Good question......was Jesus Christ just a CopyCat Savior Myth?


(Part A) MAJOR Revision May/2001 //      Part B    (6/13/97)

This is one of those questions that amaze me that it is STILL raised...so I decided to write it all up. Often I get an email that reads like this:

The reason for this letter is that I am wondering if you could answer a question I have. In one of your html pages the subject of Mithras is touched upon lightly and a link is given for further information. The link goes nowhere though, and I am really interested in finding out more about Mithras and other Dying-God mythologies. The reason is because I often enter correspondences and dialogues with atheists. Recently one such atheist raised his question, and I am still waiting to respond to him, because of my unfamiliarity with the subject. His letter went like this:
    How can a historic personage (such as Jesus) have a recorded life (according to the New Testament in the Bible) almost identical to various other mythos out there including but not limited to:
    1. Mithras (Roman Mithraism)
    2. Horus (Egyptian God of Light)
    Both of these religions came *before* Christianity and are clearly labeled as myths yet the 'stories' of their lives are, in many ways, identical to the 'life' of Jesus the Christ.
Now, before you say that I am jumping logic or that you have never ever heard of what I am talking about . . my question is this:
*IF* the information that I have just stated above is TRUE
*THEN* would it not bear strong evidence to the face that Jesus the Christ was and is not a historic personage?
Just answer that directly.

I would appreciate any help or information you could offer on the subject. Thank you
 

......................................................................................

Notice the general allegation--

There are material, significant, and pervasive similarities between the Jesus Christ of the New Testament  and other Dying God-figures (and/or Savior-figures), and that these similarities are best explained by the hypothesis that the figure of Jesus is materially derived from (or heavily influenced by) these other Dying God/Savior-figures..
Sometimes the allegation is worded strongly--Jesus was NOT a real person, but a legend; sometimes it is worded less strongly--Jesus was real, but was fused with these derivative mythic elements such that THEY became the core teachings about Jesus.

Now, before we try to analyze this notion, we need to gather some established criteria (from scholars) on how to detect and establish that 'borrowing' (especially "content/material" borrowing) has occurred.

Fortunately, there are a number of established criteria for this (so we don't have to 'make up' or 'create' our own), drawing largely from the work of scholars working in the area of Semitic influence on the Greek/Western world (e.g., Walter Burkert, Charles Pengrase, M. L. West), so let's start with some of their work:

 "Since the discovery of the Akkadian epics and of Gilgamesh in particular, there has been no shortage of associations between motifs in these and in the Homeric epics, especially the Odyssey. These motifs can be highlighted and used to surprise, but hardly to prove anything: Approximately the same motifs and themes will be found everywhere. Instead of individual motifs, therefore, we must focus on more complex structures, where sheer coincidence is less likely: a system of deitites and a basic cosmological idea, the narrative structure of a whole scene, decrees of the gods about mankind, or a very special configuration of attack and defense. Once the historical link, the fact of transmission, has been established, then further connections, including linguistic borrowings, become more likely, even if these alone do not suffice to carry the burden of proof." [OT:ORNEI:88; his examples often contain elements that are 'holdovers'--elements that appear in the borrower that only made sense in the original  source...they are unexpected and without purpose in the new usage, since they have been removed from their original context.]

"I can anticipate at least two possible lines of criticism that may be employed against my work. One would be that, in stressing similarities and parallels, I have ignored the great differences between Greek and Near Eastern literatures...my answer will be that of course Greek literature has its own character, its own traditions and conventions, and the contrast that might be drawn between it and any of the oriental literatures might far outnumber the common features. If anyone wants to write another book and point them out, I should have no objection...But even if it were ten times the size of mine (600+ pages!), it would not diminish the significance of the likenesses, because they are too numerous and too striking to be put down to chance. You cannot argue against the fact that it is raining by pointing out that much of the sky is blue." [HI:EFHWAE:viii]

"Difficult and hazardous are words which describe the study of Mesopotamian influence in Greek myths, and an appropriate method is essential. To establish influence, or at least the likelihood of influence, there are two main steps. First it is necessary to establish the historical possibility of influence, and then the parallels between the myths of the areas must fulfill a sufficiently rigorous set of relevant criteria." [HI:GMM:5]

"The second step of the method is to demonstrate the existence of parallels of the correct nature between the Mesopotamian and Greek literary material. Parallels must have qualities which conform to a suitable set of criteria in order to indicate influence or its likelihood." [HI:GMM:5]

"It is all too easy to run eagerly after superficial parallels which cannot really be sustained under a closer scrutiny. Accordingly, the parallels must have similar ideas underlying them and, second, any suggestion of influence requires that the parallels be numerous, complex and detailed, with a similar conceptual usage and, ideally, that they should point to a specific myth or group of related myths in Mesopotamia. Finally, the parallels and their similar underlying ideas must involve central features in the material to be compared. Only then, it would seem, may any claim stronger than one of mere coincidence be worthy of serious consideration" [HI:GMM:7]


What kinds of examples do these authors offer us?


