The Unprecedented Nature of the Resurrection


This is a collection of quotes from N.T. Wright’s The Resurection of the Son of God. The goal is to provide a single space where one can look at all the different ideas circulating at the time of Jesus and to decide whether the resurrection of Jesus bears any similarities.

Of Homer and Plato


The first is the scene in the Iliad where Achilles is confronted with the shade of his recently killed bosom friend, Patroclus. The moment is critical for the entire plot of the epic, which is all about the wrath of Achilles: it explains his return to the fray after his long sulk. Once he is fighting again, Troy’s defeat is assured, though he will himself die in the process. Patroclus, whom Achilles has sent into battle, has been killed by Euphorbus and Hector. There is a struggle over his corpse, which is eventually recovered and brought back to the Greek camp.

Achilles and his comrades wash Patroclus’ body, but do not yet bury it. Instead, for several books of the poem, Achilles goes off at last to fight, driven by his frantic grief, and finally killing Hector himself. Only then does he return to the task of mourning the now avenged Patroclus. 

He addresses the dead man as now resident in Hades, telling him of his vengeance, and he makes preparation for the funeral on the morrow. That night, however, as he slept, 

There came to him the spirit of hapless Patroclus, in all things like his very self, in stature and fair eyes and in voice, and in like raiment was he clad withal; and he stood above Achilles’ head and spake to him, saying: ‘Thou sleepest, and hast forgotten me, Achilles. Not in my life wast thou unmindful of me, but now in my death! Bury me with all speed, that I pass within the gates of Hades. Afar do the spirits keep me aloof, the phantoms of men that have done with toils, neither suffer they me to join myself to them beyond the River, but vainly I wander through the wide-gated house of Hades. And give me thy hand, I pitifully entreat thee, for never more again shall I come back from out of Hades, when once ye have given me my due of fire …

In response, Achilles seeks to embrace his old friend: 

Achilles held out his arms to clasp the spirit, but in vain. It vanished like a wisp of smoke and went gibbering underground. Achilles leapt up in amazement. He beat his hands together and in his desolation cried: ‘Ah then, it is true that something of us does survive even in the Halls of Hades, but with no intellect at all, only the ghost and semblance of a man; for all night long the ghost of poor Patroclus (and it looked exactly like him) has been standing at my side, weeping and wailing, and telling me of all the things I ought to do.’

Achilles then arises from his sleep, and completes the elaborate funeral


For Plato, the soul is the non-material aspect of a human being, and is the aspect that really matters. Bodily life is full of delusion and danger; the soul is to be cultivated in the present both for its own sake and because its future happiness will depend upon such cultivation. The soul, being immortal, existed before the body, and will continue to exist after the body is gone. Since for many Greeks ‘the immortals’ were the gods, there is always the suggestion, at least by implication, that human souls are in some way divine.

Because the soul is this sort of thing, it not only survives the death of the body but is delighted to do so. If it had known earlier where its real interests lay it would have been longing for this very moment. It will now flourish in a new way, released from the prison that had hitherto enslaved it. Its new environment will be just what it should have wanted. Popular opinion would attempt to bring the dead back if that were possible, but this would be a mistake. Death is frequently defined precisely in terms of the separation of soul and body, seen as something to be desired.

Hades, in other words, is not a place of gloom, but (in principle at least) of delight. It is not terrifying, as so many ordinary people believe, but offers a range of pleasing activities—of which philosophical discourse may be among the chief, not surprisingly since attention to such matters is the best way, during the present time, of preparing the soul for its future. The reason people do not return from Hades is that life is so good there; they want to stay, rather than to return to the world of space, time and matter. Plato suggests that the word ‘Hades’ itself is derived, in terms both of etymology and basic meaning, either from the word for ‘unseen’, or from the word for ‘knowledge’.

[In Hades] Judgment is passed according to the person’s previous behaviour. At last, after all the botched earthly attempts at justice, truth will out and judgment will be just; the virtuous will find themselves sent to the Islands of the Blessed, and the wicked will be put in Tartarus. [Plato emphasizes] the blessings that await the virtuous—not just the philosophers, but those who exhibit courage in battle and sundry other civic virtues. And the central point is important: judgment, even when negative, is emphatically a good thing, because it brings truth and justice to bear at last on the world of humans. 

