The modern historical Jesus enterprise stumbled from the beginning on data it found hard to accept: the early Christians claimed that Jesus, after being put to death by crucifixion, rose from the dead. Peter is recorded saying, “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
The ground of the Christian witness to Jesus’ resurrection is based on historical events, but how was a rational Enlightenment philosophe to make sense of these claims? How is a rational person today to make sense of these claims? Dead people, by all available empirical evidence, do not rise from the dead.
Yet Peter and many other early Christian witnesses testified that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that he walked with them, spoke with them and ate with them. Were they lying? Were they confused? Were they hallucinating? Were they engaged in a sort of “make work” project, bereft of their teacher but needing something to do with their lives? All of these answers have been suggested by historical Jesus scholars instead of accepting that the early Christians actually witnessed a risen Jesus. We need to keep in mind that people in the ancient world, though perhaps more naïve and credulous in general, did not regularly claim that people rose from the dead. They had more hands-on experience in with the dying and the dead than modern Westerners. They understood death.
With Jesus’ resurrection, the earliest followers are claiming something unique has happened, something strange, something extraordinary and that they had experienced this unique, strange and extraordinary event. Here is what we must decide, in Ben Meyer’s words: “whether persons testifying to miracles are by that very fact shown to be incompetent or dishonest or self-deceived, and this without reference to their credentials or to the particulars of the case but by ineluctable a priori law.” Were Peter, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, James, John, Nathanael of Cana, Thomas and other disciples all incompetent, dishonest or self-deceived?
The disciples of Jesus were not expecting the resurrection. Cleopas, walking to Emmaus, gave voice to the general sense of loss among the disciples: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). Mary Magdalene, at the empty tomb, said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The Gospels tell us that Jesus expressed to his apostles that he would suffer and die and be raised on the third day, but they could not comprehend the meaning of these words until they were face to face with the risen Jesus. What changed their minds was not a lie, not wish fulfillment, not mass hallucination, but their experience of the risen Jesus among them.
But to experience the risen Jesus, as shocking as it was, they had to be open to the reality of God, to the reality of God acting in history, to the reality of God’s salvation coming to humanity through the broken body of the crucified one raised to new and eternal life. If someone does not believe in God, it will be hard to believe that God sent his son or, obviously, that God has a son to send. Even more, if someone does not believe that God acts in history, it will be difficult to accept that God acted in history by raising this son from the dead on behalf of humanity.
The disciples had believed Jesus was the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel, yet when he was put to death they reconsidered what they had believed and whom they had followed. That reconsideration soon took place in the context of events that shattered their expectations, and they were able ultimately to make sense of the resurrection only because they were open to God acting in history for the salvation of humanity. The resurrection shook them to the core, but they believed because they experienced its truth. All that was left to do, all that they could do was bear witness to the reality of the risen Jesus among them.