The cross was an imperial form of execution. The word for “crucify” in Greek is a verb which means literally “drive in stakes”, and our words “cross” and “crucify” derive from the Latin word for “torture”, cruciare. Criminals, beaten by whips before carrying their medium of death to its final location, were either tied or nailed to a horizontal beam attached to a vertical one, where they hung until the awkward, painful position of their bodies caused them to suffocate.
A brutal way to die, Josephus and Cicero considered crucifixion the absolute worst way to be killed. At times, people could hang on crosses alive for days, slowly suffocating. Originating with the Persians and other peoples from that region (modern day Iran), the Greek empire adopted it—Alexander the Great was purported to crucify thousands—and later, the Romans used it as capital punishment. Everyone in the 1st century Roman world knew the Romans effected crucifixion as a deterrent against bad behavior or political dissent. They hung people from crosses on frequently traveled highways, on high hills, or at the city gates. For the most part, they left people to hang on these crosses until vultures picked the bodies clean or they rotted to the bones. In Palestine, since Jewish law required corpses to be buried before sunset, the Romans permitted people to bury their crucified loved ones, and they would even break the crucified person’s legs to ensure death before nightfall.
Cultural stigma surrounded the use of crosses. Roman citizens considered talk of crucifixion in friendly discourse to be rude and inappropriate. The crucified brought shame upon themselves for meriting such a disgraceful death. In Italy and Rome, specifically, only slaves or freed slaves received death by crucifixion for major crimes such as murder. It earned the title, “slaves’ punishment”. However, every instance of crucifixion recorded by an eyewitness account in Palestine until 66 C.E. resulted from political agitation. Palestine tended toward political unrest and upheaval. To prevent revolution, Roman governors typically slaughtered radical, anti-imperial movements on crosses in droves.
Jesus’ crucifixion was no different. Whether he explicitly proclaimed it or not, the Judean leaders found him threatening to their authority. They convinced the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus hoped to usurp Herod, the Roman puppet king in Judea. Their reasons for this were hardly unfounded. Like other movements, Jesus proclaimed the “basileia tou theou” or “kingdom/empire of god”. Other movements proclaiming this same message established themselves as political groups. Jesus hardly seemed different. His death marked him as a shamed political agitator. To proclaim him as the Messiah, a leader who would bring economic justice, national restoration, and liberation would, to anyone at the time, seem remarkably crazy. Messiahs were not crucified, at least not messiahs appointed by the god of Israel.
This raises the ultimate question of why Jesus’ earliest and most influential followers would insist on Jesus’ privileged status while maintaining his manner of death; “but we proclaim Christ (the Messiah) crucified, a stumbling block to the Judeans and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1.23).” Their argument carries weight only if they truly believed that Jesus defeated death. If they truly believed Jesus rose from the dead, the shame and the failure of the cross carried none of its power. The ultimate form of Roman deterrence against threats to their authority disappeared, and Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah proved true! When this happened, those who believed went fearlessly into the world to proclaim this message. Of course, the political implications of their message earned them persecution, shame, and death, but what did they care? Ultimately, the Roman Empire showed itself to be impotent in the face of the resurrection.
With the historical context of crucifixion fresh in our minds, we turn to the context surrounding resurrection. Hope for resurrection always occurred in the face of imperial dominance. The Hebrew Bible contains many figurative uses of people being raised from the dead (i.e. Ezekiel 37, Hosea 6.2; 13.14), yet in context, they all refer to national restoration of Israel. Hence, even the figurative language surrounding resurrection involves people oppressed under imperial might (e.g. Babylon and Assyria). Still, explicit affirmations of human resurrection occur in two exceedingly different Jewish books, and it is important for our purposes to examine each and how Jesus relates to both.
