Around this time of year, people commonly hear the typical Christian phrases, “Jesus is alive”, “Jesus is risen”, or “Jesus has conquered death”. However, many many not know what those phrases actually mean, or know the significance of those phrases to Christians.
To understand why Christ’s resurrection is important in the Christian worldview, we need to understand the Jewish context of the resurrection in the first century A.D. Why? Because the first followers of Jesus Christ (aka Christians) were originally Jews, so a large portion of their interpretation of Christ’s resurrection and its significance would derive from their understanding of the Jewish belief in “the resurrection”.
What do I mean by “the resurrection”? Is that referring to anything about Jesus? Based on the Jewish understanding of “resurrection” in the beginning of the first century, it is not. In summary, it is referring to a single time in the future when God (in the Jewish context, Israel’s God) will raise all of his people from the dead, and they will subsequently live for eternity with God in some sort of bodily form.
There are several sources that show this view was prominent among Jews in the 1st century AD. One example comes from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. To the Jews, this book would be understood as a collection of stories of Israel’s past, and prophecies (revelations) of its future. The relevant verse is Daniel 12:1-3, where the phrase “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” seems to be referring to the rising from the dead idea. However, the “like the stars” phrase, if taken literally, seems to refer to some kind of spiritual, rather than bodily, existence.
The next source, 2 Maccabees, was a Jewish writing about particular historical events of Israel. Jewish historians say that it was written sometime in the 2nd or 1st century BC. The relevant text is 2 Maccabees 7, which makes several references to the idea of the resurrection (i.e. “you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to live again forever”).
Next, the 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also refers to the resurrection several times in his writings. One of these passages is from War, 3.374, which mentions the idea of the resurrection of the body:
“Do not you know that those who depart out of this life according to the law of nature, and pay that debt which was received from God, when he that lent it us is pleased to require it back again, enjoy eternal fame; that their houses and their posterity are sure, that their souls are pure and obedient, and obtain a most holy place in heaven, from whence, in the revolutions of ages, they are again sent into pure bodies”
This is just a selection of Jewish writings that discuss this topic, but the above three passages give the general idea. The point I am making is that Jews living in the first century would have understood the term “resurrection” to mean the future event where God raises his people/followers from the dead in bodily form. This background allows us to make sense of passages in the New Testament such as John 10:37, where Martha says her brother will “rise again in the resurrection at the last day”. There were Jews who did not believe the resurrection would occur (i.e. Sadducees), but those people still would have understood what the word “resurrection” meant to an extent.
With that backdrop in place, what did the earliest followers of Christ believe about how the resurrection related to Jesus? In summary again, they believed that Jesus was the first person to go through this “resurrection” process – with God raising his body from the dead. This belief is probably shown the clearest in one of the apostle Paul’s writings, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23:
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”
So, according to Paul’s belief, Christ is the first to undergo the resurrection, and later all who are in Christ will undergo the resurrection in the future. This passage proceeds a passage that discusses Christ dying, rising, and appearing to his followers and 500 others. If Paul believed that these things happened, then he believed those appearances offered a preview of what will happen in his future. The future Jewish hope of eternal life with God has come into the present through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That hope could be realized by those who “belong to Christ”. Again, there are other examples in the New Testament of how “the resurrection” and “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” relate, but this small passage gives the idea of this belief held by one of the earliest followers of Christ.
So what does all of this mean for us today? If the events listed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that Jesus Christ of Nazareth died and rose from the dead three days later, actually happened, the hope of eternal life has been physically displayed by the post-death body of Jesus. This connection can be drawn from the Jewish context behind the teachings of Jesus, combined with his followers’ understanding of the significance of Jesus’ resurrection in light of that context.
So, Christ is “risen”, has literally “defeated death”, and is “alive” for eternity. And his followers will… well… follow him into that same resurrection. And that is one of the main reasons, among others, why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is important to people who follow Jesus Christ.
I have discussed primarily the beliefs of the earliest followers of Jesus in light of Jewish beliefs in the first century. I have not discussed the reasonableness of the truth of the resurrection, or anything else in the Bible. I may get to that at a future time, but I am going to go back to writing about truth in the next post.
As typical of a blog post, I have a lot of summarized and not-completely-backed-up things in here, so if you want to learn more about some of these ideas, I recommend two books by the New Testament historian NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God