Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Gospels and mythology

Recently a student mentioned a book that was claiming that nothing in the Gospels was new and that everything had been borrowed from earlier sources. The following was my (slightly edited) e-mail response:

First, many of those who promote the idea that all of Jesus’ teachings are found in earlier sources seem to assume that for Jesus to be who the Gospels say he was, means that all his teachings had to be unique. This is a silly assumption.  Jesus was a pious Jew. His Bible was our Old Testament. Much of what he taught comes right out of the Old Testament, so we don’t have to look to dubious parallels in ancient writings from Egypt, Greece, Rome, or Babylon. We need only look to the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish writings!

Second, some of these critics seem to assume that similarity always means that someone was borrowing from someone else. But just because a teaching found in one document/culture is similar to a teaching found in another document/culture does not mean any borrowing occurred. For example, just because something the Buddha taught may be similar to something Confucius taught, does not mean that Buddha borrowed from Confucius! Yet some of these fringe critics seem to assume that anything in the gospels that is similar to anything in some other ancient culture, must have been borrowed by the Gospel writers from that culture. It is important to note that this is not what mainline Jesus scholars believe. It is only held by a tiny fringe element.

Third, the closest parallels to Jesus’ miracles are found in the life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius was supposedly a first century miracle worker. The thing is that while we have four first century Gospels that attest to Jesus’ miracles, the only source for Apollonius comes from Philostratus who lived in AD 170-247! So if Apollonius lived at all, and if he even did miracles, why would we assume that the Gospel writers borrowed from the life of Apollonius rather than assuming that Philostratus (who wrote the Life of Apollonius much later than the Gospels) borrowed from the Gospels? Who is borrowing from whom?

Fourth, let’s take a closer look at some of these imagined parallels. The Egyptian myth of Osiris is often presented as a parallel to the resurrection of Jesus, but in the Osiris myth, Osiris’ body is dismembered and reconstructed for an existence in the afterlife. He never returns to this life. In other words, he is never resurrected.

Another supposed Egyptian resurrection parallel is the myth of Horus. Horus “merged” with the sun god and then “dies” and “raises” every day as the sun rises and sets. Similarly, Tammuz “died” every year in the Fall/winter with the death of vegetation, and “rose” again in Spring when everything comes back to life. The assumption that Jewish writers borrowed from such stories to create a story about their Messiah coming back from the dead is a very big stretch (to put it politely). 

A Greek myth sometimes presented as a resurrection parallel is the myth of Arachne. In this myth Arachne is a mortal who loses a contest with the goddess Minerva. Arachne hangs herself in shame. Minerva, however, apparently had a vindictive streak so she brings Arachne back to life and turns her into a spider (at least this is close to a resurrection story except that Arachne never comes back as Arachne, but as an insect!

When Dionysus was a child, the Titans tried to destroy him by dismembering, cooking and eating him—except for a single limb that was saved by a goddess. In another version, the god Apollo buries him and he comes back to life. Dionysus then grew up as a god of absolute power, an eater of raw flesh and the god of wine and intoxication. Stories about him are often violent and have sexual overtones. Those who oppose his orgiastic rites were driven insane or destroyed. Can you imagine pious Jews hearing this story and thinking, hey, let’s make up a story about our Messiah based on this?!

My favorites, however, are the virgin birth “parallels.”  The story of Mithras, for example is sometimes presented as a parallel to Jesus’ virgin birth. But according to the Mithras myth, Mithras was born out of solid rock (maybe the rock was a virgin!). And the story wasn’t written until a century AFTER the time of the N.T.!  Who is borrowing from whom?

In the myth of Adonis, the gods turned his mother into a tree and Adonis was born from the tree (perhaps it was a virgin tree).

In another myth, Minerva “leaped forth” from the brain of Jupiter, fully grown and in complete armor!
Attis was supposedly born when his mother placed the blossoms of an almond tree in her lap—almonds which had grown from the castrated testicles of another god.

Zeus had the misfortune of being born to a father (Kronos) who tended to eat his children. Zeus survived through a trick played on his father. When Zeus grew up, he overpowered his father and forced him to vomit up Zeus’ brothers (apparently, a bunch of “virgin births”). Zeus later seduces a woman named Semele and gets her pregnant, not through mating, but with a special potion made from someone’s heart. I’m not exactly clear on this one. In another version I read, Zeus then appears to her as lightening which kills her and sends her into the underworld. In either case, Zeus rescues her unborn child, Dionysus, and sews the child into his own thigh. Dionysus is later born from Zeus’ thigh—a virgin birth!

According to a story about the birth of Plato, Ariston had tried repeatedly to make his wife, Periktione pregnant but did not succeed. After they stopped having intercourse she was made pregnant by Apollo. The story was recorded by Diogenes Laertius who lived in the third century AD! Why would anyone think the New Testament story of Jesus was borrowed from a story written long after the New Testament was written? It seems to me that any objective observer would conclude that it was Diogenes who borrowed from the New Testament and not the other way around.

In one story of the birth of Alexander the Great, provided by Plutarch, when Alexander’s mother was sleeping one night, a snake stretched out at her side. This disgusted Alexander’s father and he rarely slept with her after that. The implication seems to be that she was then impregnated by Apollo. But Plutarch also gives another version of the story in which Alexander’s mother was a devotee of Dionysus and regularly engaged in sexual worship orgies. That would kind of negate the virgin part! It should be noted, however that Plutarch lived from AD 46 to 120 so the story was not written until after N.T. times.

Then there is the birth of emperor Augustus.  According to the story, his father’s wife went up to a pagan temple overnight. As she slept, a snake crawled up her vagina and impregnated her! Nine months later, Augustus was born. What some people seem to miss is that she was married--not a virgin! You can't have a virgin birth without a virgin!

The point is that when these fringe critics tell people that there are all kinds of parallels to Jesus in ancient literature, they leave the impression that the parallels are about historical stories in which real human beings have been born of virgin mothers or who have come back from the dead. The fact is that the supposed "parallels" are not really parallels at all! By the way, on the internet you really have to be careful because some of these supposed parallels appear to have been fabricated entirely by the authors of various anti-Christian websites.

This brings us to the fifth point: one thing that is abundantly clear from reading the Gospels is how thoroughly Jewish the Gospels are. The stories take place, with only a few exceptions (like Tyre, Sidon, Decapolis) in Israel—Judea, Samaria, Galilee, or more specifically in places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Bethany, Jericho, Cana, Bethsaida, etc. All of the celebrations are Jewish, e.g. Passover, Tabernacles, Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah). All of the heroes are Jewish heroes—Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Elijah, Jonah, Zechariah.  Not once do the Gospels quote from or allude to any Egyptian, Greek or Roman heroes like Achilles, Hector, Ulysses, Jason, Aeneas or Ajax. All of the quotations and illusions are from the Old Testament—the Gospels quote or allude to 29 of the 39 books in the Old Testament. Not once do they quote or allude to any of the ancient Greek or Roman authors or classics—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Herodotus, Livy, Cicero, Virgil, etc.

The point is that the Gospels were written by pious Jews—Jews who believed in one and only one God and who thought the worship of pagan gods was abominable idolatry! According to Josephus, there were thousands of Jews in those days who were fully willing to die rather than have their temple corrupted by Roman images. The idea that these pious Jews were sitting around trying to dream up stories about their Messiah by borrowing from stories of violent, immoral and sleazy pagan gods is just plain silly! The very idea sounds like an act of desperation by people desperate to find excuses not to believe! Mainline Jesus scholars (even those who are not believers) think the idea is absurd.  

Benet, William Rose.  The Reader’s Encyclopedia.  2nd edition.  New York : Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965, 273.

Carlier, Jeannie and Silvia Milanezi.  Encyclopedia of Religion.  Vol. 15.  New York : Macmillan, 1987, 568.

Cartlidge, David R. and David L. Dungan. Documents for the Study of the Gospels (Revised and enlarged ed.) Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1994 (129-130, 134).

Detienne, Marcel.  “Dionysos.”  Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 4.  New York : Macmillan, 1987, 358-361.

Leeming, David Adams.  Mythology.  Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott, 1973, 270.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary.  3rd edition. New York : Oxford University Press, 1996, 479-482, 1382.

Plutarch. The Age of Alexander.  New York : Penguin Classics, 253-254.

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. New York : Penguin Classics, 104-105.