Paul and Orestes before the Areopagus: the resurrection

Continuing from my previous post . . . .


Resurrection ἀνάστασιςin both Acts and Eumenides

A number of scholars have remarked upon the reference to the resurrection in Eumenides by Aeschylus when commenting on the reference to the resurrection in connection with Paul’s appearance in the Areopagus before the Athenians.

F. F. Bruce, in The Book of Acts, p. 343, when commenting on the scoffing Paul received after mentioning the resurrection, recalled the scene in Aeschylus’ play that likewise mentioned the resurrection in connection with a hero appearing before the Areopagus. Most Athenians, Bruce said, would, on hearing of Paul’s mention of the resurrection, have agreed with the sentiments expressed in the play by

the god Apollo, . . . on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Some of them, therefore, ridiculed a statement which seemed so absurd.

The footnote supplied points to Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 647-8, where the same Greek word, ἀνάστασις, is used in both the play and Acts 17:18, 32.

Similarly Charles H. Talbert in Reading Acts, p. 157, makes note of the same observation:

Scoffing is a typical response to speeches by fringe figures . . . Given the assumptions of Paul’s auditors, scoffing is an entirely appropriate response. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48, relates how, on the occasion of the inauguration of the court of the Areopagus, the god Apollo says, “When the dust hath drained the blood of man, once he is slain, there is no return to life.”

Lynn Kauppi sees more in the link between Aeschylus and Acts than a background pointer to a common belief among Athenians of the day. She suggests that the way “Luke” weaves the allusions into the scene of Acts 17:16-34 gives reason to think that his audience “may have observed an allusion to the Athenian literary tradition.” (The Greek text is from Perseus and the English translation from Kauppi’s manuscript.) (more…)


The Popularity of Resurrection

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Golden plaques representing the resurrection o...
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I’d love to have the time to cite links and sources for each of the following. Maybe I can catch up with doing that in the future. But for now I like at least the idea of a bare list the examples of resurrection belief and hope in the ancient world as discussed by Richard Carrier in Not the Impossible Faith.

This post should be seen as part of a set of other posts I have done in the past:

Popular novels and the gospels

Another empty tomb tale

Resurrection reversal

Dog resurrection

Two Greek historians of the 4th century BC, Theopompus and Eudemus of Rhodes, described the Persian Zoroastrian religious belief that “men will be resurrected and become immortal”. This religion — with its belief in resurrection to physical immortality — was still the dominant religion of the Persian empire throughout the Roman period.

Herodotus records the Thracians believed in a physical resurrection of Zalmoxis. The link is to the Wikipedia article where you can read about the religious cult that grew around this resurrected Zalmoxis, a cult that promised eternal paradise for believers (Carrier cites here the attestation of this in Plato’s Charmides, 156d).

Herodotus also reports the belief in the resurrection of Aristeas of Proconnesus. Again the link is to a Wikipedia quotation from Herodotus.

“Lucian records that the pagan Antigonus had told him: “I know a man who came to life more than twenty days after his burial, having attended the fellow both before his death and after he cam to life.” (Carrier, p.86)

Celsus listed name of those whom many pagans believed to have been resurrected: (more…)


Dog resurrection

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Godfrey @ 12:18 pm
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My previous post cited a first century mockery of the resurrection theme found in Plutarch’s Moralia. The section is from The Cleverness of Animals, 973-974. The full text is online here.

Still, I believe that I should not pass over one example at least of a dog’s learning, of which I myself was a spectator at Rome.

The dog appeared in a pantomime with a dramatic plot and many characters and conformed in its acting at all points with the acts and reactions required by the text.

In particular, they experimented on it with a drug that was really soporific, but supposed in the story to be deadly. The dog took the bread that was supposedly drugged, swallowed it, and a little later appeared to shiver and stagger and nod until it finally sprawled out and lay there like a corpse, letting itself be dragged and hauled about, as the plot of the play prescribed.

But when it recognized from the words and action that the time had come, at first it began to stir slightly, as though recovering from a profound sleep, and lifted its head and looked about.

Then to the amazement of the spectators it got up and proceeded to the right person and fawned on him with joy and pleasure so that everyone, and even Caesar himself (for the aged Vespasian ^ was present in the Theatre of Marcellus), was much moved.

The same text offers a footnote for the date of this pantomime:

^ Vespasian became emperor in a.d. 69 when he was 60 years old and died ten years later, so that this incident can be dated only within the decade.



(and i seem to recall some scholars seriously claiming that the very idea of a bodily resurrection was utterly unthinkable among these ancients)


Resurrection Appearances and Ancient Myths

Revised: added Self-Opening Doors and P.S.

In the following I am not suggesting that the gospel resurrection appearance scenes were directly borrowed from ancient sources. Rather, that when we read of similar scenes in pagan literature we can recognize them as patently mythical. This is Robert M. Price‘s argument (Deconstructing Jesus, p.39), although Charles H. Talbert argues (What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, p. 43) that the late sources for many of the following are known to have been drawing on much earlier (pre-Christian) narratives which, by implication, can be viewed as influencing the gospel authors. Influence does not necessarily mean direct literary borrowing: by definition no-one can evade the narratives of their culture.

On the one hand, his passing from mortal to immortal is attested by the absence of Jesus’ physical remains . . . reinforced by his appearances to friends and disciples in which further instruction is given . . . and by predictions made during his life . . . . On the other hand, Jesus’ ascent through a cloud is witnessed by the Galileans. . . There is no way a Mediterranean man could have missed this as a portrayal of Jesus in the mythology of the immortals (i.e. Asclepius, Hercules, Dionysus, and the Dioscuri, etc.) (What is a Gospel? p.41)

Jonathan Z. Smith‘s modern analyses of ancient myths notwithstanding, Justin Martyr in the second century (First Apology, ch.21) acknowledged that contemporary audiences could not avoid observing similarities between the gospel narratives and pagan tales of the likes of Asclepius and Heracles.

In some circles it is not politically correct to link gospel material with pagan memes. Some scholars (e.g. Ben Witherington) even link such arguments to late-nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-semitism. Ironically, there is another argument that links the current scholarly quest to explore the Jewishness of Jesus with a rebound against post-World War 2 anti-semitism and, in particular, with the West’s love affair with Israel since 1967 (e.g. James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror). So with cannon to the right, cannon to the left, I’ll charge into the valley . . .

Leaving Earth Through Self-Opening Doors

Apollonius of Tyana

The guardians of the shrine arrested him in consequence, and threw him in bonds as a wizard and a robber, accusing him of having thrown to the dogs some charmed morsel. But about midnight he loosened his bonds, and after calling those who had bound him, in order that they might witness the spectacle, he ran to the doors of the temple, which opened wide to receive him; and when he had passed within, they closed afresh, as they had been shut, and there was heard a chorus of maidens singing from within the temple, and their song was this. “Hasten thou from earth, hasten thou to Heaven, hasten.” In other words: “Do thou go upwards from earth.”

From Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 30

Mark 16:3-6

And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here

One scholar (name escapes me at the moment) has noted Mark’s use of the tomb as a metaphor for the Temple in Isaiah 22:16, which would enhance the resonance of this ‘door’ detail between the Apollonius and Jesus story in Mark’s gospel.

