On his Facebook page, my friend Cary laid out C.S. Lewis’ trilemma: that given everything we know about Him, Jesus must be Lord, liar, or lunatic. You can’t just write Him off as a “good teacher.” One of his atheist friends, Nick, responded:
How about thief? Similiar [J]esus like stories, ones that predate the life of [J]esus, exist in pagan and egyption culture. Look it up if feel so inclined to test your faith. Just remember religion is believed by common people to be true, by the wise to be false, and by the rulers to be…useful. What is your choice?
That possible (that Christ is just another in a series of myths) is considered in Msgr. Ronald Knox’s expanded version of the trilemma, laid out in Belief of Catholics: he also addresses the notion that Christ was just a “guru” head-on. I asked Nick for specific examples supporting his claim, and he gave me this:
Let’s start with a list of things that come from paganism or other cultrures that predate [C]hristianity; the timing of the two biggest pagan holidays with the birth and death of [J]esus, the concept of [H]eaven, hell, prophecies, sacrifice, baptism, communion with [G]od through a holy meal, immortality of the soul and virgin births. Gods that are similar to [J]esus include mithrus, dionysus, attis, osirus and orpheus. Any mediterranean religion has its own similarities. […] Ohh and I almost forgot, [C]hristmas trees and [E]aster eggs are also pagan traditions
The first thing to recognize is that, almost without exception, neither the atheist nor the Christian in the conversation know anything about Mithras, Dionysus, Attis, Osiris, Orpheus, or any of the other names the atheist will drop. Without picking on Nick too much, he couldn’t even spell two of the names. That’s not unusual. People who know what they’re talking about in this area don’t raise this argument against Christianity.
Here’s why. From the Wikipedia summary of the myth of Attis:
In the late fourth century a cult of Attis became a feature of the Greek world. The story of his origins at Agdistis, recorded by the traveler Pausanias, have some distinctly non-Greek elements: Pausanias was told that the daemon Agdistis initially bore both male and female attributes. But the Olympian gods, fearing Agdistis, cut off the male organ and cast it away. There grew up from it an almond-tree, and when its fruit was ripe, Nana who was a daughter of the river-god Sangarius picked an almond and laid it in her bosom. The almond disappeared, and she became pregnant. Nana abandoned the baby (Attis). The infant was tended by a he-goat. As Attis grew, his long-haired beauty was godlike, and Agdistis as Cybele, then fell in love with him. But the foster parents of Attis sent him to Pessinos, where he was to wed the king’s daughter. According to some versions the King of Pessinos was Midas. Just as the marriage-song was being sung, Agdistis/Cybele appeared in her transcendent power, and Attis went mad and cut off his genitals. Attis’ father-in-law-to-be, the king who was giving his daughter in marriage, followed suit, prefiguring the self-castrating corybantes who devoted themselves to Cybele. But Agdistis repented and saw to it that the body of Attis should neither rot at all nor decay.
That has…. nothing to do with Christianity? Seriously, where are the parallels between that and the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, as reported in the Gospels?
You could do the same thing for Osiris, Orpheus, etc. The cult of Mithras did have similarities with Christianity, but it was a pagan imitation of Christianity, created after the time of Christ. So in a nutshell, the pre-Christian accounts are all unmistakably different, and quite radically so, while the post-Christian account is an initiation of Christianity, rather than the reverse.
To show why I think this is a bad argument against the historicity of Christ, let’s use it to “debunk” the existence of someone we know to be real: Mohandas Gandhi.
Step 1: To start with, find a lot of remarkably-similar sounding events between the lives of two historical figures. This is what conspiracy theorists have already done (quite impressively) for the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations. For our purposes, just look a the surface similarities between Gandhi and Jesus:
|Never existed, apparently.|
- Born in Asia, left, and returned through Africa. Gandhi was born in India, left, and returned by way of Africa (South Africa). Jesus was born in Israel, left, and returned by way of Africa (Egypt).
- Born in countries oppressed by European imperialists. India at the time of Gandhi’s birth was under British rule. Israel at the time of Christ’s birth was under Roman rule.
- Both were charismatic leaders viewed as a threat by the imperial powers-that-be. The British and Romans weren’t exactly keen on Gandhi or Jesus, respectively.
- Both preached a radical message of non-violence.
- Both were viewed as spiritual-political figures. The followers of both Jesus and Gandhi treated them as both religious or political leaders, simultaneously.
- Both alienated many of their followers in the same two ways. Specifically, many Hindus were upset about Gandhi’s message of radical non-violence, even against the British imperialists, and upset that Gandhi seemed too friendly with a hated religious minority (the Muslims). Many Jews were upset about Christ’s message of radical non-violence, even against the Roman imperialists, and upset that Jesus seemed too friendly with a hated religious minority (the Samaritans).
- Both were betrayed, to their deaths, by those they were saving. Judas and Nathuram Godse.
