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Richard Carrier Improbable Resurrection

Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


3. Was Resurrection Deemed Impossible?

3.1 The Popularity of Resurrection

3.2 How the Pagan Mission Changed Christianity

3.3 Jewish Background

3.4 Was There a Better Idea?

3.5 Conclusion


3.1. The Popularity of Resurrection

James Holding’s next argument is that pagans would not buy a physical resurrection of the flesh. “Indeed,” he says, “among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible.” Of course, this would be no problem for the mission to the Jews, since a great many Jews (though not all of them) already expected such a thing. But it is false anyway: many pagans believed resurrection was possible, even desirable. And those were probably the very pagans the Christians converted. Already the Jews appear to have gotten the idea of a resurrection of the flesh from pagans: it was a fundamental of Zoroastrian belief, and throughout the Roman period Zoroastrianism was the common national religion in the Persian Empire (in practical terms, everything east of the Roman Empire up to about India). Theopompus and Eudemus of Rhodes, both Greek historians of the 4th century B.C., described this Persian belief. Theopompus wrote in particular that “according to the [Persian] Magi, men will be resurrected and become immortal, and what then exists will endure through their incantations.”[1] So the idea of a physical resurrection would be readily accepted by enough Jews and Persians to present no difficulty for the Christian message.

But even a great many Greco-Roman pagans flirted with the possibility of being raised from the dead. We have so many stories and claims of physical resurrection within the pagan tradition that there can be no doubt the Christian claim would face no more difficulty than these tales in finding pagan believers. Herodotus records the Thracians believed in the physical resurrection of Zalmoxis, and formed a religion around it that promised eternal paradise for believers, and later on certain Italians came to believe in the resurrection of Aristeas of Proconnesus. 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 came to life.”[2] Celsus, though himself a doubter, attested to a widespread belief in resurrected men among pagans, rattling off a list of those whom pagans believed rose again:

Zalmoxis in Scythia, the slave of Pythagoras; and Pythagoras himself in Italy; and Rhampsinitus in Egypt, whom, they say, played at dice with Demeter in Hades, and returned to the upper world with a golden napkin which he had received from her as a gift; and also Orpheus among the Odrysians, and Protesilaus in Thessaly, and Hercules at Cape Taenarus, and Theseus.

Later on Celsus added to this list the aforementioned Aristeas of Proconnesusas well as the deified Dioscuri, Asclepius (see below), and Dionysus.[3] We’ve already discussed the resurrections of Romulus, Osiris, Adonis and Inanna as well (in Chapter 1), and we could add several mortals who were resurrected in Greek myth besides the Dioscuri, such as Eurydice and Alcestisand in legend, Theseus.[4] So it is plainly false to claim that no pagans would believe in a resurrection of the body, especially for a deified or divine man. Even Hercules, whose “resurrection” is usually portrayed only as an ascent to heaven, nevertheless ascended in his divine body, after its mortal material was burned away on the pyre.[5] In like fashion, Celsus reports that “a great many Greeks and Barbarians claim they have frequently seen, and still see, no mere phantom, but Asclepius himself.” And not only was Asclepius a resurrected and deified mortal, but he was the preeminent “resurrector of the dead,” and that was a prominent reason pagans held him in such esteem. Since Justin could not deny this, he was prompted to claim that “the Devil” must have introduced “Asclepius as the raiser of the dead” in order to undermine the Christian message in advance.[6]

It goes well beyond this. Lucian and Apuleius both report the common belief that resurrecting the dead (“calling moldy corpses to life,” as Lucian puts it) was one of the expected powers of a sorcerer, and sorcery was very popular among the majority of pagans. Hence Apuleius has his fictional sorcerer Zatchlas raise Telephron from the dead. But among historical claims, Apuleius relates a medical resurrection performed by Asclepiades. Apollonius of Tyana was believed to have risen a girl from the dead using a spell. In the 4th century B.C. Heraclides of Pontus recorded that through some mysterious art Empedocles “preserved the body of a lifeless woman without pulse or respiration for thirty days” and then “he sent away the dead woman alive.” Proclus reports that Eurynous of Nicopolis was “buried before the city by his relatives” but then “returned to life following the fifteenth day of his burial” and lived many more years, and that Rufus of Philippi, a pagan high priest, “died and returned to life on the third day,” living long enough to tell his story.[7]

Pliny the Elder reports there were numerous such tales believed by many people, even without magic. He says Varro reported on two different occasions seeing “a person carried out on a bier to burial who returned home on foot,” besides witnessing the apparent resurrection of his uncle-in-law Corfidius. Pliny also reports that the sailor Gabienus had his throat cut “and almost severed” yet returned from the dead that evening, to report on his visit to Hades. Plato records a similar story related by Alcinous about Er the Pamphylian, who “was slain in battle” and ten days later his body was recovered and brought home, then “at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day, as he lay upon the pyre, he revived” and “after coming to life he related what he said he’d seen in the world beyond.” In a similar story, the Syrian commander Bouplagus rises from the dead on a body-strewn battlefield (despite having been stabbed twelve times) as Roman soldiers were looting the bodies, and chastised the Romans for looting the dead. The Lady Philinnion returned to life to visit her lover. The villainous Aridaeus fell to his death but returned to life “on the third day” to relate his trip to heaven, and was so transformed by what he learned there that he led a life of impeccable virtue thereafter. Timarchus spent two nights and a day in a sacred crypt, during which time he died, visited heaven, and returned. Ultimately, Pliny the Elder says he also knew of “cases of persons appearing after burial” but chose not to discuss them because his book was about “works of nature, not prodigies.” This nevertheless proves such tales were transmitted and believed by many people. Pliny himself doesn’t say what he believed, only that these stories weren’t the subject of his book. But he still records numerous returns from death, and as we have seen there are many, many more.[8]

The great abundance of these tales reflects a widespread hope of returning to life within the pagan community, or at the very least refutes any notion that this was always thought to be “impossible.” The evidence is overwhelming: that one could return to life in the body that died, or in an even better body, was a commonplace belief among a great many pagans, and was not deemed “impossible” except by a few skeptical elites (such as the Epicureans). What matters here is not what the true events were behind all these stories of resurrected men and women. What matters is that many people clearly believed these were genuine risings from the dead, or that such a thing could and did happen, or was something they could imagine happening. Nor does it matter how much any of these stories resemble that of Jesus (also a demigod, being the divine son of a god), for the relevant underlying concept remains the same: returning to life in a body. Therefore, Holding cannot maintain there was any significant resistance to the Christian claim among those pagans who actually did convert. To the contrary, they would have found a large and ready audience eager to believe just such a thing. Any differences there may have been between the many and varied pagan ideas of resurrection and what the Christians taught (which itself varied according to sect) were all minor points of metaphysical detail, not fundamental barriers to the idea of Jesus returning bodily from the dead.


3.2. How the Pagan Mission Changed Christianity

It is sometimes claimed that the Jews made a distinction between resurrection and mere resuscitation (even though there is no evidence such a distinction was at all widespread among the Jews), but that makes no difference here: anyone who would readily believe in the resuscitation of a corpse (and we see many pagans did) could easily believe (for example) in the subsequent improvement of the body rendering it immortal. The Zoroastrians believed this explicitly, and many of the Greeks and Romans did, too, in their conception of the divine body of gods and immortal heroesand what the Christians were selling was essentially the very same thing.[9]

So, contrary to Holding, there is no apparent barrier to conversion here. Indeed, even the New Testament proves this: when Paul preached at Athens, then one of the greatest centers of intellectual life and critical thought in the whole world, his audience reacted in several different waysthey didn’t all think what he said was ridiculous. Though “some” of the Greeks “sneered,” others said “we want to hear you again on this subject” and “a few” even “became followers of Paul and believed” (Acts 17:30-32). That probably represents the true proportion of pagan responses to the entire Christian message: some sneered, exactly as Holding observes; but some remained curious and considered it; and a few even bought it and believed.[10]

Against this Holding declares that “the pagan world was awash with points of view associated with those who thought matter was evil and at the root of all of man’s problems.” Such a point of view did exist among a segment of the population, yesespecially among the more snobbish elite. It was the dominant paradigm among Orphic mystics and Platonist philosophers, and a feature of the more popular mystery religions. But we have no evidence of many advocates of those movements flocking to early Christianity. Hence it appears those were the very people the Christians largely failed to evangelize in their first hundred years. Rather, their success was greatest among the middle and lower classes, among whom this Platonic and Orphic disdain for the flesh is less in evidence. And yet even so, the earliest Christians sought to accommodate even these sensibilities, as we see in Paul’s effort (in 1 Corinthians 15:35-54, Corinthians 4:16-5:10, and Romans 7:18-8:18) to articulate a view of the resurrection that appealed to the very sensibilities of the Orphic mindset: we will leave the dirty material behind and get bodies made of superior, heavenly material instead. However you interpret what Paul was trying to say in these passages, it cannot be denied that what he says would have appealed to the very people Holding has in mind here, because it satisfied their desire to live forever without the stains and burdens of our present bodies. Thus, Christianity could be sold to everyone.[11]

As Christianity evolved into numerous competing sects over the later first century, some went even further toward this Orphic disdain for the flesh accommodated by Paul (and we generally call these groups Gnostic, though not always correctly), while others went in the other direction, toward a restoration of the flesh that died (for whom I have coined the word Sarcicist, after sarx / sarcis, “flesh”). Concerning this split, Dale Martin demonstrates that “early Christian preaching about the resurrection of the dead” actually “divided the Corinthian church along social status lines.” He shows how the elite members “influenced by popular philosophy to deprecate the body, opposed the idea of a resurrected body,” while the lower classes more “readily accepted early Christian preaching about resurrected bodies.” The division arose because Jew and Gentile alike “could find analogies” within “their own culture, especially in views apparently held by the masses.” But these views were “generally ridiculed by the philosophically educated,” whereas to the lower classes such a view was “perfectly acceptable.” In fact, popular concern to save the flesh is reflected in the popularity of personal and funerary beliefs that obsessed over the relative integrity of the corpse and body.[12] This did not mean they expected to get their bodies backbut it does mean they would not have abhorred the idea of getting their bodies back, especially improved bodies, free of all that was bad about the old ones, which is exactly what the Christians were offering.

Caroline Bynum, a leading expert on resurrection ideology in the West, argues that “one cannot say that Christians taught literal, material, fleshly resurrection because Christ rose thus” as “there is a full range of interpretation of Jesus’s resurrection in the Gospels and Paul,” so the choice made by any particular group still “requires explanation.” And it appears that one leading motive of the Sarcicists was to maintain social hierarchy and control. Bynum demonstrates that Christians who explicitly defended a resurrection of the flesh after the 2nd century argued it was necessary to make sure, for example, that women remained subjugated to men. Jerome, disgusted by women using a Pauline doctrine to justify haughty declarations of sexual equality, implied that resurrection of the flesh was needed to oppose this, apparently to ensure women remained subjugated to men in the future world. In contrast, Paul envisioned the elimination of all distinctions of class, race, and gender in the end (Colossians 3:11). Even Paul’s infamous misogyny was based on the inheritance of sin through Adam and Eve (1 Timothy 2:12-14), which of course would all be done away with in the new creationfor once their “body of Adam” died (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-50), women would no longer inherit the sin of Eve.[13] This was the original vision of the Christian movement: equality for everyone in a utopian future, against the elite use of class, race, and gender distinctions to oppress the people under the heel of injustice. But after its first hundred years this vision was hijacked by a sect obsessed with maintaining these inequalities, even in heaven. Since this development came many generations later, the story of why and how it took place can have nothing to do with what really happened to Jesus on that first Easter Day.

We cannot be certain whether that was the original motive for a shift away from Paul and toward a more radical Sarcicism in the first hundred years of the Church. It appears to have been a factor in its success later on (especially after the 3rd century, when Christianity became a religion of the government), but those first hundred years are inadequately documented to find out what happened or why (which is also a problem for anyone who wants to insist, contrary to the evidence of Paul, that the original church was thoroughly Sarcicist). But from the analysis of Dale Martin and others, and given the evidence of popular beliefs I surveyed above, it seems likely that many among the uneducated masses, and some among the educated class, were disturbed by the idea of losing their body. These groups were apparently not impressed by highbrow attempts to argue for a disembodied immortality. To the contrary, regardless of what they believed, getting their bodies back was more what they wanted, and was easier to understand, defend, and explain, and that made them highly receptive to the idea. Judaism clearly offered it, and early Christianity was unmistakably a Jewish movement.

An influx of various Jews and pagans who were more attracted to the idea of a resurrection of the flesh (suitably improved and glorified) would have inevitably influenced how some churches came to interpret the resurrectionand once persecution became more widespread (in the 2nd and 3rd century), many actual and potential converts who were happier with other modes of salvation might have found easier paths in accepted pagan cults and Jewish sects. This meant persecution may have caused Christianity to swell with those very people who wanted to get their flesh backsince Christianity was the only cult offering that on easier terms (Judaism offered it only on very hard terms, as explained in Chapter 2). And these people would primarily have come from the most anti-elitist segments of the populationfor it was precisely their disdain for the ivory castle argumentation of philosophers that led them to sneer at highbrow concepts of immortality and favor instead the more popular ideas, elevating the dreams and longings of the common man above the fancy rhetoric of the stuffy academics. The effect this had on the development of Christian dogma was probably significant (I discuss this further in Chapter 8.4).

Hence when Holding quotes the remark of Pheme Perkins that “Christianity’s pagan critics generally viewed resurrection as misunderstood metempsychosis at best” and “at worst, it seemed ridiculous,” we can agree: that does capture the range of attitudes among its critics. But those critics did not represent every view held in antiquity, and by definition they did not represent Christianity’s supporters or converts. It is a simple matter of logic: those who sympathize will join or tolerate a creed, while those who have opposing ideas will use them to attack that creed. So we cannot claim what those critics say is what the converts believed. To the contrary, it almost certainly is notthat is why they converted. Thus, Holding’s arguments do well to explain why some of those who refused to join the movement did not convert. But his arguments tell us nothing about why those who converted actually did so. He can’t present a single example of anyone saying “I used to think resurrection was so impossible as to be ridiculous, but the Christians convinced me otherwise!” So Holding’s original premise must be restated: “among some pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible.” Can we generalize from that to say that all pagans would have resisted the idea? No.

Obviously, Epicureans like Celsus had strong dogmatic reasons to hold resurrection in contempt. That is why we have no record of any Epicurean being convinced within the first hundred years, and why Celsus tries so hard to argue that resurrection was ridiculous. But Epicureanism was always a minority sect in antiquity. So Holding cannot use the arguments of an Epicurean to represent the entirety of the ancient world. Yes, for Celsus, as he himself said (from the fictional perspective of a skeptical Jew), “the question is whether any one who was really dead ever rose with a veritable body.” But neither his Epicurean, nor a Sadducean, nor a Platonic attitude were commonplace among the masses, nor were they universal even among the elite. His own argument attests this, for Celsus is criticizing Christians for making the same claim of resurrection as many pagans, not a different one. Again, differences in metaphysical detail are irrelevant here, since no matter the details, it’s still the same thing: getting to rise from the dead to live forever in a better body. That’s what the Christians as well as a great many pagans believed possible.

The bottom line is, as even Origen points out, “being an Epicurean, Celsus does not hold the same views with the Greeks, and neither recognizes demons nor worships gods as do the Greeks” and therefore his critique of Christianity does not represent the general attitudes of the Greeks (or Romans or Syrians or anyone else).[14] It represents certain segments of opinion, but a minority only. Epicureanism was perhaps the rarest dogma going. Platonism was more popular, but far more popular still were eclectic varieties of Stoicism and Aristotelianism, and the beliefs among the masses could be described as vulgarized amalgams of all these, with a rich variety of differing opinions. Christians simply won the hearts of those who had sympathetic opinions, hence those who believed it was at least possible to come back to life in a superior body. And the evidence is abundantly clear that there were many who thought so.


3.3. Jewish Background

So much for the mission to the pagans. What about the Jews? Holding claims that among the Jews “there was no perception of the resurrection of an individual before the general resurrection at judgment.” But that is not true. Individual Hebrew and Christian resurrections abound in scripture,[15] and many Jews had no trouble believing that Jesus might be the resurrected Elijah or John the Baptistin fact, they expected the resurrection (or at least “return”) of Elijah to presage the general resurrection of Israel. This is clear from the following conversation recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

Jesus commanded them, saying, “Report this vision to no one, until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” And his disciples asked him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And he answered and said, “Elijah did come, and shall restore all things. Indeed I say to you, that Elijah has already arrived, and they knew him not, but did to him whatever they wanted. In such a way shall the Son of man also suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood he was talking about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:9-13)

In other words, Jesus says he will rise from the dead, prompting his disciples to ask him, if that is the case, why Elijah hasn’t returned from the dead (or from heaven, where the dead go [16]), since he is supposed to come first. Jesus responds by saying Elijah already did come. And that meant John the Baptist was the risen Elijah, and so the disciples infer.

Thus, it must have been a common belief that there would be an individual return to the land of the living, before the end, similar to Christ’s (in whom resided the spirit of God rather than, in the case of John, the spirit of Elijah). We see this also when King Herod heard of the miracles performed by Jesus and his disciples, at which “he said, ‘John the Baptizer is risen from the dead, and that’s why these powers work in him!'” While “others said it is Elijah” or “one of the prophets” of old (who certainly died and were buried, even if Elijah wasn’t), “Herod, when he heard these things, said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, he is risen’.”[17] Does that sound like “there was no perception of the resurrection of an individual before the general resurrection”? To the contrary, it sounds like Jews and Gentiles were ready to believe in just such a thing.

Other sources confirm there were many Jews, even within the Rabbinic tradition, who expected the resurrection to take place in stages, not all at once. There were many different opinions as to how many stages and in what order they would rise. But in one scheme there would be four stages: first Adam, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then those buried in Palestine, then everyone else. Some Jews also thought their martyrs would rise before everyone else, too.[18] And, of course, as we already saw, the Gospels attest to the belief that John might rise from the dead before the general resurrection, as well as the belief that Elijah or even some other prophet would rise early, heralding the approach of the end. But it is notable that the first expected to rise in one scheme was Adamwhich might explain why Christ was regarded as the “new” Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Either way, the idea of a staged resurrection formed the basis of Paul’s apologetic for why Jesus rose before everyone else: “in Christ all will be made alive, but each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then those who belong to Christ, at his coming, and then the end comes” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24). That Paul regarded Christ as the “firstfruits” entails he believed the resurrection of Jesus was the first stage of the general resurrection, for the firstfruit was always the first sheaf of grain in one general harvest, and in like fashion Paul emphasizes that the resurrection must take place in the proper order. Thus Paul, like many other Jews, believed the general resurrection would come in stages, and for them the resurrection of Jesus would (and did) indicate the general resurrection had begunwhich is why Paul appears to have expected the end to come in his own lifetime.[19]


3.4. Was There a Better Idea?

So there was no barrier here, eithermany Jews were prepared to accept that a Christ might rise from the dead before the rest of Israel. However, Holding does raise a more nuanced argument: “A physical resurrection was completely unnecessary for merely starting a religion,” he says, since “it would have been enough to say that Jesus’ body had been taken up to heaven, like Moses’ or like Elijah’s.” Of course, this argument requires supposing Jesus was fictional. If it is the case that Jesus was executed and buried as the Gospels say, then resurrection was the only claim available, since an actual public death and burial would prevent any other claim being made. In other words, if everyone knew Jesus was dead, then Christians could only claim he ascended to heaven by also claiming he rose, in some sense, from the dead. But even if Holding can wriggle out of that conundrum, there are three other important problems with his last argument.

