A Response to Tim O’Neill on the Resurrection of Jesus

Tim O’Neill is an excellent atheist. Being widely read in ancient historiography, certainly over a much longer period and knowing far more than I do, he eventually became sick of the atheist misrepresentations of ancient history and launched the blog History for Atheists, a favorite of mine. In it, he refutes various myths told and retold by the oddly unskeptical skeptics about the history of Christianity, including absurd claims of Christians having destroyed the ancient works by showing, in fact, that under the new dominance of Christianity in light of the conversion of the Roman Empire, non-Christian works were almost as likely to survive into the present day as Christian works. He debunks the ridiculous idea that Christians destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria or that Nicolas Copernicus waited until his deathbed to publish his heliocentric theory in fear that the Christian orthodoxy would clamp down on him. In a series of posts, he’s basically laid to rest any credibility of the work of Richard Carrier, a failed historian and unbelievably biased quack whose created an entire (rather unsuccessful) career out of trying to claim that Jesus didn’t actually historically exist. Such is but a small contribution made by O’Neill in his new blog.

Of course, I’ll have to hold up some disagreements with O’Neill as well. This post, in particular, will be devoted to responding to his detailed and lengthy argument on Quora arguing against the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus (in response to someone’s question ‘What evidence is there for Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection?‘). I think the first paragraph of O’Neill’s answer in his question summarizes his argument;

The source evidence that exists that purports to show that Jesus “rose from the dead” actually indicates how this idea most likely developed and evolved over time.  It indicates that the idea that Jesus was somehow “resurrected” was a way his followers dealt with his sudden and unexpected execution and that this idea developed from an abstract one into one of a more concrete, physical revivification.  The contradictions in the various accounts, which date from the 50s AD through to the 90s-100 AD, show this process of development.

So, the source evidence (Paul’s letters and the Gospels) reveal that the claim of Jesus’ resurrection was actually a sudden response to his unexpected execution and that, as can be gleaned from a study of the texts, our surviving accounts reveal that the story has been evolving over time, which helps discredit them. Let’s see what I can do here to weaken the case. To set up, I’ll outline the most important areas where me and O’Neill are on the same page. Jesus had an apocalyptic theology, Paul is the only first-hand surviving account, and the Gospels were written between 70-100 AD (I’d just say 90-100 AD, but O’Neill suggests John is between 90-120 AD).

O’Neill begins by pointing out that a text making a miracle claim isn’t identical to it being historically accurate, and that even the highly credible Roman historian Tacitus, closely associated with the court of the emperor Vespasian, reports miracles taking place here. Then, O’Neill writes;

One form of miracle that was widely believed in was the idea of apotheosis, where a great man is physically taken up in to the heavens and raised to divine status. It was claimed that Romulus, the founder of Rome, underwent this process and later appeared to his friend Julius Proculus to declare his new celestial status.  The same claim was made about Julius Caesar and Augustus, with supposed witnesses observing their ascent into the heavenly realm.  Lucian’s satire The Passing of Peregrinus includes his scorn for the claim that the philosopher was taken up into the celestial realm and was later seen walking around on earth after his death.  The Chariton novel Callirhoe has its hero Chaereas visiting the tomb of his recently dead wife, saying he “arrived at the tomb at daybreak” where he “found the stones removed and the entrance open. At that he took fright.”  Others are afraid to enter the tomb, but Chaereas goes in and finds his wife’s body missing and concludes she has been taken up by the gods.

Remember, Jesus was exalted again after His death back to the status of divinity (Philippians 2:6-11), and, therefore, can be likened to a form of apotheosis. Assuming O’Neill’s argument is that in the world of Roman paganism, apotheosis was largely common and so may help describe the psychology of the early Christians in accepting a theological apotheosis for their own just-dead prophet, there appears to be some crucial problems. One would be the sheer extent to which pagan apotheosis was rejected by 1st century Jews as a component of their monotheism. Larry Hurtado, perhaps the worlds leading historian of early Christian Christology, writes;

Second, the Jewish monotheistic stance forbade apotheosis, the divinization of human figures, and thus clashed with a major theme in pagan religion of the time. Philo’s quip about Gaius Caligula’s claim to divinity aptly illustrates Jewish attitudes, and is all the more important in coming from a diaspora Jew who in some other respects shows a cosmopolitan attitude: “Sooner could God change into a man than a man into God” (Embassy to Gaius 118). This rejection of apotheosis as ridiculous and blasphemous seems in fact to have been characteristic of devout Jews of the Roman period, and this in turn makes highly implausible any explanation of the Christ-devotion attested in, and affirmed by, Paul as resulting from the prevalence of the notion of apotheosis in the Roman era. Though Jewish writings of the time show that principal angels and revered human figures such as Moses or Enoch could be pictured in a highly exalted status, and described in terms that can be compared with divinization, the refusal to accord any such figure cultic worship shows that we are not dealing here with a genuine apotheosis. In light of the allergic sensitivity of devout Jews of the time about claims of apotheosis, any scholar who wishes to propose the relevance of this category for explaining the Christ devotion of the first couple decades of the Christian movement is obliged to provide a cogent description of the specific process by which Christian Jews could have adopted this repellent category without realizing it. (Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005, 91-93)

In a footnote (n. 34), Hurtado describes the weaknesses of a similar proposal by Adela Yarbro Collins, that Jews unconsciously adapted such pagan tropes. Elsewhere, he points out that likening what happened with Jesus to apotheosis is simplistic, and that this wasn’t apotheosis since Jesus didn’t become an additional God to Christians, rather Jewish monotheism was reconfigured to include Jesus (pg. 51). The prevalence of this pagan belief can’t help explain the readiness of early Christians to accept Jesus’ resurrection and deity. Hurtado writes, “we have no other Roman-era example of a religious movement with similar ties to the Jewish religious tradition of exclusivistic monotheism and with a devotional pattern that involved so thoroughly a second figure in addition to God” (pg. 7). I also highly recommend the discussion on this subject in Michael Bird’s Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology (Eerdmans 2017) pp. 34-62 where he demonstrates the pagan doubts to apotheosis in the same period and that Mark (and I’d add the entire New Testament) was clearly part of a strand of monotheistic Judaism in the period that had no room for something like belief in human deification.

I’ll also mention that O’Neill goes on to explain the story of the pagan deity Apollonius of Tyana in the works of Philostratus, and notes the numerous similarities it has with the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, the Life of Apollonius is a third-century writing and, as O’Neill points outs, these stories may very well have been borrowed from the story of Jesus. O’Neill also easily refutes an apologetic (that wont be argued for here) that the resurrection of Jesus was unthinkable at the time, since there was no idea of individuals being resurrected before the end-time general resurrection itself. Even in the New Testament, several resurrections before Jesus’ are mentioned, including that of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43) and Lazarus (John 11:1-46).

In a recent paper, John Granger Cook has detailed that there were several other places in the Jewish literature where the resurrection happens;

From the second century BCE onward clear traces of resurrection can be
found in some Jewish texts. Claudia Setzer summarises the ambivalent views of ancient Judaism admirably:

… Jewish materials from the second century BCE through the first century CE exhibit a range of understandings of the afterlife. Fairly explicit claims of bodily resurrection appear in texts like 1 Enoch (51), 2 Maccabees, 4Q521,  and Sibylline Oracle 4. A mix of concepts of resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul appear in 1 Enoch (91, 103), 1QH, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and Pseudo-Phocylides. Ambiguity prevails in works that nevertheless imply resurrection, such as ‘the Book of the Watchers’ [1-36] in 1 Enoch, The Testament of Judah, Psalms of Solomon, and CD 2:7–12. (Cook, John Granger. “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15.” New Testament Studies 63.1 (2017): 60-61.)

This paper will become important in just a moment. Now that we’ve seen how O’Neill outlines the background of the story of the resurrection, we’ll move into his latter argument; the evolution of the stories of the Gospels themselves. O’Neill analyzes five sources to outline how the resurrection story evolved, in order of their dating. First, Paul’s writings (c. 50 AD), then the Gospel of Mark (c. 70 AD), then Luke (c. 80 AD) and Matthew (c. 80 AD), and finally, John (c. 90-120 AD). This will show that the stories of the resurrection in the Gospel clearly underwent literary development, evolution and embellishment over a series of decades, and, according to O’Neill, shows a transition from describing a purely spiritual resurrection in Paul’s theology, where Jesus never undergoes any bodily resurrection, to the Gospels, where bodily resurrection is fully envisioned and the details of the story become increasingly legendary. Here’s what O’Neill says about Paul (to read O’Neill’s entire comment, see here).

Paul then goes on to scold some of the Corinthians for saying there was not going to be a general resurrection of the dead – as already noted above, this idea was not universally accepted by all Jews and it seems to have become disputed in the Corinthian community of the Jesus sect.  Paul asks “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?” (v. 12) and goes on to call Jesus’ resurrection “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, ie the pre-figurement of the coming general resurrection.  He goes on to address the question of whether this coming resurrection will involve the rising of physical bodies and says in response “How foolish!”.  Then he goes on to explain that the coming general resurrection will not be physical but involve “spiritual bodies”.

If Jesus’ resurrection is the pre-figurement of the coming general resurrection of the dead, therefore, it is clear that for Paul his rising did not involve a physical body.  This is why Paul’s references to and insistence on the fact of the rising of Jesus makes no mention of the evidence of a physical revivification of his dead body that features in some of the later accounts: the empty tomb, discarded grave cloths, people touching Jesus, Jesus eating and his physical form flying up into heaven.  For Paul, at this early stage of the development of the story, the risen Jesus is a spiritual concept involving visions, not physical encounters.

As far as I’m concerned, the proposition that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection, and that Jesus never bodily rose from the dead according to Paul’s theology, is a minority view in scholarship. Nevertheless, I’ve written a complete critique and refutation of this claim here. The following will be a full reposting of this evidence.

Spiritual resurrection in Paul is argued for in a few ways, including arguing that some terminology Paul uses when discussing the resurrection of Jesus is compatible with a spiritual interpretation of the resurrection. Before I begin, I’ll just note that the Greek word ōphthē, conjugation of ὁράω (horao) which Paul uses to say that he saw Jesus and O’Neill mentions in his case for spiritual resurrection, simply means “to perceive with the eye” (doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with spiritual sight) and so can’t be used to open up the possibility that this was a spiritual vision and, thus, a spiritual resurrection, any more then I claiming to have seen a lion with my eyes implies that I saw a spiritual lion from heaven. Here’s the definition of the Greek word from Frederick Dankers’ Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago 2009), pg. 254. I’m posting a screenshot since it’s difficult copying and pasting this.

Screenshot (6)

Here, Dankers lists the primary definition of horao as to perceive with the eye, as in, you’re looking at something physical. Dankers lists the use of horao in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 here, and not under the tertiary definition of “extraordinary mental or inward perception”, listed in the bottom half of the screenshot (where verses like Hebrews 2:8, which says we can’t see everything God subjects to Himself, are listed). The way Paul uses the term for seeing Jesus’ resurrection, is, at best, neutral. Just had to take care of this little detail first, since I’ve seen others use it to argue for spiritual resurrection here.

The terminology Paul uses to describe the resurrection only refers to someone physically coming back to life and isn’t compatible with spiritual resurrection. The Greek word Paul uses for ‘raised’ is ἐγείρω (egeirō) which has been conclusively shown by James Ware to mean someone physically waking up from sleep, or in this context, physically getting up (The Resurrection of Jesus in the Pre-Pauline Formula of 1 Cor 15.3–5, 2014, 492-497). Both terms imply a physical movement upwards when describing resurrection. There is no evidence that these Greek terms include the possibility of spiritual resurrection.

There’s more. Cook has recently shown that in the context of Jewish and pagan belief in the centuries revolving Jesus’ life resurrection was solely viewed as a bodily phenomenon, showing that in the context of Jesus’ era, his followers would have assumed physical resurrection and the presence of an empty tomb. That’s to say that the historical context to early Christianity suggests Jesus ‘spiritually ascending to heaven’ despite a rotting corpse outside Jerusalem likely wouldn’t have been a possibility. While some have tried to argue spiritual resurrection can be found in Daniel 12, Cook points out;

A convincing defence of bodily resurrection may be found in A. Chester, Future Hope and Present Reality, vol. I: Eschatology and Transformation in the Hebrew Bible (WUNT 293; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012) 291–5. The Hebrew verb in Dan 12.2 (יקיצו) should be compared with the verb used for Gehazi’s failure to raise the dead boy in 2 Kings 4.31, who showed no signs of waking/rising (הקיץ לא), translated in 4 Reg 4.31 with the very material οὐκ ἠγέρθη. Cf. Levenson, Resurrection, 186.” (pg. 61, n. 34)

Therefore, the cultural context of when Christianity came on the scene shows Jesus’ followers could only have believed in physical resurrection and their appearance experiences must have been physical in nature.

Some argue for spiritual resurrection by appealing to 1 Corinthians 15:44, which, in the English translation, appears to suggest that Paul did view resurrection as spiritual. O’Neill cites this text as well.

1 Corinthians 15:44: It is sown a natural [ψυχικόν] body, it is raised a spiritual [πνευματικόν] body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

The use of this verse to defend spiritual resurrection, however, becomes untenable when we look at the Greek terms being translated as ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. The Greek psuchikon (ψυχικόν) which translates to ‘natural’ is only used by Paul in one other passage, that is, 1 Corinthians 2:14. Here, it’s used to refer to those who live in sinful desire and has nothing to do with physicality. Richard Hays writes about the meaning of this term;

The term psychic is difficult to translate properly; it refers to human beings living in their natural state apart from the Spirit of God and therefore unenlightened and blind to the truth. They don’t ‘get it.'” (Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 46)

The second Greek word to look at here, translated as ‘spiritual’, is pneumatikon (πνευματικόν), sometimes used in the New Testament to refer to immaterial beings (such as in Ephesians 6:12). However, Paul mostly uses this term to simply refer to spirituality, such as spiritual wisdom, gifts, blessings, songs, etc (Galatians 6:1; 1 Corinthians 2:13, 9:11, 12:1; Romans 5:19, etc). To sum up, in 1 Corinthians 15:44 Paul is contrasting the spiritually unenlightened (natural people) with the spiritually enlightened (spiritual people). For a more detailed refutation of this argument, see historian Michael Licona in his The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pp. 406-413). For a more direct further refutation, also see this online article by James Ware showing that the contextual and lexical evidence renders a spiritual resurrection reading of this passage untenable.

Sometimes, advocates of spiritual resurrection even cite Paul in Acts 9 and 21 to claim Paul experienced a spiritual resurrection, since those chapters just record that Paul just saw a light and heard a voice. Of course, the same passages also say that the people traveling with Paul also saw the light he saw, which would rule out a spiritual appearance only taking place in Paul’s mind. Not only that, but an attempt to appeal to Luke-Acts for support of the concept of spiritual resurrection turns out to be a case of cherry-picking verses to support your argument, since all the other resurrection appearances mentioned by Luke-Acts are unequivocally physical (see Luke 24; Acts 1:6–11, Acts 10:41). Which implies that Luke, like Paul, had no concept of spiritual resurrection, and so Acts 9 and 11 are just less clear instances of a physical appearance happening.

Hence, it appears to me that it is highly plausible that Paul didn’t believe in spiritual resurrection. To summarize;

  • All the terminology Paul uses in his epistles to describe Jesus’ resurrection are either consistent with or directly implies bodily resurrection
  • In the era of Jesus, almost if not all conceptions of resurrection in Judaism were believed in terms of bodily resurrection — hence, Cook notes that the idea of spiritual resurrection at this time in Judaism is a “category mistake” (pg. 61)
  • Although O’Neill and others appeal to the visions described by the Acts recounting Paul’s appearance, a look at Acts’ description of resurrection elsewhere shows the author believed in a physical resurrection (it might as well be special pleading if one admits that the other appearance in Acts are physical but this one is spiritual)

Also see James Ware’s recent paper Paul’s Understanding of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:36–54 (JBL 2014), where Ware shows that Paul’s grammar also strongly indicates bodily resurrection. I should also add that Pharisees (like Paul was) firmly believed in physical resurrection (Josephus, War 2.163; Ant. 18.14; Acts 4:1–2; 23:6–10). Thus, O’Neill’s most significant piece of ‘evolution’ in the Christian understanding of the resurrection, the transition from belief in spiritual to bodily resurrection, doesn’t actually exist.

[UPDATE: It appears as if O’Neill has now changed his mind on Paul believing in a spiritual resurrection. Very nice.]

