Of History, Resurrection, and the Number Three


Posted by Isaac | Posted in Religion and Philosophy | Posted on 07-08-2008

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An image of what someone from the time and place of Christ may have looked like...One of the cornerstones of almost every Christian denomination is the resurrection of body or spirit.  This is almost always based in resurrection of Jesus Christ after three days.  This story is particular powerful because it is a demonstration of God’s power over death and is a complete, amazing, and satisfying answer to question of mortality–one of the most powerful questions which draw people to religion.

I have to admit that I am not a master in the theory or theology of the resurrection, so I write this post with a little trepidation and the disclaimer to do your own research if this gets you thinking.

This post is inspired by the recent discovery of a tablet which talks about the resurrection of a messiah after three days which has, I am to understand, been reasonably dated to before the time of the birth of Christ.  This tablet has apparently created an amazing about of debate and sparked some pretty hefty arguments.

What’s the big deal you might ask?  Much to my surprise, there are Christian apologists who apparently have an argument which suggests that one of the things which makes the resurrection of Christ story so compelling is that there are no other stories about a three day resurrection–that is to say, it is unique.  In scholarship, this is an extremely important point and, even though I was unaware people were making this argument, it is a very good argument to make–if there is no tradition to build on, why three days?  This seems like a rather strange thing for someone to make up, so it makes a lot of academic sense (with the appropriate level of pontification and long-winded arguments) that it likely had to happen.

Except that I do not think it is true.  I think there are a lot of examples in prior traditions.  It is no secret that the resurrection story itself is not unique.  The most obvious–and hotly contested–which comes to mind is Mithra.  I am not going to go into all of the (supposed) parallels of Mithra and Christ, but one of the important ones is that Mithra died and resurrected.  Some even claim that he rose three days later, but I do not have any support for this (anyone?).  I do also feel obliged to say that I think these two figures/traditions are so intermingled, it may be hard to ever understand how each influenced the other.

Anyways, the point at hand is that the resurrection story is not unique.  Mythical heroes have been getting resurrected in some way since there were myths to be told.  But what about the three days?  This is just not true.  There are resurrection stories in Egyptian mythology and the most prominent to the point is the story of Horus, who died and was resurrected three days later.  Another story is that of Attis, a story from Greek mythology, who was raised to life three days after being driven mad by a goddess who loved him and killing himself.  I am not making the broad comparison with these stories that others would–I am not saying that they are Christ-like stories or that Christianity stole them.  What I am doing, however, is pointing out that there is already evidence for other three-day resurrection stories.

A point I am even less knowledgeable in, but think should at least be brought up, is the potential significance of the number three.  In my limited knowledge, I have heard the number three used to suggest small numbers or a short time.  Keep in mind that in antiquity numbers were not always used as definite in story and myth.  For example, it has been suggested that the number of 144,000 people who will be saved was not meant to be taken literally, but it is such a big number that it is supposed to represent infinity.  That and something about the importance of twelve.  So the theory is that three days is not a literal three days, but simply “a short time.”  But, again, this is not really an area I know much about, however I wanted to bring it up because it might be relevant, but I admit it is pure conjecture on my part.

I guess I am rather dismayed over the hoopla around this tablet.  I think it is a very neat discovery and the more things we find like this, the better we can understand the people of that time–so it is not the discovery or the tablet itsel which I am bothered by, but it is the big deal around the three day resurrection of Christ being unique.  Sure, it makes a great academic argument, but I think it is simply a wrong argument.  The tablet is interesting and unique in that it potentially demonstrates the idea of a three day resurrection in Jewish thinking at the time (do not forget that apocalyptic stories were a dime a dozen back then and the coming of the Messiah was highly anticipated, especially under the heavy persecution over hundreds of years–for example, some thought the Persian king Cryus was the Messiah because he ended the Babylonian Diaspora), but I do not think this discovery changes anything–unless, of course, one has put faith only in the story of three day resurrection being historically unique.

Comments (5)

You can also add the myth of Dionysus and Asclepius to your list of half mortal, half divine beings who are known for healing, dying, resurrecting and then promising personal salvation to their followers after death. I don’t recall Mithras associated with three days, but he was born on December 25th and his birth was witnessed by shepherds.

Among many others, too, I am sure, but those are good ones. I was trying to avoid the total comparison of the Christ story because I wanted to focus just on the three day resurrection, but it’s a good point. I wonder if there are any good books on that…

I see what you are saying about the three days thing. I would add that the three day thing, while early, was not set in stone. A close look at John’s Gospel shows that he didn’t follow the synoptics chronology. I can’t think of Hebrew parallels for the number three off the top of my head, but I would not be surprised to find it in the pseudepigraphic works. I did forget Orpheus as another resurrecting mortal who brings immortality to his followers.

Good comparative books are Howard Kee’s The New Testament in Context and R. Fox’s Pagans and Christians.

I find this discovery interesting, too, partly because it supports the idea that much of the material unique to Matthew came from contemporary Jewish sources (rabinnical, popular stories, etc.). It’s been a while, but if I remember right, this pool includes the Mosaic parallels in Jesus’ birth narrative and allusions to prophecies not found in the Hebrew Bible. While there are parallels to the sign of Jonah in Luke, only Matthew specifically mentions the whole “Son of man will be three days, etc., in the earth.”


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