Was Jesus raised from the dead? It is a huge assumption. But if we do assume as much, does that make him the greatest god to have ever walked this earth? Maybe not: similar feats were performed on multiple occasions, by colleague gods before…and humans as well.
There are of course a few Egyptian, Mesopotamian and European gods that were worshiped as dying-and-rising gods long before Jesus. These religions have undoubtedly influenced philosophies in the Judaic religion that allowed the concept of such a god, or the possibility of such a god to take form within those philosophies. We can refer to such gods (i.e. Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Dionysus) and the similarities with the Christian god Jesus. Immediately, Christian apologists would of course point at the differences between the stories or accounts of those older gods and the accounts of the gospels, claiming that the Jesus-concept was an entirely new thing in the world of classical antiquity; thus ignoring the similarity of the basics. Contrarily, if we were to point out the many differences between the four gospels concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus, they would argue that those differences are only minor details but that the basics of the stories are the same. One thing Christian apologists all have in common is that they hold double standards. To paraphrase their own holy books: it is very common for Christian apologists to see the splinters in non-Christian’s eyes, but not see the beam in their own. A similarity implies that some elements of a certain story, event or religious belief are the same, while others will differ. If a non-theist were to point at the similarities between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious ideas, defenders of all three faiths would scream from their pulpits that their religions are nothing alike. They would start listing all the differences, somehow believing that this will make the similarities go away.
Looking specifically at the Christian god called Jesus, there are a lot of similarities with the religions in the eastern Mediterranean that predated Christianity. And again, “similarities” does not say that the myths surrounding this Jesus character are exactly the same; for if they were, it would not be a different religion. Within the foundation writings of this young religion however, we can point at some passages that clearly, if not to say intentionally draw parallels between some purported events. As the introduction indicates, this article focuses on the miraculous resurrections of those writings, generally known as the New Testament.
The twelve year old dead girl
After the exorcism by Jesus in Gerasa, where he killed about two thousand animals in one stroke of divine mercy, the Christian god returns to Galilee where he raises a twelve year old girl from the dead. Described by the three synoptic gospels, this awe inspiring and world shocking event is completely unknown to the author of the fourth gospel (the one called “according to John”). There are also some minor differences between the three synoptic gospels. One of them may in fact be not so minor. Mark and Luke both agree that the sick girl’s father sought Jesus’ help but was informed of her death while Jesus was curing a woman from a twelve years bleeding. Matthew on the other hand has the girl already dead and has the father, Yair (‘Jairus’ in its Hellenized form) come to Jesus with the absolute knowledge that the latter will resurrect the girl (although there was no way for Yair to know that Jesus could in fact perform such miracles). As said, you may still consider this to be a minor detail. What is striking however is the fact that the fourth gospel knows nothing about this resurrection, no matter how miraculous and renowned this event would have been throughout the entire Levant. The fourth gospel has Jesus raising someone else from the dead, but curiously enough none of the other gospel writers seem to have had any knowledge of that mind blowing event.
The raising of Eleazar
The account of the raising of Lazarus is found in the gospel of John and in this one only. Luke does mention a Lazarus, but in that context Lazarus is a fictional character in a parable, asking to be raised from the dead but denied so. Apart from the “suspicious omission by the other three gospels”, the story in John is very different from the above copy-pasted (synoptic) resurrection story. It differs in length, style, vocabulary, location and background, chronology in Jesus’ life and most of all in the message conveyed by this miracle. In the synoptic gospels, the mythical story envelops another miracle that somewhat mirrors the resurrection: an old woman is cured from twelve years of non-stop bleeding while a twelve year young girl is raised to take her place (the new Twelve Tribes of Israel as a nation reborn replacing the old version). Although the allegory is important enough, in the synoptic gospels the resurrection takes only a few verses (Mark 22 verses, Luke 16 and Matthew a mere 8) and that’s including the “old woman” allegory. John however dedicates an entire chapter (57 verses) to his resurrection story, with continued reference thereto in chapter 12. In the synoptic gospels, the resurrection of Yair’s daughter is part of many “healing” miracles showing Jesus’ special status and favor with god, while John stresses Jesus’ divinity and simultaneously presents the Lazarus story as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection. The veracity of the story in John is equally questionable as the passages in the synoptic gospels.
The description of Lazarus’ tomb is very similar to the description of Jesus’ tomb. If one thing, this shows that Jesus, however poor he himself may have been, is surrounded by a very wealthy entourage. Few people in first century Palestine were lucky enough to be able to pay for such elaborate tombs, let alone the land where they were situated. Of course, as a collective Jesus and his disciples owned considerable funds as is made clear in the gospels themselves (i.e. John 12: 3-6).
The Talpiot tomb in Talpiot, now part of the modern city of Jerusalem. Considered by some to be the actual burial site of Jesus, opposed to the traditional location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
In the same way that John has Jesus be equally divine as god (i.e. John 10:30 “I and the Father are one”) so does Jesus portray the exact same evil traits as “his Father” of the older mythology. When you analyze the account in John, you cannot but wonder about the undisputable “goodness” of the biblical pantheon. As in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is informed of someone being terminally sick. In John this is Lazarus, the brother of one of his groupies: the Mary that had previously anointed Jesus with some 10,000 dollars’ worth of nard oil. Although Jesus loves this friend and personal acquaintance of his, he does not jump to his feet and returns to Judea to heal his sick and suffering friend. Instead, he stays put in the hopes that his friend will die. Two days later, he decides to make the two day long walk back from Perea (probably the mount Nebo area) to Bethany, Judea. Thus, having made sure that his friend is dead and already thoroughly decomposing in his tomb, he finally arrives at the scene to roll his divine glory-muscles. Right before the performance is about to start, the author places some incomprehensible grief drawn tears in Jesus’ eyes, which is quite contrary to the almost joyful approach Jesus took upon receiving the news. At long last, Jesus raises Eleazar from the dead. In some of the resurrections Jesus still has to go through the ordeal of having to touch his subject; in John he simply uses his vocal remote control and orders Eleazar to be alive again (this is a good point to recommend some research on Jewish Messianic expectations and the Gabriel stone as an example thereof). The main message of the story is expressed within it. John 11:4 “When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” We will not dwell on Jesus’ inability to predict the future here as Eleazar most certainly did die of his illness (otherwise there would be no need for a miraculous resurrection). What stands out is that Jesus was intentionally letting a friend die so he could use this pain and suffering to exalt himself. Some of the witnesses were absolute right to critique Jesus’ behavior in verses 36-37: “Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
It is very similar to other and older passages, like this one in Exodus 11, prelude to the Exodus proper: "9 The Lord had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you—so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” 10 Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country." In the “ten plagues of Egypt’ narrative, pharaoh repeatedly agrees to let the Israelites leave, but god takes away his free will, hardens his heart and forces him to change his mind. Thus the obnoxious Old Testament deity can perform more miracles (most of them are mass-murder miracles) and show off his power. The author of the Eleazar allegory follows the age old pattern: create the problem (disease, suffering and ultimately death) and then offer the solution. In conclusion of the story of Eleazar, one could finally wonder in what physical state Eleazar was fated to live until his second death. After all, he had been dead for four days and must undoubtedly have been decomposing significantly (as Martha justly fears the stench that would emerge from the tomb). It is a question that may merely touch on the pragmatic consequences of a bodily resurrection and as nit-picking as it may seem to some, it is a justified question. What we can say is that Eleazar’s digestive system didn’t seem to have been affected at all, for a few moments later Eleazar merrily shares in the dinner given in Jesus’ honor (John’s chapter 12).
A recycled resurrection
In Luke 7 another resurrection is described. An unnamed man, son of an unnamed widow is resurrected in the town of Nain. This story stands out from the others because in this one no one actually asks Jesus for any help or intervention and his miracle is literally uncalled for. Maybe the young man’s first words after his resurrection were complaints about Jesus’ unwelcome feat. Is this the reason why this miracle gets so little attention? Seemingly less important, the miracle is casually done away with in 6 verses. And although this amazing miracle was known throughout Judea and the surrounding lands, only Luke seems to have heard about it. It is odd however. Christian traditions would identify the gospel authors as being the direct disciples of Jesus himself or disciples of his disciples. That raises the question why only Luke would tell about this resurrection by Jesus. For his account states that all Jesus’ disciples were present at this event, as well as a “large crowd” and that the event was told about throughout Palestine. If Mark was a disciple of Peter, then surely Peter would have told him about this one. If John really was the “beloved disciple” of Jesus - as is still maintained by some - , then why would he turn the allegorical Lazarus of Luke’s 16:19-31 into a fabricated “real person” but fail to mention two resurrections that he had personally witnessed, both this one and the one of the daughter of Yair?
Maybe Mark, Matthew and John realized that this passage was way too similar to the resurrections in the Hebrew bible and that it would reveal the uncomfortable truth that all the alleged miracles of Jesus were but inflated do-overs of earlier stories. In 1 Kings 17 the prophet Elijah raises the unnamed son of an unnamed widow at Zarephath (present day Sarafand, Lebanon). Elisha repeats the miracle in 2 Kings 4 when he brings the unnamed son of an unnamed widow at Shunem back to life [Co-Incidentally (?), Nain, Shunem and Nazareth are less than 10 kilometers away from each other]. The similarities are there, but so is the main difference: whereas both the Old Testament prophets raise people from the dead on god’s authority and by invoking his intervention, Jesus raises the dead on his own authority…and without checking if the subject of resurrection even wanted to be resurrected.
The other major distinction is that Jesus is not resurrected to physically continue his life and ministry in 1st century Palestine and eventually die a natural death, as would have been the case with Eleazar, the daughter of Yair etc… In fact, resurrecting a person to a second earthly life would be an act of cruelty, at least in the traditional Christian paradigm; but the implications of such resurrections are more than enough to fill an entirely different discussion. In early Christian writings and opinions (later called heresies) Jesus’ resurrection is not described as being a bodily resurrection, but a spiritual one. In various ways this would make a lot more sense. Seeing Jesus’ resurrection as a spiritual one also seems more consistent with the remainder of the plot in the gospels and Paul’s letters. Resurrecting dead people seems to have been a very common thing in Palestine. That might be the reason that the gospel writers are so selective in their choice of resurrections to report on. To keep the audience stupefied with wonder or at least mildly interested, the New Testament will therefore have to top these resurrections with an even bigger miracle: mass resurrection… and so it does.
The (first?) zombie plague
From Matthew 27: “50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”
Once again we only have one out of the four canonical gospels mentioning an interesting detail surrounding Jesus’ death. How many is many? It is anyone’s guess, but whether it referred to 5, 20 or possibly 50 people, this would surpass any resurrection before… even Jesus’ own resurrection fades in the shadow of this unprecedented miracle. A dozen zombies or more walking around in Jerusalem would have been witnessed by thousands of people. Although Jerusalem was certainly not the most populous city in Roman standards, it was the Passover feast at Jesus’ time of death, which would have meant that a lot of pilgrims would have augmented the city’s usual population. And where crowds amassed, the Romans would have added some reinforcements as well to the one cohort that would usually be kept at Jerusalem. We would expect therefore that from those thousands of people present at the event we’d retain at least one or two accounts in non-Christian sources. The oddities of Matthew’s description put even more oil on the fire however. In short:
¨ From noon to three p.m. the sun disappears and it is completely dark. Not a single character in the story seems to take note of this. Everyone still has perfect clear vision (or they are wearing night goggles).
