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The Future Disguises Itself as the Past:

The Origin of the Resurrection


It is a commonplace in New Testament scholarship that the Messiahship of Jesus is strongly and clearly tied to his resurrection. Early preaching formulas preserved in Acts 2:36 and 13:33 as well as in Romans 1:3-4 are actually adoptionistic, having Jesus gain his Messiahship only as of the resurrection event. Even where NT writers see Jesus as the Messiah already during his life, they preserve the resurrection-messiahship link by their frequent citation of Psalm 110, an enthronement psalm. Equally clear is that Acts 3:19-21 preserves a tradition according to which the exalted Jesus was not yet the Messiah but only the Messiah-designate and would enter upon the Messianic office only at the Parousia (= apocalyptic Second Coming).


Waiting in the Wings

When we try to make sense of both of these early Christologies, here is what I think emerges: in view of the strong link between resurrection and Messianic enthronement, if Jesus was viewed as not yet the Messiah until the Parousia, then he equally must have been viewed as not yet resurrected until the Parousia! His resurrection was yet future and would coincide with that of all believers (as is said of the Messiah in 2 Esdras 7:29-32).

I suspect that the earliest Christians venerated Jesus as a martyr whose soul was exalted to heaven after his death, who would someday rise, at the general resurrection, to return as the  Messiah. Until then he stood before or beside the throne of God, even as Judas Maccabeus had glimpsed the martyred high priest Onias III and Jeremiah pleading for Israel before God's throne (2 Maccabees 15:12-14). No doubt there were similar visions of the beatified martyr Jesus shortly after his death. At this stage of primitive Christian belief, Jesus was viewed as not yet enthroned as the Messiah, but only designated to be such at his return at the (soon-coming) end of the age. (So argued J.A.T. Robinson in his essay "The Most Primitive Christology of All?" in his collection Twelve New Testament Essays) See Acts 3:19-21. Thus Stephen sees him standing before God as an exalted martyr, not sitting as the enthroned Messiah (Acts 7:55). These are fragments of early tradition preserved by Luke in new contexts.

It is from this period that the image of Jesus interceding for his own before God (Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1; Romans 8:34) dates, as well as the cry Maranatha ("Our Lord, come!"), which implies the plaintive longing for an absent Lord, not fellowship with a present, Risen One. Likewise, here we have the lifesetting of Mark 2:20, a period of mourning for the absence of Jesus, instead of joyful celebration of his resurrection.

How did they move to the subsequent Christology whereby Jesus was already the resurrected Messiah? It is a case of Realized Eschatology (coping with the delay of the Parousia by reinterpreting it as somehow already having happened here and now). Many NT scholars believe that the Messianic interpretation of Jesus' earthly life and ministry was a reinterpretation prompted by the delay of the Parousia. As time went on, and there was no Messianic Coming of Jesus to experience, the gap was in some measure filled by the belief that he had already come as the Messiah. So the events of his earthly life were now in hindsight given new messianic significance. E.g., miracle-working became a messianic work, though this is unprecedented in Judaism. His death became the preordained death of the Messiah, though no Jew had ever heard of such a thing, including Jesus.

I would carry this logic a significant step further. I suggest that the resurrection of Jesus itself was the first attempt to claim for the present (and recent past) a bit of the anticipated but ever-delayed Messianic glory. It was first believed that Jesus' resurrection, i.e., his return as the Messiah, would begin the general resurrection of the End. To close the widening gap in some measure, Christians came to believe that he had already risen as the avant garde of the resurrection, and that finally the End was close at hand for sure. It was a prop for failing, increasingly disillusioned faith.

Here is where I think the language of his resurrection as the "first-fruits" of the eschatological (end-time) resurrection comes in. The idea was to forge a link between Jesus' resurrection as an event of the recent past and the general resurrection to come, so that one must shortly follow the other. Hold out just a little longer!

Such a step is not only required to move my theory along toward its desired conclusion; it is quite possible and natural in the nature of the case. It is precisely the sort of thing that happens in moments of sectarian apocalyptic disappointment, as witness Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter, When Prophecy Fails, as in the cases of the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. When each staked all on an apocalyptic deadline, and that deadline passed, they had to reduce cognitive dissonance by reinterpreting the great event along private or invisible or spiritualized lines --in short, some manner in which it might be said to have happened, yet without upheaving the external world (since in fact, alas, it didn't upheave the external world). What was to have been a matter of sight was now converted into a matter of faith.

And it (must have) happened in the recent past -- it was not noticed at the time, not until a vision or a reexamination (reinterpretation) of scripture suggested to disciples who were slow of heart to believe, that they had missed it while it was happening in a way they did not expect.


If You Blink, You Might Miss It

For narrative purposes, the only way to present the spiritualization of the desired fulfillment, to have it occur in a way no one would notice but for the eye of faith, is to have it so occur and be missed. Logically, the moment one conceives the idea of an invisible fulfillment, the only way it can be realized is by the assumption that it has happened already; otherwise, if it only might happen invisibly, in the future, how will you ever know when it happens? In the nature of the case there can be no visible sign! So to bring the notion from the realm of speculative possibility to that of faith appropriation, you have no other option than to take it as having happened already. This is the only available, viable form of "facticity."

In precisely this way, I am suggesting, the disillusioned early Christians at some point comforted themselves with the "realization" that while they were waiting for Jesus to rise at the End-time resurrection as glorious Messiah, he had already done so! He already reigned (albeit from heaven, where he remained) as Messiah! Any further delay, then, was not a matter of such urgent concern. The main thing was already done.

