The “Pagan-Parallel Thesis”, and why practically every single major objection to it is false:

Summary:

The Pagan Parallel thesis suggests that Christianity borrowed many of its major features from pagan (Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman) religion and mythology that had ancient roots, but was contemporaneous with Christianity.  The evidence for this theory consists of showing parallels between parts of the gospels and Christian practices with those of pre-Christian paganism.  The theory reasons that as the pagan versions were earlier, Christianity must have borrowed features from these earlier traditions.  Hence, on this basis it is argued that Christian claims about Jesus cannot be literarily, historically true.

This theory is deeply controversial and is treated with disdain by conservative Christians.  Mainstream academics will concede some partial truth to the theory, though they generally believe that it goes too far, and they tend to conclude that Christianity emerged primarily from a Jewish context.  When considered in detail however, it is quite clear that the theory deserves far more credit then it receives, and pretty much every major objection to it turns out to be false.  Whilst this theory is often presented as a major part of the Christ-myth theory, this theory can also be consistent with a minimalized historical Jesus, though it is less frequently presented in this context.

It is indeed true that there have been many poor presentations of this theory.  However most amateur presentations of the theory are still far better then practically all attempts at rebutting them; including both rebuttals from conservative Christian apologists and secular historians and NT scholars (though the latter are always better than the former).  As for the better presentations of the theory they make a very strong case, and it is only incredulous incredulity that prevents the theory becoming more widely accepted.  When the theory is presented correctly it can answer every objection, and it is only a matter of time before religious scholarship turns around and gives it the credit it demands.  Whilst the following is not an attempt at presenting a positive case for the theory but rather a brief rebuttal of typical objections to the theory, it says a lot if all the objections to a theory are erroneous.

The facts are as follows: Christianity borrowed many of its concepts and practices from the Mystery religions, which themselves were derived from the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian cults of Inanna & Tammuz and Osiris.  Whilst there were some mythological motifs such as miraculous conception which were more general and weren’t specific to the Mysteries, Christianity was and is a pseudo-Jewish Mystery religion.  The primary feature of Christianity has always been its belief in the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus, and the belief that faith in this brings eternal life to believers.  The same was practically true of almost every Mystery cult with relation to their gods, though it is necessary to discuss the details to differentiate the better presentations of the thesis from the worse, though the conclusion remains the same either way.

Main Article:

I could not count the amount of times I have been on social media and seen someone post a link discussing the pagan parallel thesis, and I have wanted to comment but have stopped myself.  Why, you may ask, would I stop myself from commenting on a topic that I am very interested in, and of which I have spent a great deal of time studying?  Well, it’s not fear of disapproval, for if it were I would not be writing this article.  The thing is that it is frustrating having to give the same explanations over and over again to different people (or even the same people), and rebut the same erroneous objections again and again.  So, I often hold my tongue because I simply do not wish to be dragged into that muddy pit and have to spend my time doing something that I have done before, and will almost certainly have to do again.  Rather, I feel the most efficient use of my time is to write articles (and books) like this, in the hope that they can help those interested to sort through the mess of conflicting opinions out there, and understand the facts and arguments as they are.

If you listened only to Christian apologists you could be excused for thinking that the pagan parallel thesis was a crazy conspiracy theory espoused by Internet nutcases, and that there was no real evidence for it at all, but that it was all made up.  Apologists speak about the theory with such disdain, as if to make it so that one would be embarrassed to be associated with the theory.  Likewise, many secular historians and NT scholars treat the theory as a relic of the 19th century that has rightfully been let go, as new evidence has finally put the thesis to bed.  Hence, if you only listened to the consensus on the issue you could perhaps be excused for thinking that proponents of this theory were out of date, and were merely flogging a horse that died 100 odd years ago.

The thing is that we should not simply accept opinions on important issues simply on the basis of peer pressure.  It is always necessary to examine both sides of a debate, and see whether there are legitimate arguments on both sides.  If critics of the pagan parallel thesis were correct then we would expect to find that all presentations of the theory were deeply flawed.  However, if we actually take the time to examine the relevant details we discover the exact opposite.  It is not hard to validate the positive claims of the pagan parallel thesis, and likewise it is not hard to rebut and utterly debunk pretty much every single critical objection to the theory.

Let us therefore consider what are the objections that both Christian apologists and secular scholars give to the theory:

  • 1)  The relevant claims made about paganism are false, and/or unverifiable.
  • 2)  Any true sources for pagan parallels actually post-date Christianity, and hence were most likely influenced by Christianity, rather than the other way around.
  • 3)  The claimed parallels are in truth vague, incidental and inconsequential, and the differences between them outweigh any similarities, and make them mute.  Pagan gods did not come back to life on earth in bodily form as did Jesus, and hence should not be referred to as resurrected.  As for Osiris, he was the god of the dead, and did not come back to life after death but rather lived on in the underworld.
  • 4)  The pagan parallel thesis is outdated, as it’s based on old scholarship that was debunked a century ago.  Scholarship has shown that Christianity emerged from a Jewish environment, without Greek influence.  The pagan parallel thesis is only put forth today by amateur mythicists on the Internet, who make the same mistakes endlessly.  No serious scholar today gives any time to this thesis; rather it deserves mockery and nothing more.
  • 5)  There is no evidence of any “dying and rising god” or Mystery religion within Judea, and the early Christians did not have any exposure to them.
  • 6)  Jews and Christians were exclusive, and were extremely guarded against syncretism with the cultures and faiths around them.
  • 7)  Correlation does not necessary prove causation, and even it were true that there were similarities between paganism and Christianity, it would not necessarily follow that Christianity borrowed from paganism.

I will now go to show that every single one of the above objections is ultimately false. Whilst there are in some cases some half-truths to the objections, it is easily demonstrable that these objections are all erroneous. Let us begin then:

1)        Critics often state that the claimed parallels between Jesus and pagan gods do not actually exist, and that proponents of the theory literarily make this stuff up, with no primary sources to back up their claims. So firstly lets deal with the half-truths and then get to the real dirt.  It certainly is true that many early proponents of this theory from the 18th-20th century did not reference their work (case in point Kersey Graves infamous work “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors”), and in many cases it is difficult (if not impossible) to verify many of their claims.  Likewise, the Internet is full of memes comparing Jesus to pagan gods such as Horus and Mithra. However, brief attempts to verify the claims of these lists are disappointing in that a quick Google search does not provide corroborative evidence but rather the opposite; lots of people rebutting the claims of these lists.

So, critics are indeed correct that amateur proponents of this theory (and outdated scholars) have indeed made unverifiable claims.  That however simply applies to the worst that the field has to offer, and does not speak to what the best can do.  As for the Internet memes and so forth, they certainly often make claims that are not easily verifiable, and hence are not examples of the best of the field, but rather the opposite.  However, amongst these lists are many legitimate parallels which can indeed be verified, and even some of the claims which aren’t easily validated can indeed also be verified if one looks in the right place.

So having dealt with the partial truth to the objection, let me show why it is ultimately misleading.  Lets start with miraculous birth.  We have the case of Dionysus’s miraculous birth where his mortal mother Semele was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a lightning bolt, attested by Euripides in the 5th century BCE (“The Bacchae”, verses 1-5) and Hesiod in the 8th century BCE (“Theogany”, 940).  There is Virgil’s famous “prophecy” of a virgin birth from the 1st century BCE (“The Pastoral Poems”, Eclogues, 4), and the virgin birth of Perseus in which his virgin mother Danae was impregnated by Zeus through a golden shower (Diodorus, Library of History, Book 4, 9:1, or Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.697ff, or Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 2.4.1).

