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William Lane Craig on the Origin of the Belief in Jesus' Resurrection

I had a brief moment between grading stacks of papers, so I thought I'd make a quick point:

One argument that William Lane Craig uses as a part of his case for Jesus' resurrection can be summarized as follows:

The origin of belief in Jesus' resurrection must have been derived from either Christian sources, Jewish sources, or from experiencing Jesus as risen from the dead. But the belief couldn't have been derived from Christian sources, for Christianity didn't arise until after (or simultaneous with) the belief that he had risen from the dead. Nor could it have been derived from Jewish sources, since the Jews had no concept of a single individual being resurrected prior to the general resurrection at the end of time. Therefore, it must have arisen from experiences that they took to be of a resurrected Jesus.


The argument can be expressed a bit more carefully as follows:

1. If belief in Jesus' resurrection was due to something other than experiences as of Jesus risen from the dead, then the belief was derived from either Christian influences or Jewish influences.
2. If it was derived from Christian influences, then Christianity existed prior to itself.
3. Christianity didn't exist prior to itself.
4. Therefore, it wasn't derived from Christian influences. (From 2 and 3)
5. If it was derived from Jewish influences, then the idea of a single individual rising from the dead before the end of time was extant in Jewish belief prior to Christianity.
6. The idea of a single individual rising from the dead before the end of time was not extant in Jewish belief prior to Christianity.
7. Therefore, it wasn't derived from Jewish sources. (From 5 and 6)
8. Therefore, the belief wasn't derived from either Christian influences or Jewish influences (From 4 and 7)
9. Therefore, belief in Jesus resurrection was not due to something other than experiences as of Jesus risen from the dead (From 1 and 8)

As you can see, this argument is deductively valid. However, it looks to be unsound, as at least one of its premises looks to be false, viz., premise (5). For as a number of NT critics have pointed out, and as is fairly clear from the writings of the NT itself, the earliest Christians believed that Jesus' putative resurrection was (to use Paul's terminology) the "first fruits" of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. This is an agricultural metaphor. When farmers reaped and ate the first fruits of the harvest, they would then reap the full harvest the very next day -- the "general" harvest was "imminent", as it was "inaugurated" with the reaping of the first-fruits. Similarly, the earliest Christians believed that the final judgement and the general resurrection were imminent, given their belief that Jesus' resurrection was itself the inaugurating event of the general resurrection and the end of all things. Thus, contrary to what Craig says on this matter, there is a continuity between the beliefs of the early Christians and the beliefs of many Jews of his time: Jesus' resurrection was fundamentally construed in these eschatological terms.[1] And of course, as Craig acknowledges, the idea of a general resurrection at the end of time was a common Jewish belief at the time. Thus, premise (5) is false, and the argument is unsound.

In short, the answer to Craig's question, "Where did the Christians get the idea of a single resurrection prior to the end of time?" is: "They didn't. They construed Jesus' putative resurrection as the inauguration of the general resurrection at the end of time, which of course was a popular, traditional Jewish idea in Jesus' day. That's why Paul called Jesus 'the first-fruits' of the resurrection, and partially why Paul and the early church in general believed that the end of time was imminent."[2], [3]
-----------------------------
[1] Which conforms nicely with the hypothesis/research program, held my the majority of NT scholars for the last century, that Jesus was fundamentally an eschatological prophet. See my earlier post for a brief sketch of some of the other evidence in support of this hypothesis.
[2] Question: But where did the earliest Christians get the idea of an imminent eschaton to begin with? Answer: From Jesus' fundamental message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" For a nice introduction to the research program of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, see Bart Erhman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium (Oxford, 1999). For more details, see Dale Allison's Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Fortress, 1998).
[3] Others have critiqued premise (6), on the grounds that in the NT itself -- viz., Matthew 14:1-2 -- Herod believes that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead(!):

"1At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2and he said to his attendants, "This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him."

But if so, then if the passage is historically accurate, then it's not true that the idea of a single individual rising from the dead before the end of time was not extant in Jewish belief prior to Christianity. In other words, premise (6) is false.

