Tag Archives: Resurrections in ancient literature

Death and Resurrection of Baal

From Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

References to works against and for the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, with special focus on Weber’s explanation of an “ideal type” (addressed by Price, as many readers will know) — that’s a concept I have had lined up for a post here so with the prod from this discussion I must make that post soon. I have also often wanted to post on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books. (I don’t recall off-hand if I have yet done so on Trygge Mettinger’s Riddle of Resurrection.)

Last month I posted on a discussion between Christopher Hansen and Robert Price and remarked on their reference to Trygge Mettinger’s challenge to Jonathan Z. Smith’s attempt to deny a dying and rising god concept in the ancient world prior to Christianity.

Well, wonderful surprises can turn up when one does a spring clean and I discovered today that I did indeed post on at least one of Mettinger’s arguments way back in June 2008: Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. (Since my accident in Thailand I have been laid up so have had the opportunity to plod through a recategorization and tagging of all Vridar’s 3700 posts to make them more findable — it has been a good experience so far: some of those posts I had forgotten about and found to be really quite good (I found myself learning old things I’d forgotten and wondered if I really wrote them), others questionable — but after beginning a post by post review of it I think it’s not a bad blog. I’m glad you’re here to share it with.)

Anyway, back to the point: If you are interested in Trygge Mettinger’s case against Jonathan Z. Smith’s then click on Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. It’s not his complete argument. Just one chapter, I think. But it’s a start and will give you the idea. I hope to post on his other chapters in the reasonably near future.

 

 

Bodily Resurrection in Ancient Fiction

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. . . . read more »

Another Empty Tomb Story

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.

Paul and Orestes before the Areopagus: the resurrection

Continuing from my previous post . . . .

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Resurrection ἀνάστασιςin both Acts and Eumenides

A number of scholars have remarked upon the reference to the resurrection in Eumenides by Aeschylus when commenting on the reference to the resurrection in connection with Paul’s appearance in the Areopagus before the Athenians.

F. F. Bruce, in The Book of Acts, p. 343, when commenting on the scoffing Paul received after mentioning the resurrection, recalled the scene in Aeschylus’ play that likewise mentioned the resurrection in connection with a hero appearing before the Areopagus. Most Athenians, Bruce said, would, on hearing of Paul’s mention of the resurrection, have agreed with the sentiments expressed in the play by

the god Apollo, . . . on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Some of them, therefore, ridiculed a statement which seemed so absurd.

The footnote supplied points to Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 647-8, where the same Greek word, ἀνάστασις, is used in both the play and Acts 17:18, 32.

Similarly Charles H. Talbert in Reading Acts, p. 157, makes note of the same observation:

Scoffing is a typical response to speeches by fringe figures . . . Given the assumptions of Paul’s auditors, scoffing is an entirely appropriate response. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48, relates how, on the occasion of the inauguration of the court of the Areopagus, the god Apollo says, “When the dust hath drained the blood of man, once he is slain, there is no return to life.”

Lynn Kauppi sees more in the link between Aeschylus and Acts than a background pointer to a common belief among Athenians of the day. He suggests that the way “Luke” weaves the allusions into the scene of Acts 17:16-34 gives reason to think that his audience “may have observed an allusion to the Athenian literary tradition.” (The Greek text is from Perseus and the English translation from Kauppi’s manuscript.) read more »

The Popularity of Resurrection

Golden plaques representing the resurrection o...
Image via Wikipedia

I’d love to have the time to cite links and sources for each of the following. Maybe I can catch up with doing that in the future. But for now I like at least the idea of a bare list the examples of resurrection belief and hope in the ancient world as discussed by Richard Carrier in Not the Impossible Faith.

This post should be seen as part of a set of other posts I have done in the past:

Popular novels and the gospels

Another empty tomb tale

Resurrection reversal

Dog resurrection

Two Greek historians of the 4th century BC, Theopompus and Eudemus of Rhodes, described the Persian Zoroastrian religious belief that “men will be resurrected and become immortal”. This religion — with its belief in resurrection to physical immortality — was still the dominant religion of the Persian empire throughout the Roman period.