(After a night’s sleep I recall that the scholar I had in mind was Karel Hanhart who argued the point on Crosstalk2 some years back. He also attributed the exegesis to other Dutch, Swedish and English scholars. — See also Frank McCoy’s comment below for more details.)

This particular echo of massive doors being miraculously opened to make way for the mortal to enter eternal life is pointed out by Robert Price in Deconstructing Jesus (p. 41). Matthew 28:2-4 changes the sequence so that the door is opened supernaturally to show that the body of Jesus has already left — presumably as spirit. If the story of the empty tomb had been known to the author of 1 Corinthians 15 (Paul, let’s say) he may have kept quiet about it because it indicated a flesh and blood body rose from the dead, while he was arguing that the resurrected body is not flesh and blood. (I think Price makes these points, too, elsewhere.)

Price also notes the way the chorus of maidens in the Apollonius story has a counterpart in the young man at the tomb in Mark’s gospel. Both announce what has become of the one for whom the doors were sealed and opened.

The Missing Body – Evidence of Apotheosis

Empedocles the philosopher

For Heraclides, relating the story about the dead woman, how Empedocles got great glory from sending away a dead woman restored to life, says that he celebrated a sacrifice in the field of Pisianax, and that some of his friends were invited, among whom was Pausanias. And then, after the banquet, they lay down, some going a little way off, and some lying under the trees close by in the field, and some wherever they happened to choose. But Empedocles himself remained in the place where he had been sitting. But when day broke, and they arose, he alone was not found. And when he was sought for, and the servants were examined and said that they did not know, one of them said, that at midnight he had heard a loud voice calling Empedocles; and that then he himself rose up and saw a great light from heaven, but nothing else. And as they were all amazed at what had taken place, Pausanias descended and sent some people to look for him; but afterwards he was commanded not to busy himself about the matter, as he was informed that what had happened was deserving of thankfulness, and that they behoved to sacrifice to Empedocles as to one who had become a God.

From Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers

Heracles (Hercules)

Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself, ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him to put torch to the pyre. And when no one had the courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed. After this, when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

Aristaeus (a son of Apollo and the mortal Cyrenê)

Consequently among the inhabitants of Sicily, as men say, Aristaeus received especial honour as a god, in particular by those who harvested the fruit of the olive-tree. And finally, as the myths relate, he visited Dionysus in Thrace and was initiated into his secret rites, and during his stay in the company of the god he learned from him much useful knowledge. And after dwelling some time in the neighbourhood of Mount Haemus he never was seen again of men, and became the recipient of immortal honours not only among the barbarians of that region but among the Greeks as well.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History


A severe battle took place not far from Lavinium and many were slain on both sides, but when night came on the armies separated; and when the body of Aeneas was nowhere to be seen, some concluded that it had been translated to the gods and others that it had perished in the river beside which the battle was fought. And the Latins built a hero-shrine to him with this inscription: “To the father and god of this place . . .”

From Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities


Others think that it was neither in the temple of Vulcan nor when the senators alone were present that he disappeared, but that he was holding an assembly of the people outside the city near the so called Goat’s Marsh, when suddenly strange and unaccountable disorders with incredible changes filled the air; the light of the sun failed, and night came down upon them, not with peace and quiet, but with awful peals of thunder and furious blasts driving rain from every quarter, during which the multitude dispersed and fled, but the nobles gathered closely together; and when the storm had ceased, and the sun shone out, and the multitude, now gathered together again in the same place as before, anxiously sought for their king, the nobles would not suffer them to inquire into his disappearance nor busy themselves about it, but exhorted them all to honour and revere Romulus, since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king. The multitude, accordingly, believing this and rejoicing in it, went away to worship him with good hopes of his favour; but there were some, it is said, who tested the matter in a bitter and hostile spirit, and confounded the patricians with the accusation of imposing a silly tale upon the people, and of being themselves the murderers of the king.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus


Cleomedes also, who was of gigantic strength and stature, of uncontrolled temper, and like a mad man, is said to have done many deeds of violence, and finally, in a school for boys, he smote with his fist the pillar which supported the roof, broke it in two, and brought down the house. The boys were killed, and Cleomedes, being pursued, took refuge in a great chest, closed the lid down, and held it so fast that many men with their united strength could not pull it up; but when they broke the chest to pieces, the man was not to be found, alive or dead. In their dismay, then, they sent messengers to consult the oracle at Delphi, and the Pythian priestess gave them this answer:—

Last of the heroes he, Cleomedes, Astypalaean.”

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus


Not every good person was turned into a god. Alcmene was turned to a stone, but to Plutarch it was all a lot of rot for the gullible. 

It is said also that the body of Alcmene disappeared, as they were carrying her forth for burial, and a stone was seen lying on the bier instead. In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

In all four gospels the central evidence in common for the resurrection is the missing body of Jesus — the empty tomb. A missing body of a person renowned for a notable life was a well-known piece of evidence that the hero had become immortal and one of the gods.

Matthew 28:5-6

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead . . .

John 20:3-9

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. . . . And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

After Death Appearances


At this pass, then, it is said that one of the patricians, a man of noblest birth, and of the most reputable character, a trusted and intimate friend also of Romulus himself, and one of the colonists from Alba, Julius Proculus by name, went into the forum and solemnly swore by the most sacred emblems before all the people that, as he was travelling on the road, he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, fair and stately to the eye as never before, and arrayed in bright and shining armour. He himself, then, affrighted at the sight, had said: “O King, what possessed thee, or what purpose hadst thou, that thou hast left us patricians a prey to unjust and wicked accusations, and the whole city sorrowing without end at the loss of its father?” Whereupon Romulus had replied: “It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. So farewell, and tell the Romans that if they practise self-restraint, and add to it valour, they will reach the utmost heights of human power. And I will be your propitious deity, Quirinus.” These things seemed to the Romans worthy of belief, from the character of the man who related them, and from the oath which he had taken; moreover, some influence from heaven also, akin to inspiration, laid hold upon their emotions, for no man contradicted Proculus, but all put aside suspicion and calumny and prayed to Quirinus, and honoured him as a god.


For they say that Aristeas died in a fuller’s shop, and that when his friends came to fetch away his body, it had vanished out of sight; and presently certain travellers returning from abroad said they had met Aristeas journeying towards Croton.

Both of the above from Plutarch, Life of Romulus.

Plutarch concludes with some scepticism:

In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

Matthew 28:9

And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

Luke 24:33-35

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.

Appearing Unrecognized to Dejected Followers Returning Home


Compare the following with the Emmaeus Road appearance of Jesus to disciples returning from Jerusalem after thinking their hopes had been dashed.

Sostrata of Pherae was pregnant with worms. When she was absolutely too weak to walk, she was brought into the sanctuary and slept there. When she did not see any clear dream, she went back home again. After that near Cornoi someone seemed to appear to her and her escort, a distinguished-looking man, who inquired about their misfortune; he told them to put down the litter on which they were carrying Sostrata. Then he cut open her stomach and removed a large multitude of worms, two washbasins full. Then he sewed up her stomach, and once he had cured her, Asclepius showed that it was he who had appeared, and ordered her to send votive offerings to Epidaurus

From the shrine of Asclepius in Epidaurus

Luke 24:13-31

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus . . . And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass therein these days? And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. . . . Then he . . . . expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . . And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Materializing as Flesh and Blood, not a Ghost

Apollonius of Tyana

Damis’ grief had just broken out afresh, and he had made some such exclamation as the following: “Shall we ever behold, O ye gods, our noble and good companion?” when Apollonius, who had heard him -for as a matter of fact he was already present in the chamber of the nymphs- answered: “Ye shall see him, nay, ye have already seen him.”

