(Author’s note: This continues a series answering objections to the Christian worldview. A few weeks back I made a call for folks to send me their “best shot.” For the other posts in the series, simply follow the links and the pingbacks in the comments section.)
“The story of Jesus is merely a copy cat myth based on many ancient pagan religious cults, like the cult of Mithras, Horus, etc. It is doubtful that Jesus even existed!”
Ever hear that one? I have discussions with non-believers all the time who make that claim. A few in my Calling all skeptics thread claimed Jesus never existed. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus probably never existed and that the stories about him were borrowed from pagan cults of dying/rising gods and adapted to the Jewish context?
I can’t tackle every insinuation of borrowing in this post, but I will tackle one. At any rate, the same principles apply when it comes to any allegation of borrowing.
One god mentioned specifically is Horus, the Egyptian ‘god of the sky.’ Some claim that Horus was born of a virgin, had 12 disciples, died, and was resurrected after three days. Many other possible parallels (and from other myths) are noted. At any rate, the point is that whoever “came up with” Jesus simply took aspects from Horus (and other myths) and wrote them into the Jesus story.
Know, first off, that you will struggle to find *one* New Testament scholar (whether Christian or not) or ancient historian who takes this position…I’m not talking about anyone who pontificates on Jesus, I’m not talking about your garden-variety-Internet-infidels (infidels.org) skeptic, and I’m not talking about the Zeitgeist the Movie guy…I’m talking a real scholar in that field. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is a biologist, not an ancient near east historian. Sam Harris is a philosopher, not a NT historian. Their position has been widely debunked in the field of NT-historical scholarship…Even the Jesus Seminar (which is comprised of the most left field/liberal/secular guys out there, only a few of which are actual scholars) doesn’t take that position.
Of course, as I pointed out in my last post, this doesn’t mean the “Jesus-never-existed” crowd is wrong (Sam Harris might have some accurate things to say, for instance), but it should be a MAJOR red flag.
The existence of Jesus is actually quite well attested outside the Bible.
To those who hold Jesus never existed: let’s say I take your argument at face value–that the early Christians thought of him as a mythic figure, and only made him a historic personage around the turn of the second century or later. My question is: what possible reason could they have had for doing so? What good did a historic Jesus do them that a mythic Jesus didn’t also offer? All the opponents of orthodox Christianity (gnosticism, for example) held he really existed, worked miracles, had disciples, and died on a Roman cross. What would be the use of the change?
Some ask, “if Jesus was such an important person, why didn’t more Roman historians make mention of him?” The thing is that all the relevant, non-Jewish historians did make mention of him! There are only four possible Roman historical sources for his existence: Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, and Velleius Paterculus. Dio wrote in the 3rd century, and the events happened outside of Velleius’s local, so we shouldn’t expect him to mention Jesus. The only two candidates left for relevant, Roman historical sources both make reference to Jesus.
Some, of course, throw out Josephus, but this is hasty. First, that position is often merely asserted, not argued, and given that the vast majority of scholarship accepts the notion that Josephus makes two separate references to Jesus, ya need to do more than assert. You actually need to wrestle with the historical data, not just give it a hand wave.
