The “Why” Questions
How can we talk to people in the midst of all the raclial tension in our country.? Just yesterday, while in a part of downtown Columbus, Ohio (see my display here), I saw two young girls with a sign that said “justice.” I asked them three things: “Why” do they care so much about justice and where does their concept of justice come from? “Why” do people matter so much? And, “why” do they feel so morally obligated to protest and fight for how humans should be treated? Yes, they hadn’t thought much about it and by the end of the discussion I asked them “Don’t you think you should know “why” you are out protesting for justice? One thing is for sure: the concern over such a topic demonstrates that people live as if they care about justice, equality, and human rights. I plan on using this approach with many others. Where am I going with this?
Why do people matter so much?
Given people are spending their entire lives fighting for what they consider to be inequality, justice and human rights. But, why do humans matter so much if all of reality is reducible to matter, chance, and the laws of nature? Biological reductionism, metaphysical materialism, and psychological behaviorism say that impersonal, physical, and valueless processes cause valuable, rights-bearing persons to be.Humans, therefore, can assign value to fellow humans by sheer choice. However, this assignment of value to human life is subjective, not objective. Assigning value to people based on personal choice leads us to ask, “What if someone doesn’t think a group of people are not valuable?” Rights, it seems, are linked to personhood. The Bible, for example, says that humans are made in the likeness and image of God, and that they are therefore intrinsically valuable. Rights come by virtue of who human beings are by nature, as opposed to function, productivity, or ‘usefulness.’ The two girls that I spoke to fell into some kind of postmodern individualism which says the grounding for human significance is based on subjectivism. In this outlook, significance is a matter of personal preference or is conferred by some external authority such as the state. This is why I asked them the following question: “What if Hitler doesn’t think people matter?” Maybe that is just his opinion?
Why are you morally obligated to fight for justice?
What is the justification for our moral knowledge? If God exists, then objective moral values are valid, independent of our opinions or preferences. The fact that we think we are morally obligated to speak out as to why many injustices are morally wrong establishes this point: we do believe in objective moral truths. Most of these protestors invest in activities that promote the kind of world they want. Many will admit they want to spend time making the world a better place. But who gets to define what “better” is? Most likely, people want a world of justice, equality, and for humans to be viewed with dignity and respect. But how do we know what the world should look like unless we have some standard as to what is just and unjust? People who fight for justice know how things ought to be, and they assume a standard of justice and goodness in order to bring to fruition their preconceived notions of a just, fair, and equitable society. On a secular worldview however, things happen either by “blind, pitiless chance” as Richard Dawkins says, or by the laws of nature. On this line of thinking, there is no grand plan or purpose behind the evil and injustice we observe. If there is no God, evil is just a social construct, and merely an illusion. I am asking these people the following: what is the grounding for the following three things?
Moral Values: are what matter to us (love, justice, mercy, justice). They are what motivate our behavior. They ground our judgments about what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable.
Moral Duties: indicates an oughtness of action; whether an act is obligatory. ‘’I shouldn’t do that, or you ought to do that.”
Moral Accountability: What difference does it make to you if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever?
I know many of us may say “That’s too much to think about?” My response: I am happy to walk people through it. This is a great opportunity to share how the Biblical worldview grounds the need for justice, morality and wht humans matter.
Over the years I have seen more than my share of articles and books written on what is called "The Historical Reliability of the New Testament."
The irony is that hardly any of them have actually defined what "historically reliable" even means.
I recently finished Michael Bird’s book The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. In it, he mentions the issue of ‘historically reliability.’ He says:
“What is more, when we say that the Gospels are historically reliable, we do not mean that they were intended to be judged by the standards of modern historiography or that they are the ancient equivalent of what it would have been like to follow Jesus around with a hidden video camera. They are historically rooted in the memories of the earliest eyewitnesses. ”
“While I think the overall historical reliability of the Gospels is vitally important, lest we treat them as religiously laden fiction, we should not import anachronistic and modernist criteria of historical reality into our treatment of the Gospels and make it a condition for theological validity.”
This is helpful. Bird is mostly talking about genre criticism and eyewitness memory. But let’s take it a bit further. I think most, if not all the following issues come up when people think of what we mean by ‘historically reliable.’
1. Archaeological/External Evidence: Are the people and events mentioned in the New Testament based on real, ‘historical’ people. Did they exist? Have we found archaeological confirmation of many of the geographical locations, cities, events? There has been quite a bit written on this topic. I have included some posts on my own blog on this issue:
2. Is the New Testament based on ‘eyewitness testimony?’ Of course, we need to ask what book we are talking about here. The Gospels? Paul? There still is a lot of ignorance about this issue. Here are some resources on this topic:
3. Can we offer responses to every single ‘apparent contradiction’ in the New Testament? Here, people like Bart Ehrman makes this out to be a big ticket item. It is an ‘all or nothing’ issue. Once again, there has been more than enough responses to this issue as well.
4. Can we expect people to accept something as ‘historically reliable’ if we have documents recording resurrections, people walking on water, etc? Can the historical method ever allow for any explanation that isn’t a natural explanation? This is a methodological issue that is still being debated. Mike Licona talks about that here.
5. Has the New Testament been faithfully transmitted? In this case, the question is whether the New Testament has been faithfully transmitted. In other words, what does textual criticism have to say about this issue? Here are the following sources:
So these are some of the things that come up when discussing The Historical Reliability of the New Testament. Let’s make sure we are defining our terms!
Anyone who has been reading some our posts here knows we have spent a lot of time on Jewish messianism and messianic prophecy. I have discussed messianic expectations and whether the Hebrew Bible teaches a two act play of the coming of the Messiah.
In Craig Evan’s book, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation. he says: the following:
“Did Jesus intend to found the Christian church? This interesting question can be answered in the affirmative and in the negative. It depends on what precisely is being asked. If by church one means an organization and a people that stand outside of Israel, the answer is no. If by a community of disciples committed to the restoration of Israel and the convers…ion and instruction of the Gentiles, then the answer is yes. Jesus did not wish to lead his disciples out of Israel, but to train followers who will lead Israel, who will bring renewal to Israel , and who will instruct Gentiles in the way of the Lord. Jesus longed for the fulfillment of the promises and the prophecies, a fulfillment that would bless Israel and the nations alike. The estrangement of the church from Israel was not the result of Jesus’ teaching or Paul’s teaching. Rather, the parting of the ways, as it has been called in recent years, was the result of a long process”—Craig Evans , From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation
One of the common objections from the Jewish community is that Jesus failed to restore Israel or bring the kingdom. When they say “kingdom,” or “restoration” they generally mean that the Messiah will bring universal peace and recognition of God (Isaiah 2:1-4; Zephaniah 3:9; Hosea 2:20-22; Amos 9:13-15; Isaiah 32:15-18, 60:15-18; Micah 4:1-4; Zechariah 8:23, 14:9; Jeremiah 31:33-34) and the Messiah himself will be a descendant of King David who will rule Israel during the age of perfection (Isaiah 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5-6, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; Ezekiel 34:11-31, 37:21-28; Hosea 3:4-5). Also, the kingdom is characterized by a building of the Third Temple (Ezekiel 37:26-28) and a gathering of all Jews back to the Land of Israel (Isaiah 43:5-6). There will be an era of world peace, and an end to all hatred, oppression, suffering and disease. As it says: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall man learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4). Furthermore, the spread of the universal knowledge of the God of Israel will unite humanity as one. As it says: “God will be King over all the world—on that day, God will be One and His Name will be One” (Zechariah 14:9).
