Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Were Bible Stories Copied from Ancient Myths? (Part 2 of 2)

Continuing from our previous post, British writer Sam Woolfe maintains that the biblical account of Jesus’ life is not original, “probably the story which actually has the most parallels with other religions,” representing “the archetypal story of the archetypal hero.”As evidence Woolfe points to Peter Joseph’s conspiracy documentary Zeitgeist, even though Woolfe admits the film contains factual errors and overstates comparisons “in order to support his conspiracy theory.” Nonetheless, Woofe insists “there are still similarities between Jesus and other gods, suggesting that the authors of the Bible borrowed myths from other religions.” He particularly notes the “dying-and-returning-god” pattern of various myths, particularly Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris, Horus, Dionysus, Mithras, Attis, and Krishna, concluding this “suggests that there never was a real, historical Jesus.”

An Open-and-Shut Case?

The idea of an ancient “dying-and-returning god” archetype comes from Sir James George Frazer’s 1890 The Golden Bough: a Study in Comparative Religion. However, subsequent scholarship has proven the claim to be farcical. These so-called dying (or disappearing) and returning gods of ancient mythology are actually accounts of deities that died and did not return, or deities that returned but had not died. “The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.”2

The same would apply to the alleged pagan origins of the virgin-birth narrative in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.Reputable scholarship avoids such erroneous claims, even among liberal critics who deny the historicity of Christ’s virgin birth.One such scholar, Thomas Boslooper, writes: “The literature of the world is prolific with narratives of unusual births, but it contains no precise analogy to the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke. Jesus’ ‘virgin birth’ is not ‘pagan’.”5

Did Jesus Plagiarize His Teachings?

Jesus is recorded as saying, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12 NKJV). It has been purported that he or his followers plagiarized this golden rule from eastern religions, Greek philosophers, and/or Jewish rabbis.But the statement, which is merely a tiny segment of an extensive discourse, is noticeably different from the prevailing ethic of reciprocity (“Give to get something in return”) or the negative and passive version, “Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.” Beyond a presumed maxim of human nature endowed by the Creator, and irrespective of the fact that Jesus is the first on record to express the positive and active form of the principle, he also cited “the Law and the Prophets,” which predate these eastern religions, Greek philosophers, and Jewish rabbis. Critics are assuming their conclusion to be true without proof.

Let’s Be Honest

When deceptive ploys, whether intentional or not, are used to challenge the Bible’s integrity, this ought to have the opposite effect once exposed. Secondary sources are not always credible. The popular charge that biblical writers borrowed from pagan mythology tends to be “characterized by brief word, phrase and sentence quotations that have been lifted out of context or incorrectly translated and used to support preconceived theories. Sweeping generalizations based on questionable evidence have become dogmatic conclusions that cannot be substantiated on the basis of careful investigation.”7

Commonsense Observations8

1. There is nothing unusual or suspect about any ancient record corresponding to the environment in which it emerged. There are only so many options available. Linguistic, historical, and cultural parallels can often confirm the realism and credence of biblical narratives but do not necessarily prove borrowing in any direction.

2. If something is historically true, it is not unprecedented to find similar reports in multiple accounts, albeit with variations developing over time. The prospect of different versions sharing a common historical core does not constitute anyone copying from anyone else.

3. When direct dependence can be established (e.g. quotes and illustrations), it is important to consider the nature of the usage and how it either affects or does not affect the matter at hand. Long before the modern copyright mentality, ancient authors could reasonably expect their contemporary readers to recognize well-known allusions and quoted materials.

4. If borrowing did occur yet historical positioning is overlooked, or if the dating of a presumed source is tentative or inaccurate, the Bible may have been the original source rather than vice versa.This would also include oral traditions that predate written texts.

5. Biblical documents were written by multiple authors for particular reading audiences at various times in different environments addressing a variety of issues. Effective communication naturally involves the employment of images and terminology intelligible and meaningful to the targeted audience (cf. 1 Cor. 9:22).

6. Apparent similarities do not override or discount significant differences. The uniqueness of the biblical record must still be accounted for.

7. When alleged parallels are artificial, exaggerated, and distorted, preconceptions may appear to be bolstered but the pursuit of truth is disrupted. 

Concluding Remarks

It is helpful to remember, “though the Bible arose in the ancient world, it was not entirely of it; though its history and its people resemble those of the surrounding nations, yet it radiates an atmosphere, a spirit, a faith far more profound than, and radically different from, that of any other ancient literature.”10 May we approach the biblical text, if not with eagerness to learn, at least with honesty and fairness.

--Kevin L. Moore

     Sam Woolfe, “How the Bible Borrowed from Other Stories,” Sam Woolfe (25 April 2013) <Link>.
     Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. M. Eliade (London: Macmillan, 1987): 4:521-27. This would apply to all the deities Woolfe has listed, including Osiris, the Egyptian patron of the dead, who was reportedly murdered by his brother but then brought back to life by Isis. This “rebirth” enabled him to be lord of the underworld in the afterlife, since he could no longer rule the world of the living. Ancient Egyptians considered various facets of reality but did not envision a resurrection in this world (see Ogden Goeler, “Commentary,” in The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth By DayThe Complete Papyrus of Ani, ed. Eva von Dasso [San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994]: 153). See also Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003); Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (NY: HarperCollins, 2012); Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, “The ‘Dying and Rising God’: A Survey of Research from Frazer to the Present Day,” in David and Zion: Biblical Studies in Honor of J. J. M. Roberts,” eds. B. F. Bernard and K. L. Roberts (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004): 373-86.
     Walter Bundy opines, “The idea of a supernatural or virgin birth is pagan, and it must have found its way into the story of Jesus through Gentile-Christian channels” (Jesus and the First Three Gospels [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955]: 11).
     See Thomas Boslooper, The Virgin Birth (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), who attributes the virgin-birth story to the influence of Philo’s allegorical method on Hellenistic Jewish Christianity. Also James Veitch, The Birth of Jesus: History or Myth? (Wellington: St Andrew’s Trust, 1997), who surmises that Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives were derived from stories in the Hebrew Bible.
     Thomas Boslooper, op cit.136. Reginald H. Fuller, in his critical review of Boslooper’s work, states: “In an amazingly comprehensive historical survey of the doctrine from its first appearance in the infancy narratives to the later phases of biblical criticism, the author offers at every point shrewd and penetrating judgments. The historical survey in itself makes the work invaluable” (The Journal of Religion 43:3 [July 1963]: 254-55). Louis Matthews Sweet observes: “After a careful, laborious, and occasionally wearisome study of the evidence offered and analogies urged, I am convinced that heathenism knows nothing of virgin births” (The Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1906]: 188).
     This is ranked # 1 among Melloson Allen’s “10 Influences on the Bible,” in Jamie Frater’s's Bathroom Reader: Loads of Top Ten Lists (Berkley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2014).
     Thomas Boslooper, op cit.135.
     See Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003): 1-4.
     For example, Apollonius of Tyana (AD 15-100) was a philosopher and mystic, and his biographer Philostratus (ca. 172-250) claims he performed miracles like Jesus (Life of Apollonius 3.38-39); by the late 2nd century he had become a cult figure rivaling Jesus. However, these stories “are at several points obviously influenced by stories about Jesus, not the other way around” (Albert A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the New Testament World [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998]: 131).
     10 G. Ernest Wright, An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology, Rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962): xi.

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