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Resurrection-Faith and the “Historical Jesus”

June 7, 2013

I’ve just received notice that my article, “Resurrection-Faith and the Historical Jesus,” has now appeared in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.   The publisher (E.J. Brill) permit authors to post the print version on their personal web sites.  So, I’ve put the PDF on this site, under the tab marked “Selected published essays, etc”.   It’s marked “JSHJ”.

Essentially, my thesis is that the conviction in early Christian circles that Jesus had been resurrected by God and exalted to heavenly glory meant that the historical figure had been divinely vindicated against the charge(s) under which he had been executed.  This in turn meant that this historical figure, his teaching, actions, etc., were validated powerfully.  And this is why early believers cared about these things.  The Gospels, our earliest extant narratives about Jesus, reflect a firm desire to anchor the spreading early Christian movement to the historical figure of Jesus.  In that sense, the resurrection-faith prompted the earliest “historical Jesus” interest.

By common scholarly judgement, although the Gospels are the earliest extant narratives, they are likely not the earliest narratives.  Both orally and in writing, there are good reasons to think that early believers were transmitting sayings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth from the beginning.  But by sometime in the late 60s or thereafter, various historical factors made several early believers (the four “Evangelists” who wrote our Gospels) feel the need to write more “joined-up” narratives with a certain “biographical” shape.

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21 Comments
  1. Ali Hussain permalink

    ” the historical figure had been divinely vindicated against the charge(s) under which he had been executed. ”

    Sir, the Quran too echoes the same …. Chapter 3:55

    “Behold! God said: O Jesus! I will take thee And raise thee to Myself And clear thee of the falsehoods Of those who blaspheme; I will make those Who follow thee superior To those who reject faith, To the Day of Resurrection: Then shall ye all return unto me, And I will judge Between you of the matters wherein ye dispute.”

  2. Jim Deardorff permalink

    Larry, may we continue this discussion one more round? I agree that there are no explicit statements in the Christian literature that Jesus didn’t die—dead—at the crucifixion (thought see Acts 25:25). How could any such statement have been allowed to survive? But there are indications or clues in Matthew. Consider Mt 28:6, “He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” If he had actually died, “he” would have been replaced by “his corpse,” especially in “see the place where he [his corpse] lay.” This can be seen as careless editing of a true source (written in the first few decades after the crucifixion) acquired by the writer of Matthew. The corpse supposedly wasn’t resurrected until the third day.

    And we shouldn’t forget that the men with Saul on the Road to Damascus also heard the voiced exchange—a voice recognized as that of Jesus (Acts 9). Not omitting that was careless editing by the writer of Luke/Acts, who corrected it in his two later versions in Acts 22 & 26, which made sure the event had occurred in midday.

    However, I was suggesting that you place yourself in the shoes/sandals of one of the disciples or James, whom the risen Jesus had visited. This risen Jesus looked the same as ever, except for crucifixion wounds, he was recognized for who he was, he needed to eat, etc. Wouldn’t you have believed that he was still alive, somehow, and had not died on the cross? You would have had much closer contact than Saul had with the risen Jesus. According to the timeline of Gal 1:16 – 2:1, it wasn’t until some 20 years after the crucifixion that Paul really got going in his evangelizing, taking his gospel to the gentiles and Peter, James & John to the Jews (Gal 2:9). So it is reasonable to assume that a cult which believed the risen Jesus had not died had a decade or two to try to proclaim this belief before Paul and his followers convinced more and more gentiles otherwise.
    I am not suggesting that Paul was promoting a conspiracy in the sense that he knew the gospel he was preaching was not true. He was surely sincere in his Pharisaic belief that the risen Jesus had died and been resurrected.

