Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jesus and Mithras, Debunked

On his Facebook page, my friend Cary laid out C.S. Lewis' trilemma: that given everything we know about Him, Jesus must be Lord, liar, or lunatic.  You can't just write Him off as a “good teacher.” One of his atheist friends, Nick, responded:
How about thief? Similiar [J]esus like stories, ones that predate the life of [J]esus, exist in pagan and egyption culture. Look it up if feel so inclined to test your faith. Just remember religion is believed by common people to be true, by the wise to be false, and by the rulers to be...useful. What is your choice?
That possible (that Christ is just another in a series of myths) is considered in Msgr. Ronald Knox's expanded version of the trilemma, laid out in Belief of Catholics: he also addresses the notion that Christ was just a “guru” head-on.  I asked Nick for specific examples supporting his claim, and he gave me this:
Let's start with a list of things that come from paganism or other cultrures that predate [C]hristianity; the timing of the two biggest pagan holidays with the birth and death of [J]esus, the concept of [H]eaven, hell, prophecies, sacrifice, baptism, communion with [G]od through a holy meal, immortality of the soul and virgin births. Gods that are similar to [J]esus include mithrus, dionysus, attis, osirus and orpheus. Any mediterranean religion has its own similarities. [...] Ohh and I almost forgot, [C]hristmas trees and [E]aster eggs are also pagan traditions
I've run into this argument numerous times, and it's all smoke, no fire. I answered a Protestant variation of it before (in which John MacArthur claimed everything distinctively Catholic comes from Babylonian paganism).  But because I think it's easily debunked, and because it's a surprisingly popular argument by atheists, it seems fitting to address it directly.

I. Just How Similar Are These Stories?

The first thing to recognize is that, almost without exception, neither the atheist nor the Christian in the conversation know anything about Mithras, Dionysus, Attis, Osiris, Orpheus, or any of the other names the atheist will drop.  Without picking on Nick too much, he couldn't even spell two of the names.  That's not unusual.  People who know what they're talking about in this area don't raise this argument against Christianity.

Here's why.  From the Wikipedia summary of the myth of Attis:
In the late fourth century a cult of Attis became a feature of the Greek world. The story of his origins at Agdistis, recorded by the traveler Pausanias, have some distinctly non-Greek elements: Pausanias was told that the daemon Agdistis initially bore both male and female attributes. But the Olympian gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ and cast it away. There grew up from it an almond-tree, and when its fruit was ripe, Nana who was a daughter of the river-god Sangarius picked an almond and laid it in her bosom. The almond disappeared, and she became pregnant. Nana abandoned the baby (Attis). The infant was tended by a he-goat. As Attis grew, his long-haired beauty was godlike, and Agdistis as Cybele, then fell in love with him. But the foster parents of Attis sent him to Pessinos, where he was to wed the king's daughter. According to some versions the King of Pessinos was Midas. Just as the marriage-song was being sung, Agdistis/Cybele appeared in her transcendent power, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals. Attis' father-in-law-to-be, the king who was giving his daughter in marriage, followed suit, prefiguring the self-castrating corybantes who devoted themselves to Cybele. But Agdistis repented and saw to it that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay.
That has.... nothing to do with Christianity?  Seriously, where are the parallels between that and the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, as reported in the Gospels?

You could do the same thing for Osiris, Orpheus, etc.  The cult of Mithras did have similarities with Christianity, but it was a pagan imitation of Christianity, created after the time of Christ.  So in a nutshell,  the pre-Christian accounts are all unmistakably different, and quite radically so, while the post-Christian account is an initiation of Christianity, rather than the reverse.


II. Just How Bad is This Methodology?

To show why I think this is a bad argument against the historicity of Christ, let's use it to “debunk” the existence of someone we know to be real: Mohandas Gandhi.

