Christ and Mythology
Posted by turmarion
I was browsing though stuff on an external hard drive recently and found a few documents that I’d written that I thought might be worth making into blog posts. The following essay was originally written as an email response to a friend with whom I was having a discussion. It has been edited slightly, but still may sound a bit like an email. I think it holds up, for all that, so I’m leaving it essentially as I found it with only very light editing. Enjoy!
You said awhile back that I hadn’t told you my views of the dying-god myths of Classical antiquity (e.g., Venus and Adonis, and so on). As I said, I’ve actually told you my opinion before, which is that such things aren’t really relevant, but I will elaborate.
Let me begin with an analogy. We know that Leif Erikson discovered North America, a.k.a. Vinland, in the late 10th Century. We also know that there are other accounts that have been interpreted as European trips to the New World, e.g. Madoc of Wales and St. Brendan the Navigator. Some of these predate Leif Erikson. So, suppose a skeptic said, “I don’t believe the Vikings ever came to America. Erikson’s story is just one of many, probably copied from one of the other stories.” How would one proceed?
Well, the obvious thing to do is to examine the evidence for Erikson’s journey. One would not worry about the literary aspects of the story, or of any of the others, for that matter. One would look at the historical data. Do the sagas conform to known geography? Are there Norse remains in North American archaeological sites? And so on. If one finds no good evidence, on historical grounds, that the Vikings ever came to America, then one would be forced to consider the story of Leif Erikson a myth or legend, perhaps influenced by other such legends.
As a matter of historical fact, though, it has been pretty well shown that the Vikings did come to the New World, and that the Erikson saga is essentially correct. Note the interesting point that flows from this. Given the reliability of our information about Leif Erikson, the other legends are no longer relevant at all and need not be explained. In other words, if we have hard evidence for Leif’s journey, it is no longer up to us to explain any similarity with other tales, since any such similarity does not affect the veracity of the sagas. One might study the other tales in their own right; maybe they were influenced by the sagas, or maybe they were true, too. The point is that they no longer have any bearing on the historicity of the Erikson saga.
OK, so let’s look at the Jewish carpenter. Let’s do so without reference to other legends, and without reference to any particular religious belief, either; we’ll just be historically dispassionate. What do we know about him? Well, I think it is fair to say that all reputable scholars, Christian, Jewish, atheist, or of any other stripe, would agree that the following statements are historically accurate concerning the Nazorean:
- Some time around 750 of the Roman calendar (early 1st Century for us) a Jewish man named Jesus (or Yeshua bar Yoseph, as he would have been known, if you insist) was born in Palestine, growing up in Nazareth. In his adulthood he was a tekton, i.e. “carpenter” or more correctly “construction worker” or “builder”.
- Sometime in his late twenties or early thirties, around the reign of Tiberius, Jesus became an itinerant preacher and healer who wandered around Galilee (and maybe Judea and Samaria, too) amazing people and getting in trouble with the religious authorities (i.e. Pharisees and Sadducees).
- Within a couple years or so of beginning his mission, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, where he was executed by the Romans as a rabble-rouser, probably on the instigation of some of the Jewish religious authorities.
- His followers claimed he had risen from the dead.
I think, as I said, that everyone would agree on this much, regardless of his or her personal ideology. The historical evidence is pretty strong, both from Christian and non-Christian sources. Yes, there are some fringe people who claim that Jesus never existed, or that he lived a century before he was claimed to have, &c. &c., but I think awhile back even you agreed that such theories are goofy. Conspiracy theories rarely hold together, and by the same argument these people use, you could deny the reality of just about any ancient historical personage. In any case, no reputable scholars, not even atheists, hold this view.
OK, so everyone would agree on points 1-3 above without qualification. What about four? Well, all scholars, both conservatives who believe the Gospels were written early, and liberals who believe they were written late, agree that Paul wrote his letters between about 49 and 60 A.D, that is, starting only about 25 years after the Crucifixion. No scholar questions that. Everyone also agrees that Paul met the surviving Apostles, including Peter/Cephas—Paul himself is clear on that, as is Acts, probably written by someone who knew Paul personally, and no scholars, even atheists, disagree on this point. Paul, equally clearly, believes Jesus rose from the dead. Now, Paul was very quick to disagree in strong terms with the Apostles when he didn’t see eye-to-eye with them—see Galatians 2:11 and following, for example—but he never disagrees with them regarding the Resurrection. Early pagan opponents of Christianity also refer to the Resurrection, in order to deride it. Thus, we are pretty safe in saying that as early as the days of the Apostles themselves, Christians at least believed that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead.
So then the question is, were they right? Here you have one of three possibilities: A. The Apostles were lying or faking; B. The Apostles were deluded, hallucinating, or some such; or C. They were telling the truth, and the Resurrection happened. Given the fact that all the Apostles except maybe John were later martyred in various gruesome ways, with no one recanting, not even once, I think it’s fair to say they weren’t lying. They were sincere in believing that Jesus had risen again, anyway. Some have theorized that some other party faked Jesus’ death somehow, or produced another “look-alike”, or some such, to dupe the Apostles. Given that they’d spent three years with him, they’d have to have been incredibly stupid to be so easily fooled. As to the theory that he didn’t die but was drugged and revived, well, he would have still been sick and bleeding—it doesn’t seem that he would have impressed the disciples as having conquered death! Plus, such theories always tend to make all kinds of unprovable assumptions, as most conspiracy theories do.