“Alive?” said Demetrius, “For if you are dead, we have anyhow never ceased to lament you.”

Hereupon Apollonius stretched out his hand and said: “Take hold of me, and if I evade you, then I am indeed a ghost come to you from the realm of Persephone, such as the gods of the underworld reveal to those who are dejected with much mourning. But if I resist your touch, then you shall persuade Damis also that I am both alive and that I have not abandoned my body.

They were no longer able to disbelieve, but rose up and threw themselves on his neck and kissed him . . .

From Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius

The disciples of Apollonius were gathered together in a room grieving over what they believed was the death of their teacher, Apollonius. They believed that his trial before emperor Domitian had inevitably resulted in his execution. Apollonius made a miraculous appearance, apparently divinely teleported from the place of trial to where his disciples were

“How then,” said Demetrius, “have you accomplished so long a journey in so small a fraction of the day?”

And Apollonius replied: “Imagine what you will, flying ram or wings of wax excepted, so long as you ascribe it to the intervention of a divine escort.”

and showed them he was not a ghost, but flesh and blood. Like Jesus, he invited them to touch him to prove this.

John 20:19-20

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

Luke 24:36-40

And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.

A Late Appearance to Convince the Lone Doubter

Doubting Thomas had his counterpart in a young disciple of Apollonius

Apollonius of Tyana

For there came to Tyana a youth who did not shrink from acrimonious discussions, and would not accept truth in argument. Now Apollonius had already passed away from among men, but people still wondered at his passing, and no one ventured to dispute that he was immortal. . . . The young man in question, however, would on no account allow the tenet of immortality of the soul, and said: “I myself, gentlemen, have done nothing now for over nine months but pray to Apollonius that he would reveal to me the truth about the soul; but he is so utterly dead that he will not appear to me in response to my entreaties, nor give me any reason to consider him immortal.

Such were the young man’s words on that occasion, but on the fifth day following, after discussing the same subject, he fell asleep where he was talking with them, and of the young men who were studying with him, some were reading books, and others were industriously drawing geometrical figures on the ground, when on a sudden, like one possessed, he leapt up still in a half sleep, streaming with perspiration, and cried out: “I believe thee.”

And, when those who were present asked him what was the matter; “Do you not see,” said he, “Apollonius the sage, how that he is present with us and is listening to our discussion, and is reciting wondrous verses about the soul?”

“But where is he?” the others asked, “For we cannot see him anywhere, although we would rather do so than possess all the blessings of mankind.”

And the youth replied: “It would seem that he is come to converse with myself alone concerning the tenets which I would not believe.

From Philostratus, The Life of Philostratus, 31

It looks quite mythical when told of Apollonius. How could ancients have seen the tale of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas any differently?

John 20:24-28

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Witnesses to Heavenly Ascent

Alexander the Great

Alexander had prayed to Zeus (Alexander Romance, 3:30):

And if it be thy will, receive me too in heaven, as the third mortal.

The other two mortals who had been taken into heaven were Heracles and Dionysus, whose steps Alexander had been following in his conquests into India. These two (angelic divinities) made their appearance at his death in the form of a star and an eagle:

And when Alexander had said this and much more, a mist formed in the air, and a great star appeared, shooting  from heaven to the sea, and together with it an eagle, and the statue in Babylon that they said was of Zeus stirred. The star returned back up to heaven, and the eagle followed it too. And when the star was lost from view in the heavens, immediately Alexander sank into eternal sleep.

From Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Alexander Romance

Augustus Caesar

a certain Numerius Atticus, a senator and ex-praetor, . . . swore that he had seen Augustus ascending to heaven after the manner of which tradition tells concerning Proculus and Romulus.

From Dio Cassius, Roman History

There was even an ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven.

From Suetonius, The Life of Augustus

Luke 24:4

two men stood by them in shining garments

Gospel of Peter, 35-40

But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. . . . and both the young men entered. . . . again they see three males who have come out from the sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one . . .  but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens.

As for the loud voice, compare the moment the philosopher Empedocles was taken from this earth in the previous section.

Luke 20:50-51

And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.

Acts 1:9-10

And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel

Words Exchanged from Jewish Myth

Words to Mary

In Tobit 12:20, after the angel Raphael revealed his identity (after he had been thought a fellow mortal) he said:

for I go up to him that sent me;

Compare John 20:17 and Jesus’ words to Mary:

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father:

Words of Thomas

When Tobit rejoiced in experiencing the presence of Raphael, he said (13:4):

for he is our Lord, and he is the God our Father for ever

Compare John 20:28 when Thomas witnessed the resurrected Jesus:

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God

Indications and Absurdities

To quote from an old article of Charles H. Talbert (JBL, 1975):

So . . . there are indications that some early Christians did think about Christ in terms of the mythology of the immortals. (p.433)

More bluntly, Robert M. Price (Jesus Is Dead, p. 168) writes:

The idea that these stories do not smack of mythology is just palpably absurd. Rather than functioning as an argument on behalf of faith, the claim has by now itself become an article of faith, so drastically does it contradict all manner of evidence.

Is there a worse example of the fallacy of special pleading, the double standard, than to dismiss all these mythical stories from other ancient religions and to claim that in the sole case of the gospels they are all suddenly true? Laughable in the one case, convincing in the other?


There are more links between the gospel resurrection stories and various other myths. The famous example of Pythagoras knowing the exact number of fish being hauled in (Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras) and the Pythagorean number of 153 being the number of fish caught at Jesus’ command is one.

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Cracked argument, rhetorical questions and women witnesses at the tomb

A wisdom-pearl in Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea reminded me of a host of gossamer arguments regularly touted by fundamenatists (not only Christian or religious fundamentalists, either).

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (p. 178)

Rhetorical questions used to paper over cracked arguments – yes, so often.

A popular argument in favour of the resurrection of Jesus goes like this:

A . . . problem for a made-up resurrection account is that the allegedly made up story relies on the presence of women witnesses at its start. In this culture females could not be witnesses. If one were making up this story, why would one create it with women as witnesses? The key role of women in the account suggests the women are there because the women were there at the start, not that the resurrection was made up. (Bock, 2006: p. 150)

N.T. Wright is a little more subtle (?) by embedding his rhetorical question in a barrage of rhetorical assertions.

Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material . . . it will not do to have him, or anyone else . . . making up a would-be apologetic legend about an empty tomb and having women be the ones who find it. The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt: women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses. . . . The debate between Origen and Celsus shows that critics of Christianity could seize on the story of the women in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction? If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being the first a the tomb, they would have done it. That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both. Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy? (Wright, 2003: p. 607)

One might construe Wright’s reference in this context to the debate between Origen and Celsus as a little bit mischievous. Wright is discussing the empty tomb so his citation of Celsus reads as if this ancient sceptic attempted to refute the empty tomb story on the basis of its reliance on women witnesses. But Celsus nowhere critiques the empty tomb story on this basis at all. His critique in relation to the women as witnesses has to do with their claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus:

Speaking next of the statements in the Gospels, that after His resurrection He showed the marks of His punishment, and how His hands had been pierced, he asks, “Who beheld this?” And discrediting the narrative of Mary Magdalene, who is related to have seen Him, he replies, “A half-frantic woman, as you state.” (Contra Celsus, Book II, ch. 59)

Celsus’ critique of the empty tomb story was based on a comparison with pagan claims for the tomb of Jupiter on the isle of Crete (Contra Celsus, Book III, chapter 43).

