Bodily Resurrection in Ancient Fiction

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

We are looking at the gospel narratives in their literary-narrative context. First we saw a tale of an empty tomb; then we noticed several instances of innocent heroes surviving crucifixion, and now we see how viable the notion of a bodily resurrection from the dead was.

Maybe you have sometimes heard a scholar declare that the very idea of a physical resurrection was unthinkable, certainly abhorrent, to people in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Well, that’s simply not so, as the following details from a late second century novel testify. The novel is Leucippe and Clitophon, by Achilles Tatius.

The reader shares the view of the narrator witnessing the sacrificial death from afar off. (Heard that one before?) The body even becomes a sacrificial meal.

We could in fact see brigands aplenty and fully armed standing on the opposite side of the trench. They had improvised an altar of earth and near it a coffin. Two of them were leading a girl to the altar with her hands tied behind her back. I couldn’t see who they were in their armor, but I did recognize that the maiden was Leukippe. They poured a libation over her head and led her around the altar to the accompaniment of a flute and a priest intoning what I guessed was an Egyptian hymn — at least, the movements of his mouth and the distention of his facial muscles suggested that he was chanting.

Then at a signal they all moved far away from the altar. One of the attendants laid her on her back and tied her to stakes fixed in the ground, as sculptors picture Marsyas bound to the tree. He next raised a sword and plunged it into her heart and then sawed all the way down to her abdomen. Her viscera leaped out. The attendants pulled out her entrails and carried them in their hands over to the altar. When it was well done they carved the whole lot up, and all the bandits shared the meal.

As each of these acts was performed, the soldiers and the general groaned aloud and averted their eyes from the sight. But I, contrary to all reason, just sat there staring. It was sheer shock: I was simply thunderstruck by the enormity of the calamity. Perhaps the myth of Niobe was no fiction after all: faced with the carnage of her children, she felt just as I did, and her emotional paralysis had given the appearance of petrifaction.

When the ceremony was concluded, so far as I could tell, they placed her body in the coffin, covered it with a lid, razed the altar, and ran away without looking behind them. All this was done according to the rubrics sanctioned by the priest. (Book 3, Section 15)

Clitophon is so distraught over what he has just witnessed that he prepares to kill himself:

At some point during the first night watch, having waited until every- one was asleep, I went out with my sword, intending to kill myself by the coffin. When I reached it, I drew my sword and said: “O poor Leukippe, least happy of all human beings! I do not mourn merely the fact of your death, nor its alien milieu, nor its violence, but rather the farce your murderers made of your misfortune, that you were an expiation for those execrable bodies, that they slit you (alas!) alive, witnessing your own incision. They took communion of the secrets of your stomach and left what was left of you on an abject altar and bier. Your body is laid out here, but where will I find your vitals? Oh, far less devastating had the fire devoured them, but no — your insides are inside the outlaws, victuals in the vitals of bandits. (3.16)

But wait! Good news is promised. . . .

I held my sword up, poised to plunge it down through my throat. In the light of the full moon I saw two men running quickly towards me. Thinking they were bandits, I waited for them to come and kill me, but as they came nearer they began to shout. It was Menelaos and Satyros. And yet, in spite of the unexpected discovery that two close friends of mine were alive, I could not bring myself to embrace them or feel any real joy, my mind was so numb with grief. They grabbed my hand and tried to take away the sword.

“By all the gods,” I cried, “do not deny me this noble death, this medicine, rather, to heal my misery. I cannot continue living, even if you try to force me, now that Leukippe has died such a death. You can take away this sword, but the sword of grief is even now driven into my heart and cuts deeper every moment. Would you have me linger forever on the edge of death?”

Menelaos replied: “If this is your reason for dying, hold your sword. Leukippe will now come to life again.

I stared at him and said: “How can you mock me in my misery? That’s a fine tribute, Menelaos, to the god who watches over strangers abroad.”