The first problem with this argument is that it suffers from a common flaw in counterfactual history: it assumes only the easiest and most persuasive ideas win out. History decisively refutes such a notion: a great many zany ideas have gained widespread purchase and endured for centuries. For example, requiring castration to enter the priesthood was “completely unnecessary” for the success of the Attis cult, since it “would have been enough” to have, say, some sort of symbolic castration instead (exactly like Paul’s device of replacing the true circumcision with a “spiritual” one, even calling that the better one, in Romans 2:28-29 & Philippians 3:3). But they didn’t. And yet the cult flourished, at least as well as Christianity did in its first hundred years. In like fashion, in later Christian history unitarianism was easier to sell than Nicean trinitarianism, since unitarianism (as championed, for example, within Arianism) was less convoluted and left fewer opportunities for attack and criticism, yet the Church sided with the latter despite having to expend vast resources and foster tremendous strife and violence to win the argument. So religions often succeed by starting out or sticking with the position harder to defend.

The second problem with this argument is that it assumes there was no other reason for choosing the more difficult sell. As we already have seen, there were reasons why many people, among both Jews and Gentiles, wanted to believe in a resurrection, either by raising the flesh or by gaining a superior body like heroes and demigods. Those were the people who joined up, and many eventually formed the Sarcicist sects of the Christian church. Their reasons for believing something regarded as so odd by various others had more to do with their desires and expectations, and disdain for lofty philosophical systems, than with their being convinced by a decisive presentation of empirical evidence (a point we shall address in later chapters).

Both the first and this second problem negate Holding’s argument because Christianity’s success was not at all remarkable until the late 3rd century. Before then it was a struggling minority cult. Indeed, it barely even blipped on the radar of Roman society before the age of Trajan. We will demonstrate this in Chapter 18. Here it is enough to note that, when the evidence was still theoretically checkable and therefore relevant to Holding’s case, Christianity only won a tiny fraction of the hearts and minds of the Greek, Roman, and Jewish world. That kind of humble success does not require Christianity to have been the most sellable product since the invention of beer. As long as it would sell at all, as long as a tiny fraction of the evangelized groups would find it attractiveand we’ve shown they wouldthen Christianity would succeed on the scale we observe for that first century, just as the cult of Attis did. And we can certainly say that requiring men to hack off their testicles is a far stronger deterrent than preaching a Christ risen in the flesh, an idea a great many people already accepted as plausible.[20]

But the third and most important problem with Holding’s last argument is that it places the Gospels before Paulwhen we know the order is the other way around. Holding says “it would have been enough to say that Jesus’ body had been taken up to heaven” in order to get the religion started, yet as it turns out, that appears to be exactly how it did start: Paul never makes any distinction between Christ’s resurrection and ascensionand he also equates our resurrection with Christ’s, and describes our resurrection as an ascension.[21] Holding asks “why bother making the road harder?” But clearly that is a question to ask for later Christians, not the Christians of Paul’s generationfor maybe they didn’t make it harder.

And as we have already seen, those who later deviated from Paul by reconceiving Christ’s resurrection as a revival of his (divinely improved) corpse, and then distinguished that event from his ascension, were not making the road harderrather, they were making it easierfor their chosen target audience: the disgruntled, anti-elitist masses, who were awash with stories of revived corpses and resurrected god-men appearing on earth. Though this did make it a harder sell to many educated elites and their allies and sympathizers, we see that Christianity already had a very hard time winning such people over, exactly as Holding’s argument predicts. In contrast, those few elite intellectuals who eventually did convert and told us why do not give the account of their reasons that Holding wants: rather than being overwhelmed by what we would call empirical evidence, they were dissatisfied with all the alternatives (we will present this case in Chapter 17).


3.5. Conclusion

It is clear that, contrary to Holding’s claims, a bodily resurrection, even of an individual, was not regarded as impossible by all pagans and Jews, but only some of them. Indeed, for many, especially among those groups the Christians most successfully evangelized, such a resurrection was eminently credible and sometimes desired. Thus, Holding’s argument fails even if we suppose the Gospels represent the original Christian beliefand we’ve seen reasons to suspect they do not.[22]


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[1] This quote and the corroboration of Eudemus are preserved by the Roman historian Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.9 (3rd century A.D.). That Theopompus said this is also corroborated in the 6th century by Aeneas of Gaza, Theophrastus 72. Despite a few skeptics, most scholars now agree the Jews got the idea from the Persians: see the summary of modern scholarship in John Hinnells, Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies (2000), esp. pp. 29-92. Borrowing is demonstrated not only by the fact that early Greek sources identify it as a Persian (and not a Jewish) belief, but by the fact that the Old Testament completely lacks any reference to the doctrine until after the Jews were exiled to cities in contact with Zoroastrianism.

