Post Author: Bill Pratt
A common claim of resurrection skeptics is that the people who lived in first century Palestine and the surrounding Roman Empire would believe just about anything. They would have easily embraced the story of Jesus’ resurrection without thinking twice. So, for the early proponents of Christianity who thought they really saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, it was relatively straightforward to spread the story. After all, in the ancient world everything is believable.
Are the skeptics right? Historian N. T. Wright has challenged the idea that the ancient world of Jesus’ day would have easily believed the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Tim Keller, in The Reason for God, describes Wright’s research: “N. T. Wright does an extensive survey of the non-Jewish thought of the first-century Mediterranean world, both east and west, and reveals that the universal view of the people of that time was that a bodily resurrection was impossible.”
Wright first examines the dominant Greco-Roman worldview of the day.
In Greco-Roman thinking, the soul or spirit was good and the physical and material world was weak, corrupt, and defiling. To them the physical, by definition, was always falling apart and therefore salvation was conceived as liberation from the body. In this worldview resurrection was not only impossible, but totally undesirable. No soul, having gotten free from its body, would ever want it back. Even those who believed in reincarnation understood that the return to embodied life meant that the soul was not yet out of its prison. The goal was to get free of the body forever. Once your soul is free of its body, a return to re-embodied life was outlandish, unthinkable, and impossible.
But what about the Jews of Jesus’s day? Were they expecting an individual resurrection, such as Jesus’s?
The report of Jesus’s resurrection would have also have been unthinkable to the Jews. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews saw the material and physical world as good. Death was not seen as liberation from the material world but as a tragedy. By Jesus’s day many Jews had come to hope that some day in the future there would be a bodily resurrection of all the righteous, when God renewed the entire world and removed all suffering and death. The resurrection, however, was merely one part of the complete renewal of the whole world, according to Jewish teaching. The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable.
How would a first century Jew have responded to the claims of Jesus’s resurrection?
If someone had said to any first-century Jew, “So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!” the response would be, “Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb? Ridiculous!” The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.
Keller concludes his reporting of Wright’s historical analysis in part 2 of this post. See you then!