We have at least one actual historical example of such a transformation of future expectation into legendary past. In 1919, a Papua, New Guinea prophet named Evara came forward with the prophecy that very soon tribal ancestors would return aboard a ghostly freighter, the steamer of the dead. They would bring to their living descendants great troves of Western goods like those enjoyed by the European colonizers and missionaries. It was the beginning of the Vailala Madness, as it came to be called, one of the most important of the famous Cargo Cults of Melanesia studied by Peter Worsley in his The Trumpet Shall Sound. After numerous false alarms and disappointments, the movement petered out in 1931.

But the effects of the Vailala Madness did not cease with the end of organized activity. The memory lived on in the minds of the villagers, and, as time passed, legends grew up… In 1934, people still firmly maintained the ‘belief that those first years of the Vailala Madness constituted a brief age of miracles.’ [F.E. Williams, “The Vailala Madness in Retrospect,” in Essays Presented to C.G. Seligman. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1934, p. 373.] The things which had been prophesied in 1919 were believed in 1934 to have actually taken place. It was recounted how, in that wonder time, ‘the ground shook and the trees swayed… flowers sprang up in a day, and the air was filled with their fragrance. The spirits of the dead came and went by night.’ [ibid.]… The steamer of the dead, moreover, actually had appeared. People had seen the vessel’s wash, heard the noise of her engines, the rattle of the anchor-chain, and the splashing of her dinghy being lowered into the water and of the oars; similar noises were heard as it disappeared without ever having actually been seen. Others remembered obscurely seeing her large red funnel and three masts, and many saw her lights… Clouds often obscured a proper view of the vessel, though the inhabitants of villages unaffected by the Madness had greater difficulty in seeing the vessel than the faithful. [Worsley, pp. 90-91].

I think it not unlikely that the repeated frustrations of the early Christians led to a similar retrojection of their resurrection hope into the recent past. But then how did they determine precisely when in the recent past the resurrection (must have) occurred? By seeking a scriptural prophesy (1 Corinthians 15:4). They hit upon Hosea 6:2, "After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him."

By the time the resurrection of Jesus became a Christian belief, the tomb was a moot point. At first no one denied the tomb was occupied. By this time the body was gone, lost to decay, and the emptiness of the tomb, entirely for natural reasons, was given new significance.


Lengthening Shadow of the Cross

What of the atoning death of Jesus? Following Sam K. Williams (The Death of Jesus as Saving Event) I think that it was only in connection with the Gentile Mission that his death was first seen as a sacrifice inaugurating a new covenant, not to supercede the original one for Jews, but rather to provide an atonement for Gentiles, a new covenant God was establishing with them alongside that with Jews.

Just as according to 4 Maccabees (6:26-30; 17:21-22) God had deigned to accept the faithful martyr-deaths of Eleazer and the seven brothers as an atonement for Israel, so he was now imagined to accept the steadfast death of the martyr Jesus as an atonement for those who had for centuries stood outside the sacrificial system of Israel and whose sins had been piling up toward a terrible judgment, now mercifully averted.

For Jewish believers in Jesus, Jesus was Messiah and soon-coming liberator, but for Gentiles he was an atoning savior, and by and large, Jewish Christians would have agreed Jesus was this – for Gentiles.

Note, for instance, how in Mark and Matthew the words of institution at the Lord's Supper make the blood of Jesus to be shed "for ­many­," while Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 has it shed "for you." The Synoptics have him speaking to Jews, so it is not "for you," but rather for many others, i.e., for the vast numbers of Gentiles. Paul is speaking to such Gentiles, so he changes it to "for you." The Synoptics have Jesus speaking to Jews about Gentiles, whereas Paul uses the same formula speaking to Gentiles.

The conception (already in 1 Corinthians) of the eucharist as a sharing in the body and blood of Christ is a subsequent development in the Gentile Church on Hellenistic soil. I would further suggest that baptism in Christianity began not among the earliest Jewish Christians (the fanciful second-century Book of Acts notwithstanding) but in the Hellenistic Jewish Christian mission to Gentiles. As it had been in Judaism, immersion was an initiation for proselytes, period. There was at first no reference to John the Baptist. In the tradition regarding him, in fact, we find a contrast between his mere water baptism and the Spirit baptism of the Coming One. This means that the Christian framers of this tradition did not baptize in water.

Note that in the most Jewish of the Gospels, Matthew, the command is to baptize "the nations," with nothing whatever said of the baptism of the 12 or the Jewish Christians for whom they stand. All Paul says of baptism is said to Gentile converts, who of course would have been baptized. (He himself may have been baptized, but this may be an exceptional case, just as his disregard of the dietary Laws was a prerogative of his being a missionary who must adapt himself to the Gentiles. ­­"To those outside the Law I became as one outside the Law.")

When he says in Galatians 3:28 that all who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, and that there is now no more distinction between Jew and Gentile, he needn't mean that both Jews and Gentiles were baptized, but only that once Gentiles are baptized, Gentiles are no longer considered different from Jews in the eyes of God. After all, couldn't the same thing have been said of purely Jewish proselyte baptism?

On Hellenistic soil, however, baptism becomes far more than the original Jewish (then Jewish Christian) proselyte baptism. It rapidly takes on the contours of a Mystery cult initiation rite that confers salvation and a new nature by identifying the initiate with the fate of the Redeemed Redeemer, the dying and rising savior. It is at this point that Pauline "Christ-Mysticism" becomes possible. My guess is that no Palestinian Christian ever thought of such a thing.

Even today, theology changes so rapidly that it is hard to keep up. One of the reasons it is hard to understand the earliest Christian beliefs, I think, is that they seemed to have changed even faster back then. We find them are superimposed upon each other in the earliest documents, and in very thin layers hard to disengage from one another. But here is an attempt, however ham-fisted.

Robert M. Price


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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