"The reason for this letter is that I am wondering if you could answer a question I have. In one of your html pages the subject of Mithras is touched upon lightly and a link is given for further information. The link goes nowhere though, and I am really interested in finding out more about Mithras and other Dying-God mythologies. The reason is because I often enter correspondences and dialogues with atheists. Recently one such atheist raised his question, and I am still waiting to respond to him, because of my unfamiliarity with the subject. His letter went like this:
'How can a historic personage (such as Jesus) have a recorded life (according to the New Testament in the Bible) almost identical to various other mythos out there including but not limited to:Now, before you say that I am jumping logic or that you have never ever heard of what I am talking about . . my question is this:
Both of these religions came *before* Christianity and are clearly labeled as myths yet the 'stories' of their lives are, in many ways, identical to the 'life' of Jesus the Christ.
- Mithras (Roman Mithraism)
- Horus (Egyptian God of Light)
*IF* the information that I have just stated above is TRUEJust answer that directly.'
*THEN* would it not bear strong evidence to the face that Jesus the Christ was and is not a historic personage?
I would appreciate
any help or information you could offer on the subject. Thank you"
Notice the general allegation--
There are material, significant, and pervasive similarities between Jesus Christ and other Dying God-figures (and/or Savior-figures), and that these similarities are best explained by the hypothesis that the figure of Jesus is materially derived from (or heavily influenced by) these other Dying God/Savior-figures.Sometimes the allegation is worded strongly--Jesus was NOT a real person, but a legend; sometimes it is worded less strongly--Jesus was real, but was fused with these derivative mythic elements such that THEY became the core teachings about Jesus.
Now, to analyze this carefully--and with some rigor, since there are MANY 'fuzzy' notions in this--requires us to evaluate several assertions--ALL OF WHICH must be true for the allegation to stand. They are:
Notice that it is not simply enough to point to some vague similarities and yell "copy cat!"--one must come up with some argument/evidence for EACH of the above more detailed assertions---which are simply part of the allegation of 'copy cat'...
So, let's examine each of these in turn...remembering that if ANY seem significantly implausible, the whole structure falls.
This issue is somehow seen as the 'strength' of the position(!), for the normal reader can sometimes be amazed at alleged similarities (note the words "almost identical" in the email question above).
However, there are several considerations that must be examined BEFORE we get into the alleged similarities:
A good example of this would be the rite of the Tauroboleum (from the cult of the Worship of the Great Mother or Cybele/Attis). In it a priest stood in a pit under a plank floor containing a bull (or lamb, for reasons of expense-control). The animal was slaughtered and the blood of the animal fell upon the priest below. Predictably, some writers have used the phrase "washed in the blood of the Lamb" to describe this ceremony. Besides the HUGE chronological problem that this rite is not evidenced for at least 150 years after the close of the NT(!), the problem is one of identifying the point of the ritual. Was it a 'washing', was it a 'consumption', or was it a 'union with' the Bull (or more likely, the destruction/defeat of the bull, as it was in the later Mithraic versions of this rite)? [NTB:125f, 134; TAM:128ff]. The pit is sometimes understood as 'cave' [so NTB] and by others as 'tomb' [TAM, but of whom we do not know].
To automatically put it into the category of 'washed in the blood of the Lamb' (Rev 7.14) or 'sprinkled with the blood of Jesus' (I Pet 1.2) is considerably presumptuous, given the paucity of the data. We don't know the meaning of the ceremony at all, other than that it was for the consecration of a priest (and NOT for the initiation of the faithful--another 'disconnect') [NTB:125f]. The bull was called a 'sacrifice'--it was a presumably offered to the Great Mother and Attis. The bull was in NO WAY identified with the deities (that we can tell from the few references to it), so it certainly wasn't being 'washed in the Great Mother's or Attis' blood!
Besides the obvious problems in making this "parallel" actually parallel(!), trying to associate this with the biblical passages fares no better. The passage in Revelation specifically says that it is the 'robes' that are washed--not the people--with the obvious harkening back to 3.14 and the Jewish ritual of sacrificial purification of utensils in the OT [The pagan ceremony had the priest washing his head, face, hands, and even inside the mouth with the blood.]. And the I Peter passage is very closely identified with the OT blood-sprinklings of the people by Moses (cf. Ex 24.6-8: Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey." 8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." )
Another very common alleged similarity is the virgin birth. Other religious figures, especially warrior gods (and actually some heroic human figures such as Alexander the Great) over time became associated with some form of miraculous birth, occasionally connected with virginity. It is all too easy to simply accept this on face value without investigating further. In Raymond Brown's highly respected tome on the Birth Narratives of Jesus [BM:522-523], he evaluates these non-Christian "examples" of virgin births and his conclusions bear repeating here:
"Among the parallels offered for the virginal conception of Jesus have been the conceptions of figures in world religions (the Buddha, Krishna, and the son of Zoroaster), in Greco-Roman mythology (Perseus, Romulus), in Egyptian and Classical History (the Pharaohs, Alexander, Augustus), and among famous philosophers or religious thinkers (Plato, Apollonius of Tyana), to name only a few.From a much less sympathetic perspective, the history-of-religions scholar David Adams Leeming (writing in EOR, s.v. "Virgin Birth") begins his article by pointing out that all 'virgin births' are NOT necessarily such:
"Are any of these divinely engendered births really parallel to the non-sexual virginal conception of Jesus described in the NT, where Mary is not impregnated by a male deity or element, but the child is begotten through the creative power of the Holy Spirit? These "parallels" consistently involve a type of hieros gamos (note: "holy seed" or "divine semen") where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration. In short, there is no clear example of virginal conception in world or pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus."
