FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Very First Easter

with Paul Maier | March 31, 2006
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Today on the broadcast, biblical historian and novelist, Paul Maier, examines the first resurrection.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Today on the broadcast, biblical historian and novelist, Paul Maier, examines the first resurrection.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Biblical historian and novelist, Paul Maier, examines the first resurrection.

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The Very First Easter

With Paul Maier
March 31, 2006
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Paul: If these enormously important events did happen, shouldn't there be fallout somewhere in the secular sources?  Shouldn't there be other evidence?  And that's when I uncovered a pile of evidence from the ancient world sometimes involving the very episodes that you find in the New Testament, sometimes involving the same people and personalities and locations in totally secular sources.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, March 31st.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll talk today about the very first Easter and how you can share that story with your children.  Stay tuned.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Friday edition.  You know, over the last more than a decade now, there have been tens of thousands of families who, every year at Eastertime, get out their set of Resurrection Eggs, a dozen plastic eggs that tell the story of Jesus's last days on earth in chronological order.  They've used that tool to share that story with children and to remind themselves of all that took place from the triumphal entry until the empty tomb.  And today we wanted to take a fresh look at that story and have our listeners join us with that, and we've got a college history professor who is here with us to help us take a good historical look at Jesus's death, His burial, and His resurrection.

Dennis: Well, I want to tell you, you're in for a real treat as a listener today.  Dr. Paul Maier joins us on the broadcast.  Paul, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Paul: Great to be back, Dennis, Bob.

Dennis: You know, Paul was mentioning, Bob, before you came in the studio just a few moments ago, he said, "I didn't realize that FamilyLife Today was heard by so many listeners."  And I said, "Yeah, it caused some problems there at the school where you teach, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan."  I warned them in the broadcast, I said you better tell the heads of that school to start building an additional history department, because we're going to send a bunch of students your way after they find out who is teaching there and the gifts that this man possesses.  And you know what he said?  He said they built 10 new buildings there, Bob, because of our broadcast – just to house the students that are attending.

Bob: All I know is that the lines for early registration were backed up down the sidewalk, all of them wanting into Paul Maier's history classes.

Dennis: He is the professor of ancient history and the campus chaplain to the students at Western Michigan University, and there is nothing ancient about Paul.  He is a relevant teacher.  In fact, I told him just a few moments ago, I wish I'd had him as a teacher – I might have majored in history.  I mean …

Bob: You might have passed history.


Dennis: How did you know that?  I didn't know you knew that.  He has written a book, though, that's going to, I think, really encourage you today and give you a tool to impact your children and your legacy as grandchildren.  It's called "The Very First Easter," and, Paul, you've written several books.  In fact, you wrote one about Christmas that won the Gold Medallion back in the summer of 1999.  How is this book different from other books, as you study the subject of Easter?

Paul: So many Easter books, Dennis, concentrate on rabbits, chocolate rabbits, jelly beans, things like that, which are symbols of spring and nature coming back to life and this sort of thing, and it's really a shame that the central reason for Easter, even with such a pagan name.  Easter itself is not in the Bible, obviously.  It's the old name for the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Ostara.  And so I wanted to get back to the original focus – what happened during that famous Holy Week, and, of course, the book covers not just the Easter event itself, but the days from Palm Sunday on that lead up to the tremendous triumph over death.

Bob: You mentioned the tie to paganism – you're aware there are some who believe that even the use of the word "Easter" is something that we should shy away from as Christians – that we ought to call it "Resurrection Sunday," and that we ought to divest ourselves of any of the pagan trappings of Easter.  What are your thoughts about that?

Paul: Well, I'm not a purist in that sense.  I think Easter, despite its origin, has a very, very religious connotation from childhood on to celebrate the Easter event.  And so what we've done is loaded into that pagan title all kinds of religious dimensions, which I think are very appropriate.  So I think it's being a little bit too stringent to say we shouldn't us the term "Easter" anymore.

Dennis: You've written this book for young children – exactly what age span would benefit from this book?

Paul: Generally, elementary age, four or five to 12 is the group we're trying to get to, because they're so very impressionable at that age, and I think it was very important to get a capsulized version of what happened during that week that changed the world for the kiddos at that point – almost an impossible task within 34 pages or so to summarize this enormously important event in all of our lives.

Bob: When you wrote "The Very First Christmas," one of your objectives for that was to de-mythologize Christmas.  We have a lot of preconceptions about Christmas that really aren't rooted in history or in what the Bible teaches.  Is Easter the same?

Paul: Well, I don't intentionally try to change the accepted facts of history, no, never.  What we want to do when we get back to the facts of history, the facts of the past, is to show that very often our interpretations of these may have been wrong.