It is worth comparing the billowing rhetoric of these “arguments” with the facts of the text they claim to be supporting.

Darrell Bock writes (and N.T. Wright strongly implies) that the resurrection account “relies on the presence of women at its start”. If by “resurrection account” he means the canonical narratives, then it is true that each of these speaks of women being the first at the tomb. But if he means the evidence for the resurrection itself, the women play no direct role at all. The women witnesses are – as per the rhetorical assertions – not believed by the men.

In Mark’s gospel, which rightly ends at 16:8, they do not even tell anyone what they had seen.

In Matthew’s gospel there is no account of the women reporting anything to the disciples – a strange oversight if the proof of the resurrection “relied” on their witness. Rather, this gospel informs the reader that the tomb guards reported what had happened to the chief priests, and implies that the chief priests believed the account of the resurrection. Next, the disciples themselves witness the resurrected Jesus. By inference the reader understands that Christianity began as a direct result of this appearance of Jesus to the disciples. The story of the women being the first to witness Jesus serves as little more than a nice message to assure the world that the new religion has a special place for women as well as the men.

Again according to Luke’s gospel, the women are far from necessary for belief in the resurrection. No-one believes the women (Luke 24:11, 25, 37-38). Jesus has to appear in person to convince the disciples and start the church.

Finally in John’s gospel, only one (unnamed) male disciple believes, and he does so only after he sees the empty tomb for himself (John 20:8).

In all gospels the apostolic founders of Christianity believed in the ressurrection because they had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. In all gospels the women were disbelieved or there is no narrative about their informing the male disciples at all.

When I was in Sunday school I learned that the reason Jesus appeared first to women after his resurrection was to offer them some sort of affirmative action or positive discrimination to undo their hitherto subservient place in society.

If the women witnesses were not even believed in the story there can be little basis to the assertion that their witness is central to belief in the resurrection as a fact of history.

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Resurrection: bodily ambiguities (response to Wright 3)

Darn it. I mixed up the numbering of my response to Wright series and left out “3”. So let this one be #3, even if it’s only an indirect response.

The gospels failed to settle the argument

The mere fact that John’s gospel presents Jesus as a palpable body, one that could be felt by Thomas, did not necessarily “prove” to ancient readers that Jesus was physical flesh and blood. I listed some of the different accounts of spirits in my previous (#5 response) post that showed they could in several cases eat and drink, wear clothes, touch and be touched, etc.

In the gospel of Luke the author chose to have Jesus explain to his disciples that a spirit does not have flesh and bones, “as you see that I have”. Yet the Greek word for “have” can also have the sense of “be” or “am”. Accordingly Marcionite Christians read this passage to mean that Jesus was telling his disciples to touch him and see that he really was a spirit body, without physical flesh and bones. Riley (1995) p.65 citing Tertullian, Adv. Marc. 4.43.7

The different meanings of “body”

Yet it is also true that many ancients found the idea absolutely repulsive that very same flesh and blood which one had inhabited before death would be reinhabited after death. Many of us today are probably more sheltered from the reality of death than were many who lived in earlier days, and the ugly reality that this idea suggested probably sprang to mind more naturally than it does for some of us. So how did the early Christians interpret the gospel narratives of Jesus appearing in a recognizable “body“?

Before looking at different Christian views, a look at how pagans among whom they lived used the word:

Virgil used the word “corpora” (the equivalent of the Greek σωμα), what we would take for a corporeal body, to refer to dead souls in the Aeneid VI, 303-308. Describing the people in or entering into Hades (and Latin specialists kindly excuse my schoolboy level attempts at translation):

[Charon] . . . ferruginea subvectat corpora cymba,
matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita
magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaeque puellae
impositique rogis iuvenes ante ora parentum:

[Charon] carries over the bodies in his reddish-dark boat
mothers and men, deceased (yet) living bodies
great hearted heroes, boys and unmarried girls
youths placed on funeral pyres before their parents’ eyes

Of course it would be preferable for us to translate ‘corpora’ as ‘souls’ in this context given our cultural understanding of what is meant. The point is the word for “body” (Latin corpora or Greek soma) can be understood in ancient parlance as a synonym for “soul” or “spirit” or “ghost”.

Wright (p.43) dismisses Virgil’s use of “corpora” to describe the dead as “occasional”, and in fact irrelevant to his argument because to Virgil these bodies were without their former power and strength, and are elsewhere described as mere shadowy forms. He misses the point. Even “mere shadowy forms” were still “bodies” in the ancient schema.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:44 of our bodies:

It is sown a soulish body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a soulish body, and there is a spiritual body.

σπειρεται σωμα ψυχικον, εγειρεται σωμα πνευματικον ει εστιν σωμα ψυχικον και πνευματικον

English Bibles usually translate the word ψυχικον “natural” or “physical”. The Latin equivalent would be “animale”. It refers to the essence that “animates” the body, “the animating life sustaining force in man and animals”. It is the root of our word “psychic”. Paul here contrasts it with the “spiritual” or “pneumatic” body. Stong’s Concordance contrasts it with “spiritual/pneumatic” above and “physical/phusikos” below, which pertained to the animals.

Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, p.62f, writes that unless the original passage is translated “soulish body” readers will miss the focus of the ancient arguments over the verse’s interpretation. Tertullian debated with other Christians who interpreted 1 Cor.15:44 to mean that it was the “soul” that was called the “soulish body” and that it was this soul (soulish body) that was resurrected, while the flesh remained behind in decay. The soulish body (soul) was said to be changed to a spiritual body when it was filled with the spirit at the resurrection.

Unfortunately for Tertullian he had one arm tied behind his back in his debate. Both he and his opponents accepted the belief that the soul was itself a corporeal substance. Otherwise it could not be tormented with physical pain in hell. (Riley, p.62)

We know from Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Tertullian and Origen that many Christians did indeed believe that the physical body was not resurrected, or that the resurrection pertained to “the soulish body”. To counter this widespread “heresy” church fathers like Irenaeus and Athenagoras put themselves through intellectual contortions to explain how a physical body could simultaneously be a spiritual body when resurrected. Irenaeus “explained” that the fleshly body was a spiritual body by virtue of being possessed by the Spirit. Athenagoras was even “clearer”: while we have flesh, it will not seem as if we have flesh, because we shall be heavenly spirits. (Adv. Haer. 5.7.2 and Legatio 31 in Riley, p.64)


That the word “body” and the term “resurrection of the body” ramained ambiguous into the fifth century, capable of being interpreted either as “flesh” or “spirit-soul”, we have the complaint of Jerome:

We believe, say they, in the resurrection of the body. This confession, if only it be sincere, is free from objection. But as there are bodies celestial and bodies terrestrial and as thin air and the æther are both according to their natures called bodies, they use the word body instead of the word flesh in order that an orthodox person hearing them say body may take them to mean flesh while a heretic will understand that they mean spirit.

