This is one of those questions that amaze me that it is STILL raised...so I decided to write it all up. Often I get an email that reads like this:
"The reason for this letter is that I am wondering if you could answer a question I have. In one of your html pages the subject of Mithras is touched upon lightly and a link is given for further information. The link goes nowhere though, and I am really interested in finding out more about Mithras and other Dying-God mythologies. The reason is because I often enter correspondences and dialogues with atheists. Recently one such atheist raised his question, and I am still waiting to respond to him, because of my unfamiliarity with the subject. His letter went like this:......................................................................................"How can a historic personage (such as Jesus) have a recorded life (according to the New Testament in the Bible) almost identical to various other mythos out there including but not limited to:"I would appreciate any help or information you could offer on the subject. Thank you"
"Both of these religions came *before* Christianity and are clearly labeled as myths yet the 'stories' of their lives are, in many ways, identical to the 'life' of Jesus the Christ.
- Mithras (Roman Mithraism)
- Horus (Egyptian God of Light)
"Now, before you say that I am jumping logic or that you have never ever heard of what I am talking about . . my question is this:
"Just answer that directly."
- *IF* the information that I have just stated above is TRUE;
- *THEN* would it not bear strong evidence to the face that Jesus the Christ was and is not a historic personage?
Notice the general allegation--
There are material, significant, and pervasive similarities between the Jesus Christ of the New Testament and other Dying God-figures (and/or Savior-figures), and that these similarities are best explained by the hypothesis that the figure of Jesus is materially derived from (or heavily influenced by) these other Dying God/Savior-figures..Sometimes the allegation is worded strongly--Jesus was NOT a real person, but a legend; sometimes it is worded less strongly--Jesus was real, but was fused with these derivative mythic elements such that THEY became the core teachings about Jesus.
Table of Contents for this article (A1):
Now, before we try to analyze this notion, we need to gather some established criteria (from scholars) on how to detect and establish that 'borrowing' (especially "content/material" borrowing) has occurred.
Fortunately, there are a number of established criteria for this (so we don't have to 'make up' or 'create' our own), drawing largely from the work of scholars working in the area of Semitic influence on the Greek/Western world (e.g., Walter Burkert, Charles Pengrase, M. L. West), so let's start with some of their work:
"Since the discovery of the Akkadian epics and of Gilgamesh in particular, there has been no shortage of associations between motifs in these and in the Homeric epics, especially the Odyssey. These motifs can be highlighted and used to surprise, but hardly to prove anything: Approximately the same motifs and themes will be found everywhere. Instead of individual motifs, therefore, we must focus on more complex structures, where sheer coincidence is less likely: a system of deities and a basic cosmological idea, the narrative structure of a whole scene, decrees of the gods about mankind, or a very special configuration of attack and defense. Once the historical link, the fact of transmission, has been established, then further connections, including linguistic borrowings, become more likely, even if these alone do not suffice to carry the burden of proof." [OT:ORNEI:88; his examples often contain elements that are 'holdovers'--elements that appear in the borrower that only made sense in the original source...they are unexpected and without purpose in the new usage, since they have been removed from their original context.]
"I can anticipate at least two possible lines of criticism that may be employed against my work. One would be that, in stressing similarities and parallels, I have ignored the great differences between Greek and Near Eastern literatures...my answer will be that of course Greek literature has its own character, its own traditions and conventions, and the contrast that might be drawn between it and any of the oriental literatures might far outnumber the common features. If anyone wants to write another book and point them out, I should have no objection...But even if it were ten times the size of mine (600+ pages!), it would not diminish the significance of the likenesses, because they are too numerous and too striking to be put down to chance. You cannot argue against the fact that it is raining by pointing out that much of the sky is blue." [HI:EFHWAE:viii]
"Difficult and hazardous are words which describe the study of Mesopotamian influence in Greek myths, and an appropriate method is essential. To establish influence, or at least the likelihood of influence, there are two main steps. First it is necessary to establish the historical possibility of influence, and then the parallels between the myths of the areas must fulfill a sufficiently rigorous set of relevant criteria." [HI:GMM:5]
"The second step of the method is to demonstrate the existence of parallels of the correct nature between the Mesopotamian and Greek literary material. Parallels must have qualities which conform to a suitable set of criteria in order to indicate influence or its likelihood." [HI:GMM:5]
"It is all too easy to run eagerly after superficial parallels which cannot really be sustained under a closer scrutiny. Accordingly, the parallels must have similar ideas underlying them and, second, any suggestion of influence requires that the parallels be numerous, complex and detailed, with a similar conceptual usage and, ideally, that they should point to a specific myth or group of related myths in Mesopotamia. Finally, the parallels and their similar underlying ideas must involve central features in the material to be compared. Only then, it would seem, may any claim stronger than one of mere coincidence be worthy of serious consideration" [HI:GMM:7]
What kinds of examples do these authors offer us?
Now, if we extract some principles from these scholars, we would end up with:
So, to apply these to our case here, we would need to show that:
What this means, of course, is that it is not simply enough to point to some vague similarities and yell "copy cat!"--one must, in light of the scholars' criteria documented above, be prepared somehow to defend his/her alleged parallels from the charge of being 'superficial' and to show that they are 'striking' (a rather subjective term, of course). In the scholarly world, noted above, the burden of argument was on the 'proponent' of borrowing. Each of the scholars above realize that there is a certain amount of subjectivity in how much one 'weights' the pieces, and our case is no different. The reader has to decide whether the parallels advanced by the CopyCatist are numerous, detailed, striking, complex, central, etc., etc. Even in such a monumental work as that by West, he can point out:
"I am well aware that some of the parallels are more compelling than others. Readers must decide for themselves what weight they attach to each." [HI:EFHWAE:viii])
Now, we need to be really clear about the time frame we are talking about here. The issue that I am trying to address deals only with the New Testament literature, specifically the gospels and pre-Revelation epistles. I not at all interested in 'defending' the wide array of post-apostolic 'interpretations' and 'syncretistic methods' of any later Christian folk--including the Church Fathers. It is the Jesus of the gospels and epistles, and the claims made and images used of Him and His work on our behalf in them that concerns me here. This means that Christian material and events after around 65ad is of little concern to me (except as it bears on questions of NT authorship perhaps), and does not count as evidence for New Testament authors' "borrowing" of mythic/pagan elements in their creation of the foundational documents of the church--because of the time frames involved.
For example, the fact that the New Testament nowhere assigns
a specific date (year, month, date, or day of week) to the birthday of
Jesus, means that any allegations that the post-apostolic church
later 'borrowed' a birthday from a rival figure (e.g. Mithras, Sol Invictus)
is irrelevant to the original objection above. [We will, of course, have
to discuss the sociological aspects of that possibility below.]
So, let's examine each of these in turn:.