"A virgin is someone who has not experienced sexual intercourse, and a virgin birth, or parthenogenesis (Gr., parthenos, "virgin"; genesis, "birth"), is one in which a virgin gives birth. According to this definition, the story of the birth of Jesus is a virgin birth story whereas the birth of the Buddha and of Orphic Dionysos are not. Technically what is at issue is the loss or the preservation of virginity during the process of conception. The Virgin Mary was simply "found with child of the Holy Ghost" before she was married and before she had "known" a man. So, too, did the preexistent Buddha enter the womb of his mother, but since she was already a married woman, there is no reason to suppose she was a virgin at the time. In the Ophic story of Dionysos, Zeus came to Persephone in the form of a serpent and impregnated her, so that the maiden's virginity was technically lost."So, one needs to be VERY careful and detailed in examining alleged parallels between figures widely separated in space and time.
For example, the Christmas date of Decemeber 25 was originally the celebrated birthdate of the Roman version of Mitras. When the 4th-5th century Church decided to 'borrow' that date for the sake of establishing a national holiday, it cannot be assumed that the NT writers had any idea of that! This simply cannot be used to argue that the NT figure of Jesus was 'borrowed' from aspects of Mitraism.
Another common example is the Mother & Child iconographic evidence. The images of Horus-the-Child on the lap of his mother Isis was certainly used by the post-Constantine church as a exemplar for the post-NT elaboration of the Mary & Child-Jesus art [TAM:159]. This does not in any way equate the two or support a view that the NT adopts the Horus & Mother motif for Jesus and Mary (indeed, note Jesus' almost trivialization of the entire matter in Luke 11.27-28!)
For example, to argue that since Jesus did miracles and so did the earlier figure of Krishna, the Jesus 'legend' must have borrowed from the Krishna 'legend' is simply fallacious. The common aspect of homo religiosus is an adequate and more plausible explanation than dependence.
"Words such as light, darkness, life, death, spirit, word, love, believing, water, bread, clean, birth, and children of God can be found in almost any religion. Frequently they have very different referents as one moves from religion to religion, but the vocabulary is a popular as religion itself. Nowhere, perhaps, has the importance of this phenomenon been more clearly set forth than in a little-known essay by Kysar. He compares the studies of Dodd and Bultmann on the prologue (John 1.1-18), noting in particular the list of possible parallels each of the two scholars draws up to every conceivable phrase in those verses. Dodd and Bultmann each advance over three hundred parallels, but the overlap in the lists is only 7 percent. The dangers of what Sandmel calls parallelomania become depressingly obvious."So, to say that Horus was called the "Son of the Father" or that the Iranian version of Mit(h)ra was called the "Light of the World" or that Krishna was called a "Shepherd God" is totally irrelevant to the issue of dependences between Jesus and these other religious figures.
So, DSG:15-16 describe even the Christian use of the two categories of deity at the time (emphasis mine):
"It has not been our intention to oversimplify what is in fact an extremely complex subject, namely, the ways in which ancient Mediterranean peoples conceived of their Savior Gods. Nevertheless, during the Hellenistic-Roman period (300 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) there seems to have been a definite pattern across many cultural boundaries regarding certain Gods, who were consistently called "Saviors." They seem to have been of two types. One was the divine/ human offspring of a sexual union between a God(dess) and a human, who was rewarded with immortality for her or his many benefactions. The second type was the temporary manifestation in adult human form of one of the great, immortal Gods, who came into the human world to save a city or nation or the whole civilized world. We have called these, for lack of better labels, the demigod type and the incarnation type. One thing is certain. Justin Martyr had good reason for saying that Christians did not claim anything about their Savior God beyond what the Greeks said about theirs.The same can be seen in the use of the motif of the Cross. The Cross has been a major symbol in world religion since humanity began, but the early church radically transformed the meaning of that symbol. So, Julien Ries in Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. "Cross" (emphasis mine):
"However, it has not been our intention to oversimplify in the other direction either, that is, by glossing over or ignoring the manifold ways in which Christianity stood out as a unique and unusual religion in its time. If Christians utilized familiar concepts and terms in order to communicate their faith, they made two significant changes to them. First of all, they used them in an exclusivist sense. When they proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the Savior of the world, it carried with it a powerful negation: "Neither Caesar, nor Asklepios, nor Herakles, nor Dionysos, nor Ptolemy, nor any other God is the Savior of the world--only Jesus Christ is!"...
"Second, if the Christians took over many basic concepts and ideas from their cultures--and how could they do otherwise--they nevertheless filled them with such new meaning that their contemporaries were often mystified and even violently repelled by what they heard. The same Justin Martyr who was conscious of the similarities also said:"People think we are insane when we name a crucified man as second in rank after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all things, for they do not discern the mystery involved." (Apol. 1.13)"The Apostle Paul had also experienced the painful rejection of his so-called 'good news': his Jewish kinsmen considered it an abhorrent blasphemy, while his Greek listeners thought it utter foolishness. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him or other Christians from continuing to use--and break up and reshape into new meaning--all of the familiar concepts and well-known categories in their attempts to communicate something new, something radically unfamiliar, which had been revealed to them by their God through his Son Jesus Christ, about the whole divine-human relationship."
"It is because of a historical event--the death of Jesus of Nazareth crucified at Golgotha--that the cross is endowed with transcendent significance. The entire ancient symbol systems in assumed, but it is now placed within the context of a new vision of history framed by the theology of creation and redemption. In the eyes of the Christian, the cross is considered inseparable from the mystery of the divine Logos. Hence, it takes on a cosmic dimension, a biblical dimension, and a soteriological dimension."So, even if similar words are used, we must never assume that the content is the same.
We would also expect, however, that this mythic "vocabulary" would be universal, and that various groups would build different "sentences" and "paragraphs" from this vocabulary. Some would look like paraphrases of each other; some would be almost unique. But God would provide some way (e.g. broad-pattern prophecy, miracle-patterns, unpredictability, ethical incisiveness) by which to identify His message when it came.
