A Jewish Messiah, Not a Pagan Myth

June 10, 2010

Not only was Plato a genius philosopher, he sported a sweet headband.

There is a lot of misinformation out in the public conversation regarding Jesus these days. I think it may have to do with the Da Vinci Code or it may have to do with Bill Maher’s Religulous or it may be the New Atheists. One of the big things that is brought up over and over is that the story of Jesus is based on earlier pagan myths. Most of these claimed parallels are simply fabrications. Here is a link to a website that focuses on clearing up the false claims. But I would like to address the issue as a whole by asking the question: does the story of Jesus make sense within the first century Jewish world that Jesus was born into or does it make more sense in the pagan world?

The key to understanding first century Judaism is that they viewed the created material world as central. Many pagans believed in a spiritual world. Pagans such as Plato believed when you died you went to some spiritual world. The physical was a temporary thing that would be abandoned. The gods of the pagans lived in this spiritual world. Much of this focus on the spiritual was that many philosophers were teaching that matter was bad and that spirit was good.

In first century Judaism, they believed in a Creator-God who created all things and called them good. As a result of this focus, Jews of the era did not talk of dying and going to heaven (like the pagans did) they talked about dying and rising again. The Jews were the only group doing this. No pagan group (not the Egyptians, not the Greeks nor anyone else) was teaching this. Real death in the grave. Real rising from the grave at the resurrection. Daniel 12:2 articulates this hope, “But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

This idea of physical death and physical resurrection was unique. There were cults that told stories of gods who would rise during seed-time and die during the harvest but the gods of pagan myths were just metaphors and only lived in the spirit world. New Testament scholar NT Wright writes, “Did any worshiper in these cults, from Egypt to Norway, at any time in antiquity, think that actual human beings having died, actually came back to life? Of course not. These multifarious and sophisticated cults enacted the god’s death and resurrection as a metaphor, whose concrete referent was the cycle of the seed-time and harvest, of human reproduction and fertility.”

For the Jews, God didn’t die and God didn’t rise. No one expected that. No one taught that. Again Wright writes, “There is no sign of dying and rising gods and goddesses within the Jewish world….when the Jews spoke of resurrection it was not something they expected would happen to their god YHWH. Nor was it something they would expect to happen again and again…”

They believed that humans would die and that at some point in time in the future God would raise the dead (literally).

So, enter Jesus. Jesus lived out this very Jewish hope. He died a real death (as the Jews knew all people did) and rose again (as the Jews hoped all the righteous would at some point in time). The only way in which the story of Jesus broke from the Jewish hope was that one man died and was resurrected before everyone else. The early Jewish Christians explained this by saying that Jesus was the first to rise and that all the righteous would be raised at a later time. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20 , “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

It now becomes clear how utterly Jewish the Jesus story was and how unlike the pagan myths his story was.

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5 Responses to “A Jewish Messiah, Not a Pagan Myth”

  1. Moonsray Thea Says:

    It now becomes clear how utterly Jewish the Jesus story was and how unlike the pagan myths his story was.

    When Osiris is said to bring his believers eternal life in Egyptian Heaven, contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God, we understand that as a myth.

    When the sacred rites of Demeter at Eleusis are described as bringing believers happiness in their eternal life, we understand that as a myth.

    In fact, when ancient writers tell us that in general ancient people believed in eternal life, with the good going to the Elysian Fields and the not so good going to Hades, we understand that as a myth.

    When Vespatian’s spittle healed a blind man, we understand that as a myth.

    When Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from death, we understand that as a myth.

    When the Pythia , the priestess at the Oracle at Delphi, in Greece, prophesied, and over and over again for a thousand years, the prophecies came true, we understand that as a myth.

    When Dionysus turned water into wine, we understand that as a myth. When Dionysus believers are filled with atay, the Spirit of God, we understand that as a myth.

    When Romulus is described as the Son of God, born of a virgin, we understand that as a myth.

    When Alexander the Great is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.

    When Augustus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal , we understand that as a myth. woman

    When Dionysus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.

    When Scipio Africanus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.

    So how come when Jesus is described as
    the Son of God,
    born of a mortal woman,
    according to prophecy,
    turning water into wine,
    raising girls from the dead, and
    healing blind men with his spittle,
    and setting it up so His believers got eternal life in Heaven contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God, and off to Hades—er, I mean Hell—for the bad folks…
    how come that’s not a myth?

