BMCR 2019.09.23

Empty Tomb, Resurrection, Apotheosis. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 410

, Empty Tomb, Resurrection, Apotheosis. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 410. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018. xvi, 717. ISBN 9783161565038 €164,00.


In this book, New Testament scholar John Granger Cook collects evidence for the concept of resurrection in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and early Christian texts. He aims to prove two propositions: “first, there is no fundamental difference between Paul’s conception of the resurrection body and that of the Gospels; and second, the resurrection and translation stories of Greco-Roman antiquity probably help explain the willingness of Mediterranean people to gradually accept the Gospel of a crucified and risen savior” (1). The first of these will be of interest primarily to specialists in early Christian studies, while the second will appeal to a wider audience of scholars of classical literature, ancient religions, and ancient history. My own interest in this volume is of the latter type, and it is from that point of view that this review is written. Classicists will find here a wealth of information, some of it perhaps unfamiliar, stretching across many linguistic, temporal, cultural, and religious boundaries that will prove useful in considering the concept of resurrection in its pan-Mediterranean context.

The volume consists of an introduction, seven chapters, and conclusion; an appendix of 37 images keyed to discussions in the main text; a bibliography listing the editions of ancient sources, databases and websites, and selected scholarly works consulted; an index of selected passages; and brief indexes of images, ancient figures, modern scholars, and terminology. Ancient texts are quoted directly, and English translations are provided (particularly welcome for this reviewer for evidence in Hebrew and Syriac).

In the introduction, Cook defines his scope for analysis as “physical resurrection” of the body (to be distinguished from “the immortality of the soul and variations thereof”). The approach taken to identify such instances is primarily linguistic: Cook asserts that “a fundamental marker for the concept ‘resurrection’ in the New Testament and elsewhere… is the bodily motion upward of a formerly dead individual” (2), an idea present in verbs such as ἀνίστημι, ἐγείρω, and resurgo. Cook then discusses the semantics of such verbs in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, with Greek receiving the most emphasis.

Chapter 1, “Resurrection of Divinities,” collects examples of stories of “dying and rising gods” from various Mediterranean polytheistic contexts, which Cook analyzes with “the goal of ascertaining whether or not some of them experienced a vicissitude analogous to bodily resurrection,” in order to prove the thesis that “the belief of some ancient people that certain divinities had overcome death… may have been fertile ground for their willingness to accept the Gospel of a crucified and risen Christ” (56). He concludes that the stories of Osiris, Dionysus, and Heracles/Melqart provide the strongest analogies for Jesus’ resurrection. Cook admits, however, that the concept of dying and rising gods “is not of fundamental importance” for his project (53), and one wonders whether the 87 pages of material here, while interesting, might not have been better treated in a separate study.

Chapter 2, “Resurrection Accounts in Greek and Latin,” collects literary, epigraphical, and iconographic testimonia for accounts of resurrection, mostly pagan; Greek literature takes up the bulk of the chapter (144-208), while Latin texts get comparatively short shrift (208-223). Cook’s goal is to illustrate the difference between real resurrection and accounts of bodily translation (the subject of chapter 4). He adopts a “somewhat fluid” (144) definition of resurrection, which allows him to include stories of bringing someone out of the underworld (e.g. Heracles and Alcestis), demigods and wonder- workers raising people from the dead (e.g. Asclepius, Apollonius of Tyana), and even metaphorical or rhetorical references to the concept of resurrection. From this wealth of evidence, Cook concludes that “the concept … was widely available to elite Greco Roman authors” (246).

Cook is interested in the motif of the empty tomb as it applies to the gospels’ narrative of Jesus’ resurrection; in chapter 3, “Tombs and Post-Mortem Appearances,” he collects from (mostly) non-Christian texts examples of similar instances. This includes cases where an individual, presumed dead, appears elsewhere while his/her tomb is found empty (e.g. Aristeas of Proconnesus); where the dead person appears although the tomb is known not to be empty (e.g. Protesilaos); and where a tomb is found to be empty although no subsequent appearance of the deceased takes place (e.g. Numa). While Cook suggests some of these stories may be better interpreted as translations than as resurrections, the motif of the empty tomb is shown to be amply present in non-Christian texts.

Chapter 4, “Translations and Apotheoses of Heroes,” considers stories of legendary (e.g. Achilles) and historical individuals (e.g. Pompey) who are said to disappear or be removed from mortal life, sometimes to a location such as the Isles of the Blessed, and presumably made immortal. Cook emphasizes several differences between these stories and accounts of true resurrection from the dead: a translated person typically does not appear again on earth after translation; often the translated person disappears before his/her actual death; and different vocabulary is used to describe the translated person’s removal (e.g. ἁρπάζω), not words like ἀνίστημι/ἐγείρω that imply motion upward.

