Resurrection in Paganism and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

By John Granger Cook

In an ancient Christian text of the fourth century, which is a debate over the New Testament between a Christian and a pagan philosopher, the philosopher begins his attack on the resurrection by referring to that “resurrection of his, which is common talk every where.” 1 The philosopher, whose argument probably derives from Porphyry (who wrote the notorious Against the Christians), proceeds to ask why Jesus did not appear to Pilate, the High Priest, and the Roman Senate — “well known people.” He then complains that he only appeared to Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and a few other unknown people. 2 My colleagues writing for this issue discuss Paul’s list of witnesses and the appearance to Mary Magdalene and the other women. Of course, the simple answer to the philosopher is : what would a Roman Senator (or Pilate for that matter) have thought even if the risen Lord had appeared to him (see Acts 10:41)? Since the beginning of the Christian era (Acts 25:19, Matt 27:62–66, 28:11–15) until this day there have been individuals who rejected the message of the resurrection of Christ. One primary argument aims to dismiss the reality of Christ’s resurrection by comparing it to that of other ancient divinities — and I will respond to that argument in this article.

The first philosopher we know of who read the Gospels closely was Celsus, who possibly wrote during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180). In one of his objections,3  he adopts the persona of a Jewish antagonist of Christianity  and lists a number of individuals who descended to Hades and who returned such as Pythagoras, Orpheus, Protesilaus, Heracles, Theseus, and several others. He continues:

But one must examine this; whether anyone who truly died ever rose in the same body … dead,   he arose, and he showed the signs of his punishment, how his hands had been pierced (John 20:20, 25). Who saw that? A frantic woman (Mt 28:9, John 20:16), as you say,  and perhaps another victim of the same bewitchment who either as a consequence of a certain disposition had a dream and according to his desire had an image in his mind due to a mistaken belief, something  that has happened to tens of thousands, or, what is more likely, he wanted to amaze others by this amazing story, and by such a lie to give other beg gars an opportunity. 4

Celsus’s two explanations for the appearances of the risen Lord are ancient, but have reappeared often in the modern world: psychology or a grand lie. Celsus is willing to admit that the Greek stories are “myths” (mythous), but likewise rejects the Christian narrative. His comparison of Jesus to the Greek figures is an argumentative move that has also been made frequently in the modern critique of the Christian faith (both in books and on websites).

One of the first individuals to respond to an attack on the faith, due to its similarities with Greek myths, was Justin who was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Justin was from Flavia Neapolis (Nablus) and was born to pagan parents. According to his own account, he tried several schools of Greek philosophy, but after conversation with an elderly Christian man, he wrote that “a fire was immediately kindled in my soul, and a love (eros) of the prophets and of those men who are friends of Christ came over me; while pondering on his words, I discovered that his was the only sure and useful philosophy.”5  The man who would later give his life for the faith was not afraid to make comparisons between the resurrection of Christ and that of Greco -Roman figures.  In his Dialogue with Trypho, for example, he writes:

For when they say that Dionysus was born of Zeus’s  union with Semele, and narrate that he was the discoverer of the vine, and that, after he was torn to pieces and died, he arose again [anastēnai – a verb used frequently for resurrection in the New Testament] and ascended into heaven, and when they use wine in his mysteries,  is it not evidence that the Devil has imitated the previously quoted prophecy of the patriarch Jacob [Gen 49:10–11], as recorded  by Moses? 6

Justin, in his first Apology ( i.e., defense of the faith) remarks that “the  demons taught that Dionysus was torn apart and ascended into heaven”.  Even though Christians affirm many things that are “similar ”8 to what the Hellenes (Greeks or pagans) say, only what the Christians have learned from the prophets and from Christ is true. Justin’s argument is:

That whatever statements we make, because we learned them from Christ and the Prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all writers, and that we should be believed, not because we speak the same thing s as the writers, but because we speak the truth. 10

This truth claim is objectionable, of course, to those who wish to assert that Christ’s resurrection is a “myth,” but the affirmation of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is at the center of the Christian proclamation (and the mystical experience of the Christian believer; cp.  Rom 6:4–5, 2  Cor  3:18, Gal 2:19–20, Phil  3:10–11, 3:21, Col 2:12–13, and Eph 2:5–6). Another second century apologist, Theophilus, writes that Heracles who burned himself to death “is alive,” and that Asclepius, after Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt, “rose again.”11 Tertullian clarifies the apologists’ intention in a text in his own Apology, with which he introduces his account of Christ’s miracles, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection: “For the moment accept this “story ” ( it is like your own stories) while we show how Christ is proved, and who they  were who, in order to destroy the truth, set about among you rival stories [fabulas] of the same kind [ i.e., the demons of Apol. 22.9].”12.

This brings us to the vexed issue of history, truth, and mythology. A well-known historian of ancient religions (Jonathan Z .  Smith) defines myth in this way:

“[M]yth” refers  to  a  traditional  narrative,  often orally transmitted, concerning superhuman beings and extraordinary events, occurring in a time remote from the time of its telling; considered to be of collective  importance or value because it narrates the formation, or dissolution, of aspects of the present order. 13

If one understands myth in his manner, then the tales Justin and Theophilus refer to are myths and are easily distinguishable from the claims made about Jesus who can be located in history, along  with the witnesses who asserted that they beheld him risen from the dead. I do not deny that some ancient Greeks attempted to chronologically locate figures such as Dionysus and Heracles in the past. Herodotus (V B C)  tried to locate the Egyptian and Phoenician Heracles in ancient time and decided there must be two: the Egyptian Heracles was an immortal god in Olympus, and the Phoenician Heracles was a hero (a hērōs;  i.e., a man who died and later was worshipped as a divinity after being taken up to heaven). 14 Cicero (I B C) refers to people of high intellect for the belief that illustrious men and women were taken into heaven. For Cicero, these individuals include Romulus, Hercules, Liber (= Dionysus), and a number of others. 15

The historian Diodorus Siculus (I B C) begins the fourth book of his Library by mentioning  those who have composed old “mythologies” (mythologias).16   The  Egyptians 17  identify  Osiris with the Greek Dionysus and affirm that because of his discovery of the vine and its cultivation he was given immortality. He proceeds with the Greek version, in which Dionysus  was conceived after Zeus had sexual intercourse with Semele (a mortal ),18 gave people the gift of the vine ( i.e., wine) and led an army. 19 In a trieteric festival 20  (every two years) some Greeks sacrifice  to him and believe that the god makes an appearance (epiphaneias) among people. Some myth writers 21claim there were two Dionysi (one born before the other in chronological time). Even though these figures lived in a legendary  time in the past, clearly some Greeks tried to make sense of the chronology.

Cicero notes that “we have a number of Dionysi” (five, actually). 22 One version appears in a text of Philodemus, 23  an Epicurean philosopher of IBC. Philodemus, describing the infant Dionysus, says, “torn apart by the Titans, Rhea put his members together, and he returned to life.” Cornutus, a Stoic philosopher of I AD, writes that “it is said in the myth (mythologeitai) that he (Dionysus) was torn apart by the Titans and put together again by Rhea .” 24  One of the so called Orphic Hymns ( probably III AD) envisions a Dionysus who is awoken from his sleep in Hades every two years, where he resides with Persephone:

I call upon Bacchos, appearing  every  second year,  the chthonian Dionysos, aroused/raised together with fair-haired nymphs, who, reposing in the holy house of Persephone, sleeps a holy Bacchic time of two years, but when he again aroused the trietericrevel he turns to a hymn with his fair- girdled nurses, now lulling to sleep, now arousing the times as the seasons wheel by. 25

The verb for “aroused” or “raised” is the same as the primary verb for resurrection in the New Testament ( i.e., egeirō).

In the Mediterranean basin, the oldest divinity reputed to have risen from the dead in some sense is Osiris. In the myth, his brother Seth (whom Plutarch identifies with Typhon) cut Osiris to pieces. An ancient Pyramid Text  has, “Osiris  awakes : the god once slack rouses, the god stands up, the god takes control of his body.”26  After his awakening , Osiris reigns in the Nether world ( i.e., not heaven). A Ptolemaic-Roman temple in Denderah depicts the mummified Osiris rising from the dead.27  The god is sexually aroused, preparing to conceive Horus with his sister Isis, who had gathered tog ether his scattered body parts. Plutarch, many years after the Pyramid text, compares Dionysus and Osiris, “ The narratives of the Titans and of the Night Festivals correspond with the so -called dismemberments, returns  to  life and rebirths  of Osiris.” 28   Plutarch, however,  as  an eclectic philosopher  (ca AD 50 – 120), did not accept the myths in a literal sense.

Therefore, Clea [the person to whom he dedicated the treatise, a priestess at Delphi], whenever you hear the traditional tales which the Egyptians tell [mythologousin “mythologize”] about their  gods, their  wanderings,  dismemberments,   and  many experiences of this sort, you must remember what has been already said, and you must not think that any of these tales actually happened in the manner in which the y are related. 29

Diodorus Siculus tells a similar version of the ultimate fate of Horus, who himself had been killed : “Furthermore, she [Isis] discovered also the drug which gives immortality, by means  of which she not only raised from the dead her son Horus, who had been the object of plots on the part of Titans and had been found dead under the water, giving him his soul again, but also made him immortal.”30

There are references to Tyrian Heracles ( identified with the g od Melqart) rising  from the dead.  Josephus,  the first century  Jewish historian, describes the founding of a temple of Heracles (Melqart) by Hiram of Tyre : “Moreover he went off and cut timber from the mountain called L ibanos for the roofs of the temples, and pulled down  the  ancient  temples and  erected  new  ones  to  Heracles and Astarte ; and he was  the first to celebrate the awakening  (or “resurrection”)  of Heracles in  the  month  of Peritius.” 31    The  word Josephus uses for “awakening ,” or better “resurrection,” is egersin, which is used one time in the New Testament for resurrection (Matt 27:53). There are various inscriptions  from the Middle East (e.g., one from Philadelphia/Amman, IGLSyr 21.2 29) that mention an “awakener” or “resuscitator” of Heracles (egerseitēn), and that word is derived from the New Testament’s primary verb for resurrection (egeirō). An ancient writer named Eudoxus of Cnidus (IV BC) probably illuminates the festival for Heracles in this tale : “Eudoxus of Cnidus, in the first book of his circuit of the earth, says that the Phoenicians  sacrifice quails to Heracles, because when Heracles, the son of Asteria and Zeus, was going to Libya he was killed by Typhon.  But when Iolaus brought him a quail and set it near him, he smelled it and came to life again.” 32

The evidence for a resurrection of Attis in paganism is at best late. Firmicus Maternus presents one of the late traditions:

… the y (the Phrygians) advanced the claim that he whom the y had buried a little while earlier had come to life again ; and since the woman’s  [Cybele’s]  heart burned unbearably with over weening love, the y erected temples to the dead youth … His death the y interpret as the storing away of the collected seeds, his return to life as the sprouting of the scattered seeds in the annual turn of the seasons. 33

A third century Christian writer named Hippolytus who was also a bishop of Rome has a similar tradition, although it has been heavily influenced by a Gnostic Christian group (the Naassenes):

But the Phrygians  say that the same one is also a “corpse,” having been buried in the body as in a monument or tomb … And the same Phrygians, he says again, say that this same one is by reason of the change a god. For he becomes a god when he arises from the dead and enters into heaven through the same gate [the g ate of the heavens]. 34

The evidence is so late that it is of limited use for a comparison with the beliefs of the ancient Christian community. 35

I could mention other gods here such as Adonis to whom similar traditions of new life after death or resurrection are attributed. The evidence above, however, is enough to make my major point. None of the figures from the history of ancient Mediterranean religions are “live options”  for faith any long er. “Live option” is a concept used by William James, the American philosopher who developed pragmatism — the one major philosophical school that Americans have contributed to the history  of philosophy. To put it another way, it is clear to (most) modern individuals that Dionysus, Osiris, Heracles, and Attis are mythical being s who never existed.  At one time, indeed,  many did believe in their existence,  although there were doubters.  Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand, did exist in a specific time — although there are a few critics of Christianity who have attempted, in vain, to show that the evidence for his existence is weak .  Even the most extreme critics (and occasionally  Roman magistrates who persecuted believers) of Christianity in the ancient world recognized the existence of Jesus. An article in The Cit y36 by Michael R .  Licona summarizes  some of the ancient evidence (to which more could be added, e.g .,  Porphyry,  Hierocles, Macarius’s philosopher, Julian the Apostate, etc.). The existence of Jesus is not the problem for the world — the resurrection is.  Although there is remarkable evidence (e.g ., 1 Cor 15:2–8, written within t went y years of Jesus’s  crucifixion),  one can always  doubt. The  problem of faith is an existential problem for every human being who hears the  Christian proclamation.  The  ancient comparative material is important for understanding  why the Christian message took hold of the ancient world and still  takes hold of people who respond with trust. An Egyptologist named Jan Assmann has written some quite perceptive words, in my view, which could be applied to all the divinities described above :

The experience of death, tog ether with longing for freedom from the yoke of transitoriness, were at the core of Egyptian religion.  In  late  antiquity,   therefore, Christianity,   which promised the same thing ,  must  have exerted a fascinating power  on  the  Egyptian  mind.  Christian  rite,  with  its manifold sacramental explanations with regard to death and resurrection must have fallen on soil that had been especially fruitful for thousands of years. 37

Comparing  the  resurrection of Christ  to  the  vicissitudes  of the Mediterranean divinities does not  weaken the Christian faith. Instead, it is important to recognize that those individuals  in the Mediterranean world who believed in  some kind of new life or resurrection of the various divinities were longing for the truth — the truth that many of them later discovered in the Christian Gospel : “I am the resurrection and the life” ( John 11:25).

About the Author
JOHN GRANGER COOK, PhD, is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at LaGrange College (LaGrange, GA). He has published books on Mark, the response to the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament by pagan philosophers, the persecution of the early Christians, and crucifixion.

1 Macarius, Monog enes 2.25.1 (see Macarios de Mag nésie, Le Monogénès : Tome II Édition critique, traduction et commentaire, ed. R . Goulet, Textes et traditions 7, [Paris : Vrin, 2003] 37).

2 Ibid., 2.25.1-3 (37–39 Goulet).

3 Orig en, Against Celsus 2.55 (trans. of J. G. Cook, The Inter pretation of the NewTestament in Greco Roman Paganism, [ Tübing en : Mohr Siebeck, 2000], 55–56).

4 Ibid., 55–56.

5 Dialogue 8.1 (trans. of St. Justin Mart yr, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. T. B. Falls and re v. by T. P. Halton, [ Washing ton, D C : Catholic University of America Press, 2003], 15).

6 Ibid., 69.2 (107 Falls).

7 St. Justin Mart yr, 1 Apology 54.6 (my translation).

8 Ibid., 24.1 (my translation).

9 Ibid., 23.1.

10 Ibid., 23.1 (trans. of St. Justin Mart yr, The First Apology. The Second Apology …, trans. T. B. Falls [ Washing ton, D C : Catholic University of America Press, 1948], 59).

11 Theophilus,  Autolycus 1.13.

12 Apology 21.14-23 (trans. of Tertullian, Apology • De spectaculis, ed. and trans. T. R . Glover, [Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1931], 109).

13 J. Z . Smith, “ Thing s Said/Thing s Done : The Relations of Myth and Ritual,” Witherspoon

Lecture, University of North Carolina Charlotte, 29 March 2009, 2, 17–18 n. 2.

14 Herodotus, Histories 2.42-45.

15 Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.27-28.

16 Diodorus  Siculus, Library 4.1.

17 Ibid., 4.17.

18 Ibid., 4.2.1-2.

19 Ibid., 4.2.5-3.5.

20 Ibid., 4.3.2.

21 Ibid., 4.4.1.

22 Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.58.

23 Philodemus, On Piety III 44,4–8 = P. Herc. 247 col. III ; cp. Diodorus  Siculus 3.62.7.

24 Cornutus, p. 62,10–11 Lang .

25 Orphic Hymns 53 (trans. of M. Nilsson, The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age, [New York : Arno Press, 1975], 40).

26 Pyramid Texts Recitation 690 (trans. of J. P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, [Atlanta : Society of Biblical Literature, 2015], 287).

27 The image is available online:

28 Isis and Osiris 35, 364F (my trans.).

29 Isis and Osiris 11, 355B (trans. of Plutarch, Moralia vol. 5, ed. and trans. F. C. Babbitt et al., [Cambridge,  MA : Harvard University Press, 1936] 29).

30 Library 1.25.6 (trans. of Diodorus of Sicily, The Library of History, vol. 1., ed. and trans. C. H. Oldfather, [Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1933)], 81).

31 Antiquities 8.145-6 (trans. of Josephus, Jewish Antiquities. Books V–VIII, vol. 5., ed. and trans. H. St. J. Thackeray  and R . Marcus,  [Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press,

1934], 649-51).

32 Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 9.392DE.

33 Error 3.1-2 (trans. of Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions, trans. and annot. by C. A . Forbes,  [New York : Newman Press, 1970], 47-48).

34 Heresies 5.8.23-24 (trans. of Hippolytus, Philosophumena or the Refutation  of All Heresies, trans. and modified by F. Leg g e, [London : Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1921], 135).

35 See Freeman, J., “Attis and Jesus : An Examination of Parallel Claims of Crucifixionand Resurrection,” Citations : A Journal of Undergraduate Research 10 (2013) 209–223. ( http://www.lagrang ) Freeman refutes many of the claims of Achar ya S., The Christ Conspiracy : The Greatest Story Ever Sold, (Kempton, IL : Adventures Unlimited, 1999).

36 M. R . Licona , “ What Jesus’ Enemies Said About Him,” The City 8 (2015): 92-100,(https :// ).

37 J. Assmann,Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, (Ithaca , NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 414.

[Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]