The problem this creates for us is that we will sometimes be comparing Jesus (one individual in the NT) to the combined characteristics of multiple agents that are all called by the SAME NAME. For example, "Horus" applies to several DIFFERENT deities in the multi-threaded Egyptian religion [see Lesko, in EOR:s.v. "Horus"]. Horus literally has some TEN to TWENTY different names/versions/forms, some of which are: "Horus-the-Child" (Egyptian), Harpokrates, Harsomtus, Horus (as king), Harsiese, Horus-Yun-Mutef, Harendote Harakhti, Horus of Behdet, Harmachis, and several local versions (Nekhen, Mesen, Khenty-irty, Baki, Buhen, Miam) [EGG:87-96]. All of these have slightly different characteristics and legends--esp. with the wide variation between Horus the King and Horus the Sun-God. So, Budge (Gods of Egypt, vol1., p.493): "But besides the attributes of the other Horus gods, Horus, son of Isis, was endowed with many of the characteristics of other gods." When one glups together the diverse characteristics of a dozen deities, one is bound to come up with overlap with the true God! We have the same problem with Mitra--he is a mixture of Iranian, Greek, and Roman cults; Buddha--he is a mixture of various strands of "later" developing biographical tradition; Krishna fares the same--it is difficult to separate the pieces of legends that belong to Vasudeva Krsna and those which belong to Krsna Gopala [EOR:s.v. "Krsna", p.385].
In the case of the specific question above, the impact of this issue can be seen quite readily. The questioner makes the comment that Roman Mithraism predates Jesus. As we shall see, only Iranian mithraism predates Jesus, and Roman Mithraism--which shares ONLY its name with the other!--does NOT predate Jesus in any relevant sense.
"The evidence upon which our knowledge of the so-called mystery religions rests is for the most part fragmentary and by no means easy to interpret. Very much of it consists of single lines and passing allusions in ancient authors (many of whom were either bound to secrecy or inspired with loathing with regard to the subject of which they were treating), inscriptions (many of them incomplete), and artistic and other objects discovered by archaeologists."An example of where this would apply to our study can be seen in the grossly out-dated (but, AMAZINGLY, still widely cited by skeptics?!!!!) work of The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves. The chapter in which he identifies these 'saviors' (some of whom will be discussed below) is dependent TOTALLY on a secondary source (without citations often) that itself is based almost TOTALLY on interpretations of iconographic data. And these interpretations were made 150 years ago, without the benefit of the virtual explosion of knowledge in comparative religion and ANE thought, and without the scholarly 'control' of slightly later works (such as Budge, GOE, below). Graves identifies 16 of these 'crucified Saviors' whereas modern scholarship, working on a much broader base of literary and archeological data, disagrees. So the brilliant and thorough German Scholar Martin Hengel of Tubingdon [Crux:5-7, 11]:
"True, the Hellenistic world was familiar with the death and apotheosis of some predominantly barbarian demigods and heroes of primeval times. Attis and Adonis were killed by a wild boar, Osiris was torn to pieces by Typhon-Seth and Dionysus-Zagreus by the Titans. Heracles alone of the 'Greeks' voluntarily immolated himself of Mount Oeta. However, not only did all this take place in the darkest and most distant past, but it was narrated in questionable myths which had to be interpreted either euhemeristically or at least allegorically. By contrast, to believe that the one pre-existent Son of the one true God, the mediator at creation and the redeemer of the world, had appeared in very recent times in out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews, and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness...The only possibility of something like a 'crucified god' appearing on the periphery of the ancient world was in the form of a malicious parody, intended to mock the arbitrariness and wickedness of the father of the gods on Olympus, who had now become obsolete. This happens in the dialogue called Prometheus, written by Lucian, the Voltaire of antiquity."The point should be clear: perhaps there was not enough data when Graves wrote, but there is now--and Jesus of Nazareth starkly stands out as unique in His manner and purpose of death, among claimants to "all authority in heaven and earth"! (cf. Matt 28.18)
These alleged "identicalities" generally attempt to identify Jesus with deities within a couple of categories (which have some overlap).
It is in this category that we will begin to see a major weakness in the CopyCat hypotheis--that of being radically out-of-date with scholarship.
If one looks at the 'skeptical' literature on the subject, the citations and sources used are generally a century old (!) or more recent 'popular literature' (based on those out-of-date resources) that is NEVER cited in the scholarly works of the past twenty years.
Just for example, the abysmal piece on "Origins of Christianity" cited by some who come through the ThinkTank--besides being riddled with gross errors of fact and method--does not cite a SINGLE scholarly work dealing with primary materials, and its main supports are from works hopelessly out of date (e.g. Joseph Wheless, Kersey Graves, Albert Churchward, Gerald Massey, Robert Taylor). The few recent works cited in the piece either (1) do not even TRY to defend/document their assertions(!)--e.g. Lloyd Graham's Myths and Deceptions of the Bible; or (2) mix such non-documented assertions with statements supported only by secondary materials--e.g. Barbara Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. [I have been told by a prominent skeptic on the web that these works are considered 'embarrassments' to their cause.]
But why does the CopyCat believer not produce more recent works that the above? (Even the field of biblical studies sometimes refers to this motif--even though it is slightly out of the subject matter field.) It is because history-of-religions scholarship has abandoned the position!
I want to give an extended quote here from the outstanding reference work edited by the preminent comparative religions scholar Mircea Eliade, The Encyclopedia of Religion [Macmillian: 1987]. The entry under "Dying and Rising Gods" starts this way (emphasis mine):
"The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.Now, we can summarize this quote thus:
"Definition. As applied in the scholarly literature, 'dying and rising gods' is a generic appellation for a group of male deities found in agrarian Mediterranean societies who serve as the focus of myths and rituals that allegedly narrate and annually represent their death and resurrection.
