Chronological Snobbery and the Resurrection of Jesus

When discussing the historical basis for the resurrection, one often encounters a popular misconception that the ancient world was far more gullible about claims of resurrection than people are today. This common presumption amounts to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” People imagine that, while our post-enlightenment modern world treats claims of resurrection with doubt and skepticism, the ancient world — being full of superstition and credulity ab0ut the supernatural — would have been poised to accept such a claim.

This discredited notion is addressed by N.T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which he surveys the (Jewish and non-Jewish) ideas concerning resurrection and the afterlife in the first-century Mediterranean world. He shows that the unanimous view in both the Jewish and non-Jewish cultures was that bodily resurrection wasn’t possible. From the point of view of Greco-Roman ideas, the physical world is seen as being defiling and corrupt, while the spirit or soul was considered good. Within Judaism, there were two major sects — the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The former rejected all notions of an afterlife and resurrection, while the latter believed that there would one day come a general resurrection at the end of the world — but this precluded the possibility of someone rising bodily from the dead to glory and immortality in the middle of history, before this general resurrection at the end of time. As Timothy Keller explains in his book The Reason for God (p. 205),

”The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay and death, was inconceivable. If someone had said to any first-century Jew, ‘So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!’ the response would be, ‘Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb? Ridiculous!’ The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.”

We can also show historically from a number of sources that people in the ancient world had a hard time buying the resurrection story. Consider the late second century Christian writer Theophilus of Antioch. In book 1 (chapter 13) of his apology to Autolycus, he addresses this skepticism:

“Then, as to your denying that the dead are raised — for you say, “Show me even one who has been raised from the dead, that seeing I may believe,” [...] But, suppose I should show you a dead man raised and alive, even this you would disbelieve. God indeed exhibits to you many proofs that you may believe Him. For consider, if you please, the dying of seasons and days and nights, how these also die and rise again. And what? Is there not a resurrection going on of seeds and fruits, and this, too, for the use of men? A seed of wheat, for example, or of the other grains, when it is cast into the earth, first dies and rots away, then is raised and becomes a stalk of corn. And the nature of trees and fruit-trees, — is it not that according to the appointment of God they produce their fruits in their seasons out of what has been unseen and invisible?”

There is a similar passage in Clement of Rome’s epistle to the church of Corinth (1st Clement 24), written most likely in the mid-90′s A.D.:

“Think, my dear friends, how the Lord offers us proof after proof that there is going to be a resurrection, of which He has made Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. My friends, look how regularly there are processes of resurrection going on at this very moment. The days and the night show us an example of it; for night sinks to rest, and day arises; day passes away, and night comes again. Or take the fruits of the earth; how, and in what way, does a crop come into being? When the sower goes out and drops each seed into the ground, it falls to the earth shriveled and bare, and decays; but presently the power of the Lord’s providence raises it from decay, and from that single grain a host of others spring up and yield their fruit.”

Finally, the second century apologist Justin Martyr, in his first apology (chapter 19), also addresses the believability of the resurrection. He writes thus:

“And to any thoughtful person would anything appear more incredible, than, if we were not in the body, and some one were to say that it was possible that from a small drop of human seed bones and sinews and flesh be formed into a shape such as we see? For let this now be said hypothetically: if you yourselves were not such as you now are, and born of such parents [and causes], and one were to show you human seed and a picture of a man, and were to say with confidence that from such a substance such a being could be produced, would you believe before you saw the actual production? No one will dare to deny [that such a statement would surpass belief]. In the same way, then, you are now incredulous because you have never seen a dead man rise again. But as at first you would not have believed it possible that such persons could be produced, so also judge ye that it is not impossible that the bodies of men, after they have been dissolved, and like seeds resolved into earth, should in God’s appointed time rise again and put on incorruption.”

