Was Jesus a copied myth or a real person?
Dr. William Lane Craig responds:
The late Robert Funk, founder of the radical Jesus Seminar, used to complain bitterly of the chasm that exists between high scholarship and popular beliefs about Jesus. Funk was thinking primarily of the insulation of popular piety from historical Jesus scholarship; but nowhere does the chasm yawn wider than between popular impiety and historical Jesus studies.
The Free Thought movement, which fuels the popular objection that Christian beliefs about Jesus are derived from pagan mythology, is stuck in the scholarship of the late nineteenth century. In one sense this is flabbergasting, since there are plenty of contemporary sceptical scholars, like those in the Jesus Seminar, whose work Free Thinkers could avail themselves of in order to justify their scepticism about the traditional understanding of Jesus. But it just goes to show how out of touch with scholarly work on Jesus these popularizers are. They are a hundred years out of date.
Back in the hey-day of the so-called History of Religions school, scholars in comparative religion collected parallels to Christian beliefs in other religious movements, and some thought to explain those beliefs (including belief in Jesus' resurrection) as the result of the influence of such myths. Today, however, scarcely any scholar thinks of myth as an important interpretive category for the Gospels. Scholars came to realize that pagan mythology is simply the wrong interpretive context for understanding Jesus of Nazareth.
Craig Evans has called this shift the "Eclipse of Mythology" in Life of Jesus research (see his excellent article "Life-of-Jesus Research and the Eclipse of Mythology," Theological Studies 54 : 3-36). So James D. G. Dunn begins his article on "Myth" in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP, 1993) with the flat disclaimer, "Myth is a term of at least doubtful relevance to the study of Jesus and the Gospels."
Sometimes this shift is referred to as "the Jewish reclamation of Jesus." For Jesus and his disciples were first century Palestinian Jews, and it is against that background that they must be understood. The Jewish reclamation of Jesus has helped to make unjustified any understanding of the Gospels' portrait of Jesus as significantly shaped by mythology.
This shift is pronounced with respect to the historicity of Jesus' miracles and exorcisms. Contemporary scholars may be no more prepared to believe in the supernatural character of Jesus' miracles and exorcisms than were scholars of previous generations. But they are no longer willing to ascribe such stories to the influence of Hellenistic divine man (theios aner) myths. Rather Jesus' miracles and exorcisms are to be interpreted in the context of first century Jewish beliefs and practices. Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, for example, has drawn attention to the ministries of the charismatic miracle workers and/or exorcists Honi the Circle-Drawer (first century B.C.) and Hanina ben Dosa (first-century A.D.), and interprets Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish hasid or holy man. Today the consensus of scholarship holds that miracle-working and exorcisms (bracketing the question of their supernatural character) most assuredly do belong to any historically acceptable reconstruction of Jesus' ministry.
The collapse of the old History of Religions school took place for primarily two reasons. First, scholars came to realize that the alleged parallels are spurious. The ancient world was a virtual cornucopia of myths of gods and heroes. Comparative studies in religion and literature require sensitivity to their similarities and differences, or distortion and confusion inevitably result. Unfortunately, those who adduced parallels to Christian beliefs failed to exercise such sensitivity. Take, for example, the story of the Virgin Birth, or, more accurately, Jesus' virginal conception. The alleged pagan parallels to this story concern tales of gods' assuming bodily form and having sexual intercourse with human females to sire divine-human progeny (like Hercules). As such these stories are exactly the opposite of the Gospel story of Mary's conceiving Jesus apart from any sexual relations. The Gospel stories of Jesus' virginal conception are, in fact, without parallel in the ancient Near East.
Or consider the Gospel event of most interest to me: Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Many of the alleged parallels to this event are actually apotheosis stories, the divinization and assumption of the hero into heaven (Hercules, Romulus). Others are disappearance stories, asserting that the hero has vanished into a higher sphere (Apollonius of Tyana, Empedocles). Still others are seasonal symbols for the crop cycle, as the vegetation dies in the dry season and comes back to life in the rainy season (Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis). Some are political expressions of Emperor worship (Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus). None of these is parallel to the Jewish idea of the resurrection of the dead. David Aune, who is a specialist in comparative ancient Near Eastern literature, concludes, "no parallel to them [resurrection traditions] is found in Graeco-Roman biography" ("The Genre of the Gospels," in Gospel Perspectives II, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham [Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981], p. 48).
In fact, most scholars have come to doubt whether, properly speaking, there really were any myths of dying and rising gods at all! In the Osiris myth, one of the best known symbolic seasonal myths, Osiris does not really come back to life but simply continues to exist in the nether realm of the departed. In a recent review of the evidence, T. N. D. Mettinger reports: "From the 1930s. . . a consensus has developed to the effect that the 'dying and rising gods' died but did not return or rise to live again. . . Those who still think differently are looked upon as residual members of an almost extinct species" (Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: "Dying and Rising Gods" in the Ancient Near East [Stockholm, Sweden: Almquist & Wiksell International, 2001], pp. 4, 7).
Mettinger himself believes that myths of dying and rising did exist in the cases of Dumuzi, Baal, and Melqart; but he recognizes that such symbols are quite unlike the early Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection:
The dying and rising gods were closely related to the seasonal cycle. Their death and return were seen as reflected in the changes of plant life. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a one-time event, not repeated, and unrelated to seasonal changes. . . . There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The riddle remains (Ibid., p. 221).
Notice Mettinger's comment that the belief in Jesus' resurrection may be profitably studied against the background of Jewish resurrection beliefs (not pagan mythology). Here we see that shift in New Testament studies I flagged above as the Jewish reclamation of Jesus. The spuriousness of the alleged parallels is just one indication that pagan mythology is the wrong interpretive framework for understanding the disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection.
Second, the History of Religions school collapsed as an explanation of the origin of Christian beliefs about Jesus because there was no causal connection between pagan myths and the origin of Christian beliefs about Jesus. Take, for example, the resurrection. Jews were familiar with the seasonal deities mentioned above (Ez 37.1-14) and found them abhorrent. Therefore, there is no trace of cults of dying and rising gods in first century Palestine. For Jews, the resurrection to glory and immortality would not take place until the general resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world. It boggles the imagination to think that the original disciples would have suddenly and sincerely come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was risen from the dead just because they had heard of pagan myths about dying and rising seasonal gods.
But, in a sense, all this is irrelevant to your main question, Kevin. For, as you indicate, the people you're talking to are impervious to scholarship. When you point out to them the spuriousness of the alleged parallels, then you're accused of "working too hard to save your religion." This is a no win situation for you. So I'm inclined to say that you should not go about "trying to refute every single similarity." Rather I think a more general and dismissive attitude on your part may be more effective.
When they say that Christian beliefs about Jesus are derived from pagan mythology, I think you should laugh. Then look at them wide-eyed and with a big grin, and exclaim, "Do you really believe that?" Act as though you've just met a flat earther or Roswell conspirator. You could say something like, "Man, those old theories have been dead for over a hundred years! Where are you getting this stuff?" Tell them this is just sensationalist junk, not serious scholarship. If they persist, then ask them to show you the actual passages narrating the supposed parallel. They're the ones who are swimming against the scholarly consensus, so make them work hard to save their religion. I think you'll find that they've never even read the primary sources.
If they ever do cite a primary source passage, I think you'd be surprised what you find. For example, in my debate on the resurrection with Robert Price, he claimed that Jesus' healing miracles were derived from mythological healing stories like those concerning Asclepius. I insisted that he read to us a passage from the primary sources showing the purported parallel. When he did so, the tale he produced bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Gospel stories of Jesus' healing miracles! It was the best proof that the stories were not genealogically related.
Remember: anyone pressing this objection has a burden of proof to bear. He needs to show that the narratives are parallel and, moreover, that they are causally connected. Insist that they bear that burden if you are to take their objection seriously.