The Roman empire killed Jesus on a cross. We must assume he was killed as a political agitator since that is why people were crucified in 1st century Palestine. The idea of resurrection derived, in the Jewish context, when foreign empires ruled over Israel. Resurrection indicated who would be vindicated by G-d because of the way they dealt with the foreign occupiers. Various 1st century groups such as the Pharisees formed views about the resurrection in order to support their political views of how to live under the rule of Rome. Messiahs were charismatic leaders who endeavored to reestablish Israel as an independent nation. When they died without accomplishing this, the independence movement either stopped or was passed on to a relative of the proclaimed messiah. Jesus acted like a messiah, and as far as we can tell, his followers believed he was the Messiah.
Jesus put forth a different sort of messianic movement. He seemed unconcerned with the end of the temple (Matt. 24.1-2; Luke 21.5-6; John 4.23) or the establishment of a new monarchy (John 6.15; also see Jesus for President, pp. 127-130). He preached the Empire of G-d, but he never raised an army to establish it. Over and over again, he showed in parables and ethical teachings how G-d does not separate out people based on their ethnic identities but on the way they live. Ultimately, Jesus’ way of coping with Roman imperial reign was no way to cope with violent dictators: love your enemies; cast out demons; heal sick people; refuse to take oaths; break the Sabbath; feed thousands without payment; and hang out with Roman collaborators, women involved in prostitution, Pharisees, women, and fishermen like they were all people. Any Judean person must have wondered, “What kind of a revolution is this?”
From hearing the harrowing stories of the Maccabees to looking up at the opulent city of Sepphoris while living in poverty in Nazareth, what Jesus understood about violent
revolutions and monarchies is that they inevitably make the powerful more powerful and maintain the silence of the powerless. Jesus turned the power to the have-nots. Any time people on the margins are empowered, the people at the centers of power become fearful. They become fearful because they know they have wronged the powerless, but Jesus’ movement was not an armed movement rising to overthrow a dictator. The Jesus movement, unlike Marxism or the Cuban Revolution, did not seek to make a poor person into a rich monarch. It was a movement that believed G-d was bringing down the powerful and raising up the powerless so that they could meet in the middle as equals (Luke 1.46-55).
Of course, this means the powerful must be brought down. For that reason, they killed Jesus. There are two sides to every coin, and in a finite world, when one group takes too much, the others suffer. As soon as a prophet like Jesus points this out, the prophet’s life is at risk. The empire thought they knew how to protect their interests. Only death can finally silence those with a voice, and Rome held a monopoly on murder. As we all know, those who followed Jesus began to proclaim his crucifixion like a badge of honor. They referred to him as “Jesus who was crucified”. Despite this absurdity, the movement spread amongst Judean and non-Judean people alike. Why?
People in the Jesus movement clearly believed that those vindicated by G-d according to how they lived under foreign rule would rise from the dead at the end of time. What they did not expect was someone to rise from the dead in the middle of time. Jesus’ death indicated his way of living under the foreign occupation was a failed experiment.
Nonetheless, Jesus’ disciples did not treat his crucifixion as failure. Instead, they spread the word to everyone as though it really was G-d’s solution to imperial oppression. They spread the word as though Jesus had been vindicated by G-d in the way they anticipated people to be vindicated at the end of time, yet time had not ended. The only way Jesus’ crucifixion could not mean the end of the movement, and mean vindication instead, is if Jesus resurrected in the way the 1st century Judean people expected the “correct” group to resurrect at the end of time. Put differently, the only reason the apostles (both women and men) spread the news about Jesus, his life, and his death as “good news” is because they believed G-d approved of his way of living in the world. G-d’s stamp of approval was resurrection. They spread the message because they believed Jesus rose from the dead. Any other explanation fails to take into consideration the social, political, and eschatological beliefs of Judean people at the time. If the disciples had not seen an empty tomb and a risen Messiah, Christianity would have died with Jesus on the cross.