By James Hannam
Editor’s Note: The first installment in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, and discussed the allegation that there is no independent (non-Christian) verification of the existence of Jesus. The second part examines the claim—an increasingly common claim amongst atheists today—that the Jesus story is actually a pastiche composed of bits and pieces of ancient pagan myths.
Allegations that Christianity is an adaptation of a pagan cult date from the 19th century. In 1875, Kersey Graves wrote The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours, a book so poor that even the Internet Infidels admit (in rather more diplomatic language) that it is a load of old cobblers. The idea that myths can be fitted into an overall pattern was given rather more credibility by Sir James Frazer in the early 20th century, but his work is now also disregarded by anthropologists. In 1936, Lord Raglan published The Hero: A Study in Myth, Tradition and Dreams, which included a list of attributes that heroic figures of legend are supposed to share. The list often turns up on the internet with claims that Jesus fits the pattern very well. The only problem is that he does not fit the pattern at all, and the case of Raglan’s list has been thoroughly debunked.
More recently, the tradition was carried on in The Jesus Mysteries (1999) by Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, and Tom Harpur in The Pagan Christ (2004). These amateur historians play fast and loose with the facts, using carefully pruned quotations, mistranslation, and anachronism to produce a woefully inaccurate picture. But only by doing this can they maintain their thesis that Jesus is based on pagan antecedents.
The usual method of writers such as these is to read (or, more accurately, misread) some fragment of ancient mythology and claim that there are parallels to be found with the life of Jesus. With this in mind I present James Hannam’s Guide to the Production of a Bestseller that Undermines the Roots of Christianity. With this guide, I guarantee that you will be able to find all the parallels you like between paganism and Christianity—or indeed, properly adapted, between any other two unrelated subjects that you care to name.
1) The first thing to do is ensure you that you cast your net as widely as possible. So, within Christianity you should include every cult, heresy, and sect you can get your hands on. Gnosticism will be particularly helpful as gnostics did indeed borrow large chunks of pagan thought, which is partly why they were considered heretics in the first place. As for paganism, this can include just about everything. Freke and Gandy comb not only Greek cults (Oedipus) but also Egyptian (Horus and Osiris), Roman (Bacchus), and Persian (Mithras). Elsewhere you will find Celtic deities, Norse berserkers, and Indian mystics pulled into the fray. Tom Harpur is a particular fan of Egyptian myth. Now, with this vast body of writing, provided you are willing to wade through it all, finding parallels will not prove too challenging.
2) Don’t restrict yourselves to pagan religions from before the time of Christ. Remember, you can claim that Christians copied pagans, and not the other way around, even when the Christian writing is more ancient than the pagan. This is useful because you can now point to similarities between paganism and Christianity after the latter was already widespread. For instance, there is a poem with a line about the Norse god Odin being attached to the world tree (“I know that I hung on a windy tree, nine long nights, wounded with a spear”). Sounds like Jesus being nailed to the cross? Well, not really, and in any case the Norse myth was written down well after the Vikings converted to Christianity. Don’t let that stop you.
3) Language is important. Christian terms such as ‘salvation’, ‘Eucharist’, ‘word made flesh,’ and ‘lamb of god’ are common currency today. Therefore, when translating or paraphrasing pagan sources, always use familiar Christian language. Never mind that the ancient pagans would not have known what you were going on about; you are not talking to them. In this way, you can call a woman being raped by various kinds of wildlife a ‘virgin birth’ (such as Europa being raped by Zeus in the form of a bull); you can call the reassembly of body parts a ‘resurrection’ (such as Osiris being pieced back together by Isis); and you can call just about every Greek hero a ‘son of god’ (because, let’s face it, the Greek gods were a lecherous bunch and so had a good few kids). Also, it is helpful to use King James Bible phrases and style when quoting pagan texts. It gives them some more gravitas.
4) Do try to confuse liturgy and cult practice with history. For instance, the mystery religions and Christianity were both underground movements, so they had to operate in similar sorts of ways. This doesn’t make them similar in other ways, but pretend that it does. Sacred meals and ritual washing are as old as religion itself so the fact that Christianity employed them as well as pagans (not to mention Jews) is not surprising at all. Make it sound like a complete revelation. For instance, if Mithraists shared a ritual meal with bread and wine (and meat too, but never mind that), make it sound astronomically unlikely that Christians should have done the same unless they were borrowing from Mithraism.
5) Assert that totally different things are in fact closely related. For instance, Mithras was sometimes represented by a bull. Say this is the same as Jesus being called the Lamb of God (one is a symbol of sexuality and strength, the other of innocence and humility, but never let facts get in the way of a good theory). Compare the Mithraic ritual of taking a shower in the warm blood of the aforementioned bull with Christian baptism with water. Mithras was born as a fully-grown man from solid rock; call this a “virgin birth.” Claim that the thieves crucified with Jesus are the same as a pair of torchbearers that appear on some illustrations of Bacchus.
6) For goodness sake, do not mention the things that really made the pagan mysteries interesting. After all, in your work of showing that Jesus and Bacchus are one and the same, you will lose everything if you let on that Bacchus was the god of drunkenness and his worship involved getting plastered and having sex with anything in sight (goats being a particular favourite). In fact, keep sex out of it altogether. Yes, sex was the central feature of an awful lot of these pagan rituals but that is not the point you are trying to make.
7) Avoid up-to-date scholarship that will probably pour cold water over your vaunted theories. One particular problem to ignore is that the Persian Mithras was much earlier and had almost nothing to do with the Roman god of the same name. Worse still, the Roman god only became widely worshiped after the birth of Christ, so cannot have been a model for Jesus at all. Also, take Sir James Frazer and Francis Cumont seriously, even if today’s scholars do not. You will find plenty of other 19th-century and early-20th-century writers with a bone to pick who can support your wildest speculations. Finally, don’t worry if some of the evidence, like the picture of a crucified Bacchus on the cover of your book The Jesus Mysteries, turns out to be fake. It is not your problem, even if you knew about it in advance.
8) Do not worry if not everyone agrees with you; you can always dismiss the dissenters as Christian apologists or as those unable to cope with your earth-shattering ideas. And don’t panic if someone turns up arguing about primary sources, dating evidence, footnotes, and boring stuff like that. They are probably in the pay of the pope. Using this guide, you should be able to produce as many parallels as you require in order to convince even the most blinkered of readers that Jesus was actually a pagan god-man.
As you can tell, I am not impressed by the pagan myth hypothesis. It is telling that in spite of their vast amount of learning, their hostility to orthodox Christianity, and their willingness to allege that much of the New Testament is fictional, not even John Dominic Crossan or Bart Ehrman have any time for the idea that Jesus was made up of pagan motifs. Nor indeed do the vast majority of liberal scholars. The pagan myth hypothesis is firmly outside the pale of modern scholarship. That’s also the reason why refuting authors like Tom Harpur tends to be left to Christian writers. Academic historians just don’t think it is worth wasting time on anything so obviously wrong.
Editor’s Note: For other online sources of information on the pagan parallels theories, see this detailed examination of various pagan deities and whether their stories coincide with that of Jesus, this note from William Lane Craig, or (as a more specific example) this response to the Jesus-as-Mithras claim, or this article from Ronald Nash. For book-length responses, consult R. T. France’s The Evidence for Jesus or Nash’s The Gospel and the Greeks.
The third part of this series will turn to the claim that Jesus is probably mythological because there is very little about him in the writings of Paul.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Source.
James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at http://bedejournal.blogspot.com and recently published God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson. The book was recently shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2010.