April 13, 2009

Zalmoxis, Jesus, and James McGrath

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 5:05 pm by Andrew

In the comment section of a previous thread, there’s a bit of a discussion about the parallels (or lack thereof) between the Zalmoxis religion in ancient Thrace and the Jesus story.

Nathaniel argues, in part, that:

According to Herodotus, when Zalmoxis reappeared, nobody thought he had risen from the dead, since it was explained that he had just been hiding. According to the gospels, everyone who came to believe that Jesus was alive realized that this meant he had risen from the dead.

In a coincidence of timing, religion professor (and Christian) James McGrath has an excellent post up at his blog entitled “Celebrating Easter with the Doubting Disciples, detailing just who “came to believe that Jesus was alive,” even assuming that the Biblical accounts record actual events. The money quote:

Be that as it may, the point remains that Easter is not about historical certainty. In Matthew, it even explicitly includes doubt. And by making the day a day for celebrating certainty, we risk losing one of the most important steps that may help us to experience the “resurrection power” that drove early Christianity and has continued to transform lives down the ages.

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10 Comments »

  1. Steven Carr said,

    Herodotus, of course, doubted the Zalmoxis-hiding story as being true. So perhaps Zalmoxis was raised from the dead, as Herodotus doubted the hiding story. ‘I for my part neither put entire faith in this story of Zalmoxis and his underground chamber, nor do I altogether discredit it: but I believe Zalmoxis to have lived long before the time of Pythagoras.’

    Christian converts in Corinth were openly scoffing at the idea of their god choosing to raise corpses,although they clearly still believed Jesus was alive.

    Paul tells them that Jesus became a spirit.

    Paul is clear that the earthly body is destroyed. ”For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands’

  2. Nathaniel said,

    That’s a pretty fuzzy post by McGrath — whom I had never heard of. Obviously he doesn’t like Hebrews, though his reason for claiming that it represents something incompatible with a bodily resurrection is really poor. Oh well.

  3. Well, it was a blog post, not a scholarly article. At any rate, my point was not that Hebrews clearly rejects a bodily resurrection, or is incompatible with it, but that (particularly if one reads with the author of the letter’s Platonism in mind) Hebrews seems to have no real interest in it and leaves little room for it. God is said to have “brought Jesus back/up from the dead”. Jesus seems to offer his sacrifice and then proceed immediately to heaven to present it in the heavenly sanctuary, and then sits down at the right hand of God having completed his work. And so it is not clear at what point Jesus is supposed to have returned to earth to reclaim his body.

    Does that help clarify my point at all?

  4. Nathaniel said,

    James,

    Thanks for the note. I do understand what you’re claiming, but I think you’re overreading the texts.

    Matthew’s “οι δε εδιστασαν” is simply too brief to sustain the interpretation that ongoing doubt is in view. It would be amply satisfied by either doubts on the part of those traveling to Galilee (“I wonder if this is a wild goose chase?”) or doubts on the part of the crowd when they first catch a glimpse of Jesus (“Is that really him?”). Neither of these suggestions requires ongoing, unsatisfied doubt on the part of anyone who saw the risen Jesus.

    As for Hebrews, it seems to me that the genre is the key. The author is not writing a memoir of Jesus; he is making a sustained theological argument, drawing the shortest possible line between the points of sacerdotal significance, and everything else is subordinated to that aim. The appearance of a conflict between Hebrews and the gospels arises only when Hebrews is treated as something it was never intended to be.

    I think you also overcall the blow regarding Paul’s use of ωφθη in 1 Corinthians 15:8; it does not, I think, suggest that the encounters of the other disciples were visionary in nature. The sense in which it is true that Paul places his own encounter with Jesus “in the same category as that of the other apostles” is that he classifies it as a legitimate encounter with the risen Jesus (just like theirs), not that their encounters were similar to his in the phenomenological details. Paul is constantly on the defensive about his credentials as an apostle, and this fact is best explained precisely by the difference between his encounter with Jesus and the encounters of the first witnesses.

    • Thanks for your reply, Nathaniel. I can only say that I don’t have any way of knowing the details of the disciples’ doubts mentioned ever so briefly in Matthew. It could have been fleeting, an initial reaction that was quickly resolved – although I might have expected the author to emphasize that, if it were important to his point. Towards the other extreme, some of the Twelve vanish from the pages of the New Testament (BTW, I wrote an article on the Acts of Thomas and the traditions of Thomas going to India, if anyone is interested), and could perhaps have persisted in doubt – that I might expect the author to refrain from elaborating on. I don’t think the evidence is decisive in favor of either of these possibilities, My only point was that Matthew seems to acknowledge the possibility of having one of the original “Easter experiences” and still having doubts. Their having had ongoing doubts need not be incompatible with their also having had ongoing convictions!

      As for Hebrews, it certainly isn’t a “life of Jesus”, but I’m not sure how much room the author leaves for a bodily resurrection theologically. At best, it seems largely irrelevant to the author’s theology – although all we have to go on is this one letter, and so that’s at best an argument from silence.

      Finally, 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t specify anything about the nature of the experiences, one way or the other – although Paul’s language of flesh and blood being unable to enter the kingdom of God (in 1 Corinthians 15) does seem at best in tension with Luke’s emphasis that the risen Jesus had “flesh and bones”.

