Part of the standard cumulative case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth involves mention of a common yet curious feature of parallel messianic movements a few hundred years surrounding Jesus of Nazareth in either direction (before or after his public ministry) which is missing from the movement surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. That is that almost unanimously these messianic movements ended with the death of their leader, and where they didn’t, they quickly turned to a relative (a close brother, say) to continue the mission and to become the Messiah by continuing the hopelessly hopeful redemptive ministry which that figure was intended and expected to carry out.
The fact that this did not happen to James, who was at the center of the Jerusalem Church, and whom Josephus describes as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” is itself evidence not only of a historical Jesus, but also of a historical resurrection. First, if the historical Jesus of Nazareth had died in his public ministry, his Jewish followers would have known that they had either to give up their hopes that he would inaugurate the Messianic era, or else they had to find somebody else among that person’s relatives to continue the ministry. The reason it would have to have been that same would-be messiah’s family is because of the Jewish stress on Davidic lineage, and to choose another from another lineage (even if indeed it also had been Davidic) would simply be to start a wholly new movement, predicated on a wholly new hope. For instance, we know that none of the more fantastical Gospels or other forms of religious literature which sprung up among the earliest christian groups ever evidence even a tendency to identify James as the Messiah who succeeded the pitiable Carpenter. The Proto-evangelion of James doesn’t leave trace of it, and the Ebionites and other similar groups provide no vestige of ever even having had the thought in their wildest dreams that James could be the Messiah.
It is widely agreed in the world of scholarship that Jewish eschatological categories and expectations included nothing by way of a dying and rising Messiah. Yes, it may be true that 11Q13 from the Dead Sea Scrolls quotes Daniel 9:26 as a Messianic text – but it doesn’t offer any clear interpretation of that verse, and instead moves on to other more important verses which help carry the Jubilee theme of that Scroll. Other suggestions are equally weak and dismissed by scholarship – there is no genuine evidence that first century Palestinian Jews could would have had precedence, in the religious environment of the day, for the claims which some Jews made about Jesus of Nazareth rising from the dead.
Moreover, if Jesus had not existed at all it is very difficult to see how the very strange and early movements which sprang up as a response to this figure and his fascinating and challenging ministry could have taken the shapes they did. It seems to me very evident that all the various shapes that scholars talk about when identifying various forms of early Christianities are essentially responses, positive or negative, to some ground-breaking historical event which overturned previous categories and razed ancient worldviews to the ground. As N.T. Wright has pointed out, when one considers whether to accept the resurrection, one is not choosing whether to accept an ancient worldview in place of a modern enlightenment one – the ancient worldview had just as much trouble with the resurrection as the modern one does – but instead one is brought forcefully to choose between a Judeo-Christian worldview and a modern one.
Of course, a Catholic might be tempted to reason from this fact to the fairly well established fact that James was not literally the brother of Jesus, but rather a closely related cousin of his. However, this itself wouldn’t help very much, since these messianic movements often did take proximate relatives if their lineage was thought to be equally plausibly Davidic (at least, as far as I am aware). So what we are left with, it seems, is a powerful argument for something unexpected about the ending of the Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth which caused a breach of all theological and eschatological categories in the Jewish mind of the earliest Apostles and Disciples. This, as a fuller argument would aim to demonstrate, was precisely Jesus’ leaving an empty tomb behind him, and greeting his friends, and leaving them transformed and speechless, hardly capable of not telling everyone, and hardly able to find the words in which to do so.