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Parallels and Paling By Comparison | Historical Jesus Series 1

Derek Caldwell

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

You may have heard the story, probably legendary, about Mark Twain’s obituary. As the story goes, a newspaper prematurely printed a notice of his death. In response, the very much alive Mark Twain wrote with his trademark wit, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Well, if Jesus were to respond to the claims that He is not real, or that the more unbelievable parts of His life are simply copied from pagan religions, He might likewise state that the reports of His non-existence and/or legendary accretion have been greatly exaggerated! This article will deal precisely with the details of the historicity of Jesus’s life and the originality of certain claims.

The parallels that do exist between pagan myths and the life of Christ are extremely tenuous. These claims have recently made a comeback thanks largely to online communities and videos that more or less refurbished older claims. These older claims were produced by a school of thought from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the prestigious University of Göttingen called the “History of Religions School.” In their approach to studying Judaism and Christianity primarily as historical constructions, they began to see parallels in Egyptian, Babylonian, and Hellenistic religious systems for many major ideas found within the Judeo-Christian scriptures. “The movement soon collapsed,” explains William Lane Craig, because scholars found the parallels “spurious,” lacking the necessary nuance and attention to detail, and because there simply was no causal connection found between these other myths and details in the New Testament.[1]

One critical distinction to keep in mind is that one must be careful not to conclude that parallels infer influence with regards to similarities in various myths of religious systems. As Nicholas Perrin notes in his book Lost in Transmission,

When reading the New Testament, we find images like light, darkness, life, death, rebirth; we also find concepts like vicarious redemption and personal identification with the divine. But it would be foolish to suppose that these images and ideas are uniquely Christian, for anyone who has done even a little reading in the primary sources of world religions will see that there is nothing peculiarly Christian at all about such terms and images, even if there was a distinctive Christian use of them. And so we realize soon enough that when Christian images are anticipated in non-Christian religious literature or art, it does not follow that the former is dependent on the latter. If Christianity is true then we would expect Christianity to resonate with the deepest longings of humanity, using some of the very same imagery that humanity has latched on to in order to express those longings. Likewise, if the God of Christianity was interested in conveying himself in meaningful terms, it should come as little surprise that these terms include archetypal patterns and universal images.[2]

As an example of parallels not inferring influence, consider the story of a ship named “the Titan” from Morgan Robertson’s 1898 book, The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility. Robertson wrote his book fourteen years prior to the sinking of the Titanic. In it, the Titan was called an unsinkable ship of almost the exact dimensions of the Titanic. Like the Titanic, the Titan hit an iceberg in April in nearly the exact location in the north Atlantic. Both the Titanic and the Titan had thousands of passengers, but only carried the bare minimum of lifeboats, thus leading to the deaths of many people. Finally, and most obvious of all, the similar names of the two ships are uncanny.[3] The major difference between the two is that one is a fictional account and one is a historical event. We can’t simply deny the Titanic was real, or really struck an iceberg and sank, because of its similarities to a previous fictional account. Likewise, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are historical events that should not be automatically ruled out if they bear some resemblance to an earlier story. That said, exactly how similar does the life, death, and resurrection look to prior pagan myths? As it turns out, not very similar at all.

Just another dying and rising God?

Many who try to disprove the authenticity of Christ’s resurrection will look not to the scholarship surrounding His resurrection but rather to the “dying and rising god” motif of pagan myths. The thought is that if it can be proven that all or part of the life of Christ is similar to an earlier pagan myth then, naturally, it must be based on that myth; and since that myth is a fable, then Christ (either His whole life or just His resurrection) is a fable, as well. The problem for those who wish to link Christ to the motif of dying and rising gods is that the evidence just simply is not on their side. Swedish scholar T.N.D. Mettinger, a former professor at Lund University, and a member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities of Stockholm, has researched this topic extensively. Mike Licona sums up Mettinger’s thesis, which states that there is “nearly universal” agreement among academics that there are no accounts of dying and rising gods that predate Christianity. Mettinger takes a minority position that states there may be between three and five dying and rising gods that predate Christianity, but he does not find in these narratives any parallel between them and Christ.[4] Licona points out that there are several major differences between Mettinger’s three to five potential dying and rising gods and Jesus:

They are far different from the reports of Jesus rising from the dead. They occurred in the unspecified and distant past and were usually related to the seasonal life-and-death cycle of vegetation. In contrast, Jesus’ resurrection isn’t repeated, isn’t related to changes in the seasons, and was sincerely believed to be an actual event by those who lived in the same generation as the historical Jesus. In addition, Mettinger concludes that ‘there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods as vicarious suffering for sins.’[5]

Mettinger himself summarizes his own findings: “There is, as 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.”[6] It must also be added that Jesus’s death and resurrection had theological significance tied to uniquely Jewish religious practices and history, and therefore the meaning of any slightly similar imagery is different than that of pagan myths.

