Resurrection or Ghost Story? by Robert Conner

 According to Paul, arguably Christianity’s foremost spokesman, belief in the resurrection is the sine qua non of Christian belief and the basis of Christian hope:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.[1]

For Paul, Jesus’ miracles—which he never mentions—are not the decisive factor for belief, nor are Jesus’ teachings—which he never directly references despite his putative authorship of half the books of the New Testament—nor does Paul allude to Jesus’ virgin birth or transfiguration. In fact, Paul explains that he did not rely on the original community of belief for his information:

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ...Then after three years [in Arabia] I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.[2]

According to his own testimony, Paul knew only Peter [Cephas] among the apostles and met only a single relative of Jesus, his brother James. In short, Paul’s idiosyncratic theology appears to have derived “by revelation,” the sort of visionary transports to which Paul refers in his letters.[3]

What, if anything, did Paul actually know about Jesus’ death and burial? Like other New Testament stories, the accounts of Jesus’ trial and execution are problematic. Although it was claimed that Jesus’ disciples removed his body and buried it,[4] in a passage in Acts Paul clearly states that “those living in Jerusalem and their rulers...asked Pilate to put him to death, even as they fulfilled all the things written about him, and taking him down from the gibbet, they laid him in a tomb.”[5] Paul, in his previous incarnation as Saul, was an avid persecutor of the early church[6] and so may have known for a fact that the authorities that had Jesus executed were the ones who then removed the body from the cross and disposed of it. Reimer suggests that Paul may have had some relationship with the temple police in his role of “enforcing Jewish religious a punitive fashion, initiating policy, enforcing it with considerable zeal, and casting judgment against those caught.”[7]

Whatever the case, the empty tomb was not at first a symbol of Jesus’ victory over death, but a problem that required an explanation and the early church addressed the disaster of the rejected and crucified messiah by creating resurrection stories. However, the gospel stories of the resurrection raised at least as many questions as they answered and, moreover, represented only one of several possible theological solutions as evidenced by Paul’s allegation that some rejected the idea of resurrection—“how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”[8]

Kirby lists four plausible historical scenarios besides the traditional explanation for the empty tomb: Jesus “was left hanging on the cross for the birds,” the Romans dumped the body in a mass grave, the Jewish authorities buried the body, or the disciples buried the body and it remained in a tomb.[9] It is in connection with the disposition of Jesus’ body that Crossan describes “the hierarchy of horror” that entailed not only the loss of life and possessions, but even the “destruction of identity” that included the utter corruption of the body of the condemned, in some cases even the killing of his family, and “the final penalty,” to be unburied, having no tomb to memorialize him, no grave that might be visited. The worst penalties included being burned alive, thrown to the beasts, and crucifixion, which in the last case “the body was left on the cross until birds and beasts of prey had destroyed it.” Crossan concludes, “I keep thinking of all those other thousands of Jews crucified around Jerusalem in that terrible first century from among whom we have found only one skeleton and one nail. I think I know what happened to their bodies, and I have no reason to think Jesus’ body did not join them.”[10]

Given the well-attested magical and necromantic use of “relics” obtained from those violently killed, as a crucified criminal Jesus’ body, the crucifixion nails, and even the wood of the cross would have been tempting targets for theft. Once the Christian practice of collecting post-mortem remains to use as miraculous relics became known to the Romans, “some governors used soldiers to keep the believers from taking bodies and then took the further step of rendering the bodily remains entirely inaccessible.”[11] It is significant that the gospel of Matthew reports that the Jewish authorities expressed concern that Jesus’ disciples would come by night to steal the body and claim that Jesus had raised himself. Matthew—the identity of the author is unknown, but following convention we will call him “Matthew”—who wrote as late as fifty years after Jesus’ death,[12] likely included this bit of narrative to counter charges that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body, charges still in circulation in Matthew’s day:

   The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
   “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.[13]

Jesus’ post mortem appearances fall generally into three categories: visions, epiphanies, and apparitions, but the distinctions are not always maintained nor the details wholly consistent. For example, the account of Jesus’ appearance to Saul on the road to Damascus, reported in three places in Acts,[14] differs in detail with each retelling. According to the first report, Paul falls to the ground while the men with Paul stand speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one,[15] and in the second the men see a light but do not hear a voice,[16] but in the third account, all the men fall to the ground.[17] Soon after his conversion, Saul (aka Paul) again sees Jesus, but under different circumstances:

It happened that after returning to Jerusalem, while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a state of ecstasy and I saw him saying to me, “Hurry and leave Jerusalem at once because they will not accept your testimony about me.”[18]

