Doctrine of Christ (part 21)

March 07, 2012     Time: 00:26:50

Let’s return to the subject of the resurrection of Jesus. What we are doing now is going through a detailed apology for the resurrection of Jesus, for the literal view.

Fact #4: The Disciples’ Belief in the Resurrection

You will remember I said that there are two steps in constructing such a defense of the resurrection. First is: explain what are the facts to be explained. Then step two is: what is the best explanation of those facts? In terms of the facts to be explained, we come today to the fourth of the four main facts undergirding the inference to the resurrection, and this is that the original disciples came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary.

Think of the situation that these original disciples faced following Jesus’ crucifixion:

(1) Their leader was dead. Jewish Messianic expectations had no idea of a dying, much less rising, Messiah. The prominent concept of the Messiah in first century Judaism was that of a royal, Davidic king – a warrior king who would throw off Israel’s enemies. And in first century, that meant Rome! He would throw off the yoke of Rome and reestablish a Jewish kingdom – the throne of David centered in Jerusalem –, and the Jewish and Gentile people alike would be submitted to him and under his reign. The idea that Messiah, instead of establishing the throne of David and the kingdom of God in Jerusalem, would be humiliatingly defeated by his enemies and executed as a common criminal was just a contradiction in terms. The crucifixion of Jesus was a disaster for the disciples, not simply because their beloved master was gone, but because it exposed any Messianic pretensions that he might have had as being utterly vacuous and unfounded.

(2) It gets worse: according to Jewish law, Jesus’ execution as a criminal exposed him as a heretic, a man who was literally under the curse of God. In the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 21:23, it says that God’s curse is upon anyone who is executed by hanging on a tree1. The Jews applied this to crucifixion as well because the person was hung, as it were, on the wood of the cross. Therefore, he fell under this malediction of Deuteronomy 21:23. So the crucifixion, in a sense, showed that the chief priests had been right all along; that for three years these disciples had been following a heretic, a man who was literally accursed by God.

(3) Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising to glory and immortality before the general resurrection at the end of the world.2 In Jewish thought, the resurrection to glory and immortality was always a general resurrection of all the righteous dead which would take place at the end of the world on Judgment Day. There is absolutely nothing in Jewish literature that speaks of a resurrection of someone as an isolated individual apart from the general resurrection and of the resurrection of an individual within history rather than at the end of the world. Certainly, in Judaism, what we might call revivifications of the dead were known. For example, Elijah raised people back to life.3 In Jesus’ own ministry, he is said to have raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead back to life.4 Or the widow of Nain’s son was brought back to life.5 And, of course Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, was brought back to life by Jesus.6 But these were not, properly speaking, resurrections of the dead because this was not a resurrection to glory and immortality, to eternal life. This was just a revivification – a return to the mortal life. The person is still a mortal human being who will succumb eventually to disease and old age, who is still sinful, hasn’t been delivered from the ravages and curse of sin. Therefore this isn’t, properly speaking, a resurrection of the dead. It is just a revivification of the dead. The idea that someone could be literally raised from the dead to glory and immortality within history, apart from the general resurrection of the dead, was just completely unknown in Judaism.

Confronted with Jesus’ crucifixion, at best what the disciples could have done was to simply preserve their master’s tomb as a shrine where his bones could reside until the resurrection at the end of the world. For Jews, it was the preservation of the bones that was important. The bones were the principal object of the eventual resurrection of the dead. That is why they would carefully collect the bones of the dead after the flesh had decomposed and put them in ossuaries and then set them in tombs until the resurrection at the end of the age. So the best the disciples could have done with the remains of Jesus was simply to preserve his tomb as a shrine where his bones could rest until that day when they and all of the righteous dead of Israel would be reunited with him in the Kingdom of God. But they wouldn’t come up with the un-Jewish and outlandish idea that he was already risen from the dead.

However, despite every predisposition to the contrary, it is an incontrovertible fact that the original disciples did suddenly and sincerely come to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead. That requires some sort of an explanation. How do you explain the origin of the disciples’ belief in this very un-Jewish and outlandish idea? Luke Johnson, who is a very prominent New Testament scholar at Emory University, has said, “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.”7 You have got to have some sort of powerful, transformative event in the lives of these people to generate the movement, to explain what happened. N. T. Wright, who wrote an 800 page book on this very subject, concludes, “That is why, as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”8


Question: If the disciples could not proof-text the Messiahship of Jesus from the Old Testament . . . right? I assume they weren’t going to do that?

