Resurrection - Ancient Greek Religion

Ancient Greek Religion

In ancient Greek religion, a number of men and women were made physically immortal as they were resurrected from the dead. Asclepius was killed by Zeus, only to be resurrected and transformed into a major deity. Achilles, after being killed, was snatched from his funeral pyre by his divine mother Thetis and resurrected, brought to an immortal existence in either Leuce, Elysian plains or the Islands of the Blessed. Memnon, who was killed by Achilles, seems to have a received a similar fate. Alcmene, Castor, Heracles, and Melicertes, were also among the figures sometimes considered to have been resurrected to physical immortality. According to Herodotus's Histories, the seventh century BC sage Aristeas of Proconnesus was first found dead, after which his body disappeared from a locked room. Later he found not only to have been resurrected but to have gained immortality.

Many other figures, like a great part of those who fought in the Trojan and Theban wars, Menelaus, and the historical pugilist Cleomedes of Astupalaea, were also believed to have been made physically immortal, but without having died in the first place. Indeed, in Greek religion, immortality originally always included an eternal union of body and soul. The philosophical idea of an immortal soul was a later invention, which, although influential, never had a breakthrough in the Greek world. As may be witnessed even into the Christian era, not least by the complaints of various philosophers over popular beliefs, traditional Greek believers maintained the conviction that certain individuals were resurrected from the dead and made physically immortal and that for the rest of us, we could only look forward to an existence as disembodied and dead souls.

This traditional religious belief in physical immortality was generally denied by the Greek philosophers. Writing his Lives of Illustrious Men (Parallel Lives) in the first century CE, the Middle Platonic philosopher Plutarch's chapter on Romulus gave an account of his mysterious disappearance and subsequent deification, comparing it to traditional Greek beliefs such as the resurrection and physical immortalization of Alcmene and Aristeas the Proconnesian, "for they say Aristeas died in a fuller's work-shop, and his friends coming to look for him, found his body vanished; and that some presently after, coming from abroad, said they met him traveling towards Croton." Plutarch openly scorned such beliefs held in traditional ancient Greek religion, writing, "many such improbabilities do your fabulous writers relate, deifying creatures naturally mortal."

The parallel between these traditional beliefs and the later resurrection of Jesus was not lost on the early Christians, as Justin Martyr argued: "when we say … Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus." (1 Apol. 21). There is, however, no belief in a general resurrection in ancient Greek religion, as the Greeks held that not even the gods were able to recreate flesh that had been lost to decay, fire or consumption. The notion of a general resurrection of the dead was therefore apparently quite preposterous to the Greeks. This is made clear in Paul's Areopagus discourse. After having first told about the resurrection of Jesus, which makes the Athenians interested to hear more, Paul goes on, relating how this event relates to a general resurrection of the dead:

"Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead." Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, `We shall hear you again concerning this.'"

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