This wasn’t the first time Ghena and I talked about the idea of Jesus’ resurrection. We didn’t have that discussion often because he didn’t want to. But when we did, it was normally tense and awkward.
“Do you really think that?” he asked me, wrinkling his forehead.
“You know I do. Yes, babe.”
“You really believe that?” he pressed.
“Ghena, Jews believe in the concept of Resurrection, too,” I reminded him.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course Jews believe in the… Look, I believe in Maimonides’ 13 principles.”
“I know you do. Well, number 13…”
“I know,” he interrupted, “what number 13 says.”
“OK, well then you can’t deny the possibility of…”
“I’m not denying the possibility…” he said, clarifying what it was that he was specifically denying: the resurrection of Jesus.
We were quiet for a few minutes.
“You know, sweetie, I’m not crazy,” I told him.
“I know. I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“But you think I’m wrong,” I added.
“I think you are wrong, yes.”
“Well, all I’m saying is I’ve looked into it, and I think that’s where the evidence leads.”
“That,” he asked, “is where what evidence leads?”
“Ghena, something happened. Something had to happen. I can’t explain the rise of Christianity in any other way.”
“Sure you can,” he told me, as he put his hands on my shoulders. “Religious people often have hallucinations.” And he kissed my forehead.
And we were back to square one.
I know it’s popular today for people to dismiss the Easter stories as examples of hallucinations. But to me, I don’t really think that theory is capable of explaining why Christianity rose so quickly in the first century.
Jesus was hardly the first Jewish man going around claiming to be the messiah. Simon bar Kokhba, the early second century rebel, comes to mind. In 132 CE, Simon led a revolt against the ruling Roman authorities, and established his own independent Jewish state. Three years later, Rome regained power and killed him.
I can imagine that after bar Kokhba had been killed, his followers would have been extremely disappointed. “We thought that he would have been the one to redeem Israel,” they might have said.
Some of them may even have had hallucinations about Simon. “Look!” they may have told their fellow rebels, “I’ve just had a vision of Simon. My heart has been warmed within me, and I feel that God is now with us in a new way! This proves that Simon is the messiah.”
I imagine this Jew’s friends would have told him he was crazy. “He isn’t the messiah,” they might have said. “He’s dead.”
“No he isn’t,” the fanatic may have replied. “I’ve just had a vision of him!”
The point is, when a messiah dies in the first century, his death proves he isn’t the messiah. But what happened with Jesus is entirely unique. He did die, and then several days after his death, his followers went around saying that this Jesus was, in fact, the messiah that Israel had been waiting for. Why did Jesus’ followers go around making this claim, but not Simon bar Kokhba’s followers? What was different about Jesus’ and Simon’s deaths that turned the former into the most talked about figure ever, and left the latter to be relegated to the annals of second century Jewish history?
This is a good question that demands a sufficient answer. I don’t think a jumbled sentence about hallucinations will do the trick. For one thing, first century Jews have words for hallucinations. That concept does exist within their theology. I’m thinking about the story in Acts when Peter breaks out of prison and comes to see his friends. When he knocks on the door of their house, a little girl named Rhoda comes to let him in. When she sees Peter standing outside, she gets so excited that she forgets to open the door for him, and runs away to tell the others.
“Peter’s here!” Rhoda exclaims.
Of course, nobody believes her. They all think he’s in jail.
“Yes, it’s him! I’ve just seen him!”
“You didn’t really see him, Rhoda. It isn’t really him,” they assured her. “It’s his angel.”
Then there’s infamous story of Jesus walking on the water in the middle of a storm. As he magically made his way to his disciples, they became frightened and exclaimed that a ghost was heading right for them.
Angels. Ghosts. Visions. The New Testament does have examples of those things. The resurrection of Jesus, though, seems like something altogether different.
“But why would God defile himself like that?” Ghena asked me one time. “You think he actually became a human?”
“You think he actually became a burning bush?” I retorted.
“I don’t think he was actually a burning bush…”
“But you think he was present to it, and Moses saw that?”
“Sure,” he replied. “I think that, but…”
“And that God somehow inhabited a pillar of fire and led the Israelites around with it?”
“Yes, but Brandon, it’s different,” he said. “Jesus is different.”
“I agree that Jesus is different than a burning bush. Very different.” And I thought about another example that might work better.
“He’s different because he’s a man?” I asked him.
“Yes, he isn’t a bush, or fire. He’s a person.” He said it as though he’d bested me.
“Well what about the men who visited Abraham to tell Sarah she would become pregnant?”
He took a moment to respond. “What about them?” he asked.
“Well… God was somehow… I don’t know, incarnate or present to those men.” When I said the word “incarnate,” he eyes narrowed.
“Those men weren’t God,” he quickly replied.
“They weren’t, “ I said. “And they were.”
He started to yell at me for blasphemy, but I interrupted him. “God inhabited a bush, and a pillar of fire, and a covenantal ark, and different people. Maybe he also – in a weird way – inhabited Jesus. Maybe he actually dwelt in Jesus.”
He looked angry.
“It’s an option,” I said.
“No,” he replied in a hushed voice. “It isn’t.”
He began to walk away from me. “Not for me.”
Brandon studied Literature and Philosophy at Liberty University. He currently lives between New York City and Seattle, WA, where he spends most of his time dancing and writing. He enjoys telling stories onstage and on paper. You can follow his blog here: http://brandonambrosino.blogspot.com/