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My experience over the last 54 years as a believer attending church Sunday by Sunday has been that the resurrection is usually referred to in a vague sort of way; I don't remember ever hearing a detailed account of the events surrounding Jesus' miraculous rising from the dead and what it meant to the first Christians. It is as though Bible teachers have become so affected by the doubts generated by 200 years of liberal theological theories that they have come to see the resurrection as a distant hope for the faithful, rather than a series of events which happened to real people. Theological disbelief surrounding the origins of these accounts has become so widespread that speakers today seem embarrassed to talk about them. Christians say to one another “He is risen!” at Easter, but they don't have much idea of what actually happened. Those fateful days transformed the poorly educated, quarrelsome followers of one Jewish rabbi into a force which took on the many powerful pagan religions of the Roman Empire, and won. Jesus had said they would, on that final visit to Caesarea Philippi. It is the transformation of the disciples that is the most powerful evidence of all for the historical accuracy of the Gospel texts.
This was an event completely unexpected by the disciples. Good Friday was regarded by all Jesus' followers as utter disaster and the end of all their hopes. Nothing they were aware of in Judaism or any other religion expressed a hope of a physical return to life; life after death was seen very much by Jews as the survival of their families and the nation – apart from a few oblique references in the Old Testament to a distant life to come (Job 19:25 etc.). The resurrection was totally unprecedented, apart from the raising of Jairus' daughter, the widow's son at Nain, and Lazarus. However, these were resuscitations of physical bodies which ultimately died, and depended on Jesus, the miracle-worker, being present. With Jesus dead and in the tomb, no doubt his followers thought his powers had died with him – so the shock of his rising from the dead was all the greater. As Wright points out, the resurrected Jesus was able to appear and disappear at will, and could apparently move through walls without opening doors. Jesus' resurrection body was clearly some sort of new creation, which Wright calls “revivication”61
The events were investigated by Frank Morison, a London barrister, with the intention of disproving a story which he regarded as clearly untrue and therefore misleading – a story which ought to be laid to rest once and for all. In the meticulous investigation which his forensic legal mind was able to apply, he identified a great deal of information about the events both within the New Testament and in letters that early Christians wrote to one another during the 2nd Century AD. There is a great deal of information available, and I will identify some of these sources below:
What Jesus said.
Matthew 12:38-40, 16:21, 17:9, 17:22-23, 20:18-19, 26:32ff
Mark 8:31 to 9:1, 9:10, 9:31, 14:28-58, 10:32
John 2:19-22, 12:34, and chapters 14-17.
What the New Testament Documents say:
Matthew 28:1-11, Mark 16, Luke 24,
John 20 and 21, 1 Corinthians 15:1-14
Resurrection referred to as an accepted historical fact by:
a) Leaders of the early Church:
Ignatius of Antioch AD 50-115, Justin Martyr AD 100, Polycarp AD 150,
Tertullian of Carthage AD 160-220, and Origen AD 203-250.
Josephus, a Jew, writing around AD 80-90, and Tacitus, the Roman historian AD 110.
c) References in letters written by Christians
available in “Documents of the early Church” edited by Stephenson.
Taken together, the texts outline the following sequence of events in considerable detail:-
That Jesus was certainly dead.
Descriptions of the tomb, its ownership and situation in a garden where there was a wine press.
The hurried burial by Joseph and his servants.
The large stone which was rolled across the entrance.
The fact that the stone had a seal placed upon it.
The tomb was guarded under the leadership of the Servant of the High Priest.
An earthquake occurred very early on the morning of the first day of the week.
Detailed descriptions of how the Lord appeared to individuals and their shocked reactions.
In writing his book during 1929 (it was first published in 1930) Morison found that the case he was attempting to put together (to disprove the resurrection as a historical fact) refused to be written. This was simply because the information he had amassed would only fit together one way – that is, that the story was absolutely true! The Gospel accounts all differed considerably in detail, and this fact made them in his view more plausible as reports of eye witnesses (who saw the events from different viewpoints). This characteristic alone lent tremendous authenticity to their evidence. Morison's experience in the Law Courts had taught him how genuine witness statements to a single event differ, whereas false statements, the subject of collusion and prior preparation, tend to agree fairly accurately with one another. It was his lawyer's training which enabled him to see the picture forming in his mind as completely genuine – an event which really had taken place. It was during 1929 that the whole purpose for writing his book changed: Morison himself became a convinced believer in Jesus and his message. It is a wonderful story, and his book “Who moved the stone?” has recently been republished by S.T.L.