He wanted them to use the unambiguous expression “resurrection of the flesh”.

The resurrection of the body, bodily resurrection, was not so black and white a concept when Christianity was born and established itself as it is to many Christians today.


Resurrection: response to Wright’s arguments, 5

apols for posting this before serious proof-reading — ongoing editing under way . . . (9th May)

Continuing from previous post:

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. Discussed one in previous post and attached comments. One more to go:

  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

One reason Jesus does not appear as anything other than a normal human after his resurrection in two of the gospels is because these gospels reflect the popular literature of the period by concluding with a series of dramatic recognition scenes at the end of their stories. It was a popular trope for novelists to conclude their stories of adventure with their long lost (and thought to be dead) hero appearing at the end, with his or her associates only gradually come to recognize their loved one through a series of recognition scenes. Homer’s Odysseus was only recognized by his former nurse when she, like Thomas in the gospel, placed her hands in his old wounds. But the pattern is repeated many times in other popular literature, too.

Luke does this first with the unrecognized and then flash in the pan appearance with the Emmaus disciples; and then finally in full bodily presence before the rest of the disciples. But even then they need to be shown ways to prove that it really is Jesus. Ditto in the gospel of John. Mary does not recognize him at first. It takes time and the speaking of her name before she can. Again Jesus has to show them the clues (his wounds) to prove that he really is Jesus. Scars, birthmarks, wounds were common clues to eventually identify the long lost hero in popular stories.

Another reason is specific to Luke’s gospel. Luke is using his narrative to address (counter) the claims of docetic views that rejected the humanity/fleshiness of Jesus. This is evident from the earliest chapters when he traced Jesus’ genealogy right back to Adam, the first human. Luke’s Jesus contrasts a spirit body with a body of flesh and bones. John’s Jesus does not make this contrast, but only shows his body, with its wounds, to identify himself as their earlier leader, Jesus himself, who has come back from the dead. This was discussed in my second post in this series. Additional novelistic motifs in the gospel of John were discussed previously in yet another post.

The fact that two of the gospels describe Jesus as appearing like a mortal after his resurrection is consistent with the novelistic or storytelling motifs and theological interests that shaped their authors’ world.

The gospel of Mark had no resurrection appearance. A missing corpse was another way for ancient literature to alert readers to a resurrection of some sort. Matthew’s gospel does not describe his appearance or body at all.

Wright argues that if the gospel authors made up the story of Jesus being resurrected from the dead they would not have told it the way they did. In fact, this appears to be a regular argument of Wright’s. If it were not true, they would not have written it like that. One is tempted to respond that such an argument really testifies to Wright’s lack of imagination or diligence in seeking to understand, through natural (as opposed to supernatural) scholarly constructs, the texts as we have them. A miracle, he concludes, offers the best “explanatory power” for the origins of Christianity. I suspect he can only get away with such claims because of the “force field” effect of writing hundreds and hundreds of pages alluding to scholarly arguments. The sheer weight of the reading may well bludgeon some less familiar with the arguments into assuming all these pages must really knock natural explanations for the rise of Christianity on the head. The purpose of this mini-series of posts is to expose the emptiness of just a few of the points Wright makes in the midst of his pages of digressions and elaborations of colour and multitudes of footnotes.

Wright claims that if the gospel authors made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearances they would have described him more like a shining star, a figure of glorified splendour like the angelic and worship-worthy figures in the Book of Daniel.

So Wright’s argument is based on his ability to read the minds of the authors. No matter that the many ancient authors who did describe living re-appearances of the dead described them as having the same appearance as when they were alive. Wright is confident that the biblical authors would never have written about the living appearances of the dead the way nonbiblical authors did. The nonbiblical authors wrote fiction, so if the biblical authors did write anything resembling pagan depictions of the living-dead, it must be because they were recording facts, and not fiction.

But, Wright argues, they did not write anything truly resembling pagan depictions of the dead-now-appearing-to-be-living, because the pagan bodies did not fit the same description of Jesus’ body. Even though both the pagan bodies and Jesus’ body could pass through material objects, could speak and eat, wear clothes and display their wounds, feel human emotions and care for the living, even (in at least one famous pagan story) be returned to flesh and blood bodily life, Wright insists there can be no legitimate comparison.

One reason he gives is that educated ancients did not believe in the historical truth of their stories. Well, yes, need one even have to raise the obvious? They didn’t believe the Christian story either!

Another reason he gives is that despite some similarities between the pagan and biblical narratives, there are also some differences. Well, there are differences among the various pagan stories, too. Without differences there would only be one story, not lots — by definition we could never have many stories around this idea unless there were differences. Here are some of the variations:

  1. Most remain as shadowy bodies unable to be grasped (Aeneid, Odyssey) — the gospel of Luke is possibly attempting to go one better and set Jesus apart from these by having him demonstrate his flesh bones body-ness (even though he can still go through walls)
  2. But even pagans had stories of their exceptions who indeed did return from dead in their physical flesh and blood bodies (Alcestis) — Wright says there is no comparison with Jesus here because Jesus was to live forever and Alcestis died again. Of course this is special pleading. The fact is that there is a direct comparison to be made, regardless of the subsequent fates of the characters.
  3. Others cower in fear at material swords (Odysseus holding the dead at bay with his sword)
  4. Others take no notice of swords (Aeneas is told he is wasting his time using his sword)
  5. Some can only scream in whispers
  6. And others can speak quite normally
  7. Most appear just as they did when alive
  8. Yet others can or do appear as another person entirely (Astrabacus appeared as Ariston)
  9. One ancient historian, Herodotus, even recorded an account of a dead hero, Astrabacus, returning to embrace and have sex with a living woman, and leave behind a part of his head-gear as a momento of the event. And there was a time when Romans sacrificed young girls so their souls could serve dead soldiers sexually.
  10. Some wrote that the dead were brought back up from Hades (Hercules rescued Alcestis)
  11. One ancient theologian wrote that Jesus went down to Hades to preach to the spirits and then returned with escorting angels to go up to heaven (The Gospel of Peter)
  12. Another wrote that some were raised by a word, others by a touch, others after some days in a tomb, one by touching the bones of a dead prophet, another after three rounds of body to body massage. (The various old and new testament biblical stories)
  13. Some wrote that many were persuaded that the dead reappeared to a mortal witness at dawn, and commanded that witness to go and report to others (Romulus, Jesus)
  14. Some departed dead reappeared in recognizable form with their first words being, “Peace, Take courage, Don’t be afraid.” (Scipio Africanus, Jesus)
  15. The dead would reappear to pass on instructions to the living (Romulus, Scipio, Patroclus, Samuel, Jesus)
  16. Many of them showed off their mortal wounds (Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Hector, Jesus)

The variations we see in the Jesus narrative are all part and parcel of the constellation of mutations of the same basic idea. To make a special case for the unique features of just one of the above characters is pedantic nonsense and special pleading.

Virgil, Euripides, Herodotus and Homer speak of the dead, though “spirit”, still having the form and even feelings of their fleshly bodies. They wore clothes, they could eat and drink, they could play board games, they could inflict pain and death with weapons and their hands on the living, they could feel pain and be seriously threatened by the swords of the living, and they could even have sex both with each other and the living. (See Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, p.50ff)

The fact that Jesus is depicted by one or two of the evangelists as having a palpable as opposed to shadowy body is not a common portrayal of the returned dead, but it is not unique either.