O’Neill now begins to address the stories and development of the four Gospels. I’ll pick out a number of flaws here and there throughout O’Neill’s argument, before moving to my major argument.

On the way there [the women going to visit Jesus’ tomb] they ask each other “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3), which should strike most readers as a question they should have asked before they set out, if this story was historical.

Really, should it strike us? Well … not really. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not too uncommon for people to not actually have thought out all the details before going out with each other, especially on something so emotional where these women … might just really wanted to have seen Jesus as soon as possible. Surely, this is not such an absurd possibility to consider?

Secondly, the use of the word ἀποκυλίω (to roll away) indicates that the stone closing the tomb in the gMark account is meant to be round.  A survey of First Century Jewish rock cut and cave tombs by Amos Kloner found that 98% of them were closed by square stones prior to 70 AD, with only four of the surveyed sites closed by a rolling round stone.  After 70 AD, however, round stones became far more common.  So this detail seems to be indicating the kind of tomb in the later First Century, given that a tomb of this style was exceedingly rare in Jesus’ time.  This could just be the writer of gMark indicating the kind of tomb in the time he was writing or it could be that the tomb itself, an element conspicuous by its absence in Paul’s version, was an addition to the story.

The details seem to be accurate; most stones closing tombs in the Jewish land at this time were square stones, and round stones only appear later on in the century. So perhaps this sly detail in the Gospels, where they say the stone was rolled away, gives away ahistoricity? Nope. As scholar and archaeologist Urban C. von Wahlde has pointed out to the Biblical Archaeology magazine, the square-shaped stones would also have been rolled. It’s a bit obvious if you think about it. What else were they going to do? Carry around the gigantic rocks?

It is not necessary to change the definition of kulio to make sense of the Gospel accounts. Von Wahlde points out: “It may very well be that people rolled the ‘cork-shaped’ stones away from the tomb. Once you see the size of a ‘stopper’ stone, it is easy to see that, however one gets the stone out of the doorway, chances are you are going to roll it the rest of the way.” Although they certainly would not have rolled as easily as round (disk-shaped) stones, cork-shaped stones still could have been rolled.

Moving on, O’Neill points out there are no resurrection appearances in the Gospel of Mark. Though he neglects to mention that in Mark 14:28, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples that after his resurrection, he’ll go ahead and meet them at Galilee (therefore, the appearances are implied). O’Neill also argues, along the lines of a number of others, that Jesus would not have received a burial in a tomb but rather, like other criminals of the day, would have simply been buried in one of the mass graves available at the time. However, whether or not this explanation is true depends on the historicity of the story of Joseph of Arimathea and his burial of Jesus. If there was such a Joseph, Jesus would certainly not have been placed in a mass burial. O’Neill suggests that while Joseph of Arimathea may be historical, it’s also possible he was invented to make the Gospel story fit better with Old Testament ‘prophecy’ (i.e. Isaiah 53). Another possibility is as scholar Jodi Magness explains, Joseph’s actions seem to be the likely consequence of following Jewish law;

Joseph of Arimathea seems to have been motivated by a concern for the observance of Jewish law. On the one hand, Deut 21:22-23 mandates burial within twenty-four hours of death, even for those guilty of the worst crimes, whose bodies were hanged after death. On the other hand, Jewish law prohibits burial on the Sabbath and festivals. Because Jesus expired on the cross on the eve of the Sabbath, he had to be buried before sundown on Friday, because waiting until after sundown on Saturday would have exceeded the twenty-four-hour time limit. Since there was no time to prepare a grave, Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in his family’s rockcut tomb. (Magness, Jodi. Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011, 165. Also see pp. 164-171.).

While not in his Quora answer, I’ve more recently seen O’Neill offer another argument against the historicity of the story of Jesus’s burial by Joseph of Arimathea. A certain PC1 wrote to O’Neill on his blog about the historicity of the Joseph story:

It isnt just apologists who argue the contrary. For example, archaeologist Jodi Magness has said “In my opinion, the notion that Jesus was unburied or buried in disgrace is based on a misunderstanding of the archaeological evidence and of Jewish law….I believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archeological evidence…the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law”.

And O’Neill responded:

“largely consistent with … archaeological evidence and with Jewish law” and “the most likely scenario” are not the same thing. Especially when Paul, strangely, makes no mention of any “empty tomb” when trying to convince the Corinthians of the physical reality of the resurrection, while Acts 13:27-29 records an early tradition whereby it’s “those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers” who execute Jesus and then says these enemies “took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb”. An early variant of John 19:38 also has the Jews taking Jesus away for burial. This is also found in the Gospel of Peter 6:21 and in Justin Martyr: Dialogue 97.1. Then the Secret Book of James has Jesus refer to how he was “buried in the sand”. The idea his followers lay him in a tomb seems to be a later development, aimed at refuting the idea that he was not buried at all or they just went to the wrong tomb. It is a prop for the later resurrection stories, not evidence for them.

Ah, so the Gospels and a few second century texts preserve earlier traditions where “the Jews”, that is, the Jewish opponents of the early Christians, were responsible for the burial of Jesus, unlike the preserved narrative on how the Sanhedrist Joseph, who is considered a secret believer in the Gospels (Matthew 27:57), was responsible for burying Jesus. However, there is an alternate explanation for the data here. After going over the same argument O’Neill mentions, Craig Evans writes;

” … the context suggests that the “they” may be the Jewish opponents of Jesus rather than his disciples. The plural may simply be a generalization of the memory of Joseph (who scarcely did the whole burial alone), a Sanhedrist responsible for sentencing Jesus but active in burying him out of fidelity to the Jewish law.” (The Historical Jesus: Jesus Death, Mission, and Resurrection, 2004, 249)

So when Acts 13:27-29 describes the Jewish opponents of Christianity burying Jesus, this can, after all, simply be referring to Joseph, per the evidence of Evans. The rebuttal would be that this can’t be true because Joseph is considered, as I’ve explained, considered a secret believer in the Gospel stories. But if there was any such Sanhedrist Joseph, it’s clear that the tradition of him being a secret Christian believer is the later development and that the variant tradition preserved in the passages O’Neill goes over preserve the recognition by the earliest Christians that Joseph in fact was no such secret believer. So what we’re told by these texts that O’Neill mentions is that Joseph, who buried Jesus, was no secret believer after all contra the Gospels. While O’Neill claims that being buried in a tomb was a later development, he only seems to find this in the Secret Book of James from the 2nd century. In contrast, these variant readings in Acts and elsewhere, which remember that Joseph was an opponent of Christianity, are clearly very early traditions contradicting the official Gospel narrative and so we here have very clear evidence for an extremely early tradition recounting the historicity of the burial by Joseph. While O’Neill comes in looking for evidence of a later development for the Joseph story, it kind of looks like he ended up finding a very early source for it instead.

Let’s talk about some actual (well, supposed) development. O’Neill, throughout his answer, places emphasis on two discrepancies in the four resurrection accounts. The first is the number of women that visited Jesus’ tomb. Mark says that there were three women (16:1), Luke says has an unspecified amount but at least five (24:1, 10), Matthew has two (28:1), and John has one (20:1). Clear development of the story? Asides from the fact that there’s no linear pattern of development through the four Gospels, as Michael Licona points out in his recent monograph Why are there Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford 2016), an analysis of the Gospels in the background of their genre (ancient biography) shows many of the differences between Gospel accounts are the product of the literary techniques commonly seen throughout ancient biographical works (neither I, nor Licona, are inerranists). In the case of the number of women, it’s clear that the Gospels are using the literary technique of spotlighting. No development happening. Imagine a stage of dancers performing at a show. The stage goes dark, you can’t see anyone. The spotlight shines on a single dancer. You know all the other dancers are there, but you can only see one. That’s spotlighting. Literary spotlighting is a single person being mentioned in a story while the author/reader knows that others are present, even if not explicitly mentioned. Quite common in ancient biography. In fact, when it comes to the resurrection stories and the number of women present, we know literary spotlighting is happening.

John 20:1: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Remember, John’s Gospel only reports one woman, Mary, visiting the tomb. So what did Mary mean when she said “we” in the above verses? It’s clear that John, even though he doesn’t mention other women being present, is explicitly aware of them. Hence, we know that the variance in the number of women between the Gospels is a product of literary spotlighting, rather than contradiction or literary development. This isn’t the only place where literary spotlighting happens in the resurrection accounts. Licona points out another;

Now look 12 verses later [Luke 24:12], when Jesus is talking with the Emmaus disciples. Luke says they were kept from recognizing Jesus and told him that their women friends had gone to the tomb that morning, discovered it empty, and were told by angels that Jesus had risen from the dead. They added that when the women informed them of this, “some of those with us” went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said (24:24). In 24:12, Luke only mentioned Peter. But it’s obvious that he knew of others in 24:24. Luke was shining his literary spotlight on Peter in 24:12.

