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Vol. 62 APRIL, 2003 No.1
The Resurrection of Jesus
in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 1
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is
your faith ... you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15: 14, 17)
The matter of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been
an issue since the earliest days of Christianity, when the Jews accused Je­
sus' disciples of stealing the body (Matt 27:62-66). From that time on, vari­
ous theories have arisen to try and explain the phenomenon that effectively
thrust Christianity as a missionary religion onto the Roman Empire, and
subsequently the world. The number of recent articles and monographs that
have been devoted to this topic from both people professing Christianity
and people claiming to be disinterested observers shows that the resurrec­
tion of Christ remains an important topic for investigation and, for Chris­
tians, of defence.
One of the strands of inquiry that dates back to early times is the com­
parison of the early Christian proclamation of the resurrection with reli­
gions of the Graeco-Roman world. Pagan critics such as Celsus claimed
that Christianity was derivative of Graeco-Roman cults. In the twentieth
century, a renewed interest in this line of inquiry emerged. Authors such as
Reitzenstein tried to demonstrate the similarities between the pagan mys­
tery cults and early Christianity. They argued that so many of the features
overlapped that one could not help but conclude that early Christianity was
not unique, as it claimed, but had appropriated many of the beliefs and
practices of Graeco-Roman religion.
2 The Resurrection of Jesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 1
This theory is picked up and expanded in a recent book by T. Freke and
P. Gandy, entitled The Jesus Mysteries. In brief, they argue that early Chris­
tianity was a Jewish adaptation of the current and popular mystery cults, in
which the story of Jesus is a version of the myth of the dying and rising
godman. Whilst most mistook this myth for a 'literal history', the Gnostics,
who understood it, reached an enlightened state of recognising the 'Christ
in themselves'.1
It is with this understanding of the resurrection that I intend to interact in
this essay. Can the early Christian proclamation of the resurrection be lik­
ened to a concept of resurrection in Graeco-Roman religions of the day? Is
it fair to cast the resurrection of Jesus as a myth which has been misunder­
stood as history by so many for so long? How 'new' was the proclamation
of the bodily resurrection of Jesus in its Graeco-Roman setting?
I have chosen Freke and Gandy's book as a conversation partner for
several reasons. First, although written for a popular market, it claims to be
based upon solid scholarship, and gathers together the views of many of
those who have argued along a similar line. It represents one of the latest
expressions of a theory which has a long pedigree. Second, because the
book is aimed at a popular market, it has the potential to influence readers
who do not have access to resources to verify its strong claims for an alter­
native understanding of the central tenet of Christianity, the resurrection of
Jesus. I have had close contact with one such person, who has been per­
suaded they can no longer believe in Christianity after reading this book.
My hope is that this essay will form the basis of a response which might be
used at a popular level to refute the argument advanced by Freke and Gandy,
and others before them.
Freke and Gandy assert that mystery cults of the first century were inti­
mately bound up with an understanding of a resurrected god. I will there­
fore begin by examining the myths that underpinned the two chief Graeco­
Roman mystery cults current in Corinth in the time of Paul, in order to
uncover their understanding of the resurrection of their gods. I will then
compare these findings with the presentation of Jesus' resurrection in 1
1 T. Freke & P. Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?
(London: Thorsons, 1999), p.ll.
The Reformed Theological Review 62:1 (April, 2003)
Corinthians, especially chapter 15.
There are good reasons to choose Corinth as a base for this comparison.
First, there is solid external evidence that allows us to date Paul's fIrst letter
to Corinth at an early stage in the spread of Christianity. Acts 18: 12 men­
tions Gallio as the proconsul of Achaia while Paul was in Corinth for the
first time. There is a rescript of the Roman emperor Claudius to the people
of Delphi which can be securely dated to 51AD, and which mentions the
proconsul Gallio. It is therefore likely that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around
55AD from Ephesus, only twenty years or so after the death and resurrection
of Jesus.
Second, the letter contains several traditions which can be dated much
earlier than this (e.g. 1 Cor 11 :2; 15:3b-5), some of which go back to Jesus
himself (e.g. the Lord's Supper tradition, 1 Cor 11 :23). Each of these is
marked out by the formula, 'For what I received, I passed on to you'. These
represent a core of teaching and belief that is very close to the source they
are discussing. For these reasons, 1 Corinthians is an excellent source to
discover the earliest Christian belief regarding the resurrection of Jesus;
even Freke and Gandy are prepared to allow it as genuine evidence for
early Christian belief.
Third, the city of Corinth itself was a hotbed of religious activity, and
therefore a good place to scour for evidence of a Graeco-Roman view of
'resurrection' in the first century. Pausanias describes at least twenty six
sacred places for the Graeco-Roman pantheon and mystery cults (e.g. De­
scription of Greece 1:7; 5:1-5). Archaeology has attested shrines to Nep­
tune, Apollo, Aphrodite, Venus, Octavia, Asclepius, Demeter, Core, and
Poseidon. Not only were there many cults, but there is also evidence within
1 Corinthians that Paul knew of them and their practices (1 Cor 8:4-6; 10: 14,
20-30). Thus, if there were anywhere that Paul might wish to express his
Christian understanding of resurrection to his audience in terms drawn from
Graeco-Roman cults, one might expect it in correspondence regarding res­
urrection addressed to a place like Corinth. For these reasons the compari­
son of 1 Corinthians and the mystery cults of Corinth is a confined and
suitable case study by which to test the plausibility of the 'Jesus Mysteries'
2 Jesus Mysteries, p.185.
4 The Resurrection of Jesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part i
Resurrection in Mystery Cults in Corinth
I will first examine the concept of 'resurrecti<?n' as it appears in the
major mystery cults in Corinth in the time of the apostle Paul.
a. Osirisl Sarapisl Dionysus
I have taken these three figures together because their identities some­
what overlap in the ancient sources.
