Did you hear about the Jew who believes Jesus rose from the dead? No, it’s not a joke. I just finished reading a fascinating book by Pinchas Lapide called The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective. Lapide (1922-1997) was a non-messianic Orthodox Jew who believes that Jesus really did rise from the dead. And he gives an impressive set of reasons to support that belief, all connected to the identity of Jesus and the Twelve as faithful Jews:
Unlike the pagan religions which had stories of a god dying and rising again, the people who bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus were Jews. And faith in bodily resurrection was not at all unprecedented in Judaism: 1 Kings 17:17-24, 2 Kings 4:18-21,32-37, and 2 Kings 13:20-21 all tell of people being raised from the dead. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones being raised to life, the Hallel psalms (113-118) which are used in the Passover seder, and numerous passages from the Prophets (such as Isaiah 26 and Hosea 6) speak of God’s power to raise the dead to life. In Jesus’ time the Pharisees were the great defenders of belief in general resurrection, the idea that at the end of time all people would resurrected. And the Apostles were schooled in belief in the resurrection; it was one place where Jesus clearly agreed with the rest of the Pharisees (Mt. 22:23-33). This leads Lapide to conclude “Only because they were Jews educated by the Pharisees was their conviction of resurrection the first step to their later Easter faith” (p. 65).
Lapide then goes on to offer an analysis of the New Testament accounts of the resurrection which defend it as well as any Christian apologetic I’ve ever read: The fact that women are reported as the first to find the empty tomb, despite the fact that women’s testimony was considered invalid in those days, gives the story credibility. The content and language of Paul’s resurrection account in 1 Corinthians 15, which was passed on to him by the first witnesses, contain numerous un-Pauline phrases and a distinctively Hebrew style of writing, implying that Paul really is passing on in rough translation exactly what was passed on to him.
Why then does Lapide not believe that Jesus was the Messiah? Because the Kingdom of God hasn’t come in its fullness yet. While Christians would say that the reign of God is already-but-not-yet present on earth, for Jews it is emphatically not. While the fathers of the Hebrew Bible and the prophets may have been expected to rise from the dead at the Messiah’s coming, the Messiah himself wasn’t necessarily expected to. He was expected to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth through an immediate restoration of Israel’s political independence. And that didn’t happen.
But that doesn’t mean for Lapide that Christianity is all bad, or that Jews and Christians have no complementarity. In fact Lapide says, Christianity’s interpretation of the historical fact of the resurrection was good because it prepared the way for the Gentile world to recognize the one true God of Israel:
The experience of the resurrection as the foundational act of the church which has carried the faith in the God of Israel into the whole Western world must belong to God’s plan of salvation. . . . Since this Christianizing is based irrevocably on the resurrection of Jesus, the Easter faith has to be recognized as part of divine providence” (pp. 142-143).
Ultimately, Lapide sees this positive view of Christianity as a starting point for much needed interreligious dialogue between Christians and Jews:
Two ways of faith such as Judaism and Christianity, which ahve a common origin and hope for a common messianic goal, should devote their dialogue not only to the polite contact at the edges and to the removal of the tensions of the past, but should seek contact from center to center. Without glossing over or bypassing the differences, a dialogue in which both partners take the faith substance of the other as seriously as their own could become a true dialogue – from open faith to open faith, from confidence to confidence, from emphatic searching and finding, and from joy in the duality which knows its ultimate unity only in God.
Tomorrow night at 7:00pm, Upper Room will get to participate in some such dialogue. Rabbi Alvin Berkun, Rabbi Emeritus at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Congregation and a well-known leader in Jewish-Christian dialogue will be joining us to talk about current issues in Jewish-Christian relations. The subject matter may differ, but reading Lapide has me eagerly anticipating tomorrow’s discussion.