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Jesus’ Return to Life as a Resurrection

So far I have talked about the significance of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection for both Christology (the understanding of who Jesus was) and soteriology (the understanding of how salvation works).  It also was significant for eschatology (the understanding of what would happen at the end of time).

Christologically, the resurrection proved that Jesus really was the favored one of God, appearances notwithstanding.  It may have *seemed* like the crucifixion would show that Jesus was not God’s son, and certainly not the messiah; but the resurrection (for those who came to believe in it) showed that in fact he was.  He was the son of God in an even more exalted sense than anyone had thought – he actually had been made into a divine being.  So too he was the messiah in a more exalted sense than had been expected – he was not a mere human king but the divine King of all.

Soteriologically, the resurrection showed that the death of Jesus had not been a mere miscarriage of justice or the unfortunate bad end to a good man.  It showed that the crucifixion in fact was all part of God’s plan to bring about the salvation of the world.  Jesus’ death had been an atoning sacrifice that brought redemption.

The resurrection also had a profound effect on the disciples’ understanding of eschatology, their notions of the end times.   As I have argued repeatedly, Jesus himself believed that the end of the age was coming within his own generation, that a figure he called the “son of man” was to arrive from heaven in judgment on the earth (I’ll be discussing Jesus’ views of the son of man in subsequent posts).  This figure was the cosmic judge of all things, as predicted by the prophet Daniel (see Daniel 7:1-14).  At his coming all the dead would be raised, the good for reward and the wicked for punishment.

But once Jesus was believed to have been raised from the dead, the disciples’ views changed – not so much in ways to flat-out contradict what Jesus had taught but in ways that changed and shaped what he had said.  They came to think that Jesus himself was the Son of Man he had predicted (historically, I will argue, he was certainly not predicting himself to come!); and they concluded that the end had started.

Before unpacking these two points, let me make another more fundamental one that most people have never thought about (or at least I assume so, since I never thought about it for about 50 years!).  Here is the key question that is almost never asked: why would someone who had a vision of a deceased loved one think that the person had been raised from the dead?

Think about it.   Suppose…

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Jesus’ Resurrection as an Apocalyptic Event
The Death of the Messiah for Salvation



  1. Avatar
    godspell  December 29, 2015

    True–it also requires an apocalyptic leader, which you have pointed out Jesus was.

    So if these apocalypticists could have believed something like this could happen–why couldn’t Jesus?

    Why would an apocalypticist believe God would just come down, transform the world into something better, and put him on a throne?

    It’s too easy. It’s not how a real apocalypticist thinks. In fact, we have apocalypticists today–they’re called evangelical Christians, and some of them believe they’re going to be lifted bodily into heaven, while the world they leave behind goes to hell (quite literally). There’s best-selling books about this.

    No, I don’t think Jesus believed that–he’d probably shake his head in disbelief that anyone could have distorted his ideas that far. But the disciples had his teachings directly from him–could they have really changed them as much as you think, so quickly? If he’d been teaching that he was going to be king–in a material worldly sense–and then died the way he did–it’s hard to buy that they’d just do this perfect 180 and say “He meant to do that.” They had to adapt his ideas to the reality they found themselves in, yes. But he’d given them material to work with there. He had predicted his death (because he remembered what happened to John the Baptist). He had talked about some kind of return. He planted the idea in their minds. And this explains how they had such vivid hallucinations of him. And how they were able to interpret them as meaning that they’d misunderstood him, who he was, what he was here for.

    They were the ones who thought he’d be King–as a Jewish Apocalypticst would be inclined to think–they were looking for the Messiah–in the traditional sense. He’d either stopped believing in that, or never believed it to begin with. He was a prophet, and prophets don’t become kings in the Jewish tradition. Prophets speak truth to kings.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      I’m not sure I want to decide what first-century Palestinian Jews thought on the basis of what twenty-first century American Christians think!

