Review, part 12. Ancient “Resurrection” Stories (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

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by Neil Godfrey

Though I have used the term resurrection stories M. David Litwa uses the more accurate heading “Empty Tombs and Translation” for chapter 12 of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths.

This chapter and the next three (“Disappearance and Recognition”, “Ascent” and “Eyewitnesses”) are thoroughly interesting and informative. I know my discussions of the earlier chapters of Litwa’s book found points to criticize but here, by contrast, I have found little to fault and much that contributes to a reader’s understanding of the literary contexts of the New Testament gospel accounts of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps by now I have reconciled myself with the problem that Greco-Roman historians, unlike the evangelists, more often than not expressed some distance from the miraculous events they narrated, and have come to focus on the content of the events themselves. If so, I have had one of Litwa’s cited authors to thank, Sarah Iles Johnson, who showed how the Greek myths were generally told with techniques very similar to those used in our gospels.

Litwa begins with the “minimalist” burial and resurrection story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and finds overlaps with several Greek myths. In this earliest of our canonical gospels Jesus simply disappears at the end. (The original ending was at 16:8.) There is no resurrection appearance narrated though one was promised at a future time in Galilee. Similar “translations” of bodies to live elsewhere away from the human world are found in Homer’s Odyssey (Menelaus taken to the Elysian Fields) and in the biography of Apollonius of Tyana (see 8.30.3), though both of those heroes appear to have been snatched to immortality before physically dying. Not so Achilles. Achilles body on the pyre was attended and mourned by his mother who was promised by a divinity, at that tearful moment, that her son would be taken and restored alive and immortal in a far off island in the Black Sea (Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy, Book 3, lines 770-780). Better than the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, we have accounts of eyewitnesses of the immortal and divine Achilles appearing “in the flesh” on that island:

Achilles himself is said to have appeared to a merchant who once visited the island often, related what took place in Troy, entertained him with drink as well, and ordered him after sailing to Ilion to bring him a Trojan maiden, saying that this particular woman was a slave to a certain man in Ilion. When the guest was astonished at the command and because of his new-found boldness asked Achilles why he needed a Trojan slave, Achilles said, “Because, my guest, she was born of the lineage from which Hektor and those living before him came and is what remains of the blood of the descendants of Priam and Dardanos.” Of course, the merchant thought that Achilles was in love, and after he bought the maiden, he sailed back to the island. When he came, Achilles praised the merchant and ordered him to guard the maiden for him on the ship, because, I suppose, the island was inaccessible for women. He ordered the merchant to come to the sanctuary at evening and to be entertained sumptuously with him and Helen. When he arrived Achilles gave him many things that merchants are unable to resist; he said that he considered him a guest-friend and granted him lucrative trade and safe passage for his ship. When day came, he said, “Sail away with these things, but leave the girl on the shore for me.” They had not yet gone a stade away from the land when the girl’s wailing struck them, because Achilles was pulling her apart and tearing her limb from limb.

MacLean, Jennifer K. Berenson, and Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, trans. 2002. Flavius Philostratus: On Heroes. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. (p. 85, [section 56])

“Oral traditions” and personal accounts confirmed the “truth” about Achilles post-mortem existence:

“[3.19.11] A story too I will tell which I know the people of Crotona tell about Helen. The people of Himera too agree with this account. In the Euxine at the mouths of the Ister is an island sacred to Achilles. It is called White Island, and its circumference is twenty stades. It is wooded throughout and abounds in animals, wild and tame, while on it is a temple of Achilles with an image of him.

[3.19.12] The first to sail thither legend says was Leonymus of Crotona. For when war had arisen between the people of Crotona and the Locri in Italy, the Locri, in virtue of the relationship between them and the Opuntians, called upon Ajax son of Oileus to help them in battle. So Leonymus the general of the people of Crotona attacked his enemy at that point where he heard that Ajax was posted in the front line. Now he was wounded in the breast, and weak with his hurt came to Delphi. When he arrived the Pythian priestess sent Leonynius to White Island, telling him that there Ajax would appear to him and cure his wound.

[3.19.13] In time he was healed and returned from White Island, where, he used to declare, he saw Achilles, as well as Ajax the son of Oileus and Ajax the son of Telamon. With them, he said, were Patroclus and Antilochus; Helen was wedded to Achilles, and had bidden him sail to Stesichorus at Himera, and announce that the loss of his sight was caused by her wrath.”

Excerpt From: Pausanias. “Complete Works of Pausanias.” Apple Books.

Achilles was worshipped as a god into the fourth century CE. Poets and even ancient biographers or historians wrote of “eyewitness testimony” to the reality of his immortal existence.

