Jesus in comparative mythology
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The study of Jesus 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.
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. Paula Fredriksen states that no serious scholarly work places Jesus outside the backdrop of 1st century Palestinian Judaism, which is not the same as saying Christianity lacks pagan influence.
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, some 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 in which a scholar first presupposes the existence of a 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.
Some authors have argued that certain similarities exist between Dionysus and the traditional Christian portrayal of Jesus. The earliest discussions of mythological parallels between Dionysus and the figure of the Christ in Christian theology can be traced to Friedrich Hölderlin, whose identification of Dionysus with Christ is most explicit in Brod und Wein (1800–1801) and Der Einzige (1801–1803).
Theories regarding such parallels were popular in the 19th century. Some modern scholars such as Martin Hengel, Barry Powell, Robert M. Price, 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. Wick, however, 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, is intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus.
Many sources reject the parallels between the cult of Dionysus and Christ, asserting that the similarities are superficial, often general and universal parallels found in many stories, both historical and mythical, and that the symbolism represented by the similar themes are radically different.
Scholars of comparative mythology identify both Dionysus and Jesus with the dying-and-returning god mythological archetype. On the other hand, it has been noted that the details of Dionysus' death and rebirth are starkly different both in content and symbolism from Jesus. The two stories take place in very different historical and geographic contexts. Also, the manner of death is different; in the most common myth, Dionysus was torn to pieces and eaten by the titans, but "eventually restored to a new life" from the heart that was left over.
Another parallel can be seen in The Bacchae where Dionysus appears before King Pentheus on charges of claiming divinity, which is compared to the New Testament scene of Jesus being interrogated by Pontius Pilate. However, a number of scholars dispute this parallel, since the confrontation between Dionysus and Pentheus ends with Pentheus dying, torn into pieces by the mad women, whereas the trial of Jesus ends with him being sentenced to death. The discrepancies between the two stories, including their resolutions, have led many scholars to regard the Dionysus story as radically different from the one about Jesus, except for the parallel of the arrest, which is a detail that appears in many biographies as well.
Other elements, such as the celebration by a ritual meal of bread and wine, also have parallels. The omophagia was the Dionysian act of eating raw flesh and drinking wine to consume the god. Within Orphism, it was believed that consuming the meat and wine was symbolic of the Titans eating the flesh (meat) and blood (wine) of Dionysus and that, by participating in the omophagia, Dionysus' followers could achieve communion with the god. Powell, in particular, argues that precursors to the Catholic notion of transubstantiation can be found in Dionysian religion.
E. Kessler has argued that the Dionysian cult developed into strict monotheism by the 4th century AD; together with Mithraism and other sects, the cult formed an instance of "pagan monotheism" in direct competition with Early Christianity during Late Antiquity. Scholars from the 16th century onwards, especially Gerard Vossius, also discussed the parallels between the biographies of Dionysus/Bacchus and Moses (Vossius named his sons Dionysius and Isaac). Such comparisons surface in details of paintings by Poussin.
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 argues 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.'"
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.
- 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. Despite this, some Hindus see Jesus as a shaktavesha avatar, or an empowered incarnation.
Jesus myth theory
Jesus as myth
The Christ myth theory is the proposition that it is highly unlikely that Jesus of Nazareth existed, or if he did, he had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity. The Christ Myth theory has been almost unanimously rejected by modern scholars, who consider its claims to have already been thoroughly refuted. Nevertheless, a few scholars in Europe and North America argue that scholars should continue to research and debate this topic.
The Christ Myth theory originated in eighteenth-century France, with the works of Constantin-Volney and Charles Dupuis. 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 and Swedish professor of English language Alvar Ellegård produced a number of arguments to support the theory.
Mainstream historical scholars argue that the story of Jesus in the Gospels includes many mythical or legendary elements, but that these are religious elaborations added to the biography of a historical figure.[incomplete short citation] The more methodical writings of David Friedrich Strauss caused an uproar in Europe in 1835. 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". However Christ Myth Theorists, such as Robert M. Price, argue that the Gospels are a type of legendary fiction, and that the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels fits the mythic hero archetype.
