Ancient Judaism

Fredriksen and Hays on the Message of the Resurrection

Nearly two millennia later, it is hard to fully comprehend just how earth-shattering the news of Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection was to its original audience. In her book, Paul: The Pagans Apostle, Paula Fredriksen writes:

What distinguishes Jesus from . . . John the Baptizer, or from the Dead Sea sectarians’ Teacher of Righteousness, or from the signs prophets described by Josephus, or from the authors of apocalypses whether canonical or apocryphal, is this singular claim that some of his followers made about him–namely, that he had been raised from the dead.

Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 5.

Fredriksen goes on to account for the ancient Jewish belief that the resurrection of the dead was one of a number of pivotal events that would define the end of the ages. Yet Jesus’ disciples claimed something rather remarkable, for:

Jesus’s individual resurrection, they reasoned, reinforced his original message by itself heralding the eschatological End-time, thus the coming general resurrection and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.  . . .For these disciples, Jesus’s resurrection supported and even vindicated the foundational gospel prophecy: the Kingdom was truly at hand. The risen Jesus was thus in a sense the first swallow of the impending eschatological spring.

Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 6

As a result, the Apostolic witness regarding the resurrection was not simply one piece of information about Jesus of Nazareth among other pieces, it was the foundation on which the entire message either stood or fell. This is precisely the point Paul made in responding to some in Corinth who denied the resurrection of the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15).

As Richard Hays notes, this was not merely a small difference of opinion, for

Paul reacts to their refined skepticism with astonishment and outrage, because he sees it as denying the principle claim made at the heart of the gospel story: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised” (15:13). The story of Jesus’ resurrection is not just an illustrative fable; Paul insists that it is the story of a real event, a bodily resurrection. “Christ” is not just a symbol for some set of abstract theological truths. Those who deny that God really has the power to raise the dead have placed themselves in contradiction to the gospel story, and it is illogical for them to continue speaking in the name of Christ.

. . . For Paul, the whole web of Christian discourse is airy nonsense if it is not anchored in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Christian preaching becomes a system of delusions, offering nothing but lies and empty gestures. The gospel has no power to save us if Christ is not raised, and therefore the Corinthians are still lost in their sins, their hope of reconciliation with God based on futile human fantasy.

Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 260.

In short, the message of the resurrection of Jesus is either a “futile human fantasy” or it announces the dawn of the world to come. 

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