Understanding “If Anyone Says to This Mountain…” (Mark 11:20-25) in Its Religio-Historical Context by Kirk R. MacGregor

Originally published in the Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics 2.1 (2009): 23-39.

To obtain the definitive version see http://www.isca-apologetics.org.

Used by permission of the author.  Posted here in its entirety. Edited for format only.

Mark 11:20-25 stands among those texts most misunderstood by Christians in general and most exploited by New Religious Movements in particular, perhaps most notoriously by the Word-Faith Movement. The passage is best known for its promise that “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him” (v. 23). Traditionally most Christians have taken this text to mean that if they ask for something in prayer and harbor no doubts, then God will necessarily grant their request. Not only does such a reading contravene divine freedom, but it also inverts the divine-human relationship by turning God into the servant of humanity rather than the sovereign over humanity. However, presupposing the truth of this misreading, the Faith Movement proceeds to retranslate echete pistin theou as “have the faith of God” or “have the God-kind of faith” and places a quasi-magical emphasis upon the function of speech.

Consequently, Faith leaders both historically and presently find warrant in this text for the metaphysical concept that words constitute unstoppable containers for the force of faith, enabling all who infuse their words with the God-kind of faith to “write their own ticket with God” and so have whatever they say. As Gloria Copeland explained the passage quite recently on the nationally televised Believer’s Voice of Victory:

“I can’t think of anything that changed my life more after I was born again and filled with the Spirit than learning how to release faith, because this is the way you get anything – healing, money, the salvation of your children, the salvation of your husband or your wife – anything you’re believing for, it takes faith . . . to cause heaven to go into action. . . . It says in Mark 11 . . . remember, now, the message was you can have what you say. You can have what you say. . . . Here’s the Scripture. . . . For verily I say unto you, that whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed and be thou cast into the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass, he shall have whatsoever he saith. I say – look at that, say, say, saith, saith, say I say unto you, what things soever you desire when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them. Man!”1

Appropriately, much attention has been paid by Christian scholars to showing that the text cannot substantiate its Faith exegesis. The standard response correctly points out that echete pistin theou is not a subjective genitive but an objective genitive, thereby depicting God as the object of faith and necessitating the translation “have faith in God.” Less frequent but equally incisive is the observation that even if echete pistin theou were a subjective genitive, the lack of a definite article before pistin would connote “faithfulness” not “faith,” thus precluding the translation “have the faith of God” and instead exhorting believers to “have God’s faithfulness.” While this negative task of showing what the text does not mean has proven successful, the positive task of explaining what precisely the text does mean should be judged insufficient at best. For the prevailing scholarly interpretation largely concurs with the prima facie reading of lay Christians but simply qualifies the alleged promise of receiving whatever one prays for by God’s will, often via the proviso in 1 John 5:14-15 that “if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us . . . and we have what we have asked of him.”

This interpretation is plagued by problems along three lines: pastoral, procedural, and hermeneutical. While the first two lines are comparatively minor and require only brief rejoinders, the hermeneutical issues are critical and will occupy the bulk of this study. Pastorally, this interpretation has led some Christians to doubt the truth of God’s Word when requests ostensibly consistent with the divine will fail to materialize. Procedurally, the prevailing view confuses the task of the systematic theologian (allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture in order to deduce valid doctrine) with the task of the exegete (grammatico-historically determining the meaning of the particular text intended by the original author and understood by the original recipients). It goes without saying that at the respective times when the pertinent statement was made and was recorded, Jesus and Mark could not have expected their audiences to draw upon an insight from an epistle not yet composed. But even more, given the Markan context and Johannine independence from the Synoptic tradition, it is far from obvious that Mark 11:20-25 and 1 John 5:14-15 are indeed discussing the same topic. Nor, it should be noted, is there any statement comparable to 1 John 5:14-15 from the Hebrew Bible that would have functioned as a limiter in the minds of the original hearers.

Hermeneutically, the prevailing reading grants the crucial presupposition of the identified misinterpreters that “this mountain” is a figurative expression for any obstacle because it fails to take into account both Jesus’ first-century Jewish religio-historical context and the function of the pericope in the larger literary framework here utilized by Mark. This hermeneutical flaw, I will argue, is fatal and can only be positively remedied by a contextually grounded interpretation based upon precisely those historical and literary factors which the misreading overlooks. Turning to the historical Jesus research of N. T. Wright and the monograph on this passage by William R. Telford, it is precisely such an interpretation that this study endeavors to provide. In addition to exegetical accuracy, this interpretation will garnish the added pastoral benefits of upholding Scriptural reliability and the added procedural benefits of enhancing our apologetic against the pericope’s abuses.

A Grammatical and Structural Analysis

Our investigation shall appropriately begin with a careful examination of the pericope’s grammar and its larger function in Mark’s Gospel. We note at the outset that Jesus does not say “if anyone says to a mountain” but “whoever says to this mountain (tō orei toutō),” literally “to the mountain – this one,” where Mark uses both the definite article tō and the demonstrative pronoun toutō. Since either of these alone plus orei would indicate a specific mountain, Mark’s striking combination of the definite article with the demonstrative pronoun serves to intensify the identification and so permits no doubt that one particular mountain is in view. While some commentators have, as a result, associated the mountain with the Mount of Olives, this identification depends upon the dubious assumption that Mark has redistricted the saying from a pre-Markan Olivet Discourse tradition to its present location. This hypothesis will not stand because, as E. J. Pryke has meticulously demonstrated, the characteristically Markan grammatical and syntactical features of both chapters 11 and 13 indicate that neither derives from a pre-Markan Urtext.2  So what mountain are Jesus and Mark designating? In his cataloging of the Synoptic sayings of Jesus containing the term “mountain” (oros), N. T. Wright observes, “Though the existence of more than one saying in this group suggests that Jesus used to say this sort of thing quite frequently, ‘this mountain,’ spoken in Jerusalem, would naturally refer to the Temple mount.”3 Telford concurs, noting that in Jesus’ day theTemple“was known to the Jewish people as ‘the mountain of the house’ or ‘this mountain.’”4 This high initial probability for a Temple referent is reinforced by the fact that Mark 11:20-25 concludes an intercalation or ABA “sandwich-like” structure where A begins, is interrupted by B, and then finishes. Such a stylistic device renders the frame A sections (the two “slices of bread”) and the center B section (the “meat”) as mutually interactive, portraying A and B as indispensable for the interpretation of one another.5 The intercalation focuses on Jesus’ controversial Temple actions precipitating his crucifixion and runs as follows:

A begins: On the next day, after they had set out from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Having seen a fig tree in leaf from a distance, he came to see whether he might find something on it. But when he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples were listening (Mk. 11:12-14).

B begins and ends: Then they came to Jerusalem, and having entered theTemple, Jesus began to drive out the ones selling and the ones buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He was not allowing anyone to carry things through the Temple, but he was teaching and saying to them, “Has it not been written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you yourselves have made it a den of robbers.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and they were seeking how they might destroy him; for they were afraid of him, as all the crowd were amazed at his teaching. And when it became late, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city (Mk. 11:15-19).

