Jesus Christ in comparative mythology
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The study of Jesus Christ in comparative mythology is the examination of the narratives of the life of Jesus in the Christian gospels, traditions and theology, as it relates to Christian mythology and other religions.
For over a century, various authors have drawn a number of parallels between the Christian views of Jesus and other religious or mythical domains. These include Greco-Roman mysteries, ancient Egyptian myths and more general analogies involving cross-cultural patterns of dying and rising gods in the context of Christ myth theory.
While some scholars continue to support these analogies, others contend that the perceived similarities are often without historical basis, that first century monotheistic Galilean Jews would not have been open to pagan myths, and claim that the analogies are usually based on parallelomania, exaggerating the importance of trifling resemblances.
A number of parallels have been drawn between the Christian views of Jesus and other religious or mythical domains. However, Eddy and Boyd state that there is no evidence of a historical influence by the pagan myths such as dying and rising gods on the authors of the New Testament, and most scholars agree that any such historical influence is entirely implausible given that first century monotheistic Galilean Jews would not have been open to pagan stories. Paula Fredriksen states that no serious scholarly work places Jesus outside the backdrop of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.
Scholars have debated a number of broad issues related to the parallels drawn between Jesus and other myths, e.g. the very existence of the category dying-and-rising god was debated throughout the 20th century, most modern scholars questioning the soundness of the category. At the end of the 20th century the overall scholarly consensus had emerged against the soundness of the reasoning used to suggest the category. Tryggve Mettinger (who supports the category) states that there is a scholarly consensus that the category is inappropriate from a historical perspective. Scholars such as Kurt Rudolph have stated the reasoning used for the construction of the category has been defective.
Scholars such as Samuel Sandmel, professor of Bible and Hellenistic Literature at Hebrew Union College, view conclusions drawn from the simple observations of similarity as less than valid. Sandmel called the extravagance in hunting for similarities "parallelomania" – a phenomenon where scholars first notice a supposed similarity and then "proceeds to describe source and derivation as if implying a literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction" thus exaggerating the importance of trifling resemblances.
Parallels have been drawn between Greek myths and the life of Jesus. An early example was Friedrich Hölderlin, who in his Brot und Wein (1800–1801) suggested similarities between the Greek god Dionysus and Jesus.
Modern scholars such as Martin Hengel, Barry Powell, and Peter Wick, among others, argue that Dionysian religion and Christianity have notable parallels. They point to the symbolism of wine and the importance it held in the mythology surrounding both Dionysus and Jesus Christ; although, Wick argues that the use of wine symbolism in the Gospel of John, including the story of the Marriage at Cana at which Jesus turns water into wine, was intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus.
Additionally, some scholars of comparative mythology argue that both Dionysus and Jesus represent the "dying-and-returning god" mythological archetype. Other parallels, such as the celebration by a ritual meal of bread and wine, have also been suggested and Powell, in particular, argues that precursors to the Christian notion of transubstantiation can be found in Dionysian religion. Another parallel has been drawn to how in the Bacchae Dionysus appears before King Pentheus on charges of claiming divinity and is compared to the New Testament scene of Jesus being interrogated by Pontius Pilate.
E. Kessler has argued that the Dionysian cult developed into strict monotheism by the 4th century CE; and together with Mithraism and other sects the cult formed an instance of "pagan monotheism" in direct competition with Early Christianity during Late Antiquity.
The worship of Mithras was widespread in much of the Roman Empire from the mid-2nd century CE. The Mithra cult in the Roman Empire was a syncretism of different religious motifs, centered on the god Mithras who emerges from a rock. Its closest similarities to Christianity are the story of the slaying of the bull by Mithras; a bull is captured and killed by Mithras when he plunges a knife into it and from the dead bull grain and plants are produced, that symbolize life. Mithras was a solar deity, closely associated with the Roman Sol Invictus.
Stanley Porter notes that Mithraism took hold within the Roman Empire after its expansion and only reached Asia minor via Roman soldiers in the latter part of the first century, after the basic elements of the gospels were in place, and hence could not have influenced their essential elements.
