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The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Book highlights)
Justin Holcomb reviews Pinchas Lapide’s examination of Jesus’ resurrection.
by Pinchas Lapide, translated by Wilhelm C. Linss
Augsburg Publishing, 1983
The resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith. Without the resurrection, there would be no Christianity, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).
Historically, Jesus’ resurrection (along with his claims to be the Son of God and the Son of Man) has always been the point of contention that separates Christians and Jews. However, the Orthodox Jewish theologian Pinchas Lapide (1922–1997), in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, turns that expectation on its head. Though he does not believe Jesus is the Messiah, Lapide does believe that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event. Recognizing that Jesus and his disciples were faithful Jews, he seeks to understand it from a Jewish perspective.
According to Lapide, belief in resurrection was common in Judaism of Jesus’ day. He points out that not only does the Old Testament record several resurrections (or resuscitations; 1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4:18–37; 13:20–21), it alludes to the future resurrection for all people in a number of places (Job 19:25–27; Hosea 6:1–2; Ezek. 37:11–14; Dan. 12:2). Individual resurrections provided the basis for the final, general resurrection. Lapide claims, “This certainty of a future resurrection of all and of a possible earlier resurrection of some people especially graced by God was the precondition of the Easter faith of the disciples” (p. 64). Thus, the Jewish faith of the apostles was the foundation of their faith in the risen Christ.
Lapide does see the cross “as a definite pledge of God.”
Though he believes the New Testament embellished some of the facts, Lapide argues that the oldest accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are simple and unexaggerated, which contributes to their reliability: “Instead of exciting Easter jubilation we hear repeatedly of doubts, disbelief, hesitation, and such simple things as the linen cloths and the napkins in the empty tomb” (p. 100). Furthermore, “The best proof for the solid faith in the resurrection is probably the realistic way in which the two oldest Gospels describe the painful death and Jesus’ cry of despair on the cross: ‘And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last’ (Mark 15:37)” (p. 110).
Only 3 explanations
In Lapide’s mind, Jesus’ resurrection and appearances have only three possible explanations. They were either:
- A religious myth,
- A series of individual personal experiences, or
- Historical events.
Though formerly a skeptic of Jesus’ resurrection, re-examining the evidence led Lapide to accept the resurrection as historical fact: “If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself” (p. 126).
Resurrection, Lapide argues, is a hope Christians and Jews share.
Modern explanations of the resurrection that de-historicize the event appear to Lapide “as all too abstract and scholarly to explain the fact that the solid hillbillies from Galilee who, for the very real reason of the crucifixion of their master, were saddened to death, were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers” (p. 129). If God truly was active in the miraculous events of the Old Testament, then Jesus’ resurrection is not inconceivable.
While Lapide does not see Christ’s work on the cross as accomplishing redemption, he does see it “as a definite pledge of God, as a down payment of further hope for the longed-for complete redemption which we all are still expecting” (p. 136). Moreover, though he thinks Christianity has misinterpreted it, Lapide believes Jesus’ resurrection has “helped advance the divine plan of salvation” because it has “carried the faith in the God of Israel into the whole Western world” (p. 142). The resurrection of Jesus can still provide hope of God’s faithfulness to Jews who are waiting their messiah, Lapide asserts.
A common hope
Jesus’ resurrection does not have to be miraculous, according to Lapide. The works of God “do not arbitrarily skip the natural chain of cause and effect like the works of the sorcerer in a fairytale” (p. 150). Resurrection is no more miraculous than is the creation of life through natural birth: “Why should the resurrection of a personal ego after passing through death be more miraculous than the gradual awakening of a human being out of the lifeless matter of a fertilized ovum?” (p. 151). Rather than a supernatural event, the resurrection is a natural event that gives meaning to all of life, and “the hope of resurrection is a reasonable faith which should be sufficient for a meaningful, fulfilling life on earth” (p. 151). Resurrection, Lapide argues, is a hope that Christians and Jews share.
Lapide does not believe the resurrection proves Jesus is the Messiah.
It is unique for a Jewish scholar to accept the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. Yet as Carl Braaten writes in the introduction, “It is the contradictory interpretation placed on the final 48 hours from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, the decisive events—cross and resurrection—on which the whole of Christianity is based” (pp. 13–14). Christians (and the New Testament) see in these events the revelation of the messianic identity of Jesus, while Jews still look for the Messiah who will establish God’s kingdom. Lapide accepts the resurrection as thoroughly historical, yet he is not a Christian because he does not believe it proves that Jesus is the Messiah.
For Lapide, Jesus is just a member of the great line of patriarchs and prophets who pave the way for the full salvation to be brought about through God’s kingdom. For Christians, the resurrection is God’s miraculous testimony that Jesus is “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:26), “the Holy and Righteous One . . . the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14–15). We as Christians believe that God “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).