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Resurrection, Belief, and the 1st Century Jew

Paul Gauguin The Yellow Christ 5 Resurrection, Belief, and the 1st Century JewIt seems clear the 1st century Jew would hold a Messiah dying before completing his work as disqualifying that person for recognition as the Christ. This goes against their understanding of the tasks the Messiah would accomplish. However, Christian apologists often hold one of the strongest evidences for the resurrection of Christ is the 1st century Jewish belief system. It is widely held that the idea of resurrection was impossible for the 1st century Jew.

William Lane Craig, who I respect immensely, uses this proof often. “The Jewish concept of resurrection was radically different than Jesus’ resurrection…No where does one find in the literature of ancient Judaism anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus.”

Dr. Craig explains the Jewish concept well from 29:00 minutes in, in the  The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction presentation of 2005 at California State University, Fresno. Please see Veritas to view or download here.

I paraphrase Dr. Craig – During the time between the old and new testaments, the Jewish belief in resurrection flowered being written about often in Jewish literature of that period. This concept of resurrection differed in two fundamental respects. In Jewish thought, the resurrection occurred after the end of the world, never within history. And two, it included all the people and not one individual. In contradiction to this, Jesus’ resurrection was both within history and of an isolated individual.

During the 2009 debate between Hitchens/Craig, Dr. Craig states, “Jewish beliefs about the afterlife prohibited anyone’s rising from the dead before the resurrection at the end of the world.”

This understanding adds tremendous credibility to the Disciples’ testimony. They have a willingness to believe and die for something they would have considered anathema, mainly a resurrected person before the end of the world. Since only an actually resurrected person would have made them change this core belief, the resurrection must be true.

I’ve looked around for my Alpha Course book, but can’t find it. I clearly remember this being taught as proof of the resurrection. At the time, it sounded weak because a look into history has in general shown people to be very open to the supernatural in the past. But the more I heard scholars use this idea, the more I believed there must be ample evidence in Jewish literature, for which I have no knowledge, to back up this claim.

But a few verses in our own Bible, all pre-resurrection, proves this is a perfectly false claim. The 1st century Jew appears completely open to resurrection; open to resurrection before the end of the world and open to the resurrection of one individual.

Mat 14:12  At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus, and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Luk 9:7-8  Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen again.

Luke 9:18-19  And it happened that while He was praying alone, the disciples were with Him, and He questioned them, saying, “Who do the people say that I am?” 19 They answered and said, “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; but others, that one of the prophets of old has risen again.”

Matthew 16:13-17 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

14  And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
15  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
16  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17  And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

Malachi 4:5     “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.

Matthew 17:10     And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”


In Malachi 4:5 and Matthew 17:10, we see Jews were not only open to resurrection. The scribes read the Bible to be saying expect Elijah to come before the Messiah. We see the people know this story as the scribes interpret. Elijah could then come as spirit only, possibly as Peter & John witnessed in Matthew 17:3. He could have come as himself fully resurrected as Jesus. Lastly, he could have been resurrected into a different person (we might say reincarnated) as in Matthew 16:14.

Many of the witnesses who saw Jesus after the resurrection did not recognize him at first, some not until he left. If we hold to the apologists’ concept that the 1st century Jewish view on resurrection is an important proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and if we use the Bible as I think I have shown here as a view into 1st century Jewish beliefs on resurrection, then we must conclude using Matthew 16:14 that most of the people who met Jesus after his resurrection who viewed him as another person are not reliable. There are two other alternatives. Disregard the Bible’s reliability. Or lastly, disregard 1st century Jewish beliefs as indicators for or against the validity of the resurrection of Jesus.

In one sense I’m glad this leg has been kicked out from under me. But let me first say, I’m not so happy to have one of the points which had strengthened my belief in the resurrection of Jesus so easily dismissed. Much emphasis has been made of this point while it is easily dismissed by anyone who has spent time in the Bible. As a new Christian, you have to rely on others who have had years to read the material before you. Worst of all, if I can debunk this idea using the Bible alone in the less than year and a half I have been a Christian, there’s something very wrong with our peer review system. I hope atheists pick up on this. They have done a great service in forcing me to know the reasons I believe. And I think they will do a great service in removing this blank from the apologists’ arsenal.

On the positive side, Dr. Craig along with other apologists have done a tremendous service in teaching about the historical Jesus and reliability of the Bible. I think I would be lucky to be only stumbling greatly if it were not for their research which brings secular claims into the true light. I may have backsliden completely.

Most importantly, it was the belief in God which led me to Christ. Since the belief in God came before Christ, whenever I have some issue with the story of Christ, God just leads me back to Christ.

1 Comment

  1. According to my research Craig and Wright, who seem to depend heavily on the point you are disagreeing with, dismiss this argument. Both of them seem very comfortable with the above verses not contradicting their point that 1st century Jews were certain that the resurrection would not happen in the middle of time. They appear confident that the verses you quote are not relating to ‘resurrection’ but some kind of spiritual lineage. Sort of like ‘his spirit lives in through so and so’. Craig justifies this by saying that Herod would have known Jesus and John were contemporaries and couldn’t have seriously expected that Jesus was John back from the dead. I don’t really remember Wright’s justification but I think his research has just made him very confident. I have found both of their responses too brief to be convincing but I’m leaning towards trusting them so I’m trying to research this issue further.
    Another point in your favour by the way. I can this of a 1st century Jew who certainly expected the Messiah to die and be resurrected, Jesus of Nazareth. How did he come to form this belief? Perhaps by searching the Old Testament (I’ve been listening carefully to a couple of lectures by Craig today and he does seem to tend to treat Jesus as if he formed beliefs about his vocation through natural/non-revelatory means). If he could come up with this (which I think Craig believes he did), then how can Craig argue that Peter wouldn’t have? Tricky! I wish I could ask Craig myself, I’ve tried but he’s too busy I think.

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