Jesus’ appearance to Paul in the temple is an ecstatic vision, but his manifestation on the road to Damascus has characteristics of other post-resurrection epiphanies: light, voices, glowing raiment,[19] supernatural entities and natural upheavals.[20] Visions during prayer are well known[21] and as Strelan observes, “That [Paul’s] prayer included an ecstatic vision is not at all is quite likely that Temple prayer had rhythm and repetitive element. In addition, it is possible that the body moved in harmony with the rhythm of the prayer. Such a method of praying is often mantra-like and can induce a hypnotic, ecstatic state.”[22]

The Greek term ekstasij (ekstasis), which literally means “to be outside oneself,” is the obvious source of ecstasy. An altered state of consciousness is in view, and the word is often translated trance—Peter also has a vision while in a state of ecstasy.[23]

Throughout the Mediterranean world even the dead were expected to be up and active by early morning, a belief that persists even today in the form of Easter “sunrise services.” “The funeral was finished and the slow process of death completed when the soul finally departed at the coming of dawn...”[24] “The ‘Spell for Coming Forth by Day’...draws the parallel between the sun’s passage from night to day, and the deceased’s emergence from the tomb to the daylight.”[25]

A text often cited as an early report of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances comes from a letter written by Paul:

   For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, the greater number of whom remain until now but some have fallen asleep.
   Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared even to me, as to one born before his time.[26]

The usual words in Greek meaning to see, physically and metaphorically, are blepw (blepō) and qewrew (theōreō), but this passage Paul repeatedly uses forms of oraw (horaō), a verb often employed in the New Testament for preternatural visions and similar experiences.[27] The related noun, orama (horama), often denotes vision in the sense of supernatural experience, although clear distinctions in usage are not consistently maintained.

The claim that Jesus appeared to 500 witnesses at one time is the sort of exaggeration one would expect from a later apocryphal account, and the fact that none of the gospels, written later than 1 Corinthians, report this amazing confirmation of the resurrection almost certainly marks the passage as an interpolation inserted into the text after Paul’s death. “A simple comparison of the Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 shows that the two traditions cannot be reconciled.”[28]

Robert Price has proposed that the chain of connectives—“that Christ died...that he was buried...that he was raised...that he appeared”—is evidence of an early liturgical confession, i.e., not written by Paul,[29] an argument I believe to be supported by the use of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection in healing spells such as this one which takes the form of a confessional formula put to magical use: “Christ foretold, Christ appeared, Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ rose, Christ ascended, Christ reigns, Christ saves Ouibius, who Gennaia bore, from all fever, from all shivering, daily, quotidian, now, now, quickly, quickly.”[30]

The chain of repetitive professions of belief in the preserved text of 1 Corinthians 15 seems designed to elicit a confessional response: wfqh Khfa...epeita wfqh...adelfoij...epeita wfqh Iakwbw...toij apostoloij ...escaton de pantwn...wfqh kamoi, “seen by Peter...then the brothers...then seen by James...the apostles...and last of all...seen by me.” Given the flow of the text it is easy to imagine that we are hearing the echo of an ancient liturgy in which the resurrected Lord appears during ritual to the community of faith past and present—to Peter, to James, to the brothers and apostles—and ‘last of me,’ the individual believer now far removed in time and location from the miracle of the resurrection.

If the text of 1 Corinthians 15 is discounted, the gospel of Mark becomes the oldest report of the resurrection:

   When the Sabbath had passed, Mary the Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him, and very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the sun having risen, they went to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll the stone away from the door of the tomb for us?”
   Looking up, they saw that the stone—which was very large—had been rolled away and as they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe, sitting off to the right and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You are seeking Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He is not here. He has been raised. Look at the place where they laid him! But go tell his disciples and Peter that he goes ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you.”
   And after they left, they fled from the tomb, for trembling and panic seized them. And they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.[31]

Three days in the tomb reflects the Jewish belief that the soul remained in the vicinity of the tomb for three days following burial.

The account in Mark contradicts our expectations for several reasons, most clearly in that the women do not actually see Jesus, but a “young man” usually assumed to be an angel.[32] Moreover, there is no sense of reassurance —the women flee in panic, too frightened to speak of their experience. Later manuscripts of Mark append several spurious endings designed to improve on the original conclusion, a conclusion many readers apparently found to be theologically deficient.