There are several gods that are typically mentioned as supplying Christianity with its dying and rising god motif. Some fail due to chronology. For instance, the first report of Attis being resurrected comes long after the first century. Some fail due to the tenuous connection between the details of the two accounts, such as in the myth of Osiris. Osiris was chopped into fourteen pieces and scattered about the earth; the goddess Isis puts thirteen pieces of Osiris back together and buries him; then he becomes the god of the netherworld.[7] He never rises back up to our world. This is hardly a parallel with the resurrection of Jesus.

In the case of Osiris, what we actually see is, in the words of Habermas and Licona, “not a resurrection, but a zombification.”[8]

It is important to understand something about the Egyptian afterlife to see even more strikingly the differences between the Gospel accounts and Egyptian narratives. First, the gods themselves were associated with the natural processes of daily Egyptian life (i.e., the wounded eye of Horus was the cause of the waning moon), which is perhaps why Plutarch believed that “Whenever you hear the traditional tales which the Egyptians tell about the gods, their wanderings, dismemberments, and many experiences of this sort, … you must not think that any of these tales happened in the manner in which they are related.”[9] Bruce Metzger wrote that this may also be displayed in the traditions relating to Osiris, since “it was the pious desire of devotees to be buried in the same ground where, according to local tradition, the body of Osiris was still lying.”[10] Second, the actual understanding of the afterlife is at odds with the Christian model. According to Edwin Yamauchi, Egyptian immortality was accessed only after three conditions were met: the preservation of the body through mummification; nourishment given to the body through leaving food or having magical depictions of food on the wall (not, as in the Christian conception, where Christ is himself, in some sense, the food offered to us); and finally, magical texts had to be buried with the deceased.[11]

In the end, Egyptologist Henri Frankfort has this to say about Osiris:

Osiris, in fact, was not a dying god at all but a dead god. He never returned among the living; he was not liberated from the world of the dead, … on the contrary, Osiris altogether belonged to the world of the dead; it was from there that he bestowed his blessings upon Egypt. He was always depicted as a mummy, a dead king.[12]

It is clear that whatever dying and rising took place among the gods of pagan myths—if indeed any took place at all—there is no comparison between that and the resurrection of Christ.
As Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria and defender of orthodoxy, explained, “The Greeks told all sorts of false tales, but they could never pretend that their idols rose again from death: indeed it never entered their heads that a body could exist again after death at all.”[13] An earlier Alexandrian theologian, Origen (c. 184-253 AD), mentions Greek stories about heroes who had ended local plagues and famines by offering their bodies as sacrifices to the particular deity who had been affronted, but none were able to effect anything of universal and lasting salvific value. “Jesus alone,” Origen boasts, “has been able to take up into himself on the cross the burden of the sin of all on behalf of the whole universe.”[14]

This is part 1 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 2 here.

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[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 390-91. Craig helpfully points out that the supposed parallels were either apotheosis stories, where a hero becomes divine and is raised to heaven, disappearance stories where the hero vanishes into the heavens, symbols of the crop cycle, or emperor worship, all of which are different in construct, utility, and meaning, and purpose.

[2] Nicholas Perrin, Lost in Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 24-25.

[3] See Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017), 311.

[4] Michael Licona in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 160-61.

[5] Ibid., 161.

[6] Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001), 221. Quoted in Strobel, 161.

[7] Strobel, 162.

[8] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 91.

[9] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 252.

[10] Ibid. From Bruce M. Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian, New Testament Tools and Studies 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 20.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1962), 289. Cited in Mary Jo Sharp, “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Stories?” in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (eds.), Come Let Us Reason (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 156.

[13] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996),89. Cited in Sharp, 164.

[14] Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Books 13-32, trans. Ronald E. Heine, FC 89 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 325-27. Cited in Ronald E. Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 129.