Archive for the 'Resurrection' Category

The Foundation of Our Messianic Faith: The Resurrection of Yeshua

 

by Geert ter Horst

The Community of Yeshua’s followers is defined by the faith that Yeshua is the legitimate Messiah of Israel, and this faith is on its turn based on the fact of Yeshua’s resurrection from the dead. If Yeshua had not been raised from the dead the orthodox Jewish rejection of his Messiahship would be justified. The remarkable life of Yeshua, the prophecies he fulfilled and the miracles he performed, would not have gotten the importance they now have without the resurrection. And without the resurrection Yeshua’s preaching would not have gained the stamp of definitive and complete divine approval which it now has received from the Father who raised his Son from the grave and seated him at his right hand in glory. And in particular without the resurrection Yeshua’s shameful death on the Cross would have been the end of the movement he started and there would never have existed a community of his followers or a Christian Church of any historical impact. [1]

Historical Christianity has always laid great weight on the importance of faith in the resurrection. Although the Church has unintentionally caused damage to this faith by her doctrines of the Trinity and the Immortality of the Soul, yet it must be said that the great and normative Christian bodies — at least until recently — never compromised their faith in the bodily resurrection of our Master as a historical fact that occurred on the third day after his death.

Trinitarian doctrine has been harmful for a proper faith in the resurrection, because it introduced the belief that Yeshua, being G-d, raised himself. And it compromised the full reality of his death because G-d cannot die. The doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul compromised the full reality of Yeshua’s death in another way. If the soul is the real essence of man and lives on after the death of the body, then indestructible and immortal life seems to be acquired by death itself, not by a resurrection from it.

Nevertheless, as I said, faith in the resurrection has been preserved as essential by all the major currents of historical Christianity. The Church has always confirmed that the World to Come has arrived in the resurrection of Yeshua, and that the person of Yeshua is the necessary functional connect between this world and the next. This implies that Yeshua is the one and only decisive Mediator between G-d and man, and that the only way for man to have a portion in the World to Come is by belonging to him, by being incorporated in him.

Something seems to have happened to faith in the resurrection of Yeshua, however, since the time when dialogue with Judaism has become a factor of ongoing reflection for the Christian Church, i.e. since the end of the Second World War. From the perspective that Judaism and Christianity are partners-in-dialogue and each others equals as two religions which both have a covenant with G-d, an uneasiness has set in on the Christian side to confront the Jewish partner-in-dialogue with the historical evidence concerning the resurrection of Yeshua. Faith in the physical and historical reality of the resurrection has been perceived as a complication for the project of theological re-orientation that seeks to get rid of the curses of Replacement Theology.

In the Preface of his important book, The Open Tomb, Karel Hanhart expresses himself in this vein when he says:

[…] at the end of the twentieth century, a radical new and ecumenical approach is required. For the literalist view of the open tomb narrative has had as an unwanted byproduct an intolerant attitude vis-à-vis Judaism. An open dialogue with Jews is truly impossible if Christians believe in their hearts they have a “divine advantage” over their partners-in-dialogue because God would have incontestably tipped the scales of Truth in the Christian’s favor. Conversion is than the answer, not dialogue. [2]

Another source for doubting the physical and historical nature of Yeshua’s resurrection has been the theological enterprise started by Rudolf Bultmann, who taught that a literal understanding of the resurrection was utterly irreconcilable with the results of modern natural science. Bultmann therefore relegated the reality of the resurrection to its interior, spiritual and existential meaning, expressed in the apostolic kerugma.

In the aftermath of these attempts to reinterpret the resurrection one can seriously ask the question: what has happened to the historical evidence for it? What new facts have come to light which make it difficult or impossible to accept at face value the accounts of the Gospels?

In the case of Bultmann and his followers this evidence is enclosed within the world-view opened by natural science. Bultmann can no longer accept miracles in the classical sense of events surpassing or setting aside the laws of nature. Hanhart can no longer accept the legitimacy of the Christian project to convert the Jews, and sees the literal acceptance of the resurrection as fundamentalism and as a threat to a meaningful Jewish-Christian dialogue:

Needless to say, in our post-Auschwitz era, the importance of our inquiry is evident, especially with regard to pressing issues in the relation of Church and Synagogue. I have already noted how the fundamentalist position prevents the parties from entering into meaningful dialogue. A tenacious belief in a miraculous, and contra-natural, sign from heaven, bolstering the Christian’s dogma, inevitably generates a desire for the conversion of the Jewish partner. The new approach is an attempt to look at our common “origins” with new eyes and listen with new ears, knowing that God’s ways have not always been our ways and our ways certainly not God’s ways. [3]

A remarkable thing in both Hanhart’s and Bultmann’s arguments, however, is that they are not directly related to the question of the historical evidence for the resurrection. From the perspective of the historian who enquires this question it is simply irrelevant whether or not belief in the resurrection leads to the conviction that it is necessary to convert the Jews to Christianity. The only thing that matters for him is whether the evidence brought forth in favour of the resurrection has enough weight to support and justify the belief in the reality of this miracle. [4]

And in a similar way it is also irrelevant, from the historian’s perspective, whether or not a miracle like the resurrection is in accordance or in conflict with the laws discovered by natural science. If the natural scientist should declare that such a thing as the resurrection of Yeshua simply cannot happen, he would engage himself to a gross exaggeration of the claims of his own scientific discipline. The natural scientist has no authority to declare what can or cannot happen. He certainly may point to the regular course of nature, but without being able to declare that there is no possibility for exceptions to happen. On the basis of his science he cannot even know with certainty that the sun will rise again tomorrow. [5]

I know no better modern summary of the evidence for the historical truth of the resurrection than the one that was given by my Plymouth Brethren fellow believer, the famous New Testament scholar Frederick Fevie Bruce (1910-1990) in his fine work, The New Testament Documents: Are They Relable? In the fifth chapter of it he neatly presents his basic line of thought:

Attempts have been made to rationalize or explain away the resurrection story from the very beginning, when the detachment of the temple guard deputed to watch His tomb were bribed by the chief priests to say: ‘His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept’ (Mt. xxviii. 13). That was but the first of many rationalizations. Others have suggested that Jesus did not really die. George Moore treated this theme imaginatively in The Brook Kerith, but when we read it we realize that such a situation could have had nothing to do with the historical rise of Christianity. Other suggestions are that it was the wrong grave that the women went to; or that the Jewish authorities themselves had the body removed, lest it or the grave should become a centre of devotion and a cause of further trouble. Or the disciples all with one consent became the victims of hallucination, or experienced something quite extraordinary in the nature of extrasensory perception. (The idea that they deliberately invented the tale is very properly discountenanced as a moral and psychological impossibility.) But the one interpretation which best accounts for all the data, as well as for the abiding sequel, is that Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead was a real and objective event. [6]

His argument is mainly based on the following considerations:

As regards details of time and place, some well known difficulties arise when we compare the various accounts of resurrection appearances. Some of these difficulties might be more easily solved if we knew how the Gospel of Mark originally ended. As appears from the textual evidence, the original ending of this Gospel may have been lost at a very early date and the narrative breaks off short at xvi. 8. (The verses which follow in our Bible are a later appendix.) But when we have taken note of the difficulty of harmonizing all the accounts we are confronted with a hard core of historical fact: (a) the tomb was really empty; (b) the Lord appeared to various individuals and groups of disciples both in Judaea and in Galilee; (c) the Jewish authorities could not disprove the disciples claim that He had risen from the dead.

When, some fifty days after the crucifixion, the disciples began their public proclamation of the gospel, they put forward as the chief argument for their claims about Jesus the fact of His rising from the dead. ‘We saw Him alive,’ they asserted. Paul quotes the summaryof the evidence which he himself received . ‘He appeared to Cephas (i.e. Peter) then to the Twelve, then He appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now (c. AD 54, nearly twenty five years after the crucifixion) but some are fallen asleep; then He appeared to James [His brother], then to all the apostles’ (see I Cor. xv. 5-7). It is noteworthy that in their public references to the resurrection they did not appeal to the testimony of the women who had actually been first at the sepulchre; it would have been too easy to answer: ‘Oh, we know what value to attach to the visions of excitable women!’

As it was, the public proclamation of Christ as risen, and as therefore demonstrably the Messiah and Son of God, made an immediate and deep impression on the Jerusalem populace, so much so that the priestly authorities had soon to take steps in an attempt to check the new movement. But they were unsuccessful. If, however, Jesus had really not risen, they could surely have provided sufficient evidence to prove it. They had all the necessary power, and it was to the interest of the Roman authorities to help them. It could not have been such an insuperable difficulty to find and produce the body of Jesus, dead or (only just) alive. It was to the interest of the Sanhedrin to produce His body, or else to procure certified evidence of its disposal. The fact that the first story put about to counter the Christians’ claim was that the disciples had stolen the body simply means that the Sanhedrin did not know what had happened to it. It must be remembered that to the apostles and their opponents alike resurrection meant one thing-resurrection of the body. And if we ask why the Sanhedrin did not sponsor a more convincing story than that of the disciples’ theft, the answer no doubt is that (as Arnold Lunn puts it) they knew what they could get away with.’ They must have reviewed and regretfully dismissed several beautiful hypotheses before they settled on this as the least improbable one. [7]

He then goes on to explain the relation between the historical evidence for the resurrection and faith in it:

But, while Christ’s resurrection was proclaimed by the early Christians as a historical event, it had more than a merely historical significance for them. First ofall, it was the grand demonstration of the Messiahship of Jesus. It did not make Him Messiah, but it proved that He was Messiah. As Paul says, He was ‘declared to be the Son of God with power, . . by the resurrection of the dead’ (Rom. i. 4). Again, it was the grand demonstration of the power of God. That power had been displayed many times in the world’s history, but never with such magnificent completeness as in the resurrection of Christ. Nor is this display of God’s power simply an event in history; it has a personal meaning for every Christian, for the same victorious power thatraised Jesus from the dead is the power which operates in His followers, achieving in their lives triumph over the dominion of evil. Properly to appreciate the power of God in the resurrection of Christ, one must appreciate it in one’s own experience. That is why Paul prayed that he might thus know Christ, and ‘the power of his resurrection’ (Phil. iii. 10). [8]

Bruce rightly emphasizes that the resurrection proves that Yeshua is the Messiah, because it could never have happened except as a direct act of G-d whereby He positively and definitely pointed to Yeshua as the Anointed One. Therefore I would say that anyone who willingly and purposively disregards or denies the evidence for the resurrection should duly consider the possibility of being rebellious against G-d Himself (cf. Acts 5:39).

From this conclusion we now should go back to the question: How does the evidence for the resurrection affect the ecumenical dialogue between Jews and Christians?

It appears, from a Messianic Jewish perspective, that much ecumenical dialogue is not a real dialogue or conversation at all. Oftentimes this dialogue exists in an exchange of theological clarifications on the basis of a mutual recognition of each other’s religion, an exchange contaminated by a post-modern relativism concerning the truth. A valuable theological dialogue demands openness for each others arguments, a realization that both sides have nothing to fear from the truth, and an essential preparedness to a real change of view, with all the  consequences.

A first defect of Hanhart’s manner of reasoning as quoted above is that he is mistaken in thinking that only traditional Christians are thinking that “they have a “divine advantage” over their partners-in-dialogue”, the Jews. This bias of a divine advantage is present at the traditional Jewish side of the dialogue as well. Orthodox Judaism sees itself as the normative religion for all mankind and it has a program of Noachide mitzvot for the Gentiles. And this program of Noachidism places the non-Jews under the supervision of rabbinic authority [9].

A second defect is contained in Hanhart’s remark that “the literalist view of the open tomb narrative has had as an unwanted byproduct an intolerant attitude vis-à-vis Judaism”. This remark is based on a category mistake. Hanhart’s seemingly doesn’t realize that every religion is necessarily intolerant as to its essential contents. It is unable to compromise these contents of its teaching and practice. Tolerance between religions — or between persons of different religious persuasions — is, from the religious viewpoint itself, not based on a relativation of truth claims. It is based instead on the ethical prescriptions of one’s religion on how to deal with outsiders and opponents. And in our modern situation religious tolerance in most cases is also based on the practical recognition that — under the present circumstances and for the time being — the State should be religiously neutral.

There is still a third and more fundamental defect in Hanhart’s approach. It is contained in his tacit acceptance of the mutual exclusiveness of the categories of Judaism and Christianity, of Jew and Christian. Historically these categories were not mutually exclusive, however, and the rise of Christianity would have been impossible if they had been. And this exclusivism is again contested by the recent phenomenon of Messianic Judaism.

The danger perceived by Hanhart in a “tenacious belief in a miraculous, and contra-natural, sign from heaven”, i.e. the resurrection of Yeshua, is that it would result in “bolstering the Christian’s dogma” and “inevitably generates a desire for the conversion of the Jewish partner” [10]. Hanhart’s suggestion is here that any attempt to persuade the Jewish partner-in-dialogue of the truth of Yeshua’s resurrection immediately incites a desire to convert him to traditional Christianity. From a Messianic Jewish viewpoint such a thought would be seriously mistaken. From this viewpoint a messianic Jew remains a Jew. His covenantal obligations are not changed by his acceptance of Yeshua as the Messiah.

The great and fundamental flaw, however, in Hanhart’s line of thought is that in his view of the matter the possibility of a serious dialogue between the major and normative currents of Judaism and Christianity is dependent on giving up the “tenacious” Christian belief in the resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) as a real physical and historical event. This position thus places the results of historical research under the scrutiny and supervision of certain theologians and their agenda of ecumenical dialogue.

It is clear from the outset that such an approach of historical research is deeply flawed and essentially dishonest. The question of the historical truth of the resurrection should be investigated and answered separatedly from the question about how to confront each other in an inter-religious dialogue. In other words, if the historical evidence for Yeshua’s resurrection presents a strong case, then it presents a strong case come what may of religious dialogue. [11]

As I already said, a similar flaw is present in Bultmann’s approach of the resurrection. Bultmann places the historical evidence of the resurrection under the scrutiny and supervision of the natural scientist, who, according to his perspective, should have the authority to declare what can or cannot happen in the domain of physical reality.

Both Bultmann’s and Hanhart’s ways of thinking are philosophically flawed and examples of confusion and category-mistakes. The historical evidence for the resurrection is what it is and it should be considered on its own merits. And, as can be inferred from the Bruce’s argument above, it really presents a strong case. As believers in Messiah Yeshua we should not let ourselves become confused by considerations and viewpoints that are irrelevant as to the question whether the resurrection was a real physical and historical event. There is more than enough evidence to consider our faith to be backed and supported by the historical facts. As Messianics we don’t have to fear attacks attempted to undermine the foundation of our faith in Yeshua, his resurrection from the dead.

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[1] Cf. Wright, N.T.,  “Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins” In: Gregorianum, 2002, 83/4, 615–635; Reproduced at: NTWrightpage.

[2] Hanhart, p. ix. [Hanhart, Karel, The Open Tomb. A New Approach, Mark’s Passover Haggadah (± 72 C.E.), The Liturgical Press — Collegeville, Minnesota 1995.]

[3] Hanhart, p. 39.

[4] Cf. Wright, N.T.,  “Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection” , Lecture at Babbage Lecture Theatre, Cambridge May 15th, 2007; published at: The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion

[5] Cf. Wright, N.T., “Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem” In: Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998; Reproduced at: NTWrightpage.

[6] Bruce, F.F., The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Ch. V. First published at Inter-Varsity Press 1959 (1943).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Clorfene & Rogalsky (p. 4-5): «The hurdle that must be cleared in preparation for observing the Seven Noachide Commandments is the acceptance of the idea that mankind’s way to the Father is through the rabbis. […] If the Jews had difficulty in accepting the Oral Torah as no less divine than the scriptures themselves, how much more difficult must it be for the non-Jews. But accept the rabbis they must, for the source of understanding the Seven Noachide Commandments is found in the Talmud and the later rabbinic writings, and nowhere else.» [Clorfene, Chaim & Yakov Rogalsky, The Path of the Righteous Gentile: An Introduction to the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah, Targum Press — Southfield, Mich. 1987.]

[10] Hanhart, p. 39.

[11] Cf. Wright, N.T., “The Resurrection and the Postmodern Dilemma” In: Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998; Reproduced at: NTWrightpage.