suppose that the moment we begin to become critical readers of the Bible
is that in which we are no longer satisfied with being told what the
text means and we decide to see for ourselves. Soon we discover that
there really is no alternative. We may listen to and read many opinions,
the more the better, in fact, but ultimately it is up to us. We must
give the text our own careful scrutiny to see what it means. Likewise,
one frequently reads generalizations about ancient texts, and at first
one is willing to assume the experts are assessing the evidence
correctly. But as soon as we become aware of scholarly debates on, e.g.,
whether ancient Gnostics really believed in a divine redeemer, or
whether dying and rising saviors were a dime a dozen in antiquity, well,
then we realize we have to scrutinize all those texts for
ourselves, too! It seems one just cannot hold serious scholarly opinions
at second hand, like medieval Catholics swallowing whatever the priests
told them was orthodox belief. I have assured readers more than once
that the resurrection stories of the New Testament are cut from the same
cloth as many others from the same environment. But I don’t want anyone
to take my word for it. Let’s put the cards on the table, shall we?
Without a Trace
wondered how Mark could possibly have been satisfied ending his gospel
with no resurrection appearances. But Charles H. Talbert (What Is a
Gospel?) showed what Mark was probably thinking. He showed how there
were many ancient Hellenistic stories of a divine hero’s “apotheosis,”
or exaltation to heaven. Some were followed by visions of the departed
savior, others not. It was sufficient that the hero’s followers seek his
missing or slain body, find no trace of clothing or flesh, and finally
be assured by a heavenly voice or visitant that he had been taken up to
heavenly glory. Nuff said!
After Heracles, son
of Zeus, died, his friends looked for his bones and found nary a one.
Because they recalled a prior prophecy that he was destined for
immortality, they concluded he must have been taken to heaven.
As Heracles continued to
suffer more and more from his malady he dispatched Licymnius and Iolaüs
to Delphi to inquire of Apollo what he must do to heal the malady, but
Deïaneira was so stricken by the magnitude of Heracles’ misfortune that,
being conscious of her error, she ended her life by hanging herself. The
god gave the reply that Heracles should be taken, and with him his
armour and weapons of war, unto Oetê and that they should build a huge
pyre near him; what remained to be done, he said, would rest with Zeus.
Now when Iolaüs had carried
out these orders and had withdrawn to a distance to see what would take
place, Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself, ascended the pyre
and asked each one who came up to him too put torch to the pyre. And
when no one had courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed
upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of
the blow 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. (Diodorus
of Sicily, Library of History 4:38:3-5)
Likewise, Apollo's son
Aristaeus, after dwelling in the region of Mt. Haemus, was never
seen again, and all men assumed he had been taken up.
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. (Diodorus
Library of History
son of Venus, was the survivor of Troy whose descendants founded Rome.
After a certain battle, no one could find a trace of his body, so they
concluded he had been raptured to the gods.
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, who presides over the
waters of the river Numicius."
(Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1:64:4-5;
translation by Ernest Cary).
son of Mars, vanished from human sight after a battle in which the sun
was momentarily darkened. Some claimed actually to have seen him
ascending from the battlefield. He was deified as the god Quirinus
He disappeared on the Nones
of July... leaving nothing of certainty to be related of his death: only
the time... Romulus, when he vanished, left neither the least part of
his body, nor any remnant of his clothes to be seen... the senators
suffered them not to search, or busy themselves about the matter, but
commanded them to honour and worship Romulus as one taken up to the
gods. (Plutarch, "Romulus,"
the philosopher (484-424 BCE) invited some friends to a sacrificial
Then, after the feast, the
remainder of the company dispersed and retired to rest... while
Empedocles himself remained on the spot where he had reclined at table.
At daybreak all got up, and he was the only one missing. A search was
made, and they questioned the servants, who said they did not know where
he was. Thereupon someone said that in the middle of the night he heard
an exceedingly loud voice calling Empedocles. Then he got up and beheld
a light in the heavens and a glitter of lamps, but nothing else. His
hearers were amazed at what had occurred, and Pausanias came down and
sent people to search for him. But later he bade them take no further
trouble, for things beyond expectation had happened to him, and it was
their duty to sacrifice to him since he was now a god.
Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8:68). Trans. R.D. Hicks (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, rev. ed., 1931) Vol II, p. 383.
of Tyana (a contemporary of Paul), son of Proteus, was said to have
entered Dictynna's temple in Crete late one night, rousing the fearsome
guard dogs. But
instead of barking, they
approached him and fawned upon him... The guardians of the temple
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!"
He was no more seen on earth. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of
One particular story of the
discovery of an empty tomb, dating from the same time as John’s gospel,
contains a scene quite similar to that in John 20:1-10.
It is a passage from Chariton's
Chaireas and Kalliroe,
a novel written probably in the first century B. C. It concerns a girl,
mistakenly entombed alive, who has been removed by grave robbers.
Chaireas was guarding and
toward dawn he approached the tomb.... When he came close, however, he
found the stones moved away and the entrance open. He looked in and was
shocked, seized by a great perplexity at what had happened. Rumor made
an immediate report to the Syracusans about the miracles. All then ran
to the tomb; no one dared to enter until Hermocrates ordered it. One was
sent in and he reported everything accurately. It seemed incredible--
the dead girl was not there.... [When Chaireas] searched the tomb he was
able to find nothing. Many came in after him, disbelieving. Amazement
seized everyone, and some said as they stood there: "The shroud has been
stripped off, this is the work of grave robbers; but where is the body?"
David L. Dungan and David R. Cartlidge, Sourcebook of Texts for the
Comparative Study of the Gospels (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press,
1974), p. 157.
I am not
suggesting that John or the other evangelists used this novel as a
source. I mean only to show that vivid descriptions of empty tombs and
abandoned grave clothes prove nothing about "eyewitness authorship"
since we find them also in an admitted work of fiction.
and Great Commission
Luke were not satisfied with Mark’s teasing announcement of the Risen
Jesus, without any appearances, so they added appearances in which the
vanished Jesus appears to deliver his own eulogy, summing up his mission
and giving the disciples their marching orders for the next phase. Such
appearances, a literary device used to interpret the lasting
significance of the hero for the readers, were common enough in
Hellenistic religion, as witness the following episodes in which Romulus
appears after his initial lift-off from earth.
Proculus Julius was coming
from the Alba Longa; the moon was shining, he was not using a torch.
Suddenly the hedges on the left shook and moved. He shrank back and his
hair stood on end. Beautiful and more than human and clothed in a sacred
robe, Romulus was seen, standing in the middle of the road. He said,
"Stop the (Romans) from their mourning; do not let them violate my
divinity with their tears; order the pious crowd to bring incense and
worship the new [god] Quirinus."... He gave the order and he vanished
into the upper world from before Julius' eyes." (Ovid, Fasti
2:481-509, in David L. Dungan and David R.
Cartlidge, Sourcebook of Texts for the Comparative Study of the
Gospels (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974), p. 155.
Quirites," he (Julius Proculus, a senator) said, "the father of this
city, at the first light of this day, descended from the sky and clearly
showed himself to me. While I was awed with holy fright, I stood
reverently before him, asking in prayer that I might look at him without
sin. 'Go,' he said, 'announce to the Romans that Heaven wishes that my
Rome shall be the capital of the earth; therefore they shall cultivate
the military; they shall know and teach their descendants that no human
might can resist Roman arms.' He said this and went away on high."
(Livy, History of
Book 1:16, in Ibid.)
20:19-20 clearly presupposes the presence of all the disciples at the
appearance of the resurrected Jesus, John retroactively excepts Thomas
because he next wants to use him as a symbol for his readers, who of
course did not see the Risen Jesus and may feel themselves at a
permanent disadvantage. The story is of a piece with Philostratus' story
of how the ascended master Apollonius satisfied the doubts of a
The young man in
question... would on no account allow the immortality of the soul, and
said, “I myself, gentlemen, have done nothing now for 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... on a sudden, like one possessed, he leaped
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?” they 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."
(Life of Apollonius of Tyana 8:31)14. Conybeare trans., Loeb ed, Vol. II. pp. 403, 404.