    • Jim, OK. This ONE more round, out of a concern to engage what I take to be honest misunderstandings on your part. I’ll itemize them.
      –Acts 25:25 has nothing to do with Jsus’ death. It purports to be Festus’ comment about Paul.
      –the point of the Gospels’ references to the empty tomb is precisely the claim that God had raised Jesus from death. The Gospel writers tended to prefer to refer to Jesus’ “body” (soma) rather than his “corpse” (ptoma), likely out of reverence or reluctance to use the harsher word (but note Mark 15:45, where the better reading is “ptoma”).
      –The narratives of Jesus’ resurrection appearances can’t be taken as naively as you do. They’re commonly treated by scholars as reflecting the particular emphases of the respective writers. So, you can’t on the one hand, claim that the later writings (e.g., the Gospels, Acts) reflect some supposed major revision of the message about Jesus’ death/resurrection, and on the other hand use them as naively as you do.
      –Paul’s earliest post-conversion contacts/conferral with Jerusalem Church leaders wasn’t after 20 yrs, but, per Gal 1:18, after 3 yrs, and involved him staying with Cephas for two weeks. Moreover, as I’ve indicated already, Paul the Pharisee had earlier been vigorously involved in attempting to suppress the young Jesus-movement, and so had become acquainted sufficiently with their message about Jesus to deem them a religious danger. In short, there is no such 20 yr gap between Paul and Jerusalem. Paul’s own testimony in 1 Cor 15:1-7 is that the core message of Jesus’ death, burial & resurrection was shared by him and all those Jerusalem church figures he lists there. Finally, in all the indications of controversy between Paul and some in the Jerusalem church (e.g., Gal 2:11-21), there is not the slightest hint that they differed over christology. Instead, the differences seem to have been over the terms on which gentiles could be treated as full co-religionists.
      –In short, there is no basis for your supposition (which is all it is) that the earliest gospel message was that a wounded Jesus hadn’t really died. Surely, Jim, as in the sciences, we have to base ourselves on available evidence, and restrain suppositions accordingly.
      This will do for this particular thread, Jim.

  3. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:8 ‘None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’

    Is Paul right that if the Romans had known that Jesus really was the Jewish Messiah, they would never have crucified him?

    • Steven: The context of the verse you cite is all about Paul’s preaching as comprising “the wisdom of God”, an apocalypptic secret now made known in his preaching, and it’s this that the “rulers of this age” failed to perceive. So, they crucified “the Lord of glory”, failing to perceive that he is this Lord. Messiahship doesn’t feature in the passage, except for reference to “Jesus Christ” in v. 2.

      • So if the Romans had known Jesus was the Lord, rather than Augustus, they would not have crucified him?

        Was this apocalyptic secret also known to Jesus and also made known in his preaching?

      • No. Jesus could not have declared himself to be the exalted “Kyrios/Lord” until God so installed him, as in, e.g., Acts 2:36 and Phiippians 2:9-11.

  4. ‘….meant that the historical figure had been divinely vindicated against the charge(s) under which he had been executed.’

    Which charges were they, under which he had been executed?

    • Steven: The Gospels, and later the Roman references, all indicate that he was crucified (a) by the Roman authority, (b) for the claim of being “Messish/king”. Crucifixion was reserved for those who were guilty of serious crimes against the Roman order (although Roman citizens were supposedly exempt that that particular form of shameful execution). In ancient Jewish tradition, Jesus was a false teacher and sorcerer, and this too seems reflected in the Gospel accounts, where Jewish authorities accuse him of blasphemy. Paul’s reference to Jesus in terms of the OT statement, “he hanged upon a tree/wood is accursed”, is widely taken as reflecting his own “pre-conversion” view of Jesus, as under God’s curse for serious misbehaviour.

      • Why would Jesus think he was the Messiah/king?

        And why would any of his followers have thought of him as a Messiah/king? What sort of Messianic things was he doing?

      • Steven, Among other things, Jesus proclaimed the imminent appearance of the Kingdom of God, and acted as if he was the divinely-authorized vehicle of it, e.g., in welcoming into it those who accepted his message, working “mighty deeds” (dunameis) as signs, etc. In any case, the evidence indicates that at least some of his followers hoped him to be Messiah, and that his opponents (esp. the Roman authority) viewed him as effectively claiming to be such. I can’t look into his mind or those of others to answer what reasoning they followed. We can, however, observe the data.

  5. m. g. zatkalik permalink

    Larry,
    Thanks for making this paper available to the wider audience. Your scholarship and footnotes make it very possible to follow along and dig deeper.

  6. Jim Deardorff permalink

    Larry,
    I especially liked the theme in your paper that the risen Jesus whom his followers “experi-enced as powerfully alive, exalted to heavenly status… was the same figure whom they had followed in Galilee.” From their viewpoint, don’t you think they would have believed that God had somehow raised Jesus from only an apparent death? Seeing his crucifixion wounds, partially healed, would likely have convinced them of that. Even Luke 24:23 speaks of a vision of angels as having seen him as “alive.”
    If such views had been expressed in writing in the first few decades after the crucifixion, I don’t suppose they could possibly have survived after Paul’s influence came to dominate. Could that explain the lack of writings about Jesus in mid- and late-first century other than Paul’s? Paul’s gospel and the emerging Christianity certainly required that Jesus had undergone real death, not just a temporary clinical death (which you of course did not imply).