The authors of Matthew and Luke were also dissatisfied with Mark’s ending and set about repairing it, introducing a number of new difficulties in the process. Matthew appropriates the youth’s words from Mark,[33] but in his revision the women are not struck silent from fear but run joyfully to inform the apostles that Jesus has risen, being met by Jesus on the way.[34] Matthew’s expansion has the eleven remaining apostles go to Galilee—contradicting Acts 1:4 where the disciples are ordered to remain in Jerusalem—where they receive the commission to make disciples of all nations, but, we are told, some doubted.[35]

The doubt of some of the apostles clearly troubled the early church—as Paul explained to the Corinthians, the resurrection and glorification of Jesus was already the keystone in the arch of Christian belief—but when Luke set about removing the last element of doubt about the reality of Jesus’ return from the dead, he created a startling narrative shift: the appearances of the risen Lord begin to take on the characteristics of classic ghost stories.

D.T. Prince, who has published a detailed comparison of the features of Luke’s account with the features of classical ghost stories, concludes, “the method at work in Luke 24 is an attempt to disorient the reader in order to reconfigure the traditions known to the author and reader in light of the disciples’ extraordinary experience of the resurrected Jesus.”[36] Prince cites a number of examples of ghosts what were corporeal “revenants” but changed appearance at will, exhibiting a well-known spectral tendency to polymorphism, and engaged in various physical activities including sexual intercourse.[37] However, it seems to me her conclusion risks begging the question of how extraordinary ghost stories seemed in antiquity—ghost stories are extraordinary by definition—or whether the ancients were any less confused than moderns when ghosts exhibited contradictory traits, being in some way physical yet defying the laws of physics. In any case, ghosts that displayed elements of physicality were not uncommon: “Textual allusions or inferences would seem to point in favor of both of these visible types of manifestations of the dead [spirit and shadow, my note] as being totally human in form.”[38]

The longest of the gospel resurrection stories is the ‘road to Emmaus’ narrative; two disciples meet a stranger to whom they relate the account of the women at the tomb and as they journey, Jesus, who they have been prevented from recognizing, explains the Old Testament prophecies relating to himself. Finally, as they eat the evening meal together, the disciples are vouchsafed a fleeting glimpse of the real Jesus when he blesses the bread, breaks it, and hands it to them. His appearance then comes to this jarring conclusion: “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him and he became invisible to them.”[39]

   The chief priests and our rulers handed [Jesus] over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 
   In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” 
   He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
   As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 
   They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how they recognized Jesus when he broke the bread.[40]

In a further interrogation of the Lukan account D.T. Prince comments on “the rhetorical strategy of the author of Luke-Acts.” The gentile writer, who likely composed his work in Asia Minor, late in the 1st century, “was aware of the scrutiny that such wondrous events elicited in his context and was particularly concerned to retell the stories in such a way that they would provide the reader with certainty regarding the events they related (Luke 1:1-4)...In light of widespread suspicion and confusion over Christian claims about Jesus and objections like those of Celsus, the rhetorical question [“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”][41] functions to provide a response to the rhetorical problem, both uncertainty from within the community and suspicion from without.”[42] According to Luke, the uncertainty arose from a simple fact: according to the most primitive tradition the disciples who went to the tomb “did not see Jesus.”[43]

Few if any ancient people appear to have believed that the physical body would persist after death or be restored to life without recourse to sorcery. Yet the disembodied dead could talk, walk, eat and drink, and food offerings and libations were brought to tombs even in cases where the body had been cremated or lost at sea—following his self-immolation, Peregrinus was reported to be seen walking about dressed in white.[44] The phantom or eidōlon, from eidos, form or shape, is the reflected image of the soul, a deathless entity, and could accordingly be considered more real than the corruptible body.[45] 

Unfortunately for Christian apologetic efforts, the association between invisibility and magic is tight. Luke’s is the only direct mention of invisibility in connection with the resurrection—afantoj egeneto ap autwn, “he became invisible to them”[46]—and the only occurrence of afantoj, (aphantos), invisible, in the Greek New Testament. The Greek magical papyri preserve this spell for invisibility: “Arise, demon from the realm below...whatever I may command of you, I, [insert name], in that way obey me...if you wish to become invisible, just smear your forehead with the mixture and you will be invisible for however long you want.”[47] The wording of the spell, to become “invisible”—aphantos—duplicates Luke’s description of Jesus’ sudden disappearance.

