Part 1 of 9: Is Christianity Borrowed From Pagan Myths/Religions?

Posted By Thomas Perez June 15, 2010 at 6:30pm. Copyright 2010.

I’m sure that we’ve all asked, at least one time or another, this question; 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:

The General Allegation –

Mithras (Roman Mithraism)
Horus (Egyptian God of Light)

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, or are they?

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 – as the critics would insinuate.

Sometimes the allegation by such critics are 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.

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. But moreover, than that the question should be; “who did the borrowing?”

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 deitites 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?

West gives the example of Semitic idiom expressed in the Greek narrative text–totally unexplainable apart from borrowing [HI:EFHWAE]

Burkert gives the example of the single-mention Tethsys (as wife of Oceanus, in Homer), as a translation of Tiamat (as wife of Apsu, in Enuma Elish)–Tethsys never occurs in all of mythology anywhere else; it is best/only explained as a narrative ‘holdover’ from borrowed narrative structure [OT:ORNEI:92ff]

Penglase gives the examples of condensed summaries of large mythic complexes (implying reader familiarity) and of combinations of motif/underlying ideas applied in new contexts flawlessly, in Hesiod and Homer [HI:GMM:237ff]

Puhvel gives the parallel scenes of Typhon in the sea (Nonnos) and Ullikummi (Hittite myth), in which numerous visual details and spatial arrangements are described in similar terms, in similar narrative context, and in similar sequence [WR:CM:29; ‘numerous, complex, detailed’]

Now, if we extract some principles from these scholars, we would end up with:

Similarity of general motifs is not enough to “prove anything;” we must have “complex structures” (e.g., ‘system of deities’, ‘narrative structure’). Ideally, we would need to establish the historical link first, before looking for borrowings. Differences between structures/stories/complexes do not disprove influence, as long as the parallels are ‘too numerous’ and ‘too striking.’ Parallels must be ‘striking’ (i.e., unexpected, ‘odd’, difficult to account for). Some/many parallels/parallel motifs are superficial (i.e., identical on the surface), and ‘prove nothing’. Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be numerous. Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be complex (i.e., with multiple parts and interrelationships). Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be detailed. The details in alleged parallels must have the same “conceptual usage” reflected in them (e.g., they must be used with the same meaning). The parallels must have the same ‘ ideas underlying them’. The similar ideas in alleged parallels must be ‘central features’ in the material–and not just isolated or peripheral elements. Details which are completely unexpected (to the point of being unexplainable apart from borrowing) are strong evidence for borrowing. Details which are almost irrelevant to the new context, but which have function in the old context are strong evidence for borrowing

Now, let me also point out here that the amount and texture of the evidence has to be very strong, for even in cases that do NOT look superficial, there still may be considerable doubt about the actual fact of direct influence or borrowing. Take this case from [HI:CMY6:13f]:

“For example, there are obvious parallels between the Greek creation and succession myths and myths of Near Eastern cultures. The myth of the castration of Uranus by Cronus is better understood if we compare it with the Hittite myth of Kumarbi, in which Anu, the sky-god, is castrated by Kumarbi, who rises against him. Kumarbi swallows Anu’s genitals, spits them out when he cannot contain them, and is finally replaced by the storm-god. The structure of this tale is paralleled by the myth of Uranus, castrated by Cronus, who, in his turn, cannot hold what he as swallowed (in this case, his children) and is eventually replaced by the sky-god Zeus. Some details in the two tales, of course, are different, but the basic functions (kingship, revolt, castration, swallowing, regurgitation, replacement by a new king) are the same and occur in the same sequence. Thus the basic structure is the same and a better understanding of the origin and purpose of the Greek myth, as narrated by Hesiod, is achieved by comparison with the older myth from Near Eastern culture. Whether direct influence can be proved (and scholars do not agree on this point), the structural similarities do at least show how Greek myths are to be studied in conjunction with those of other cultures.” [emphasis mine]The point I want to make here is that even with this ‘numerous, complex, and detailed’ structure, scholars are STILL NOT sure that borrowing happened! So, our evidence for borrowing will have to be at least stronger than this example.