       For example, the earliest mention comes from the author of Ezekiel 37, who came up with the idea only late in his career, after twelve years of captivity in Babylon (per Ezekiel 33:21). Daniel mentions it, too, but this book is written about events in Persia and among Zoroastrian magi, and is a 2nd century B.C. forgery anyway, as demonstrated by Curt van den Heuvel in “Revealing Daniel” (1998); see also “Daniel, Book of,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000). Likewise, Isaiah 26:19 appears in a section that modern scholars agree was heavily redacted in the postexilic period (see ibid., “Isaiah, book of”).

       The best recent treatments of this aspect of Zoroastrian belief throughout Western history is provided by Alan Segal, “Iranian Views of the Afterlife and Ascent to the Heavens,” Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (2004): pp. 173-203; Albert De Jong, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature (1997) and “Shadow and Resurrection,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 9 (1995): pp. 215-24; and Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 3 (1975), esp. pp. 367-68 and 392-440.

[2] Herodotus, Histories 4.94-96 & 4.13-16 (also in Apollonius, Miraculous Stories 2.2); Lucian, Lover of Lies 26. I discuss the issue of pagan resurrection beliefs in the “Main Argument” of Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (5th ed., 2004), and elsewhere. That worshippers of Zalmoxis, “King and God,” obtain immortality is attested in Plato, Charmides 156d (Zalmoxis and his followers were also noted healers: ibid. 156e-158b). The sources and sociological background to the Zalmoxis cult is excellently surveyed by Mircea Eliade in Zalmoxis the Vanishing God (1970).

[3] Origen, Contra Celsum 2.55, 3.26, 3.22. Besides the Dioscuri, Pliny says many gods lived and died on alternating days (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.5.17). Celsus didn’t believe in resurrection because he was an Epicurean (who, unless these are two different men, ibid. 4.36, 4.57, sometimes also adopted a Platonic point of view for his fictional critics of Christianity, cf. ibid. 1.8, 4.75; note also Lucian, Alexander the Quack Prophet 1-3, 60-61). For an updated analysis of a select few examples of pagan beliefs about their own resurrected gods see Tryggve Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (2001) and “The Dying and Rising God: The Peregrinations of a Mytheme,”in Ethnicity in Ancient Mesopotamia (ed. by W.H. van Soldt, 2005), pp. 198-210.

[4] Eurydice returns from the dead but due to a flubbed promise is forced back, while Alcestis is returned to life by being either rescued or sent back from Hades, either way for selflessly exchanging her life for that of her husband (cf. Apollodorus, Library 1.3.2 & 1.9.15). Euripides wrote an entire play on the death and resurrection of Alcestis: cf. Euripides, Alcestis (esp. 1115-61; notably, once risen from the grave, she could not speak “until purified in the sight of the nether gods on the third day,” 1144-49). As for Theseus, the famous Athenian king was seen by soldiers fighting on the side of the Athenians at Marathon: Plutarch, Theseus 35.4-36.2 (who alone calls it a phasma, “ghost,” yet still a demigod, thus he appeared in a numinous divine body instead of his original body that was still buried, cf. Plutarch, Cimon 8.5-6); Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.15.3 (who says Athenian art depicts Theseus “rising from the ground” at Marathon). The legend is discussed by Robert Garland, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion (1992), pp. 82-98; and Emily Kearns, The Heroes of Attica (1989), pp. 120-4. The “resurrection” of Theseus appeared in Athenian art within 30 years of the event: cf. J. Neils & S. Woodford, Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 7.1 (1994), pp. 922-51; and H. A. Shapiro, Art and Cult under the Tyrants in Athens (1989), pp. 143-49.

[5] On Hercules ascending in his “divine” body while leaving the mortal part of his body behind, see: Lucian, Hermotimus 7, which must be read in the context provided by Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (1995), pp. 3-37, w. 115-17, 127-28; and Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Mortals and Immortals: The Body of the Divine,” Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (1991), pp. 27-49.

[6] Origen, Contra Celsum 3.24; Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin and Trypho the Jew 69. For attestations to Asclepius as both resurrected and resurrector, see Edelstein & Edelstein, eds., Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (1945), esp. § 66-93, § 232-56 (and § 382-91, § 443-54). Most famously, before his deification Asclepius raised Tyndareus from the dead (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 29.1.3), but even in general, Aristides, a devout follower of Asclepius, assumed his pagan audience thought a god might be able to resurrect a dead man (Aelius Aristides, Funeral Address in Honor of Alexander 32.25).

[7] Lucian, Lover of Lies 13; Apuleius, Florida 15, Metamorphoses 2.28, Florida 19 (also referred to in Pliny, Natural History 26.8; and Celsus, On Medicine 2.6.15); Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.45 (the author expresses uncertainty whether she was really dead, but this proves he did not rule it out); Heraclides of Pontus, via Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.61, 8.67 (another account of this resurrection appears in Apollonius, Miraculous Stories 2.1). Proclus reports on Eurynous and Rufus in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic 2.115-16, for which I quote the translation of William Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels (1996), pp. 199-200.