Then he tapped on the coffin. “Since Kleitophon doesn’t believe me, tell him yourself that you’re alive, Leukippe.” As he said this he tapped on the top of the coffin a second and a third time, and I heard a delicate voice from under the lid. I began to tremble all over and looked at Menelaos, wondering whether he was a magus. He opened the coffin, and Leukippe rose up, a frightening (O gods!) and blood-chilling sight. The entire length of her stomach hung open, and the visceral cavity was hollow. She fell into my arms’ embrace, we pressed close, and then we both collapsed. (3.17)

An explanation is called for . . .

When I gradually came to, I asked Menelaos: “Tell me what’s going on. This is Leukippe, isn’t it — her body I hold, her voice I hear? Then what was all that I saw yesterday? One or the other has to be a dream. But this kiss is real and alive; its sweetness is none other than Leukippe’s.”

“And now,” said Menelaos, “she will recover her innards, her frontal gash will grow together, and you will see her once more sound. But cover your eyes, for I am summoning Hekate to the deed.”

I trusted him and covered my face. He began some hocus-pocus and recited some magic words. Then, as he spoke, he removed a contraption from her stomach and restored her to her original condition.

“Open your eyes,” he said.

I was very slow and fearful about doing so, for I did indeed think Hekate was there, but finally I removed my hands from my eyes and saw Leukippe intact and sound.
Still more amazed, I asked Menelaos, “My dearest friend, if you are some servant of the gods, I beg you to tell me where in the world I am and what am I seeing.”
And Leukippe said: “Menelaos, stop frightening him. Tell him how you fooled the bandits.” (3.18)

More adventures follow and Clitophon is thrown in jail where, after hearing fellow-prisoners talk about their stories, he is finally convinced that Leucippe really has been murdered.

So I said: “Which deity deceived me with a brief bout of joy? What god put Leukippe on display in this new plot of disasters? I did not even satisfy my eyes — yet they gave me the only happiness I had. I did not take my fill even of looking. All my pleasure was just a dream! O my Leukippe, how many times you have died on me! Have I ever had a rest from mourning? I am always at your funeral, as one death hastens to re- place another. But those were practical jokes that Fortune played on me; this is no longer one of her tricks. Well then, Leukippe, how did you really die? In the case of those sham deaths I always had some consolation, however small: in the first, your whole body was left me; in the second, I lacked only your head (as it then seemed) for a proper burial. But now you have died twice over — soul and body both are gone. You escaped from two gangs of cutthroats, but Melite’s pirates have killed you. Oh the unholiness and sacrilege of it: how many times I kissed your butcher, how our limbs intertwined in defilement, and the ultimate gift of Aphrodite I gave to her, not you!”

While I was wailing, Kleinias entered. I told him everything, and that I had made up my mind to die. He tried to console me. “Who knows whether she is alive this time too. Hasn’t she died many times before? Hasn’t she often been resurrected? Why be hasty about your death? You’ll always have time for that, after you’re clear about her death.” (7.5-6)

The idea of a bodily resurrection from death was certainly not inconceivable. It made good entertainment.

Achilles Tatius. 1989. “Leucippe and Clitophon.” In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by Bryan P. Reardon, translated by John J. Winkler, 170–284. Berkeley: University of California Press.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

11 thoughts on “Bodily Resurrection in Ancient Fiction”

  1. I once made a study of tales in the Arabian Nights that illustrated the ancient inability to determine whether someone was alive or dead, and the spear in the side of Jesus as a test for death. I found one tale particularly amusing:


    The Tale of Two Sharpers (or con-men) is another humorous tale with a live corpse the basis of the joke. But in this case, the confusion between the living and the dead is a deliberate trick on the part of the “corpse”, who exploits the ignorance of the crowds – and of his own partner – for financial gain. The inability of Ancient Near Easterners to distinguish between the living and the dead is here the basis for a clever con with some hilarious complications.

    First one conman explains the basic scam whereby they will collect from the crowds pious money to finance the burial.

    “I mean to feign myself dead and do thou. . .go about the streets and markets with my body and collect alms (for my burial).”

    But the one conman looked so realistic that his partner “deemed him really dead and shook him but he spoke not; then he took a knife and pricked his feet, but he budged not.” Finally the corpse sat up and told his partner to get to business and quit joking around.

    The con went well, and much loot was collected, but the one trickster devised a way to keep the money all to himself. He explained the scam-within-a-scam to his wife.

