2008-04-27

Resurrection and Monotheism, and an odd case for uniqueness

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

“Hermeneutic of suspicion” and straining out a gnat

It is ironical that Wright speaks in several places of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” — a term for some reason I never read beyond the writings of those whose business is theology and whose interest is to verify the claims of the Bible — yet himself appears to apply the most rigid of criteria and most narrow of definitions to somehow appear to cast a pall of impenetrable suspicion on the possibility that the early Christian concept of resurrection could possibly have mutated from any previously held cultural or religious idea anywhere in the known world.

He suspects shades of difference mean no possibility of one deriving from the other. One must suspect uniqueness by default if there is a certain difference between the two. The argument is a bit like that of a creationist denying that any of the obvious similarities between species are evidence of mutation from a common ancestor, simply because those species are necessarily different from one another. Or like denying that monotheism could possibly have derived in any way from polytheism.

West lays out the evidence of similarities between the concepts of divinities throughout Greece, the Mid East and the Bible. It is clear that early developments in Homer were a step away from true polytheism and towards what eventually became monotheism. One would surely have to consider denying the possibility of any sort of comparative studies at all if one argued that the councils of gods in these polytheistic cosmologies bore no meaningful relationship to a council of sons of gods in the Bible. To deny such a relationship by excluding the points of comparison as irrelevant on the grounds of the differences is indeed to apply a “hermeneutic of suspicion”.

Yet that is the type of argument Wright seems to me to apply to his comparative study of concepts of “resurrection”. The resurrection of Jesus must be kept unique at all costs, even if it means setting up an electric fence to separate the sedge grass from the rush grass.

One is reminded of the story of Canute vainly attempting to persuade the tide to turn back as he lists the many pagan concepts of something “(mistakenly) like resurrection”, and then finally pronounce that none matched the early Christian belief in what happened to Jesus. Well, that there was no exact correspondence few might deny. But Wright goes further and appears to be arguing that the absence of exact correspondence is evidence that the Christian belief could therefore not have mutated out of the pagan beliefs. It is easier for Wright to believe that Jesus rose from the dead than that anyone from the ancient world familiar with religious and literary concepts of dying and rising gods and people, which only find incomplete matches to the gospel account, could have invented the story.

Now you see it, but now you don’t

But the odd thing is that Wright several times does actually appear to uncover and then quickly cover up again some pretty close “exact” correspondences. The most obvious one is the one he begins with, where he discusses the passages in the Homeric epics and other Greek literature that deny the possibility in the real world of a bodily return from the dead. There are indeed several passages in the Iliad where the thought is clearly expressed that the dead do not rise to live again. Wright singles out one of these, words of Achilles when he is surprised to see an escaped slave on the battlefield compares his appearance to the astonishment of seeing one raised from the dead.

Wright is emphatic, as if his emphasis settles the matter against the possibility that anyone could have postulated a story of a rising from the dead had they only known of such literature. No-one reading Homer alone could possibly come up with a story about a resurrection from the dead — because Homer (and the rest of the poets and dramatists and philosophers) said it couldn’t happen, has never happened, will never happen. Wright’s argument is simply naive if not even somewhat fatuous. How many elephants do you think of when someone tells you not to think of an elephant? The very widespread allusions to the impossibility of a physical return from death is all it takes to generate the thought of its possibility. In the very passage Wright discusses Achilles actually creates a mental image of a narrative of those he has butchered on the battlefield returning in the flesh to fight him again (See the first part of book 21).

Don’t think of any unicorns, no dappled ones, no big ones, nor ones wearing hats — they don’t exist!

No matter how much Wright tries to argue that the pagans believed a bodily return from the dead was an impossibility, he is only digging a deeper rut of denial in the face of the obvious. The very denial of the concept inevitably makes it part and parcel of human consciousness.

No matter that everyone denied its possibility. The denial of the possibility of human immortality has never denied people the ability to conceptualize, even fantasize narratives about, its possibility.

All it takes is a bit of transvaluation of known figures and stories with a pinch of imagination to propose the idea of a bodily resurrection. We have no problem with seeing how Virgil transvalued Homer’s Odysseus by making his Roman progenitor surpass the heroic feats of his earlier Greek model.

It really is not such a huge imagination defying step to create a story about a god-man rising bodily from the dead. As Wright knows and discusses, popular novelists at the time the gospels were being written were playing with that very idea. The fact that none of them actually anticipated or replicated the story of Jesus in the gospels means nothing. The concepts and thoughts of the possibility of a mortal returning from the grave came (as they do today) as naturally as did fantasies of immortality or being bestowed with magical powers.