The problem is that when it comes to the reign of God theme in the Bible, it can’t be reduced to these expectations alone. While it is true there was an expectation of an earthly kingdom, many theologians assume Jesus shattered this expectation by bringing a spiritual kingdom. Whether Jesus offered the political, earthly, aspect of the kingdom of God to Israel (as seen in Matt. 3-12), is hotly debated. One thing for sure: in Matthew 12: 22-32, something happened between Jesus and the Jewish leadership:
“Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
It seems after the Pharisees attributed the miracles of Jesus to demonic origin, Jesus then went on to tell of a mystery form of the kingdom (Matt. 13:11) that is taking place between His first and Second Coming. In relation to the kingdom of God, Jesus now offers an invisible, spiritual reign through a new birth to both Jew and Gentile that will last throughout eternity (John 3:3-7; 18:36; Luke 17:20-21).
What did Jesus do?
The kingdom theme in the New Testament is part of the great cosmic battle and a reversal against sin and Satan. It is also the kingdom over which Jesus is currently ruling (1 Cor. 15:25; Rev 1:5-6). The New Testament authors identify Jesus in God’s presence and at His right hand (Acts 2:24-33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Eph.1:20-21; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 2 Peter 3:22). By participating in God’s rule, Jesus is able to place all things in subjection under His feet. This theme, seen in the following New Testament passage exhibits that in early Jewish monotheism Jesus came to be recognized as ruling the cosmos from heaven: “Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet” (Eph. 1:21-22).
It is God’s reaching out to restore Israel and through Israel to extend covenantal peace to the world. Israel is elected for mission by God for the sake of these other families so that God’s blessing might come to all of them through what Israel is and what Israel does. The calling of Israel would be to see the inclusion of Gentiles (“goyim” or “people groups” ) into the covenant.
We see in Jeremiah 1:5 that this prophet is chosen by God, not simply as a prophet to Israel, but as prophet “to the nations.” Other prophets like Jonah or major writing prophets, addressed twenty-five chapters of their prophecies to the Gentile nations of their day (Isa. 13-23; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32). Amos also spoke of all the nations coming to the God of Israel (Amos 9:12). So the point is that while Israel was called to have an inward focus, they have an external calling.
Also, given Israel’s calling it should be no shock that in Ephesians 2: 11-3:6, the Gentiles recipients are addressed as those who were formally without the Messiah. They were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2: 12). So Israel was already near (Eph. 2:17), but the good news is that now along with Gentiles they even brought closer to God (Eph. 2:18). So through a believing Jewish remnant, we now have over 1 billion non-Jews that have come to know the one true God. With that said, I say act one of the messianic task is a success. One day, Jesus will return and establish the earthly, national aspect of the kingdom of God. (Is. 9:6; Amos 9:11; Dan. 2:44; 7:13-14; 27; Is. 11:11-12; 24:23; Mic. 4:1-4; Zech.14:1-9; Matt. 26:63-64; Acts 1:6-11; 3:19-26). In other words, one day the Messiah will be King over His people (Matt. 19:28).
I recently quoted R.C Sproul who says:
First , because of the ascension, Jesus went up to His coronation. He did not go up simply to enter into His rest. He went up for His investiture service. He ascended to the throne, to the right hand of God, where He was given dominion, power, and authority over the whole earth. The Lamb who was slain became the Lion of Judah, who now reigns over the earth. Again, the church has failed to understand. Many still look at the kingdom of God as something in the unfulfilled future. But the kingdom has begun. Why? Because the King has been enthroned. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm that Jesus “ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” He now sits in the seat of authority at the right hand of the Father, acting, as it were, as the celestial Prime Minister. The New Testament gives Him the titles of King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Tim. 6: 15; Rev. 17: 14; 19: 16). Jesus is no longer a peripatetic rabbi, walking around Galilee and Judea. He is enthroned, and no monarch in this world can rule for a second apart from His authority. He brings kingdoms up and brings kingdoms down. He is accountable to no earthly ruler. Needless to say, the reign of our Lord is a tremendous benefit for those who love Him and follow Him. For this reason, it is clearly better for us that Jesus left than if He had stayed.”–see Sproul, R. C. The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You (p. 188), Kindle Edition.
Jesus is God’s agent to inaugurate the reign of God:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Jesus linked his miracles and exorcisms to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”- Luke 4: 18-19
How Can We Show the Reign of God is Here?
The way I see it, there are some practical ways that Cwe can show the reign of God is here. Here are some of my thoughts:
- Love unconditionally
- Demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).
- Be peacemakers
- Be agents of justice
- BE THE OPPOSITE OF THIS LIST HERE: “ But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant,revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal,[a]haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to a form of[b]godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.-2 Timothy 3:1-5
- Represent our Lord by being agents of both truth and love!
- Be open to self-denial (Luke 9:23).
Not to my surprise, topics that center on the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus, brings up the issue of relevancy. In other words, people aren’t always asking whether it is true. Instead, they are asking, “What difference does this issue make in my life?” I previously did a post called Does It Matter Whether God Exists? Even though I discuss these in this video here, here are a few reasons why I think such a topic such as the resurrection matters:
1.The Resurrection of Jesus provides evidence that the God of the Bible exists. Let’s look a the following syllogisms.
I1. f Jesus rose from the dead, the God of the Bible exists
2. Jesus rose from the dead
3.Therefore, the God of the Bible exists
“In a debate with Gary Habermas, former atheist Antony Flew agreed that if it is a knowable fact that Jesus rose from the dead literally and physically it then constitutes “the best, if not the only, reason for accepting that Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.”–Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, ed. Terry L. Miethe (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 3
1.If the God of the Bible exists, then I’m not a naturalistic accident
2.The God of the Bible exists
3. Therefore, I’m not a naturalistic accident
“The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” — Stephen Hawking
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books. 1995), 133.
“Human beings cannot be deserving of a special measure of respect by virtue of their having been created ‘in God’s image’ when they have not been created at all (and there is no God). Thus the traditional conception of human dignity is also undermined in the wake of Darwin.”-R. Bontekoe, The Nature of Dignity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), 15– 16.