According to Paul, it is the resurrection which is the foundation of our faith. (1 Cor. 15:17).
I have been surprised throughout my Christian life to have met very few with a firm grasp of these events.
In 1988 I was at the Easter celebrations at the Christ Apostolic Church in Ibadan, Nigeria. (For “apostolic” understand “presbyterian”, as labels in Africa differ from those in the United Kingdom.) Tens of thousands of worshippers in a high state of excitement came and went throughout a non-stop 3-day celebration of worship and feasting. I was called upon to preach at around 3 a.m on Easter Sunday morning as the congregation couldn't wait any longer to praise their resurrected Lord – Easter in Ibadan is a wonderful occasion! At about 2 minutes' notice, halfway through the hymn before the message, Dr. Abiara turned to me and said “You are the next speaker. You have 45 minutes to describe the people, the places, and the events where it all happened, please”. I could see it all in my mind's eye – years earlier I had travelled out to Jerusalem on my motorcycle and spent several months visiting the sites, which had become well known to me. Frank Morison's book helped enormously to piece together the sequence of events almost moment by moment.
As I started to speak in that enormous auditorium, 37,000 people were totally silent, many peering through the windows, unable to find room inside. People were standing on the roofs of cars, trying to get a look in and be part of the Easter event. Translation into two local languages meant that the message took a lot longer than 45 minutes.... but there was mounting excitement as I recounted the whole story – up to the point where Jesus is raised and appears to Mary Magdalene. Then there were shouts of joy, and as I described each successive appearance to the astonished disciples, every time the whole congregation spontaneously erupted with more shouts of delight – hearing the whole story for the very first time was a tremendous experience for them all, and I could tell from their reaction how they were imagining themselves there, living through it all.
By the time I reached the end of the account about 4.30 a.m, the church was in uproar – people were dancing, singing and praising God, and the worship leader had to bang a huge gong for several minutes to restore calm! To have been part of an occasion like that is perhaps the greatest experience in a preacher's life, and I feel immensely privileged to have been there. This congregation really got it!
(At about 5 a.m I was whisked off to preach the same message again at another of Abiara's huge churches, 2 hours away down a dirt road, in a town way out in the bush, where the message was greeted with equal enthusiasm and joy.)
Morison's excellent account is as follows:
Joseph of Arimathea was apparently a rich and influential member of the Sanhedrin, who possessed a family tomb outside the Damascus gate on the north side of the city of Jerusalem. It is the only possible site for the tomb as described in the Gospel accounts: – there was a garden there, and also a wine press – both features are mentioned by Morison's sources. I spent a great deal of time there and went over the whole district carefully over several weeks at different times, starting in 1958. I knew Dr. Mattar, the Jordanian archaeologist who excavated the site, and who discovered the remains of a 1st Century building erected on the front of the tomb – and a cross, dating possibly from the 2nd or 3rd Century AD. Dr. Mattar was tragically killed in the 1967 six-day war when Israel captured the whole of the West Bank.
During long conversations with Dr. Mattar, he referred to the “official” site of the crucifixion and tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: these are marble monuments constructed in the 4th Century AD, by Queen Helena, a relative of Constantine, the Roman Emperor. She came to Jerusalem wanting to build a great monument to commemorate the site of the Easter events. Dr. Mattar pointed out that the site chosen for the great church she built in the centre of Jerusalem could not have been outside the city wall during the 1st Century as described in the texts. He thought that local believers would have been keen to preserve their ownership of the real sites, and so directed her building operations elsewhere.
Joseph was in a great hurry to care for the body of Jesus as it was between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m when he made his request. The body had to be laid to rest before 6 p.m on Friday as the Sabbath (which is of course Saturday in Judaism) would begin at that time. No work, and certainly nothing to do with dead bodies, could be carried out on the Sabbath. The burial was therefore a hasty affair: Joseph's servants would have had much to do. The recovery of the body was an unpleasant and difficult task, and would have been carried out after most people had left the scene of the crucifixion; it had to be carried 200 metres to the tomb. The body was placed in the innermost of two small chambers cut out of the solid rock, in the face of a small cliff. This inner chamber (which is easy to visit today) has a bench cut at half ceiling height on either side, presumably so that Joseph and his wife could ultimately lie buried together. Golgotha (Aramaic for “the place of the skull”), where the crucifixion was carried out, is in front of an adjoining cliff to the east of the tomb and has on its face three shallow caves which give the appearance of a human skull.