ONE: The similarities between Jesus (as portrayed in the NT) and the other relevant Savior-gods are very numerous, very 'striking', non-superficial, complex, within similar conceptual or narrative structures, detailed, have the same underlying ideas, and be 'core' or 'central' to the story/image/motif enough to suspect borrowing;
However, there are several considerations that must be examined BEFORE we get into the alleged similarities:
Consideration 01: There is a surprising tendency of scholars of all persuasions to adopt Christian terminology in describing non-Christian religions, rituals, myths, etc. (e.g. "baptism", the "Last Supper"). [Joseph Campbell is sometimes a good example of this.] Sometimes this is done to establish some conceptual link for the reader, but often it borders on misleading the reader. Too often a writer uses such terminology imprecisely in describing a non-Christian element and then expresses shock in finding such similarities between the religions.
"One frequently encounters scholars who first use Christian terminology to describe pagan beliefs and practices, and then marvel at the striking parallels they think they have discovered. One can go a long way toward "proving" early Christian dependence on the mysteries by describing some mystery belief or practice in Christian terminology...Exaggerations and oversimplifications abound in this kind of literature. One encounters overblown claims about alleged likenesses between baptism and the Lord's Supper and similar "sacraments" in certain mystery cults...The mere fact that Christianity has a sacred meal and a washing of the body is supposed to prove that it borrowed these ceremonies from similar meals and washings in the pagan cults. By themselves, of course, such outward similarities prove nothing. After all, religious ceremonies can assume only a limited number of forms, and they will naturally relate to important or common aspects of human life. The more important question is the meaning of the pagan practices." [http://www.summit.org/Resources/NT&PaganRel.htm]
Nash is demonstrating one of the criteria we noted above--that the details must have the same underlying idea, for it to count as a parallel. [He uses the phrase "outward" similarities, in a similar usage to how Penglase uses "superficial".] A ritual dip in water, for example, is NOT a baptism if its purpose in the dogma of a particular religion is different. According the scholarly criteria, the lack of parallel in the underlying idea or 'conceptual usage' destroys this as piece of evidence for borrowing.
A good first example of this might be the rite of the Taurobolium (from the cult of the Worship of the Great Mother or Cybele/Attis). In it a priest stood in a pit under a plank floor containing a bull and a lamb (the two are always connected in the inscriptions). The bull was slaughtered and the blood of the animal fell upon the priest below. The priest comes up 'consecrated' to the priesthood, and is hailed as 'reborn' (renatus). In one late text (fourth century), he is said to have been 'reborn eternally'.
Predictably, some writers have used the phrase "washed in the blood of the Lamb" or "sprinkled with the blood of Jesus" to describe this ceremony, and earlier commentators have seen this as perhaps the basis for Paul's teaching in Romans 6 (union with Christ), images of 'spiritual childgrowth', the new birth, and even resurrection. Although there are perhaps those who still hold to this, this has largely been abandoned :
Now, the main reason this position has generally been abandoned (as noted above) is that it is altogether unnecessary, and less 'useful' as an explanatory construct: the elements in the gospels and epistles all make more sense as having developed out of mainstream Judaism and have much more 'numerous, complex, and striking parallels' to Old Testament/Tanaach themes and passages. Apart from issues of chronology and questions of motivation for borrowing (separate problems from that of detecting forceful parallels), the Jewish background furnishes us with a system of underlying ideas needed to make sense of the imagery.
Don Howell explains the general rationale for the diminishing of this 'borrowing' position [BibSac, V150, #599, Jul 93, p310]:
They did not stop to consider that their knowledge of these mysteries was really very scanty, that all this amazing transmogrification of the Gospel must have taken place within twenty years, that, if Paul derived his message from his environment, he did what no other missionary has ever done--borrowed his gospel from the people among whom he worked."
And, C.E. Arnold, in his article on Syncretism in [NT:DictLNT] summarized the current state of scholarship in this way:
"The subsequent course of scholarship has effectively dismantled many of the conclusions drawn by the History-of-Religions School. Various studies have demonstrated that there was not one coherent gnostic redeemer myth nor was there a common mystery-religion theology. We have already touched on the fact that Judaism was not the syncretistic religion that some scholars once thought that it was. Now most scholars are reluctant to assume that Gnosticism even existed during the genesis and early development of Christianity.
"The majority of scholars are reaffirming the essential Jewishness of the early Christian movement. The background of various Christian rites, ideas and terms is being illustrated out of the OT and Judaism, in contrast to the previous generation that pointed to gnostic texts and the mystery religions. The background of the Christian practice of baptism, for instance, is now seldom traced to the mystery initiation sacraments of Attis, Adonis or Osiris but to the OT initiation rite of circumcision and the Jewish water purification rituals.
"Gunkel, Bultmann and others clearly undervalued the formative influence of the OT and Judaism for early Christianity. Neither were they sufficiently open to the possibility that the NT writers could use religious language shared by adherents of other religions without adopting the full meaning of that language, as it was understood in other religious contexts. In other words, Christian writers could use the term mystery (e.g., Rev 10:7; Ign. Magn. 9.1; Diogn. 4.6) without implying that Christianity is a mystery religion like the cults of Cybele or Mithras. John could use the image of light (1 Jn 1:5, 7; 2:8, 9, 10) without dependence on a gnostic light-darkness dualism. Both of these terms have long histories of usage in the OT that provide us with the essential conceptual framework for understanding their NT usage. Yet at the same time they are terms that would communicate in a Gentile world, albeit now with a different set of connotations.
"There is also evidence that the apostles and leaders in the early Christian movement made explicit and earnest attempts to resist the syncretistic impulses of the age. For example, when Paul preached in Lystra (Acts 14:8–20), he was faced with an opportunity to make a syncretistic innovation to the gospel. Luke records that after Paul healed a crippled man the people of the city mistook him for Hermes (the messenger of Zeus) and Barnabas for Zeus. Rather than allowing any form of identification with their gods (even the identification of “the living God” with Zeus), Paul takes the bold step of telling them to “turn from these worthless things” to the one God, the Creator (Acts 14:15). Earliest Christianity appears to have made stringent effort to resist the larger cultural trend toward the identification of deities and directed people to the God of Israel, who had now revealed himself in the Lord Jesus Christ.
