Was Individual Resurrection a Common Belief in the Ancient World? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, Tim Keller presented historian N. T. Wright’s analysis of Jewish and Greco-Roman attitudes toward an individual resurrection. Would the ancient world have accepted the story of Jesus’s resurrection without serious skepticism? According to Keller, Wright’s research indicates that the Greco-Roman world would not have been at all receptive.

But what about Jews in particular? Keller mines Wright’s historical research to further examine two skeptical theories which attempt to explain how the story of Jesus’s resurrection could have originated.

Over the years, skeptics about the resurrection have proposed that the followers of Jesus may have had hallucinations, that they may have imagined him appearing to them and speaking to them. This assumes that their master’s resurrection was imaginable for his Jewish followers, that it was an option in their worldview. It was not.

Others have put forth the conspiracy theory, that the disciples stole the body and claimed he was alive to others. This assumes that the disciples would expect other Jews to be open to the belief that an individual could be raised from the dead. But none of this is possible. The people of that time would have considered a bodily resurrection to be as impossible as the people of our own time, though for different reasons.

Keller notes that in the first century there were many other Jews who claimed to be the Messiah, and who were executed for those claims. What role did resurrection play in those cases? Here is Wright:

In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead. They knew better. Resurrection was not a private event. Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was.

There is only one Jew who claimed to be Messiah and whose followers proclaimed that he rose from the dead after he was executed. Perhaps they proclaimed it because it actually happened.

  • Anonymous

    Now I’ve seen part 2 and my objection stands. We know as a historical fact that many Jews and pagans in the ancient world were receptive to a belief in Jesus’ resurrection. That might not be what we would have guessed, but it is overwhelmingly the strongest evidence of what their attitude to the resurrection actually was. We cannot simply ignore that evidence to make absurd claims like Keller and Wright do.

  • Anonymous

    Now I’ve seen part 2 and my objection stands. We know as a historical fact that many Jews and pagans in the ancient world were receptive to a belief in Jesus’ resurrection. That might not be what we would have guessed, but it is overwhelmingly the strongest evidence of what their attitude to the resurrection actually was. We cannot simply ignore that evidence to make absurd claims like Keller and Wright do.

  • The question is whether Jews and pagans were receptive to a belief in Jesus’s resurrection without great skepticism, without wanting to see and hear evidence. Wright has done the hard work of studying the dominant worldviews of the time and determined that they would have been skeptical, indeed. Where has he gone wrong?

  • Anonymous

    How, if at all, were ancient Jews and pagans able to fact-check a rumor that they heard from many miles away? So they were “skeptical.” Maybe they were. But how were skeptics convinced? What evidence did they demand and then receive? Do Keller and/or Wright touch on this at all?

  • Anonymous

    This seems to me like an irrelevant point to be making. It is historically true that many ancient Jews were caught up in messianic movements, and that quite a number of people claimed to be the messiah themselves. There is something about Jesus’ story (as it developed over time) that makes it unique among other stories that we know of. There’s surely things about those other stories that make them unique among the others, as well. Everyone wants to have something that makes their movement special and exciting. This isn’t evidence of anything.

  • Anonymous

    Our best evidence on that question has to be the Jews and pagans who were receptive to that idea and the evidence that they found persuasive. What does Wright say about that?

  • Keller doesn’t explicitly touch on it and I have not read Wright’s entire book on the resurrection yet, but I can throw my two cents in. While the witnesses to the resurrection were alive, they passed on their eyewitness testimony. In addition, the New Testament reports that the apostles were given, for a period of time, the power to perform miracles themselves to confirm what they were saying was true.

  • I don’t know. I would recommend reading Wright’s book yourself.

  • Anonymous

    If I were going to write a blog post trying to convince someone that his arguments were any good, I might.