    Moonsray

    • W. Vida Says:

      Hello Moonsray,

      Thank you for the comment. Let me start with three general statements and then I think it is worth going through point by point for some clarifications.

      The first general statement is a logical argument. Because some myths contain gods doing miracles (that may or may not overlap with the miracles of Jesus) in no way logically requires that Jesus is a myth. Similarly, because fictional characters sometimes work wonders it does not logically follow that everyone who does wonders is a fictional character.

      The second general point is best told by relating a story. CS Lewis was teaching at Oxford in the 20th century and he was a committed atheist (prior to writing the Chronicles of Narnia). As he was in the process of realizing the truth of the Christian faith he asked JRR Tolkien (also a scholar at Oxford) about the dying and rising gods of the myths. Tolkien said this, “If man is made in God’s image and God is the creator of the story of the world (that culminates in the dying and rising of Jesus), than it makes sense that man’s stories would at times reflect their Creator. The dying and rising gods or the cults are not the source of the biblical narrative, the image of God in the cult members is the source of the dying and rising gods.” In other words, if the bible is true, we would expect humans to create stories that (at least in a small way) reflect God’s Story.

      The third general statement is that the myths you listed were all understood as myths from the beginning. They characters were not placed in history. There was never a claim of witnesses. The myths were written in a way that clearly identified them as myth language. In contrast, the gospels were claimed to be based on eye witness accounts. Luke 1 states this explicitly. Richard Bauckham, as scholar at St. Andrews in Scotland, recently published an important book at makes the case that the gospels were indeed eyewitness accounts. Here is a review of his book:

      http://www.redeemer2.com/webuploads/RedeemerNewsletter-2007-04.pdf

      Now for the point by point response:

      //When Osiris is said to bring his believers eternal life in Egyptian Heaven//

      //When the sacred rites of Demeter at Eleusis are described as bringing believers happiness in their eternal life//

      //In fact, when ancient writers tell us that in general ancient people believed in eternal life, with the good going to the Elysian Fields and the not so good going to Hades//

      This was sort of the whole point of my post; Jesus didn’t promise life in heaven. He promised resurrected life in this world. Again, another evidence that Jesus’ story was rooted in Jewish culture not in pagan myths.

      //When Vespatian’s spittle healed a blind man, we understand that as a myth.//

      This account takes place 30 years after Jesus. If anyone was a copycat it was not Jesus. Nor is Vespasian a myth. You or I may doubt the miracle but it does not suggest that the emperor was a myth.

      //When Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from death, we understand that as a myth.//

      The earliest stories of Apollonius were written no earlier than 180 A.D. Over 150 yrs after Christ. If there is a copycat….

      //When the Pythia , the priestess at the Oracle at Delphi, in Greece, prophesied, and over and over again for a thousand years, the prophecies came true, we understand that as a myth.//

      Not really a parallel to Jesus. Are you asking if I believe the prophesies really came true? I don’t know. I don’t assume all wonder workers are shams but many are. The bible recounts demonic forces, seers, and mediums that accurately predict things.

      //When Dionysus turned water into wine, we understand that as a myth. //

      The earliest possible reference to Dionysus turning water into wine was by Achilles Tatius in the Greek Romance, “The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon” which was written in the 2nd century A.D.

      Again, if there were a copycat….

      //When Romulus is described as the Son of God, born of a virgin, we understand that as a myth.//

      Arguably all the other virgin birth parallels are not actually virgin births. Thier mothers are impregnated sexually by gods. The story of Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, for example, has her miraculously impregnated by the god Mars. This is not what the bible claims. There was no sex with Mary – she was a virgin.

      //When Alexander [dionysis, etc] is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.//

      Oxford scholar NT Wright argues that Jesus and his followers intentionally used the phrase son of God to be polemical. They were making a statement. They were saying Jesus *really is the Son of God* and Caesar is not. This parallel to the pagans was intentional and intended to debunk their false gods and show that Jesus was a real God.

      //[When Jesus set it up]so His believers got eternal life in Heaven contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God, and off to Hades—er, I mean Hell—for the bad folks…//

      Actually, Jesus didn’t. That was the whole point of the post. Jesus promised Resurrection. Not a heavenly ghostly experience (like Plato promised) but an embodied life (like the Jews had hoped for).

      Jesus is not a myth. At least not in the sense of being untrue. Perhaps in some sense (as Tolkien suggested) he is the referent to which all the myths throughout all history point to. But he is different. He is real.

      Thanks for your question.

  2. Moonsray Thea Says:

    Thank you for the interesting conversation.

    Because some myths contain gods doing miracles (that may or may not overlap with the miracles of Jesus) in no way logically requires that Jesus is a myth. Similarly, because fictional characters sometimes work wonders it does not logically follow that everyone who does wonders is a fictional character.

    Why? In what other story is a god doing miracles NOT a marker of fiction?

    Why are magic god stories not a marker of fiction?

    In other words, if the bible is true, we would expect humans to create stories that (at least in a small way) reflect God’s Story.

    Is this biblical?

    ————–
    The third general statement is that the myths you listed were all understood as myths from the beginning. They characters were not placed in history. There was never a claim of witnesses. The myths were written in a way that clearly identified them as myth language. In contrast,

    Excellent. Now we’re not discussing opinion, we’re discussing fact. You have made a statement of fact, and an excellent point—if true. Can you tell me what is your source for this fact claim?

    Who told you Demeter was always understood as a myth?
    Who told you there was never a claim of witness?

    Here’s part of the account of Vespasian’s miracle…“Those who were present still attest both miracles today, when there is nothing to gain by lying.” Tacitus, The Histories, 4.81

    Please tell me which words here “clearly identify this as myth language.”

    Who told you Alexander the Great was understood as a myth?
    Who told you Scipio Africanus was understood as a myth?
    Who told you Romulus was always understood as a myth?

    ——
    the gospels were claimed to be based on eye witness accounts. Luke 1 states this explicitly. Richard Bauckham, as scholar at St. Andrews in Scotland, recently published an important book at makes the case that the gospels were indeed eyewitness accounts. Here is a review of his book:

    Of course they were eventually claimed to be based on eyewitness accounts. That would be a marker of truth—exactly the sort of thing a myth-maker would invent. Just as, for example, whoever Tacitus got his Vespasian story from, invented the part about the eyewitnesses. Lucian does the same thing in Lover of Lies – tells a ghost story and adds credibility by claiming eyewitnesses. The claim of eyewitnesses coupled with an ancient magic story is best understood as a marker of myth, don’t you agree?

    ——
    //In fact, when ancient writers tell us that in general ancient people believed in eternal life, with the good going to the Elysian Fields and the not so good going to Hades//

    This was sort of the whole point of my post; Jesus didn’t promise life in heaven. He promised resurrected life in this world. Again, another evidence that Jesus’ story was rooted in Jewish culture not in pagan myths.

    I didn’t ask if Jesus stories were pagan myths, I asked if they were myths at all. Your answer seems to be our magic stories are not like their magic stories because….and then you mention some element of our magic story. Can you please clarify, how does your theory work?

    What magic elements of a magic story can and can not identify it as myth?

    And how do you know those elements do that?

    ——
    //When Vespatian’s spittle healed a blind man, we understand that as a myth.//

    This account takes place 30 years after Jesus. If anyone was a copycat it was not Jesus. Nor is Vespasian a myth. You or I may doubt the miracle but it does not suggest that the emperor was a myth.

    Was the story of Vespasian’s heal-the-blind-man-with-his-spittle miralce true? If not, why not?
    If not, why was Jesus’ heal-the-blind-man-with-his-spittle miracle true?

    Is there any relationship between the two? Or do you think two writers in the same culture just came up with this healing-the-blind-man-with-his-spittle story independently?

    BTW, where did the Vespasian miracle story come from? Did someone make it up?
    Shall we agree ancient people made up miracle stories?
    Shall we agree making up miracle stories part of ancient culture?
    Shall we agree ancient Palestine was part of ancient culture?
    Are the non-biblical miracles in the Dead Sea Scrolls true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?
    Are the miracles in Tobit true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?
    Are the miracles in Enoch true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?
    Are the miracles in the Gospel of Peter true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?

    Would you agree with me that ancient Jews sometimes made up miracle stories?

    ——
    //When Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from death, we understand that as a myth.//

    The earliest stories of Apollonius were written no earlier than 180 A.D. Over 150 yrs after Christ. If there is a copycat….

    You are answering a point I did not make. I did not ask if anyone copied from someone else. I asked how you decide what is and what is not a myth. Is the A of T story a myth?

    If so, why is the Jesus story NOT a myth?

    ——
    //When the Pythia , the priestess at the Oracle at Delphi, in Greece, prophesied, and over and over again for a thousand years, the prophecies came true, we understand that as a myth.//

    Not really a parallel to Jesus. Are you asking if I believe the prophesies really came true? I don’t know. I don’t assume all wonder workers are shams but many are. The bible recounts demonic forces, seers, and mediums that accurately predict things.

    Are you unaware that prophesy was deeply rooted in ancient culture?

    Was ancient pagan prophesy real or not? How do you decide? How do you decide what ancient magic stories are real and which are not?

    ——
    //When Dionysus turned water into wine, we understand that as a myth. //

    The earliest possible reference to Dionysus turning water into wine was by Achilles Tatius in the Greek Romance, “The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon” which was written in the 2nd century A.D.
    Again, if there were a copycat….

    “At fixed times in their city a fountain of wine, of unusually sweet fragrance, flows of its own accord from the earth.” [Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History 3.66.3]

    “The water flowing from a spring in the temple of Father Liber on the island of Andros always has the flavor of wine on January 5th: the day is called God’s Gift Day. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.106]

    So now we have identified a miracle that you agree is a parallel, but your date facts were wrong. Copying, you’ll agree?

    Either way, are Dionysus’ miracles real? If not, why are Jesus’ real?

    //When Romulus is described as the Son of God, born of a virgin, we understand that as a myth.//

    Arguably all the other virgin birth parallels are not actually virgin births. Thier mothers are impregnated sexually by gods. The story of Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, for example, has her miraculously impregnated by the god Mars. This is not what the bible claims. There was no sex with Mary – she was a virgin.

    Is the story of Romulus birth as the Son of the God and a moral woman after miraculous conception real? Why or why not?

    If not, why is the story of Jesus as the Son of the God and a moral woman after miraculous conception real?

    ——
    //When Alexander [dionysis, etc] is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.//

    Oxford scholar NT Wright argues that Jesus and his followers intentionally used the phrase son of God to be polemical. They were making a statement. They were saying Jesus *really is the Son of God* and Caesar is not. This parallel to the pagans was intentional and intended to debunk their false gods and show that Jesus was a real God.

    Is the story of Alexander’s birth after miraculous conception real? Why or why not?

    If not, why is the story of Jesus’ birth after miraculous conception real?

    Moonsray

    • W. Vida Says:

      Hi Moonsray,

      Thank you for another thoughtful response. I will go through point by point here.

      //Why? In what other story is a god doing miracles NOT a marker of fiction? Why are magic god stories not a marker of fiction?//

      Well. When you include the word ‘god’ of course I would say they all are because I am monotheistic. But I do not believe that the inclusion of a miracle in a story means automatically it is a fictional or mythical account. Some miracles are faked. Some miracles are tricks. Some miracles are from God. And some miracles are based on spiritual forces that we know little about.It is a very western (and modern) notion to assume that miracle = fake.

      //”In other words, if the bible is true, we would expect humans to create stories that (at least in a small way) reflect God’s Story.” Is this biblical?//

      Yes. The notion that we are made in God’s image is a persistent theme in scripture.
      ___

      Your next series of questions surrounded whether or not the myths were understood to be myths by the participants. Ok. Let me rephrase my statement. The surviving texts surrounding the other myth-gods are written in myth language not in historical form. There was a specific form that the ancients used to tell history, the gospels were in this form – myth stories were not.

      Oxford’s Alister McGrath writes of this distinction (referring specifically to the resurrection parallels), “there are no known instances of this myth being applied to any specific historical figure in pagan literature.”

      They do distinguish.

      Now, there is a separate genre that you have blurred together with myths. That is the genre of history that claims miraculous events. For example, the Vespasian account of healing blindness. These accounts are written as history not written in myth language. In this genre, Jesus is very unique and his story has no parallels. We must not lump together miracles by historical figures such as Jesus, Alexander, and Vespasian and those by gods in myth stories. I would argue that those are two separate genres and need to be addressed separately.

      But what do we do with the miracles in other histories (such as Vespasian)? I would then argue that either the miracle was a fake, it was real (perhaps by some dark spiritual force we know little about), or it was a fabrication of the historian.

      //Shall we agree ancient people made up miracle stories?//

      Yes and no. Miracles were miracles back then. In other words, if everyone was rising from the dead, Jesus would not have gotten much attention. The ancients, like us, knew that when you died you stayed dead. They were better acquainted with death than most of us are. The fact that they knew the dead didn’t rise caused Jesus to gain a following when he did.

      //Shall we agree making up miracle stories part of ancient culture?//

      Yes and no. They would tell myth stories like our culture creates comic book heroes. But myths were a different genre than history. The gospels were written in the later form. Think about someone comparing a news report to a Saturday morning cartoon. When you compare myths to the gospels that is essentially what is being done.

