Another Empty Tomb Story

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by Neil Godfrey

Someone asked for examples of the ancient literature that contain motifs echoed in the biblical narratives. I’ll post a few, beginning Chariton’s novella Chaereas and Callirhoe. I do not believe that we have any reason to think that there is any genetic relationship between the following extract and the gospels. The similarities arise entirely from a shared cultural and thought world. It appears to me that the evangelists were drawing upon stock literary tropes when they related their respective empty tomb scenarios.

A mourner comes very early in the morning to the tomb where his beloved was placed the evening before. He finds it open. He is fearful and confused. Others come to see but none dare go inside. When the body is found to be missing the first thought of the mourner is that she has been taken up to heaven as a living goddess — as per otherwise unknown variants of the myths of Ariadne and Semele who were made divine after apparently dying. I have highlighted the passages that remind us of the gospel empty tomb narratives. (One of the more interesting details — I think — is that the first to arrive at the tomb do not enter until someone else arrives later and does so. Compare the Gospel of John’s sequence of Peter and the beloved disciple.)

As for the date of Chariton’s work, B. P. Reardon (whose translation I am copying) thinks it belongs to the mid first century CE.

Chariton’s employer may possibly have been a known figure of the early second century A.D., but Chariton’s style suggests a rather earlier date for his work: he does not “atticize,” that is write in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward, and was an ambitious enough writer to have done so had he lived in that period. But style is an unreliable criterion, and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D. The geographical and social background of one of the story’s main locations, the region of Miletus, certainly seems to fit that area of Asia Minor in the early Roman Empire. (pp. 17f)

Here is the passage. It is from Book 3, Section 3 of the work:

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb — it was at night, and they were in a hurry. At the crack of dawn Chaereas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that would cure his grief. When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor—a swift messenger—told the Syracusans this amazing news. They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. The man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately. It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there. Then Chaereas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callirhoe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing. Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness. One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off — it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse — where is it?” Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd. Chaereas looked towards the heavens, stretched up his arms, and cried: “Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callirhoe and is now keeping her with him — against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly — so that she would not realize what was happening. That is how Dionysus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station. But she should not have left the world so quickly, even for such a reason. Thetis was a goddess, but she stayed with Peleus, and he had a son by her; I have been abandoned at the very height of my love. What is to happen to me? What is to become of me, poor wretch? Should I do away with myself? And who would share my grave? I did have this much to look forward to, in my misfortune — that if I could not continue to share Callirhoe’s bed, I should come to share her grave. My lady! I offer my justification for living — you force me to live, because I shall look for you on land and sea, and in the very sky if I can reach there! This I beg of you, my dear — do not flee from me!” At this the crowd broke out in lamentation; everyone began to lament for Callirhoe as though she had just died. (pp. 53f)

Chariton. 1989. “Chaereas and Callirhoe.” In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, translated by Bryan P. Reardon, 17–124. Berkeley: University of California Press.

For those curious about the story, Chaereas had kicked his betrothed, the goddess-like Callirhoe to death (or so he and everyone else thought), but the author clearly expects readers to sympathize with him because he did so sincerely believing (although falsely) that he had a good reason to be angry with her. How times and values change! However, Callirhoe had only been winded and recovered in the cool of the tomb. When tomb robbing pirates found her alive when they broke into the tomb they took her to sell her as a slave.

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26 thoughts on “Another Empty Tomb Story”

  1. Ironic. I am currently in discussion about the Tomb, with an atheist no less,who – ”based on expert consensus” – supports the idea there was an actual tomb!

    1. John Granger Cook also goes into this subject in his book “Empty Tomb, Resurrection, Apotheosis” (Mohr Siebeck, Sep 6, 2018). It sucks that the book is so expensive. You can read some of it on google books but that can get kind of frustrating.