Luke was not unaware of the ghostly nature of the Emmaus story. Indeed, the next account he relates appears designed specifically to prove that Jesus is not merely a ghost:
   But while they were talking about these things he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you!” But they were alarmed and became afraid, thinking they were seeing a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you terrified and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Touch me and see, because a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” And saying this, he showed them his hands and feet.
   But even in their joy they did not believe him, and while they were wondering he said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” And they gave him a piece of fish and he took it and ate it in front of them.[48]

Jesus proves his corporeal reality to his disbelieving disciples by having them touch him and by eating food in their presence, but the disciples wonder—as well they might—how a body of flesh and bone has suddenly appeared from nowhere. A rather similar case of touching is related in Apuleius’ story of the miller slain by a crone who turns out to be a ghost.[49] Daniel Ogden observes, “The fact that the ghost could touch the miller’s arm suggests that it had a solid form, but the fact that it could then disappear from a locked room suggests, perplexingly, that by contrast it was ethereal.”[50]

The 4th century church historian Eusebius quotes an ancient variant of the Emmaus story: “He said, take, touch me and see that I am not a disembodied demon (daimonion asōmaton)...”[51] “Daemon” is a common word for “ghost” in magical texts and literature of the era, but in this context it might reflect a Christian belief that ghosts were evil spirits pretending to be souls of the dead. In any case, the textual variant quoted by Eusebius is of great antiquity. An epistle of Ignatius, written at the beginning of the 2nd century, preserves it verbatim:

For I know and believe him to have been in the flesh after the resurrection when he came to those with Peter and said to them, “Take, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless demon,” and immediately they touched him and believed...but after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as made of flesh, although spiritually united with the Father.”[52]

Ignatius’ explanation hardly clears up the problem of the ghostly nature of the risen Jesus—Jesus is wj sarkikoj (hōs sarkikos), “as of flesh,” although “spiritually united with the Father.” One suspects that Ignatius is having his cake and eating it too. In any event, the disembodied daemon logion “is clearly a free saying with a long history” known to Ignatius, Jerome—who believed it came from the now lost Gospel According to the Hebrews—and Origen, who cites it in the Latin version: “Non sum demonium incorporeum.” Riley concludes, “Both Luke and Ignatius have drawn on a common source. Their source sought to demonstrate a material resurrection body by means of physical proof.”[53]

Interestingly, Jesus’ appearances tend to occur at night or in the interval between day and night, i.e., “between times” typically associated with works of sorcery.[54] It is clear from the frequent mention of lamps in the magical papyri that night was the propitious time for magic and the appearance of ghosts. On this feature of the magician’s work, Eitrem noted:

Lamp or lantern magic (Lampenzauber) plays a major role here as generally in Egyptian magic—for light, the nocturnal sun, was something to be exploited. The night with its horde of dead spirits and eerie ways—the night through which the sun god navigated in his vessel to reach the east through the dark kingdom of the underworld while the moon shone or the heavens were starry—offered the magician the best opportunity for exercising his art or arts.[55]

The nocturnal workings of the magicians were, in part, a simple matter of physiology: “In general the association between sleep, death, dreams, and night was tight.”[56] Matthew, for example, clearly believed at least some dreams were of supernatural origin,[57] and the world of the New Testament, a world before the glow of artificial light nearly banished darkness, was a world pullulating with works of sorcery. Ancient sources preserve terms such as nuktiplanos, “roaming by night,” and nuktoperiplanētos, “wandering around by night,” that refer to the activities of magicians as well, no doubt, of ghosts. “Alongside public Dionysiac festivals there emerge private Dionysos mysteries. These are esoteric, they take place at night, access is through an individual initiation, telete.”[58] “It seems the magos [magician, my note] had a little bit of everything—the bacchantic (i.e. ecstatic) element, the initiation rites, the migratory life, the nocturnal activities.”[59]

Jesus’ nocturnal appearances in the gospel of John—“in the evening of the first day of the week”[60]—retain several spectral qualities. Jesus appears twice in the disciples’ midst even “though the doors were locked”[61]—the Greek text employs the verb kleiō, “to lock,” from kleis, “key.” Translations that render the verb as simply to shut fail to fully convey the (miraculous) fact that the doors were locked and not simply closed, and that in spite of the doors being locked, Jesus “came and stood in their midst.”

   So being the evening of that day, the first of the week, and the doors having been locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace to you!” and having said this, showed his hands and side to them. Consequently the disciples rejoiced because of seeing the Lord.
   And after eight days his disciples were again indoors and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors having been locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace to you!”...Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands, and reach out your hand and stick it into my side, and be not unbelieving, but believing.”
   Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
   Jesus said to him, “You have seen me and believed. Happy are those who not having seen yet believe.”[62]  

That “Doubting Thomas” has become the paradigm of unbelief reveals the apologetic intent of the stories, stories that would have had little need of such marvelous supernatural details as walking through locked doors and displays of pre-mortem wounds had Jesus’ resurrection not been subject to doubt. Indeed, doubt and disbelief is the constant thread connecting the resurrection stories—a missing body, an empty tomb, and the disbelief of witnesses even when confronted with ‘evidence.’[63]

In these manifestations Jesus exhibits traits of the “revenant,” an embodied ghost that appears once or for a brief period of time following the death of the subject[64] and performs bodily functions such as speaking and eating, displays pre-mortem wounds, is associated with an empty tomb, and vanishes suddenly without a trace, all of which are characteristics noted by Debbie Felton who has produced a particularly thorough analysis of Greco-Roman ghost stories.[65] “...late classical tradition attributed various activities to ghosts, such as informing, consoling, admonishing, and pursuing the living.”[66] Vermeule’s observation regarding ghosts is particularly pertinent to Jesus’ appearances: “wounding the flesh means wounds in the shade below...”[67] The Roman critic Celsus noted that after Jesus died, he appeared only to his own followers “and even then as a ghost.” The Greek skia, “shadow,” or “ghost” is used in other contexts in a magical sense.

It is well known that people of antiquity thought certain classes of the dead were particularly likely to become restless ghosts: the awroj (aōros), the prematurely dead, the agamoj (agamos), the unmarried, the atafoj (ataphos), the unburied, and the biaioqanatoj (biaiothanatos), those dead by violence. According to the gospel evidence, Jesus could easily be numbered among all of these groups that shared a commonality identified by Sarah Johnston: “Those who died before completing life were understood to linger between categories, unable to pass into death because they were not really finished with life.”[68] A person who fell into such a category was described as atelestos, “unfulfilled.” Based on widespread 1st century belief, Jesus had all the makings of an angry, restless ghost. Little wonder the gospel writers were at such pains to prove that Jesus was not merely an apparition.

The ghost of Jesus fits perfectly with the culture’s understanding of the powerful dead. Spirit manipulation was standard magic praxis, including Jewish practice, everywhere in the Middle East millennia before the time of Jesus and ghosts were often invoked to accomplish magical acts.

These are the angels that obey [you] during the night (if you wish) to speak with the moon or the stars or to question a ghost or to speak with the spirits...if you wish to question a ghost; stand facing a tomb and repeat the names of the angels of the fifth encampment...I adjure you, O spirit of the ram bearer [Hermes, my note], who dwell among the graves upon the bones of the dead...”[69]

I command you, ghost of the dead (nekudaimon), by the powerful and implacable god and by his holy names, to stand beside me in the night to come, in whatever form you had...”[70]

The ghost of the Sepher Ha-Razim that one might wish to question is the familiar ōb (bwa) conjured by the medium of Endor.[71]

It is now confirmed that in some cases even an aborted or miscarried fetus could be used as a power source for binding spells. Although such practice represents “a new form of curse” not found in extant magical papyri, its absence “teaches us that the magical papyri, while immensely rich in documentation for ritual practices in Roman Egypt, should not be taken as in any way exhaustive.”[72] A recently published analysis of burials that include the presence of nails as apotropaic devices concludes, “a considerable percentage of the nails discussed here derive from infants’ burials; infants are one of the categories of particularly dangerous dead.”[73] It would appear that belief in ghosts and their dark powers was ubiquitous in the ancient world

It is probably significant that the Greek of Luke’s gospel reveals a higher social register than that of either Matthew or Mark—the historiographic preface of Luke’s gospel, in keeping with official histories of the era, “indicates that the author has done extensive research.”[74] If that is the case, it is quite likely that the author was familiar with accounts of ghosts in secular histories as well as the popular paradoxa, collections of uncanny and bizarre events that quite naturally included ghost stories.

Phlegon of Tralles’ story of the recently dead Philinnion, who repeatedly returns to have sexual relations with her family’s guest, Machates, has several features in common with the apparitions of Jesus that are, for the lack of a better word, uncanny. Like Jesus, Philinnion appears at night—“night came on and now it was the hour when Philinnion was accustomed to come to him”—and like Jesus in the Emmaus narrative, “she ate and drank with [Machates].”[75] After her tryst is interrupted by her panic stricken parents, she upbraids them: “how unfairly you have grudged me being with the guest for three days,” and succumbs once again to death.[76] When the thoroughly alarmed citizens investigate this amazing occurrence, they find Philinnion’s tomb empty but containing tokens of affection gifted her by Machates.

The shared elements of the stories include (1) the empty tomb, (2) tokens left behind by its former occupant—in the case of Jesus, burial wrappings[77]—(3) the shock and awe experienced by witnesses,[78] (4) eating and drinking as ‘proof of life,’ (5) the evening appearances of the revenant, and (6) the passage of three days. To assume that the shared similarities of these short narratives are mere coincidence, accidents of free composition, amounts to conjuring up a supernatural set of coincidences by the power of wishful thinking.

A fragment of an ancient novel, included among the Greek magical papyri, alludes to a “handsome phantom”—kalon eidōlon—that appears to a woman, evidently only one of many enamored of a ‘phantastic’ body.[79] By describing the woman who was the primary witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection as hysterical (paroistros),[80] the Roman critic Celsus at least implied a sexual component to her attraction. A related verb, oistraō, was used by Lucian to describe a man turned to a donkey by magic as acting, “like a man mad with lust (oistroumenos) for women and boys.”[81] “The hysterical female, Mary Magdalene, fits the image of the woman susceptible to bizarre religious impulses that emerges from ancient literature. Yet, she is by no means a silent victim of Jesus’ magic. Although she is deluded by sorcery, Mary Magdalene also becomes one of the main perpetrators. She is an active witness, a creator of the Christian belief in the resurrection.”[82]

The disappearance, return, and re-disappearance of the famous dead is hardly limited to the story of Jesus—here, according to Plutarch, is how the career of Romulus was reported to have ended:

   ...Romulus was perceived to transform suddenly, and no part of his body or shred of clothing was seen. Some speculated that the senators, gathered in the temple of Hephaistos, rose up against him and killed him, and distributed pieces of his body to each to carry away hidden in the folds of his clothing. Others believe it was neither in the temple of Hephaistos, nor when the senators alone were present that he disappeared, but when he held an assembly around the so-called Marsh of the Goat. Suddenly wonders strange to describe occurred in the air, incredible changes, the light of the sun faded and night fell, not gently or quietly, but with terrible thunder and gusts of wind driving rain from every direction, during which the great crowd scattered in flight, but the influential men huddled together with one another. When the tempest had passed and the sun broke out and the mass reassembled, there was an anxious search for the king, but the men in power neither inquired into the matter nor investigated it, but loudly exhorted all of them to honor and worship Romulus as a man imbued with divinity, a god favorably disposed to them rather than a worthy king. The mass of people, believing these things, left rejoicing with high hopes to worship him. However, some bitterly contested the matter in a hostile way and accused the patricians of foisting a stupid story on the people, being themselves the perpetrators of murder.
   At this point, a man from among the patricians, high born, reliable and most esteemed, a trusted intimate of Romulus himself, a colonist from Alba, Julius Proculus, went into the forum and swore by the most sacred emblems that as he traveled along the road he saw Romulus approaching him face to face, handsome and strong as ever, decked out in bright, shining armor. He himself, struck with fear at the sight, said, “O king, what were you thinking, subjecting us to unjust and evil accusations, the whole city an orphan in tears, weeping for having been abandoned?”
   Romulus answered, “It pleased the gods, Proculus, that I be with men for just so long a time, and having founded a city of superlative glory, dwell again in heaven. Farewell, and proclaim to the Romans that if they practice self-control with manliness, they will achieve the very heights of human power. And I will be your propitious daemon, Quirinus.”
   These things seemed believable to the Romans, based on the character of the man who related them and because of his oath, besides feeling some participation in divine destiny equal to possession by the gods. No one objected, but all set aside suspicion and opposition and prayed to Quirinus, calling upon him as a god.
   ...Romulus is said to have been fifty-four years old, in the thirty-eighth year of his rule when he disappeared from among men.[83]

If Luke sought, consciously or not, to imitate the genre of the classical ghost story or other fabulous ‘histories’ in framing his accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, his technique might at the very least have set a precedent followed by the author of the gospel of John. Alternatively, and far less feasibly, it is possible that the gospels of Luke and John were not influenced by Greco-Roman literary conventions in which case we are confronted with a primitive New Testament tradition that contains examples of independently drawn ghost stories.

A similar account is given of the wonder worker, Apollonius of Tyana, who urged his friends to distance themselves from him while he awaited trial before the paranoid Emperor Domitian, but to expect his reappearance:

   “Alive,” asked Damis, “or how?”
   “As I myself believe, alive, but as you will believe, risen from the dead.”