These were just the basic ones that I could come up with. If you dive in deeper, I’m quite sure that you can find some pretty remarkable-seeming similarities.
For example, after receiving a donation from a poor old woman, Gandhi said, “This copper coin is worth much more than those thousands. If a man has several lakhs and he gives away a thousand or two, it doesn’t mean much. But this coin was perhaps all that the poor woman possessed. She gave me all she had. That was very generous of her. What a great sacrifice she made. That is why I value this copper coin more than a crore of rupees.”
A strikingly similar event happens in the life of Christ, as recounted in Luke 21:1-4:
As He looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Bonus: We could do this for a lot of other figures as well. For example, Napoleon was the non-Frenchman (a Corsican) who rose to command a ruthless French Empire. Hitler was the non-German (an Austrian) who rose to command a ruthless German Empire. Stalin was the non-Russian (a Georgian) who rose to command a ruthless Russian Empire. All of them are obviously just re-tellings of the story of Alexander the Great, right?
Virtually every ancient culture had its own calendar. Anyone who tells you that a Jewish or Christian holiday falls on “the same day” as some other culture’s holiday is almost certainly wrong, for no other reason. In almost every case, you’ll discover that it was just a holiday that occurred sometime in the spring, or sometime in the winter.
For example, this year, Channukah falls on December 21, while it falls on November 28th in 2013. In other words, you can wax conspiratorial about Channukah-Christmas connections this year, and Channukah-Thanksgiving connections in two years.
Finally, consider the number of ancient cultures in the world, and the sheer number of deities worshiped in some time or place. Now consider the number of days in a year. Find me a day of the year — any day — that isn’t the anniversary of some pagan holiday or another. This is particularly true in the spring and fall, since they’re naturally connected with life and death in an agrarian society (not, mind you, because they stole that from some older myth, but because that’s what crops do in the spring and fall).
Having said that, let’s look at Easter and Christmas, the two holidays that Nick claims coincide, timing-wise with the two biggest holidays in paganism (apparently, all pagans now use the same calendar, and share the two biggest holidays).
Easter is tied quite explicitly with the Jewish Passover in the New Testament. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection are linked to the Passover chronologically (John 19:14, etc.), and both John the Baptist (John 1:29) and St. Paul (1 Corinthians 5:7) explicitly tie Jesus’ Atonement with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. And the Passover had been tied for thousands of years to the Jewish calendar (Leviticus 23:5), not to anything from Egyptian or Greek paganism.
The date for Christmas isn’t found in Scripture, but was customarily celebrated about nine months after Easter, out of an old Jewish custom. The date of December 25 is also significant, since it makes January 1 the day that Jesus formally became a Jew (Luke 2:21). It’s a new beginning. In other words, all of these dates make sense for a religious group that originated in Judaism, but used a Roman calendar. Which is exactly what happened with the Christians.
So none of the events from the life of Christ are borrowed from paganism. Whether some later Christian customs are is an interesting subject to debate, I guess, but doesn’t really matter. Or put another way: even if the Christians did take the idea for beautiful Christmas trees from Germanic pagans, what does that prove one way or another about Jesus?
In Spain, many of the churches used to be mosques, from the time of the Moorish invasion. Much of the art is Islamic, with tessellations to represent the infiniteness of God (since tessellations are patterns continuing on in every direction, forever). After expelling the Moors, the Christians kept the art. Why? Because it was beautiful. Did that mean that they suddenly treated the Qu’ran as equal to the Bible? Obviously not.
Here, I’ll point again to Reformation Day. As I’ve noted, some Protestants celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, in order to celebrate something (that they find) wholesome, instead of celebrating something (that they find) evil. The term for this is “plundering the Egyptians” (a sly allusion to Exodus 12:35-36). It’s when you take the best of what others have to offer, even if they’re you’re enemies.
Even if we discover that the Christians plundered the Egyptians, taking some of the best of what pagan cultures had to offer, without falling into paganism themselves, that’s not a mark against Christianity, much less against Christ Himself. Just shows that Christians are a much more open-minded lot than atheists give us credit for.
If you’re talking to an atheist who raises this, odds are good that he got his misinformation from an Internet movie called Zeitgeist that’s been repeatedly debunked by Christians. If not, he probably got it from someone blindly regurgitating the information. It’s a funny irony. He’s willing to swallow hook, line, and sinker the most absurd of historical claims, yet claims the title of “skeptic,” and derides Christians for our alleged gullibility.
What’s important here is that this an argument from scholarship. That is, the atheist side claiming that historical scholarship proves that a-historical nature of Jesus Christ. Yet, as William Lane Craig has noted in numerous debates with atheists, this theory isn’t even widely accepted among most liberal Biblical scholars today. As we’ve seen, it relies upon (a) terrible methodology, (b) a number of outright falsehoods about history, and (c) a misrepresentation of what a number of ancient myths actually taught. This just isn’t a serious argument against Christianity, and it’s long past time that atheists who insist upon debating religion learned something about the subject.