I do not think [the resurrection] could have gotten the movement off the ground, for reasons I gave earlier.
An avalanche can begin with a rolling pebble. Look at the idea in its successive contexts. Riding on the back of whatever controversy there was about this Galilean healer/preacher/miracle-worker, the word of resurrection with its eschatological overtones could have been enough to get a Jerusalem group fired up and running. Spreading further afield in first Palestinian Judaism and then Hellenistic Judaism, partly because of the same eschatological fervour (which certainly lies behind the Thessalonian correspondence) and partly because of the various quests for 'eternal life' - there are numerous stimuli in the different contexts in which the movement was spreading. It clearly didn't take long for it to become something which was excitable and exciting, gathering momentum as it spread. The resurrection isn't just about some guy walking out of his tomb, it has further significance for those who heard it, and that is enough to get a movement off the ground.
Just use your historical imagination and think of what the effect would have been if Paul's main message was that a guy came back to life for a few days. People would surely have stories of their own of relatives who had died and come back (and of the expense it took to hire magicians to get rid of them). Quite a few of my students have stories about the appearances of risen dead relatives. It's just not that big a deal, nor is it anything people want to have happening.
I've been in pastoral charge now for over 30 years, looking after a lot of churches - I've lost count of the number of funerals I've conducted and bereaved folk I've counselled. I've heard lots of stories about appearances, sightings, hearing voices, etc - all the usual bereavement-denial stuff, which has probably always happened thoughout human history and in all human cultures. None of the folk I've dealt with have thought that meant their loved one had come back from the dead, however vivid the experience. I don't believe bereavement hallucinations and grief reactions explain the origins of resurrection-belief. If it had been the start of anything, it would have been belief in ghosts or something. (Isn't that the kind of issue that lies behind the story of the risen Jesus eating something, to show he wasn't a ghost?)
And what about all those other living dead wandering around Jerusalem as Matthew reports? It's just not that rare a thing.
But that's the point - it WAS that rare a thing. Only Matthew talks about it, it isn't anywhere else in the gospel traditions, it isn't in Paul or anywhere else. If it had really happened, you can bet there would have been other comments about it in the earlier layers of tradition. (Unless it wasn't uncommon for folk to get up from their graves in Jerusalem - perhaps the party weekends really were that good...) It's Matthean midrash, unpacking and illustrating the significance of Jesus' death.
The growth and development of the Jesus-movement from Jerusalem outwards was probably multi-stage, culturally and theologically complex, and the story still contains enough stuff for a lot more PhD theses. But I remain convinced that it was the resurrection that lit the blue touchpaper, however multi-staged the resultant reaction became.
Rev Anthony E Buglass BA MTh
Calderdale Methodist Circuit
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