On theistic belief, all human beings enjoy, the right to life and the resources to sustain it, for life is a gift from God. Humans have a right to human dignity, i.e. the right to receive respect irrespective of age, gender, race or rank or any other way. A responsibility to secure/protect/establish the rights of others. Rights are linked to personhood. Because humans are made in the likeness of a personal God, they are intrinsically (essentially) valuable. Rights come by virtue of who we are by nature (or essence), not our function. So if Jesus rose, than huan beings do have value, dignity, and they are not just molecules in motion.
2. If Jesus rose from the dead, it provides answers to the four worldview questions. Let’s look at this syllogism.
1 .If Jesus rose from the dead, it answers the four worldview questions
2. Jesus rose from the dead
3. Therefore, it answers the four most important worldview questions
Here are the four worldview questions:
1.How we view man’s origins/what is a human? (How did we get here?)
2. What is wrong with the world, and how to fix the problem? (The human condition)
3.Where are we headed as a human race? (Our destiny)
4. How we know right from wrong? (Morality)
Believe it or not, a worldview will impact our view of our vocation, our family, government, education, the environment, etc. A worldview also impacts ethical issues in our culture such as homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research etc. Remember, the issues of competing worldviews shape the past, present, and future of a nation.
3. If Jesus rose from the dead, it provides answers to existential questions.
1.If Jesus rose from the dead, then people can have their existential needs met (i.e., need for meaning, hope, transcendence, love, security, etc.)
2.Jesus rose from the dead
3.Therefore, people can have their existential needs met.
These are some of the reasons why a topic such as the resurrection matters. Granted, I haven’t discussed objections or evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in this post. That’s a topic that has been discussed elsewhere.
Over the years, I have had my share of discussions about what we can know about Jesus. I think a good starting place about historical discussions about Jesus is seen in the book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by New Testament historian Mike Licona. In the book Licona discusses what is called “The Historical Bedrock.” These three facts about the Historical Jesus are held by most critical scholars and historians:
1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion
2. Very Shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul became a follower of Jesus after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.
In this post, I want to focus on #3. After all, Paul wrote a large majority of the New Testament. Also, his letters are the earliest records we have for Jesus.
Well known New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman writes the following regarding Paul’s experience:
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection” 
Even New Testament scholar Dale Allison even says that Paul converted from a persecutor of the church to one of its greatest promoters because of an experience he perceived was of the risen Jesus appearing to him.  Note: see more below on the issue of whether Paul “converted.”
Some Background on Paul
The undisputed letters of Paul that can be used to give us an understanding about who he was and what his mission was are in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The rest of the letters yield very little about the life of Paul. From Paul’s Letters, we can gather that:
1. The man’s name was Paul: A Greek name.
2. He had a Jewish name, Saul. Remember, having two names was not uncommon for Jews who lived outside Palestine in the first century.
3. Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in Southwestern Asia Minor.
4. He came from a family of Pharisees of the tribe of Benjamin and was named for the tribe’s most illustrious member, King Saul.
5. Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the grandson of Hillel. Hillel is known as the Academy of Hillel, founded by a Jewish sage called Hillel the Elder. The House of Hillel was a school of Jewish law and thought that was very well known in the 1st century B.C.E. Jerusalem.
6. Since Paul’s letters show familiarity with rabbinic methods for interpretation of Scripture and popular Hellenistic philosophy to a degree, this makes it likely that he received a formal education in both areas. Hence, Paul’s exegesis of the Old Testament shows evidence of his rabbinic training.
7. Paul was probably, as an adult, a resident of Damascus. 
Paul was an active persecutor of the early Messianic Community:
The language Paul uses in his pre-revelatory encounter with the risen Lord shows how much how antagonistic he was towards the messianic movement. In Gal. 1:13-15, Paul uses terms such as “persecute” and “destroy” to describe his efforts to put an end to the spread of the early faith.
Even though Paul does not give a list of the reasons why he was an ardent persecutor of the early Messianic Movement, this reasons for being a persecutor was probably due to several reasons:
First, Paul may have perceived it to be a threat to Torah obedience. We need to keep in mind that in within the historical background of the first century, if a Jewish person was to deny the Torah as part of their practice, they would be denying the fact that they were Jewish! 
Second, given how he speaks about this topic in his letters (Gal 3:13;1), Paul was most likely aware of Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. To say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”-the very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God. So Paul most likely found the idea of group of Jewish people following a crucified Messiah to be abhorrent.
Third, given what we see in Acts 8 (following the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7) we see that Paul most likely found the Jesus movement as a threat to the Temple. It says in Acts 8: 1-3,
“Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”
What Can We Know About Paul’s Revelation of Jesus? A Resurrected Jesus, Or A Subjective Vision?
Jesus was crucified about 33 A.D. According to many scholars, Paul became a follower of Jesus around 35 A.D. Remember, Paul’s letters are dated between AD 40 and 60.
Also, Paul did not follow Jesus from the beginning. However, Paul is still considered an apostle, though “abnormally born” and “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). ). His first years as a follower of Jesus in Arabia remain a mystery. In many places, Paul discusses his Jewish identity. He says “ I am a Jew” (Acts 22;3) “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23;6), and “I am a prisoner for the sake of the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20). Notice that Paul didn’t say “I was a Pharisee” or that “I was a Jew.” So perhaps it is inaccurate to say that Paul switched religions. Hence, it would be more reasonable to say that while Paul did have a radical reorientation about his theology, but he more likely received a “call” rather than a conversion to a new religion. If anything, Paul did ‘repent.’ The Hebrew word for repent is “shub” which means to “turn back” or “return.” So Paul was most certainly restored to the God of Israel through the Messiah. But the old saying, “Paul converted to Christianity” (like Ehrman says) has not gone unchallenged within New Testament scholarship.
The Messiah Appeared to Paul
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” -1 Cor. 15: 3-8
Let’s go back to Ehrman’s comment:
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.
Last year, Bart Ehrman released another book on Christology. In the book he devotes two chapters to the resurrection. As usual, his hypothesis is that the disciples had visionary experiences. In it he says:
It is undisputable that some of the followers of Jesus came to think that he had been raised from the dead, and that something had to have happened to make them think so. Our earliest records are consistent on this point, and I think they provide us with the historically reliable information in one key aspect: the disciples’ belief in the resurrection was based on visionary experiences. I should stress it was visions, and nothing else, that led to the first disciples to believe in the resurrection. -Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: Harper One, 2014), 183-184.
The good news is that Ehrman goes onto to define what he means by “visions” of Jesus. He describes visions as something that are either “veridical” or “nonveridical.” Veridical visions means people tend to see things that are really there while nonveridical visions the opposite-what a person sees is not based any kind of external reality. It is the latter that leads to what is called the hallucination hypothesis. In other words, skeptics assert that nonveridical visions can be attributed to some sort of psychological explanation. Ehrman then punts to his agnosticism again and says he doesn’t care if the appearances can be attributed to either “veridical” or “nonveridical” visionary experiences or anything else.
So let’s look at the appearance of Jesus to Paul:
Gerd Lüdemann says:
“At the heart of the Christian religion lies a vision described in Greek by Paul as ōphthē—“he was seen.” And Paul himself, who claims to have witnessed an appearance asserted repeatedly “I have seen the Lord.” So Paul is the main source of the thesis that a vision is the origin of the belief in resurrection….When we talk about visions, we must include something that we experience every night when we dream. That’s our subconscious was of dealing with reality.” (7)
The problem with Lüdemann’s comment is that he doesn’t expand enough on how ōphthē is used. Hence, ōphthē isn’t restricted to describing something that is only visionary, spiritual, or physical.
Furthermore, given Paul had discussed his personal visions in 2 Cor. 12:1 and other places, he knew the difference between an internal vision and an external appearance.
1 Corinthians 9
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 9: 1-2
Here we see that Paul is using “seen” (ὁράω) “horáō” which in the passive form of (ōphthē) entails ” to see with the eyes,” “to see with the mind, to perceive, know,” “to see” (i.e. become acquainted with by experience, to experience), “to see, to look to” or “I was seen, showed myself, appeared.”
“In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language,‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.”- Acts 26: 12-20.
Sometimes, people point out Acts 26: 19, where Paul says: “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision (ὀπτασία) “optasía” but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. ”
However, a look at the entire context of this chapter shows that the vision here could refer to the time when Ananias received the information about Paul’s commission to minister to the Gentiles (Acts 9: 10-19). Paul did not receive his specific missionary mandate from his Damascus road experience (Acts 9: 1-9). Rather, he was told “to go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v. 5) where the “vision” (v. 10) came to Ananias that Paul was given his missionary mandate “to carry my [Christ’s] name before the Gentiles” (9: 15). Therefore, when Paul said “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26: 19), it is possible it was to the commission he was given through Ananias’s vision that Paul is referring to.
Acts 9: Paul’s Damascus Road Experience
Here we see whatever happened, this was after the ascension. Hence, to say Paul saw the exact same Jesus before he ascended is hard to infer from the text. There simply isn’t enough information here. The Bible says, “they heard” the same voice Paul did ” (Acts 9: 7). But they “did not see anyone ” (Acts 9: 7). Notice Paul was physically blinded by the brightness of the light. One way or the other, the experience involved something that was external to Paul. It wasn’t something that was the same thing as a vision that Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 12:1. Furthermore, the phrase “he let himself be seen’” (ōphthē , aorist passive, ), is the word Paul uses in 1 Cor. 15:7 to describe of his own resurrection appearance as the other ones in the creed. As Paul Barnett says:
“It is sometimes claimed that the word appeared (ōphthē) means a mystical seeing, as of a vision, and that since this was what Paul “saw” it was what the other apostles “saw.” In other words, after death, Jesus was taken directly to heaven whence he “appeared” to various people, mystically, as it were. This however, is not all the meaning of Paul’s words. First, the word ōphthē, “appeared” is not limited to visionary seeing it is also used for physical seeing. Moreover, the verb raise used in the phrase ‘raised on the third day” is used elsewhere in combination with the words “from the dead” which literally means “from among the corpses.” Thus raised preceding appeared gives the latter a physical not a mystical meaning. Christ, as “raised from the dead” ….appeared.” Furthermore, when Paul asks “ Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”(1 Cor. 9: 1), he is using the ordinary word horan, “to see” for physical sight. If “seeing” the Lord “raised from the dead” qualified others to be apostles, then Paul is, indeed, an apostle. It was no mere subjective vision that arrested Paul en route to Damascus. (8) .
In the end, word studies can’t entirely resolve this issue. We need to remember the etymological fallacy as well. We would have to look at all the texts that speak of resurrection (including the entire 1 Cor. 15 chapter in their entire context as well as the anthropology of the New Testament. We also need to study the resurrection in light of the Second Temple Jewish period. See our reading list here for some resources that may help.
What About Galatians 1:11-12?
When we come to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul defends his ministry by discussing the manner of how he received the Gospel:
“ For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12).
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
So what is the truth? Paul says in Galatians that he received it by divine revelation. But what about the creed in 1 Corinthians 15? How do we respond to this? First, while we always need to look at the context of where the word “received” is used, in both 1 Cor. 15:3 and Galatians 1:12, the word “received” (“παραλαμβάνω”) means to receive something transmitted from someone else, which could be by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. In other words, according to Paul, he did not create the Gospel story. It was something he received from another source.
So in this case, what is helpful here is to differentiate between essence and form. The essence of the gospel, that Jesus of Nazareth was truly the Son of God, was revealed to Paul (he received it) on the life changing moment on the Damascus road. Paul realized that the Christians that he had been persecuting had been right all along about Jesus being the Messiah.
As far as the form the gospel, this includes the historical undergirding of certain events, certain phraseology used to express the new truth and doubtless many other things that were passed onto Paul by those other than him (see Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction To The New Testament Survey, pg 220).
Remember, Paul also employs oral tradition terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching within his letters in the following places:
Romans 16: 17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”
1 Corinthians 11:23: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread.
Philippians 4:9: The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
1 Thessalonians 2:13: For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
2 Thessalonians 2:15: So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditionswhich you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-5. This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. At that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19).This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38. Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:
“Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (9)
Conversion Disorders and Hallucinations: Note: To see a critique of these options for what happened to Paul, see The Resurrection of Jesus: a Clinical Review of Psychiatric Hypotheses for the Biblical Story of Easter Joseph W. Bergeron, M.D. and Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D
In the end, it is clear that Paul had a dramatic change that turned him from a persecutor of the early followers of Jesus to the greatest missionary of the early faith. Someone may object and say it is not a big deal for someone to make such a radical change in their beliefs in antiquity. After all, people change beliefs all the time (i.e. people leave Islam for the Christian faith or vice versa). In response, I suggest doing a thorough study of the honor and shame culture that Paul was acquainted with. You will see it was much more of a challenge to change one’s beliefs in antiquity than it is today. I submit that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the change in Paul’s life.
1. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographal Approach (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2010).
2. Ibid, 302-303.
3. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Third Edition (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 276.
4. Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 263-268.
5. Most of points 1-8 are laid out in Marion Soard’s The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to his Writings and Teaching (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1987), 10-11.
6. See Martin Hengel’s The Pre-Christian Paul (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991).
7. Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1994 (1994), 97, 100.
8. Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, Intervarsity. 1999), 183-184.
9. J.D. Crossan & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001) 254.
Worldview is a buzzword people hear throughout their lives. But while it may be a buzzword, everyone does have a worldview, or they are in the process of forming their worldview. A worldview is the way we view reality. A worldview answers large questions such as origins, purpose, morality, and destiny. Parents, educators, peer groups, social media, religious upbringing, and even personal experience can all play a large role in determining a worldview. One worldview question is the following: “What happens to a person at death?”
