Part 3 of 9: Is Christianity Borrowed From Pagan Myths/Religions?

Posted By Thomas Perez. June 15, 201o at 10:18pm. Copyright 2010.

First, the push-back 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”]:

1.The mystery cults: “However, there are what appear to be a number of words and phrases in Pauline vocabulary which seem to have been derived ultimately from the language used to describe aspects of the mystery cults. These terms, which include “wisdom” (1 Cor 1:17–31), “knowledge” (1 Cor 8:1; 13:8), “spiritual person” contrasted with “psychic person,” (1 Cor 2:14–16), “to be initiated” (Phil 4:12), “mystery” and “perfect” or “mature” (1 Cor 2:5–6), “unutterable” (2 Cor 12:4), do not appear to be drawn directly from the mystery cults but had much earlier passed into the common fund of figurative religious language. In particular instances it appears that Paul actually adopted the language of his opponents in his attempt to refute them (e.g., 1 Cor 2:6–13).”

2. The imperial cult: “The imperial cult was particularly influential throughout Asia Minor, including the eastern region where Tarsus was located. Beginning with the divine Augustus, Roman emperors were frequently lauded with such titles as kyrios (“Lord”) and soter (“savior”), and these titles were also used of Jesus by Paul and other early Christians (Rom 1:4; 4:24; 16:2; Phil 2:11; 3:20). While these titles are used of God frequently in the Greek OT, they would have had clear associations with the imperial cult to many ancient Mediterraneans. While the title “Son of God” was certainly derived from the OT (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7), the phrase divi filius (“son of god”) was used of Augustus (referring to his adopted father Julius Caesar) and was a title taken over by other Roman emperors to underline their filial relationship to their divinized predecessors, so that this designation would also have had associations with the imperial cult for many ancients.” [Paul specifically says that there are no ‘Lords’ but Jesus.]  

3. Pagan sacrifices: “Since observant Jews had scruples against idolatrous practices and followed dietary laws based on the Torah, which prohibited the consumption of meat from unclean animals or even clean animals not killed in a ritually appropriate manner, Jews and Jewish Christians were naturally reluctant to eat the meat of animals sacrificed to pagan deities. While part of the victims sacrificed in Greek temples was consumed on the premises by priests and worshipers, the rest was sold to the public in the market place. The practice of eating “meat sacrificed to idols”, could refer to participation in a sacral meal in a temple or during the distribution of sacrificial meat in the course of a public religious festival, or to the practice of eating meat purchased at the marketplace but which had originally been part of a pagan sacrifice. Paul thought that when people sacrificed to idols they were really sacrificing to demons (1 Cor 10:20), a view common in Judaism (Deut 32:17; Ps 19:5; Jub. 1:11; 11:4–6; 1 Enoch 19:1), and even found among some pagans such as the philosopher Celsus, though for him daimones were petty deities (Origen Contra Celsum 8.24).”

4. Pagan divination: ” In Philippi Paul exorcised a “spirit of divination,” from a young female slave used as a fortune teller by her owners (Acts 16:16–18.”

5. A local Zeus/Hermes cult: “Following the narrative of the healing of a cripple at Lystra by Barnabas and Paul, the onlookers make the acclamation “The gods have come down to us in human form,” and they called Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes (cf. Acts 28:6). The priest of the local temple of Zeus then brought oxen and garlands with the intention of sacrificing to Barnabas-Zeus and Paul-Hermes. From Homer on, Greek tradition entertained the possibility that gods could disguise themselves as human beings (Iliad 24.345–47; Odyssey 1.105; 2.268; 17.485–87; Homeric Hymn to Demeter 94–97, 275–81; Plato Soph. 216b; Rep. 2.20 [381b–382c]; Silius Italicus 7.176; Ovid Metam. 8.626), though such disguises were not usually maintained very long and were generally followed by a recognition scene. Zeus and Hermes were occasionally paired since Zeus had chosen Hermes as his herald and spokesperson (Diodorus Siculus 5.75.2; Apollodorus 3.10.2; Iamblichus De Myst. 1.1). Paul was identified by the onlookers with Hermes precisely because he was the chief speaker (Acts 14:12). The closest mythological parallel recounts how Zeus and Hermes, disguised as mortals, were barred from a thousand homes until welcomed by the aged farm couple Baucis and Philemon (Ovid Metam. 8.611–724). In Greek tradition the appearance of a deity is traditionally the occasion when divine honors are instituted, a fact which accounts for the behavior of the priest of the temple of Zeus in Acts 14:13.” [Paul calls their gods ‘worthless things‘]

