Was Individual Resurrection a Common Belief in the Ancient World?
by Bill Pratt
A common claim of resurrection skeptics is that the people who lived in first century Palestine and the surrounding Roman Empire would believe just about anything. They would have easily embraced the story of Jesus’ resurrection without thinking twice. So, for the early proponents of Christianity who thought they really saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, it was relatively straightforward to spread the story. After all, in the ancient world everything is believable.
Are the skeptics right? Historian N. T. Wright has challenged the idea that the ancient world of Jesus’ day would have easily believed the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Tim Keller, in The Reason for God, describes Wright’s research: “N. T. Wright does an extensive survey of the non-Jewish thought of the first-century Mediterranean world, both east and west, and reveals that the universal view of the people of that time was that a bodily resurrection was impossible.”
Wright first examines the dominant Greco-Roman worldview of the day.
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In Greco-Roman thinking, the soul or spirit was good and the physical and material world was weak, corrupt, and defiling. To them the physical, by definition, was always falling apart and therefore salvation was conceived as liberation from the body. In this worldview resurrection was not only impossible, but totally undesirable. No soul, having gotten free from its body, would ever want it back. Even those who believed in reincarnation understood that the return to embodied life meant that the soul was not yet out of its prison. The goal was to get free of the body forever. Once your soul is free of its body, a return to re-embodied life was outlandish, unthinkable, and impossible.
But what about the Jews of Jesus’s day? Were they expecting an individual resurrection, such as Jesus’s?