Step 1: To start with, find a lot of remarkably-similar sounding events between the lives of two historical figures.  This is what conspiracy theorists have already done (quite impressively) for the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations.  For our purposes, just look a the surface similarities between Gandhi and Jesus:
Never existed, apparently.
  • Born in Asia, left, and returned through Africa.  Gandhi was born in India, left, and returned by way of Africa (South Africa).  Jesus was born in Israel, left, and returned by way of Africa (Egypt).
  • Born in countries oppressed by European imperialists.  India at the time of Gandhi's birth was under British rule.  Israel at the time of Christ's birth was under Roman rule.
  • Both were charismatic leaders viewed as a threat by the imperial powers-that-be.  The British and Romans weren't exactly keen on Gandhi or Jesus, respectively.
  • Both preached a radical message of non-violence.
  • Both were viewed as spiritual-political figures.  The followers of both Jesus and Gandhi treated them as both religious or political leaders, simultaneously.
  • Both alienated many of their followers in the same two ways.  Specifically, many Hindus were upset about Gandhi's message of radical non-violence, even against the British imperialists, and upset that Gandhi seemed too friendly with a hated religious minority (the Muslims).  Many Jews were upset about Christ's message of  radical non-violence, even against the Roman imperialists, and upset that Jesus seemed too friendly with a hated religious minority (the Samaritans).
  • Both were betrayed, to their deaths, by those they were saving.  Judas and Nathuram Godse.
These were just the basic ones that I could come up with. If you dive in deeper, I'm quite sure that you can find some pretty remarkable-seeming similarities.

For example, after receiving a donation from a poor old woman, Gandhi said, “This copper coin is worth much more than those thousands. If a man has several lakhs and he gives away a thousand or two, it doesn’t mean much. But this coin was perhaps all that the poor woman possessed. She gave me all she had. That was very generous of her. What a great sacrifice she made. That is why I value this copper coin more than a crore of rupees.

A strikingly similar event happens in the life of Christ, as recounted in Luke 21:1-4:
As He looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Other than a tiny detail (one copper coin or two?), it appears to be the same story. All said, these similarities are much closer than the similarities between Jesus Christ and Attis, for example.

Step 2: According to the atheist argument, a real-life person can't share a lot of biographical details that are similar to an earlier myth or history.  So we have to conclude from all of these similarities that either (a) the New Testament is plagiarized from the life of Gandhi, or the life story of Gandhi is just a re-telling of the Christ story.  

Step 3: Since the New Testament is a couple thousands of years older, we've now  “debunked” Gandhi's existence.  After all, if the existence of a couple of (incredibly generic) similarities between the Gospels and the Attis mythos disproves Christ, then the far more extensive similarities between the Gospels and the life of Gandhi disproves Gandhi.  

Bonus: We could do this for a lot of other figures as well.  For example, Napoleon was the non-Frenchman (a Corsican) who rose to command a ruthless French Empire.  Hitler was the non-German (an Austrian) who rose to command a ruthless German Empire.  Stalin was the non-Russian (a Georgian) who rose to command a ruthless Russian Empire.  All of them are obviously just re-tellings of the story of Alexander the Great, right?

III. Fun with Calendars


Virtually every ancient culture had its own calendar.  Anyone who tells you that a Jewish or Christian holiday falls on “the same day” as some other culture's holiday is almost certainly wrong, for no other reason.  In almost every case, you'll discover that it was just a holiday that occurred sometime in the spring, or  sometime in the winter.

For example, this year, Channukah falls on December 21, while it falls on November 28th in 2013.  In other words, you can wax conspiratorial about Channukah-Christmas connections this year, and Channukah-Thanksgiving connections in two years.

Finally, consider the number of ancient cultures in the world, and the sheer number of deities worshiped in some time or place.  Now consider the number of days in a year.  Find me a day of the year -- any day -- that isn't the anniversary of some pagan holiday or another.  This is particularly true in the spring and fall, since they're naturally connected with life and death in an agrarian society (not, mind you, because they stole that from some older myth, but because that's what crops do in the spring and fall).

Having said that, let's look at Easter and Christmas, the two holidays that Nick claims coincide, timing-wise with the two biggest holidays in paganism (apparently, all pagans now use the same calendar, and share the two biggest holidays).

Easter is tied quite explicitly with the Jewish Passover in the New Testament.  Jesus' Death and Resurrection are linked to the Passover chronologically (John 19:14, etc.), and both John the Baptist (John 1:29) and St. Paul (1 Corinthians 5:7) explicitly tie Jesus' Atonement with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.  And the Passover had been tied for thousands of years to the Jewish calendar (Leviticus 23:5), not to anything from Egyptian or Greek paganism.

The date for Christmas isn't found in Scripture, but was customarily celebrated about nine months after Easter, out of an old Jewish custom.  The date of December 25 is also significant, since it makes January 1 the day that Jesus formally became a Jew (Luke 2:21).  It's a new beginning.  In other words, all of these dates make sense for a religious group that originated in Judaism, but used a Roman calendar.  Which is exactly what happened with the Christians.

IV. Plundering the Egyptians

So none of the events from the life of Christ are borrowed from paganism.  Whether some later Christian customs are is an interesting subject to debate, I guess, but doesn't really matter.  Or put another way: even if the Christians did take the idea for beautiful Christmas trees from Germanic pagans, what does that prove one way or another about Jesus?

In Spain, many of the churches used to be mosques, from the time of the Moorish invasion.  Much of the art is Islamic, with tessellations to represent the infiniteness of God (since tessellations are patterns continuing on in every direction, forever).  After expelling the Moors, the Christians kept the art. Why?  Because it was beautiful.  Did that mean that they suddenly treated the Qu'ran as equal to the Bible?  Obviously not.

Here, I'll point again to Reformation Day.  As I've noted, some Protestants celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, in order to celebrate something (that they find) wholesome, instead of celebrating something (that they find) evil.   The term for this is “plundering the Egyptians” (a sly allusion to Exodus 12:35-36). It's when you take the best of what others have to offer, even if they're you're enemies.

Even if we discover that the Christians plundered the Egyptians, taking some of the best of what pagan cultures had to offer, without falling into paganism themselves, that's not a mark against Christianity, much less against Christ Himself. Just shows that Christians are a much more open-minded lot than atheists give us credit for.

V. Conclusion

If you're talking to an atheist who raises this, odds are good that he got his misinformation from an Internet movie called Zeitgeist that's been repeatedly debunked by Christians.  If not, he probably got it from someone blindly regurgitating the information.  It's a funny irony.  He's willing to swallow hook, line, and sinker the most absurd of historical claims, yet claims the title of “skeptic,” and derides Christians for our alleged gullibility.

What's important here is that this an argument from scholarship.  That is, the atheist side claiming that historical scholarship proves that a-historical nature of Jesus Christ.  Yet, as William Lane Craig has noted in numerous debates with atheists, this theory isn't even widely accepted among most liberal Biblical scholars today.  As we've seen, it relies upon (a) terrible methodology, (b) a number of outright falsehoods about history, and (c) a misrepresentation of what a number of ancient myths actually taught. This just isn't a serious argument against Christianity, and it's long past time that atheists who insist upon debating religion learned something about the subject.

10 comments:

  1. Great post. Regarding your second premise, I've often said, "Did boats ever sink before the Titanic?" After I am replied to with the affirmative, I point out that the Titanic couldn't really have sunk, according to their reasoning. Many seem to dismiss it, but I am not laying it out nearly as clearly as you have.

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  2. Actually, Snopes is pretty pitiful on this one. It wasn't made up by conspiracy theorists, but rather, it was written up as a curiosity by Lincoln buff and comics writer and artist Lloyd Ostendorf, mostly off the top of his head, and only a few days after the Kennedy assassination. (He was a huge Lincoln buff and collector, so it wasn't hard for him.) He gave it to his editor to use as a filler in the Catholic comic "Treasure Chest", which lots of kids were subscribed to through their parochial school. (There were a lot of history bits in the comic, so it wasn't unusual.)

    Every other version of the coincidence list is copied off his.

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  3. You are just being silly.

    Everyone knows that Napoleon was a solar myth.

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  4. In the middle of the last paragraph you say, "this theory isn't even widely accepted among most liberal Biblical scholars today." Did you mean that or "the most liberal"? Are there actual Biblical scholars that believe Jesus is a myth?

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  5. There is one single element of the life and death of Jesus Christ that sets him apart from every other single story from the ancient world.

    He was crucified.

    Today, in our heavily-Christianized culture we don't think twice about a crucifix, either around someone's neck, or on a wall, or as the highest point on a building.

    2000 years ago, that wasn't the case.

