“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by the Son” (Heb 1:1–2). Speaking through his Son, God authenticated the call to repentance with the sign of Jonah. This sign – the resurrection of Jesus – is unique, “inimitable” proof that Jesus’ death had the power of redemption for all our sins.
We all have at home the amazing stories about this extraordinary event, unique in the world and throughout history. If you haven’t got them, they can be purchased at a bookshop at any moment, or even found on the Internet: the writings of the New Testament, written by eyewitnesses to the Risen One. These reports have the most reliable authentication certificate: the testimony of the life and death of those who wrote them. In human terms, anyone can write whatever they please. Even today, newspapers often carry fantasies rather than facts, and many people believe them. However, no one in the world would defend till death false information they had given themselves. Why, then, did the advocates of the Resurrection prefer to die, but not withdraw from the very proclamation of this fact?
The church in Jerusalem 60 AD By the year 60, approximately 30 years after Jesus’ death, most of the documents of the New Testament had been written, and all the authors were still alive. The church in Jerusalem consisted of tens of thousands of believers of Jewish origin who did not stand out from the general population of the Jewish capital. Just like all the other Jews, the followers of Jesus attended the temple (Acts 5:42), and they even took Nazirite vows and related Jewish sacrifices there (Acts 21:26). Just like other Jews, they met in private homes, breaking bread (Acts 2:46). They also went to the Jewish synagogues to pray and read the Holy Scripture. Their behaviour in no way differed from that of a typical Jew in those days. The only thing that distinguished them was the confidence they placed in Jesus, based on the knowledge of His Resurrection. During those three decades, the Jewish community had become accustomed to the existence of the nocrim (or nazarene) sect among them, as they called the Jewish followers of Jesus. Those who believed their testimony converted and joined them; those who did not believe tolerated them just as they tolerated other Jewish factions of the time: the Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees and the like. Only the elite high priests saw the followers of Jesus as a threat, since many priests started to believe in Jesus.
The conversions of Jewish priests
The Acts of the Apostles report that “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (6:7). Why priests? It seems that, starting from the year 30, when Jesus was crucified, Jewish priests working in the Temple of Jerusalem witnessed strange things, perceived as signs from God. Those signs are discussed by the Jewish Talmud, and also by historians not associated with the Church.
Nobody could remain indifferent to this testimony. Numerous Jews who were gathered there repented, confessing their sins, but many of them were outraged
During the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the high priest sacrificed two goats: one was driven out into the desert, and the other one was killed in the temple. These sacrifices were to symbolize the transferral of the sins of the whole nation onto the animal, which took a substitute punishment. For centuries, every year, two goats were placed before the high priest, who cast lots to determine which of them was to be banished and which one killed. For centuries, the fate would invariably fall on the goat standing to the right. So when in the year 30, a few months after Jesus’ death, the lot fell differently, the priests had something to worry about. They had more to worry about when the same thing happened for the next 30 years. It must have been clear for everybody that something had changed irrevocably in God’s attitude to the offered sacrifices. This conviction was intensified by another sign. The high priest, driving out one of the goats into the desert, would tie a scarlet sash to the gate of the Temple. It was believed that the substitute death of the scapegoat would contribute to the forgiveness of sins, and that God would signal this to the people with a change in the colour of the sash (Isaiah 1:18). Indeed, over the centuries, up to 30 AD, the sash tied to the gate would always change to white; since the year 30, it had always remained scarlet. The feeling of a lack of forgiveness and the premonition of approaching disaster was also intensified by the fact that the fire went out on the seven-branched lampstand in the Temple. This lampstand (the menorah) was positioned in front of the Holy of Holies and was to burn continually. The priests’ duty was to refill the oil, so that the fire would never go out. And here in the year 30, the flame went out on the branch of the stand closest to the Holy of Holies. But that was not too bad, because it could be explained by simple negligence of the priests. The problem was that no one could start the fire again; despite cleaning and the replacement of the oil and wicks, one branch remained without fire for 30 years. In this situation, it is not surprising that many priests converted. The Temple was visited daily by the Apostles and other followers of Jesus, who testified His Resurrection. With no possibility of undermining the truthfulness of the testimony, the priests easily associated the sign of the Resurrection of Jesus with the disappearance of signs of forgiveness and God’s presence in the temple worship. Their decision to convert was also influenced by the conduct of the corrupt high priest elite. Ignoring God and the people, the high priests engaged in intrigues in order to get better positions.