Comments

Ron said…
I don't see how this makes premise 5 false. Jewish people believed that there would be no individual resurrection before the general resurrection. That they interpreted Jesus' resurrection in light of this belief ('first fruits') still shows that Jesus' resurrection was an isolated incident that preceded the general resurrection. The fact that Paul called it the 'first fruits' of the general resurrection just goes to show how close early Christianity was to its Jewish roots.

The early Christians, like the rest of humanity, tried to explain the unfamiliar (Jesus' resurrection) in light of a familiar idea (the general resurrection).
exapologist said…
Hi Ron,

The post is in reply to Craig's (and Wright's) argument that the earliest Christians lacked the conceptual resources to come up with the idea of the resurrection of Jesus, and so the best explanation of their belief is the resurrection of Jesus itself. And my reply (which is roughly Dale Allison's in his Jesus of Nazareth: MIllenarian Prophet) is that, in fact, they did have the conceptual resources in the notion of the general resurrection.

If the mainstream view among Jesus scholars is right, Jesus was fundamentally an eschatological prophet ("Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"). And so his followers were expecting the eschaton (cf. all the times that his disciples ask him when the kingdom will come, who'll get to be in charge when it does, etc.), which includes the general resurection. And so after he was crucified, some had experiences of Jesus alive, which they interpreted as the inauguration of the general resurrection. When the general resurrection didn't happen, they no doubt started using talk of "first fruits", and other delay of the parousia language.

In any case, that's the hypothesis on the table. I should say that, although I think this is probably what happened, I need only make the weaker claim that it's what could've happened, given the earliest disciples' conceptual resources, in which case Craig's (and Wright's) claim is undercut.
exapologist said…
I should hasten to add that although Allison thinks the earliest disciples interpreted their experiences in eschatological, general resurrection, terms, he thinks the resurrection happened. It's just that he gives reasoning (in the book I mentioned) that undercuts one of Craig's and Wright's particular arguments for the resurrection.
Ron said…
ex,

I am not sure if Jesus really thought that the end was nigh. He is reported as saying that no one knows when the end will come, not even the Son but only the Father. Raymond Brown notes this a few times in his Introduction to the New Testament).

I agree that they did have the conceptual resources because of the belief in the general resurrection but I don't think it is reasonable to think that they could have applied this idea to the person of Jesus unless they thought something actually happened to him. What Wright and Craig are getting at I think is that nothing wholly Jewish could account for the belief in Jesus' specific resurrection apart from the general resurrection. That's why it was surprising for the early Christians when the eschaton did not occur. That explains why Paul in 1st Thess. is much more eschatological than 2nd Peter with the claim that "a day is like a thousand years" to God.

Do you see what I am getting at here?
exapologist said…
I am not sure if Jesus really thought that the end was nigh. He is reported as saying that no one knows when the end will come, not even the Son but only the Father. Raymond Brown notes this a few times in his Introduction to the New Testament).

You know, I hear this alot, but I don't see how it helps mitigate the force of the evidence of Jesus', Paul's, and the early church's belief that the eschaton was imminent in their day. After all, Jesus and Paul say over and over that it's going to happen soon, and detail the events leading up to it. For Jesus to add that he doesn't know the exact day or hour ("It's going to happen in 39 A.D., at 6:47pm, Pacific Standard Time") doesn't mitigate that one bit, it seems to me.

I agree that they did have the conceptual resources because of the belief in the general resurrection but I don't think it is reasonable to think that they could have applied this idea to the person of Jesus unless they thought something actually happened to him..

No, I agree that they thought something happened to him -- I think they had experiences that seemed to be of him. The issue is, how did they come to conceptualize those experiences as of Jesus as risen from the dead? And the proposal is that they did so because they conceptualized it as a part of the general resurrection -- they thought it was happening. When they realized that it wasn't happening, they (after the fact) said that while his resurrection is a part of the general resurrection, there is a temporal gap between the first fruits and the harvest. So the point is that, contrary to what Craig and Wright say, they did have the conceptual resources, within the Jewish tradition, to interpret their experiences as of Jesus risen from the dead. They're saying, "How in the world did they come up with the idea of a single individual rising from the dead before the general resurrection?" And the reply is, "Very easily, in fact. First, they conceptualized their experiences as "OMG -- the general resurrection is happening! Jesus said over and over and over that the eschaton is imminent! This must be it!" Then they saw that it wasn't, and started backpedalling."
exapologist said…
Hi Ron,

For some reason, when I hit the "Publish" button for your other recent comment, it says it's already been moderated, and yet it doesn't show up on the blog. So I just wanted to invite you to re-post the comment, if you'd like to.

