Ancient Greeks, Resurrection, and the Gospel of Luke.

Greeks apparently did not believe in resurrection. At least, this is what we are told or what is suggested by pretty much the consensus in biblical studies. “Resurrection” is most often presented as a wholly unique category (even sometimes among Jews–though one wonders why Herod Antipas could at one time imagine that Jesus was “John the Baptist, risen from the dead”; read: a human individual physically resurrected at one point in time).

Now, in biblical studies if one does want to talk about Greek resurrection beliefs–and beliefs in resurrection in the ancient world–the “dying and rising god” motif is invariably raised. This often creates a false dichotomy: some advocate this motif and the supposed multiplicity of evidence for it as an explanation for the genesis of Christian beliefs in a dying and rising messiah. Others are quick to point out variances between this or that account and the New Testament / early Christian accounts of Jesus’s resurrection, and so they reject the category as important, or see it as too entangled in Jesus mythicism to do any good.

As I say, this is a false dilemma. While The mythicists are wrong to think that dying and rising God accounts–if there be such accounts–have anything to do with the generation of the early Christian message, people overzealous against such positions (Christians or otherwise) often overlook the fact that in such accounts–and in a diversity of other evidences–it becomes clear that Greek beliefs in resurrection (or resurrection-like beliefs) predate Christianity and are widespread.

Now, this may or may not be used to try to support one conclusion or another as an argument about the evidence we do have. From that evidential perspective, inferences can be drawn.

I’ve written a paper that shows that Christianity rapidly became widespread among Hellenized populations in the early centuries. I also show that the Gospel of Luke is uniquely important among such populations, and that it has the expressly physical nature of Jesus’s resurrection as an emphasis of its narrative over against the other Synoptics (and potentially even John).

What I suggest above, that Greeks did believe in resurrection, fits within these observations in an important way. Greeks (a term used by the ancients as an identifier of both ethnic Greeks and Hellenized non-Greeks) already had popular avenues for expressing their hopes or beliefs in resurrection (myth, art, cult) but began accepting this new message of a risen Lord to an astonishing degree in the early centuries (yes, Harnack was right: the numbers are astonishing even if mathematical). Why did they do so? The Stark-Bainbridge theory of religion is probably applicable from a social-descriptive perspective, which doesn’t necessarily suggest this was merely a social phenomenon–but considers the aspect of rational choice and belief as crucial concepts. It is probably a helpful model, I suggest it briefly. But to put it more simply: perhaps they became convinced it was the “true myth.” The early Christians saw things this way, as have a number of Christian thinkers in history. This is, of course, what I think, and I think the evidence–while it does not prove anything–shows this to be plausible.

The paper should be popularly accessible as it mostly brings together other research on the historical context with some linguistic analysis of my own ( and I’ve tried to keep most of the technical stuff about that in footnotes, and have translated/presented translations of all the Greek).

You might enjoy it or find it helpful:

Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: Contexts for Consideration

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