Such statements should give us cause to reconsider whether the ancient world was as gullible and credulous as we are often led to think.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Jonathan McLatchie

Jonathan has been a Christian since 1996, having had the privilege of being raised in a Christian home. He has become interested in Christian apologetics over the last 4 or 5 years. He holds an honors degree in Forensic Biology, a Masters (M.Res) degree in Evolutionary Biology, and a second Master's degree in medical and molecular bioscience. He is a proponent of the scientific theory of intelligent design (ID), about which he has written extensively on Evolution News & Views and Uncommon Descent, in addition to being involved with the Centre for Intelligent Design UK. He is also a contributor to various apologetics websites, including CrossExamined.org, the Christian Apologetics Alliance, Apologetics UK, AllAboutGod.com, and GotQuestions.org. He has participated in a number of summer internships: those have been with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, with AllAboutGod in Colorado Springs, with Frank Turek in Charlotte, and with Josh McDowell Ministry in Dallas. He is also a graduate of the CrossExamined Instructor Academy (CIA) and the Discovery Institute's student summer seminar program. Between 2012 and 2013, Jonathan served as an employee intern at the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Washington. Outside of his academic interests, he is also a tournament chess player, with a FIDE (International Chess Federation) rating of 1855.

  • staircaseghost

    Did you know that a woman was recently cured of Parkinson’s by writing Pope John Paul’s name on a piece of paper?

    Did you know that there are still believing members of the Branch Davidians?

    Did you know that Eben Alexander’s book is still at the top of the bestseller list?

    I’m sorry, Mr. Lewis, but I don’t need to suppose people in ancient times were more credulous. I only need to suppose that they were exactly as credulous as they are now.

    • Neil Mammen

      SCG, It’s a valid point, there ARE a lot of gullible people today. In fact that’s my pet peeve and the basis for my organization (www.NoBlindFaith.com).

      But if you note in the blog, Jonathan was not dealing with that issue. He was dealing with Chronological Snobbery, i.e. the false belief that people back then were LESS gullible than people today. Your comment indeed validates his blog post. (Interestingly Chronological Snobbery sort of invalidates itself since those “Snobs” blindly believe something about the past when they believe that.)

      Jonathan was also dealing with the issue of the Disciples seeing and touching Jesus in person. I.e. they were just as unlikely to think someone rose from the dead when he appeared to them, then, than people would today. Don’t forget in that crowd there WERE those who were skeptical e.g. Thomas.

      (BTW who’s Mr. Lewis?)

      • Krishnam

        I think he was referring to

        This common presumption amounts to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

        • neilmammen

          Ah how silly if me. I guess I always see it context with the CS in front of it, that it didn’t registe

      • orienteer01

        Good points. we should also remember that the greatest enemy of early Christianity, a Pharisee named Saul, converted to Christianity and became its greatest missionary. certainly, he was not “gullible” or easily fooled. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was also a skeptic until he encountered the resurrected Christ. James went on to lead the church in Jerusalem and was martyred at the hands of the Sanhedrin, according to the Jewish historian, Josephus.

  • Krishnam

    All the three views are just awesome and are so strong – Make sense. Resurrection of Jesus is believable without any doubt. This is a great blog post and it’s very helpful for a layman to understand why can’t a dead man rise if God wants so?

    Also it’s a wrong perception that people in ancient world are more gullible than people of today. I think the opposite. Today people are more gullible than ancient people.

    There are more fools today than ancient days. (sorry for that but it’s a fact). Instead of unlimited resources, facts, evidence and instruments of science, people are not able to grasp the truth. It’s a sorry state of affair. Let Lord alone bless them with knowledge and wisdom.

