Selling the comfort of a crucified-messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

I suggested in Did Jesus exist on youtube? that the original message of the crucified messiah, contrary to a common claim that it must have been a “hard sell”, had so much going for it that it was probably not hard to sell at all. If we follow the usual historical model of Christian origins (and allow Acts any credibility at all), it does appear Jews by their thousands responded to it in the first few years of its proclamation. I’m not saying that it would have been the easiest thing to sell since sliced bread. Obviously not. But it is surely not right to think that it was so unpalatable on first hearing that no-one would ever have even contemplated it unless it were “historically true”.

Well, it is nice sometimes when one uncovers a detail from a mainstream biblical scholar that supports what one has come to think for oneself. I had written:

And the way to rulership and conquest is through death and suffering. It is an inevitable paradox that gave comfort to Jewish martyrs ever since the time of the Maccabean wars. The way to life was through death. God would exalt those whom the world abased. Have discussed this in some detail here.

The idea of a divinity with whom one could identify in the face of cruel losses and lacks in this world, and who had overcome death and suffering, and all the evil of this world, must have been one of the easiest sells. The idea that it must have been “hard” to sell is derived, I think, from the apologetic paradigm that attempts to “prove” the truth of its gospel message.

Such paradoxical reversals were a comfort to people without hope in this life. They were far from being stumbling blocks. They were gateways to hope. They were always the hope of martyrs from pre-Christian times.

There is no evidence at all that the earliest Christians were struggling to make sense of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus first appears in the evidence as a fully formed and sensible part of the message of the resurrection overcoming death.

Then recently while catching up with one of the most frequently cited books I have encountered, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne A. Meeks, I read this (pp.180-181):

The node around which Pauline beliefs crystallized was the crucifixion and resurrection of God’s son, the Messiah. This was destined to prove one of the most powerful symbols that has ever appeared in the history of religions; in the earliest years of the Christian movement, no one seems to have recognized its generative potential so quickly and so comprehensively as Paul and his associates. . . .

The novelty of the proclamation, which violates or at least transcends expectations based either on reason or on Jewish traditions (1 Cor. 1:18-25), permits it to serve as a warrant for innovation. In particular, Paul uses the paradox of the Messiah’s crucifixion explicitly to support the union of Jew and gentile and the abolition of the distinction between them, by bringing to an end the boundary-setting function of the Torah. . . .

As a metaphor, the crucifixion/resurrection become also an interpretative pattern for what we may loosely call theodicy. That is, when one is experiencing suffering or hostility, recalling the action of God in this event becomes the means of comfort. Christians are called to rejoice in  being permitted to imitate Christ . . . and at the same time receive reassurance that it is in weakness that the power of God manifests itself. “He who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us and present us with him” (2 Cr. 4:14).

If Christianity had its origins among outcasts, dispossessed, traumatized (I’m thinking of post 66-70 c.e., the destruction of Jerusalem) would not such a message have had a very strong appeal?

But this doesn’t sit with Paul’s letters being products of the 50s. Paul’s letters (like the gospels) do speak of persecutions. What is the evidence for that in the 50s? We know it was happening from the 90s and into the second century.