In the ancient world, “resurrection” always referred to a bodily resurrection. The word wasn’t used when the topic was the survival of our spiritual essence after death.
The pagans uniformly denied resurrection as a possibility, while some (not all) Jews believed in a resurrection. Most pagans believed in life after death. Few believed in a resurrection.
Of course, everyone knew that resurrections weren’t occurring right now! Therefore, resurrection referred to a physical resurrection occurring in the future, with people living as disembodied spirits while awaiting the resurrection.
When the Christians asserted that Jesus had risen from the dead, they were claiming something quite new — an immediate resurrection. They weren’t thereby claiming that Jesus had become divine or that his spirit was in heavenly bliss.
In fact, when the Romans claimed a dead emperor had become divine, they meant he was divine and in heaven. When they sometimes claimed an emperor had been resurrected, they meant he was no longer in heaven but had returned to this corporeal existence.
Resurrection among the Jews
Among the Jews, the Sadducees denied the resurrection as well as any afterlife. Philo, an Alexandrian, Jewish philosopher, taught an afterlife but denied a resurrection.
But most Jews believed in an eventual resurrection. Hence, Martha assumed Jesus was talking about the resurrection when Jesus promised to raise Lazarus from the dead.
(John 11:24-26) Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Jesus taught the resurrection, in very Jewish terms.
(Mark 12:24-26) Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising–have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?”
(Luke 14:13-14) “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
(John 5:28-29) “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out [be resurrected]–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
Intriguingly, Jesus affirms the teaching of Daniel on the resurrection —
(Dan 12:2-3) Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.
(Mat 13:43) Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
The idea of an immediate resurrection of Jesus — the Messiah — was unthinkable to the apostles —
(Luke 18:31-34) Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33 On the third day he will rise again.” 34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.
(Luke 24:20-21) The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.
Until the resurrection of Jesus, the death of Jesus meant to the apostles that the Romans had won. The cross symbolized the ultimately supremacy of Roman power: we will do to you as we wish. Even though Jesus had promised to rise again, the idea was so far outside of Jewish thought, even the apostles were astonished when it happened!
The Christian view of resurrection
Christians virtually never spoke of going to heaven when they die. “Heaven is important but it’s not the end of the world”! Heaven was, at most, a way station on the way to the resurrection.
Jesus promised the thief on the cross an immediate trip to “paradise,” but not an immediate resurrection. After all, that would happen much later.
When Jesus promises what the KJV calls “mansions,” the word is mone, which refers to a temporary dwelling.
In other words, the early Christian idea was a temporary stay in heaven, followed by an eternal resurrection.
This view was unheard of in the pagan world but very Jewish. However, it was different from Jewish expectations in 7 ways —
1. The Christian view was remarkably uniform. While the Jews debated many theories, the Christians had but one.
2. Resurrection was moved from a peripheral concern to the central concern. “Take away the stories of Jesus’s birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke. Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament and most of the second-century fathers as well.” (43)
3. Although Jewish understanding of the resurrected body was vague, Christians taught from early on that the resurrected body will be “transformed” with new properties. 1 Cor 15 is particularly specific. Paul’s contrast is between a body animated by a human soul and a body animated by God’s spirit.
4. Christians taught a two-stage resurrection — Jesus first and then the rest.
5. Christians believed “that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness.” (46)
6. For Jews resurrection could refer to the return from exile, metaphorically. For Christians, the metaphor is baptism. Hence, rather than a renewal of Israel, resurrection calls for renewal of all individuals.
7. No Jew had expected the Messiah to die and be resurrected ahead of everyone else. Hence, the resurrection became a defeat of greater enemies than the Romans — the powers and the Curse.
Death is the last weapon of a tyrant, and Jesus proved himself Lord of death, and hence higher than all earthly powers.