Early Christian authors noted similarities between Mithraic practices and Christian rituals, but took an extremely negative view of Mithraism: they interpreted Mithraic rituals as evil copies of Christian ones. In the second century, Justin Martyr contrasted Mithraic initiation communion with the Eucharist:
Wherefore also the evil demons in mimicry have handed down that the same thing should be done in the Mysteries of Mithras. For that bread and a cup of water are in these mysteries set before the initiate with certain speeches you either know or can learn.
Tertullian then wrote that as a prelude to the Mithraic initiation ceremony, the initiate was given a ritual bath and at the end of the ceremony, received a mark on the forehead. He described these rites as a diabolical counterfeit of the baptism and chrismation of Christians.
Early in the 20th century, Gerald Massey argued that there are similarities between the Egyptian god Horus and Jesus. Following those ideas, in the 1940s Alvin Boyd Kuhn suggested that not only Christianity, but Judaism was based on Egyptian concepts, and more recently Tom Harpur (a former Anglican priest who explained in his book The Pagan Christ that he believes in a spiritual Christ, but doubts that a historical Jesus existed) has expressed similar views. Harpur acknowledges Massey and Kuhn as his intellectual predecessors and theologian Stanley E. Porter states that most of Harpur's work is directly based on quoting Massey and Kuhn.
Porter has pointed out that Massey and Kuhn's analogies include a number of errors, e.g. Massey stated that December 25 as the date of birth of Jesus was selected based on the birth of Horus, but the New Testament does not include any reference to the date or season of the birth of Jesus. The earliest known source recognizing the 25th of December as the date of birth of Jesus is by Hippolytus of Rome, written around the beginning of the 3rd century, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox. Hippolytus placed the equinox on March 25 and then added 9 months to get December 25, thus establishing the date for festivals. The Roman Chronography of 354 then included an early reference to the celebration of a Nativity feast in December, as of the fourth century.
Porter states that Massey's serious historical errors often render his works nonsensical, e.g. Massey states that the biblical references to Herod the Great were based on the myth of "Herrut" the evil hydra serpent, while the existence of Herod the Great can be well established without reliance on Christian sources.
Harpur has noted that Kuhn had expected his ideas to have a Darwin-like impact on religious studies, but that has not happened and Kuhn's concepts are generally ignored or rejected. Porter criticizes Kuhn's work based on various errors such as confusing the dates of the composition of the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud when drawing conclusions. Porter also criticizes Harpur's views (which are often based on Kuhn) for their lack of rigor and consistency.
The Egyptians had specific harvesting rituals that related the rising and receding waters of the Nile river and the farming cycle to the death and resurrection of Osiris. The cutting down of barley and wheat was related to the death of Osiris, while the sprouting of shoots was thought to be based on the power of Osiris to resurrect the farmland.
Osiris-beds were common in ancient Egypt and were clay representations of a dead Osiris which when watered would sprout shoots in the spring, thus representing his power to control nature even after his death.
Christ myth theory proponent G. A. Wells still sees an analogy with the Resurrection of Jesus in the Pauline epistles and Osiris, in that Osiris dies and is mourned on the first day and that his resurrection is celebrated on the third day with the joyful cry "Osiris has been found". However, since changing his position on the historicity of Jesus, Wells now states that the personage mentioned in the Q source is not all mythical and is "not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles". David J. MacLeod states that the Osiris legend is very different from the resurrection of Jesus in that "Osiris did not rise; he ruled in the abode of the dead."
Biblical scholar Bruce M. Metzger does not see a direct analogy and notes that in one account of the Osirian cycle he dies on the 17th of the month of Athyr (approximating to a month between October 28 and November 26 in modern calendars), is revivified on the 19th and compares this to Christ rising on the "third day" but thinks "resurrection" is a questionable description. A. J. M. Wedderburn states that resurrection in Ancient Egypt differs from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as the Ancient Egyptians conceived of the afterlife as entry into the kingdom of Osiris. Marvin Mayer notes that some scholars regard the idea of dying and rising deities in the mystery religions as being fanciful but suggests this may be motivated by apologetic concerns, attempting to keep Christ's resurrection as a unique event.
