Was Individual Resurrection a Common Belief in the Ancient World? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A common claim of resurrection skeptics is that the people who lived in first century Palestine and the surrounding Roman Empire would believe just about anything.  They would have easily embraced the story of Jesus’ resurrection without thinking twice.  So, for the early proponents of Christianity who thought they really saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, it was relatively straightforward to spread the story.  After all, in the ancient world everything is believable.

Are the skeptics right?  Historian N. T. Wright has challenged the idea that the ancient world of Jesus’ day would have easily believed the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  Tim Keller, in The Reason for God, describes Wright’s research: “N. T. Wright does an extensive survey of the non-Jewish thought of the first-century Mediterranean world, both east and west, and reveals that the universal view of the people of that time was that a bodily resurrection was impossible.”

Wright first examines the dominant Greco-Roman worldview of the day.

In Greco-Roman thinking, the soul or spirit was good and the physical and material world was weak, corrupt, and defiling. To them the physical, by definition, was always falling apart and therefore salvation was conceived as liberation from the body. In this worldview resurrection was not only impossible, but totally undesirable. No soul, having gotten free from its body, would ever want it back. Even those who believed in reincarnation understood that the return to embodied life meant that the soul was not yet out of its prison. The goal was to get free of the body forever. Once your soul is free of its body, a return to re-embodied life was outlandish, unthinkable, and impossible.

But what about the Jews of Jesus’s day?  Were they expecting an individual resurrection, such as Jesus’s?

The report of Jesus’s resurrection would have also have been unthinkable to the Jews. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews saw the material and physical world as good. Death was not seen as liberation from the material world but as a tragedy. By Jesus’s day many Jews had come to hope that some day in the future there would be a bodily resurrection of all the righteous, when God renewed the entire world and removed all suffering and death.  The resurrection, however, was merely one part of the complete renewal of the whole world, according to Jewish teaching. The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable.

How would a first century Jew have responded to the claims of Jesus’s resurrection?

If someone had said to any first-century Jew, “So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!” the response would be, “Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb? Ridiculous!” The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.

Keller concludes his reporting of Wright’s historical analysis in part 2 of this post.  See you then!

  • Anonymous

    The historical fact is that a great many Jews and pagans found the Christian message extremely appealing. I am amazed that Wright and Keller can be so convinced that what indisputably did happen couldn’t have happened.

  • The Chisel

    Seeing that we’re talking about what history can teach us about Christianity, I’ll submit the following for contemplation.

    Given that Babylonians, Egyptians, Sumerians, and even the Greeks / Romans all had themes of resurrection in their mythology I’d lean towards the answer, “yes, resurrection was a common belief in the ancient world”

    Also given the fact that the Jews exodus was from Egypt specifically, where the legend of Osiris and Horus originated – and that the Church was developed in a roman controlled society (who was apt at assimilating other cultures as a method of preserving power) you have a seriously perplexing issue.

    Again compounding the issue is the fact that much of the Bible was not written until anywhere between 400-600 years after the life of Christ in Julianized (Roman) society – who again, had a wonderful habit of taking the religion of one civilization and moulding it to their personal interest and use – and the resurrection of Christ and Lazarus can become very easily become disputable

    My apologies to those that may take offence, there is none intended.

  • Stay tuned for part 2.

  • Chisel,
    The idea that Christianity borrowed heavily from pagan religious ideas has been thoroughly debunked by numerous historical scholars, including N. T. Wright. I’m surprised that you bring it up.

    I don’t even know how to process your contention that the Bible was mostly written 400-600 years after Christ. There is no reputable scholar in the world that holds that position.

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  • The Chisel

    I’ll admit my folly. I can neither source nor reference my cliam. It also detracts from the atmosphere of open discussion on your blog, and does not remain focused on the topic being discussed. Please accept my redaction and apology. I will do better to be more disciplined and on the level in my future comments.

    My main point is that the ancient world had many, many resurrection myths, and even many variations of the same ones. In response to your blog post Bill, I do believe that resurrection was a common theme in the ancient world that many people may have heard of.

  • I am quoting from an acknowledged expert on the ancient world who says that individual resurrection of the kind reported about Jesus was not something people of the ancient world were willing to entertain without great skepticism and that it, in fact, it flew in the face of the dominant worldviews of that time. You are, in effect, saying that his research is faulty. I can’t argue his case for him as I am not an expert in this area, but I am relying on the fact that he is widely respected in historical scholarship.

  • The Chisel

    N T Write is a Theologian. His entire academic background is in Theology and Divinity, but not in History or Archaeology.

    It would be nice if a scholar with a proper background in either history or archaeology could provide a non-partisan view for us.

    Write, being neither, is not a source I would accept as one of credible information based on proven fact.

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