The Resurrection of Jesus is central to the message of the New Testament. Consequently many attacks against this crucial claim have been made over the centuries by opponents. The modern thesis is that the claims of Jesus rising from the dead were the end product of a process of legendary and mythological development. According to this view the belief of the earliest Christians was not that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead on the third day, but rather that Jesus had transcended death in some mystical sense and that his presence lived on in his followers in spite of his untimely demise at the hands of Roman executioners.
Some scholars have responded by appealing to the Jewish concept of resurrection in the first century, pointing out that resurrection in that context was only understood as bodily resurrection. N.T. Wright has done an excellent job of summarizing many of these arguments in his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. But even if this is the case, isn’t it possible that the followers of Jesus had a different view? Concrete evidence of what the apostles themselves believed about resurrection would be preferable to general arguments about what first-century Jews (which of course the apostles were) thought about it.
In 1 Cor. 15:4 Paul writes that “He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” However, Paul does not say what Scriptures he is referring to or thinking about in writing this. This is understandable in that Paul is reminding the Corinthians of what he had already “delivered” to them by way of central Christian beliefs, so any proof-text or texts that he had in mind would have been secondary to his purpose in writing. He also would no doubt have told them previously in person what Scripture he had in view as part of the extended teaching on this important subject. The absence of a specific mention in his letter, however, has given rise to much speculation.
Some hold that Paul had no specific Scripture in mind, but that he was referring to the entire Scriptural narrative and that this somehow leads to the conclusion that the Messiah was to rise from the dead (see for example N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 321). This is both unconvincing and unsatisfying. The issue is complicated somewhat by uncertainty over whether Paul thought that the Resurrection on the third day was anticipated in the Hebrew Scriptures, or just the resurrection of the Messiah (Christ) and that it just so happened to have been on the third day. There is a reference to Israel being revived on the third day in Hosea 6:2. Some of the church fathers from as early as Tertullian utilized this as a proof-text that might have fit in with Paul’s background thinking. However, none of the New Testament writers ever allude to this passage.
In fact there is an OT Scripture which is used as a proof-text for the resurrection of the Messiah in the NT, namely Ps. 16:10: “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” In the book of Acts both Peter and Paul make use of this passage to show that it must have been referring to Christ since the author, David, died and his body decayed (see Acts 2:27 and 13:35). It makes no difference if the skeptic thinks that this is the wrong way to do exegesis on Ps. 16:10; what we’re after is finding out what the apostles believed about the Resurrection. And it is undeniable that using this passage in this way only makes sense if the Resurrection of Jesus was understood as involving his physical body (not to mention that it only works if his body was not buried long enough to have decayed).
The skeptic can retort that these passage are found in Acts, which they take as a later source that is full of legendary development. The author of Acts no doubt held that the resurrection was physical, but this doesn’t give any proof of what the apostles believed. Speeches in ancient historiography are considered by some to been completely unreliable in general and were sometimes viewed as an opportunity for the historian to display their skill in composition.
To this we respond that a considerable body of evidence has been amassed in recent decades to support the traditional view that Acts was written by a companion of the apostle Paul and is not as late a document as previous generations of scholars presumed, a conclusion which has gained increasing recognition in New Testament studies even among skeptical scholars. Also, the views of ancient historians were not as lop-sided as some have made out; Thucydides for example said that when composing speeches he still tried to be faithful to the gist of what was said. Furthermore, Luke’s speech summaries in Acts are short and give no indication of the kind of elaborate rhetorical adornment that characterized the speeches in some ancient historiography.
The question here is not whether Peter and Paul gave these particular speeches on the occasions in question (that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove), but whether or not Luke is faithful in holding to what the apostles taught. There can be no doubt that whatever proof-texts the apostles used for the Resurrection would have been used on multiple occasions, so Luke would have had ample opportunity to be familiar with their method.
Other considerations point in favor of a positive conclusion. First, Paul’s use of Ps. 16:10 is somewhat different than Peter’s in that he combines it with different OT verses in a way that was characteristic of rabbinic exegesis. Thus Paul’s version of the speech looks more like what one would expect from a trained rabbi, which Paul was (and Peter was not). Second, the use of Ps. 16:10 would have been of value against a Jewish audience since it was intended as Scriptural proof that the Messiah was to rise from the dead. This would have been of little or no import to a Gentile audience. Thus it is unlikely that this use of Ps. 16:10 was a later invention by an anonymous Christian writer, writing long after the destruction of the Second Temple and the schism between Jews and Christians was complete. Third, Luke’s handling of speech material from Mark (it is virtually unanimously agreed that Luke used Mark as a source) shows that he was quite faithful to his sources with very little embellishment as a historian. Thus there is good reason for thinking that he was also faithful to his sources for the speeches in Acts and didn’t simply invent things.
The evidence thus strongly points to the conclusion that the apostles used Ps. 16:10 as a proof-text for the Resurrection. This is almost certainly one of the texts, if not the text, that Paul had in mind when he passed on to the Corinthians that Christ was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. He must have had some Scripture in mind, and this is the only Old Testament text that is used in the entire New Testament as a proof-text for the resurrection of the Messiah. But this also means that the view of the Resurrection that Paul and the other apostles had in mind was physical. Jesus did not simply rise in some spiritual, mystical, or visionary sense. It was not simply that his spirit lived on in the disciples who felt his presence with them in some subjective, emotional way. It was rather that his body did not remain in the tomb long enough to undergo decay but was restored to life. In fact more than restored - it was transformed into an immortal state, what N.T. Wright has called “life after life after death.”
The glorious promise of Easter is that Jesus’ followers will also be resurrected one day: "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day." Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and so I commend the remembrance of this great promise and the celebration of it to all.
On behalf of all of us contributors, Happy Easter to all of our W4 readers!