      The theme of empty tombs was a familiar one in the ancient world. Aristeas disappeared from his temporary place of entombment (the fuller’s shop) and later appeared as a raven and as a phantom in Herodotus’s version. He received the honor due the gods and sacrifices in other accounts. Cleomedes, presumably still alive, disappeared from the chest he had hidden in and was honored as a hero with sacrifices. Many years after his death, Numa’s body had disappeared, although there is no evidence he underwent an apotheosis. Alcmene’s body disappeared from her bier. Zalmoxis, by the artifice of living underground, appeared three years after people thought he had died. He promised his followers some kind of immortal life resembling either resurrection or metemsomatosis…..Although Romulus was not buried (in most traditions) his body disappeared, and he was honored as the god Quirinus after appearing to Julius Proculus. Callirhoe apparently died and her lover Chaereas discovered her empty tomb with the stones moved away from the entrance. Inside he found no corpse. He assumed she had been translated to the gods…..Philinnion disappeared from her tomb, walked the earth as a revenant, and her corpse was later found in her lover’s bedroom. Lucian’s Antigonus (in his Lover of Lies) asserts: ‘For I know someone who rose twenty days after he was buried.’ Proclus included three stories of Naumachius of Epirus who described three individuals that returned to life after various periods in their tombs (none months, fifteen days, and three days). They appeared either lying on their tombs or standing up. Polyidus raised Minos’s son Glaucus from the dead after being placed in the son’s tomb. The Ptolemaic-Roman temple in Dendera vividly depicts the bodily resurrection of Osiris in his tomb. There are numerous translation accounts of heroes in which their bodies disappear when they were either alive or dead, including: Achilles (in the Aethiopis), Aeneas, Amphiaraus (under the earth), Apollonius of Tyana, Basileia, Belus, Branchus, Bormus, Ganymede, Hamilcar, and Semiramus.

  2. According to Plutarch, after his death Alexander’s body did not decompose for six days: “His body, although it lay without special care in places that were moist and stifling, showed no sign of such destructive influence, but remained pure and fresh.” The first century A.D. Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus agrees that there was no “discoloration” or “decay.”

    “The Ancient Greeks,” Hall has said in an interview, “thought that this proved that Alexander was a god”


  3. Re: the empty tomb stuff. From an investigative standpoint I would like to simply offer an observation…. about that. Upon reading Mark 16 the tomb was not really empty when the women arrived if we were to question the women..

    Miss Mary

    was the tomb opened when you got there?. Did you see anyone in there? The investigator would ask .. She would not have said… “The tomb was not empty. There was a ” body” in there. I didn’t see a dead body in there , but I saw a young man in a white garment in there. I have no clue who he was. ”

    So this young man was the last person in contact with the dead body and he is still in the tomb. We should interview him since that is just plane strange. Did this man talk to you Miss Mary? Yes, he just said “He is risen. ” I was just plain scared. That young man told me that He is on his way to Galilee and would meet her there and Peter , etc.

    This is just a speculative thought but I have sometimes thought that that young man represents or is a stand in character for Jesus. Afterall he had on white garments and the garment of Jesus was on a slab in the tomb all folded up.

    Did the young Jesus put on a new garment representing a resurrection or transformation of some sort? But one thing is clear…the tomb was not empty….. that young man , who is he..I have read many essays on that “young man”… but I still think it strange that he was in the tomb and furthermore what on earth is he playing around inside the tomb….considered an unclean place.

    BTW the empty tomb argument as I see it is really an “empty argument”.

    Just having some fun with the story … but again, the tomb was not empty…

    And it would be funny if this young man was a resurrected “trickster” Jesus.. and if this young man was a version of the tomb gardener albeit disguised as well. And the words of the young man are interesting…”He is going before you… have the ring of the angel that went before the Israelites into Cannan…ie. Galilee. The gospel of Mark begins in Galilee and ends in Galilee!!

    All very interesting to me….

    Matthew turns this young man in some weird way into two angels…Matthew like doubling everything up because he needs two witnesses… most of the time. It is throughout his Gospel.etc Two donkeys, two Legion men, etc. etc.

    So could that young man be the risen Jesus. Resurrection was meant to manifest newness and youthful life given back to something apparently dead or old.. I also note that two garments are found in the tomb. The old garment of Jesus and the new one being worne by the youthful man!! How in the hell does he know where Jesus is going?