      • Nathaniel said,

        James,

        Thanks again for the thoughtful and irenic note. Just a few comments:

        I can only say that I don’t have any way of knowing the details of the disciples’ doubts mentioned ever so briefly in Matthew. It could have been fleeting, an initial reaction that was quickly resolved — although I might have expected the author to emphasize that, if it were important to his point.

        It seems to me that it wasn’t important to his point. In any event, Matthew’s account gets telescoped at the end of the gospel; it is almost as though he were running out of space.

        Towards the other extreme, some of the Twelve vanish from the pages of the New Testament …, and could perhaps have persisted in doubt — that I might expect the author to refrain from elaborating on.

        I certainly grant that the New Testament is not a comprehensive account of the doings of the twelve. But I think that this fact does not provide evidence that any of them actually did persist in doubt.

        My only point was that Matthew seems to acknowledge the possibility of having one of the original “Easter experiences” and still having doubts.

        Here we come back to the question of the interpretation of “but some doubted.” Obviously, because it is so terse, we are as readers left in a certain amount of uncertainty as to what Matthew said. But it does not follow that Matthew definitely wanted to say that some of those who had the original “Easter experience” were left with unresolved doubts. So when you wrote in your original post that these passages “suggest that doubt was not eliminated altogether for those who had the original Easter experiences,” I think that is a conclusion that the texts will not bear.

        I certainly acknowledge that history is not a demonstrative science, so to that extent I think we would be in agreement. Practical conviction and a willingness to act on that conviction are compatible with recognition of the theoretical possibility of error.

        As for Hebrews, it certainly isn’t a “life of Jesus”, but I’m not sure how much room the author leaves for a bodily resurrection theologically. At best, it seems largely irrelevant to the author’s theology …

        I should say, rather, that a bodily resurrection is irrelevant to the particular theological argument he is making. It is another thing altogether to say that it is irrelevant to his theology. As you say, we have only this one letter; it would be hasty to draw sweeping conclusions about the author’s theology when they are not required for his theological argument to go through.

        Finally, 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t specify anything about the nature of the experiences, one way or the other – although Paul’s language of flesh and blood being unable to enter the kingdom of God (in 1 Corinthians 15) does seem at best in tension with Luke’s emphasis that the risen Jesus had “flesh and bones”.

        It seems to me that in 1 Corinthians 15:50, “flesh and blood” is parallel to and explicated by φθορα. Paul has already drawn the distinction in verse 42, where his language indicates that the new body has both continuity with and superiority to the old one that is “sown a perishable body” (εν φθορα) but “raised an imperishable body.” With this in mind, there does not seem to be any tension between 1 Corinthians 15:50 and Luke 24:39. Jesus’ resurrected body was no longer subject to corruption.

  5. Steven Carr said,

    What ‘crowd’ saw Jesus? ‘ Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.’

    Give the name of one person who claimed to have gone to Galilee to see Jesus, or the name of one person who named himself as having met somebody he described as having gone to Galilee to see Jesus.

    There is no evidence for any of this. You wouldn’t shoot a dog on evidence like that.

    And Paul, of course, never gives one single detail of what these appearances were like.

    Perhaps they were just like his trip to the third Heaven.

  6. Steven Carr said,

    NATHANIEL
    Paul is constantly on the defensive about his credentials as an apostle, and this fact is best explained precisely by the difference between his encounter with Jesus and the encounters of the first witnesses.

    CARR
    So not even Nathaniel can claim that Paul’s defensiveness is because one of these apostles had been the brother of Jesus, or that Jesus had sent these apostles out on a mission.

    Paul himself, of course, explains why he was on the defensive ‘For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’

    Hey, that is not the best explanation. What was Paul thinking of writing that?

    It is Paul’s explanation, but apologists deny it, because they desperately need to make a difference between what this mythical 500 allegedly saw and what Paul saw, which was in no way a flesh and bone Jesus.

  7. Nathaniel said,

    Steven,

    I’m mildly surprised to see that you’re still at it after the way you embarrassed yourself over the quotation from Herodotus.

    What ‘crowd’ saw Jesus? ‘ Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.’

    See 1 Corinthians 15:6. Matthew mentions the travel of the eleven because they were in Jerusalem, some sixty or seventy miles south of Galilee where the bulk of Jesus’ followers lived.

    Give the name of one person who claimed to have gone to Galilee to see Jesus, or the name of one person who named himself as having met somebody he described as having gone to Galilee to see Jesus.

    I have seen you make this kind of demand before, taking the extant historical evidence and fashioning a question around some aspect of it as if that proved the insufficiency of the evidence. With as much, which is to say as little, justification, I could demand that you give me the name of one man who claimed to have been a scribe to Josephus — as if the absence of a signed record of that sort in any way undermined the claim that Josephus used scribes.

    This sort of dishonest debater’s trick may baffle a few hapless Christians on some internet boards. But when you try it on people who actually know something about the nature of historical evidence, you will simply be called out on it.

    There is no evidence for any of this. You wouldn’t shoot a dog on evidence like that.

    Personally, I’m not much into shooting dogs. But I certainly wouldn’t hang a man on the basis of your judgment of the evidence — for anything.

    And Paul, of course, never gives one single detail of what these appearances were like.

    As if that were relevant to his argument in 1 Corinthians 15 …

  8. adam said,

    don’t some manuscripts say some of the ‘disciples’ still doubted. Poor exegetists hav been trying to save this,


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