What difference did belief in the resurrection of Jesus make for the development of early Christology?

If Christ has not been raised,
then our proclamation has been in vain
and your faith has been in vain

(1 Cor 15:14)

Belief in Jesus’ resurrection was of central importance for early Christians. As quoted above, in 1 Corinthians 15:14 Paul states that without the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, there would be no Christian faith, no New Testament and probably no mention of “Jesus ben Joseph? in classical literature save for perhaps the one or two we find in Josephus. It is therefore clear that everything we know about Jesus is as a result of the belief that he had been bodily raised from the dead, and hence almost all of the New Testament is written about Christology. To limit this, we will look specifically at several areas which have clearly developed from the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, indeed without it is impossible to see why they would have developed. These areas are Jesus as Messiah and Lord and the association of Jesus with YHWH. We will also briefly look at the early Christian beliefs of the forgiveness of sins and the end of death.

Early Christians clearly believed that Jesus was the Messiah. By the time of Paul, the term Messiah (or Christ, as it is translated into Greek) had become so associated with Jesus it was both a shorthand and something which could be written alongside “Jesus? whenever one wished. For example, one of the earliest pieces in the New Testament greets believers εν θεω πατ?ι και κυ?ιω Ιησου Χ?ιστου (1 Thes 1:1). There is a debate between Hengel and Wright over whether “Jesus Christ? is a title or a proper name, but either way this shows that within 20 years of Jesus’ death, Christians were so used to viewing Jesus as the Messiah they had almost forgotten what it meant in everyday language. True, in the gospels and Acts it is not used in this manner but they are carefully written to show an earlier stage in the history of Christianity, before the phrase had become so common.

However, this early Christian picture of Jesus as the Messiah who was killed and then rose to life again is not in line with Jewish expectations. The Jewish Messianic ideas, although differing quite a lot from person to person and sect to sect seem to have envisaged a Messiah who would rebuild the temple, restore Israel and bring peace to the world, with Israel in charge. The very surprising thing is that although the Christians make use of such texts, they rework the Messianic idea around the idea of Jesus’ resurrection. Instead of a national restoration against Israel’s pagan oppressors, Jesus is the Messiah of the whole world, which as far as we know no-one in Judaism was expecting. By Jesus resurrection, the temple has been abolished and hence the expected rebuilding of the temple is changed into the idea that the community and individual is the temple. Similarly, the peace and security bought to the world was not against the Romans or whatever pagan nation happened to be ruling over Israel at the time, but was the renewal of creation by the Creator God, the first-fruits of which was the raising of Jesus from the dead. These changes in the person of the Messiah, and the understanding of the scriptures concerning him are always grounded in the belief in resurrection. Without this belief, it is virtually impossible to see how such ideas could possibly have come about, much less spread over the whole Roman world in less than 30 years after the claimed event.

Going alongside this belief in his Messiahship is belief in Jesus’ lordship over the whole world. It used to be said that this was an idea invented by Paul in his role of being apostle to the gentiles because they would not understand the idea of Messiahship. However, we see this lordship in almost all of the Messianic texts in the OT so it is probably more correct to call this a function of belief in Jesus’ Messiahship. Paul writes ‘for “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.? But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,? it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.’ (1 Cor 15:27-28 quoting Ps 8). This is clearly a development of the Jewish Messianic idea of ruling the world into the idea that Jesus was declared by his resurrection to be the world’s lord, the king who is above all other kings and authorities. This in itself is not a particularly great leap (for similar terminology, see PsSol 17), but where the Christians differ from others is that they believe that God’s kingdom is coming into this world through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The old Messianic ideas about the kingdom of Israel being restored have been transformed into a kingdom being ushered in which is not based on physical boundaries but in which all believers are first and foremost “citizens of heaven?. The kingdom of God is now the community of believers who recognise that Jesus is the true lord of the world, but even amongst those who refuse to acknowledge his Lordship, Jesus is still in charge and eventually they will be judged when he returns.

Another area which I wish to look at is that of the early Christian association of Jesus with YHWH. As it was forbidden to say the divine name, scribes would pronounce adoni (“lord?) in the Hebrew OT. When this was translated into the LXX, the word κυ?ιος (“lord?) was used as the translation of YHWH. Paul and other early Christians quoted these texts but then reshaped them around the person of Jesus. A classic example of this is in 1 Cor 4 where Paul, clearly talking about Jesus (cf. 4:1) says that he is not afraid of being judged by a human court because he knows that “It is the Lord who judges? (1 Cor 4:4). Paul believes that his resurrection has done more than declare Jesus to be the world’s Messiah, but he is going to judge the world and is in some sense equal in status to God (as in Judaism it was God who would judge the world). Another example of this reshaping around Jesus is later in this letter where Paul writes that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist? (1 Cor 8:6). This is clearly drawing on the Shema (Deut 6:4) which was a key text for Judaism, later required to be recited thrice a day. Paul copies the Shema but adds the section about Jesus to the end, thus equating Jesus with God the Father.

A similar reshaping happens with the idea of the “day of the Lord?. This is an OT prophetic tradition pointing a day when Israel and the world would be judged by God. Amos warns that because the Israelites had been disobedient, they should not be looking forward to this day but rather fearing it because if the world was to be punished for their cruelty to Israel, the Israelites would also be punished for their unfaithfulness to God (Amos 5:18f). Early Christianity takes this tradition and as above, applies it to Jesus. This is the day when Jesus will return to the world, raising up with him those who have died (1 Thes 4:14). Jesus with God will then judge the world. The returning in 1 Thes 4 is seen as a πα?ουσια – the technical term for when a Roman emperor left Rome (i.e. Jesus and heaven) to visit a colony of citizens, or to deliver them from attacks. These later present in the gospels, and also Revelation. In the gospels, the return of Jesus is the sign of the end of the world where the return of Jesus is the signal of the end of the world (Mark 13:24-27 &pars); and similarly Luke writes “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven? (Acts 1:11). These claims that a man, even were he the Messiah, ascending to heaven to return at some time in the future and judge the world would be incomprehensible for Judaism, indeed the gospels even give these claims as part of the reason for Jesus’ death. The belief in Jesus resurrection must therefore have caused them to develop because there is simply no other way in which such a high Christology could have come about at such an early stage in the Christian tradition.

Finally, the resurrection was, to the early church, proof of the atoning power of Jesus’ death. There has of course been much debate as to the nature of the atonement and many different theories and denials have been put forward; but if we look at the earliest Christian documents we see that in some sense, Jesus’ death signals an end for sin and death. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins? (1 Cor 15:16-17). Paul clearly believes that Jesus’ resurrection proves that he has forgiven the believers’ sins. Of course, we do not have to understand this as a full doctrine of atonement but it is clear that the earliest belief in resurrection caused a belief that sins had been forgiven. Similarly, Paul celebrates “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?? (1 Cor 15:55 quoting Hos 13:14) upon reaching the conclusion that his perishable body will become imperishable at the general resurrection. He also frequently uses the term “sleep? for death, as do most resurrection texts in Hebrew literature to show that he fully believes that death has been defeated by Jesus’ death, and that Jesus’ resurrection proves this as it is the “firstfruits? (1 Cor 15:20).

In conclusion, with out belief in resurrection there would probably be no record of Jesus, let alone the explosive growth of his cult of followers. Although we have only really glanced at some of the Pauline texts, right across the canonical texts, apostolic fathers and even lots of the apocryphal literature, the belief in the resurrection of Jesus is central to their whole Christology even where said Christology may vary wildly from that of the NT. We have only been able to briefly survey the claims that Jesus was the Messiah, the lord of the world, YHWH embodied and the person who has bought an end to the sting of sin and death, but there is so much more Christology in the New Testament which has been derived from belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Because of these strong convictions, the early Christians were more willing to be martyred than to renounce the king who saved them (e.g. Mart. Polycarp 9:3). This shows more than simply an early intellectual idea of Christology; they really believed that the resurrection had happened which proved the Christology.

Bockmuehl, Markus. 2001. ‘Resurrection.’ In The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, 102-18. Ed. M. Bockmuehl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moule, C. F. D., ed. 1968. The Significance of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ. London: SCM.
Williams, Rowan. 1982. Resurrection: interpreting the Easter gospel. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.
Wright, N. T. 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God 3. London: SPCK.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *