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 about 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 reconsider whether the ancient world was as gullible and credulous as we are often led to think.