    • Jim: There is absolutely no hint that anyone in the first few decades at least ever suggested that Jesus didn’t really die, dead. And you can’t ascribe some conspiracy theory to Paul. And you can’t treat Paul as active/influential “after the first few decades”. By common judgement, his “conversion” took place within the first 1-3 yrs after Jesus’ execution, and prior to that he had been vigorously involved in trying to suppress the young “church”, which means that he was alredy sufficiently informed of their beliefs and practices to judge them a danger to the religious integrity of Jewish people. So, Paul’s acquaintance with early Christian beliefs goes right back to the earliest moments, and there is no hint that he departed from prior Christian beliefs, except (importantly) in his conviction that he had been called to a special mission to infranchise Gentiles.

  7. Thanks for this summary. You claim the resurrection is a “radical new act”. “God has acted in a novel way.” You mention the psalms only once. In a footnote, you mention Psalm 16 but Psalm 73 is even more explicit with respect to the eschatological resurrection:

    Even so I myself am continually with you
    You hold fast my right hand
    In your counsel you will guide me
    and after you will take me into glory

    Have you any thoughts on how Jesus might have read the psalms and through them inferred his role as one who would speak and act on behalf of the elect people? Or put another way, is the ‘novelty’ of his role not so new, but implied by the singular voice in the psalms that identifies with the people (e.g. Psalms 42-43 cf 44 plural) and takes on the redemption of the world?

    There are too many examples to list, but Psalm 75 springs to mind – I, even I, balance her pillars. Or the paired acrostics 111-112, one on YHWH and one on the one who fears YHWH, celebrating the victory of the anointed king in 110.

    The trigger for this question is the way in which the Epistle to the Hebrews uses the psalms – 99% of the dialogue between the Father and the Son in Hebrews is taken from the Psalter. Particularly I would note the way the homily applies the end of Psalm 102, that prayer that mirrors Psalm 90 in Book 4 (incidentally supporting the consolation that Moses represents in Book 4 to the failure of the Davidic monarchy in Books 2 and 3).

    I think there is a book to be written here or a question to be discovered. And from what few reports I have read (including your summary), I think the expectations of the inter-testamental period fall short of identifying the clues that Jesus inferred from TNK. The resurrection seems to me to be a continuance of the message of TNK. It is complete (TM) rather than new. The song is new, but it too is anticipated – particularly Psalm 33, the first mention – and this poem celebrated by the acrostic Psalm 34. (The ‘new song’ is a theme in the Psalter.) I have recently concluded that the gospel is fully present in the Psalms in the justice and actions which are portrayed concerning YHWH.

    My first comment went to spam – the usual WordPress error.

    • Bob: Yes, certainly, the Psalms were a major resource for earliest believers in understanding the “Jesus-events”, including especially his death and resurrection. So, one could infer that this might reflect a prior use of the Psalms by Jesus to understand his own mission, although that can (in the nature of the evidence) only be an inference.
      Richard Hays has written an insightful essay noting how early Christians often read the “voice” of the Psalms as that of Jesus, the Psalmist believed by them as inspired to write prophetically: Richard B. Hays, Richard B. “Christ Prays the Psalms: Paul’s Use of an Early Christian Exegetical Convention,” in The Future of Christology: Essays in Honor of Leander E. Keck, edited by A. J. Malherbe and W. A. Meeks, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 122-36.
      There have also been many studies of the use of individual psalms in the NT, and the use of psalms in particular passages, such as Hebrews 1.

  8. Ed Steinmann permalink

    I’d LOVE to read “Resurrection-Faith and the Historical Jesus,”but the PDF file won’t open.😦

    Ed Steinmann
    Saint James, Missouri (USA)

    • Ed: Can’t figure out why. It opens for me. Do you have Adobe on your computer? Just click on the link.

  9. Larry – I like this thesis, as it makes a strong link between the resurected Jesus and the life of Jesus, which, it appears to me at least, have sometimes been separated in Christological discussions. Cheers, Richard

    • Well, perhaps this could be the theological direction if one so wishes. My paper is about the early historical phenomena, however.

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