Artistic analogies were drawn between Egyptian myths and Christian art from the early days when Gerald Massey proposed his theories. For instance, Massey claimed that the existence of depictions of Lazarus wrapped in cloth like a mummy proves that the Raising of Lazarus had Egyptian origins. Porter points out that Christian art produced centuries after the New Testament was written could not have influenced it.
Some scholars see similarities between the statue of Isis and Horus and later Christian depictions of the Madonna and Child. However, later artistic Christian renderings have very little to do with the origins of biblical texts. Stephen Benko states that some depictions of Mary and Jesus share similarities with extant ancient Egyptian art depictions of Horus and Isis. Egyptologist Erik Hornung wrote that "There was an obvious analogy between the Horus child and the baby Jesus and the care they received from their sacred mothers; long before Christianity, Isis had borne the epithet 'mother of the god.'"
Isis nursing Horus, Louvre
Buddhism and Hinduism
The story that an adult Jesus traveled to India and studied with Buddhists and Hindus before starting his ministry in Galilee was first produced by Nicolas Notovitch in his 1894 book The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ which was widely disseminated and became the basis of other theories. Notovitch's theory was controversial from the beginning and was widely criticized. Once his story had been re-examined by historians, Notovitch confessed to having fabricated the evidence. 
The suggestions that an adult Jesus studied in India and was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism, they are roundly seen as fanciful.
- Robert Van Voorst states that modern scholarship has "almost unanimously agreed" that claims of the travels of Jesus to Tibet, Kashmir or India contain "nothing of value".
- Marcus Borg states that the suggestions that an adult Jesus traveled to Egypt or India and came into contact with Buddhism are "without historical foundation".
- John Dominic Crossan states that none of the theories presented about the travels of Jesus to fill the gap between his early life and the start of his ministry have been supported by modern scholarship.
Regardless of the rejection of travels of Jesus, analogies have been suggested, e.g. Jerry H. Bentley wrote of similarities and stated that it is possible "that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity" and suggested "attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus". Z. P. Thundy has surveyed the similarities and differences between the birth stories of Buddha by Maya and Jesus by Mary and noted that while there are similarities such as virgin birth, there are also differences, e.g. that Mary outlives Jesus after raising him, but Maya dies soon after the birth of Buddha, as all mothers of Buddhas do in the Buddhist tradition. Thundy does not assert that there is any historical evidence that the Christian birth stories of Jesus were derived from the Buddhist traditions, but suggests that as an avenue for further research.
Other scholars have rejected these analogies, e.g. Leslie Houlden states that although modern parallels between the teachings of Jesus and Buddha have been drawn, these comparisons emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century and there is no historically reliable evidence of contacts between Buddhism and Jesus.
Scholars such as Paul Numrich have stated that despite surface level non-scholarly analogies, Buddhism and Christianity have inherent and irreconcilable differences at the deepest levels. The central iconic imagery of the two traditions underscore the difference in the perspectives on Buddha and Jesus, when the peaceful death of Gautama Buddha at an old age is contrasted with the harsh image of the crucifixion of Jesus as a willing sacrifice for the atonement for the sins of humanity. Buddhists scholars such as Masao Abe and D. T. Suzuki see the centrality of crucifixion in Christianity as an irreconcilable gap between the lives of Buddha and Jesus.
Jesus myth theory
Jesus as myth
The term "Christ myth theory" is an umbrella term that applies to a range of arguments that question the historical existence of Jesus or the essential elements of his life as described in the Christian gospels. Among the variants of the Jesus myth theory, the notion that a historical Jesus never existed has little scholarly support, and virtually all scholars of antiquity agree that he existed.
The origins of the Christ myth theory go back to late 18th-century France, and the works of Constantin-Volney and Charles Dupuis. The more methodical writings of David Friedrich Strauss caused an uproar in Europe in 1835, and Strauss became known as the founder of Christ myth theory. Strauss did not deny the existence of Jesus, but believed that very few facts could be known about him and characterized the miraculous accounts in the gospels as "mythical". At around the same time Bruno Bauer began to propose somewhat similar ideas.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Arthur Drews, William B. Smith and John M. Robertson became the most recognized proponents of the Christ myth theory. Later in the 20th century, scholars such as professor of German language G. A. Wells, Swedish professor of English language Alvar Ellegård, and philosopher and theologian Robert M. Price produced a number of arguments to support the Christ myth theory.
Parallels and analogies
Some modern scholars have argued that the details of the life of Jesus share similarities to ancient myths and may have been influenced by them, other scholars contend that the analogies are without historical basis. There are also arguments that go the other way, namely that the life story of Jesus as told by early Christians during the second and third centuries gave rise to new religious movements such as Gnosticism.
Volney and Dupuis were the first modern authors to present an analogy between Jesus and previous solar deities around the end of the 18th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, John M. Robertson and William Benjamin Smith followed suit and made similar comparisons between Jesus and solar deities. However, these arguments were soon criticized by others such as F. C. Coneybeare and H. G. Wood who argued that the analogies lacked historical basis.
In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell advanced the theory that a single myth stood behind the stories of Krishna, Buddha, Apollonius of Tyana, Jesus and other hero stories. In his later The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology Campbell stated "(i)t is clear that, whether accurate or not as to biographical detail, the moving legend of the Crucified and Risen Christ was fit to bring a new warmth, immediacy, and humanity, to the old motifs of the beloved Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris cycles."
Other scholars reject the theory that the early Christian traditions related to Jesus can be explained with parallels in non-Christian sources. For instance, Paula Fredriksen, writes that no serious work places Jesus outside the backdrop of 1st century Palestinian Judaism. Biblical scholarship also generally rejects the concept of homogenous dying and rising gods, the validity of which is often presupposed by advocates of the Christ myth theory, such as New Testament scholar Robert Price. Tryggve Mettinger, former professor of Hebrew bible at Lund University, is one of the academics who supports the "dying and rising gods" construct, but he states that Jesus does not fit the wider pattern.
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- Christian mythology
- Christ myth theory
- Esoteric Christianity
- Historicity of Jesus
- Life-death-rebirth deity
- Secular theology
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- Gordon, Richard. "FAQ". Retrieved 2011-03-22. "In general, in studying Mithras, and the other Greco-oriental mystery cults, it is good practice to steer clear of all information provided by Christian writers: they are not 'sources', they are violent apologists, and one does best not to believe a word they say, however tempting it is to supplement our ignorance with such stuff."
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- New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings by Wilhelm Schneemelcher and R. Mcl. Wilson (Dec 1, 1990) ISBN 066422721X page 84 "a particular book by Nicolas Notovich (Di Lucke im Leben Jesus 1894) ... shortly after the publication of the book, the reports of travel experiences were already unmasked as lies. The fantasies about Jesus in India were also soon recognized as invention... down to today, nobody has had a glimpse of the manuscripts with the alleged narratives about Jesus"
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- In a 2011 review of the state of modern scholarship, Bart Ehrman (who is a secular agnostic) wrote: "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees" B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged : writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. page 285
- Robert M. Price (an atheist who denies existence) agrees that this perspective runs against the views of the majority of scholars: Robert M. Price "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" in The Historical Jesus: Five Views edited by James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy, 2009 InterVarsity, ISBN 028106329X page 61
- Robert E. Van Voorst states that biblical scholars and classical historians regard theories of non-existence of Jesus as effectively refuted. Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 page 16
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- Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle. Brill, 1994, p. 70; and Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. The Riddle of Resurrection. Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001, pp. 7, 221. *For the argument that the Christ myth theory rests in part on this idea, see Price, Robert M. "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" in James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy (eds.) The Historical Jesus: Five Views. InterVarsity, 2009, p. 75.
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- Why Has God Incarnate Suddenly Become Mythical? by John Warwick Montgomery
- "A History of Scholarly Refutations of the Jesus Myth" by Christopher Price