In a prior Easter-related post I wrote that “dying and rising” gods don’t provide a good mythological model for the resurrection story of Christ. Rather, I mentioned that Greco-Roman myths provide a better inspiration and template, but I did not elaborate on that then. So here goes.
We must remember that St. Paul and the evangelists in the Gospels were writing for a particular audience. These writers were all living and evangelizing in Greco-Roman cities in the Mediterranean world, and their audience of church members and potential converts came mainly from such cities. Especially after the Jewish War (66-70 CE), in which Jerusalem was destroyed and its Jewish-Christian assembly was dispersed, Christianity focused on the gentile world. This audience spoke Greek (and in the West Latin) and was steeped in classical myths and legends. Paul and the evangelists had to communicate to their audiences in a way that was most understandable and persuasive to them in a familiar way. So they wrote in Greek, and, as we shall see, utilized common Greco-Roman mythological motifs that the audience would recognize, containing the right signals. In order to make their case for Christ persuasive, they had to hit the hot buttons. As a result, Christ was accorded the traits and actions of a Greco-Roman hero or god (Litwa; MacDonald; Miller).
For purposes of the resurrection story, it helped that classical myths and legends were rife with stories of miraculous happenings during and after the death of iconic Greco-Roman figures (e.g., Heracles, Romulus). In one way or another, they were portrayed as being deified upon death. This was thought to be a fitting epilogue to the glorious life of someone who had performed great deeds and brought great benefits to the people. The audiences did not necessarily believe that these stories of apotheosis were true, nor were they asked to believe in their historicity. Rather, the motif was an archetypal protocol (Miller). Indeed, Plutarch, who did not believe them, called them “fables” (27.4), from which the modern New Testament scholar Richard Miller adopted the term “translation fables,” because the bodies were “translated” into a divine form, and explicitly or implicitly carried up to heaven.
Much as the mythological hero motif and the related “birth of the hero” motif contain standardized elements, so did the classical translation fables. In analyzing 77 examples of such fables, Miller identified 15 common elements often present in them (Miller, p. 35). These include:
- The translation rectifying an injustice, undoing a tragic loss, or vindicating the person
- A vanished or missing body
- A post-translation appearance by the translated individual, particularly on a road, before one or more eyewitnesses
- A post-translation didactic speech by the translated individual
- An ascension, often by winds or into the clouds
We see these elements in Christ’s story. He was executed as an innocent man, and his resurrection vindicated him. His tomb was found empty and the body was nowhere to be found. Then he appeared to the disciples, when he provided further teachings and instructions. And finally he ascended into a cloud (Acts 1:9).
In addition to such standard elements, scholars have found links to classical stories in other details. For example, the cup which Jesus refers to in the garden of Gethsemane and from which he must figuratively drink (Mt 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk 22:42; Jn 18:11b) could be based on Socrates’ willingness to drink his cup of hemlock, which had become proverbial (Miller, p. 162; see Keener, p. 1084). While some commentators argue that the cup alludes to writings of Hebrew Bible prophets or to psalms, that approach fails to recognize that any such allusions would have been lost on the gentile audience.
It is not feasible to cover here even a portion of the many classical translation fables, so for purposes of comparison I have selected just one, that of Romulus, because, with the possible exception of Heracles’s apotheosis, Romulus was the quintessential example in the archetypal translation tradition, and was the figure most familiar and dear to Romans. He was conceived when Mars slept with a vestal virgin and thus was the son of a god, and whereas Romulus founded the kingdom of Rome, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God. According to the story of Romulus’s death, once he had put Rome on firm foundations, his father, the god Mars, decided that it was time to take him back into heaven. So one day when Romulus was reviewing his troops on the Field of Mars, he disappeared. Some people apparently thought that some senators killed him, tore him up, and spirited away the body parts, but a myth also arose that Mars had raised him up. Just in relation to Easter events we find at least the following parallels:
- Like Jesus (as the Word) in the Gospel of John, Romulus was preexistent and divine, came from the divine realm to incarnate for a specific earthly mission, and returned to heaven (Litwa, p. 166).
- As Romulus was dying on the Field of Mars, clouds came, the sun disappeared and the sky went dark, and thunder clapped (Plutarch, 27.6-7; Ovid, Fasti, 4:492-96); he disappeared in a mist or cloud (Livy, 1.16). When Jesus was dying, darkness came over the land, and at the moment of his death the earth shook (Mt 27:45, 51). He ascended to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9).
- When Romulus died, his body (and clothing) disappeared and people wondered what had happened. After Jesus died, his body could not be found in the tomb, and people apparently suspected that the disciples had stolen it. So Matthew countered that notion by having Pilate station guards at the tomb (27:63-66). After the body nevertheless disappeared, the guards were bribed to claim that the disciples stole it while they were asleep (Mt 28:12:13).