Virgil argued with Homer over the latter’s portrayal of Odysseus being able to hold departed souls at bay with his sword. Virgil said that was a nonsense in his Aeneid. Aeneas was reminded by his companions that was silly to even try to threaten souls that way. In a similar dialogue with other narratives, Luke and perhaps John, decided to prove that their resurrected hero surpassed the pagan dead by being touchable — without stinking or looking like a zombie (if indeed the authors really did imagine him truly physical — not all early Christians interpreted Luke’s gospel that way) — yet still with all the other attributes of spirit (being able to pass through walls, turn invisible, live forever and travel to heaven).


By narrating a reappearance of Jesus after his death in a bodily form the evangelists are not struck by historical reality, but merely following the conventions of the times.


Resurrection: response to Wright, 4

Revised May 8 2008

Continuing from a previous post:

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. Discussed one in previous post and attached comments. Two more to go:

  • the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence
  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

Textual and narrative interdependence

(Following I use Matthew and Mark interchangeably as both the authors of the gospels and as the titles of the gospels attributed to them.)

Matthew clearly used (either copying directly or re-writing) the narrative of Mark. It is said that Matthew repeats about 600 of Mark’s 661 verses. Mark has no resurrection appearance, but that does not hide the fact that Matthew’s resurrection appearance scenes grew out of Matthew’s use and knowledge of Mark.

How Matthew built on Mark’s narrative for the resurrection appearances:

Mark created a narrative in which:

  • Jesus was reported as arranging to see his disciples, after his resurrection, in Galilee.
  • This message was conveyed through a mysterious “young man”,
  • who instructed the women at the tomb to pass it on to the disciples.
  • These women had come to anoint the corpse of Jesus even though it belatedly dawned on them that they would not be able to enter the tomb with its massive stone obstructing its entrance.
  • And when these women heard the message from the young man, they were said to have run off immediately without even telling the disciples after all.
  • They were said to have been too fearful to say a word to anyone. And that is where the original text of Mark’s gospel ends.
  • See Mark 16:1-8.

Matthew then, after reading Mark, wrote a revised narrative:

  • Like Mark, he wrote that Jesus would see his disciples, after his resurrection, in Galilee.
  • But this message was made more authoritative by being conveyed, not by a mere young man whom readers might wonder if he was an angel or not, but by an unambiguous angel who came down from heaven and with superstrength rolled aside the massive stone from the tomb’s entrance
  • As in Mark, this angel instructed the women to pass the message on to the disciples
  • But Mark’s nonsense of the women coming to anoint a body when they knew they could not enter the tomb is removed by Matthew. Matthew re-writes the more sensible account that the women merely came to see the tomb.
  • And when these women heard the message from the angel, they were said to have run off immediately — just as Mark also said —
  • but unlike Mark’s account, they ran off to tell the disciples after all. Matthew had added to Mark’s Fear the emotion of “great Joy” to drive the women to break through the silence barrier and not remain silent after all.
  • See Matthew 28:1-8.

So Matthew followed Mark’s script with a few modifications up to verse 8. At the critical verse 8 (not that the original gospels were written in our verse numberings of course) Matthew essentially copied Mark’s final verse but added a twist to it. The women ran off not only with Mark’s fear, but with fear tinged with a dash of joy. And, contra Mark, they ran off to tell the disciples, as commanded by the angel.

But having twisted Mark’s tail thus, how was Matthew to narrate that meeting? Mark’s original gospel ended at verse 8. The closest Mark offered for a resurrection appearance was the account in an earlier chapter of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain.

Matthew began by having Jesus make his first resurrection appearance to the women mourners who had come to see his tomb. But he was clearly floundering. He had no model on which to draw. Only Mark’s narrative where the young man had told the women that the disciples could see Jesus in Galilee. So what does Matthew narrate? Matthew’s Jesus zaps down to the women as they flee from the tomb. The women stop, look and listen. Even hold Jesus by the feet. And Jesus proceeds to utter his first words as a resurrected saviour. They are verbatim what Mark’s young man and Matthew’s angel had already told the women. “Go and tell my disciples they can see me in Galilee.” Yes. We have read that already. Matthew is clearly at a loss here. He is floundering when left to his own imagination.

Next, Matthew finally has that long awaited contact between the disciples and Jesus in Galilee. Again Matthew’s creative imagination is limited. The best he can offer readers is a Moses-like departure on a mountain top. He charges his successors to carry on the good work, just as Moses charged his successor Joshua to do likewise. And it is all done on a mountain top — the same topography where Jesus had earlier been transfigured, and where Moses spent his final moments.

Matthew is grasping at his bland unimaginative straws. All he knew was that he had to do better than end is gospel the same way Mark had ended his. If Mark had more subtle themes to convey with his ending of the women fleeing dumb in fear, they were wasted on Matthew. Matthew re-wrote Mark to give it a more positive ending:

  • The women were not so stupid as to come to the tomb to anoint a body when they knew they couldn’t enter the tomb. They came to just visit the tomb, as mourners do.
  • No mysterious “young man” was there to deliver a message to these women. None other than an angel came down. He was so unambiguous that the tomb guards fainted on the spot at the sight of him.
  • And the women did not run like scared, um, girls, at the sight of him, too scared to say a word to anyone. No, they ran with fear and joy to tell the disciples!

Mark and Matthew share the same characters, the same scene, the same words, the same setting and narrative point of view or vision (camera angle) of events. That last point, the camera angle, is a vital key to establishing a Matthew-Mark interdependence. Authors without any contact would most likely imagine different points of view from which to portray a common event — the mind and/or experience of one of the women, or of a disciple who saw the women, or of someone who first saw or heard from the women, etc.

Matthew owes his resurrection appearance narrative to Mark. From Mark he derived the setting and the words and the characters. When other gospel authors disagreed with both Matthew and Mark, their disagreements were on theological and literary (not eyewitness) source grounds, as already discussed.

The textual and narrative ties between the resurrection appearances in Luke and John

The narratives of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples in Luke and John share the same structure:

  1. Jesus appearance to the disciples takes place in Jerusalem, not Galilee
  2. Jesus appears suddenly in the midst of the disciples
  3. Jesus shows his body (hands and side/feet)
  4. Disciples react with joy to the appearance
  5. Immediately after appearing to the disciples, Jesus speaks to them with identical words: “And said [historical present in both gospels] to them, ‘Peace with you'”
  6. At the appearance Jesus presents his body as a verification [– verification that he is risen, in Luke who may well have been expressing an anti-docetic or anti-Marcionite agenda here; verification that he is indeed Jesus, in John –] and uses very similar wording: “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet” in Luke; “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and side” in John.
  7. In both gospels the authors are said to be in fear. In Luke, however, it is fear that they are seeing a ghost when they see Jesus; in the more anti-semitic John, they are hiding in fear of the Jews.
  8. Both gospels speak of the disbelief of the disciples. In John the disbelief is a theological issue, and is packed into his discussion of Thomas and the need of all believers to have faith; in Luke, with a different theological agenda, the disbelief is a narrative colouring — they were confused when they saw unexpectedly Jesus, and finally were so overcome with joy that they could scarcely believe that what they were seeing was really happening.