Steve Mason, a Josephus scholar, states:
“Taking all of these problems into consideration, a few scholars have argued that the entire passage (the testimonium) as it stands in Josephus is a Christian forgery. The Christian scribes who copied the Jewish historian’s writings thought it intolerable that he should have said nothing about Jesus and spliced the paragraph in where it might logically have stood, in Josephus’ account of Pilate’s tenure. Some scholars have suggested that Eusebius himself was the forger, since he was the first to produce the passage…Most critics, however, have been reluctant to go so far. They have noted that, in general, Christian copyists were quite conservative in transmitting texts. Nowhere else in all of Josephus’ voluminous writings is there strong suspicion of scribal tampering. Christian copyists also transmitted the works of Philo, who said many things that might be elaborated in a Christian direction, but there is no evidence that in hundreds of years of transmission, the scribes inserted their own remarks into Philo’s text. To be sure, many of the “pseudepigrapha” that exist now only in Christian form are thought to stem from Jewish originals, but in this instance it may reflect the thorough Christian rewriting of Jewish models, rather than scribal insertions. That discussion is ongoing among scholars. But in the cases of Philo and Josephus, whose writings are preserved in their original language and form, one is hard pressed to find a single example of serious scribal alteration. To have created the testimonium out of whole cloth would be an act of unparalleled scribal audacity.” (p.170-171)
“Finally, the existence of alternative versions of the testimonium has encouraged many scholars to think that Josephus must have written something close to what we find in them, which was later edited by Christian hands. if the laudatory version in Eusebius and our text of Josephus were the free creation of Christian scribes, who then created the more restrained versions found in Jerome, Agapius, and Michael? The version of Agapius is especially noteworthy because it eliminates, though perhaps too neatly, all of the major difficulties in the standard text of Josephus. (a) It is not reluctant to call Jesus a man. (b) It contains no reference to Jesus’ miracles. (c) It has Pilate execute Jesus at his own discretion. (d) It presents Jesus’ appearance after death as merely reported by the disciples, not as fact. (e) It has Josephus wonder about Jesus’ messiahship, without explicit affirmation. And (f) it claims only that the prophets spoke about “the Messiah,” whoever he might be, not that they spoke about Jesus. That shift also explains sufficiently the otherwise puzzling term “Messiah” for Josephus’ readers. In short, Agapius’ version of the testimonium sounds like something that a Jewish observer of the late first century could have written about Jesus and his followers.” (p.172)
“It would be unwise, therefore, to lean heavily on Josephus’ statements about Jesus’ healing and teaching activity, or the circumstances of his trial. Nevertheless, since most of those who know the evidence agree that he said something about Jesus, one is probably entitled to cite him as independent evidence that Jesus actually lived, if such evidence were needed. But that much is already given in Josephus’ reference to James (Ant. 20.200) and most historians agree that Jesus’ existence is the only adequate explanation of the many independent traditions among the NT writings.” (p.174f)
This is all in addition to the second century sources (Pliny, Thallus, Celsus, Galen, Lucian, and Mara Bar Sarapion–all non-Christian), and numerous Christian sources.
If you are going to throw all that out…geez, might as well doubt the existence of pretty much anyone in antiquity. Why set the bar so high? Indeed, a person of antiquity’s existence is often established on much, much less, even sometimes as small as a few paragraphs. Methinks youse guys protest too much.
**NOTE: for the section on the extra-biblical sources about Jesus, I liberally used Glenn Miller’s primer, found here. It’s excellent…go read the whole thing.
For another treatment of the ancient scene on Jesus, go see J.P Holding’s treatment.
Outside the Bible sources shouldn’t have to be used anyway…the books and letters in the Bible are valuable historical documents.
Here, there’s no need to assume the books of the Bible are God’s word–simply take them as ancient documents of history, much like any other writing of the time…The books of the NT serve quite well as history. After all, in the four gospels, we have four separate testimonies from men who lived with and followed Jesus. Two of the writers were eyewitnesses, the other two heavily relied upon testimony from eyewitnesses. All were written within a generation after Christ’s death. You won’t find sources like that for any other ancient historical figure that we know existed.
You might not buy them as gospel truth, but if you reject them as historical sources, then to be consistent, you’d have to reject 99% of all ancient documents from that era about ANYONE.
On the so-called “missing gospels.” (MP3 audio)
Some, in response, like to point out errors or contradictions in the Bible. “See? The Bible is bunk,” they reply.
The veracity of many of these “contradictions” is debatable, (Vestrup weighs in too), but let me assume these folks are right, just for the sake of conversation. What follows? From
1) The Bible is completely fraught with contradictions and errors, and therefore is unreliable
can we get to
2) We should doubt Jesus even existed.
No. You can’t get 2) from 1). It is a classic non sequitur.
(The following illustration I’m borrowing from Brett Kunkle) Imagine a book summarizing the life of Abe Lincoln. When we dive into the book, we find errors and contradictions. The book claims Lincoln was the fifth president and that he was president during World War I. Does it follow from this that Lincoln never existed? No. Apply the same principle to Jesus’ existence.
