Jesus died only to rise again. Where did the concept of the Resurrection come from?


To Homer, as to the rest of the ancient world, what became the Christian idea of personal resurrection was preposterous.

“You must endure, and not be brokenhearted,” Achilles tells Priam in the 24th book of the “Iliad,” perhaps the West’s most moving evocation of the tragic nature of life.

Achilles, who has killed Priam’s son Hector, speaks starkly, and for the ages: “Lamenting for your son will do no good at all.

You will be dead yourself before you bring him back to life.”

Likewise, in Aeschylus’ “The Eumenides,” Apollo remarks, “Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection.”

Then came the events of the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified by Roman authorities in Jerusalem at the time of Passover around A.D. 33.

As the world’s two billion or so Christians commemorate Easter, they are participating in a perennial drama whose particular origins are only dimly understood.

Those origins are wonderfully explored in several books that, given the ubiquity of the Christian feast, should be better known.

To many believers — and even to many nonbelievers — the story of Christianity seems monumental and unchanging, the stuff of oft-recited creeds and hymns.

It’s essential to appreciate, however, that there was no pre-existing expectation of an atoning messianic human sacrifice in the complex Judaism of the first century.

No one was looking for a savior who would suffer, die and rise again to offer redemption from sin and eternal life.

On the contrary, the prevailing thought was that a militaristic Davidic figure would emerge to throw off Roman rule and inaugurate what was known as “the kingdom of God,” an era of justice marked by the defeat of evil, a general resurrection of the dead and the restoration of Israel.

Before the formation of the Christian story, resurrection within Judaism was less about the rising from the dead of a specific person than about a glorified vision of a triumphant Israel.

For the Roman rulers of Judea, the political implications of the “kingdom” were potentially dire. In “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” published in 1999, the historian and scriptural scholar Paula Fredriksen examines the Passion narrative in historical terms.

As best one can at such a distance, she seeks to return us to the fraught hours of that Jerusalem spring. It was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who was in control — not, as millenniums of anti-Semitic sentiment have it, the Jewish high priests — and who was struggling to keep order in the city amid the emotions and crowds of the Passover season.

The kingdom, it seems, was believed to be at hand.

Perhaps Jesus had preached that this was to be the last Passover before the arrival of God’s rule, Fredriksen speculates. “This news would have spread throughout the movement’s human network, linking villages from the Galilee through Judea and up to Jerusalem,” she writes.

“Pilgrims gathering in the city for Passover, hearing the news in advance of Jesus’ own arrival, consequently greeted him, when he appeared, as the human agent of God’s coming kingdom — perhaps, indeed, as its king.” Continue reading

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