Were resurrections common events in ancient times?

The Rest is History Podcast…

One of my favourite podcasts is ‘The Rest is History’ hosted by Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, looking at a wide range of historical events, people and interesting historical phenomena. Last Thursday on the 14 April (the day before Good Friday) they released an episode looking at the subject of ‘Crucifixion’, and as usual, it had lots of helpful and fascinating insights.[1]

But what got my attention was the brief discussion they had about resurrection. This is what Tom Holland said:

‘The key to easter is the resurrection…that in terms of antiquity is not unusual. Lots of mortals are raised up to the heavens…all kinds of gods who die and are raised from the dead…This is all very common…’

They listed three examples to show resurrections were common – Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus and the story of Osiris.

It’s a common enough move made to state that the resurrection of Jesus was not unique, but I was disappointed with the oversimplification and generalisation, and even mis-categorisation made by two historians I respect.

Defining Resurrection

First of all, what did the earliest disciples mean when they claimed Jesus rose from the dead?

The gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. Jesus speaks to his various disciples (e.g. Matt 28:18-20;; John 20:15-17), says to Thomas he can touch his wounds (John 20:27), and even eats fish and breaks bread with some (John 21:12-14; Luke 24:13-35).

On top of this, Jewish beliefs saw resurrection as the final end-time event where everyone would be raised either to eternal life or eternal justice (Dan 12:2). Jesus claimed he, through his death and resurrection, was that end-time event happening in the middle of history. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

Comparing Apples with Oranges

But when we talk about Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus are we saying that they physically rose from the dead, that their tombs were empty and they appeared to their followers? Or was it that in death they ascended to the heavens as gods?[2]

Granted, Jesus ascended to heaven after the resurrection, but the ascension and resurrection are not the same thing, even if they are linked. A spiritual ascension of the soul to survive death is not the same as a physical resurrection. Tom Holland is miscategorising or falsely equating a spiritual ascension with a bodily resurrection. They are not the same thing in Judeo-Christian thought. It’s comparing oranges and apples

This is something Tom Holland has written about before. For example, Christianity Today published an extract from his Revolutionary: Who was Jesus? Why does he Still Matter?[3] which Holland edited. In it he writes about Augustus (though it sounds like Jesus):

“Many rejected him, but many accepted him as their Lord. In the end, not even death could hold him in its chains. Cheating the tomb, he rose and ascended into heaven. There, seated at the right hand of his father, he reigned in divine majesty. Meanwhile, on earth, his disciples did not forget their risen Saviour. Across the known world, the memory of him was cherished in people’s hearts. This, so it was proclaimed in Galatia and in Thessalonia, in Corinth and in Rome, was ‘euangelion’: ‘good news’”.[4]

Now there’s many fascinating parallels between Augustus and Jesus that probably highlight how the earliest Christians were seeking to show Jesus was the ‘better Caesar’ by borrowing language associated with Augustus. But this is the language of subversion not outright comparison.[5] For although it is written Augustus’ soul ascended to the heavens (and in this sense did cheat death because he wasn’t in any realm of the dead) – he does not physically rise from the dead. His physical body did not ascend to the heavens. So, in this crucial respect, it is not a resurrection.

N.T Wright on Comparisons

The historian N.T Wright wrote a huge book showing how the resurrection of Jesus had no clear parallel in ancient times. More specifically, to the point of deifying emperors and their souls ascending to heaven, he writes in summary:

“…who were the dead? They were humans who, through quite extraordinary lives, had shown themselves either worthy of translation to divine status or perhaps to have been all along a divine being in disguise. Where were they? In the heavenly home of the immortal gods; perhaps among the stars. They had not, however, been raised from the dead. Cicero is quite clear and completely in the mainstream of greco-roman thought: the body is a prison-house. A necessary one for the moment; but nobody in their right mind, having got rid of it, would want it or something like it back again. At no point in the spectrum of option about life after death did the ancient pagan world envisage that the denials of Homer, Aeschylus and the rest would be overthrown. Resurrection was not an option”.[6]

Once again, souls ascending to heaven after death is not the same as the claim that Jesus rose physically from the grave and had new physical life, before ascending physically to heaven.

But what about Osiris?

The example of Osiris as a parallel to the resurrection, does not hold up either. Although there are various stories told about how Osiris died, one is that his brother Set kills him and cuts his body into fourteen pieces and Osiris’ wife (and sister!) Isis finds thirteen of the pieces[7] and manages to raise him to life. But not to life in the physical world, but to life as Lord of the Underworld.

Is this really a parallel to resurrection? As one person quipped, this isn’t a resurrection but a zombification.[8] And the hero of the story isn’t Osiris but either Isis or his son, Horus.

Unfortunately, this type of oversimplification and lack of precision when talking about these events just blurs the boundaries. Resurrections – in that dead people were physically raised from the dead to new life, never to die again were not common – in fact, Jesus’ resurrection was unparalleled.

N. T. Wright, stresses this fact near the end of his mammoth book:

“The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise [from the dead] is itself part of early Christian belief…The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is a part of the claim itself”.[9]

[1] You should give it a listen. They don’t come to the gospels with the expectation that every detail is true, but their historical insights are very interesting. See ‘Rest is History: No. 175. Crucifixion’ 14 April, 2022.

[2] Perhaps then, the place of comparison is the theme of ascension, not the resurrection. 

[3] See, https://spckpublishing.co.uk/revolutionary-881

[4] https://www.christiantoday.com/article/the.paradox.of.august.caesar.and.the.paradox.of.jesus.christ/136606.htm

[5] See for example John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus: An Introduction to the Man from Nazareth for Believers and Skeptics and specifically ‘Chapter 12: Caesar – His Subversion of an Empire’. Dickson begins by writing: “Some will have heard before of the child born in the Roman Empire over two thousand years ago who would change the course of history, at least for a while. As the child grew, his charisma and power would command the loyalty of countless thousands. By the time he was in his thirties he would be seen as the fulfilment of national hopes and founder of an endless kingdom. His achievements would be considered miraculous, signs of divine authority, particularly the way he established peace in a period marked by chaos. So significant was this man’s entry into history that official proclamations, known as “gospels,” were published throughout the world in his honour. One such proclamation was inscribed on stone and uncovered in Priene on the southwest coast of Turkey. It describes how the governor of the region decreed that the year of this Saviour’s birth was henceforth to be known as Year 1 of a whole new calendar system. The inscription declares: God sent him as a saviour for us to make war to cease, to create peaceful order everywhere. And the birthday of this “god” was the beginning for the world of gospels that have come to men through him. So, Paulus Fabius Maximus, the proconsul of the province of Asia [modern Turkey] has devised a way of honouring him, namely, that the reckoning of time for the course of human life should begin with the year of his birth. The “saviour” I am describing is not Jesus, but Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Caesar Augustus (63 BC–14 AD), the first emperor of Rome.” (pp. 209-210).

[6] N.T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 60.

[7] I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what part of Osiris’ anatomy was not found!

[8] See Licona and Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 91.

[9] N.T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 712. Original emphasis.

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