Part 5 of 9: Is Christianity Borrowed From Pagan Myths/Religions?

Posted By Thomas Perez. June 15, 201o at 10:37pm. Copyright 2010.

Push-back: “Well, what about the Virgin Birth, then?

You almost sound like you really believe these scholars’ nit-picking about the Virgin Birth! When, all the time, the earliest Christians believed the contrary! Justin specifically says the birth (and life, miracles, and death for that matter) of Jesus were no different from the pagan Gods…Why are these scholars trying to ‘undo’ the ‘confession of guilt’ already in your Christian writings?

Good question—let’s look at this famous passage…

But first, let’s note that Justin’s remarks cannot have any real bearing on the issue of parallels—given the criteria set up by the specialists at the beginning of the article. Justin could simply be dead wrong, or partially wrong and it not affect our study here. We are looking for objective details, in the ‘numerous, complex, detailed’ category, with structure and system to them. If we cannot find that in these cases (which we haven’t so far in the article), then the accuracy of other observers will have be questioned, too. And this might be case with this Church leader…but let’s see:

Let’s look at Justin’s remarks (in context) in Apology 1.20ff (trans. By Cyril Richardson; emphases mine, [letters in bold CAPs] refer to annotations/comments below):

20. Both Sybil and Hystaspes declared that there will be a destruction of corruptible things by fire. Those who are called Stoic philosophers teach that God himself will be resolved into fire, and the universe come into being again by return. We think that God, the Maker of all, is superior to changeable things [A]. But if on some points we agree with the poets and philosophers whom you honor, and on others [teach] more completely and more worthily of God [B], and are the only ones who offer proof, why are we above all hated unjustly? When we say that all things have been ordered and made by God we appear to offer the teaching of Plato-in speaking of a coming destruction by fire, that of the Stoics; in declaring that the souls of the unrighteous will be punished after death, still remaining in conscious existence, and those of the virtuous, delivered from punishments, will enjoy happiness, we seem to agree with [various] poets and philosophers; in declaring that men ought not to worship the works of their hands we are saying the same things as the comedian Menander and others who have said this, for they declared that the Fashioner is greater than what he has formed. [C] 21. In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union, as Jesus Christ our Teacher, and that he was crucified and died and after rising again ascended into heaven we introduce nothing new beyond [what you say of] those whom you call sons of Zeus [D]. You know how many sons of Zeus the writers whom you honor speak of Hermes, the hermeneutic Word and teacher of all; Asclepius, who was also a healer and after being struck by lightning ascended into heaven–as did Dionysus who was torn in pieces; Heracles, who to escape his torments threw himself into the fire; the Dioscuri born of Leda and Perseus of Dana; and Bellerophon who, though of human origin, rode on the [divine] horse Pegasus. Need I mention Ariadne and those who like her are said to have been placed among the stars? and what of your deceased emperors, whom you regularly think worthy of being raised to immortality, introducing a witness who swears that he saw the cremated Caesar ascending into heaven from the funeral pyre? Nor is it necessary to remind you what kind of actions are related of each of those who are called sons of Zeus [E], except [to point out] that they are recorded for the benefit and instruction of students-for all consider it a fine thing to be imitators of the gods. Far be it from every sound mind to entertain such a concept of the deities as that Zeus, whom they call the ruler and begetter of all, should have been a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that moved by desire of evil and shameful pleasures he descended on Ganymede and the many women whom he seduced, and that his sons after him were guilty of similar actions. But, as we said before, it was the wicked demons who did these things [F]. We have been taught that only those who live close to God in holiness and virtue attain to immortality, and we believe that those who live unjustly and do not reform will be punished in eternal fire. [G]

22. Now if God’s Son, who is called Jesus, were only an ordinary man, he would be worthy because of his wisdom to be called Son of God, for all authors call God father of men and gods. When we say, as before, that he was begotten by God as the Word of God in a unique manner beyond ordinary birth, this should be no strange thing for you who speak of Hermes as the announcing word from God. [H] If somebody objects that he was crucified, this is in common with the sons of Zeus, as you call them, who suffered, as previously listed. Since their fatal sufferings are narrated as not similar but different, so his unique passion should not seem to be any worse [I]-indeed I will, as I have undertaken, show, as the argument proceeds, that he was better; for he is shown to be better by his actions. If we declare that he was born of a virgin, you should consider this something in common with Perseus [J]. When we say that he healed the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, and raised the dead, we seem to be talking about things like those said to have been done by Asclepius. [K]

23. In order to make this clear to you I will present the evidence that the things we say, as disciples of Christ and of the prophets who came before him, are the only truths and older than all the writers who have lived, and we ask to be accepted, not because we say the same things as they do, [L] but because we are speaking the truth–[second] that Jesus Christ alone was really begotten as Son of God, being his Word and First begotten and Power, and becoming man by his will he taught us these things for the reconciliation and restoration of the human race–and [third] that before he came among men as man, there were some who, on account of the already mentioned wicked demons, told through the poets as already having occurred the myths they had invented [M] , just as now they are responsible for the slanders and godless deeds alleged against us, of which there is neither witness nor demonstration.
The first thing to note is something from Justin’s background: he is a philosopher, and like the other philosophers of his ilk (including Augustine), believed the universe was permeated by hyper-reason (or Logos). This colored all his thinking as he wrestled with the concept of revelation and pagan myths:

“Justin always remained a philosopher. He regarded his conversion as a passing from an imperfect to the perfect philosophy. Thus he sees the truths of the Christian religion to a certain extent foreshadowed through the seminal Logos, of whom all men partake, in the religious philosophies-truths which in Christianity are guaranteed by the manifestation of the Logos in the person of Christ (Apol. 11. 8: 10). Accordingly he maintains the salvability of the heathen who lived “with the Logos;” they are Christians even though they have been thought atheists, as among the Greeks Socrates and Heraclitus and men like them (Apol. 1. 46; 11. 10). All philosophical wisdom and all prophetic inspiration came from the same origin, the Logos. ” [Klotsche, History of Christian Doctrine.]

“In the philosophers of Gentile nations the same Logos was supposed to have dwelt that afterward appeared in Christ. ‘Our [doctrines] appear more splendid than all human teaching because the Christ revealed through us was the whole Logos-nature, body, intellect, and soul. For whatever things the philosophers and lawgivers excellently uttered or invented were wrought out by them through the co-operation of the Logos in discovery or contemplation’…Hence much is found in heathen authors that is erroneous.” [Seeburg, The History of Doctrines.]

What this means for our study of this passage is that we need to understand that Justin believed that a trace of truth existed in everything (e.g., Logos effects), but at the same time, that humans and demons had perverted much of the original truth. He is no ‘accommodationist’ to pagan beliefs–by any means(!)-but still maintains that pagans and Christians may have points of agreement, concerning Logos-type truth (generally moral and governance maxims-not mythological events and systems).

Okay, let’s go through the comment markers above:

A. He starts off disagreeing with the Stoics on whether God is changeable or not.

B. In this comment we can see that logos-background. Some truth is mutual (as would be expected in a moral universe), but the Christian (having access to the incarnate Logos) sometimes teaches more ‘completely’ and with higher moral purity.

C. He seems to start distancing himself from the pagan positions, beginning in this comment, with phrases that show up throughout the rest of the selection: we appear to offer, we seem to agree, we are saying the same things [principles] as Menander, what you say about, whom you call sons of Zeus, writers whom you honor, are said to have been placed, you regularly think worthy of, you who speak of Hermes as, sons of Zeus-as you call them, we seem to be talking about, said to have been done by Ascelpius. On the whole, this string of phrases might lead us to believe Justin is writing in a sarcastic or mocking tone (e.g. “but YOU say”), and/or denial stance (e.g. “are [only] SAID to have been placed”), and certainly in a ‘we only LOOK close to your position’ vein (e.g. “we SEEM to be saying the same thing”). On the basis of this rather persistent emphasis on distance, I would not feel comfortable at all in trying to make his words into an endorsement of non-superficial parallels. In fact, the ‘seem to’ and ‘appear to’ types of phrases are specific indicators of ‘surface structural’ similarities. Also in this section is his question to the pagan: “if you pagans notice similarities between our principles and yours, then why do you persecute us?”…”If there are even surface similarities, between us and Plato, then why do you hate us so?”

D. Given that in the above section he has set up a principle of “don’t persecute us, if you can detect similarities in our theological/moral beliefs”, this first sentence in 21 looks like he is building a similar case about mythic motifs (and not just the principles in 20). He is basically saying “hey, don’t hassle us because we talk of miraculous things about OUR god-because YOU FOLKS talk the same way about yours”. This type of defensive argument would not reveal/indicate anything about (a) the truth or falsity of the pagan position [as evidenced by the “what YOU say about those whom you call…” phrase; nor anything about (b) how ‘close’ a parallel or similarity Justin thought the pagan could see. In other words, the argument starts from the position that it is the pagan who can see the ‘similarity’ and NOT from the position that Justin believes in one…

E. He is continuing the ‘distancing’ setup here. He makes a reference to the ‘writers whom YOU honor’ early, which at the end of the passage he will accuse of being misled by demons! He also slurs them with his accusation of the ‘false witness’ (“and in whose behalf you produce some one who swears”) that testifies to the divinity of their dead emperors. Not a very strong accommodation tactic…

F. He then launches into the attack on the very character (and even ‘concept’) of their gods, mentioning some of the more obvious moral turpitude “developmental needs” of the pantheon. In fact, a ‘sound mind’ should not even reflect on these gods. But at the end of this passage, Justin probably alludes to a Jewish story, about the ‘sons of God’ of Genesis 6 cohabiting with women. He seems to be saying that the wicked deeds of the pagan gods might actually have some basis in truth, in the story of the Fallen Watchers of Genesis 6. But once again, Justin is simply calling their gods ‘demons’ (and in one case, a dead emperor). Not quite an out-right denial of their myths, but polemically even worse: all the ‘bad part’ is true–they are demons, not gods-and none of the ‘good part’ is true.

G. This seems to contradict the pagan belief expressed earlier, that the various ‘sons of Zeus’ (moral failures as they were) and dead Roman emperors ascended to immortality. This seems to flatly deny immortality to ANY person-god, emperor, human-apart from true virtue before the true God. This, of course, is another denial of the truth of their myths.

H. This is another statement of ‘why should you be surprised at our terminology? you use the same things in talking about YOUR false gods’. The fact that he is talking about THEIR perception and not about HIS BELIEF can be seen from the phrase “be no strange thing TO YOU” (we have noticed above that many of the statements start from THEIR perspectives, and NOT from Justin’s belief system).

I. This looks like a technical argument, in which he tries to answer the possible objection that “Hermes was the Word, and he didn’t die–so the fact that Jesus died means he cannot be the Word (i.e., Logos cannot die)”. He counters with something like ‘but YOU saw that OTHER sons of Zeus can die, so why couldn’t the ONLY Son of God fulfill multiple roles?’. He also distances Jesus’ sufferings from the others with the phrase “peculiar” or “unique” sufferings.

J. This is clearly a ‘let’s assume YOUR position for a moment’ type of argument, of the kind he has been making all along. The tip-off is the “YOU should consider this” (again, from the pagan perspective). At the same time, again, Justin distances himself from actually saying they are the same, with the phrase “something in common with”. But the main point is that if the pagan wants to object to Justin’s claims of a virgin birth for Jesus, then they had better figure out how to avoid the same objection against their own system. But notice carefully that nothing is said in this passage about what Justin actually believes about this. He doesn’t actually say that Perseus was born of a virgin at all. (In fact, he has already argued that Perseus doesn’t actually exist as such!).

K. Another distancing statement (seem to be talking), another denial statement (said to have been done by Ascelpius), another pagan-perspective (seem to be talking [from your pagan perspective, NOT ours]).

L. This is an odd statement, but there are a couple of things to note here. (a) This is an announcement of the program for the rest of the book; (b) He explicitly states that Christ’s truth is the ONLY truth (as opposed to all the myths he has just discussed and disparaged); (c) That the Logos truth that came through Jesus is the most ancient-and therefore uncorrupted-truth; (d) He appeals to his reader to ‘accept’ or ‘acknowledge’ their evidence/case [i.e., ‘give them a fair and impartial hearing’, ‘allowing him to present his apologia’]; (e) he asks that the appeal be heard/evaluated on the basis of (philosophical or Logos) truth-as opposed to any simple similarity of words and images to the ancient writers. Again, he does not seem to be saying that they are saying the same thing, but only that similarity of expressions is not his basis for appeal.

M. And here, again, he flatly denies all the truth-content of the myths under discussion. He accuses the demons (of Genesis 6)-who actually did some of the wicked deeds ascribed to the greek pagan deities-of fabricating the myths and passing them off as ‘true’ through the instrumentality of the Greek Poets. There is no way to see this as supporting a view that Justin believed the Greek myths enough to try to build ‘common ground’ there. He certainly did in some aspects of moral teaching and structure (e.g., Logos-type truth), but the pagan stories were all lies, peddled by demons onto the Greek poets.

Okay, if we back up now and look at the overall pattern of the argument, we should recognize that (1) Justin in no way took the pagan stories seriously and that (2) he used them in an argumentation structure that didn’t have to assume the truthfulness of the stories at all. Of course, he consistently–in those few short paragraphs–attacked most of the foundational beliefs of the entire system…The details of the argument, the focus on the pagan-perspective on these miraculous elements, and the consistent denial of any truth value to them lead me to conclude that this passage cannot be used to support the position that Justin actually believed in the virgin birth of Perseus, or that he was actively teaching that Jesus’ birth was actually no different than the non-existent Perseus’.

[Not all would agree with me (cf. [HI:AACSC:170]) on where on the spectrum of “Paganism to Logos-ism to Exclusivism” of revelation Justin stood–as a philosopher he will always be suspect (smile)-but I think it is safe to say that Justin cannot be used as a proponent of the ‘Copycat Savior’ hypothesis…and neither would the other like-minded Christian philosophers of that period, such as Augustine. I might expect them to use similar Logos-in-common arguments and presuppositions, but never openly state that they believed that the myths and images were ‘close enough’ for a basis of dialogue/common ground.]

Again, the DARG stuff just doesn’t match enough:

“The oriental myth of the dying and rising saviour-god (Tammuz, Bel-Marduk, Adonis, Sandan-Heracles of Tarsus, Attis, Osiris, the Cretan Zeus, Dionysus, and cf. the Mithras sacrifice and the double life of Kore) constitutes neither the native soil of the Gospel nor a true parallel to it. Egeirein and egeiresthai hardly occur at all in the relevant passages…It is rather said that the god is delivered (Firm. Mat.Err. Prof. Rel., 22) or that he or the deliverance has come from Hades (Plut.Is. et Os., 19 [II, 358b]; Phot. Bibliotheca, 242 [MPG, 103, 1281a], or that he lives (Ps. Luc.Syr. Dea, 6). Indeed, sometimes the continued life is only partial (Arnobius, Adversus Nationes, V, 7 and 14 [A. Reiffenscheid in CSEL, IV]; Paus., VII, 17, 12), or perhaps even symbolical in the form of budding almonds or figs in the myths or wild jubilation and dramatic representation in the cults. Decomposition may take place (Diod. S., III, 59, 7). The resurrection of the god is not original in the Attis cult. Plut.Is. et Os., 11 (II, 355b); 58 (II, 374e) contests the historical character of the myths. Imaginary erotic pictures simply express the unfailing power of nature. The case seems to be rather different when we come to Dionysus. In him the Greeks perceive not so much the successiveness as the identity of life and death. We thus have an advanced identity mysticism of a speculative type. While the spiritual and ethical note is almost completely lacking in the eastern world, it is present here, but in a form very different from that of the NT, In neither case do we find the distinctive eschatological concept, e.g., of R. 6:10. For all the points of contact and mutual influence between the NT and the surrounding world, there is the decisive difference that in the NT the kernel and basis is spiritually and ethically significant history rather than nature myth or speculative myth. [TDNT:egeiro, ‘arise’]

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