Much ink has been spilled in defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, and I myself have spilled my fair share. Similarly, the stunning explosion of the Christian Church within the Roman Empire has been raised as a phenomenon that requires explanation and a dead man rising from the dead is the best one. These efforts are valid, but their weight cannot be appreciated without first knowing the context behind the arguments. We must understand the Jewish people, their history and religion.
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This understanding in turn fuels further arguments for Christianity, one of which was presented by C. S. Lewis, who said,
“[One approach to explaining the rise of Christianity is to say] that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that He had said them. This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God- that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary, we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.” “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ,” an essay found in God in the Dock.We can imagine that a God-Man claim would be natural if it emerged in Hindu territory, where avatars are a dime a dozen. It is something else if the claim emerges among the Jews, a people that were fiercely monotheistic. Yet it is more amazing than that: the claim not only emerged among the Jews, but its first adherents were Jews, and it spread first in Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire and only afterwards turned gentile.
That Jesus' followers didn't embrace the doctrine easily is an understatement; the fact that they embraced it at all is a historical reality that strains credulity.
(Consider the wisdom, if you are God, of incarnating in such a setting if you want people to accept your stated credentials. It is easy to prove your case among friends. Not so much among your enemies. Imagine now that friends and foes alike constitute a hostile audience!)
Given the prevailing skepticism of the New Testament, it is worth noting that all of the salient ingredients to this argument can be generated from documents outside of it. Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, and others all corroborate how fiercely monotheistic the Jewish people were. And when we say, 'fierce,' we really mean it.
It is often argued that Christians tampered with Josephus and other ancient writers. Upon examination of what these documents tell us about first century Judea, we learn that it was filled with red hot nationalism, intense chafing at Roman oppression, roiling anticipation of a Messiah-King, full blooded devotion to religious purity, supreme devotion to the temple, and the eventual destruction of the Jewish people by the Romans for their insubordination. Can we dispense with any notion that ancient Christians stooped so low as to fabricate even these aspects of the historical record?
If so, let us consider one example from Josephus, the account of Pontius Pilate and the Standards (War 2.169-174, Antiquities 18.55-59). In this event, Pilate, under cover of darkness, had Caesar's effigies placed in Jerusalem. Jews flocked to Caesarea at the horror of having any kind of image present in their city. Pilate rejected their pleas, and when the Jews didn't disperse, he surrounded them and, "he gave a signal to the soldiers to encompass them … and threatened that their punishment should be no less than immediate death, unless they would leave off disturbing him, and go their ways home. But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly…" Pilate relented in the face of this fanaticism.
Numerous accounts are also given of messiah claimants in Israel during this time. Since 'messiah' refers to an 'anointed one,' or a Jewish King, the Romans were naturally inclined to squash these individuals quickly. Israel's violent nationalism would eventually lead to open rebellion, prompting a Roman invasion in c. 70 AD that destroyed Jerusalem and decimated the temple.
In the face of the Jewish abhorrence to graven images, idolatry, and blasphemy against God, a man came who claimed to be God: the ultimate blasphemy. Jesus was a Jew and all of his disciples, followers, and enemies were Jews. Moreover, among this fiercely nationalistic people, there arose a great mass of women who said, along with their founder, "His kingdom is not of this world."
Few today know the names of any of the dozens, if not hundreds, of other warrior 'messiahs' trying to establish a Jewish Kingdom. The one that is remembered, in defiance to the times, called for a spiritual kingdom. He was crucified like other 'messiahs' were, but not forgotten like they were. Perhaps it is because this messiah did not stay dead?
What would happen in Tehran, Cairo, or Riyadh to the man claiming that he was, in fact, Allah? The Mahdi himself would have to do some pretty remarkable things to convince his fellow Muslims- by the tens of thousands- that he was, in reality, God incarnate! We couldn't help but notice such a thing. First century Palestine presents a similar scenario.
These historical nuts need to be cracked: How is it that the Jewish people of all people gave sudden and rapid birth to a religion such as Christianity? How did this Jewish cult manage to eventually conquer Rome before the barbarians did? These questions arise even if you exclude the New Testament as sources. Integrity and curiosity would seem to demand an explanation that fits all of the facts.
The New Testament does provide one explanation. If you do not like it, what is yours?