Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rabbi Blumenthal and the Resurrection of Jesus

Yesterday I received an email pointing me to an article arguing against the resurrection of Jesus Christ, posted by an orthodox (I think) Jewish Rabbi. His article is here:

What follows is the emailed response I sent - certainly not an exhaustive or comprehensive critique, but brief and to the point. ...

I will pick out just one point in Blumenthal's article to critique:

"Another interesting factor that comes to light when examining the various sightings of Jesus, is the point that the only ones who testified that they saw him were people who were already totally devoted to him. Even among the devotees, the Christian scriptures report that there was an element of doubt concerning the truth of the resurrection story."

On this point he is just plain wrong. The Apostle Paul was certainly not someone who was "already totally devoted to him." And yet we have Paul testify in 1 Corinthians 15, that he is included in the list of those who saw the risen Christ (along with, I should mention, James, the brother of Jesus, who was also NOT a follower of Jesus during his lifetime). To push further along those lines, 1 Corinthians dates from the early 50s, and the tradition which it cites is generally understood (by skeptics as well as evangelicals) to date back to the early to mid-30s - that is, within 5 years of Jesus' death. If one only considers the testimony of the Gospels, then the Rabbi would be correct; but one has to take Paul's epistles into account, too. And Paul is clearly both: (a) a professing eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus; and (b) a virulent opponent of the early Church. For more on this type of argument, see Gary Habermas & Mike Licona's "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus" (2004); or Gary Habermas' chapters in "God is Great, God is Good" (edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, 2009) and "Contending With Christianity's Critics" (edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, 2009).

OK, one more point to pick on -

"The problem with this argument is that the devotion of the disciples preceded the resurrection story. It seems that the devotion to their leader produced the resurrection story and not the other way around. The way the Christian Scriptures describe the devotion of Jesus’ disciples it would almost be surprising if there were no resurrection story. Does this mean that the disciples were preaching a deliberate lie? Not necessarily. There is no way of knowing today at what point in time was it that the resurrection story came to be accepted by the followers of Jesus. It is possible that it took years for the story to develop until it was actually believed in a literal sense. It may have started with reports of visions, which over the course of time came to be spoken of as actual sightings."

Yes, the devotion of the disciples precedes the resurrection. However, faith in Jesus as Messiah was demonstrably incapable of producing faith in Jesus' bodily resurrection. N. T. Wright's massive study ("The Resurrection of the Son of God", 2003) spends several hundred pages demonstrating that first-century Judaism had no conception of a dying and rising Messiah. Resurrection had always been understood to refer to a general resurrection of all the righteous at the end of time (the Day of the Lord); there was no place within the various Jewish worldviews for a one-of-a-kind resurrection such as came to be proclaimed of Jesus. Furthermore, we have the creedal statements in 1 Cor. 15, as well as the record of early Christian proclamation in the Book of Acts, which makes it abundantly clear that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was not only a component, but a central feature of the young church's preaching.


  1. Thank you thank you thank you for your response. I am amazed at how many people are convinced by these anti-missionary arguments, even though they are weak and unscholarly.

  2. HI Tawa

    I find it interesting that you did not address my core argument - namely that a resurrection or lack thereof is utterly meaningless according to Deuteronomy 13:2-6.

    I also found your second point quite interesting - you say that first century Judaism had no concept of a dying and resurrected Messiah. So how did the disciples of Jesus read Isaiah 53? Psalm 22? Psalm 16? Daniel 9? - You are left with two options - either Jesus’ disciples were ignorant of the Jewish Scriptures (which would render their assessment of Jesus worthless) - or they read the Scriptures without seeing a dying and resurrected Messiah in these passages - this under the tutelage of Jesus for several years. So why do missionaries accuse Jews who fail to see these concepts in these passages with an "anti-Jesus" bias? You are in essence admitting that these concepts are not to be found in the Jewish Scriptures unless the reader approaches the Scriptures with a pro-Jesus bias.

    Your argument is seriously flawed in any case. You say that the disciples had no prior notion that Messiah is supposed to die and be resurrected - you therefore conclude that the only thing that could have turned this around was an actual sighting of the resurrected Jesus. You realize of-course that the disciples had no prior notion that Jesus was not the Messiah - they had already staked everything on that call (their belief in Jesus as Messiah). What would induce them to admit that they were wrong? History proves again and again that human nature is capable of coming up with the most bizarre explanations in order to avoid admitting a mistake. This natural tendency is compounded a hundredfold when we are dealing with dedicated followers of a charismatic leader.

    Your first argument is also irrelevant. The only record we have of these sightings is recorded in Paul’s epistle that was written long after Paul came to believe in Jesus. This would be a serious factor that any court of law would take into consideration.

    Drew’s comment is also worthy of note. Criticising counter-missionaries for being unscholarly - coming from a belief system that prides itself on its unscholarly foundations (1Corinthians 1:26,27) - in keeping with Matthew 23. The apple falls not far from the tree.

    Yisroel C Blumenthal

  3. Rabbi:

    Thank you for the comments. I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue, even if only briefly, with you.

    Please note that I did not consider or present my response as comprehensive or complete - I neither intended nor pretended to address every issue in your article. Nor am I doing so in this brief comment. Rather, I will just comment briefly on your brief comments about my earlier brief comments ...

    (1) Why does it matter that the only record of Jesus' appearance to Paul is contained in Paul's epistle? [And, actually, that's not quite correct, as it is also related in Acts 9, 22, and 26.] We know some things historically - Paul was an opponent of the new Christian Church. He persecuted Christians, and believed he was serving G-d through those actions. At some point in time, he converted to Christianity, embracing Jesus as the Messiah. By his own testimony (confirmed by Luke), which is not contradicted in any historical records, his conversion came as a direct result of the resurrected Jesus appearing to him. Any court of historical inquiry would accept that testimony at face value.

    (2) My point (again, building on the scholarship of N. T. Wright, which I do recommend you familiarize yourself with if you have not already) was that first-century Judaism had no conception of a dying and rising Messiah. Prior to Easter Sunday, my contention (and this is the position of the vast majority of biblical scholars and historians, regardless of religious stripe) is that no Jew read Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 and saw a dying and rising Messiah. It was simply not on the radar screen.

    (3) There is at least one point on which I think we would agree - namely, that I think one can only 'see' a dying and rising Messiah in passages like Isaiah 53 in light of what has happened in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If there is no resurrection in history, there is no perception of resurrection in Isaiah 53.

    (4) You're right - the disciples had come to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. However, other would-be and so-called Messiahs had come and gone, both before and after the time of Jesus (as I'm sure you are quite aware). But when those 'Messiahs' were arrested, tried, and executed, what happened to their followers? Did they continue to profess their executed leader as the 'Messiah'? No - they either disbanded and faded into the woodwork, or arrived upon a new 'Messiah' (sometimes a relative of the dead guy). In other words, there are other historical examples of men who professed to be, and were acknowledged by their followers as being, the Messiah of Israel. But there are no other examples of those would-be Messiahs being executed, and STILL being proclaimed as Messiah by their followers. THAT is the historical data that must be explained. Again, Wright's work on this subject is excellent and thorough. I highly recommend it.

    G-d Bless

  4. Why would you think that Paul prided himself at being unscholarly? In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, he mentions that many of the Corinthian believers were viewed as crazy and even foolish by their families and friends.

    Haven't you met baalei teshuvah who have been in the same situation? Their parents think of them as totally nuts for fumming out, and abandoning a perfectly good secular lifestyle for a worldview that has been (in the minds of their secular bretheren) throughly been discredited by liberal Bible criticism. Frumkeit may seem foolish to an outsider, but it doesn't follow that it is anti-intellectual.

    Same thing goes for the Corinthians.

  5. Hi Tawa
    On points 2 and 3 we are in agreement - generally those who preach to Jews argue that there is no other interpretation for Isaiah 53 outside of a dying and resurrected Messiah - according to you teh Jewish disciples of Jesus did not believe so
    As for point # 1 - do you think that a book written by devoted followers of the accused will be accepted in a court of law at "face value"
    and for point # 4 - the historical record is as follows - if men followed a Messianic claimant because he fit their preconcieved notions of the Messiah - then when he fails - they drop him - after all it was the mission that was important and not the man (eg. Bar Kochba) - but when teh following was generated by the charisma of the leader - he cannot fail - the followers redefine the word "Messiah" in the most convoluted ways in order to retain their belief - it is the man they are following and not the mission (eg. Shabbtai Tzvi - who still has followers)
    As for Drew's comment - I think that most readers of 1Corinthians will acknowledge that Paul was not talking about a subjective ignorance from the standpoint of people who were opposed to the early Christians - he was talking about a practical ignorance - just as he spoke of a practical weakness
    Yisroel Blumenthal

  6. Shalom Rabbi:

    Welcome again!

    Are we really in agreement on point 3? I said: "If there is no resurrection in history, there is no perception of resurrection in Isaiah 53." The point is that the crucifixion of Jesus, and (assuming it could have happened, which I'm not so sure in the first century) the disciples' desire to continue exalting him, would NOT be sufficient conditions for the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus. Again, if there is no resurrection in factual history, there is no finding of resurrection in Isaiah 53. I don't want to beat this point over and over again, but that is the historical argument made strongly by Wright in 'The Resurrection of the Son of G-d', and I am absolutely convinced that he is correct. If Jesus' disciples had wanted to continue to honor and follow (and even exalt) their now dead-and-gone would-be-Messiah, they would NOT have proclaimed his resurrection. Instead, they would have spoken of his translation, or exaltation, or impending vindication on the day of the Lord.

    Regarding point 1 - who exactly is the "accused" in the "court of law" in your analogy? Paul testified that he became a Christian in response to a resurrection appearance of Jesus. As a result of his conversion, he became the persecuted (instead of the persecutor), eventually dying for his new-found faith. If an accused is standing before a court of law, and testifies that "yes, the reason that you want to convict and execute me, I am guilty of precisely that" - I think that will indeed hold up. Or were you picturing the analogy somewhat differently.

    I'll allow Drew to speak for himself - but I will point out that if Paul is speaking of Christians' foolishness compared to the wisdom of the world, he is not necessarily talking about "a practical ignorance". In the same way, we could speak of someone today being (wink wink) "wise in the ways of the world", and it not being a bad thing for a religious person (Christian or Jew) to NOT be "wise" in that way, but rather foolish.


  7. Rabbi,

    I am impressed at your devotion. After a three day no-melacha marathon, the only thing I would want to be doing the entire evening is showering, and then maybe watch a movie, but I wouldn't want to do actual work!

    J.P. Moreland had this to say about the 1 Corinthians passage:
    It is important to note that Greek orators prided themselves with possessing “persuasive words of wisdom,” and it was their practice to persuade a crowd of any side of an issue for the right price. So, since Paul is most likely condemning hubris (pride), he is against false pride, or prideful use of reason, not reason itself.

    It would not surprise me if many readers misunderstand this passage. You know that majority opinion does not mean correct opinion. Most Jews do not believe in Mosaic authorship of the Torah. That does not make them right.

    As far as your accusation regarding point 1. We can get a lot of good historical information from even biased sources. Livy never pretended to be an objective historian, but wrote history "for the glory of Rome" His works are nevertheless considered as valid historical documents. Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War with an agenda of his own. He wanted to show the superiority of the Athenian system, and when the wars did not pan out as he wanted, he stopped writing about them. Yet Thucydides is still considered an excellent historian.

    Now consider Paul's situation. He started out as a top anti-missionary, well-respected by his own people, tasked with the elimination of heresy, which he desired. Sort of the first century director of Jews for Judaism. Suddenly, he gives up his career and proclaims that he saw Jesus of Nazareth appear to him as the risen Lord. As a result of his proclamation, he is given malkus 5 times, beaten with rods, stoned, and in constant pain and danger, ending with his own martyrdom. Why doubt Paul's sincerity?

  8. One more question to Rabbi Blumenthal.

    If I could arrange a moderated debate between you and Gary Habermas over the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, would you be interested in participating?

  9. Hi Tawa and Drew
    I will first respond to the last question - because it is practical - but more importantly - because I think that it puts this discussion into perspective
    I will not participate in a verbal debate - and certainly not about the resurrection.
    The reason I will not debate about the resurrection is because it is completely irrelevant.
    If Jesus qualifies as "a god that you did not know" - then according to Deuteronomy 13:2 - even a hundred resurrections joined with stopping the sun in the sky - ought to be disregarded. If he does not qualify - then even if he wouldn't have been resurrected - the entire discussion between Judaism and Christianity will have shifted - of-course there is no question that the first of these two options is the one that is true - I just wrote the above in order to illustrate the irrelevance of the resurrection issue
    The reason I would not participate in a verbal debate (even about relevant subjects) is because a verbal debate is no gauge of the truth. It is good entertainment but does not bring people closer to truth. I feel that writing is much more effective - for the simple reason that people have the time to express themselves - and research the inormation - ideally - the truth can be found by two people interacting with each other both in writing and verbally - away from the public eye
    I will do this though - I will try to see if I can find anything in writing from this fellow that you mentioned - and share my thoughts with you
    Now for your comments
    So we are in agreement that the Jewish Scriptures say nothing explicit about a dying and resurrected Messiah - that means that both you and I agree that the foundational concept of Christianity is not clearly expressed in the Jewish Scriptures and can only be seen by people who are already looking at Jesus and believing certain things about him.
    I just wish that Christian Missionaries to the Jews would agree with you - those of us who are trying to defend faith in G-d and in His firstborn son (Israel) and in His true Messiah (whose career is openly described by the prophets of Scripture) - would have an easier time
    As for the bias of the Christian Scriptures - by the time the books were written the authors had been believers for many years - this basic fact would be taken into account by any court of law - just as any court of law would take into account the vocation of a campaign manager who is trying to get a politician elected when he comes to testify on behalf of that politician
    As for Paul's own conversion - was a it a physical sighting that he claimed? or a subjective vision? - not that it makes a difference - just curious
    By the way - I never cast aspersions on Paul's sincerity - just on his trustworthiness which are two separate issues
    Your Pharisee friend

  10. Rabbi:

    I thank you for your comments and interaction. I am very pleased with the respectful tone that we are able to maintain in communication - thank you for seasoning your comments with grace.

    I find myself in agreement with you regarding debates. I much prefer dialogue, which is geared towards understanding one another's positions and exchanging ideas, rather than combatively seeking to identify a 'winner' and 'loser' in ideological battle. Debate has its place, and I do sometimes enjoy watching a lively debate take place, but I have no interest personally in taking part in one. Incidentally, while Dr. Habermas has taken part in debates, he does not truly enjoy that forum of interaction either - the exception is when he and his fellow-participant have a pre-existing relationship (friendship) which hopefully ensures that their debate will take place with mutual respect and gentleness (e.g. his debates with Dr. Antony Flew).

    On another note - I must say that I am puzzled by your insistence that the resurrection would be irrelevant based upon Deuteronomy 13:2-6. Do Christians believe that Jesus enticed Israel to follow or worship other gods? I certainly do not. Rather, along with (I believe) the vast majority of Christians, I would insist that there is a fundamental continuity between Old and New Testaments - that the L-ord revealed through the Tanakh is the same as the Father of Jesus Christ; in other words, the G-d of Israel is further (more completely?) revealed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ in 1st-century Palestine.

    Orthodox Christianity holds that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the incarnation of G-d Almighty, and the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. He claimed to mark the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, though He claimed that the fulfillment of the Kingdom would await the eschaton. He prophesied His death in Jerusalem, as well as His resurrection on the third day. Early Christians held that the bodily resurrection on the third day marked G-d's vindication or validation of Jesus' teaching, ministry, and claims about His identity. Early Christians (predominantly Jewish for the first decades) held that in worshiping Jesus, they were not compromising their strict Jewish monotheism as expressed in the Shema; rather, they were continuing to worship the L-rd.

    In all of this, the resurrection is held as the key - it marks the vindication by G-d of His Messiah, the incarnate Son of G-d. The resurrection is simply not irrelevant - it is central to the question of Jesus' identity.

    One other thought before I get back to work ... while the notion of a dying and rising Messiah is only discernible in hindsight, I think it stretches the truth quite a bit to argue (if that is what you're doing) that Jesus' life and ministry do not reflect at all the prophetic foretelling of the Messiah's vocation, actions, and teachings. When John the Baptist's disciples come to Jesus asking whether He IS the one to come, or whether there is someone else, what does Jesus do? He cites Isaiah, tells them to look at what He does, and allows them to draw the conclusion - OK, yes, you are the one who was to come.


  11. Hi Tawa
    I thank you too for your respectful tone - it is easier to focus on the issues when we can respect each other as human beings - so thanks.
    Now to the issues.
    You stated that Christians do not believe that Jesus enticed worship of "another god". I recognize that Christians do not consider their beliefs idolatry - but Jews do. The Jewish people were the ones charged with the mission of preserving the truth of God's absolute sovereignty - and their willingness to die before embracing Christianity is an expression of this holy calling. (some of the relevant verses are Deuteronomy 4:35 and Isaiah 43:10 - see my article "The Elephant and the Suit"). Israel was not only given an understanding about God - they were also given an understanding about everything in heaven and earth - that all are equally subject to God - and all owe all to God. The feelings that Christians bear in their hearts towards Jesus - an inhabitant of God's earth - is idolatrous - those feelings of devotion belong only to the One Creator of all.
    You mention the Jewish disciples of Jesus - I understand that you quote them because you see them as Jews who did not see devotion to Jesus as a contradiction to their calling as Jews. - I responded to this point at length in my article "The Council of My Nation" - I respond with four separate points - I will mention one here - they could have been mistaken - what gives you the confidence that they were right?
    To sum up - If God wanted us to direct devotion to Jesus, we would have seen him at Sinai - Sinai was a comprehensive teaching on the subject of idolatry.
    Finally - if what Christians claim about Jesus was to be believed about any other individual - and devotion would be directed towrds that individual based on those spurious claims - would you consider that idolatry?
    Now to your last point - You acknowledge that the Jewish Prophets did not openly fortell the death and resurrection of the Messiah - so before the crucifixion of Jesus - which Messianic prophecies do you believe that he fulfilled?
    Your Pharisee Friend