      //Shall we agree ancient Palestine was part of ancient culture?//

      Again, yes and no. The Jews did not fit in well with the Roman program. They kept a distinct identity and never assimilated the way that the Romans hoped. This is why they rebelled every generation or so. There were major rebellions in almost every century of the Roman rule over Israel.

      //Are the non-biblical miracles in the Dead Sea Scrolls true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?//

      I don’t know if they were true. I have not studied them. I certainly would not discount them offhand though.

      //Are the miracles in Tobit true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?//

      I am inclined to think they are true.

      //Are the miracles in Enoch true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?//

      I have not studied Enoch in depth but I think Enoch is a little different in that I believe it was written in mythical language and accepted by the Jews to be myth.

      One thing that is true about the ancient Jews is that they differentiated clearly between what they felt was history and what was myth. They would write books like Enoch that were fanciful stories of Moses and Enoch and other patriarchs but scholarship is fairly united that these were neither considered canon nor history.

      //Are the miracles in the Gospel of Peter true? – or did some ancient Jew make them up?//

      The gospel of Peter was not authored by a Jew it is a later gnostic work that is based on the canonical gospel accounts.

      //Would you agree with me that ancient Jews sometimes made up miracle stories?//

      Yes and no. As mentioned above they, like us in the 21st century, would tell fictional accounts of their heroes. But they also understood the difference between history and fiction.

      //You are answering a point I did not make. I did not ask if anyone copied from someone else. I asked how you decide what is and what is not a myth. Is the A of T story a myth?//

      Ok. So your question is how do we tell myth and/or fiction from true history? I think in the same way we do with modern history. I will use an example of an american fiction about a historical figure. Did George Washington really chop down the cherry tree? Historians say no – that is a myth. How do they know? They look for eyewitness testimonies. They look for corroborating evidence. They look for patterns that make it look out of place in its supposed context.

      When you do this with the Jesus narratives you get something amazing. You have four different accounts. You have very early accounts (all the gospels were written within the lifetime of witnesses). You have corroborating evidence (the 13 letters of Paul retell elements of Jesus’ life including his resurrection). You have stories that do not make sense in later cultures (Jesus had many specific references to the Jews of the mid-first century that would no longer be relevant to the gentile church of the second century). In my first comment (above) I provided a link to an argument as to why the gospels were based on eyewitness accounts. I think those arguments are cogent.

      //Was ancient pagan prophesy real or not? How do you decide? How do you decide what ancient magic stories are real and which are not?//

      I am not sure. I don’t have enough data. I don’t discount it offhand though. To decide if it was real, I would need to know what was predicted and what the results were. How often predictions came true verses predictions that never came true.

      //So now we have identified a miracle that you agree is a parallel, but your date facts were wrong. Copying, you’ll agree?//

      No. Dionyses was the god of wine. Of course there are stories of him and wine doing various wonders. The wine into water story in the gospel is not at all like those stories. Jesus was (and is) not the god of wine. He did this for a purpose (they were out of wine and he was showing how God is entering a new period of celebration in the world). And finally the narrative is quite different. This is a case of a slight similarity to one of Jesus’ many miracles being construed as more than it is.

      //Is the story of Romulus birth as the Son of the God and a moral woman after miraculous conception real? Why or why not?//

      Not real. There is no historical account of this. They accounts we have are obviously in the myth genre and were written many years after the founding of Rome.

      //If not, why is the story of Jesus as the Son of the God and a moral woman after miraculous conception real?//

      Because we have at least two solid eyewitness accounts that are similar to one another but different enough to suggest that they are not copies of each other. One of those accounts, Luke, is prefaced by a statement attesting to the eyewitness nature of the testimony. Based on the fact that Luke relates Mary’s feelings at several points, it is likely that he spoke to Mary herself to get the detail.

      //Is the story of Alexander’s birth after miraculous conception real? Why or why not? If not, why is the story of Jesus’ birth after miraculous conception real?//

      Well. For starters, there is a whole different level of evidence for Jesus. For Jesus we have four accounts of his life that were written while eyewitnesses were still alive. Two of those include the virgin birth. In the case of Alexander, none of the texts written by contemporaries exist. The works we do have are much much later.

      – Vida

  3. jen smith Says:

    Thank you for addressing these issues in so much detail. I have heard many people recently claim that Christianity copied off of pagan myths, and this was very helpful to me.


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