(Adapted, with significant modification of point 6, from Matson’s In Dialogue With Another Gospel (pp. 422-424)

Matson discusses many more verbal and stylistic similarities between Luke and John’s resurrection appearance accounts.

Written sources for the Emmaus narrative in Luke

I have already discussed Luke’s use of Genesis and Judges in his construction of the Emmaus Road encounter with the resurrected Jesus. See points 6 to 10 in the Emmaus post. What follows is adapted from Matson, pp. 410-421.

But there are other indications in the text that Luke’s Emmaus narrative has been edited from other text. (I suspect that the final redactor/author of Luke-Acts has re-worked an earlier Luke, also discussed in other posts here.) The dramatic climax of the story, when the two who had just been with Jesus run off to tell the disciples of their experience, collapses into anti-climax when they completely fail to tell of their experience and instead bring in an entirely new thought nowhere before hinted at, that Jesus had appeared to Peter. Readers are left wondering how and when that could have happened, and are also left with a bland taste in place of savouring a narrative climax.

The author of the gospel was normally capable of much better than this. Indeed, his structure of staged steps to the final appearance of Jesus demonstrates his literary competence: moving from an empty tomb and confusion, then to a meeting and confusion and a mere glimpse of recognition; and finally to the full bodily appearance before all. If this is how a Jesus really did show himself and if the narrative is read as history instead of narrative drama, it reads as if he is having a joking game of hide-and-seek before revealing his resurrected self. A bit like a playfully teasing ghost?

The (final) author has awkwardly inserted the message of the appearance to Peter into an existing narrative. He was probably attempting to give life to the claim in 1 Corinthians 15 that Peter had been the first to see Jesus. (That tradition or passage in 1 Corinthians may well be a later pastoral insertion and not original to Paul anyway. If so, this would tie in with the final redactor of Luke-Acts himself giving narrative form to several Pastoralist ideas.)

Another textual anomaly in the Emmaus account is its tension against an earlier passage where the author claimed the disciples scoffed at the reports of the women about the angels at the empty tomb (24:11). Luke 24:24 in the Emmaus story contradicts that, saying that several of the disciples did pay enough attention to the women to go and investigate. Note that this is scarcely a reference only to Peter running to the tomb. Peter ran alone in Luke. In the Emmaus narrative several of the disciples took the women seriously.

While the Emmaus narrative is woven with Lukan wording and style, the evidence suggests that Luke was struggling with an earlier written story. He did not have eyewitness reports and traditions to help him piece what he wanted to say all into a seamless whole.


So when Wright says that the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence, he is “overstating” the case. One may disagree with some of the specifics of the arguments for narrative interdependence, and dispute the interpretation of some of the above passages. But it is misleading to insist that there is no evidence for such interdependence among the gospels in their resurrection appearance accounts.

There are clear structural and verbal links between the gospels in these narratives, and where there are differences, they are readily explained by the larger theological interest of the authors.

One more post to go to finish this mini-series . . . .


Resurrection: more responses to Wright, 2

Continuing from previous post:

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. Discussed one in previous post and attached comments. Three more to go:

  • the differences among the respective resurrection accounts do not reflect theological differences and arguments found among the later church, so variant theological dispositions of the gospel authors cannot explain their narrative differences
  • the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence
  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

theological differences

Wright sees little if any theological bent behind the resurrection appearance scenes in the gospels and argues that therefore these gospel scenes rely on very early church traditions — before theological debates had time to take over.

The Gospel of John

But the differences in the accounts are readily enough explained by theological interests. John Ashton is cited to this end in a paragraph by April DeConick in her Voices of the Mystics (p.83):

The Johannine scholar, John Ashton, in his balanced monograph on the Gospel of John [i.e. Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 1991. p. 514], warns us about plunging into a morass when inter­preting this story, of reading beyond the intent of the author as, unfor­tunately, Barnabas Lindars has done in his statement: ‘According to the Jewish idea of bodily resurrection presupposed by John, Jesus is touch­able, and perfectly able to invite Thomas to handle him. ‘ Ashton reminds us to keep the author’s point of the story foremost in mind: ‘If John invented this story, as there is every reason to believe, it was not, surely, to stimulate his readers to reflect upon the tangibility of risen bodies, but to impress upon them the need for faith.’

This is obvious when one compares how the authors of the gospels of Luke and John treat similar words of Jesus:

In Luke 24:39 the resurrected Jesus is made to say:

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.

Compare John 20:27

Then he said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Which is followed by:

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In contrast to the author of Luke’s gospel, the author of the narrative in John has no interest in explaining the difference between flesh and spirit in relation to the appearance of Jesus. Rather, the whole point of the scene — the reason for its difference from the one we read in Luke — is to instruct readers that having faith in Jesus without even seeing him is more commendable than having faith because one sees him. DeConick argues that this scene in John is really a rebuke, through the mouth of Jesus, against those Christians who believed in the superiority of seeing Jesus, through visionary experiences, as the Christians whom we associate with the Gospel of Thomas did.

John’s scene of the resurrection appearance is different from Luke’s because John was constructing his scene to illustrate and teach his theological belief in the superiority of faith without seeing Jesus. This is confirmed by the clear statement near the end of this gospel that the author’s goal is to persuade readers to believe — John 20:31.

The gospel of John evidences none of Luke’s interest in explaining the nature of Jesus’ body. His theological purpose is quite different. His different resurrection appearance scenes are crafted to illustrate this theological interest.

The Gospel of Luke

As for the Gospel of Luke, this narrative insists that all the resurrection appearances happened in and near Jerusalem, and pointedly has Jesus forbid his followers to leave that city. This contrasts with Matthew’s gospel that picks up its cue from Mark’s ending and has Jesus appear to the eleven in Galilee only.

This Jerusalem setting for the resurrection appearances in Luke’s gospel is clearly a theological decision of the author. Luke’s gospel begins in Jerusalem and its Temple, with a priestly father of John the Baptist. The newborn Jesus is blessed in Jerusalem, in the Temple. The boy Jesus returns to Jerusalem’s Temple. There is no reference to Jerusalem’s temple being desecrated by an “abomination that makes desolate”. And there is no ominous cursing of the fig-tree outside the Temple, which in other gospels can be taken as a sign that Jerusalem is to be cursed. Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem. The same author/final redactor, presumably, who wrote Acts, likewise makes Jerusalem the centre of apostolic preaching at the founding of the church. The apostles go out from Jerusalem to preach. In Luke, Jerusalem is the ideological centre of the Christian faith.

This contrasts with the Gospel of Mark which depicted Jerusalem as the den of iniquity, the place where Jesus was crucified. Galilee on the other hand was the place of the beginning of the Kingdom of God, or at least where the Kingdom was “at hand”. Matthew’s gospel follows Mark’s gospel here.

This difference in the Gospel of Luke’s resurrection appearance narrative is without doubt spawned by the theological meaning its author attached to Jerusalem.


No doubt a long chapter, if not a book, could be written discussing all that could be covered to bring out the theological differences guiding each gospel’s resurrection appearance narratives.