The sites of the crucifixion and the tomb itself were originally identified by General Gordon in 1858. These are the only locations around Jerusalem which could possibly fit the descriptions set out in the various texts.
Joseph's negotiations with Pilate took some time, because the death had occurred sooner than Pilate would have expected: it had to be verified by the Centurion in charge. It would have been getting late in the afternoon before Joseph could have recovered the body and placed it in his tomb. (It was quite usual for wealthy people to have their own tombs made in those days.) The body would be laid out, wrapped in a sheet, the jaw tied up with a separate strip of cloth under the chin and over the top of the head to prevent the mouth gaping as rigor mortis set in. Joseph and his servants would then withdraw and secure the tomb by means of an extremely heavy stone cut like a large millstone, slightly flattened on one edge. This would be rolled across the entrance to the tomb, and come to rest with a clunk on its flat surface, in a channel cut for it at the foot of the rock face, by the doorway. The stone is now missing, but to cover the entrance and to fit the slot in which it ran, I calculate that it must have weighed around 5 tons, with some sort of lever system to move it. That was probably as far as they got with the burial in the time available that evening. The customary embalming, application of myrrh and unguents etc. would have to wait until after the Sabbath. The door would then have been sealed. Many wealthy people were buried with their most loved or treasured possessions, which unfortunately often attracted grave-robbers.
However, the Chief Priests were anxious that the disciples might steal the body, in order to pretend that Jesus had been resurrected, as he had claimed would happen. The Chief Priests seem to have paid more attention to Christ's predictions than the disciples themselves. They therefore asked Pilate for a Roman guard to be placed on the tomb, but he refused, having already washed his hands publicly of the affair. Pilate's response, “You have a guard” has been taken to mean that he agreed to the request – however, Morison suggests that he was telling them to use their own guard, the Temple guard, and that this was why the Servant of the High Priest was involved. This seems much more likely. The Servant of the High Priest did not carry out menial tasks but was a most important official who had the job of enforcing the High Priest's orders. Morison's sources say the detachment of Temple guards would have been stationed in front of the tomb, and that the Servant of the High Priest was the officer in charge. This gives a good indication of how seriously the High Priest took the security of the Jesus' body. And of course, nothing happened... the body was safely sealed in the tomb, and under guard. By 6 p.m on Friday all was secure. The Sabbath could begin.
Time passed. A night and a day. 24 hours to 6 p.m Saturday, the end of Sabbath. Jesus' followers, frightened men and women, were probably scattering, and the disciples were in hiding. By midnight on Saturday, 30 hours have passed. It is Sunday morning, the first day of the week.
At around 4 a.m the gates of the city are opened so that the agricultural workers can go out in the coolest part of the day. The women would have got up early to prepare for the awful task ahead of embalming a body which has been dead for many hours, and in that climate flesh rots quickly. They would have pails of spices and bandages to do the work, normally the task of female relatives of the deceased. (In the 1st Century AD, children's games mirrored their future role in society – boys would play weddings, and girls would play funerals, according to Derrett.)
Morison thought that the actual resurrection event took place sometime between 3 a.m and 4 a.m when the body would have been in the tomb 33 or 34 hours. Jesus himself forecast that he would be in the tomb 3 days. The expression “three days” is an Aramaic idiomatic expression meaning “a short time”62
As the women go out through the gates, the very first signs of the new day are beginning to appear. In that eerie light, various people are entering the city, including a group of Temple guards talking animatedly amongst themselves. Only 200 yards up the main road, which leads to Damascus, on the right hand side, the women turn off into the garden and are surprised to find the tomb abandoned, the stone rolled at least halfway back. Very concerned, they squeeze into the darkness of the tomb – but instead of a dead body, they find a young man, very much alive. He tells them that Jesus is risen, and as he promised, wants to meet them all back home in Galilee! Terrified, most of the women run back to the city in some confusion – but Mary Magdaelene stays behind. She sees a figure across the garden, and assumes it is the gardener. John is the only Gospel to refer to this meeting, recording Mary as the first to recognise the risen Lord. As the “gardener” turns towards her, he uses a name for her which is obviously very special to them both – he calls her “Mariam”.. and she recognises him instantly. His use of this name is highly significant and refers to the name of Moses' sister, who was instrumental in rescuing him from the side of the Nile in the basket that his mother had placed him in: she was probably a symbol of new life to them both.
