Given the discussion in previous posts about James Robinson’s book The Gospel of Jesus, it may not surprise you that he does not affirm the biblical and traditional understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. Robinson is careful with his words. Instead of using negative terms to boldly and forthrightly deny that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, Robinson chooses to explain the resurrection positively in terms of the disciples’ “experience” of Jesus after his death by crucifixion. Robinson claims that:
He goes on to say, “it is neither the empty tomb nor the appearances that created the Easter faith. It is, rather, the other way around” (207). Robinson describes Easter as an “experience” had by Jesus’ followers after he was killed. He does not think of Jesus’ bodily resurrection as an historical event. Rather, it is an inner and spiritual experience where the disciples realized that Jesus’ sayings still rang true and that they were responsible for spreading his message after his death.
One by one, then in smaller or larger groups, the disciples experienced Jesus still calling on them to continue his message and lifestyle. Thus he reentered their lives as they experienced anew the reality of his message and in turn were commissioned to carry it on just as he had. This is the experience that was and is the reality of Easter (206).
The problem with this theory (aside from it’s rejection of scriptural testimony) is that it does not even begin to offer a compelling historical explanation for the claim of earliest Christianity that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead. As early as twenty years after the crucifixion the resurrection was already woven deeply into the life and mission of the Christian movement. This is clearly demonstrated in the earliest available Christian documents, namely the letters of Paul from the late 40’s and early 50’s AD. So the historian must ask and answer the question of why the early church stuck with the claim that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead.
Some on both the popular and scholarly level have proposed various answers to this question. Some have argued that Jesus never actually died. Instead, he simply blacked out on the cross. Thought to be dead by the Romans Jesus was put in the tomb where he was resuscitated and then went on with his mission. First, this is an insult to the Roman soldiers. They were professional killers and they did their job well. It is historically implausible to claim that Jesus was not dead when he was taken off the cross. Second, a beaten and battered Jesus would hardly compel anyone to claim that Jesus “had gone through death and out the other side” (for both points see: N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 127). Some have argued that the early Christians simply made up the resurrection as something of a political power play. A quick reading of Paul’s prison letters, along with texts like 2 Cor. 11, should quickly dispel such a silly notion. By the end of the first century Christians were being persecuted. They were not gaining political power.
So, what happened on Easter morning? Some of the finest thinking I’ve encountered on this subject has come from the Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. I recommend his book The Challenge of Jesus (InterVarsity, 1999) as an excellent and accessible introduction to matters concerning historical Jesus research. If this book whets your appetite you can follow it’s trail to more extensive treatments of the subject. First, it is important to note what exactly was meant by the word “resurrection” in the first century. Wright demonstrates in chapter five that first century Jews had ways of talking about what happened to a person when they died. Language which referred to the departed as being spirits or angels was common. There are also texts which speak of God keeping the souls of the righteous dead safe. So, if a first century Jew had an “experience” of a dear departed one communicating with them from beyond the grave, they had language to describe that experience and it was the language of souls and spirits and dreams and such. Never did they use the language of resurrection to describe the experience of being communicated with by the deceased. That, simply put, was not what resurrection meant. This is the primary deficiency in Robinson’s thinking on the subject of Easter. He claims that the disciples had an “experience” of Jesus that convinced them that his sayings were true even though he was dead. There is no historical reason to think the disciples would have referred to this experience as resurrection. In fact, they most certainly would not have. In the Judaism of Jesus’ day the term resurrection always referred to bodies being raised from death to life.
Messianic movements were not uncommon in the 150 years either side of Jesus, and Wright points out that one of two options were available to first century Jews whose Messianic leader was killed by the Romans. They either gave up the movement or found themselves a new Messianic figure. There are examples of both in the first centuries BC and AD. Clearly, the Christians did not give up their movement. Neither did they find themselves another leader. As Wright points out James, the brother of Jesus, would have been an obvious replacement as he became a pillar of the Jerusalem church. Instead, the Christians persisted in claiming that, despite the crucifixion, Jesus was the long awaited Messiah and the proof was his bodily resurrection. Something unexpected happened on Easter that caused the disciples to believe and proclaim this good news. The only plausible historical explanation is that Jesus was indeed raised bodily from the dead. It is implausible to think that an inner experience of communication from beyond the grave caused the early Christians to create the story of the resurrection. It was indeed the empty tomb and bodily appearances of the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth that compelled his followers to go out preaching the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead!