Response to a further enquiry on “How Jesus the Faithful Jew became the Christ of Christian Faith”

Hello David,

I’ve done a bit more thinking on this question. You put the point that there were (many?) other Claimed Messiahs, but only one became Christ.
What was special about him? Your point (I gather) was that only an ACTUAL RESURRECTION would have been special enough.

As I am an Atheist, you are probably not surprised that I have problems with your argument. One challenge (perhaps ironically) is the quality of ideas of Jesus and Paul. Now is seems to me that quality of ideas or merit, is not something that scholars (like Paul Forgasz) talk about.
– for example, I don’t recall Paul making any statement as to Merit of Ideas attributed to Jesus of Paul.

Now I hope the irony of this situation amuses you – it certainly amuses me. Basically, the more UNIQUE MERIT in the IDEAS of Jesus and his advocate Paul, the more plausible that Jesus would achieve special status without miraculous support. Alternately, the more the IDEAS of Jesus and Paul LACK special MERIT, the more plausible that Jesus status would NEED miraculous support. Which would seem to be the reverse of the normal Atheist/Theist position.

I’m not sure how much to go own with this argument. Perhaps for now I’ll state my position – that the ideas (and their expression) of Jesus and Paul were/are of unique merit, enough to give Jesus special status over contemporary preachers/claimed messiahs.

Happy to discuss this more with you if you like.

Hullo, my friend. Very glad to continue the conversation with you – I’ve attached my written response so that you can look over my argument again.

I will address both my argument and your proposition.

My argument is pretty straightforward – and isn’t about “faith” as much as making an “historical narrative” out of “historical evidence”. Basically the historical evidence we have for the resurrection of Jesus is of the same order as the evidence we have for his crucifixion: the written testimony of the 1st Century Christian documents, most of which are contained in what is now called the New Testament. Apart from Josephus (the value of which evidence has been debated because of possible Christian tampering), the only evidence we have that Jesus was crucified is that this is the story that early Christians told. And yet hardly any other than the most sceptical scholar would doubt that Jesus not only truly existed but also was crucified. We accept the evidence of the early Christians on this point. But we don’t accept their evidence on the resurrection – although it is of exactly the same nature as the evidence for his crucifixion. It’s not hard to understand why: crucifixions in the Roman empire were common (btw, we know that now, but there was a time when scholars doubted this – because no Roman text spoke of it and surely the Romans were too civilised to engage in such depravity – only the discovery of archaeological evidence eventually proved that the Roman’s routinely executed people in this way); resurrections from the dead were not. My point is that we are allowing considerations other than the quality of the historical evidence (which is the same in both the matter of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus) to influence our judgement here. Those considerations are quite considerable (ie. it is “impossible” for someone to rise from the dead), but they are not “historical”, if you get what I mean. The question is: short of scientific evidence (for which very little exists in any event in ancient history), how many people would you need to tell you that someone had “risen from the dead” – and that they had seen him with their own eyes and touched him with their own hands – before you would believe it? Okay, I would be guessing that no number of people would be enough – but what if such an event was (if not the only, then) the simplest explanation of why things happened the way they happened? I’m just saying, is all! J

So that’s my point. Now to yours. Yes, we have a number of cases of messianic claimants in the 1st and early 2nd Centuries of the Common Era. These are recorded by Josephus and others (cf. http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants00.html ). Note that the last but one in this list is Bar Kochba, in the 135CE rebellion. Interesting also that Josephus only actually says that Jesus of Nazareth was acclaimed “Messiah” – but that could be the tamperers at work. In any case, let’s not make too much of the difference between “Messiah” and “Christ” – in the Judeo-Hellenistic work, they were the same thing. My point, of course, was that only in the case of Jesus of Nazareth did the movement excited by any of these “messiahs” survive his defeat (usually by the Romans). Also note that I am not the one suggesting that the Resurrection is the explanation for this: that is the explanation that is given by Jesus’ own disciples in the proclamation of their “evangelion”, or “good news” (in English: their “gospel”).

Now you wonder if it might not be because of the special merit of Jesus’ teaching that his movement survived him. Here I want to cite two witnesses why I don’t think this is the case:

1) As Paul Forgasz pointed out, the apostle Paul seems to many scholars to be oddly uninterested in “the historical Jesus”. I disagree with that on one point only: St Paul was absolutely fixated with the physical resurrection of the historical Jesus. But I agree with it to this extent: the apostle Paul seems quite disinterested in any of Jesus’ teachings. There are only a few phrases in the Pauline literature which can be said to reflect any of the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels (and remembering that Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, it is hard to say which tradition influenced which literature).

2) the author James Carroll, in his book “Christ Actually”, rightly points out that there wasn’t much that was remarkable about Jesus’ teaching. Yes, I know people go on all the time about what a great teacher Jesus was, but let’s face it: he was an apocalyptic/eschatological prophet, not a philosopher – or, as Carroll puts it, he wasn’t Socrates, or Virgil or Dante. He wasn’t Seneca either, and if you wanted a moral philosopher from the ancient world to live a virtuous life by, he would be my choice. Jesus’ teaching, as recorded in the Gospels, only makes sense in so far as he was calling Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming of the “Kingdom of God”, which in a strange way he himself and his own actions (including his death) were bringing about. There is nothing “timeless” about his teaching. In fact, I would ask you – since you suggest it: what aspect of his teaching do you find especially compelling? Personally, I wouldn’t give the time of day to any of it, if in fact his ultimate end was that he was executed by the Romans and chucked in some sandy grave somewhere and that was the end.

For me, Jesus’ teachings have no meaning at all apart from the fact that after his teaching/prophetic career he was killed – and then he rose from the dead. If indeed he rose from the dead, then I am forced to come to the same conclusion that the apostle Paul came to (and presumably, by Paul’s own witness, the other apostles, Peter, James, John etc, before him): by raising Jesus from the dead, the God of Israel, the God whom Jesus claimed was his Father and in whose name he did and said what he did and said, was vindicating Jesus as the Messiah he claimed to be. (Please note, that I have good textual evidence from the letters of St Paul that this is precisely what he thought Jesus was all about but I am sparing you the exegetical details: if you are really interested in this whole business, I suggest you read N.T. Wright’s “What St Paul Actually Said” – it’s a short book but quite enlightening). Practically every scholar of the NT will agree that Paul is less interested in proclaiming what Jesus taught, and more interested in proclaiming Jesus himself. Certainly there is nothing “meritorious” in Paul’s teaching (I think he himself would agree) if Jesus was not risen from the dead as he said he was. Again, I would be interested to know from your reading what bits of Paul you think are worthy of consideration if his central conviction that Jesus was risen from the dead were not true.

So, to cut a long story short (“Too late!”, they cried), I have to respectfully disagree with you: I don’t think there was anything in the quality of the teaching of either Jesus or Paul that would have sustained a continuation of the movement that he began after his death apart from his own resurrection from the dead. This isn’t my theory, it is the claim of the first Christians (you might want to have a read of the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 24 – whether this is an ‘historical’ story or not, it well expresses the fact that the early Christians found motivation to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah/Christ principally on the basis of their conviction that he was risen from the dead).

I think you will find the next CCJ speaker, Dr Sean Winters, to be of particular interest on August 2nd. He was a student of the scholar N.T. Wright whom I have often been citing. Wright is only one of the many ‘historical Jesus’ scholars out there at this point in time (his real focus is in fact on the apostle Paul and on his ‘new perspective’ which takes Paul’s Jewishness into account), but he is one who believes that the claims about Jesus’ resurrection by the early church can and should be carefully examined from the point of view of historical science.

In any case, I will leave it there now. Please feel free to engage with me further, if you like!

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