  • Thom Waters

    There appear to be two obvious weaknesses to the article and the position taken.
    1–The very first believer to the Resurrection of Jesus, if we are to accept the account in John’s Gospel, became a believer solely on the basis of an “empty tomb” (John 20:8). What reasonable person believes that a “resurrection” has taken place simply on the basis of an empty tomb. It leads to the obviously ill-conceived syllogistic argument:
    A: An empty tomb means that the body that had been there has been resurrected;
    B: The tomb of Jesus was discovered to be empty;
    Therefore: Jesus was resurrected.
    Were people during this time more gullible, less gullible, equally as gullible as people of today? Who can say? At the very least, this first believer seemed to require little evidence for such a miracle, especially one that would have been so foreign to his particular worldview. Doesn’t seem to make much sense, unless we suspect that your stated opinion about the times and these people’s beliefs is incorrect.
    2–Your position regarding the beliefs about Resurrection during this time should immediately call into question the chief priests request to post a guard at the tomb, as we find in Matthew. Such an act, based on your own position, would have demanded, it seems, a complete suspension of their worldview. Who of us acts in such a way, that is, a way that could only be discribed as completely contrary to our worldview?
    However one considers this story about resurrection there seem to exist certain elements to it that must call it into question. Just getting started.
    thanks.

    • Ken Coughlan Ratio Christi

      I don’t think these objections hold up. The textual evidence does not suggest that all that was necessary for these people was to see an empty tomb and automatically believe in a resurrection.

      First, in regard to John (i.e., the disciple in the passage you reference) the text says “He saw and believed.” Believed what? Read the context. What had Mary told them? “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” As we’ll se below, evidence from Luke’s gospel suggests Mary told them more than that, but even if we only look to John’s gospel, they ran to the tomb to see if Jesus’ body had been stolen, not to see if he had been resurrected. In context, John may just be saying that he believed Mary that the body had been stolen. This makes sense of the following verse, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”

      Second, even if we assume John is referring to believing Jesus had risen (which is a possible interpretation, although far from certain), you have also picked out one particular phrase, but ignored the context around it. Mary Magdalene was actually the first to see the empty tomb, but that clearly was not enough to convince her. Her immediate reaction was, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” She repeats this phrase in verse 13, before she turned and realized she was speaking to Jesus. Even assuming you could show that John believed based upon the empty tomb alone, how does one outlier trump all the surrounding evidence of everyone else who did NOT believe based upon the tomb alone? Your argument commits the fallacy of a hasty generalization. You claim to have evidence of one gullible person and use it to argue that all early believers were as gullible and easily convinced. Not only is that a hasty generalization, but it is contradicted by the text itself.

      Third, again assuming that “believed” means “believed Jesus had risen,” I do not believe the textual evidence even supports the proposition that John believed solely based on the tomb. Luke gives a more detailed account in which the angel who appeared to the women told them “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Luke 24:5-7. Upon hearing this, they told the disciples what they had heard. It was only after hearing this story that John went to the tomb and saw it empty. It appears that even hearing the words from the angel was not enough for Mary Magdalene to believe in the resurrection (because she still reported to the disciples that the body had been stolen; it took actually seeing Jesus to convince her), but perhaps the angel’s words combined with the empty tomb was enough to convince John (recalling that the gospels suggest that John tended to have a better understanding of what Jesus taught than some of the other disciples, so he may have been able to arrive at the conclusion of a resurrection sooner). So even assuming “believed” refers to “believed Jesus was resurrected,” it was not necessarily based solely on an empty tomb.

      Your second objection does not seem to hold up either. Why would posting a guard at the tomb be contrary to the chief priests’ worldview? They did not post the guard in order to prevent a resurrection (although it is somewhat amusing to think about what they would have thought they could have done to prevent it). They posted the guard to prevent anyone from stealing the body and CLAIMING a resurrection had occurred. Matthew 27:64 says this explicitly. They never thought for a moment that an actual resurrection would occur. Surely taking steps to prevent someone from stealing a body was not contrary to their worldview.