To illustrate this from one of the alleged examples of borrowing, "washed in the blood of the Lamb" makes perfect sense being seen against the background of OT usage:
Likewise, the same goes for "sprinkled with the blood of Jesus", which could refer back to either of two OT passages/themes [although the Numbers 19 passage does not have any blood actually in the water of purification]:
"More significantly, Hebrews uses the same language (where the LXX did not) in connection with the institution of the Mosaic covenant: Moses built an altar at the foot of Sinai, and when he had sacrificed cattle he threw half of the blood against the altar; the other half he put in bowls, and read aloud to the people out of the scroll of the covenant the Lord's commands. When they promised to obey all that the Lord commanded, Moses took the bowls and threw the remaining blood at the people, saying (in the words of Heb 9:20), “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you” (cf. Exod 24:3–8; Heb 9:18–21). In Hebrews, the blood of the covenant poured out by Moses corresponds to the “blood of sprinkling” shed by Jesus, the “mediator of the new covenant” (Heb 12:24; cf. 10:29). The participants in this new covenant are invited to “draw near with a true heart in the full confidence of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse a guilty conscience and having the body washed in pure water” (10:22). Peter lacks the direct reference to Christian baptism (although cf. 3:20), but the close connection between obedience and sprinkling suggests that Exod 24:3–8 is as determinative for his imagery as for that of Hebrews. Without speaking explicitly of a “new covenant” or the “blood of the covenant” (which may in his circles have been reserved for the Eucharist, cf. Mark 14:24; 1 Cor 11:25), Peter relies on language that had perhaps become already fixed among Christians as a way of alluding to the same typology. To “obey” was to accept the gospel and become part of a new community under a new covenant; to be sprinkled with Jesus’ blood was to be cleansed from one's former way of living and released from spiritual slavery by the power of his death (cf. 1:18). Peter’s choice of images confirms the impression that he writes to communities of Gentiles as if they were a strange new kind of Jew.
The First Covenant was inaugurated with this ceremony (cf. also Heb 9.18ff):
As the New Covenant--from the New Moses of Deut 18-- was inaugurated with Christ's blood (but not physically literal):
(By the way, these biblical events are covenant inauguration events--NOT acts of individual dedication, consecration, or ordination. The underlying ideas/structures of these events would be more 'parallel' to the sacrifices performed when Cybele was first 'adopted' by the Romans in 204 BC, than to the multiple, individual ordinations of priests and high priests. Even the passage in 1 Peter 1.2 is not individual in nature:
"In the Old Testament and Judaism, God's people were corporately 'chosen,' or 'predestined,' because God 'foreknew' them; Peter applies the same language to believers in Jesus. Obedience and the sprinkling of blood also established the first covenant (Ex 24:7–8)." [REF:BBC, at 1 Pet 1.2]...the underlying ideas needed to establish non-superficial parallels, in this case, reveal major structural differences between the events in the bible and the taurobolia of Roman times.)
Now, unless one is going to argue that the OT passage is somehow dependent on some at-best-first-century-AD taurobolic experience (perhaps on the basis of both having the 'striking parallels' of sacrificial bulls and sprinkling of blood...sarcastic smile), it should be obvious why modern, mainstream scholarship has abandoned such notions. Any alleged parallels between the Jesus story and the Attis/Cybele/Taurobolic experiences are dwarfed by a host of 'numerous, complex, and detailed' parallels with OT/Judaism.
If one considers carefully the details of the history of the ritual (see mostlybull.html), the taurobolic ceremony (of Cybele/Attis--NOT the one by Mithra) in the Roman period was:
Apart from the general, "non-striking", and ubiquitous motifs of sacrifice, consecration, (possible) rebirth, blood sprinkling, and substitution, there just aren't any 'numerous, complex, and detailed' correspondences with the NT documents. Even the closest candidate--sprinkling with blood--was too general a practice in the ancient world to be 'striking' [e.g., in several orgiastic cults the priests/priestesses would whip or cut themselves with knives, and sprinkle their blood on the idols of the god/goddess].
And the next closest candidate--'rebirth'--is neither a technical term of the Mysteries, nor is it close enough in meaning to NT usage to consider it parallel:
Sorry for all the detail (but there's more, obviously, in the history piece at mostlybull.html), and we will get into the Attis/resurrection thing again later, but I wanted to document the fact that, and show why the "Mystery Religions" version of the CopyCat thesis--relative to New Testament formation (not the writings of the post-apostolic church!)-- has been generally abandoned in the scholarly arena of New Testament studies. Before Qumran and before the rise in our understanding of "less-official" Judaism as found in the Pseudepigrapha, it was a little more believable, but after the last fifty years, it is difficult to maintain the position easily.
A good second example is the commonly alleged similarity of the virgin birth. Other religious figures, especially warrior gods (and actually some heroic human figures such as Alexander the Great) over time became associated with some form of miraculous birth, occasionally connected with virginity. It is all too easy to simply accept this on face value without investigating further.
In Raymond Brown's research on the Birth Narratives of Jesus [BM:522-523], he evaluates these non-Christian "examples" of virgin births and his conclusions bear repeating here:
"Among the parallels offered for the virginal conception of Jesus have been the conceptions of figures in world religions (the Buddha, Krishna, and the son of Zoroaster), in Greco-Roman mythology (Perseus, Romulus), in Egyptian and Classical History (the Pharaohs, Alexander, Augustus), and among famous philosophers or religious thinkers (Plato, Apollonius of Tyana), to name only a few.And the history-of-religions scholar David Adams Leeming (writing in EOR, s.v. "Virgin Birth") begins his article by pointing out that all 'virgin births' are NOT necessarily such:
"Are any of these divinely engendered births really parallel to the non-sexual virginal conception of Jesus described in the NT, where Mary is not impregnated by a male deity or element, but the child is begotten through the creative power of the Holy Spirit? These "parallels" consistently involve a type of hieros gamos (note: "holy seed" or "divine semen") where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration.
"In short, there is no clear example of virginal conception in world or pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus."
"A virgin is someone who has not experienced sexual intercourse, and a virgin birth, or parthenogenesis (Gr., parthenos, "virgin"; genesis, "birth"), is one in which a virgin gives birth. According to this definition, the story of the birth of Jesus is a virgin birth story whereas the birth of the Buddha and of Orphic Dionysos are not. Technically what is at issue is the loss or the preservation of virginity during the process of conception. The Virgin Mary was simply "found with child of the Holy Ghost" before she was married and before she had "known" a man. So, too, did the preexistent Buddha enter the womb of his mother, but since she was already a married woman, there is no reason to suppose she was a virgin at the time. In the Orphic story of Dionysos, Zeus came to Persephone in the form of a serpent and impregnated her, so that the maiden's virginity was technically lost."
What these scholars are talking about is the textual data
in the account. In other words, does the relevant sacred text describe
or imply in any way, a means of impregnation or conception? Leemings
comment that Mary was "simply 'found with child'" documents the textual
data from that miraculous conception story--the text simply omits
any comment, description, or implication about the method/manner of her
becoming pregnant--the sexual element is simply missing altogether.
If other accounts suggest or give details of this process--even
if not the 'normal' type of intercourse (e.g. a snake, a piece of fruit)--then,
according to these scholars, it is not a 'virgin conception' (by comparison).
Ancient gods and goddess were typically very sexually 'explicit' and sexually
'active' (!), and this element is completely absent from
the biblical narratives and material, especially the story of the
virginal conception of Jesus.
