Ancient Greek Religions and 1 Corinthians 15

The ancient Greek religions and philosophies had numerous views regarding the afterlife. The tales of Homer portrayed the idea of an underworld where dreary souls wandered after death; whereas, Plato taught that noble souls would survive the claws of death and arrive at a state of perfect and ascending knowledge. Some believed that upon death people would transform into a star in the galaxy or undergo a reincarnation of some sorts. Epicureans advocated for an absolute non-existence or complete extinction after death.[1] Epicurus writes, “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing for us.”[2] The Stoic philosophers believed in an endless, repeating cycle of the cosmos. When one cosmic cycle completed, another cycle began repeating the same ordered history. Thus, upon death, a soul would be temporarily extinct until the current cosmic cycle ended and then restarted. Another ancient belief of the afterlife is that the deceased continued to live a peaceful, soulish life in the tomb. In the city of Corinth, there are the remains of ancient tombs that had openings so that food and drink could be delivered.[3]  In view of all these ancient beliefs, Hubbard explains that they all were united on one point: “their denial of a bodily resurrection.”[4] This is largely due to the common greek disdain for the physical body as something that was useless and debilitating to the soul.[5]

When readers apply this ancient material to 1 Corinthians 15, they will better understand why Paul’s teaching on the resurrection was confronted with scorn by the Corinthians. Paul was a man who devoted his whole life to the resurrected Jesus. In fact, in Philippians 3:10-11, Paul writes, “My goal is to know him [Jesus] and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead” (CSB). Therefore, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, writes,

For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me.

These statements show that Paul was convinced of the resurrection and that it was of most importance in his gospel ministry; however, some in Corinth were mocking Paul and saying that “there is no resurrection from the dead” (v. 12), “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 35). Paul responds by presenting a long argument for a physical resurrection, but ultimately he explains that indeed Christ has been raised from the dead with a resurrected body, and so humans will also die and one day be physically resurrected. He argues that “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immorality” (v. 53) which gives victory over death for those who are in Christ (v. 56-57). A much different perspective than the Greek religions.

[1] Moyer V. Hubbard, “Greek Religion” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts eds. Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 121. [2] Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 2 in Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.139 LCL quoted by Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [3] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [4] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [5] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121-122.

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