Ancient Superstitions at the Heart of Christianity

A Review of Robert Conner’s book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story

There are a lot of clergy these days who have escaped from the church and lived to tell the tale. Drew Bekius captures the feeling of so many of us: “Trying to make sense of what doesn’t make sense will make you crazy.” Of course, some folks detect the nonsense early on and walk away. At a young age George Carlin knew enough to get out: “This is a wonderful fairy tale they have going here, but it's not for me.”

But, good grief, what does it take to get people—especially those lost inside Christianity—to see that it is a grim fairy tale? They aren’t bothered by the crazy. Father Andrew Greeley, in a 1994 New York Times article, suggested that Catholics stay with the church because of the stories. There’s probably been slippage since 1994 because of the child rape scandals, but the Christian stories have undeniable appeal. Well, some of them. The church has had to finesse the brutal human sacrifice at the core of the faith.

For all their charm, however, the stories usually undermine the faith. From Bethlehem to the Empty Tomb, the Christian story doesn’t make sense. Secularists like to poke fun at Bible silliness, e.g., transferring demons into pigs, walking on water—and changing it into wine. All such episodes deserve ridicule, and savvy apologists can make the point, quite rightly, that such tales don’t really matter.

Apologists know, however, where to draw the line: don’t touch the resurrection of Jesus. But trying to bring Jesus back to life—as a fact of history—doesn’t make sense at all, on any level. Thus apologists have gone to extraordinary lengths to make resurrection look respectable. Maybe we should give them “A” for effort, but a failing grade is inevitable.

One of the best ways to take down the resurrection is to read and compare the NT stories carefully; the gospel writers couldn’t agree on what happened. When we take a close look at the letters of the apostle Paul the confusion deepens. But the coup de grace is looking at the resurrection of Jesus in the context of first century superstition: there’s a pretty close match.

A highly readable survey of these issues is provided by Robert Conner in his new book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Christianity has been getting clobbered during the last two or three decades; there has been a surge in atheist publishing, including a major subset exposing the Christian fraud. Conner’s book is a welcome addition to this bookshelf.

Conner does what any good historian is expected to do: he invites the reader to study the topic in context. It’s hardly a surprise that superstitions about dead people were rife in the world in which Christian was born. Of course there were ghosts, and they came in many varieties. Conner provides a glossary of terms used for ghosts, e.g., “the Erinys was primarily the angry ghost, and a ghost is never so angry as when he has been murdered.” Who knew.

It has seemed to me for a long that Christianity is a death cult: there is so much focus on getting out of it, as well as fascination with those who have ‘crossed over,’ i.e., talking to them, praying to them. This all makes sense if Christianity, at its very inception, tapped into the rampant prevailing superstitions. Perhaps the most embarrassing text in the NT is Matthew 27:52-53, which relates that dead people left their tombs and strolled round Jerusalem when Jesus was resurrected. But they had come to life—so we’re told—when Jesus died.

Conner speculates about this curious timing: “It’s anyone’s guess how the holy people ‘raised to life’ the moment Jesus died on Friday passed their time until they emerged from their tombs on Sunday ‘after Jesus’ resurrection.’ Mine is that they may have spent the intervening days playing the ancient game of knucklebones.”

The veneration of relics also makes sense if dead people have powers. Says Conner, “Both Jesus’ spirit and the objects once related to him, particularly substances connected to his execution, became potent sources of magical energy. Miracle-working power adheres to things associated with the miracle worker, which is the obvious motive for the preservation of relics of saints.” This is glaring superstition, warmly embraced by the gullible.

In chapters I and II, “The Power of the Dead,” and “The Ghost of John the Baptist,” Conner offers a detailed survey of ghost beliefs and how they likely impacted Christian thought, and why this embarrassment has been largely ignored:

“…one could hardly expect Christian historians or biblical scholars with any degree of devotional allegiance to compare The Resurrection of the Lord to the appearance of ghosts. Merely to raise such a question not only offends Christian belief, it lacks deference to the religious sensibilities of others—possibly powerful others in positions to exact personal or professional retribution for speaking out of turn.”

But, to be fair, how can the resurrection be a ghost story if the living body of Jesus walked out of the tomb? That wasn’t a spirit or a ghost, was it? He was the ‘real thing.’ In John 20:27 Jesus invites Thomas to poke his wounded body; in John 11:44, the decaying body of Lazarus walks out of the tomb, and Jesus orders that it be unwrapped. These are bodies brought back to life. But…if only the gospel writers had been consistent.

