The first writer of what later came to be called the New Testament was a well-educated Jew from Tarsus in Asia Minor. His name was Paul, although there is a later tradition that suggested that his original name was Saul and that the change from Saul to Paul was symbolic of the change in his life from being a highly-disciplined member of the Jewish religious elite to being a follower of Jesus. The adjective “Jewish” in that sentence is important because at this time in history, there was no such thing as Christianity or the Christian Church.
What we now call Christianity was still a minority movement within the synagogue itself called “The Followers of the Way.” These followers were also known by members of the Orthodox Party of Judaism as “revisionists.” That was a deliberately pejorative title. “Revisionists” in ecclesiastical circles means that they were “change agents” destabilizing the “True Faith.”
Paul began his rabbinic career as a strict adherent of the Torah. He said of his earlier life: “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal.1:14). These words are from what was probably his second epistle written about the year 52 CE.
Paul tells us in this same epistle of his days as a persecutor of the Christians and of how he sought to destroy this movement. Since one does not react in such overt and hostile ways toward a new set of ideas, unless one is fearful of those ideas, attracted to them or both, one wonders what the personal threat was that Christianity posed for him, but that speculation is beyond the scope of this column. Paul alludes to his conversion once again in Galatians with these words: “But when he, who had set me apart before I was born and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away to Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus.” (Gal 1:15-17).
It is of interest to note that Paul never mentions the dramatic events of his conversion on the road to Damascus, of his supposed blindness or of the role a man named Ananias played in his conversion. These details are all part of the narrative written in the book of Acts some thirty or more years after Paul’s death. This fact makes the literal accuracy of the Damascus Road story highly suspect. It is a fact, however, that there was clearly a transition in this man’s life between being a persecutor of the Christians and a champion of them.
When did that change occur? It is hard to be certain. In Galatians Paul says that after his conversion experience, he went to Arabia for three years. Then he went up to Jerusalem to confer with Peter and James, the Lord’s brother. Next he went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. He was clearly active in proclaiming Christ at this time for he notes that people said: “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1: 23). The final note that helps us date his life and career is that he says: “After fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to lay before those who were ‘in repute,’ but ‘privately,’ the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1: 1, 2).
So there were at least seventeen years between Paul’s conversion and the writing of his early epistle to the Galatians. If the date of the crucifixion is fixed around the year 30 CE and the date of Paul’s conversion is fixed, as historian Adolf von Harnack has sought to do, no earlier than one and no later than six years after the crucifixion (I would place it on the early side of that spread), we begin to get some clarity about time and history, so Paul’s conversion is believed to have come somewhere between 31 and 36 CE, his time in Arabia would then be between 34 and 39 CE and his fourteen years in Syria and Cilicia would fall between the years between 48 and 53 CE. Since I Thessalonians is generally regarded as Paul’s first epistle and is normally dated about 51 CE and his second is Galatians dated about 52 CE, we find ourselves in the range of high probability.
So Paul’s convictions regarding Jesus being both “crucified” and “raised” are recorded and fixed inside the first generation of Christian believers. That is not enough time for myths to develop that would create the life of Jesus out of whole cloth, as some critics of Christianity try to maintain today. So we enter our study of Paul’s understanding of the resurrection with the confidence that he was describing something he believed was real. The assumption that something about the life of Jesus had broken open the power of death permeates almost every verse of the Pauline corpus, but he speaks about it quite specifically only in the epistle called I Corinthians, which scholars tend to date in or around the year 54 CE. We read it carefully for it precedes by almost a whole generation any of the narratives of Easter that appear in the later gospels. We also note the fact that Paul died five to ten years before the first gospel was written.
Paul was very spare with details, covering all the events of the end of Jesus’ life in a mere six verses (I Cor. 15:3-8). He introduces these verses with a clear claim to their accuracy. He is citing a recognized authority. Listen to his words first in regard to just the crucifixion: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3). That is the totality of his description of the crucifixion. The phrase: “Christ died for our sins,” reveals that the crucifixion had by this time already been related to the liturgy of Yom Kippur, for the words “for our sins” are a direct quotation out of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
The crucifixion had thus already been invested with a theological purpose. It accomplished for us what the death of the “Lamb of God” in Yom Kippur accomplished. It opened to us a pathway into God. The blood of the Lamb, spread upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies in the Yom Kippur liturgy, made it possible for imperfect human beings to enter into the presence of God whether they were personally deserving or not. The blood of Jesus on the cross was thought to accomplish the same purpose. It is obvious that the death of Jesus had already been interpreted liturgically.
Paul also said that Jesus’ death was accomplished: “in accordance with the scriptures.” That means, that by this time, the death of Jesus had already been transformed from the tragedy it seemed at first to be into a triumph expressing the purpose of God in accordance with some of the messianic images. This interpretive framework was already in place before the year 54 when I Corinthians was written. Chief among those messianic images to which he referred were the ones found in the writings of II Isaiah (chapters 40-55) and II Zechariah (chapters 9-14). These were, quite obviously, the two most popular texts from the Hebrew Bible on to which the followers of Jesus leapt to assert that the death of Jesus was based upon the fulfillment of messianic expectations. Please note also that there is in Paul’s writing no mention of Judas Iscariot, Pilate, the two thieves or Barabbas. There are no details describing the crucifixion, no words said to have been spoken by Jesus from the cross, no darkness at noon and no interpretive details. All of that seems not yet to have been developed.
Paul then moved on to the burial which he covered in three words, “He was buried.” There was no tomb, no garden, no Temple guards and no Joseph of Arimathea. Paul was now ready to say his first words about resurrection. That too was quite spare. All Paul said was: “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (I Cor. 15:4).
Note several things present in this text. First, the verb tense that Paul used is passive. Paul did not say Jesus rose, rather he said that Jesus “was raised.” Resurrection for Paul was not an action that Jesus did, it was an action that was done to him. The words, “he was raised” implied that some outside force operated on him. Paul will tell us later who that was. In his epistle to the Romans dated around 58 CE, Paul wrote that Jesus “was designated Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3, 4). God “designated him.” This is not Trinitarian language. God is clearly the designator, Jesus is the designated one. God raised him, Jesus did not rise. That is not a relationship of “co-equality.”
This means that the earliest account of the Easter moment in the Bible did not assert that Jesus himself conquered death. It said that God raised him from death. Does that mean that God raised him physically back into the life of time and space? Does that mean that resurrection in its first biblical narration was understood as the resuscitation of the deceased body? No, of course not! It suggested rather that God raised Jesus into the life of God. Resurrection for Paul was far more like the later story of the Ascension that it was about the resuscitation of a physically dead body.
How do we know that? All one has to do is to continue reading Paul’s words. Paul provides us next with a list of those to whom the raised Christ was said to have appeared. The Greek word that Paul used that we translate “appeared” was “ophthe.” Literally it meant “was made manifest to.” It was the same word chosen in 250 BCE by those who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, in what we today call the Septuagint, to describe God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. That is more like a visionary experience than it is one person seeing another person after a three-day absence. Later Paul will tell us more about where the raised Christ was seen and experienced. It is not the way the church has talked about Easter through the centuries. We will develop that idea next week as this series on what the New Testament actually says about the resurrection continues. So stay tuned.