Did Jesus rise from the dead? Richard Miller on the resurrection

"Not My Idea" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“Not My Idea” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

This cartoon is inspired by a book I just read.

Richard C. Miller’s new book came out, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge Studies in Religion). I was excited and ordered it just in time to take on vacation with me to read on the beach. Personally, I love experiencing that delicious contrast of the ease of vacation with no responsibilities while reading a very heady book.

I wasn’t disappointed. It is an important work. Unfortunately, it’s expensive… after shipping I paid over $130! It is very textbookish. There are many languages in it, some of them translated and some of them not. In other words, it’s rather inaccessible. I’ve suggested to him that such an important work needs to be affordable and approachable for a wider audience. He agrees that should be the next step. I hope so. Soon, please!

I like Miller’s suggestion that this was done with the story of the so-called Jesus for a few reasons.

One is that it was typical. This is the way stories were told about exceptional people. Miller claims that the early Christian would have heard these stories and understood them fictively. He demonstrates, through a vast collection of selected readings, that the depictions of Jesus in the gospels, indeed in the whole New Testament, are typical of the mythic storytelling style of that period. Everything from miracles, missing bodies, mountain top speeches, ascensions, taken away in a cloud, dubious alternative accounts, immortal/heavenly body, bright and shining appearance, resurrection appearances, meeting on the road… the list goes on… are all frequently and popularly employed methods to convey a hero’s story. They would have read it fictively.

Secondly, it concerns influence… that there was a movement to make the story of Jesus the prominent and dominant one so that it would gain supremacy over the cultural movement of that time. The story of Jesus fits into the whole “mythologized cultural-political imagery and propaganda” of that era. “The liberal, near-whimsical variance between the early Christian foundation tales, not to mention their myriad of conventional fictive signals, indicated for the ancient reader a mythopoeic modality, however nuanced to form a distinctive ‘early Christian’ brand”. The story of Jesus was effectively embraced and promoted by clusters of early Christians that rapidly spread this new way of understanding history and being a community. Miller says, “The New Testament works were often subversive, but never seditious, in their endeavor to transcend the political structures of their day.”

Also, it is about power. It was useful to the church to canonize its selected mythic stories of Jesus in order to secure its authority to determine who was orthodox and who was heretical. I can’t say it better than Miller:

“The diversity of these texts (all early Christian narratives), rather, reflects the variety of (often competing) social contexts, literary functions, and measures of prolific creative freedom characterizing the Christianities of this nascent religion. From the most primitive periods of religion, one observes tremendous diversity and corresponding literary imagination, despite the later myth of unity created by centralized Roman ecclesiastical power and resultant endeavored reduction and control of a single Christian narrative of origins.”

He continues:

”What was once viewed as an exciting, free-spirited array of movements and corresponding mythopoeic narrations came to be viewed as a cacophony of heresy and intolerable diversity. The ‘orthodox’ movement signified and held as sacred only those texts useful to the legitimization of that single trajectory of Roman ecclesiastical power; the remaining early Christian texts were to be marginalized, denigrated, or altogether banned. Over the course of three centuries (50-350 C.E.), by increasing degrees, diversity came to be labelled as deviance. The ‘orthodox’ bishops certified their own sacred texts as credible, while denigrating the sacred texts of other groups as heretical. The same socio-political process came to define not only ‘heretical’ literature, but ‘heretical’ doctrine, ‘heretical’ teachers, and ‘heretical’ communities.”

Miller provides some implications of his studies in his conclusion. His claim that he has “revealed the pronounced use of a stock cultural convention of divine translation, a distinct type of sacred legend commonly embellishing the biographic conclusions of the most celebrated, iconified figures of classical antiquity”… and that he has “demonstrated that this same linguistic convention, thinly wrapped with hybridic cultural adaptation, principally governed the New Testament postmortem accounts of Jesus”… will be disturbing for many.

He doesn’t feel it is wise or helpful to take the two popular, polarized extremes about Jesus’ story that it is literally true or that it is a hoax.

”Having shown the error of both extreme positions, that is, that the resurrection of Jesus was neither proposed as an historical reality nor peddled as an early Christian hoax, this study has found the authentic synthesis…: the early Christians exalted the founder of their movement through the standard literary protocols of their day, namely, through the fictive, narrative embellishment of divine translation. Acceptance of this understanding substantially reconciles the polarity of the discourse, yielding significant implications for these two until now disparate, mutually hostile groups.”

He feels there are two implications: religious and humanistic.

The religious implication is that “truth is the prize of the daring”. He offers that if the early Christians didn’t read the gospel narratives as historical fact, then why should we? Why should we hold these stories as factually credible when they didn’t? Miller claims that the “framing embellishments of the Gospels, contrary to most present-day biblical theologies, served to exalt the content being framed, namely, the philosophy embodied in the iconic portrayal of the founder, Jesus.” How can the philosophy suggested in those texts compete in today’s world? That’s the question and the religious implication.

The humanistic implication is that these Gospel stories are not the “sacrosanct possession of a major religious tradition”, but of all humankind. It belongs in the annals of our story. “To know human nature most deeply, one must become a student of the sacred.” Do these early texts, and does Christianity as a religion, contain an appreciation for humankind’s highest virtues and most noble ideals?

It was a wonderful experience plodding through this book and taking notes. It helped clarify and put words to my latent suspicions. In the spring of 2009 I had a dream that launched me on the contemplation and articulation of what I called “The Z-Theory”, where I have suggested some ideas about Jesus and the early Christian portrayal of him as they fit in an attempt at a unified theory of reality as it applies to religion.

Miller and I have conversed, and we agree he needs to follow up with a popular version. But save up and get this book. Order Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge Studies in Religion). It’s worth it because it contains all the references necessary to get a grasp of overwhelming evidence that supports his argument. I also feel this book is infinitely helpful for all of us, no matter where we stand philosophically, theologically or religiously, to approach a more agreeable understanding of Jesus and Christianity.

If you are deconstructing your beliefs, this book will help you do it perhaps more rationally. For me, this book came at just the right time.

This is the kind of stuff we sometimes talk about at The Lasting Supper… a place where you are free to express yourself and ask questions.


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13 Responses

  1. irreverance says:


    Resurrection as a narrative reality. I can work with this. 🙂

  2. Ducatihero says:

    I love the “The New Testament works were often subversive, but never seditious” approach and what you say about power with “prolific creative freedom” the sense of using storytelling to communicate “popularly employed methods to convey a hero’s story”.

    The literal or symbolic nature as understood through biblical interpretation is something I don’t think any of us will have perfectly figured out, with it coming through translations and being about something in the middle east 200 years ago. It is interesting to argue and debate in order to wrestle with particular understandings, particularly over controversial issues, however I think we have ultimately to surrender to the reality that however close we get to the reality of what it was like, we weren’t there at the time and therefore will never get everything totally right.

    This idea of storytelling in particularly interesting to me. I think like all storytelling there is the entertainment combined with some transformative effect.

    I guess it was the subverting that got Jesus killed!

  3. Jeremy Edgar says:

    So the resurrection is not literally true? Where’s the hope then?

  4. Cecilia Davidson says:

    (the things I’d do to get the book)
    It’s interesting that so many Christians refuse to believe that the idea of resurrection ISN’T new and wasn’t only applied to Jesus. Then again, the system rarely wants the congregation to have book learning.

  5. Teague Frawley says:

    In my mind this is just more evidence that a experiential relationship with God in which live in the reality of living, breathing, and having our our being in Sources and Source in us is the only way to know truth. Everything else is just a supplement and can become a distraction or even idol.

    Its true and I do not apologize for it that I pick and choose what within the Jewish and Christian Bibles I accept as scripture. I also, believe their is Source Breathed text that was rejected as part of the cannon and much that was included IMO isn’t god breathed.

    For me I have learned to trust the Holy Breath within to guide me into truth. Personally now I would never spend that much on a book. I have cognitive dissidence just at the thought of a book on spiritual topics, being priced so high that even the poorest person cannot benefit from it. Then again at the same time I don’t believe that an author is undeserving of being rewarded for their labor. So I struggle a bit with this!

  6. Moriah says:

    And then Paul takes care of the rest: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain.”
    About sums it up. It’s insane how desperately people are clinging to this stripped branch wrapped in thorns that has been abundantly exposed as utterly lacking in any authentic fruit regarding its claims to any unique historicity amidst the rest of the mythopoeic universe. For centuries THAT, and that precisely, was Xtianity’s claim to fame, it’s one reason to give it supremacy, primacy, and consideration above and beyond all other myths and legends of heroes, gods and other fantastical creatures. OH how thou art fallen from heaven … how the mighty are fallen. And how sad and pathetic this pointless torch carried for something so long and so thoroughly debunked from what it claimed itself to be for two millenia.

  7. Yasmin says:

    I have no trouble at all believing that Jesus literally rose from the dead, but then I think I understand the Resurrection a bit differently than most people do anyway (subject for another thread). I do have a scientific mind, I always want facts and proof, but I have no trouble with this. Nor do I have any trouble with those who don’t believe in it as literal truth. Over the years, I’ve learned that every bit of spirituality is an individual thing anyway, that no two followers of one belief system believe exactly the same thing(s) anyway. Each of us is also unique in our own set of spiritual needs, of what we need to make us whole and allow us to continue to grow.

    I see the Resurrection as I do because of who I am and what I have learned and experienced. I am unique in that, just like everyone else. 😉 In the end, it is my relationship with Christ that matters, and as much as I want to KNOW DEFINITIVELY whether He literally rose or not, it really won’t matter much what happened. It is the insatiable curiosity in me that wants to know. Either way, my relationship with Christ won’t change.

  8. Tim Page says:

    A thorough review, thanks.

    Another perspective is in NT Wrights (lower cost!) Surprised by Hope, which accompanied me through stem cell transplant process.


    When Jesus says ‘Because I live, you also will live.’ … how do we understand that?

    Re. Richard Miller’s question, something that continues to impress me is Job 19… after death ‘In my flesh, I will see God.’

    That is my understanding and Hope… albeit in face of too much toxic stuff through history and today.

  9. Ducatihero says:

    I want to say thanks to you David for your recent comment and the inspiration your work and sharing has given me. I find what you talk of with “prolific creative freedom” and “hero’s story” here particularly inspiring. Perhaps this can be a story for all of us that we can embrace.

    Also I want to say thanks to Sabio and Lydia for having taken time to engage with my comments recently.

    Last night I was at a Mark Knopfler concert where as an encore he played “Going home”, the music played at the closing credits of the film “Local Hero” which I found uplifting. The word “hero” is coming through a lot for me.

    I have found my time here recently a little frustrating and painful as I have indicated. I notice a “dislike” to my comment above. This plus responses to come comments I have received here leads me to believe there is somewhat less than a welcome to what I offer. Therefore I’m going to be moving on.

    I confess, I am “wierd”, it’s not just here. I find similar responses to me in other communities too, as has been my experience in church, therefore I have come to the conclusion that whatever it is that is going on, is down to the common factor in l of these, which is me that I am resigned to.

    I’ve learned that sometimes when you are the black sheep, it’s not the colour of your wool that needs to change, but that you need to find a different herd.

    So, adios, I wish you all well. I may take a peek from time to time to see what is happening here but this will be my last comment on this site.

    I leave you with Mark Knopfler and “Going home”. I hope you like it if you click on the link

    Goodbye everyone 🙂

  10. Well Ducatihero I’m sorry to see you go. Nakedpastor has always been a blog that debates ideas. I challenge ideas. I present new ones. I’m a graffiti artist on the walls of religion… something that is contentious by nature. Just because we may disagree with each other doesn’t mean we’re not welcome or that we don’t like each other. Like I always say, unity is love, not compatibility of ideas.

  11. Ducatihero says:

    I’m sad to go too David. I do appreciate what you are trying to do, really and the principles you talk of are ones that I dearly hold towards. I will watch the site with interest. Who knows, I may return at some point in the future or even pop in for a visit if that is OK with you? However I cannot continue to be involved as i have.

    Please don’t feel bad, I had something similar happen in a Vineyard church with frustrations I was experiencing. I know that if something is not working for me and burdensome, I can be free to serve others in a way that I would be otherwise. When making the decision to leave the Vineyard, a peace came upon me where there was frustration, and what I experience today is similar. As you will know from having been a pastor in a vineyard – they are big on prophetic vision for encouragement and building up of the church. On my last day there, some come to me, said she was sad to see me go and said she had a vision of an acorn for me that she didn’t know what meant.

    Well, I am ex Royal Air force and the apprentice squadron I joined had the emblem of an acorn. the otto of the squadron was “Non Plerique Delicaturi”, meaning few are chosen and the honour given to those that are. When I left the Air Force it was with an honourable discharge and exemplary conduct.

    I don’t have a Christian upbringing, I came to Christ through walking through a lol park on a beautiful sunny day, having everything I wanted, yet always wanting more and not understanding why. This word “change” came to me in my mind and through affiliation with Christ, I had peace where before there was frustration. My journey has taken me through different denominations to where I am now. I have not abandoned church but I now view church as a gathering where Jesus us present and Lord.

    As Jesus as lord, I believe the decision I have made to leave is consistent with being obedient to his direction and the “peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” This feels real and true to me, and I a OK with that.

    I put on a show of bravado at the time but behind it all when sharing about forgiveness I was pained at the responses I received with accusations either of abuse or supporting abuse. I was also frustrated with the lack of respect shown to the centrality of Jesus with comments like “invisible friend”. So where in principle I support your aims, I have found what I perceive to be discrimination and double standards when applying these principles here that does a disservice to Christianity.

    One example being in our conversation off the back of the issue of forgiveness I shared of practicing in which you perceived I was supporting abuse.

    Ducatihero March 15, 2015 at 5:22 pm
    David, I applaud your concern for survivors of abuse in church situations. I support your enabling of abuse victims to process anger. I respect an affirm your action in bringing about justice for abuse victims.
    Nevertheless I am concerned… I am saddened by my experiences here. I think there is wrong that is not being addressed…

    Nakedpastor David Hayward March 15, 2015 at 5:33 pm
    Ducatihero…You seem to be very concerned with how victims should behave MORE than how abusers should. This clearly puts you in the camp of those who support abuse and the silencing of victims.

    Ducatihero March 15, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    David, I did not expect a reply from you, so I thank you for at least affording me that.
    You have me down as someone who supports power and abuse of power clearly front your last couple of comments. I think that is inappropriate.

    I don’t think what you have perceived a seeming to me being concerned about how the abused behave more than abuses is an accurate reflection of how I am. I think the way you have commented has, perhaps unintentionally, encouraged others to comment similarly to the point of becoming unbearable for me. I think my talk of forgiveness balanced with talk of addressing abuse has been helpful while at the same time I feel has not been welcomed or listened to with sufficient balance to what I believe has been your false accusation of supporting abuse and the silencing of victims. I have received no apology for such and I don’t require one or support with the effect of accusations and lack of respect that has been shown. I respect your freedom of expression and your freedom to experience the consequences of what you express.

    Nevertheless I do experience some constructive outcomes form our discussions and if I can leave on a positive note then it would be in memory of this conversation which I hope you find helpful and anyone who has been abused will find an encouragement and empowerment from :

    DH “I am in favour of recovering the biblical understanding of shaming in the sense that “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” 1 cor 1:27… as an encouragement to anyone who is a victim (and therefore considered weak in the eyes of the world) that there is a greater power to call on in order to shame… any person in a position of power in the church that is using their power to oppress rather than serve.
    Does that help or hinder?”

    NP “I think that helps… Yes, I understand where you’re coming from.”

    “the best way for abuse survivors to heal… Reflection and Inner Knowledge… marked by humility, openness, and willingness.. realizing so much of what we’ve ascribed to isn’t leading to life… [leading to] Known Purpose… deep compassion for ourselves and others… We have a deeper security that guides us… and a stable, secure foundation to live from.” Kathy Escobar.

  12. Sarah Green says:

    Tim, thank you for the link to your story. I read it and found it very moving.

  13. Eric Thorson says:

    When I hear that everything in the Gospels is typical of the mythic storytelling of the period, I would like to see some primary sources before lending any credibility to it. The literary voice of the Gospels is completely unlike Ovid, or Homer, or Hesiod.

    Personally, I think that the New Testament kind of stakes a lot on the literal resurrection of Jesus. If it’s not factual in some way, I can think of lots of other wise people to follow and celebrate…