I'm going to comment on Richard C. Miller's Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge 2014).
i) I admit that I haven't read much past the introductory chapter. That's so bad that I'm disinclined to deepen my acquaintance with the book. The first chapter gives you the gist of what follows.
It might be objected that by failing to read the whole book, I'm missing out on the supporting material which substantiates his thesis. When, however, Miller compares the Resurrection accounts with Seneca the Younger's satirical Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius (to take a typical example), I doubt I'm missing much. Comparisons like that succeed, not in discrediting the Gospels, but in discrediting Miller.
ii) Miller is much like Robert Price, except that Miller has fancier credentials and a starchy style. Miller's approach is a throwback to the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule of Bultmann, Bousset and Reitzenstein.
Justin Martyr's 1 Apology presented the framing contours of the Gospel narrative as having resided within a mythic mode of hero fabulation….Central to the earliest great apology of the Christian tradition, this grand concession casts a profound light on the nature of earth Christian narrative production (2).
I think that's a misinterpretation of Justin's statement. I think Justin simply deploys an ad hominem argument. Pagans shouldn't find the Gospel narratives incredible, for by their own lights, there are similar events in pagan literature. He proposes this comparison for the sake of argument.
Could the apology indeed, have admitted that the earliest Christians had composed Jesus' divine birth, dramatically tragic death, resurrection, and ascension within the earliest Christian Gospel tradition as fictive embellishments following the stock structural conventions of Greek and Roman mythology, specifically the narrative traditions of the fabled antique Mediterranean demigod? (2)
i) Not only does that rest on a misinterpretation of Justin's statement, but we need to consider how Justin got his name. He was martyred for the faith. But according to Miller, that would mean Justin died for what he himself deemed to be a fictional Savior. How likely is that?
ii) Moreover, even if we grant Miller's implausible interpretation of Justin, that creates no presumption that Justin's interpretation of the Gospels is correct. Justin didn't author one of the canonical Gospels. And he was writing generations after they were written.
In addition, his own background is very different from the Gospel writers. By birth and breeding, Justin was a pagan Greek, trained in Greek philosophy and literature. Even if he thought the Gospels writers were adapting a translation fable, there's no reason to think his understanding mirrors the understanding of the Gospel writers. He moves in a different conceptual world than they do.
The text becomes all the more disturbing when considering that the argument did not even qualify as an "admission" per se but merely arose as a statement in passing, as though commonly acknowledged both within and without Christian society. Indeed, the implied author even included himself, as well as all Christians, as complicit in this mythopoeic enterprise. Did this earliest defense of Christianity deliver a candid assessment when stating that there was "nothing unique" or sui generis about these dominant framing contours of the Jesus narrative? (2)
Once again, this would mean many Christians chose martyrdom rather than recant their faith, even though, according to Miller, they thought the Gospels were fictional.
The apology's at times overt rejection of antecedent iconic figures of classical antiquity, however, further complicates the matter. In 1 Apology 5, for instance, the apology asserted that the classical pantheon was, in truth, a cast of demons. (2)
This reinforces my contention that Justin's statement reflects an apologetic strategy. He accommodates his pagan audience by responding to them on their own grounds. But that doesn't reflect his own position.
As previously understood in Greek philosophical tradition, this supreme reason existed as universally accessible to all peoples throughout time. The apology merely made explicit that which the prologue of John's Gospel had already implied (Jn 1:1-14). (3)
i) The syntax of Jn 1:9 is ambiguous: does it refer to Christ coming into the world or everyone coming into the world?
ii) John is using logos as a Septuagintal carryover for God's creative speech. That's further borne out by the conspicuous allusion to Gen 1. Logos doesn't mean "reason" in Jn 1. The background lies in OT usage rather than Greek philosophy.
Accordingly, Justin's works provided no historical argument supporting the resurrection…Indeed, scanning the multitude of documents, one finds that the early Christians apparently never did make such a claim or attempt such an argument, unlike modern Christian apologists, because that was not their perspective nor was this the story's conventional function (8).
It's unclear what Justin would have to add. By the time of writing, the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection were dead. Justin is writing well over a century after the Resurrection. So there's nothing more to say, above and beyond the testimonial evidence recorded in the NT.
In the cultural expression in the Hellenistic Orient, this process of syncretism typically meant the appropriation of Hellenic forms under significant indigenous names…Thus, Philo of Alexandria… (9).
i) Mentioning Philo is counterproductive, for that draws attention to the dramatic contrast between a Hellenistic Jew like Philo and the NT writers.
ii) But there's another basic problem with Miller's analysis. There's no one way in which a religious minority group reacts to the dominant culture. There are at least two opposing responses:
a) One is assimilation with the dominant culture. This can range from wholesale apostasy to subtle syncretism.
b) Conversely, members of a religious minority group may double down on their religious distinctives to preserve their hereditary identity. Diaspora Jews can be more conservative, more traditional, than Jews in a Jewish state, or Jews where Jews are in the majority. For instance, Hasidic communities in NYC may be far more observant than many or most Jews in Tel-Aviv.
Likewise, Muslim communities in Europe or the UK may be more uncompromising than Muslims in Muslim countries. If you're in the religious majority, you can simply follow the path of least resistance. It doesn't take any particular effort to have or retain your sense of identity. That's constantly reinforced by the society you live in. That's the dominant culture to begin with. As a result, religiosity may be quite lax.
It's clear from Acts and the Pauline epistles that Paul was the kind of Diaspora Jew who resisted assimilation. Likewise, Palestinian Jews (who wrote Matthew, Mark, and John) resented the Roman subjugation of the Holy Land. These weren't Quislings. They were proudly, stubbornly Jewish.
Of particular importance to the present study, one notes that the other works of a more reserved Jewish character known from earliest Christian writing (e.g., Matthew's logia tradition or "Q," Hebrews, James, and the Didache) give no trace of the Hellenistic, theopoetic themes outlined in 1 Apology 21 (i.e., divine birth, translation, and ascension). Such themes of Hellenistic exaltatio in Paul, the Gospels, and Acts of the Apostles survive as the celebrated textual products of these early Christian movements of the urban Greek East (12).
It's ironic that by his own admission, Hebrews doesn't conform to his translation fable trope. For, apart from Stephen's speech in Acts 7, Hebrews is the closest expression of Hellenistic Judaism that you will find in the NT. And even then, the outlook is far removed from Philo.
How was it that Paul, for all his Judaic training, appeared at the core more to resemble an itinerate Stoic philosopher than any known rabbi of the Roman Levant? (12).
That assumes what he needs to prove. Consider, moreover, what Paul had to lose by becoming a Christian. He was a rising star in Judaism. Had a brilliant career in the making. Was well connected with the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem. A star student of the greatest rabbi of his generation.
By becoming a Christian, he was ostracized by his social circle. Yet Miller would have us believe that Paul destroyed his career for the sake of a fictional Messiah. Not that Paul believed this was real, but we know better. Rather, Miller thinks Paul knew better.
Indeed, the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles belie any effort at contextualizing their language or composition in Jewish Palestine. Knowledge of the literary context inscribed within the documents themselves presents not the markings or signs of a mundane, local familiarity with with Galilee, Samaria, or Judea, but general, wayfaring descriptions more typical of festival pilgrims of the Jewish Diaspora, returning Roman troops, and disposed emigrants romanticizing the setting of a distant homeland. First composed, signified, and sacralized in the Hellenistic urban world of Roman Syria, Anatolia, Macedonia, and Greece, these works typically reflected and played on crudely stereotypical myths of Jewish Palestine (12-13).
Let's consider a few counterexamples:
Richard Bauckham’s lecture "Mark’s Topography: The Cognitive Map of a Capernaum Fisherman."
The geographical information in Mark’s Gospel, especially about Galilee, has often been thought to be confused and certainly presents some problems. The lecture uses the idea of a ‘mental map.’ The way we construct our spatial environment in our minds is very different from the maps we see on paper or on screen. A close look at Mark’s geography shows that it makes very good sense if it reflects the mental map of a Galilean fisherman based in Capernaum.
The fourth Gospel actually presents a much more consistently chronological account of Jesus' ministry, even though that emerges not as a primary intention but as a "fringe benefit" of its desire to include material from Jesus attending the various Jerusalem festivals (which can be dated). And the claims Jesus makes for himself at each of those festivals dovetail closely with the significance of the festivals-Bread of Life at Passover time, working as the Father does on the Sabbath, Light of the World and living water at Tabernacles, the Good Shepherd at Hanukah, and so on. John likewise contains more details of geography and topography than any of the Synoptics and, where he can be tested, he has consistently been shown to be accurate.
In a recent lecture in Jerusalem, James H. Charlesworth, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary, outlined some of the new archeological finds in the environs of Jerusalem that are challenging the detractors of the Apostle John being the author of the book by his name. Charlesworth contended that recent finds demonstrate convincingly that the Gospel of John was probably written much earlier than often suggested and is, therefore, valuable for the study of the historical Jesus — in recreating his time, place and social environment, and in helping us understand his life, actions, teachings and agenda.
For instance, John chapter 5 records the story of the healing of an invalid man at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The pool is said to have consisted of five porticoes, or porches.
For hundreds of years, people believing the pool did not exist read this text symbolically and theologically. ‘Bethesda’ means ‘house of mercy’ and was interpreted to be a symbol for the mercy Jesus showed the disabled man. ‘Five porticoes’ symbolized the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), since there has not been found a pentagon (5-sided structure) in antiquity. And what the Pentateuch could not do, Jesus will do. Verse 8 reads, “Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up!’” – providing a beautiful explanation of what Jesus does. Spiritually speaking, he makes people upright!
Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing in stages since then, archaeological excavations have been carried out in a location in the northeast quadrant of Jerusalem’s Old City based upon literary evidence in Josephus (War 2.15.5 §328) and Eusebius (Onomasticon 58.21–26). The Copper Scroll text discovered in 1947 at Qumran also describes a hidden treasure “in the Bet ‘Eshdatayin (pool precinct) in the pool at the entrance to its smaller basin” (3Q15 11.12).
Bet ‘Eshdatayin is in the dual Aramaic form and refers to two basins for the pool. Excavations have revealed sections of two massive pools, covered colonnades and a segment of Herodian steps in the general area described in John 5 and in Josephus’ writings. Rather than a pentagon shape, the five porticoes mentioned in John 5 surrounded the pools on the north, south, east and west, with the fifth portico dividing the 2 pools east to west (as seen in the photograph).
The Herodian steps in the Pool of Bethesda (see photo) can be seen today and are believed to extend for the length of the southern pool, or approximately 100 meters. It is a massive pool that is mostly covered by a parking lot today. The repetition of steps-landing-steps-landing can be easily seen and is typical of a mikvah, a pool or bath used to perform purification rites in Judaism.
In order to enter the courts of the Temple, located a little over 100 meters from the Pool of Bethesda, one had to be pure. In order to be pure, one had to be fully immersed in ‘living water.’ Thus a host of scholars today believe that the Pool of Bethesda was a first-century mikvah that served this purpose for tens of thousands of Jerusalem residents and for the thousands more that visited Jerusalem during the three annual pilgrimage feasts.
It has been estimated by some that over 100,000 Jews were in Jerusalem during the feasts. That is a lot of ‘living water’ needed for purification. It is likely the massive Pool of Bethesda helped to serve this purpose, along with other ritual baths surrounding the Temple. The requirement was that the worshipper must dip himself or herself in a mikvah before entering the courts of the Lord.
Re-reading John 5 with the pools, colonnades and steps in view, one can now easily envision the disabled man lying on his mat on the landing trying, with great difficulty, to immerse himself in the water just below. One can also envision another individual racing past him as the water is stirred up.
Now we can begin to understand that what the Gospel of John describes is precisely what had happened. The surviving literary records, such as the Copper Scroll, Josephus, Tacitus and the New Testament, refer to the water systems of Jerusalem, but none except John specifically mentions the Pool of Bethesda. That is to say, no other literary record but John and the Copper Scroll appear to have been aware of the pools which were likely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
This is especially important because the Gospel of John is the only gospel that claims to have an eyewitness. Luke interviews the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4), but John actually claims to have been an eyewitness to the miracles of Jesus (John 1:14; 19:35; 21:24-25).
Therefore, the story in John 5 was not a later creation of Christology (explaining the divinity of Jesus), but a real historical event that took place in a real time at a real place. That is how he knew the details about the pool, its name, its function, the age of the disabled man and the fact he was lying on a mat. All of these incredible details of the account attest to the eyewitness testimony of John, thereby adding to the credibility of its author and the early date of its authorship.
Visitors to Jerusalem today can enter the premises of St. Anne’s Church in the Muslim Quarter and see the real place where Jesus healed the invalid, perhaps on the very steps that you can observe today.
Meanwhile, John 9 tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man by smearing mud on his eyes and telling him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The old paradigm in Jesus Research interpreted this passage on a very Christological basis, since they concluded there was no Pool of Siloam nor a relationship between the Gospel of John and actual history. The invented story simply shows how Jesus is the “light of the world” (verse 5) by showing the progression from first receiving physical eyesight followed eventually by receiving spiritual eyesight.
But in 2004, archaeologists discovered an ancient pool in the southern portion of the City of David excavations, south of the Temple Mount, which had been hidden since 70 A.D. The 50-meter northern edge and part of the eastern edge of the pool have been excavated while the remaining pool is on property owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Like the Pool of Bethesda, one can easily see the pattern of steps and platforms allowing pilgrims to easily enter the pool for full immersion in preparation for entering the Temple located 700 meters to the north. That is to say, like the Pool of Bethesda, the Pool of Siloam was also likely a mikvah, according to many archaeologists. These two pools represent the largest mikvaot (plural form) that have been discovered to date in the Land of Israel. Also, like the Pool of Bethesda, it is conceivable that Jesus immersed himself at this pool before entering the Temple.
For additional corroboration, cf.
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel: Issues & Commentary (IVP 2002).
Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Hendrickson 2003).
Could any fresh, third-party observer not immediately perceive the pattern: A Judeo-Christian version of Zeus-Jupiter, with his own storied demigod son born of a mortal woman? (13).
That papers over categorical differences:
i) Zeus sired demigods by copulating with human women. By contrast, the Virgin Birth involves the agency of an incorporeal God. Moreover, the imagery of "overshadowing" Mary probably evokes the Shekinah filling the tabernacle (Exod 40:35). So the conceptual background lies in the OT, not Greco-Roman mythology.
ii) In Greco-Roman mythology, gods and men range along a common continuum. God's are scaled up humans. Humans with greatly enhanced abilities.
iii) Demigods are hybrid beings. Humans with superhuman athletic abilities.
iv) By contrast, Jesus is Yahweh Incarnate. He is more powerful than Hercules. He is more powerful than Zeus. He is more knowledgeable than Zeus.
He power isn't physical, like Hercules. To the contrary, Jesus can act at a distance. By word or by touch. Likewise, the NT teaches the preexistence of the Son. It's a fundamentally different theological paradigm.
Plainly stated, this book explores the ancient conventionality and significance of the "resurrection" and "ascension" narratives of Jesus in the New Testament. The investigation, more specifically, seeks to discern any semiotic-linguistic relationship between what Plutarch described as a Mediterranean "translation fable" tradition in classical antiquity (Vita Romuli 2.:3-28.6) and the postmortem accounts of the New Testament Gospels and Acts of the Apostles (14).
i) The NT Gospels are not in a class apart from the OT. Both the Gospels and the OT share the same worldview. God, angels, evil spirits, miracles, prophecies. The NT is continuous with the OT. It's the OT, not Greco-Roman literature, that supplies the literary and conceptual background.
ii) The Resurrection accounts are not the apotheosis of a demigod into full godhood. In the Gospels, Jesus is divine from the outset. He is not admitted into the pantheon by virtue of the Resurrection. Rather, he returns to the Father. He originally came from heaven.
Classicists have long been (self)trained not expressly to disrupt the sacred tenets of the Christian West and thus have leveled veiled criticism, albeit at times most thinly, within the relative privacy of their privileged society (15).
Classicists like John Lightfoot, F. F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger, and Colin Hemer were conversant with the same material that Miller cites. Yet they defended the historicity of the NT.
…the tradition functioned in an honorific capacity; the convention had become a protocol for honoring numerous heroes, kings, and philosophers, those whose bodies were not recovered at death (16).
The strongest conventional signals of the translation fable operate under a subtext of distinction, namely, in demonstrating one or more of the signature divine feats of the translated corpus. Most typically this mean a "vanished body"… (30).
It's not like Jesus died on a foreign field, or died at sea. There was a chain-of-custody. The fact that the tomb was empty on Easter doesn't mean his body went missing. To the contrary, is body is very much on display throughout the Resurrection narratives.
To what extent did the Romulean translation narratives provide a mimetic backdrop for the Gospel narratives? (16).
i) Of course, that's political propaganda. A backstory written to retroactively legitimate the pretensions of imperial Rome.
ii) Miller is comparing a purely fictional, mythological figure (Romulus) with a historical figure (Jesus) whom contemporaries wrote about. There's no comparison.
…the book also tacitly delivers a rather forceful critique of standing theories regarding the likely antecedents of the early Christian "resurrection" accounts. These tend to fall into two large pools: early Jewish resurrection tradition or the denial of any antecedent, thus positing a sui generis status, a perspective typically arising out of faith-based discourse (16).
i) Miller is blind to his own plausibility structure. Is he an atheist? Does he believe in miracles?
If you take a secular outlook for granted, then that precommits you to believing that the Resurrection accounts are fictional.
ii) Likewise, if you deny the existence of ghosts, then you assume that all accounts of postmortem apparitions are fictional, fraudulent, or hallucinatory.
If, however, ghosts are real, then Greco-Roman stories about dead relatives visiting the living may have a basis in fact. Even if the specific stories are fictional, they are inspired by genuine anecdotes or real-life experience.
Postmortem apparitions and haunted houses are well-attested and widely-attested. Moreover, in a pagan culture steeped in the occult, or necromancy, these encounters would be expected.
To take a comparison: many films about WWII, the Vietnam War, and the Civil War have fictional plots, fictional characters, and fictional dialogue. Yet a real event frames and underlies these movies.
My point is not that the Resurrection narratives are ghost stories. Indeed, Luke and John go out of their way to quash that misinterpretation.
I'm just responding to Miller on his own terms. I'm merely pointing out that the kind of literature he cites (e.g. postmortem apparitions) may sometimes be true to life.
The bodies of the gods were more physical, more perfect than those of mere transient mortals. They possessed super-human traits, that is, bodies without the limitations of the quotidian human condition. They remained durable, imperishable, immortal, powerful, perfect, beautiful, robust, immune to disease and debilitation, and were physically able to travel through the air, to transform (undergo metamorphoses or adopt an incognito form), to appear and to vanish, to teleport, even multilocate. Also, unlike the shades, the immortals were fully capable of interacting with the physical world in all human respects to the extent of fighting in battles, eating mundane foods, and even having intimacy and offspring with mortals (29-30).
i) Yes, the Greco-Roman gods were corporeal. That's the antithesis of Yahweh, who is incorporeal. Yet Yahweh is the frame of reference for NT theism and NT Christology.
ii) There's no indication in the Gospels that Jesus had the Olympian physique of Steve Reeves in Hercules. There's no indication that he had the athletic physique of Apollo in Classical Greek statuary.
iii) Greek gods could be injured. In the Iliad, Ares is wounded by Diomedes.
Did Hephaestus have a "beautiful," "perfect" body? Wasn't he a cripple?
iv) Even before the Resurrection, Jesus had an uncanny ability to elude lynch mobs. Not to mention his body becoming supernaturally luminous at the Transfiguration.
v) Conversely, even after the Resurrection, he was scarred from the Crucifixion.
vi) There's evidence for bilocation in the paranormal literature. You can't just assume that's fictional or mythological.
vii) Even before the Resurrection, the miracles of Jesus aren't due to his having a special kind of body.
These works, in turn, inspired the homonymous Metamorphoses of Ovid, Apuleius, and Atoninus Liberalis in Roman antiquity, not to mention the mythographic thematic plays of such writers as Lucian of Syria (30).
Miller fails to distinguish between authors who consciously write fiction; careless, gullible authors who pass along legendary stories; and serious writers who report events based on firsthand observation or firsthand information.