As for rebirth and resurrection, we have the death and resurrection of Inanna as found in “The descent of Inanna” (with clay tablets from the 2nd millennium BCE and also the later work “The descent of Ishtar”), in which Inanna enters the underworld in lavish dress, descends through 7 gates and sheds clothes at each point until she is naked, is stripped of her powers and given a “look of death”, after which her corpse is literarily hung on a hook, before being brought back to life after 3 days and nights by the magical acts of other gods.  Likewise we have the ancient story of Osiris in which he was drowned inside a box in the River Nile by Set, found by his wife Isis embedded in a tree trunk, temporarily brought back to life with a magical spell, hidden in the desert, found and dismembered by Set, and then bandaged together again by Isis, before being finally and permanently brought back to life by the other gods.  Whilst there may appear to be nothing in common between this myth and the Jesus narrative, it formed the basis of a funerary cult, which sought to imitate the death and resurrection of Osiris and offer eternal life to the practitioner, as did all of the Hellenistic Mystery religions that followed.

Whilst a complete narrative of this myth isn’t attested to anywhere in ancient texts until Plutarch (1st century CE), pretty much every feature of this myth is attested from around 3,000 BCE, and is likewise continuously attested all the way through to the Common Era. The Pyramids texts repeatedly refer to the resurrection of Osiris, as do various other Egyptian texts; we even have a stone tablet (the Ikhernofret Stele) dating from the 12th century BCE which tells of a public “passion play” (as Herodotus later referred to it in the 5th century BCE) re-enacting the death and resurrection of Osiris, during which the crowd mourn at his death and later celebrate his resurrection.

Dionysus was known in the ancient world as the Greek version of Osiris, and it is little wonder that many considered them to be the same god via a different name.  Hence, it is truly extraordinary that there are those today that deny that Dionysus was believed to be resurrected (at least in pre-Christian times).  In truth, there are multiple myths of Dionysus that all relate to death-resurrection, including the two versions of his rebirth, the second of which is most certainly a resurrection (as attested by Diodorus in the 1st century BCE, “The Library of History”, Book 3, 62:6 and Book 5, 75:4 relating the myth to the Mysteries), the story of Dionysus descending to the underworld to save his mother (Ibid, Book 4, 25:4), or the similar descent and ascent from Aristophanes comedy “The Frogs” (5th century BCE), or finally his ascent to heaven (alluded to in pre-Christian sources and vase paintings).

You couldn’t really be thought of as identical to Osiris if death and resurrection wasn’t a primary motif in your myth and initiatory rites now could you?  As for the other Greek Mystery religions, they also revolved around themes of death and resurrection, with both the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries again revolving around myths of a descent to and ascent from the underworld (for Demeter and Orpheus respectively), again well attested to in pre-Christian times (for example, the Homeric Hymns circa 7th-6th century BCE and Plato, Symposium 179d).  Then we have Herodotus’ highly relevant discussion of Zalmoxis (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 4, Verses 94-96), in which Herodotus wasn’t sure whether the story which he was familiar was a euhemerized version of a local gods myth, or the real historical account of a religious conman.

As this is only a brief blog piece I don’t really need to go on; needless to say however the closely related gods Attis and Adonis both also shared motifs relating to resurrection, first attested just prior to the Common-Era (if you know where to look) and well attested contemporaneous to early Christianity.  As for the claims about Horus and Mithra also being resurrected (as found on many Internet memes, let alone Zeitgeist 1:1), it is not as if these claims have been simply made up, although you will not be able to verify them with a quick Google search.  Horus was indeed resurrected, but you basically need to read the works of D.N. Boswell or D.M. Murdock to get the sources and understand the context.  As for Mithras, there are features of the mythos, which were used as the basis for the resurrection motif in the Mystery cult named after him (notably, both Mithras and the Bull take on new forms when reborn in Heaven), however there is no traditional resurrection (as Mithras does not die).

What then of all the other claimed parallels made about pagan gods, such as they walked on water, turned water into wine, were ritually eaten by their followers, had 12 disciples, were born at the winter-solstice and so forth?  Well, many of them are true in part, only that again Internet memes commonly misrepresent them.  There were indeed stories and visual depictions of pagan gods walking on, rising from, floating on or flying over water, though some post-date Christianity.  There are a number of pre-Christian sources that tell of water being given the flavour of wine or wine flowing from the ground in association with Dionysus, and there is even a similar motif found in ancient Egypt where the Nile would literarily run red (from sediment) with the “blood of Osiris”.

Egyptians ritually ate “Osiris cakes” (bread baked in the shape of Osiris) during the Osirian rites, pre-Christian vase paintings depict meals of bread and wine with Dionysus tied to a pole or post in the background, and during the Common Era initiates in the Mithraic Mysteries took part in a ritual meal that Christian authors felt was disturbing similar to their own Eucharist.  Ancient Egyptian art commonly depicts groupings of 12 people, gods (or the like), in some cases as “helpers” of Horus or “followers” of Re or Osiris.  Dionysus had been depicted with the signs of the Zodiac in pre-Christian times (though not always with 12 signs; there is a depiction from the 4th century BCE with only 11 signs), and in the Common Era Mithras was commonly depicted alongside all 12 zodiac signs.

In this case however we can probably assume that the number 12 for Jesus’ disciples was derived from the 12 tribes of Israel, to which we should note that the number 12 appears a disproportionate amount of times in the Hebrew Bible.  We should conclude that both pagans and Jews derived their obsession with the number 12 from the fact that there are 12 moons in a calendar year, as this was the foundation for many ancient calendars.  So, in this latter case both pagans and Jews derived their motif of 12 from nature, though again, pagans did it first.  As for the whole winter-solstice thing, that really deserves its own space to clear up all the misconceptions and erroneous objections, plus it tends to bring out the rhetoric in many critics, so I think I will leave it alone today.  Anyways, that should be enough to show that no, proponents of this theory aren’t simply making this stuff up.  The parallels are real and have real sources.

2)        I have already given a number of sources for parallels that significantly predate the Common Era, so how on earth could anybody claim that the sources for the pagan parallel theory post-date Christianity, and how on earth could anyone think that it was actually pagans that copied Christians? Well, this is one of those bizarre things that shouldn’t exist if everybody was reasonable, but unfortunately here we are in 2015 still having this conversation.

So, basically some Christian apologists are happy to acknowledge that there may have been parallels between Christianity and paganism post-Christianity, but they will not accept that these features were there in paganism in pre-Christian times.  For example, I have seen many Christian apologists concede that Adonis was resurrected (falsely believing that the resurrection of Adonis could only be verified in post-Christian times).  Likewise, Gary Habermas is famous for claiming that Dionysus was not resurrected in pre-Christian times (thus implying that he may have accepted a resurrection motif during the Common Era), despite the fact that as a professional scholar he should have been aware of all of the evidence for the existence of the motif in pre-Christian times.

Certainly many Christian authors themselves wrote about parallels between pagan and Christian beliefs, though the approach to this evidence from both Christian apologists (and/or scholars) and mainstream scholars beggars belief.  I have already discussed in detail the dishonesty that Christian apologists apply to the relevant passages found in the work of Justin Martyr.  Most of the other Christian writers that discuss these parallels do not concede that the pagan motifs came earlier than Christianity; hence Christian apologists do not generally feel a need to contest that the parallels exist, only that some of them have (incredibly) tried to argue that pagans obviously copied Christianity due to the success of the new faith.  As for mainstream scholars, many of them have argued that Christian writers themselves stretched the facts and were themselves reaching for parallels due to their own motives.