    The whole thing seems funny to me.

    Anyway, any thoughts on this would be intriguing.

  4. • Pease, Arthur Stanley (1942). “Some Aspects of Invisibility”. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 53: 1–36. doi:10.2307/310789.

    The disappearance of the body of Jesus from the tomb presents likenesses to certain pagan traditions.

    Miller, Richard C. (2010) [now formatted]. “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity”. Journal of Biblical Literature. 129 (4): 759–776. doi:10.2307/25765965.

    First, scholars tend to subsume Mark under a Judaic literary domain, thus seeking its primary semiotic indices and cultural conventions within early Jewish literature. There appears, however, to be little basis for this appetence, except a rather non-scholarly insistence on a “pristine,” “non-pagan” well from which the academy ought to draw nearly all cultural, literary, and ideological antecedents.

    [Second] Such aversion combines with what one may best describe as a fundamental misapprehension of the processes and principles governing Hellenistic literary production; that is, a given story, when juxtaposed with the array of analogous Mediterranean ”fabulae”, must either match uniformly or the classification be summarily dismissed as nonapplicable. This not only comes as a false choice but betrays a gross misconception regarding the phenomena of syncretic adaptation in the Hellenistic Orient.

    Third, and perhaps most obstructive, the persistent sacred nature of the narrative, for many in a field overgrown with faith-based scholarship, has typically confused subject and object, yielding a paucity of effective historical, literary-critical treatments.

    Cf. Godfrey, Neil (24 October 2015). “The Disappearances of the Bodies of Jesus and Other Heroes”. Vridar.

  5. The apocryphal acts of John (http://gnosis.org/library/actjohn.htm) tells the story of Callimachus and Drusiana (ActsJohn 63–86) in which Drusiana died as the result of being a lust object, her corpse was raped and the corpse rapist died, then John resurrected both the victim and the necrophile.
    This story seems to be an elaboration of Chaereas and Callirhoe with perverse elements added to shock and titillate the faithful Christian hearers of this salacious religious instructional tale.

  6. According to the Toldoth Yesu tradition (ca. 3rd c. CE???), the evil Yesu’s corpse was stolen by Judas the Gardiner, and hidden variously in a stream, cistern or cess pit, in order to prevent Yesu’s own followers from stealing the corpse and claiming that he had been risen to heaven.
    When the authorities learn of the disappearance of the corpse, they demand its return within three days, or else Jerusalem will be laid waste. At the last moment, Judas returns the corpse of the executed criminal Yesu, the corpse is put on display, and Jerusalem gets a reprieve.
    Note that this is a naturalistic explanation for all the elements of the christian story, Judas was a hero who saved his people, Jesus’ corpse did disappear and then after three days it was seen again, still dead, debunking the christian claim, and showing the christians to be either pious frauds (liars) or delusional.

    The Tale of the Ephesian Matron, in the Satyricon (late 1st c. CE), is a shaggy dog story about the pseudo-resurrection of a dead body. The Tale of the Ephesian Matrom is a savage parody of christian beliefs and rituals.

    1. These are certainly common interpretations of the stories but I have my doubts about Petronius’s story of the Ephesian matron being a parody of Christianity. In my post about parallels seeming to work very easily when the suggestion is that Christianity influenced the “pagan” world (https://vridar.org/2019/05/30/do-parallels-only-work-in-one-direction/) I was, in part, thinking of accounts like the ones you mentioned. Petronius wrote before we have good reason to suspect anyone knew of the gospel narratives. Certainly, Paul knows nothing of an empty tomb narrative and the Gospel of Mark, post 70 CE, relates the empty tomb story with an apology explaining why no-one had heard of it before. The idea of women staying at the tomb mourning does not appear until much later still with the Gospel of John.

      If anyone tried to suggest that Petronius’s story influenced the gospels I think they would be laughed out of court. (Look at all the differences! they would say.) But when it comes to suggesting the reverse influence, even against the evidence of chronology ….. That’s how it goes.

      (I can certainly see a savage satire against the fickleness of women in the story of the widow at the tomb, but I cannot — can you? — see what he might be satirizing about Christianity if that’s what he was doing. I see nothing there to relate to Christianity. Having a corpse hung up on a cross doesn’t remind me of anything about Christianity, not even in irony.)

      1. Neil:

        The professional scholars may have dropped the ball on this, a close look at Satyricon demonstrates a lot of parallels to Flavian era literature, more than can be considered co incidental, and allusions to canonical and non canonical christian texts. Satyricon is probably a Flavian era (or later) text, not Neronian, and therefore its author could have know about the Judean Christ sect. See the essays below for discussions of the relationship of Satyricon to Christianity.
        Quite frankly, other than being described as louche by Tacitus and the name similarity, there is no cogent reason to have assigned authorship of the Satyricon to Petronius Arbiter. Petronius Secundus is a better candidate, and he really was naughty, he murdered an emperor, and not only that. an example of his poetry survived until the modern era as a graffiti on Memnon.




        The Satyricon and the NT, A Satire. Liturgy and Literature, Selected Essays, University of Alabama Press, 1970, p. 72-96.
        And from Harris, William (January 20, 1926 – February 22, 2009), Professor of Classics at Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT.:

        ”There is no space to go into this here, but it seems clear that someone who misunderstood Christianity totally, heard of Christ’s entombment and crucifixion, and turned it into an odd form of comedy. This needs further study and discussion….”

        Posted at http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/LatinAuthors/Petronius.html.

        ”We should look at this from the perspective of historical evidence. If the Petronius storyline may be considered even as indirect evidence that there was an awareness, howsoever vague and transposed, of Christ’s final state, it does establish the fact that the crucifixion of Christ was becoming known in secular circles throughout the West. And it further helps document a date for Petronius (who has never been properly dated) as near the end of the first century A.D. I find this matter so strange and unparalleled by anything else we have from the early years of the first millennium, that I hesitate to propose the matter in documentable academic terms, and offer this view primarily as a suggestion for consideration. On the other hand the segments of the argument as I have outlined them seem to fit together ineluctably. It is essentially the interpretation of their meaning in a social and historical sense which gives me pause.”

        Posted at http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Classics/crucifixion.html. Retrieved 2016/4/21.

        1. I have already written a post about this and it is scheduled to appear tomorrow. I simply don’t see the links to Christianity (and I have listed Roger’s in the post to appear) — nor do I see that you have pointed to any — but I do see the story fitting comfortably into the thought world of the Greco-Roman myths and narrative tropes of the day. If a mythicist attempted to suggest a link, that Christianity borrowed from the Petronius story, they would not be granted any credibility at all — but some scholars have no problem seeing the influence so long as it is going in the reverse direction. They always say the links are “vague” or “implicit” and as you point out here some will even argue against the evidence for of its traditional date to make it fit their presumptions. (But even Flavian times is not a guarantee of widespread knowledge of Christianity anyway, especially since the references in Tacitus and Pliny the Younger are open to serious question.)

          What, exactly, is the story supposed to be saying about Christianity? What, exactly, are the links? Why should anything in the story of the widow of Ephesus be related to Christianity any more than any other story I have referenced here about empty tombs and crucifixion escapes? Just because there is a tomb and a crucified body and a mourner people familiar with Christianity quickly assume a link — but of course they are left unable to explain how those details answer to anything in Christianity. They do, however, fit within the wider world of classical literature that this series of posts has been pointing out.

          To link this story with Christianity strikes me as flakey as trying to link reference to an apple and a serpent in Chaereas and Callirhoe to Genesis.

          1. Neil:
            ” If a mythicist attempted to suggest a link, that Christianity borrowed from the Petronius story, …”
            Nascent Christianity did not borrow from the Satyricon, it was the Satyricon that parodied the Christian mythos. And the Christianity that the Satyricon appears to parody is different from the Christianity of later centuries.
            The Widow of Ephesus mocks the last supper and resurrection story.
            There is an early voyeurism scene in Satyricon in which the protagonist was cursed with impotence while watching a Bachanalian rite. The Pseudoclementines has episode in which is voyeur was struck down while secretely watching an ocean side baptism.
            The Satyricon concludes with a partially preserved scene of sacrificial ritual cannibalism, which is how early hostile critics of Christianity characterized the Eucharist.
            Satyricon is the earliest surviving hostile portryal of Christianity, written at the conclusion of Christianity’s founding century.

            1. Your interpretation of the Satyricon makes itself heard from time to time but how can one demonstrate that any of the scenes you refer to are a satire of Christianity?

  7. Flavius Josephus’ “Vita” includes the story of three men, criminals, who were crucified, two died, one survived after his body was taken down from the cross and medicated.
    I seem to recall having once heard a similar story about three men, thieves, who were crucified by the Romans, two died, one had his body taken down from cross his body was wrapped in medicinal herbs, and he was supposedly seen alive again.

  8. I understand that you’ll censor this, as not conforming to your bias.

    But it’s noteworthy that there are many of these Greek romance novels which contain a “Scheintod” scene, and it’s obvious that they borrowed this theme from the Gospel accounts, which were written earlier.

    “The child is not dead, but is only asleep” occurs several times, and the miracle-worker raises up the deceased, who had only APPEARED to be dead. This occurs in the later Greek romance novels several times, but happens first in the Gospel of Mark, where the daughter of Jairus is raised. There is no earlier example of it.

    Also, the “Ephesian Tale” borrows the phrase “Why are you weeping?” from the Gospel of John.

    The above are not found in the “Callirhoe” novel and so could not have been borrowed from that source, even if it’s very early.

    1. You should have a look around this blog and the comments to see that a variety of views are indeed permitted and encouraged. What is censored is trolling and repeated comments that are dogmatic in nature and without any effort to adhere to the norms of rational/scholarly discussion.

      After checking our posts on logical fallacies and noting how they point to logical fallacies in the comment you have presented here, you are welcome to justify your claim with a new argument that conforms to a logically valid process. Or if you do not still see the logical flaws in your comment then you are free to ask and discuss.

  9. “Someone asked for examples of the ancient literature that contain motifs echoed in the biblical narratives. I’ll post a few, beginning with Chariton’s novella Chaereas and Callirhoe. I do not believe that we have any reason to think that there is any genetic relationship between the following extract and the gospels.”

    Yes we do have reason to think it. The artificiality of a dramatic crucifixion scene having innocent victim(s) suffering combined to a scene of a rising dead body leaving an empty tomb behind presents an unlikely coincidence of 2 such stories combining these and occurring this one time only, together in the same historical period, with nothing like it in the earlier literature. The best explanation for such an unlikely coincidence is that one story copied from the other, i.e., the 2nd story probably copied from the 1st. Even the “bearing the cross” and the “stone” moved away from the tomb entrance are in both.

    And no doubt the later “Ephesian Tale” is another copy of the same, a copycat version of the “Callirhoe” story. Whichever came first is likely the original explanation for the 2 later ones. It’s not a logical flaw to conclude a likely causal connection. We don’t know for sure, but A>B causation is the best explanation — the most probable.

    “The similarities arise entirely from a shared cultural and thought world.”

    No, there’s nothing earlier in the thinking or culture showing an interest in crucified victims suffering and bearing crosses combined with rising dead bodies which leave empty tombs behind.

    “It appears to me that the evangelists were drawing upon stock literary tropes when they related their respective empty tomb scenarios.”

    What “literary tropes”? You can’t name any earlier examples of this in the literature.

    AFTER 100 AD there appeared some other such examples, including the “Scheintod” stories copying the stories of Jesus raising the dead. But before the 1st century AD there are ZERO cases of this in the literature.

    When something never happens, for centuries, but then suddenly it happens several times — bang-bang-bang — the best explanation is that the first one caused the later ones.

    Either the “Callirhoe” novel inspired the Jesus death & resurrection story, or reports of the Jesus event of about 30 AD inspired the “Callirhoe” story. Whichever happened first probably inspired the 2nd one.

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