    “I propose to play a trick on him and enjoy all the money. . .To-morrow, at the peep o’ day I will feign myself dead, and do thou cry aloud and tear thy hair and. . .lay me out and bury me; and when the folk are gone away from the grave, dig down to me and take me; and fear not for me, as I can abide without harm two days in the tomb-niche.”

    But his fellow sharper, hearing the news of his death, said to himself,

    ‘The accursed fellow cozeneth me, so that he may get all the coin for himself, but I will presently do to him what shall soon requicken him.’. . .So he sat down at his fellow- sharper’s head and said to him, ‘Know, O Razi, that I will not leave thee till after ten days with their nights, wherein I will wake and sleep by thy grave. So rise and don’t be a fool.’ But he answereth him not, and so the man of Mawr drew his knife and fell to sticking it into the other’s hands and feet, purposing to make him move; but he stirred not and he presently grew weary of this and determined that the sharper was really dead. However, he still had his suspicions and said to himself, ‘This fellow is falsing me, so that he may enjoy all the money.’

    After washing the “corpse” with boiling water (during which the faker remained motionless, though in agony) and burying him and staying by the tomb most of the night, the one con-man decided to try again to revive him (by “torment and torture”). So he dug up his partner’s body, and cutting some sticks and palm-fronds,

    He tied the dead man’s legs and laid onto him with the staff and beat him a grievous beating; but the body never budged. . .and thus he did till the end of the night, but without making him move.

    Finally some robbers came to the cemetery to divide their loot, and scared the one sharper away into the tombs; but the bandits, seeing the “corpse” and “some seventy sticks”, supposed that the deceased was a wicked man whom the angels were tormenting. The chief brigand told his fellows,

    ‘Whoso among you hath a sin upon his soul, let him beat him, by way of offering to Allah.’ The robbers said, ‘We be sinners one and all;’ so each of them went up to the corpse and dealt it about a hundred blows, one saying the while, ‘This is for my father!’ and another laid into him crying, ‘This is for my grandfather!’. . .

    Finally, when the robbers decided to test the sharpness of a sword on the “corpse”, he finally decided enough was enough, and jumped up, and, trying to scare the robbers, called on the other bodies to arise and attack the robbers. The first sharper obligingly jumped out from behind the tombs: the two started beating on the robbers with dead men’s bones, and the robbers fled in terror, leaving their loot behind. But they eventually they sent a spy back, as “‘This thing is impossible of the dead: never heard we that they came to life in such a way'”; but, on finding the two sharpers arguing over the loot, the spy fled back, saying, “‘Get you gone and run for your lives, O fools, and save yourselves: much people of the dead are come to life and between them are words and brawls!'” Finally, the two sharpers “added the robbers’ spoil to the monies they had gained and lived a length of time,” i.e. lived happily ever after.

    What this story clearly illustrates, beyond the confusion of death and life in the Middle East, is once again the knife-test, and the practicality of faking the results of that test if the “corpse” really had to. The knife-test is far from infallible: if the person being tested lies perfectly still and can tolerate the pain, he can pass himself off as dead, even to a suspicious tester. Thus the spear jab reported in the gospels is far from conclusive in establishing whether Jesus was really dead. If he consciously kept himself still, or if he was so deeply unconscious that he didn’t respond, he could have been mistakenly pronounced dead.

  2. How so interesting !

    Thank You, Dr. Gmirkin….

    I think I first heard of you recently after I had come back from Marquette Univ. Much later from a former professor of mine Dr. Thomas L. Thompson, and now from Neil who directs this site, a site focused on thoughtful critical thought int these areas and much more.

    We are here.. a very devoted, professional and large group of “lay” historians and much more who just love all these discussions… and the tools and insights do vary quite significantly but we all try to work it out.. with ignorance and insight 🙂 :)..

    I do recall Neil’s previous entries on this site regarding your work.

    This is why I am interested in what you said since I recently blogged…asking…what or who killed Jesus,, the crucifixion or spear of “the satan” (simply a polemic and rhetorical attribution) (ie. the centurion) etc. Why? To fulfill a “scripture” .. we can see the purpose clearly to tell a story or make up a story or episode to further the story ..to get it to its destination.This was done to do this!!! or have this effect!!!

