04/01/2013 01:12 am ET Updated May 31, 2013

Resurrection As Metaphor? What the Early Christians Meant When They Said, "Jesus is Lord"

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the Christian concept of the resurrection. Does it matter, I asked, if Jesus' resurrection is interpreted metaphorically? My answer was that it matters a great deal, since "a Jesus whose physical body remains in the grave gives me no hope for a physically broken world."

A friend emailed me that I was reading the Gospels wrong, and that the resurrection was best interpreted metaphorically. To relegate the resurrection to a purely physical phenomenon was to read the Easter narrative in the most primitive way, at its lowest common denominator. The Resurrection narratives are given to each of us to interpret and enjoy in our own way -- literally or metaphorically.

The Easter stories, he reminded me, belong to all of us.

And yet before they belonged to us, they belonged to other people -- people who lived and thought and wrote within the first century. It seems to me, then, that if we are to truly understand what the gospel writers are trying to say, we need to contextualize them not first within our own world, but within theirs.

And it must be understood from the outset that their context is fundamentally Jewish.

At the heart of Judaism is a pattern of exile and return, which is summed up in the following passage from Deuteronomy:

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

To commemorate their ancestors' miraculous deliverance from Egyptian slavery, Jews observe Pesach, or Passover. There are many, many layers to the story of the Exodus, but one key phrase that is often repeated in the text concerns God's motive for freeing his people: "And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord." In other words, Israel's God is saying, "I will deliver you, Israel, and the world will know that I am Lord, and Pharaoh is not."

Today, there are many branches of Judaism that see this pattern of exile and return as metaphorical; but for ancient Jews, their hope was that God would deliver Israel from their foreign rulers and create a new Heaven and Earth. Just as God sent Moses to physically deliver their ancestors from Pharaoh, Second Temple Jews prayed that God would send them another prophet like Moses to inaugurate God's kingdom.

But before God could step in as king, he'd first have to overthrow those pagan rulers still enjoying their power. In the first century, the pagan ruling over Israel was Caesar, the divine emperor of Rome. Caesar ruled with the threat of death, which was his greatest and last weapon. And even though Rome was in a relatively peaceful phase at this point, no dissension would be tolerated. Disloyalty meant death -- and Rome had a reputation for killing.

If a messiah were going to overcome Rome, he'd better be able to overcome the physical threat of death -- which is why many Jews were looking for a Messiah to lead them to military victory. It's in this context that various would-be messiahs showed up claiming to be the one to deliver Israel from the hand of her enemies. As was sadly the case, these claimants were found and murdered -- which proved that they were not what they claimed to be. If Rome killed you, then you obviously weren't the Messiah. Crucifixion meant game over for you and your movement.

But with Jesus, the story is different. Jesus is seen as a threat to the political establishment, and is murdered in the attempt to preempt any uprising in his name. And yet it's only after Jesus' murder that his followers come together and begin announcing that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah they'd been awaiting.

"Jesus is Lord," the disciples flippantly announce, and the overtones aren't lost on anyone who's listening. If Jesus is Lord, then that means Caesar isn't. Now normally Rome would just squash this kind of rebellion by death; but in the case of Jesus, death -- both the threat and the physical state of non-existence -- have been overturned by the Resurrection.

A bodily Resurrection.

And it must be bodily because, after all, a dead Messiah -- no matter how spiritually alive he may be -- is still dead. He's especially dead if he's being experienced as a ghost. In the ancient Mediterranean world, a vision of a recently deceased loved one confirmed that he was dead... not that he was alive.

It's difficult to imagine the disciples saying, "God has warmed our hearts and caused us to experience the metaphorical presence of Jesus, and therefore we know that he's the Messiah!" Unless Jesus' postmortem appearances were experienced in a physical way, his disciples would have assumed that Rome had won again, and that Jesus, regardless of what they hoped, couldn't have been Lord.

For this reason, scholars of all persuasions are forced to seriously consider what happened between the event of Jesus' crucifixion and the event of his proclamation as Lord. As it turns out, the early Christians answer this question in their Easter stories. What convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah was that, unlike other people murdered by Rome, he didn't stay dead.

Now did Jesus bodily rise from the dead? That's not my question here. I'm simply asking, "Did the early Christians believe that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead?" And when we read the Easter stories within their first century political and religious contexts, I think the answer is emphatically, "Yes!"

At the heart of the Easter story is the belief that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. This is always, in the first place, a political claim -- and a physical one.