Good question...

...were the New Testament authors influenced by pagan legends?
Created 6/14/97 (part B of Jesus the Copycat?) I will be posting this in increments, as I study each NT author/source.
We have already seen in Jesus the Copycat? that if the NT authors were influenced by pagan religions of the day, then they did not show it very well! The image painted of Jesus of Nazareth does not seem similar enough to the other possible religious figures to prompt us to suspect 'borrowing' or 'dependence'.

But to continue this study, I want to look now at the NT authors and ask the basic question of influences.

We will look at seven major authors in the NT: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter. (I will be using the position of the early church on authorship--I judge their "closer-to-the-data" testimony (and the Mss. Testimony) to be more likely to be true than our "modern" judgments based on 'internal factors'.) I will also examine two related issues: (1) were there Jewish "legends" that might have influenced these writers (such as miracle-working holymen); and (2) did the gospel writers write 'legendizing' midrash?


Question One: How would he have come in contact with these religions?

What do we know about Matthew/Levi?

He was a tax-collector (customs official) in the small town of Capernum, in the country of Galilee.

So, what do we know about tax-collectors, Capernum, and Galillee, with regard to foreign influences?

Given this background, which religious ideas would he have come in contact with?

Well, what are the possibilities?

Most historical reference works on this period/area do not mention the religions of the Far East as plausible candidates for 'influence'. So John Ferguson, in his book The Religions of the Roman Empire [Cornell:1970] does not even list or discuss these religions as players. The only references to India and China are Post-Jesus (Apollonius, p. 51; and Basilides, p. 131). Likewise, NTSE surveys the practical options, describing three basic options in the core NT setting: Olympian deities (Greek/Roman gods), the Imperial Cult ("Emperor" worship), Mystery Religions (MR's)--both Greek and Oriental--but does NOT list other 'candidates' such as Buddhism or Hinduism. And most of the references to 'influence' are too late for our period. So Frend, mentions Buddhist influences on Mani (early 3rd century AD heretic) and on Clement of Alexandria (same time period) [FRC:315ff; 372]. His quote about Clement shows that this situation was a novel one for the West, and one that by its time-frame, would not have been operative in NT times [p.372]:

"Nonetheless, Clement's ideal would not have been unacceptable to his Gnostic opponents and seemed even to be more Buddhist than Christian. His knowledge of Indian religion, shown by his numerous if critical references to Indian customs and the correct distinction he bade between the Brahmins and Sarmanians, may be more relevant to his outlook than is sometimes admitted. The early third century saw strong links being made between the Roman Empire and India and these links affected thought as well as trade."
The Silk and Spice routes flourished in the 1st few centuries AD (largely through Egypt) [Atlas of the Greek World, Facts on File, page 186].

The interplay between the Greek/Roman empires and the regions/religions of the Far East is a very, very complex one.

The situation for China is perhaps the easiest to understand [RW:304]:

"Until the opening of the Silk Road in the first century B.C., communication across the land and sea spaces between China and western Asia was too slight to leave traces at either end."
The situation with Indian thought is a bit more complex but may be summarized under the following ideas:
  1. Greek colonies are known to have existed in India at least since the time of the Buddha in the 6th century B.C. The Buddha actually refers to the Greeks in a discourse in the Middle Length Sayings, as he is trying to convince someone against a fixed caste system [WR:AW:3].
  2. Prior to Alexander the Great's invasion of northern India in 327 BC, what little exchanges had occurred between East and Mid-East was confined to the Indus Valley, and was probably trade-based [RW:298-9].
  3. Alexander's invasion brought Hellenism to India during the rise of the brilliant Mauryan empire (322-185bc) in Northern India, and had significant impact on the upper class and urban segments. So, McNeill [RW:298]:
  4. "On the whole, diffracted elements of Hellenistic civilization attracted a larger share of favorable attention than did the achievements of any of the other cultures of the world between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. The history of art gives the clearest evidence for this; for both Indian and Chinese art styles of the period were profoundly affected by Greek sculpture. In religion and in science, a parallel, though less striking, process may be detected. Mahayana Buddhism, for example, shows influence of Hellenistic religious conceptions, while Indian and Chinese astronomy and astrology appropriated numerous Hellenistic elements, though important local differences of course remained."
    and again [RW:304]:
    "To sum up: India's development to the time of Alexander's invasion appears to have pursued lines laid down at the beginning of the fifth century or before. With the new intimacy between India and the hellenistic world that resulted from Alexander's venture, and with the rise of the 'philhellenic' Mauryan dynasty within India itself, new, though still comparatively superficial, foreign influences upon Indian society became apparent. The royal court patronized a westernizing art style, and perhaps promulgated Greco-Iranian patterns of administration and political theory. "
    We know, for example, of an early Buddhist sculptor in Gandhara (now Pakistan) who copied in stone a scene from a sub-Homeric epic showing the wooden horse at the fall of Troy--which he used as a miracle of the Buddha. Similarly, we have a silver cup from Tibet "of the finest post-Greek workmanship" with a scene on it which began life as an illustration to Euripides [Atlas of the Greek World, p. 189].
  5. Although the most significant cultural impact was eastward, from the Greeks to the Indians, there was also a brief spurt of knowledge flow that went from India to Greece in the subsequent period.

  6. After Alexander died, his empire divided into several pieces--one of which was called the Seleucid dynasty. In spite of the fact that the Seleucid and Mauryan dynasties were border-competitors, they still had a great deal of friendly interchange between them, and the first two kings of the Mauryan dynasty are referred to in Greek sources. The peace treaty between them in 303 BC included a marriage alliance, and Seleucus' ambassador Megasthenes lived for 10 years and traveled extensively in the Mauryan empire [WR:HI:71] during the reign of the founding king Chandragupta (Sandrocottos in the greek). Megasthenes gathered huge amounts of information about India and wrote a book (which is lost), many parts/information of which are preserved in the writings of Strabo, Arrian, and Diodorus [HSC:197].

    There were two other greek-oriented contacts made with that empire--the 2nd Seleucid ambassador Deimarchos, and Dionysios an envoy from Ptolemaios Philadelphos--but neither of these left any writings [HSC:198]. Any information about religious practices of India at this point would have been concerning the brahmanical system. So Bachelor in WR:AW:7-8:

    "Megasthenes lived for an entire decade in the heartland of the Buddha's dispensation, less than two hundred years after the Buddha's death--but there is no mention in the Indika of Buddhist monks. At the time of Megasthenes, Buddhism was a small sect with no influential followers. Chandragupta, a staunch upholder of brahmanical values, was certainly no Buddhist. And Kautilya, Chandragupta's chief minister, fails to even mention Buddhism in his famous book on statecraft, the Arthashastra.

    "Yet within fifty years of Megasthenes' departure from India Buddhism had exploded across the subcontinent as the imperial philosophy of Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka. Europe, however, was to wait another fifteen hundred years (until 1255) before it received a first-hand report of Buddhism and its practices."

    The most famous of the three kings was the last--Ashoka. He was originally Hindu, but converted to Buddhist while on the throne. Although he is not mentioned in any greek sources, he "records having sent missions from India bearing his message of the victory of the Dharma [i.e. Buddhism in his life] to the Greek kings Antiochus II of Syria, Ptolemy II (Philadelphus) of Egypt, Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrene and Alexander of Epirius...There is no mention in Western sources, however, of the arrival of any such missions." [WR:AW:9]. Until his death in 232 BC, he maintained frequent communications with the south and the west [WR:HI:73], even sending missionaries to Ceylon (definitely) and to the West (probably) [HSC:204].

    As the data and quotes above show, there was some, but very sporadic and limited information about the religious content of proto-Hinduism transmitted to the West, and even less about Buddhism.

  7. At this point in time, the window of exchange simply closes. The last two centuries B.C. saw the rise of the Parthian empire, which quickly became a barrier to cultural exchange. So HSC:521-2:
  8. "The essential difference between the Parthian empire and the Seleucid one which it partly replaced lies in the fact that the Seleucid rulers were of Greek origin and the main champions of Hellenism in Asia, while the Arsacids were Scythians or Asiatics, who were not at all hypnotized by Greek culture."

    "All considered, it would seem that the Parthian empire was (at least in pre-Christian times) a barrier to the Hellenization of the East and the Orientalization of the West, rather than a channel for them. It was not a solid barrier, however, but a kind of grille or trellis permitting a little silk, as well as peaches and apricots, to move westward and pomegranates to go east."

  9. Most of our information about East-West exchanges after this comes from post-Christian times [HSC:523]. The transmission of information about the East at this point came through traveling merchants, many of whom passed through Egypt and Alexandria. Bachelor describes some of these [WR:AW:25]:
  10. "Commerce between Asia and the Roman Empire increased; luxury goods were imported from China; a community of Indian merchants was settled in Alexandria; an Indian holy man immolated himself in public in Athens; and a Ceylonese embassy reached the court of Claudius in Rome."
    These are, of course, all post-NT situations and the first mentions in the West of the Buddha were 2nd and 3rd century AD figures such as Clement and Basilides of Alexandria [WR:AW:27ff].

In summary, the influence and dissemination of Hindu and Buddhist thought from India far enough west to make a difference simply had not occurred by the time of the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth on the scene.

So that basically leaves us with the three options of NTSE:

Question Two: Why might they (i.e. Matthew) have accepted some of these religious ideas (and correspondingly, interpreted Jesus in those categories)?

