“Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.…” (1 Corinthians 15:13)
Many Christians claim that of all the arguments for Jesus being the Messiah, of all the proofs, through ‘fulfilled’ Messianic ‘prophesies’ in the Hebrew Bible, or the miracles that he allegedly performed, the nail on the head for them that convinces them is the miracle of his resurrection from the dead after three days.
Some Christians will even go so far as to claim that this event was the greatest miracle of all time and what their faith is based on. Up until the point of his crucifixion they claim they can understand why one still may have an element of doubt in their mind, but then claim that those doubts were removed by his resurrection.
Whether or not this event took place or not is not the purpose of this post. What I would like to look at is this claim made by the writers of the books of the Christian bible and show how from a Jewish perspective, even if this claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead were true, this would not prove anything, nor is it unique.
Unlike many of the teachings of the Church that Judaism disagrees with, such as vicarious atonement, original sin, the divinity of the Messiah (or anyone), the concept of the trinity, that there is no atonement for sin without the spilling of blood and more. The concept of resurrection of the dead is something that Judaism does believe in. The thirteenth of the 13 principles of faith by Maimonides is the belief that at the end of the Messianic age, G-d will resurrect the dead.
We find reference to this in a few biblical passages including Isaiah and Daniel:
“Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise, awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades” (Isaiah 26:19);
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2).
How the resurrection will exactly take place is a matter that has a lot of debate to it in Jewish thinking throughout the ages, and there is no set doctrine with much detail to it, but all agree that it will happen somehow. We mention this at least three times a day in the second blessing of the Amidah the central prayer in our services (Standing, Silent prayer) praising He who:
“Resurrects the dead with great mercy…and fulfills his trust to those who sleep in the dust…. Who can be compared to You, King, Who brings death and restores life, and causes deliverance to spring forth! You are trustworthy to revive the dead. Blessed are You, G-d, Who revives the dead.”
Resurrection of the dead is one of the reasons why Judaism does not accept cremation, and that the body should be buried whole. On a funeral when a son recites Kaddish a specific verse is added explicitly mentioning the resurrection of the dead:
“In the world that in the future
[will] be renewed, and [where] He will revive the dead,”
This is most likely the origin of the Christian belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and their believing it to be evidence of him being the Messiah. So Judaism has a belief in resurrection in the future, but it also believes that resurrection of the dead took place in the past.
Our first source for this is the book of Kings II 4:31-37:
“Gehazi went before them and placed the staff on the lad’s face, but there was no sound and nothing was heard. He returned toward him and told him, saying, “The lad has not awakened.”
Elisha came into the house and behold – the lad was dead, laid out on his bed. He entered and shut the door behind them both, and prayed to HaShem. Then he went up and lay upon the lad, and placed his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, his palms on his palms, and prostrated himself on him, and he warmed the flesh of the lad. He withdrew and walked about the house, once this way and once that way, then he went up and prostrated himself on him; the lad sneezed seven times, and the lad opened his eyes.
He called to Gehazi and said, “Summon this Shunamite woman.” He summoned her and she came to him; he said, “Pick up your son!”
She came and fell at his feet and bowed down to the ground; she picked up her son and left.”
Here we see that Elisha was able to resurrect the dead. Although not resurrection the Torah tells us that Elijah never died but ascended to heaven (Kings II, 2-18). These prophets were capable of miracles (2 Kings II, 2:19-25), resurrection, much like the Gospels claim Jesus could perform, but yet we do not see a movement of Jews from their period that witnessed these events particularly impressed with them. Well, they may have been impressed but this did not lead them to conclude that Elijah must have been the Messiah due to his ascension. Or that Elisha resurrected the dead and must be more than a Prophet but also the Messiah.
Further to the fact that resurrection is not unique to Jesus, it occurred with other Prophets earlier in the Bible, Jewish tradition does not limit the ability to perform miracles such as the ability to resurrect the dead to Prophets or in Christianity’s perspective the Messiah too, but the Talmud records that even non-Prophets, Rabbis performed such miracles as well. In tractate Megilla a story is told of Rabbah and R.Zera:
“Rabbah and R. Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera’s throat.
On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honour come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.” (Megillah 7b)
Another example can be found in the Gemara in tractate Shabbos 152b:
“There were once some diggers who were digging on the land of Rav Nachman. They unwittingly came upon a corpse, that of Rav Achai bar Yoshiyah, a sage who had died generations earlier; and having been disturbed in the grave, the body of Rav Achai bar Yoshiyah snorted at them. – Frightened, those who had been riffing came back and said to Rav Nachman: A dead man snorted at us! [Rav Nachman] then came to the grave site and said to [the corpse]: Who are you? – [The corpse] replied to [Rav Nachman] I am the bey of Achai bar Yoshiyah.
