Paul at the Aeropagus in Athens, Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734
Historical Fact III - The Conversion of the Gentiles
The third historical fact that demands an explanation is the sudden rise of Christianity in the mid-first century. Why did it come into existence? What caused this movement to begin? Some of the most skeptical scholars recognize that Christianity arose because the earliest disciples sincerely believed that God raised Jesus from the dead.
The third historical fact, then, is the sudden and surprising birth of Christianity and its subsequent spread to the ends of the earth. To explain this third fact, we need to see the Resurrection through the New Testament writings, as the fulfillment of Jewish scripture.
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead" (Luke 24:45).
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead (John 20:8-9).
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
The writers of the New Testament in giving proof for Jesus' resurrection continually point to it as the fulfillment of scripture. What scripture is referred to here? There is not an explicit prophecy of the resurrection of the Messiah on the third day. To answer this question, we must go back to the teaching of Jesus himself.
In the Gospels, there is one passage from Jewish scripture that Jesus cites as a direct prophecy of his resurrection on the third day: the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12:38-41; Luke 11:29-32).
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Mattew 12:38–41).
We all know this passage well. I don't know about you but when I hear it read I immediately think of children's bibles and movies that show Jonah camping out in the belly of the whale for three days. The Book of Jonah tells a different story. Three points stand out in the story. First, Jonah cried from "the belly of Sheol" and "the Pit," both of these, are standard Old Testament terms for the realm of the dead. Therefore, Jonah died in the belly of the whale. Second, Jonah says that his "soul" fainted within him, which is another way of saying that he died. Therefore, when the fish vomits Jonah onto the land, it is vomiting up a corpse. Third, God's first words to Jonah are "arise" (Hebrew qum). Qum is the same Semitic term Jesus uses when he raises Jarius' daughter from the dead (Talitha cumi). Therefore, the story of Jonah is the story of his death and resurrection.
The climax of the story of Jonah is not his resurrection, but the subsequent and even more miraculous repentance of the Gentile city of Ninevah. "And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them" (Jonah 3:5). To understand how miraculous this was we need to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of a first-century Jewish reader, who would have known that Ninevah was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, one of Israel's fiercest pagan enemies (see 2 Kings 15-17; Tobit 13). Recognizing this fact, it becomes apparent that the miracle of Jonah is the repentance or even the conversion of the Gentiles.
The Pharisees and scribes demand a "sign" from Jesus that is a miracle to prove that he is who he is claiming to be. In response, Jesus declares that the only "sign" he will give to this generation is the sign of Jonah. Jesus is referring to both the miraculous rescue of Jonah from death and the repentance of the Gentiles. The same is true of the sign of the Son of Man. The "sign of Jonah" is both the Resurrection of the Son of Man on the third day and the repentance of the Gentiles that will follow his resurrection.
What is Jesus saying about his resurrection? Jesus is telling us that the reason to believe in him is twofold: his resurrection from the dead and the inexplicable conversion of the pagan nations - the Gentiles. The most powerful reason for believing in the Resurrection is that many Gentile nations, cities, even empires would convert, cast away their idols, and turn to the God of Israel. I think we take this miracle for granted nowadays. We see this reason given by numerous Church Fathers. They didn't point to the empty tomb or the resurrection appearances, but instead to the Gentile nations around them. They looked to the pagan world around them that was crumbling to the ground as the Gentiles turned from the worship of idols, gods, and goddesses, and inexplicably repented, turned, and began to worship the God of the Jews.
They are still converting today. The Church is still spreading throughout the world, two thousand years later. I suppose you could say this is all a coincidence. I guess you could claim the many passages of the Old Testament prophesying that one day the pagan nations would worship the God of Israel just happened to take place after the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus (see Isaiah 2:13; 25:6-8; 66:18-21; Jeremiah 3:15-18; Micah 4:1-2; Zechariah 8:20-23). I presume you could think that Jesus' crucifixion, that the tomb inexplicably was found empty, and hundreds of Jesus' disciples began to claim to have seen him alive again, bodily, is all coincidental. I prefer the simpler explanation, Jesus was right. The Son of Man would die, the tomb would be empty, because he rose on the third day. The tomb is still empty. The Gentiles continue to convert. Jesus' sign can be seen by anyone with eyes to see.
See Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, 2016.
I am a Catholic priest writing about Catholic things.