Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus

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David Mishkin
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , September
     2017.
     270 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532601354.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

David Mishkin states at the outset that his research investigates what Jewish scholars have said about the resurrection of Jesus (8), but his actual purpose is to argue for the historicity of the resurrection. A Messianic Jew, which he discloses in the book’s introduction, Mishkin serves on the faculty of Israel College of the Bible in Netanya, Israel. He explicitly prescinds Messianic Jewish sources, however, in his effort to locate scholars within the traditional Jewish community who accept the resurrection as historical. Since Mishkin argues that the resurrection is the central element of Christian faith (109), he has an interest in finding non-Messianic Jews who believe that this defining event occurred. Whatever his motivation, the result is an interesting catalog of Jewish writings that address this topic.

The book is divided into five chapters, further subdivided into numerical categories by author or topic—for example, [3.5.1.] Atonement (brackets in the original)—reflecting its origin as Mishkin’s doctoral thesis from the University of Pretoria (2015). Chapter 1, the introduction, explains the purpose and goal of the book. Chapter 2 examines previous Jesus research conducted by Jewish scholars, while chapter 3 investigates a number of general issues, ranging from [3.1] New Testament texts to [3.6] dual covenant theology. The heart of the book beats in chapter 4, which covers depictions of the resurrection in historical fiction, Jewish histories, biographies of Jesus, articles, and other sources. Although quite a few Jewish scholars have written on the topic, Mishkin primarily values the work of Pinchas Lapide, Geza Vermes, and Alan F. Segal. In Lapide’s view, the resurrection did occur, calling it “historically certain” (159–60). Mishkin likes the fact that Vermes accepts the historicity of several elements of the Passion narrative, such as the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the radical transformation of an inchoate following into a missionary movement. But he dislikes Vermes’s psychological explanation of the resurrection as a spiritual experience. In a similar fashion, Mishkin presents Segal’s extensive discussions in several works about Jesus’s resurrection and the theme of resurrection in Jewish thought, but he then takes issue with them (169–76).

Throughout the book, Jewish skepticism is lifted up in order to knock it down. Mishkin especially targets experiential rationalizations for the resurrection, since for him the resurrection was a literal, historical event, not to be explained away by the trauma of grief or the psychology of religious experience. He also devotes attention to several Jewish polemicists—for example, Hyam Maccoby and Gerald Sigal. He particularly challenges Michael J. Alter’s 850-page critical inquiry into the resurrection that the educator wrote to respond to Christian apologetics regarding the resurrection of Jesus.

The conclusions presented in chapter 5 confirm the author’s purpose: to provide the building blocks “for a proper discussion of the historicity of the resurrection” (203). Mishkin provides useful summaries of the key positions relating to each topic: crucifixion, burial, the disciples’ belief, the empty tomb (in which discussion the resurrection is covered), and Paul’s radical reversal. He continues by saying “the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus goes beyond the historical details mentioned above” (210). He then concludes with the observation that Jewish scholarship on the resurrection does indeed point to historical evidence that cannot be “explained away easily” (211). 

Mishkin optimistically writes that “the resurrection brings the possibility of faith to the forefront in a way that other theological issues do not” (212). However, a number of Jewish scholars accept the historicity of the resurrection as a miraculous event—on a par with that of Mount Sinai—but do not regard this as a reason to convert to Christianity. Certainly, resurrection is important to Christians; but is it more important than the incarnation, atonement, or Trinity—all dogmas that are strenuously rejected by Jews? Do Christians really privilege 1 Corinthians 15 over John 3:16?

Mishkin dismisses the idea that miracles, like the resurrection, lie beyond the possibility of scientific verification (63). He disdains Paula Fredriksen’s assertion that it is “cheating” if we treat supernatural claims as historical, and rejects Alan F. Segal’s statement that we should believe in allmiracles, if we’re going to accept onemiracle (74). He observes that “science by definition deals with the physical world, but whether or not there is something beyond the physical world is a question that goes beyond the realm of science” (85, n. 270). This is Stephen Jay Gould’s familiar NOMA argument: science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria that represent different areas of inquiry. But this leaves Mishkin in an odd position: upholding scientific skepticism about a non-physical world but nevertheless alleging the possibility of scientificverification of the resurrection.

There are numerous small errors in the book—from misspellings to misattribution in footnotes and the citing of outdated sources—and others of greater import: for example, Mishkin misstates Vermes’s view on Jesus, saying that Vermes considered him a tsaddik(as spelled in the book), when in reality Vermes saw him as a “Galilean Hasid” (Jesus the Jew, 1973, 83). 

Mishkin himself concludes that “the definitive Jewish work on the resurrection has yet to be written” (211). Having read Mishkin’s attempt, I whole-heartedly concur.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Moore is Emerita Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Mishkin teaches at Israel College of the Bible in Jerusalem. His previous book is Rabbi and Redeemer: Discovering Yeshua in the Gospel of John.

Keywords: 

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