" Beyond this sufficient criterion, dying and rising deities were often held by scholars to have a number of cultic associations, sometimes thought to form a "pattern." They were young male figures of fertility; the drama of their lives was often associated with mother or virgin goddesses; in some areas, they were related to the institution of sacred kingship, often expressed through rituals of sacred marriage; there were dramatic reenactments of their life, death, and putative resurrection, often accompanied by a ritual identification of either the society or given individuals with their fate.
"The category of dying and rising gods, as well as the pattern of its mythic and ritual associations, received its earliest full formulation in the influential work of James G. Frazer The Golden Bough, especially in its two central volumes, The Dying God and Adonis, Arris, Osiris. Frazer offered two interpretations, one euhemerist, the other naturist. In the former, which focused on the figure of the dying god, it was held that a (sacred) king would be slain when his fertility waned. This practice, it was suggested, would be later mythologized, giving rise to a dying god. The naturist explanation, which covered the full cycle of dying and rising, held the deities to be personifications of the seasonal cycle of vegetation. The two interpretations were linked by the notion that death followed upon a loss of fertility, with a period of sterility being followed by one of rejuvenation, either in the transfer of the kingship to a successor or by the rebirth or resurrection of the deity.
"There are empirical problems with the euhemerist theory. The evidence for sacral regicide is limited and ambiguous; where it appears to occur, there are no instances of a dying god figure. The naturist explanation is flawed at the level of theory. Modern scholarship has largely rejected, for good reasons, an interpretation of deities as projections of natural phenomena.
"Nevertheless, the figure of the dying and rising deity has continued to be employed, largely as a preoccupation of biblical scholarship, among those working on ancient Near Eastern sacred kingship in relation to the Hebrew Bible and among those concerned with the Hellenistic mystery cults in relation to the New Testament.
"Broader Categories. Despite the shock this fact may deal to modern Western religious sensibilities, it is a commonplace within the history of religions that immortality is not a prime characteristic of divinity: gods die. Nor is the concomitant of omnipresence a widespread requisite: gods disappear. The putative category of dying and rising deities thus takes its place within the larger category of dying gods and the even larger category of disappearing deities. Some of these divine figures simply disappear; some disappear only to return again in the near or distant future; some disappear and reappear with monotonous frequency. All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case, the deities return but have not died; in the second case, the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity."
But let's go a bit further...let's look at some of the specific deities offered as pagan christs, and see how scholarship views these 'almost identical' claims (pages cited are from the Eliade work, cited above, "Dying and Rising Gods", by J. Smith):
By the way, this pattern of Christians THEMSELVES imputing a dying-n-risin' motif onto other deities is an odd one, but one noticed by Smith:
"This pattern will recur for many of the figures considered: an indigenous mythology and ritual focusing on the deity's death and rituals of lamentation, followed by a later Christian report adding the element nowhere found in the earlier native sources, that the god was resurrected. (p.522)and again...
"The majority of evidence for Near Eastern dying and rising deities occurs in Greek and Latin texts of late antiquity, usually post-Christian in date.Notice how ironic this is; the Christians, in their efforts to find semantic categories of adequate overlap to share the good news about Jesus, read Jesus 'back into' the pre-Christian myths! They created the very problem I am having to address today! (We will look further at this semantic-overlap need below.)
It should be pointed out that it is not only the history-of-religions crowd that rejects the dying-and-rising-deity ascription to Baal, but it is also the Ugaritic scholars Cyrus Gordon and Godfrey Driver who reject this pattern (see their respective collections of Ugaritic literature).
Baal is supposed to be one of the best examples of a dying and rising god--that the data is ambiguous at best is not a good sign for the CopyCat crowd...
The Osiris story is surprisingly consistent over its long history.
"Osiris was murdered and his body dismembered and scattered. The pieces of his body were recovered and rejoined, and the god was rejuvenated. However, he did not return to his former mode of existence but rather journeyed to the underworld, where he became the powerful lord of the dead. In no sense can Osiris be said to have 'risen' in the sense required by the dying and rising pattern"
"In no sense can the dramatic myth of his death and reanimation be harmonized to the pattern of dying and rising gods."
"As the above examples make plain, the category of dying and rising deities is exceedingly dubious. It has been based largely on Christian interest and tenuous evidence. As such, the category is of more interest to the history of scholarship than to the history of religions."In other words, the Jesus stories were NOT based on some alleged earlier (and common) Dying and Rising God theme--for it simply has never existed!
(First, let me point out that, according to Smith (above), IF WE FIND Dying and Rising God elements in these religions, then they will be POST-CHRISTIAN in dating and cannot, therefore, be responsible for the production of the New Testament.)
The Mystery Religions flourished during the Hellenistic Age (ca. 300bc - 200 ad+), and were small, local cults up until 100 a.d. [For a wider analysis of these cults and their possible impact on Christianity, see Nash, cited below as simply "Nash"]. "These mysteries, involving the worship of deities from Greece, Syria, Anatolia, Egypt, or Persia, were diverse in geographical origin and heterogeneous in historical development and theological orientation." [TAM:4], and were generally confined to specific localities until around 100 a.d. [Nash]. They were essentially closed, small groups, in which initiation into 'the secrets of the god' had to be earned through deeds and rituals.
We have almost no contemporary data about the Hellenistic mystery cults [NTB:120], and we are almost totally dependent on 3rd century a.d. sources [NASH]. Nash cautions about this:
"It is not until we come to the third century A.D. that we find sufficient source material to permit a relatively complete reconstruction of their content. Far too many writers use this later source material (after A.D. 200) to form reconstructions of the third-century mystery experience and then uncritically reason back to what they think must have been the earlier nature of the cults. This practice is exceptionally bad scholarship and should not be allowed to stand without challenge. Information about a cult that formed several hundred years after the close of the New Testament canon must not be read back into what is presumed to be the status of the cult during the first century A.D. The crucial question is not what possible influence the mysteries may have had on segments of Christendom after A.D. 400, but what effect the emerging mysteries may have had on the New Testament in the first century."We immediately run into a problem here--that of "who borrowed from whom?". If the NT was completed before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., and the Mystery Religions (MR's) in the Roman Empire only started 'flourishing' after 100 A.D. (and were almost certainly not present in Jerusalem before its Fall!), then any alleged dependence of the gospels on the MR's is a bit tenuous. This problem is most acute in the case of Mithras, but also applies to a lesser extent to the Hellenistic version of Isis/Osiris and Dionysos. So, the scholar Meyer, in his sourcebook about the subject [TAM:226]:
"Scholars have proposed several theories to account for the obvious similarities between Christianity and the mystery religions. Theories of dependence frequently have been proposed. Early Christian authors noted the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism and charged that the mysteries were godless, demonically inspired imitations of true Christianity....Some modern scholars, conversely, have suggested that early Christianity (even before the fourth century C.E., when Christianity began to adopt the practices of its non-Christian neighbors with vigor) borrowed substantially from the mystery religions all around...(Would that the CopyCat-advocates would learn a lesson from the scholars!!)
"Today, however, most scholars are considerably more cautious about the parallels between early Christianity and the mysteries and hesitate before jumping to conclusions about dependence."
To Meyer's quote we might add additional modern scholars who are convinced that (1) most of the 'obvious similarities' are inconsequential or incidental; and (2) that the MR's borrowed from early Christianity. Nash cites Bruce Metzger:
"What few parallels may still remain may reflect a Christian influence on the pagan systems. As Bruce Metzger has argued, 'It must not be critically assumed that the Mysteries always influenced Christianity, for it is not only possible but probable that in certain cases, the influence moved in the opposite direction.' It should not be surprising that leaders of cults that were being successfully challenged by Christianity should do something to counter the challenge. What better way to do this than by offering a pagan substitute? Pagan attempts to counter the growing influence of Christianity by imitating it are clearly apparent in measure instituted by Julian the Apostate, who was the Roman emperor form A.D. 361 to 363."Since there is still a great deal of confusion about the Dying and Rising God (DARG) motif, on the part of biblical scholars (as noted above by Smith, from the history-of-religions field), let me cite some of the major differences between the death of Jesus and the various deities subsumed so far in the previous two sections (as summarized by Nash):
"The best way to evaluate the alleged dependence of early Christian beliefs about Christ's death and resurrection on the pagan myths of a dying and rising savior-god is to examine carefully the supposed parallels. The death of Jesus differs from the deaths of the pagan gods in at least six ways:These are some very material and significant differences between even a most generous reading of the MR and DARG texts! This SHOULD be enough data to indicate that "dependence" (as opposed to "similarities") are going to be very difficult to maintain--in the opinions of scholars. But let's also take a brief look at the major figures that are prominent in the better known MR's of the Roman Empire. The ones most often referenced in NT background reference sourcebooks such as KOC, DSG, and NTB are the Greek MRs (Eleusinian--based on the rape of Persephone by Pluto; Dionysos (Bacchus)) and the Oriental MRs (Isis, Cybele/Attis--examined above, Mithras) [For a discussion of this breakdown, see NTSE:132-137.] We will look at some of these below.
- None of the so-called savior-gods died for someone else. The notion of the Son of God dying in place of His creatures is unique to Christianity.
- Only Jesus died for sin. As Gunter Wagner observes, to none of the pagan gods "has the intention of helping men been attributed. The sort of death that they died is quite different (hunting accident, self-emasculation, etc.)."
- Jesus died once and for all (Heb. 7:27; 9:25-28; 10:10-14). In contrast, the mystery gods were vegetation deities whose repeated deaths and resuscitations depict the annual cycle of nature.
- Jesus' death was an actual event in history. The death of the mystery god appears in a mythical drama with no historical ties; its continued rehearsal celebrates the recurring death and rebirth of nature. The incontestable fact that the early church believed that its proclamation of Jesus' death and resurrection was grounded in an actual historical event makes absurd any attempt to derive this belief from the mythical, nonhistorical stories of the pagan cults.
- Unlike the mystery gods, Jesus died voluntarily. Nothing like this appears even implicitly in the mysteries.
- And finally, Jesus' death was not a defeat but a triumph. Christianity stands entirely apart from the pagan mysteries in that its report of Jesus' death is a message of triumph. Even as Jesus was experiencing the pain and humiliation of the cross, He was the victor. The New Testament's mood of exultation contrasts sharply with that of the mystery religions, whose followers wept and mourned for the terrible fate that overtook their gods."
This MR was NOT the same as the earlier Osiris religion we looked at. This was a substantial modification of that religion by Ptolemy I in the Hellenistic period. So Kee in KOC:77:
"Under Ptolemy I, the hellenistic ruler of Egypt from 305 to 285 B.C., a new cult was established in honor of Serapis, a composite deity whose attributes included features of Osiris (the God of the Nile), Aesclepius (the god of healing), Jupiter (the supreme Olympian god, Zeus, adapted for Roman use), and Pluto (the god of the underworld). In their efforts to create a one-world culture, the hellenistic rulers found a cult as inclusive as that of Serapis enormously useful, because people of diverse backgrounds could unite in honoring this divinity."The cult of Osiris (Egyptian) was transformed into an MR of Serapis by Ptolemy. The MR version made inroads into Rome--from Egypt--during the reign of Caligula (A.D. 37-41), and although Osiris was certainly a dying god, we know that Serapis was NOT a dying god at all [NASH].
Dionysos was the god of wine, and most of the cult was concerned with partying, to such an extent that the Roman Senate restricted its size and meeting frequency in 186 BC (NTSE:133). There were the vague intimations of renewal in the seasonal changes of the earth, but the similarities with Jesus are few and insubstantial. It is one of the older cults, going back into the 7th century B.C. but it was only turned into an MR during the Roman period.