After Apollonius reappears, still alive, this is the reaction of his disciples:

   Whereupon Apollonius stretched out his hand and said, “Take hold of me and if I evade you, then I am indeed a ghost come to you from the realm of Persephone...but if I resist your touch, then you shall persuade Damis also that I am both alive and that I have not abandoned my body.” They were no longer able to disbelieve, but rose up and threw themselves on his neck and kissed him.[84]

The gospel of John implies that Jesus could disappear at will, a trait shared by the holy man Apollonius. After the healing at Bethzatha, Jesus “slipped away” into the crowd,[85] and when the authorities sought to arrest him, Jesus “eluded their grasp,” or literally “went out from their hand.”[86] After proclaiming that he was not yet destined to die, Apollonius “disappeared from the courtroom,”[87] and in his hearing before Domitian makes a slyly mocking reference to the ability of magicians to break out of bonds: “If you think me a wizard, how will you ever fetter me? And if you fetter me, how can you say that I am a wizard?”[88]

An additional point of interest is the gospel tradition that Jesus appeared post mortem in various forms. In addition to his appearance on the road to Emmaus,[89] he appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, again initially unrecognized.[90] In the following century the apocryphal gospels and Acts tell of additional appearances of Jesus in the form of “an old man, a youth, a the form of the form of Andrew...To Drusiana he appears in the form of John, and of a young John he appears as an old man, to James, who was with John, as a youth...and to a young married couple on their wedding night he appears as Thomas...The world of the apocryphal, in many ways, the Hellenistic world in which magic and sorcery were quite at home.”[91]

According to Origen, Jesus was polymorphic even in life: “Jesus, being one, had more than one reflection and to those who saw him he did not appear in the same way...he was not always present nor did he appear even to the apostles themselves...before his Passion he was clearly visible to the multitude, although not always, but after his Passion he no longer appeared in the same way.”[92] Lalleman, who has written a valuable discussion of polymorphism in the apocryphal Acts, points out that “Polymorphy in the narrow sense is not found in the texts that are older than the [Acts of John] and the [Acts of Peter] (2nd century AD),”[93] but notes a tradition of shape-shifting in the spurious ending of Mark, “Afterward, when two of them went walking in the country, he appeared in another form.”[94]

Apologist scholars have proposed a number of supposedly objective criteria by which the resurrection stories can be positively judged as representing historical fact, but as Hector Avalos has pointed out in a devastating critique, the very same criteria could be applied with positive results to full-bodied apparitions of another gospel character, the Virgin Mary.[95] Oddly enough, no evangelical scholars seem to take such sightings of Mary seriously, although many hundreds of witnesses over the course of centuries have testified to the reality of such events.

That the infancy narratives of Mathew and Luke are fictional concoctions motivated by apologetic intent is widely recognized in mainstream New Testament studies. I would argue that the post mortem appearances of Jesus are also amalgamations fabricated from elements widely known and readily available to the gospel writers: the stories of revenants, full-bodied apparitions of the newly dead, tangible and capable of performing the functions of the living. Jesus, executed as a criminal, presumably unmarried and childless, and dead before the natural span of life, was a perfect candidate for a restless ghost with magical powers. “The [atelestoi or “uncompleted”] are the dead that have not received the due rites. Such spirits, like the ones of those who have died by violence or before their time, cannot achieve rest...”[96]

Every essential feature of the resurrection stories—sudden appearance as well as disappearance, the fear and confusion of witnesses, the empty tomb and tokens found within it, speaking, eating and drinking as proof of life, tangible presence, encouraging and admonishing—is also found in contemporary Greco-Roman ghost stories. Luke, writing a minimum of fifty years after the events of Jesus’ life, had a rich repertory of legends and popular ghost stories from which to construct the details of his resurrection narratives as well as an abundance of motive to do so.

Besides the doubt simmering with the early Christian community, the resurrection was unbelievable to potential gentile converts as well—“When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt.”[97] Both within the Jewish community as well as the early Christian movement, there were believers who denied resurrection on principle: “Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.”[98] Paul’s insistence on the centrality of the resurrection also strongly implies that some within his churches rejected it—“For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.”[99] The Roman critic Celsus knew that some Christian sects rejected “the doctrine of the resurrection according to scripture.”[100] Given the defects of the primitive tradition that recorded female witnesses of dubious reliability finding an empty tomb, doubt from within and without the Christian communities, and competing theologies, the writers of the gospels had compelling motive to create resurrection narratives. The writers also had an abundance of popular folklore from which to draw the elements of their resurrection stories as a comparison of the gospels with surviving ghost stories clearly demonstrates.


