They burned like torches in the night

I'm a little stunned after reading managing editor Jon Meacham's cover story in the current issue of Newsweek. And not in a bad way. Meacham's previous religious cover stories -- on The Passion of the Christ and the Nativity (see here and here) -- were not so good. Those articles were criticized by GetReligion regulars for leaning too heavily on scholars who Meacham agrees with, ignoring dissenting views, misrepresenting historic church teaching, and fretting endlessly about the dangers of literalism (and for running with really stupid titles).

The thrust of our criticism was, Jon Meacham, Liberal Modernist Episcopalian, Comes to Predictable Conclusions, and Finds -- Miraculously -- that Everybody (Who's Worth Listening to Anyway) Agrees With Him.

This time, there is only a little bit of throat clearing about literalism and the experts are stacked in favor of a conclusion that most never would have expected to see in Newsweek. That is, the Resurrection really did happen. He throws down this challenge early in the piece:

Without the Resurrection, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Jesus movement of the first decades of the first century would have long endured. A small band of devotees might have kept his name alive for a time, even insisting on his messianic identity by calling him Christ, but the group would have been just one of many sects in first-century Judaism, a world roiled and crushed by the cataclysmic war with Rome from 66 to 73, a conflict that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Meacham wags his fingers at "the secular" in the United States, reminding them that a) a vast majority of Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus and consider themselves Christians of one stripe or another; and b) "Christianity is the product of two millennia of creative intellectual thought and innovation, a blend of history and considered theological debate." This fact, he argues, "should slow the occasional rush to dismiss the faithful as superstitious or simple."

Going to the Gospel accounts, he recounts the initial reactions of the apostles and others to Jesus' empty tomb as unbelief and incredulity:

No matter what Jesus may have said about sacrifice and resurrection during his lifetime, the disciples clearly did not expect Jesus to rise again. The women at the tomb were stunned; confronted with the risen Lord, Thomas initially refused to believe his eyes; and at the end of Matthew's Gospel, some disciples still "doubted."

Their skepticism is hardly surprising. Prevailing Jewish tradition did not suggest that God would restore Israel and inaugurate the Kingdom through a condemned man who went meekly to his death. Quite the opposite: the Messiah was to fight earthly battles to rescue Israel from its foes . . . There was, in short, no Jewish expectation of a messiah whose death and resurrection would bring about the forgiveness of sins and offer believers eternal life.

Yet a sacrificial, atoning role is precisely the one the first followers of Jesus believed he had played in the world. In the earliest known writing in the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes that Jesus "gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of God the Father."

He argues that the only reason that early Jewish Christians would have come to these conclusions is that they believed very strongly that Jesus had come back from the dead:

From the beginning, critics of Christianity have dismissed the Resurrection as a theological invention. As a matter of history, however, scholars agree that the two oldest pieces of New Testament tradition speak to Jesus' rising from the dead. First, the tomb in which Jesus' corpse was placed after his execution was empty; if it were not, then Christianity's opponents could have produced his bones. (Matthew also says the temple priests tried to bribe Roman guards at the tomb, saying, "Tell people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep'" -- implying the body was in fact gone.)

The second tradition is that the apostles, including Paul, believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them; writing in the first years after the Passion, Paul lists specific, living witnesses, presumably in order to encourage doubters to seek corroborating testimony. Paul seems quite clear about what the skeptical would find if they checked his story.

Meacham uses an interesting rhetorical twist at a few points. First he asks, How could the early Jewish Christians come to believe what they believe? Then he offers the ambiguous formulation that it was either a result of the words of Jesus during his life and ministry or it was the experience of the empty tomb and the risen Christ.

Logically, it could be both/and, but Meacham was using this formulation to nudge readers toward the conclusion that the Resurrection (it rarely goes uncapitalized) did happen, and this fact accounts for a lot of the thoughts and actions of Christians, from the first century to the present day.

Normally, this sort of story would be a back-and-forth between more liberal and conservative scholars, with Jesus Seminar types vocalizing all the appropriate skeptical notes and the representatives of that old time religion insisting that their faith claims are not without historical merit. But Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong or other prominent spokespeople don't get a word in edgewise. Paula Fredriksen does show up briefly, but only to establish that first-century Jews were rather expecting a militaristic messiah.

But Meacham notes that Jesus shattered those expectations. Many of his followers persisted unto death for their faith in the belief that death no longer had much sting left in it.

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