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Skepticism to Sacrifice: the astonishing journey of James, Paul, & Peter

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Part 5 of 8 in a series of articles by Derek Caldwell on the resurrection. Published March 31, 2024

One of the most convincing evidences of the resurrection for me is what happened after it took place: the changed lives—and ultimate sacrifices—of people who claimed to have experienced the resurrected Christ in some way. And it should be noted here that even critical scholars acknowledge that the claims made by these men and women should be taken as genuine. There is no reason to doubt that the people I will discuss below truly believed that they saw the risen Christ. As skeptical German New Testament scholar and critic Gerd Lüdemann put it, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”1 Paula Fredriksen, a scholar who does not believe Jesus actually did or could perform any miracles, states, “Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles.”2 In a televised documentary, she mentions the resurrection miracle specifically, explaining, “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian they must have seen something.”3 Elsewhere she writes, “the disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ … is [part of] historical bedrock, facts known past doubting.”4

Two of the early church’s most prominent leaders are somewhat strange bedfellows to the young movement: James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul, who both wrote what are considered to be the earliest extant letters about Jesus. The letter of James, written perhaps around 45 AD, is a book of wisdom and exhortation to live the life of a true Christian, which means both faith and good works. By the time he wrote his letter, James was an important leader in the Jerusalem church, which just a little over a decade earlier would have been quite unthinkable. Jesus’s brothers had stayed in contact with Him, but they did not believe in him (John 7:5). So, what changed? Apparently, James believed he had seen his dead brother alive again (1 Corinthians 15:7; Acts 1:14). Seeing his brother in a resurrected stated change the trajectory of his life, and ultimately this conviction about Jesus led to James’s execution, which was recorded both by the Jewish historian Josephus toward the end of the first century and by other ancient Christian sources.5 Interestingly, James is not the only brother of Jesus to make this change. While we know less about him, the book of Jude is written by another half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3). We can assume that his change of heart had something to do with the resurrection. Something drastic must have happened if this former denier of Jesus’s claims—who at one time may have said, along with James, Jesus was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21)—would go on to call his brother “our only Sovereign and Lord” right before identifying Him with Yahweh in the Exodus (Jude 4-5). While both of these two are identified as Jesus’s brothers, neither one apparently feels worthy enough to self-identify that way. James calls himself a “servant” of Christ (James 1:1), while Jude calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (Jude 1). 

Paul, on the other hand, was not a loving critic of Christ and His followers like James. Instead, Paul was a zealous persecutor of Christians, given power to root out this group of evangelists spreading their blasphemous message in order to eliminate the threat they posed. He was present at and “approved” the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 8:1). In Acts 8:3, Luke states that Paul had been destroying, or ravaging, the early believers, dragging them out of their homes and tossing them in prison. Paul was “breathing out murderous threats” against Christ’s followers (Acts 9:1). But then, during a journey to Damascus, the Lord appeared to him and asked him why he was persecuting Him (through the persecution of His followers). The voice told him that it was Jesus. Paul later referred to this as some sort of “appearance” of the Lord at the tail end of many resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Whatever it was, even if he couldn’t make out the figure entirely, Paul believed he saw something appear to him that was Jesus. Paul, too, would die for his beliefs during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero in the mid-60s AD. 

Beyond them, we also have the changed life of Peter. Peter had denied Christ three times before his execution, essentially abandoning Jesus during the worst moment of His earthly life. If Peter was willing to abandon Christ when He was still alive, why did he, too, face death for his belief in Jesus later? That seems a bit odd to me, especially since Peter would have known if the resurrection story were a myth. Peter was also swept up in emperor Nero’s persecutions around the same time as Paul in Rome, ultimately dying a martyr’s death. 

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell is researcher and content creator for Embrace the Truth.

References

1 Gerd Lüdemann with Alf Özen, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 80. 

2 Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 114.

3 Quoted in Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 60. Source: Interview by Peter Jennings in Peter Jennings Reporting, “The Search for Jesus,” aired June 26, 2000 on American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

4 Fredriksen, 264.

5 To read several of these sources, see Sean McDowell, “Did James, the brother of Jesus, die as a martyr?” Sean McDowell, January 21, 2016, https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/did-james-the-brother-of-jesus-die-as-a-martyr.

1 thought on “Skepticism to Sacrifice: the astonishing journey of James, Paul, & Peter”

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