[8] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.176-179. Er: Plato, Republic 614b. Bouplagus & Lady Philinnion: Phlegon, De Mirabilibus 3 (Lady Philinnion is also reported in Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Republic 2.115-16) & 1. Aridaeus: Plutarch, On the Delayed Vengeance of the Gods 563b-568a. Timarchus: Plutarch, On the Sign of Socrates 590a-592e. There were also legends and stories of people resurrected by magic herbs: Pliny the Elder, Natural History 25.5.14 (Tylon and others); Hyginus, Fables 136 (Glaucus); Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library 1.25.6 (Isis resurrecting Horus). There might also have been a popular belief that the Emperor Nero would or did return from the dead (Suetonius, Nero 57; Tacitus, Histories 1.2, 2.8; Augustine, City of God 20.19; some allusions in book 5 of the Sibylline Oracles). And several cases of “ghosts” returning from the grave are also recorded where the “ghost” clearly had a completely physical body: e.g. Polites (Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.6.7-11) and Polycritus (Phlegon, De Mirabilibus 2; Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Republic 2.115-16).

       On resurrection as a common theme in pagan sacred fiction as well, see G. W. Bowersock, Fiction as History: Nero to Julian (1994), and Note 39 from the “Main Argument” of Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (5th ed., 2004). For example, Petronius made fun of the theme by having his hero embark on a pilgrimage to “resurrect” his penis (Satyricon 140.frg.2), and Plutarch mentions a play attended by Vespasian in which a dog played at dying and rising again from the dead (On the Cleverness of Animals 973e-974a).

[9] There was no such distinction between “resurrection” and “resuscitation” in the Greek or Hebrew languages: the same words meant both. For instance, the most distinctive Christian word for “resurrection” (anistêmi and cognates) was used just as often to refer to ordinary occasions of “getting up” from sleep or rest, waking up from an apparent death (Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus 839a), or the pagan idea of revival of a corpse (e.g. Phlegon, De Mirabilibus 3 says “anestê ho Bouplagos ek tôn nekrôn,” “Bouplagus rose from the dead,” the exact same terminology employed by Christians for Jesus). The Christians themselves used the same word for mere revivification, too (Hebrews 11:35; Mark 5:42, 6:14-16; Matthew 9:25; Luke 8:55, 9:7-8; Acts 14:19-20).

       So there was no distinction in the vocabulary. And the conceptual distinction was hardly commonplace or well-defined even within Judaism. I demonstrate this point in “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232. In summary, the general resurrection for some Jews was identical to resuscitation, the only difference being that God would change the laws of the universe so bodies would not die or decay (much as the Zoroastrians believed), whereas other Jews (like Paul) imagined instead that God would change our bodies to produce the same effectwhich was no different from what pagans imagined happening to deified heroes (as is well argued in the two books cited in Note 5 above; and see also Richard Carrier, “Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange,” 2002). In fact, that the Christian conception of resurrection was essentially the same as apotheosis in a new divine body is clear from Paul, who describes resurrection as rising in a superior, glorious body akin to the bodies of heavenly beings (1 Corinthians 15:35-54), and then ascending into the sky (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) to rule over angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), which is essentially how the pagans imagined their demigods.

[10] Holding says “we can see well enough that Paul had to fight the Gnostics, the Platonists, and the ascetics on these counts,” though it is unclear to me what he means. There is no case anywhere in the Epistles, or even in Acts, where Paul debates with any of these groups by name, nor any example of any of these groups disputing the resurrection of Jesus (e.g. even his opponents at Corinth only denied the resurrection of the converted, not that of JesusPaul thus rebuts them by explaining how denying the latter was an unforeseen consequence of denying the former, which means he assumed they all agree Christ was raised: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20). I can only suppose Holding means that Paul must have engaged such debates, even though we have none on record (except general allusions to them, e.g. Acts 17). That is probably trueat least, Paul must have debated the concept of resurrection with, for example, Platonists in Athens. It is less certain if he debated whether Jesus was raised with Christian Gnostics or Proto-Gnostics, since most such sects agreed he was. Paul might have debated the details with them, but there is no specific evidence of that. Nor is there any evidence he wrestled with Christian groups who actually denied the resurrection of ChristI suppose that is possible, though explaining how there could be such groups so close to the evidence would raise an interesting conundrum for Holding.

[11] I make a brief case for this in “General Case for Spiritual Resurrection: Evidence Against Resurrection of the Flesh,” Part 3 of Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (5th ed., 2004). But I demonstrate the point with decisive thoroughness in “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232. Note that I do not argue that Jesus was believed to have risen as a soul, but that he left his flesh behind and entered a new body composed of spiritual substance, the substance of angels and other heavenly bodies. It is not necessary to agree with that conclusion here. It is enough to observe that, whatever Paul is saying, it is targeted at accommodating those who do not want to live forever in exactly the same bodies they have now, but in something more heavenly and pure, while at the same time satisfying those who do not want to live forever as a disembodied soul.

