A Resurrection Riddle

Christianity proclaims Jesus’ resurrection as a new lease on spiritual life, and specifically as a proof of eternal life.  In Jesus’ rising from the dead, what God did for Jesus, God will do for us, and by raising Jesus, God stamped Jesus’ life with divine approval.  The resurrection is said to be Jesus’ victory over death, in which all believers will share at the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time.  The resurrection, celebrated at Easter, is Christianity’s central truth.  However, given the cultural climate in which the resurrection was first proclaimed, it is puzzling that it became enshrined so firmly, first in Mediterranean, and later in European, culture.

The ancient world generally held a belief in the afterlife.  The soul’s survival of physical death was a cultural given.  There were, of course, materialists and those who denied human immortality, but even these operated in a social milieu that widely held survival to be real.  From the earliest shamanism through Egyptian spirituality, classical “paganism,” Greek Olympian theology, to Rome’s own religion and its borrowing from Greek and Asiatic religions, the soul’s immortality was a common theme.

That being the case, the question arises:  What did the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection have to add to Hellenistic religion,  that Hellenistic religion did not already have?  The present writer does not have an answer to this question.  On the contrary, I find the eventual embrace of Jesus’ resurrection by Hellenistic and European culture a lively riddle.  Paganism considered that it already had spiritual immortality as its birthright.  Human beings were guaranteed immortality, usually,  not through a miraculous action of God or Gods, but because it is in the soul’s nature to be immortal, just as it is (say) in the nature of certain seeds to survive forest or grass fires.  No special intervention is required for the soul’s survival of physical death, although the ultimate disposition or state of the surviving soul can depend on the person’s moral behavior during his or her “enfleshed” life.

So, granted a prevailing belief in natural immortality, what could the addition of a risen body do to enhance or support or further that belief?  I can’t see that it does.  On the contrary, a resurrected body only adds an unnecessary complication.  If the mind, personality, consciousness of the individual is immortal, of what use is an extraneous body?  Much of Hellenistic culture, in fact, viewed the body as a spiritual impediment in this life, and would regard its posthumous survival, along with the soul, as dead weight.  Since our personal consciousness – our soul, our spirit – by nature survives death, the body’s survival is at best a non-issue, at worst, a difficult-to-explain encumbrance.

Typically, Semitic religion viewed the human person not as a soul temporarily incarnated in a body, but as a unity, a “body-soul.”  So that notion of an afterlife necessarily included resurrection of the body.  Jesus’ resurrection was held to be the first case in the coming general resurrection – the resurrection of the human person considered as body-and-soul.  Jesus’ resurrection, then, perfectly represented Semitic afterlife concepts, but was remarkabely unsuited for importation into  the greater surrounding Greco-Roman culture.  Therefore its existence and persistence  in Gentile Greco-Roman and northern European culture is somewhat baffling.  Certainly the “Church Fathers” and the network of bishops were responsible for spreading and maintainin Christian doctrines, including the doctrine of the resurrection.  But what accounted for its seemingly easy, if not enthusiastic,  acceptance by an audience that already possessed immortality as its birthright?


4 thoughts on “A Resurrection Riddle

  1. Michael

    Proof? The bible supports reincarnation which I suppose is the same thought in a different word.

    Knowing we are immortal, we have always been alive, even before inhabiting the body we are now in is one thing.

    Being able to experience it with all our senses although indirectly is quite another level.

    I could promise you riches and wealth, but until you have experience of them, it does not mean much. Jesus risen was a proff that never existed in concrete form before.

    At least that is my take….

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t see the resurrection as proof of an afterlife, mostly because the Jewish concept didn’t expect or require proof. The only resurrection in Judaism would be of faithful Israelites – but this would happen only at the end of time in a mass resurrection. Hence, by definition a future event, Jewish resurrection did not require proof because the dead were not meant to rise until the end of the present age.