What actually happened at the tomb in the early hours of that first Easter morning? Morison's sources state that quite a substantial earthquake took place around that time, which destroyed a number of buildings and caused considerable dust and panic. When the soldiers had picked themselves up and dusted themselves down, they would have noticed that the stone at the tomb entrance had partially rolled back. Peering inside with their torches, they would be able to see from the doorway that the body had gone. Withdrawing in confusion, the guards feared severe punishment for failing in their duty to keep the body secure: nevertheless, they were bound to hurry back into the city to report. The Priests, however, created an alibi for them – that the disciples had stolen the body.
Mary went back and told some of the disciples, and Peter and John rushed out to the tomb. John arrived first but stopped outside the door, allowing an impatient Peter to push in ahead of him. Peter found the grave cloth which had covered the body lying on the floor, and in the corner, separately, the strip of cloth which had tied up the jaw.
It has been a popular theory amongst many scholars that the young man mentioned by Mark in the earliest Gospel, who addressed the women as they entered the tomb and alarmed them so much, may have been Mark himself.63 Morison thinks that such a young man might easily run to the tomb out of curiosity on overhearing the soldiers discussing the missing body as they re-entered the city at 4 a.m. He would then have arrived at the tomb just moments before the women. Could he have been the same young man mentioned in the Garden of Gethsemane as losing his robe as he escaped during Jesus' arrest? We simply don't know. There are precedents for insignificant players in a particular sequence of events including themselves in the story anonymously in this way. As the edition of Mark we have in our Bibles was, we are told, the one that he produced during his final years as an old man in Rome, long after the deaths of Peter and Paul, he might well have desired to affirm “I was there” in this way, to lend weight to the accuracy of his account64
The accounts all agree that everyone who meets with Jesus is absolutely astonished and totally convinced that it is he, and that he is alive. Wright asserts that the resurrection body in the way it is described in the New Testament, refers to a new kind of body, and to much more than mere resuscitation. Wright calls it “revivication”. As the event was totally unprecedented, and never entered the heads of Jesus' followers particularly in view of the events of Good Friday, psychologists affirm that none of the resurrection accounts could have been wish fulfilment or hallucination.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend, apparently did not recognise Jesus for much of the afternoon as he walked alongside them, explaining the Scriptures. Emmaus has been incorrectly identified on most modern archaeological maps as lying to the west/north-west of Jerusalem. The Emmaus of the New Testament was 7 miles to the north of the Damascus gate just off the Damascus road, on the way to Galilee. The disciples were probably hurrying home to Galilee, travelling, unusually, in the heat of the day, in their haste to leave Jerusalem, where they might fear arrest. One of the reasons they would not have recognised Jesus was that the type of head-dress they wore took the form of a sort of hood, concealing much of the face – to be sunburned or tanned was undesirable in that society – so both they and the traveller who joined them would be covered up as much as possible. It isn't in the least surprising, therefore, that they didn't recognise him, particularly as they were convinced that Jesus was dead and buried, so the possibility of meeting him was never in their minds.
It is important to note that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection do not contain an exhaustive list of all those who became witnesses of Jesus' resurrection appearances. Over the next days 19 individuals, many of them named, are listed as having met the risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (Mt. 28:1), Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-31), Peter and the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:5-8) , James (the Lord's brother) and lastly Paul on the Damascus road. “The Twelve” by then must have excluded Judas Iscariot who had committed suicide (Matthew 27:3-5) but presumably included Barsabbas and Matthias (Acts 1:23), and those with them (Luke 24:33-36). In addition, more than 500 are mentioned by Paul as having seen him on one occasion alone (1 Corinthians 15:6) – so the number of witnesses was considerable. The impact of the reports of those who had seen him would have been considerable on those who had not. There were a very large number of people in Jerusalem who were perfectly clear that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They were sharing the news with just about everybody they met. Despite the pathetic attempts by the Chief Priests to claim that the body had been stolen, the truth was already widely known!
Besides the news circulating of Jesus' resurrection, it also came as a considerable shock to the authorities when the disciples started performing miracles the name of the risen Jesus. Peter and John, the two main leaders, were pulled in for questioning. These formerly terrified, uneducated fishermen were prepared to stand up and tell their rulers in no uncertain terms how wrong they were to have condemned Jesus (Acts 4). The priests really did not know what to do about them: on this occasion they were beaten and allowed to go, with threats of further punishment if they continued with their teaching. The result was that miracles continued, the disciples remained free to preach, and found favour with an ever-increasing and substantial number of the people of Jerusalem (Acts 4). The main concern of the Chief Priests throughout was always to preserve their own positions and their careers as the perceived spiritual leaders of the nation. Their relatively light-handed action against Peter and John clearly indicates their failure to see them as any sort of long-term threat. The fact that they were not scholars seems to have led to their being regarded with some contempt by officialdom.