At any rate, if you think the Bible is such contradictory bunk, bring forth a contradiction and lets have a go at it.
Back to the subject: in my research, I could not see any of the parallels commonly noted. It seems to me like they have been pulled out of thin air.
This theory connecting Jesus to Horus was popularized by a few writers from the early 1900s and late 1800s (Gerald Massey is perhaps the most well-known), and a few modern writers have picked up their ideas, but aside from that, its pretty sparse from my understanding.
From what I read (4 internet sources, the Routledge Companion of Egyptian Mythology, and two other Egyptology books–all non-Christian sources, plus one atheistic site–infidels.org, and two specifically Christian sites), here’s what I found:
Horus did NOT have 12 disciples–in some accounts, he has 4 semi-divine devotees, in some he has 16 followers, in others the number is an unlimited number of blacksmiths that he went into battle with.
He was NOT resurrected: After being stung by a scorpion, his mother’s grief and some prayers/magic spells brought him back to life, but that’s about it. In other accounts, he merges with Re, the sun god, and is “reborn” each morning. This is light years away from a Christian concept of resurrection.
As far as Osiris, Horus’s father, is concerned, Seth killed him and tore his body into 14 pieces. Isis recovered 13 of those pieces (minus his penis), and put him back together. He then became ruler of the underworld. This is a sort of “mumified” god. Both Horus’ revivification and Osiris’ re-fashioned-body-mumification are a HUGE differences from a full, bodily, eternal, resurrection from a tomb, to the land of the living.
He was NOT crucified: Seth suffocated/drowned his father, Osiris, though, in a box. Horus was stung by a scorpion (in some accounts).
He was NOT born of a virgin: Isis isn’t even fully human! She conceived him with Osiris…in fact, some pictures show her, in falcon form, hovering over a dead Osiris and an erect phallus/penis-like object….most “miracle” births in pagan religions, in fact, are VERY sexually charged!!!
Horus was to avenge his father’s death…but this is a million miles away from what Christ was all about!
NONE of the secular sources I surveyed even MENTIONED the alleged parallels with Christ…and they were ALL reputable sources, a few of which included primary sources. If it was so obvious, these authorities would have caught it and at least mentioned it. Even the guys at infidels.org debunked this!
Like I asked above, how can someone make a parallel between Horus and Jesus?
Be careful, because some authors, in a rush to make a parallel, use Christian terms loosely when talking about these ancient myths. For example, some might say that Horus’ birth was a “virgin” birth, when it was anything but that. Others might say Osiris was “resurrected” when it was closer to a “revivification” than a Christian resurrection. Just because an author today uses the same *term* doesn’t mean that it carries the same meaning. S/he must extensively argue how the term has the same meaning; s/he must *show* it, not just merely apply the Christian term retroactively.
To establish that borrowing occurred, what you’d have to do is show that the *complex structures* of each “myth” parallel each other. A historical link would need to be established first (a plausible scenario about HOW such borrowing could have occured.). The alleged parallels must be striking and difficult to account for outside of the hypothesis of borrowing. The details must be used with the same meaning. Similar ideas in the parallels must be central to each story–not peripheral elements.
These are the secular standards used in any case of borrowing/copycatting. And even with all this, you will still find many scholars unsure of borrowing!
The MOST you can get with Osiris/Horus/Isis/Christ are very few completely superficial similarities, all of which can be explained by noting humanity’s natural religious urge, which Christians see as a gift from God. Noting that Osiris was a “god of gods,” that Christ was “Lord of Lords,” that Osiris/Horus died and came back to life as well as Christ, and that Horus’ conception was somewhat mysterious as was Christ’s–well, these are “parallels” in name only–they are waaaaay too general to show even a hint of borrowing.
So, should I be impressed with a list of so-called “parallels,” (with no explanation…just a list, mind you) complete with an assertion that Jesus never existed? Like I’ve said in other posts, anyone can waltz in with an air of confidence and run his/her mouth. Backing it up with actual reasoning is much more difficult.
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