Chronological Snobbery and the Resurrection of Jesus

When discussing the historical basis for the resurrection, one often encounters a popular misconception that the ancient world was far more gullible about claims of resurrection than people are today. This common presumption amounts to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” People imagine that, while our post-enlightenment modern world treats claims of resurrection with doubt and skepticism, the ancient world — being full of superstition and credulity abut the supernatural — would have been poised to accept such a claim.

This discredited notion is addressed by N.T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which he surveys the (Jewish and non-Jewish) ideas concerning resurrection and the afterlife in the first-century Mediterranean world. He shows that the unanimous view in both the Jewish and non-Jewish cultures was that bodily resurrection wasn’t possible. From the point of view of Greco-Roman ideas, the physical world is seen as being defiling and corrupt, while the spirit or soul was considered good. Within Judaism, there were two major sects — the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The former rejected all notions of an afterlife and resurrection, while the latter believed that there would one day come a general resurrection at the end of the world — but this precluded the possibility of someone rising bodily from the dead to glory and immortality in the middle of history, before this general resurrection at the end of time. As Timothy Keller explains in his book The Reason for God (p. 205),

 “The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay and death, was inconceivable. If someone had said to any first-century Jew, ‘So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!’ the response would be, ‘Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb? Ridiculous!’ The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.”

We can also show historically from a number of sources that people in the ancient world had a hard time buying the resurrection story. Consider the late second century Christian writer Theophilus of Antioch. In book 1 (chapter 13) of his apology to Autolycus, he addresses this skepticism:

“Then, as to your denying that the dead are raised — for you say, “Show me even one who has been raised from the dead, that seeing I may believe,” […] But, suppose I should show you a dead man raised and alive, even this you would disbelieve. God indeed exhibits to you many proofs that you may believe Him. For consider, if you please, the dying of seasons and days and nights, how these also die and rise again. And what? Is there not a resurrection going on of seeds and fruits, and this, too, for the use of men? A seed of wheat, for example, or of the other grains, when it is cast into the earth, first dies and rots away, then is raised and becomes a stalk of corn. And the nature of trees and fruit-trees, — is it not that according to the appointment of God they produce their fruits in their seasons out of what has been unseen and invisible?”

There is a similar passage in Clement of Rome’s epistle to the church of Corinth (1st Clement 24), written most likely in the mid-90’s A.D.:

“Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. My friends, look how regularly there are processes of resurrection going on at this very moment. The days and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away, and night comes again. Or take the fruits of the earth; how, and in what way, does a crop come into being? When the sower goes out and drops each seed into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord’s providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain a host of others spring up and yield their fruit.”

Finally, the second century apologist Justin Martyr, in his first apology (chapter 19), also addresses the believability of the resurrection. He writes thus:

“And to any thoughtful person would anything appear more incredible, than, if we were not in the body, and some one were to say that it was possible that from a small drop of human seed bones and sinews and flesh be formed into a shape such as we see? For let this now be said hypothetically: if you yourselves were not such as you now are, and born of such parents [and causes], and one were to show you human seed and a picture of a man, and were to say with confidence that from such a substance such a being could be produced, would you believe before you saw the actual production? No one will dare to deny [that such a statement would surpass belief]. In the same way, then, you are now incredulous because you have never seen a dead man rise again. But as at first you would not have believed it possible that such persons could be produced, so also judge ye that it is not impossible that the bodies of men, after they have been dissolved, and like seeds resolved into earth, should in God’s appointed time rise again and put on incorruption.”

Such statements should give us cause to re-consider whether the ancient world was as gullible and credulous as we are often led to think.

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10 replies
  1. Martin says:

    So, what is Matthew 27:52-53 all about?

    “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.”

  2. Stephen B says:

    What, many zombies rose from the dead, walked the streets to ‘many’ people, and it’s reported nowhere else, not even in the other Gospels? Um… Really? You’d not think an ‘actual event’ such as that would have created an enormous stir?

  3. Martin says:

    Phil- So in your eyes, Matthew 27:52-53 is nothing more than a random piece of sensational journalistic reporting which happened to become God’s holy word? Mere Biblical fluff without theological importance?

    Reporting an actual event? Gives us cause to consider the gullibility and credulousness of the modern world.

  4. Mary Lou says:

    As a professional communicator, I can tell you that I tailor information to suit the audience I am addressing. The authors of the Gospels were aimed at different audiences. Matthew’s was the only one specifically aimed at Jews. His inclusion of the saints raised from the dead would have been meaningful to them because of their knowledge of Scripture (for example, Ezekiel 37 and the raising of the dry bones).

    However, Luke and Mark aimed their gospels at a Gentile audience for whom the resurrection of the saints would not carry the same significance. John’s gospel was aimed at believers, both Jew and Gentile, to explain who Jesus was/is and who and what we are in him. The fact that none of them included the information doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

    And lest you think that those verses in Matthew were added later, they are present in all the earliest manuscripts and their inclusion right from the start is not in question. As the article above points out, it would be ask shocking to the people of that era to see someone rise from the dead as it would be today.

    As for outside authors including the information, we must consider that this was not an era of massive information exchange. Secondly, we only have a limited number of ancient documents in existence and it may have been included elsewhere. We just don’t know because we don’t have them. We can only work with what we have. Thirdly, we cannot expect people who were anti-Christian to trumpet Christian miracles.

    Lastly, we do not know who these saints were, how long they had been dead, etc. Let’s face it, if they have been gone a long time, there might not be anybody who recognized them and wouldn’t have believed them when they said they had been brought back to life. Therefore, many people may have dismissed them outright and thought the incident unworthy to record if they did not understand it or its significance.

    If someone is a naturalist who views life with the idea that miracles are impossible, that presupposition will cause them to reject this event outright. However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

    Check out Craig Keener’s book on miracles for a thorough discussion of the topic as well as C.S. Lewis’ Miracles which argues why it is not at all illogical to believe that miracles can, have and will continue to happen.

  5. Martin says:

    Mary Lou, you stated that “If someone is a naturalist who views life with the idea that miracles are impossible, that presupposition will cause them to reject this event outright. However, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

    If you look at the evidence objectively, it’s more than reasonable to reject the event outright.

    If the other Gospels fail to mention the event, the more likely reason is that it didn’t happen, or at least that they weren’t aware of it.

    Your argument that the omission of the event is due to the Gospels having been written for different audiences doesn’t provide a sufficient explanation for the omission. An event such as people, long since dead, rising to life cuts through all cultures. What audience, Jew or Gentile, would fail to be impressed by the risen dead?

    Your argument suggests that Luke, Mark, and John’s audiences would have been indifferent to these risen dead. This contradicts Johnathan McLatchie’s assertion that people of the day would have (and did) find such an event unbelievable.

    Also, if Matthew was trying to convince his Jewish audience, it is much more likely that he deliberately used Ezekiel 37 as a mere ploy to connect with his audience. As you pointed out, such an event would have been meaningful to them. It is much more reasonable to assume that Matthew used his knowledge of scripture to manipulate his audience (even if he believed it himself) rather than the assume the opposite view that an unspecified number of folks came back to life for an unspecified reason…. a story that is entirely ignored, for no good reason, in the other Gospels.

  6. Toby says:

    “Lastly, we do not know who these saints were, how long they had been dead, etc. Let’s face it, if they have been gone a long time, there might not be anybody who recognized them and wouldn’t have believed them when they said they had been brought back to life. Therefore, many people may have dismissed them outright and thought the incident unworthy to record if they did not understand it or its significance.”

    You inadvertently cheapen resurrection with this argument. If this wasn’t such a special occurrence, then why should people think jesus’s resurrection anything great? In fact resurrection is really a commonplace occurrence back then apparently:

    The widow’s son by Elijah (1 Kings 17:19-24)
    The Shunammite’s son by Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-35).
    A man whose body had been placed in Elisha’s tomb (2 Kings 13:21).
    Lazarus by Jesus (John 11:43-44).
    The ruler’s daughter by Jesus (Matthew 9:23-26).
    Saints at the moment of the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:51-53)
    Eutychus raised back to life through Paul after he fell out of a third-floor window (Acts 20:9-10).
    Tabitha by Peter (Acts 9:36-43)

    Doesn’t seem to be much special about resurrection.

  7. Terry L. says:


    >>Mere Biblical fluff without theological importance?

    I don’t think so. I see this as confirmation that the promise of resurrection applies to men as well as Christ.

    >>If the other Gospels fail to mention the event, the more likely reason is that it didn’t happen, or at least that they weren’t aware of it.

    The inclusion of “that it didn’t happen” is gratuitous. Unless one knows all things, this is a fallacious argument. You correctly surmise that the authors may not have known about the event in question; in this event, then the omission of this story casts no light either way on whether or not it actually happened.

    Also, an accurate, factual report by one person of an event, miraculous or not, is not rendered false by 100 others who fail to report it or report it inaccurately.

    If you want to disprove his account, take a look at the events you can verify by other reputable sources using valid and accepted methods textual criticism, and see how accurately the author reports what you can check. Compare what he gets correct with what he misses, and you’ll have an idea of how trustworthy the author is. But you cannot automatically say “well, that’s a miracle, so it goes in the ‘incorrect’ column”. You’re trying to discover whether or not a miraculous event was accurately reported; if you presuppose that no miracles exist, then not only are you begging the question, you are also being unscientific in your methods.

    >>What audience, Jew or Gentile, would fail to be impressed by the risen dead?

    Perhaps… you, Toby and Stephen??

    You yourself are refutation of your own point.

    And you just proved the point Jesus made to the rich man when he said if men would not believe Moses and the prophets, neither would they believe though one returned from the dead.

    Matthew chose to include the story, and yet you still doubt. Why would you think that his contemporaries would be any less skeptical?

    >>a story that is entirely ignored, for no good reason,

    By what evidence do you make this statement?

    Hello, Toby!

    I don’t think your point applies when you look at the timeline over which these events happened.

    And even when you account for all of these that you mentioned, and a few that you missed, you’re left with (generously) less than 1000 people out of all of human history to that point. That’s hardly “commonplace”!

    Like Martin, you yourself seem to see nothing significant in this event. Why should you think people of that day would be any different than you? If the author didn’t think that this event would have an impact on his target audience, why would he include it? This is exactly the “chronological snobbery” Lewis describes.

  8. Stephen B says:

    “Also, an accurate, factual report by one person of an event, miraculous or not, is not rendered false by 100 others who fail to report it or report it inaccurately.”

    You’re begging the question – the accuracy and factuality of the report is what is in question.

  9. Gary M says:

    Which of these two stories has a higher probability of having occurred:

    Jesus of Nazareth is crucified in Jerusalem in circa 30 AD. As he draws his final breath, the entire earth goes dark for three hours, a violent earthquake shakes dead people awake in their graves, and rips the Temple veil down the middle. Jesus’ body is taken down off the cross and placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body which the previous night had voted unanimously to execute Jesus. The tomb is sealed with a large stone and Roman guards placed in front of it. Three days later, a second great earthquake shakes Jerusalem, causing the dead who had been shaken awake in the first earthquake to now come out of their tombs to roam the streets of Jerusalem and reconnect with old acquaintances; an angel (or angels) comes and rolls away the great stone in front of the tomb, causing the soldiers to faint, and testifies to one, several, or many women that Jesus’ tomb is empty; that he had risen from the dead. Jesus later appears to the Eleven, and eight days (or forty days) later, ascends into heaven from a mountain in Bethany (or Galilee, or from the Upper Room in Jerusalem). The resurrection appearances of Jesus so emboldened the previously easily-frightened, doubting disciples that they now boldly preach the gospel of Jesus in the temple, Judea, and the world, dying martyrs deaths, refusing to recant their eyewitness testimony that they had seen the resurrected, walking/talking body of Jesus. These same disciples soon write the Gospels and several epistles which would soon become the New Testament of the Bible. The Gospel of Jesus spreads like wildfire, furiously persecuted by both the Jews and Romans, to become the dominant faith of the Western World for two thousand years.

    Or, is this what happened:

    Jesus of Nazareth is crucified. He dies. His body is left on the cross for days, as was the Roman custom, to warn any other “King of the Jews” pretender to think twice about stirring up trouble. After a few days have passed and the birds, dogs (Roman crosses were low to the ground), and other carrion have ravaged the body, the remains are taken down at night and tossed into an unmarked common grave—a hole in the ground— with the bodies of other criminals executed that week. The location of this common grave is known only to a few soldiers, as the Romans do not want to give the “King of the Jews” a proper burial nor do they want a known grave to become a national shrine where Jews can later come to pay homage to their “King”, possible inciting more trouble. Jesus disciples who were already in hiding, go home to Galilee to take up their prior professions—fishing and collecting taxes. The small band is devastated. Their beloved leader is dead; their hopes of reigning over the New Kingdom on twelve thrones with Jesus are dashed to pieces; there will be no overthrow of the hated Romans after all. All hope seems lost. Then…months or a few years after Jesus’ death…a couple of women disciples see a man in the distance, at sunset, and in the silhouette of the fading sun…he looks like Jesus. Is it Jesus? He turns to them, waves with his hand, and then disappears behind a hill. “It was Jesus!” they exclaim. They run and tell the disciples. Soon other disciples are “seeing” Jesus. “He is risen, just as he said he would!” The disciples are ecstatic! They WILL reign in the New Kingdom after all! They begin to preach the Gospel of Jesus, telling everyone how he has risen from the dead, as he had promised.

    …and forty years later, after Jerusalem has been destroyed and most of the disciples are dead, a Greek speaking Christian in Rome writes down the story of Jesus. However, the version of the oral story that this man hears circulating in Rome at the time tells of an empty tomb, the tomb of a member of the Sanhedrin…so “Mark” writes down the story. A decade or so later, “Matthew” in another far away location and “Luke” in another, write down the story of Jesus. They borrow heavily from “Mark’s” story, from another common source (Q), and from other sources that they do not seem to have shared. For instance, “Matthew’s” story contains incredible supernatural tales, such as an earthquake occurring when Jesus died, causing dead people to come back to life…but they don’t come out of their graves until three days later when Jesus walks out of his grave! One wonders what they were doing in their tombs for three days!

    And two thousand years later, every Christian on earth believes that the stories written by “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” are the historically accurate accounts of the life, death, and miraculous resurrection of Jesus, when all they are are legendary stories. No one lied. No one made anything up. It’s a legend. Now, dear Christian, how many supernatural events such as dead people coming out of their graves to walk around town chatting with friends and family have you seen in your life? Not many, have you? And how many times have you seen a simple story about a missing person or someone’s mysterious death, evolve within days, into the wildest tale, with all kinds of bizarre details and claims?

    So, honestly, friend: Which of the above two stories about Jesus is more probable to be true?


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