It is difficult to construct a plausible scenario in which Matthew would find any foreign ideas more attractive than the rudimentary Jewish faith that he no doubt originally had as a local resident.

One can easily see why Matthew would be disenchanted with official Judaism (since it would have radically marginalized and excluded him from specific forms of community ritual), but it is difficult to see how he would have abandoned a more basic form of personal faith in favor of the elaborate trappings of the foreign cults. The simple fact that he responded positively to a Galilean messianic figure so easily (Matt 9.9: As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. ) indicates at least some adherence to aspects of messianic Judaism. The most plausible scenario would have him as an aware, but non-practicing Jew, and not rather as a practicing member of the imperial cult (e.g. emperor worship) nor of any of the more exotic Olympian deities.

We do know that he did have a social circle constituted by other 'sinners', which would have included other of the despised trades (e.g. gamblers, camel drivers, bath attendants, select types of merchants). These would have been local Jews as well, at various levels of non-practice. How much social interaction he had with the higher-ups in the Hellenistic cities is unclear, but even the hierarchy in which he was positioned was generally filled with Jews. For example, the one good example of a tax collector was a Jew in Caesarea, and the 'bad' examples scorned by Josephus and Philo of Alexandria were also from large cities. His "social pressures" would have been still that of non-practicing or culturally-hellenized Judaism--NOT the pagan religions with which we are concerned here.

Given the infrequent contact that he would have had with any foreign religion (he would not have been at his 'post' ALL the time, plus he probably shared some of his duties with others--cf. Mt 9.10), it is likewise difficult to see how he would have been persuaded by any foreign "savior" figures or motifs, nor would he accrue any social and/or membership advantages of such religions.

In short, there does not seem to be any compelling reason (or even opportunity) for Matthew to adopt foreign religious theologies/praxis, and we actually have data that indicates his more basic Jewish faith.

Question Three: What factors would have retarded their acceptance of these foreign-to-Judaism notions?

Here we want to look at the opposite--what 'influences' would be operating on Matthew AGAINST adoption of foreign cults?

There are some factors in this category, which are mostly community and social.

In the aggregate, the forces/influences on him NOT to adopt foreign practices are probably much stronger than the forces/influences on him TO adopt foreign practices.

Question Four: Where there any public 'checks and balances' that would have hindered publication of these views by the early Christian community, even if a lone NT author would have accepted them?

This question is a fascinating one, and the data indicates a STRONG 'check and balance' environment This data falls into three categories: (1) indication that the NT documents are mostly group products; (2) indications of close interactions/associations among the authors; and (3) indications of relatively close apostolic oversight of the spread of the gospel content.

  1. Indications that the NT documents are mostly GROUP products:
  2. This stream of data strongly suggests that "the same apostolic circles were involved in the formation and/or transmission of both gospel and epistolary traditions" (E. Earle Ellis, in GAG:52). The fact that the NT literature was a group-effort or collaborative in nature would have acted as a significant barrier to the individual writers "smuggling in" pagan and/or foreign images of Jesus.
  3. Indications of close interactions/associations among the authors:

  4. It is quite easy to demonstrate that the various writers/sources of NT documents were in constant communication and collaborative work. Some of the data are as follows:

    The NT writers were in constant communication and collaboration with each other, and demonstrate this in their writings. It would have been difficult if not impossible for one of this group to have held to foreign, pagan notions without it becoming widely known. We even know of disagreements within the early church, and that they are surfaced quite visibly(!)--such as Peter vs. Paul in Galatians and the circumcision issue in Acts 14-15. All the indications along these lines are well within Jewish-Christian thought, and foreign notions do not start to show up until after the NT era at the earliest.

  5. Indications of relatively close apostolic oversight of the spread of the gospel content:
    1. The early church had a center (Jerusalem) and leaders (apostles).
    2. When the church expanded into Samaria, there was interaction with the leaders of the founding church (Acts 8.14): "When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them". [By all accounts, Peter and John would have been closest to ANY information about Jesus' acts/words.]
    3. When the church expanded into Antioch, we see the same pattern occur (Act 11:22): "News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch."
    4. When the issue of circumcision came up, the church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas "to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question" (Acts 15.2)
    5. The first church council was held at Jerusalem (Act 15:23-29)
    6. The reference in Acts 15:24--"We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you..."--is a STRONG indication of a 'sense of control'!
    7. is 16.6: "As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. .
    8. Paul accepted the importance of the Jerusalem center (Gal 2.1-2): "Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain."
    9. Davids points out how significant this was [GP:I:87f]:
    10. "Confirmation of the picture in Acts comes from the fact that even Paul felt the power and authority of the Jerusalem church and the apostles. While Paul insists that his legitimacy as an apostle comes directly from Christ, he still reports that he found it necessary to go to Jerusalem at least twice and on one occasion to seek formal approval of his gospel from the apostles (Gal. 2.1-10). This would be most astounding if Paul did not feel that the apostles had at least some type of authority over the content of the tradition. Thus although Paul refuses to become dependent upon Jerusalem, he has the highest respect for the role of the community as a stronghold of pure doctrine and tradition".
    11. At Jrs. Paul was welcomed and sent to the Gentiles (Gal 2.9f): "James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."
    12. Paul (a native of Tarsus!) returned to Jerusalem after EACH missionary journey.
    13. Even Peter is subject to the apostles as a group (Acts 8.4).
    14. The leading apostles and evangelists had traveling ministries, bringing them into contact with churches and believers everywhere.
    15. The early churches did NOT live in a vacuum. They corresponded with each other (cf. I Clement, a letter from Rome to Corinth, a.d. 95, see ATNT:48-49) and exchanged NT documents (cf. Col. 4.16).
    16. Bauckham summarizes the authority succinctly [BAFCSPS:450]:
    17. "The Jerusalem council presupposes the authority of Jerusalem to decide the issue of Gentile Christians' obedience to the Law (Acts 15). Its decision binds not only Antioch and its daughter churches (15.22-31) but also the churches founded by Paul and Barnabas (16.4). When James recalls the decision in 21.25, the effect is to imply that Paul's Gentile mission is still subject to it."

    This controlling group of apostles and elders would have been a serious 'check and balance' against any foreign notions, held by any individual or minority.

The "Net" of this is clear: there were CONSIDERABLE 'checks and balances' in place during this early period, which would have prohibited the introduction of individual foreign elements into the content of the NT. The NT literature was generally a group-product, the authors were in frequent communication/co-work with each other, and the original apostolic community oversaw the development and transmission of the gospel content. Even novel elements that could be produced by the pneumatic and prophetic ministries of the Spirit were to be 'judged' by the core content and authoritative followers of Jesus (cf. I Cor 14.29; I Thess 5.19-21; I John 4.1-3).

Question Five: What does the literature they produced, and/or post-Easter history tell us about the views they accepted?

In the case of Matthew, the issue of post-Easter history is easy--we have very, very little information about him. By far and away the most consistent data we have has to do with his authorship of the Gospel! Early tradition is unanimous in stating that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrewa and for Hebrews. Wenham discusses these witnesses in RMML, chapter 5 (i.e. Papias, Irenaeus, Pantaenus, Origen, Eusibius, Epiphanius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, Augustine, et. al.!).

The issue of literature is a bit more straightforward:

  1. It is widely agreed (as well as obvious to the most casual reader!) that Matthew is the most "Jewish" of the gospels (see NT Wright's discussion in NTPG:384ff, and standard commentaries).
  2. We have seen already in Part A of this study that pagan elements do not manifest themselves in Matthew's portrayal of Christ.
  3. It would have been evangelistic 'suicide' to have appealed to the Jewish population in 1st century Roman-occupied Palestine on behalf of a Jesus colored by pagan associations (transmitted by gentile merchants or slaves) or the imperial cult (transmitted by Roman soldiers or the oppressive Hellenistic/Roman elite)!!!
  4. The very argumentation content and methods of Matthew reflect the basic milieu of the Jewish community--not the argument forms of pagan theologies [BEAP:140-152].
  5. Matthew's argument for the Messianic status of Jesus is NOT from his 'divine powers', but from His fulfillment of OT scriptures--the opposite approach of pagan deities.
  6. Jesus appears in a number of non-Jewish or Hellenistic cities (e.g. Phoenicia, Decapolis, Caesarea Philippi), but there is NO hint that Matthew (or Jesus) tries to 'relate' to the pagan theological figures/concepts that were present in those areas. This would have been the perfect setting for Matthew to "smuggle" those associations into the narrative.
  7. Likewise, the visit of the pagan Magi in Matthew 2.1-12 would have been a great place to insert something about Persian and/or Iranian legends, but he didn't.



In short, not only do we have no indication of pagan notions in Matthew, but the ABSENCE of such notions in places in the text which would have been perfect places to insert those notions counts heavily against his carrying these in his belief system.


We have seen that:

  1. Matthew had minimal contact with outside religions.
  2. Matthew had minimal forces on him to adopt such outside religious ideas.
  3. Matthew had non-trivial forces upon him to avoid adopting outside religious ideas.
  4. Production of the NT literature (including Matthew's gospel) would have been largely a group effort, in constant review/feedback with apostolic figures, and under the authority of the 'keepers of the tradition' in Jerusalem.
  5. The very character of Matthew's literary production demonstrates a strong argument that he did not maintain foreign religious ideas.

We have seen in Part A that Matthew's portrait of Jesus is unique, and not a mere copy of pagan religious motifs; in this study we can understand part of why that was the case.

The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)