It seems to me that the only valid options are that the Apostles had some kind of hallucinatory experience or that they were telling the truth. At this point, one’s beliefs come into play. If one believes that the dead cannot even in principle be raised, then it follows obviously that the Apostles were somehow hallucinating, imagining, crazy, or some such. That is a legitimate position. If one allows that such things may indeed happen, then the Apostles’ statements that “he is indeed risen” are plausible. Personally, I look at it like this: we know, even from the Gospels themselves, that the Eleven cut out like chickens as soon as Jesus was arrested, and went into hiding. Somehow this mangy bunch of cowards who didn’t even stand by their friend for one minute after his arrest amazingly turned into a troop of leaders fearlessly preaching Jesus’ Resurrection, and not caring if they got arrested, imprisoned, beaten, or executed. It doesn’t seem to me that a hallucination or nostalgia or mental illness is enough to explain such a radical and permanent change in all eleven of the Apostles. The only thing, in my judgment, that can adequately do so, is the assumption that Jesus really did rise again from the dead, and that the Apostles were accurately reporting what they experienced.
Obviously, intelligent people of good will can disagree on this point. It does involve a leap of faith. But consider—even those who think the Apostles were crazy or delusional would agree that their claims are a matter of historical fact. No one claims that Adonis or Baldur or their ilk were historical people in a historical context with living witnesses claiming to have seen them come back. Even skeptics agree, though, that Jesus was a real person in a real time and place, and that other real, historical people claimed to have seen him after his death. Given this, I think that whether one believes in the Resurrection or not, it is clear that it is not “ripped off” from dying-god myths. It may not have happened, but it is not imitating something else; that is, if it’s false, it’s because of crazy Jewish fishermen, not because of imitation of Greco-Roman mythology.
To use an analogy: Far in the future, people may think the assassination of Martin Luther King was a myth, influenced by tales of the martyrs. However, since we know it actually happened, the tales of the martyrs are irrelevant. Likewise, we know Jesus’ followers, who knew him personally, claimed he’d risen; thus, we can discount any influence from myth. Oh, I guess you could say that Peter or someone had heard the myths of Venus and Adonis (unlikely, for a Jewish fisherman in a hick town—how many Appalachian Fundamentalists living up a holler have?) and after Jesus died, Peter or whoever was influenced by these myths to claim that Jesus had risen. However, once again, one assumes that at least someone would have recanted under torture if this is what happened. Also, the pagans themselves were quite familiar with the dying-god myths, and yet they never used this similarity to try to refute Christian teachings. They attacked the Resurrection as absurd, and the Apostles as ignorant bumpkins, but they never accused them of ripping off Classical mythology. This indicates that they quite well understood that while the myths were allegories (as you know, the Greeks interpreted their myths allegorically from the very beginning of written literature), Christian claims, on the other hand, were of a different order. Had they thought Christian teaching to have been warmed-over Venus and Adonis, they’d have said so.
Note carefully a few points. First, I have been very careful to base this argument on historical consensus, not on Scripture or any particular theory of its inspiration or lack thereof. I have also avoided dogmas of any particular church. One can fairly safely assert that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person, who was executed, and whose followers claimed him to have risen from the dead, regardless of ones’ own religious beliefs and commitments or lack thereof. Moreover, I have pointed out that the charge of imitation of pagan myth was not made by contemporary pagans themselves, who should have known! This accusation is a modern one. Thus, I think the idea that pagan myths were the basis for Christian teaching is thereby refuted.
Now this doesn’t prove that the Resurrection actually happened, of course. That’s still a matter of faith, one way or the other. However, since we’ve refuted any connection with pagan mythology, the exact meaning of that mythology no longer need be an issue. If I know for a fact that the Vikings came to America, I don’t have to explain how that fact is connected to the story of St. Brendan. If I know for a reasonably certain fact that the claims of Jesus’ Resurrection were either true or delusions, but not rip-offs of myths, then I don’t have to explain Venus and Adonis, etc. If I did, I’d say that God interacts with all peoples and has put “hints” of Christianity into their myths and such, but that’s just a theory.
Thus, to answer your question as to Adonis, Attis, and such, I’d say that such myths are of no relevance whatsoever to Christianity. Now, I’m not arguing to try to talk you into or out of anything. One should hold one’s own beliefs, based on one’s own principles. I am very adamant in believing that. The point is this; if, as you say, Christianity is a huge con-job, blame it on crazy Jewish fishermen, not on cribbed mythology.
Afterword: This is not part of the original essay, but I would like to point to the humorous video below which makes some of the same points in specific reference to Christmas and its supposedly having been ripped off from pagan mythology.
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“
Posted on 19/03/2018, in ancient civilizations, Christianity, paganism, religion and tagged Christ, Christianity, dying-rising god myth, historicity of Christ, Leif Erikson, mythology, religion, religions, Resurrection, theology, Vikings. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
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