Part 1: Surrounding Ideas About Life After Death

Group 1: Eating with the Dead

The list of possible exceptions to the rule that there is no resurrection begins with the widespread and well-attested practice of eating and drinking with the dead. Designed to honour, and perhaps humour, the dead person, a wide range of such practices has been noted, going back very early. From the time of the funeral itself, and at regular intervals thereafter, including specific festivals, relatives and friends of the deceased would gather for a meal at the tomb. Sometimes a place would be laid for the dead person. Drink might be poured down a tube into the grave. Sometimes food would actually be cooked on site, in purpose-built ovens.Part of the purpose, it seems, was to affirm tribal or familial continuity and solidarity. The specific practices seem to imply, as do grave-goods and, in Egypt, mummification and its attendant practices, that the dead are still in need of physical things that the living can supply: The cult of the dead seems to presuppose that the deceased is present and active at the place of burial, in the grave beneath the earth. The dead drink the pourings and indeed the blood—they are invited to come to the banquet, to the satiation with blood; as the libations seep into the earth, so the dead will send good things up above. 

Group 2: Returning from the Underworld

Sisyphus tells his wife not to bury him properly, and as a result is not allowed to pass on into Hades, but instead returns. His triumph, however, is short-lived, and his eventual existence in the underworld is all the worse. Orpheus attempts to rescue his beloved Eurydice, but fails to keep the condition imposed by Hades; he looks back as he is leading her out, and she is lost forever. The first Greek to be killed at Troy, Protesilaus, became legendary in this respect: his wife was so distraught that the gods were persuaded to let him return from Hades for a day (in some versions, for three hours), after which, on his going again, she committed suicide (in some versions, this follows her becoming obsessive about an image of her late husband, which her father then bums). 

…In the legend, Alcestis is the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae (Thessaly), to whom Apollo has been enslaved as a punishment. In return for Admetus’ hospitality, Apollo tricks the Fates into granting him (Admetus) the privilege of escaping death on condition that someone else should die in his place. The only volunteer is Alcestis herself, his beloved wife. After her death and burial, she is brought back to Admetus, either by Persephone or, in the better-known version, by Hercules, who fights physically with Death (Thanatos, a character in the play), beats him, rescues Alcestis and restores her to Admetus. Interestingly, in Euripides’ play, the revived Alcestis does not speak. When asked about this, Hercules explains that she is still consecrated to the gods below, and that it will take three days to purify her.

Group 3: Translated to be with the Gods

Livy tells how Romulus, the supposed co-founder of Rome, was sitting on his throne on the Campus Martius, when suddenly a storm blew up and a cloud enveloped him; when the cloud dispersed, the throne was empty. Those present began to hail him as a god or the son of a god; some suggested that he had been torn to pieces by jealous senators; and a shrewd man called Julius Proculus quickly told the Assembly that Romulus had appeared to him, had told him that Rome would become the capital of the world, and had again been taken up into the sky. The story may have a basis in earlier legend, but when Livy tells it he cannot but be aware of the divinization of Julius Caesar, and the likely subsequent apotheosis of his (Livy’s) friend Augustus. 

Herodotus, never one to pass up a good story, tells the tale of one Aristeas, who fell down dead in a fuller’s shop, was seen alive walking outside the town, and was missing from the shop when the fuller returned. He reappeared elsewhere seven years later, wrote a poem, and vanished again. In a further twist, his ghost appeared and instructed the people of Marmora to erect an altar to Apollo, and a statue of himself beside it; this they duly did, having consulted the oracle at Delphi. Aristeas, in other words, had joined the immortal gods, at least at a junior level. Similar stories are told about Cleomedes, who disappeared from a chest, and about Hercules himself disappearing off his own funeral pyre. 

Group 4: Transmigration of the Soul

The classic statement of [Transmigration of the Soul] is found in Plato, who developed the idea from the work of the sixth-century Pythagoras. Properly speaking, the theory exists in at least two distinct forms, one holding that the soul passes into another body immediately upon death, the other that the soul waits for a longer or shorter period before entering another body. Plato’s basic scheme is reasonably straightforward: after death, the souls of all humans wait for a period—whether for nine years, as in the Pindar fragment quoted in the Meno, or for a thousand, as in the Myth of Er—whereupon they are given the choice of what sort of creatures they will become in their next existence. In the Er story, Orpheus becomes a swan, Ajax a lion, Agamemnon an eagle, and so on. Odysseus, who seems to have learnt more than most others from his previous life, chooses to be ‘an ordinary citizen who minded his own business’. The souls then proceed through the Plain of Oblivion, drink of the River of Forgetfulness, and so pass into their next existence, unaware of who they have been, or even that they have been anything at all. Since for Plato, as for the Hindu and Buddhist schemes of the same type, return to embodied existence means that the soul is once more entering a kind of prison, the ultimate aim is not simply to choose the right type of existence for one’s next life, but to escape the cycle altogether. We are here not far from one version at least of Hindu and other doctrines of karma. 

Group 5: Dying and Rising Gods

Greek traditions indicate that Adonis was originally worshiped as a god of vegetation in Byblos in the first millennium BC. Adonis is the Greek version of the ancient Mesopotamian shepherd-god Dumuzi (see below). His nearby shrine was destroyed by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD. An ancient mythical compendium from the second century AD, Bibliotheca, claims he is the son of a Syrian king named Theias (possibly Toi of 2 Sam 8:9–10?). According to the myth, the infant Adonis is locked in a chest by Aphrodite and given to her sister Persephone, who refuses to return her. Zeus settles the dispute by allowing Adonis to spend part of the year in the upper-world (with Aphrodite) and the other part in the underworld (with Persephone). In another account, Adonis is killed by a boar and Aphrodite commemorates him with a flower. 

According to the story, Osiris’ brother Seth kills him. The motive and details differ depending on the text. By the time we reach the New Kingdom (ca. 1550 BC), the claim is that Osiris had been dismembered and his body parts scattered throughout Egypt, with each part representing each of the forty-two nomes of Egypt.[21] His wife, Isis, then scours Egypt to collect his parts and reassembles him, with the help of some of the other gods, whose powers are needed for the process. This provides the mythical prototype for the Egyptian practice of mummification (in iconography, Osiris is always mummified). He then is able to conceive his son Horus, the earthly embodiment of whom are the Egyptian Pharaohs (upon coronation, a king received his “Horus name”). Osiris, on the other hand, lives on to rule Duat, the realm of the dead.

Group 6: Cheating Death Motif

Callirhoe, set in Syracuse, opens with a wedding and a funeral. The young man Chaereas marries the beautiful heroine; but rejected suitors trick him into thinking her unfaithful, and in anger he kicks her and seems to have killed her. She is buried in a wonderful tomb with costly funeral gifts, which attract the attention of grave-robbers. Callirhoe is not, however, dead, but only in a deep swoon, and wakes up in the grave just as the robbers are breaking into it. At first they think she is a ghost (daimon tis), and she thinks they are, too; but the chief robber, realizing the truth, decides to steal the girl as well as the gold. They make off, via Greece, to Miletus. Meanwhile, back in Syracuse, Chaereas goes to the tomb and finds it empty. The scene is so interesting that we must set it out in full: As the plot thickens, the exiled Callirhoe prays in despair to Aphrodite.

Later, it is Chaereas’ turn to cheat death. So convinced are Callirhoe and her new companions that he is dead that they build a tomb to his honour, in accordance with ancient Greek custom. Chaereas meanwhile has a second escape, this time narrowly missing being crucified. But when one Mithradates claims that Chaereas is alive, Dionysius, an Ionian nobleman who has now married Callirhoe, accuses him of wanting to have her himself. ‘When he wishes to commit adultery’, declares Dionysius, ‘he brings the dead to life! Mithradates succeeds in producing Chaereas, and the original pair greet one another in joy. 

Dionysius is angry with Chaereas, calling him a sort of Protesilaus, coming back from the dead, and is determined to retain Callirhoe and prevent the original pair being reunited. Chaereas decides to hang himself (he is again, of course, thwarted). Eventually, as the genre demands, the original lovers are reunited, and sail home to Syracuse. Callirhoe’s father, embracing her, and echoing her own earlier question, asks, Are you alive, child, or am I deceived in this, too? And the heroine replies, Yes, father, I am, and really so now that I have seen you. The full tale is told; the couple, of course, live happily ever after.

Part 2: Jewish Ideas About Life After Death

Group 1: 1 Samuel 28:7-14

Group 2: Isaiah 26:17-19, Daniel 12:2-3

Group 3: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Group 4: Acts 23:6-8 and Mark 12:18-23

Group 5: Josephus

Surely you know, he says, that people who depart from this life in accordance with nature’s law, thus repaying what god had lent them, when the giver wants to claim it back again, win everlasting fame. Their houses and families are secure. Their souls remain without blemish, and obedient, and receive the most holy place in heaven. From there, when the ages come round again, they come back again to live instead in holy bodies. But when people lay hands upon themselves in a fit of madness, the darker regions of Hades receive their souls; and

Group 6: 1 Enoch 52

In those days the earth will return that which has been entrusted to it, that which it has received, and destruction will return what it owes. And he will choose the righteous and holy from among them, for the day has come near that they must be saved … And in those days the mountains will leap like rams, and the hills will skip like lambs satisfied with milk, and all will become angels in heaven. Their faces will shine with joy [or: like kids satiated with milk. And the faces of all the angels in heaven shall glow with joy], for in those days the Chosen One will have risen; and the earth will rejoice, and the righteous will dwell upon it, and the chosen will go and walk upon it.

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