This issue of agency/means is a distinguishing trait of the gospel accounts, compared with other stories of divine-engendered births:
In fact, it is quite different from the many stories of miracle births in the ancient world:
Let's take a quick look at the gospel narratives, to see this clearly...Remember the background and sequence of these events:
"Mary and Joseph were in the one-year waiting period when Mary was found to be with child. They had never had sexual intercourse and Mary herself had been faithful (vv. 20, 23). While little is said about Joseph, one can imagine how his heart must have broken. He genuinely loved Mary, and yet the word came that she was pregnant. His love for her was demonstrated by his actions. He chose not to create a public scandal by exposing her condition to the judges at the city gate. Such an act could have resulted in Mary's death by stoning (Deut. 22:23-24). Instead he decided to divorce her quietly.
"Then in a dream (cf. Matt. 2:13, 19, 22), an angel told Joseph that Mary's condition was not caused by a man, but through the Holy Spirit (1:20; cf. v. 18). The Child Mary carried in her womb was a unique Child, for He would be a Son whom Joseph should name Jesus for He would save His people from their sins. These words must have brought to Joseph's mind the promises of God to provide salvation through the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37). The unnamed angel also told Joseph that this was in keeping with God's eternal plan, for the Prophet Isaiah had declared 700 years before that the virgin will be with Child (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14). While Old Testament scholars dispute whether the Hebrew almah should be rendered “young woman” or “virgin,” God clearly intended it here to mean virgin (as implied by the Gr. word parthenos). Mary's miraculous conception fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy, and her Son would truly be Immanuel . . . God with us. In light of this declaration Joseph was not to be afraid to take Mary into his home (Matt. 1:20). There would be misunderstanding in the community and much gossip at the well, but Joseph knew the true story of Mary's pregnancy and God's will for his life.
"As soon as Joseph awakened from this dream, he obeyed. He violated all custom by immediately taking Mary into his home rather than waiting till the one-year time period of betrothal had passed. Joseph was probably thinking of what would be best for Mary in her condition. He brought her home and began to care and provide for her. But there was no sexual relationship between them until after the birth of this Child, Jesus. [Bible Knowledge Commentary, at Matt 1.18ff]
The "Holy Spirit coming UPON you" is not to be conceived as some kind of spiritual 'intercourse'--this is a stock, generic phrase from OT literature. It means empowerment, being set apart for a special task, and the such like. Look at some of the examples:
[and of course, all the prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, as the "Spirit came upon them"]
One of the more interesting uses occurs is in Isaiah 32.15, which might be echoed in the Virgin conception and in the cases of 'barren conceptions'--the image of miraculous/spectacular fertility:
Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high,
And the wilderness becomes a fertile field
And the fertile field is considered as a forest. [Is 32.15]
This is part of the reason why the NT scholars I cite here are so confident
(even for 'cautious' scholars) that pagan sexual elements are NOT in the
New Testament texts.
The angel had paid a visit to her home, and "gone into/unto/to her" (same Greek phrase as [A] Joseph 'going into Pilate' to ask for the body of Jesus in Mk 15.23; [B] the angel 'going into/unto' Cornelius in Acts 10.3; and [C] the accusation of Peter 'going into/unto' Gentiles and eating with them in Acts 11.3). The angel announced the good news of God's promise to Israel and Mary asks 'how'? The verse in 1.35 actually doesn't answer the question at all, but it does avoid saying some things (even 'coyly'):
Instead, the verbs express more general notions of God's providence and faithfulness to His promises:
"The word for "overshadow" (episkiazo) carries the sense of the holy, powerful presence of God, as in the description of the cloud that "covered" (Heb. sakan; NIV, "settled upon") the tabernacle when the tent was filled with the glory of God (Exod 40:35; cf. Ps 91:4). The word is used in all three accounts of the Transfiguration to describe the overshadowing of the cloud (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34). [EBCNT, in. loc.]
So, one needs to be VERY careful and detailed in examining alleged parallels between figures widely separated in space and time. [And remember, we are focused only on the formation of the New Testament documents (and the content-traditions behind them)--NOT what the post-apostolic community will do with them!]
Consideration 02: We need also remember that our question deals only with the issue of the New Testament content--not the Councils, not the hymns, not the Fathers, not the sects, not the Apocrypha. We are concerned with the Jesus of the gospels and of the message of the post-ascension early Church. Items and elements 'borrowed' from non-Christian religions after the first century AD. simply cannot be used to argue for borrowing in the years 33-70 A.D., when the NT was composed.
Pushback: "Well wait a minute, bud...didn't the late church start 'stealing ideas' from paganism--like Sol Invictus' December 25th birthday for Jesus? And if later Christians did that, why in the world would we believe the first ones wouldn't steal ideas, too?!"
First, let's note that it is not at all certain that this theft actually occurred--the data is mixed:
Secondly, what difference would it have made? The Roman Empire, with the "conversion" of Constantine, knew quite clearly the difference between the Jesus of the Christians and the Sun God of the Roman elite or the Mithras of the military. There would be no confusion between the two. The fierce struggles "for the minds of men" between Christian thought and pagan thought of the past two centuries kept the distinctions very, very clear...
"Converting" a holiday from Sol/Mithras to Christ would even "make sense", given the early Kingdom-theology of the Church (see below discussion)...Just as 'converting' temples would look to them a bit later, and maybe even 'converting' statues (and changing the names, obviously). And you can rest assured that Mithraists no more celebrated the birthday of Christ on that day, any more than the Christians did Mithra's. For someone to assert that this could only happen if the two 'gods' were already very similar, simply does not understand the intense Christian-versus-pagan polemic of those times, and the highly developed positions within that polemic.
The major exchanges between the second and third century Christian apologists and theologians, and the sharp and powerful attacks of Celsus and Porphyry, were only the tip of the iceberg. The Roman legislation battles and the constant watchful eye (and interventions) of the Roman government over this 'dangerous sect' ensured that the battle lines were always clear to the rulers, elites, and urban middle-class. And, we don't even have to get all the way to 'conversion'--it might have been picked for 'protest' reasons: "The purpose was that it should be celebrated in opposition to the sun-cult" [NIDNTT]
And, therefore, it is not at all clear that the action was a case of 'borrowing pagan ideas' and smuggling them into Christianity.
But back to the pushback: There are two ways to look at this issue:
First, the pushback doesn't actually provide any evidence that borrowing occurred during the construction of the New Testament.
Let's agree that the later church--somewhere, sometime, someway--did some 'illegal syncretism'. What would that actually prove? Only that some Christians did borrow, and by implication (loosely speaking, though) that other Christians could have done the same thing. And, in the mouth of the pushbacker, it could have been the New Testament authors who could have done this, in the 35-70 AD timeframe.
But no one is arguing (certainly not me) that they couldn't have done it, but rather that they didn't do it. The evidence may support borrowing later; but in our (earlier) case, it doesn't...That's my argument--that "the evidence leads us to believe borrowing did not occur", and NOT that "our presumptions about the purity of the apostolic church leads us to believe it"! Huge difference...