Our chief source for the myth that underlies the mystery cult dedicated
to Osiris is Plutarch's second century AD account, Isis and Osiris. Plutarch
relates that Isis and Osiris were born of Rhea and Chronos, the greater gods
(Isis and Osiris, 355E,F). Osiris travelled the world, teaching it civilisation
(356A,B). When he returned home, his brother Tryphon conspired against
him, fashioned a chest, tricked Osiris to get into it, sealed it shut and threw
it into the. river (356C). Isis roamed the country in search of her brother, and
found the chest (356D-357F). But Tryphon came to the chest when she was
away, divided the body of Osiris into fourteen parts, and scattered them
throughout the world (358A). Isis found all the parts of the body except for
one, and gave them a proper burial (358B).
Then comes the part of the myth deemed a resurrection by Freke and
Gandy. Plutarch says, 'Later [after the burial of his parts], as they relate,
Osiris came to Horus [the son of Isis] from the other world and exercised
him and trained him for the battle' (358B). It is clear from what he reports
later, however, that this is not a resurrection of the Osiris who was buried,
for Plutarch sets forth the many places that the body of Osiris is said to lie
(359A,B). It is important to note that Osiris does not rise bodily from the
grave, nor does he return to his former plane of existence. Wagner, in a
major study on Paul in his Graeco-Roman context, concludes:
The vivification of Osiris is not a resurrection ... Osiris is awakened to a sort of
existence as king of the shades. He becomes lord of the realms of the dead ...
The idea of his being restored to or exalted above his previous from of life is
3 Plutarch, for example, notes that the Greeks came to identify Osiris with Dionysus
due to his 'persuasive discourse combined with song and music' (Moralia 356B).
4 G. Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries: The Problem ofthe Pauline
Doctrine ofBaptism in Romans VI.i-ii, in the Light ofits Religio-Historical "Par­
allels" (trans. J.P. Smith; Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1967), p.119.
The Reformed Theological Review 62:1 (April, 2003)
b. Demeter/Isis
The other major mystery cult thought to be connected with the resurrec­
tion of a god is the cult of Demeter and her daughter Persephone (otherwise
known as Core). Archaeology attests shrines to Demeter and Core in Cor­
inth in Paul's time and, given the fame of the Eleusinain Mysteries since the
sixth century Be, it is likely that Paul would have had some knowledge of
what its devotees believed.
The myth that underlies the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone is
detailed in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, recorded by Hesiod. The parts of
the myth most relevant to our interests here are as follows: Pluto, lord of the
underworld, kidnaps Demeter's daughter Persephone and takes her to his
abode (Hymn to Demeter, 10-32). Demeter mourns her loss and, during an
extended sojourn on the earth, reveals her divinity to the people at Eleusis
(Hymn, 265-274). She causes a drought, keeping the seed 'hid' in the ground
(Hymn, 306-314), which then causes Zeus to tell Pluto to give Persephone
back to Demeter (Hymn, 347-356). On her way out of the underworld,
Persephone eats a pomegranate seed given to her by Pluto (Hymn, 370-74),
which causes her to spend a third of each year away from Demeter in the
When we tum to consider the type of 'resurrection' portrayed in this
myth, it is clear that Persephone's 'rising' from the underworld for two
thirds of the year is clearly based upon the cycle of nature, as this extract
But if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of
the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the two
parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth
shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the
realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for
gods and mortal men (Hymn to Demeter, 397-404).
In addition, Wedderburn makes the important observation that devotees
of the mystery religions did not view the gods who followed the pattern of
vegetation, such as Persephone, as 'resurrected gods'. It was more appro­
priate to speak of their 'return' rather than their 'resurrection' . Moreover, it
is striking that the early Christians' terms for the resurrection of Jesus
(ciVclCJTQCJLS" and EYElPW) were not the ones used by the Graeco-Roman
religious devotees to describe the actions of their deities (e.g. or
6 The Resurrection of Jesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 1
I will now tum to an examination and comparison of the early Christian
understanding of resurrection as found in Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthinans
Resurrection in 1 Corinthians
Paul's argument regarding the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15
begins by reminding the Corinthians of the foundation on which the church
in Corinth had been established: ' ... this is what we preach, and this is what
you believed' (1 Cor 15:1-11). It is generally agreed that verses 3b-5 are
from a pre-Pauline kerygmatic formula, as indicated by the use of 'received'
and 'handed on' (TTapEowKa), and the fourfold usage of 'that'
(OTL) to introduce each line. Here is a statement of Christian belief which
probably predates Paul's conversion (c. AD 35), and which he is likely to
have received from the disciples of Jesus approximately ten years after the
events themselves. The value of this statement of the resurrection of Jesus
is that it is not mentioned in an apologetic context, but as an agreed plat­
form of teaching from which Paul can draw inferences for the Corinthian
situation. The details of this formula reveal some crucial distinctives in the
way the early Christians expressed their understanding of the resurrection
of the one they worshipped.
The first line states: 'that Christ died for our sins according to the Scrip­
tures' (XpLGTOS- CtTTE8avEv UTTEP TWV KaTu TUS- ypacj>us-).
Within this line there are elements which separate the early Christian un­
derstanding from a Graeco-Roman 'godman'. First, the title 'Christ' indi­
cates that the person of Jesus is tied very closely with the Jewish faith as
expressed in the Old Testament. 'Christ' (XpLGTOS-) was the Greek term
used to translate the Hebrew 'Messiah'. The Messiah in Jewish expectation
was a kingly figure, descended from the line of David (2 Sam 7), who would
come in the 'last days' to bring in the rule ofYHWH's kingdom (Ps 2; 110;
Isa 11). That Jesus is identified as this figure of Jewish expectation, and not
with any of the Graeco-Roman pantheon of gods, weighs against his iden­
tification as the 'godman' of mythology. Second, the idea of a once for all
vicarious death for sins is something absent from Graeco-Roman religion.
5 A. 1. M. Wedderburn, Baptism and Resurrection (Ttibingen: l.C.B.Mohr, 1987),
The Reformed Theological Review 62:1 (April, 2003)
In the myths of Persephone and Osiris, their respective deaths are described
as a result of inter-god rivalries. Paul's assertion here, however, is that Je­
sus' death was deliberate and purposeful. It had consequences for all hu­
manity, rather than just those who worshipped him in a particular area. Third,
Jesus' death is portrayed as a fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures, believed
to have been spoken by YHWH, whom the Jews claimed was the one and
only God. Nowhere is the 'death' of one of the Graeco-Roman gods pre­
dicted in such a way; nor are their deaths a 'fulfilment' of holy writings.
The second line of the kerygma states, 'that he was buried' (OTl ETa<Pll).
This asserts the historicity of the burial of Jesus within a tomb, which the
Christians then claimed was empty after the resurrection (e.g. Matt 28: 1-7).
Some have suggested that the absence of a specific mention of the empty
tomb in this detailed discussion of the resurrection shows that the empty
tomb was a later construct in Christian resurrection apologetic.
In response
to this, however, William Lane Craig shows that the sequence of events
listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3b-5 means that Paul did not need to men­
tion the empty tomb specifically, for it is a clear inference.
In contrast,
Plutarch's account of the myth of Osiris records many different traditions
about where the body of Osiris is laid. He mentions that in his day, there is
one region in Egypt where many prosperous men are buried because it is
one of the places where the body of the great Osiris may lie (Moralia
359B,C). Paul's use of this early tradition shows that the early Christians
expressed themselves quite differently: their Lord had been buried in a tomb,
and then rose from the dead, leaving that tomb empty.
There is an inscription of an edict of the Roman Emperor Claudius that
was discovered in the region of Nazereth which is possible evidence sup­
porting the early Christian tradition of Jesus' burial in a tomb and subse­
quent absence from it. The ordinance reads:
It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity for
those who have made them for the cult of their ancestors or children or mem­
bers of their house. If however any man has information that another has either
6 B. Lindars, 'The Resurrection and the Empty Tomb', in P. Avis (ed.), The Resur­
rection ofJesus Christ (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1993), p.125.
7 W. Lane Craig, 'The Empty Tomb of Jesus', in R. T. France & D. Wenham (eds.),
Gospel Perspectives. Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, Vol II
(Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981), p.174.
8 The Resurrection of Jesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 1
demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has mali­
ciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has dis­
placed the sealing or other stones, against such one I order that trial be insti­
tuted [ ... ] In case of contravention I desire that the offender be sentenced to
capital punishment. .. 8
This inscription, dated between 41-54 AD, was written in the wake of the
spread of early Christianity. One suggestion for its issue is as a response to
the Jews who had claimed that Jesus' body had been taken from its tomb. If
this were the case, it would provide external evidence to the truth affirmed
in this line of the kerygma, namely, that 'he was buried' in a tomb, and then
rose to leave the empty tomb later testified to by the Gospel narratives.
The third line of the kerygma in 1 Corinthians 15 states, 'that he was
raised on the third day according to the Scriptures' (OTl Tn
Tl] TPLTlJ KaTeI TeIS 'Ypa<pCts). There is an exegetical issue here regarding
the relationship between the phrases 'he was raised on the third day' and
'according to the Scriptures'. The heart of the issue is that there are no Old
Testament SCliptures which mention specifically that the Messiah would
rise again on the third day. O'Collins concludes that since the fulfilment of
a specific Scripture was likely to have been a fundamental tenet of the ear­
liest proclamation, and since Paul nowhere else mentions a specific fulfil­
ment of Scripture referring to the resurrection, the most likely source of this
part of the kerygma was the historical fact of the disciples' discovery of the
empty tomb on the Sunday morning.
Again, it is important to note the
specificity of the early Christian proclamation of the gospel.
The fourth line of the kerygma states, 'that he appeared to Peter, and
then to the twelve' (W<P811 Kll<Pi ElTa TOts OWOEKa). Here we see the impor­
tance given to eyewitness verification of the resurrected Jesus in the earli­
est proclamation of the resurrection. These first witnesses include the leader
of the new movement, Peter, and those who would have exercised the high­
est authority under him. Freke and Gandy try to explain this verse in non­
historical terms; Peter and the others merely had a 'mystical experience' of
8 Claudius, An Ordinance, cited in C. K. Barrett (ed.), The New Testament Back­
§round: Selected Documentl (London: SPCK, 1987), pp.l4-15.
G. O'Collins, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Pennsylvannia: Judson Press,
1973), p.l5.
The Reformed Theological Review 62:1 (April, 2003)
Jesus. This interpretation, however, is far from adequate. Given the histori­
cal nature of the verbs already used (died, was buried, was raised), it would
be unusual for the formula to refer now to an event that was not also thought
to be factual and historical.
Paul's List of Witnesses
The early kerygma that Paul has been citing ends at verse 5. He then
adds his own list of witnesses to the risen Christ: five hundred of the broth­
ers, then James, then all the apostles, then lastly, himself (1 Cor 15:6-8).
One of the striking features of the reference to the five hundred brothers is
the comment that they saw the risen Christ 'at the same thne'. This makes it
extremely unlikely that they had all imagined the experience, for the chances
of more than five hundred having the same hallucination at the same time
are remote at best. In addition to this, Paul mentions that most of these
people were still alive at the time he was writing (1 Cor 15:6). This can only
have been to make it known that there were a large number of witnesses
other than himself who could, if necessary, be approached to corroborate
his assertion of the resurrection of Jesus. There is no other adequate expla­
nation of such a detail in this section of Paul's letter. Paul is declaring that
this event happened in history, in the same way that something like his visit
to them had happened, and therefore he can draw valid inferences to coun­
ter their erroneous assertion that there would be no general resurrection of
the dead (1 Cor 15:12).