Many of us are too down to earth to give them any heed or even let them surface to consciousness. It only takes a poet or a story-teller, however, to change that.

We can see how monotheism could easily have mutated from paganism. Is it not going a bit too far into a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to deny even the possibility of the Christian resurrection story mutating from any of the myriads of concepts of resurrection among pagan mythologies, philosophies and popular novels (without denying Judaism’s role too) — even (or especially!) if some of those concepts are the negative prints of narrative elements that emerged in Christianity?

One does not need a literal resurrection from the dead to explain gospel resurrection story any more than one needs an epiphany on Mount Sinai to explain the emergence of monotheism.


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


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  • Steven Carr
    2008-04-27 19:14:50 GMT+0000 - 19:14 | Permalink

    Homer denied the possibility of resurrection from the dead?

    How widespread was the study of Homer among the early Christian writers?

  • 2008-04-27 21:30:36 GMT+0000 - 21:30 | Permalink

    Thanks Neil, as usual you are headed in interesting directions. With the Ptolemies being so entrenched in Egypt there is no doubt that Greek culture would have been well known and available in Israel. I always struggle with the idea that nobody except Christians (or Jews) has had a valid religious experience. Do you know of any accessible texts about Cynical philosophy?

  • 2008-04-28 09:29:08 GMT+0000 - 09:29 | Permalink

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum. Vridar, this statement,

    “It is not at all difficult to imagine how monotheism gradually evolved from polytheism.”

    Is in stark-contrast to Islamic Monotheism. In fact our view is the above flip on its head, in that the first man knew the Oneness of the Lord of the Heavens and Earth. And as mankind began to proliferate there became obedient ones and disobedient ones among them.

    This is the underlining reason mankind was sent Messengers. Messengers from among the mankind were sent to every nation. From Adam (may Peace be upon him) to Muhammad (may Peace and Blessings be upon him) 124,000 Prophets were sent with the message of remembrance. And some were sent with books, such as Moses (may Peace be upon him), David (may Peace be upon him), Jesus (may Peace be upon him) and the final Messenger of God, the seal of the Prophets, Muhammad (may Peace and Blessings be upon him).

    We believe these messengers, all 124,000, were sent with to inspire goodness and obedience to the Lord God. And to urge remembrance of the Lord Almighty, the Most High and worship him. This, in short is what Muslims believe.

    Do you find it interesting?

    -Saifuddin

  • 2008-04-28 11:11:43 GMT+0000 - 11:11 | Permalink

    Saifuddin,

    As interesting as the stories of the many variations of Christian and Buddhist tales about the sending out of missionaries, and the ancient tales of Dionysus sending out emissaries to teach people to believe in him. I suspect you’d believe in any of those instead had you been born in a different place and time.

    There is no reason to respect any of these ideas, or yours, simply because it is “believed” or held “in faith” by its adherents. Simply believing something on authority is no better than believing superstitions. Such beliefs belong in the privacy of one’s home or among fellow-believers. They have no place in the public arena.

    The only beliefs worthy of respect are those that are proportional to carefully gathered and assessed evidence — not authoritative claims writings deemed by this or that group to be holy.

    My respect for you is on the grounds that you are a fellow human. For that reason alone I respect your life, privacy, rights, and freedom to live as you desire, regardless of your health, education, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. I am sure I would like you all the more if I got to know your good personal qualities too, if you are generous, kind, considerate, honest, etc.

    But I see no reason to give special respect to anyone’s religious beliefs any more than I should give special respect to a political belief or the beliefs of a rifle club or the beliefs of a garden-gnome liberators association.

    P.S. The Islamic god is derived, like the Christian one, from Judaism. The evolutionary discussion of West applies — in fact he mentions the Islamic version of god on his first page of the chapter I discussed.

  • 2008-04-28 11:44:57 GMT+0000 - 11:44 | Permalink

    Epiph, — I’m not in a position to recommend anything on Cynic philosophy, sorry. Perhaps Wikipedia would be a good place to start for links to online texts?

    Interesting you should bring up Greek etc influences. I’m not really convinced that there is any strong case for arguing that Christianity even began in Palestine. It seems to me that some of the modern scholarly efforts to “over-emphasize”(?) the Jewish matrix are ideologically motivated, just as the settings (Galilee, Jerusalem) of the earliest narratives were ideological choices.

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