In the book’s shortest chapter (chapter 5, “Apotheoses of Emperors”), Cook considers a specific category of translation: the deification of Roman emperors. Cook surveys textual evidence for the deifications of emperors and members of the imperial family from Julius Caesar to Antoninus Pius, concluding that the apotheosis of an emperor is very similar to the post-resurrection ascension of Jesus, with the difference that “only the emperors’ souls ascended to the gods, while Luke affirms that Jesus’ risen body was taken to heaven” (454). The analysis in this chapter is questionable in a few respects. Cook seems to conflate the imago (wax mask of an ancestor worn in procession at his descendants’ funerals) with the wax image of a deceased person (especially, in this context, an emperor) used in a funus imaginarium, leading to the curious remark that Polybius, in his famous passage on funerals (6.53.1-4), “does not mention the practice of burning the wax image of the deceased.” Cook’s discussion also elides the difference between official apotheosis and other categories of posthumous honors or worship, since he includes evidence relating to emperors (Nero, 445) and members of the imperial household (Germanicus, 419; Antinous, 427) who were never deified by decree of the Senate. Furthermore, Cook’s evidence does not seem definitively to support his conclusion that only the emperor’s soul was thought to ascend to heaven, not his body. While several of the texts quoted do refer to an emperor’s anima or ψυχή being carried upwards (e.g. Dio 56.42.3, Ovid Met. 15.855-857), and while Cook is right to follow Gradel in rejecting Bickermann’s notion that the wax image proves that the ancients believed that the emperor definitively ascended bodily to heaven, it does not necessarily follow that worshippers always believed that it was only an emperor’s spirit that joined the gods. Cook admits (432) that Ovid Fasti 3.701-2 in fact seems to suggest that Venus snatched Caesar’s physical body away into heaven, in contradiction with the passage from Met.. A more cautious and nuanced way to interpret all this evidence might be to say that the question of body vs. soul was perhaps not one that many ancient people would even have asked about imperial apotheosis; as Gradel has noted on this issue, “Elsewhere, pagan theology contained glaring theological inconsistencies, which were not felt to be a problem, simply because pagan religion was not very preoccupied with dogmas and theology.”1

Chapter 6, “Resurrection in the Hebrew Bible and Later Jewish Texts,” is the book’s longest, although Cook has been selective in his citation of rabbinic material (518), which chronologically speaking stretches from around the 2 nd century BCE to the 11 th century CE. This material again could perhaps have been pruned (especially since texts are included from much later periods than for any other category of literature under examination in the other chapters), but its breadth allows Cook to demonstrate amply that the idea of bodily resurrection was mentioned and debated in Jewish literature, with the clearest examples being Daniel 12:2-3 and Hosea 6:2.

By this point, Cook has certainly provided ample evidence for the existence of Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions of resurrection that could have helped to smooth the way for the acceptance of Christianity. In the final chapter, “Empty Tomb, Resurrection, and Translation in the NT,” he returns to the other of his two main propositions: that Paul’s discussion of the resurrected body of Jesus in 1 Cor 15 is not in fundamental conflict with the Gospels. Contrary to the practice of extensive primary-source quotation employed in other chapters, no text or translation of many of these biblical passages is given, so non-specialist readers will want to be sure to have their Greek New Testament to hand here. Some NT scholars have asserted that Paul did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ because he does not mention the empty tomb at 1 Cor 15:3-5; Cook argues against this, emphasizing Paul’s use of ἐγείρω, which is never used to describe ascension of the soul but only resurrection of the body. He also cites evidence showing that Mark, Q, and Luke all suggest Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Cook concludes that, when 1 Cor 15 is considered in light of the weight of evidence for a belief in bodily resurrection widely present in Mediterranean culture of the time that he has presented in the preceding chapters, “Paul could not have conceived of a risen Jesus whose body was rotting away in the tomb” (591; italics original), while acknowledging that this “argument is not deductive, but inductive” (592).

The reader may disagree with some of Cook’s observations, and one might have wished for a deeper, more cohesive analysis of the vast array of evidence assembled here. The conclusion (only five pages long) summarizes the chapters’ findings but does not offer further observations or suggestions for future directions. This book is also extremely long, and there are places where judicious pruning might have made for a more streamlined text. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of information included here is also the book’s main strength. While few may have the stamina to read Empty Tomb from cover to cover, many will find it valuable as a θησαυρός of passages and bibliography on which they will draw again and again. It will serve as a reference for scholars working on topics related to resurrection, and the testimonia it assembles will undoubtedly be the seeds of future enquiries and discussions. Although Cook seems to aim primarily at a reader who is also a scholar of early Christianity, the book will be of use to those in other disciplines as well. He is particularly to be congratulated for bringing material from his own area of expertise together with Jewish and Greco- Roman pagan texts, in a way that will likely introduce readers from any of these disciplines to evidence that is new to them.

The volume’s presentation is unfortunately marred by numerous typographical errors, mostly suggestive of mere carelessness2, but a few are more consequential.3 One hopes the press will invest more resources in copy editing in the future.


1. Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (BMCR 2003.09.26), 284. Cook quotes from both before and after this sentence, putting the weight on the fact that Bickermann is wrong to assert bodily ascension, rather than on Gradel’s point about Roman religion’s tolerance of inconsistency and indeterminacy.

2. For example, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (correctly, 329) is repeatedly referred to as “Dionysius Halicarnassus” (25, 260, 305, 335), and highlighting has been left in several footnotes (e.g. 88 n. 190).

3. An extraneous negative has Cook appear to contradict his own stated aim in the introduction: “Acceptance of the Gospel… by the Mediterranean people was not due in part to the analogies of resurrection in paganism” (54, italics mine). Eudoxus of Cnidus is said on one occasion to date from the 4 th century CE rather than BCE (129), although the date is given correctly elsewhere.