By Robert Conner ~
Why would elements from ghost stories end up in the gospels? What could possibly motivate the author of a gospel to compose a resurrection narrative that reads like a ghost story? It turns out there are a number of reasons.
First of all, most people in the first century took the existence of ghosts for granted: “Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost!’ they said, and cried out in fear.” (Matthew 14:25-26) And, as we have seen, people of the era were far less critical readers than people of today; they accepted the fantastic at face value. In fact, they expected it. Even Jesus complained, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will never believe.” (John 4:48) For many ancient listeners, sexing up a story with elements of the supernatural would have made it more credible, not less. Who wants to read a ho-hum Bible story in which nothing incredible happens?
There is a broad consensus that the gospels are primarily based on oral tradition passed down for at least one or two generations. The gospel of Luke tends to support that view: “…passed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Luke 1:2) Given the passage of decades and the chaos of the First Jewish-Roman War, direct witnesses of any event of Jesus’ lifetime would likely have been few and far between. So we already have three plausible motives for including ghost story elements in the gospels—belief in the supernatural, eagerness to accept the fantastic, and institutional memory in the early Christian communities that was patchy or completely missing.
The gospels don’t even pretend to be history as currently understood—the gospels are religious propaganda, not a PBS documentary about the life and times of Jesus from Nazareth. The gospels “have been written so you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” (John 20:31) How would we expect the authors to encourage that belief? We would expect them to use the cultural elements readily available to them, such as quoting freely and frequently from the Old Testament. Or borrowing supernatural elements accepted by the wider culture, like ghost stories, for example.
Last year I decided the topic of ghost belief in the New Testament deserved a book-length treatment, the first ever to the best of my knowledge, so after doing more extensive research, I wrote up the material, found a publisher, and Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story appeared. But if I thought I was the first to notice the uncanny similarities between ghost stories and resurrection stories, it turns out I was off by at least 18 centuries.
The first writer to compare Jesus’ post resurrection appearances to spectral apparitions was a Greek philosopher and critic of Christianity named Celsus who wrote a lengthy work, Alēthēs Logos, or True Doctrine, that refuted various aspects of the Christian cult. Apparently having noticed the phantasmal quality of the resurrection accounts, Celsus says that Jesus appeared to his disciples “like a ghost hovering before their perception.” (Contra Celsum, VII, 35)— Celsus’ vocabulary suggests something insubstantial drifting before one’s vision. As historian John Dominic Crossan would later remark, “apparitions of Jesus do not constitute resurrection. They constitute apparitions, no more and no less.” (Neotestamentica 37 (2003), 47).
What features of the gospel narratives could have caused an informed second century critic to characterize Jesus’ post mortem manifestations as ghost stories? As it happens, there were several. Then as now, ghosts could appear and disappear suddenly: “[Jesus] became invisible to them.” (Luke 24:31) Lucian turns the sudden disappearance of a ghost to comic effect when the household dog frightens off Eucrates’ wife, returned from the grave to claim a golden sandal—“she vanished because of the barking.” (Lover of Lies, 27)
Paradoxically, ghosts could also assume solid, tactile form, indistinguishable from the living.
“While they were talking about these things, [Jesus] stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you!’ But they were alarmed and afraid, thinking they were seeing a spirit. He said to them, ‘Why are you terrified and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Touch me and see, because a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ And saying this, he showed them his hands and feet.
But even in their joy they did not believe him, and while they were wondering, he said to them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of fish and he took it and ate it in front of them.” (Luke 24:36-43)
That ancient ghosts could appear from nowhere, eat, and then disappear is conspicuously proven by the Phlegon’s tale of the ghost of Polykritos, a man who returns from the dead after the ill-omened birth of his hermaphroditic child.
“The people had clustered together and were arguing about the portent when the ghost took hold of the child, forced most of the men back, hastily tore the child limb from limb, and began to devour him…he consumed the entire body of the boy except for his head and then suddenly disappeared.” (William Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels, 30-31, my translation.)
Everyone in the world, past and present, knows ghosts can pass through barriers that the living can’t breach, a recurring theme in ghost lore. Jesus’ appearances tend to occur at night or toward the evening (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:29; John 21:4), a time particularly associated with hauntings. Liminal times and places, doors, rivers, crossroads, dawn, dusk, as well as transitioning from sleep to the waking state, are suited to the manifestation of ghosts.
Jesus’ nighttime manifestations in the gospel of John—“in the evening of the first day of the week” (John 20:19)—occur even though “the doors were locked” (John 20:19, 26) The Greek text of John uses the verb kleiō, “to lock,” from kleis, “key,” to convey the astounding fact that “Jesus came and stood in their midst.” The ancients regarded doorways with a high degree of anxiety; the Romans had no less than three minor deities concerned with doors, Cardea, the goddess of hinges, Forculus, the god of the door itself, and Limentinus, the god of the threshold. A tomb itself is a doorway of sorts: “because of the presence of these spirits of the dead, the threshold, like the cross-roads, was a spot particularly adapted to the performance of magic rites, just as such rites were often performed on graves.” (Marbury Ogle, American Journal of Philology 32 (1911), 270.)
Given our different cultural assumptions, westerners living in the 21st century read the New Testament much differently than Mediterranean peoples living in the 1st century. Appreciating how pagan contemporaries described early Christianity requires we step back into the mindset of their era, reading the gospel texts in the light of their expectations, not of ours. In the next installment we will find Celsus had another crucial insight that anticipated modern thinking on apparitions.
Several books authored by Robert Conner are available here: Amazon.com.
Conner’s current editor offers many more salient authors and titles here: http://tellectual.com/.