While some atheists don’t consider atheism to be an actual worldview, atheism has been associated with what is called naturalism. Ronald Carlson offers a clear definition of naturalism:
A person who does not affirm the supernatural— God, gods, ghosts, immaterial souls, spirits— is a person who affirms naturalism. For naturalists, nature is all there is. And if it is not science, then it is nonscience (i.e., nonsense). Most naturalists put stock in empirical, evidence-based ways of justifying opinions about what is real; this is exemplified by science. Naturalists think such beliefs are more reliable and objective than those based on intuition, various kinds of revelation, sacred texts, religious authority, or reports by people claiming to have had religious experiences.
Philosophical naturalism became a dominant view for many modern scientists and thinkers but at great existential cost. Some atheists have been straightforward about their views of the afterlife. During a debate with Intelligent Design advocate Phillip Johnson, the late William Provine said the following:
Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.
The late theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking echoed these doldrums, befitting his atheist convictions as well:
I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
Finally, the late famous astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan said this about the afterlife:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
Is Death the End?
In sharp contrast to these comments from atheists about the afterlife, the Bible offers an alternative to what happens to us at death. This leads us to an important word: salvation. I know from personal experience the word “salvation” can be rather confusing. When I first visited a local congregation several years ago, an eager young man walked up to me and asked me, “Are you saved?” I was at a stage of my life when I was examining my own beliefs. But as I drove home that night, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “What did this man actually mean when he asked me if I’m ‘saved?’” Jewish people (as well as others), tend to view belief in Jesus as important for one reason and one reason only– the afterlife! In other words, it seems the only thing is what happens to people after they die. Committed followers of Jesus ask people “If you were to die today, do you have assurance you are going to heaven?” This line of thinking is problematic because heaven isn’t really the focus of the resurrection. Now let’s be clear: the issue of heaven is not irrelevant. It matters! As N.T Wright says,
When Jesus declares that there are many dwelling places in his father’s house (John 14: 2), the word for dwelling place is monē, which denotes a temporary lodging. When Paul says that his desire is “to depart and be with Christ, which is far better,” he is indeed thinking of a blissful life with his Lord immediately after death, but this is only the prelude to the resurrection itself.
Wright’s work has offered a correction to the traditional view that states that heaven is the final destiny. As Wright notes, resurrection is “life after life- after- death.”  Resurrection occurs after life after death.
We must remember that eternal life is a quality of life (i.e., in union with Jesus), and is a quantity of life (unlimited) that starts in this life (John 17: 3). So no, eternal life doesn’t start when we die. It starts the minute we come to trust in Jesus and we turn our lives over to him.
You might wonder about cases in the Bible where we see people brought back to life after they died. Though these instances of raising individuals from the dead are important illustrations of how God works, these people still had to face a second death—they would go onto die at a later date which makes them simply revivifications or resuscitations of the dead. Jesus is the only person in history that has raised from the dead never to die again. This has important implications in our personal lives, because one day, all of us will die physically. However, some of us will die not only physically, but spiritually as well. But what does it mean to “die spiritually?”
The Hebrew word “shalom” means peace, completeness, or wholeness. It refers to peace between two entities (especially between man and God, between two people, or between two countries). Our failure to do what’s right (sin) not only impacts our relationship with God but has negative consequences for others, which is why we lack this wholeness and connection to God. This lack of wholeness causes us to be fragmented. And it gets worse. If we continue to choose sin, our hearts harden towards God, making it even more difficult to change course. The good news is the death and resurrection of Jesus has made a reconnection to God possible, so we don’t have to die a spiritual death. To repeat what we just said, resurrection is “life after life- after- death.” The resurrection occurs after life after death, one day we will be physically alive again. But the resurrection guarantees we can have shalom in this life as well. To see more on evidence for the resurrection, see here. Or, see my new book “The Resurrection of the Jewish Messiah.”
 R.F. Carlson, “Naturalism” featured in Dictionary of Christianity and Science, Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher Reese, and Michael G. Strauss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2016), 470.
 “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?”: A debate between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994, available at http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/161main.htm, accessed April 21, 2019.
 I. Sample, Stephen Hawking, “There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’ available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/may/15/stephen-hawking-interview-there-is-no-heaven, accessed April 18th, 2019.
 C. Sagan, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” Parade (March 10, 1996), 18-21.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper One. 2008), 41.
 Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, The New Testament and the Question of God 3(Minneapolis: Fortress. 2003), 86.
This past year we had a family member suffer a stroke. As this 83 year old elderly person lost their ability to fully walk and do the things they once did, it caused me to ponder the issue of purpose. I even asked the family member what they think their purpose is in life. I even asked them what their purpose was before the stroke. Like most people, they said their purpose was to be a good wife or good mother. Their family was the main purpose in life. Now they also admitted they are just existing now. Thus, because they can't go out and drive and go to places and do what they once did, they are not really 'living' anymore. What I notice in this situation and in many situations is that people need a function. Thus, people seem to really struggle without a specific 'function' or 'purpose' in life. It should be noted that the 'functional’ and 'essentialist' view of humans is what is at the center of the abortion debate as well. Anyway, I asked the family member the following: perhaps you have been missing your overall purpose in life which is to know God (John 17: 4)?
In a world without God is there is ultimate meaning to life? Certainly, people can create their own meaning and purpose, as French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre advises us to do. Again, if people can find meaning and purpose in relationships, careers, volunteer programs, or other things, what happens when these things are threatened or lost by factors that are beyond control? We now have a major health crisis that is prohibing some people from being able to do the things I just listed.
Thus, circumstances can shake people who are calloused towards God and cause people to recognize their ‘existential need’ for God. Now if God has created us with existential needs, it would make sense that God is the only one who can completely fulfill these needs.Philosopher Clifford Williams argues that while humans may have desires and beliefs they fulfill through reason, they also look for emotional fulfillment, especially when it comes to believing in God. Thus, humans want both their reason and emotional needs satisfied. Williams lists several existential  needs that all humans desire: there is the need for cosmic security and meaning in life. Further, there is the wonder and awe of the cosmos itself. Humans also need the opportunity to love, to feel loved, and to be with the ones we love.
Also, many people invest in activities that promote the kind of world they want. They find a purpose in such activities. Many will admit they want to spend time making the world a better place. But who gets to define what “better” is? Most likely, people want a world of justice, equality, and for humans to be viewed with dignity and respect. But how do we know what the world should look like unless we have some standard as to what is just and unjust? People who fight for justice know how things ought to be, and they assume a standard of justice and goodness in order to bring to fruition their preconceived notions of a just, fair, and equitable society.
What is interesting when people lose a specific function they once had, they have to re-evaluate their lives. Do they still have value without the purpose they once had? Sadly, to many people, the answer is no. For the theist, the answer is yes. The ultimate purpose for every human is know God and love him forever. Of course, if humans are made in the likeness and image of God, they are therefore intrinsically valuable. They are not valuable because they have to fulfill some function such as a specific job or task. My challenge to my family member was that perhaps since they spend a lot of time sitting now they should open the Scriptures and get to know God. So perhaps it is time for them to start to fulfill the main purpose for which they were created for.