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women. Yet it proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (John14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (see 2 Cor 5:18-19), people find the fullness of their religious life. The Church, therefore, urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture. (Nostra Aetate, 2)
The attack on the church in 62 AD
In the year 62, the high priest in Jerusalem was Ananus ben Ananus. This man was known for his wickedness and tendency to violence. Taking advantage of personnel changes in the Roman administration, he accused some Jewish followers of Jesus of violating the law of Moses, and he sentenced them to stoning. The Romans granted the Jews considerable administrative and legal autonomy, but they did not allow for the execution of death sentences without the knowledge and consent of the Roman authorities. The execution was to serve as a demonstration. Thousands of Jews gathered in the square in front of the Temple, and a speech was delivered condemning the faith in Jesus and His Resurrection. The speech was delivered by the well-known rabbi Yaakov ha-Tsadik, who was highly respected and esteemed by the entire Jewish community of Jerusalem. Rabbi ha- Tsadik (Heb. “James the Just”) was renowned for his piety, love of poverty and persistent prayer. He had probably taken Nazirite vows, because historians testify that he did not cut his hair, wore a sackcloth and prayed constantly, kneeling in the Temple. On account of this kneeling prayer, the Jews nicknamed him “Camel Knees” and the “The Nation’s Wall of Defence”. It was believed that Yaakov’s intercessory prayer turned away the wrath of God and prevented the defeat of Israel. Rabbi Yaakov was led to the roof of the temple, the place from which the horn was usually sounded during the holidays. The speech was to be heard by thousands of Jews gathered in front of the Temple, so that everybody would be convinced that this Jesus was not worth believing. And the rabbi spoke.
James confirmed with his own blood that these things were not fantasy, fairy tale or myth, but the very Truth which one can rely on and which ensures eternal life
As this Nazirite, a man of prayer, a rabbi known and respected throughout Jerusalem, spoke, the hearts of his listeners were greatly moved. Yaakov ha-Tsadik gave his testimony about his encounter with the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:7), who suffered for the sins of the people, was crucified to carry the pain of many, was savagely beaten for the transgressions of Israel and of all the world, and then emerged victorious from this battle with death. Nobody could remain indifferent to this testimony. Numerous Jews who were gathered there repented, confessing their sins, but many of them were outraged. When the high priests saw that the effect of Yaakov’s speech was counterproductive, they tried to shut him up, and finally pushed him off the roof of the temple. However, the fall was not fatal, and everybody heard how Yaakov ha-Tsadik prayed for his persecutors. They, on the other hand, thoroughly outraged, stoned him to death.
“Imitate their faith”
It turned out that the high priests had not known – it never occurred to them — that such a pious man of prayer, a dedicated servant of the God of Israel, could act as a bishop of the Church of Jerusalem and be one of the pillars of faith in Jesus (Gal 2:9). What is more, he was not just a secret disciple of Jesus; historians attest that it was thanks to him that almost all the believers in Jerusalem came to faith. Yaakov ha-Tsadik, James the Just, was also the author of the well-known Epistle of James in the New Testament. In that letter, he gave an expression of faith in the deity of Jesus (Jas 1:1) and His second coming (5:8). James confirmed with his own blood that these things were not fantasy, fairy tale or myth, but the very Truth which one can rely on and which ensures eternal life. When faced with this assurance, temporal death has no meaning. After James’s death, apostles living in Rome (probably Paul and Barnabas) wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, to the brothers living in Jerusalem, to comfort them after the loss of their holy bishop. It was probably his death that these words refer to: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Heb 13:7). It is worth reading the Letter of James again, bearing in mind the final chapter of his life, and beginning to sincerely imitate his faith.
The same applies to all the other books of the New Testament, written by eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. How did their lives come to an end?
Matthew Levi, author of the first Gospel, was stoned to death in Jerusalem in the year 63. John Mark, author of the second Gospel, suffered a martyr’s death in Alexandria in the year 68. Luke the Evangelist, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, was martyred in Achaia during the nineties. At the same time, exiled on the island of Patmos, John the Evangelist, the author of three letters and Revelation, died. Saint Paul and Saint Peter, authors of New Testament letters, were martyred in Rome in the year 64. The apostle Jude, author of the Letter of Jude, died as a martyr for Jesus in Beirut in the year 65.
What were these people guilty of? Simply, that they believed in the Resurrection of Jesus, to which they had been witnesses. They could not stop testifying about it and they preferred to die rather than deny the Risen One. What they wrote to us in the form of the New Testament, they treated seriously, convinced that these words had the power to transform us for eternal life. They believed that this was something worth sacrificing their own earthly life for.
It is on the basis of these written testimonies that we can believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and trust Him to “believe (…) and have eternal life” (1 John 5:11–13).
The above text has used, among
others, information contained in the
Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Yoma)
and the Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius