Chapter two of The Resurrection of the Son of God is ominously entitled Shadows, Souls and Where They Go: Life Beyond Death in Ancient Paganism.
As the title makes clear, this chapter is reserved for discussion about what ancient pagans (non-Jews) believed about life after death.
Readers who are unfamiliar with ancient Greek texts are liable to be crushed under the weight of the primary source information and exegesis that Wright trots out on this chapter.
I am one such reader, and so maintaining focus on the larger point that Wright makes in this chapter was something I was eager to do. However, in order to capture the larger point of the entire book, I realized that I must be captured by the more subtle, immediate point that Wright makes in the present chapter.
1) The Subtle Point
a) Life after death, yes; resurrection, not at all
In the introduction to this chapter Wright writes, “Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent: outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection.” 1
b) The evidence
In Homer’s Iliad for example, there most definitely is life after death, but it is a life in which the dead are shades, ghosts and phantoms in a shadowy underworld called Hades. 2 They dead exist as a shell of their former self with their physicality being only apparent.
However, the life after death found in Homer is nothing at all akin to resurrection. Resurrection language was not a way of talking about one’s existence after death. Rather, resurrection was the exact opposite of this; it is the reversal of death.
And thus, ‘resurrection’ as the reversal of death, meant, not simply life after death, but reembodied life after death.
Wright then goes on to Plato for whom bodily resurrection was neither “desirable nor possible.” 3 Death meant the separation of soul and body with no hint of physicality.
The idea of apotheosis, or divinization, is then taken up. Here again, we do not get a whiff of resurrection, but rather exaltation in which the divinization of the exalted individual is usually evidenced by a comet or star or something of this manner. Life after death? Yes. Exaltation? Sure. Resurrection? No.
There is a vast amount of additional beliefs covered such as reincarnation and transmigration of souls (among others). But though ancient pagan beliefs may be varied and nuanced, there is no idea which parallels the Jewish notion of bodily resurrection after death.
2) The Larger Point
As I said above, one must appreciate the subtle point of this chapter in order to fully appreciate the larger point of later chapters, and indeed the entire book. And now, having appreciated that subtle point, I think I can articulate the larger point:
First, inasmuch as the concept of ‘resurrection’ was a foreign one in ancient paganism, it must be said that the resurrection of Jesus was not a synergistic effort on behalf of the early Christians. In fact, it was just the opposite. Saying that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was to say that something happened with Jesus that has not happened to any one else.
The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection was not simply to say that Jesus was exalted. Yes, the theme of exaltation is there, but unlike other heroes who had been exalted or divinized like Hercules, Jesus’ exaltation had an additional facet – one which had to do with his body.
Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was a proclamation which pierced through myth and poured into reality because after his crucifixion Jesus was not said to be now as a star, comet or eagle, but rather, he was said to be alive.