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Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins. A Historical Argument Based Upon the High Christology of N.T. Wright. 4 Critical Questions. What did people in the first century, both pagans and Jews, hope for? What did they believe about life after death, and particularly about resurrection?

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jesus resurrection and christian origins

Jesus’ Resurrectionand Christian Origins

A Historical Argument

Based Upon the High Christology

of N.T. Wright

4 critical questions
4 Critical Questions
  • What did people in the first century, both pagans and Jews, hope for? What did they believe about life after death, and particularly about resurrection?
  • What did the early Christians believe on the same subjects? What did they hope for?
  • What reasons did the early Christians give for their hope and belief, and what did they mean by the key word ‘resurrection’ which they used of Jesus?
  • What can the historian say by way of comment on this early Christian claim?
life after death in first century paganism
Life After Death in First Century Paganism
  • Homer
    • Odysseus’s journey to the underworld
    • Hades
  • Agnosticism & Epicureanism
    • “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo”
life after death in first century paganism1
Life After Death in First Century Paganism
  • Plato
    • Blissful afterlife, at least for some
    • Possibility of reincarnation
    • Mystery Religions
  • Stoicism
    • Punctuated Equilibrium?
life after death in first century paganism2
Life After Death in First Century Paganism
  • Euripides’s play Alcestis
    • Hercules does battle with Thanatos
    • Rescues Alcestis from his clutches
    • Brings her back to sorrowing husband
  • Later Christian iconography may be influenced by this
  • Probably more “interested curiosity” than popular belief
life after death in first century paganism3
Life After Death in First Century Paganism
  • Question of bodily resurrection in paganism always nets a negative answer
    • Homer: No way back!
    • Plato: Who would want to come back?
  • Many different ideas, but one is conspicuously absent: Resurrection
    • Anastasi~ always refers to something everyone knows is impossible
    • Aeschylus’s Eumenides: “when a man has died, and his blood is spilt on the ground, there is no resurrection” Apollo
life after death in first century paganism4
Life After Death in First Century Paganism
  • Hope? Temples to the goddess Spes?
    • Temporal “this-worldly” conceptualization
      • Peace and security, social stability, good harvests, large families, good fortune
      • A lasting name and a reputation
      • Succession of one’s family, city, culture
life after death in first century paganism5
Life After Death in First Century Paganism
  • Some believed in the apotheosis of heroes and kings
    • Hercules began as a mortal and was exalted
    • Alexander & Julio-Claudians were deified
      • Various legitimating devices, such as witnessing the departed person’s soul ascending to heaven
      • Julius Caesar in the form of a comet
      • Or as an eagle, as depicted on the Arch of Titus
  • Probably not the stuff of ordinary people’s beliefs.
  • Many did believe a strong central ruler would guarantee freedom and security
life after death in first century judaism
Life After Death in First Century Judaism
  • Sheol: The abode of the dead
    • Much like Homer’s Hades
    • People are asleep, and can sometimes be awakened, as with Saul and Samuel
      • Dangerous and forbidden practice
  • Psalms explore ways in which YHWH’s love will still be known, even after death
    • Psalm 73 is the clearest statement
      • Hope beyond the grave predicated not upon the existence of an eternal soul, as in Plato, but upon the “Hesed” of YHWH here and now and into the unforseeable future as well.
life after death in first century judaism1
Life After Death in First Century Judaism
  • RESURRECTION bursts the bounds of paganism
    • Some presuppose a progression
      • No future hope --> Disembodied future hope --> Resurrection
    • Better to understand a paradox between the early idea of Sheol and the later idea of a Resurrection Hope
      • Isaiah 26; Ezekiel 37; Hosea 6 opening the way for a new view, generated by Israel’s own basic beliefs and contingent circumstances
      • Daniel 12: The new view fully expressed
    • Israel’s latter view rooted in a strong belief in the goodness of present-tense life, YHWH’s created order and human life within it
life after death in first century judaism2
Life After Death in First Century Judaism
  • RESURRECTION
    • Not just survival or a form of life after death
    • A particular belief in a future event
    • People do not pass from death to resurrection
      • Some interim period, after which the effects of death are reversed in resurrection
    • Always means the reversal, the undoing, the conquest over death and its effects.
  • Precisely what Homer, Plato, Aeschylus and the other pagans denied, and what some Jews and all early Christians affirmed
life after death in first century judaism3
Life After Death in First Century Judaism
  • RESURRECTION
    • Means being given back one’s body
    • Life after “life after death.”
    • Always includes an intermediate state
      • The righteous are in God’s hand (Wisdom 3:1)
      • A quasi-angelic intermediate existence
      • Spirits that lived on prior to the resurrection
      • Alive to God
      • Paradise (borrowed from Persians) (Zoroaster?)
        • 1 Enoch 37 -70 the peaceful garden where people rest before their new bodily life begins
life after death in first century judaism4
Life After Death in First Century Judaism
  • Not much canonical teaching
    • A wide range of beliefs, running from those who deny the resurrection to those who insist upon it
      • Saducees saw it as a political doctrine
      • Pharisees incorporated it as part of their generally revolutionary ideology
        • Incentive to martyrdom (cf Daniel & Maccabees)
      • Philo saw disembodied bliss for the immortal soul (cf Jubilees)
life after death in first century judaism5
Life After Death in First Century Judaism
  • RESURRECTION
    • Just one point on a spectrum of Jewish beliefs about life after death
  • How, then, do we find all these ideas conflating into one unified Christian concept so early in the Christian era?
life after death in first century judaism6
Life After Death in First Century Judaism
  • RESURRECTION
    • A point-in-time event
    • Part of God’s future for Israel and the World
    • Unspecific in detail
    • Some who believed in resurrection also believed in the coming of Messiah
      • Defeat YHWH’s enemies, establish YHWH’s Reign
      • A political belief as well as a theological one
  • It was from one such political, messianic renewal movement that Christianity is born, clearly making two specific claims:
    • Jesus is Messiah
    • Jesus’ resurrection proves He is Messiah
the early christian hope modified and realized
The Early Christian HopeModified and Realized
  • Early Christian views were clearly more Jewish than pagan, yet very different
    • Early Christians modified the Jewish concept
  • Christianity’s ultimate hope was always seen as the resurrection of the body
    • No range of beliefs as we find in Judaism
      • Some Corinthian Christians denied the resurrection, most likely reverting to pagan views, but Paul corrects this (1Corinthians 15:12)
      • Two named in 2 Timothy 2:18 say the resurrection has already happened, again Paul corrects
      • By the end of the first generation some were spiritualizing it, opening the door to insipient gnosticism (cf. Epistle to Rheginos)
the early christian hope modified and realized1
The Early Christian HopeModified and Realized
  • Christian Resurrection had a much more precise definition than in Judaism
    • An act of new creation
    • Accomplished by the Holy Spirit
    • Resurrection body already planned by God
      • A transformed body with different properties
      • So engrained in Early Christianity that it already affects teaching on other subjects:
        • Romans 6 (Baptism)
        • Colossians 3 (Ethics)
the early christian hope modified and realized2
The Early Christian HopeModified and Realized
  • What is “An Inheritance in Heaven?”
    • 1 Peter 1:4
    • 2 Corinthians 5:1
    • Philippians 3:20
  • The new identity which, at present, is kept safe in heaven with God, to be brought from heaven to Earth.
    • Heaven is not the Christian’s ultimate destination
    • The New Testament promises a renewed cosmos, including a renewed Earth
the early christian hope modified and realized3
The Early Christian HopeModified and Realized
  • Unlike 2nd Temple Judaism, where the Resurrection was one single, all-embracing moment
  • Early Christian Resurrection split into two parts:
    • First, the Messiah
      • Rom 1.4; 1 Cor 15.20-28.
    • Then at His coming, all His people
      • 1 Cor 15.23.
  • It makes sense, as a follow-on to 2nd Temple Judaism, but no Jew had ever said it before
the early christian hope modified and realized4
The Early Christian HopeModified and Realized
  • Jesus: The “un-messianic Messiah”
    • No decisive victory of Israel’s enemies
    • No justice and peace to the world
    • No “lion laying down with the lamb”
  • Once Jesus was crucified, why would anyone claim Him as the Messiah?
    • No succession, although James was a good candidate
the early christian hope from theology to story
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • Early Christians retained the Jewish belief in resurrection
    • Modified it
    • Sharpened it
  • They also retained the Jewish idea of a coming Messiah
    • Kept Jesus as Messiah, rather than a successor to the position as we would expect
  • Their explanation of this was that Jesus was bodily raised from death three days after His crucifixion
the early christian hope from theology to story1
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • Moving Onward
    • Did the Disciples invent the idea of His resurrection from Jesus’ teaching?
      • They didn’t need to do that. Other Jewish “Messiahs” had died and remained heroes, and their movements flourished.
      • Still doesn’t account for the modifications and new focus they gave to the existing Jewish notions of resurrection.
the early christian hope from theology to story2
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • Did the Early Church invent the resurrection stories?
    • Some have said, Jesus’ followers came first to a belief in his exaltation, and they deduced from this, either by logic or devotion, that he had been raised from the dead.
      • The logic fails at every point when we remind ourselves of how these ideas worked within the historical world of the first century.
      • Resurrection was something that had to do with bodies and would occur to all people at a future time. Why would the Early Church use that term when they knew it meant something else?
the early christian hope from theology to story3
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • When Paul sums up the Gospel tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:21 it is clear that the Gospel is about an event which occurred at some interval after Jesus’ death
    • Paul’s summary must also have agreed with Cephas and Apollos, otherwise the Corinthians would have been able to challenge him on it.
    • Jews had well-developed ways of talking about martyrs being honored and respected, and they believed that they would be raised in the future.
the early christian hope from theology to story4
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • The story could only have developed from Resurrection to Christology. No possibility exists for it to have developed in reverse.
  • Even if the story were fabricated, why would Jews use Resurrection and Messianic hope so differently from what they had been taught?
the early christian hope from theology to story5
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • RESURRECTION: the thing Aeschylus said could never happen, that Daniel had assured the Jews would happen to all God’s people at once, had happened to Jesus, all by Himself. This is clearly what the early Christians meant to say.
  • They were using the language of Resurrection and Messiahship in their normal sense.
the early christian hope from theology to story6
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • Matthew records the debate that occurred, that some said Jesus’ body was stolen, and others said it wasn’t.
    • This in itself tells us that in the first century ‘resurrection’ wasn’t about exaltation, spiritual presence, a sense of forgiveness, or divinization; it was about bodies and tombs. This was what they meant when they said Jesus was “raised from the dead” as proof of His Messiahship
the early christian hope from theology to story7
The Early Christian HopeFrom Theology to Story
  • Luke and John tell much fuller stories about the resurrection
    • Stories which provided the basis for the transformed belief about resurrection outlined earlier:
    • Stories about Jesus’ body being neither abandoned (as though he had simply ‘gone to heaven’ and was now a ‘spiritual’, ‘non-bodily’ presence) nor merely resuscitated, like Lazarus, and like (perhaps) the martyrs expected to be, but transformed.
the early christian hope from story to event
The Early Christian HopeFrom Story to Event
  • What can the historian say that will account for the early Christians’ claim that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead?
  • 3 Kinds of unbelieving explanations
    • Jesus didn’t really die
    • Someone stole the body, leaving an empty tomb
    • Post-resurrection appearances were visions or mass-hallucinations
the early christian hope from story to event1
The Early Christian HopeFrom Story to Event

Christian historians have our work cut out for us

  • We must show that Jesus really died
  • We must deal with the stolen body and wrong tomb theories
  • We must show that the Disciples really did see and speak to a figure who was not only demonstrably the crucified Jesus, but who showed Himself to be in some ways different, though not different in the ways one might expect after reading Daniel or Isaiah.
the early christian hope from story to event2
The Early Christian HopeFrom Story to Event

Historians are not impeached by their point of view.

  • We believe testimony from a host of historical sources that obviously have something to prove and so are writing their history.
  • The fact that a historian has a point of view doesn’t mean that nothing happened!
the early christian hope from story to event3
The Early Christian HopeFrom Story to Event

We must also take care not to allow the historical method to become Lord, to set the boundaries of what we can know.

  • We can know, apart from historical proof, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that is the proof of His Messiahship
the early christian hope from story to event4
The Early Christian HopeFrom Story to Event
  • The resurrection did not “prove” that Jesus is divine.
    • What if the thief had been raised? Would everyone think he was God?
    • It was Jesus’ declaration that He was/is Messiah, the Son of God, coupled with His resurrection that gives us the basis for belief in His deity.
the early christian hope from story to event5
The Early Christian HopeFrom Story to Event

Historical investigation, I propose, brings us to the point where we must say that the tomb previously housing a thoroughly dead Jesus was empty, and that his followers saw and met someone they were convinced was this same Jesus, bodily alive though in a new, transformed fashion. The empty tomb on the one hand and the convincing appearances of Jesus on the other are the two conclusions the historian must draw. I do not think that history can force us to draw any particular further deductions beyond these two phenomena; the conclusion the disciples drew is there for the taking, but it is open to us, as it was to them, to remain cautious. Thomas waited a week before believing what he had been told. On Matthew’s mountain, some had their doubts.

the early christian hope from story to event6
The Early Christian HopeFrom Story to Event

However, the elegance and simplicity of explaining the two outstanding phenomena, the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances, by means of one another, ought to be obvious. Were it not for the astounding, and world-view-challenging, claim that is thereby made, I think everyone would long since have concluded that this was the correct historical result. If some other account explained the rise of Christianity as naturally, completely and satisfyingly as does the early Christians’ belief, while leaving normal worldviews intact, it would be accepted without demur.

the early christian hope conclusions
The Early Christian HopeConclusions

What we are left with, then, is this:

  • The single greatest and most powerful evidence of the veracity of the Christian Gospel lies with those who first believed, and then spoke clearly about what they knew to be true.
  • The empty tomb and the personal appearances of Jesus afterward are the most incontrovertible evidence there is!