Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Jesus & Myth

Did the New Testament writers borrow from ancient myths in creating stories about Jesus?

It's a charge that comes and goes over the years. If you haven't heard it lately, you probably will soon. It goes something like this:

There have been stories about (semi-)divine men who came to earth, died, and were resurrected for thousands of years. The religions based on their worship even included baptism and a special meal. Early Christians simply borrowed elements from those religions to create stories about their own christ.
And a lot of that is almost true. Almost. The collected wisdom of Christendom on the topic seems be:

1) The similarities between these ancient stories and Christianity are exaggerated and the differences are minimized.

For example, "resurrection" in these stories didn't really involve dead people getting up and walking around or it wasn't permanent. For instance, Osiris' dismembered corpse was reassembled, but he remained in the underworld. And their resurrection stories were tied to cyclical fertility/harvest rituals; they weren't once for all time events.

Likewise, "baptism" meant being bathed in blood from a freshly killed animal. Calling that baptism is stretching the term beyond recognition, and it's something first century Jews wouldn't have found at all interesting.

2) The real similarities are datable only to after Christianity appeared.

These "mystery" religions were still around at and after the time of Christ. If the similarities (e.g., communion) only appear in the historical record in the second or third century, which way did the borrowing go? The other way, obviously, as our traditions can be dated from the first century.

3) Post-exile Jews were the last people we'd expect to absorb or syncretize with another religion.

They were really, really opposed to allowing their religion to be corrupted by outside influences after that whole Babylon thing (c.f., Maccabean rebellion). That's not to say it could never happen, but it does mean the evidence has to be really solid for it to be believed.

So did early Christians borrow myths from other religions to create a Christ they could worship? The evidence does not support that hypothesis.

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Other resources:
The Case for Christ
Jesus and Other Myths (Video)

Related articles:
The Resurrection: A Story No One Would Make Up
Pagan Virgin Births

9 comments:

Salim said...

1. I think we can all see parallel themes in the myth & fiction that preceded Christianity: Themes such as gods who came to earth, Gods who were killed and re-born, Gods who took human form.

Traditional apologists such as this guy:

http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/JesusEvidenceCrucifiedSaviors.htm

... counter by pointing out that no single pagan precursor had all of the attributes of Jesus, hence Jesus could not possibly have been a mythic invention based on these sources.

The Jesus myth theory does not depend on the story being copied verbatim from a single older myth, only that the Christ story might have been have been assembled from a number of pre-existing characters. He's part Pythagoras, part Dionysus, part Osiris, part Elija & Elisha etc.

There might even be a real Jesus buried somewhere under that mountain of appropriated fiction.

I'm not saying that the gospel authors were unoriginal - they were as original as a modern fantasy epic (like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter). Nobody doubts the originality but we can all see how the authors drew upon works of older authors in order to furnish their stories.

Harry Potter, for example draws upon magical schools (The Worst Witch), child detectives (Enid Blyton), evil lords (Darth Vader), and Rowling gets most of her monsters from pagan myths. Nobody doubts the originality of HP, and yet it's clear that his story is woven from pre-existing cloth.

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2. I think that this is a false statement. The Robert M. Price lecture I linked to in the previous discussion mentioned a number of texts which pre-date the 1st C.

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3. I think this is the weakest argument of all:

Certainly there would be some Jews who would have instantly rejected any un-orthodox belief (we can see still see them today!), however the sheer diversity of 1st Century religious belief & cults suggests that this was a fertile era for myth formation.

Furthermore, the notion that Jews were somehow immune to myths seems preposterous. These people had already incorporated various mythic elements into their beliefs (e.g. Noahic Flood, Genesis Creation Myth, Tower of Babel, the existence of King David) - it seems to me that there's really no limit to human credulity!

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I think the Christ myth theory is not so easily debunked... there seems to be a large body of credible scholarship behind it ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_myth_theory ). Certainly it makes it very hard to hold a fundamentalist, literalist, inerrantist position.

ChrisB said...

Salim,

Let's start with your last statement first:

"These people had already incorporated various mythic elements into their beliefs..."

The idea that King David is a myth is a myth. Or at best out-dated. But either way, it's a circular argument: We know this thing I don't accept is a myth because there are a bunch of other things they believe I think is a myth.

Your bias is showing. Those things are not necessarily myths. Even if some of them are (or perhaps are fables), that doesn't change the fact that this nation had recently fought a war over syncretism. It was a big deal to them.

Now I agree we don't have to have a single person with all the attributes of Jesus to show borrowing. Which person (and what is the best dating of the evidence) was actually physically resurrected? One of the common themes of the religions in this area was that matter is evil (or at least inferior); they weren't into the idea of a physical resurrection.

As it stands now, unless you can show otherwise, their resurrection wasn't really resurrection, and their baptism and communion were nothing like the Christian ones. They all had miracle workers. Is that the best you got?

Simple similarity is not proof of borrowing. That video I linked to is pretty short; it goes into a story about a coincidence between the Titanic and a very similar story from some years eariler. These things happen.

And, of course, you still have to deal with the fact that this religion started in the area where these things were purported to have happened and within the life of witnesses. The myth bit is just weak.

Salim said...

The idea that King David is a myth is a myth. Or at best out-dated. But either way, it's a circular argument: We know this thing I don't accept is a myth because there are a bunch of other things they believe I think is a myth.

What's the best evidence that he was an actual historical figure? I know that a lot of people consider him to be one, but who really knows? There's an awful lot of stuff which is so obviously myth such as the Noahic Flood, Genesis Creation Myth, Tower of Babel... it's clear that 1st Century Jews were just as prone to believing nonsense as modern new-age hippies.

... at least the 1st Century Jews had an excuse since they lived in a pre-scientific era. I have nothing but contempt for the new-agers!

that doesn't change the fact that this nation had recently fought a war over syncretism. It was a big deal to them.

I think the point remains that even if some people were prepared to kill over orthodoxy, some embraced the unorthodox... just like people today!

Now I agree we don't have to have a single person with all the attributes of Jesus to show borrowing.

You are arguing against what appears to be a misunderstanding of the theory. As I explained before, the Christ myth theory does not claim that Jesus was cloned from any single individual - but that his story is assembled in part pre-exsiting themes.

The argument is that the gospel authors re-used familiar themes to make a new story. Just like modern fantasy authors continue to re-work themes to conjure original plots.

As it stands now, unless you can show otherwise, their resurrection wasn't really resurrection, and their baptism and communion were nothing like the Christian ones. They all had miracle workers. Is that the best you got?

I don't see the problem you have with the resurrection. We've clearly identified precursor magic-man heros who live after death. It's a common theme in fantasy literature.

Fantasy authors add inventive details to familiar themes. New stories are created from old stories. That's what writers do!

Newark Evangelical said...

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Destroyer said...

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John Myste said...

You mean that the creators homogenized the "pagan" religions, and Judaism into a new religion they called Christianity, much to the chagrin of Yeshua Ben Yoseph, who was turning over in his sepulcher, is not a historical fact?

I am going to have to go correct all the stuff I arrogantly posted at MMA.

I wish I had known about this sooner.

Middleberry said...

excellent post

Gayle said...

I love your comments and questions. I like questons. I like the idea that they didn't tell everything. We still have room to wonder.