Within the 1st Century, Jewish belief in what happened after death was varied and there does not seem to be a common and clear understanding. 1st Century Judaism offered a wide range of beliefs about life after death, with some believing in ‘resurrection’. Those that believed in resurrection however, saw this not as an immediate state after death, as if the moment you die you find yourself resurrected and alive in heaven, but a final work of God, when death would be reversed. Furthermore, this final resurrection would not be a disembodied sate whereby your ‘soul’ would be in eternal bliss, finally free from the constraints of the body, as in Platonic thought, but a resurrection of your body. The Maccabean martyrs, for instance, while being tortured and mutilated, declare a hope that God will raise them up ‘to an everlasting renewal of life’ and that those who are inflicting the torture can be sure that they will not experience ‘resurrection to life’. It seems that they were sure of God restoring to them a body, although what this body looked like and how this would take place was open to various interpretations within Jewish thought. It is into this context of Jewish thinking on resurrection that the Christian church emerged, yet it’s views and teaching on resurrection are much more defined and clear than anything found within Jewish thought.
Although early Christian consideration on resurrection has links within Jewish reflection, its clarity and focus goes way beyond that which had been taught within the Jewish school of thought. Early Christians believed in a bodily resurrection, yet not to the body that had been left behind, but to a new body, a glorified body. Within early Christian thought there was not a spectrum of ideas about the resurrection as in Jewish thought, but a common held belief in the bodily resurrection. Paul, who refuted any who claimed that the resurrection had already happened and any who thought the resurrection would not happen at all , taught a bodily resurrection. Yet where does such a clear and focussed view on the resurrection spring? Why did the early Christians believe in a bodily resurrection?
The answer lies the in early Christian belief that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, and because he was bodily raised form the dead, we will also, one day, bear his image. Great debate has arisen over whether the resurrection accounts of Jesus should be viewed as bodily and literal or if they should be seen in a more ‘spiritual’ sense. Sallie McFague argues that the resurrection accounts should not be seen as literal, with Jesus actually being delivered from death, but more in terms of understanding that the divine presence in Jesus is ‘a permanent presence in our midst’. Gerd Ludemann argues that a vision of the risen Christ, rather than an encounter with a bodily raised Christ, is the origins of the belief in the resurrection. His argument is that at the heart of Christian religion lies a vision, as described by Paul as seeing the Lord, and thus argues that a vision, rather than a bodily encounter, is the origin of belief in the resurrection. He goes on to say that many have seen visions of the Virgin Mary, although her body has decayed, and that these visions are the same as dreams, dreams we have every night to enable our subconscious to deal with reality. These visions are the same as what the early followers of Christ had, ‘reinforced by enthusiasm’ which then became contagious, ‘until we have an “appearance” to more than five hundred people.’ The arguments given here by McFague and Ludemann are typical of those given to denounce a bodily resurrection of Jesus. McFague argues that the disciples were simply saying, by using the word ‘resurrection’, that Jesus was now in heaven and that we can know a ‘sense’ of his presence with us, not that he had been bodily raised from the dead. However, Jewish thoughts on ‘resurrection’ as stated earlier, were not along this line of thinking. Jewish belief was that one day there would be a bodily resurrection that would happen for all the righteous at the same time, not at the moment when you died. Resurrection, in 1st Century Jewish thought, did not mean going to heaven when you die, so if the early followers of Christ wanted to speak of Jesus somehow being exalted in his death to a place of honour with God, then they would not have used resurrection as a way of describing this. Again, when accounting for Ludemann’s arguments that the disciples had visions of the risen Christ, rather than bodily encounters with him, does not fit with the Jewish school of thought. If the disciples had had visions of Jesus, again they would not have used the language of resurrection to describe their experience. Certainly followers of Jewish martyrs believed that one day their hero’s would be raised from the dead at the final resurrection, yet not that they actually had been raised. Therefore visions of Christ would have seen him in ‘paradise’ with God, in a place of honour, a martyrs place, not eating and drinking here on earth. Moreover, a vision of Christ would not stop those who were mourning from continuing to mourn, for a vision did not constitute being raised from the dead. Furthermore, all of the above has not even taken into account the gospel writers accounts of the resurrection. Luke’s description of the resurrection speaks of Jesus breaking bread , John’s gospel of the disciples placing their hands in the wounds inflicted upon Jesus at his crucifixion, and Matthew’s gospel speaks of the women who went to the tomb meeting Jesus and clasping his feet. All these point to a bodily encounter with the risen Christ, not merely a spiritual experience. However, some have argued that the evangelists invented the ‘flesh and bone’ accounts of the Jesus’ resurrection for apologetic purposes and indeed ‘contradict the understanding of resurrection proposed by Jesus and Paul.’ The focus has been on Paul’s use of the term ‘spiritual body’ in 1 Corinthians 15 to argue and affirm that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection rather than a physical one. However, we must not be misled, when Paul uses ‘spiritual body’, into thinking that Paul believes in a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection. When accounting for the whole argument in 1 Corinthians 15 it seems that Paul uses the term spiritual body to describe a body that has been transformed by the Holy Spirit, a ‘body adapted to the eschatological existence that is under the ultimate domination of the Spirit.’ It appears to this writer that Mc Fague, Ludemann and others who oppose a bodily resurrection of Jesus do not handle succinctly the context and language of 1st Century thinking on resurrection, take seriously the gospel story of the resurrection or approach Pauline theology suitably when forwarding their arguments on a purely spiritual resurrection of Jesus. If then, Jesus was seen by his early disciples, not just in a vision, but physically seen, could it be that he was merely resuscitated rather than resurrected?
Stephen Davis writes in ‘The Resurrection’ that ‘those scholars who set out to argue that the resurrection of Jesus did not genuinely occur…begin with a robust attack on resuscitation.’ One such attack comes from Gerd Ludemann when he writes,
‘Anybody who says that he rose from the dead is faced with another problem…namely, if you say that Jesus rose from the dead biologically, you would have to presuppose that a decaying corpse…could be made alive again. I think that is nonsense.’
Clearly there seems to be a belief from those who oppose a bodily resurrection of Jesus that its supporters believe that resuscitation and resurrection to be one and the same thing. If we define resuscitation as someone who either was clinically dead or nearly dead, to be restored to their previous existence, then resuscitation is not what the early followers of Christ understood the resurrection to mean, and is not what the early church understood the resurrection to mean. Nevertheless, some suggest that Jesus was drugged on the cross, causing him to merely appear to have died, and, when his body had been taken down from the cross, he was revived and cared for by his disciples. Such theories go to great lengths to ‘trap’ the disciples and incriminate them in this chain of events, seeing them as masters of a great plot to free Jesus and continue following him and his teachings. Certainly, if this were what the disciples understood as ‘resurrection’ then Gerd Lundemann’s assertion that this is ‘nonsense’ would not be ill founded. However, without a doubt the Roman soldiers knew how to crucify and kill people, with crucifixion being widely used within the Roman Empire up until the mid 4th Century. The methods of flagellation and the subsequent crucifixion would have caused considerable blood loss and mutilation, such that would deem survival slim if not implausible. Furthermore, the disciples would have recognised a difference to survival and resurrection. The disciples had seen for themselves resuscitations during Jesus’ earthly ministry with people such as Lazarus and Jarius’ daughter, yet presumably these people would die again. As argued above, resurrection brought with it many images and thoughts within the Jewish 1st Century context, one of which was a transformed body. If Jesus had merely survived the crucifixion, the term resurrection would have never been used; therefore they would not have used it to describe resuscitation. When the early church used the term resurrection to describe what happened to Jesus on that first Easter morning, they did not mean survival or resuscitation, but a transformation of his previous body. It had characteristics of his previous body, able to touch, eat and walk. It was recognizable to his previous body, bearing the marks of the crucifixion and certainly seen as human by those whom he encountered. Yet it had been transformed so that at times Jesus was not recognised, and at other times he was able to appear and materialize within a room when the doors were locked. Indeed, the Gospel writers are in no doubt that Jesus has not been resuscitated but resurrected from death to life. This certainty of the resurrection of Jesus leads us to then consider the fearlessness of the early church in proclaiming the gospel.
At the arrest and death of Jesus the gospel writers lead us to believe that the disciples were not filled with fearlessness and boldness, but quite the opposite, with Peter denying that he even knew Jesus and John’s gospel recording that ‘the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews’ Yet these same disciples, just 40 days later, boldly stand on the streets of Jerusalem preaching that ‘God has raised this Jesus to life’ . Furthermore they go on to say that they ‘are all witnesses of the fact’ . The subsequent boldness that they have means that they no longer fear the Jews but now openly preach to the Jews about Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Their boldness and courage hold even when faced with death, so much so that Peter, who denied even knowing Jesus, as legend has it, demanded to be crucified upside down for he did not feel worthy enough to die in the same way Jesus had. Indeed Stephen, the first Christian martyr, faced death with a fearlessness and courage that seemed to be common among Christians in the early church. Furthermore, despite the persecutions and hatred faced, the early church continued to grow and strengthen, indeed, as Tertullian puts it, ‘The oftener we are mown down by you, the more we increase.’ The question has to be asked; where did such courage and boldness come from if these disciples did not believe without any doubt that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead, and not only that, but that he was the Messiah Israel had been waiting for? NT Wright, when speaking on the disciples unshakeable faith that Jesus, the crucified one, was indeed the Messiah that Israel had been waiting for, puts it like this,
‘Nobody said that about Judas the Galilean after his revolt ended in failure in AD 6. Nobody said it of Simon bar-Giora after his death at the end of Titus’s triumph in AD 70. Nobody said it about bar-Kochbar after his defeat and death in 135…the fact that the early Christians did not do that, but continued, against all precedent, to regard Jesus himself as Messiah…is evidence that demands an explanation.
What can the explanation be? Having looked at the evidence and examined the objections, the only conclusion that we are left with is that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead resulting in the phenomenal growth of the Christian Church. The certainty of Jesus’ death by those first followers of Christ, their understanding of resurrection and all that it meant, and then their subsequent fearlessness of preaching the gospel, even when faced with death themselves, lead us to only one conclusion, that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and was subsequently seen by his disciples.