In Luke 24:12, Peter is described as going to the tomb, but a few verses later, the word “us” is used to describe the people going back to the tomb. Another example of the Gospels describing one person at a scene while knowing others are present.

Another supposed theme of development O’Neill cites is the men/angels present at the tomb when the women get there. Mark says that when the women get there, they see a man (16:5), Luke mentions two men (24:4), Matthew mentions one angel (28:1-2), and John mentions two angels (20:1-2, 12). Is any development happening? Is the number of people increasing, or are the authors turning the men into angels as time goes on? The discrepancy between the number of angels/men present can clearly be attributed to literary spotlighting — Mark and Matthew are aware of more then one angel, they simply don’t mention them. But were they men or angels? Clearly, all the Gospels are describing angels. Mark describes a “young man dressed in white”, whereas Luke describes “two men in dazzling clothes stood”. White/dazzling clothing is regularly used all throughout the New Testament as a mark for heavenly visitation (e.g., Mark 9:3; Matt 28:3; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; 10:30. See also Dan 7:9; 2 Macc 3:26, 33; 2 En 1:4–11; Gos Pet 36, 55; Josephus, Ant 5:277). In fact, as it happens, Luke even ends up calling the men angels in a tucked away verse later on anyways (24:22-23). No development.

O’Neill also says Matthew places little emphasis on Jesus being physically resurrected — though, this is irrelevant, I’ve already shown there’s no evidence of spiritual resurrection in earliest Christianity (or Judaism at all), and Matthew clearly believed in physical resurrection. O’Neill mentions that Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions an earthquake taking place during this time. Here, I’ll simply point out that in 2012, a number discovered of scientists discovered (see this paper in the geological journal International Geology Review) that a 6.3 magnitude earthquake took place in this region between 26-36 AD (the authors note the possibility of this being Matthew’s earthquake). So I wouldn’t discount the story too quickly.

We’re then told that the guard present in at the tomb in Matthew also appears to be a product of legendary development. Here, I’ll reference a defense of the historicity of the guard in the journal New Testament Studies. These points are hardly as indefensible as O’Neill makes them out to be. O’Neill also claims another contradiction exists in the accounts — in Matthew, the tomb is rolled away after the women arrive, whereas it’s already rolled away in the other Gospels. But as Licona points out, the grammar of Matthew’s Gospel allows for a reading where the stone is already rolled away. O’Neill continues;

In the other two gospels [Mark and Luke], the women are specifically going to the tomb to anoint the body.  This is strange, because the Jewish custom was to do this at burial – there is no evidence of people ever doing it afterwards.  Given Jewish taboos about dead bodies, it is a very unlikely thing for them to do.

I’m not familiar with this topic myself, so I’ll assume O’Neill is right and that this detail is, at best, implausible in light of Jewish customs at the time. What O’Neill doesn’t bother doing is taking the next step and talking about how accurate the Gospels are as a whole in their description of Jewish burial customs. We’re about to see why. Byron McCane writes in his explanation of burial customs in 1st century Palestine writes;

As soon as death was certain, the deceased’s eyes were closed; the corpse was washed, and then wrapped and bound. According to the third-century C.E. Jewish tractate Semahot, men could only prepare the corpse of a man, but women could prepare both men and women. Literary depictions often suggest that perfumes or ointments were used for this washing. The body was wrapped and bound in strips of cloth. John 11 has such preparations in view: Lazarus’s “hands and feet [were] bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth” (John 11:44).

After primary burial, the procession returned to the family home, where expressions of condolence continued. Rituals of death continued for several days thereafter. Literary sources, including John 11, agree that for the first seven days, the immediate family remained at home in mourning. If mourners left the house during this time, it was presumed that they would go to the tomb. In John 11, Mary leaves the family home, and neighbors and friends assume “she was going to the tomb to weep there” (John 11:31).

Archaeological evidence has been decisive in the interpretation of some New Testament texts about tombs, graves, death, and burial. In particular, the saying of Jesus in Matt 8:21-22 presupposes secondary burial: “‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (a parallel passage occurs at Luke 9:59-60). Luke 11:47-48’s “tombs of the prophets” most likely refers to the monumental Hellenistic tombs in the Kidron Valley. And the Lazarus narrative in John 11 accurately represents typical customs of mourning, tomb construction, and grave wrappings.

Jodi Magness (who I mentioned earlier) is a world-renowned expert on precisely this topic, and is quite clear that the Gospel description is overall largely consistent with the historical evidence;

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial appear to be largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. In other words, although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial accord well with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law. The source(s) of these accounts were familiar with the manner in which wealthy Jews living in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus disposed of their dead. (pg. 171)

So, while one particular detail here and there may be implausible throughout the whole of the Gospel descriptions regarding the resurrection of Jesus, it’s evident that, by and large, the Gospels are rather accurate on the topic and that this supports the case for the resurrection if anything. Perhaps O’Neill was just tired when he wrote that, his answer is a long one.

Now, we can finally move on to perhaps my major argument. Rather than think of the argument myself, I’m just going to appropriate the evidence O’Neill provides. O’Neill offers this highly useful chart on to prove the ‘development’ of the Gospels. I’ll use the same chart to prove precisely the opposite.


There ya go, clear evidence that there is no decipherable ‘development’ in the sources at all. The order of the sources in this chart is Paul first, then Mark, Matthew, Luke, and finally John. There are 20 rows under the first row that describes which sources have which details, each row being devoted to explaining which sources contains which resurrection details. In the following, ‘Row 1’ will be the row with the Sunday appearances details, and the rest follow numerically. In the entire chart, the only details mentioned by Paul are found in rows 13-16. Why? An early stage in the later development? Actually, Paul is just writing letters to the churches addressing their various theological problems, rather than giving a detailed account of the events leading up to and surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. The other Gospels, however, are all biographies of Jesus and so we would naturally expect them to have much more information. In fact, the only details Paul qualifies for, rows 13-16, are from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 — a section of Paul’s letters that he didn’t even compose himself. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is just an early creed, dating to within a few years or perhaps a few months after Jesus’ died (as scholars have known for a while) that Paul is simply passing on in his own letters. In other words, Paul actually devotes no space of his own whatsoever to deal with the actual history of the resurrection (and just quotes a short creed to do that for him), and so it’s obviously completely unsurprising why he has so little information. This topic of the actual history of the events was secondary to the purpose of Paul’s letters — i.e. dealing with the theological issues of the early churches he’s connected to and helped establish. It’s hardly methodologically sound to compare the biographical details of Paul, in his utterly non-biographical descriptions, to actual biographical accounts. Let’s try looking at the Gospels.

The Gospels all agree on the details in rows 1, 3, and 5, so no development there. Rows 2 and 7 are about the number of women and the angels, row 8 is about the earthquake, and row 15 is about the appearance to the disciples, which I’ve already dealt with. The following will focus on the rest of the chart. Other than that, most of the details in this graph … show very little evidence of any linear development. For example, row 6 has a “rolled stone”. The first three Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) qualify for this detail, but the final Gospel, John, mentions no such thing. So is the development happening in the inverse direction of time? Other details are totally ambiguous and no line of development can be made out. In row 4, which has “anointing” (of Jesus), the first Gospel has it, the second doesn’t, and the third does, and the fourth doesn’t. Where is the ‘development’? Another phenomenon that takes place is that the Gospel in the middle, Matthew, mentions several details that no other Gospel mentions (rows 8, 9, 11, 18), Luke has two details mentioned nowhere else (rows 19 and 20, although apparently row 20 is ‘implied’ by John), and John, the latest of the Gospels, has one detail not mentioned in the other Gospels (row 12).

Taking a look at this, it seems to me that the distribution of details … is actually quite random. All Gospels have unique details, and there’s no clear evidence that the latest of the Gospels tend to accumulate in details nowhere present in the earliest (I can only seriously see this in 2 out of all 20 details, in rows 17 and 20, and since there’s only two such examples, that’s not much to make a case out of). There’s only two completely unambiguous cases of what looks like development through the four Gospels, and that’s regarding how many people the women told about the empty tomb after seeing it and the intimacy of each resurrection appearance. Perhaps just a wee bit of legendary development such as in an element here and there in Matthew and John, quite minor, can help explain this all away. And yet, bits of development here and there isn’t much to make a case out of. The case made for the resurrection by Christian historians, such as in Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (InterVarsity 2010), is quite a lot more convincing. Also see Michael Licona smash agnostic historian Bart Ehrman in their 2016 written debate on TheBestSchools (warning: it’s incredibly long) on the topic of the evidence for Christ’s resurrection. In truth, while O’Neill sets up a long case, very little of it survives, perhaps far too little to have grounds for seriously challenge the Christian resurrection.

O’Neill ends by taking a look at the psychology of the earliest Christians, claiming that the psychological evidence indicates that when expectations/prophecy of a religious group get dashed, they reinterpret the prophecy to make it out to be a victory or something. The examples O’Neill gives for this are quite modern (Jehovah’s Witnesses and some UFO cult in the 1950’s). Apparently, this explains why the Christians came up with the idea of a resurrected Jesus — O’Neill comes up with the convenient explanation that after having their hopes shattered by Jesus’ death, they just looked at Isaiah 53 and just put the rest together. A few years ago, O’Neill answered another question on Quora regarding who the Messiah claimants in Jesus’ era were (besides Jesus). The only one definitively known to have claimed to have been the Messiah is Simon ben Kosiba, who led a major uprising against Rome, and O’Neill points out that a number of these other characters may have been interpreted as Messianic figures as well. And yet none of their followers continued the cult after the Romans smashed their leader. If we actually look at ancient Judaism, we realize that when a group of Jews lose their Messiah claimant, they tend not to depict him as resurrected or continue the cult at all.

Before Christianity, there was actually no expectation of a dead or resurrected Messiah among Jews at all, let alone one crucified by the Gentile Romans. If the followers of Jesus ever did come to some psychological conclusion in light of his death (the evidence suggests they wouldn’t have, instead, they would have just disbanded following Jesus’ crucifixion, as we’ve just seen), they would have never come to the belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. Instead, they simply would have come to the belief that Jesus had ascended to heaven, like Elijah. There’s no reason why the early Christians should have come to the belief in resurrection or appearances on O’Neill’s hypothesis. Secondly, there’s another little detail O’Neill forgets that his thesis can’t account for. Remember, he claims that the followers of Jesus simply reinterpreted his death as a triumph in light of his death because of their psychological trauma … OK … what about Paul, who had never met Jesus and was a persecutor of the early Christians, who came to the belief that the risen Jesus appeared to him? What psychological trauma did he have when a preacher he had never heard of got crucified?

It looks to me like all this evidence in my point-by-point response to O’Neill is weakening if not fatal to O’Neill’s case against Jesus’ resurrection. And hallelujah for that. Enjoy a nice, long and excellent video on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection by InspiringPhilosophy;

50 thoughts on “A Response to Tim O’Neill on the Resurrection of Jesus

  1. I strongly appreciate the intellectual rigor with which you argue and the sheer hard labor you’ve put towards becoming better informed of the scholarship surrounding the theological matters that you blog about. Keep it up! You are a great resource to many.

    Out of curiosity, how do you find the time and money to study scholarly works and access pay-walled journals if you are not a professional academic in related fields?

    I have some comments:

    “If we actually look at ancient Judaism, we realize that when a group of Jews lose their Messiah claimant, they tend not to depict him as resurrected or continue the cult at all.”

    But which Messiah would-be ever preached and acted like Jesus did? His teachings were extremely desirable to marginalized people groups that he often interacted with: women, children, prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners. Why *wouldn’t* such a posse of victimized followers *not* want to continue the legacy of a man who gave them so much dignity and purpose? While I concede that groups forming around Messiah claimants quickly disbanded following the elimination thereof, I see enough reason to believe that the followers of Jesus could have been the exception to this rule.

    “OK … what about Paul, who had never met Jesus and was a persecutor of the early Christians, who came to the belief that the risen Jesus appeared to him? What psychological trauma did he have when a preacher he had never heard of got crucified?”

    I don’t think it is plausible that Paul had never met Jesus and I certainly think it impossible that he had never even “heard” of him. Jesus would have developed an infamous reputation among the Jewish intellectuals in Jerusalem, after all. And Paul, himself being highly in tune with both Jewish and Gentile thought would have definitely been aware of Jesus’s Messianic presentations and maybe even had carefully followed his career. This would help explain in part his strong reaction of murder towards Jewish Christians.


    • I’m actually attending university right now and so institutional access makes access to lots of these resources quite easy for me. I also know plenty of ways to find a PDF of a paper if it’s available somewhere online. Check out the Google Chrome extension Unpaywall. Also, if you put a paper into Google Scholar and the paper is online somewhere, Google Scholar will display a link on the right-hand side of the page for the PDF. There are sites like academia.edu where researchers sometimes freely post tons of their research and in many cases I’ve emailed some scholar for a paper requesting the PDF and they’ve sent it to me. Plenty of ways. As for time, that’s something you need to make open for yourself given your life. I don’t waste a minute of my time.

      You suggest that the followers of Jesus were just some amazing exception given the teachings of Jesus. Indeed, these oppressed followers just liked Jesus so much they just had to continue the religion, and totally made up all this resurrection stuff. Besides the evidence against this (such as the fact that Paul didn’t like Jesus at all and still came to an experience), there’s no evidence for it and it seems like an unfalsifiable hypothetical here. I’m sure you can come up with plenty of baseless hypotheticals to get around the conclusion of resurrection, but why should anyone think these people just decided to come up with “Jesus is risen” because they … liked His ideas? Besides the seeming absurdity of the very hypothetical you’re offering, it just is the case that the conclusion I’m offering (of resurrection) directly follows from the data and what you’re offering is kind of a less parsimonious, weird step-around.

      You seem to follow the same attempt when it comes to Paul – basically inventing a whole litany of hypotheticals to explain Paul’s “strong reaction” or something. But even granting all of those hypotheticals, not a single one of which actually need to be granted (which would stop your argument right there), you still fail to explain why a persecutor like Paul, who didn’t have this liking for Jesus but in fact thought it all to be anti-Jewish bunk, would come to the belief in the resurrection.


  2. Great post! and you are right, the whole idea that Jesus’ followers would just invent a resurrection story because their leader was killed is highly implausible given the fact that Jews never did this once their leader was killed, these movements usually died soon after.


  3. Well, if Tim isn’t going to respond then maybe I can offer a few thoughts. Note that I’m actually more inclined to think that there was some sort of event which catalyzed a belief in a physical resurrection, but I think Tim’s scenario is also a viable candidate. That aside…

    Regarding apotheosis, I would suggest that there are two weaknesses in your objection. First, it seems to assume a sort of monolithic Judaism that is wholly resistant to pagan influence. This is akin to the concern that O’Neill raises regarding NT Wright’s argument about the general vs individual resurrection. The attestation of the problem of pagan influence in the churches being addressed by the Pauline epistles serve as internal evidence that this influence is not so aberrant (in addition to external accounts of the “problem” of hellenizing Jews). Not to mention that we are talking about a religious sect whose trajectory is rapidly moving away from orthodoxy (to the extent that such a thing existed at the time). But perhaps your objection is only in reference to the initiation of the resurrection belief, which feeds into the second point. You do not dispute that there were ideas in the Jewish world that are similar to apotheosis. So even if we grant that the progenitors of the resurrection claim would be staunchly opposed to the pagan conception of apotheosis, we could alternatively see it as the fertile ground in which that belief came to thrive rather than as the initial seed of the resurrection belief itself. In particular, if Jesus was originally assigned to one of the more Jewish exaltation concepts, then the acceptance of apotheosis in the culture of the diaspora and gentile converts of the early church serves to support the adoption of the narrative in general, where it can then evolve in the way that Tim describes.

    Your defense of your interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:44 seems to ignore the surrounding context (i.e., heavenly vs earthly bodies, perishable vs imperishable), which is most parsimoniously read as supporting something more like Tim’s interpretation. The spiritual vs natural distinction is most simply understood in relation to the surrounding discussion of resurrection bodies rather than psychological states. At the very least this passage suggests that there may not be a clear distinction between the conceptions of physical and spiritual resurrections. Note that even Tim’s definition of apotheosis is “physically taken up in to the heavens and raised to divine status”.

    Lastly, with regard to the evolution of the resurrection narrative, I would suggest that your analysis might be too focused on the notion of a linear, incremental evolution. Note that when Tim discusses the chart he created, he does not aim to point out a gradual accretion of elements, but rather to demonstrate a wide variation of differences. I understand it as something more like a survey of the different branches of a common ancestor, rather than a recounting of a single path in the tree.

    Great job on the article. All that hard work deserves at least a little pushback.


    • How can you have a resurrection of the Spirit or soul if the soul/spirit never dies. The point is that only the physical body dies. It is stated that the soul that sins, it shall die. But it never connects that death with the physical death. It was not just a Christian theme either. It goes all the way back to Adam when it was promised he would die, upon eating the fruit. His physical body did not die then nor did his spirit or soul. The final death would be at the end of time, called the second death, because most of humanity will have already died the first death which is physical. Those who are considered righteous by God who have not passed the last chance to be free of sinning by choice, will never die the second and final death. The other 6th day created humans which Adam was one of, either never died, or we were never told the conditions of their death. It was through Adam’s descendants death happens. Unless you view the story as allegorical and then there would be no hope at all, because all of humanity would be cursed by death. But even in allegory it does not change the fact. We really do not concern ourselves with the 6th day humans because obviously they keep their identity hidden from fallen humans.

      In the account of Jesus’ resurrection, it is stated he was the first to receive a physical body that would never die again. Some claims also point out hundreds of humans also gained this new body. When Lazarus was allegedly raised he still had his original body which had not yet decayed. It was also placed into the account that his body during the resurrection process could not be touched but after a few days, it was touched by Thomas.

      There seems to be something about a transformation between the physical fallen human body and a physical manifestation of a spiritual body that can exist in the physical. Jesus did not return in his original body he was born with from the womb of Mary. That one was destroyed because it was dead and unable to sustain life. That is the concept that could not be grasped by humanity and that is why Paul made a distinction between the mortal and immortal body of resurrected humans.


    • Thanks for the comment. Your criticism of my (Hurtado’s) argument against seems to miss the mark, since I assume no monolithic perspective on any homogeneity among Jews at all. Even a Jew who lived in the diaspora like Philo of Alexandria, thoroughly hellenized in his Platonic philosophy, totally rejected apotheosis as ridiculous, as Hurtado’s quote of him shows. The monotheistic grasp of Roman-era Judaism was so tight that apotheosis seems like a totally absurd attempt to explain away the views of the earliest Christians. And, of course, the earliest Christians were vastly less hellenized than was Philo in their little Palestinian Jewish communities. Even by the time the Gospels are written, virtually no evidence of Hellenization exists in Christian doctrine.

      “You do not dispute that there were ideas in the Jewish world that are similar to apotheosis.”

      I do. That’s exactly the point of flaw I see in O’Neill’s argument.

      “Your defense of your interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:44 seems to ignore the surrounding context (i.e., heavenly vs earthly bodies, perishable vs imperishable), which is most parsimoniously read as supporting something more like Tim’s interpretation.”

      I entirely disagree, and I see not the slightest thread of evidence how the surrounding context weakens in any way (if not reinforces) the interpretation I’m giving. The perishable body is mortal, and dies, and the imperishable body is immortal, does not pass away or die, etc. But what evidence is there that Paul’s doctrine of an immortal, unpassing resurrection body is incompatible with bodily resurrection?

      As for the point of my focus on linear development — well, I assume if we’re going to talk about some sort of development, we’d expect “overall” that details toward the end of the Gospels tend to accrue than the largely random distribution I proposed. I also mentioned that there is evidence of development — just little wee bits here and there. My case was mostly focused on weakening the vast majority of Tim’s evidence, so that whatever remains cannot seriously challenge the resurrection.

      Again, thanks for the comment. It allowed me to organize my own thoughts on the issues a bit more.


      • Regarding hellenistic influence, I will have to get back to you with details after reviewing some sources, but I think your stance is overly exclusive. Don’t forget that accusations of heresy count as evidence for the presence of those “unorthodox” perspectives.

        On apotheosis, you quoted Hurtado: “Though Jewish writings of the time show that principal angels and revered human figures such as Moses or Enoch could be pictured in a highly exalted status, and described in terms that can be compared with divinization, the refusal to accord any such figure cultic worship shows that we are not dealing here with a genuine apotheosis.”

        which I assumed you agreed with. And there’s also Hurtado, Oct. 14 2017: “The point is that such notions of heavenly exaltation of selected human figures were in the air of second-temple Jewish tradition, which is why I wrote that Loke’s proposal that Jesus saw himself as bearing some kind of “divine” status is not inconceivable, in principle.”

        I think this supports the notion that the concepts are quite similar. In fact, that appears to be Hurtado’s point – that they are similar but not identical.

        what evidence is there that Paul’s doctrine of an immortal, unpassing resurrection body is incompatible with bodily resurrection?

        I don’t think Tim or I were suggesting that the passage was incompatible with bodily resurrection. The suggestion is that a non-physical resurrection is a probable reading.


      • What part of anything I said is “exclusive”? I showed that even Jews as Hellenized as Philo totally rejected apotheosis as absurd.

        Anyways, you seem to say that the exaltation of Moses and Elijah in these texts are “similar concepts”. Similar in what way, exactly? Exaltation? And yet apotheosis, actually becoming an additional god, is much more than just exaltation. As Hurtado notes, they never received worship, one of the primary elements of Jewish devotion to God. And that’s precisely because of the importance of monotheism in Judaism. And yet what you’re suggesting is clearly far beyond anything in the surviving sources — that the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, almost as if monotheism wasn’t a factor, immediately deified Jesus like the pagan deities of the Romans. This conclusion is a rather vast stretch from what the evidence tells us.

        “I don’t think Tim or I were suggesting that the passage was incompatible with bodily resurrection. The suggestion is that a non-physical resurrection is a probable reading.”

        Yes, and I suggested that this was based on misreadings of the text. I still see not a shred of evidence to suggest Paul believed in spiritual resurrection.


      • OK, so I went back and read Tim’s article again. In discussing the role of apotheosis, I think it would be helpful to focus on the text in his conclusion:

        The Jewish theological context of expectations of a coming general resurrection provided the religious background for the idea that Jesus had somehow “risen” and gone on to heaven. And the Greco-Roman context provided literary narrative tropes of the great man who is raised to heaven, the teacher who revisits his followers after death and the evidence of an empty tomb as proof of apotheosis that we find in the various gospel accounts. These elements converged in the story of the “risen Jesus” and, in doing so, helped turn a small Jewish apocalyptic sect into a Greco-Roman mystery religion and then into a world faith.

        It’s also worth noting that his larger discussion of apothesis earlier in the article never tied it into Judaism. So I think it’s pretty clear that he is proposing something like I had suggested in my second point – that an originally Jewish idea of a resurrection with exaltation to the heavenly realm was subsequently accepted and narrated under the umbrella of the Greco-Roman idea of apotheosis as the sect grew out of his original Jewish context and integrated with the Gentile world. The proposal is not that the earliest Jewish Christians adopted apotheosis out of the gate.

        Furthermore, you seem to be suggesting that the insurmountable difference between apotheosis and any similar Jewish conception is the act of worship. Are you therefore also willing to defend the notion that early Jewish Christianity was unified in understanding Jesus to be Yahweh? Unless that is true, Christianity itself stands in opposition to the claim that Jews would not countenance according worship to anyone other than Yahweh.

        I still see not a shred of evidence to suggest Paul believed in spiritual resurrection

        I can understand how one can possibly read the text so as to not require that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection, but it is far too dismissive to then also reject the possibility that Paul was speaking of a spiritual resurrection. The particular elements of 1 Cor. 15:35-58 which support that reading are:
        1. The focus on the “kind of body”, providing examples of distinctively different body types in the introduction (v35-41).
        2. Pairing the resurrection with the distinction between earthly\perishable\natural and heavenly\imperishable\spiritual bodies, including the contrast between the first Adam from dust and the second\last Adam who “became a life-giving spirit” (v45) and is of heaven (v47-49).
        3. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v50)


      • I seem to have missed this response months ago. Anyways, I’ll respond here and now.