¨ Jesus dies at three in the afternoon, upon which moment:
¨ the temple curtain is rent from top to bottom;
¨ the earth shakes, rocks split and
¨ the tombs break open (meaning all the tombs in the world, all the tombs in Judea or some tombs in Judea?) and
¨ the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life (so not every tomb that broke open would yield a zombie, and not all the holy people were resurrected)
Assuming Jesus died on a Friday, 3 p.m. those revived saints would then patiently remain waiting in their open tombs until Sunday morning for Jesus to come back to life. Only thereafter would they step out of their tombs and venture into the city of Jerusalem. At that point, the Roman soldiers headed by the centurion mentioned by Matthew (possible up to 500 Jewish, Gallic, Germanic, Thracian and Asian auxiliary soldiers) become scared and exclaim Jesus to be the son of god. But not a single source in the entire Roman world apart from "Matthew" mentions this? Neither do the authors of “Mark”, “Luke” and “John” and neither does Paul the self-appointed pontifex maximus. It is grounds for much skepticism towards the reliability of anything the “Christian” authors write. Of course you may doubt that the mass resurrection according to Matthew really happened. But that might lead to doubt that the other resurrections took place. And if the resurrections of those other people by Jesus may possibly not have been real events, what does that say on the possibility of Jesus’ own resurrection not being real? If we expand this question beyond the boundaries of the Christian bible, could there have been other Messiahs in Jesus’ time that had been resurrected? We know for a fact that there have been several Messiahs, a.k.a. Sons of Man roaming the Bloody Land.
Thirteen in a dozen
One Messiah before Jesus’ time is very well attested and did what a Messiah was supposed to do: free the land of the Israelites from its foreign oppressors and restore the independent theocracy. This actual, historic Messiah was Judas the Hasmonean, aka Maccabee, who restored Jewish temple worship in 164 BC and laid the groundwork for the Hasmonean dynasty and a small, short-lived independent theocratic Jewish state (140-63 BC). At least one miracle is recorded surrounding Hanukkah, the feast that commemorates Judas’ restoration of the temple. Perhaps more were passed along orally for a time.
A century after Jesus, another Messiah, who - for a distinctly shorter time- restored an independent Jewish state was Simon bar Kokhba (Simon Son of the Star) from 132 to 135 AD. Contemporary Pharisees (rabbi’s), in view of his success, really saw him as the long expected Messiah. Evidently, his defeat and demise in 135 invalidated this view.
In between these two Jesus was but one of several failed Messiahs. Some are named by Titus Flavius Josephus; there might have been other even less successful ones. In the centuries up to the twentieth they would be followed by numerous others. Wikipedia gives an overview of them under the title “List of Jewish Messiah claimants”. Some of those other Messiahs may very well have had their own followers believing that their death was part of the messianic process and that they would rise from the dead and come back at a later time to establish god’s earthly kingdom.
Alfa and omega
Jesus’ resurrection, real or not, was nothing special. Sure there are differences with other, older or contemporary gods. But the idea of a suffering/dying-and-rising god was nothing new in the Greco-Roman, Persian and Egyptian world. What did make a difference however, opposed to the general religious tolerance of that Greco-Roman world, was the fundamentalist, almost jihadist-like attitude of its early followers. The intolerance of the soon to be dubbed Christians would echo onwards through time and where they reached a position of political dominance, they would spread and enforce their religion by any means necessary. Although still a minority religion within the Roman Empire, Christianity was given free reigns under emperor Theodosius from the 380’s on. As Christians no longer had to fear any consequences, they increasingly backed up their “good message” with socio-economical pressure, acts of terror and the more than occasional murder, thus swiftly becoming the majority religion of the urban centers a few decades later. Even differently thinking Christians were not safe from this utterly new religious fanaticism. Jesus was nothing special. The religion abusing his name was.
Richard Dalet PHD, October 19, 2020
Note: reference to the four canonical gospels of the New Testament as Mark, Luke, Matthew and John are for reader's convenience only. In spite of their names (i.e. the gospel according to Mark), these stories were written anonymously and it is completely unknown who the authors of the gospels were.