Answer: Obviously, they could look in the Old Testament to see what it said about Messiah – to see if something like this would be expected. Is that what you mean?

Followup: Yeah, if the Old Testament is not clear enough for the disciples, before Jesus’ death, to proof-text his death and resurrection from it, then how did they argue he is the Messiah after? Why would they do that?

Answer: I think you are making an excellent point. When you look at the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, they give virtually no clue that Messiah isn’t going to be this triumphant warrior king that was expected. This is what was supposed to happen. His government was supposed to be without end, and he was supposed to rule in Jerusalem. So scholars are generally agreed that you can’t explain the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection by saying they went back to the Old Testament and found these proof texts that would lead them to think that he is risen from the dead.9 Those proof texts just aren’t there. It is only in retrospect, after they’ve come to believe that he is risen from the dead, that they can go back to the Old Testament and find these proof texts, like Psalm 16:10: “thou wilt not allow thy holy one to seek corruption,”10 which Peter interprets in light of Jesus’ resurrection.11 Or the prophecies about Jonah in the whale for three days and three nights, or Hosea 6:2, where it says that after two days the Lord will restore us; on the third day, he will raise us up. These can then be read in light of the resurrection and new meaning put into them. But you would not, from those verses alone, come to the idea of the resurrection. They could only be seen after you’ve come to believe that and then read in retrospect. So that is why the old view that the disciples came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection just by reading the Old Testament is now virtually universally rejected by New Testament scholars. The materials just aren’t there. They are too ambiguous.

Followup: I’d ask anyone witnessing to Jews to be careful of this. It is not just so unbelievably obvious that you can proof-text Jesus.

Answer: I think that is right. I think we need to be quite candid with our Jewish friends and say apart from the event of Jesus and what happened, you wouldn’t ever think that these prophesies were talking about these things, especially something like Psalm 16:10 – it doesn’t seem to have any connection. It is only in retrospect that these things can be seen in this way. I think we should be candid and honest with our Jewish friends about this and say it is in light of what the disciples experienced that they could now read the Scriptures in a new way. That is the point that Luke Timothy Johnson was making. Some kind of powerful, transformative experience is required here. It is not enough just to say they looked back in the Old Testament and cooked up the idea of Messiah dying for our sins and being raised from the dead.

Question: I agree with what you are trying to do to nuance a position. In Acts 17 it says as was his custom, Paul went in amongst unbelieving Jews in the synagogue and reasoned from the Scriptures in support of Christ. The people he was speaking to, they wouldn’t believe in this retrospective reading, so how was this done?

Answer: That is exactly the problem, isn’t it? When Paul would try to argue with them from the Scriptures, he didn’t convince them all. Some of them would be convinced, but others would say, “You are a heretic; you are mad!” And then they would kick him out of the synagogue, and Paul would say “You thrust eternal life from you. All right, I’m going to the Gentiles.”12 So it is precisely because of the point we were just making that Jews weren’t always convinced when Paul would argue from the Old Testament Scriptures. It really is reinforcing the point I am trying to make.

Question: I think if we were to ask a show of hands of everybody in here if they believe because they researched the Book really carefully and you read all the things that said Jesus was the Way, or was there an experience in your life that “poof!”, almost a sudden change within, that basically comes from God that says “OK, I am removing your blinders and the plugs from your ears and you will now understand who my Son is.” I doubt if the majority or any of us struggled through this book to say “OK, I have enough evidence now, I’ll be a Christian.” It doesn’t happen that way.

Answer: That is interesting, what you just said, because in light of what the previous point was, how does Paul interpret this problem? He says, whenever Jews read the Scriptures, a veil lies over their minds so that they can’t understand it. He says only when a person comes to the Lord is the veil removed, and he says this comes from the Spirit of Christ.13 Yes, it is very interesting to read these passages in light of this.