This is a strange one, and one that is under considerable re-assessment in the scholarly community. Earlier scholars in the field followed the 1903 standard by Cumont in which the Mithra of the Roman MR's was connected with the Iranian and Persian deities of the name Mithra/Mitra. This position has been under radical and critical fire for some 25 years, since the only connection between the Middle Eastern cult and the Roman MR was the name! And the bull-ceremony, in which Mithra kills a bull, does not occur in the Iranian/Persian versions. Recent leaders in the fields, such as David Ulansey have argued for a strictly Roman origin for this MR, based exclusively on the zodiacial orientation of the period.
If we accept Ulansey's view, then is very little DARG content in the "Mithra" MR; most of it would have been in the Persian/Iranian versions. Accordingly, there is nothing to be 'similar to' and the identification fails.
If we accept the Iranian origination, then we have Mithra arriving too late on the scene to influence the NT. So Stambach and Balch, in NTSE:137: "This myth, in which Mithras overcame the powers of evil, spread from Iran across the Roman world during the second and third centuries."
This late timing is largely responsible for the diminishing belief that Mithra influenced early (as opposed to late) Christianity. So Nash:
"Attempts to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of Mithraism face enormous challenges because of the scanty information that has survived. Proponents of the cult explained the world in terms of two ultimate and opposing principles, one good (depicted as light) and the other evil (darkness). Human beings must choose which side they will fight for; they are trapped in the conflict between light and darkness. Mithra came to be regarded as the most powerful mediator who could help humans ward off attacks from demonic forces.It is difficult to decide if the earliest Roman references to Mithraism are to the Iranian version or the later Roman MR version. Plutarch, for example, says that the mysteries of Mithy were in evidence among the pirates in southeastern Asia Minor during the first century B.C. and were introduced by them to Rome (cited in TAM:200). Certainly all of the mentions we have in late antiquity (e.g. Lucian, Firmicus Maternus, Origen, Porphyry) are 2nd-5th century. We have no even 'soft' data upon which to base either (1) dependence or even (2) similarity between Jesus and the MR Mithra.
"The major reason why no Mithraic influence on first-century Christianity is possible is the timing: it's all wrong! The flowering of Mithraism occurred after the close of the New Testament canon, much too late for it to have influenced anything that appears in the New Testament. Moreover, no monuments for the cult can be dated earlier than A.D. 90-100, and even this dating requires us to make some exceedingly generous assumptions. Chronological difficulties, then, make the possibility of a Mithraic influence on early Christianity extremely improbable. Certainly, there remains no credible evidence for such an influence."
To what extent are the lives of Jesus, Buddha, Krisha "almost identical" enough to justify suspicion of borrowing?
Let's do Buddha first...
Let's use the list from Origins:
Now, there are two main questions hiding in here: (1) did the Buddha legend include these legends in the way portrayed--"elements in common with Jesus Christ"; and (2) are these sufficient to conclude "almost identical" or even "material similarity"?
The second is relatively easy to answer, given the above discussions. These elements--even IF accurate--would not even be close enough to implicate borrowing. Let's go back through them.
These 'similarities' turn out to be either superficial, misinformed, misunderstood, or simply irrelevant. As in most of the cases we will look at in this paper, it is the differences that are the most striking!
Just to cite a few:
Again, the list from Origins:
But, just to check the reliability of the assertion about December 25th...As it turns out, this CopyCat assertion is also incorrect. E.A. Wallis Budge was one of the leading Egyptologists of this century, and his work is still cited in the scholarly literature. His two-volume work entitled The Gods of Egypt (Dover 1969 repub of the earlier 1904 work)--cited below as GOE--provides much detail about the legends of Horus. In this case, Budge has a section on the calendar and lists Horus' birthday (the ORIGINAL 'big' Horus) as the 2nd epagomenal/intercalary day of the year (GOE:2.109, 293). The Egyptian official calendar was of 360 days, followed by 5 intercalary (i.e.inserted into the calendar) days (to fill out the year to 365), which began with the helical rising of the star Sirius (Religious Holidays and Calendars: An Encyclopedic Handbook by Kelly, Dresser, Ross; Ominigraphics:1993, p.44), also known as the first day of the month Thoth. This places the start of the year around July 19-21 [Chronology of the Ancient World, by E.J. Bickerman, Cornell:1980, 2nd ed.], and would place the 5 extra days immediately preceding that date (i.e., at the END of the previous year). These extra days, therefore, would fall in the month of July--NOT December! ]
But again, my research in the academic literature does not surface this fact. I can find references to FOUR "disciples"--variously called the semi-divine HERU-SHEMSU ("Followers of Horus") [GOE:1.491]. I can find references to SIXTEEN human followers (GOE:1.196). And I can find reference to an UNNUMBERED group of followers called mesniu/mesnitu ("blacksmiths") who accompanied Horus in some of his battles [GOE:1.475f; although these might be identified with the HERU-SHEMSU in GOE:1.84]. But I cannot find TWELVE anywhere... ]
This fact has likewise escaped me and my research. I have looked at probably 50 epithets of the various Horus deities, and most major indices of the standard Egyptology reference works and come up virtually empty-handed. I can find a city named "Iusaas" [GOE:1.85], a pre-Islamic Arab deity by the name of "Iusaas", thought by some to be the same as the Egyptian god Tehuti/Thoth [GOE:2.289], and a female counterpart to Tem, named "Iusaaset" [GOE:1.354]. But no reference to Horus as being "Iusa"... ]
"In ancient Egypt there were originally several gods known by the name Horus, but the best known and most important from the beginning of the historic period was the son of Osiris and Isis who was identified with the king of Egypt. According to myth, Osiris, who assumed the rulership of the earth shortly after its creation, was slain by his jealous brother, Seth. The sister- wife of Osiris, Isis, who collected the pieces of her dismembered husband and revived him, also conceived his son and avenger, Horus. Horus fought with Seth, and, despite the loss of one eye in the contest, was successful in avenging the death of his father and in becoming his legitimate successor. Osiris then became king of the dead and Horus king of the living, this transfer being renewed at every change of earthly rule. The myth of divine kingship probably elevated the position of the god as much as it did that of the king. In the fourth dynasty, the king, the living god, may have been one of the greatest gods as well, but by the fifth dynasty the supremacy of the cult of Re, the sun god, was accepted even by the kings. The Horus-king was now also "son of Re." This was made possible mythologically by personifying the entire older genealogy of Horus (the Heliopolitan ennead) as the goddess Hathor, "house of Horus," who was also the spouse of Re and mother of Horus.Notice how "almost identical lives" Horus and Jesus had!!! (NOT!):
"Horus was usually represented as a falcon, and one view of him was as a great sky god whose outstretched wings filled the heavens; his sound eye was the sun and his injured eye the moon. Another portrayal of him particularly popular in the Late Period, was as a human child suckling at the breast of his mother, Isis. The two principal cult centers for the worship of Horus were at Bekhdet in the north, where very little survives, and at Idfu in the south, which has a very large and well- preserved temple dating from the Ptolemaic period. The earlier myths involving Horus, as well as the ritual per- formed there, are recorded at Idfu."