A ends: And passing by early in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which you cursed has been withered.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, if anyone says to the mountain – this one – ‘Be lifted up and be thrown into the sea,’ and does not waver in his heart but believes that what he says is happening, it will be so for him. For this reason I say to you, everything which you pray and plead for, believe that you received it, and it will be so for you. And when you stand praying, forgive if you have something against someone, in order that your Father in the heavens may also forgive you your transgressions” (Mk. 11:20-25).6

This literary device inextricably links the Temple with Jesus’ mountain saying, as Wright declares: “Someone speaking of ‘this mountain’ being cast into the sea, in the context of a dramatic action of judgment in the Temple, would inevitably be heard to refer to Mount Zion.”7 Hence the intercalation verifies that “this mountain” indeed refers to the Temple mount. According to Telford, such usage harmonizes well with the meaning of the phrase “uprooter of mountains” in Rabbinic literature, where the phrase connoted either “a Rabbi with an exceptional dialectic skill . . . [who] was able to resolve by his wits and ingenuity extremely difficult hermeneutical problems within the Law” or someone who destroys the Temple.8 An example of the latter is found in the Babylonian Talmud, in which Baba ben Buta advises Herod the Great to pull down the Temple and rebuild it. When Herod asks Baba ben Buta if such an action is licit in light of the halakhah that a synagogue should not be pulled down before another is built to take its place, Baba ben Buta replies: “If you like I can say that the rule does not apply to Royalty, since a king does not go back on his word. For so said Samuel: If Royalty says, I will uproot mountains, it will uproot them and not go back on its word.”9 Hence Herod can pull down the Temple mount immune from any charge of illegal procedure. Since the context of the Jesuanic statement is clearly not exegetical, Telford maintains that consistency with expected connotation demands that Mark 11:20-25 is a Temple statement: “The double entendre . . . in B.B.B.3b . . . is a suggestive parallel to our Markan passage, for there too Mark has employed the mountain-moving image in its capacity to suggest in its context the removal of the Temple mount.”10

But what type of statement is directed at Mount Zion? In his magisterial commentary on Mark, Robert H. Gundry points out that this statement represents a curse analogous in meaning to Jesus’ curse on the fig tree: “[B]eing lifted up and thrown into the sea makes the mountain-moving a destructive act. Its destructiveness makes the speaking to the mountain a curse, as much a curse as Jesus’ speaking to the fig tree that no one should ever again eat fruit from it.”11 However, the passive verbs arthētai (be lifted up) and blēthētai (be thrown) indicate that the denouncer lacks the power to personally carry out the curse but is invoking someone else to execute it. As Gundry reveals, this fact explains Jesus’ faith directive: “Because of the command to have faith in God, the passive voice in ‘be lifted up and be thrown into the sea’ means, ‘May God lift you up and throw you into the sea’ . . . The element of faith comes into this mountain-cursing because in themselves the disciples . . . lack the power to speak a mountain into the sea.”12

We already see a major dissimilarity between the Word-Faith reading and the true significance of this pericope: its central promise has nothing to do with blessings for the speaker but instead pertains to curses proclaimed against external things.

A Historical and Canonical Analysis

In order to understand the passage in its historical context, we must now inquire as to the nature of Jesus’ actions in the Temple. Although understood by previous generations of commentators as simply a cleansing, a virtual consensus has surfaced among Third Quest historical Jesus researchers across the liberal-conservative theological spectrum that, regardless of whether or not cleansing comprised part of Jesus’ agenda, the major thrust of Jesus’ action was to enact a symbolic destruction of the Temple.13  In the summation of Craig A. Evans, “[A]t the time of his action in the temple Jesus spoke of the temple’s destruction . . . not simply . . . calling for modification of the sacrificial pragmata or, having failed to bring about such modification, for sacrifice outside of the auspices of the temple priesthood.”14  Foremost among the evidence supporting this conclusion is Jesus’ intentional evocation and deliberate performance of Jeremiah 7-8, a trenchant condemnation of corruption within Jewish society and unmistakable warning that the Temple must be destroyed as a result:

“Thus says Yahweh Almighty, the God of Israel . . . do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the Temple of Yahweh, the Temple of Yahweh, the Temple of Yahweh’ . . . But here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe’ – safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? But I have been watching, declares Yahweh. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. . . . Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that is called by my name, theTempleyou trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I thrust all of your brethren, the people of Ephraim. So you, neither pray on behalf of this people nor offer plea or petition on their behalf . . . for . . . my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place . . . it will burn and not be quenched. . . . But are the people ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all . . . at the time when I punish, they shall be overthrown, says Yahweh. When I wanted to gather them, says Yahweh, there are no grapes on the vine; there are no figs on the fig tree, and their leaves are withered (7:3-4, 8-12, 14-16, 20; 8:12-13).”

Jeremiah’s coincidence of theTemplecondemnation with the portrayal of its worshipers as a fruitless fig tree overtly furnishes the meaning of Jesus seeking fruit on the barren fig tree, subsequently cursing it, and finally cursing “this mountain.” As Wright elucidates,

“The cursing of the fig tree is part of his sorrowful Jeremianic demonstration that Israel, and theTemple, are under judgment. The word about the mountain being cast into the sea also belongs exactly here. . . . It is a very specific word of judgment: the Temple mountain is, figuratively speaking, to be taken up and cast into the sea.”15

Viewing Jesus’ actions against this prophetic backdrop, three features emerge as prominent:

(1) Jesus militates against theTemplenot as the place where robbery occurs but as the den of robbers, namely, the robbers’ lair where they return for safe haven after committing acts of robbery in the outside world. Moreover, both Mark’s Greek word for “robbers” (lēstēs) and its Hebrew cognate parisim from Jeremiah refer not to “swindlers” but to “brigands” or “bandits” in the sense of “revolutionaries.”16 Barabbas, the leader of a murderous uprising in Jerusalem, was a lēstēs, as were the two crucified alongside Jesus and scores of “holy rebels” described by Josephus.17 Thus, economic impropriety is not in view here; in fact, no evidence exists from late antique Judaism of such exploitation transpiring in the Temple.18  For the Temple required pure animals and birds for sacrifice, which were most safely purchased at a place near the sacrifice and where the priests could guarantee their suitability.

Moreover, the money changers were indispensable for turning all the many currencies offered into the single official coinage. Hence the text supplies no hint that anyone was committing financial or sacrificial misconduct.19 Rather, as in the sixth century B.C. against the Babylonians, the Temple had become the talisman of nationalist violence housing those religio-political leaders who propagated a violent messianic scenario as the solution to the Roman problem. Since the Romans had made the Jewish people slaves in their own homeland and progressively enacted sanctions robbing them of their religious liberties bit by bit, the Sanhedrin, or “Men of the Great Assembly,” popularized an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible concept of mashiach, or messiah, along the lines of previous national deliverers. Like Moses, this messiah would be a compelling religious leader, but even greater than Moses, he would successfully enforce Torah upon all who dwelt in Palestine. Like Cyrus, he would be king of an empire who conquered his enemies with the sword, but surpassing Cyrus’ governance of a pagan empire, the Messiah would, after violently ridding the Holy Land of all Roman and other pagan influences, turn Israel into the superpower of the Ancient Near East, restore Israel’s borders to at least their original expanse following Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan (if not militarily extending these boundaries), and employ the new Israelite empire’s political influence to spread Israelite justice and the Jewish way of life throughout the Mediterranean world.20

Such a messianic “job description” stood in diametric opposition to the type of Messiah Jesus claimed to be. By embracing the Sanhedrin’s violent messianic aspirations, Jesus proposed that the Jewish people found themselves in a far deeper slavery than simply to Rome: they had voluntarily become slaves to the Kingdom of the World, the philosophical system of domination and oppression ruled by Satan according to which the world operates.21  In Jesus’ assessment, the Sanhedrin, backed by popular opinion, were chillingly attempting to become the people of God by capitulating to the worldly kingdom, aiming to employ political zeal and military wrath to usher in God’s great and final redemption and perpetuate it throughout the globe. But Jesus saw that any attempt to win the victory of God through the devices of Satan is to lose the battle.22  For by trying to beat Rome at its own game, the Jewish religious aristocracy had unwittingly become “slaves” and even “sons” of the devil, “a murderer from the beginning,” whose violent tendencies they longed to accomplish (Jn. 8:34-44) and who were blindly leading the people of Israel to certain destruction (Mt. 15:14; 23:15; Lk. 6:39). Hence the Sanhedrin comprised the “robbers” fomenting revolution in the synagogues, streets, and rabbinic schools who holed themselves up in the Temple. By uncritically accepting their program, Jesus contended that Israel had abandoned its original vocation to be the light of the world which would reach out with open arms to foreign nations and actively display to them God’s love.23

(2) In the underlying prophetic text, Jeremiah chastised the Temple for the inextricable combination of social injustice and idolatry committed by its worshipers. So what comparable idolatry linked with Israel’s false messianic hopes led Jesus to stage his Temple demonstration? Jesus held that implicit idolatry proved far more damning than explicit idolatry, since the second is just as easily avoidable as the first is alluring with its subtlety and façade of godliness. After all, from the darkened perspective of the world, what could make more sense than a politically conquering and dominating Messiah? It would be far easier for a professed monotheist to steer clear of falling down to worship idols than it would be to steer clear of the even more unholy  with the World’s “might makes right” methods of oppression, abuse, and discrimination in hopes of effecting God’s victory over the World.24

(3) We call attention to Jesus’ distinctive phrase “pray and plead for” (proseuchesthe kai aiteisthe) in the promise “everything which you pray and plead for, believe that you received it, and it will be so for you.” While proseuchomai and aiteō are common Koinē Greek verbs found regularly throughout the New Testament, their conjunction is hapax legomena and so cries out for an explanation. Stumbling at the clause, most translators have paraphrased proseuchesthe kai aiteisthe as “ask for in prayer,” despite its lack of grammatical warrant and the fact that either proseuchesthe or aiteisthe alone would carry the proposed meaning, thereby doing nothing to explain the conjunction.25 Hence this paraphrase should be rejected as lacking both plausibility and explanatory power. But once Jesus’ intentional evocation of Jeremiah 7-8 is disclosed, then the meaning of proseuchesthe kai aiteisthe comes into sharp focus. It immediately becomes apparent that Jesus is here employing metalepsis, or allusion “to an earlier text in a way that evokes resonances of the earlier text beyond those explicitly cited,”26 with God’s command to Jeremiah, “So you, neither pray (titepalēl) on behalf of this people nor offer plea or petition (tiśā’ . . . rināh ûtepilāh) on their behalf” (7:16). For the second-person Hebrew verb titepalēl and the second-person Greek proseuchesthe are exact cognates meaning “to pray,” and the Hebrew clause tiśā’ . . . rināh ûtepilāh (to offer plea or petition) is the virtual definition of aiteō, namely, “to ask for with urgency, even to the point of demanding – ‘to ask for, to demand, to plead for.’”27 Putting himself in God’s place, moreover, Jesus commands his disciples to act in consequence of his pronounced judgment (“For this reason I say to you . . .”) in the same way that God commanded Jeremiah to act in consequence of his pronounced judgment (“So you . . .”).

Thus we have established that Jesus is recalling Jeremiah 7:16 in such a way that he isexpecting his hearers to take the next logical step. But if the Temple administration in the first century A.D. is functionally equivalent to its corrupt sixth-century B.C. predecessor, and if God ordered the faithful not to pray or plead in behalf of the predecessor, then in what sense can Jesus exhort the faithful to pray and plead concerning the existing administration? Well, if the faithful cannot pray and plead for the Temple regime, it follows logically that they can only pray and plead against the Temple regime if they are to offer petitions concerning it at all. Just as Jeremiah responded to God’s exhortation not to intercede for the religio-political system of his day by declaring God’s destructive verdict against it, so in its context “to pray and plead for” means “under God’s Kingdom authorization, to pronounce a divine judgment of destruction upon.” Again we emphasize that if Jesus had intended for this to be a general word about prayer or how to pray for blessings, he would have used either proseuchesthe or aitesthe, not both; their unparalleled joint usage strongly indicates that a radically different theme is in play, an inference certified by Jesus’ undisputed outworking of Jeremiah 7-8. Moreover, such fits perfectly with Jesus’ “mountain-uprooting” exhortation to invoke God’s judgment upon the Temple: the fate befalling theTemple will also befall all other systems of religiously legitimated sin. For these historical and intertextual reasons, the phrase “everything which you pray and plead for” means “every unjust system operating in the name of religion which you, as God’s ambassadors, proclaim divine judgment upon” and cannot plausibly be interpreted as “everything you ask for in prayer,” thus precluding the fallacious inference that we will receive whatever we ask with sufficient faith.

Positive Hermeneutical Solution: Piecing Together What the Text Actually Means

Armed with the necessary background, we are now in a position to spell out precisely what Jesus meant in Mark 11:20-25 by his carefully crafted synthesis of word and deed as well as the passage’s contemporary significance. Following his symbolic destruction of the Temple and Peter’s observation that the fig tree he “had cursed” (katērasō) had withered, Jesus was poised to explain his acted parable to his disciples. When faced with exploitative systems claiming religious support that oppress and persecute God’s people and deceive those whom God desires to save, his followers must have faith in their all-just and all-powerful God to vindicate them by overthrowing these systems.28 God’s justice, as corroborated by Jesus’ actions, ensures a divine verdict of condemnation against these systems, and God’s power guarantees that the verdict will be fully executed at the Day of Yahweh if not before. Knowing the mind and power of God on this score, Jesus therefore gives his followers the right to pronounce a sentence of divine judgment against both the Temple (the mountain – this one) and all other prima facie religious but de facto worldly institutions (everything which you pray and plead for). Further, notice Jesus’ indication that the judgment is currently taking place (what he says is happening; ginetai, present tense) and actually has already happened (you received it; elabete, aorist tense).

Here an illustration from modern jurisprudence is instructive. When a judge pronounces an irrevocable sentence, such as life without the possibility of parole, by the authority of the legal system, we consider the sentence as accomplished as soon as it is spoken due to its inevitability, even though the sentence is not immediately carried out in its entirety. Similarly, as representatives of God, our verdict is currently being carried out and has in fact already been accomplished, since we are merely proclaiming an inevitable sentence previously reached in the divine court. Thus we find another example of the “now but not yet” motif that runs throughout the fabric of Jesus’ Kingdom proclamation and the rest of the New Testament. While Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God with his first coming, it arrived only in part but in such a way as to guarantee its later coming in full; the final victory over evil has been won but not yet implemented. So we who live between Jesus’ first and second comings experience our triumph over the worldly kingdom as here in principle, which will be completely actualized when Jesus gloriously returns.

However, Jesus makes three important caveats regarding his followers’ vindication. All three concern essential attributes or, in Pauline terms, “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22) that one evinces if one belongs to the Kingdom of God. First, the speaker will be vindicated against the pertinent evil if “he does not waver in his heart,” namely, if the speaker makes no attempt to have one foot in the Kingdom of God, so to speak, while having the other foot in the Kingdom of the World, of which the evil is a part. In that case, the speaker is a hypocrite guilty of the very crime he is denouncing and thus will certainly not be among the company of the redeemed.29 Second, the speaker will be vindicated if he “believes what he says is happening” and that “he received it,” which would naturally occur given the speaker’s faith in an all-just and all-powerful God. However, if the speaker has faith in a different kind of god or no god at all, then such confidence will obviously not materialize, showing the speaker’s separation from the true God. The third caveat, in addition to its admonitory function, simultaneously prohibits a possible misunderstanding of the Jeremiah subtext. A close reading of Jeremiah 7-8 reveals that God condemned the Temple leadership as a collectivity (hāām haōzeh, “this people” singular not ’anāsîm ha’ēl, “these persons” plural) – namely the institution or system they comprised – and not the concomitant individuals themselves; in fact, the subsequent chapters plead with those very individuals to repent and be saved. Hence Jesus’ disciples may only announce judgment against unjust religious institutions or systems and never the individuals who belong to them, as the latter act militates against the raison d’être of the Kingdom of God – being the forgiveness-of-sins of people. Rather, believers must always forgive tinos, or “any individual,” who has wronged them, even (and especially) as they denounce the worldly institutions which unsuspectingly enslave those forgiven persons. But condemning individuals to destruction is to cut off the branch of grace one is sitting on, thereby illustrating one’s own spiritually lost state. In short, each of the three caveats is a different way of expressing the same point: “Only if you really are part of God’s Kingdom will your announced vindication against the systems of evil be ultimately realized; otherwise, you’ll unwittingly be found within the worldly kingdom and so face condemnation yourself.”

In conclusion, far from promising that a person can possess whatever they pray for with sufficient faith, Mark 11:20-25 encourages believers to exhibit sufficient faith in God to stand up against religiously legitimated sin. Believers should expose such affairs resting secure in Jesus’ promise that, if they resist compromise while maintaining lives of forgiveness, they will be vindicated against the wickedness on the Day of Yahweh. Instead of a stumbling block that incites doubt in biblical authority following unanswered prayer, the message of this text is both plausible in light of and consistent with the broad canonical panorama once understood contextually.30 Examples of individuals who understood and embodied its message include the apostles before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:29-32), Stephen (Acts 7:46-53), and Paul (Rom. 9:31-33), who remarkably knew the relevant pericope as part of the oral Jesus traditions that would later be enscripturated.31 But, as we follow their example, we would do well to heed Paul’s poignant abstract of and admonition from this passage: “If I have all the faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).32


1 Gloria Copeland, Believer’s Voice of Victory, 10 May 2007, emphasis hers.

2 E. J. Pryke, Redactional Style in the Marcan Gospel: A Study of Syntax and Vocabulary as Guides to Redaction in Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 19-21, 145-46, 167-68, 170-71.

3 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Fortress: Minneapolis, 1996), 422.

4 William R. Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, JSNTSup 1 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1980), 119.

5 John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 62-63.

6 For the sake of analysis, I have directly translated all biblical passages in this article from the Greek (UBS 4th / Nestle-Aland 27th) and Hebrew (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) primary texts in a woodenly literal fashion.

7 Wright, Jesus, 334-35.

8 Telford, Barren Temple, 110, 115, 118.

9 Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 3b.

10 Telford, Barren Temple, 112.

11 Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids,Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 653.

12 Ibid.

13 For verification see John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 357; Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1984), 174, 384; E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1993), 257-69; Jacob Neusner, “Money-Changers in the Temple: The Mishnah’s Explanation,” New Testament Studies 35 (1989): 287-90; Ben F. Meyer, Christus Faber: The Master-Builder and the House of God (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1992), 262-64; Craig A. Evans, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989): 237-70; C. K. Barrett, “The House of Prayer and the Den of Thieves,” in Jesus und Paulus: Festschrift für Werner Georg Kümmel zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. E. Earle Ellis and E. Grässer (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1975), 13-20; Wright, Jesus, 413-28; Richard J. Bauckham, “Jesus’ Demonstration in the Temple,” in Law and Religion: Essays on the Place of the Law in Israel and Early Christianity, ed. B. Lindars (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1988), 72-89; Scot McKnight, “Who is Jesus? An Introduction to Jesus Studies,” in Jesus Under Fire, gen. eds. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 65; Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 137.

14 Craig A. Evans, “Jesus and the ‘CaveofRobbers’: Toward a Jewish Context for the Temple Action.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 3 (1993): 109-10.

15 Wright, Jesus, 422.

16 Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2 vols. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 1:497-48; Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 473; Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown- Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, rep. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 829.

17 Josephus, War of the Jews, 2.125, 228, 253-54; 4.504; Antiquities of the Jews, 14.159-60; 20.160-61, 67.

18 Wright, Jesus, 419-20.

19 Crossan, Who Killed Jesus, 64.

20 Kirk R. MacGregor, A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology (Lanham,MD: University Press of America, 2007), 269-70.

21 Jesus reinforces this point by thrice acknowledging Satan as the “archē of this world” (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), where archē semantically comes from the domain of politics and denotes the highest ruling authority in a given region. The followers of the Way would later echo the acknowledgment of their Master in 2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 2:2; 6:12, 1 John 5:19, and Revelation 9:11; 11:15; 13:14; 18:23; 20:3, 8.

22 Wright, Jesus, 595.

23 Telfordsummarizes: “For Mark, it is Jerusalem and its Temple that have fallen under this curse. Their raison d’être has been removed. . . . An eschatological judgement has been pronounced upon the city and its exalted shrine. For Mark and his community, Jesus himself was the agent of that judgement. Had he not after all cursed the barren fig-tree? . . . ‘[T]he moving of mountains’ expected . . . in the eschatological era . . . was now taking place. Indeed, about to be removed was the mountain par excellence, the Temple Mount” (Barren Temple, 231, 119; emphasis his).

24 MacGregor, Systematic Theology, 271-73.

25 A representative sample of instances where proseuchomai means “to ask for in prayer” includes Matthew 5:44; 6:5-6, 9; 24:20, Luke 6:28; 18:1; 22:40, Acts 8:24, and Rom. 8:26, and an analogous representative sample for aiteō includes Matthew 6:8; 7:7, Luke 11:9, 13, and John 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24, 26.

26 Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 2, emphasis his.

27 Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, 1:407.

28 Cf. Luke 18:7-8: “But will not God by all means bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I say to you, he will bring about their justice with speed.”

29 Cf. Luke 16:13/Matthew 6:24: “No servant is able to serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and he will despise the other.” Also note Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of the heavens, but only the one who does the will of my Father, the one in the heavens.”

30 As review editor David Cramer pointed out, the usage by the Word-Faith Movement, then, seems to be an ironic example of “religiously legitimated sin,” keeping the poor and oppressed in bondage to the false hopes of their “prosperity gospel.”

31 Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids,MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1041. Further, as Robert M. Grant illustrates (“The Coming of the Kingdom,” Journal of Biblical Literature 67 [1948]: 301-2), our exegesis is consistent with the way Mark 11:20-25 was read by the Church Fathers, which cannot be said for the typical contemporary reading.

32 I.e., “If I have all the faith in God necessary to courageously and confidently proclaim God’s judgment against the most powerful injustices masquerading in the name of religion but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Resurrection in Pauline Literature: Did Paul Incorporate Greco-Roman Apotheosis Mythologies?” Part 2


Paul’s theology of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ supports the unifying premise of the New Testament canon, namely that these events “fundamentally altered the reality of the cosmos, whether or not human beings actually recognize that such a cataclysmic change has occurred”[1] or not.  The proclamation, “He is not here, for He has risen just as He said,”[2] is the central focus of Gospel and Epistle.  Evidence to support this is obvious from the primary focus of the New Testament texts.  The Gospel accounts present the crucifixion and resurrection as the climactic event in the life of Christ and as the impetus for the birth of the Church.  The Acts of the Apostles or as some refer to it The Acts of the “Holy Spirit,” detail how the assurance provided by the Holy Spirit as to the veracity of the resurrection of Christ emboldened the apostles and disciples to carry the message of Christ resurrected to the “uttermost parts.”  The epistles show much evidence that the resurrection and all its implications was first and foremost on the minds of the authors.  Revelation of course, presents the resurrected Christ as both bridegroom and Lord of Lords and King of Kings, and as such provides the basis for hope and perseverance until the King comes again.

O’Day[3] argues that in spite of the central focus of the New Testament on the resurrection there is a diversity of form and function with one underlying, unifying theme – God is the focus as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.”[4]  This diversity of form and function in turn reveals three themes found within Paul’s Gospel preaching of the resurrection.  Paul’s writing reveals first, that because God’s character is on display through the resurrection, Christians have a sure foundation for faith.  Second, Paul’s Gospel preaching of the resurrection reveals the character of the body of Christ and provides an assurance of hope for the same resurrection.  Third, Paul melds together the first and second functions to define an ethical foundation for the believer and this subsequently becomes the foundation of love within and without the community.

Pauline literature demonstrates the validity of these functions in numerous places. Consider for instance the apostle’s epistle to the Romans.  In 4:16-25 Paul draws attention to the faith of Abraham and the character of God that compelled Abraham to trust Him.  Because Abraham fully believed that God was able to do all that he promised in spite of the deadness of Sarah’s womb, the patriarch pressed on in faith.  It was this faith on the part of the patriarch, faith in the face of the deadness of life in Sarah’s womb that inspired Paul to write that Abraham’s faith was reckoned as righteousness, and not only his but also ours and all who believe in God who raised Jesus.  In presenting Abraham along side of the resurrection Paul deftly demonstrates that his theology sees God as life-giver to the patriarchs, Israel, Christians, and even Jesus Christ.  In this passage Paul clearly demonstrates Jesus as the object of the resurrection and God as the life- giver.  Therefore the Christian faith is grounded in the character of God as life-giver and He rightly receives the praise and glory of His children.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Paul demonstrates a second function of the Gospel proclamation of resurrection – it shapes the character of God’s people.  The context of life for the Corinthians Paul labors to point out is the death and resurrection of Christ.  Paul states in verses 1-4 that he was faithful to deliver the message of the Gospel – Christ’s death for our sins, His burial, and His resurrection – and it is in those truths that the Corinthian’s faith rested.  Here Paul is forcefully making the point that it is in the resurrection of Christ that Christianity finds identity.  It is the understanding that Christians persevere in this hope with an eye to the future that shapes the believer and gives meaning to living in the present.

In Philippians 2 Paul demonstrates a third characteristic of his theology, namely that the Gospel preaching of the resurrection builds upon God’s character and the hope of the believer to shape individual and community ethics.  After giving a list of exhortations that call all believers’s to demonstrate love, Paul gives the reason – this was the same attitude demonstrated by the incarnated Christ who willingly emptied Himself and suffered humility and death as a demonstration of the love His disciples were to show.  Thus love forms the basis for the new life in Christ and is the change agent of behavior used by the Holy Spirit.  This is the ethics of the resurrection which is in stark contrast to the ethics of the world that Paul characterizes as doing things out of selfish and empty conceit.  This high Christology is in fact antithetical to the prevailing emperor worship cults of the time.

Roetzel believes Paul’s resurrection theology is rooted primarily in his Pharisaism and Jewish apocalypticism.[5]  His argument is sound in that he calls attention to the fact that from the time of the Maccabean revolt and into the first century, a staunch belief in the resurrection was inherent in Jewish apocalypticism.  Likewise, Harrison sees in Paul’s resurrection theology, especially as conveyed to the Thessalonians, a distinct Jewish apocalyptic flavor.[6]  Contrasting Roetzel and Harrison is Bultmann who believed that the Hellenistic church tutored Paul and refined his theology.[7]

The question of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is of supreme importance for Christianity.[8]  It has been rightly stated again and again that Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the resurrection.  Without the resurrection of Christ there is no salvation.  Paul taught that if Jesus Christ was not raised then faith is useless, Christians are still under the bondage of their sins, and the apostles are false witnesses by proclaiming an event that did not happen.  Therefore, the critics who suggest that the resurrection theology of Paul is nothing more than “seed-picking” among the pagan resurrection myths must be answered. 


The issue for a good many critics of Christianity as a whole and of the New Testament specifically rests upon the belief that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is myth built upon the prevailing beliefs of the apotheosis of men of honor and importance.  Liberal scholars are confident in their assertions that Paul transitioned from a purely Jewish theology of a literal, physical, bodily resurrection to a clear Hellenized view influenced largely by Alexandrian Platonism,[9] due no doubt in large part to the teaching of the immortality of the soul.

Did Paul find an ally in the Roman emperor cults and their practice of apotheosis of the emperors in his efforts to deify Jesus Christ?  Are criticisms suggesting that Christianity borrowed pagan myth concerning the deity of Jesus Christ weighty enough to cast doubt upon the testimony of the New Testament concerning Christ as the God-man?  Did Paul’s theology of resurrection undergo development as some have suggested?  These are questions that deserve attention.

Scholarship has demonstrated and acknowledged that the concept of apotheosis, of man becoming divine, has deep roots in Near Eastern cultures long before the Roman conquest of that area.  Drane points out that the Greeks were certainly not the first to hold some type of belief in resurrection of the dead.[10]  The Babylonian Tammuz and Ishtar were mirrored by Osiris and Isis in Egypt and Baal and Anat in Canaan.  It does not follow however that Paul’s thinking on the subject of the resurrection of the dead was borrowed from or influenced by pagan apotheosis.  A doctrine of the resurrection was prevalent within the Talmudic Judaism of Paul’s time.  Indeed, those Jews who denied the resurrection were thought to be excluded from the promise of resurrection.[11]  It is not tenable therefore to assert that Paul had to borrow the concept of resurrection to support his teaching on the subject.

Plevnik insists that Paul’s resurrection theology did not change and did not incorporate outside elements.[12]  He addresses three issues commonly raised by critics from 1 Thessalonians 4 concerning the resurrection.  First, did Paul teach the resurrection of the dead to the Thessalonians during his first encounter with them?  Second, does Paul show a change of perspective concerning the resurrection teaching between 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians?  Finally, what can be learned from the distinctive translation-assumption motif in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18?  Plevnik suggests that indeed the Thessalonians were informed of the “life with Christ” related to the parousia.  Logically, those who had died in Christ would need to be raised again to life if they were to precede those already living when Christ returned.  This emphasis on translation-assumption adequately addresses the issue of the grieving Thessalonians.  Plevnik demonstrates that the cause of grief among the Thessalonians was not due to the lack of previous teaching concerning the resurrection but was due rather to a misunderstanding of their sharing in the parousia through their translation-assumption.  Additionally, the nine “you know” statements in 1 Thessalonians provide strong support to the belief that Paul did in fact teach the believers about many things concerning the resurrection including the parousia of Christ and what it meant for them.[13]

Another difficulty for critics of Christianity that has not been satisfactorily answered to date is this: how can the Roman myth of apotheosis which involves man becoming god be squared with Christianity which involves exactly the opposite, God becoming man?  The difference in these two positions cannot be underestimated or marginalized by those seeking to make a connection between the two.  The incarnational nature of Jesus Christ as the God-man is a very powerful theme within the Christian faith.

Werblowsky makes the same point in reference to the incarnation when he states it is “unheard of and almost outrageous, unprecedented, unrepeated and unrepeatable . . .”[14]  Werblowsky rightly describes the Christian doctrine of the incarnation as the single most important difference between Christianity and pagan myths of apotheosis.  The barrier between God and man was transcended not by man becoming god but by God becoming man.  Again, the importance of this distinction appears lost on critics of Christianity.  It is not convincing to make an appeal to the similarity of the Roman apotheosis myths and the Christian incarnation doctrine on the basis that both deal with the relationship between humanity and divinity.

While it must be admitted that Paul demonstrates a polemical style toward the imperial cult of emperor worship, most notably in 1 Thessalonians, this does not mean that he borrowed ideas and resurrection themes in order to develop his doctrine of the resurrection of Christ.  Speaking out against the authorities of power both politically and spiritually is a feature of many of the New Testament writers.  That some see in Paul’s writings clear references to the “presence of an aggressive imperial eschatology and the widespread circulation of Augustan apotheosis traditions” supports the point being made in this paper, namely that “Paul injected heavily loaded Roman political terms into his presentation of Christ,” and thus “transformed their ideological content to his theological and social advantage, and thereby overturned the absolutist claims of the imperial cult.”[15]  Speaking to the culture using themes and beliefs they regard as true is always an effective method of persuasion when sharing the Gospel.  Appeals to the probability of the gospel writers as well as Paul incorporating Greco-Roman ideas concerning apotheosis on this basis are misplaced and appear to be a priori assumptions.

Some have raised the issue that the manner of Christ’s death provides proof that He was not the Son of God as Christianity claims.  Celsus for example argued that Christ’s agony in the garden conclusively demonstrated His inability to be divine as no God would or could experience pain or find themselves at the mercy of mere mortals.[16]

Other critics have attempted to equate the resurrection of Christ with the Greco-Roman practice of hero cult worship and even hero translation based on the empty tomb.[17]  Supporters of the empty tomb motif have suggested that either a translation is apparent or most likely the empty tomb was a cenotaph, linking it to hero cult worship.[18]  The weakness of such an assertion is obvious in that a cenotaph presumes first of all that someone has died and secondly that there is in fact a body somewhere.  The Greeks and Romans were unaccustomed to leaving fallen comrades on the battlefield.  Burial was seen as proper and respectful and superstition regarded it as absolutely necessary to avoid offending the spirits of deceased mortals as well as the gods.  When expediency called for leaving the dead behind a memorial was established elsewhere in their honor.  Rightly understood this memorial or cenotaph was an empty tomb.  Thus empty tombs do not in themselves support a theory of translation nor were all empty tombs erected for heroes.  Beyond this, translation almost always represented the avoidance of death by the one translated.  Enoch and Elijah come to mind immediately in the Judeo-Christian tradition while in the Greco-Roman mythologies Ganymede, Herakles, Empedocles, Romulus, Semiramis, Aristeas, Euthymos, and Appollonius all escaped death by being translated and in this act were not immortalized as heroes but instead were thought to have become gods and thus undergone the process of apotheosis.[19]  Given the veneration of relics and especially bones and other artifacts connected to heroes and the cult of hero-worship prevalent in the time of Christ, it is easy to imagine the early church worshipping at the tomb of Christ if they believed that it contained His body.[20]  That they did not is strong evidence they understood the tomb was empty because He had risen.[21]

The Apostle Paul’s presentation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is on solid ground.  Bibliographically, internally, and externally the evidence is strong in support of Paul’s teaching as having been informed by Judaism while at the same time decidedly and distinctively what came to be defined as Christian.    Habermas supports this contention and provides a list of eleven historical facts concerning the resurrection that is agreed upon by all scholars regardless of their stance concerning Christianity.[22]  Among the generally accepted historically verifiable facts of note are: that Jesus Christ actually died due to crucifixion, that He was buried afterwards, that His death caused the disciples to experience great despair, that the disciples experienced renewed hope and joy as they witnessed what they believed to be the risen Jesus, that these experiences with the risen Jesus turned the disciples from timid to bold proclaimers of the resurrection, that this message of the resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed openly in the city of Jerusalem, and as a result of this bold preaching the church was born.

In a more recent essay, Habermas refines the discussion even further and insists that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot be disputed by scholars.  He lists two undisputable facts concerning the resurrection that lie within the historical-natural realm.  The first is that Jesus Christ was crucified and died as a result.  The second is that after He was buried in a tomb His disciples believed that he appeared to them on multiple occasions and that these appearances changed their lives forever.  By arguing these two points alone it is possible to shift the discussion concerning the resurrection to the “home turf” of critics by eliminating the metaphysical and philosophical realms, as they are not entertained.  Debating the supernatural or metaphysical implications of the resurrection on philosophical terms is outside the realm of historical review.  This perspective recognizes a very important distinction between the task of the historian and historical investigation on the one hand and the individual philosophical and/or theological perspectives one might bring to the discussion on the other.  History rightly concerns itself with time and space events.  Arguing the historicity of an event from a metaphysical viewpoint is confusing separate issues.  Thus, “whether this event (the resurrection) was a miracle or whether God raised Jesus from the dead are distinct philosophical questions and must be treated differently from historical questions.”[23]

Of course this is exactly where the Greco-Roman apotheosis mythological argument breaks down – when attempting to make a connection to Pauline teaching concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Apotheosis depended entirely on the involvement of the gods and operated in the metaphysical and philosophical realms.  Translation of the emperors and heroes occurred without observation or witness and therefore could only be credited to the work of the gods.  There is no historical evidence of post-death appearances of the emperors.  While apotheosis was claimed for many there is no natural, historical, physical evidence to support those claims.  Additionally, locating the bodies of the emperors would have been easy enough.  Shrines, monuments, and mausoleums dotted the landscape of Rome for centuries.  But those marbled edifices to the reign of the emperors held them bound forever, in spite of the public declaration of their rise to divus.

In conclusion at least two points emerge from this analysis.  First, the fact that Paul critiques the emperor worship cults in sometimes pointed and other times veiled language in many of his letters does not mean he adapted their mythology to develop his resurrection teaching.  Second and perhaps more powerful, is the observation that Paul’s well defined Christology demonstrates a clear dichotomy of source, thought, and intent.  Pauline literature when it does touch on emperor worship proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord and Caesar as a pretender.  It is appropriate to remind readers of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19:

“Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.  Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

The necessity of this reminder is centered on the fact that the teaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the Gospel proclamation.  It is not irrelevant to personal and individual faith as some would state.[24]  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is what makes personal faith possible and true.  In Pinnock’s words the resurrection event is based on historical verifiable fact and therefore, “Faith does not claw the air.  It lays hold upon saving verities planted in the fabric of history.”[25]  Paul certainly understood that truth and this in large part may have been responsible for his unflinching consistency concerning the historicity of his resurrection teaching and his refusal to adopt pagan mythologies into his proclamation.

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Perkins, Pheme. Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.

Peterson, Jeffrey. “The Extent of Christian Theological Diversity: Pauline Evidence.” Restoration Quarterly. 47, no. 1 (2005): 1-12.

Pfleiderer, Otto. Das Urchristentum, seine Schriften und Lehren in geschichtlichem Zusammenhang. Berlin: Reimer, 1887.

Pinnock, Clark H. “On the Third Day.” Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord, ed. Carl F. H. Henry. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966

Plevnik, Joseph. “The Destination of the Apostle and of the Faithful: Second Corinthians 4:13b-14 and First Thessalonians 4:14.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 62, no. 1 (Jan. 2000): 83-95.

________ “The Taking up of the Faithful and the Resurrection of the Dead in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 46, no. 2 (April 1984): 274-283.

Pollard, Paul. “Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature.” Restoration Quarterly. 49, no. 2 (2007):114-115.

Reed, Jeffrey T. “Backgrounds of Early Christianity.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 55 (S 1994): 125-126.

Roetzel, Calvin J. “As Dying, and Behold We Live: Death and Resurrection in Paul’s Theology.” Interpretation. 46, no. 1 (Jan. 1992):5-18.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “The Satire of Seneca on the Apotheosis of Claudius.” New York: The Columbia University Press, 1902. Available at http://www.archive.org/details/satireofsenecaon00senerich

Spawforth, Antony J.S. “The Achaean Federal Cult Part 1: Psuedo-Julian, Letters 198.” Tyndale Bulletin 46, no. 1 (1995): 151-168.

Stoutenburg, Dennis C. “Backgrounds of Early Christianity.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 39, no. 1 (March 1996): 152-153.

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves.Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1957.

The New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995.

Thiede, David L. “Apostle on Trial: Building Congregations on Resurrection Hope.” Word & World. 18, (Spring 1998): 136-142.

Thiel, John E. “For What May We Hope? Thoughts on the Eschatological Imagination.” Theological Studies. 67 no. 3 (S 2006)): 517-541.

Turner, George A. “Soteriology in the Gospel of John.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 19, no. 4 (Fall 1976): 271-277.

Webber, Randall C. “A Note on 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 26, no. 3 (S 1983): 265-269.

Werblowsky, R J Zwi. “Some Reflections on Two-way Traffic: Incarnation/avatara and Apotheosis.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 14, no. 4 (D 1987): 279-285.

________ “What’s in a Name: Reflections on God, gods and the Divine.”  Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 12, no. 1 (March 1985): 3-16.

Williams, Michael A. “Since Christ Has Been Raised From the Dead.” Presbyterion. 33, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 65-71.

Wright, N.T. “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire.” Center of Theological Inquiry. Available at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm

Versnel, H.S. “Red (herring?): Comments on a New Theory Concerning the Origin of the Triumph,” Numen. 53, no. 3 (2006): 290-326.

     [1]Michael Barram, “Colossians 3:1-17,” Interpretation 59 (April 2005):188-190.

     [2]Matthew 28:6.  Unless otherwise stated all Scripture citations are from The New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995).

     [3]Gail R. O’Day, “The Variety of Functions of the Proclamation of the Resurrection: A Survey of Epistolary Literature,” Homiletic, 28 (Winter 2003): 1-6.

     [4]Romans 4:17.

     [5]Calvin J. Roetzel, “As Dying, and Behold We Live”: Death and Resurrection in Paul’s Theology, Interpretation, 46 (January 1992): 5-18.

     [6]J. R. Harrison, “Paul and the Imperial Gospel at Thessaloniki,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 25 (Spring 2002):71-96.

     [7]See especially Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), 63.  Cited in Roetzel, 6.

     [8]Many beneficial books are in print concerning the topic of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  One that provides clear answers in layman’s terms is, Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992).

     [9]Otto Pfleiderer, Das Urchristentum, seine Schriften und Lehren in geschichtlichem Zusammenhang (Berlin: Reimer, 1887).  Cited in Ben F. Meyer, “Did Paul’s View of the Resurrection of the Dead Undergo Development?” Ex Auditu. 5 (1989): 57-76.

     [10]J.W. Drane, “Some Ideas of Resurrection in the New Testament Period,” Tyndale Bulletin 24 (1973): 99-110.

     [11]Ibid., 101.  Drane cites the tractate Sanhedrin 90a.

     [12]Joseph Plevnik, “The Taking Up of the Faithful and the Resurrection of the Dead in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 46 (April 1984): 274-283.

     [13]See 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2:1, 2, 5, 11; 3:3-4; 4:2; 5:2; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2.5.

     [14]R. J. Werblowsky, “Some Reflections On Two-way Traffic: Incarnation/Avatara and Apotheosis,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 14 (December 1987): 279-285.

     [15]Harrison, 71.

     [16]Origen, Contra Celsum [GCS Koetschau II/1 135,4-8; 152,11-14; 153,7-10; trans. Chadwick]. Cited in Heike Omerzu, “Challenging Belief in the Divinity of Jesus as Window Onto the Making of a God,” Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting November 21-25, 2008.  Available at http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/  Accessed March 30, 2009.

     [17]Neill Quinn Hamilton, “Resurrection Tradition and the Composition of Mark,” Journal of Biblical Literature. 84 (December 1965): 415-421.

     [18]Prominent in the “translation” hypothesis was Elias Bickermann.  His work entitled “Das leere Grab” appeared in Zeitschrift fur die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 23, in 1924 and was used by N.Q. Hamilton in his work cited above to support that author’s contention that the empty tomb narrative in Mark was borrowed from the Greco-Roman tradition of hero translation.

     [19]Bolt, 34.

     [20] Pheme Perkins, Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), 93-94

     [21]William Lane Craig, “Dale Allison on Jesus’s Empty Tomb, His Postmortem Appearances, and the Origin of the Disciples’ Belief in His Resurrection,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2): 293-302.

     [22]Gary R. Habermas, “Jesus’ Resurrection and Contemporary Criticism: An Apologetic,” Criswell Theological Review. 4 (Fall 1989): 159-174.

     [23]Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister, Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 288.  Habermas’s essay is entitled The Resurrection of Jesus and Recent Agnosticism.  He states that Christians can argue for the validity of the resurrection from two points in a historical context.  The first is that Jesus died and the second is that human witnesses saw Him afterward.

     [24]Michael A. Williams, “Since Christ Has Been Raised From the Dead,” Presbyterion. 33 (Fall 2007): 65-71.  Williams mentions J. Dominic Crossan whom he believes has turned the resurrection of Christ into a metaphor for how people should live – a psychological benchmark but not an actual event that happened to Christ.

     [25]Clark H. Pinnock, “On the Third Day,” Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966), 153Cited in Christianity for the Tough Minded, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1982), 251.

“Resurrection in Pauline Literature: Did Paul Incorporate Greco-Roman Apotheosis Mythologies?”

Modern scholarship has increasingly insisted that Paul borrowed heavily from Hellenized Greco-Roman sources for the formulation of his teaching concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This article will argue that the evidence does not support a belief that Paul developed his resurrection teaching based on Greco-Roman mythologies.  Part one will discuss apotheosis in Greco-Roman culture.   Part two will discuss Paul’s theology of Christ’s resurrection.  Part three will consider potential and alleged relationships between the two subjects.



By the time of the New Testament era the Mediterranean world was awash in agnosticism.  Artisans such as Euripides and Aristophanes aided this journey from faith in the gods to skepticism and then to outright cynicism through their sarcastic depictions of the gods in plays and skits.[1]  Seneca contributed his own biting commentary aimed at the dismantling of the gods and goddesses mystique.[2]

Paul’s apologetic evangelism to the Epicureans and Stoics of Athens recorded in Acts 17 and his confrontation with the worshippers of Artemis recorded in Acts 19 reveal remnants of a previous age of veneration of the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology but should not be confused with evidence of a robust allegiance to the same.  Instead it can be demonstrated by both epigraphy and archaeology as Horseley has done so adeptly,[3] that “the cult of Caesar was not simply one new religion among many in the Roman world.  Already by Paul’s time it had become the dominant cult in a large part of the Empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, and was the means whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway. Who needs armies when they have worship?”[4]

This pronounced cultic worship can be seen in the least as a veneer covering a deeper skepticism toward the gods in the pagan New Testament world.  This rich history of Greek and Roman mythology can be useful however in understanding the rise and development of Christianity.  Garrison for example suggests that “early Christianity firmly rejected Graeco-Roman traditions about the gods”[5]  while at the same time utilized Greek poetry and even philosophy, albeit cautiously in order to further the gospel.  One such area of interest to the modern-day Christian is apotheosis mythology.

Apotheosis, from the Greek aποθεόω, “apotheoō” “to deify,”[6] is the term used to signify the veneration of man to god or divus status.  The apotheosis of individuals was often supported by the sighting of a streaking comet or falling star which was said to be the departed soul of the hero transcending the heavens.  Suetonius noted that after the death of Julius Caesar, “a comet appeared about an hour before sunset and shone for seven days running. This was held to be Caesar’s soul, elevated to heaven; hence the star, now placed above the forehead of his divine image.”[7]

These new gods did not replace the old gods but merely took their place alongside the existing gods as a new branch of gods within the Olympian pantheon.[8]  Initially this was an honor reserved for the deceased but eventually evolved into the Roman emperor cult and worship of emperors as living gods within the Roman Empire of New Testament times.  As such, the deification of select Roman emperors became part of the normal religious experience of Roman citizens.[9]

Ferguson points out that Rome developed their propensity for apotheosis from Greece through the Egyptian Ptolemaic Kings.[10]  While he begins with Alexander the Great others have forcefully suggested that the practice of apotheosis took root within the Greek hero cults as early as 620 B.C.[11]  Versnel reminds readers that the Romans likely developed their triumph and Jupiter imagery not long after this.[12]

In the hero cult ritual, animal sacrifice was performed at the gravesite of a deceased hero as a means to insure continued protection from and influence for good by the departed.  Later, Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great declared himself a god and during one of his many marriage ceremonies had a statue of himself carried among the images of the Greek gods during the processional.[13]

This was a foreshadowing of the emerging practice of kings and emperors minting coins and commissioning statues of their own images inscribed with declarations of divinity.  Indeed the Greek practice of such has been traced to the reign of Alexander the Great.[14]  Rome eventually adopted the same practice as evidenced by minted coins inscribed with Caesar Parens Patriae (Caesar, Father of the Nation) and by a statue erected in honor of Julius Caesar’s military conquest of the Greek city of Pharsalus in 46 B.C. that bore the inscription Theos Epiphanes (God Made Manifest).[15]  Kim believes that “Gaius Julius Caesar, the founder of the Julian dynasty, is thought to have initiated, though posthumously, the custom of imperial deification.”[16]  It can be argued from Cicero’s account in his second Philippic that Gaius received the honor of deification before his death and if true, would mark the true beginning of Roman apotheosis.[17]  Caesar’s great-nephew, adopted son, and successor Augustus, likewise saw the power of the myth of divinity.  After negotiating with the Senate for his predecessor’s divine honor and commemorating it by hosting games, young Augustus, not more than 28 years old at the time,[18] declared himself a direct descendent of Venus.  The Roman Senate was delighted to honor Venus and built the Ara Pacis Augustae in 13 A.D. in commemoration.  The multiple friezes tell the narrative of the Julian family and their divine ancestry.[19]

Spawforth notes that as early as 54 A.D. the cities of the so-called Achaean League, of which Corinth was chief, petitioned Rome for tax exempt status in order to host emperor worship games.[20]  Finney appears to agree that the imperial cult at Corinth had made enormous inroads by this time and suggests that Paul made it a point to address this situation with the believers there: “underlying Paul’s salutation, and thereafter at numerous and key points in the letter, there is a clearly articulated attempt to undermine the focus of the imperial cult in Corinth.”[21]

Some have argued that Christianity borrowed heavily from Greco-Roman ideas and mythology concerning apotheosis given the cultural saturation of such at the time of the birth of the church and the ministry of the apostles.  Did Paul in fact borrow ideas foreign to Judaism and his understanding of the teachings of Christ to build his doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?  We must investigate his theology on the subject to derive an answer to that question.


     [1]Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1978), 61.

     [2]Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “The Satire of Seneca on the Apotheosis of Claudius,” (New York: The Columbia University Press, 1902). Available at http://www.archive.org/details/satireofsenecaon00senerich  Accessed April 2, 2009.

     [3]Richard A. Horseley, ed., Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).

     [4]N.T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” Centerof Theological Inquiry. Available at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm  Accessed March 24, 2009.

     [5]Roman Garrison, The Graeco-Roman Context of Early Christian Literature (Sheffield: Shefield Academic Press, 1997), 1.

     [6]Available at http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/274736  Accessed January 21, 2009.

     [7]Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1957), 1.88. Cited in Gary R. Habermas, “Resurrection Claims in Non-Christian Religions,” Religious Studies 25, no. 2 (June 1989): 167- 169.

     [8]Panayotis Pachis, “Manufacturing Religion: The Case of Demetra Karapophoros in Ephesos” Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, November 21-25, 2008.  Papers dealt with the subject: Redescribing Graeco-Roman Antiquity.  Available at http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/redescribing/Panayotits.pdf   Accessed January 21, 2009.

    [9]Joseph. L. Kreitzer, “Apotheosis of the Roman Emperor,” Biblical Archaeologist. 53 (December 1990): 211-217.  Kreitzer suggests that deification was nearly automatic for all emperors unless they had contentious relations with the Senate in which case apotheosis was unlikely to be granted.

     [10]Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 205-209.  The author’s third chapter is a wonderful treatment of the history of veneration from both a religious and political perspective.

     [11]Peter G. Bolt, “The Empty Tomb of a Hero?” Tyndale Bulletin 47.1 (May 1996): 27.  Bolt sites E. Rohde, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality Among the Greeks (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truber, 1925) ch. 4; and L.R. Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford: Clarendon, 1921) in support of this assertion.

     [12]H.S. Versnel, “Red (herring?): Comments on a New Theory Concerning the Origin of the Triumph,” Numen, 53, no. 3 (2006): 290-326.

     [13]Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 20. Cited at http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/274736

     [14]Kreitzer, 212.

     [15]Ibid., 212.

     [16]T.H. Kim, “The Anarthrous υιος θεου in Mark 15:39 and the Roman Imperial Cult,” Biblica 79 (1998): 222-241.

     [17]M. T. Cicero, Cicero – Philippics (trans. W. C. A. KER) (vol. 15; Cambridge 1926) 172. Cited in Kim, 228.  In his second Philippic, Cicero refers to Antony as the “priest” (flamen) to divine Julius (divo Iulio).  Scholars believe this was written approximately 44 B.C. which was before Julius’ death.

     [18]Ovid Illustrated: The Reception of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Image and Text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Garth tr., Amsterdam, 1732). Explication of the X. Fable.  [ XV.x Death and Apotheosis of Julius Caesar ]  Available at http://etext.virginia.edu/latin/ovid/banier.html  Accessed March 15, 2009.

     [19]Gail E. Armstrong, “Sacrificial Iconography: Creating History, Making Myth, and Negotiating Ideology on the Ara Pacis,” Society of Biblical Literature 2007 Annual Meeting.  The theme of the annual meeting was “Mythmaking, Fictionalizing, Entextualizing: Creative Moments in Graeco-Roman Religious Reality.”  Available at http://post.queensu.ca/~rsa/redescribing/Armstrong.pdf  Accessed February 15, 2009.

     [20]Anthony J.S. Spawforth, “The Achaean Federal Cult Part 1: Psuedo-Julian, Letters 198,” Tyndale Bulletin, 46, no. 1 (1995), 151.

     [21]Mark T. Finney, “Christ Crucified and the Inversion of Roman Imperial Ideology in 1 Corinthians,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 35, (2005): 20-33.