Question: I have always taken that story about the two people on the way to Emmaus when Jesus joined them14 and it says, “And he opened up the Scriptures to them” to mean exactly what you are saying. He told them what all these Scriptures were, and they turned around and went back to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples and said, “Hey! He’s around!”

Answer: That’s a perfect example of what I am talking about, where Jesus helps them to see in the Scriptures what they, themselves, couldn’t see.15 They said, “We had hoped he was the Messiah, the one to deliver Israel, and now certain women of our company have amazed us; they went to his tomb, but his body they couldn’t find.” And then Jesus rebukes them; and it says he opened their hearts to understand the Scriptures, and he proved to them from the Scriptures that the Christ must suffer these things and rise from the dead. So it wasn’t something that you would naturally, as a Jew, infer from these Scriptures. It was only in retrospect that you could look back and interpret these Scriptures and say, “Oh, now I see it clearly!” So the question is – what is this transformative experience that Johnson speaks about that would switch the disciples so that they could now see these Scriptures in this way? What I will argue is, it is the event of the resurrection. It is Jesus rising from the dead. That is what enabled them now to believe that he was risen from the dead and then to read the Old Testament in a new way.

Question: You could get some Old Testament background for the resurrection of Jesus and the suffering from Isaiah 52 and 53. I think that is some pretty strong text there about him suffering and being glorified.

Answer: I am sure that these were the passages that the early church would look to. They would interpret the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 as a Messianic figure. Now prior to Jesus, that chapter wasn’t read in that way. That wasn’t read as being a Messianic passage. Even in that passage, I think the resurrection is hinted at, but it is not something that you would infer unless you were looking for it. It says something like, “He shall prolong his days;” “He shall see his progeny and be glad.” It kind of hints at it, but you have got to put yourself back in the position of a first century Jew who has never heard of Christianity before. You can’t look at this in the rearview mirror of Christian history and ask yourself, “How would he have read these passages?” He probably would not have said, “Oh, this is teaching that he is going to be killed and then raised from the dead.”

Question: I think God explains that the blindness is still on the Jews in part, so that salvation can be extended to us, the Gentiles. I was thinking also it applies for right now, today; not just an initial message to be taken to the Gentiles. But suppose all of Israel had become followers; there would still be sin and trouble in the world. When we look back, we wouldn’t have this clear evidence that it was amazing that they changed their position because they would have said things would have been changed by time. So having them not accept him becomes a great basis to see the radical transformation of the disciples.

Answer: N. T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God refers to these changes as “mutations” in Jewish belief about the resurrection. Jews believed in the resurrection at the end of the world – the general resurrection to glory and immortality of the righteous dead. But what Wright wants to know is, what produced the mutations in this Jewish belief that was characteristic of the earliest Christians? – namely, an isolated individual has been raised from the dead in advance, and they connect it with the Messiah – which was never done before. So it is these mutations, as it were, of traditional Jewish beliefs that cry out for some sort of explanation on the part of the historian. Most scholars, as I say, would agree that it is not convincing to say, “Well, they read the Old Testament and came to these conclusions.” You have got to have some kind of radical experience. One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever read of this point is actually from John Shelby Spong, who is a critic of the resurrection. But Spong is very adamant that there has to be some kind of radical, deep experience on the part of the disciples. Something happened to these men to make them believe something so un-Jewish and so different from what they had been raised in when they were confronted with Jesus’ death. So this is a point that I think is generally recognized and does call out for some explanation.16

Question: I agree with what has been said 100%. I would like to just ask the question about Nicodemus. Did Jesus . . . when he said to Nicodemus “You are a teacher?” it is like “You ought to know,” when he was explaining to Nicodemus.17 Can you give a little explanation on that, when he said, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Then it goes on to say “We speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen.”

Answer: Of course, as far as I know, the resurrection wasn’t under discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, right? There isn’t any suggestion there that that was the topic.

Followup: Right, this was before the resurrection. But it is out of Jesus’ own mouth – these people should have known, who were teachers of the Old Testament Scripture.

Answer: Right, but what is it that he says they should have known? I am not sure.

Followup: That’s my question!

Answer: It seems to have something to do with maybe the Son of Man?