Discussion of the Christ myth theory has seen a "massive upsurge" since the introduction of the Internet, and a number of books and documentaries now focus on the subject. Contemporary New Testament scholars who support the theory include former Baptist pastor Robert M. Price, Anglican priest Tom Harpur and Roman Catholic priest Thomas L. Brodie.
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." Alexander Jacob suggests that the Jesus story was the Judaized, historicized version of a very ancient myth which can be described as archetypal (i.e. its origins ultimately lie rooted in the collective human unconscious). Other scholars reject the theory that the early Christian traditions related to Jesus can be explained with parallels in non-Christian sources. 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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... The Christian's view of this rival religion is extremely negative, because they regarded it as a demonic mockery of their own faith.
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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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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.
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- Eddy, Paul Rhodes; Boyd, Gregory A. (1 August 2007). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Academic. pp. 314–315 n. 23. ISBN 978-0-8010-3114-4.
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Robert Price goes so far as to argue that every aspect of the Jesus story found in the Gospels fits the “mythic hero archetype, with nothing left over.” With such a strong correspondence between Jesus and universally acknowledged mythic figures, the suggestion that the Jesus story is rooted in history while the other hero stories are not seems highly implausible to some.
- Casey, Maurice (May 22, 2012). "Mythicism: A Story of Bias, Incompetence and Falsehood". The New Oxonian.
- Komoszewski, JE; Sawyer, MJ; Wallace, DB (2006). Reinventing Jesus. Kregel Publications. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-8254-2982-8.
- The Birth of Orientalism (Encounters with Asia) by Urs App 2010 Univ Pen Press ISBN 0812242610 pages 457–459
- Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence ISBN 0-8028-4368-9. pages 11–12
- Bennett, Clinton In search of Jesus: insider and outsider images Page 206
- "Alexander Jacob". ARKTOS.
- Jacob, Alexander (September 7, 2012). "The Origins of Indo-European Religion". Counter-Currents and the North American New Right. Counter-Currents Publishing.
- Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (ed.) "Jesus Christ," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Eerdmans, 1982, p. 1034
- Dunn, James D. G. "Myth" in Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, & I. Howard Marshall (ed.) Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. InterVarsity, 1992, p. 566.
- 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.
- Bennett, Clinton (2001). In search of Jesus: insider and outsider images. New York: Continuum. ISBN 978-0-8264-4915-3.
- Burridge, R; Gould, G (2004). "Jesus Now and Then". Wm. B. Eerdmans.
- Grant, Michael (1999) . Jesus. London: Phoenix. ISBN 978-0-7538-0899-3.
- John Warwick Montgomery (ed.), Myth, Allegory and Gospel: An Interpretation of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974.
- Price, Robert M. (2000). Deconstructing Jesus. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1-57392-758-1.
- Price, Robert M. (2005). "New Testament narrative as Old Testament midrash". In Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck. Encyclopaedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-14166-7.
- Sanders, E. P. (1993). The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 978-0-7139-9059-1.
- Seznec, Jean. 1972, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-01783-9
- Schweitzer, Albert (2000) . The Quest of the Historical Jesus. edited by John Bowden (first complete ed.). London: SCM. ISBN 978-0-334-02791-1.
- Thompson, Thomas L. (2005). The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-08577-4.
- Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-4368-5.
- Van Voorst, Robert E. (2003). "Nonexistence Hypothesis". In James Leslie Houlden. Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. pp. 658–660.
- Weaver, Walter P. (1999). The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, 1900–1950. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity. ISBN 978-1-56338-280-2.
- Wells, G. A. (April–June 1969). "Stages of New Testament Criticism". Journal of the History of Ideas. 30 (2): 147–160. JSTOR 2708429. doi:10.2307/2708429.
- Wells, G. A. (January–March 1973). "Friedrich Solmsen on Christian Origins". Journal of the History of Ideas. 34 (1): 143–144. JSTOR 2708950. doi:10.2307/2708950.