” (Mk. 1:17). He exorcises demons from the possessed, and the demons recognize him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24). Jesus heals a leper (1:40-45). When he healed a paralytic man, Jesus accompanies his healing command with “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5). He declared himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (2:28). Jesus calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee with the words “Quiet, be still (4:39). A woman received healing at the touch of his robe (5:29), and a little girl was raised back to life from death when Jesus said, “Little girl, I say to you, get up” (5:41). He healed the deaf and the blind and fed 5,000 and 4,000 in the desert. He takes Peter, James, and John up to a secluded place on a mountain and is transfigured before them (9:2-13).
Jesus spoke with authority unlike any rabbi or prophet ever spoke. As we saw above, in dealing with the demons and with death and disease, he spoke in his own name. We can see this also in the Gospel of Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says that you have heard it said but “I say to you” (Mt 5:39, 44). And at the end of that sermon, the crowds were amazed because “he taught as one who had authority, and not as the teachers of the law” (Mt 7:28-29). Jesus performed symbolic actions that pronounced judgment on the ruling powers. He rode into Jerusalem on donkey in triumphal procession. He cursed the fig tree for bearing no fruit, and entered the Temple and drove out the money changers. In Mark 13, Jesus speaks of the coming Judgment on the City of Jerusalem and identifies himself (“the Son of Man”) as the judge who will bring this judgment (13:26-27). And on the night Jesus was betrayed, he celebrated the Passover with his disciples. During this memorial of God’s great act of salvation from Egypt, Jesus did something amazing. He took it upon himself to change the meaning of Passover ceremony. As he shared the bread and wine of the Passover, he said, “This is my body” and “This is the blood of the New Covenant which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:22-25). In this act, Jesus claimed that his impending death would bring about a new deliverance and a new covenant.
That night Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied him twice. And at his trial before the Sanhedrin, the High Priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One” (Mk 14:61). Jesus answered unambiguously, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (14:62). The next morning Jesus was executed by the Romans on a cross as a blasphemer and a rebel. Joseph of Arimathea, a “prominent member of the Council” asked Pilate to release the body of Jesus. Joseph placed Jesus’ body in a tomb cut out of rock. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses “saw where he was laid” (15:47).
Now we have the first aspect of the historical context that determines the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. It was Jesus who was resurrected, the person the disciples knew intimately. We will say more later, but even now we can see that the resurrection of Jesus would have validated and made clear the significance of his amazing teaching, claims, and deeds.
Next time: We will continue to examine the meaning of the resurrection by looking at two other aspects of the event’s historical context. And eventually we will have to ask, “Did it really happen?”