The important point to make is that the distinction that Christian apologists make between pre and post-Christian sources is entirely erroneous. There is no great change that we see in paganism in the Common Era as a result of its exposure to Christianity.  In truth, every single feature of paganism that can be presented in post-Christian times as being parallel to Christianity can be verified by pre-Christian sources.  It is utterly extraordinary that anyone could claim that pagans copied Christianity.  What is even more extraordinary is that such claims are even made by professional scholars, such as Gunter Wagner, who claimed in his well-known work “Pauline Baptism and the pagan Mysteries” that resurrection wasn’t part of the Osirian cult until after the onset of Christianity.  I have to wonder how on earth anyone with any knowledge of Egyptian religion and the archeological record could make such a claim?

3)        This objection is the primary one used both by Christian apologists and secular scholars, and I have already given a response to it in my (rather long) article on Justin Martyr and Diabolic Mimicry.  Nevertheless, allow me to summarize here.  Both Christian and secular scholars frequently claim that the parallels that proponents of this theory present are superficial, and that the “differences outweigh the similarities”; hence there is no causal relationship between the parallel motifs.

In making this argument, skeptics of the theory are ignoring the standard rules that we apply to determining influence on any subject, and ignoring both ancient witness on the subject and modern-day examples, which make the issue clear.  It may indeed appear that this argument is possibly more subjective than some of the others here, in which case one might not necessarily be able to rebut it as much as argue a contrary case.  However, there are very clear facts, which are frequently ignored by those that present the objection, that show again that the objection is entirely erroneous.

Human beings apply standard common-sense laws when examining different things to work out if there is any relationship between the two.  We do not expect two different people to look identical to be able to determine that they are biologically related, nor do we expect two pieces of music to use the same instruments or belong to the same genre to have a relationship.  Stated simply, it does not matter whether there are many differences between two things, but rather whether there are significant similarities that are unlikely to be due to chance.  Coincidences do appear to happen all the time, as in a vast universe, vastly unlikely things will happen all the time.  However, if vastly unlikely things happen repeatedly or many unlikely parallels can be found, it is most likely that there is a causal relationship at work.

For space reasons alone, lets just stick to the primary motif that is relevant here; that being resurrection.  In the case of Inanna, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, Orpheus, Zalmoxis, Attis and Adonis, they all conquered death in at least one way, and they all had cults based around the mourning and celebrations of their death and resurrection (regardless of how literal those words apply to their particular myth; for example the descent and ascent of Demeter and Orpheus).  In the case of all of the above bar Inanna, we know of Mystery cults in their names that promised eternal life to the initiate through ritual identification with the death and resurrection of the god.

Now, C.S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” offered an explicit parallel to the death and resurrection of Christ, its redemption from sin and its result in eternal life through Aslan’s death and resurrection. Surely then it goes without saying that if a magical talking Lion being killed and resurrected in a magical kingdom can be openly admitted to be a deliberate parallel to the story of Jesus, then other gods being killed and resurrected on earth (in some examples) or through a descent and ascent from the underworld are also likely to be causally linked to the story of Jesus.  Surely the story of Osiris’s death and resurrection has every bit as much in common with that of Jesus as does that of Aslan?  The New Testament itself compares the death and resurrection of Jesus to Jonah being in the belly of the fish for 3 days (Matthew 12:40).  Surely again, if the death and resurrection of a god can be paralleled to somebody being swallowed by a giant fish and then released after 3 days, then surely another god being killed and resurrected 3 days later is a legitimate parallel to a god being killed and resurrected 3 days later!

It is not as if resurrection is a mere mundane part of life; rather claims of people coming back to life are extraordinary, and hence when different sources share this motif there is a valid reason to see a connection between them.  Despite the vast number of differences in the details of the accounts of Osiris and Dionysus (and the rest of the crew), numerous ancient witnesses (Herodotus, Diodorus, Pausanias and Plutarch etc.) tell the tale that they were in-fact the same god, known by a different name, and some of these authors openly admit the relationship between the Hellenistic Mystery religions and the Egyptian funerary cult (as did some Christian authors).

It is frequently argued that the aforementioned pagan gods are different to Christ as they were symbolic of the cycles of nature, in comparison to the resurrection of Christ, which is claimed to be literal.  Making this argument is however either dishonest or ignorant (or both), as in truth these pagan myths were explicitly designed to complement both public and private rites, and the Church fathers themselves compared Christ’s resurrection to the cycles of nature!

Another subset of this objection is that Jewish and Christian conceptions of resurrection are very specific and were unique in the ancient world; hence the examples that proponents of this theory present are not real parallel to Jesus’ resurrection, but should rather be defined as revivification or similar.  Again however, despite being very common, this argument is entirely false.  Firstly, the Greek words used in the NT for resurrection were actually the very same words that Greek historians used to refer to the resurrection of Osiris and other pagan gods.  In truth, the word resurrection is a modern English word, which in common use is applied to everything from a business to a football team (i.e. “They hadn’t won a game for half the season, but fortunately the new coach managed to resurrect the team”).  Secondly, there was in fact significant variety in what early Christians believed about the afterlife, and different sects held different ideas about in which form they would spend eternity. The same is likewise true in the religions of Egypt, Greece and Rome etc.

The ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to preserve the bodies of their dead, in the sincere belief that preservation of the body was vital to aid resurrection and eternal life.  Despite this, we do however have some late witnesses that state that Egyptians held belief in a spiritual afterlife.  The reality is that the two do not cancel each other out; some Egyptians (at some point) believed in physical resurrection in a physical afterlife, whilst others believed in spiritual equivalents of both.  The same is also true both of early and modern Christians, as we have abundant evidence for.

Christian apologists and even mainstream scholars (who aren’t Egyptologists) frequently claim that Osiris was never resurrected, but simply lived on after death as god of the dead.  Real Egyptologists of course will tell you that Osiris was resurrected, and with good reason.  In the public rites the people mourned when Osiris was killed, and they celebrated when he returned to life; clearly a distinction is made between the two events.  It is quite obvious that the ancient Egyptians did not believe that the natural course of events after death was for a person (or their soul) to live on in the underworld.  Rather, they believed that miraculous (or magical) resurrection was necessary for life after death.

So, it is easy to see that again this objection is quite erroneous, and those making it seem to be ignoring the obvious responses to all the variants of it.  Truth be told, the resurrection motif is a remarkable common belief that stands out from all the differences in the details.  The differences tell us that Christianity is not identical to the cult of Osiris-Dionysus (et al.), but the common features tell us that it almost certainly was and is related.

4)        It is indeed true that the pagan parallel theory was given more consideration roughly 100 years ago, but since then mainstream scholarship has moved towards the view that Christianity emerged primary from a Jewish context, with acceptance that some early Christian communities borrowed some ideas from Greek philosophy and mythology.  It is also true that some of the older theories and claims related to this theory (and mythicism in general) have been rendered untenable from developments in the field over the past 100 years.  For example, a century ago there were radical scholars suggesting that the NT texts weren’t written until as late as the 4th century CE.  Such claims are indeed completely untenable today, and nobody should repeat such theories knowing what we know now.  However, modern proponents of the pagan parallel thesis are entitled to discard erroneous claims and theories of older generations, and retain arguments that remain plausible.

As human beings, academics are just as prone to aberrations and trends as are laymen, and I would argue that this is indeed the case here.  A major reason in this case is that the study of religious history is often pursued by people with strong religious beliefs, and hence religious scholarship and apologetics often overlap.  The perfect example of a major work that contributed to this trend was Gunter Wagner’s aforementioned “Pauline Baptism…”, which unfortunately has been mistaken for scholarship instead of being viewed as the propaganda that it is (as in truth, Romans chapter 6 does indeed place Christian baptism in terms that relate it directly to the sympathetic magic of the Osirian cult and the Mystery religions).

Other works from mainstream scholars contributed to this trend (albeit without the direct religious motive) simply through the same human flaws that appear in every field of human endeavour.  There is no question that Christianity has Jewish roots; however it is foolish to deny the heavy Hellenistic influence on all aspects of Christianity.  There is no doubt in my mind that in the near future the trend will be reversed, and mainstream academia will again recognize Hellenistic influence upon Christianity as a major force in its origins.

5)        This objection is one of my favourites, simply because of how easy it is to falsify.  Truth be told, no one should be making this claim, and it is an embarrassment to religious scholarship that even secular academics make this claim.  The argument is attempting to claim that early Christians could have conceived of Jesus’s resurrection without any influence from the Mystery religions (and not only that, it is suggesting that Jews in Judea had never even heard of Inanna, Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, Orpheus, Attis or Adonis).  Of course, this is absolutely ridiculous.  To think that Judean Jews could have never heard of Osiris is like suggesting that you could live in the US today and never hear about Jesus.

Firstly, we have the fact that the Old Testament itself references Jewish women mourning for Tammuz in front of the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:14).  So that alone refutes the argument.  Furthermore, pretty much every single Greek historian who mentioned Osiris or Dionysus noted that pretty much everyone, everywhere worshipped them.  Even if there weren’t any Jews that worshipped them (and I’m being conservative here), Jewish people most certainly would have been aware of the myths and (public) rites of the Osirian and Dionysian cults.  To argue otherwise is to presume that just because orthodox Judaism was highly exclusive and shunned the religion of other cultures, that they would lived in a box in which they had no awareness of the religious beliefs and practices of the cultures around them, which is of course completely untenable.

Furthermore, we have the accounts found in 2nd and 3rd Maccabees of Jews being forced to take part in Dionysian rites.  Certainly there is question as to the historicity of these accounts, and it is commonly believed that they were written by Alexandrian Jews (and thus were written outside of Judea).  However, the fact still remains that we have Jewish sources that claim that Jews were forced to take part in Dionysian rites (in pre-Christian times), and this is certainly relevant.  Considering all of these facts (the first of which is sufficient to make my case), nobody at all should be using this objection to the pagan parallel thesis, as it is utterly false.

6)        Moving on, this objection is every bit as bad as the last one, and just as easy to refute.  Just because some Jews (and Christians) were highly exclusive and guarded against syncretism, does not mean that all Jews and Christians were.  In fact, we know as a fact that some Jews and Christians did indeed practice syncretism, and we know that not all people that considered themselves Christians were exclusive (some heterodox Christians openly read pagan philosophical and religious texts alongside Christians ones, and were fine with honouring and worshipping religious figures and deities outside of their own tradition).

The Hebrew Bible itself repeatedly speaks (in very negative terms) of the Jewish people reverting back to worshiping the other Canaanite gods; hence this fact alone disproves the objection.  Just to spell it out in case you missed it, the Hebrew Bible itself repeatedly says that some Jews did indeed worship other gods and practice other religions.  Now, the pagan parallel thesis suggests that at very least early Christians practiced syncretism in blending pagan and Jewish ideas together, and the Christ myth theory likewise suggests that Christianity has its very origins in the blending of Jewish and pagan mythology, philosophy and religion by Hellenistic Jews (such as those found in Alexandria).

Now obviously, noting that not all Jews and Christians were exclusive does not in and of itself prove that the pagan parallel thesis or the Christ myth theory is correct (remembering that the two are not necessarily always found together, though I personally endorse forms of both).  However, what it does do is absolutely refute this objection to both theories.  Hence again, nobody should be using this objection to the theory.

7)        Finally, we have what may seem at first to be a reasonable assertion; that even if it could be established that there were real similarities between pagan and Christian beliefs, and even if it could be established that the pagan motifs were older, it would not necessarily follow that Christians borrowed or stole these motifs and beliefs from paganism.  If we are to be honest with ourselves, we are unlikely to ever have strong enough evidence to absolutely prove any particular theory of Christian origins over another; hence we must ultimately play the possibilities against each other.  This is a game of likelihood, plausibility and so forth.

So, I have asked myself the question: ‘Knowing what I know about comparative religion, what is the possibility that Christianity could have developed the way it did without direct influence from paganism, in particular the cults of Osiris and his merry band of followers?’ Knowing what I know, I cannot help but answer: ‘Almost none at all’. You are free to disagree with me of course, but can I suggest that if you wish to do so you adjust your case to take into account the facts as they stand, and if you wish to continue to reject the pagan parallel thesis then you need to come up with some new objections that can’t be rebutted as easily as these.  Or, you could jump ship and see the world from my side of the fence, and accept that Jews and Christians were and are ultimately the same as everyone else, and that they did the same things that everybody did and does, both then and today.

Human beings share ideas, and evolve concepts developed by those that came before them.  This occurs in every single field of human endeavour, from cooking, architecture, farming, art, dance, music, warfare, and yes, philosophy, mythology and religion.  The people of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Asia and everywhere else all shared religious motifs, and whilst orthodox forms of Judaism and Christianity may have idealized a belief that they were distinct from their evil, idolatrous neighbours, the reality is that they too practiced syncretism.  This reality is only challenging if you are either attached to Christianity as a religion (and feel that if it is threatened or diminished then you are threatened or diminished), or for whatever reason you are attached to an academic theory of Christian origins that says that Christianity emerged either primarily or entirely from a Jewish context.

Ultimately, this issue shouldn’t make much of a difference to our overall worldview (if any at all).  Rather, I would like to suggest that if it does then your worldview is like a castle built on the sand, in that your perspective of reality is build on very fragile foundations that can easily be washed away.  Reality does not change if the claims of one particular religion are proven to be not entirely true, and we should always be open to new information, even about topics that we hold sacred.

Peace

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On Christian Origins – Part 1: Why I favour Mythicism.

Summary:

The vast majority of professionals involved in studying the historical Jesus (Bible scholars, historians etc.) believe that Christianity began with a historical man named Jesus and his disciples.  The question that is then debated between secular, liberal and conservative Christian ranks is how much of the gospel accounts and church tradition is based on real history, and how much is mythical.  The view that the Jesus depicted in the gospels is not at very least based upon a real historical figure has been frowned upon by academia since it was first presented several centuries ago, and most scholars (and religious apologists) today attempt to dismiss arguments in favour of this view as being unworthy of serious debate.

However, whilst Jesus mythicism has largely been an area pursued by hobbyists, in recent decades it has attracted a small number of professional scholars, including in recent times radical Bible scholar Robert M. Price and historian Richard Carrier, who recently published the first peer-reviewed work on the topic to be printed by an academic press.  I personally am of the opinion that the work of Price and Carrier on this topic is of a far higher standard then what emerges from any other scholars, and likewise I think that there are many other notable writers in the field (with significant variation in qualifications and the quality of their writing) who also have much to contribute to the topic, regardless of how they are viewed by the majority of scholars.

I believe that when the facts are considered objectively, the theory that Christianity began not with a historical man but with a fictional literary character or deity is not merely plausible, but is actually quite likely.  When considered in detail (which we are not going to do here) the arguments presented for the historicity of Jesus do not stand up to scrutiny, and there is only a small amount of ambiguous evidence that should be presented in favour of historicity.  Furthermore, there is a very strong accumulative case against historicity, and when you consider the details and compare arguments from both sides (again which we are not going to do here) you can see that the evidence against historicity is well-grounded, and it is the dismissal of these arguments by the mainstream of religious studies that it is largely erroneous.

