Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Did the Gospels Borrow from Pagan Myths (Jesus Legend or Lord Part 2)

One of the main reasons that Joe Biden is our vice-president now and was not elected president 20 years ago is because of plagiarism. When he ran for president in 1988, reporters discovered that he was using large sections of a British politician’s speeches as his own words, without giving credit. Preachers do this all the time, of course, but for a politician like Biden, it was a serious matter. It forced him to withdraw from his campaign, and it took 20 years before he could run for office again.

Last week I began a series addressing some crucial questions that have been raised by critics of the Bible about Jesus. And one of the most common allegations by unbelievers is that the gospel writers were not genuine historians, but that they actually borrowed ideas from pagan mythology and re-crafted them into stories about Jesus.
In the previous lesson, I pointed out that the gospels claim to be historical accounts of the life of Christ. And further, I showed how the gospels actually resemble other ancient historical works in form and content. But what some skeptics say is that the gospels are actually cleverly disguised re-tellings of legends from the pagan world, cloaked in historical garb, but nothing more than plagiarized myths.
Today we are going to tackle this attack on the truthfulness of the Bible.

I. The Gospels as Pagan Plagiarism

The Bible claims that Jesus was born of a virgin. Not that God simply enabled a couple that had trouble conceiving to give birth (like Abraham and Sarah). But that God miraculously enabled a young woman who had never had relations with a man to conceive. And the Bible teaches that after Jesus was crucified He rose from the dead. Not simply that He floated around like a ghost, but that the body which went into the tomb came out of the tomb – a resurrection.
But some people argue that various pagan religions had stories about virgin births, and dying and rising gods, centuries before the gospels were written, and that the gospel writers simply took those stories and made them about Jesus. This concept was first popularized by German scholars in the early 1900s, in what is usually called the “History of Religions School” of thought. A British author named Sir James Frazier picked up on the supposed parallels between pagan myths and the Bible and summarized them in a book called The Golden Bough in 1906.
By the mid 1900s these proposals fell out of favor with historians (for reasons we will discuss in a minute). But lately they have been “resurrected” and promoted by a new generation of skeptics.
For instance, one of the characters in The Da Vinci Code says this:
The pre-Christian God Mithras—called the Son of God and the Light of the World—was born on December 25, died, and was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days. By the way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus. The newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even Christianity’s weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans (p. 232).
This is why The Da Vinci Code says “Nothing in Christianity is original” (p. 232).
Comedian Bill Maher makes similar charges in his movie Religulous- as this quote from a talk show apearance explains:
But the god who was born of a virgin, died, was resurrected 3 days later, died for everybody’s sins, that was an old story going around the Mediterranean for a 1000 years. Horus is an Egyptian god, the exact same story, he raised someone named Lazarus from the dead. Mithra, a Persian god. Krishna, an Indian god.
If you do a little surfing on the web you can find thousands of websites which say the same thing. In fact, these attacks even appeared in a publication as innocuous as Nashville Parent. A disgruntled atheist wrote a letter to the editor in response to an article about making room for God in the lives of your children, and among other things he says:
Here is an interesting holiday riddle for you. It maybe eye-opening as well. Who was the son of god come to save his people, born of a human virgin in a cave (stable), was attended by shepherds and visited by three wise-men bearing gifts and following a star…who was later falsely accused, beaten and hung on a tree to die after making an entry into town while people waved branches…who rose from death on the third day…If you said Jesus – you are wrong! This is actually the much more ancient Egyptian story of Osiris.
What are we to make of these allegations? After all, if they are true, they would completely discredit the truthfulness of Christianity. In a moment we are going to look at these claims in detail, but first, I want to set forth some general principles about the relationship between paganism and the Bible. And to me the best place to do that is where Christianity and paganism met head on – the story of Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17.
II. When Christians Met Pagans
During Paul’s second missionary journey he traveled to the city of Athens, the center of Greco-Roman culture, philosophy and religion in the first century. Idols were everywhere in Athens, leading one ancient writer to say that it was easier to find a god in Athens than it was to find a man. This outraged the apostle.
17:16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.
Remember, Paul was a Jewish Christian. He was born into a family that followed the Law scrupulously, and described himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews.”
As a devout Jew Paul would have naturally abhorred idolatry. There were periods in Israel’s history in which the Jews did fall under the influence of paganism and mixed their religion with idolatry, but they were punished for this by God in exile to Babylon. When they returned from captivity, they were never again tempted to adopt pagan religion.
Not only that, during the time between the testaments the Jews were viciously oppressed by pagans who tried to stamp out Judaism, which only honed their hatred of pagan practices even more.
So here is a key point – since the NT was written by Jews (with the exception of Luke, a close associate of Paul), any attempt to connect the gospels with pagan stories has the insurmountable task of explaining why it is that first century Jewish authors like Matthew, Mark and John drew upon a form of religion they detested to create their own stories!
Here is a second observation. The NT was written to interact with pagans, not steal from them.
As you read the account of Paul’s preaching in Athens, you learn that he encountered two schools of philosophers and engaged them in dialogue – the Epicureans and the Stoics.
17:17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.
The Epicureans believed that there was no god, that the world was a swirling mass of particles that could not be divided into something smaller (atoms), and that the goal of life was to seek pleasure while you had the chance since there was no life after death. The Stoics did believe in a god, and that man’s purpose was to do your duty to god, and that there was an afterlife.
Now between those two schools of thought, which is closer to Christianity? Of course the Stoic philosophy was, since it accepted the existence of God and the afterlife. And as Paul engaged the philosophers in Acts 17, he deliberately chose to use terms and concepts that were familiar to the Stoics to build common ground with them.
17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Your Bible may even have footnotes that explain that Paul’s statements in verse 28 that “In him we live and move and had our being” and “For we are indeed his offspring” are quotations from Greek writers, Epimenides and Aratus. So Paul knew what pagans believed, and could quote them. But here is the key point – is the reason Paul believed there was a God because he read about God in pagan philosophy? Of course not! He believed in God because of his Jewish heritage and his belief in the Old Testament.
But he would make use of what he read in pagan literature to build common ground from which he could then teach the truth. Any effort to explain alleged parallels between the gospels and pagan religion must ignore that obvious point that the natural backdrop of the gospels is not paganism, but the Old Testament.
And that leads me to a third key observation. The truth that Paul was building to was the resurrection of Jesus, a concept which most pagans believed was absurd. Notice what happened next in Acts 17-
17:29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst.
Even pagans like the Stoics who believed in an afterlife did not believe in the resurrection of the body. They considered the body to be a prison to be released from, and the idea that once you were granted this release you would be reunited with your body was bizarre.
So how could the gospel writers have borrowed from pagan myths to create the account of the resurrection when pagans did not believe in resurrection!
So, as we now take a look at the supposed parallels between the gospels and pagan religion, keep these three points in mind:
1) The gospels were written from a Jewish perspective.
2) The natural backdrop of the gospels is the Old Testament.
3) Pagans did not believe in the resurrection of the body.
Now, on to the specific stories.

III. Alleged Parallels Debunked

A. The Virgin Birth
First, let’s take a look at the alleged parallels between the birth of Jesus and various pagan myths.
One of the most popular religions in the days after the time of the NT was a secret religion that honored an ancient god called Mithras. In The Da Vinci Code and other attacks on the Bible, skeptics argue that since Mithras was born of a virgin on December the 25th that the New Testament simply copied those details and changed the name to Jesus.
This is false, for two basic reasons. In the first place, Mithras was NOT born of a virgin. Mithras was born of a rock. That’s right, a rock. Historians have uncovered all kinds of sculptures and engravings which picture this. Which gives me an opportunity to make a very important point – when you see one of these lists of suggested parallels between pagan religion and the Bible, if you will do just a little bit of research you will learn that in many cases the critics simply have the facts wrong about the pagan religion.
And sometimes they have their facts wrong about the Bible. The other reason that the claim that Christians plagiarized the virgin birth of Mithras on December 25th to create the account of Jesus’ virgin birth on December 25th is that the Bible does not tell us the specific day, or even the month of Jesus’ birth. We simply do not know when Jesus was born. You can make a good case that December 25th was chosen by emperor Constantine because of parallels with certain pagan celebrations. But that was 300 years after the New Testament was written!
If someone wants to argue that after the New Testament was written that sometimes certain pagan practices were adopted by Christians, you will have no debate from me. Frankly, the same could be said about Easter. The NT does not talk about any kind of yearly celebration of the resurrection, and lots of the symbolism of “Easter” actually comes from pagan fertility religions. So yes, after the time of the NT Christians did sometimes copy pagan practices. BUT THAT IS NOT THE ISSUE HERE. The issue is, where did the gospel account of the virgin birth of Jesus come from, and it clearly did not come from the story of a god who sprang out of a rock.
Other critics like to point to stories about the Greek god Zeus impregnating women as the origin of the virgin birth. This is how the pagans explained the birth of Heracles (Hercules to the Romans). They said that Zeus thought a woman named Alcmene was hot, and so he came to her in the form of her husband and had relations with her, and she conceived Heracles.
So let me get this straight. Zeus shows up looking like a man. He has sex with a woman. And she has a baby. Then the birth was not a virgin birth. She had sex! That means you are not a virgin! And this is supposed to be the story the gospels got the virgin birth from? Zeus, a leering serial adulterer, having sex with women??
And remember the three points from Acts 17. Can you think of anything more revolting to the Jewish writers of the NT than pagan gods having sex? And secondly, the obvious backdrop of the virgin birth story is not paganism, but the OT, and in particular the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. It is true that in later church history you will see Christians make arguments to their pagan critics along the lines of, if you don’t have any problem believing in your stories how could you dismiss the virgin birth. But that was not because the Christians were copying their stories, but seeking common ground to engage them.
B. The Resurrection
Well, what about the issue of Jesus’ resurrection? Did this arise from pagan accounts of gods who died and rose again?
One story that is set forth as a parallel to the resurrection is the story of an ancient Babylonian god called Tammuz or Dumuzi. His wife, named Iannna, decided to take a trip to the underworld, for reasons that are unclear. She asked an attendant to send help if anything went wrong. Well, things did go wrong; she was given the look of death by a jealous sister and trapped in the underworld, needing to be rescued. Her attendant found help, and she was revived and returned to her palace, chased by demons, who demanded that someone be sent back in her place. When the demons came upon Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband, he was sitting in nice clothing and enjoying himself despite his wife’s demise in the underworld. Inanna was really ticked off by this, and decreed that the demons take him and gave him the “look of death.” However, Dumuzi’s sister, out of love for him, begged to be allowed to take his place. It was then decreed that Dumuzi would spend half the year in the underworld and his sister would take the other half.
And that’s where the gospel account came from! The only connection between this story and the Bible is that Ezekiel says some of the Jews practiced this idolatry in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem in Ezek. 8:14.
This myth was the Babylonian explanation for six months of good weather and six months of bad weather – when Dumuzi was in the underworld the weather was bad, and when he was out it was good. It has zero bearing on the story of Jesus who died once, and rose once.
In the movie Religulous, Bill Maher claims that the Egyptian story of Osiris, Isis and Horus explains the virgin birth and the resurrection. Here is the story. Osiris is married to Isis. Osiris is murdered by his brother Set. Set built a coffin according to Osiris’ measurements, then at a party said whoever could fit in the coffin could keep it. Osiris got in, Set nailed it shut and sent him down the Nile. Isis found the coffin, but before she could save Osiris Seth got his body and chopped it into 14 pieces and scattered them around Egypt. Isis searched for them, found 13 of them, and impregnanted herself using his corpse to give birth to Horus. Osiris then became lord of the underworld.
This is where we got the virgin birth and resurrection? I could see how maybe this is where Frankenstein came from, or zombie movies, but not the gospels. Not books written by people who hated idolatry, whose worldview was shaped by the OT which considered things like having sex with a corpse an abomination!
The NT writers tell us where they got the idea for the resurrection - from the natural backdrop of the OT, in statements like Psalm 16:10 and Psalm 110:1.
All you have to do to dismiss these so-called parallels is read the stories. Then read the gospels. And this is why historians haven’t taken these arguments seriously for two generations.
So, does the Bible have anything in common with pagan religions? Sure. All religions wrestle with the same kinds of questions: where did we come from, why are we here, we are we going. And some of the pagan philosophers came up with answers that you and I would say are on the right track – that the world was created by an eternal God, that there is an afterlife, that we should do our duty to God.
But these similarities only serve to place in sharper contrast the fundamental differences between other religions and Christianity. The Bible not only teaches that there is a Creator who made us in His image, but that He loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us so we could be forgiven of our sins and live with Him. And contrary to the expectations of the Jews and the prejudices of the pagans, it teaches that His Son came to die so we could be forgiven, and that He was raised from the dead to ascend to His right hand as King of Kings.
In fact, one of the great mysteries is how to explain where such a story arose since it has no parallel anywhere else. The idea of a resurrection of the body at the end of history was absurd to pagans, and the idea of a resurrection of the body in the middle of history was absurd to the Jews. So where did early Christians get the idea to make such a story up?
As one scholar has summarized:
There is, so far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection beliefs, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. - Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of the Resurrection, p. 221.
I would suggest that the solution to the riddle is simple. The reason the early Christians preached the unprecedented message of a suffering Messiah who died for our sins and rose from the dead is because that is what happened.
And that same message can be the reason for your own spiritual resurrection today.

1 comment:

  1. Amen brother! People try to discredit the Bible with those pagan similarity arguments, but they really just have a mindset of trying to disprove the Bible, that they become ignorant and don't realize what they are saying has no resemblance to the Bible whatsoever. They may tell you some but hide the rest, and the rest is what proves that what they are saying is wrong. Christianity is the truth!