I don't put syncretistic borrowing past anyone (pagan or Christian), and we know that splinter groups in the apostolic age did just that. The apostles are constantly having to deal with people who were trying to smuggle non-Jesus elements into the early church: the Jesus-plus-Law group (cf. Galatians), the Jesus-plus-magic group (cf. Acts 19.17ff), Jesus-plus-ApolloTyrimnaeus (cf. Rev 2.20, Thyatira), Jesus-plus-Epicureanism (the adversaries in 2 Peter), Jesus-plus-PlatonicDualism (First John), Jesus-plus-Phrygian-cults (Colossians), Jesus-plus-astrology (Eph 1). Paul himself can be seen in active, aggressive, and 'antagonistic' combat against the various pagan systems of his day; NOT a 'borrowing kind of guy' [quotes below are from NT:DictPL, s.v. "Religions, Greco-Roman"]:
The issue, then, is not could they, but did they. And that is what we are trying to analyze in this article. If our study of the alleged parallels don't turn up some really 'numerous, complex, detailed, striking" and "with underlying ideas" parallels, then any cases of 'borrowing' at any other time period remains irrelevant to our discussion.
The church was never unclear in its exclusivistic message--the pagan world knew exactly what its "mission" was relative to 'other gods':
"That attack was sharp and consistent. It followed from Jewish practice. Saint Paul is at pains to emphasize and control his usage, referring to 'the so-called gods', 'gods that are not in their nature (gods)'; Eusebius speaks of the 'mis-named gods'; and a triumphant champion of the church erected an inscription at Ephesus that begins, 'Destroying the delusive image of the demon Artemis...'" [CRE:18]
"If we stop here a moment, however, to assess the various familiar ways...in which Christianity differed from the general context of opinion around it, the one point of difference that seems most salient was the antagonism inherent in it--antagonism of God toward all other supernatural powers..." [CRE:19]
And, judging from (a) the reported anti-syncretistic attitude of the apostolic group toward pagan elements encountered in their missionary, evangelistic, and teaching activity; (b) the current state of scholarly research/consensus against the paganism-as-source-of-NT-content position, and (c) the research done for the previous version of this article in 1997, I personally have my doubts that we are likely to surface any/much data to support borrowing in the period we are studying...but we'll see...
Secondly, although it is not really necessary to discuss this (given the evidential nature of our task here), I should point out that the post-Constantine church had a radically different set of pressures and issues on them, than did the NT church, and that much of the later 'borrowings' would be unique (and generally 'reluctant'!) to that later period.
So, MacMullen, in his study of exactly this--the interaction between Christianity and Paganism in the 4-8th centuries--consistently points this out [quotes are from HI:CP48C], explaining the historical process as it unfolded:
In other words, the evidence used to prove that the later church was syncretistic (and that therefore the earlier church might be also), did not apply to the core content. And so the argument of 'why would we think they were any different?' loses even the little psychological force that it had at first.
The evidence we have about the later church shows its surprising fidelity to the 'core'--in the face of incredible turbulence--and the earlier church was even more 'stubborn' in its tenacity to fidelity (e.g, the martyrs, Paul's being voted "least likely to graciously compromise with other beliefs" by his graduating class of Rabbis--smile). And as MacMullen pointed out, the creed preserved its continuity from its inception through this overwhelming influx of 'unprepared' and needy converts.
In the spectrum metaphor used by MacMullen, the creed would be at one end and the social praxis at the other end. The creed end was kept 'pure', the praxis end was transformed, and there would have been many questionable (and varying) points of compromise/alternatives in between. But since our discussion deals with the central tenets of who Jesus was--as recorded in the gospels and epistles--we would be on safer ground to doubt 'borrowing' than to suspect it.
So, even apart from the fact that the evidence of pre-NT borrowing is just not there (our main line of investigation), even this Pushback argument casts little 'doubt' on the interpretation of the evidence.
Another common example offered is the Mother & Child iconographic evidence. The images of Horus-the-Child on the lap of his mother Isis was certainly used by the post-Constantine church as an exemplar for the post-NT elaboration of the Mary & Child-Jesus art [TAM:159]. We saw in the above discussion that this was done--after Constantine and therefore several centuries later than is relevant to our discussion here-- as a concession to help the new converts, and done with every effort to not 'confuse' them about their new faith. Many were destroyed, and others retained for teaching purposes [HI:CP68C:130ff].
"Objections by Christians to the use of images and pictures--icons as they were technically known--were by no means new. We have seen that pictures of Christian subjects, even of Christ himself, had been made long before the sixth century. Yet there had also been opposition to them on the ground that they smacked of paganism. In the sixth century, before his consecration a Syrian bishop denounced the veneration of the representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and other saints. In that same century, moreover, a bishop of Massilia (Marseilles) was reprimanded by the Pope for ordering the destruction of the images in the churches of his diocese, for that pontiff, while agreeing that they should not be adored, held that they were a valuable means of instructing illiterate Christians in the faith." [LHC, 1:292f]
Each case would have been decided independently (and typically, with controversy among the leadership). This is interesting stuff, of course, but the late date of this phenomena means that it is not germane to our discussion here.
The same can be seen in the use of the motif of "the Cross". The several forms of a cross have been major symbols in world religion since humanity began, but the NT church didn't use ANY of this symbolism
Julien Ries in Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. "Cross" documents the almost universal usage of some kind of cross symbol, and draws out the elements involved in the symbolism:
"Symbolism of non-Christian crosses. The extraordinary dissemination of the cross throughout many different parts of the world prior to Christianity and outside its influence is explained by the multivalence and density of its symbolic signification. It is a primordial symbol related to three other basic symbols: the center, the circle, and the square...By the intersection of its two straight lines, which coincides with the center, it opens this center up to the outside, it divides the circle into four parts, it engenders the square. In the symbolism of the cross, we will limit ourselves to four essential elements: the tree, the number four, weaving, and navigation...In the eyes of primordial man, the tree represents power. It evokes verticality. It achieves communication between the three levels of the cosmos: subterranean space, earth, and sky." (p.158)."
Anyone familiar with NT usage of the images of cross and crucifixion will note the obvious: there is nothing remotely similar between the symbolism of the cross in the words of Jesus (i.e., of death to self) and the words of the apostles (e.g., judgment on sin, example of resignation to God's will) and the "essential" elements of "the number four, weaving, and navigation", and there is nothing remotely similar with the NT usage of the word/image of 'tree' (e.g., place and means of execution, place of God's cursing) and "power, verticality, or communication"...
The geometry of the place of Christ's death (i.e., the shape of the cross) is never evoked, commented on, or 'exegeted' for this meaning in the NT. The parallel is simply not there, and this seems like another case of 'no parallel underlying idea' again. [Note, however, that AFTER the NT, some of the Church Fathers began to use the Cross in more "symbolic ways--cf. Ries's article, pp.163ff--but this wouldn't apply to NT usage and the words of Jesus.]
Let me make sure this last point is clear...The NT does not make the cross central--as a symbol--in its proclamation; rather, it makes Jesus who died for humanity's sin and who was raised from the dead its central proclamation. The centrality of the apostolic message was on Jesus, on his sacrificial death, and on the significance of that death for the possibility of New Life and a New Future for us. The 'cross' aspect--for them--was in its element of shame, and not an evocative symbol of religious 'power'.
And historically, the negative implication and imagery associated with the act of crucifixion at that time vastly outweighed any 'evangelistic value' any more general symbolic associations with a cross-shape might have had. The cross of Jesus was weakness, folly, madness, scandal in that world:
The implications should be clear: the negative associations of crucifixion would have precluded the apostolic group from trying to use the Cross as a 'symbol of superstitious significance' in their evangelism, teaching, and writings. Both to the Romans and to the Jews of that time, the image of the Cross was a significantly negative one, and one that would not in any way contribute to the winning over of pagan people to the message of Jesus. This negative imagery would have been consistent throughout the Greco-Roman world of the time--anywhere Roman crucifixion was used as a means of execution.
[BTW, this negative association with the image of the cross is one of the
reasons NT scholars are convinced that Jesus' own words about the cross
must be authentic--in the culture of the day, the early church would not
have 'made that up' because it would have been so negatively understood
by pagan and Jew alike. (The technical name for this NT principle is the
"criterion of embarrassment"--the church would be unlikely to make up embarrassing
sayings and put them on the lips of Jesus.)
Consideration 03: It must be remembered that SOME general similar traits of leadership MUST apply to any religious leader. They must generally be good leaders, do noteworthy feats of goodness and/or supernatural power, establish teachings and traditions, create community rituals, and overcome some forms of evil. These are common elements of the religious life--NOT objects that require some theory of dependence. [For example, the fact that that Aztec divine heroes were said to have done wonders similar to those from Asia Minor doesn't necessitate us coming up with a theory of how one of these religions 'borrowed' from the other...smile.] In our case, to argue that since Jesus allegedly did miracles and so did the earlier figure of Krishna, the Jesus 'legend' must have borrowed from the Krishna 'legend' is simply fallacious. The common aspect of homo religiosus is an adequate and more plausible explanation than dependence, in such cases.
Consideration 04: Closely related to the above is the use of common religious language and symbols. As NT:CMM:160 notes (in studying parallels between John 1 and the Mandean cult):
"Words such as light, darkness, life, death, spirit, word, love, believing, water, bread, clean, birth, and children of God can be found in almost any religion. Frequently they have very different referents as one moves from religion to religion, but the vocabulary is a popular as religion itself. Nowhere, perhaps, has the importance of this phenomenon been more clearly set forth than in a little-known essay by Kysar. He compares the studies of Dodd and Bultmann on the prologue (John 1.1-18), noting in particular the list of possible parallels each of the two scholars draws up to every conceivable phrase in those verses. Dodd and Bultmann each advance over three hundred parallels, but the overlap in the lists is only 7 percent. The dangers of what Sandmel calls parallelomania become depressingly obvious."Parallelomania has been described as "the associative linking of similar words, phrases, patterns, thoughts, or themes, in order to claim the influence or dependence of one text or tradition on another. Many of the earlier studies using rabbinic sources were based on isolated and superficial similarities in very dissimilar texts." [Sounds a lot like our criterion of 'underlying ideas' and 'complex structures'.]
The need for caution (as noted already many, many times) is highlighted when we move into the area of religious-oriented language and ideas:
"Even though the reader is less likely to explore the NT writers’ appropriation of pagan sources than their reliance on the OT or Judaistic texts, a word of caution is in order. Whether one is analyzing classical texts that circulated in the Hellenistic world, texts from the Hebrew Bible or rabbinic parallels that surface in the NT, a common temptation accompanies the examination of ancient sources. Superficial but erroneous parallels that appear to illuminate the NT might be discovered by unconsciously importing contemporary cultural assumptions into the world of antiquity. Texts that are alien to the NT are to be understood in their own terms and not apart from their literary environment. The tendency of the modern reader may be to describe source and derivation “as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction” (Sandmel, 1). The cautionary reminders of D. E. Aune and F.W. Danker need restatement: there exists the perennial danger that those whose primary interest is early Christian literature will “seize only the more easily portable valuables found in random raids on ancient texts” (Aune 1988, ii); those who have explored the labyrinth of Greco-Roman studies will be familiar with the hazards that await the enthusiastic but unwary seeker (Danker, 7)." [HI:DictNTB, s.v. "Pagan sources in the New Testament"]As we noted in our initial discussion of criteria, the issue is not one of what individual words, symbols, or motifs are used, but rather (a) the underlying concepts and systems of concepts; (b) the intensity of the parallels (e.g., numerous, complex, detailed); and (c) the 'unexpectedness' of the parallels.
So, to say that Horus was called the "Son of the Father" or that the Iranian version of Mit(h)ra was called the "Light of the World" or that Krishna was called a "Shepherd God" is not saying very much at all. Each case would need to be examined more closely, to see if the underlying concepts suggested 'striking' parallels. Many of these generic religious terms just cannot carry much weight in supporting a theory of borrowing. And, again, we would have to determine the 'most probable source' for the individual term.
For example, take the 'Light of the World' title. In the case of Jesus, it is significantly more likely (noted in detail earlier) that this came from the Jewish background than from a non-Jewish one:
"Jewish literature was generous with the title “light of the world,” applying it to Israel, Jerusalem, the patriarchs, the Messiah, God, famous rabbis and the law (cf. 1:4–5); but always it refers to something of ultimate significance. One of the most spectacular celebrations of the Feast of Tabernacles involved torches that lit up the city; this feast, along with Hanukkah (10:22), was thus known for splendid lighting. That Jesus offers his light to the whole world, to all the nations, may suggest an allusion to Isaiah 42:6. [REF:BBC, at John 8.12]
Or take the phrase "Shepherd God"...Not only was Jesus never actually called this exactly (He is called the good Shepherd, the great Shepherd, the chief Shepherd), but this is a perfect example of the "underlying idea" criteria, for 'shepherd' had different underlying meanings for Krishna and for Jesus.
For Krishna, the reference to Shepherd God was to highlight his background--he actually was a shepherd (or cow-herd, actually). But in Jesus' case (who never actually worked at shepherding--He was a carpenter by trade) the term refers to his Davidic lineage of messianic royalty--a HUGE conceptual "underlying" difference:
"It is based on Old Testament images of God as the shepherd of Israel (Gen 48:15; 49:24; Ps 23:1; 28:9; 77:20; 98:71; Is 40:11; Ezek 34:11–31), of Israel as his flock (Ps 74:1; 78:52; 79:13; 100:3) and of abusive or unfaithful religious leaders as destroyers of his flock (Jer 23:1–2; Ezek 34). Faithful human shepherds (Jer 3:15) included Moses, David (2 Sam 5:2; Ps 78:71–72) and the Davidic Messiah (Mic 5:4). [REF:BBC, at John 10]
"Fundamentally it is a parable rather than an allegory; nevertheless it has within it features that recall to any Jew a wealth of biblical associations that make certain applications of imagery almost inevitable. Four elements in its background may be distinguished. (i) Of the many relevant OT passages the polemical discourse in Ezekiel 34 is outstanding; Israel’s leaders are condemned for neglecting the sheep, lot slaughtering them and leaving them as prey to the wild beasts; the Lord declares that he will be their Shepherd, that he will gather his scattered sheep and pasture them on the mountains of Israel, and set over them as shepherd “my servant David,” i.e., the Messiah. (ii) The use of the imagery of shepherd and sheep in the synoptic teaching of Jesus is inevitably recalled, especially the parable of lite [sic] one lost sheep, which depicts the care of God to the lost and justifies Jesus’ seeking them (Luke 15:1–7; Matt 18:12–14), and Mark 14:27, which links the death and resurrection of Jesus the shepherd with Zech 13:7–9." [WBC, at John 10]
And the phrase "Son of the Father" (of Horus) was simply too common/general a title in a world of very 'sexually active' Greco-Roman gods... nothing striking about divine paternity in the ancient world at all. Even slightly more specific titles, such as "Corn Mother" might be too general--it is found in Eurasian, Germanic, and Native American cultures (not that easy to prove/assume 'borrowing' between...smile) [see discussions in HI:FG:45-47 (and index) and WR:MNNA ].
Consideration 05: But there is a more fundamental issue/question here, in dealing with "religious language"--who "owns" it, that it needs to be "borrowed"?
Religious terms and concepts like god, divinity, savior, salvation, life, sin, impurity, afterlife, faith, etc are shared vocabularies within a culture. They are not 'owned' by pre-Christian pagan religions, any more than they were 'owned' by pre-Christian Judaism. Paul is not 'borrowing' anything from Judaism when calls Jesus the "Messiah", nor is he 'borrowing' anything from paganism when he calls him Lord (kurios). Religious language--at the generic level used in the NT--is a shared linguistic asset, and not something "copyrighted" by pagan thought.
And, as with all users of a language, the speaker will often have to 'qualify' their use of the term to avoid confusion on the part of the listeners--Christian or not. Shared categories of language and concepts require that from all "sides". The Mystery Religions, for example, had to 'qualify' their use of the term 'salvation' sometimes--when talking to their more 'conservative' pagan neighbors. NeoPlatonists had to do the same, as did the later Gnostics, and the earlier pagan monotheists. They were not 'borrowing' from their audiences, they were simply explaining themselves via shared vocabulary and language conventions.
Likewise, when the early Christians used language shared with their "pagan" neighbors (as the movement spread into the Gentile community), they had to explain how their terminology was 'different' from their varying-by-location audiences. There is nothing 'odd' or 'shady' or 'sinister' about this practice--this is a basic feature of conceptual communication. EVERYBODY has to do this...Aristotle pointed out long ago that to understand something you have to first place it in its 'class or group', and then learn how it differed from the other items in that class...This is how we communicate ordinary matters to one another, and it is no different for religious terms and concepts.
For example, the Christian had to use the two 'shared' categories of deity at the time to 'start the conversation':
"It has not been our intention to oversimplify what is in fact an extremely complex subject, namely, the ways in which ancient Mediterranean peoples conceived of their Savior Gods. Nevertheless, during the Hellenistic-Roman period (300 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) there seems to have been a definite pattern across many cultural boundaries regarding certain Gods, who were consistently called "Saviors." They seem to have been of two types. One was the divine/ human offspring of a sexual union between a God(dess) and a human, who was rewarded with immortality for her or his many benefactions. The second type was the temporary manifestation in adult human form of one of the great, immortal Gods, who came into the human world to save a city or nation or the whole civilized world. We have called these, for lack of better labels, the demigod type and the incarnation type. One thing is certain. Justin Martyr had good reason for saying that Christians did not claim anything about their Savior God beyond what the Greeks said about theirs. [DSG:15-16]And then they had to 'differentiate' their specific usage by additional details, and by additional 'negations'(!):
"However, it has not been our intention to oversimplify in the other direction either, that is, by glossing over or ignoring the manifold ways in which Christianity stood out as a unique and unusual religion in its time. If Christians utilized familiar concepts and terms in order to communicate their faith, they made two significant changes to them. First of all, they used them in an exclusivist sense. When they proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the Savior of the world, it carried with it a powerful negation: "Neither Caesar, nor Asklepios, nor Herakles, nor Dionysos, nor Ptolemy, nor any other God is the Savior of the world--only Jesus Christ is!"... [HI:DSG, as above]
"The apologists devoted much time to explaining that the gods of paganism were demons or dead men or did not exist" [GASC:31; and so they 'borrowed these concepts from them"?!]
And the pagan (and Jewish) audiences understood exactly what the Christian content was--and the result was shock, unbelief, and eventually, persecution as 'atheists':
"People think we are insane when we name a crucified man as second in rank after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all things, for they do not discern the mystery involved." (Apol. 1.13; lest we mis-understand Justin's use of "man" here, let me simply note that Justin is very clear on the deity of Christ as well as his humanity--cf. GASC:60-63)
A great example of this pagan-clarity would be the brilliant skeptic Celsus, who saw the unique Christian content very clearly:
"Celsus obviously knew Christianity at first hand, and as a skilled polemicist his portrait of the Christian movement is detailed and concrete. He has a keen eye for Christianity's most vulnerable points and the wit to exploit them for a laugh" [CRST:95]
"However, it is clear from a closer reading of Celsus's work that he recognized, as did Galen, that Christianity had set forth some new and original religious teachings, and these are the chief target of his polemic." [CRST:102; note that he was not 'confused' by their terminology, but understood quite clearly the differences in how the 'words' were used.]
His first target was the Incarnation, as a new idea: "The first is the Christian claim that God came down from the heavens to live on earth among men. This assertion, says Celsus 'is most shameful and no lengthy argument is required to refute it'" [CRST:102; note that Celsus doesn't understand the Incarnation as something similar to pagan theophanies, etc.]
His second target was the resurrection, as a new idea: "His more serious criticism, however, is directed against the idea that God could reverse the natural process of the disintegration of the human body, or that a body that had rotten could be restored again...As Origen observed, Celsus 'often reproached us about the resurrection', suggesting that pagan critics realized that the resurrection was one of the central and distinctive of Christian doctrines." [CRST:104; note that the pagans recognized the difference between Christian usage of 'resurrection' and their own pagan uses of the same word...there was no confusion here as to what the Message was.]
The shared linguistic base and cultural base was more than adequate for the New Testament authors to be able to express distinctive Christian content, and this communication was generally understood by their audiences both Jewish and pagan. The Christians were often confused (in the first generation) with the Jews, but never with the Mithraists (e.g., the Mithraists were not fed to the lions, nor used as human torches by an emperor...for a sect who allegedly borrowed so much from these 'welcomed' mystery cults, it certainly didn't blend it very well, in the eyes of those in power...).
Consideration 06: We also have a special problem in the religions of antiquity, the problem of syncretism: "Will the REAL Horus PLEASE STAND UP?"
The vast majority of the pre-modern world was syncretistic, meaning that one religion would often incorporate the myth and ritual of other cults with which it came in contact. Often the deities would simply change names. In the ANE, Western Semites adopted deities from the Sumerian pantheon and Israel took up the pagan Canaanite cult. Closer to NT times, we see the Greek colonists at Ephesus "adopt" the goddess of the natives (e.g. The Great Mother) and call her by THEIR name "Artemis" (ZPEB, s.v. "Ephesus"). In some cases, deities would 'merge' into one.
[Christianity, as we have noted often, was the opposite--it was not 'inclusivistic', but 'exclusivistic'--it would not 'merge' with anything. It was completely out-of-synch with the age and culture of the day. And hence, it was understood as such--and attacked by the powers and elites.]
The problem this creates for us is that we will sometimes be comparing Jesus (one individual in the NT) to the combined characteristics of multiple agents that are all called by the SAME NAME.
For example, "Horus" applies to several DIFFERENT deities in the multi-threaded Egyptian religion [see Lesko, in EOR:s.v. "Horus"]. Horus literally has some TEN to TWENTY different names/versions/forms, some of which are: "Horus-the-Child" (Egyptian), Harpokrates, Harsomtus, Horus (as king), Harsiese, Horus-Yun-Mutef, Harendote Harakhti, Horus of Behdet, Harmachis, and several local versions (Nekhen, Mesen, Khenty-irty, Baki, Buhen, Miam) [EGG:87-96]. All of these have slightly different characteristics and legends--esp. with the wide variation between Horus the King and Horus the Sun-God:
"There are several manifestations of Horus, which tend to overlap, and the problem of disentangling them is not always easy, as Horus may well have been the name of a whole series of pre-dynastic rulers or priests. Another difficulty arises from the habit of the Egyptians of combining two or three gods into dyadic or triune deities, which was frequently done with Amon, Horus, Osiris, Ptah, and Re." [WR:WWNCM, s.v. "Horus"]
When one glups together the diverse characteristics of a dozen deities, one is bound to come up with overlap with the true God! We have the same problem with Mitra--he is a mixture of Iranian, Vedic, Greek, and Roman cults; Buddha--he is a mixture of various strands of "later" developing biographical tradition; Krishna fares the same--it is difficult to separate the pieces of legends that belong to Vasudeva Krsna and those which belong to Krsna Gopala [EOR:s.v. "Krsna", p.385].
In the case of the specific question above, the impact of this issue can be seen quite readily. The questioner makes the comment that Roman Mithraism predates Jesus. As we shall see, only Iranian Mithraism predates Jesus, and Roman Mithraism--which shares ONLY its name with the other!--does NOT predate Jesus in any relevant sense.
Consideration 07: Related to the above is the fact that we must compare the core-Jesus with a core-Other-Deity. [This was part of the initial criterion of 'structure' or 'system'.] In other words, in religions of antiquity, legends about deities would grow and develop along different paths in different parts of a geography. Hence, the legends of Horus in Northern Egypt would be different than the legends of Horus in Southern Egypt. What this forces us to do is to compare like with like. We will need to confine our description of a deity to either all the characteristics of that deity IN A SPECIFIC LOCALITY or confine our description to the common elements across ALL locations. Osiris was considered the brother of Seth in some traditions, and the father of Seth in others. We cannot combine the two meaningfully (for any number of reasons) in comparing the historical image we have in the NT of Jesus Christ.
Consideration 08: We must also be careful to focus on the critical and radical similarities, not the incidental ones. [This was one of the criteria we surfaced at the beginning of the piece--the criterion of "central features".] The Christian message about Jesus centered on His Lordship over all creation, His voluntary and sacrificial death, His physical resurrection, and His fulfillment of a stream of OT prophetic prediction (as means to identify Him and as means to fulfill the plan of God in salvation history). "Incidental" elements might include (but the issue of fulfilled prophecy might counter this by making the 'incidentals' into 'requirements') the number of the original disciples (although that might be keyed to the twelve tribes of Israel), how long He stayed dead before the Resurrection, His ministry in Galilee, His birthplace, and even His virgin conception/birth.
Consideration 09: A final consideration on data sources and methods concerns not overstepping the evidence. Much of our data about the mystery cults (esp. Mithra) comes from iconographic data--pictures and carvings on walls. Without some textual material to guide us, the interpretation of that material must necessarily be tenuous. So the cautionary words of Barrett [NTB:120]:
"The evidence upon which our knowledge of the so-called mystery religions rests is for the most part fragmentary and by no means easy to interpret. Very much of it consists of single lines and passing allusions in ancient authors (many of whom were either bound to secrecy or inspired with loathing with regard to the subject of which they were treating), inscriptions (many of them incomplete), and artistic and other objects discovered by archaeologists."
An example of where this would apply to our study can be seen in the grossly outdated (but, AMAZINGLY, still widely cited by skeptics) work of The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves. The chapter in which he identifies these 'saviors' (some of whom will be discussed below) is dependent TOTALLY on a secondary source (without citations often) that itself is based almost TOTALLY on interpretations of iconographic data. And these interpretations were made 150 years ago, without the benefit of the virtual explosion of knowledge in comparative religion, cognitive archaeology, and ANE thought, and without the scholarly 'control' of even slightly later works (such as Budge, GOE).
Graves identifies 16 of these 'crucified Saviors' whereas modern scholarship, working on a much broader base of literary and archeological data, disagrees.
So, Martin Hengel, in the standard work of the day [Crux:5-7, 11]:
"True, the Hellenistic world was familiar with the death and apotheosis of some predominantly barbarian [as judged by the ancient authors themselves] demigods and heroes of primeval times. Attis and Adonis were killed by a wild boar, Osiris was torn to pieces by Typhon-Seth and Dionysus-Zagreus by the Titans. Heracles alone of the 'Greeks' voluntarily immolated himself on Mount Oeta. However, not only did all this take place in the darkest and most distant past, but it was narrated in questionable [note: to the ancients] myths which had to be interpreted either euhemeristically or at least allegorically [by the Graeco-Romans]. By contrast, to believe that the one pre-existent Son of the one true God, the mediator at creation and the redeemer of the world, had appeared in very recent times in out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews, and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness...The only possibility of something like a 'crucified god' appearing on the periphery of the ancient world was in the form of a malicious parody, intended to mock the arbitrariness and wickedness of the father of the gods on Olympus, who had now become obsolete. This happens in the dialogue called Prometheus, written by Lucian, the Voltaire of antiquity."The point should be clear: perhaps there was not enough data when Graves wrote, but there is now--and Jesus of Nazareth starkly stands out as unique in His manner and purpose of death, among claimants to "all authority in heaven and earth"! (cf. Matt 28.18).
These alleged "identicalities" generally attempt to identify Jesus with deities within a couple of categories (which have some overlap).
(For space reasons, I have had to move this part of the discussion to copycatwho1.html)
[ .... copycat.html ........ ]