When it comes to the formation of the early Jesus movement, 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 is a crucial element to the proclamation of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In relation to early testimony, historian David Hacket Fisher says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (1) One key in examining the early sources for the life of Christ is to take into account the Jewish culture in which they were birthed. As Paul Barnett notes, “The milieu of early Christianity in which Paul’s letters and the Gospels were written was ‘rabbinic.’” (2)
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
The word “received” παραλαμβάνω (a rabbinical term) means to receive something transmitted from someone else, which could be by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.
Bauckham notes in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony that the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted.
Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is used by Paul (1 Cor.9:1; 15:5–8; Gal. 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).
Even critical scholars usually agree that it has an exceptionally early origin. Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:
Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (3).
E.P. Sanders also says:
Paul’s letters were written earlier than the gospels, and so his reference to the Twelve is the earliest evidence. It comes in a passage that he repeats as ‘tradition’, and is thus to be traced back to the earliest days of the movement. In 1 Corinthians 15 he gives the list of resurrection appearances that had been handed down to him. (4)
And Crossan’s partner Robert Funk says:
The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” — Robert Funk co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.(5)
The crucifixion of Jesus is attested by all four Gospels. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3. Donald Juel discusses the challenge of a crucified Messiah:
The idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented within Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the whole nation of a deliver from the line of David, so out of harmony with the constellation of biblical texts we can identify from various Jewish sources that catalyzed around the royal figure later known as the “the Christ” that terms like “scandal” and “foolishness” are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story, because it is so counterintuitive. (6)
Even Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. (1 Cor.1:21-22)
Once again, critical scholars including those who are not even Christians say the following about the death/ crucifixion of Jesus:
I will start with two quotes from Bart Ehrman:
The denial that Christ was crucified is like the denial of the Holocaust. For some it’s simply too horrific to affirm. For others it’s an elaborate conspiracy to coerce religious sympathy. But the deniers live in a historical dreamworld.(7)
Christians who wanted to proclaim Jesus as messiah would not have invented the notion that he was crucified because his crucifixion created such a scandal. Indeed, the apostle Paul calls it the chief “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). Where did the tradition come from? It must have actually happened. (8)
Gerd Ludemann (Atheist):
The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward. It need not be discussed further here. (9)
Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar:
Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus. (10)
Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was a common method of torture and execution used by the Romans. (11)
In his book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman goes on to say:
“Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two. The more, obviously the better. If there were only two or two sources you might suspect that the stories were made up. But if there are lots of sources—just as when there are lots of eyewitnesses to a car accident-then it is hard to claim that any of them just happened to make it up.”-pg 40-41.
If we apply these comments to the death of Jesus we have:
- All four Gospels (written before the first century) say Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate.
- Paul speaks of the death of Jesus and that He was crucified: 1 Corinthians 1:13, 23, 2:2, 8, 2 Corinthians 13:4, Galatians 3:1,Philippians 2:8 Romans 5:6, 8, 106:3, 5, 9-10, 8:34, 14:9, 15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 11:2615:3, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Galatians 2:21,Philippians 2:8, 3:10, Colossians 1:22, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 5:10
- Other New Testament documents say Jesus was crucified- 1 Peter, etc…
- The Book of Acts (dated 62-65 AD): Jesus was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23) and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:2).
- Josephus and Tacitus and some other outside sources speak of the death of Jesus.
The Burial of Jesus
Some skeptics assume since Jesus came from a poor family, his body would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes, which was typically in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. In other words, according to this hypothesis, although Jesus may have been placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea on late Friday, his body would have then been moved to its final location – a graveyard reserved for criminals – by Saturday night. From this point, it is argued the finding of the empty tomb by the disciples of Jesus resulted in an erroneous conclusion that Jesus had been resurrected. In response, archaeologist Jodi Magness, a non- religious Jewish archaeologist who specializes in the ossuaries at the time of Jesus says the following:
“Jesus came from a modest family that presumably could not afford a rock- cut tomb. Had Joseph not offered to accommodate Jesus’ body his tomb (according to the Gospel accounts) Jesus likely would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes: in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. When the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his tomb, it is because Jesus’ family did not own a rock- cut tomb and there was no time to prepare a grave- that is there was no time to dig a grave, not hew a rock cut tomb(!)—before the Sabbath. It is not surprising that Joseph, who is described as a wealthy and perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin, had a rock-cut family tomb. The Gospel accounts seem to describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb.” (12)
Interestingly enough. Magness goes on to say:
“There is no need to assume that the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea offering Jesus a place in this family tomb are legendary or apologetic. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s burial appear to be largely consistent with the archeological evidence.” (13)
Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson concurs by saying:
“The idea that an executed Jew would have been chucked into a common burial pit after being removed from the cross is unlikely. It may have been the normal practice for criminals of the lower classes and for slaves elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but it is unlikely to have been practiced in Jerusalem because of Jewish religious sensibilities. The truth is the Roman authorities would have wanted to keep the Sanhedrin and locals agreeable.” (14)
Even though Magness and Gibson support the burial account in the Gospels, the question is whether there is any evidence for the practice of moving criminals after a “temporary” burial to a graveyard for criminals. The question is why would Joseph himself want to move the body of Jesus to a temporary graveyard? There is no way to know if Joseph had known some future family members or Joseph himself might die. Thus, he may need the tomb he had utilized for Jesus for a future purpose? Perhaps this would be a reason to relocate the body of Jesus.
Once again, one can assert all the possibilities they want. But the question is whether there is good evidence for such possibilities. We can conclude with the following: All four canonical Gospels state that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus and, after Pilate granted his request, he wrapped Jesus’ body in a linen cloth and laid in a tomb. At best, a skeptic can throw out the relocation hypothesis as a possibility. But even if skeptics want to postulate that his body was buried in a trench grave, it is a worthless apologetic on their part. Why do I say this? Whether Jesus was buried in a pit or trench grave, or it happens the Gospels are correct about the burial story, skeptics will still have to provide an account for the resurrection appearances and the entire story.
The Resurrection Appearances
Here we must examine explanations for the appearances. First, let’s observe the list of appearances:
• Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, shortly after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18)
• Jesus appears to the women returning from the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8-10)
• Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12,13; Luke 24:13-35)
• Jesus appears to Peter ( Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
• Jesus appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23).
• Jesus again appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. At this time Thomas is present (John 20:24-29).
• Jesus appears to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 28:16; John 21:1,2)
• Jesus is seen by 500 believers at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6)
• Jesus appears to James ( 1 Corinthians 15:7)
• Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).
• He appeared to his disciples (Luke 24:50-53).
• He appeared to Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8).
