The Jesus Myth Theory: Investigating Claims of Copying – by Mary Jo Sharp

Mary Jo Sharp writes this week on ways to investigate Jesus-myth claims:

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An increasing trend in popular and academic circles is to propose that the story of Jesus is a mythical one, copied from the stories of pagan mystery gods such as Osiris and Mithras.  Not only can the claim be found on numerous internet sites and in several popular-level books, but it is also propagated by celebrities such as political satirist, Bill Maher.[1]  On a September 2008 episode of the widely-viewed talk show, The View, Maher stated that Jesus is like the Egyptian god, Horus.  Do these claims have much merit?  In the brief space to follow, I will focus on a method for investigating the stories of the other gods and the story of Jesus.

 

A Method for Investigation

 

#1. Read the stories for yourself

When faced with the question of whether or not the story of Jesus is a copy of another god’s story, you should actually read the stories.  Get a hold of a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and go through the stories for yourself (local college library, some city libraries, online texts).  It’s always a good idea to go to the primary source material so you know the subject being discussed from the source of the discussion.

 

#2. Take the parallels head-to-head

After reading the stories, investigate the suggested parallel material from those stories.  If someone claims that Mithras died and rose from the dead just like Jesus, see if you can find any resurrection story that mirrors the one of Jesus.  In Mithras’ case, you cannot find a resurrection at all.  Mithras never dies, so he certainly cannot resurrect from the dead.  Osiris is raised to be King of the Dead.  So his raising results in afterlife amongst the dead.

 

Vague similarities are not going to accomplish much for those who are seeking to be intellectually honest.  Saying that Mithras was “born of a virgin” and Jesus was “born of a virgin” is either too vague or is so strained as to be construed as dishonest reportage.[2]  Mithras sprung forth from a rock (or cave) near a river bank.  He was holding a torch to illumine the underworld from which he came and a dagger to subdue all the creatures of the earth.  Jesus was born as a human baby by a female human virgin.  Osiris was the product of an adulterous affair between two gods.  He fell in love with his sister and had sexual intercourse with her in the womb of his mother goddess.  The only thing similar in these birth stories is the vague similarity of birth itself.

 

#3. Set everything in context

Some contemporary Christ-myth theorists will use terms like “resurrection” with stories of any god that died and took an afterlife form.  For example, Peter Joseph used “resurrection” to fit his purpose of a side-by-side comparison of several gods in Zeitgeist, the Movie.  Yet, did the people who followed the various gods understand their god to be “resurrected” in the sense of Jesus’ resurrection?  No.  Jesus’ resurrection was an unexpected twist[3] in the Jewish view of the Messiah, as well as in the Jewish view of resurrection.  It was also unexpected according to the pagan understanding of the afterlife; for Jesus was raised to a new, physical body.  The pagans expected a spiritual union with their gods in the afterlife or a freeing of the spirit from bodily imprisonment.  This twist is important, because it has everything to do with the Christian understanding of God’s good creation, his forgiveness, and his gift of salvation.

 

Jesus’ resurrection stands unparalleled in history when attempting to find stories in which God purposed to pay the penalty for all of mankind’s sin so that man can have a new, changed life.  Jesus died as he expected and predicted, and for the purpose he planned.  Even if a person does not believe in God, he can see this difference between Jesus’ story and the story of the other gods.  Jesus’ resurrection is also the model for the resurrection of all of mankind.  He is “the firstborn of the resurrection.”  The followers of Jesus in the first century up to today have a radically different view of the afterlife and resurrection from their fellow mankind.  This is not something that can easily be overlooked in order to make an accusation of copying from other gods’ stories.  And we have just begun to dig into the differences!

 

Conclusion

Just like you and I do not want to have our ideas and words ripped out of context and used for someone else’s purposes, we should not take the stories of the ancient gods and of the major world religions out of context to use for our own purposes.  Nor should we be ignoring aspects of the stories that show their vast differences.  The deeper we look into the stories of the gods, the greater the difference we find between them and the story of Jesus.

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A few of the resources utilized:

 

Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2003).

 

T.N.D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001)

 

Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974).

 

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

 

Bruce M. Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian [online article]; Internet; available from http://www.frontline-apologetics.com/religions_christianity.html; accessed 22 January 2007; Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968.

 

Primary source material:

 

Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism, ed. Frederick C. Grant (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts Press, 1953)

 

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, trans. E.A. Wallis Budge (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005 [1895]).

 

Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website: http://www.ccel.org/

 

Fordham University’s Full Text Web pages:

Medieval Sourcebook – http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook2.html

Ancient History Sourcebook – http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/asbook.html

 


[1] Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God?  (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).  Payam Nabarz, The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2005).  The Historical Jesus: Five Views, eds. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009).

[2] I don’t wish to assume motives, but this contravention of fact is so egregious on behalf of the argument’s proponents, such as “Zeitgeist, the Movie,” that it causes me to wonder about the author’s intent.

[3] I say “unexpected” in accordance with tradition, not prophecy.

2 responses

  1. Maher and others like him are about a 100 years late. The religionsgeschichtliche Schule approach for finding parallels and therefore claiming influence flourished in anti-Semitic Europe, especially Germany, in the 1910s-20s. Since WW2 scholars have found closer parallels to early Christian beliefs, practices, and texts within second temple Judaism. That makes sense because Christianity begins as a reform movement within pre-rabbinic Judaism.

    Anti-semitism played a decisive role in this Schule. These German historians saw Christianity–especially Lutheranism–as the highest form of religion. At the same time they considered the Jews a wretched race. So how could something so sublime come from something so perverse. Well, they thought, it couldn’t. So they argued that Christianity owed its central teachings to the religions and philosophies resident around the Mediterranean. This is why they went in search for parallels to Christianity in the mystery religions rather than Judaism.

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