In the four Gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus, no one ever used the word “resurrection” to describe Jesus’s return from death, neither the ancient writers nor the people whose words and actions they reported. This surprised me when I first realized it, and surprises me still. They talk about how Jesus rose from the dead, but they avoid using the one word you would expect them to use: “
Why not? The answer, I think, comes in two parts, the first of which is very straightforward: The Gospel writers did not use the word “resurrection” because the men and women in the story they were narrating did not use it. The fact that the writers refrained from using a word that was immensely important in the vocabulary of the early church speaks volumes about their intention to faithfully represent what really happened.
Some modern scholars think that everything theological in the Gospels – especially those things that point to the deity of Jesus and his status as the Messiah – were later concocted by the Church and written into the Gospels in an act of historical revisionism. These scholars believe that none of the miracles, including the resurrection, really happened. They think the Church later invented them as a way of elevating Jesus’s status and validating their
But if that’s the case, how is it that none of the Evangelists succumbed to the temptation to describe the climax of the story, the central event of the Christian faith, as “resurrection?” This is an overlooked and remarkably important evidence for biblical
But that brings us to the second part of the question. Why didn’t the people in the story – Peter, John, the apostles, the women disciples – refer to Jesus’s return from the dead as “resurrection?” Resurrection was a core doctrine of most first century Jews, one to which people deeply resonated. So why didn’t the people who first related what happened think to use it? It’s the even surprising that, after the fact, the frightened chief priests, didn’t use the term
The answer is once again straightforward. In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s return from death, the disciples hadn’t yet grasped the enormity of what had happened. The Gospel writers tell us about an empty tomb, but they do not expound a doctrine of the resurrection. Now that doesn’t mean that the first disciples didn’t really believe Jesus had risen. They did. Nor does it mean they thought Jesus had risen as a spiritual force or a powerful memory, as people do when they point to their hearts and say of a dead spouse, “He’s still with me – right here!”
No, the disciples believed that Jesus died. He was stone-cold, dead as a doornail, dead. And they believed that after three days he came back to life. He was alive again – walking-talking-eating-drinking alive. But during those first days, they did not yet realize that this meant Jesus had been resurrected. In their minds, resurrection was an entirely different matter.
So even though Jesus rose from the dead and his friends knew it, they didn’t immediately think of that as resurrection. In their minds, when “the” resurrection happened, everyone who had ever died would be raised from the dead – the righteous to eternal life and the unrighteous to eternal death. For the disciples it took time and instruction (most importantly from Jesus himself) for the enormity of what had happened in that garden tomb to sink in. Jesus had not only come to life again after being dead, as remarkable as that was. Death had been defeated and the resurrection – the coming to life of everyone who had ever died – had already begun.
The resurrection of Jesus does not merely mean that there is life after death. His disciples and most people around the world already believed that (and still do). It meant that God had broken into human affairs, the ancient promises were being fulfilled, and the world was being changed. It meant that God’s long awaited kingdom had arrived and that “Jesus Christ our Lord” had been “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/4/1015 under the title, “Important Evidence for Biblical Authenticity.”