As far as the appearances of Jesus, once again, many critical scholars agree that the disciples at least thought they saw the risen Jesus. For example:
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it. (15)
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection. (16)
Ehrman also says:
We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead. (17)
Ehrman also goes onto say:
Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. (18)
Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19). (19)
The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.  Even the most skeptical historian” must do one more thing: “postulate some other event” that is not the disciples’ faith, but the reason for their faith, in order to account for their experiences. Of course, both natural and supernatural options have been proposed. (20)
Gerd Lüdemann, the leading German critic of the resurrection says:
It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ. (21)
What is the best explanation for the resurrection appearances? See our post called What Did The Disciples Mean When They Say “Jesus is Risen”
1.Hacket Fisher, D.H., Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970), 62.
2.Barnett, P.W., Jesus and the Logic of History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1997), 138.
3. Crossan, J.D. & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 254.
4. Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books 1993).
5. Hoover, R.W. and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus (Santa Rosa,CA: Polebridge Press, 1998), 466.
6. Donald H. Juel, “The Trial and Death of the Historical Jesus” featured in The Quest For Jesus And The Christian Faith: Word &World Supplement Series 3 (St. Paul Minnesota: Word and World Luther Seminary, 1997), 105.
7. Ehrman, B. interview with Reginald V. Finley Sr., “Who Changed The New Testament and Why”, The Infidel Guy Show, 2008. Available at : http://www.city-data.com/forum/religion-spirituality/1264542-did-jesus-exist-disciple-buddha-america.html#ixzz2pvePXTT1}
8. ____. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings,(Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 221-222.
9. Lüdemann, G. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry(Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 50.
10. Crossan, J. D., Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994), 45. While it is true that scholars agree that there are some interpolations in Josephus. But it should be noted that while the manuscript tradition of Testimonium of Josephus has the interpolations, a solid case can be made that the original passage is accurate- especially the part about Jesus being crucified under Pilate. Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Tacitus confirmed Jesus died by crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE), under Pilate’s governship (26-36 CE).
11. Martin, D., New Testament History and Literature: The Open Yale Courses Series (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2012), 181.
12. Magness, J. Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2011), 170.
13. Ibid, 171.
14. Gibson, S. The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (New York: HarperOne. 2009), 52.
15. Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books. 1993), 279-280.
16. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings,(Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004), 276.
17._______. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University, 1999), 230.
18. Ibid, 231.
19. Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings,282.
20. Fuller, R. The Foundations of New Testament Christology(New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 142.
21. Lüdemann, G. What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80. 22.
In discussions about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, it is common to start with the Gospels. But in my opinion, I think it is best to back up and start with Paul. After all, Paul’s writings are the earliest records we have for the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul, who was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ was a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin.
One common tactic by skeptics is to say Paul yielded no information about the earthly Jesus. In other words, Paul only speaks of the “heavenly Jesus.” Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy tackle this issue in greater detail in their book The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition. I have written more on that here in my post called “What Can Paul Tell Us About Jesus.” or see Paul and the Historical Jesus: A Case Study in 1 Corinthians by Stephen J. Bedard.
Another tactic is to assert that since Paul never met Jesus his writings are of no great value. I have heard this objection on several occasions. In response, do you just pitch every writing you have written about someone else if the author never met the person they are writing about? I doubt it. Secondly, remember the following:
As Louis Gottschalk says:
“Written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness….A secondary source is the testimony source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness-that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. It does not, however, need to be original in the legal sense of the word original-that is, the very document (usually in a written draft) [autographa] whose contents are the subject of discussion-for quite often a later copy or a printed edition will do just as well; and in the case of the Greek and Roman classic seldom are any but later copies available.” (Understanding History, 53-54).
As we see, since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).
Furthermore, Ricahrd Bauckham notes in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony that the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted.
Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor.9:1; 15:5–8; Gal. 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).
A little time line may be helpful: Remember Paul’s Letters are dated 48 A.D to 60 A.D. However, the information he receives about the death and resurrection of Jesus predate his writings.
The death of Jesus: 30 A.D.—–33A.D
Paul comes to faith between 33 and 35 A.D.
Paul’s Death: 60-65 A.D.
Temple Destroyed: 70 A.D.
Here are some of Paul’s remarks about the resurrection in his letters:
Romans: Date: 55-56 A.D
Romans 1: 1-5
“ Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Here we see that:
1. Jesus is a descendant of David
2. Jesus was spoken of in the Tanakh (the O.T.)
3. Jesus rose from the dead
Romans 6: 1-5
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
We see here:
1. Jesus died
2. He was buried
3. He rose from the dead
4. Paul can’t exhort his readers to understand their identity in Jesus without these historical facts
1 Thessalonians: Date: 50 A.D
1 Thess.1: 9 “ For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
We see here that 1. Jesus rose from the dead
1 Thess.4: 13-14
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Here we see that:
1. Jesus died
2. Jesus rose from the dead
1 Corinthians: 50-55 A.D.
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” (“παραλαμβάνω”) is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Here, Paul mentions:
1. Jesus died
2. He was buried
3. He rose
One of the key words in this text is “receive.” While the word “received” (a rabbinical term) can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine (1 Cor.11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal. 1:9, 12 [2x], Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6), it also means means “to receive from another.” This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.
The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. At that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19).This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38.
To read more about this in detail, see my post here called The Earliest Record for The Death and Resurrection of Jesus: 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7.
The point is that Paul received this information long before he even wrote his letter.
In the end, when it comes to the resurrection, I understand why many people start with the Gospels. But from a tactical perspective, I think a wiser approach is to start with Paul.
A common Jewish objection that I continue to hear is that Jewish people don’t believe that a human can be sacrificed for sins. In other words, a human can’t atone for the sins of the Jewish people. First, let me give some background to the idea of atonement in Judaism. For Jewish people Yom Kippur, which is also known as Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D, the religious and social life changed forever for the Jewish people. The Jewish people no longer had a sacrifical system in the Temple. Therefore, the atonement structure was changed to repentance which entails prayer, fasting, and doing mitzvah (good deeds). However, when there as no Temple with a sacrifical system, an argument can also be made that a righteous individual can make atonement for the sins of the nation. But regarding the central claim that Jesus can be a sacrifice or atonement for sin generally leads to the following objections:
- God forbids (human) vicarious atonement (e.g., Exod 32:31-33; Num 35:33; Deut 24:16; II Kgs 14:6; Jer 31:29 [30 in Christian Bibles]; Ezek 18:4,20; Ps 49:7).
- And God prohibits human sacrifices (e.g., Lev 18:21, 24-25; Deut 18:10; Jer 7:31, 19:5; Ezek 23:37,39).
