Fact #3 – The disciples were transformed in the face of persecution

It wasn’t unusual for Rabbis who were gaining some prominence to have a circle of close acquaintances that learned from and followed the teaching of their master. The gospel’s description of the disciples of Jesus is therefore not surprising. He chose mostly Galileans, from the north of the territory of Israel around the Lake Galilee. Whilst the majority seem to have been fishermen[1], there was one nationalist zealot and one tax collector[2]; again, nothing out of the ordinary. But what is astonishing is what they became – fervent teachers of an astounding story about seeing a dead man alive again[3].

Make no mistake; Jewish culture at the time of Jesus simply did not expect this to happen.

The concept and idea of resurrection – the reviving of a body to life again – was within Jewish tradition and a part of their belief system, but only imagined possible during the events of the ‘end times’ or the ‘last days’, when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake”[4]. And so, the disciples of Jesus, themselves thoroughly Jewish, would not have expected Jesus’ resurrection at all. Indeed, the Christian writings, which we might assume should have been written favourably towards these followers of Jesus who became the leaders of this religious sect, unabashedly show how time and time again the disciples failed to understand Jesus when he tried to explain this to them. One close friend of Jesus precisely shows the prevailing Jewish tradition when she exclaimed about her dead brother, “I know that he will rise again, in the resurrection on the last day”[5], as if to say, ‘and there is no chance of it happening until then’. Now if this was too hard to imagine, it was absolutely inconceivable that the promised Messiah[6] would be violently killed, and then rise again on the third day. This promised Jewish saviour was supposed to vanquish their oppressors, not allow himself to be arrested, fail to defend himself in court and be brutally murdered on the strength of false accusations and libel.

So it is all the more surprising, against all odds in fact, that the small group of disciples were emboldened overnight to tell anyone and everyone that their acclaimed saviour had died but had risen again to life. But they did; the very existence of Christianity is witness to that.

The disciples began a religious and political surge on a wave of confidence, with a simple verbal message of a dead man seen alive again, which reached to the full extent of the Roman Empire.

And they continued to teach this despite the horrific persecution that we can read about in Tacitus[7] and Pliny[8] amongst other writings and evidence.

Whatever we think may have happened over the course of those three days must account for this radical transformation in outlook, confidence and belief system, in the face of terrible persecution. The explanation must provide a strong reason to explain the complete change in this small group of fishermen from Galilee.

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[1] Mark 1:16-20

[2] Matthew 10:1-4

[3] Acts 4:13

[4] Daniel 12:2

[5] John 11:24

[6] The term ‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word meaning ‘anointed’. It refers to the ancient practice of kings and priests being anointed by oil, (which was poured on their heads), to inaugurate them to a role or a task. The promised Messiah of Israel was the one expected by the Jewish people to usher in the kingdom age and administer justice by ruling a fair and equitable government, thus establishing peace.

[7] “Nero…inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” Tacitus, 116AD

[8] “I asked them whether they were Christians or not? If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed.” Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan, 112AD