The first example comes out of the (Protestant) apocryphal book 2 Maccabees. 2 Maccabees recounts the story of the violent revolt against the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes by the Judean leader Judas Maccabeus. The eldest son of an influential family, Judas, along with his brothers, successfully overthrows the imperial rulers. While telling this story, 2 Maccabees 7 narrates a gruesome execution of seven brothers whose mother stands by and watches as the Greek emperor skins and cooks her sons on a giant frying pan. As the fourth son approaches death, he boldly proclaims, “’One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope G-d gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!’” (2 Macc. 7.14bc). Unlike the prophetic texts, this son in the story quite clearly understands resurrection to be a return to life after death instead of national restoration. The invasive, evil conquerors will not receive such a gift. Spoken of directly again in 2 Maccabees 12, Judas Maccabeus and his soldiers discover contraband idols on the persons of defeated Judean soldiers. Judas collects money from all his living soldiers and sends it to Jerusalem as a “sin offering”. 2 Maccabees states, “In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Macc. 12.43c-44). This notion of resurrection arises in the face of a repressive empire, but both of these direct references to resurrection sit in the larger context of the message of the Maccabees: violent revolution against the empire is righteous and necessary. More importantly, those who embark in this violent activity while maintaining ritual purity according to the rules of the Mosaic law will be resurrected by Israel’s god. Our other example from Jewish scriptures could not be more different.
Written about the same crisis as the Maccabees, the Book of Daniel uses apocalyptic imagery to speak of the oppressive rule by the Greeks. Casting stories about Judah’s exile in Babylon, Daniel proposes a radical alternative to the Maccabean rebels, and more precisely, one without violence. Unlike in the Maccabees, in Daniel no powerful military leader arises to defeat the emperor. Instead, a group of young men in exile keep close to Hebrew purity laws, suffer immense persecution for it, receive deliverance from certain death by the hand of G-d, and in the meantime, allow the empire to fall on its own as G-d so wished. At the climax in chapter 7, G-d judges the haughty empires, who resemble animals, and deems them guilty. “The one like a son of humanity”, on the other hand receives vindication from the “Ancient of Days” who grants this person dominion over everyone on earth. Of course, no one fights for this dominion. It is simply granted. Placed in this context, we read Daniel 12.2, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Again, in the face of imperial reign, Daniel, it seems, affirms the resurrection as the Maccabees do, but these verses carry different criteria for the resurrection than 2 Maccabees. In 2 Maccabees, only the faithful Jews receive new life after death. In Daniel, an unspecified group resurrects, and some receive “life” and some “contempt”. When we fast-forward to the time of Jesus’ ministry almost 200 years later, we find Jesus interpreting his own mission directly in light of Daniel and in opposition to the Maccabees.
The Maccabean resistance movement resulted in a very short period of Jewish independence from the Seleucid empire. More importantly, it culminated in the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty. That is, Judas Maccabeus’ brother Simon established a monarchical throne over Judea. Despite their heroic attempts to establish Judean independence, the Hasmonean dynasty later became a puppet monarchy for the Romans. Ultimately, the power-grabbing ways of the Maccabees turned them into domestic oppressors and, eventually, complete failures, conceding authority back to foreign rulers. The Herodian dynasty replaced the Hasmoneans about 30 years before Jesus’ birth. Half Judean and half Arab, Herod and his sons proved disastrous for the people of Palestine while under Roman rule.
Undoubtedly, Jesus knew the story of the Maccabees growing up (it’s what Hanukkah celebrates). He knew their harrowing feats and their reclamation of independence. Nevertheless, the grand stories of the Maccabees must have seemed far off to a young Galilean boy living under the harsh, violent rule of the Herods. Additionally, the very presence of the Herodian dynasty operating under Roman authority proved the Hasmoneans’ ultimate failure. This is important. Jesus, growing up in Nazareth, would have been, by his social and geographic location, under the oppression of the Herodian dynasty. Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s three sons and Rome’s puppet in Galilee, built his capital city the next town over from Nazareth and named it Sepphoris. This lavish city possessed the finest Roman amenities, and it was built on the backs of Nazarene peasantry. As in all empires, the wealthy enjoyed bounty and comfort while a stone’s throw away, the poor suffered in destitution.
Some of these wealthy elite clung tightly to their positions (Herodians and Sadducees). For them, Hasmonean capitulation to and continued cooperation with Roman rule was a windfall. Others formed strict, sectarian communities to completely avoid imperial domination (Qumran community or Essenes). Some attempted to reproduce the Maccabean revolt (Zealots). Still others demanded strict Torah observance (Pharisees). Every one of these groups acted the way they did, not simply because they were religious groups but, because they saw it as an appropriate political response to the problem of foreign rulers in the promised land. Every group taught various beliefs about how to cope or how to resist the occupation, including beliefs about what would happen to those who followed G-d properly in the face of foreign domination. Jesus enters onto this scene by starting a populist movement in the poor districts of Galilee.
Out of the various social locations, political activities, and religious belief structures of the plural Judean groups, each established certain doctrines about the resurrection. Like Daniel and 2 Maccabees, the resurrection promised new life to those who lived properly under the rule of foreign oppressors, and it promised punishment to the “nations”. Those who showed themselves to be faithful to G-d without cooperating with the powers earned a second life. That is why the Sadducees, a group of wealthy elite men who controlled the temple, did not believe in the resurrection. They saw cooperation with Rome to be perfectly acceptable. Why then would G-d vindicate them as the faithful people of G-d against the foreigners? The Essenes separated themselves far from the rest of the world, and they considered this to be the proper response to foreign occupation. The resurrected would be those who kept themselves totally pure from the empire. The pharisees launched a reform movement stressing Torah observance. Torah observance proved who the true Israel was and would determine who resisted the empire properly. The resurrection proves on all accounts to be a belief centered on political resistance against the foreign rulers (whether they be Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman).
The 1st century Judean groups invested their time in identifying who truly constituted the true Israel in the face of national domination. The final word from G-d at the resurrection would prove who was correct.
The proper contexts for talking about Jesus and resurrection are now set. We know Jesus died in a shameful fashion. He died in a way no leader, no world ruler, and no person of long lasting importance ever would. We know about the two competing views of Jewish scriptures that deal with foreign occupiers, and propose resurrection as the ultimate, concluding argument of G-d against the nations. And we know a little bit more about the political groups competing for allegiance, and we know how they formed their beliefs about resurrection in light of their beliefs about how to deal with Rome. We now look at Jesus. How did Jesus propose to deal with Rome? How did Jesus’ view of who the “true Israel” was in the face of the foreign occupation affect his understanding and the understanding of his followers about the resurrection?
First, we turn to Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees and the question about the resurrection. The passage in question is Matthew 22.23-33. The Sadducees press a question onto Jesus that clearly alludes to the story I told from 2 Maccabees. Seven brothers die, and in the end, they resurrect. At the end of the story, Jesus completely fools them. The finer points about understanding exactly how Jesus wins the argument must be unsaid. In the story, everyone listens in astonishment to Jesus’ response. What we glean from this is that Jesus’ politics of the resurrection do not derive from that story in 2 Maccabees. We can see this in how Jesus responds. He does not affirm the Maccabees story as proof of the resurrection. Instead, he quotes Exodus.
Directly after this story, the pharisees confront Jesus. This might be one of the most well known scenes in Matthew since in it Jesus indicates the two most important commandments. The Pharisees and Sadducees were not friends. When the Pharisees hear Jesus silenced their opponents, they congregated in order to find out if he was on their side. He silences them, too. The scene ends with everyone astounded and afraid to question Jesus. He proceeds to launch into a long diatribe about judgment and parables about the need to be watchful for the end times. Dead center of that pontification is a quote from Daniel 7 concerning the coming of the “Son of Man”.
Jesus, naturally, brought a different message than did the Pharisees or the Sadducees. What was that message? How did it differ from the others? These are questions I will address next Sunday, but now, I want to conclude with the difficult work of self examination.
Many of us fall into categories other than disciples. What all the 1st century Jewish groups held in common was national restoration. They sough how to restore their national identity. How many of us do this? We seek to restore our national identity, and we attempt to create it in the image of what we think G-d wants. Some think we need to let the world do what the world does, but we will practice strict Bible observance. We will let the world fall where it might, but our living out the biblical rules will vindicate us in the end. These are the Pharisees. Some of us think we must go around trying to force everyone to follow the Bible properly. These people coerce others into obeying their interpretation of the Bible just like the zealots did. Mennonites really never struggled with this one, but many Christians do. Christians become Sadducees. They stress religious, cultic observance. These folks complain about how little people attend church or tithe. Still, more importantly, all these groups seek to restore national identity through good discipleship. From Pat Robertson to Jim Wallis, Christianity Today and Sojourners, from the far right to the far left, the Christians in this country in particular believe that when the proper way of following G-d is lived out the nation will return to its former glory and the righteous will be vindicated. Of course, this is exactly what Jesus’ opponents believed. They thought surely Israel would be vindicated before G-d, and those within Israel who did it properly would be enjoy the final vindication. Do you do this? Do you seek to follow rigorous interpretations of the Bible? Do you deny the resurrection because you cooperate so closely with the empire? Do you separate yourself from everything in the world so that you remain pure from its sinfulness? These were the opponents of Jesus. What was the Jesus alternative? How did Jesus and the disciples see all this differently? As you reflect on your own path toward discipleship, you must wait until next Sunday when we will discuss how Jesus and his resurrection blew open every other worldview and vindicated Jesus in the way all the others believed they would be vindicated in the end.
