Recovering the Resurrection (part 2)

The Resurrection in Intertestamental Jewish Literature

The bodily resurrection was not entirely a Christian idea. The centuries leading up to the coming of Christ found the Jewish people of Palestine in a familiar situation. They were under siege and threatened by enemies that did not just threaten them as a people, but also threatened their religious beliefs. While there is little doubt that the Old Testament speaks of a continuation of life after death, the idea of a physical resurrection did not become prevalent until the intertestamental period.

The book of 2 Maccabees which details the struggle of pious Jews against their oppressors contains some vivid language pointing to a future hope of a bodily resurrection. 2 Maccabees 7:7-10 details the dying words of tortured Jew: “Thou cursed miscreant! Thou dost dispatch us from this life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, and revive us to life everlasting.”[1] The dying words of this Jewish man are not expressing hope in some permanent disembodied state but rather a time when the physical body destroyed by his captors will be restored to life by God.

The Psalms of Solomon also contain a reference to what the righteous have to look forward after death. Psalm 3:16 states: “But they that fear the Lord shall rise to life eternal,/And their life (shall be) in the light of the Lord, and shall come to an end no more.”[2] Clearly the author is picturing a bodily resurrection where the earthly body is not only raised, but perfect in that the body will be able to live eternally in the presence of the Lord.

While other examples of the bodily resurrection in intertestamental Jewish literature are available, the two cited above clearly indicate much of Jewish thought on the afterlife during the first century. The world that Jesus came into, though surrounded by pagan ideas about the afterlife on all sides, maintained a distinct view of a future bodily resurrection. It was into this cultural mindset that Jesus and the New Testament authors firmly established the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection.

The Resurrection in the Gospels and Paul’s Letters

The obvious place to start any discussion about bodily resurrection in the New Testament is with Jesus. The account of his resurrection is recorded in all four of the Gospels[3] and referenced numerous times throughout the rest of the New Testament. The reason for starting with Jesus when examining the bodily resurrection in the New Testament is that Jesus’ resurrection is the template for the future bodily resurrection of Christians.[4] The writings of Paul must also be carefully examined because it is from them that much of Christian theology about the resurrection originates. It is vital that Christians understand the New Testament view of the resurrection and how it differed from the culture that surrounded it. Understanding this illustrates the way that much of popular Christianity has lost the significance of the New Testament teachings on the bodily resurrection of the believer.

The Gospels

The four Gospels each record the bodily resurrection of Jesus by recounting the stories of people who were eyewitnesses. The Gospels clearly state that numerous people saw the resurrected Jesus, interacted with him, ate with him, and even touched him. This takes away any doubt that they were simply seeing a ghost or some manifestation of a wishful imagination. It is also important to note the importance of eyewitness testimony in the first century. They did not have the luxuries of cameras that can record and replay events exactly as they happened. The testimony of reliable eyewitnesses would have been seen as the most credible source of information. The Gospel writers understood this and made sure to include in their works that many people had first hand encounters with the risen Jesus. The large number of eyewitnesses would have given the resurrection account great credence with the people hearing and reading of the account. For example, the power of Peter’s statement in Acts 2:34[5] during his sermon at Pentecost is made incredibly potent when he can say to the masses that “this Jesus God raised up again, to which we were all witnesses.” The ability of the early church to rely on the testimony of eyewitnesses like Peter lent power and believability to the message they were spreading throughout the world.[6]

Pauline Literature

The writings of Paul contain many references to the resurrection of Jesus. While Paul never specifically narrates the account like the Gospels, the resurrection is a central part of his writings.[7] He never feels it is necessary to argue the historicity of the resurrection but instead writes to inform his audience about the significance of Jesus’ resurrection.

Much of Paul’s teaching on the resurrection is eschatological in that he often writes of the future bodily resurrection of believers. Paul is adamant about the resurrection of the body being physical and modeled after Christ’s own resurrection. Philippians 3:10 states “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” Paul believed that when we become Christians our eschatological hope is found in and modeled after the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection that a Christian experiences will be a bodily resurrection like Christ with a transformed body like Christ possessed after the resurrection. The transformation that awaits a Christian after death is not a disembodied spiritual state, but rather one with an incorruptible and perfected body (I Corinthians 15:42-49) like that of Christ.[8] Romans 8:23 also contains a reference to the “redemption of our body.” Paul refers here to future perfection of the physical body that a believer has to look forward to in Christ.[9] The resurrected body will not be susceptible to the same weaknesses that the current body is subject to. The new body will be physical and at the same time it will be impervious to the weaknesses of the previous body.

A final example of the hope of the bodily resurrection can be found in the book of I Thessalonians. I Thessalonians 4:16 states: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” Paul clearly tells his Christian audience that their ultimate hope is in the eventual bodily resurrection at the return of Christ. Their physical bodies will rise up from their graves and experience a resurrection to a perfect and incorruptible body that is suitable for spending eternity with Christ.

The New Testament contains many more references to the bodily resurrection of both believers and of Jesus, but there are also other ancient Christian works that can help further understanding as to the importance of a bodily resurrection.

[1] R.H Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (London: The Clarendon Press, 1963), 141.

[2] Ibid., 635

[3] Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21

[4] M.J. Harris, “Resurrection, General,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988), 581.

[5] All Scripture cited in this paper is from the NASV

[6] Joseph Plevnik, “The Eyewitnesses of the Risen Jesus in Luke 24,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (Jan 1987): 103.

[7] L.J Kreitzer, “Resurrection,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 806.

[8] Ibid. 810

[9] N.T Wright, Suprised by Hope (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 147.


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