Et Resurrexit: Initial Implications Part 1
Within Second Temple Judaism you find the common hope for a future general resurrection of the dead. This belief was held by most Jews with the exception of the Sadduccean sect (whose ambitions were more political and this worldly). Though there was disagreement among the Jews as to specifics concerning the resurrection (would all be resurrected, or only the righteous? would each and every individual ethnic Jew be raised to everlasting life, or only those who obeyed the covenant? Will the Gentiles partake in the resurrection? Will there be a two stage resurrection? etc) of the dead, it was unanimously agreed that the event would take place at the "end" of the present age.
All the more striking then that the primitive believers would have begun to proclaim that the resurrection had happened to their leader who had just been condemned and crucified as a criminal. What then would it have meant initially to say that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? It would have meant that the general resurrection of the dead had begun. If one man had been raised from the dead, then it was certainly about to occur for everyone else.
There are several indiciations of this in the New Testament that point to this initial belief. First, is Paul's description of the Risen Jesus as "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 15:20). The first fruits were considered the best or main part of the crop in the OT. Dunn explains the significance of referring to Jesus' resurrection in this manner:
"The metaphor of first fruits dentoes the beginning of the harvest, more or less the first swing of the sickle. No interval is envisaged between the first fruits and the rest of the harvest. With the first fruits dedicated the harvest proceeds. The application of this metaphor to the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit expresses the belief that with these events the eschatological harvest has begun; the resurrection of the dead has started..." (Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p 159.)
Jesus' resurrection by Paul was understood as the beginning of the harvest. And as Dunn points out, there was not understood to be an interval between the time of the first fruits and the subsequent harvest. Thus Paul's metaphor of the "first fruits" is best understood with the belief that Jesus' resurrection was thought to be part of the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead.
Secondly, the pre-Pauline formula embeded in Romans 1:1-4 when speaking of Jesus' resurrection says ex anastaseos nekron which literally translated is "from resurrection of the dead (ones)" instead of "his resurrection from the dead" which is how some scholars translate this phrase (e.g. Fitzmyer and Cranfield). But this is not what the Greek denotes and so I am inclined to agree with Kasemann, Dunn, Bultmann and others who translate the phrase literally. As Kasemann says this "hymnic tradition does not isolate Christ's resurrection, but views it in its cosmic function as the beginning of general resurrection" (p. 12). Thus in an early pre-Pauline formula we witness the same initial belief, namely, that Christ's resurrection from the dead means the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead and so the beginning of the end.
Finally, there is the strange account of the resurrection of some hoi hagioi (the holy ones) unique only to Matthew's gospel. The passage reads as follows:
"the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Mt. 27:51b-53)
This passage has puzzled scholars for decades. But the best explanation for it is that it expresses that same initial belief that Jesus' resurrection was the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead. Therefore, Matthew (or a pre-Matthean tradition) added this account to the Passion narrative in order to emphasize this point. Moreover, Dale Allison in his book The End of the Ages Has Come has convincingly shown the obvious literary parallels this passage has with Zech. 14:4-5 (LXX version) which was read as a prophecy of the general resurrection of the dead (p. 44). Allison concludes concerning this passage:
"The pre-Matthean and indeed primitive character of Matt. 27:51b-53 is suggested by the following consideration: the account falls in with what we otherwise know of primitve Christian eschatology. As the church moved away from its beginnings, Jesus' resurrection came to be viewed as an isolated event in history...in the earliest period his resurrection was more closely joined to thought of the general resurrection." (ibid)