Is the Biblical Claim that Jesus Resurrected from the Dead Unique in History?
The Apostle’s Creed, speaking about Jesus states, “I believe… on the third day he rose again.” That Jesus rose bodily from the dead is a historic and fundamental confession of the Christian church. One important question which might be asked about the resurrection is whether it is unique in history. How does this claim relate to other religious traditions?
This is an important and difficult question. I should be honest enough to say it’s a question which I can’t answer fully and, if I could, the answer would be longer than what a small blog post could cover. Still, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg’s work The Historical Reliability of the Gospels helped me move towards an answer to this question. In this work, Blomberg notes that in order to be intellectually honest Christians must admit that the resurrection of Jesus parallels other religious stories. There are a number of ancient religions, for instance, which include stories of gods dying and rising again. Yet, on inspection, important differences between these accounts and the Biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection surface immediately. For one thing, in many of these ancient accounts, a god dies and rises again repeatedly — often annually as winter changed to spring. The resurrection of Jesus is remarkably different than this for the simple reason that these ancient religions hold to multiple resurrections rather than one decisive resurrection. While this is one important difference between the resurrection of Jesus and other ancient resurrection stories, it is not the most fundamental difference.
The fundamental difference is this: the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the story of the resurrection of an actual person known to others and not a remote deity. Craig Blomberg observes, “None of the ancient myths and stories of dying and rising gods refers to real human individuals known to have lived among the very people narrating the stories within their living memory” (Bloomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 139). In other words, it is the connection of Jesus, as fully human and fully God, to other humans, which makes his resurrection so unique.
Something that New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has shown at great length is the uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection. He has demonstrated that, even for those people of Jewish descent living at the time of Jesus, Christ’s resurrection would have been completely and entirely unexpected. Indeed, before Jesus’ resurrection, likely no Jewish person would have thought that any person, even the Messiah, would rise before “the end of the age.” Simply put, Jesus’ resurrection didn’t fit into their mold because it was the resurrection of one person in the “middle of history” well before the end of the age. The resurrection of Jesus was something which surprised the first disciples and it still surprises us today. To many modern people, the story of someone rising from the dead can seem incredulous, something hailing from an earlier, unenlightened time. But here we should remember that it was something unique and unexpected for the first Christians as well — they also wouldn’t have easily believed a person simply rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus, then, was so unique in history as to be a surprise to the first Christian believers.
Ultimately, it is the “surprisingness” of the resurrection which makes it significant. Jesus’ resurrection, according to the Christian Scriptures, is actually the beginning of the world being made new. From the perspective of the Biblical writers, this one man rising in “the middle of history” changed the meaning and goal of all history. In short, Christ’s resurrection means that all humans can know a new life and a world made new. Obviously, these are very large claims, but they are also, I think, certainly very attractive ones.