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[1] 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, NIV.
[2] Galatians 1:11-12, 18-19, NIV.
[3] 2 Corinthians 12:2, for example.
[4] John 19:38.
[5] Acts 13:27-29.
[6] Acts 7:58-8:1; 22:4-
[7] Reimer, Miracle and Magic, 65-66.
[8] 1 Corinthians 15:12.
[9] Kirby, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, 233.
[10] Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?, 160-161, 183.
[11] Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire, 187.
[12] Most authorities put the date of composition somewhere between 80-110 C.E.
[13] Matthew 27:62-66.
[14] Acts 9:1-19, 22:6-16, 26:12-18.
[15] Acts 9:7.
[16] Acts 22:9.
[17] Acts 26:14.
[18] Acts 22:17-18.
[19] As at Matthew 28:3, Luke 24:8.
[20] Matthew 28:2, 5.
[21] Daniel 9:20, for example.
[22] Strelan, Strange Acts, 180.
[23] Acts 10:10-11.
[24] Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, 21.
[25] David, Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt, 84.
[26] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
[27] As at Luke 1:11, Acts 7:2, for example.
[28] Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, 89.
[29] Price, Journal of Higher Criticism 2/2 (1995): 69-99.
[30] Daniel & Malrtomini, Supplementum Magicum, 35.
[31] Mark 16:1-8 (my translation).
       Another occurrence of ekstasis, which I have translated panic. The Greeks believed the sight of the nature divinity Pan induced irrational fear, hence our word.
[32] I have made the case elsewhere that Lazarus was the original identification of the “young man” in the tomb. (The “Secret” Gospel of Mark: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and Four Decades of Academic Burlesque, 2014).
[33] Matthew 28:5-7.
[34] Matthew 28:9-10.
[35] Matthew 28:17.
[36] Prince, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (1987), 297.
[37] Ibid, 294.
[38] Adams, Current Research in Egyptology, 2006, 3.
[39] Luke 24:31.
[40] Luke 24:20-35.
[41] Luke 24:5.
[42] Prince, Journal of Biblical Literature 135 (2016): 123-124, 134.
[43] Luke 24:24. Compare Mark 16:6, “he is not here.”
[44] Lucian, On the Death of Peregrinus, 50.
[45] Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, 49.
[46] Luke 24:31.
[47] Priesendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae, I, 14.
[48] Luke 24:36-43 (my translation).
[49] Apuleius, Metamorphosis IX, 29-31.
[50] Ogden, Night’s Black Agents, 70.
[51] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 36.
[52] Ignatius, Ad Smyrnaeos, 3.
[53] Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, 95-96.
[54] Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:29, John 21:4.
[55] Eitrem, Magika Hiera, 176.
[56] Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, 77.
[57] Matthew 2:12, 19, for example.
[58] Burkert, Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, 291.
[59] Luck, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome, 104.
[60] John 20:19.
[61] John 20:19, 26.
[62] John 20:19-21, 26-29 (my translation).
[63] Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:11, 38; John 20:25, 27.
[64] Evans, Field Guide to Ghosts, 19.
[65] Felton, Haunted Greece and Rome, 7, 14, 17, 23-26, 28.
[66] Finucane, Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation, 25.
[67] Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, 49.
[68] Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient   Greece, 149.
[69] Morgan, Sepher Ha-Razim, 36, 38.
[70] Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae IV, 2030-2034.
[71] 1 Samuel 28:3-25.
[72] Frankfurter, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 46 (2006), 42.
[73] Alfayé Villa, Magical Practice in the Latin West, 450.
[74] Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 115.
[75] Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels, 26.
[76] Ibid, 27.
[77] John 20:5-7.
[78] Mark 16:8.
[79] Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae XXXIV, 20-21.
[80] Origen, Contra Celsum II, 55.
[81] Lucian, Lucius or The Ass, 33.
[82] MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion, 124.
[83] Plutarch’s Lives I, 27.5-28.3, 29.7 (my translation).
[84] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, VII, 41, VIII, 12.
[85] John 5:13.
[86] John 10:39.
[87] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, VIII, 5.
[88] Ibid, VII, 34.
[89] Luke 24:15-16.
[90] John 21:4.
[91] Goldin, Aspects of Religious Propaganda in Judaism and Early Christianity, 167-168.
[92] Origen, Contra Celsum II, 64-66.
[93] Lalleman, The Apocryphal Acts of John, 111.
[94] Mark 16:12.
[95] Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies, 191-194.
[96] Ogden, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Greece and Rome, 22.
[97] Acts 17:32, New Living Translation.
[98] Mark 12:18, NIV.
[99] 1 Corinthians 15:16, NIV.
[100] Origen, Contra Celsum V, 12.