- After Romulus disappeared and his body could not be found, the confused people hurried away from the Field of Mars (Plutarch, 27.7-8). This aspect of the event was so famous and important that, according to some ancient accounts, the day was celebrated as a holiday annually throughout the Roman world as the day of “The People’s Flight” (Poplifugia), thus ensconcing Romulus’s ascension as the quintessential resurrection story in the Roman world. The original ending of Mark, where the women fled the tomb upon discovering that the body was missing, may be modeled on this tradition, thus also implying that Jesus was taken up.
- The people concluded that Romulus had become a god and ascended to heaven, and began to worship him (Plutarch, 27.7-8; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14.808-28; Litwa, p. 168). This parallels Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, and subsequent worship of him (e.g., Mt. 28:17; Luke 24:45-53; Acts 1:1-8). In both cases there are eyewitnesses to the ascension (see immediately below).
- After the death of Romulus, his intimate friend Julius Proculus reported that while traveling on the road he had seen Romulus coming toward him. When he asks Romulus what had happened, Romulus replies, “It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. . . . And I will be your propitious deity, [called] Quirinus” (Plutarch, 28.1-3). As noted, sightings of resurrected humans, particularly on a road, were a common feature in such Greco-Roman translation fables. This recalls the encounter of two disciples with the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-49), as well as St. Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-19).
- Romulus offers Proculus (and Rome generally) parting advice and instructions (Plutarch, 28.2; Ovid, Fasti, 2:505-09). This parallels the parting instructions that the resurrected Christ gave to his disciples (Mk 16:14-18; Mt 28:18-20; Jn 20:21). Both Romulus and Christ rose to heaven after giving their instructions (Acts 1:9).
- In both cases, their admirers recognized his divinity after his death and resurrection, calling him the son of God (Litwa, pp. 164, 166-67) (of Mars in Romulus’s case (Livy, 1:16)). In Mark (15:39) and Matthew (27:54) even the Roman centurion testified to this.
- Both Romulus and Christ were resurrected and immortalized bodily (corporeally). This was a useful parallel because the Christians taught that the resurrected Christ existed in bodily as well as spiritual form, whereas the Greeks in general thought that the soul is immaterial and that an immortal exists only as spirit after death.
Interestingly, after relating the story of Romulus’s death and translation, Plutarch raises doubts about its historicity because it appears to parallel similar stories that were told about various Greek men and women who disappeared upon dying, including Alcmene (mother of Heracles), Aristeas of Proconnesus, and Cleomedes of Astypaleia; in other words, because the story was following familiar mythological motifs (28:4-6). The Church father Tertullian also noted that both Romulus and Jesus reportedly were taken up to heaven in a cloud, but argued that this was “far more certain” to have occurred Christ’s case than in that of Romulus (21.23).
The Romans began regarding some of their emperors (the better ones) as divine. Sometimes emperors were considered divine while still alive, but more commonly they were deified after their death; sometimes they claimed divine ancestry. In this capacity, the emperor was called the “Son of God”; Augustus put this title on coinage bearing his image.
This practice of deifying emperors presented a challenge for Christians. When Christ’s followers decided that he was the divine Son of God, this placed Christ in direct competition with the emperors. For Christians, Christ rather than any emperor was the divine Son of God, and this competition shaped how Christians packaged their myth. As Bart Ehrman observed, Christians were elevating Christ to divinity “under the influence and in dialogue with the environment in which they lived” (p. 49). Christ had to be portrayed as greater than any emperor. One consequence was that the moment when he became divine was pushed back further and further in time. Instead of becoming divine upon his resurrection as seems to have been the case initially (Rom 1:4; Acts 13:33), the moment when he became divine was pushed back to his baptism, then to his conception in Mary’s womb, and finally to even before the creation when he was a divinity in heaven (Jn 1:1-3). No emperor was able to make such a grand claim.
The use of the Greco-Roman model in telling the resurrection story does not necessarily mean that the mere event of the resurrection was invented out of whole cloth by writers from the gentile world many years after Jesus’s death. Nobody in the gentile world outside Palestine would have heard or cared about the provincial peasant Jesus unless a strong tradition about him had already evolved in Jesus’s homeland, which despite the tradition of Jesus as a teacher ultimately seems to have been centered on belief in his resurrection. Paul had heard the resurrection story only a few years after Jesus’s death, when he was persecuting members of the Jesus movement. Most New Testament scholars think that belief in the resurrection most likely originated among Jesus’s followers, who were illiterate and not well versed in classical culture, and spread from there. The building blocks in the telling of the story as we have it, however, do follow the classical template.
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Diodorus of Halicarnassus, Roman Histories.
Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne (2014).
Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic (2003).
Litwa, M. David. Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014).
Livy, History of Rome.
MacDonald, Dennis. Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield (2015).
Miller, Richard. Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity. New York: Routledge (2015).
Shapiro, H.A. “’Hêrôs Theos’: The Death and Apotheosis of Herakles,” The Classical World 77:7-18 (1983).
Smith, Jonathan. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1990).