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 30, 2015

        Human thought and behavioral patterns can be remarkably persistent across time and place and culture–innumerable variations, but the underlying patterns remain the same. And in my opinion, would persist (and perhaps worsen) even in the absence of any belief in a deity whatsoever. I’ve seen much evidence of this on the internet, unfortunately.

        We’re the only animal that knows it’s going to die, thinks about it constantly, wonders what comes after.

        So to me, the notion that Jesus was somehow immune from this seems unrealistic. He thought about his death, and he talked about it to the people who meant most to him, his disciples. We have memories of this, imperfectly preserved, in the gospels. This is not projecting modern attitudes into someone from a long-vanished past and culture. People are people, no matter where, no matter when.

  2. Avatar
    Britt  December 29, 2015

    Bart, as you point out, visions of deceased people happen a lot. That being the case, certainly Jesus wasn’t the only apocalyptic Jew that would’ve have been seen in a post-death vision. Certainly many were seen in the years before and after Jesus died. If your theory is correct, why weren’t others recorded as having been resurrected and deified?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      I wish I knew! My guess is that with Jesus we have the “perfect storm”: his particular message, the expectations surrounding his person, his unexpected execution, the visions — where else was there that particular combination?

      • Avatar
        Britt  December 31, 2015

        Maybe it was a perfect storm with Jesus, but certainly some of his followers would have died after him and appeared in visions. Why is there no record of them having been considered resurrected as well? If your theory is correct, it seems the audience of 1st Century Christians would have been primed for that very interpretation of visions of subsequently deceased followers, since didn’t Paul say Jesus was the first of many to come that would be resurrected?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 2, 2016

          There’s so much we simply can’t know, given our sources! But yes, Paul thought everyone else was to be raised very soon.

  3. Hastings
    Hastings  December 29, 2015

    My conclusion from what you’ve said is that although after-death visions of relatives and friends are common for people today, people who lived at the time of Jesus did not ever have such visions. You seem to be saying that no one else who lived during the time of Jewish apocalypticism ever had such an experience. It must be a modern phenomena. Jesus must have been the first such vision, thus the first among those resurrected. Doesn’t it seem odd that we would have such visions today (can we say often) and no one then should have had one. And, if they did, how would they have explained them?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      My guess is that with Jesus we have the “perfect storm”: his particular message, the expectations surrounding his person, his unexpected execution, the visions — where else was there that particular combination?

  4. Avatar
    pbth4  December 29, 2015

    “It’s because they were not Jewish apocalypticists. The very notion of resurrection requires an apocalyptic world view.”

    so does it follow that those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection today have much in common with the ancient Jewish apocalypticists? are they in a sense drawing the same conclusion as the followers of Jesus?

    thanks for leading a great blog!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      They certainly have some things in common (the end is coming soon!), but TONS of things are different (contrast first century Jewish Palestine and twenty-first century Christian America!)

  5. Avatar
    jdmartin21  December 29, 2015

    The rationalization process that the first followers of Jesus went through involved coming to believe that the crucifixion was, in fact, part of God’s plan to bring about the salvation of the world. That would seem to mean that they did not believe that Jesus sacrificed himself. The human sacrifice idea was God’s and Jesus was just along for the ride. This required them to change their first century Jewish understanding that human sacrifice was wrong (after all, God certainly thinks that it serves a purpose). It seems that this line of reasoning could have led them to believe that, not only does human sacrifice bring salvation, but, since it is sanctioned By God, it is also an appropriate way to worship God – a “do this in memory of me” kind of alternative liturgy. Wouldn’t that have changed the course of Christianity over the centuries!

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 2, 2016

      “Greater love hath no one than to lay down his life for his friends.”

