Understanding the Jewish background of the first century helps us to understand the biblical story with a greater depth and appreciation. For example, most modern Christians mistakenly assume that the early followers of Jesus expected Jesus to resurrect from the dead. But that is far from the truth. When Jesus died, his disciples thought that the story was over. They had made a mistake in following Jesus, and they were behind closed doors, scared and depressed. As far as we know from the Jewish literature, however, NO ONE in the first century expected a resurrected Messiah. The idea that the Jewish messiah would die by crucifixion and then miraculously return to life was something unimaginable in Jesus’s day. The Jewish expectation of the resurrection, like the Christian expectation today, is that there will be a resurrection of all people together, and that it will take place at the end of time as we know it on earth – there was no concept of a resurrection of a single individual within time.
It was not until Jesus actually and physically resurrected from the tomb and appeared in bodily form that they believed. Remember that Thomas did not believe the other disciples when they said that they had seen the risen Jesus… until Thomas himself saw Jesus face to face.
It is also interesting that the tomb of Jesus never became a shrine to the early Christians. Judaism had and still has an impulse to venerate or worship the tombs of their deceased rabbis. At least 50 tombs were seen as sacred places for worship and praise around the time of Jesus. The disciples, though, never return to the tomb again to worship there because the empty tomb had become irrelevant. Jesus had victoriously resurrected from the dead, and the empty tomb no long had importance.
The impossible had happened—the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus changed everything! To preach that Jesus had resurrected from the dead would invite ridicule. No one would make up a story like this.
Dr. Matt Williams, Biola University — the associate professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, California. A former missionary to Spain, Matt preaches and teaches at churches throughout the United States and Spain. He is general editor of Colección Teológica Contemporánea, a series of theological books in Spanish, and is the author of two books on the Gospels.