        There’s an unfortunate problem with the suggestion that “an originally Jewish idea of a resurrection with exaltation to the heavenly realm was subsequently accepted and narrated under the umbrella of the Greco-Roman idea of apotheosis as the sect grew out of his original Jewish context and integrated with the Gentile world.” And the simple problem is that the divine exaltation and resurrection of Jesus takes place far before it grew out of its original Jewish context. It’s in the earliest source, Paul, and likely dates to the first few years of the movement. When it was still thoroughly Jewish. So this explanation doesn’t work at all.

        Furthermore, you seem to be suggesting that the insurmountable difference between apotheosis and any similar Jewish conception is the act of worship. Are you therefore also willing to defend the notion that early Jewish Christianity was unified in understanding Jesus to be Yahweh? Unless that is true, Christianity itself stands in opposition to the claim that Jews would not countenance according worship to anyone other than Yahweh.

        The major distinction between a figure who is and isn’t divine in Judaism was certainly the presence of a cult surrounding that figure. There was no cult surrounding Elijah or Moses, they never received prayer, they never received cultic worship, etc. All this happened with Jesus. That is certainly accurate. I also can’t know if the Christological views were perfectly uniform and there weren’t a few Christians outside the mainstream rejecting this perspective. All I can discuss is what the source evidence documents. I think your claim is getting really weak if you need to appeal to these hypotheticals.

        As for spiritual resurrection, your points simply offer no support here at all. I should note that O’Neill himself no longer accepts this.

        1. The “kind of body” being referred to is explicitly perishable versus imperishable, not physical versus spiritual.
        2. I’ve already shown that the “natural/spiritual” distinction, in reference to Adam and v. 44, has nothing to do with the nature of the body.
        3. The imperishable, resurrected body is not made of perishable flesh and blood. That’s not to say it’s immaterial, of course.

        You might want to go ahead and also try explaining the great terminological conundrum for the spiritual interpretation I mentioned in my post. All the terms Paul uses to describe the resurrection seem to strictly exclude spiritual movement.


      • I had forgotten about this and so probably won’t pursue this much further, but a few thoughts did come to mind in reading your response:

        the simple problem is that the divine exaltation and resurrection of Jesus takes place far before it grew out of its original Jewish context

        Perhaps you misread the statement? It wasn’t saying that the resurrection and exaltation was subsequent to a gentile confluence, it’s saying that it was the Jewish precursor that could subsequently be more readily accepted by a gentile audience by seeing a relation to the familiar concept of apotheosis.

        I think your claim is getting really weak if you need to appeal to these hypotheticals

        I think that the various scholarship on how to interpret the christology implied throughout the NT writings, and the early patristic attestation to the many different views on Jesus’ nature – notably among Jewish Christians – collectively highlight a clear lack of early consensus around the view that would become orthodoxy. I think it’s likely that a large percentage, perhaps even a majority, of the 1st century church practiced Christ-worship despite not equating Jesus with Yahweh (setting aside the question of what we mean by “worship” and the varieties therein). This is not just some weak hypothetical limited to “a few Christians outside the mainstream”, it’s a highly reasonable extrapolation from the data. While this worship does seem to have been a relatively unique phenomenon within the Jewish context, that does not mean that the best interpretation of the phenomenon as a whole is that these cultists were simultaneously equating Jesus with Yahweh. The forces which would compel one to draw that equivalence are the same forces which push back against anything other than a strict monotheism, and this is part of the reason why the christological landscape is so diverse and conflicted for the first few centuries. There’s plenty of opportunity here for syncretism between the Jewish and Greco-Roman world.

        As for the spiritual resurrection, I’m not suggesting that it is the interpretation of Paul which is most likely correct, but just trying to provide some friendly pushback to show that it is not as bankrupt as your response suggested. I’ll leave you with the last word on that one.


      • Perhaps you misread the statement? It wasn’t saying that the resurrection and exaltation was subsequent to a gentile confluence, it’s saying that it was the Jewish precursor that could subsequently be more readily accepted by a gentile audience by seeing a relation to the familiar concept of apotheosis.

        I’m not sure this makes any sense or, if it does, if it’s relevant. Tim’s claim was that pagan apotheosis helped enable the belief in Christ’s deity to emerge. But it didn’t and there was no Jewish category of apotheosis, in fact, even Hellenized Jews totally rejected the pagan idea of apotheosis. Whether or not later gentiles were more likely to accept the thoroughly Jewish belief in Jesus’ deity just doesn’t save Tim’s point nor help explain how this belief originated.

        You also need to double-check your grammar there, bud.

        I think it’s likely that a large percentage, perhaps even a majority, of the 1st century church practiced Christ-worship despite not equating Jesus with Yahweh (setting aside the question of what we mean by “worship” and the varieties therein). This is not just some weak hypothetical limited to “a few Christians outside the mainstream”, it’s a highly reasonable extrapolation from the data.

        What we’re missing is actual evidence for this “highly reasonable extrapolation from the data”. And the scholarship doesn’t actually say that there was disunity among the earliest Christians when it came to the deity of Jesus, actually.

        “I’ll leave you with the last word on that one.”



      • I’m not sure what’s confusing, irrelevant, or grammatically incorrect about my statement regarding the possible role of apotheosis, but I’m not interested in chasing that down so I’ll let it be.

        the scholarship doesn’t actually say that there was disunity among the earliest Christians when it came to the deity of Jesus, actually

        From the foreword to The Earliest Christologies, a book discussing five early Christologies and written by a Catholic who also defends the existence of a unified orthodox Christology in the apostolic era: “the ‘heretics’ were probably sincere believers … all five of these approaches to the person of Jesus Christ were options within the church”
        From the foreword to The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity: “early Jerusalem Christianity must be understood in terms of both unity and diversity. … Christologically, embryonic orthodoxy, incipient Ebionism, and probably proto-gnostic tendencies intermingled.”


      • Wow, that quote says nothing about people who didn’t think Jesus was divine in the earliest decades. Rather, vague references to some sort of disunity could mean any sort of disunity, really, rather than the one under discussion.

        See Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ. He argues that Paul’s letters to many of the churches across the Roman Empire give away a rather general agreement on the christological status of Christ.

        Incipient Ebionism … proto-gnostic tendencies … where are these categories attested in the 1st century? I’ve never seen it.


      • I assumed that the titles of the books (being focused on early Christology) would provide the necessary context to understand the quotations. Regardless, the point was in response to the claim that the scholarship does not say anything about Christological disunity. I expect that people who write whole books on the topic that are released through academic publishers should count as scholars, regardless of whether you agree with their assessment.

        Getting back to the original point, though – we should be careful about treating “worship” as a hard line in the sand that unequivocally dictates the Christological convictions of the early adherents. There are many factors at play and things like the tensions with mainstream Judaism and the syncretic influences of gentile converts cannot be excluded from consideration when assessing the forms and development of early Christology. I don’t know how much of a role apotheosis actually played, but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it was one of the factors.


      • The title of a book isn’t enough to give the meaning of a quote. Quote mining is a thing, sorry.

        It is pretty unreasonable to think gentile influence/apotheosis played a role in Pauline and pre-Pauline Christology, as the article shows. You’re free to disagree, but without actually addressing the evidence, your responses come across as little more than arguments by assertion.


      • I would agree that any role apotheosis played in pre-Pauline and Pauline Christology is probably fairly limited or absent, but I don’t see that Tim was making that claim. As noted in the previous comments, apotheosis was instead being proposed as a contributing factor in the development of the narratives and corresponding Christology as the religion spread into the larger Greco-Roman context.

        As to the sources, I don’t want to belabor the point and I’m not trying to be contentious, but instead of responding on the assumption that your interlocutor is quote mining, you should check it for yourself if you suspect that somebody is abusing a source. If you think that’s what I’ve done, then please show me how I misrepresented the author’s intent. End of page 14, and middle of page 8.

        And let me also offer a possible clarification. The first source does qualify the relevant time period as the “post-apostolic age”, which he then identifies as late 1st – 2nd century. Your discussion seems to be more focused on the pre-Pauline and Pauline stage but, as I noted above, I don’t think Tim was intending to restrict his developmental theory to those first 30 years. Perhaps that is a point of misunderstanding in all of this.


      • But isn’t using apotheosis to explain the beliefs of the early Christians exactly what Tim is doing? Otherwise, how does it support his thesis that the psychological state of the early Christians helps show the resurrection is more fancy than reality?

        “And let me also offer a possible clarification. The first source does qualify the relevant time period as the “post-apostolic age”, which he then identifies as late 1st – 2nd century.”

        But aren’t we specifically talking about in Paul’s time? OF COURSE there was christological disunity in the 2nd century. What we’re talking about is in the time of Paul and other earliest Christians. If that’s all the quote is referring to, then it would certainly be irrelevant to the case I’m defending. And if we agree on this point and none of us here see a challenge to the resurrection, then I think we can end the discussion on a point of agreement. That would be good.


      • But isn’t using apotheosis to explain the beliefs of the early Christians exactly what Tim is doing? Otherwise, how does it support his thesis that the psychological state of the early Christians helps show the resurrection is more fancy than reality?

        I read his discussion of psychology as being completely separate from the discussion of apotheosis, and when he brings in apotheosis again in the second to last paragraph, he’s using it in relation to the construction of the gospel narratives in the late 1st century.

        But aren’t we specifically talking about in Paul’s time?

        That’s not how I understood it. Tim was aiming to show an evolution by looking at the texts of Paul and the Gospels. He specifically gives 50 – 120 as the range.


      • I read his discussion of psychology as being completely separate from the discussion of apotheosis

        That’s exactly what he isn’t doing. He outright states that this apotheosis is a form of parallel to the Gospel stories and was being proclaimed of emperors like Augustus and Tiberius (i.e. contemporaries of Jesus). O’Neill is explicitly trying to adduce contemporary mythological tropes common in Jesus day in order to help explain why the Christians came to these beliefs.

        Nowhere does Tim indicate that he’s merely trying to explain how Christianity, with its already developed tenets, spread among the Gentiles.


      • Only Tim can settle the matter, so we may just have to agree to disagree unless we can get him to weigh in. I see him instead proposing an evolution that starts with Jewish belief in resurrection + exaltation and evolves into the late first century narratives that are at least partially shaped by the growing population of converts whose exposure to the larger Greco-Roman context includes a familiarity with apotheosis, which influenced their perspective on the Jesus story.


      • But I don’t see even the latest Gospel appealing to apotheosis

        I’m still only speculating on Tim’s behalf so I can’t really say exactly what he meant, but my interpretation of the proposal was not that there was any explicit or deliberate dependence on prior conceptions of apotheosis, but rather that the familiarity with the concept influenced the development of the Jesus narrative (and corresponding Christology) because it was part of the context within which the story was received and shared. I know that’s a rather vague claim, but it isn’t clear to me that Tim was attempting to say anything more substantial than that.


      • I think Tim was saying exactly how I interpreted it – that apotheosis helped the original belief developed. What you’re saying is so vague that you simply deflect all criticism on the grounds of “well I’m not reaaaally sure Tim is surely saying something more substantial here”. But perhaps he’s not.


  4. On the anonymity of the gospels- see Simon Gathercole’s recent article at https://academic.oup.com/jts/article-abstract/69/2/447/5101372?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

    As you note, scholars are divided on Mark. The majority favor Luke. Matthew only has a small minority. John is all over the place, but there are still some significant scholars who argue for John son of Zebedee. What’s more important, though, is the idea that the fourth gospel is based on John’s testimony in some manner probably has the most adherents of any other proposal for authorship.


    • Interesting article from Gathercole. Now I have to find a way to get access to it.

      EDIT: Just read it. Fascinating article. The article doesn’t argue that the Gospels were in fact written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but that the names were almost certainly originally attached to the works in some manner. Very convincing case and changed my mind. I’d like to see how scholars receive it in the coming years as well.


  5. Just got done with Tim’s “evangelical” sermon and kept thinking that even athiest have a free will to preach the gospel. I guess I am a Literalist who can’t help making figurative jokes, unless that is a literal interpretation of the existence of his stand against the mythers.

    On topic though, in his fight against pseudo history, it seems pertinent to point out the historical downplay of how the literal view of the spiritual, clearly held by earlier Christ followers, must have finally broken the power that spiritual darkness had over humankind. Whether this darkness was masked by the religious practices of the time, or humans held such beliefs as allegorical, and life in general was so hard, they were an escape from reality. What really broke this hold on people to allow them to become literal thinking people and the development of science itself? Was there not the actual following of Christ that rose above the fantasy of what was literal even though hidden from view in a spiritual realm? Without Christianity and even taking hundreds of years with Christianity accepting the spiritual realm as literal instead of a masked figurative view, would true scientific thought even have developed? That Jesus was even God, took hundreds of years, hundreds of pre-democratic votes, even with bribes, to even come to an acceptable conclusion. It is hard to shake off generations of spiritual blindness. The default is normally the evolution away from literal spiritual acceptance to a more mundane view of it’s acceptance. That may not have been the case though until western thought first had to divorce itself entirely from the spiritual realm. This took the literal acceptance of early Christians to do though. They were the first “athiest”. It was the literal birth of God, the life of an apocalyptic preacher, the literal death and resurrection of the human Jesus for this to take place.

    It would seem to me that literal existence of a great portion of what humanity and the earth was like got muddled up in the Flood. Half of what was real and literal existence was turned into a spiritual view, and we ended up with gods and what was literal truth became spiritual fantasy. The advent of Christ did not send us back to pre-Flood views of life on earth. It only broke the spiritual bond that held western civilization in check. As a Literalist, I have to acknowledge this other half of reality still exist. That it’s demise is still eminent as in Christ’s lifetime. That the descendants of Adam via Noah still are allowed a free will and are not pawns of this literal dispute between God and the forces opposed to God, whatever names they may go by. That we only have the knowledge of this good and evil, but have little say in how it is worked out in reality. It still takes Faith in the Word of God that has been revealed to us in literal form, not some mystic spiritual bondage, or fantasy that we are evolving into super heroes or that they can come and “save” us from ourselves or the will of God.

    Athiest do not accept God as literal, even though a literal God in the flesh allowed western thought to become what it is today. Any interpolation of the written word handed down to us is the indication of the struggle humans had throwing of this influence of spiritual bondage that invaded the beliefs of all humans at that time. The Jews had the opportunity their whole existence to have faith in the literal, but lived with the consequences of not doing so whole heartedly.


  6. I see that you let Tim know you wrote this . Apparently his response is “I don’t find your arguments convincing at all.” There’s not much to say to that, but any thoughts? I’m kinda sick on how there’s a debate over everything when the subject is Christianity. Why can’t there just be a good discussion rather than condescending statements such as his? Anyways the best regards, interesting thoughts above.


      • Thank you so much for this. You’re a man of your word. Just a few questions. (This will sound confrontational, but trust me, it isn’t). Why do you think the gospels were written from 70-100 AD, and do you believe the gospels were written by the authors they were attributed to? I’m not saying I’m necessarily an inerrantist, but the discrepancy in terms of the women going to anoint Jesus nonetheless troubled me. When you say this might be implausible, are you suggesting that this is an anomaly, or an error. Thanks again, your the best.


      • Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure about all the details regarding the dating of the Gospels, but there are some factors to consider. P52, the earliest New Testament manuscript known (of John) is usually dated between 125-175 AD and was found in Egypt. That means that by 125-175 AD, John had been around long enough to have gotten to Egypt and have enough copies that one of them survived. That seems to push the maximum of John’s Gospel, in all serious scenarios, to about 100 AD (give or take a few years), as early as 90 AD let’s say.

        The other Gospels are seen to be earlier than John for a whole range of reasons. The Gospels show absolutely no knowledge of 2nd century theological disputes/doctrine/development, etc. Inspiring Philosophy happens to have a video on the dating of the Gospels. This consensus has formed in the last generation or two of scholarship for a whole range of reasons.

        As for Mark and Luke saying the women were going to anoint Jesus after Jesus’ burial, under the assumption Tim is right on this, it would be an “implausible” detail — as in, though it could have happened, not likely to happen. Though I would restrain from saying it didn’t happen, given the wider accuracy of the Gospels on burial customs. You should withhold coming to a conclusion as well.

        Who wrote the Gospels? I consider Matthew, Luke and John anonymous, though I lean towards saying Mark wrote Mark. Scholars are split when it comes to who wrote Mark, given the fact that Papias around 110-130 AD says Mark wrote Mark and is early enough that he may have well been a contemporary of that Gospel’s author.


      • You wrote a very respectable article, IC. You’re clearly one of the better representatives of Christianity on this platform already.

        With that being said, I think it’s quite odd that you write off the traditional ascriptions of the Gospel’s authors. A lot can be said in their defense, and I hope you meditate on this issue some more.


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