      That isn’t human sacrifice, any more than consensual sex is rape.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 3, 2016

        I get your point. It’s a good one. On the other hand, I’d say that it’s also different. Consensual sex is agreeing to a pleasure. That’s quite different from volunteering to be tortured for the sake of another. The Christian doctrine of the atonement traditionally has taught that Jesus *had* to do this because it was the only way to appease God. That’s not the same as agreeing to enjoy oneself! (Even if Jesus went to it willingly)

  6. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  December 29, 2015

    hello Bart

    who has given the authority to the disciples to invent this doctrine . it looks to me that christianity was founded by the disciples and jesus was just used in the process


    • Avatar
      MMahmud  December 31, 2015

      Do you remember how the people of Moses AS worshipped an idol in his absence?

      Likewise, what appears to have happened is that early Christians elevated Christ AS to the level of God, i.e he has been raised to the right hand of God and now rules over the entire universe with God once they started to believe he was crucified and raised to heaven after death.

      Later on it appears some Christians exalted him even further by saying he was ALWAYS divine, not a created being exalted to God status but in fact someone who was always divine.

      This is what I understood from Bart Ehrman. As for what the early disciples precisely believed, we will learn it on judgement day if we make it to Paradise we can ask God about it may He guide us. Peter, James and Mary Magdalen seem to be at the heart of it all but we have practically no way of knowing what ot is they believed. As far as I know and I could be wrong, James and Peter became leaders of at least some early followers. What they did, God knows. It could be they found themselves in a tight spot like Harun AS with a number of Christians who started developing their own ideas of Isa AS and found themselves lacking authority to rightly lead the rest of the followers.

      It could also be that they were in fact the ones who started to exalt him, calling him son of God and Lord. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, pretty much all early sources indicate that Peter believed Christ AS was alive after the crucifixion event-in fact it may be that he along with others had a certain type of hallucination which is usually found when a religious leader or someone beloved dies.

      However there is a very strong doubt tradition in the gospel narratives indicating that a group of disciples doubted these visions of a revived Jesus AS.

  7. Avatar
    jhague  December 29, 2015

    When we say that Jesus’ followers had visions of Jesus after his death, could it possibly be that they had dreams of Jesus which when they awoke from the dream they then thought of the dreams as visions?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      Yes indeed. As it turns out, ancients did not distinguish between dreams and visions the way we do.

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 30, 2015

        Can we assume that Paul’s strange vision claims and cosmic trips were dreams that he viewed as reality?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 31, 2015

          I’m not sure we’re able to establish the actual mental events (even if he were here to interview!)

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  December 30, 2015

      Paul stated that Jesus appeared to 500 and The Twelve, etc… indicating he appeared to many at the same time. None of the texts read as though the appearances were dreams. They may not always explicitly state the difference, but the tone of text changes when reading it as a dream, trance-like visions, or physical appearances.

  8. Avatar
    spiker  December 29, 2015

    Interesting stuff!

    Could we go so far as to claim that a soul is not a part of Apocalyptic thinking?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      They believed in the soul, but their view of it was very different. There was not a differentiation between the immaterial soul (which lived on) and the material body (which does not). The soul is made up of material — but it is completely bound to the body and vice versa, so one cannot live without the other.

      • Avatar
        osman  November 1, 2018

        if the soul and body were thought to be intertwined, what did the apocalyptic jews think happened to regular folks who had died but not yet been ressurrected?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 2, 2018

          It’s not clear. Some possibly thought that people simply entered into non-existence until the end comes.

  9. awgonnerman
    awgonnerman  December 29, 2015

    It makes sense. As a Christian I believed in the resurrection of the dead as the hope of believers, and not in a disembodied eternity in ‘heaven.’ Towards the end of my faith I became incredibly annoyed with the common view promoted from evangelical pulpits that has more in common with Medieval thinking than what the biblical texts say. Most evangelicals I talked to about it seemed to think I was odd for believing in resurrection with (re)New(ed) Heavens and Earth, and a few insisted I must be more aligned with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s not understanding the ancient Jewish belief in resurrection that prevents people from understanding much of the text’s intent.

  10. Avatar
    toejam  December 29, 2015

    Hey Dr. Ehrman – any further word on when your new book on memory will be released? How is it progressing? Do you plan on doing a Great Courses / Teaching Company lecture series to coincide (as you’ve done with a few of your other books)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      Yes, it will be out on March 1, called Jesus Before the Gospels. Nope, don’t have a Teaching Course planned for this one.

