Earlier this week, Christians all around the world celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It’s natural, upon hearing the resurrection story, to ask: Did that really happen? Here, author and apologist Lee Strobel responds to a common question about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.
Q. Was the resurrection of Jesus a story taken from mythology?
A. I asked historian Michael Licona, who earned his doctorate at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, a similar question when I was researching my book The Case for the Real Jesus. Currently an associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University, Licona has authored The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach and co-authored (with Gary Habermas) The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. His website is www.risenjesus.com.
“Why,” I asked Licona, “should the story of Jesus’ resurrection have any more credibility than pagan stories of dying and rising gods — such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Marduk — that are so obviously mythological?”
Licona is well-versed on this controversy. “First of all, it’s important to understand that these claims don’t in any way negate the good historical evidence we have for Jesus’ resurrection,” he pointed out. “You can’t dismiss the resurrection unless you can refute its solid core of supporting evidence.” I agreed that was an important caveat to keep in mind — and one which “copycat” theorists typically forget.
“Second, T.N.D. Mettinger — a senior Swedish scholar, professor at Lund University and member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities of Stockholm — wrote one of the most recent academic treatments of dying and rising gods in antiquity. He admits in his book, The Riddle of Resurrection, that the consensus among modern scholars — nearly universal — is that there were no dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity. They all post-dated the first century.”
Obviously, that timing is crucial: Christianity couldn’t have borrowed the idea of the resurrection if myths about dying and rising gods weren’t even circulating when Christianity was birthed in the first century AD.
“Then Mettinger said he was going to take exception to that nearly universal scholarly conviction,” Licona continued. “He takes a decidedly minority position and claims that there are at least three and possibly as many as five dying and rising gods that predate Christianity. But the key question is this: Are there any actual parallels between these myths and Jesus’ resurrection?”
“What did Mettinger conclude?” I asked.
“In the end, after combing through all of these accounts and critically analyzing them, Mettinger adds that none of these serve as parallels to Jesus. None of them,” Licona emphasized.
“They are far different from the reports of Jesus rising from the dead. They occurred in the unspecified and distant past and were usually related to the seasonal life-and-death cycle of vegetation. In contrast, Jesus’ resurrection isn’t repeated, isn’t related to changes in the seasons, and was sincerely believed to be an actual event by those who lived in the same generation of the historical Jesus. In addition, Mettinger concludes that ‘there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods as vicarious suffering for sins.’”
I later obtained Mettinger’s book to double-check Licona’s account of his research. Sure enough, Mettinger caps his study with this statement: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.”
In short, this leading scholar’s analysis is a sharp rebuke to popular-level authors and Internet bloggers who make grand claims about the pagan origins of Jesus’ return from the dead. Ultimately, Mettinger affirmed, “the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions.” Unique—as in one of a kind.