Ultimately, Jesus never died for our sins. Jesus died for causing the religious and political authorities to feel seriously threatened by his activity. To say otherwise is to say that people do not act with any reasonable purposes or motivations. The notion that Jesus died for our sins is a later interpretation of theological instead of historical importance. I want to explain the historical realities of the Jesus movement to the best of my abilities before I jump to theological conclusions. In order to understand the Jesus movement in which we participate, it behooves us to understand how Jesus understood himself and how his followers interpreted what happened. Part of this means admitting that Jesus really did espouse a message that threatened the religious and political elite like many other movements. Only Jesus’ movement looked distinctly different from other movements.
Keep in mind, Jesus was not the only Messiah in 1st century Palestine. He was not even the last person people called the Messiah. There were at least a dozen other movements like Jesus’ that we know of 100 hundred years either side of Jesus. Of course, this is why people were expectant of a person they called “The Messiah”, after all. Others promised and failed. What were people hoping for in these messiahs?
Israel faced a serious faith crisis. They were the people G-d led out of Egypt. G-d gave them the promised land. Despite all the promises, foreign, pagan rulers, for centuries, ruled the holy land. The Judean leaders did little to nothing in order to remedy this problem. In fact, most of the powerful elite encouraged it. As a result, people began to question G-d. Were G-d’s promises worth anything? Were they still the people of G-d? Movements sprang up in order to distinguish the people of G-d from the others. These groups believed they would be shown to be correct at the resurrection.
Judas Maccabeus gives us a great example of one of these renewal movements. Considered the Messiah by some, Judas and his brothers ended the foreign rule. Thus, it seemed those living in Israel apart from foreign domination could once again be considered the people of G-d. After Judas’ death his brothers took over the title of Messiah, and when Simon established the monarchy, everything seemed to finally work out. Reconstituting Israel meant G-d’s blessing. When the Hasmoneans sold out to Rome, the excitement ended. The messiahs failed. Israel faced exile once again.
Jesus, bursting onto the scene, maintains all the distinctive Jewish qualities of a messiah. He initiates a messianic movement. He acts in ways that appear to be reconstituting Israel (picking 12 men as a way to renew the tribes, cleansing the temple, starting in the desert and heading toward Jerusalem, etc.). Most importantly, Jesus claims the authority and power of Israel’s G-d. He identifies the G-d of his ancestors to be the G-d of the whole world, and it is precisely in this affirmation that Jesus appears different than the other movements. Thinking of G-d as ruler of the whole world, Jesus looked at Rome as the foreign occupier not just of Israel but of all its colonial possessions. Everyone needed out from under the injustice of the imperial system and into the justice of the baisleia tou theou (the empire of god). Of course, this belief surely constitutes enough evidence to kill a revolutionary leader of a movement. However, killing him failed to end the movement. If anything, it escalated it. Why?
At this point, I want to introduce several massive questions that drove me to write this whole series:
If Jesus and his disciples were a Jewish movement similar to other Jewish movements of their day, why did they, unlike the others, move beyond Israel with their message?
The necessary follow-up question is why would anyone outside of the Jewish context believe them and choose to follow this Jesus?
If Jesus appeared to be a failed messiah in light of the crucifixion, what happened that convinced his disciples otherwise? Stated differently, what caused them to argue Jesus succeeded despite all the evidence otherwise?
Finally, why would an empire who had no problem (for the most part) with various religious expressions, from Judaism to worship of other indigenous gods, kill people who followed Jesus, especially under the accusation of being atheist?
To answer these questions, we must travel quickly through part of the Gospel According to Matthew. This will show poignantly how Jesus and the disciples believed that the resurrection came from the G-d of the whole world not just the G-d of the Judeans.
Since we spent a lot of time talking about Daniel, we should look closely at the times when Jesus references this powerful book. In Matthew, Jesus quotes Daniel 7.13 dead center of chapters 23-25 right after he combated the Sadducees on the resurrection and the Pharisees on the authority of David. In these chapters of Matthew Jesus strongly reprimands the Pharisaic leaders (23.1-36); he mourns for Jerusalem because of their complicity in killing prophets (23.37-39); he predicts the end of the temple and its hold on the people (24.1-2); he talks about the “end of the age” in which nations will battle, earthquakes and famines will oppress, and anyone who preaches the message of Jesus will be persecuted (24.3-14); and he proceeds to mention Daniel by name as he warns against false messiahs arising after the destruction of Jerusalem (24.15-28). In Matthew 24.30 Jesus quotes Daniel 7.13 in the middle of the narrative unit, chs. 23-25, which starts with “Then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples” and ends with “When Jesus had finished saying all these things”. After the “Son of Man” quote from Daniel, Jesus launches into a list of parables that build on one another. The first tells us to watch for all these things to happen (24.32-35); the next commands us to pay attention (24.36-44); another tells us to be hard at work while we wait (24.45-51); the following one, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, expands on the need to be watchful (25.1-13); the next parable is the notoriously misinterpreted Parable of the Talents, in which despite Jesus’ commands to pay attention, he also demands that “watchfulness” not be our only activity (25.14-30); and finally, the whole section arrives with the sheep and the goats (25.31-46).
Through the years, Bible scholars subjected these chapters to the most ludicrous theories. The most popular theory claims Jesus thought the end of the world would come within the lifetime of his followers. Of course, the notion that Matthew 24.3-35 spelled actual events that would signify the end of the world does not take the Bible nor the time very seriously. Apocalyptic books were not written to deal with what was going to happen; they were written in order to make clear what was happening. When Jesus quotes the apocalyptic book of Daniel, he does not intend to signify what would happen in the future. He spoke about how to deal with the current situation. Of course, put this in the context of Jesus’ social situation in which multiple groups offered multiple ways to deal with Israel’s current dilemma, and suddenly, Jesus’ apocalyptic talk actually seems reasonable. Put it in a list of exhortations and parables concerning real, actual people, and the whole discourse finally seems to make some sense.
Jesus foresaw the destruction of the Jewish elite. Instead of identifying the destruction of the religious and political elite as the work of the pagan rulers, he identified G-d’s involvement in bringing down the powerful. He does this by speaking of a very real historical event: The First Jewish War during which time Rome destroyed the temple. Nonetheless, if we utilize the popular theory that Jesus expected the end of the world to arrive directly after the destruction of the temple, this story makes no sense. Matthew was written well after the temple’s destruction. What good is it to show Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction if he also predicted a failed apocalypse directly afterward?
As the Sermon on the Mount and really the whole rest of the Book of Matthew show us, Jesus instructs people on how to follow G-d. Jesus seems deeply concerned with the way people live. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats very clearly identifies Jesus as this type of person. Why would Matthew write an ethical exhortation against Judean leaders followed by an esoteric prediction of the end of the world (a prediction Jesus is, allegedly, mistaken about, and the author of Matthew knows he is mistaken about) followed by several ethical exhortations dealing with the “end times”? Read through the lens of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision as a way to deal with foreign occupation makes the entire passage logical. Jesus rips apart the Judean leaders and their way of dealing with the empire. He proceeds to explain in Daniel’s terminology how empires fall, and he exhorts his followers to listen to his teachings as the true way to deal with foreign occupation. Jesus gave his followers a way to deal with the current imperial crisis and a way to deal with all subsequent modes of imperialism. We, his followers, should be alert to live in his ways because the empire could fall at any moment.
The centrality of Daniel to this section should indicate something very important to us. First, it indicates Daniel’s message, one in which G-d destroys the empires and vindicates the righteous, as central to Jesus’ message. Second, it implicates G-d as ruler over the whole world. This becomes ultimately clear in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Much ink and Christian ethical anxiety has been spilled over the words in this passage. What almost no one notices (at least I have never heard anyone mention this) is the juxtaposition of it against other Jewish beliefs about the ultimate fate of everyone. The Jewish groups who believed in the resurrection would say “the nations” gathered before the “Son of Man” in v. 32 would be the damned ones. Those Judeans who followed G-d properly in spite of “the nations” would be the vindicated (whether they be Pharisees or Essenes or whomever). This parable pays no attention to ethnic identity. It simply separates those who love the dispossessed from those who treat others with indifference. We must hear the radical message in this text. No longer is resurrection based on ancestral heritage, proper Torah observance, or separation from the world. Instead, G-d will vindicate whoever responds to the injustice of empire with the hope of practical kindness.