  11. talmoore
    talmoore  December 29, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I think it’s near impossible to make clear to the modern layman what the ancient notion of resurrection meant without making clear the Pythagorean concept of the universe. The Pythagorean concept of the universe that was dominant back then, and it informed beliefs about mortality versus immortality. For instance, when Paul talks about the “dead in Christ” being resurrected in a “spiritual body”, most modern people tend to assume he means that our soul lives on, but the subtle distinction that Paul is making is a philosophical one more than a theological one. This only makes sense when one knows how the Pythagorean concept of the universe (as outlined in Plato’s Timaeus) distinguishes the immortal, eternal, unchanging nature of the heavens versus the mortal, fugacious, mutable nature of the earth. Our physical bodies are earthly products, subject to corruption, disease and death. But when we are reborn “in Christ” in the “spirit” we are reborn in the incorruptible, immortal substance of the heavens (Aristotle’s “quintessence” or fifth element). That’s what Paul meant. Now, of course, Paul is merely uniting the Greek concepts of natural vs. supernatural to the Jewish concept of bodily resurrection of the dead on the Day of God, as foretold by the Prophets. So when the disciples thought they saw Jesus after death, they thought they were seeing Jesus in his heavenly, spiritual body, made of the incorruptible, immortal substance of the heavens.

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  December 30, 2015

    So would you say Paul would have had to be a “Jewish apocalypticist” before he had his vision of Jesus and not turned into one by his experience?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      Yup! Otherwise he would not have interpreted his vision as a resurrection.

  13. Avatar
    wnhelms  December 30, 2015

    You have some interesting points.

    How about the Egyptians, didn’t they believe in an afterlife with the body. Isn’t that the reason they embalmed their dead, so as to prepare them for resurrection? But maybe they didn’t have monotheism, and therefore no mashiak?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      I’m afraid I don’t know the Egyptian theology of death and afterlife.

  14. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  December 30, 2015

    Scientists want to explain away visions being caused by grief or stress, but I don’t buy it. Explain Paul’s vision. Was he grieving? Scientists also give weak explanations for shared near death experiences and shared visions. Are they really trying to tell me that if I and 100 other people see Jesus, we’re all having a brain hiccup? I don’t believe that for a second.

    It does seem to me that certain experiences can definitely be shared and cause bystanders to partake in them. Feeling a peaceful presence in church can be experienced by an entire congregation at once. If you have four dogs and one of them dies, it seems they all end up dying within a year. The same goes for some couples and even working partners.

    I’m wondering if something like that happened to Paul. The Christian movement was so strong with all these odd occurrences were happening that it caused Paul to have a vision. Since there have been documented cases of mass visionary experiences, thousands or millions of people could have a simultaneous vision of Jesus coming back, and it could happen to any of us whether we are believers or not.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      Psychologists have a wide range of explanations for visions, not just grief or stress!

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  December 30, 2015

        I’ve read a little bit about other explanations–wishful thinking and having the expectation for it. I like Carl Jung’s explanation myself–the collective unconscious.

    • Avatar
      Kent  December 31, 2015

      Sadly, you don’t seem to be well enough informed in the methodology and subject matter that has been chosen for attack and scorn.

    • Avatar
      Britt  January 3, 2016

      Most modern appearances of the deceased relatives happen when a living person awakens to see the deceased relative standing at the foot of the bed. I have heard stories of deceased strangers (ghosts) appearing in the same manner. Even many stories of alien abduction are described same way. It seems to me that we hallucinate strange encounters during the in-between state of being neither fully awake or asleep. After all, which is truly more likely: these encounters are objectively real or simply hallucinations?

