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Brand X Easters


I 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
Many have 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 of Sicily, Library of History 4.82.6)

Aeneas, 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).

Likewise, Romulus, 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 Plutarch.

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," 2, 27)

Empedocles the philosopher (484-424 BCE) invited some friends to a sacrificial feast.

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. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8:68). Trans. R.D. Hicks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, rev. ed., 1931) Vol II, p. 383.

Apollonius 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 Tyana 8:30)

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?"[11] 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.

Postmortem Appearance and Great Commission
Matthew and 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.

"Romulus 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 Rome, Book 1:16, in Ibid.)

Johnny Come Lately
Though John 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 skeptical disciple.

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
Does anyone 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 Greece and Rome (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 122.

A Fine Kettle of Fish

Luke 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!

I 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.

At that 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)

In my 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.]

Seeing Double

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" (chapter 21).[17] 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


Up, Up, and Away

Of the 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. Price



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