Herodotus records the Thracians believed in a physical resurrection of Zalmoxis. The link is to the Wikipedia article where you can read about the religious cult that grew around this resurrected Zalmoxis, a cult that promised eternal paradise for believers (Carrier cites here the attestation of this in Plato’s Charmides, 156d).

Herodotus also reports the belief in the resurrection of Aristeas of Proconnesus. Again the link is to a Wikipedia quotation from Herodotus.

“Lucian records that the pagan Antigonus had told him: “I know a man who came to life more than twenty days after his burial, having attended the fellow both before his death and after he cam to life.” (Carrier, p.86)

Celsus listed name of those whom many pagans believed to have been resurrected: read more »

Dog resurrection

My previous post cited a first century mockery of the resurrection theme found in Plutarch’s Moralia. The section is from The Cleverness of Animals, 973-974. The full text is online here.

Still, I believe that I should not pass over one example at least of a dog’s learning, of which I myself was a spectator at Rome.

The dog appeared in a pantomime with a dramatic plot and many characters and conformed in its acting at all points with the acts and reactions required by the text.

In particular, they experimented on it with a drug that was really soporific, but supposed in the story to be deadly. The dog took the bread that was supposedly drugged, swallowed it, and a little later appeared to shiver and stagger and nod until it finally sprawled out and lay there like a corpse, letting itself be dragged and hauled about, as the plot of the play prescribed.

But when it recognized from the words and action that the time had come, at first it began to stir slightly, as though recovering from a profound sleep, and lifted its head and looked about.

Then to the amazement of the spectators it got up and proceeded to the right person and fawned on him with joy and pleasure so that everyone, and even Caesar himself (for the aged Vespasian ^ was present in the Theatre of Marcellus), was much moved.

The same text offers a footnote for the date of this pantomime:

^ Vespasian became emperor in a.d. 69 when he was 60 years old and died ten years later, so that this incident can be dated only within the decade.

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(and i seem to recall some scholars seriously claiming that the very idea of a bodily resurrection was utterly unthinkable among these ancients)

Resurrection reversal

For the sake of completion to my recent posts on empty tombs and crucifixions being popular stuff of ancient fiction I should add the most well-known one here, the section from the first century Satyricon by Petronius. (Those recent posts are Popular novels and the gospel narratives and Another Empty Tomb Tale.)

The date

Michael Turton in his Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark includes the following comment on Mark 16:8

v8: Carrier (2004c) observes:

“But we have one definite proof that the resurrection motif in fiction predates the 1st century: the Latin satire of that very genre, The Satyricon by Petronius. This is positively dated to around 60 A.D. (Petronius was killed under the reign of Nero, and makes fun of social circumstances created by the early Caesars) and is a full-fledged travel-narrative just like Acts, with a clear religious motif. However, Petronius is making fun of that motif, and also writing in Latin, yet we know the genre began in the Greek language. Thus, in order for Petronius to move the genre into Latin and make fun of it, it must have pre-existed the time of his writing and been popular enough to draw his attention. Indeed, the satire itself may actually have existed in a Greek form before Petronius took it up: P. Parsons, “A Greek Satyricon?” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 18 (1971) pp. 53ff. It should be noted that Petronius pokes fun at the resurrection theme. Similarly, Plutarch relates a spoof of the motif in popular theatre, where a performing dog acts out its death and resurrection on stage to the delight of the emperor Vespasian (“On the Cleverness of Animals,” Moralia 973e-974a). In order to have something to spoof, the motif must predate the year 80.” in section 140.frg2, where the hero compares his restoration from impotence to the “resurrected Protesilaus,” and attributes it to Mercury’s known role in “bringing back the dead.”