  15. Avatar
    Blackwell  December 30, 2015

    Where is the evidence to substantiate your claim that the disciples considered Jesus to have been not only resurrected but to have been also made into a divine being? The gospels and Acts written by Paul’s followers, together with his epistles, suggest that this was his idea, resulting from an exceptional experience which caused him to reverse his original position almost overnight. How else do you account for such a drastic change in the short period available from the records?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 30, 2015

      That’s the topic of my entire book! (How Jesus Became God)

      • Avatar
        Blackwell  December 31, 2015

        Where are these questions answered in your book? I can only find assertions of the same unsubstantiated claims.
        Under ‘The Belief of the Disciples’ you state ”For Jesus’s disciples, Jesus was raised into an immortal body and exalted to heaven where he currently lives and reigns with God Almighty”, and under ‘The outcome of faith’ you state
        ”The disciples, knowing both that Jesus was raised and that he was no longer among them, concluded that he had been exalted to heaven”.
        Where is the evidence that it was the disciples who came to this conclusion rather than Paul?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 2, 2016

          Paul himself says he “received” the belief in Christ being raised from others (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

  16. Avatar
    Alfred  December 30, 2015

    Bart given what you have said about the use of ‘magic’ by some preachers in that time of Jesus, and what we know about the ability of ‘cold readers’ to manipulate audiences, is it possible these experiences of the ‘risen Jesus’ were n some way deliberated manufactured or reinforced?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2015

      It’s possible — but I’m not sure how we’d ever be able to demonstrate it!

  17. Avatar
    herculodge  December 30, 2015

    Did the Jews of Jesus’ time believe in eternal hell? Did Jesus believe in eternal hell? And if he did, where did he get the doctrine come from? I understand how the doctrine evolved later with the help of the Church Fathers, but I don’t know the circumstances behind the spreading of that doctrine during Jesus’ time.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2015

      I’ll deal on the blog soon with the idea of heaven and hell — good questions…

  18. Avatar
    flshrP  December 30, 2015

    I’d be interested to see you extend these considerations in this post to the early Christian cult of martyrdom. I refer belief that these super-Christians were emulating Jesus’ death and that, consequently, they were on the fast track to a Jesus-like resurrection, whereby they skipped the step that non-martyrs endure, namely, death and disintegration of the body to await the Great Resurrection and Judgment at the End of Time.

  19. Avatar
    SteveWalach  December 30, 2015

    Excellent point about how the “resurrection of the body” mindset of 1st Century Jews then easily segued into a wholehearted acceptance of Jesus’ bodily resurrection based (possibly) only on (more believable) visions of him. Your analysis provides much insight into why and what they came to believe way back in antiquity.

    Nevertheless, as a testament of faith many 21st Century Christians — who have not lived through a period of rampant apocalyptic expectations — sincerely recite the Apostles’ Creed, which calls for a “resurrection of the body,” and/or the Nicene Creed, which declares a “resurrection of the dead.”

    I have spoken to folks who have seen their deceased loved ones post death. I have also heard the dying say they see and hear loved ones already long gone, but there they are, paying the dying a deathbed visit. No verifiable physical presence, however. (Not that there needs to be one for those experiences to be meaningful for what they are as long as they are not made into something they are not.)

    Some ideas, like the bodily resurrection of the dead, have especially strong staying power even when it’s impossible to fully comprehend — or even imagine — how a decayed, cremated or otherwise mutilated body could reconstitute itself and achieve a glorious re-animation.

    Christian churches have become far more accepting of cremation. Wouldn’t you say this decision is a tacit nod to their members re the implausibility of bodily resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2015

      Yes, my sense is that bodily resurrection is not part of the Christian mindset for the most part. But I’m not sure about cremation: that wouldn’t disallow a later resurrection, since all it does is speed up the inevitable process.

  20. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 30, 2015

    At least theoretically, when I was young, Catholicism still taught “the resurrection of the body” as a required belief (in the Apostles’ Creed). Supposedly, the souls in Heaven would regain their original bodies at the end of…life on Earth? For that reason, it was thought important, whenever possible, to have amputated limbs buried with the original body.

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