March 31, 2008
Old Testament Prophecies of Jesus' Resurrection
The New Testament authors point to many Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection in their writings. Some skeptics have claimed the gospels were actually fabricated by those looking for prophetic fulfillment. Here, Dr. Craig dispels such claims by explaining that first century Jews would never read the suspected prophetic passages and apply them to a dying and rising messiah in the manner the New Testament does. It is only after their encounters with the risen Christ that His disciples would seek to understand how the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection fit with the events they had experienced.
Dr Craig, I am a undergraduate from New Zealand studying Philosophy, and have been an avid reader of theology since last year. In one of your debates you attack the Bultmannian view of how the early Christians came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, by searching the Old Testament scriptures.
You state "But the problem with that is that these passages in the Old Testament just are too obscure, too ambiguous, for them to come up with the sort of resurrection belief on that basis."
However, many theologians hold this view as a probable view of how the early Christians came to believe in the risen Christ, including specialists in the Old Testament such as Lloyd Geering (sorry for the New Zealand bias).
My question is, how would you respond to the theologians that hold this belief?
Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection
The older view that sees the origin of the disciples’ belief in their searching the Scriptures in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and finding the idea of a dying and rising Messiah there, which they then (sincerely) applied to Jesus, has now been widely abandoned in New Testament scholarship, though one still finds it expressed by older scholars like Geering and even, to my surprise, on the lips of a Bart Ehrman (see his closing statement of our debate where he finally reveals what he thinks really happened).
Early Christians were convinced that Jesus’ resurrection, like his crucifixion, was, in the words of the old tradition quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. 3-5, “in accordance with the Scriptures.” In Luke’s story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus chastises the two travelers: “ ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24. 26-27). Similarly, in John’s account of Peter and the Beloved Disciple’s inspection of the empty tomb, John reflects that they did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection until finding the tomb empty, save for the abandoned grave clothes, because “as yet they did not know the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20.9).
Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection – Jews would not naturally draw such conclusions
The difficulty is that when we ask, “What Scriptures are they thinking of?”, we come up with sparse results. Hosea 6.2 — “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”—has been suggested because it mentions the “third day” motif found in the old formula cited by Paul. But Hosea 6.2 is never explicitly cited by any New Testament author, much less applied to Jesus’ resurrection. In the apostolic sermons in the Acts of the Apostles, we find Psalm 16.10 interpreted in terms of Jesus’ resurrection: “For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit.” But if we look at the principal Old Testament passage cited in the Gospels with respect to Jesus’ resurrection, we find the story of Jonah and the whale. “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12.40).
Now the problem for the theory in question is that nobody, especially a first century Jew, reading the story of Jonah and the whale would think that this has anything whatsoever to do with Jesus’ burial and resurrection! Similarly for Psalm 16.10; this has to do with David’s confidence that God will not allow him to see defeat and death. And as for Hosea 6.2, this has nothing to do with resurrection of the dead but with the restoration of the national fortunes of Israel.
The point is that no one who did not already have a belief in Jesus’ resurrection would find in these Scriptures any impetus to think that Jesus had been raised from the dead. To this we may add the fact that in Jewish belief the resurrection of the dead was always an event at the end of the world involving all the people, an event which obviously had not yet taken place. The problem many people, even some scholars, have is not being able to put themselves in the shoes of a first century Jew confronted with Jesus’ crucifixion—they tend to look at the disciples’ situation through the rearview mirror of 2,000 years of Christian theology, and so the idea of his rising from the dead seems natural to them, when in fact it is an anachronism.
Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection – The disciples sought to explain real experiences
Once the disciples came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, then they could go to the Scriptures looking for verses to validate their belief and experience, and passages like Jonah and the whale and Psalm 16.10 could be re-interpreted in light of Jesus’ resurrection. But to think that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection was derived from the Old Testament is to put the cart before the horse; it gets things exactly backwards.
Add to the obscurity of these texts and the unJewishness of reading them in terms of resurrection the time factor. John Dominic Crossan, former chairman of the sceptical Jesus Seminar, who believes that the story of Jesus’ Passion was similarly spun out of Old Testament Scriptures, estimates that it would take five to ten years for the church to find the Scriptures necessary to construct the Passion story. But Paul’s tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 antedates even the lower limit set by Crossan and includes not just Jesus’ death and burial, but his resurrection and appearances! And Crossan admits that when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, one cannot similarly explain that belief as originating in the Old Testament Scriptures because there simply aren’t any materials in the Old Testament that would suffice to generate such a belief.
Rather most contemporary scholars see the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection as originating in their experiences of seeing post-mortem appearances of Jesus, as attested in Paul’s early formula. The question then arises as to how to account for these experiences and whether such experiences are a sufficient cause of the disciples’ belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
You might want to look at my debate with J. S. Spong ("The Great Resurrection Debate (DVD)"), who also presents a compelling case that something really dramatic must have happened to the disciples to convince them that Jesus was risen from the dead. I offer a critique of his “Simple Simon” hypothesis to explain what that “something” was. The most thorough examination of the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection is N. T. Wright’s massive The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
Since you’re from New Zealand, I want to alert you to the fact that I’ll be there speaking in June. I’ll be participating in a conference at the University of Victoria on middle knowledge and then speaking in Auckland and elsewhere. My hosts are trying to set up a debate on the resurrection with Geering himself. Check the Calendar on this site as the date nears!