    Instead, Jews who believed in an afterlife envisioned it in the terms of angelomorphology. It was said that stars were angelic beings and that righteous Israelites such as the Maccabbean martyrs were transformed into heavenly radiant beings. Moreover, “the kingdom of heaven” was thought to be accessible prior to the general resurrection. Again, angelology was the model: through a process called “Ascent,” the Jewish soul could rise into the heavens, view God’s chariot-throne and become identified with an angel, or even be transformed into an angel. This happened in Enoch’s legend, with Paul who ascended into the seventh heaven, and with the author of 4Q 491 at Qumran. So “heaven” and its citizens were already experientially available to Jews without necessitating resurrection.

    For Jews who did not believe in an afterlife, the soul was considered to be dead or in hibernation until the general resurrection.


    Jesus’ resurrection – for Jews who affirmed the afterlife – did not prove survival, since they already believed that they could see souls as stars, and could “Ascend” into heaven where they could see angels and the spirits of the righteous. Such mystical experiences were all the “proof” of the afterlife/ eternity/ the kingdom of heaven/ that they needed.

    And for Jews who denied the afterlife, Jesus’ resurrection did not prove survival. Instead, it forced them to imagine that God had prematurely “raised” or awakened Jesus’ slumbering soul and reunited it with his body.

    Re: the Bible supporting reincarnation, I don’t see it, because at best such a concept would only have been a supplemental and peripheral notion relative to the already prime beliefs about the general resurrection, the “star souls,” and experiential angelomorphology.

    For example, when Herod feared that Jesus was John the Baptizer “returned,” he wasn’t thinking of reincarnation, but of exaltation-glorification, the idea being that as a just martyr, John’s ascended glorified spirit could have entered into or possessed Jesus. It was thought that magicians and exorcists (like Jesus) could obtain the “obots” or souls of the righteous dead and so possess, or be possessed by, these souls.

    Nor do I find persuasive the section in John’s Gospel about “the man born blind.” Some cite this as a reincarnational text because neither the blind-born man nor his parents had sinned in this life so there must have been sin in a previous life. However, those who use this citation neglect the fact that the rabbis taught that a child could sin even in the womb. So while the man was to all intents and purposes sinless in his post-birth life, it was all too possible that he had sinned pre-birth, in the womb.

    Again, thank you for visiting the blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

    – rennyo –

  3. Michael

    You are more versed in thinking from that time and of Jewish beliefs than myself, and I thank you for sharing your insight with me.

    Actually I was thinking of the period before Jesus came to earth in a human body and after Jesus’ physical death. Jesus according to my understanding existed before he was born on earth.

    As Jesus was alive before coming to earth, and alive after Jesus’ death, I took that to mean we too are eternal in that we exist before this physical birth and we will exist after this physical death.

  4. rennyo01 Post author

    I think you have some good insights. I’m not entirely decided if the NT has a consistent christology, but like you say, there’s something eternal about Jesus. If Jesus didn’t exist before his birth, certainly the heavenly Christ, Son of Man, Yahoel (Yahweh’s chief assisting angel) who were said to incarnate in Jesus were eternal beings closely related to God.

    Especially in John’s Gospel, Jesus seems to think he has already – even in his earthly life – been to heaven (John chapter 3 where he tells Nicodemus that the “man who has gone up and come down from heaven” is the one who can speak of heavenly things). Maybe he was speaking of preexistence, maybe he was speaking of one of those “Ascent” meditations that Qumranians practiced and that Paul seems to have experienced (?). Also John’s Jesus talks about the glory he had with the Father before the world was made, and how he is going to return to the Father.

    I think early Jewish Christianity included both the idea of Jesus as a man adopted and then resurrected by God for his obedience, as well as the idea that Jesus (or at least the spirit that incarnated in him) as an eternal heavenly being who temporarily descended to earth. At least, that seems to be the christology of the Ebionites as far as scholarship can reconstruct it from its description in the Pseudo Clementines and the Church Fathers. It’s very interesting stuff in any case.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to visit and comment – you are the first person to do so, and I am delighted that you did.

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