1st Century Greek & Jewish Flip-Floppers: Why They Matter for the Resurrection's Plausibility
There is a new book releasing today that travels the well-worn path of helping people find Jesus. Some gospel-sharing books and evangelism-sharing methods help people find Jesus by believing in heaven. Others by believing in God's purpose for their life. This one, however, goes an unusual, yet important, route.
In Raised? Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson want to help people find Jesus by doubting the resurrection. Or better put, by believing in the resurrection through engaging their doubts about this pivotal, epochal moment in time that sits at the heart of the Christian faith.
It shouldn't be an unusual evangelistic method. Yet it is. Because while other kinds of books may certainly emphasize the resurrection of Christ, this one centers its gospeling scheme entirely upon it.
This is why, as a pastor and theologian, I am excited to explore and commend this book for your own ministry. (You can download free Raised? resources.) I commend it not only because of its resurrection-centering effort. But also because it gives permission to doubt it.
One of the more interesting, illuminating sections engages contemporary doubt by exploring early doubt in the resurrection. Dodson and Watson begin by exploring two first-century groups and their relationship with the idea of resurrection generally, and Jesus' resurrection specifically.
That they engage with first century culture is admirable and shows how this books stands apart in its gospeling effort; that they do so in a way that's engaging and insightful shows how this book is ideal for average non/Christians seeking a way forward in their faith.
The authors explain there were two groups of skeptics in Jesus' day: Greeks and Jews.
For the Skeptic Greek: Impossible, Undesirable
Among the Greeks they outline the afterlife views of three dominate groups, Homerians, Epicureans, and Platonists:
- Homerians: death was not a welcome prospect.
- Epicureans: death was welcomed but not with the hope of life.
- Platonists: death was welcomed with the hope of escaping the body.
Watson and Dodson argue this brief summary of Greek views on the afterlife gives us an important insight into Jesus' culture: "the idea of an embodied life after death, of resurrection, was neither possible nor desirable." (21) The authors explain how this Hellenistic view of the afterlife relates to the Christian claim of the resurrection:
If you were to tell a Greek man, "Jesus was just raised from the dead," he would probably scratch his head and say, "Why would he want to do that? Why would he want to return to his cage, to resume existence in this inferior, decaying world? Why not embrace the liberating power of death? To die is to be set free. Why would anyone want to be resurrected?" To put it simply, the resurrection wasn't a positive, hopeful idea for the Greeks. (22)
For the Skeptic Jew: Unthinkable
So Greeks would have been aghast at the very notion of a man rising back to life. What about Jews?
Jews did believe in the resurrection of the body and it was a desirable thing. Ezekiel 37 and Daniel 7 makes this clear. As does Jewish literature from 4 Ezra and 2 Apocalypse of Baruch. And tied to bodily resurrection is the idea of a resurrection of the creation, a renewal and restoration of the world to a state of wholeness as a garden paradise. We find this vision in Isaiah 60 and Ezekiel 36.
So a bodily resurrection was believed, desired, hoped for. And yet a Jew living during Jesus' time would have similarly thought the idea of a man rising from the dead unthinkable—but for different reasons. Those reasons have to do with timing and scope. Dodson and Watson explain:
If you approached a Jewish woman in the first century and told her Jesus was the Messiah and that he had just been raised from the dead, she would look at you in consternation and ask why...Like the Greek, Jews would scratch their heads and say: "Are you crazy? Look around; it's not the end of history. I don't have a new body, we are still suffering, the world is still broken, and the Romans still oppress us. All things have not been made new." For the Jews, it was unthinkable that resurrection occur in the middle of history, apart from worldwide renewal. (25)
A Resurrection Flip-Flop: An Unbelievable Switch
So Jews and Greeks during the time of Jesus would have found the resurrection of Jesus intellectually hard to swallow—Greeks impossible and undesirable; Jews unthinkable.
Yet a whole bunch of Jews and Greeks suddenly changed their beliefs! "On a dime," the authors write, "they converted to faith in a resurrection... Suddenly, thousands and thousands of Jews and Greeks become Christians. It's unthinkable!" (26)
Dodson and Watson maintain this is a crucial point in helping people work through their own doubts about the resurrection. Not only do they reassure readers they're in good company, they employ this illustration of ancient culture as a rhetorical device to show the plausibility and believablity of the resurrection.
They liken the instantaneous switch a first-century Jew or Greek person would make in their views regarding the resurrection to a die-hard Republican or Democrate switching parties and platforms overnight. Unthinkable, right? Well, it was as equally unthinkable for Jews and Greeks to change.
To shift from thinking the body is bad and worthy of escape to believing that the body is good and worthy of resurrection was inconceivable to Greeks. To conceive of a resurrection in the middle of history, limited to one man, was preposterous for Jews. (29)
And here's the application: "The only believable explaination for this sudden shift is that people actually witnessed the resurrected Christ." (29)
Those closest to the main event defining the Christian faith would have doubted as much as our people. And that's okay. I appreciate how Dodson and Watson do the careful work of building plausibility structures by engaging ancient doubt, in order to help our people work through theirs.
May we pastors and teachers lay the same careful groundwork with our students, with our congregations, with the young man we meet at the bus stop or middle-aged woman who does our hair. All for the sake of helping them find Jesus, even in the middle of doubting the resurrection.
Watch the new Raised? video and download free small group resources at raisedbook.com.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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