6. An unknown god at Athens: ” In the context of a visit to Athens narrated in Acts 17:16–34 (a section in which the author of Luke-Acts reveals a familiarity with philosophical traditions and language), Paul visits the Areopagus and, in the manner of an ancient philosopher, directs an apologetic speech to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers present. In the introduction to this speech (the captatio benevolentiae), he congratulates the Athenians for their piety and then refers to an altar in the vicinity with an inscription “to an unknown god,” claiming that it is this God whom he is now proclaiming to them… Pausanias reports the existence of altars to “unknown gods” (in the plural) in Athens and Olympia (Pausanias 1.1.4; 5.14.8). Important cult centers such as Athens, Olympia and Pergamon had dozens of altars to traditional Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, Hermes, etc.), to less traditional deities (e.g., Helios, “sun,” and Selene, “moon”), to abstractions (e.g., Pistis, “fidelity,” and Arete, “virtue”) and (in an attempt to be complete, i.e., to have a  “precinct for altars of all gods without exception”) to “unknown gods” and (safer still) to “all the gods.” Though no inscription has been found which exactly reproduces the phraseology of Acts 17:23, it is quite possible that such inscriptions actually existed.” [Paul specifically rejects the entire pantheon of their gods, as those who ‘live in temples’ and are ‘served by human hands’]

7. Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:23–41). “In this episode (perhaps alluded to in 1 Cor 15:32 and 2 Cor 1:8–11), Paul’s success in proclaiming the gospel in the Roman Province of Asia is perceived as threatening the livelihood of the silver-workers guild, which made miniature silver replicas of the temple of Artemis to be sold as souvenirs or amulets (Acts 19:24). The temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the world (Strabo 14.1.20–23; Pausanias 2.2.5; 4.31; Achilles Tatius 7–8; Xenophon Eph. Ephesian Tale 1.1–3), and the city was given the title “temple-keeper” (Acts 19:35), as a major center of the imperial cult. The acclamation “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28) reflects a popular title of the goddess (Xenophon Eph. Ephesian Tale 1.11).” [The local populace knew that Paul taught ‘that man-made gods are no gods at all‘, 19.26]

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 ‘ms-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: 

1. The conversion of Constantine ‘encouraged’ the rest of the Roman Empire to convert too, and this created a massive problem for the church-an influx of people with social needs previously met in pagan praxis, without a corresponding Christian equivalent: in the opening century or two of their existence as a religious community, as a religious community, Christians lacked a distinctive poetry, rhetoric, drama, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, or dance–all, arts serving the older faith richly. They lacked arts of play and celebration that other faiths enjoyed. They had almost no special language of gestures or symbols in which to express their feelings or their wishes to, or regarding, the divine, such as pagans had developed…” [p.150]

“By the turn of the fourth century, it [Christianity] could claim a substantial minority of the population in the eastern provinces though only a small minority in the west.Thereafter, as it registers more clearly in our surviving sources, an estimate of its place becomes less uncertain. It constituted perhaps as much as a half of the population by A.D 400. The figure is not likely to be far wrong; unlikely, then, that the far lower estimate for the church is wrong, either, at the moment when Constantine was converted; for rapid growth in the intervening period is quite evident. Constantine and his successors held out many new and effective inducements to join. In the course of the response, greater numbers but also a greater diversity of human types and temperaments were swept into the church, and along with them, a far greater diversity of demands and expectations. In consequence, the deficiencies noted just above began to be supplied from paganism, partly unopposed, partly against the leadership’s wishes, but necessarily, because of the numbers of newer converts and the impossibility of entirely reeducating them.” (p.151)

“[T]he old means of satisfying them (the needs met by pagan social and artistic life) were denied or destroyed [by the Roman emperors], and the equivalent in Christianity did not exist. Unlike the forms of expression developed by communities of Christians in the first century or two of their history, those developed by non-Christian communities had had a very long time indeed to incorporate the arts and pleasures of life into worship. ..The remarkable diversity of cult-centered arts, activities, and psychological rewards…All these, church leadership wished converts to surrender. Many or most converts simply could not make so great a sacrifice. It could not and did not happen.” (p.152)

“In the nature of the case no one today can make any good guess at the depth or prevalence of the converts’ inner feelings. Only, no one can doubt that loyalties and preferences, the conscious and the unthinking, still attached them to the old ways. The bishops certainly thought so and say so often enough in both eastern and western sermons.” (p153)

“Inflow of novelties into the church was perpetual. And why should this not be so since the period post-Constantine brought about the baptism of so many persons raised in another religious faith? Though baptized, they were nevertheless not easy to reach for more perfect instruction: they were poor and rural and hard to get at, rarely to be seen in church. Yet they counted in the tens of millions. Small wonder that the church which included them, looked at sociologically and demographically rather than theologically, underwent significant change of character in the process of taking them in.” (p144) 

2. The Church leadership had to quickly respond, without prior practice or warning, and scrambled to try to ‘convert’ the content of the pagan practices, while maintaining the ‘less theological‘ elements such as art, sculpture, festivals, and dance. (Generally this involved offering a ‘substitute’ festival or location, but in each case the attempt was made to make it clear to the pagan that the “theological content” had radically changed): religion was a time of communal rejoicing and social intercourse acted out in the company of the divine –that converts were used to and could not do without…The same need forced the invention of many celebrations during the year ,since Christians’ attendance at events like the Kalends proved too much for the church leadership to control except by competition…” (p.155)

“The church calendar was thus to some considerable degree amplified (though the names of the days of the week, to be called by plain numbers, were advertised in vain). In the same way, the choice of where to build shrines for Christian worship was dictated by the location of the antecedent pagan ones. They must be challenged and resanctified, if not rather destroyed.” (p155f) [Notice how the church leadership attempted to remove the pagan elements-even the names of the days of the week!–but their attempts failed, due to the overwhelming number of people now joining the body of the church.]

“For, when peace came after so many and such violent persecutions, crowds of pagans wishing to become Christians were prevented from doing this because of their habit of celebrating the feast days of their idols with banquets and carousing; and, since it was not easy for them to abstain from these dangerous but ancient pleasures, our ancestors thought it would be good to make a concession for the time being to their weakness and permit them, instead of the feasts they had renounced, to celebrate other feasts in honor of the holy martyrs, not with the same sacrilege, but with the same elaborateness” (Augustine Ep 29.8f…cited at p.114f; notice that part of the motivation of the leadership in trying to offer alternatives was that of sympathy and consideration for the needs of these new converts) “What he makes plain as his strategy finds an echo in Pope Gregory’s directive for the conversion of the Angles, that the shrines should not be destroyed but only the idols themselves. Let it be done with holy water sprinkled in those same shrines and let altars be built and relics be placed there so that the Angles have to change from the worship of the daemons to that of the true God’; and thus, with the shrine intact, ‘the people will flock in their wonted way to the places they are used to.’ He goes on to note the tradition of sacral feasting for which also a direct alternative must be supplied, in the form of a festival…As to the choice of a site, to challenge directly and so far as possible to displace the past, there is a great deal of evidence for that strategy.” (p124; notice the effort to avoid the pagan aspects of this accommodation, and the attempt to de-paganize the praxis)

3. In a very real sense, the church did not ‘borrow’ these pagan elements (i.e., cult of the dead, art, festivals, iconography, etc) at all; they were the suddenly-appearing-in-bulk baggage of the past that every new believer (ancient or modern) brings with them into their New Life. In the case of tens of millions of people joining the church–at various levels of sincerity, enthusiasm, education, access, and depth–there was simplynothing the leadership could do but (a) complain about it!; and (b) try to create alternate forms of these that were close-enough-to-the-practice (to meet the social needs) but far-enough-away-from-the-theology (to avoid creating core-belief problems), to balance out the various ethical, theological, and practical constraints in the situation. And they constantly complained about these pagan elements even as they had to find some innocent way to help these folk: Church authority declared, while they deplored , the identity of the [grave cult] routines and their pagan character” [p154] “It made inevitable some bringing in of inherited rites and beliefs to the church. But influences and alternatives which their bishops might disapprove of pressed heavily on Christians from their surrounding society, too, even if they had been church members from birth.” (P117) “In other respects the Christian vigils seem to have been nearly identical with the pagan. Too nearly: they were sometimes condemned as immoral by church authorities, as has been seen; yet the authorities also tolerated them, having little choice, or, like the pope, actually instituting them [as oppositional alternatives].” (p124) “This may be the place to mention early images of Jesus, with Paul and Peter on display in places of worshipa practice, it need hardly be said, originating neither in Judaism nor in primitive Christianity. Nor did it originate among the Christian leadership. The Council of Elvira of ca. 306 forbade it inside churches. It had nevertheless become a popular element in cultic settings by the third century…” (p130)

“Until grown familiar, however, veneration of images could hardly escape suspicion as heathen idolatry.” (p131) “Against all these [seers], so commonly sought out by their flock, the bishops spoke very harshly.” (p139) “How many’ exclaims another Syrian voice, ‘how many are only Christians in name but pagans in their acts…attending to pagan myths and genealogies and prophecies and astrology and drug lore …’” (P145)

4. But the important element for OUR study here, is that, amazingly, the theological content of the core beliefs of the faith did not change during this flood of pressures: “The creed that was the true heart of the Christian community in the first century or two of its existence was retained untouched by the inflow of new members after Constantine.” [p154]

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?’ looses 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 a 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: “to assert that God himself accepted death in the form of a crucified Jewish manual worker from Galilee in order to break the power of death and bring salvation to all men could only seem folly and madness to men of ancient times” [Crux:89] “The crucifixion of Jesus, attested by the first generation of Christians, lies at the heart of the Fathers’ theology and early church teaching. However, the image of a god abandoned to a shameful punishment and nailed on a cross was not likely to arouse enthusiasm. On the contrary, such an image created serious difficulties in the eyes of the pagans, who were unable to resolve the apparent contradiction of a crucified god who in so dying became a savior.” [Ries, p.161; notice, btw, that the copycat advocate has to maintain, on the contrary, that this ‘contradiction’ was NOT a problem for the pagans-that they in fact celebrated it in all their mystery religions and their myths…]

“In his important survey of the treatment of crucifixion in ancient literature, Hengel queries whether, outside early Christianity, death by crucifixion was ever interpreted in a positive manner. Within the Gentile world, he finds in Stoicism the use of crucifixion as a metaphor… “for the suffering from which the wise man can free himself only by death, which delivers the soul from the body to which it is tied” (Hengel 1977, 88; cf. pp. 64–68). However, beyond this the cruelty of the cross seems to have forbidden any positive interpretation or metaphorical use of death by crucifixion…If this was true for the Gentile world, it was even more so for the Jewish. Inasmuch as the use of crucifixion by the Romans as a deterrent against Jewish nationalism was widespread, we might have anticipated that the cross would come to serve as a symbol for martyrdom. However, in addition to the humiliation and brutality associated with this form of execution, for Jews an additional, profoundly religious, obstacle existed…Already by the time of the first century A.D., the victim of crucifixion was understood in terms of Deuteronomy 21:22–23—specifically, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under the curse of God.” In its own context, this passage refers to the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. But the NT gives evidence that this meaning was expanded considerably within the early church to include persons who had been crucified. This is seen in the verbal allusions to Deuteronomy 21:22–23 (e.g., Acts 5:30; 13:29; 1 Pet 2:24) and Paul’s explicit citation of Deuteronomy 21:23 in Galatians 3:13. Apart from and prior to Christianity, evidence from the Qumran literature (4QpNah
3–4.1.7–8; 11QTemple 64:6–13) as well as from the writings of the first-century Alexandrian Jew Philo (Spec. Leg. 3.152; Post C. 61; Somn. 2.213) attests that victims of crucifixion could be understood this way within Judaism. Thus, the cross could not be interpreted positively as a symbol of the Jewish resistance.” [NT:DictJG, s.v. “Death of Jesus”]

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: 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: Closely related to the above is the use of common religious language and symbols. As 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. [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). [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) [see discussions in HI:FG:45-47 (and index) and WR:MNNA].

Consideration: 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!”…”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’: “Second, if the Christians took over many basic concepts and ideas from their cultures [notice: not ‘from the pagan religions’]–and how could they do otherwise–they nevertheless filled them with such new meaning that their contemporaries were often mystified and even violently repelled by what they heard. The same Justin Martyr who was conscious of the similarities also said:

“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)

“The Apostle Paul had also experienced the painful rejection of his so-called ‘good news’: his Jewish kinsmen considered it an abhorrent blasphemy, while his Greek listeners thought it utter foolishness. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him or other Christians from continuing to use–and break up and reshape into new meaning–all of the familiar concepts and well-known categories in their attempts to communicate something new, something radically unfamiliar, which had been revealed to them by their God through his Son Jesus Christ, about the whole divine-human relationship.” [DSG:15-16; notice, btw, that something ‘radically unfamiliar’ cannot be something ‘borrowed without major modification’…]”One of the traits of their religion which Christians emphasized from the first was that it was a revolt ‘against the old ways.’ To pagans the most startling way in which the novelty of Christianity appeared was in its substitution of new ideals for old…” [CAP:17]

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 Jew, 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: We also have a special problem in the religions of antiquity, the problem of syncretism. 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, 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: 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: 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: 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 out-dated (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 of 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) Most of the observed ‘similarities’ are explained by the above considerations, but let’s go ahead and probe a little farther. These alleged “identicalities” generally attempt to identify Jesus with deities within a couple of categories (which have some overlap).

First there are the “Dying and Rising Gods” (e.g. Adonis, Baal (and Hadad), Marduk, Osiris, Tammuz/Dumuzi, Melquart, Eshmun), popularized in James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough [WR:GB] Secondly are the figures in the Mystery Religions (e.g. Mithra, Dionysos, Hellenistic period Isis/Osirus). Third, there are the more “major players” (e.g. Buddha, Krishna). Finally are the figures that are allegedly linked by broader motifs such as ‘miracle worker’, ‘savior’ or ‘virgin born’-heroes and divine men- without an explicit death/resurrection notion (e.g. Indra, Thor, Horus?)
 

 

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