It is difficult to tell how long the believers continued to meet at the Temple, in some sort of co-existence with the official Judaism of the day. Solomon's portico is thought to have been an architectural feature which offered shade, almost certainly one of many around the outer courtyard of the Temple area, where it would have been comfortable for religious Teachers to meet their disciples for periods of discussion. Jesus had often taught his followers there, and they seem to have followed that tradition in the early days when they attracted considerable numbers to their meetings. They probably continued to meet there until the ultimate split with Judaism sometime around the time of the murder of James, the Lord's brother who seems to have led the Jerusalem church for many years65
In Luke's accounts in Acts, we hear of the believers becoming a more cohesive group, caring for one another and sharing their possessions in common. The story of Ananias and Sapphira tells how the wealthier believers sold up their possessions to provide financial support for the less well-off in the group.
In Acts 5 there are the extraordinary stories of miraculous healings, principally through Peter and John. The religious authorities were by now becoming much more concerned about the popularity of this new movement, due to the wonderful things that God was doing. So – Peter and John were arrested on the orders of the High Priest and thrown into jail. However, in the middle of the night, the Angel of the Lord unlocked the prison and let them out! They immediately returned to the Temple, continuing their preaching to the people. The officials sent to bring them to the Council of the Sanhedrin had to hunt for them in the jail. In their confusion, a bystander reported “The men you put in prison are in the Temple, teaching the people!” When they were eventually brought before the Council, Peter openly stood up and proclaimed that Jesus had become “Leader and Saviour” .... “to give the people of Israel the opportunity to repent and have their sins forgiven. We are witnesses to these things, we and the Holy Spirit, who is God's gift to those who obey him.” GNB.
The resulting anger of the Council was only controlled by the intervention of the widely respected Rabbi named Gamaliel, who advised caution in dealing with these men. He pointed out that if God were not in what they were doing, the movement would automatically die. He said “Be careful, you could find yourselves fighting against God.” So the Council had them beaten – again – and let them go. The Apostles left the Council extremely happy to be counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of Jesus.
It is worth noting the effect that persecution had on those early believers throughout the book of Acts. They clearly felt elated. I was once arrested for preaching on the streets of Athens, and was marched off to the central Police Station; there I had the opportunity to preach to those inside while waiting to be interviewed by the Police Chief. Much to my surprise, I remember feeling totally (and probably somewhat irrationally) joyful. It was a marvellous feeling to be arrested for preaching about Jesus! Human reactions can be really interesting – as well as unexpected!
In Acts 6 we see the appearance of outstanding young Christian leaders including Stephen “a man richly blessed by God and full of power, who performed great miracles and wonders among the people”. Verse 10: “The Spirit gave Stephen such wisdom that when he spoke, his opponents could not refute him”GNB. It seems he had become so important that the authorities saw him as a much greater threat than the simple fishermen, Peter and John. Stephen – like them – was put on trial for false teaching against the Temple and the Law of Moses. As he stood up in the Council to make his defence, he showed enormous moral stature and authority. The account says “his face looked like the face of an angel”. Although alone, it is clear that he totally dominated the situation. The authority with which he spoke on the history of Israel and its repeated disobedience to God's Laws was an extremely powerful indictment – quoting the fact that while Moses was receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, the people and their leaders were all busy making an image of the old pagan god. (Exodus 32: 1-5).
After a long speech, Stephen condemns his accusers as stubborn, with heathen hearts, deaf to God's message. He tells them they are just like their faithless ancestors, always resisting the Holy Spirit. He asks “Was there any prophet that your ancestors did not persecute or kill, particularly the ones who announced the coming of God's Righteous Servant? And now you have betrayed and murdered him.”(Acts 7: 54 ff) GNB.
Stephen's speech is much more than a courageous statement by an early Christian. It is a powerful and correct interpretation of Jewish history, which the Sanhedrin would well know, being versed in the matter themselves. But much more than that, it amounts to a formal indictment for conspiring to murder an innocent man, purely out of self-interest, without regard to what was right and proper as custodians of the official Jewish legal system. Commentators have often seen Stephen as a victim of the inevitable events which followed his accusation. The accounts say “They became furious and ground their teeth at him in anger”... but Stephen's steadfast response was “Look, I can see Heaven opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” GNB.
The Sanhedrin was cornered. I think as a result of this speech they became desperate men. They dared not allow this sort of message to be proclaimed publicly. Stephen had to be eliminated, immediately. So – like many criminals, they found it necessary to commit a further criminal act – they went ahead and murdered Stephen as well.
Criminals throughout history have often found that one murder leads to another, and then another. The Irish Republican Army murdered a businessman in Belfast because he would not allow his company to engage in fund-raising for their movement. A bus driver and a young housewife who witnessed the event and recognised the killers went to the police. A week or two later, the bus driver was shot as he sat in his cab at traffic lights, and the young woman, the mother of six, was kidnapped and beaten to death on a beach. This is the kind of action we see here in the account of the authorities' behaviour.
It is interesting how the purposes of religious authorities can become so dramatically different from the will of God. Political expediency, preservation of position and authority, take precedence over all other considerations in the minds of such men. As with all such texts, Luke's report is likely to be a very much shortened version of what Stephen actually said. There is a great deal of material in Ezekiel, for example, to which Stephen may well have referred. Ezekiel had a vision of the religious leaders of their day secretly worshipping Baal and Molech actually inside Solomon's Temple. (Ezekiel 8). This would indicate the levels of depravity to which the religious leaders in Jerusalem had fallen in the past. Murder was by no means the worst of their crimes.
Luke reports that the church in Jerusalem began to suffer cruel persecution from that day on (Acts 8:1). There begins the mass exodus from Jerusalem, principally to Antioch in Syria, which seems to have become the main centre for the early church. This was where the followers of Jesus first became known as “Christians”.
Finally, in the last recorded appearance of the risen Jesus in the New Testament (apart from Revelation), Luke records in detail how the Lord appeared to Saul on his way to arrest the group of believers who had fled to Damascus. Luke may have been a convert of Paul; the vivid account of Paul's conversion in Acts is doubtless the result of discussions he had with Paul, probably during the missionary journeys, that Luke recorded in Acts. Both his Gospel and the book of Acts reveal Luke as a meticulous and careful recorder of events.
(Luke's choice of stories from the wide range of accounts available in the oral tradition reveal him as someone with a clear mind, and a delightful sense of humour (such as the story of little Mr. Good – a wonderful pun on Zacchaeus' name). Luke had great interest in the devastating response Jesus made to Simon the Pharisee, and the sheer brilliance of the way he dealt with the woman taken in adultery (now in John's Gospel, but originally a Lucan account) – it is Luke's understanding of the niceties of contemporary rabbinical debate which seem to me conclusively to refute the idea that he could possibly have been a Gentile.)
It is not generally understood what an enormously difficult task the Apostles faced as they went off into a pagan world to present Jesus and his message. Pagan gods were expected to be success stories with limitless power to produce immediate and victorious results: to present as “Son of God” a Lord who had been crucified – the ultimate disgrace – was an immediate contradiction in terms. Paul's audience in the synagogues found it hard enough to accept – in the pagan world, it was an even bigger problem. It was the resurrection which changed everything. Luke records that Jesus' appearance to Saul was such a traumatic event that he was blind for several days, until visited by the Christian Ananias in Damascus, who explained what he should do and prayed for his sight to be restored.
Taking a new name, Paul records in Galatians how he then spent 3 years in Arabia and 14 years in Syrian Cilicia, where his home city of Tarsus was situated. Robert Jewett, the Roman Catholic scholar and authority on the dates of Paul's life, is uncertain whether the 3 was included in, or additional to, the 14 years. Either way, Paul spent many years thinking through his experience on the Damascus road before the start of his ministry. His response to its impact on his life, as the archetype of Jewish legal scholars, should be our clearest guide to understanding the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection.
Paul (as the interpreter of Jesus and his message for the Gentile world) clearly understands that, in the death of Christ, salvation is available by grace alone. He outlines his entire theological understanding in his letter to the Romans, the reading of which has led to the conversion of so many – but it is the centrality of the resurrection which is so important to Paul. Our familiarity with his theology through his letters has inevitably dimmed our appreciation of the enormous intellectual leap that was involved in his conversion from Hasidic Judaism to Christianity.
Judaism in the time of Christ consisted in the attempt of the religious few to bully the nation into keeping God's Laws through minutely detailed and very strict religious practices. Many of these rules were additions to the already complex demands of Mosaic Law. Individuals in that society were not very responsive to being ordered about (as in any other society!). The result was that in Jesus' day, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law would have regarded the vast majority of the population as lost. Wright's assessment that there were so few seriously religious people at the time shows how badly the system was failing.
In Ephesians, Chapter 1, Paul sets out the four major consequences of the death and resurrection of Jesus:
As believers in Jesus, we become sons and daughters of God – that is to say, part of God's new family, something that religious legal observances could not achieve.
We receive the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who will make us wise, revealing God so that we shall all know him.
We shall receive “new eyes” as the Authorised version puts it, or as some other translations put it, “our minds shall be opened to see the light” – another way of saying that we will see life from a different viewpoint. It is certainly true to say that people who become believers do develop new aspirations – such as the delightful desire of the Christian church throughout history to care for the poor, and a real concern for “the lost” who are often people living with life-controlling problems and in total despair.
The power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead is available to us, his followers:
today Christ rules above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers and laws.
He has a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and the next – he is supreme Lord over all things. We, the Church, are Christ's agents.
Paul is implying that “The People of God” are no longer the Jewish nation but the new Christian church, the body of Christ. Paul himself exemplifies this enormous transition. His experience of the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road, clearly thought through over the 14 year period he mentions in Galatians, led him inexorably to the conclusions he reached.
It is the great tragedy of Judaism that in rejecting Jesus and his message, the Hasidic vision for a powerful Israel, victorious against their Roman oppressors through an expected intervention by God on their behalf, led to their disastrous revolt against Roman rule in AD 66-70. This is what caused their ultimate destruction as a nation. What the Maccabean (Glossary)dynasty had achieved 200 years earlier with victory over their Greek oppressors simply did not work against the far more powerful armies of the Roman Empire. Jesus clearly foresaw what would happen – no wonder he wept over Jerusalem in that final week. It is one of the great tragedies of history – an outcome all too likely when religious authority falls into the hands of the unscrupulous. The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the public failure of the Hasidic vision of Israel as a sort of “mini super-State” left Judaism in disarray. The resulting lack of confidence certainly encouraged the steady growth of the Christian faith.
Both then and now, and indeed throughout history, national religious institutions have fought to prevent the rise of evangelical Christianity. It is a threat to their position as religious leaders of their people. In 1st Century Christianity, the public preaching of Jesus, the Cross, and the Resurrection, led to large numbers of the population finding personal faith in Christ. By the 4th Century AD, the Church had become an institution falling under the control of the rulers of the Empire in Rome. Huge cathedrals were built throughout the Empire; in many cases the old pagan temples – such as the temple of Apollo in Syracuse – became Christianised religious centres. They featured ceremonies and rites involving veneration of various “Saints” alongside the “Holy Family”. The urgency to preach the Gospel was abandoned in favour of the mass baptism of populations to bring them under the control of the State religious authorities. Appointments to positions of leadership within the Church were often politically motivated and strictly controlled, so that only those of a particular religious viewpoint could be promoted. From this flowed the ordination system of many religious bodies today. Then, and throughout history, those who understood the Christian message and sought to preach the Gospel in all its majestic simplicity were systematically persecuted and silenced.
The Barnabas Project has initiated a lot of research into the rise of Islam, particularly between AD 600 and AD 800 (www.barnabasfund.org). They found that during those years Islam obliterated most of the main great centres of Christianity throughout North Africa and the Middle East, killing something like 50% of all the Christians in the world at the time. Forced conversions to Islam of whole populations took place on a wide scale during that period. The Crusades (of which there were seven between 1096 and 1270) were an attempt to stop this process.
In Europe there was the Roman Catholic Inquisition: after around 1600 it succeeded in virtually eliminating the emerging evangelical church of Spain, by a process of mass murder. Three thousand people were burned to death in Llerena alone, according to the city archives. Anabaptists (glossary) and others in Europe were persecuted and killed. Several of those who were translating the Bible into local languages, so that ordinary people (who were not taught Latin) could discover for themselves the Word of God, were also killed. (At Trinity College we had a table in the library which belonged to William Tyndale who was one of these martyrs, murdered in Belgium in1536.)
This is an indication of the extraordinary animosity that organised religion had for those who sought personal faith in Jesus, and who preached about him and his message. In England, the dreadful persecution of the Puritans by the Anglican Church has been extensively documented by Dr. J. I Packer who often preached on the subject when we were at Trinity Theological College in the 1970's. I have often experienced violent reactions by the modern equivalent of these people in continental Europe, who are desperately concerned to prevent their countrymen hearing about Jesus and his message.