      • thom waters

        Ken,
        Thanks for your response. I sense both your passion and prejudice.
        You might be correct to suggest that this disciple in John 20:8-9 was believing that the body had been stolen. It is a stark reminder of just how difficult it is to re-create the actual happenings during this time and about this so-called event.
        For example, you write, “Mary Magdalene was actually the first to see the empty tomb.” I have tried to find any record of this, but I have been unable to do so. None of the documents appears to assert this, and, yet, it appears to be something of which you are convinced. Perhaps you can elaborate.
        I have more to say, but I’m out the door. Will respond with more. This might be leading us into a most interesting exchange.
        thom

        • thom waters

          Ken,
          One additional item for the time being.
          This question of gullibility among people of different times is an interesting one, and it leads me to what appears to be a “fact” concerning the claims of Christianity and what Chrisitians of all periods have believed.
          Fact:( And I use it in the Habermas sense of the word that it is both well-evidenced and accepted by all scholars across the spectrum) “By the time that some disciples began to preach the Resurrection of Jesus there was no body of any kind to be found, either of a dead Jesus to disprove the claim or of a living, resurrected Jesus to further substantiate the claim.”
          And what was and is the explanation of Christians for there being no body of the living, Resurrected Jesus? Answer: God whisked him away, up into the clouds, where he now sits at the right hand of God. In the same way that we know that dead bodies do not, as a matter of course, rise from the dead, we also know that living bodies do no get whisked away, up into the clouds in a somewhat-like Star Trek way. Yet, Christians believe both scenarios. The first, the Resurrection, appears to something that apologists have gone to great lengths to “prove” or substantiate using a variety of means, while the latter appears to be something they accept with virtually no proof at all. What it appears we have is a piling on of miracles, and Christians simply believe it all, some apparently with “proof” and others with no “proof” at all, just the word of some “believers” that it happened.
          Your insight would be appreciated. It appears that the inclination towards gullibility might not be restricted to just one period.
          thom

          • Ken Coughlan Ratio Christi

            Mary Magdalene was “first” in the sense of the first we know of; i.e., of those for whom we have reports of seeing the empty tomb, she is the first one reported to us. It is right there in John’s gospel. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance” (20:1). The narrative then reports her going to tell the disciples, then returning to the tomb at which time she saw Jesus. Yet when she spoke to the disciples and even when speaking to Jesus (before realizing to whom she was speaking) she insisted that someone had taken the body, not that he had been resurrected. If there is a prejudice, it would seem prejudicial to discount this clear and explicit text of someone who did not believe based upon the empty tomb alone in favor of a less explicit text which may or may not be referring to belief in a resurrection.

            As for your second point, yes, Christians believe in both the resurrection and the ascension. And yes, you are correct that the apologetic evidence is not as numerous for the ascension as it is for the resurrection. You are also correct that neither a resurrection nor an ascension is something that we are accustomed to seeing in our daily lives. However, given the evidence for the resurrection, is belief in the ascension “reasonable?”
            You cannot evaluate the ascension in a vacuum. You say the ascension too is a miracle such that Christians have “a piling on of miracles.” But in reality, rather than a pile, a better analogy would be building blocks. Once you establish the historicity of one event, it acts as a block upon which you stand to make belief in the other event more plausible. Without initially establishing the first, the second may seem unlikely. But once the first is established, the second becomes far more probable.
            You argue as if the only “given” when evaluating the ascension is that it would be considered a miracle. But if we have first evaluated the evidence for the resurrection and concluded that it was a historical event, we then have another “given.” Given that this same Jesus did in fact die and come back to life, given that the same people who reported this resurrection are also reporting the ascension, is it reasonable to believe the ascension occurred as well? Yes, I think it is reasonable. It certainly is possible once we acknowledge the resurrection as historical. We are not opening the door to believing any old miracle because, after all, we are speaking of a miracle being performed by the same person who we already concluded performed a far more amazing miracle. This second event is being reported to us by the same eyewitnesses to the earlier more amazing miracle. We are not concluding that ANYONE can perform a miracle. We are only concluding that JESUS can perform a miracle, and even then we are only likely to believe a report from an eyewitness that has already proven to be reliable.
            The ascension also has explanatory power. In other words, GIVEN that the resurrection occurred (because we are only evaluating the ascension AFTER we have already arrived at that conclusion), why is it that nobody saw him after 40 days had passed from his resurrection? The ascension explains that fact in a manner that is entirely plausible, again, given the resurrection.

            That being said, the ascension is also not as critical to Christian belief as is the resurrection. If the resurrection did not occur, Christianity as a worldview is false. If the ascension did not occur, perhaps Christianity as a worldview could still survive. In other words, it is the resurrection, not the ascension, that forms the cornerstone of Christian belief, so it is not surprising that the resurrection would receive more attention (and therefore provide us with more evidence to evaluate it) than the ascension.

            • thom waters

              Ken,
              Thanks for your responses. I appreciate the time and erudition that you bring to the discussion. Two things:
              1–I suspected that your position regarding Mary Magdalene as the first to witness the Empty Tomb might find its formulation from John’s Gospel. There are several things to note, however, regarding this account that makes it read somewhat strange, if not down right suspicious, and in some ways making the entire chapter 20 read like bad fiction.
              Using the account, Mary sees only that the stone has been rolled away. She makes no entry into the tomb. However, from the observation that the stone has been rolled away, she jumps to the assumption that the tomb must be empty and that it is empty because someone has taken the body. No empirical evidence to support this assumption. She then proclaims that “they” have taken him and it is not known where “they” have laid him. Multiple people have now taken the body that she simply suspects is not in the tomb. No mention here, of course, of any guards that would have prevented such a thing. She certainly is giving credence at this point to the theory that it would have been possible for someone to take the body with little trouble. At this point it must be pointed out that the belief expressed by the disciple in John 20:8 might well just be the belief that the tomb was empty, not that the body had been stolen, because there is no evidence of that, although it is what she had told them. It does become credible, however, that the stolen body theory is plausible based on Mary’s own testimony. Later on in the chapter she encounters the risen Jesus, not knowing it to be him, and asks for the whereabouts of the body that she, by herself, might take him back. In verse 13 she reiterates the notion that “they” have taken the body, however, she wants to know of the body’s whereabouts that she might take the body back. The entrie chapter is beginning to sound like a poorly written story in Freshman English.
              If your contention is that this Mary is the first one to witness the Empty Tomb, we don’t even know that the tomb was, indeed, empty at the time she gets to the tomb and observes the stone to be rolled away.
              Anyway, just a few observations.
              2–Whenever we are trying to defend a position we make allowances for things which create or might create problems for our position. I think we are all victims of this. Whether you call it a piling on of miracles or a building block of miracles, we still have a “miracle” (the Ascension) for which there is virtually no evidence of any kind other than a few “believers” who are claiming this to be the case. To refer to this as “reasonable” is to take the position of an apologist for whom this story “must” be true. You get to the “reasonable” nature of this explanation by assuming the reliability of the witnesses who have reported the Resurrection. And why is their testimony on the Resurrection so reliable? One of the significant problems confronting the Resurrection testimony or the appearance testimony is that we find only a very small handful of actual witnesses for it. What we actually have are stories about appearances to people both individuals and groups, but nothing in the way of actual testimony from most of these people. We have nothing from Andrew, Nathaniel, Judas Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, and so forth. Nothing from most of the disciples with regard to what they were claiming. We know that Peter, the leader, was claiming certain things about what he had seen or was claiming to see both with regard to appearances and the Ascension, but from most we have nothing. They appear to be there, and, at the very least, going along with the story. But to what are they giving testimony? Whatever, your position is regarding the story of Resurrection and Ascension, someone has to get the ball rolling. And, as is the case with most beliefs, one person is usually enough to foster a group of followers to the story or belief.
              I think it methodologically inconsistent to approach the Resurrection in one way and the Ascension in another. Whatever your approach to miracles or miracle claims you should remain consistent. Otherwise a defense appears to be nothing more than an attempt to hang onto the story as we find it. Especially is this so when it becomes or appears to be a matter of convenience.
              Is it reasonable to accept and believe the Resurrection and Ascension based on historical considerations? I believe it might be. Is it equally as reasonable to disbelieve based on historical considerations? I believe that also to be the case.