[Rav Nachman] said to [the corpse]: How is it that your body has not decomposed? But did not Rav Mari say: Even the bodies of the righteous are destined to become dust in the grave? – [The corpse] replied to him: And just who is this Mari whom you quote? I do not know him, and I pay no mind to his words. – [Rav Nachman] replied to [the corpse]: But it is not just Rav Mari who has said this; it is a verse written in Scripture that declares the very same: And the dust shall return to the earth as it was. Clearly, then, it is the way of things that a corpse turns to dust in the grave; why has your body not done so?
The corpse retorts:
-[The body] of Rav Achai then said to [Rav Nachman]: – He who taught you the Book of Exxlesiastes evidently did not teach you the Book of Proverbs, for you appear to be ignorant of the verse that states: The rotting of bones is [caused by] envy. This implies: Whoever has envy in his heart while he is alive will have his bones rot in the grave after he dies; and whoever does not have envy in his heart while alive – will not have his bones rot after he dies. Now, I was not guilty of envy while I was alive; hence, my body still retains its significance even many years after my death.”
The ability to resurrect the dead or being resurrected oneself whilst it may be unusual and impressive, it is not a criterion for us to be able to know whether or not someone is the Messiah or not. Many people have not even heard of the story in the Talmud of Rabba an R. Zera or of the corpse of Achai bar Yoshiyah and those who have do not claim that he is the Messiah.
People have heard of Elijahs ascension, but ascension too is not part of the criterion for the Messiah and hence why Jews did not and do not get all excited about Elijah. It is a messianic prophecy that he must return before the Messiah comes. Most people know of Elijah from the custom on Passover to leave a glass of wine at the Seder table for him and maybe to let him in, and perhaps think of him as being more of an alcoholic than anything else.
When we read the miracle stories within the Gospels that they claim Jesus performed in their historical context we see from a traditional Jewish perspective these are not unique. Particularly in the Galilee region, there were numerous miracle workers. The Talmud recounts the miracles of Choni the Circle Maker who lived around the same period:
“It once happened that they said to Choni the Circle-Maker, – “Pray that rains should fall.” – He said to them, – “Go out and bring in the ovens that were prepared for roasting the pesach offerings, so that they do not dissolve in the rain. – He prayed, but no rain fell. What did he do? – He drew a circle, – stood within it, – and said before Him: – “Master of the Universe, – Your children have turned their faces towards me, – because I am like a member of the household before You. I swear by Your Great Name, that I shall not move from here until You have mercy on Your children.”- In response, rain began to trickle. He [Choni] said: “Not such rains did I request, but rains of good will, blessing and benevolence.” – [The rains] then fell normally, – until the Jews had to leave Jerusalem for the Temple Mount – because of the rains. – [The people] came and said this to him, – “Just as you prayed for them [the rains] to fall, – pray that they cease.” – He said to them, – “Go out and see if the Stone of the Strayers has been effaced [i.e. covered] by water.” Unless that is the case, I will not pray for the rains to cease. Shimon ben Shatach sent him the following message: – “Were you not Choni,- I would pronounce a ban upon you. But what shall I do to you, for you misbehave towards the Omnipresent by boldly demanding rain from Him, – yet He fulfils your wish; – like a son who misbehaves towards his father, by boldly demanding from him whatever he desires, – yet [his father] fulfils his wish. – Concerning people such as yourself, Scripture states: “May your father and mother rejoice, and may he who bore you be glad.”” (Taanit 19a)
Returning to Paul who claims that if Jesus did not resurrect then his follower’s faith is in vein in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s theology seems to be portraying Jesus as the first person to be resurrected and that those who believe in him will follow too.
“But the fact is that the Messiah has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a man, also the resurrection of the dead has come through a man. For just as in connection with Adam all die, so in connection with the Messiah all will be made alive. But each in his own order: the Messiah is the first fruits; then those who belong to the Messiah, at the time of his coming;” (Corinthians 15:20)
This does not account for the earlier resurrections that we mentioned earlier. But this whole idea is interwoven with other Christian concepts, which will have to be dealt with individually and separately. The fact that the immediate followers of Jesus may have claimed that Jesus rose from the dead is not the everyday norm, but it is not a departing point from Jewish thinking. But neither is it unique, as many Christians seem to claim. Biblical and rabbinic literature account for these events in numerous places, we have just looked at a few examples, and that they will happen again in the future on a larger scale in the Messianic era.