I have not even touched one most obvious point: that non-orthodox Christians from earliest times read these same gospels but understood their theological message quite differently from the way many literalists do today. They could read them as supporting their beliefs that the resurrected Christ did not have a flesh and blood body. In other words, they inform us that there are at least two ways of reading Luke’s (and John’s) passage. If one of those ways is lost in the culture of antiquity, then it is up to moderns to find it again to understand the debate as it once was. But I’ll be covering some of that in my final post addressing Wright’s 4th point. The point here is that the narratives themselves are clearly theological, and the differences between them identify the different theological slants that shaped each.

But even if one disagrees, the above cases should suffice to establish that Wright’s claims are at the very least anything but conclusive. There is clearly a strong case to be made that the differences in the resurrection appearance narratives were shaped by different theological interests.


Resurrection: more responses to Bishop Wright’s study

I have no intention of committing myself to a chapter by chapter detailed response to Durham Bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God as I did for Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, but since Wright has (at least in discussions with me) been touted as a touchstone of scholarly authority among some fundamentalists, I can’t help but make periodic observations about his tomes, if only to hopefully leave a seed in minds of some that will one day germinate genuinely independent and honest questioning. (I’ll collate my posts that have some commentary on Wright’s works in my blog’s Book Reviews and Notes category beneath the archives links.)

The so-called early-origin of the resurrection appearances “traditions”

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. His reasons include:

  • the absence of Old Testament allusions in their narratives, in contrast to the OT riddled pre-resurrection narratives in the gospels — the argument is that the use of OT allusions were proclivities of the gospel authors, but each gospel author relied on transplanting much older traditions when it came to the resurrection scenes
  • the differences among the respective resurrection accounts do not reflect theological differences and arguments found among the later church, so variant theological dispositions of the gospel authors cannot explain their narrative differences
  • the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence
  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

These Wright arguments are by no means conclusive. They are certainly debatable, even wrong.

I’m sure more can be added to any of my comments on these below. And maybe I have missed some relevant point among Wright’s 800 pages. I’m sure someone will let me know.

Old Testament allusions in the resurrection narratives

The Gospel of Mark does not have a resurrection appearance narrative. The verses 9-20 of its final chapter are well recognized as late additions by scribes who were dissatisfied with their copies of the original all ending abruptly with the audiences’ attention directed to focus on a conclusion of silence and fear. (One might compare the conclusion of the Aeneid, even the Primary History and the Elijah-Elisha Cycle, but each of those is, well, . . . “another story”.)

The Gospel of Matthew‘s narrative of Jesus’ appearance after his resurrection is most clearly embedded in Old Testament allusion. While Dale Allison (The New Moses, A Matthean Typology) discusses the tendency of scholarship of his day to deny special Mosaic comparisons in Matthew (partly a reaction against the Straussian challenges it posed to the historicity of the gospel narrative), he nonetheless alerts us to specific stories and redaction in Matthew that demonstrably link Jesus to OT and other Jewish legendary tales about Moses. While Matthew’s gospel does not depict Jesus as a Moses figure himself, it does make use of comparisons with Moses traditions in its presentation of Jesus:

  • the circumstances of his birth, with the slaughter of the infants and his divinely orchestrated escape, is undoubtedly intended to bring comparisons with Moses to mind from the beginning of the gospel
  • redactional details (in comparison with the gospels of Mark and Luke) in Matthew’s telling of Jesus crossing the water and going into the wilderness to spend “forty days and nights” fasting
  • the Sermon on the Mount, with its overt comparisons to Mosaic law, hits many readers as a patent transvaluing of Moses delivering the law to Israel from Mount Sinai
  • Allison cites 12 points within Matthew 11:25-30 resonating with details of Moses’ unique character, and his special relationship with God and Israel
  • Jesus’ specifically transvalues details of Moses in the Matthean mountain transfiguration scene
  • Jesus’ final appearance, like that of Moses, is on a mountain (Deut. 32:48-50 — also, along with associated Jewish legends of this passage, a tie back to the temptation in the wilderness). Like Moses at his end, he commissions his successors (Deut 31:6-9); and as with the successor of Moses, the successors of Jesus are instructed to go out faithfully and are promised they will never be forsaken (Joshua 1:1-9).

The Gospel of Luke likewise draws on OT passages from which to construct at least one of its resurrection appearances. I have discussed these in an earlier post. Some of the key passages from there:

The Road to Emmaus story contains easily recognizable literary motifs associated with similar stories in Genesis and Judges . . . .

In Genesis Abraham sees three strangers on the road and exercises hospitality by inviting them in to eat with him; it emerges in the course of the narrative that the three strangers were angelic messengers, and one is even named “the Lord” (Genesis 18). Then two of those same strangers travel to Sodom where Lot has to work to persuade them to stay at his place before continuing their journey. It is late in the day, as in the Emmaus road story. He is unaware of their identity until later in the narrative (Genesis 19). Joshua also encountered a stranger he assumed was a fellow mortal at first but who went on to reveal himself as a divine being (Joshua 5:13-15).

When Jacob was travelling the sun set (early Jewish legends explained the pointed reference in Genesis 28:11 by saying God had caused it to set prematurely to force Jacob to stop there) and he had a dream that he was in the presence of God. God spoke to him there. And the name of the place was originally known as Luz — in the Septuagint it is Oulammaus. In the Codex Bezae this is the name used for Emmaus in Luke 24. In an early reading of Luke (perhaps the earliest) the Emmaus road revelation happened at the same place that Jacob dreamed he was visited by God.

In Judges we read about an unnamed woman who meets a “man of God”, but whom the audience knows is an angelic messenger. Her husband is named, Manoah, and he prays to God to send the same man again but this time “to us” — both of them. So God sent him again but only to his unnamed partner. She had to call Manoah to meet him. The couple, Manoah and his wife, press the “man of God” who speaks to them of divine promises to come in and stay with them in their house. A sacrifice is offered and the “man of God” reveals his true identity by disappearing before their eyes carried up into heaven by the flames and smoke of the sacrifice. (Judges 13)

This story in Judges contains many of the motifs used in Luke 24:

a. Two people receive a visit from a supernatural being.

b. Only one of the two persons is named. How readers would love to know the name of the both – in both stories. The authors of both are in some way playing with their readers’ curiosity. (Readers are told the names of both parties in all other stories where an angel comes to announce a special birth.)

c. The supernatural being speaks of divine plans and knowledge.

d. The couple invite this stranger to stay with them and eat.

e. A meal or sacrifice is begun.

f. Before the stranger eats he miraculously vanishes before the couple’s eyes

g. By witnessing this disappearing trick the couple are made aware of the identity of their guest

h. The couple speak to each other about their experience and what they have just seen and express their emotional responses.

Conclusion: It is at the very least by no means certain that at least the authors of Matthew and Luke did not construct huge chunks of their resurrection appearance scenes out of OT references.

These posts always take longer than I anticipate. Will have to discuss the other points later.


Resurrection and Monotheism, and an odd case for uniqueness

Note 30th May: Currently updating my notes on Wright’s resurrection arguments here.

My previous post was a jotting down of some points I had found of interest in Martin West’s chapter explaining how the distance between monotheism and polytheism was very narrow indeed. It is not at all difficult to imagine how monotheism gradually evolved from polytheism.

Since I am currently perusing sections of Durham bishop N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, and it is impossible to avoid noticing the sharpest contrast between styles of arguments of West and Wright. (more…)

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