    Do you have specific references to this story you are sharing in the texts? wow! quite a story…. Resources??

    btw I am going to see if I can illicit some response from you as to the presence of the young man in the tomb Mark 16… and then a later claim that the tomb was found empty… it was not… a young man was in there… not outside the tomb as in Mt.and later texts…. !!

    What can you say? We all respect you here. And you have helped us better understand the ancient world of these texts.

    Your thoughts are most welcome

  3. Martin,

    My research done in the 16-volume first edition Alf Laylah Wa-Laylah (The Thousand and One Arabian Nights) translated by Sir Richard Burton–the explorer, not the actor! Sorry, I don’t have the volume number handy for this particular tale.

    The Tailor’s Tale of the Hunchback and the Barber is another interesting story from 1001 Nights from a comparative point of view. In this story, the Caliph is investigating the death of the Hunchback, whose body has been discovered, and is soon to be buried. Five individuals in succession confess to the Caliph that they have accidentally murdered the poor Hunchback, who has had an incredible series of mishaps, falling down stairs, choking on dinner, and so forth. As each clears the name of the previous “murderer”, who had only mistakenly believed the Hunchback dead, he gives the “true” story of the death. Then the barber comes in, who discovers the Hunchback is alive after all! “Thereupon the Hunchback sneezed a hearty sneeze and jumped up as if nothing had happened and passing his hand over his face said, ‘I testify there is no God but the God, and I testify that Mohammed is the prophet of God.’ At this sight all present wondered; and the King of China laughed till he fainted and in like manner did the others.”

    Neil has uncovered some interesting Graeco-Roman tales I hadn’t encountered about individuals who came back to life. Survival? Legend? Myth? In any case, the gospel stories cannot be simplistically read as fact.

    I don’t have any insights about the reports of the empty tomb or the figures seen thereabouts. Sorry. And by the way, it’s just Russell Gmirkin — no Dr. or Professor, although I get that a lot.

  4. Oh my gosh. Next thing we know someone will be suggesting that Christianity began with a charlatan who merely pretended to be dead before he was entombed!

    1. “The Passover Plot” was a fun read in its day, was it not? Half serious scholarship, half conspiracy theory. I personally don’t find Schonfield’s theories credible. For one thing, they fail to recognize the gospels as literature, and in that respect are kind of fundamentalist in a weird sort of way. And yet the hypothesis that a crucifixion could be survived, considered on its own merits, is not completely nuts (e.g the case of Josephus rescuing three crucified friends after the fall of Jerusalem, one of whom survived). So part of my brain leaves that possibility open, alongside others. I really shouldn’t have brought it up on your blog, but the supporting evidence is so hilarious! (As is your evidence from Roman novellas!)

  5. To add to Russ’s comments, Josephus also appeared alive after he was seen killed by witnesses.

    “Meanwhile, Josephus while going his rounds [around besieged Jerusalem]–for he was unremitting in his exhortations–was struck on the head with a stone and instantly dropped insensible. The Jews made a rush for the body, and he would have been dragged into the city, had not Caesar promptly sent out a rescue party. During the ensuing conflict Josephus was borne away, little conscious of what was passing; while the rebels, supposing that they had killed the man for whose blood they thirsted most, shouted with delight. The rumour spread to the town, the residue of the populace were deeply dejected, believing that he who gave them courage to desert had really perished. The mother of Josephus, hearing in prison that her son was dead, remarked to her warders, ‘Ever since Jotapata I was sure of it; indeed I had no joy of him in his lifetime’; but in private lamentation to her handmaidens she said, ‘This, then, is the fruit that I reap of my blessed child-bearing that I am to be denied the burial of the son by whom I hoped to have been buried.’ Happily, however, neither the distress which this false report occasioned her nor the solace which it brought to the brigands was of long duration; for Josephus, quickly recovering from the blow, came forward and, shouting to his foes that he would ere long be avenged on them for his wound . . .” (War 5.546 [Loeb, Thackeray)