(Again, the list from Origins):
In India a like tale is told of the beloved savior Krishna, whose terrible uncle, Kansa, was, in that case, the tyrant-king. The savior's mother, Devaki, was of royal lineage, the tyrant's niece, and at the time when she was married the wicked monarch heard a voice, mysteriously, which let him know that her eighth child would be his slayer. He therefore confined both her and her husband, the saintly nobleman Vasudeva, in a closely guarded prison, where he murdered their first six infants as they came. (emphasis mine).According to the story, the mother had six normal children before the 7th and 8th 'special' kids--a rather clear indication that the mom was not a virgin when she conceived Krishna. The CopyCat statement above is simply wrong.
But there is another problem with this birth story--it is way too late in history to count. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita in Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists (Dover: 1967, repub. of 1913), pp.217ff, point out that the childhood legends of Krisha did not begin surfacing until AFTER the Gita of 200-300 a.d., with most of the child-lore originating closer to 1000 a.d. and later (in the bhakti developments). In a case like this can we seriously think that 1st century Jews were clever enough to invent a time machine and steal legends from the future? ]
"Traces of the original indigenous religion are plain in the later phases of the history of Hinduism. In the course of time, large shifts occur in the world of the gods. Some gods lose significance while others move into the foreground, until at last the 'Hindu trinity' emerges: Brahma, Visnu, and Siva..."Krishna was an avatar (manifestation, incarnation, theophany) of Visnu. As such, Krishna only appeared on the scene during the Epic period, and most of the legendary materials about him show up in the Harivamsa, or Genealogy of Visnu (fourth century a.d.) and in the Puranas (written between 300-1200 a.d.). He is one of TEN avatars of Visnu. Much of the material about him is LATER THAN the NT(!)--for example, the beautiful work the Bhagavadgita, in which he is the main speaker, is dated to be a 2nd century a.d. insertion into the older epic the Mahabharata [WR:Eliade:133; WR:SW:91f; WR:RT:105f].
One can see quite clearly that the CopyCat assertion is wholly mistaken.
This is another case of someone sloppily using Christian terminology to describe non-Christian phenomena, and then being surprised by the similarity!]
From the standpoint of accuracy, let me mention that I cannot find any reference to him dying on a tree. The records I have to his death run something like this (WR:SDFML, s.v. "krishna"):
"Krishna was accidentally slain by the hunter Jaras...when he was mistaken for a deer and shot in the foot, his vulnerable spot."Perhaps he died under a tree, but that would not be very 'similar' to Jesus, now would it?! ]
These generally do not carry the force of the above categories, and so the borrowing/dependence claim is much weaker here. These 'overlaps' are simply explained:
"His birth, like that of many great warriors and heroes, is unnatural: kept against his will inside his mother's womb for many years, he burst forth out of her side and kills his own father" (Rig Veda 4.18, as discussed in EOR, s.v. "Indra")This cannot be remotely correlated with the birth of Christ, as neither can Indra's subsequent life as an immoral womanizer, a criminal punished by castration, and a declining failure to the end.
Ancient Greek mythology is replete with examples of gods and men doing miracles, some very much like the ones in the Gospels. Alexander the Great, for example, was said to have been born of a virgin and to have been called a god (acc. to Plutarch). The earliest sources on Alexander depict him as 'normal' (i.e. Arrian of Nicomedia), but a millennium later he is a god. But in the gospels, the earliest strata still portray Christ as a miracle worker. The process called the 'divine man' motif has very few parallels with the gospel development (see Theissen's Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, Fortress Press: 1983, pp. 265-276.), and many doubt if we can speak of a clear concept of the 'divine man' before the 2nd century A.D. --AFTER the NT was written (see David Tiede, The Charismatic Figure as Miracle Worker, Scholars Press: 1972).