In response: It is true the Bible prohibits human sacrifices (the sacrifice of innocent children in connection with the worship of pagan gods). God judges that. But to say that the Hebrew Bible says there is no basis for human vicarious atonement is not doesn’t line up with the evidence. Let’s look at some of the biblical and extra biblical data:
- Numbers 35: 1-28. The context here is intentional an unintentional manslaughter. In the case of unintentional manslaughter, the innocent manslayer was banished from to the city of refuge where he would remain for life unless the high priest would die and take the place of his own.
- Numbers 25:1-13? Why does God allow Phinehas to kill them and then at the end, God says, ” He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made ATONEMENT for the Israelites.’” In Pslam 106: 13, it says “But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked.This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come.”
- 2 Samuel 21:1-14: the sons from Saul’s family are put to death for the sins of committed by Saul’s household. Their death resulted in God answering prayers to relieve the land of Israel from famine, implying that their death made atonement for the land.
Next point: If the Messiah can’t be sacrificed for sin, why is it that later on in the Jewish literaure, there is a case for a Messiah who can be an atonement? Let’s take a look:
In the Zohar, which is the foundational book of Jewish mysticism, we see a text about the relationship between Isaiah 53 and atonement:
“The Messiah enters the [the Hall of the Sons of Illness] and summons all the diseases and all the diseases and all the pains of the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him, and all of them come upon him. And would he not thus bring ease to Israel and take their sufferings on himself, no man could endure the sufferings Israel had to undergo because they neglected Torah.” –see Patai- The Messiah Texts, pg 116.
And the Zohar also says “As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land, the rituals and sacrifices they performed in the Temple removed all the diseases of the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world” – see Patai- The Messiah Texts, pg 116.
And Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Berel Wein says regarding the sufferings of the Jews being a means of atonement:
“Another consideration tinged the Jewish response to the slaughter of its people. It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to Biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as expiation for the sins the nation or the world. The stories of Isaac and of Nadav and Avihu, the prophetic description of Israel as the long-suffering servant of the Lord, the sacrificial service in the Temple – all served to reinforce this basic concept of the death of the righteous as an atonement for the sins of other men. Jews nurtured this classic idea of the death as an atonement, and this attitude towards their own tragedies was their constant companion throughout their turbulent exile. Therefore, the wholly bleak picture of unreasoning slaughter was somewhat relieved by the fact that the innocent did not die in vain and that the betterment of Israel and humankind somehow was advanced by their “stretching their neck to be slaughtered.” What is amazing is that this abstract, sophisticated, theological thought should have become so ingrained in the psyche of the people that even the least educated and most simplistic of Jews understood the lesson and acted upon it, giving up precious life in a soaring act of belief and affirmation of the better tomorrow. This spirit of the Jews is truly reflected in the historical chronicle of the time: “Would the Holy One, Blessed is he, dispense judgment without justice? But we may say that he whom God loves will be chastised. For since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation”–Berel Wein, The Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990 (Brooklyn:Shaar, 1990), 14.
The Shottenstein Talmud, a comprehensive Orthodox Jewish commentary states the following about Isaiah 53:
They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas- as disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4). Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39], smitten by God and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne instead by the Messiah [with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries]. – Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol 2. (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 2000),157.
Solomon Schechter apeaks about this issue in his book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:
The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning death extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to b.Mo’ed Qatan 28a].‘They are caught (suffer) for their sins of the generation.’ [b Shabbat 32b]. There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, ‘And he bore the sins of many’ (Isaiah 53), because of his offering himself as the atonement for Israel’s sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel when he said. ‘And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of my book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written’ (Ex. 32) [b. Sotah 14a; b Berakhoth 32a). This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs, and the Prophets citing in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, ‘Behold I am the atonement for Israel’ [Mekhilta 2a;m. Negaim 2:1]. – Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. London: 1909. Reprint. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1994, 310-311.
We also see a case for an atoning Messiah in the Prayer Book For Day of Atonement-The Musaf Prayer
“Messiah our righteousness is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have no one to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgressions. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that He may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wounds, at the time the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, By the hand of Yinnon.” -Written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir around 7th century A.D
Here are some more rabbinical sources: These are taken from Jacques Doukham, One The Way to Emmaus: Five Major Messiainc Prophecies Explained (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books, 2012), 136-137.
Messiah of Justice [Meshiah Tsidenu], though we are Thy forebears. Thou are greater than we because Thou didst bear the burden of our children’s sins and our great opresssions have fallen upon Thee….Among the peoples of the world Thou didst bring only derision and mockery to Israel…Thy skin did shrink, and thy body did become dry as wood; Thine eyes were hollowed by fasting, and thy strength became like fragmented pottery –all that came to pass because of the sins of the children-()Pesiqta Rabbati, Pisqa 37)
The Messiah King …will offer is heart to implore mercy and longsuffering for Israel, weeping and suffering for Israel, weeping and suffering as it is written in Isaiah 53:5 “He was wounded for our transgressions,” etc: when the Israelites sin, he invokes upon them mercy,as it is written: “Upon him was that chastisement that made us whole, and likewise the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And this is what the Holy One—let him be blessed forever!—decreed in order to save Israel and rejoice with Israel on the day of the resurrection. (Bereshit Rabbati on Genesis 24:67)
“Who are you, O great mountain?”…..This refers to the King Messiah. And why is He called “great mountain” Because He is greater than the patriarchs, as it is written in Isaiah 52:13 “Behold my Servant shall deal prudently, He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.” He will be more “exalted” than Abraham, more “extolled” than Moses and more “high” than the ministering angels. (Tanhuma on Genesis 27:30).
Also, “The Rabbis said: His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. [Isaiah 53:4].” – Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b.
We must not forget Moses Maimonides;(1135-1204 A.D.) His systematic compilation of the Jewish law is known as the Mishne Torah, and is the standard legal text for Judaism to this day. Note: He didn’t think for one bit that Jesus was the Messiah. He says:
What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . . And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother of family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at the fame of him — their kingdoms will be in consternation, and they themselves will be devising whether to oppose him with arms, or to adopt some different course, confessing, in fact, their inability to contend with him or ignore his presence, and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.” –The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters (New York: Ktav Publishing House, In. 1969), 5.
John Collins talks about the case for of a pre-existing suffering Messiah:
“In the late-first century CE apocalypses of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch the messiah dies. His death, however, does not involve suffering and has no atoning significance. In 4 Ezra 7:29-30, the death of the messiah marks the end of a four-hundred-year reign and is the prelude to seven days of primeval silence, followed by the resurrection. In 2 Bar 30:1, “when the time of the appearance of the messiah has been fulfilled” he returns in glory, and then all who sleep in hope of him rise.” Neither scenario bears any similarity to Isaiah 53.” -Collins, Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007, 124.
Let me close with another comment by Collins:
“The Christian belief (in a suffering Messiah) in such a figure, and the discovery of prophecies relating to him, surely arose in retrospect after the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no evidence that any first century Judaism expected such a figure, either in fulfillment of Isaiah 53 or on any other basis. The notion of a suffering and dying messiah eventually found a place in Judaism.” pg 126.
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