The Case for the Christ: Resurrection and Jewish Transformation

520114756_22c40b5eba_oWhile it is well known that people question the divinity of Jesus, ((E.g., “Jesus Seminar Phase 3: Profiles of Jesus,” http://www.westarinstitute.org/projects/the-jesus-seminar/jesus-seminar-phase-3-profiles-of-jesus/ (2013).)) it may surprise some to find out that there have long been those who question whether Jesus is a historical person. ((See Robert E. Van Voorst, “Nonexistence Hypothesis,” Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture, 2 vols., ed. Leslie Holden (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 2:658-660.))

A very helpful new book on the historicity of Jesus is The Case for the Christ of the New Testament: An Adversarial Dialogue Concerning the Existence of Jesus Christ, published by the Warren Christian Apologetics Center. ((Vienna, 2013. The book and accompanying video are available here: http://www.warrenapologeticscenter.org/catalog/index.php.)) The dialogue includes three participants: Roy Abraham Varghese, Dr. Robert M. Price, and Dr. Ralph Gilmore. Price argues for the position hat Jesus never existed, and Varghese and Gilmore argue that Jesus did exist.

Dr. Gilmore, Professor of Bible and of Philosophy at Freed-Hardeman University, makes outstanding contributions to the discussion, showing that history abundantly attests to the life of Jesus on Earth. Gilmore also goes beyond this point to argue for Jesus’ divinity. Here I would like to notice just one section, which Gilmore titles “The Transformation of the Jewish Monotheists.” ((The Case for the Christ, 120-122.)) From the evidence Gilmore provides, one may make the following argument:

  1. History shows that in the first Christian centuries, a large number of Jews rapidly changed from being “exclusivist” monotheists (i.e., with no belief in multiple divine persons) to having at least a “binitarian” monotheism, characterized devotion to both the Father and to Jesus.
  2. This rapid change is explicable only if Jesus really lived, died, and rose from the dead.
  3. Therefore, Jesus really lived, died, and rose from the dead.

In support premises like this, Gilmore cites a recent work by Dr. Larry W. Hurtado, a scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins, recently retired as Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland). ((see “About me and this site,” Larry Hurtado’s Blog, http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/about/ (n.d.).)) Hurtado wrote a book called Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. ((Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.)) Hurtado argues in this book, based on his examination of early Christian literature, that the early Christians (ca. 70-170 A.D.) had “a high regard for traditions coupled with a critical suspicion of radical innovations, an exclusivist monotheistic commitment to the Old Testament and its deity [and] a readiness to accommodate a certain critical diversity.” ((Ibid., 563, bracketed item added.)) These were not folks who were prone to take up just any religious doctrine. They were committed to the one God of the Old Testament, ((E.g., Deuteronomy 6:4.)) and yet within this critical context they quickly adopted a widespread devotion to Jesus and to the study of His life. ((Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 564-627.)) This was not a slow-developing commitment to Christ, of the sort the Jews might have adopted piecemeal from other cultural influences. Rather, the early Christians promptly began reading the Old Testament with apologetic and Christological purposes. ((Ibid., 564-565.)) Martyred Christians saw their suffering as linked to Christ’s suffering. ((Ibid., 619-625.))

Gilmore summarizes why the second premise is true: “Since the Jews had no belief in a dying a rising Messiah, the resurrection would be antithetical to their horizons. Suffering the death of a common criminal would indicate that the victim was under a curse from God (Deuteronomy 21:23) … Yet, disciples changed their lives.” ((The Case for the Christ, 120, parenthetical item in orig.))

Especially in light of the fact that Jesus promised to rise from the dead, if He failed to do so, then it is unthinkable that a huge movement of Jews would have turned rapidly from their centuries-old tradition (itself founded in historical events) to follow Him. This is just a sample of the valuable argument and evidence brought to bear in The Case for the Christ.

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