Of course, why should or why would anyone believe this? What possibly could motivate anyone to believe this message? How can the teachings of Jesus really be better than the revolution of Judas Maccabeus? The proof is too big to believe.
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 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 “the Crucified One”. 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 as 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.
If this whole argument, from start to finish, has not made my point abundantly clear, let me attempt to summarize. Based on the social context of the day, crucified leaders were failed leaders. Rome killed people for political agitation or heinous crimes. Jesus and his followers who suffered persecution and death carried a message of loving enemies which is anything but a heinous crime. Logically, Jesus and his martyred followers, based on their executions, looked like political agitators. Of course, they proclaimed the empire of G-d rather than the empire of Caesar, and they refused to consider Caesar divine, both politically charged and subversive claims. As people of Israel, they believed G-d would resurrect and vindicate the people who lived rightly under the foreign occupiers who had ruled most of Israel for roughly 800 years. Messianic movements sprung up in Palestine as a way to reinstate Israelite independence. As a messianic leader, Jesus ostensibly attempted national restoration. His crucifixion ended this. Nevertheless, his followers traversed the world teaching how to resist the injustice of empire (a point proven by their martyrdoms; remember, they were killed as political threats) as though Jesus had not failed. In the social and biblical context, the 1st century Jewish people believed one thing proved the proper way to deal with foreign occupiers: resurrection. Reading Daniel 7 in which the “Son of Man” receives vindication and dominion over all the earth, the apostles (women and men) interpreted the Jesus movement to be bigger than just an Israelite restoration. The only explanation for all this activity resides in the confirmation of what they believed: Jesus’ resurrection proved his way of dealing with the foreign occupiers to be G-d’s way, and the resurrection, G-d’s vindication of Jesus’ message, established Jesus as the one with dominion over all the earth. By nature, this claim was big enough to appear threatening to Caesar’s power. The followers of Jesus did not care. They saw Jesus risen from the dead.
So what are the politics of the resurrection? First, the resurrection reveals the impotence of the state. The state, who owns a monopoly on force within certain boundaries, fails to keep Jesus dead. The resurrection teaches us not to fear the state. When it comes time to stand up in the face of powerful, violent rulers (like every U.S. President ever), Jesus’ resurrection assures us the empire will not win. This assurance of victory should motivate us toward action. Some say the impotence of the empire should motivate us to indifference and withdrawal. This is what the Essene community did. It is not what Jesus did. To proclaim the Kingdom of G-d demands confronting the powerful head on. If it did not, Jesus would not have been crucified; Jesus would have had no need to resurrect. Acts of mercy and kindness are the way of living in the Kingdom of G-d; confronting the oppressive elite is how the movement becomes universal.
The resurrection established Jesus as the “Son of Man” with “dominion and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him”. As an Anabaptist, this idea played strongly in my faith formation. Jesus and no one else is in charge. Moreover, unlike the earthly elite, Jesus wears a crown of thorns, rules from a cross, and lives among the oppressed rather than far from them in mansions on Pennsylvania Ave. or in Sepphoris. Our petty, imaginary national borders that keep people excluded from resources or justice mean nothing to the one who rules the entire world. Why, then, are Christians concerned with national policy and patriotic reclamation of “our” country? We should work tirelessly to supersede national restrictions. We should move beyond arguments framed by national interests and privilege. Our message should be against flags, against nationalism, and against the injustice of the American global empire. Our gospel should be for the dissolution of borders, for justice, for the love of enemies, for the economic equality of all, for community made up of the formerly “haves” and “have-nots”, and for a world where the cross, not the sword, rules.
The resurrection moves us beyond our aesthetic differences. It drives us toward discipleship, and it pits us against those who try to replace the true ruler of the world: G-d. Our belief in the resurrection should come with our resistance to the injustice of the type of power structure that killed Jesus, those he defended, and those who followed him. We can choose not to believe in the resurrection, or we can live in a way that says it does not matter. However, I believe we can do nothing to change the fact that it happened. Despite all our pride, we are powerless to alter the position of the Creator. As followers of this Creator, our lives need to reflect the radical love and resistance to power that comes with the Holy Spirit’s continuing presence in the world. The resurrection means we can do this without fear and with ultimate hope of justice! Thank G-d for Jesus!