    Go back in time, and take a stroll through Rome circa 25 AD with a crucifix around your neck. You'll get a lot of weird looks, and those looks would be from a culture with people who believed that the entrails of chickens told the future.

    A crucifix is a guy being tortured to death. There really is no equivalent in our culture today to what crucifixion was to the Ancient Romans.

    It is rarely mentioned in the same level of detail that we find in the Gospels in the works that have survived to our day. And when it is mentioned, it is usually very quick, and very vague. ie: It never gets more detailed than "All of Spartacus' followers were executed..."

    If every single other aspect of Jesus' life and ministry is a myth (I don't believe that for the record...) at least one thing about his life is true: He was Crucified.

    You don't make that kind of stuff up.

    Are there actual Biblical scholars that believe Jesus is a myth?

    I had one in college. He was a total agnostic who just enjoyed the Bible from a literary perspective, but admitted that he thought that the entire book should be lumped together with Zeus and Osiris. He was great teacher who pointed out a lot of things in the New Testament that I never saw before. At least he was totally honest.

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  6. I think with the works of Tacitus and Flavius Josephus that no one can argue that Jesus was a myth. I'll let someone more apt explain why the bible is a credible historical text.

    On another note, when an argument is clearly put out there with clearly defined positions, it's not helpful to throw in a new word that falls under one of those categories. To say Christ was a thief would fall under the liar position.

    Joe I love how you mentioned keeping the ornament because it was beautiful. The same can be applied to poetics. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there is no historical information to place the birth of Christ on Dec 25th. You mentioned the 7 days marking the julian calendar new year and Christ becoming a Jew. Even if Christmas was placed in connection with the winter solstice, how fitting is it that the Light of the world should come in the darkest days! Seriously if Christmas wasn't when it was, the winter would be all but unbearable!

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  7. There are a couple other major differences between the pagan myths and the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.

    First, the Gospels explicitly claim historicity. They mention dates, places, and people that existed in first century Israel. The myths take place in a vague, prehistorical period. The Gospels can be (and have been) tested by the standards of history - the myth of Attis, cannot not be historically falsified.

    The second major difference I'd point out is the testimony of the martyrs. The writers of the Gospels believed them to be true to the point of being brutally murdered for this belief. These were not men who were far removed from the events, but are the very men who would have started the "myth of Jesus" according to the argument of people like Nick. To what possible gain, we can ask, did these men create this myth? Of course, the same cannot be said for the originators of the pagan myths pointed to in the argument.

    It is, in the end, a terrible argument - but when you start by assuming you are amongst "the wise" I suppose it is rather easy to go off the tracks.

    Great job on debunking this one, Joe!

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  8. The biggest difference is admitted by the likes of Jonathan Z. Smith:Attis, Adonis, Osiris, etc. all were raised from the dead. Christ rose from the dead.

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  9. Mithras was not created AFTER Christianity, but far from ancient Persia: Mithra. But it's adopted by the Roman and changed name to Mithras. Christianity is obviously NOT original religion considering it pirated Jewish myth!!! Even the Jew themselves denounce Christianity!!! Ironically, Christianity is then pirated by the moslem. Jesus is called Isa in Islam. If only copyright existed in ancient time, Judaism wouldn't have pirated derivatives! Jesus might end up in prison for religious copyright infringement.

    It's ironic that Xmas day comes from a pagan celebration date! It seems like Christianity likes to ROB every aspects of other pagan cultures. They CRUSHED the pagans, stole their worshippers and places of worship, destroy the statues (which r called arts and historical artifacts nowadays). It sounds like a BARBARIC religion! Reminds me like Star Trek's Borg: "resistance is futile". The only way why Christianity is major religion is because it got to the Roman. Roman was sort of superpower country at that time. Don't forget how Christianity became out of control during the INQUISITION. The only reason why Christianity is now a meek religion (unlike Islam) is coz science rose.

    I WAS a Christian. Not anymore. I've seen the light - the hypocrisy within Christianity. One big religion, divided into many smaller bodies simply coz of the Christians can't agree on the same thing. And how the Christian view the "sinners" like gays, different religions, etc. I'd rather be an atheist.

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    Replies
    1. I'm afraid you don't really interact with any of the arguments Joe puts forth in this article :-(

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