This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
I'm a big admirer of your work as a philosopher, theologian and New Testament scholar, and thank God for the work you continue to do in providing a case for our “reasonable faith.” Thanks to the work of Christian philosophers like you, I’ve been encouraged to take up academic study in philosophy and have recently completed my undergraduate degree in philosophy from the UK.
My question concerns how we should think about the Jewish rejection of Christ's messiahship and what that entails for the case for the resurrection.
As I understand your case for the resurrection, you argue that the disciples were highly unlikely to have made up Jesus’ resurrection because it went against every predisposition Second Temple Judaism had regarding the Messiah and what He would come to achieve. Unlike the political-military ruler they had expected, Jesus came as a meek teacher, healer and refused earthly glory, eventually dying on a Roman cross, which would have been unimaginable for the Messiah. That the Messiah should rise again before everyone else was certainly a radical innovation of Jewish beliefs since there was no concept of a risen Messiah.
I find your arguments about this to be persuasive. However, upon further reflection, it seems that there are some troubling implications with regards to how we can know that Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah promised in Scripture.
I assume that if the Second Temple Jewish understanding of the Messiah comes from a reasonable interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures (bracketing the facts of Jesus’ life death and resurrection), then wasn't it justifiable for Jews at that time (and perhaps us) to reject Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, regardless of the facts surrounding Jesus'resurrection?
While it is certainly true that belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection which went against OT expectations of the Messiah count against the resurrection being made up by the disciples, it also seems to count against Jesus being the promised Jewish Messiah, which seems to challenge his claim to be the Christ (which potentially matters more than his resurrection).
Here it seems that the origins of Christian beliefs about Jesus’ death and resurrection count against the hypothesis that ‘‘God raised Jesus from the dead.’’ After all, since Jesus made claims about himself which were connected to the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures, then the fact that his claims to Messiahship prima facie go against the best interpretations of those texts surrounding what the Messiah would do seem to count against his claims to Messiahship. It seems to me that some argument along these lines represents the main crux of Jewish objections to Christianity, and I am not sure how to respond.
William Lane Craig’s Response
One of the important components of a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection is the fact that the earliest disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead, despite having every predisposition to the contrary. N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God is the fullest treatment of this issue. Wright emphasizes that belief in Jesus’ resurrection was something that no first century Jew, confronted with the humiliation and execution of his would-be Messiah, would have expected or invented. In the absence of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the origin of the Christian faith midway through the first century leaves us with a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the resurrection.
Now this fact does have some disturbing implications, as you note. I must confess that my study of this point has left me much more sympathetic with the Jewish authorities who opposed Jesus so adamantly during his lifetime. Not that I would ever condone their evil conniving to engineer a judicial murder of Jesus through false witnesses and political pressure! Their conduct was despicable and inexcusable. Nevertheless, their skepticism about Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah seems to me very understandable. It wasn’t just hardness of heart that led them to resist Jesus’ claims, despite the signs of his miracles and exorcisms. Jesus just didn’t fit the bill for what Messiah was supposed to look like. We see this in their cruel mockery of Jesus on the cross: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe!” (Mark 15.31-32). The crucifixion put a question mark even behind the ardent faith of Jesus’ own followers. So I sympathize with the skepticism of the Jewish leaders about Jesus during his lifetime.
But, of course, Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. It is God’s miraculous and public vindication of the allegedly blasphemous claims for which Jesus was crucified, showing that he was Messiah after all. When the Hebrew scriptures are read in light of that event, one can see that Jesus’ very different understanding of the Messiah and his kingdom was defensible after all. In particular, Isaiah 53, the passage about the substitutionary, atoning death of God’s righteous Servant, took on a new light, both for Jesus himself and for his disciples, as Jesus was identified with the suffering Servant described by Isaiah who gave his life for the people. His kingdom could be understood to be established first spiritually and then later physically at his return.
Whether a Jewish person should accept Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Messiah and his kingdom will depend upon the credibility of the fact that the God of Israel has raised him from the dead, thereby vindicating his claims. If you stick with the customary Jewish interpretation, then you’ve got to explain away the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. In light of his resurrection, Jesus’ understanding of the Messiah was reasonable and is to be preferred to the customary Jewish interpretation, which leaves us with no explanation of the origin of the Christian faith, not to mention Jesus’ empty tomb and post-mortem appearances.
- William Lane Craig