 For example, I'll give you a famous one – how could people on Palm Sunday, who were crying "Hosanna" to the son of David, yell "Crucify" on Good Friday?  Now, back in Sunday school when I asked my teacher that, she said, "Well, people changed their minds."  Well, okay, it satisfied me for a time, then I went to theological seminary later on and asked the same question, and the professor looks out into the woods, and he says, "Well, people changed their minds."  We hadn't changed the interpretation.  And I really – I'm convinced the Jesus, during Holy Week, was actually gaining in popularity, not losing popularity because of, first of all, de-commercializing the temple on Monday and, of course, that's going to win the favor of all the Passover pilgrims.  The shopkeepers and the bankers don't like that too much, but …

Dennis: They saw the hypocrisy of what was taking place.

Paul: Exactly, exactly, and then on Tuesday and Wednesday we have what we call the "press conferences of Jesus of Nazareth," you know, when the press sets upon Him, in this case, scribes, Pharisees, His opponents, and He answers all these wild questions they throw at him beautifully.  So there, instead of discrediting Jesus, He's gaining more and more favor.  And then He's got one chance to blow it, that's Thursday.  But it's a quiet day, He doesn't go down to Jerusalem that day, He stays in Bethany.  And so when does He lose His popularity?  The answer is it's probably not the same group of people.  And I think, as Christians, we often overlook the people who stayed loyal to Jesus from Sunday through Friday.

 The Passover pilgrims had no reason to turn against Him, and I can prove that, I think, by the most overlooked verse in the Bible, Luke 23:27.  Jesus, dragging the cross to Calvary, and a great multitude of Jewish men and women were weeping, as Jesus dragged that cross.  And I think the Christian church has forgotten about the weeping men and women who never turned against Him.

Bob: Let's go back to the first of the week on Palm Sunday – where do we get that concept of Palm Sunday?

Paul: Because of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the crowds by the sidelines are waving branches of trees, as a matter of fact, it doesn't say palms, isn't that interesting?  They assume it's palms, though, because there are so many palm trees around there.  But it was a very public announcement by Jesus; that His great time had come.  He didn't slip into Jerusalem as He might have, unobtrusively among the other 250,000 pilgrims.  He came publicly.  This is a demonstration. 

 Not that He wanted the adulation and praise, but it was His way of saying, "Now we're going to fulfill God's plan of salvation, and everybody better realize it."

Dennis: You know, the Passover meal is always highlighted as you talk about the Passion Week and Christ leading that.  What are our major misconceptions about the Passover meal, and what's the truth about it?

Paul: Well, I suppose the most major misconception is that they all sat on one side of a very long banquet table …

Dennis: And posed for the picture.

Bob: Exactly.

Paul: Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, so it probably would have looked somewhat different against that background.  Another, I think, is that we have only the 12 there – or 13.  There may have been others as well, perhaps some women that aren't mentioned.

Dennis: Why do you say that?

Paul: Certainly the servants – well, because it would be typical for Jewish families to celebrate on occasions like that.  This is a very familial-centered celebration, and when the youngest child is involved, why is this night different from all other nights and so on.  I'm not trying to say it was a big delegation; we don't know.  There may have been only 12 or 13.

Dennis: Did they have a table, Paul?  How did they recline at that table?

Paul: They didn't recline as much as the Romans did.  They would certainly have had that.  They would have had their dinner of bitter herbs and roast lamb, of course, in commemoration of the great Passover escape from Egypt, and this was an annual celebration.  It's the reason I've always said God loves anniversaries, He really does, because it gives His people with the bad memories a chance to stop in their tracks and turn around and realize where they've come from – the heritage – one of the reasons I went into history, because you don't really fully appreciate the present until you understand the past.

Dennis: We go from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane, and you pointed out something in your book here that I thought was fascinating – when the disciples went to sleep.  I mean, they didn't hang in there all night.  They still hadn't caught the picture of how important this was.

 What would you say to a young child if they asked you, "Grandpa, why did the disciples go to sleep at such an important moment in Jesus's life?"

Paul: Exactly what I have Christopher asking, you know, "I would have stayed awake if I'd been there."  Well, you have to remember the day was designed differently in those days.  Everybody was up with light, and they went to bed shortly after dusk.  There was no artificial illumination, and so this was 10:00 at night …

Dennis: Well, now, they did have little lamps.

Paul: They had lamps, but you're not going to be able to do much with a lamp other than try to find your way in the darkness, if you have to be out in the darkness.  Now, remember, they're up before dawn, and they're in bed shortly after dusk.  So 10 p.m. by our clock would have been like 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. for them.  So according to their natural sleep habits, this would have been very late.

 Jesus is off by Himself praying, they're waiting in a darkened garden, it's 2:30, 3:00 a.m. by our time, they're going to fall asleep.