These desperate attempts to keep the Gospel away are aimed at preserving the religious status quo: however in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the old order of things is reversed. When Jesus is preached, the hearts of individuals are changed, and the power structures of organised religion become irrelevant.
In this book we have made a number of very significant points:
That the Gospel documents are indeed the earliest documents of the Christian faith. The false, totally unsubstantiated claims of much of modern theology that they were written late in the 1st Century or early in the 2nd by people who could not possibly have known much about Jesus, are now shown to be absurd. The idea that the whole of the New Testament was not completed well before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 has been shown by Robinson and others to be quite wrong. Although an argument from silence is said to be weak, there would certainly have been reference to the catastrophic Jewish war of 66-70 AD if any of the documents which formed the New Testament had been written after that date. The total lack of any reference to those terrible events is very strong evidence that the documents preceded them.
We have shown that much New Testament scholarship has been greatly diminished by the lack of understanding of Jewish culture and customary law before AD 70. Both Wright and Vermès refer to the impossibility of any clear understanding of Jesus outside his culture.
We hope to have assisted readers to understand that miracles are not a problem to faith, nor are the stories of, for example, the Star of Bethlehem, anything less than real events that people witnessed, spoke of, and wrote about. Those in front-line Christian ministry witness so many “divine appointments” and other wonderful interventions by the Holy Spirit that we have no doubt that those recorded in the Gospels are accurate, historical and true.
We have noted that throughout the Gospel accounts, each refers to Jesus' immense stature in the eyes of the people. They infer that this led to a great lessening in the credibility of the religious authorities. The Lord's ministry, with the large numbers of people who flocked to hear him, was overwhelming, particularly the huge crowd at his back as he made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The priests, the Levites, the Temple guards were unable to resist the huge tide of humanity sweeping into the Temple that day. The fact that they took such desperate measures in the middle of the night to secure Jesus' execution by the Roman Governor demonstrates the fearful panic they were in. Pilate was most reluctant to comply with their wishes, knowing perfectly well what the priests' motives were.
The events of the Resurrection, experienced by so many people over more than a month, are indeed real events which happened to ordinary people. The faith of the early Church is incomprehensible without it.
The fact that there are so many “career clergymen”, who do not regard whole sections of the Bible as historically accurate, means that they do not have a traditional Christian faith. This results in the Church presenting a very uncertain message to the population. This is the inevitable outcome where Church government, under the overall control of the Head of State, assumes the role of appointing its ministers instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to do so.
What do governments and authorities find so objectionable about Jesus? Why do they so hate Jesus and his followers? Let Jesus speak for himself:
Luke 4: 18-19.
“He stood up to read the Scriptures and was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.' ”
Mark 12: 1-12
“Then Jesus spoke to them in parables: 'Once there was a man who planted a vineyard, put a fence round it, dug a hole for the wine-press, and built a watchtower. Then he let out the vineyard to tenants and left home on a journey. When the time came to gather the grapes, he sent a slave to the tenants to receive from them his share of the harvest. The tenants seized the slave, beat him, and sent him back without a thing. Then the owner sent another slave; the tenants beat him over the head and treated him shamefully. The owner sent another slave, and they killed him; and they treated many others the same way, beating some and killing others. The only one left to send was the man's own dear son. Last of all, then, he sent his son to the tenants. “I am sure they will respect my son,” he said. But those tenants said to one another “This is the owner's son. Come on, let's kill him, and his property will be ours!” So they seized the son and killed him and threw his body out of the vineyard. “What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do?” asked Jesus. “He will come and kill those tenants and hand the vineyard over to others. Surely you have read this scripture: the stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all. This was done by the Lord; what a wonderful sight it is!
“The Jewish leaders tried to arrest Jesus, because they knew that he had told this parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd, so they left him and went away.” GNB.
61 Wright, Nicholas Thomas (2003): The Resurrection Of The Son Of God. London: S.P.C.K. p. 717
62 Jeremias, Joachim (1971): New Testament Theology Vol. 1. London: S.C.M. Press. p. 285
63 Morison, Frank (1930): Who Moved The Stone? Faber & Faber. pp 164-165
64 Guthrie, Donald (1974): Introduction to the New Testament. Illinois: InterVarsity pp 70-71
65 Neill, Bishop Stephen (1964): A History of Christian Missions. London: Penguin. p. 21