Now, if we extract some principles from these scholars, we would end up with:

  1. Similarity of general motifs is not enough to "prove anything"; we must have "complex structures" (e.g., 'system of deities', 'narrative structure').
  2. Ideally, we would need to establish the historical link first, before looking for borrowings.
  3. Differences between structures/stories/complexes do not disprove influence, as long as the parallels are 'too numerous' and 'too striking'.
  4. Parallels must be 'striking' (i.e., unexpected, 'odd', difficult to account for).
  5. Some/many parallels/parallel motifs are superficial (i.e., identical on the surface), and 'prove nothing'.
  6. Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be numerous.
  7. Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be complex (i.e., with multiple parts and interrelationships).
  8. Parallels that can be used to support the possibility of influence need to be detailed.
  9. The details in alleged parallels must have the same "conceptual usage" reflected in them (e.g., they must be used with the same meaning).
  10. The parallels must have the same ' ideas underlying them'.
  11. The similar ideas in alleged parallels must be 'central features' in the material--and not just isolated or peripheral elements.
  12. Details which are completely unexpected (to the point of being unexplainable apart from borrowing) are strong evidence for borrowing
  13. Details which are almost irrelevant to the new context, but which have function in the old context are strong evidence for borrowing
Now, let me also point out here that the amount and texture of the evidence has to be very strong, for even in cases that do NOT look superficial, there still may be considerable doubt about the actual fact of direct influence or borrowing. Take this case from [HI:CMY6:13f]: The point I want to make here is that even with this 'numerous, complex, and detailed' structure, scholars are STILL NOT sure that borrowing happened! So, our evidence for borrowing will have to be at least stronger than this example.
 

So, to apply these to our case here, we would need to show that:

What this means, of course, is that it is not simply enough to point to some vague similarities and yell "copy cat!"--one must, in light of the scholars' criteria documented above, be prepared somehow to defend his/her alleged parallels from the charge of being 'superficial' and to show that they are 'striking' (a rather subjective term, of course). In the scholarly world, noted above, the burden of argument was on the 'proponent' of borrowing. Each of the scholars above realize that there is a certain amount of subjectivity in how much one 'weights' the pieces, and our case is no different. The reader has to decide whether the parallels advanced by the CopyCatist are numerous, detailed, striking, complex, central, etc., etc. Even in such a monumental work as that by West, he can point out: "I am well aware that some of the parallels are more compelling that others. Readers must decide for themselves what weight they attach to each." [HI:EFHWAE:viii])

Now, we need to be really clear about the time frame we are talking about here. The issue that I am trying to address deals only with the New Testament literature, specifically the gospels and post-Revelation epistles. I not at all interested in 'defending' the wide array of post-apostolic 'interpretations' and 'syncretistic methods' of any later Christian folk--including the Church Fathers. It is the Jesus of the gospels and epistles, and the claims made and images used of Him and His work on our behalf in them that concerns me here. This means that Christian material and events after around 65ad is of little concern to me (except as it bears on questions of NT authorship perhaps), and does not count as evidence for New Testament authors' "borrowing" of mythic/pagan elements in their creation of the foundational documents of the church--because of the time frames involved. For example, the fact that the New Testament nowhere assigns a specific date (year, month, date, or day of week) to the birthday of Jesus, means that any allegations that the post-apolstolic church  later 'borrowed' a birthday from a rival figure (e.g. Mithras, Sol Invictus) is irrelevant to the original objection above. [We will, of course, have to discuss the sociological aspects of that possibility below.]

So, let's examine each of these in turn:.

The similarities between Jesus (as portrayed in the NT) and the other relevant Savior-gods are very numerous, very 'striking', non-superficial, complex, within similar conceptual or narrative structures, detailed, have the same underlying ideas, and be 'core' or 'central' to the story/image/motif enough to suspect borrowing;

Pushback: "Well wait a minute, bud...didn't the late church start 'stealing ideas' from paganism--like Sol Invictus' December 25th birthday for Jesus? And if later Christians did that, why in the world would we believe the first ones wouldn't steal ideas, too?!"
Most of the observed 'similarities' are explained by the above considerations, but let's go ahead and probe a litte farther.
 

These alleged "identicalities" generally attempt to identify Jesus with deities within a couple of categories (which have some overlap).

  1. First there are the "Dying and Rising Gods" (e.g. Adonis, Baal (and Hadad), Marduk, Osiris, Tammuz/Dumuzi, Melquart, Eshmun), popularized in James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough [WR:GB]

  2.  
  3. Secondly are the figures in the Mystery Religions (e.g. Mithra, Dionysos, Hellenistic period Isis/Osirus).

  4.  
  5. Third, there are the more "major players" (e.g. Buddha, Krishna)

  6.  
  7. Finally are the figures that are allegedly linked by broader motifs such as 'miracle worker', 'savior' or 'virgin born'--heroes and divine men-- without an explicit death/resurrection notion (e.g. Indra, Thor, Horus?)

  8.  
(For space reasons, I have had to move this part of the discussion to copycatwho1.html)

The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.Christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)