No, those words are not from a mythicist but from a professor of Classics, Arthur Stanley Pease, in an article in the Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 1942, Vol. 53, pages 1-36 — “Some Aspects of Invisibility“. 1942 may seem like ancient history but the article was referenced more recently in 2010 by Richard C. Miller, an adjunct professor at Chapman University in the Department of Religious Studies, in “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity” in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 129, No. 4. More recently still, 2015, Miller has published Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity which I am looking forward to reading and writing about. (It won’t be for at least some months before I can get to it, unfortunately.) Before I begin on the more recent works, however, I do like to track down their sources and that’s what led me back to 1942. So here we go…..
Noteworthy is the case of Aristeas, a poet and wonder-worker of uncertain date, who, Herodotus tells us, went into a fuller’s shop at Proconnesus on the Propontis and there died. The fuller shut up his shop and went to tell the dead man’s kinsmen, but the report of the death of Aristeas, now noised through the city, was disputed by a man of Cyzicus, who had come from the seaport of Cyzicus and said that he had met Aristeas going toward the town and had spoken with him.
While he so spoke, the kinsmen of the dead man came to the fuller’s shop with all that was needful for the burial, but when the shop was opened no Aristeas was there, either dead or alive.
Seven years later Aristeas appeared at Proconnesus and made that poem which the Greeks later called the Arimaspea, after which he again vanished. (p. 29)
You can read a translation of Herodotus’s account on the Perseus Tufts site.
Pease then refers to a similar story told about Cleomedes by Plutarch in his biography of Romulus. I quote here a translation of Plutarch:
Now this is like the fables which the Greeks tell about Aristeas of Proconnesusand Cleomedes of Astypaleia. For they say that . . . 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.”
Disappearances were not confined to cadavers of heroes. Pease notes the vanishing of the sacred lots belonging to the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in central Italy.
A somewhat similar curious disappearance of the sortes Praenestinae from the chest in which they were regularly kept when Tiberius attempted to interfere with the cult of their famous temple by removing them to Rome is described by Suetonius.
See paragraph 63 of Suetonius’s Life of Tiberius for the details.
Plutarch, in his catalogue of such cases, relates that the corpse of Alcmene disappeared while being carried forth for burial, and in its place on the bier was found a stone. (p. 30)
See Plutarch’s Romulus 28:6-8.
Then there was Zeus himself.
In the case of Zeus himself we learn that his tomb was exhibited at Cnossus in Crete — doubtless to the concern and confusion of some worshippers–, though he himself had become a god in heaven.
A different type of illustration is afforded by Heracles, whose sufferings and glorification after death have not infrequently been compared to those associated with Jesus. This comparison appears as early as Justin Martyr [see chapter 21 of 1st Apology], in the second century, and most recently by the German philologist Pfister, who suggests that the composer of the Urevangelium had before him a Cynic-Stoic biography of Heracles.
Diodorus [see chapter 38:4-5 of Book 4 of Diodorus] relates that the pyre which Heracles had ascended on Mt. Oeta was lighted by Philoctetes at his command but also by lightning which fell from heaven and wholly consumed it.
According to Servius, Heracles earnestly entreated Philoctetes not to show the remains of his body to anyone, and when the companions came to gather up the bones of the hero 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.
This is a more rationalistic account than that of Apollodorus, in which, during the burning of the pyre, Heracles is wafted by a cloud to heaven, in a manner which some have thought suggestive of the description in the first chapter of Acts, where Jesus is taken up into heaven and received by a cloud out of the sight of the disciples. (pp. 30-31)
Many readers would know of the story of Romulus’s death and disappearance/translation to heaven as a god so I will quote Pease’s take here:
The deification of Romulus, the founder of so mighty a city, merits especial attention and forms a very typical case. A significant passage in Livy declares:
“The concession is granted to antiquity that by mingling things human with things divine it may ennoble the foundings of cities, and if any people should be allowed to hallow its origins and to trace them back to the gods, such is the military glory of the Roman people that, when it boasts of Mars as its parent and that of its founder, the races of men should allow this claim as willingly as they endure its sovereignty.”
The deification of Romulus appears as early as Ennius, in the second century B.C.; the tradition of his vanishing as early as Cicero. The details of the event vary a good deal; according to some he was presiding over the Senate convened in the precinct of Vulcan; according to others addressing an assembly of the people in the Campus near the Goat’s Marsh. In the latter version the sun failed and a furious storm dispersed the multitude, but not the senators, and after the storm Romulus was not to be found. In what follows, three elements are to be noted, though their sequence may be variously interpreted and disputed:
(1) a story that Romulus had been caught up into heaven;
(2) a conflicting tradition that, during the storm, he had been made away with by the disaffected senators;
(3) a sworn declaration to the people by an intimate friend of Romulus named Proculus Iulius (a descendant of Ascanius) that the deified Romulus, who willed henceforth to be called Quirinus, had appeared to him on the road or in a garden, announced his own divinity, and predicted the future greatness of the city of Rome.
The lack of any Latin shrine of Romulus and the inadequate character of the so-called “grave of Romulus” in the Roman Forum (Varro ap. Porphyr. ad Hor. Epod. 16. 13; Fest. p. 177 M.) are suggested by Pfister (Woch.f. kl. Philol. XXVIII (1911), 85) as reasons for the origin of a legend of his vanishing. (pp. 16-17)
The significance of all the details of these accounts for the story of the disappearance of Jesus from the tomb in the Gospel of Mark — for it is in Mark’s Gospel that the focus is on the vanishing of the body rather than an immediate resurrection appearance — may not be obvious in all details but this question will be addressed in future posts. What is clear is that the story of the disappearance of the body of Jesus along with the implication that this vanishing was evidence of divine honour had ample literary precedent. I liked the observation of Pfister that such stories appeared partly to explain the absence of any tomb or other historical evidence of the mythical hero turned divine.