Making Sense of the Unlikely Easter Story
By Ben Witherington III
Without a doubt, Christianity was an evangelistic religion from the outset. Matthew 28 tells us that the risen Jesus commissioned his followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19–20).
When you know the context of the New Testament texts—the world and cultures in and to which these stories were written—you quickly realize that sometimes the incongruities and unusual aspects in the story testify to their historical veracity and authenticity.
Evangelism in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds required apologetics of various sorts to explain what made a certain group’s claims unique and superior to others. This was especially necessary if you were claiming that a Jewish manual laborer who had been crucified by a Roman governor named Pilate had nonetheless risen from the dead, appeared to various persons, and was starting a new community of followers because his previous ones had all but abandoned hope. The real sticking point for Jesus’ followers is that the culture of the Middle East at that time (and still today) was an honor and shame culture, and crucifixion was the most shameful way to die in that world. It was not seen as a noble martyrdom of any sort. People in that world believed that the manner of your death most revealed your character. On that basis, Jesus was a scoundrel, a man who committed treason against the state, a man who deserved the punishment used for slave revolts. The Romans called it “the extreme punishment,” and no Roman citizen would be subjected to it.
It wouldn’t make sense to create a story about a crucified and risen man being the savior of the world—unless you really believe it is historically true—because the instinctive reaction to such a message is exactly what Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, said it would be: It was a stumbling block or scandal to the Jews, and sheer nonsense to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). If you have seen the famous graffito from the pagan catacombs in Rome, the drawing of a donkey hanging on a cross, with a Roman kneeling below it with a sarcastic remark about “a man worshiping his god,” you realize how such a message must have come across, at least initially, to those being evangelized in the Roman world…
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