[12] Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (1995), pp. 107-08 (he also demonstrates the popularity of the resurrection of corpses among the pagan commons: pp. 111-12, 122-23). The same conclusion is reached, from different evidence and angles, in Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy (1995) and Stanley Porter, “Resurrection, the Greeks and the New Testament” (in Resurrection, edited by Stanley Porter, Michael Hayes and David Tombs, 1999, pp. 52-81). On popular funerary beliefs, see Caroline Bynum, Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity: 200-1336 (1995), pp. 45-47, 48, 51-58. The motives for preserving bodies intact were varied, and did not imply hope of resurrectionrather, what the evidence demonstrates is that not everyone regarded corpses as mere offal, but held the welfare of the corpse to be important to the well-being of the dead. As Bynum demonstrates, discarding or mutilating corpses often disturbed peopleand that is not the attitude of a Platonist.

[13] Caroline Bynum, Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity: 200-1336 (1995), pp. 26-27. Jerome’s remark appears in Epistles 84.6. Similar sentiments were echoed in Tertullian, De Pallio 3-4 and Didascalia 19 (cf. 1-12), etc. For discussion, see Bynum, pp. 90-91, 99-100.

[14] Origen, Contra Celsum 3.35. Similarly, all of N. T. Wright’s evidence (to which Holding refers) comes only from a few literary elites, who were not representative of the ancient pagan world. Indeed, much of Wright’s evidence comes from the wrong period: four centuries before the Roman era! And the wrong place: the highly unique culture of Classical Athens.

[15] 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:19-37, 13:21; Mark 5:21-43 [paralleled in: Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56]; Luke 7:11-17; Acts 9:36-43 & 14:19-20; John 11:5-44.

[16] According to Jewish understanding in the time of Christ: cf. b. Talmud, Chagigah 12b; Philo, On the Migration of Abraham 2-3, Questions and Answers on Genesis 3.10-11, 4.74; Josephus, BJ 2.154-55, 3.372-75.

[17] Mark 6:14-16; cf. Matthew 14:1-2. In Luke’s account (9:7-8) we hear that “others” besides Herod believed Jesus was the resurrected John. That many Jews believed Elijah would return before the general resurrection is attested in Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin and Trypho the Jew 49, and was most directly based on Malachi 4:5, but also “interpreted” out of certain obscure passages in Zechariah.

[18] See: Hermann Strack & Paul Billerbeck, “Allgemeine oder teilweise Auferstehung der Toten?” [“Resurrection from the Dead: All at Once or in Stages?”] Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrash 4.2 (1961): pp. 1166-98; Adolf Jellinek, ed., Bet ha-Midrash (1967), 3.13; Chaim Meir Horovitz, ed., Bet Eked ha-Agadot (1967), 1.58; Solomon Wertheimer, ed., Leket Midrashim (1960), pp. 6, 12. Curiously, Matthew says “many saints” rose before everyone else on the day Jesus died (Matthew 27:52-53), which creates all manner of problems for Christian dogma, but it does resemble the Jewish idea of staged resurrection.

[19] See Romans 13:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; and 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It seems every Christian generation for the next two centuries expected it to come in their own lifetime (see, for example, Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians 1987, pp. 266-67).

[20] Besides all the evidence already given, consider the remark of Justin Martyr (emphasis added):

When we say that the Word, who is our teacher, Jesus Christ the firstborn of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem Sons of God. (Apology 1.21)

Justin could not make this argument it if wasn’t truewhich means even his own strictly Sarcicist notion of resurrection was neither new nor different for pagans, refuting Holding’s claim that it was. Holding might claim Justin is lying, but why should we believe that? Justin would not shoot himself in the foot by using an argument his pagan audience knew was baloney. For if Justin knew pagans would know this statement is false, why would he say it? Clearly, he believed it would appeal to pagans and win his argument. Therefore, it must have been truetrue enough not to make him look like a liar.

[21] Our resurrection just like Christ’s: 1 Corinthians 15:13, 15-16, 20, 23, 35; Philemon 3:21; Romans 6:5. Cf. 1 John 3:2. Our resurrection will be an ascension: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. That Paul never distinguishes the resurrection and ascension of Christ is evident from all his kerygmatic hymns and lists: his summary of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 mentions no ascension, only the resurrection (so also Romans 1:1-6); and his summary of the Gospel in 1 Timothy 3:16 mentions no resurrection, only the ascensionyet Paul could not exclude mention of the resurrection in any summary of the Gospel, so he must have believed the ascension was the same thing (similarly for the “exaltation” of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11). At the very least, there is no evidence Paul regarded them as separate events.

[22] I have omitted from the body of this essay Holding’s unintended implication that Christians were persecuted because they believed in resurrection, quoting N. T. Wright. Holding has clarified himself on this point, explaining that this is not what he meant by “one of the themes of that persecution was the Christians’ tenacious hold on the belief in bodily resurrection,” but if anyone mistook him to mean that, please note that his evidence does not relate to the claim. Such treatment does not mean Christians were persecuted because of this belief, only that their persecutors were mocking their faith. Anti-Semites who snatch a Jew’s yarmulke or the Imperial Guards who cut off the sacred topknots of Samurai were not persecuting Jews and Samurai because they wore yarmulkes and topknots.

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.