Best,

EA
exapologist said…
Hi Ron,

Here's the comment you submitted that wouldn't post:

I don't see how this makes premise 5 false. Jewish people believed that there would be no individual resurrection before the general resurrection. That they interpreted Jesus' resurrection in light of this belief ('first fruits') still shows that Jesus' resurrection was an isolated incident that preceded the general resurrection. The fact that Paul called it the 'first fruits' of the general resurrection just goes to show how close early Christianity was to its Jewish roots.

The early Christians, like the rest of humanity, tried to explain the unfamiliar (Jesus' resurrection) in light of a familiar idea (the general resurrection).
exapologist said…
I don't see how this makes premise 5 false.

I think it does. But to avoid a quibble here about this, just substitute my claim that the point shows (5) false -- i.e., it's a rebutting defeater for (5) -- to the claim that the point undermines the evidence for (5) -- i.e., it's an undercutting defeater for (5). For the scenario at issue indicates the conceptual resources within Judaism for the earliest disciples to interpret their experiences as of Jesus risen from the dead.

Jewish people believed that there would be no individual resurrection before the general resurrection. That they interpreted Jesus' resurrection in light of this belief ('first fruits') still shows that Jesus' resurrection was an isolated incident that preceded the general resurrection.

Not so. The concept of the "first fruits" of the harvest is a constituent of the concept of the "general harvest". Similarly, the concept of the "first fruits" of the resurrection is a constituent of the concept of the "general resurrection". But if so, then they didn't conceptualize Jesus resurrection as an isolated incident of the general resurrection, but rather as the inaugural event of it.

The fact that Paul called it the 'first fruits' of the general resurrection just goes to show how close early Christianity was to its Jewish roots.

The early Christians, like the rest of humanity, tried to explain the unfamiliar (Jesus' resurrection) in light of a familiar idea (the general resurrection).

Yes, but that's the precisely my point. They had a familiar concept within their own Jewish tradition with which to conceptualize their experiences as of Jesus risen from the dead, contrary to what Craig and Wright claim here. But if so, then this undercuts premise (5).
exapologist said…
Whoops: "But if so, then they didn't conceptualize Jesus resurrection as an isolated incident of the general resurrection, but rather as the inaugural event of it."

Should read: "But if so, then they didn't conceptualize Jesus resurrection as an incident isolated from the general resurrection, but rather as the inaugural event of it."
Ron said…
I think we may be splitting hairs a little bit here. The bottom line is that the Jews did not expect their Messiah to die and rise again in three days. This is the mutation that has to be accounted for. It isn't about the disciples having the resources to conceptualize Jesus' resurrection, but about how such a belief could arise in the first place. Btw, I agree with you about the 'first fruits' thing. Perhaps Wright and Craig should reformulate their argument.

I think the whole 'end of time' issue is distraction in some way because it takes attention away from the claims the apostles themselves made. I think that Paul and the early Christians anticipated the Second Coming as imminent. I am not sold on the idea that Jesus himself thought this. 'Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,' does not necessarily mean that the eschaton will occur. Jesus used many parables to describe what he meant by the word 'kingdom.' The disciples had misunderstandings about the nature of the kingdom. Many people, some of whom were Jesus' disciples, thought of the kingdom as political. The Messiah would overthrow the Romans, ushering in an era of God's rule through him. Obviously, Jesus came to usher in a different kind of 'kingdom.' Jesus did speak of eschatology but that doesn't mean he was all about the 'end of the world.' He was about a very changed world, I wholeheartedly grant but not so focused on the absolute end of the story.

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