Bob: Jesus was probably awake the whole night because He went from the garden straight to a trial with – he was taken to Pilate first then to Herod then back to Pilate, is that how …

Paul: No, the order was probably first to Annis, the former chief priest, then to Caiaphas – these were night hearings, not a formal trial simply because you could not hold a capital case at night.  So these were two prior hearings in which they decided on the death penalty, but it couldn't be ratified until the next morning.

Dennis: How did they pull that off?  That had to be kind of a rigged deal to pull that off in the middle of the night, didn't it?

Paul: It certainly was rigged, I think there is very little question about it.  They'd been wondering how to get Jesus this whole week, especially after the demonstration on Sunday.  This had regal implications; this was a political insurrection that could be developing.  That would bring on the Romans who would destroy the city and the temple – that's what they're worried about.  And so how are they going to get Jesus?  Their one attempt to trap Him in His talk was boomeranged negatively on them.  It didn't work.  So now they have an informer.  So when they sent Judas out, and when he came back with his report, to be sure, they had sent out an e-mail to all members of the senate, so to speak, to show up quickly.

Dennis: Really?  How did Judas know where Jesus was?  Do you have any idea on that?

Paul: It was typical for them to gather at that spot at the base of the Mount of Olives where there was this famous oil press grove – that's what "Gethsemane" means.  They were always there.

Bob: Paul, the heart of the Easter message comes on Sunday when the tomb is found empty, and throughout history there have been lots of people who have tried to explain away the Resurrection.  There have been swoon theories, stolen body theories – is there any legitimacy to any of those attempted explanations?

Paul: The only naturalistic explanation that I think would have cut any ice in the ancient world would have been the stolen body theory, because if it were the wrong tomb theory, my goodness, they would have simply then gone to the right tomb.  Swooning and the "Jesus never died" idea – that is going to have no converting power whatever when this decrepit person comes out, just getting over his terrible injuries – that's going to have no converting power whatever.  The stolen body theory would be very appropriate today, I think, if you had the mission impossible squad there, you know, and so forth.  They could have spirited – the old TV show – they could have gotten away with the body.  But the problem is, who plays Peter Graves?  It's not Simon Peter, obviously.  The disciples do not have the motive for doing this.

Dennis: Well, they weren't faithful before He died.

Paul: Exactly.

Dennis: Why would they have been faithful after He died and then, Paul, why would they die for a lie?  If you start sawing me in half, boiling me in a pot of oil, I'd say, "Hey, guys" …

Bob: "I was just making that whole thing up."

Paul: Yeah, exactly.

Dennis: Let me tell you where the body is.

Paul: The same illustration I use, and even before that, just for the sake of the discussion, give the Jesus seminar and others who oppose the New Testament account their moment.  Here is the naturalistic explanation of how it all began.  Jesus died on Friday, couldn't possibly come back to life on Sunday and, therefore, some weeks after the first Easter, they're up in Galilee, and Peter gathers the disciples together, and he says, "Well, fellas, we kind of blew it, you know, what do you want to do?  Go back to fishing?  Hey, I got an idea, you know, follow these plans and someday they'll name churches after us."


 And so they get this big gig going, see, and where it would have ended would have been in a Roman arena. 

Bob: That's right.

Paul: Peter was about to be hoisted on the cross, and he blows his whistle, says, "Okay, time out, that's it."

Bob: "Game's over."

Paul: It was a [unintelligible] while it lasted, "Hey, let's plea bargain."

Dennis: Yeah, right.

Paul: "I'll tell you how we did it, you know, if I get off with my life."  Myths do not make martyrs.

Dennis: Right, and cowards don't become martyrs, either.

Paul: No, no, no. 

Dennis: I mean, who did Peter deny Christ in front of only a few days earlier – a servant girl, a slave girl.  And yet later on we find him proclaiming Christ in front of thousands, calling them to repent and believe in the Resurrected Savior.

Paul: The personality transformation of the apostles remains almost a categorical, airtight proof for what happened.

Dennis: Let me ask you a question as a historian.  There are listeners right now who struggle with their own doubts.  In fact, some of them have heard me use the quote by the late Tom Skinner.  I'm going to give it right now, because it's going to have to do with the question I'm going to give you in a second. 

Tom Skinner said this, he said, "I spent a long time trying to come to grips with my doubts when suddenly I realized I'd better come to grips with what I believe.  I have since moved from the agony of questions that I cannot answer to the reality of answers that I cannot escape, and it's a great relief."

Now, Paul, you are a human being, you're not just a history professor.  You've undoubtedly had doubts about the Christian message; you've wondered if God is there; you've wondered if Jesus really came and did what He said He did at points in your humanity, but as an Ancient History professor, one who has studied for, what, 40 years?

Paul: True.

Dennis: Forty years – how certain are you of this historical fact of the Resurrection.