Followup: It was about being born again, and he didn’t understand.

Answer: The need for spiritual rebirth.

Followup: Right – so there must be something in the Old Testament Scripture that he should have known.

Answer: Yeah, I am only talking about two things here. That is, first, that the Messiah would be humiliatingly executed like a common criminal and defeated and, secondly, that he would be raised from the dead as an isolated individual in advance of the general resurrection. Those are the two things that I am saying no one would expect to read off of the Old Testament.

Followup: But you said something about there was no concept of the Messiah in the Old Testament.

Answer: No, no, you misunderstood me! What I said was there wasn’t any clear concept in the Old Testament that Messiah would come and be humiliatingly executed as a common criminal rather than establishing the throne of David in Jerusalem and throwing off the enemies of Israel and the Gentiles and the Jews would be in submission to this great warrior king, who would be like a new David. That was what I was saying you don’t find in the Old Testament. Of course, there are Messianic prophesies in the Old Testament, and these Messianic prophesies are prophesies of this great king who would come – remember in Isaiah 9 where it says the government will be upon his shoulder, and his reign will be forever, and of the peace and of his kingdom there will be no end? There was this great Messianic expectation in Judaism. When you read intertestamental literature, that is to say, Jewish literature in between the close of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus, you have this same anticipation of this Messianic king. The Psalms of Solomon, for example; this is a pseudepigraphical book that is not really written by Solomon and not really part of the Old Testament. It is part of this intertestamental Jewish literature. The Psalms of Solomon extols the greatness of this Messianic king when he will come and refers to him as “the Lord” and describes how he will put the Gentiles in subjection under his feet and all people will come and worship him and he will teach them like a shepherd. It is quite remarkable when you see these Messianic prophesies that were not only in the Old Testament but also in this intertestamental literature. But I am only focusing on those two elements, saying those elements are not ones that one would naturally infer from reading the Old Testament – namely, the idea that a Messiah would be shamefully treated and killed like a common criminal and that he would be raised from the dead in advance of the general resurrection. Those things are things that could be seen only in retrospect, I think. That is all I am saying.

Question: Is there any commentary other than religious commentary, say, from Josephus or other authors of the day that would address this issue.

Answer: You know, Josephus certainly does talk about Messianic movements, but he doesn’t reflect on them in light of the event of Jesus’ coming and death. He does talk a lot about these Messiahs that would come, and he says they were plentiful. There were lots of them, he said, who would claim to be the king of Israel, would generate a following, and then they would all meet the same fate. The Romans would kill them, and the movements would dissipate.18 So Josephus is helpful in seeing what the normal course of events were for these failed Messianic pretenders, which is what Jesus would have been. As N. T. Wright says, in no case across the first century before Jesus or the first century after Jesus do we have any of the followers of these failed Messianic movements claiming that their would-be king really was the Messiah after all or that he had been raised from the dead. He says when your favorite Messiah got himself killed, you basically had two choices: either you went home or you got yourself a new Messiah! But what happened in the case of Jesus is unique – it is extraordinary. And that calls out for some explanation.

What we will do next time, having these four facts in place (the honorable burial of Jesus, the discovery of his empty tomb, the postmortem appearances to various individuals and groups, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection), is look at what is the best explanation of those four facts. We will consider what I have called the Resurrection Hypothesis, which is the original explanation the disciples gave: “God raised him from the dead.” This will then take us into a discussion of David Hume’s argument against miracles, Plantinga’s argument from dwindling probabilities, and how we should assess competing explanations of these four facts in order to find the best explanation.19


1 “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

2 4:54

3 cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24

4 cf. Luke 8:41-42; 8:49-56

5 cf. Luke 7:11-16

6 cf. John 11:38-44

7 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), p. 136

8 N. T. Wright, “The New Unimproved Jesus,” Christianity Today (September 13, 1993), p. 26.

9 10:01

10 “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (Psalms 16:10, KJV).

11 cf. Acts 2:14-36

12 cf. Acts 13:46

13 cf. 2 Corinthians 3:14-18

14 cf. Luke 24:13-35

15 15:04

16 20:00

17 cf. John 3:10

18 25:03

19 Total Running Time: 26:50 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)