The Emmaus Road episode should give pause to any thoughtful reader, and Conner treats it in detail. It’s a good story—Father Greeley would surely agree—and it’s the longest gospel story about the resurrected Jesus; it’s has been a favorite of artists as well. This is found only in Luke 24 [No, in the absence of evidence, we may not conclude that the gospel authors had ‘independent sources’—we may conclude that they had independent imaginations], and tells of two disciples who meet the risen Jesus on a road outside Jerusalem.

But they don’t recognize him, which is strange; in the Doubting Thomas story in John 20 Jesus is not incognito. Despite being sternly scolded by Jesus, they urge him to stay with them. But at the instant that he breaks bread, they recognize him—and he vanishes. Now we seem to be in the realm of ghosts and spirits.

Conner makes a key point: “When it came time to tell the central story of Christianity, to explain how and why a man came back from the grave, the New Testament writers used the only resources available to them: the language and frames of reference current in their culture—the culture of Judaism and the Old Testament, and the wider Greco-Roman culture in which Judaism was embedded.

“So it’s hardly surprising that we’ve encountered visions in the New Testament similar to stories of visions from Greco-Roman sources, or that terms from the nearly ubiquitous mystery cults find their way into the letters of Paul and his imitators. That common elements of ghost lore should also appear in stories of Jesus, returned from the grave to make a brief appearance to his disciples, is less surprising still.”

Here in Luke, the risen Jesus was breaking bread. In John’s gospel, he met his disciples on the beach and ate fried fish with them. But the ghost element is in John as well, even in the Doubting Thomas story: “The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them” (John 20:26). Conner notes that “Greco-Roman lore widely assumes that ghosts had appetites.”

Paul wrote well before the gospels existed, so his ideas about resurrection have come under close scrutiny, especially I Corinthians 15:3-11. A friend told me that he heard this text read on Easter morning, and v. 6 stood out, “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time…” My friend was impressed! I asked him a simple question, which seems not to have occurred to him: what was the source of Paul’s information? Isn’t that the most obvious thing we need to know? Yet believers commonly fail to muster this kind of curiosity: they love the stories.

But Conner goes to the heart of the matter: Paul’s tall tale was not in sync with the gospels:

“The claim that Jesus appeared to five hundred 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 decades after I Corinthians, report this amazing confirmation of the resurrection may mark the passage as an interpolation, a forgery inserted into the text after Paul’s death.” Conner quotes scholar Gregory Riley: “…a simple comparison of the Gospels and I Corinthians 15 shows that the two traditions cannot be reconciled.”

But even if there had been an ‘appearance’ of Jesus as Paul claims, Conner punctures the tomfoolery: “…it nearly goes without saying that visions are culturally determined; the French see visions of Joan of Arc, the British see visions of Saint George, Portuguese schoolgirls see the Virgin Mary, and indigenous peoples see spirits appropriate to their cultures. In short, beliefs about supernatural agency lay downstream from deeply held cultural assumptions and personal psychology.”

The Empty Tomb stories also take a hit from Paul’s lack of knowledge or interest in this big item in the gospels. Conner notes that the word ‘tomb’ cannot be found in any of Paul’s letters. Since Paul was convinced that our resurrected bodies would be transformed, in the “twinkling of an eye”—he spoke of spiritual bodies—he probably would have been appalled at the idea that a revived body had walked out of a tomb—and invited Thomas to take a poke or two. The gospel writers and Paul were not on the same page, so to speak, on a lot of stuff. Christians who love their stories commonly are oblivious to the problems caused by the ancient accounts that don’t hang together.

Why aren’t Christian more concerned—well, more than they seem to be—about Paul’s alienation from the original disciples? He was super confident that his visions delivered better information about Jesus that he could have gained from the listening to people who actually knew him. Conner thinks we can better understand Paul by recognizing a natural explanation for what was going on in his head:

“…apologist true believers who insist that Paul’s religious experiences should also be real to us must first explain why his reports, which exactly match the extensively documented symptoms of temporal lobe seizures, are better explained as communications from Jesus repeatedly appearing and speaking from beyond the grave.” (emphasis added)

So much hand-wringing could be avoided—we could have been spared hundreds of apologist books—if believers could just fess up that the gospels are religious fantasy literature.

Conner sums it up well:

“Every essential feature of the resurrection stories–sudden appearance and 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, the brevity of the appearances, the display of pre-mortem wounds, 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 cultural repertory of legends and popular ghost lore from which to construct the details of his resurrection narratives as well as an abundance of motive to do so.”

Conner’s book is a fun read—so many juicy details about gospel fabrications—but it is also a good reference book. In the extensive footnotes and bibliography there is so much to guide further study. Christians who are lulled by ‘devotional’ study of the Bible—if they even get that far—will say, “No, thank you.” Intense scrutiny of scripture is not their thing. But we soldier on to expose the fraud.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.