One of the most interesting (and striking) of parallels is The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, written by one Philostratus. DSG:203 summarizes the background and dating:
"One of the most famous in this succession of Pythagorean philosophers was a man named Apollonios, of the Greek city of Tyana in the Province of Cappadocia, in what is today eastern Turkey. Although he lived in the second half of the first century A.D., we have little direct information about Apollonios, except for this biography by Philostratus of Lemnos, written much later, i.e., around A.D. 218.The incredible thing about this piece, though, is its strange similarities to the gospel literature (but NOT to the life of Christ--BLOM:85,86). So DSG:203f:
"When the emperor Caracalla was on his way to capture the territories to the East, he stopped at Tyana to pay tribute to 'the divine Apollonios,' even donating the funds to build a temple to him there. And Caracalla's mother, Julia Domna, commissioned one of the professional writers in her entourage to publish a fitting account of Apollonios' life. "
"This conjunction of events suggests that the title of Philostratus' work might best be translated: 'In Honor of Apollonios of Tyana,' for the entire account from beginning to end consists of carefully constructed praise, using every device known to this well-trained writer. In other words, just as Caracalla's architects built a shrine for Apollonios out of marble, one of his court rhetoricians built a temple out of words--for the same purpose, i.e., to celebrate Apollonios' God-like nature and inspire reverence for him. Thus, Philostratus' narrative is a virtual catalogue of every rhetorical device known to the professional sophistic writers of that time: sudden supernatural omens, mini-dialogues on the favorite topics of the day, colorful bits of archeological lore, plenty of magic, rapid action scenes, amazing descriptions of fabled, far-off lands, occasional touches of naughty eroticism, and a whole series of favorite "philosophical" scenes: the Philosopher lectures his disciples on being willing to die for truth; the Philosopher is abandoned by his cowardly disciples; the Philosopher confronts the tyrant; the brave Philosopher is alone in prison unafraid; the Philosopher victoriously defends himself in the court, and so on. On the other hand, Philostratus included enough accurate historical details to give his writing the ring of genuine truth. But mixed in with the real people and places are all sorts of imaginary "official" letters, inscriptions, decrees, and edicts, the whole bound together by an "eyewitness" diary. Finally, to give it the proper supernatural flavor, he has included numerous miraculous and supernatural occurrences: dreams, pre-vision, teleportation, exorcism and finally, vanishing from earth only to reappear later from Heaven to convince a doubting disciple of the soul's immortality.What is interesting here is that reverse-copying seems to be going on! Philostratus is setting out to 'honor' Apollonius and creates a rhetorical hodge-podge of praise. But some are convinced that Philostratus had the NT in front of him (esp. since he wrote the piece 150 years later than it!). Elizabeth Haight observed:
"Guiding Philostratus at each point in constructing his narrative was the reputation of Apollonios as a divine/human Savior God."
"[Philostratus] wrote with full knowledge of Xenophon's romantic biography of Cyrus the Great as the ideal ruler, of the Greek novels of war and adventure, of the Greek love romances...and of the Christian Acts with a saint for a hero. [In view of all these possibilities] Philostratus chose to present a theos aner, a divine sage, a Pythagorean philosopher, as the center of his story. To make the life of his hero interesting and to promulgate his philosophy, he used every device of the Greek and Latin novels of the second and third centuries." (More Essays on Greek Romances, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1945, p. 111f; cited in DSG:205-206.Meier also discounts the "divine man" construct and believes that Philostratus drew from the NT documents (MJ:2.596):
"In the case of the phrase 'divine man,' scholars cannot point to one clear and coherent concept--or collection of concepts--connected with the phrase 'divine man' that was current in Greco-Roman literature before or during the time of Jesus. To construct their concept of a 'divine man,' scholars of the 20th century have culled ideas from a vast array of Greek and Roman works from Homer up until the writings of the late Roman Empire. While the vague constant in the phrase "divine man" is divine power as revealed or embodied in some human being, the exact human referent ranges widely over priest-kings of Asia Minor and Egypt (including kingly magicians and law- givers), monarchs whose vast power on earth was believed to extend over nature itself (especially the Roman Emperors), and various kinds of prophetic philosophers (including ecstatics, magicians, miracle-workers, apostles, hero-sages, founders and leaders of religious groups, shamans, and charlatans). In many of the reconstructions, scholars rely heavily on works like The Death of Peregrinus and Alexander or the False Prophet by Lucian, the satirist of the 2d century A.D., and The Life of Apollonius by Philostratus, the rhetorician of the 3d century A.D. Lucian almost certainly knew the Christian Gospels, and Philostratus probably did as well."What this means for us, is that one of the better examples of a candidate for 'borrowing' is in the wrong direction. And since the hero and the divine man concepts are either too general, too insignificant, or too 'late' to make a good case for the CopyCat theorist, we are back where we started--the uniqueness of Jesus the Christ and His life, death, and resurrection.
The Net of the allegation of material,
significant, and pervasive borrowing: You simply cannot find MORE
'tight' similarities THAN you can find 'tight' dissimilarities between
Jesus and the other alleged gods of the world. The DARG's are a fiction,
the MR's are too late or not influential enough, the "major figures" are
too dissimilar, and the "minor players" are not even close. What similarities
DO SEEM to appear are weak, incidental, expected from the nature of humanity,
due to equivocation, constitute only a very small fraction of the data
of His life/character, or altogether forced. There is an absolute uniqueness
about this Jesus of Nazareth that is not duplicated ANYWHERE--in whole
or in part.
This point is rather moot--we do not have anything to explain.
Let me make this point with two examples.
One, if similarities are incidental, they don't require borrowing/dependence at all. I can ALWAYS find elements in common between people (e.g. size, shape, color, IQ, preferences, place of birth). How often in talking with someone do you find out that your birthdays are within a few days of one another? It always SEEMS odd, but there is no reason in the world to suspect 'dependence'!!!
Closer to the subject would be the symbol of the cross. The cross as a religious symbol (in various shapes, of course) can be traced back to the earliest civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Does this mean that the story of the crucifixion of Jesus on the Roman instrument of execution was 'borrowed' from that symbol?! Crucifixion by the Roman empire was common--and certainly NOT motivated by religious concerns or traditions! How preposterous it would seem to the historian to suggest that the writers of the NT constructed the entire Passion narrative involving Pilate and the Cross--because of a religious motif!! The level of detail and political intrigue and aberrations of Jewish legal praxis screams out for the judgment of authenticity. The similarity between the Cross as the symbol of Anu in Sumeria and the execution instrument of the Roman Empire used on Jesus in NO WAY implies 'borrowing' or 'dependence'.
Thus, there really is nothing to explain...
But, for the sake of argument and completeness...let's
move on to the issue of...