After considering early Christianity as a kingdom of God movement and as a resurrection movement, N.T. Wright concludes his condensed argument for the resurrection by looking at early Christianity as a messianic movement.
There were plenty of messianic movements in those days. In Acts 5:33-42 we read of Theudas and Judas the Galilean attracting a following. According to Wright, the latter began a messianic dynasty of sorts that lasted from A.D 6 to 73, involving Judas, his sons or grandsons, and two other descendants named Menahem and Eleazar, who met his end at the famous battle of Masada.
These putative Messiahs took the course expected of a Messiah: attempting to overthrow the odious Gentile rule and rebuild the Temple (which Herod actually did in 19 BC, so that was not part of the first-century Messiahs’ purpose); and restore godly rule and justice to the world. The coming Messiah was expected to be in the line of King David and of his order: one who ruled for God and conquered the opponents of God’s people.
None of them succeeded. What then of their followers’ messianic hopes? According to Wright, they had two options: to find themselves a new messiah, as the followers of Judas the Galilean did (and the new leader was often a descendant of the original), or give up the messianic hope altogether, as the rabbis finally did in A.D. 135.
What they did not do, if their messiah was killed, was continue to believe in him as Messiah. Nothing could blow a man’s credibility as Messiah quite as much as being killed, especially if (like Jesus and some others) he were tortured and executed by the very pagans he was supposed to overthrow. Moreover,
If after the death of Simon bar-Giora … you had suggested that Simon really was the Messiah, you would have invited a fairly sharp response from the average Jew. If by way of explanation you said that you had had a strong sense of Simon being with you, still supporting and leading you, the kindest response you might expect would be that their angel or spirit was still communicating with you—not that he had been raised from the dead.
(See Part Two of this series for more on the Jewish ideas of resurrection.)
The crucified Jesus, then, was no good candidate for messianic status. Like the others, he had made messianic claims during his life; but he was different. Though Wright does not detail it in the section of the book I am drawing from here (pages 137 and following of The Challenge of Jesus), Jesus during his lifetime refused to follow the messianic script. He led no political uprising. He raised no objection to paying taxes to Rome. He taught a kingdom that was not of this world, yet one that was in his followers’ midst. They were slow to catch on to his claim to be the Messiah, though haltingly they did seem to do so. Still, even after his resurrection remained confused about his messianic purposes for some time—see Acts 1:6-8.)
So like the others, when Rome finally caught up with him and displayed their power over him at the cross, his movement should have faded almost immediately. At best, his messiahship should have passed on to some other leader, preferably a relative, though in its paradoxical form it seems more likely it should have just disappeared from view.
What actually happened was altogether different. Paul in his letters repeatedly refers to Jesus as “Jesus Christ.” Christ is not a last name; it is Greek for Messiah. Paul, the highly educated Pharisee, the one who formerly hated Jesus and his followers, had come to view Jesus as his Messiah. More telling yet is Peter’s affirmation just a few weeks after the crucifixion: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
Men were not made Messiahs by being crucified.
We are bound to regard it as extremely strange that the early Christians not only insisted that he was the Messiah, but reordered their worldview, their praxis, stories, symbols and theology around this belief. They had the two normal options open to them. The could have given up messianism … and gone in for some form of private religion instead…. They clearly did not do that; anything less like a private religion than going around the world and saying that Jesus was the kyrios kosmou, the Lord of the world, it would be hard to imagine. Equally and most interestingly they could have found themselves a new Messiah from among Jesus’ blood-relatives…. James the brother of Jesus, though not having been part of the movement during Jesus’ lifetime, became its central figure … in Jerusalem…. Yet—and this is a vital clue, like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark in the night—nobody in early Christianity ever dreamed of saying that James was the Messiah.
This is all well established history. Now the question is, how does one explain it? How does a man who clearly lost to Rome, and also by the way to the Jewish religious establishment, become regarded as a Messiah? Looking at Acts 2 and following, we know so If any putative Messiah could have kept that title after his death, there would have been plenty of opportunities for that to happen. It only happened with one.
In spite of Jesus’ own teachings the movement really did not take on a strongly messianic tone while he was alive. It happened very soon after his death.
So as Wright the historian says,
We are forced once again … to postulate something that will explain why this group of first-century Jews … not only continued to believe that he was the Messiah after his death but actively announced him as such in the Jewish as well as the pagan world.
What shall we propose, then, as the explanation? What makes the most sense in light of the historical facts? Something very extraordinary must have happened around the time of his death, or very soon after…