If the idea of a physical resurrection was a strictly Jewish belief, were they expecting a risen messiah or something else entirely?
We’ve looked at a number of Jewish works that indicate that Judaism believed in a physical resurrection of some sort (link 1 below). Let’s define that a little more as we turn to the origins of the Christian version of resurrection.
Did Jews believe in a resurrected messiah or else a man who was crucified, buried, and risen from the dead? Sources of Jewish resurrection belief don’t indicate that this was the case, however, following the resurrection of Jesus many prophetic texts in the Old Testament were reinterpreted in light of it. But what caused this reinterpretation if not an event significant enough to change the way people had seen and interpreted Scripture for centuries? A couple of examples from Scripture can give us a clear idea as to how Jewish belief changed before and after this event.
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever….But go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days (Daniel 12:2-3; 13).
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead (Isaiah 26:19).
I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes (Hosea 13:14).
Before the event that sparked the Christian movement, the Jews believed in a resurrection of the saints at a future, eschatological time, where there will be a new Heaven and a new earth (see N.T. Wright The Resurrection of the Son of God p. 146-206). What they were not expecting was the physical resurrection of a single person before this time (and by resurrection, we mean a transformation into a physical, glorified body and not something like a zombie!) but that’s exactly what the Christians believed. In fact, the Christians went a step further. Not only did they believe that a single man had been resurrected before the end time, but they also centred their entire theology around this theme, that because the man they called Christ defeated death and the grave, we too will be resurrected at the end of time. For the Jews, the future resurrection was a single, isolated fraction of their theology. For the Christians, it was the centre of their theology and the lens with which they began to interpret the Old Testament.
The Jews believed that martyrs would go to be in the hands of God, however, that was merely a temporary state of existence until the resurrection of the saints at the end of time. No one believed that a martyr could be raised from the dead before then. The Jews could find comfort in the death of their leaders and friends before the idea of Jesus’ resurrection ever came to be. So there was absolutely no need for this change unless something happened that was powerful enough to prompt it. That a change in theology this significant happened out of thin air? That is highly unlikely, if not impossible.
Once again, I cannot understate how significant this change was. Remember Paul’s teaching of the resurrected body in 1 Corinthians 15 (link 2 below)? Nowhere in the Old Testament do we see this teaching represented. The Jews understood that the resurrected body will be physical, but there still existed some degree of variation (would it be like a shining star as Daniel describes, or would it be a body like ours?). The Christians, on the other hand, had no question as to what this body would be like because they claimed to have an example in Christ. If Christians wanted an idea of what the resurrected body was like, they wouldn’t have found much in the Old Testament to work with, if anything at all. This is why Paul didn’t draw from it to support his teaching to the Corinthians on the resurrected body.
Another way Jewish expectations did not line up with Christian beliefs is in the death of the messiah. Jews believed that the messiah was someone who would fulfil the promise to restore the twelve tribes of Judah, to forgive their sins, crush their enemies, and bring forth a new Davidic king and establish a new covenant. What they did not expect was a messiah who would be beaten, scorned, mocked and laughed at, scourged, and shamefully crucified by the hands of the Romans, their enemies. Furthermore, the messiah was expected to be a mighty conqueror like David, not a carpenter from Nazareth! But the Christians believed that Jesus really was the messiah they had been waiting for. Why? Because they believed He had overthrown death and sin’s curse by His resurrection. This is a significant piece of evidence that we will look further into at a later stage of this series. For our purposes here, it’s enough to understand that Jesus subverted every expectation the Jews had of the messiah and yet, somehow, He came to be worshipped as such.
This is in stark contrast to other self-professed messiahs before and after that time. We have not a single piece of evidence that any messianic figure that began a movement was remembered as such after their death. Unlike Jesus, it wasn’t because of their death that they came to be known as the messiah, it was because of their death that they came to be known as frauds and liars. What happened then was their followers either went back to normal life or found a brand new messiah. We have not a single piece of evidence that the Christians ever saw Jesus the same way. No one went back to normal life and no one ever abandoned their faith to find another messiah. Instead, it was the event that happened after the death of Jesus that started the movement we know today as Christianity. This movement resulted in the deaths of hundreds of believers, accumulating at the reign of Nero in A.D. 70. And yet, despite vicious persecution, no one ever recanted the claim that Jesus had been raised.
Skeptics may have you believe that Christianity probably arose from Jewish beliefs with the help of a little bit of imagination and/or legendary tampering. Or more unfounded still that the ancients were merely given to any and every superstition under the sun, and that if someone claimed Jesus had risen, they would have believed it without a second thought. But in reality, the resurrection belief could not have originated any other way than by the witnessing of the risen Jesus. Anything else is highly improbable or else historically impossible. I’ll leave with these words from professor N.T. Wright.