What happened in the gap between the death of Jesus on the cross and the explosion of the early church? Christians, of course, will say it was the resurrection of Jesus, but skeptics will naturally question that answer.
Most western skeptics doubt (or are convinced) that miracles (like rising from the dead) simply do not happen. Most skeptics dismiss the New Testament accounts out of hand. Fifty years ago, skeptic scholars were convinced that the resurrection idea developed as a legend over time, generations after Jesus died.
Thus, an appropriate question as we approach another Easter is this: what accounts for the rapid spread of the following of a man who, by all legitimate accounts, died a cruel, shameful and certain death?
No legitimate modern scholars doubt that Jesus died. There are too many sources other than the Bible referencing his life and death and the following that continued after him.
What makes this man different from the other men had also come and gone, who attracted a following, but then died, and the following dispersed.
For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. (Acts 5:36-37)
Within a generation after the death of Jesus, however, his followers did not disburse. In fact, they added 3000 in one day (Acts 2:41) and that number grew shortly to 5000 (Acts 4:4). From there the followers spread rapidly throughout Roman controlled territory, from northern Africa, through “Arabia” (the modern Middle East), up into central Europe and beyond (even to India). This explosion of a new religion took place after the leader died a shameful, humiliating and tortuous death.
What accounts for that rapid growth? The Christian answer, of course, is that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers.
Back over 50 years ago, biblical scholarship, most of which was liberal and skeptical (a tradition that began with textual criticism in the 1800’s), posited that the resurrection was a legend that grew out of oral tradition and did not become a central part of the Christian doctrine until sometime after the 1st Century ended. The theory uses the “telephone game” as an illustrative “proof”.
In other words, these scholars believed that the story of Jesus was passed on orally from person to person until it changed and eventually turned into a legend that Jesus arose from the dead, like the phrase that is whispered in the ear of one person who tells it to another person and so on in succession around the room. When we get to the last person, we find the original message changed into something other than the original message.
This legend grew out of things Jesus was reported to saw during his life. For instance, he claimed that he would die and rise from the dead three days later. The scholarship consensus 50 years ago was that the legend grew out of these things Jesus said, but only many years and several generations or more after his death.
These scholars were certain that the original followers of Jesus, and the 1st Century “church” that grew up after his death, did not believe or claim that Jesus rose from the dead. The story of Jesus, whatever it was, somehow morphed into a legendary tale of Jesus rising from the dead a century or so later, and this story was cemented into history by the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century.
Scholarship has changed over the last 50, however. Something has changed the scholarly consensus on what the immediate followers of Jesus believed and claimed. Today, even most of the most skeptical of scholars concede that the resurrection story is not a 2nd Century fabrication or legend. In fact, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead can be traced back to within the time immediately after his death.
The earliest Christian creed can be traced back to within one or two years from the death of Jesus. The creed is
“That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15:3-4)
(If you are interested in the full story, you can listen to The Resurrection Argument that Changed a Generation of Scholars.)
Scholars will also now concede that hundreds of people claimed to see Jesus after his death in the flesh. There is virtually no contrary consensus, even among the most skeptical scholars. This proposition is an historical fact as verifiable as any historical fact. These scholars do not all believe that Jesus actually arose from the dead, of course, but they concede his followers believed it and proclaimed it.
The answer to the second question posed at the beginning is clear – the explosion of the early church results from the fact that the early followers of Jesus believed he rose from the dead.
So what of the first question? What actually did happen in the gap between the death of Jesus and the explosion of the church that began shortly after his death?