The Widow of Ephesus tale

With permission from, and thanks to, the owner of The Above-average Typist site (Kenny), I am copying from his site the portion of “Chapter Thirteen” from: The Satyricon by Petronius. Translated by Alfred R. Allinson. (1930) pp. 193-218.  This site contains the complete text of the Satyricon.

In this instance we have not an empty tomb, but a “resurrection” from a tomb of a body that ended back on the cross!

But Eumolpus, champion of the distressed and author of the existing harmony, fearing that our cheerfulness should flag for lack of amusing anecdotes, commenced a series of gibes at women’s frailty,– how lightly they fell in love, how quickly they forgot even their own sons for a lover’s sake, asserting there was never yet a woman so chaste she might not be wrought to the wildest excesses by a lawless passion. Without alluding to the old plays and world-renowned examples of women’s folly, he need only instance a case that had occurred, he said, within his own memory, which if we pleased he would now relate. This offer concentrated the attention of all on the speaker, who began as follows:

cxi “There was once upon a time at Ephesus a lady of so high repute for chastity that women would actually come to that city from neighboring lands to see and admire. This fair lady, having lost her husband, was not content with the ordinary signs of mourning, such as walking with hair disheveled behind the funeral car and beating her naked bosom in presence of the assembled crowd; she was fain further to accompany her lost one to his final resting-place, watch over his corpse in the vault where it was laid according to the Greek mode of burial, and weep day and night beside it. So deep was her affliction, neither family nor friends could dissuade her from these austerities and the purpose she had formed of perishing of hunger. Even the Magistrates had to retire worsted after a last but fruitless effort. All mourned as virtually dead already a woman of such singular determination, who had already passed five days without food.

“A trusty handmaid sat by her mistress’s side, mingling her tears with those of the unhappy woman, and trimming the lamp which stood in the tomb as often as it burned low. Nothing else was talked of throughout the city but her sublime devotion, and men of every station quoted her as a shining example of virtue and conjugal affection.
“Meantime, as it fell out, the Governor of the Province ordered certain robbers to be crucified in close proximity to the vault where the matron sat bewailing the recent loss of her mate. Next night the soldier who was set to guard the crosses to prevent anyone coming and removing the robbers’ bodies to give them burial, saw a light shining among the tombs and heard the widow’s groans. Yielding to curiosity, a failing common to all mankind, he was eager to discover who it was, and what was afoot.

Accordingly he descended into the tomb, where beholding a lovely woman, he was at first confounded, thinking he saw a ghost or some supernatural vision. But presently the spectacle of the husband’s dead body lying there, and the woman’s tear-stained and nail-torn face, everything went to show him the reality, how it was a disconsolate widow unable to resign herself to the death of her helpmate. He proceeded therefore to carry his humble meal into the tomb, and to urge the fair mourner to cease her indulgence in grief so excessive, and to leave off torturing her bosom with unavailing sobs. Death, he declared, was the common end and last home of all men, enlarging on this and the other commonplaces generally employed to console a wounded spirit. But the lady, only shocked by this offer of sympathy from a stranger’s lips, began to tear her breast with redoubled vehemence, and dragging out handfuls of her hair, she laid them on her husband’s corpse.

“The soldier, however, refusing to be rebuffed, renewed his adjuration to the unhappy lady to eat. Eventually the maid, seduced doubtless by the scent of the wine, found herself unable to resist any longer, and extended her hand for the refreshment offered; then with energies restored by food and drink, she set herself to the task of breaking down her mistress’s resolution. ‘What good will it do you,’ she urged, ‘to die of famine, to bury yourself alive in the tomb, to yield your life to destiny before the Fates demand it?

“‘Think you to pleasure thus the dead and gone?

“‘Nay! rather return to life, and shaking off this womanly weakness, enjoy the good things of this world as long as you may. The very corpse that lies here before your eyes should be a warning to make the most of existence.’