Paul: Fascinating question, Dennis.  I really stake my professional life somewhat in answer to this question, because I was so intrigued as to whether or not there were ways of checking up on the scriptural account, because I went through my doubt phase also, and that's the reason I went back into ancient history.  As I get older, of course, the students are changing the name.  I'm no longer professor of ancient history but ancient professor of history.  It works in any case.


 That's the reason I went into it.  I wanted to check out the scriptural record in its context in the first century.  Were there – if these enormously important events did happen, shouldn't there be fallout somewhere on the secular sources?  Shouldn't there be other evidence?  And that's when I uncovered a pile of evidence from the ancient world, sometimes involving the very episodes that you find in the New Testament, sometimes involving the same people and personalities and locations in totally secular sources.  And I find that there were so many points of tangency, so many bridges to be built, that this has enormous credibility, it really does.  And so, yes, I firmly believe that the traditional version of what happened on Sunday morning after Jesus was crucified on Friday was, indeed, true.  And I have never seen any evidence that really, from the first century, contradicts that.

Dennis: I think I want to come back to this, because the certainty with which Paul speaks is the certainty that every listener needs to sense right now in their relationship with God.  That sunset that declares the glory of God is magnificent, and it's good to have general revelation.  It's good to look in creation and see God's handiwork, His magnificence, but nothing, nothing is as powerful as the empty tomb.  Because if the tomb is not empty, if Jesus is still dead, if He didn't defeat death, you and I are in our sins.  We have no forgiveness, we have no hope of eternal life, and we have no hope of seeing our loved ones beyond the grave. 

All of Christianity rests upon the story of the Resurrection and the reality of Christ being alive and, frankly, that's why it's so important, Bob, that we, as parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, pass on the factual truths of the Resurrection to the next generation of youngsters.  And Paul's book here, "The Very First Easter," does a wonderful job of doing that.

Bob: Yes, it's really a great companion that can be used together with a set of the Resurrection Eggs that we have here at FamilyLife.  You can read through Paul's book, "The Very First Easter," and children can see the pictures in the book, and then you can pull out the Resurrection Eggs and as you open each egg and find a donkey or a crown of thorns or a nail or a stone or any of the other symbols that are found in these eggs, it can help children understand the story in a different way.  And by the time you're done reading the book and going through the Resurrection Eggs, you'd be amazed at how a three-year-old or a four-year-old or a five-year-old can remember the story – how a 10, 11, and 12-year-old can get it, too. 

 And, of course, we've got these resources in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  You can go to our website at and click where it says "Go."  There's a red "Go" button in the middle of the screen.  You click on that, and it will take you to a page where you can find out more about Paul's book, "The Very First Easter," and the Resurrection Eggs.  By the way, these resources are also available in many Christian bookstores all across the country.  I know Family Christian Stores has both the Resurrection Eggs and the book, "The Very First Easter," and if that's more convenient for you to get it from your local Christian bookstore, you can certainly do that.

 Those of you who order both the book and the eggs through our website at, we're going to send along to you as well the Resurrection Eggs activity book that gives you lots of ideas for how you can use this tool in a variety of settings with your children, with other children, great ideas for crafts and games and activities.  We'll send that at no additional cost when you order Paul Maier's book, "The Very First Easter," and a set of Resurrection Eggs from us here at FamilyLife Today.

 Again, go online at for more information or call 1-800-FLTODAY.  That's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we can have someone on our team let you know how you can get these resources sent directly to you.

 Then, of course, with Easter coming up, I know there are many families who, every year, watch the Jesus movie as a family tradition around the Easter season.  It has just recently been digitally remastered on DVD and along with the movie, they've included a separate production called "The Story of Jesus for Children."  It's for younger children, and it tells the story of Jesus through the eyes of children of His day.  The two movies are available on a single DVD, and because of DVD technology, there are also multiple languages available on this single DVD.  I know there is a Spanish track and a German track and an Arabic track and Korean and Vietnamese and between now and Easter, we want to say thank you to any of you who would support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount by sending you a copy of this DVD for your family to use.  You can pass it on as a gift to another family you know, if you'd like.  This is our way of saying thank you for helping to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today as we seek to provide practical biblical help for marriages and for families each day here on our program. 

 You can request this DVD when you make a donation online.  As you fill out the form, you'll find a keycode box, and you just type the word "Jesus" in there, and we'll know to send you the DVD or call 1-800-FLTODAY and just mention, as you make your donation over the phone, that you'd like a copy of the Jesus DVD, and we'll have that sent to you as well.  Again, it's our way of saying thank you for partnering with us financially here at FamilyLife Today.

 Well, I hope you have a great weekend.  I hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when we're going to take a hard look at a subject that is difficult for many marriages, many families, and that is the issue of depression.  Ed Welch and Leslie Vernick are going to join us to have a discussion about dealing with depression, and I hope you can be with us for that.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  Have a great weekend, and we'll see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.

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