From where did the belief in a physical Resurrection come from? Could we trace its origin to pagan roots or was it unlike anything else in antiquity?
In part 2 of my look into the way we define Resurrection in the New Testament, I made an off-hand remark about the way a physical resurrection was seen in paganism and other ancient religions. I want to expand on that a little more here because it is just as important to establish the Resurrection’s unlikeness as it is to establish its historical validity. It is important because, for as long as New Atheism has been around, there have been arguments claiming that Jesus Christ and His Resurrection were nothing more than copies of various pagan gods and deities. I am not interested, at this time, in going through and debunking each and every comparison made (although I will provide a link below to a comprehensive list that does so). What I am interested in is how they saw and interpreted the belief of a physical resurrection.
In his book, Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament, New Testament scholar Richard Longnecker notes that,
When “resurrection” proper is mentioned in nonbiblcial Greek literature, it is most commonly in a statement of its impossibility: the dead are not raised….It was simply “against nature” to insist that the body has a role in the afterlife (and)….”to mix heaven with earth is foolish.” For it is only as the soul separates from the body that it “becomes altogether pure, fleshless (asarkon).”
Longnecker, R. Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament p. 74
The ancients saw death as a one-way street. From death, you either ceased to exist or you were born a spirit. You were not resurrected or brought back to life.
“Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Aeschylus, Eumenides 647f
“Bear thou up, neither wail ever ceaselessly in thy heart; for naught wilt thou avail by grieving for thy son, neither wilt thou bring him back to life; ere that shalt thou suffer some other ill.” (Homer, Iliad 24.549-551)
According to Plato and Cicero, the pagans believed that, although the body would die, the soul was immortal and would go on to live in the afterlife. N.T. Wright notes that,
“….Neither in Plato nor in the major alternatives mentioned do we find any suggestion that resurrection, the return to bodily life of the dead person, was either desirable or possible.” Wright, N.T., The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 53
This is confirmed by the words of one of earliest Christianity’s biggest rivals, Celcus, as Larry Hurtado notes,
Celsus also ridiculed Christian teachings about Jesus’ incarnation and about his resurrection. The latter idea was especially repellent to Celsus, as to many other pagans of that time. Although he granted that the soul may have, or may be given, everlasting life after death, it was unthinkable that it should ever be reunited with a body.
Hurtado, Larry W.. Destroyer of the gods (Kindle Locations 617-620). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition.
Additionally, there is an interesting verse in the Old Testament that reflects the common belief of death in the ancient world.
And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me (2 Samuel 12:22-23 bold mine).
There is no parallel in ancient literature of a physical resurrection from the dead, nor would have such a belief been desirable to anyone who wanted to be liberated and freed from the flesh. It is no surprise then that the Christians who went about proclaiming that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead (and that we would be too, as Paul argued) were as hated and reviled as they were. Such a claim was offensive to an extreme degree. To make up the claim that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead would be nothing short of preposterous and perhaps even suicidal. There is simply no evidence that the Resurrection of Jesus was derived from pagan sources.