On the Road Again
think the story of the two disciples meeting the unrecognized Christ on
the road to Emmaus (Luke
24:13-35) reads too much like vivid eyewitness testimony to
be considered legend? Then consider the parallel provided by a votive
tablet Stele 2.25) posted in the healing shrine of the god Asclepius in
Epidaurus, Egypt, in the fourth century BCE:
Sostrata, of Pherae, had a
false pregnancy. In fear and trembling she came in a litter and slept
here. But she had no clear dream [the usual medium for revealing the
inspired prescription from the god] and started for home again. Then,
near Curni she dreamt that a man, comely in appearance, fell in with her
and her companions; when he learned about their bad luck he bade them
set down the litter on which they were carrying Sostrata; then he cut
open her belly, removed an enormous quantity of worms-- two full basins;
then he stitched up her belly and made the woman well; then Asclepius
revealed his presence and bade her send thank-offerings for the cure to
Epidaurus. (Mary R. Lefkowtiz
and Maureen B. Fant (eds.), Women's Life in
Press, 1982), p. 122.
Kettle of Fish
5:1-12 and John 21:1-19 offer two versions of the same original story,
the miraculous catch of fish. Scholars debate whether the story began
as a resurrection appearance, as it still meets us in John, or as a
miraculous calling of the disciples, as per Luke. The problem is
especially knotty given that the Johannine version shares elements with
the story of Jesus walking on or by the sea (Mark 6:45-52; Matthew
14:22-27; John 6:16-21). The preposition may be translated either
way. Some have speculated that these, too, were at first resurrection
stories, and that what originally frightened the disciples was not
seeing a still-living Jesus walking on the unbroken sea surface but
rather beholding the dead (now risen) Jesus walking by the sea.
They were alarmed, not at the mode of his locomotion, but because, the
last they knew, Jesus was dead!
suspect that it was not originally a resurrection story (though I still
discuss it here, since it appears as such in John). Originally the story
came from the tradition of Pythagoras, son of Apollo.
time he was going from Sybaris to Krotona. At the shore, he stood with
me fishing with nets; they were still hauling the nets weighed down
(with fish) from the depths. He said he knew the number of fish that
they had hauled in. The men agreed to do what he ordered, if the number
of fish was as he said. He ordered the fish to be set free, living,
after they were counted accurately. What is more astonishing, in the
time they were out of the ater being counted, none of the fish died
while he stood there. He paid them the price of the fish and went to
Krotona. They announced the deed everywhere, having learned his name
from some children. (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, 36, 60f.,
D.R. Cartlidge trans, D&G 55)
judgment we can be sure John has taken over a version of the Pythagoras
story (though it may already have been Christianized before it came into
John's hands). Why? Simply because of the now-irrelevant survival of the
exact number of fish. It has been retained (perhaps because someone
felt, like modern commentators do, that the number must mean something)
from a version where it mattered because the whole thing hinged on the
hero correctly assessing the number of fish in the nets. That was the
miracle in the Pythagoras version. And the whole thing is done for the
sake of freeing the poor fish: Pythagoreans were strict vegetarians.
Christians were not, so it didn't occur to them that Jesus would free
the fish. So the miracle shifted to Jesus providing the catch when the
disciples had hitherto caught nothing. The exact number is irrelevant;
we only need to know the nets were too heavy to drag in (John 21:6). We
do not hear that anyone on the scene counted them. (Nor would they have
counted them in John’s version. Can you imagine? “You fellows go on and
have breakfast with the resurrected Son of God; I’ll just count up these
fish!”) But the number survives nonetheless, and it is a very special
number--special to mathematical philosophers like the Pythagoreans,
anyway. One hundred fifty three, the number of fish in John 21:11,
"happens" to be what Pythagoreans called a "triangular number;" in fact
the sixteenth triangular number. 153 is the sum of
1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17. 153 is also what you get if
you add as follows: 1+(1X2)+(1X2X3)+(1X2X3X4)+(1X2X3X4X5). Add together
the cubes of all the digits in 153 and you get153! [Dr. Crypton,
"Mathematics in the Bible," Science Digest, May 1985, 78.]
Apologists often produce the imagined trump card that the resurrection
appearances could not have been hallucinations since we are told that
groups ranging from two to over five hundred beheld the resurrected
Jesus. I will not dwell on the fact that such a style of argument
presupposes that these defenders of the faith have performed their own
resurrection, bringing back the Rationalists of the eighteenth century
as their opponents, strange half-skeptics who believed the gospel
stories were all historically accurate but non-supernatural in nature.
It seems clear to us now that in the Easter stories the visit to the
tomb is fully as fictive as the appearance of angels there. Likewise we
do not take for granted that Peter, Mary, and the rest actually saw
anything on some far-off Easter morning, so that we must decide whether
what they saw was Jesus himself or an hallucination. It’s all moot. But
for the record, yet another ancient text sheds light on the apologists’
claims. They reasonably argue that a group of people could not see the
very same hallucination unless we posit some type of telepathy. But it
remains true that people can share visions in the manner of a contagious
chain reaction. Gershom G. Scholem describes such visionary fervor
connected with the seventeenth-century messiah Sabbatai Sevi:
The people of Smyrna saw
miracles and heard prophecies, providing the best possible illustration
of Renan's remark about the infectious character of visions. It is
enough for one member of a group sharing the same beliefs to claim to
have seen or heard a supernatural manifestation, and the others too will
see and hear it. Hardly had the report arrived from Aleppo that Elijah
had appeared in the Old Synagogue there, and Elijah walked the streets
of Smyrna. Dozens, even hundreds, had seen him.... A letter written in
Constantinople notes apparitions of Elijah "whom many have seen."
Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 417, 446.
If I hear you saw Elijah or
Jesus, I may see him, too. We will both have “shared” the same
hallucination. But that does not mean we are claiming to have shared the
exact same sights and sounds, as if we were both watching the same TV
screen in separate rooms. I may have “seen” Jesus in a white toga, while
you imagined you saw him in a red robe. Mine may have had black locks,
while yours sported brown hair. It would have depended on what we
expected him to look like. We may have “heard” him say different things
or nothing. How fascinating that early Christian literature preserves a
scene in which a group of charismatic widows (ascetic women) have
simultaneous visions of the risen Jesus, and it pointedly says they did
not see the same thing.
Then Peter said to them,
"Tell us what you saw." And they said, "We saw an old man, who had such
a presence as we cannot describe to you"; but others said, "We saw a
growing lad"; and others said, "We saw a boy who gently touched our
eyes, and so our eyes were opened,"... So Peter praised the Lord,
saying,... "God is greater than our thoughts, as we have learned from
the aged widows, how they have seen the Lord in a variety of forms"
The Acts of Peter, translated by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, in W.
Schneemelcher and Edgar Hennecke (eds.), New Testament Apocrypha,
Volume II (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), p. 304
canonical gospels, only Luke depicts Jesus’ ascension into heaven at the
conclusion of his “encore” resurrection appearances. His ascension scene
(24:50-53) seems so close to Josephus’ scene of Moses’ departure that it
may be based on it.
All who accompanied him [Moses]
were the senate [the seventy elders], and Eleazer the high priest, and
Joshua their commander. Now as soon as they were come to the mountain
called Abarim... he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to
embrace Eleazer and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud
stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley,
although he wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of
fear, lest they should venture to say, that because of his extraordinary
virtue, he went to God. (Antiquities of the Jews, 5. 1.48)
Whiston trans., p. 123.
But Philo’s version is
similar enough to show what category of ancient tales Luke’s belongs to.
when he was about to depart
from hence to heaven, to take up his abode there, and leaving this
mortal life to become immortal, having been summoned by the Father, who
now changed him, having previously been a double being, composed of soul
and body, into the nature of a single body, transforming him wholly and
entirely into a most sun-like mind... For when he was now on the point
of being taken away, and was standing at the very starting-place, as it
were, that he might fly away and complete his journey to heaven, he was
once more inspired and filled with the Holy Spirit, and while still
alive he prophesied admirably what should happen to himself after his
death, relating, that is, how he had died when he was not as yet dead,
and how he was buried without anyone being present so as to know of his
tomb, because in fact he was entombed not by mortal hands, but by
immortal powers, so that he was not placed in the tomb of his
forefathers, having met with particular grace that no man ever saw."
(Life of Moses 39) C.D. Yonge, trans., Nahum N. Glatzer,
ed., The Essential Philo (NY: Schocken Books, 1971) pp. 269, 270.
Though each seems to feel
the need to be cagey about it, it is plain enough that both writers
believed Moses did not really die but ascended into heaven. This was
because no one could locate his body; no one knew where (or if) there
was a grave.
Were the Easter stories of
the gospels typical of ancient Hellenistic myth and legend? You decide.
By Robert M.