    Another reappearance back to life after evidence of having been killed, this one after three days and interpreted as proof of a favorable divine omen, in an account of a failed attack on Ashkelon during the Revolt:

    “All the remainder fled–including Niger, who distinguished himself in the retreat by numerous feats of valour–and, hard pressed by the enemy, were driven into a strong tower in a village called Belzedek. The troops of Antonius, unwilling either to expend their strength upon a tower that was almost impregnable, or to allow the enemy’s general and bravest hero to escape alive, set fire to the walls. On seeing the tower in flames, the Romans retired exultant, in the belief that Niger had perished with it; but he had leapt from the tower and found refuge in a cave in the recesses of the fortress, and three days later his his lamenting friends, while searching for his corpse for burial, overhead his voice beneath them. His reappearance filled all Jewish hearts with unlooked-for joy; they thought that God’s providence had preserved him to be their generals in conflicts to come.” (War 3.25-28 [Thackeray])

    The medieval Josippon has this elaboration in which Niger peshers the significance of finding himself fortuitously alive in a tomb:

    “They [Jews from Jerusalem] sought also the body of Neger the Edomite, but they found it not, till at length he cried unto them out of the sepulchre, saying, ‘I am here; for God hath delivered me out of the hands of mine enemies, to the intent I may yet be avenged of them in the wars of the Lord.’ So Neger declared unto them at large, all things how they chanced unto him; wherefore the Jews rejoiced wonderfully, that they had found him alive, that he was favored by such a miracle, and that the Lord had delivered him. Therefore they put their confidence in the Lord, believing that God would be present with them to aid them, whereof this deliverance of Neger they took for a sure sign and token . . . they took Neger with them to Jerusalem, to give God thanks there for his deliverance at that present . . .”

    Three stories of individuals killed:

    (a) Josephus. Evidence–seen struck dead by a stone (witnesses).
    (b) Niger. Evidence–last seen in tower consumed by flames (witnesses).
    (c) Jesus. Evidence–Roman soldier poked him with a spear, did not move therefore dead.

    Each of these stories features characters turning up alive after witnesses saw, and it was reported and believed, that they were dead. Setting to one side historicity issues, a (serious) question for scholars in the New Testament guild is one of logical consistency: why are stories of Jesus’s appearances after crucifixion (in the Gospels no different in character than appearances prior to the crucifixion) deemed more impossible than appearances of Josephus and Niger after their witness-reported deaths?

    Speaking of evidence of death, a humorous account told to me by a retired federal marshal and before that deputy sheriff: he told of making written reports and then giving testimony in court of murder scenes. He would always write in his reports: “I received a call at xyz time and date … I responded to the location … I saw a male body laying in a pool of blood with about fifty gunshot and stab wounds … he appeared to be dead.” A sharp defense attorney would get him on the stand and ask, “Are you a physician?” “No.” “Then how are you qualified to say he was dead?” “I did not say he was dead. I said I saw about fifty gunshot and stab wounds (etc.) and he APPEARED to be dead.” He would not say the victim “was dead”, because not being a medical doctor he did not have expertise in the eyes of the law to determine that. But his report at the scene of a crime that he found a body which “appeared to be dead” was legal and defensible.

    1. I agree that there are serious questions of logical consistency. In a similar vein, I found problematic that twentieth century biblical scholars claimed the piercing of Jesus’ side was fatal on the cross, but the same wound not fatal three days later as shown to Thomas (as proof Jesus was not a “ghost”). It’s kind of pointless to be resurrected with a fatal wound IMHO. There is an intellectual integrity to maintaining the stories of Jesus on and after the cross are both mythical, or to explore the possibility that the wound in neither case was fatal. But there’s a serious methodological flaw to a theological position that seeks to have your fatality and deny it too. (Which is what started me to explore whether the spear incident “proved” Jesus died on the cross as once almost universally argued.)

  6. An aside point: Jesus’ death was supposedly proved by the spear jab and demonstration of water and blood pouring out — yet he shows up later with that wound that had been inflicted after his death. As Gregory Riley points out in Resurrection Reconsidered this is similar to Hector’s ghost or shade bearing the marks of wounds insultingly inflicted on his corpse.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading