As we have shown here, the resurrection of Jesus, within the context of Judaism, was thought by Gentiles to be what can be described as "grossly" physical. This in itself raises a certain problem for Christianity beyond a basic Jewish mission. We have regularly quoted the dictum of Pheme Perkins: "Christianity's pagan critics generally viewed resurrection as misunderstood metempsychosis at best. At worst, it seemed ridiculous."
It may further be noted 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. Platonic thought, as Murray Harris puts it, supposed that "man's highest good consisted of emancipation from corporeal defilement. The nakedness of disembodiment was the ideal state." Physical resurrection was the last sort of endgame for mankind that you wanted to preach.
Indeed, among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible. Wright in Resurrection of the Son of God quotes Homer's King Priam: "Lamenting for your dead son will do no good at all. You will be dead before you bring him back to life." And Aeschylus Eumenides: "Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection." And so on, with several other quotes denying the possibility of resurrection. [32-3]
Before looking at the history, let us first examine the logic. Holding is saying:
1. Several pagans were "denying the possibility of resurrection"
2. Therefore "among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible"
Well, okay, it may convince the sort of Christians who find Holding appealing, but it is not exactly good logic.
Jewish beliefsAlthough Holding is talking about pagan beliefs, I want to start by looking at Jewish beliefs to give some context, as Christianity sprung from Judaism.
Most Jews at that time believed in a resurrection. At some point in the future, they expected the dead to rise, and that the good would go to heaven, the bad to hell. This is made clear in Daniel (and seems to be a belief that evolved over the course of the Old Testament):
Daniel 12:1 And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.Paul, when arguing for the resurrection, references the scriptures:
2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
1 Corinthians 15: 3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;The implication here is that the scriptures fully supported the concept of resurrection.
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
To be sure, not all Jews believed in an afterlife at that time. The Sadducees were an important sect of that time, and rejected all such claims, and the Bible records them challenging Jesus on this very issue:
Mark 12:18 Then come unto him the Sadducees, which say there is no resurrection; and they asked him, saying,This was a running debate the Sadducees had with all religious teachers of the time; the Saducees arguing that resurrection makes no sense, the Pharisees, Essenes and Jesus himself pointing out that scripture makes it clear that resurrection will happen.
19 Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man's brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
20 Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed.
21 And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise.
22 And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also.
23 In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife.
24 And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?
25 For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.
26 And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?
27 He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.
Pagan BeliefsHolding is talking about the gentiles, so what were the pagan beliefs with regards to resurrection? Is it really true that "among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible"? The short answer is No!
Justin Martyr, arguing the case for Christianity to pagans (1 Apology 21), specifically likened Jesus' resurrection to the presumably well known resurrections of the time:
In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union, as Jesus Christ our Teacher, and that he was crucified and died and after rising again ascended into heaven we introduce nothing new beyond [what you say of] those whom you call sons of Zeus. You know how many sons of Zeus the writers whom you honor speak of—Hermes, the hermeneutic Word and teacher of all; Asclepius, who was also a healer and after being struck by lightning ascended into heaven—as did Dionysus who was torn in pieces; Heracles, who to escape his torments threw himself into the fire; the Dioscuri born of Leda and Perseus of Danae; and Bellerophon who, though of human origin, rode on the [divine] horse Pegasus. Need I mention Ariadne and those who like her are said to have been placed among the stars? and what of your deceased emperors, whom you regularly think worthy of being raised to immortality, introducing a witness who swears that he saw the cremated Caesar ascending into heaven from the funeral pyre?Legend also has Asclepius raising the dead (specifically Hippolytus in some accounts) using the blood of a gorgon, though it must be noted that this was considered wrong and he was punished for it. The resurrection of Dionysus have him special relevance to the mystery cults of the time. In Egypt, the resurrection of Osiris was very well-known, and had a strong connection to the yearly flooding of the Nile, which gave life to lands thereabouts.
All these offer examples of special cases of resurrection; gods and demi-gods coming back to life. But for some Romans a personal resurrection was expected too, just as it was for the Jews. A major competitor of Christianity was Mithrasism, which was particularly popular with the Roman military:
Mithra, legend says, was incarnated into human form (as prophesized by Zarathustra) in 272 bc. He was born of a virgin, who was called the Mother of God. Mithra's birthday was celebrated December 25 and he was called “the light of the world.” After teaching for 36 years, he ascended into heaven in 208 bc.It is interesting to note that the Judaic concept of resurrection is thought to have come from the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians, during their time in exile, which is also where Mithraism originated.
There were many similarities with Christianity: Mithraists believed in heaven and hell, judgement and resurrection. They had baptism and communion of bread and wine. They believed in service to God and others.
There is some evidence that Mithra himself was believed to have been resurrected, though this seems uncertain. However, it is enough for our purposes that members of the cult believed they would be resurrected. This is sufficient to disprove the claim that "among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible".
What Type Of Resurrection?Holding says: "Physical resurrection was the last sort of endgame for mankind that you wanted to preach." Perhaps that is why Paul was a pains to point out that the resurrection was not of the fleshy body, but of a new spiritual body:
1 Corinthians 15:38 But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.As Holding says, "Platonic thought, as Murray Harris puts it, supposed that "man's highest good consisted of emancipation from corporeal defilement." What Paul describes fits that perfectly. Far from putting potential converts off - as Holding would have us believe - this is a major attraction of the new faith!
39 All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.
40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.