The Laughable Idea That the Christian Idea of Resurrection Was Stolen from Pagans (N.T. Wright's "Resurrection" Study #2)
Fully Alive is studying N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God for the Easter season! Find out more here.
Part I: Setting the Scene of the book (p 3-206) is split into four chapters: one about studying the resurrection as history and Wright's methodology, one about ancient pagan beliefs about life after death, and two about Jewish beliefs about the subject.
Check out the first article in the series here. This second article focuses on Part I, Chapter 2: Shadows, Souls, and Where They Go: Life Beyond Death in Ancient Paganism (pg. 32-84).
Nothing, or Worse
Pagan views of life after death were almost exclusively very grim, as Wright lays out in his exhaustive, 50+ page outline on the topic.
For the ancients, Homer and Plato were the Old and New Testament. If you’ve ever taken a cursory glance at Homer’s fatalistic Iliad or Odyssey, you can intuit what Wright says: “In so far as Homer has anything to say about resurrection, he is quite blunt: it doesn’t happen” (32). Homer’s view of the world after death – if there is one – is scarcely more uplifting. Wright spends many pages (33-47) giving examples of the shady (pardon the pun) underworld of Homer, in which phantoms live in a gloomy, hopeless malaise.
Plato's Move Forward
Plato’s philosophy led him to a far different view of life after death, but one that is still far away from the idea of resurrection in Second Temple Judaism, much less the Christianity that sprang from it. For Plato, “death is not something to regret, but something to be welcomed. It is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set from the prison-house of the physical body” (48). Hades, by this view, is a pleasant and benign home for the soul after death (49). Plato’s views led to Epictetus, who sees death as a nice thing that shouldn’t be feared at all, and the gnostics, who believed that the material world was bad-to-evil.
The closest Plato gets to resurrection is his idea of transmigration: that after death a soul either lives pleasantly in Hades (which is among the stars) or is transmigrated into another body (59). Of course, as Wright points out, this is not the resurrection of a person body and soul who had died.
Eating with the Dead, Empty Tombs, and Other Curiosities
There were certain rituals in ancient paganism that denoted something like life after death. Dead family members were buried with trinkets and food for the journey. Families would even gather around graves to “eat with the dead.” Mediums could famously conjure the dead, and there are some stories in pagan literature of people leaving or attempting to leave the underworld – though they all end poorly for the person who tries. But none of this points to the idea that they anybody would someday rise body and soul a la the Christian idea of resurrection.
The Scheintod motif in pagan novels around the time of Christ (p. 68ff) is particularly interesting. Empty tomb narratives are found in a number of novels from this era, although it always has to do with someone cheating death or people thinking that somebody is dead when they’re actually alive.
The empty tomb scenes from these stories are eerily like those of the Gospel writers. As Wright points out: “If we suppose that strange, wild rumors of a real empty tomb were going around the ancient world in the middle of the first century, it is perfectly plausible to suppose that writers of fiction – in a very different genre to that of the gospels! - would have picked up and developed it within their own narrative worlds” (72).
It makes me think, though, of another, option that is far less palatable for Christians. Considering that much of the Koran is reportedly taken from Christian fiction of the era it was written in, and the Book of Mormon was clearly based on early science fiction, are the resurrection stories in the Gospels just the first in this venerable religious tradition?
Other traditions about life after death from this era bound, and they are each interesting. There are stories of kings and gods being assumed into immortality (the deaths of Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament are close parallels), many theories of transmigration, and gods and goddesses “resurrecting” to metaphorically represent the changing of the seasons and such.
Life After Death in Ancient Paganism: Unwanted and Unrealistic
Wright’s conclusion wraps all this up lucidly:
...if death, the separation of the soul and body, is seen as the problem – as it obviously was by the vast majority of people, as witnessed by tomb inscriptions and funeral rites throughout the ancient world – there was no solution. Death was all-powerful. One could neither escape it in the first place nor break its power once it had come. The ancient world was thus divided into those who said that resurrection couldn’t happen, though they might have wanted it to, and those who said they didn’t want it to happen, knowing that it couldn’t anyway.
Wright’s point is clear, and clearly laid out: pagans didn’t leave room in their philosophy for resurrection from the dead as laid out in Christianity. They are categorically different. That so many still carelessly conflate them, or assume they’re similar, or even think that Christianity “stole” their ideas from the pagans, is proof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician. The founder of Fully Alive Christian Media, he also created The Minnesota Sport Ramble and is a writer and copy editor for Music in Minnesota. He was Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Curious North and Hometown Hustle. Reach him via email.