I cannot be absolutely certain about non-historicity, and I do not believe that anybody should make claims to certainty either way on the topic, as regardless of what theory of Christian origins you hold there are difficulties to be faced.  However, I am of the opinion that non-historicity is far more probable given the available evidence, and I have to agree with Richard Carrier that we are probably living right now in the transition period in which the theory will start to become more and more highly respected, just as the same took place in relation to the historicity of Abraham and Moses in the second half of the 20th century in response to overwhelming evidence from archaeology.

The hard part with Jesus is that it is not just Christians that have identified with Christ, and just like any addiction it is hard for many people to let go.  Letting go of Jesus does not mean abandoning spirituality however, and I argue that it is necessary for our spiritual evolution to pursue beliefs that remain true, whether or not the sacred myths of a particular nation or faith  turn out to have historically roots.  Reality is as it is regardless of whether your favourite god really walked the earth, or exists out there in the Astral cosmos as a real entity, separate from your belief in it.

Main Article:

So how did Christianity begin? Many, many people would like us to think that this question does not need to even be asked, as Christian apologists and conservative religious scholars make claims of absolute confidence in the traditional church account.  Liberal and secular scholars also believe that we can be certain about a number of bare facts, including the historicity of Jesus and his disciples.  I am one of a growing number of people that do not accept this as true, and identify themselves with the theory of non-historicity, which we refer to as Jesus mythicism, or the Christ myth theory (mythicism for short, though technically one could be a mythicist about various religious figures).

So, why is it that almost all professionals (and certainly all apologists) think that mythicism is so outrageous that it deserves only ridicule?  Is the idea itself of a prophet or deity held to be historical by many turning out to be mythical an outrageous proposition?  No, of course not.  We have countless examples of religious figures that have been believed to have been historical, where in light of the evidence today many (if not most) of us believe that they did not walk this earth.  Abraham and Moses fit this category perfectly, as prior to the last 50 (odd) years it was commonly assumed that they were historical figures, whereas modern scholarship supports the contrary.

Most of the gods of the ancient world are considered to have been mythical beings who never walked the earth by almost all modern-day people, despite the fact that there have always been people that sincerely believed the opposite, and that it was common for believers to write stories of these gods coming to earth and walking amongst men.  It may perhaps be true that Jews and Christians were particularly keen to try and place their religious figures in historical contexts, but this does not by itself mean that there was necessarily any more historicity to their prophets then to the gods of other nations.

We also have ancient witnesses who give conflicting accounts as to whether a deity of the ancient world was really a mortal man that was later mythicized or was always a local deity.  Whilst Osiris and Dionysus are viewed by most people today as mythical Egyptian and Greek gods, there was a trend in the ancient world contemporaneous with the development of Christianity in which such figures were thought to have been heroes of old, whom had been divinized after their deaths.  We have one very significant account from the Greek historian Herodotus who tells us about a man named Zalmoxis who was reported to have gone missing (and been assumed dead) and re-appeared (and been presumed resurrected by his followers), in which Herodotus himself admitted that he wasn’t sure whether this story was that of a real person, or a naturalised and historicised account of a local deity.

Therefore, we know with a high degree of certainty that some religious figures were historical men (and women) who were later deified (as in the case of Roman Emperors), and vice versa; we know that that some religious figures were mythical gods and prophets that were euhemerized (historicized).  Hence, prior to examining the specifics it is just as probably that Jesus was one or the other; therefore the idea that Jesus was non-historical is not a ridiculous idea at all.

So mythicism can’t be considered to be outrageous on that point.  So, is the evidence in favour of historicity so overwhelming that it is outrageous to deny or question it?  Well, I say no.  It is important to note that there is significant diversity amongst historicists, particularly between conservative Christians and secular scholars. There are certainly some overlapping arguments between the two, but by and large they go about making significantly different cases, using vastly different approaches.  Hence I will discuss them separately.

The traditional view of Jesus and its defenders:

If one was only to read and listen to the opinions of conservative Christians on the subject of Jesus one could be excused for thinking that there was “more evidence for the historicity of Jesus then Julius Caesar”, or that “the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best attested event in all of history”.  Those in the know will realise that I am not merely paraphrasing Christian apologists here, but rather am quoting them word for word, as they make extraordinary and entirely misleading claims to an audience that trusts them to give them the truth on a subject they hold most sacred.

Unfortunately for Christians they are being misled, and it doesn’t take much detective work to uncover that fact.  The vast majority of claims and arguments being used by Christian apologists are in-truth sick jokes, making a mockery of their claims to be defending truth.  For example, one of the primary arguments they present for the historicity of Jesus is that we apparently have a larger array of surviving manuscripts for the New Testament then for any other surviving work of the classical world, and the earliest manuscripts (and/or fragments) date closer to the time of the original composition then for any other examples.  Apologists then proceed to claim that therefore this makes the NT more reliable then any other ancient work, as if this is some standard means test amongst scholars studying “textual integrity”.  The problem is that the whole argument is bunk, proves pretty much nothing, and runs contrary to real secular textual criticism, which actually concludes the opposite of what apologists claim; that being that the NT has suffered numerous interpolations and redactions in its current form.

Likewise, apologists frequently take the claim from 1st Corinthians 15:6 that there were 500 witnesses to the resurrection as equivalent to having 500 people stand up in a court of law to testify to the event.  In truth however, it is merely a claim found in one ancient letter, and even if Paul had spoken to 500 people that had claimed to have seen the risen Christ, it could simply be a common vision, as religious believers in a particular community often have shared experiences.  Likewise, apologists also like to reference Acts 4 in which the disciples stand before the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders do not deny that Jesus performed miracles or that they crucified him.  However, most secular scholars believe that Acts is not merely an unbiased historical work, but rather is a work of religious propaganda (though apologists and conservative Christian scholars claim to have proven its historical accuracy). You cannot simply use the Bible to prove the Bible, just as you cannot do the same for the Vedas or Bhagavad-Gita, or any other religious text.  Obviously this is circular reasoning, and it is not a valid method of arguing for historicity.

Heading down into the bottom of the barrel of apologetic arguments you encounter all sorts of erroneous claims such as the disciples wouldn’t have died for a lie, or that the Gospels were written too early to be a myth (and that the early dating of the NT is verified by the church fathers), or that they were written by eye-witnesses, or that Christianity was too impossible to have survived had it not been true, or that the empty tomb and its female witnesses proves the resurrection (William Lane Craig has written many, many words on this doozy), or that the reliability of Jewish oral tradition validates the accuracy of the NT and other equally bunk claims (which I have dealt with in detail in my book, but in truth do not deserve any real time or consideration).

The only real evidence that apologists present that has any possibility of truth is in the “non-Christian attestation”, that being references to Jesus and Christianity in Jewish and Roman sources.  However, Christian apologists vastly misrepresent the evidence and again reach the wrong conclusions.  Apologists tell their flock that there are a large number of secular references to Jesus that affirm various aspects of the Gospel story and effectively prove that Jesus was indeed a historical figure.  In reality however the vast majority of these references can certainly be seen as natural responses from the Roman and Jewish world to Christian preaching, and there are only a handful of passages that could possibly be seen as external verification for the historicity of Jesus.

The passages in question that should at least be considered in detail are those found in the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and the Babylonian Talmud; all other sources in this category (Lucian, Celsus etc.) should be viewed as most likely responses to Christian preaching, or Christians attempting to find verification for their beliefs where there was none (such as in the case of Thallus). Whilst there is not the room to deal with these references properly here (I have done so in detail in my book), I will give a quick summary for those unfamiliar.  There are two passages found in Josephus’s work “Antiquities of the Jews” that mention Jesus.  The first of these in chapter 18 (known as the “Testimonium Flavianum”) is unquestionably at least a partial interpolation, though opinions vary as to whether or not there was an authentic core or whether the entire passage is an interpolation.