“No one is really loath to consent, when pressed to eat or live. The widow therefore, worn as she was with several days’ fasting, suffered her resolution to be broken, and took her fill of nourishment with no less avidity than her maid had done, who had been the first to give way.

cxii “Now you all know what temptations assail poor human nature after a hearty meal. The soldier resorted to the same cajolements which had already been successful in inducing the lady to eat, in order to overcome her virtue. The modest widow found the young soldier neither ill-looking nor wanting in address, while the maid was strong indeed in his favor and kept repeating:

“Why thus unmindful of your past delight,
Against a pleasing passion will you fight?”

“But why make a long story? The lady showed herself equally complaisant in this respect also, and the victorious soldier gained both his ends. So they lay together not only that first night of their nuptials, but a second likewise, and a third, the door of the vault being of course kept shut, so that anyone, friend or stranger, that might come to the tomb, should suppose this most chaste of wives had expired by now on her husband’s corpse. Meantime the soldier, entranced with the woman’s beauty and the mystery of the thing, purchased day by day the best his means allowed him, and as soon as ever night was come, conveyed the provisions to the tomb.

“Thus it came about that the relatives of one of the malefactors, observing this relaxation of vigilance, removed his body from the cross during the night and gave it proper burial. But what of the unfortunate soldier, whose self-indulgence had thus been taken advantage of, when next morning he saw one of the crosses under his charge without its body! Dreading instant punishment, he acquaints his mistress with what had occurred, assuring her he would not await the judge’s sentence, but with his own sword exact the penalty of his negligence. He must die therefore; would she give him sepulture, and join the friend to the husband in that fatal spot?

“But the lady was no less tender-hearted than virtuous. ‘The Gods forbid,’ she cried, ‘I should at one and the same time look on the corpses of two men, both most dear to me. I had rather hang a dead man on the cross than kill a living.’ So said, so done; she orders her husband’s body to be taken from its coffin and fixed upon the vacant cross. The soldier availed himself of the ready-witted lady’s expedient, and next day all men marveled how in the world a dead man had found his own way to the cross.”

Another Empty Tomb Tale

Just how unique are the empty tomb narratives in the gospels really?  Here is a narrative of a fictional empty tomb story from the same period, possibly slightly earlier, as the gospels.

Note the graphic details, the similarity of actions, settings and feelings to those found in the gospels; and even the conclusion that the missing corpse was a sign that the one buried had  been a divinity in the flesh, and was now a goddess in heaven.

It is from the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, translated by B. P. Reardon

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb – it was night, and they were in a hurry.

At the crack of dawn Chareas 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 could 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. This man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately.

It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there.

Then Chareas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callihroe 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.

“Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callihroe 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 is happening.

That is how Dionyus 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.

From pages 54/5 of Collected Ancient Greek Novels ed by B. P. Reardon, 1989

Of the date of this novel, Reardon writes that it was “written in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward . . . 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.”  (p. 17)

Any study of the gospel empty tomb stories ought to be aware of the remarkably similar sorts of stories that were popular at the time.

For anyone not so familiar with the gospel narratives, the phrases I have highlighted are echoed in the following details of the gospels:

  • the women mourners coming early morning to the tomb of Jesus
  • to complete their mourning tasks
  • on reaching the tomb they are astonished to find the (stone) door open
  • and to find the tomb empty
  • in the Gospel of John Peter arrives first at the tomb but does not go inside
  • another disciple arrives soon afterwards and does go inside the tomb
  • and he sees for sure that there is no body
  • people (disciples) could not believe it
  • the empty tomb is a sign that Jesus was indeed divine and had returned to his place in heaven as a divinity

Resurrection Appearances and Ancient Myths

Revised: added Self-Opening Doors and P.S.

In the following I am not suggesting that the gospel resurrection appearance scenes were directly borrowed from ancient sources. Rather, that when we read of similar scenes in pagan literature we can recognize them as patently mythical. This is Robert M. Price‘s argument (Deconstructing Jesus, p.39), although Charles H. Talbert argues (What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, p. 43) that the late sources for many of the following are known to have been drawing on much earlier (pre-Christian) narratives which, by implication, can be viewed as influencing the gospel authors. Influence does not necessarily mean direct literary borrowing: by definition no-one can evade the narratives of their culture.

On the one hand, his passing from mortal to immortal is attested by the absence of Jesus’ physical remains . . . reinforced by his appearances to friends and disciples in which further instruction is given . . . and by predictions made during his life . . . . On the other hand, Jesus’ ascent through a cloud is witnessed by the Galileans. . . There is no way a Mediterranean man could have missed this as a portrayal of Jesus in the mythology of the immortals (i.e. Asclepius, Hercules, Dionysus, and the Dioscuri, etc.) (What is a Gospel? p.41)

Jonathan Z. Smith‘s modern analyses of ancient myths notwithstanding, Justin Martyr in the second century (First Apology, ch.21) acknowledged that contemporary audiences could not avoid observing similarities between the gospel narratives and pagan tales of the likes of Asclepius and Heracles.

In some circles it is not politically correct to link gospel material with pagan memes. Some scholars (e.g. Ben Witherington) even link such arguments to late-nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-semitism. Ironically, there is another argument that links the current scholarly quest to explore the Jewishness of Jesus with a rebound against post-World War 2 anti-semitism and, in particular, with the West’s love affair with Israel since 1967 (e.g. James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror). So with cannon to the right, cannon to the left, I’ll charge into the valley . . .

Leaving Earth Through Self-Opening Doors

Apollonius of Tyana

The guardians of the shrine arrested him in consequence, and threw him in bonds as a wizard and a robber, accusing him of having thrown to the dogs some charmed morsel. But about midnight he loosened his bonds, and after calling those who had bound him, in order that they might witness the spectacle, he ran to the doors of the temple, which opened wide to receive him; and when he had passed within, they closed afresh, as they had been shut, and there was heard a chorus of maidens singing from within the temple, and their song was this. “Hasten thou from earth, hasten thou to Heaven, hasten.” In other words: “Do thou go upwards from earth.”

From Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 30

Mark 16:3-6

And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here

One scholar (name escapes me at the moment) has noted Mark’s use of the tomb as a metaphor for the Temple in Isaiah 22:16, which would enhance the resonance of this ‘door’ detail between the Apollonius and Jesus story in Mark’s gospel.

(After a night’s sleep I recall that the scholar I had in mind was Karel Hanhart who argued the point on Crosstalk2 some years back. He also attributed the exegesis to other Dutch, Swedish and English scholars. — See also Frank McCoy’s comment below for more details.)

This particular echo of massive doors being miraculously opened to make way for the mortal to enter eternal life is pointed out by Robert Price in Deconstructing Jesus (p. 41). Matthew 28:2-4 changes the sequence so that the door is opened supernaturally to show that the body of Jesus has already left — presumably as spirit. If the story of the empty tomb had been known to the author of 1 Corinthians 15 (Paul, let’s say) he may have kept quiet about it because it indicated a flesh and blood body rose from the dead, while he was arguing that the resurrected body is not flesh and blood. (I think Price makes these points, too, elsewhere.)

Price also notes the way the chorus of maidens in the Apollonius story has a counterpart in the young man at the tomb in Mark’s gospel. Both announce what has become of the one for whom the doors were sealed and opened.

The Missing Body – Evidence of Apotheosis

Empedocles the philosopher

For Heraclides, relating the story about the dead woman, how Empedocles got great glory from sending away a dead woman restored to life, says that he celebrated a sacrifice in the field of Pisianax, and that some of his friends were invited, among whom was Pausanias. And then, after the banquet, they lay down, some going a little way off, and some lying under the trees close by in the field, and some wherever they happened to choose. But Empedocles himself remained in the place where he had been sitting. But when day broke, and they arose, he alone was not found. And when he was sought for, and the servants were examined and said that they did not know, one of them said, that at midnight he had heard a loud voice calling Empedocles; and that then he himself rose up and saw a great light from heaven, but nothing else. And as they were all amazed at what had taken place, Pausanias descended and sent some people to look for him; but afterwards he was commanded not to busy himself about the matter, as he was informed that what had happened was deserving of thankfulness, and that they behoved to sacrifice to Empedocles as to one who had become a God.

From Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers

Heracles (Hercules)

Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself, ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him to put torch to the pyre. And when no one had the courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed. After this, when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles 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.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

Aristaeus (a son of Apollo and the mortal Cyrenê)

Consequently among the inhabitants of Sicily, as men say, Aristaeus received especial honour as a god, in particular by those who harvested the fruit of the olive-tree. And finally, as the myths relate, he visited Dionysus in Thrace and was initiated into his secret rites, and during his stay in the company of the god he learned from him much useful knowledge. And after dwelling some time in the neighbourhood of Mount Haemus he never was seen again of men, and became the recipient of immortal honours not only among the barbarians of that region but among the Greeks as well.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

Aeneas

A severe battle took place not far from Lavinium and many were slain on both sides, but when night came on the armies separated; and when the body of Aeneas was nowhere to be seen, some concluded that it had been translated to the gods and others that it had perished in the river beside which the battle was fought. And the Latins built a hero-shrine to him with this inscription: “To the father and god of this place . . .”

From Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities

Romulus

Others think that it was neither in the temple of Vulcan nor when the senators alone were present that he disappeared, but that he was holding an assembly of the people outside the city near the so called Goat’s Marsh, when suddenly strange and unaccountable disorders with incredible changes filled the air; the light of the sun failed, and night came down upon them, not with peace and quiet, but with awful peals of thunder and furious blasts driving rain from every quarter, during which the multitude dispersed and fled, but the nobles gathered closely together; and when the storm had ceased, and the sun shone out, and the multitude, now gathered together again in the same place as before, anxiously sought for their king, the nobles would not suffer them to inquire into his disappearance nor busy themselves about it, but exhorted them all to honour and revere Romulus, since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king. The multitude, accordingly, believing this and rejoicing in it, went away to worship him with good hopes of his favour; but there were some, it is said, who tested the matter in a bitter and hostile spirit, and confounded the patricians with the accusation of imposing a silly tale upon the people, and of being themselves the murderers of the king.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

Cleomedes

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.”

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

Alcmene

Not every good person was turned into a god. Alcmene was turned to a stone, but to Plutarch it was all a lot of rot for the gullible. 

It is said also that the body of Alcmene disappeared, as they were carrying her forth for burial, and a stone was seen lying on the bier instead. In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

In all four gospels the central evidence in common for the resurrection is the missing body of Jesus — the empty tomb. A missing body of a person renowned for a notable life was a well-known piece of evidence that the hero had become immortal and one of the gods.

Matthew 28:5-6

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead . . .

John 20:3-9

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. . . . And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

After Death Appearances

Romulus

At this pass, then, it is said that one of the patricians, a man of noblest birth, and of the most reputable character, a trusted and intimate friend also of Romulus himself, and one of the colonists from Alba, Julius Proculus by name, went into the forum and solemnly swore by the most sacred emblems before all the people that, as he was travelling on the road, he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, fair and stately to the eye as never before, and arrayed in bright and shining armour. He himself, then, affrighted at the sight, had said: “O King, what possessed thee, or what purpose hadst thou, that thou hast left us patricians a prey to unjust and wicked accusations, and the whole city sorrowing without end at the loss of its father?” Whereupon Romulus had replied: “It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. So farewell, and tell the Romans that if they practise self-restraint, and add to it valour, they will reach the utmost heights of human power. And I will be your propitious deity, Quirinus.” These things seemed to the Romans worthy of belief, from the character of the man who related them, and from the oath which he had taken; moreover, some influence from heaven also, akin to inspiration, laid hold upon their emotions, for no man contradicted Proculus, but all put aside suspicion and calumny and prayed to Quirinus, and honoured him as a god.

Aristeas

For they say that Aristeas died in a fuller’s shop, and that when his friends came to fetch away his body, it had vanished out of sight; and presently certain travellers returning from abroad said they had met Aristeas journeying towards Croton.

Both of the above from Plutarch, Life of Romulus.

Plutarch concludes with some scepticism:

In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

Matthew 28:9

And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

Luke 24:33-35

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.

Appearing Unrecognized to Dejected Followers Returning Home

Asclepius

Compare the following with the Emmaeus Road appearance of Jesus to disciples returning from Jerusalem after thinking their hopes had been dashed.

Sostrata of Pherae was pregnant with worms. When she was absolutely too weak to walk, she was brought into the sanctuary and slept there. When she did not see any clear dream, she went back home again. After that near Cornoi someone seemed to appear to her and her escort, a distinguished-looking man, who inquired about their misfortune; he told them to put down the litter on which they were carrying Sostrata. Then he cut open her stomach and removed a large multitude of worms, two washbasins full. Then he sewed up her stomach, and once he had cured her, Asclepius showed that it was he who had appeared, and ordered her to send votive offerings to Epidaurus

From the shrine of Asclepius in Epidaurus

Luke 24:13-31

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus . . . And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass therein these days? And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. . . . Then he . . . . expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . . And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Materializing as Flesh and Blood, not a Ghost

Apollonius of Tyana

Damis’ grief had just broken out afresh, and he had made some such exclamation as the following: “Shall we ever behold, O ye gods, our noble and good companion?” when Apollonius, who had heard him -for as a matter of fact he was already present in the chamber of the nymphs- answered: “Ye shall see him, nay, ye have already seen him.”

“Alive?” said Demetrius, “For if you are dead, we have anyhow never ceased to lament you.”

Hereupon Apollonius stretched out his hand and said: “Take hold of me, and if I evade you, then I am indeed a ghost come to you from the realm of Persephone, such as the gods of the underworld reveal to those who are dejected with much mourning. But if I resist your touch, then you shall persuade Damis also that I am both alive and that I have not abandoned my body.

They were no longer able to disbelieve, but rose up and threw themselves on his neck and kissed him . . .

From Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius

The disciples of Apollonius were gathered together in a room grieving over what they believed was the death of their teacher, Apollonius. They believed that his trial before emperor Domitian had inevitably resulted in his execution. Apollonius made a miraculous appearance, apparently divinely teleported from the place of trial to where his disciples were

“How then,” said Demetrius, “have you accomplished so long a journey in so small a fraction of the day?”

And Apollonius replied: “Imagine what you will, flying ram or wings of wax excepted, so long as you ascribe it to the intervention of a divine escort.”

and showed them he was not a ghost, but flesh and blood. Like Jesus, he invited them to touch him to prove this.

John 20:19-20

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

Luke 24:36-40

And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.

A Late Appearance to Convince the Lone Doubter

Doubting Thomas had his counterpart in a young disciple of Apollonius

Apollonius of Tyana

For there came to Tyana a youth who did not shrink from acrimonious discussions, and would not accept truth in argument. Now Apollonius had already passed away from among men, but people still wondered at his passing, and no one ventured to dispute that he was immortal. . . . The young man in question, however, would on no account allow the tenet of immortality of the soul, and said: “I myself, gentlemen, have done nothing now for over nine months but pray to Apollonius that he would reveal to me the truth about the soul; but he is so utterly dead that he will not appear to me in response to my entreaties, nor give me any reason to consider him immortal.

Such were the young man’s words on that occasion, but on the fifth day following, after discussing the same subject, he fell asleep where he was talking with them, and of the young men who were studying with him, some were reading books, and others were industriously drawing geometrical figures on the ground, when on a sudden, like one possessed, he leapt up still in a half sleep, streaming with perspiration, and cried out: “I believe thee.”

And, when those who were present asked him what was the matter; “Do you not see,” said he, “Apollonius the sage, how that he is present with us and is listening to our discussion, and is reciting wondrous verses about the soul?”

“But where is he?” the others asked, “For we cannot see him anywhere, although we would rather do so than possess all the blessings of mankind.”

And the youth replied: “It would seem that he is come to converse with myself alone concerning the tenets which I would not believe.

From Philostratus, The Life of Philostratus, 31

It looks quite mythical when told of Apollonius. How could ancients have seen the tale of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas any differently?

John 20:24-28

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Witnesses to Heavenly Ascent

Alexander the Great

Alexander had prayed to Zeus (Alexander Romance, 3:30):

And if it be thy will, receive me too in heaven, as the third mortal.

The other two mortals who had been taken into heaven were Heracles and Dionysus, whose steps Alexander had been following in his conquests into India. These two (angelic divinities) made their appearance at his death in the form of a star and an eagle:

And when Alexander had said this and much more, a mist formed in the air, and a great star appeared, shooting  from heaven to the sea, and together with it an eagle, and the statue in Babylon that they said was of Zeus stirred. The star returned back up to heaven, and the eagle followed it too. And when the star was lost from view in the heavens, immediately Alexander sank into eternal sleep.

From Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Alexander Romance

Augustus Caesar

a certain Numerius Atticus, a senator and ex-praetor, . . . swore that he had seen Augustus ascending to heaven after the manner of which tradition tells concerning Proculus and Romulus.

From Dio Cassius, Roman History

There was even an ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven.

From Suetonius, The Life of Augustus

Luke 24:4

two men stood by them in shining garments

Gospel of Peter, 35-40

But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. . . . and both the young men entered. . . . again they see three males who have come out from the sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one . . .  but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens.

As for the loud voice, compare the moment the philosopher Empedocles was taken from this earth in the previous section.

Luke 20:50-51

And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.

Acts 1:9-10

And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel

Words Exchanged from Jewish Myth

Words to Mary

In Tobit 12:20, after the angel Raphael revealed his identity (after he had been thought a fellow mortal) he said:

for I go up to him that sent me;

Compare John 20:17 and Jesus’ words to Mary:

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father:

Words of Thomas

When Tobit rejoiced in experiencing the presence of Raphael, he said (13:4):

for he is our Lord, and he is the God our Father for ever

Compare John 20:28 when Thomas witnessed the resurrected Jesus:

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God

Indications and Absurdities

To quote from an old article of Charles H. Talbert (JBL, 1975):

So . . . there are indications that some early Christians did think about Christ in terms of the mythology of the immortals. (p.433)

More bluntly, Robert M. Price (Jesus Is Dead, p. 168) writes:

The idea that these stories do not smack of mythology is just palpably absurd. Rather than functioning as an argument on behalf of faith, the claim has by now itself become an article of faith, so drastically does it contradict all manner of evidence.

Is there a worse example of the fallacy of special pleading, the double standard, than to dismiss all these mythical stories from other ancient religions and to claim that in the sole case of the gospels they are all suddenly true? Laughable in the one case, convincing in the other?

P.S.

There are more links between the gospel resurrection stories and various other myths. The famous example of Pythagoras knowing the exact number of fish being hauled in (Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras) and the Pythagorean number of 153 being the number of fish caught at Jesus’ command is one.


Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus

Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible at Lund University, Sweden, takes issue with the “near consensus” (in the wake of J. Z. Smith’s assault on Frazer’s work) that ancient “dying and rising gods” do not really return from the dead or rise to live again.

Since I made reference to Baal in this death and resurrection context in a recent post, have decided to summarize here Mettinger’s reasons for arguing that Baal in Ugaritic mythology did indeed die and return to life again. Mettinger’s book is The Riddle of the Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (2001). read more »