Such stories were narrated as “historical” or at least as believed by many people. Litwa’s comment is apt:

If in a general way the gospel writers were influenced by Greek mythography, then they were specifically imitating those who put it into historical form.


Empty Tomb

Litwa compares with the biblical empty tomb stories the “historiographical report” about the second king of Rome, Numa, whose body was found (in “historical times”, 181 BCE) to be missing from a thoroughly sealed coffin even though books of his had been strangely preserved.

Rumours of Foul Play

We know that according to the Gospel of Matthew rumours were spread by the authorities that Jesus’ body had been stolen by his disciples despite the presence of guards at the tomb. As in the Gospel of Matthew, we read of cosmic events suddenly erupting at the death and translation to heaven of Romulus (darkness, clouds, thunder) in the Roman historian Livy’s account. Livy added that a rumour circulated that Romulus had been murdered by senators. Litwa points to what he sees as the significance of both Matthew and Livy setting down alternative explanations for the missing body:

In providing this alternative tradition, the Matthean evangelist used the language of historical causation. The conniving Jewish leaders created the theft story; hence it continues to persist. Although this evangelist preferred to explain the missing body by narrating resurrection appearances, the fact that he offered an alternative report is significant. Providing such a report was a common historiographical technique. Offering the reader a choice between the reports gave the (albeit fleeting) impression of objectivity. 


Stepping back into critical mode, however, I am not so sure that the Gospel of Matthew can be said to provide readers with “an alternative report” or a “choice”. Matthew does not write with the neutrality with which Livy set out the alternatives. On the contrary, Matthew writes as a storyteller who explains what went on behind closed doors and leaves readers with no choice but to believe only one explanation for the missing body. If Livy allows the reader to maintain suspicions Matthew uses his omniscient status to leave no doubts. It’s a fine point, however. We know Romulus was worshipped as a god by Romans so the doubts presumably were not so widely entertained by most people. Return to Johnston: the myths were told with techniques that lent them plausibility.


Further comparisons are made with the gospel and Greco-Roman tales of “tomb tokens”, some possession or piece of clothing of the disappeared deceased being found in the empty tomb. This device demonstrates to readers that there is no doubt that the characters have the right tomb.

Verisimilitude is further added by persons in the narratives — both New Testament and Greco-Roman mythical — expressing doubt and being forced by the evidence to believe that the body has been supernaturally taken.

In these stories we observe special figures who appear on an apparently historical stage. Yet underlying the narration is a template that is well recognized from mythography: the translation and immortalization of famous heroes. . . . Tropes have been added to make the stories seem more historical: alternative reports, tomb tokens, staged skepticism, and so on.

As for the gospel narratives,

templates from more ancient mythography informed how events were remembered and composed.


Remembered? I doubt that there was any remembering behind the stories of Achilles and Apollonius. But we certainly have evidence that the Christian and non-Christian were composed with similar templates.

Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Review, part 12. Ancient “Resurrection” Stories (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)”

  1. Hello Neil

    So I’m currently reading Dr. Eiseman’s book “James the brother of Jesus”. He mentions how he believes the We portions in the book of Acts appear more reliable. Their being less fanatical, more detailed and is relying purporting to be the authors own ( or some else’s) witness of events.

    It brought to mind these series of post on Dr. Litwa’s books. Made me wonder is the “We document” as Eiseman’s called it, the authors way of distancing himself from the outlandish tales he told earlier. Peter’s miracle seem harder to explain naturally than Paul’s and they aren’t as common.

    I have heard from apologist that if Luke was making things up he would insert himself as a witness in more significant places and events. Not a bad argument. However is it more likely that this is Luke’s attempt of making his account of the early church more plausible to Greco-Roman readers like other historians of his time?

    1. However, when ancient historians chose to distance themselves from some hard to believe miraculous tales they did not narrate them in matter of fact ways as the Acts author did. Rather, they would introduce distancing terms like “it is said that…”, “I have heard that…”, “people believe that…”.

      I have heard from apologist that if Luke was making things up he would insert himself as a witness in more significant places and events.

      This is the classic question-begging fallacy. See https://vridar.org/2020/04/17/logical-fallacies-of-historians-begging-the-question/ for a fuller discussion with other similar examples. The reasoning assumes (does not argue, just assumes) that the author was present in the action narrated in the “we sections”.

      To say the “we sections” appear to be “more reliable” is also a circular argument, is it not? We have no independent data to enable us to make such a judgement.

      1. Appreciate the feedback. Right it is circular.

        My only next guess is it’s to authenticate everything he said previously the way the author of John’s gospel pretended to be from an eyewitness at the end of his story. You’ve written so much over the years there probably is a post addressing this particular subject. So I’ll search to see all the options when i can.

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