I personally believe that there is an excellent case for total inauthenticity based on the following: The whole thing reads as a condensed Christian creed, it was not quoted by any Christian author until Eusebius in the 4th century, the passage interrupts the flow of the chapter and if it is removed the following paragraph directly references and follows on from the paragraph prior to it, Eusebius refers to the passage being in a different place relative to the discussion of John the Baptist, there are extensive Christian interpolations in Josephus’ other work “The Jewish War”, and Photius quotes extensively from Josephus in the 9th century without mentioning this passage etc.  Whilst there are various theoretical arguments that can be produced in favour of partial authenticity, the only actual evidence that exists for that possibility is the Syriac and Arabic versions of the Testimonium.  In these cases the passages do indeed read less like statements of Christian faith and more like what one would expect from a Jewish historian.

On the basis of this evidence I must concede that there is some evidence that could be presented for partial authenticity of the Testimonium, which can then be presented as possible evidence for the historicity of Jesus (possible only as it could still be argued that Josephus only heard about Jesus from Christians, though I personally find this unlikely).  However, there have also been some scholars that have argued that the Arabic and Syriac versions of the Testimonium are derived from the Greek version as quoted by Eusebius, and that they were ‘softened’ for philosophical and political reasons.  Personally I favour this conclusion for a number of reasons, the most notable being the following, which is also my primary reason for believing that Josephus not only never mentioned Jesus, but had also never heard of Jesus Christ or Christianity.

Josephus’s entire work “The Antiquities…” was heavily polemic against messianic Jews, and he sought to separate himself and the “good Jews” from the messianic Jews that started the war with Rome (in which he himself fought).  Josephus effectively betrayed the Jews with which he had fought at the point of surrender, claiming that Vespasian himself was the messiah that the Jews had awaited.  If Josephus had heard of Jesus and Christianity he would have written about them in distinctly negative terms, as he was trying very hard to distance himself (and Judaism as a whole) from the messianic movement.  Hence, I believe that the evidence is consistent not only with the whole Testimonium being inauthentic, but also with Josephus not being at all familiar with Christianity.

As for the second passage in chapter 20, very few scholars will concede the possibility that it did not originally refer to the Jesus of Christianity.  However, there is a good possibility that this is so, for if the words “called Christ” are removed (and seen as an interpolation from the hands of Origen, originally written as a note in his own writings and later copied into the main text of Josephus) then the passage makes perfect sense as referring to a different Jesus (Jesus son of Damneus).

As for Suetonius and Tacitus, they tell a well-known story of Christians being persecuted by Nero in Rome in the 60’s CE, and they briefly attest to the origins of the sect with Jesus.  It is of course possible that the persecutions under Nero were historical (most scholars believe they were) and it is possible that the Romans had some sources for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, it is also possible that Suetonius and Tacitus were merely repeating stories they were hearing from Christians, and in light of other evidence this is personally the conclusion which I favour (though there is also potentially more to it then that).

As for the Babylonian Talmud, there are several references to a Yeshu that have parallels to Jesus.  However the references in question are nothing short of a mess, they contradict each other and have various differences to the gospel accounts, and the whole communications style of the Talmud is quite unusual; hence it is difficult to know in what context the passages were intended to be read.  Due to a number of reasons it seems quite likely that they were written as Jewish polemics to Christian preaching, and no reasonable historian could read too much into the uncertainty surrounding these passages.

Given that the best that can be produced by Christian apologists for full historicity gives only at best the possibility of historicity, it is clear that we should give time and attention to alternative voices on the subject, and that conservative Christian scholars and apologists cannot be trusted to give reasonable and objective opinions on the subject.  Rather, it is clear that they enter the discussion with vested interests in preserving the status quo of orthodox Christianity.  The people in question are not merely upholding a conspiracy of sorts; rather they have made their Christian faith part of their personal identity (their ego), and they are doing what the ego does best, attempting to preserve its precarious existence by upholding the identity which they have chosen.  Hence, we cannot expect them to be reasonable with the evidence.

Minimal historicity, liberal and secular scholarship:

Conservative Christians do love to cite the academic consensus on the historicity of Jesus as supporting their assertions, particularly in response to the claims of mythicists.  In truth however, liberal and secular scholarship on the topic only concludes that there was a historical man named Jesus of Nazareth who taught, gathered disciples and was crucified under Pontius Pilate.  All the rest of the gospel narrative is unsupported by mainstream academia.  Whilst the position of Christian apologists (that being full historicity to the NT accounts) is completely untenable both in light of the weakness of apologists arguments and also in light of contrary arguments (that we have not yet summarized), this mainstream position is certainly far more reasonable, and no question absolutely plausible.

We should be able to trust academia to give us accurate, unbiased considerations of the available evidence, especially when there appears to be a consensus amongst scholars.  However, as is the case in other subjects all human beings are prone to personal bias, and academia follows trends, whether or not there are religious motivations for these aberrations.  In truth there is significant diversity in what secular scholars believe about the historical Jesus, and when we examine their methodology the whole house of cards begins to fall over.

I have already briefly touched on the secular references to Jesus and Christianity, to which we should consider several possibilities as to how they came to be, some of which are consistent with a historical Jesus and some of which are not.  So, it is not as if there is not some evidence that at least on first impression should be viewed as supporting historicity.  However, these references do not preclude non-historicity, and their existence can be easily explained as a secular response to Christian preaching, along with interpolation (forgery) by later Christian scribes.  What then of the other evidence and arguments that mainstream scholars cite for the historicity of Jesus?

Secular NT scholars commonly cite a series of tests that they apply to ancient works to determine what is historical and what is fictional, such as the criteria of embarrassment, multiple attestation, coherence, discontinuity, rejection and execution.  By applying these criteria to the gospels scholars argue that some parts are historical, whilst rejecting other parts as fictional embellishments.  The problem is that this is such a weak methodology for so many reasons, and it is almost embarrassing that mainstream academia would place so much weight on a completely theoretical approach.  In truth, we do not know who wrote (and edited) the various NT texts and what their thought processes were, not to mention that this method assumes that a text is historical in order to treat it as such, and could likewise create a false impression that there was a historical core when applied to a work of fiction.  Richard Carrier and a few others have rightfully been pointing out that scholars of the historical Jesus need to adopt better methods, and when quizzed many in the field have admitted as such.

Secular scholars also often claim that the presence of a handful of Aramaic words in the gospels (along with a few passages that appear to have been interpreted from Aramaic sources) validates the view that the gospel narrative has roots in the experiences of Aramaic speaking Jews from Judea (whereas in fact every single NT text was originally written in Greek as far as we have manuscript evidence for).  In truth however, there are multiple possibilities as to how a handful of Aramaic words and sources ended up in the NT texts (such as that the author/s of the gospels also spoke Aramaic, or consulted with someone that did) that do not necessitate a historical Jesus, and again this argument is extremely weak.

Another argument along similar lines is that the NT texts are dependent upon now lost source texts (such as Q), and that these sources must have originated with a historical Jesus and his followers.  Again however, this argument is entirely theoretical and its conclusion is erroneous.  Firstly, the existence of these sources texts is purely hypothetical and it is just as likely (if not more so) that there were in-truth no such source texts, but that the details of the synoptic problem (and others) can be solved in other ways.  Furthermore, even if such source texts did exist, they still need not be dependent upon a historical Jesus and his followers.

Mainstream scholars (and Christian apologists) also commonly like to make a big deal out of references to the “brothers of the Lord” in the epistles (Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5), claiming that “myths don’t have families”.  Richard Carrier and Robert Price have given lengthy responses to this argument, and I would simply just refer my readers to check them out if you are interested.  I personally have always felt that this argument was much ado about nothing.  Once again there are so many possible explanations for how these passages originated, and only some of these would involve a historical Jesus; hence the presence of these passages in no way precludes the possibility of non-historicity.

So, whilst the idea of a minimal historical Jesus is plausible and there does exist secular references to Jesus, the actual case presented by secular historians and NT scholars is extremely weak (at best), and conceivably could be entirely and absolutely flawed.  Hence, it is worth at least considering whether mythicists can produce strong evidence against historicity, and if they are able to then we should give credit to that explanation.

Jesus Mythicism:

Whilst I can state that I lean towards mythicism, it should be made clear that there is not one single mythicist theory on Christian origins.  The vast majority of mythicist theories share certain common ground (which should be the strongest arguments), and from there the weaker works rely on secondary arguments, which are often quite a stretch, and in some cases entirely erroneous.  That is not to say that there are not some excellent arguments that are ignored by some mythicists, as I personally believe that there is much evidence in this field that is often overlooked, not just by those hostile to mythicism.  There is however a great deal of variance in this field between the best and worst writers, their presentations of the relevant evidence and arguments, and the plausibility (or lack thereof) of the overall origins theory, which they present.

For example, Richard Carrier, Robert Price and Earl Doherty present their cases very well, as do some Internet mythicists such as Neil Godfrey (who runs the Vridar blog) and my friend D.N. Boswell (though his use of satire may confuse some).  Other hobbyists such as D.M. Murdock, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy and Kenneth Humphreys contribute much to the field IMO, but also make some mistakes and do not present their work with the same standard as the best in the field.  Others such as Joseph Atwill give a bad name to the whole field, and most of us do not wish to be associated with work of that nature.

So, what evidence do I personally believe should be presented in favour of non-historicity?  To start with, we have the vast amount of literary and mythological parallels found in the gospels (as well as in Acts) that lead us to the obvious conclusion that the authors of these works were aware that they were writing fiction, or employed questionable methods in writing their scriptures, that often involved “discovering” what Jesus had done through revelation and allegorical readings of the Hebrew scriptures (see Romans 16:25-26).

The gospels are filled from start to finish with blatant references and parallels to the Hebrew scriptures, making it quite obvious that their authors employed the Jewish literary techniques of midrash or pesher, in extrapolating new narratives from their sacred texts.  Whilst proponents of this theory may also present some weak parallels, the strongest ones are so clear that it rightly calls into question whether there was any historical source for the gospel narrative at all, or whether the entire gospels were written as literary fiction?

Using only the gospel of Mark (which was almost certainly written first and used as a source for all later gospels) as our example, we have various parallels with the stories of Elisha (such as 2 Kings 4:43-44 with Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10, or between 2 Kings 4:8-37 and Mark 5:21-43), numerous parallels between the crucifixion narrative and Psalms 22, the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:4-16), Psalm 107 and Mark 4:35-41, or 1 Kings 13:1-6 and Mark 3:1-6.  Whilst it is of course possible that the writers of the gospels merely embellished a historical narrative with references to fiction, the more legitimate parallels that can be found the more an accumulative case is built against historicity, and the more likely complete non-historicity becomes.

Then there are the parallels found between the gospel of Mark and several works of Homer (primarily “The Odyssey”), which make it quite apparent that the author of Mark was attempting to kill two birds with one stone, in inserting parallels to both Jewish and Greek mythology.  As with the above, there are certainly some weaker parallels presented in favour of this theory, but the strongest ones are quite clear, and any objective reader should be able to accept the natural conclusion that the earliest gospel is largely based on a work of pagan literary fiction.  The parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1-12) summaries the Gospel narrative in terms that resemble a summary of the Odyssey, and the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11) has parallels with Athena coming down from heaven to speak with Telemachus.  The “messianic secret” theme in Mark is paralleled by the secrecy of Odysseus when he returns to his home, and there is a remarkable parallel between the story of Jesus being anointed with oil (Mark 14:3-9) with the story of Odysseus having his feet washed by Eurycleia (this one is a killer), and Mark’s identification of James and John as the “sons of thunder” is a dead giveaway that the author of Mark was thinking of the Greek brothers Castor and Polydeuces.  I don’t really have room here to cover all of the parallels in detail, so I recommend that those interested investigate further for themselves (and of course, I have covered this in necessary detail in my book); needless to say, an objective reader will be amazed at the strength of this case when presented properly.

Then there is the controversial subject of pagan parallels, to which Christian apologists claim we mythicists are grasping at straws, and to which most secular scholars believe we stretch the truth and go way too far.  I have already given a lengthy defence of the theory of pagan parallels in my original article on Justin Martyr’s “Diabolical Mimicry” argument (which can be found on this website), and the next article in this three-part series will deal with apologetic and scholarly objections to pagan parallels in some detail (not to mention that I went into considerable detail in my book).  For the time being then, let me just summarize the topic in a paragraph or two.

Critics of Christianity have since the 2nd century CE pointed out that there are obvious parallels between the figure of Jesus (and the things believed about him) and various pagan gods and other religious figures.  The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that the early Christians that wrote the gospels were familiar with these pagan figures and literarily copied various features across into their narrative, regardless of whether there was some partial historicity to their story or not.  Certainly there have been some very poor presentations of this theory both from early mythicists in the 18th-19th centuries, and in recent times by hobbyists and Internet amateurs.  Having said that however, the case is legitimate and objective readers should be able to recognize the strength of the case.

The motif of a god or hero being conceived via the union of a male god with a mortal female was literarily everywhere in the ancient world, and there were indeed a number of pre-Christian examples where the mortal woman was also a virgin.  Resurrection in various forms was likewise commonplace in ancient religion and mythology, and it was actually the central concept of the single most well known religions and cults in the ancient world (that being the Sumerian cult of Inanna and Tammuz and the Egyptian cult of Osiris, through to the Greek and Roman Mystery religions), starting 3,000 years prior to Christianity right through to the time in which Christianity emerged.

Not only that, but the cults based around myths of gods that had died and been reborn or resurrected also offered the same thing for their followers that Christianity did, promising eternal life after death, free from suffering.  Not only that, but the Mystery religions also practiced initiation through immersion in water, took part in ritual meals where they “ate the god” and various other strong parallels to Christianity.  Richard Carrier has rightfully stated that you could have asked somebody just prior to the Common Era what a pseudo-Jewish Mystery cult would look like, and literarily predicted pretty much every single major feature of Christianity, simply by combining messianic Judaism with the pagan Mystery religions.  Hence, it is extraordinary that so many today are in denial of this reality; a fact that will surely be embarrassing for religious studies in the near future.

Then there are the various contradictions and historical difficulties found amongst the NT texts.  The four gospels contradict each other constantly from start to finish (the perfect examples being the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke), making it quite clear that at least to some degree they weren’t concerned with preserving historical details, but were driven by theological motives.  Furthermore, several major features of the gospel narrative appear almost impossible when we consider their details.  Case in point, the “cleansing of the temple” episode ignores the necessity of money changers and vendors selling ritual animals for the functioning of the Jewish temple, let alone that there were Roman guards out the front, and Jesus and his followers would probably have been killed on the spot had they created a disturbance in the temple.  Likewise, Mark has the Sanhedrin meeting on the eve of the Sabbath, which would have been illegal at the time.

Given all this, we can reject pretty much the entire gospel narrative as being fictitious, leaving us only with the epistles, Acts and the revelation of John in the NT.  Acts suffers from the same issues as does the gospels, and revelation is a thinly veiled allegory predicting divine and demonic punishment upon Rome and all of the enemies of the Jews (and/or Christians).  As for the epistles, mythicists have long pointed out that they are practically inexplicable if there were a historical Jesus.  Richard Carrier emphasises this point as the primary argument for his case (as do most good mythicists), as most scholars believe that the Pauline epistles were written before the gospels (I personally have ultra-radical views on the Pauline epistles, which I will explain in the third and final article in this series).

In the epistles bearing his name, Paul writes that he received his information about Christ from revelations (visions) and from the Jewish scriptures, states that he was uninterested in hearing earthly concepts of Christ, and that he stands against other forms of Christianity that claim earthly authority (though there are also other passages which appear to contradict these statements).  Likewise, there appears to be many places in the epistles where it would be convenient to reference episodes from the gospels (had they been known or accepted as Scripture at the time), but where the author/s fail to do so.  Furthermore, the theology of the primary Pauline epistles appears to be quite Gnostic, which leads into the little known or discussed fact that there was considerable controversy surrounding these epistles (and the identity of Paul himself) in the 2nd century, and heterodox Christians claimed them as their own and based their theology upon them.  I will discuss this in brief in my third article in the series, and I discuss it in detail in my book.

Mythicists have produced long lists of writers from the 1st century CE that they claim should have mentioned Jesus if he had really lived.  Unfortunately the majority of the people on these lists should not be on there (for various reasons).  However, there are a handful of writers from the time period that could legitimately have been expected to write something about Jesus had he been known to them.  The first of these is Philo of Alexandria, who lived in the early 1st century CE, was well connected and had travelled to Jerusalem, and wrote extensively on religion, philosophy and issues relevant to Jews of his day.  However Philo failed to mention Jesus and Christianity, despite the fact that even a minimal, historical Jesus is supposed to have done significant things (such as causing a disturbance in the temple), and his followers were supposed to have encountered resistance from the Romans wherever they went.

There was also another Jewish historian named Justus of Tiberius, of whom we are told said nothing about Jesus.  It should be noted that despite the fact that the works of Justus do not survive today, the witness for this was a Christian; hence surely a Christian would have told us if Justus had indeed mentioned Jesus.  Combine the silence of Philo and Justus with the fact that Josephus should have been expected to give a harsh rebuttal of Jesus and his followers had he been aware of them, we have a legitimate argument that no Jewish writer from the 1st century CE knew anything about Jesus or his followers.  In light of this we can make a legitimate argument from silence, and conclude that the available evidence best fits the non-historicity thesis (though again, it does not completely preclude historicity).

As Richard Carrier has succinctly stated, it is not so much that (good) mythicists are simply arguing that Jesus couldn’t have been historical, therefore he must have been a myth.  Rather, there is so much evidence that the Jesus of the NT is a myth, that it is more likely that he was not historical.  Carrier and others argue that we are missing the evidence that we should have expected had Christianity begun with a historical figure, and we have precisely the evidence we should expect had Christianity begun with a mythical figure, whose followers later historicized Jesus with the gospel narratives (I would like to note that to many mythicists the consensus that the epistles preceded the gospels is presented as a primary argument for mythicism; personally I only partially agree with this, and I will explain my own views in the third article of this series).

Conclusion:

Obviously the above is an extremely brief summary of why I favour mythicism, and I would expect historicists to object to pretty much everything that I have written, and that is fine.  If anyone wishes to accuse me of being biased and being motivated towards favouring mythicism, I would like to point out that I myself favoured a belief in a supernatural Yogi Jesus (as espoused by Paramahansa Yogananda) prior to my personal study of this topic.  Hence, if anything I would have been biased towards not merely a historical Jesus, but a supernatural, miracle-working, resurrected Jesus.

Out of all the plausible models for the emergence of Christianity (that being excluding the traditional view), none of them actually suit my overall view of comparative religion any more then any other.  Hence, I would argue that my view on the topic is separate from my overall worldview, and I would be happy to change my view on this topic if someone could convince me otherwise.  Human beings do not like changing their beliefs, and will generally resist doing so even when faced with evidence that utterly refutes their presumptions.  Human beings try and make their beliefs part of their identity, so when their beliefs are challenged they tend to take it personally and feel that part of themselves is under threat.

In relation to Jesus this is so not only of conservative Christians, but also followers of other religions and New Ager’s, who often have their own picture of who they believe Jesus was, that conveniently makes him one of their own.  It has been quite a surprise to me over the years to discover that religious liberals and those amongst the New Age movement can get just as upset as religious conservatives when their picture of Jesus is challenged.  I would suggest that a truly enlightened approach to religion and spirituality should not be dependent upon any one religious figure, text or tradition.  Rather it should be dependent upon timeless and universal (i.e. perennial) truths, and whilst it is advisable to choose a particular path to travel through to the end (rather then merely scratching the surface of many traditions), ones chosen path should be seen ultimately as a mere tool to help one directly experience Spirit.

If our spirituality is authentic then it shouldn’t matter whether or not Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Lao-Tzu, Pythagoras, Plato, Kuan Yin or any other religious figure was a historical person or not.  Rather, it should only matter whether the teachings that are associated with them are true or not.  I have no doubt that both Christians and non-Christians alike have authentic spiritual experiences of Christ, regardless of whether or not their beliefs about the nature of reality are accurate.  Sincere Buddhists have visions of Buddha, Hindus have visions of Krishna, Shiva and a plethora of other deities, devotees in the ancient world world had visions of Osiris and Dionysus, Theosophists have had visions of the ascended masters, and New Ager’s have visions of all of the above.

This does not necessarily mean however that they are either all deluded and the experiences lack any objective reality, or that all of these gods are objectively real in one sense or another.  I believe that Spirit will work with us through the context of our pre-existing beliefs and the language and symbolism of which we are familiar.  Likewise however, I believe that there is not a clear defining line between spiritual and psychological experiences, and that most visions and other religious experiences feature a complex combination of both.

The spiritual seeker should attempt to experience truth outside of the bubble of their personal experiences and cultural conditioning.  I want to know what is true, what has always been true and what will always be true.  I don’t just want to have self-validating experiences that ultimately prevent further growth, though they may be comforting at the time.  I have long been a fan of the Bhagavad-Gita, and although I think some interpretations (such as that by ISKON) misrepresent its message, it teaches that taking a personal form of God as an object of worship and meditation is helpful for most people, as it can be quite hard to reach that which has no name or form.  However, we mustn’t mistake the finger for the moon itself (to change analogies), or think that the elephant’s trunk is the whole elephant.  Rather, religious myths have limitations and can restrict us if we take identification with them too far, and we have abundant evidence that religion can become so immersed in ego that it can actually prevent the cultivation of real spirituality.

As for how Christianity began, I personally think there a number of plausible explanations, and that we should be cautious about becoming too invested in any particular origins theory, though it is ok to have our personal preferences.  Christian apologists and conservative religious scholars seem to live in their own bubble where they can make all sorts of erroneous claims using all manner of contorted arguments, and maintain a successful career reaching the wrong conclusions.  Mainstream scholarship on the other hand is far more sensible, though the methodology being applied to the study of early Christianity at the moment is a bit of a joke; one can only hope that the field sorts itself out rather then becoming an embarrassment to academia.  Whilst we should legitimately be cautious about Internet mythicism, objective readers will discover that mythicism is not only a plausible possibility for Christian origins, but might just be the most likely.