Is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 'Myth'?
Having analysed some of the details of Jesus' resurrection given in 1
Corinthians 15, we now tum to a comparison with the Graeco-Roman mys­
tery cult myths. One of the key building blocks of Freke and Gandy's thesis
is the idea that the myths of the so-called 'god-men' share the same 'basic
anatomy'. They then fmd this same anatomy the New Testament. That is,
they argue that the New Testament presentation of the resurrection of Jesus
fits the anatomy of a dying and rising god myth, and therefore it should be
understood as a myth:
Early literalist Christians mistakenly believed that the Jesus story was different
from other stories of Osiris-Dionysus because Jesus alone had been an histori­
cal rather than a mythical figure. This has left Christians feeling that their faith
10 The Resurrection of Jesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 1
is in opposition to all others-which it is not.
The question that arises from this method is whether or not the New
Testament presentation of the resurrection can be fairly labelled 'myth'. In
terms of our own case study, can the presentation of Jesus' resurrection in 1
Corinthians 15:3-8 be fairly described as 'mythical'?
To answer this, I will look in detail at a section of Plutarch's recording
of the myth of Isis-Osiris. To begin his account of the myth to his corre­
spondent Clea, he states: ' ... whenever you hear the traditional tales which
the Egyptians tell about their gods ... you must not think that any of these
tales actually happened in the manner in which they are related' (Isis and
Osiris, 355B). He further qualifies his account by telling Clea that what is
important is· not the myth itself, but observing the established rites of wor­
ship sincerely (355D). Regarding the details of the mythical narrative,
Plutarch feels free to omit those that are 'unprofitable or superfluous' (355D).
At many points the details are uncertain, and Plutarch gives several differ­
ent accounts arising from different regions and sources. For example, the
goddess Isis is supposed to have killed the child of a queen ('whose name
some say was Astarte, others Saosis, and still other Nemanus') by looking
at him, but then the author states: 'Others will not have it so, but assert that
he fell overboard into the sea from the boat that was mentioned above'
(357E). There is much repetition of this 'Some say this, others say that'
device throughout his account, which suggests that specific details were
not important to the accurate relating of the myth.
It is also clear that much of the myth is related because it explains cur­
rent religious practice in Plutarch's day. An example of this is seen in a
detail of Isis' gathering of the dismembered body of Osiris:
Of the parts of Osiris's body the only one which Isis did not find was the male
member, for the reason that this had been at once tossed into the river, and the
lepidotus, the sea-bream, and the pike had fed upon it; and it is from these very
fishes the Egyptians are most scrupulous in abstaining. But Isis made a replica
of the member to take its place, and consecrated the phallus, in honour of which
the Egyptians even at the present day celebrate a festival (Isis and Osiris, 358B)
10 Freke & Gandy, Jesus Mysteries, p.16.
The Reformed Theological Review 62:1 (April, 2003)
This aetiological function of the myth is reinforced by Plutarch's own
[ ... J the somewhat fanciful accounts here set down are but reflections of some
true tale which turns back our thoughts to other matters; their sacrifices plainly
suggest this, in that they have mourning and melancholy reflected in them; and
so does the structure of their temples [ . . . J (Isis and Osiris, 359A).
It is evident in this example that specific details are not important in this
myth, but rather a general sequence of supposed events which add up to a
generally agreed upon picture of the activities of the god. In addition, the
value of the myth in the ancient writer's eyes lies in its power to explain
current religious practice.
When Plutarch's account is compared with Paul's presentation of the
resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15, the differences are striking. There
are no instances of Plutarch's, 'some say this, others say that' device. As we
have already noted, Paul's purpose for setting out the beliefs of the resur­
rection in 1 Corinthians 15 is neither apologetic nor didactic, but rather to
'remind' (1 Cor 15:1) the Corinthians of the common ground they share so
that he can move on to discuss their view of their own future resurrection.
This purpose would be undermined if there were substantially different
versions of the resurrection of Jesus. Rather, Paul preserves the core of the
belief that had been handed down to him: 'For what I received, I passed
onto you as of first importance' (1 Cor 15:3a).
Neither is Plutarch's aetiological motive evident in Paul's presentation.
In this regard, some, including Freke and Gandy, have pointed to a parallel
with the Christian resurrection story and the early Christian celebration of
Easter. A. D. Nock, however, asserts an important difference. He argues
that Easter observance did not rise out of belief in the resurrection, but
developed later by gradual stages out of the Jewish celebration of the
Passover. 11 In other words, the early Christians did not hold to the resurrection
of Jesus as a means of explaining the significance of their Easter ritual, for
that explanation was found in the Jewish festival of the Passover, as
reinterpreted in the last Supper (Lk 22:7-23). Rather, the reason for their
proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus should be seen in the physical
11 A. D. Nock, 'A Note on the Resurrection', in A. E. J. Rawlinson (ed.), Essays on
the Trinity and the Incarnation (London: Longmans, 1933), pA8.
12 The Resurrection ofJesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 1
death and resurrection of the historical Jesus, which had procured for them
the forgiveness of sins.
Canons of t-listory Writing in the First Century AD
Despite these clear differences, Freke and Gandy still assert that the
resurrection in 1 Corinthians should be understood as myth, a way of pre­
serving a story which can somehow be appropriated to the individual through
ritual practice and reflection. A further question which then arises is: how
would a first century AD reader of Paul's letter have understood the asser­
tions made therein? Were there standards by which Paul could assert the
resurrection as historical fact, rather than as mythical 'quasi-fact?
It is clear from other ancient sources that a genre of 'historical fact writ­
ing' existed, whereby history was distinguished from myth. The Roman
historian Livy makes this distinction in his preface:
Such traditions as belong to the time before the city was founded, or rather was
presently to be founded, and are rather adorned with poetic legends than based
upon trustworthy historical proofs, 1 propose neither to affirm or refute .. .It is
the privilege of antiquity to mingle divine things with human, and so to add
dignity to the beginnings of cities... But to legends such as these [ie. that Mars
was the Founder of Rome], however they shall be regarded and judged, 1shall,
for my own part, attach no great importance (Annals 1 :7-9).
Josephus, in his record of the Jewish War, declares: 'Yet shall the real
truth of historical facts be preferred by us, how much soever it be neglected
among the Greek historians' (War, Preface, 16). He entreats his readers to
overlook his display of emotion in the text, even though he knows it is
'contrary to the rules for writing history' (War, Preface, 11). He concludes
his preface by speaking of what follows: ' .. .1 have written it down for the
sake of those that love truth, but not for those that please themselves [with
fictitious accounts]' (War, Preface, 30).
There are other examples that could be cited,12 but these two show that
there existed in the minds of Graeco-Roman and Jewish writers of Paul's
day a distinction between the wliting of 'facts' and the writing of 'myth'.
One then has to ask: which of these categories does Paul's presentation in 1
12 Cf. Thucydides, History of the Peloponesian War, 1;1; Sallust, Conspiracy of
Catiline, 177; Polybius, Histories, 5:5; Appian, Roman History, p.13.
The Reformed Theological Review 62:1 (April, 2003)
Corinthians 15 look like? The appeal to witnesses, some important ones by
name, and many others of whom were alive and could be contacted for
verification of details, must point us towards the conclusion that Paul was
assuming historical reality for the details he was transmitting.
Freke and Gandy's thesis is that Jesus of Nazareth was yet another ex­
ample of a 'dying and rising god' commonly found in the Graeco-Roman
religious landscape of the frrst century AD. As such, Christians have been
mistaken in their understanding of Jesus' resurrection as an historical event,
and therefore the person of Jesus as unique in the history of the world. In
the case study undertaken above, I believe this thesis is found wanting. The
myths that underlie the major mystery cults likely to be found in Corinth in
the tilne of Paul demonstrate a vastly different concept of 'resurrection' to
that of early Christianity. Osiris wasn't 'resurrected' in any bodily sense,
but rather transferred between realms to become lord of the underworld;
Persephone was thought to 'return' in line with the cycle of seasons. In
contrast, the earliest kerygma demonstrates a serious concern with the his­
torical fact of the bodily resurrection of a man who was the fulfilment of
Jewish prophecy, the Messiah.
In a further article I intend to examine the theological, eschatological
and missiological frameworks espoused by 1 Corinthians and the mystery
cults of Corinth respectively, and to reinforce my conclusion that Freke and
Gandy's thesis of Jesus as a 'dying and rising god' typical of the Graeco­
Roman religious climate is unsustainable.
Macquarie Anglican Churches, Sydney
13 It is worth noting that the early Creed that Paul cites, as well as the additional list
of witnesses given by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3b-8 also fulfils the Jewish criteria for prov­
ing facts in a case of law, as set out in Deut 17:6; 19: 15. These passages speak of the
need for more than one witness to establish facts in a legal trial; that Paul is aware of
this seems clear from an independent context, 2 Cor 13:1, where he compares his
two visits to 2 witnesses that have plainly established the facts; cf. H.Strathmann,
IV, 'martu-', in Kittel (ed), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, n.p. on
CD Rom. cf. also 1 Cor 15: 15, where Paul says that he and the other apostles are
'witnesses', 'testifying about God that he raised Jesus from the dead'.
97 The Reformed Theological Review 62:2 (August, 2003)
The Resurrection of Jesus
in its Graeco-Roman Setting, Part 2
The resurrection of Jesus has been incorrectly understood as an historical
event, with disastrous consequences. So argue T. Freke and P. Gandy in their
book, The Jesus Mysteries, published in 1991.
They claim that early
Christianity was a Jewish adaptation of the current and popular mystery cults,
in which the story of Jesus is a version of the myth of the dying and rising
godman. In a previous article, I sought to show how the Jesus Mysteries
thesis is found wanting through a comparison of the concept of resurrection
in 1 Corinthians and in the Graeco-Roman mystery cults of first century
Corinth. In this article, my goal is to highlight some other conceptual problems
that arise for the Jesus Mysteries thesis from the data of 1 Corinthians. Since
1 Corinthians was written to a pluralistic Graeco-Roman city, areas of Paul's
thinking which indicate incongruity with a Graeco-Roman worldview are a
major problem for the Jesus Mysteries thesis.
Language of 'Mystery'
A problem in Freke and Gandy's work is the way Paul is tied to the beliefs
of the mystery cults via the language of 'mystery'. Paul must have been
aware of 'mystery' religions, and one could even make a good argument that
he was aware of the language that was used in them. However, Paul uses the
word 'mystery' in a totally different sense from that of the Graeco-Roman
rites. There, it meant something that was not to be shared, a set of holy secrets
into which one was initiated through special ceremonies. In 1 Corinthians a
'mystery' is knowledge that was once hidden by God, but has now been
revealed. Raymond Brown, in a seminal work, has catalogued the Semitic
background to the term 'mystery', and asserts that its usage in 1 Corinthians
reflects this background first and foremost.
For example, he argues that the
use of the expression EV in 1 Corinthians 2:7 does not refer to the
Graeco-Roman idea of new ideas reserved for the few, but is Paul's attempt to
use language from his Jewish background to 'subsume the plan [of salvation
IT. Freke and P. Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?
(London: Thorsons, 1999), p.11.
2 R. E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term "Mystery" in the New Testament
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), pp.40-50.
98 The Resurrection ofJesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 2
through Christ] and its realisation in one phrase.'3 Another example is found
in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, where Paul says, 'Listen, I tell you a mystery: We
will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an
eye, at the last trumpet'. So, with this clear difference in the way that Paul is
using a key term related to Graeco-Roman mystery cults, the distance between
the content of their presentations of resurrection is widened, rather than
narrowed, as in Freke and Gandy's thesis. It seems that Paul, by 'declaring
the mystery', is deliberately trying to present his understanding of Jesus'
resurrection as not comparable to anything in Graeco-Roman mystery religions.
Resurrection within different concepts of time
A major problem for the notion that early Christianity was a Jewish
adaptation of a Graeco-Roman mythical dying and rising god lies in the vastly
different eschatologies in the two systems of thought.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explicitly connects the resurrection of Jesus with
the 'end of time'. Christ is said to be 'the frrstfruits of those who have fallen
asleep' (v. 20). That is, just as Christ has risen, so all will rise at his second
coming (v. 23). This resurrection of all will mark the end: 'Then the end will
come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed
all dominion, authority and power' (v. 24).4 There is a distinctly linear view
of history here, one that begins with the creation of the first man Adam, and is
driven by God's unfolding revelation of his solution to the problem of sin that
came through Adam: 'For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made
alive' (v. 22). This history ends with Christ's defeat of his last enemy, death,
as all escape the clutches of death in the final resurrection (v. 26). All of this
has been made possible by the events 'of first importance': 'Christ died for
our sins according to the Scriptures ... was buried ... and was raised' (vv. 3-4).
Thus, the resurrection of Jesus is portrayed as part of a history that moves
from creation to new creation in a straight line. It is a once-off event that
marks out a distinctly Christian view of the end of time, namely, that it has
come in Christ, and will come for all who are united to him by faith.
The Graeco-Roman mythical portrayal of a resurrected god stands within
a markedly different understanding of time. As noted in the myth of Demeter
and Persephone in the previous article, the dying and rising of the god is
3 Ibid., pp.41-42.
4 R. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament
(Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp.28-34, notes how this phrase is linked to Psalm 110
and Jewish eschatological expectation.
99 The Reformed Theological Review 62:2 (August, 2003)
celebrated in conjunction with the seasons of winter and spring, the seasons
of death and new life for agricultural societies. These 'resurrections' are
understood as mythical representations of the continuous cycle of time. The
Roman poet Virgil gives us a further example of this prevalent Graeco-Roman
understanding of time:
Now is come the last age of Cumean song; the great line of the centuries begins
anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation
descends from heaven on high. [ .. . J Yet will a few traces of old times live on, to
bid men to tempt the sea in ships, girdle towns with walls, and cleave the earth
with furrows. A second Tiphys will then arise, and a second Argo to carry chosen
heroes; a second war will be fought, and great Achilles will again be sent to Troy.5
This extract shows the expectation of the repetition of events within a
cycle of time, akin to the repetition of events portrayed in the myths of dying
and rising gods. This understanding of time is clearly quite different from the
linear concept associated with the resurrection of Jesus and his believers in 1
Corinthians 15.
Resurrection and the believer at the end of time
A further distinctive of the Christian understanding of the resurrection of
Jesus is the relation of the Christian believer to the coming of the end time.
For the Christian, the historical resurrection of Jesus is a picture of their own
physical resurrection at the end of time: Christ is the 'first fruits' of the harvest,
and the harvest itself is the resurrection of all believers at the end (1 Cor
15:20-23). Just as Christ 'has been raised' so the Christian
'will be raised' 1 Cor 15:52). The resurrection of Jesus is
also portrayed as the guarantee of the forgiveness of sins for the one who
believes in Christ (1 Cor 15: 17). So, the Christian believer is guaranteed that
their sins will be forgiven them at the end of time when the world is judged
because the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that his death was an atonement
for sins and a prototype of their own resurrection: 'For as in Adam all die, so
in Christ all will be made alive' (1 Cor 15:22).
This contrasts in a number of ways with the benefits associated with the
resurrection of the god in Graeco-Roman belief.
Apuleius gives us an example
of what one hoped to attain by participation in the cult of a dying and rising
5VIrgil, 'Eclogue IV', 4-7; 31-36, in Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6 (trans. H. R.
Fairclough; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
6 H-J. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Ro­
man Religions (trans. B. MCNeil; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), p.104.
100 The Resurrection ofJesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 2
god. The goddess Isis appears to him and promises him protection in this life
and a blessed existence in the afterlife (Metamorhposes 11.15). Klauck makes
this observation of the expectations of the initiates into the mystery cults in
The hope for salvation can be innerworldly, looking for protection from life's
many tribulations ego sickness, poverty, dangers on journey, and death; but it can
also look for something better in the life after death. It always involves an
intensification of vitality and of life expectation, to be achieved through
participation in the indestructible life of a god.
The mystery-cult initiate did not expect that they would experience some
sort of physical resurrection in the same way that the early Christians who
read 1 Cor 15 would have.
The overwhelming evidence from the ancient
sources is that a bodily resurrection was thought to be impossible.
Lane Fox
points out that the idea would have actually seemed absurd to them: 'Thinking
pagans had worried more about the beginning of the world than its possible
end. There was no question about the body being 'resurrected': the facts
were obvious to anyone who opened a grave and saw bare bones.' 10
This analysis points to clear differences. The Christian's understanding of
the resurrection of Jesus in relation to themselves was a guarantee now of
their own resurrection in the future, and their salvation from God's wrath
which would come at the judgment at the end of the age, when this world
would be destroyed. The mystery-cult initiate, on the other hand, believed
that by participating in the cult of the 'resurrected' god, they were invoking
the protection of that god for the experiences of this life, and for the afterlife
to come. 11 However, the Graeco-Roman notion of the afterlife did not involve
any process of passing through an eschatological judgment in a resurrected
In fact, the only cult which possibly espoused an eschatology of judgment
similar to that in 1 Corinthians 15 is Mithraism. Freke and Gandy assert that
7 Klauck, Religious Context, p.88.
8 M. Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God (London: SCM Press, 1986; repro 1997),
9 E.g. Homer, Iliad 24.551,756; Aeschylus, Eumenidies 647f.; Herodotus, History
3.62.3f; Euripides, Helen 1285-87; cf. P. G. Bolt, 'Life, Death, and the Afterlife in the
Graeco-Roman World', in R. N. Longenecker (ed.), Life in the Face of Death. The
Resurrection Message of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p.74.
10 R. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (London: Penguin, 1986), p.265.
II A. J. M. Wedderburn, Baptism and Resurrection: Studies in Pauline Theology against
Its Graeco-Roman Background (Ttibingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1987),p.189.
101 The Reformed Theological Review 62:2 (August, 2003)
similarities between the Christian and Mithraic eschatological systems provide
further evidence for Christianity's derivation from Graeco-Roman religion.
One problem with this assertion is the lack of evidence that has survived for
Mithraism. Their assertion is based upon the work of Cumont in 1903, which
Ferguson notes is a 'best guess', rather than a platform upon which one would
wish to construct a convincing argument. 13 Another problem lies in the fact
that the type of Mithraism that is likely to have had any influence on Paul is
Roman Mithraism, for which evidence of such a similar eschatological system
is lacking.
Therefore it seems that there is no Graeco-Roman parallel to the
eschatology that Paul is asserting, and no clear source from which he could
have 'borrowed' these ideas. Since Paul's discussion of the resurrection of
Jesus is inseparably bound up with a linear view of time that will come to an
end with the judgment of the world and the resurrection of all believers, and
since there seems to be no Graeco-Roman parallel to this combination of
beliefs, it seems fair to assert that Paul's presentation of the resurrection of
Jesus is significantly different from that of the Graeco-Roman climate to which
he was writing. IS
The Foolishness of the Gospel
A further problem for Freke and Gandy's thesis is evidence Paul provides
regarding the way his gospel was received by Graeco-Roman society in
Corinth. Freke and Gandy state that the 'ancients recognised that all the various
Mystery godmen [ego Osiris, Attis, Dionysus, Adonis, Mithras] were essentially
the same mythic being', and so 'elements from different myths and rites were
continually combined and recombined to create new forms of the Mysteries.' 16
Further to this, they claim that 'the great Pagan philosophers' such as Socrates,
Empodocles, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Diogenes were 'the enlightened
masters of the Mysteries'.17 If this were the case, one would expect that such
philosophers of the ancient world would have no problems receiving Paul's
12 Freke and Gandy, Jesus Mysteries, pp.89-90.
13 E. Ferguson, Backgrounds ofEarly Christianity2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993),
14 Ibid.
15 Wedderburn, Baptism and Resurrection, p. 196, who notes that in contrast to the
portrayal of Osiris as one who merely 'continued to exist', 'resurrection for Jews and
Christians was nonnally part of God's new, final re-creation of the world that he had
made.' Cf. also pp.230-32.
16 Freke and Gandy, Jesus Mysteries, pp.28-29.
17 Ibid, 20-21.
102 The English Standard Version: A Review Article
message of a 'dying and rising godman'.
The evidence from 1 Corinthians, however, suggests otherwise. Paul asserts
that the gospel he is preaching is 'foolishness' to the wise men of the Graeco­
Roman world:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us
who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: 'I will destroy the
wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent 1 will frustrate'. Where is
the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has
not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God
the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the
foolishness of what was preached (8la T115' j.1WpLa5' TOU KTJPvYj.1aT05') to save
those who believe (l Cor 1:18-21).
It is fair to assume that the expression 'the message of the cross' is unpacked
in the kerygma he summarises in 1 Cor 15:3b-5, for there it is cited as a
common ground of belief between the Corinthian church and himself (1 Cor
15:11: OUTW5' Kal OUTW5' ETTl(JTEu(JaTE - 'thus we preach and
thus you believed'). The 'message of the cross' is that the man Jesus who
died the humiliating death of a slave on a cross did so for the forgiveness of
sins, in accordance with the Jewish Scriptures, and then rose again from the
dead, also in accordance with those Scriptures. It is this message that was
regarded as 'foolishness' by the Gentile world. In particular, Paul states that
this gospel, deemed to be foolish, has in fact made foolish the wisdom held
by the philosophers.
In the light of Paul's comments, the following question arises: if the death
and resurrection of Jesus is properly understood as a Jewish assimilation of
Graeco-Roman myths, why would Paul's message be foolishness to the
Graeco-Roman world? To put the question another way: if the philosophers
were the 'Grand Masters' of the mystery-cults which professed a dying and
rising god, what was it about the Christian proclamation of the death and
resurrection of Jesus that made their 'wisdom' foolish? The fact is the Jesus
Mysteries thesis of Freke and Gandy does not explain this element of Paul's
teaching in 1 Corinthians. If Paul's message about resurrection of Jesus were
merely an assimilation of mythical elements of other Graeco-Roman gods,
then his Gentile audience would not have found it 'foolish' at all; they would
more likely have found it benign and unremarkable.
The Jesus Mysteries thesis also fails to explain Paul's strong anti-idol
polemic in 1 Corinthians 8. In that passage Paul states that there are many
The Reformed Theological Review 62:2 (August, 2003) 103
'so-called gods', but only one 'God', and that idols that attract food offerings
are in fact nothing (1 Cor 8:5-6). Freke and Gandy do at one point try to
affirm the fact that even though Graeco-Roman religion appears to be
pluralistic, underlying the pluralism was a belief that god was essentially one.
Quotes are listed from several authors from various parts of the ancient world,
and from various times in history, which all discuss 'god' as being 'one'.
This method assumes that all Graeco-Roman (and even Eastern) religion can
be treated as a single unit, and so if one part of it asserts that 'god is one', then
it can be asserted for Graeco-Roman religion in general, in a comparison to
Christianity.19 Moreover, there is a difference in the type of 'oneness' that is
represented by the quotes they collect, and they themselves recognise that
'Pagans could all worship the same one God via any particular god or goddess
that appealed to them without being in contradiction with their neighbours
who chose a different divine face.'2o
Paul, on the other hand, is asserting a 'oneness' of God that is in total
contrast to this understanding. Speaking of the idols that represented many
of the Graeco-Roman pantheon in Corinth, he does not say that they are valid
avenues to the worship of the 'one god'. On the contrary, he argues that the
death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has revealed that there is 'but one God,
the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but
one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we
live' (1 Cor 8:6).21 He entreats those within the Corinthian church who have
come to realise that idols are in fact nothing to pay heed to the 'weak', who
still believe that food sacrificed to the idols of such gods is defiled (1 Cor 8:7­
13). Just as the death of Christ has brought the 'strong' into a knowledge of
God that informs them that idols are nothing, so they ought to look out for the
'weak', for whom Christ also died (1 Cor 8:11). So, in this section of his
letter, Paul argues that the 'oneness' of the God who has brought people into
relationship with himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus is totally
exclusive of other' gods' or 'idols'. They are not alternate avenues of worship
18 Freke and Gandy, Jesus Mysteries, pp.95-101.
19 W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1987), p.27.
20 Freke and Gandy, Jesus Mysteries, p.97.
21 Bauckham, God Crucified, pp.45-79, shows how this reflects a consistent
Christological reading of Isaiah 40-55, where God is one and idols are shown to be
nothing, and where God reveals himself as Lord over the nations at the eschaton
through the atoning work of the Suffering Servant.
104 The Resurrection of Jesus in its Graeco-Roman Setting - Part 2
of the same God; they are nothing at all. Such an assertion written to a place
like Corinth, which contained many Graeco-Roman cults, is clear evidence
that early Christianity was not pluralistic, and so to argue that it was merely
another expression of widely held Graeco-Roman beliefs is to disregard the
clear, contrary evidence.
The missionary nature of Early Christianity
The final element of 1 Corinthians which causes problems for Freke and
Gandy's thesis is the missionary nature of early Christianity. Paul explicitly
links the fact of the historical resurrection of Jesus as the first fruits of the
resurrection of all believers with his missionary endeavours, which have
brought him much hardship: 'Now if there is no resurrection, [ ... Jwhy do we
endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day - I mean that, brothers - just
as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts
in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not
raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (1 Cor 15:29-32). Paul's
argument is that if there is no hope of his own resurrection, based on the
resurrection of Jesus as the 'firstfruits', then his serious hardships have been
The trials Paul has endured are another witness to the truth of the message
of the resurrection which he is expounding to the Corinthian church in this
Barnett points out that the spread of Christianity through zealous
missionaries such as Paul must have arisen from an historical starting point
which necessitated the widespread proclamation of the message of the
That is, the logic of history suggests that the phenomenon of
the rapid and far flung proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus in the Roman
Empire and beyond is best explained by an historical resurrection of Jesus,
which was believed to have consequences for all of humanity.
There is no parallel to this missionary activity within the mystery-cults
which professed a 'dying and rising' god. The cult of Demeter had some
adherents outside of Greece, but it is striking that the centre of the cult was
always thought to be at Eleusis, the place the goddess was thought to have
visited during her sojourn to earth. The very fact that the Egyptian god Osiris
22 G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987),
23 P. W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic ofHistory (Leicester: Apollos, 1997), esp. pp.128­
The Reformed Theological Review 62:2 (August, 2003)
came to be known as Dionysus and Sarapis in other parts of the world shows
that there was not the same preaching of a single message believed to be
revelation from the one God within Graeco-Roman religions. There was
nothing within the Graeco-Roman mystery cults that necessitated the taking
of one message to all places, for all gods were worshipped in harmony. The
distinct belief which drove the Christian mission was that the one true God
had acted in history in the death and resurrection of the person of Jesus of
Nazareth. The Jesus Mysteries thesis does not adequately explain this aspect
of early Christianity as evinced by Paul's testimony in I Cor 15: 29-32, for it
fails to take Paul on his own terms, as he links his missionary endeavours to
an argument for the future resurrection of all believers that is based on the
bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus remains a crucial tenet
of the Christian faith. It was true for the Apostle Paul, preaching to pluralistic
first century Corinth, and it is true today. Were the resurrection of Jesus
merely a mythical expression of an inner reality, as the Jesus Mysteries thesis
postulates, it would surely not have attracted so many vehement attacks over
the years! It would have been dismissed as belonging to the realm of
subjectivity, good for those who are interested, but having no universal claim
on the lives of others. I have tried to show in this and my previous article, that
the resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot be explained away as part of a 'dying
and rising god mythology', typical of first century Graeco-Roman religion.
There are just too many points of Paul's way of talking about the resurrection
in 1 Corinthians where the Jesus Mysteries thesis does not fit. Instead, we
can be confident that the Lord is Risen, he is risen indeed, and that that historical
fact brings with it the guarantee of sins forgiven (l Cor 15:3), and the
vanquishing of the universal enemy of mankind. 'The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the
victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (l Cor 15:56-57).
Macquarie Anglican Churches, Sydney