So, to apply these to our case here, we would need to show that:

The similarities between Jesus (as portrayed in the NT-not by the later post-apostolic Church Fathers) 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, be difficult to account for apart from borrowing, and be ‘core’ or ‘central’ to the story/image/motif enough to suspect borrowing; that we can come up with a historically plausible explanation of HOW the borrowing occurred;

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 that 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 post-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-apolstolic 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:

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; this issue is somehow seen as the ‘strength’ of the position, for the normal reader can sometimes be amazed at alleged similarities (note the words “almost identical” in the email question above). However, there are several considerations that must be examined BEFORE we get into the alleged similarities:

Consideration: 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.

Nash points this out:

“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.” []

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 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 :

“Still others suggest that Paul’s conception is related to ideas of union with a dying and rising god that was popular in Hellenistic ‘mystery religions.’ These ‘mystery religions,’ a group of religions very popular in the Hellenistic world, featured secret initiations and promised their adherents ‘salvation,’ often by participation in a cultic act that was held to bring the initiate into union with a god. Under the impulse of the history-of-religions movement early in this century, many scholars attributed various doctrines of Paul to dependence on these religions. But direct dependence of Paul on these religions is now widely discounted. More popular is the view that Paul’s Hellenistic churches interpreted their experience of Christ in the light of these religions and that Paul’s teaching demonstrates point of contact with, and corrections of, this existing tradition…The mystical and repeated ‘dying and rising’ of a mystery religion adherent with a nature god like Osiris or Attis has little to do with Paul’s focus on the Christian’s participation in the historical events of Christ’s life.” [NICNT,’Romans’, p362n54] “Ancient Near Eastern religions had long had traditions of dying-and-rising gods, general vegetation deities renewed annually in the spring. Some ancient sources, especially early Christian interpretations of these religions, suggest that initiates into various mystery cults “died and rose with” the deity. Scholars early in the twentieth century naturally saw in this tradition the background for Paul’s language here. Although the evidence is still disputed, it is not certain that the mysteries saw a once-for-all dying-and-rising in baptism, as in Paul, until after Christianity became a widespread religious force in the Roman Empire that some other religious groups imitated. More important, the early Christian view of resurrection is certainly derived from the Jewish doctrine rather than from the seasonal revivification of Greek cults.” [BBC,at Rom 6]

“On the basis of this evidence it can be firmly concluded that a direct influence from any mystery cult or from the Isis cult in particular, on Paul or on the theology of Rom 6:3–4, is most unlikely” [WBC,Romans, 6.3f]

“The older history of religions school sought to find the derivation of the notion ‘new birth’ in the mystery religions of the Hellenistic world, where initiates passed from death into life by being brought into a mysterious intimacy with the deity. But in the light of the scarcity of early ‘new birth’ terminology such as anagennao in the mystery religions, recent scholarship has sought an origin of the concept elsewhere…A more likely origin has been found in the OT and Judaism” [NT:DictLNT,s.v. ‘new birth’]

“Some scholars have seen the background for such terminology (e.g. childhood and growth) in the mystery religions, with their notion of spiritual progression through various cultic rituals. Though some aspects of these texts can be understood in this context, the notion of stages of faith was already present in some of the most distinctive teaching of Jesus, and ordinary family relationships provide a more plausible background here.” [NT:DictLN , s.v. ‘sonship, child, children”]

“Some scholars have suggested that it was taken over from Greek mystery religions, in which initiation was conceived in terms of death and resurrection. From considerations of the late date of the records of these rites and differences of interpretation, particularly as to whether initiates in such cults clearly identified with a deity in death and resurrection or were offered immortality through such ritual experience, the suggestion is highly unlikely [NT:DictPL,s.v., “dying and rising”]

“Some have suggested that Paul was influenced by the Greek mystery religions in his concept of dying and rising with Christ. But this hypothesis is unnecessary and unlikely: Baptism is a very Jewish phenomenon, and there is little doubt that it came to Christians directly or indirectly from John the Baptist. For John baptism was very much associated with the advent of the eschatological day of the Lord, and this eschatological dimension continues in Christian baptism. But for Christians like Paul the decisive eschatological events are the death and resurrection of Jesus; it is thus intelligible that baptism as the rite of initiation into the saved eschatological community should come to be associated with Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. There is therefore no need to invoke the mystery religions to explain Paul’s baptismal teaching. It is, however, possible that the Jesus-traditions that speak of taking up the cross and sharing in the sufferings of Jesus were influential.” [PFJFC:155f]

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]:

“At the turn of the 20th century a new approach to Paul was forged by the religionsgeschichtliche Schule, “the History of Religions School.” Spawned in Germany, this approach built on the Tübingen dichotomy between Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianity, and found the origins of the more developed Pauline Christology in the mystery religions and pagan cults of the Greek world. The mystery religions of Greece (Eleusian), Egypt (Isis and Osiris), Syria (Adonis), Asia Minor (Cybele), and Rome (Mithras) were researched and mined for parallels with Pauline theology. A dying-rising redeemer god, the exalted kurios, sacramental redemption, initiation into mystic participation in the deity, gnosis, and pneumatic experience were mystery-religion concepts claimed to have conditioned Paul’s thinking. “Two pioneers in this field were Bousset and Reitzenstein. Bousset argued that the Jesus of the primitive Palestinian church was the eschatological Son of Man, largely derived from Daniel 7:13–14. But in the Greek-speaking Christian communities like Antioch, Jesus was transformed, under the influence of the Hellenistic mystery cults, into the acclaimed kurios. “Behind the personal piety of Paul and his theology there stands as a real power and a living reality the cultic veneration of the kurios in the community.” With consummate skill Bousset explored the Hermetic literature, Philo, Gnostic documents, and the cults of Isis, Osiris, and Orphis and discovered “parallels” with Paul’s Christ-mysticism (“in Christ”), doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Christ-Adam theology, cross and sacrament, and the dying-rising Redeemer. Reitzenstein, a philologist and authority on Eastern Gnosticism, researched the second-and third-century Hermetic literature and concluded that Gnostic terminology was the source of Paul’s Christology. Neill, in an extended survey of the History of Religions approach, credits the Harvard scholar Kirsopp Lake with popularizing in America the arguments of German scholars such as Bousset and Reitzenstein .

“The influence of the various religionsgeschichtliche models has greatly diminished in recent decades with the discovery of the Qumran scrolls and wider research in the Jewish materials of the intertestamental (Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) and New Testament (rabbinical traditions) periods. It is no longer feasible to separate Hellenistic and Jewish influences into two hermetically sealed compartments. Paul’s Jewishness is in the process of being rediscovered. But a more fundamental issue is the entire logic of the comparative religionist methodology which presupposes the apostle to have been an inclusivistic, impressionable absorber of alien ideas rather than the proclaimer of a pure gospel of faith and repentance. As Hunter comments,

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:

“To what extent did the Hellenistic/Roman syncretism influence the development of early Christianity? H. Gunkel and other adherents of the History-of-Religions School argued that it was a major factor. Gunkel, in fact, concluded that, “Christianity is a syncretistic religion” (Gunkel, 95). He argued that the NT was strongly influenced by many foreign religions, but that these beliefs entered Christianity in the first instance through Judaism, which itself was very strongly syncretistic. R. Bultmann spoke of syncretism more often in connection with Hellenistic Christianity, which he sharply distinguished from Jewish Christianity. He noted, “on the whole, one could be tempted to term Hellenistic Christianity a syncretistic structure” (Bultmann, 1.164). For Bultmann the Jewish apocalyptic kerygma of Jesus was combined with the gnostic myth of redemption as Christianity spread to the Gentile world. Like Gunkel, however, he saw Hellenistic Judaism as “in the grip of syncretism” (Bultmann, 1.171) and therefore as the purveyor of these concepts to Christianity. “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:

“Making robes white with blood is clearly a ritual rather than visual image: sacrificial blood purified utensils for worship in the Old Testament (see comment on Heb 9:21–22), and white was the color of robes required for worship in the New Testament period. [BBC,in.loc.]

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]:

“Such an understanding helps explain why obedience precedes rather than follows the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” The latter phrase gives concreteness and vividness to Peter’s brief glance at Christian conversion. “sprinkling with the blood,” recalls the Jewish sacrificial system, particularly as seen from a distance or in retrospect by the early Christians. The apparent origin of the (sprinkling) terminology is the ceremony described in Numbers 19 in which ashes from the burning of a red heifer are mixed with water and sprinkled for purification on those who have defiled themselves by contact with a corpse (the phrase “water of sprinkling,” occurs repeatedly in Num 19:9, 13, 20, 21 LXX). In Barn. 8, this passage in its entirety is applied to Christ’s redemptive death, its imagery of sprinkling being associated with Jesus’ blood rather than with water and ashes (Barn. 5.1; 8.3; in the NT cf. Heb 9:13–14). “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):

Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. 2 “Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” 3 Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” 4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” [Ex 23.1-7]
As the New Covenant – from the New Moses of Deut 18 – was inaugurated with Christ’s blood (but not physically literal):

And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. [Lk 22.20]

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).” [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:

A substitutionary castration, in which the priest was ‘vicariously’ castrated in the castration of the bull

A regular sacrifice, which could be performed for the benefit of the Emperor and Empire

A ‘rebirth’ to virtue/purity and ‘good luck’ for twenty years (even the 4th century phrase ‘to eternity’ doesn’t mean the same thing as in Christianity-see the article)

A dedication/consecration of a priest to the (existing) service/religion of the Goddess Cybele

A (possible) re-enactment of an old hunter-goddess myth (the capture and killing of the bull by a goddess with a hunting spear)

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:

“Though Philo borrows not a little from the Mysteries, he does not use this verb (‘rebirth’). On the other hand, Josephus uses it in a general sense, with no evident dependence on the Mysteries. Bell., 4, 484…Thus at the time of the NT (rebirth) was not common, but it was used generally and not merely in the Mysteries, like the Latin renasci. This is confirmed by the use of the substantive (in Philo)…Philo employs this for the Stoic doctrine of the rejuvenation of the world…(Aet. Mund.). Elsewhere he has the term paliggenesiva for the same thing, e.g., Aet. Mund., 9…The mere mention of (‘rebirth’) does not prove any dependence on the Mysteries; this applies equally to 1 Pt. 1:3, 23…There is a profound gulf between the religion of the Mysteries, in which man is deified by magical rites, and this religion of faith…As the OT and Jewish elements are very much alive in this religion, so the origin of the thought of regeneration is to be sought in Judaism. It is true that the Jews did not describe themselves or others as regenerate. Yet they hoped for a new life for the world and themselves, and they did not speak of this merely as resurrection or new creation, but also thought in terms of paliggenesiva and palin genesthai when speaking Greek. [TDNT,s.v. “anagennao”]”Anagennan is found in the NT only here and in v 23, and not at all in the LXX (except for one doubtful variant in Sir, Prol. 28). It is the equivalent of gennan-another in John 3:3, 7 and may have been derived from a slightly different form of that very saying of Jesus (cf., e.g., Justin Martyr, Justin, Apol. 1.61.3. “For the Christ also said, Unless you are born again, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”; cf. also Matt 18:3-“He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”)…Certainly the Gospel tradition, is a nearer and more plausible source for Peter’s terminology than, e.g., the pagan mystery religions (as proposed by R. Perdelwitz; in refutation, cf. F. Büchsel, TDNT 1:673–75, and Selwyn, 305–11). Anagennao is found in only one (fourth century A.D.) text bearing on mystery religions: Sallustius, De Deis 4 (ed. A. D. Nock [1926] 8, 24). [WBC,1 Peter 1.3]“In 376, a follower declared himself ‘reborn for eternity’ and two inscription from Turin are consecrated viribus aeterni, that is to say to the ‘force’ (vital, sexual) of the ‘eternal’, in commemoration of a taurobolium. In fact, we know that this bloody ‘baptism’ was held to regenerate for twenty years the man or woman who descended into the pit. The Latin aeternus indeed implies durability rather than transcendental eternity in the Christian sense.” [HI:TCRE:52]

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: