Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior

History records many dying-and-rising saviors. Examples from the Ancient Near East that preceded the Jesus story include Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal. Here is a brief introduction.

Tammuz was the Sumerian god of food and vegetation and dates from c. 2000 BCE. His death was celebrated every spring. One version of the story has him living in the underworld for six months each year, alternating with his sister.

Osirus was killed by his brother Set and cut into many pieces and scattered. His wife Isis gathered the pieces together, and he was reincarnated as the Egyptian god of the underworld and judge of the dead. He was worshipped well before 2000 BCE.

Dionysus (known as Bacchus in Roman mythology) was the Greek god of wine and dates to the 1200s BCE. The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Dionysus was killed and then brought back to life.

Adonis (from 600 BCE) is a Greek god who was killed and then returned to life by Zeus.

Attis (from 1200 BCE) is a vegetation god from central Asia Minor, brought back to life by his lover Cybele.

In Canaanite religion, Baal (Baʿal) was part of a cycle of life and death. Baal and Mot are sons of the supreme god El (yes, one of the names of the Jewish god). When El favored the death god Mot over Baal, the heat of the summer took over and Baal died. He was resurrected when his sister-wife killed Mot.

All these gods:

  • came from regions that were close enough to the crossroads of Israel (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor) for the ideas to have plausibly made it there,
  • were worshipped well before the time of Jesus, and
  • were of the dying-and-rising sort.

This is strong evidence either that the gospel writers knew of (and could have been influenced by) resurrecting god stories from other cultures or that these stories influenced the Jesus story when it was told from person to person.

Is it possible that Judea at this time was a backwater, and the people were unaware of the ideas from the wider world? That seems unlikely. The book of 2 Maccabees, written in c. 124 BCE, laments at how Hellenized the country was becoming. It says that the new high priest installed by Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes “at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life.” He “introduced new customs contrary to the Law” and “induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat.” The book complains about “an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways” and the youth “putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige.”

In fact, the gospels themselves report that the idea of dying and rising again was a familiar concept. Jesus in the early days of his ministry was thought to be a risen prophet.

King Herod heard of [the ministry of Jesus], for His name had become well known; and people were saying, “John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.” But others were saying, “He is Elijah.” And others were saying, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen!” (Mark 6:14–16)

One Christian website does a thorough job attacking poorly evidenced parallels between Jesus and these prior gods. For example, was Dionysus really born to a virgin on December 25? Did Mithras really have 12 disciples? Was Krishna’s birth heralded by a star in the east? The author offers $1000 to anyone who can prove that any of these gods’ lists of parallels are actually true.

I’ll agree that there are strained parallels. One early work that has been criticized for too many claims and too little evidence is The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves (1875). The recent “Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ” by Acharya S also seems to be reaching, in my opinion.

I don’t have the expertise to weigh in on these many issues, so let’s grant the complaints and dismiss the many unsupportable specific parallels. What’s left is what really matters: that the Jesus story arose in a culture suffused with the idea of dying and rising saviors.

Apologists raise other objections.

Many of these gods actually came after Jesus. That’s why the list above only includes dying-and-rising gods who are well known to have preceded Jesus. There are many more such gods—Mithras, Horus, Krishna, Persephone, and others—that don’t seem to fit as well. In fact, Wikipedia lists life-death-rebirth deities from twenty religions worldwide, but I’ve tried to list above the six most relevant examples.

But Jesus really existed! He’s a figure from history, unlike those other gods. Strip away any supernatural claims from the story of Alexander the Great, and you’ve still got cities throughout Asia named Alexandria and coins with Alexander’s likeness. Strip away any supernatural claims from the Caesar Augustus story, and you’re still left with the Caesar Augustus from history (and a month in our calendar named after him). But strip away the supernatural claims from the Jesus story, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary rabbi. The Jesus story is nothing but the supernatural elements.

Most of those gods were used to explain the cycles of the seasons. Jesus isn’t like them. Yes, Christianity is different from all the other religions, but so is every other religion. If Christianity weren’t different from one of the earlier religions, it would just be that religion.

In another post I explore the Dionysus myth more fully to show the parallels with the Jesus story. That post also notes how Justin Martyr (100–165 CE) not only admitted to the similarities but argued that the devil put them in history to fool us.

Okay, they’re all myths, but the Jesus story is true myth. This was the approach of C.S. Lewis, who said, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened, and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s Myth where the others are men’s myths.”

So you admit that the Jesus story indeed has many characteristics of mythology but demand that I just trust you that it’s true? Sorry, I need more evidence than that.

And the throw-in-the-towel argument:

Just because Christianity developed in a culture that knew of other resurrecting gods doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t the real thing. Granted. But “you haven’t proven the gospel story false” isn’t much of an argument. Those who seek the truth know that proof is impossible and try instead to find where the evidence points.

And here’s where the evidence doesn’t point: that humans worldwide invent dying-and-rising saviors … except in the Jesus case, ’cause that one was real!

I found that God never began to hear
my prayer for liberty until I began to run.
Then you ought to have seen
the dust rise behind me

in answer to prayer.
— Frederick Douglass

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 4/15/12.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • MNb

    Again comparing with the infanticide as told in Mattheus is useful. It shows how a familiar theme – someone narrowly escaping death as a baby, meaning that fate had a very important role for him in mind – can be reworked over and over again. We see the same with Paris of Troje, Oedipus and Moses.
    So it’s obvious where the idea of the Resurrection came from.
    It’s also not too hard to see where the idea of one individual paying for the sins of many came from; I think it was you who mentioned Prometheus.
    Much more interesting is the save your soul aspect. The idea of an eternally living soul was not new of course, but was the idea that it had to be saved new?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      MNb:

      Christians will point to the differences between the Jesus story and any of his predecessors (perhaps you’re right that the idea of souls being saved by a human sacrifice was a Christian innovation). I see the differences, but so what? We understand that false religions can invent stuff; why not Christianity?

    • Kodie

      Christ-ts stay crunchy in milk. Marketing inventioning.

    • MNb

      “We understand that false religions can invent stuff”
      Sorry, but this is not good enough. People aren’t very original; I’d be proud if I had one single original thought in the 49 years that I live. Newton and Leibniz developed derivative calculation almost simultaneously; Einstein used the work of Lorentz and Poincaré before him.
      You know me better than assuming “saving the soul is an original thought hence God”; for one thing it’s a god of the gaps. But the question where the thought comes from remains.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        MNb:

        If your point is that there’s nothing new under the sun, sure, I can see that. (There’s a book called The 36 Dramatic Situations. It’s just one of many books that try to distill all stories ever told into just a handful of different bins.) Still, that leaves a lot of room for innovation.

  • Caleb G.

    I appreciate the caviat you make, Bob, in recognizing the outlandishness of many of these claims. But I suggest that you interact with Bart Ehrman’s thoughts on this topic in his book Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman, not an apologist by any means, argues that the parallels of dying and rising gods in other religions are not what they seem. For example, Osirus dies and becomes ruler of the underworld. This is not a resurrection. Many of these examples come from sources that originated after Christianity was widespread so it could be that they reflect Christian claims rather than vice versa. Also, Ehrman argues that no evidence exists that these other religions had any presence or significant influence in 1st century Palestine. Finally Ehrman argues that dying and rising gods do not provide the background for Christian believes because the earliest Christians did not see Jesus as divine. This last point would be disputed by most Christians, but if true does also provide evidence against the widespread claim that Jesus was just another dying and rising god. I think you need to rework your arguments in light of these data points.

    The idea of resurrection comes from the later writings in the Hebrew Bible (Daniel 12:2) and Apocraphal writings (Maccabees), not the reworking of a story of escape from death.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Caleb:

      the parallels of dying and rising gods in other religions are not what they seem

      I see the differences. Apologists try to use this to dismiss the entire issue, but it doesn’t work.

      For example, Osirus dies and becomes ruler of the underworld. This is not a resurrection.

      It’s a resurrection (he was dead, and then he wasn’t), although he wound up in a different place. Sounds similar to Jesus–he didn’t die and then come back to life like Lazarus; he came back to life and then quickly left our ordinary life … like Osiris going to his new residence.

      Many of these examples come from sources that originated after Christianity was widespread so it could be that they reflect Christian claims rather than vice versa.

      Right. The post deals with this.

      Also, Ehrman argues that no evidence exists that these other religions had any presence or significant influence in 1st century Palestine.

      I haven’t read the book, but this is a surprising claim. First, to imagine that Palestine, the crossroads of the Ancient Near East, would have never heard of these gods is hard to imagine. Second, the gospels weren’t written in Palestine but in the Greek world of the Eastern Mediterranean. The early Christians were very often former believers in these very gods who died and rose again. If the early gospel didn’t have a resurrection story, you can imagine how it could’ve been added.

      Finally Ehrman argues that dying and rising gods do not provide the background for Christian believes because the earliest Christians did not see Jesus as divine.

      And then apparently they did. Somewhere along that journey, we can imagine that the resurrection element gets added.

      I think you need to rework your arguments in light of these data points.

      Again, I haven’t read the book. Ehrman’s a pretty smart guy. But I see nothing here to support the remarkable idea that early Christianity and the gospels were insulated from any contamination by other ideas.

      • J. J. Ramsey

        And then apparently they did. Somewhere along that journey, we can imagine that the resurrection element gets added.

        But judging from the New Testament, the idea that Jesus had resurrected precedes the notion that he was God. Of the four canonical gospels, only the latest one comes close to saying outright that Jesus is God. Paul uses very exalted language about Jesus, of course, but then there’s a verse like 1 Corinthians 15:28, which–if one takes off one’s Trinitarian goggles–implies that the Son is a second-in-command who will himself be subjected under God once the general resurrection of the dead has happened. Bear in mind that Jews had described Moses in exalted terms as well, even ascribing pre-existence to Moses, so Paul’s relatively high Christology relative to the Synoptic gospels is by no means a slam-dunk argument that he and other early Christians took Jesus to be God.

        • Greg G,

          If I take off my Gospel Goggles when I read the Epistles, I see that the idea that Jesus was resurrected precedes the notion that he was a first century person.

        • J. J. Ramsey

          If I take off my Gospel Goggles when I read the Epistles, I see that the idea that Jesus was resurrected precedes the notion that he was a first century person.

          Then Paul’s description of Jesus as the firstfruits of those to be resurrected in 1 Corinthians 15:20ff makes little sense. Bear in mind that Paul clearly thought that the general resurrection was coming Real Soon Now(TM), hopefully within his lifetime, and the firstfruits come shortly before the main harvest. The implication is that Paul had thought that Jesus had resurrected fairly recently. Earlier verses, especially 15:4-7 indicate that Paul believed that the resurrected Jesus appeared to Paul’s contemporaries. Furthermore, Paul had said in verse 15:4 that Jesus was raised on the third day, indicating a short span of time between his death and purported resurrection. Clearly, then, the notion that Jesus was a first-century person is present even in the Epistles as we have them.

      • Caleb G.

        Bob,
        Thank you for your interaction. You mention Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal as examples of dying and rising gods known in the Ancient Near East before Jesus. Please point me to primary sources that speak of these gods as dying and rising. Claims like these are often made, but the primary sources may not say what they are claimed to say. Osiris is a good example. After death he became king of the underworld. This is not the same thing as a resurrection, what N.T. Wright refers to as life-after-life-after death.

        It still seems like you are claiming that the source of the idea of resurrection came primarily from the stories of Greek and other gods. It seems far more plausible to me to see this as coming from the Hebrew Bible. You do seem to implicitly acknowledge this when you mention belief in the prophet Elijah rising again. This comes from the Hebrew Bible. Based on the apocalyptic literature in 2-3 centuries before Jesus, many Jews believed that the resurrection would signal the end of the present age and the beginning of the age to come. When Jesus’ disciples became convinced that Jesus had been resurrected, this could only mean that the age to come had arrived. This explained why they reworked the kingdom concepts from the Hebrew Bible. My point here is that even though the gospels were probably written outside of Palestine, the Hebrew Bible, rather than Greek “dying-and-rising gods” stories still provides the conceptual background for these stories about Jesus. This is not to say that Christianity was “insulated” from other ideas. It clearly was not. But the basic idea of resurrection came from Jewish sources, not Greek ones.

        J.J. is right in that the claim of Jesus resurrection is more widespread in the New Testament than the claim that Jesus is God.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Caleb:

          Please point me to primary sources that speak of these gods as dying and rising.

          Didn’t use any. I mostly used Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica for this research.

          After death he became king of the underworld.

          He was dead and then he was alive and lived forever. Sounds like Jesus.

          You’re making a distinction that I’m missing.

          It seems far more plausible to me to see this as coming from the Hebrew Bible.

          Despite the fact that the NT came from a Greek world suffused with these stories?

          We seem to be bogged down in minutia. Since it is hard to imagine the gospel writers (and many of the intermediaries in the chain of oral history) didn’t know about one or more dying-and-rising god, the Jesus story is easily explained naturally by imagining these earlier stories informing the Jesus story.

          This is not to say that Christianity was “insulated” from other ideas. It clearly was not.

          OK–sounds like we’re in agreement.

          But the basic idea of resurrection came from Jewish sources, not Greek ones.

          And what do you conclude from this? Does this argue that the Jesus story is historically accurate?

        • Greg G,

          Please point me to primary sources that speak of these gods as dying and rising.

          For primary sources on Osiris, try reading Egyptian heiroglyphics. If you want something a little more modern, you could try Plutarch as he wrote about Isis and Osiris in the first century. You might also look up some of the modern translations online. You could check out the primary sources listed at the bottom of several Wikipedia pages on Osiris.

          Some of the myths about Osiris say he was killed but his wife put him back together using magic so he could father a son. After that, he died and became the god of the Egyptian afterlife.

    • Greg G,

      Finally Ehrman argues that dying and rising gods do not provide the background for Christian believes because the earliest Christians did not see Jesus as divine.

      All we know of the earliest Christians is from the Epistles. They do not see Jesus as anything but divine. They never mention a ministry. They cite the Old Testament and use their own reasoning when a quote from Jesus would make their case much better. The epistles that are supposed to be written by his companions never tells us an anecdote. They talk about the crucifixion but give no details. They talk about the resurrection. But they never give an indication that they thought of him as a contemporary person. He’s always God’s little buddy.

      The idea that he was a first century person appears to have arisen after the destruction of Judea, when there was nobody left to dispute those tales. The book of Mark is clearly fiction and the other gospels use him as a source.

  • Greg G

    Osiris was cut into 13 pieces but only 12 were found. It seems that his pen I s was eaten by a fish. He was associated with the dark, fertile soil of the Nile Valley. There are 10 islands and two banks in the Nile Delta. Perhaps a small island was washed away during a flood and gave rise to the myth. Isis put him back together so he could give her a son – Horus. Then he died and ended up ruling the underworld.

    Apparently the ancient Egyptians thought they would have a better chance of getting an afterlife if Osiris saw that they also had a piece of their penis missing.

    The Hebrews adopted the practice but had no good justification other than Moses learned the hard way that Yahweh would have fistfight with you didn’t.

    • Greg G,

      “pen I s” is supposed to be “penis”. I fat-fingered my hand-held’s keyboard and its spell checker seems to have interfered with my correction.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        I thought that was a deliberate bowdlerization to please the spam filters …

  • Bob Jase

    Although not a god, the Essenes had a dying & resurrecting figure in their Teacher of Righteousness as a Hebrew messiah more than a century before the supposed birth of Jesus. Don’t even need a further pagan inspiration although I’m sure they figured in.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teacher_of_Righteousness

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    If you think that the Jesus story is only supernatural elements, then you must not have ever read it very carefully. While as a scholar I understand your frustration with Christian fundamentalism, offering parallels that fail to take into account what resurrection meant in Judaism in the first century, and thus in early Christianity, doesn’t seem to be time well spent.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      James:

      Yes, I understand that there are natural elements of the Jesus story (he does come down to earth as a man, after all).

      There was no concept of resurrection in early Judaism that I’m aware of. If you’re saying that it developed in the centuries just before the time of Jesus (the apocalyptic tradition had a novel sense of the afterlife, for example), yes, I understand that to some extent.

      But that wasn’t the topic here. I’m simply focusing on the dying-and-rising stories that would likely have been familiar to any literate person in the Ancient Near East. That’s a plausible natural explanation for why the gospel story has a resurrection element that beats the alternative option of taking it at face value.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        In our earliest sources, Jesus isn’t a figure that comes down to Earth. You are reading the earliest sources through the Gospel of John and the Creed of Nicaea.

        I would highly recommend that, if you want to discuss these sorts of topics related to the history of religion in a serious way, you begin by informing yourself about Jewish thought regarding resurrection in this period. You are pointing to materials with vague parallels and significant differences and missing what the early Christian sources meant in their original Jewish context, before they had even come up with a term like “Christian” to indicate their identity as distinct from other Jews, much less the later evolution of Christianity into a separate religion.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          James:

          In our earliest sources, Jesus isn’t a figure that comes down to Earth.

          OK, I can see that. In Paul, there’s no mention of this. Even in Mark, the Adoptionist view is a reasonable reading.

          You are reading the earliest sources through the Gospel of John and the Creed of Nicaea.

          If you’re saying that “Christianity” changed during its early years, yes, I see your point.

          if you want to discuss these sorts of topics related to the history of religion in a serious way, you begin by informing yourself about Jewish thought regarding resurrection in this period.

          Nothing wrong with that, but there are only so many hours in the day. I’m not trying to write a thesis here, just focus on one small point–the dying-and-rising precedents to the Jesus story from cultures outside Judaism.

          missing what the early Christian sources meant in their original Jewish context

          Did Paul much care for the original Jewish context? Yes, I understand that he is said to have been a Pharisee, and he was kowtowing to the James/Peter faction, but it seems like he went his own way with little regard for Jewish tradition.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Well, Paul is not the start of Christianity, and so even if one thinks that Paul’s configuration of the Jewish tradition was essentially a departure from it, I don’t think that matters for the question of Christian origins.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          James:

          I’d like to get us back to the topic of the post. I’m not sure what your objection is. There were dying-and-rising stories that preceded the gospel account, and some of these would’ve been known to the gospel writers and other early Christians. What does this tell you about their possible influence on the gospel story?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          None of those are really talking about the same thing as the early Christians, which was that Jesus had undergone what most Jews expected all humans to experience at the end of time, the resurrection that would precede the final judgment and the life of the age to come or messianic age. That’s why I suggested that looking for vague parallels from further afield, while ignoring the obvious immediate context of these writings, doesn’t make sense to me.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          James:

          Yes, they saw Jesus as the firstfruits, with the full harvest coming soon (Paul’s phrasing). I don’t think it worked out that way.

          But that wasn’t what the earliest Jews expected, I don’t think. The ideas of the afterlife evolved within Judaism over time.

          I agree that pulling in the Jewish context would make a more complete picture, but my goal here was to focus. Are you saying that the dying-and-rising precedents cast no doubt on the Jesus story? Justin Martyr certainly thought they did.

          Yes, I understand that the Jesus story is different. Of course it’s different; otherwise it’d be the same, and we’d call it whatever that other religion was called, not “Christianity.” I’m saying that the parallels are striking and impossible to dismiss.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          You seem to be running together the concerns of apologists of various sorts with the concerns of historians. Apologists may well be concerned to argue, on the one side, that Jesus was unique, and on the other side, that he was not. The historian, on the other hand, is not surprised that human beings and human interpretations of things are neither wholly original nor wholly derivative, but always somewhere along a spectrum. My concern is that there are those with the apologist’s interest who think that their point has some bearing on the historical questions, which it doesn’t. No serious historian is going to claim that Jesus rose from the dead. And so the fact that such beliefs arose among Jesus’ Jewish followers is not relevant to the historian’s quest to understand a figure who made such an impression on his apprentices that they not only became convinced that he was the one who would restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne, but even after he ought to have been considered definitively disqualified from that role, found a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance and maintain their belief that he was the long-awaited anointed one even after the crucifixion.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          James:

          The historian, on the other hand, is not surprised that human beings and human interpretations of things are neither wholly original nor wholly derivative, but always somewhere along a spectrum.

          Yes, this rings true for me as well. But that’s the thing–we see in the gospel story just what you’d expect to see if we were reading yet another story that evolved out of human culture.

          An actual religion, though? That ought to look very different than whatever limited human imaginations can come up with, and if it doesn’t, why imagine that it is any different from the manmade religions that it looks like?

          No serious historian is going to claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

          And this doesn’t trouble you as a Christian, even a progressive one? Do you not care about the historical grounding of the Jesus story?

          a figure who made such an impression on his apprentices that they not only became convinced that he was the one who would restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne, but even after he ought to have been considered definitively disqualified from that role, found a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance and maintain their belief that he was the long-awaited anointed one even after the crucifixion.

          The evolution of Christian thought in the early years is certainly interesting, but you’re saying that the only explanation is supernatural? Lots of religions make a hard break with their antecedents.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Who is suggesting something supernatural? Or are you talking about what the early Christians believed rather than the judgment of modern historians about those beliefs?

          I think history is important. That is precisely why the bringing in of more distant and vague parallels, and ignoring the meaning of these Jewish texts in their Jewish context, troubles me.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          James:

          Who is suggesting something supernatural?

          Not you? I’m happy to explain the story of the early church in natural terms, but as a Christian, I assumed that you would have something supernatural in your explanation.

          I think history is important.

          Sounds good to me. I don’t propose to dismiss the Jewish context but to ignore it momentarily as we examine just one facet of the culture of the people back then, other cultures’ resurrection stories, and see how they can inform the gospel story.

        • Greg G.

          Hello James,

          Pardon me for butting in. I’m trying to reconcile what your position is with

          In our earliest sources, Jesus isn’t a figure that comes down to Earth.

          in one comment and

          And so the fact that such beliefs arose among Jesus’ Jewish followers is not relevant to the historian’s quest to understand a figure who made such an impression on his apprentices that they not only became convinced that he was the one who would restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne, but even after he ought to have been considered definitively disqualified from that role, found a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance and maintain their belief that he was the long-awaited anointed one even after the crucifixion.

          in another.

          The earliest Christian writings are all about Jesus being crucified and resurrected and being Lord. We don’t see details about the crucifixion as if it was a recent event. We don’t see the early Christian writings relying on any teachings from Jesus. They rely on Old Testament scripture and their own reasoning when a quote from the Lord would have made a more conclusive argument.

          I agree with the first quote but I don’t see the basis for the second.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I am not sure how one could get the impression you have from reading the actual sources and studying them using the tools of historical study. Any chance you’ve been reading mythicist web sites rather than the relevant primary sources and what historians have to say about them?

        • Greg G.

          Any chance you’ve been reading mythicist web sites rather than the relevant primary sources and what historians have to say about them?

          Yes, sir, I have read both and not just web sites. I’ve read a dozen Bart Ehrman books, a couple byBurton Mack, a couple by Randal Helms and a few others. I’ve read several Robert M. Price books from before and after his mythicist position.

          I need someone to talk me down if I am on the wrong path.

          I read one Earl Doherty book because Ehrman, in Did Jesus Exist? (page 253), used an ad hominem to dismiss him, saying he was like other mythicists who used an interpolation excuse for convenience. I saw only two times where Doherty cited an interpolation in The Jesus Myth. Ehrman uses 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 to establish Paul’s attitude toward the Jews but many scholars say it’s an interpolation for non-mythicist reasons. Wikipedia gives several reasons to think it’s an interpolation and cites the sources.

          DJE? also inspired me to read Price’s The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Sources. Ehrman took a couple of swipes at some low-hanging fruit but didn’t get into the interesting things. He doesn’t mention that Price is using arguments from other scholars though Price doesn’t specify his sources for each point, either. Most of the arguments on the sources that the Gospel authors used can be found here. Price padded it in the book by quoting several of the passages.

          In addition to those, my own study has made me think Mark used Galatians as a source, as well. Paul mentions Peter, James and John in Galatians and those are the three who play major roles in Mark, who uses the character traits suggested by Paul. Paul says they are “reputed to be pillars” and Mark has James and John wanting to sit on either hand of Jesus. Paul says that until James sent people to Antioch, Peter ate with the Gentiles and Mark has him professing to to remain strong but denying Jesus three times. Mark puts Paul’s argument with Peter into Jesus’ mouth in chapter 7. (Price mentions the similarity in section 20 of the link above but doesn’t make the connection as a source). It would be strange for Peter and Paul to have that argument if Jesus had actually taught that. Galatians has “Love thy neighbor as thyself” from Leviticus and “Abba, Father” but so does Mark.

          I also think Q is defined too narrowly. I think Mark was familiar with it. I think Mark may not have been wealthy enough to have the documents so he had to quote from memory. Mark 8:34 is copied nearly verbatim in Matthew 16:24 and Luke 9:23 while Matthew 10:37-38 and Luke 14:26 are very similar to Gospel of Thomas 55. Matthew and Luke didn’t recognize Mark’s use and copied it again from Q. Mark 4:1-35 is parables that look Q-like and Price’s list does not account for those verses. Mark Goodacre thinks Matthew wrote the Q verses and cites minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark as proof that Luke used Matthew as a source and cites some examples on his web page from those verses. I think Matthew and Luke may have had the Q document in hand and each corrected where Mark quoted from memory.

          I am also seeing that Galatians and the Epistle of James are related. Paul is upset with the Galatians because they are following a new version of Christ. He seems to be arguing against the theology expressed in James while James seems to be a direct response to Paul’s letter. Paul uses Abraham and his seed as an argument. Near the end he uses the “Love thy neighbor as thyself” quote from Leviticus. James uses that quote fairly early as a point of agreement, then diverges and gives a different spin on Abraham. The opposite positions of the overall topic and two specific topics corresponding support the idea. I haven’t gone too deep with this so there may be more.

          Price says that Dennis MacDonald says that the story of Legion, the demonaic, is taken from the Cyclops story in The Odyssey. When I read the relevant Homer passage, the Cyclop’s name caught my eye – “Polyphemus”. The first four letters brought “for we are many” to mind. I looked it to find that Polyphemus means “famous”, or “many talk about”. I knew that “Legion” was Latin for a large number of soldiers but why would Mark use a Latin word? Then I looked at Mark in the Greek in a concordance and saw that the word “lego”, translated as “said” was immediately before “Legio”, as if Mark was trying to show that “Legio” meant “many talk about” too. If the reader didn’t pick up on the meaning of the Latin word “Legion”, he added “for we are many”, using “polys” for “many”. It’s seems as intentionally obvious as John Goodman’s eyepatch in O Brother! Where Art Thou? that the character portrayed is the Cyclops. I received MacDonald’s book yesterday and the first thing I checked was to see if he used this idea. I couldn’t find it.

          I have wanted to run these ideas past a scholar for some time. I welcome your consideration and comments.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Wow, you have read quite a lot of interesting things! I apologize for my question, which really need not have had the snarky tone that it did!

          Let me start by emphasizing that history and Biblical scholarship work much the same way as other academic fields do. As scholars, we are expected to publish, which means coming up with new interpretations and new approaches (since for the most part the data set remains the same, unless there is a fortunate archaeological find, which does happen, but not often enough for us to always have something new in that sense to write about). The other pole of the process is the evaluation of what we publish by the scholarly community. And so it is important to figure out what the consensus is, and why it is what it is. Since we are always eager to find a new perspective or method – indeed, our jobs depend on it! – if scholars agree about something, that suggests that the evidence strongly supports that consensus.

          Next, the approach of MacDonald (who is not a mythicist), Price, and Brodie seems to me very much an exercise in parallelomania. But if I use your example to illustrate, if one starts with one not uncommon characterization of a particular character in a story, and then begins looking for a possible way to connect them, even being willing to find it in a similarity between a Roman military term in Latin and the very common Greek word for “I say/speak,” one will surely be able to – and that will show what the human imagination is capable of, rather than offering a plausible explanation of how a story was composed.

          That approach also treats Christian origins as a literary phenomenon, an exercise in reworking of older stories into new ones. But the consensus is that Christianity predates such literary compositions about Jesus. And in the letters he wrote, Paul already indicates that he had met Jesus’ brother, that he believed (rightly or wrongly) that Jesus was descended from David, had been born, had been killed through crucifixion, and had been buried. In order to neutralize such evidence, the mythicist has to offer extremely forced and unpersuasive reinterpretations of those details. I have yet to encounter a persuasive case for doing so which would render mythicism more likely to be true than the conclusions of mainstream secular historians.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          James:

          if scholars agree about something, that suggests that the evidence strongly supports that consensus.

          I agree that outsiders are bound by the consensus in science, but does it work that way within religious studies? If 4 out of 5 Muslim clerics agree that Mohammed was a prophet (and, hey—they’re the experts in that department), does that mean that the rest of us outsiders should accept their conclusion?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Bob, you are confusing religious studies, which is a secular academic undertaking, and theology. The former deals with historical and other types of scholarly analysis, not the insider view of theologians. And so a professor of religion will talk about individuals that were regarded as prophets, but will never make claims such as that God was speaking through such individuals.

          Greg, if you think that mainstream scholars and historians have taken over the views of religious believers uncritically, you cannot be that familiar with this field. There is no claim about what Jesus said or did or had happen to him that hasn’t been scrutinized skeptically.

          One cannot simply run together phrases just because they have a word in common within them. Paul uses “brother of the Lord” to distinguish James from Peter. Obviously, one can claim that there was a category of leaders called “the brothers of the Lord” which was distinct from the apostles and for which we have no other evidence. But that speculation is not going to be more likely than that Paul meant what his language more naturally seems to, and which everyone who wasn’t motivated by dogma took it to mean.

          Few scenarios are strictly speaking impossible. A historian asks about what is most likely given the available evidence. I realize that, in the absence of a high degree of familiarity with the time period and its literature, some fringe perspectives may in fact seem really plausible. But there is a reason why there is such a consensus of secular historians about there having been a historical Jesus of Nazareth. And when you look closely at the methods used by mythicists, you’ll find that they are the same ones used by other denialists in the domains of history and the natural sciences.

        • Greg G.

          Hi James,

          Thank you for the reply. You had no need to apologize as I took no offense. I have seen your exchanges on Richard Carrier’s blog and some of your posts on Patheos.

          I agree that consensus among scholars likely point to truth, except when it doesn’t, but if the scholars are relying on a foundation that was laid down by people who started with the belief and emphasized that which supports the belief to the exclusion of all else, the conclusions should be examined often. Theology has been passed down from universities established by Christians who would naturally be motivated to exaggerate historical probabilities that favored their foregone conclusion. In Proving History, Carrier points out some of the problematic methods.

          Scholars point to the other sources for Matthew, Mark, and Luke and insist that we don’t have them. When someone points to writings that were very much available to those authors and have the same information as the passages attributed to the other sources, someone gets accused of “parallelomania”.

          Some of the explanations may seem weak but when there are some strong cases with several identical elements, it is unlikely to be a coincidence. One or two smoking guns can establish the fact of dependence so that the weaker instances with one or two correspondences are more likely.

          Price does mention who is not a mythicist in TCMaIP. when he presents their information. Each scholars work by itself does not establish the mythicist position but combined, there is a case to be made. The books I have read that Price cites make strong and weak cases for Mark’s sources. The stronger cases establish that Mark very likely did draw on the literature of the day so it becomes a question of what is not from the sources cited. When I looked at the verses of Mark that were not accounted for, several of them were about Jesus and his followers sailing somewhere, just like Odysseus.

          And in the letters he wrote, Paul already indicates that he had met Jesus’ brother…

          Did he? I count Paul using the same Greek word for brother with the same suffix a dozen other places in the least disputed letters, always in the metaphorical sense. I count 192 uses of words with the root “adelph-” in the Epistles. The only ones that appear to be literal uses are in Romans 16:15, a greeting to someone’s sister, and two uses in 1 John 3:12, about Cain killing his brother. The plural of the phrase is used in 1 Corinthians 9:5 in a list of evangelists who travel with their wives and are supported by the Corinthians, between the apostles and Cephas. We see the list reversed in chapter 15 but with The Twelve and the 500 between Cephas and the apostles. So it seems Paul was calling the Twelve “brothers of the Lord”, which would mean it was not used literally and that the Galatians verse shouldn’t be taken literally either.

          Paul may have been “snarky” in each case. It appears that in 1 Corinthians 9 that the Corinthians may have been considering cutting off his financial support and he had to contrast himself with the other evangelists. He may have called them “the brothers of the Lord” sarcastically. (Is “Lord” Jesus or God, here?) In Galatians, Paul is in a chiding tone, easily seen in chapter 3. He argues against everything that is espoused in the Epistle of James. In the first two chapters, he is defending himself and his message as coming directly from Jesus and not from men. He plays up his disagreement with Paul. He says they are “reputed to be pillars”, which can be read as sarcasm. It may have been Peter and/or James that had visited the Galatians and that is why he spent two chapters on them. We can infer that James had some power that extended to Antioch and Paul objected to it. It may have been the sarcastic insult of being called “the brother of the Lord” that prompted James to write his letter in response.

          If the Gospels are dependent on misunderstandings of the Epistles, then we shouldn’t give them too much credence. The Epistles don’t talk about a ministry, teachings, or anecdotes, even from the ones allegedly written by Jesus’ companions, so they don’t support an early first century person and undercut the Gospel stories.

          I think this theory better accounts for the evidence in the Bible and certainly simplifies much by collapsing all the guys named James into one.

        • Greg G.

          James,

          It seems pretty natural for Paul to call everybody “brother” in the sense that they are all brothers of the Lord. So much so that we have no example of him referring to a literal brother. The only two times he adds “of the Lord” is when he is scoffing. From Galatians 1:1 until he starts discussing Abraham, he seems to be scoffing.

          We have “sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father” in Galatians 1:1, which seems like a strange thing to say if he thought Jesus had been a man and a literal brother to someone he knew.

          I know how annoying creationists are when they ask for one piece of evidence for evolution and I don’t want to be that way with this topic. There may be much interlocking evidence that is hard to see if you don’t have enough. I accepted that view until I read Did Jesus Exist? and thought “That’s it?”

          I intend to give Did Jesus Exist? another chance, focusing on the evidence for a first century Jesus. The extra-biblical evidence only tells us that there were people in the late first century that believed there was a Jesus but they were under the influence of one or more Gospels and were in no position to know for certain.

          Ehrman says that the speeches in Acts do not agree with Luke’s theology so they must come from another source. I can accept that as Luke admits to using other sources. One of his sources seems to have been Josephus which means it’s likely to be a second century document with lots of time for those other speeches to be developed.

          I liked Mack’s reasoning that there were different groups who has a leader named Jesus. The first layer of Q doesn’t look all that Christian, there had to be an author or originator and even if his name happened to be Jesus, there doesn’t seem to be a connection to the Epistle Jesus. The second and third layers would be way too late.

          Lord Kelvin was a pre-eminent physicist who has a temperature scale named for him. He discounted evolution because, according to his calculations, the Earth couldn’t be more than 20 million years old because it would be too cool to have molten lava. There was nothing wrong with his calculations but there was one thing missing from his physics. At the end of the 19th century, he advised students to not go into physics as they had it all figured out except for a few loose ends. A few years later, radioactivity, relativity and quantum physics were discovered. The question of Jesus’ existence looks like a whole lotta loose ends.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I don’t see the scoffing element, and would insist again that “brother of the Lord” is as semantically distinct from “brother in the Lord” in Koine Greek as it is in English.

          But I think the focus needs to be placed on what it meant to claim that someone was the anointed one descended from David. It was the claim that this individual was the one who would restore the dynasty of David to the throne. Is it really more likely that a group of individuals invented a figure that they wanted to persuade their contemporaries was that figure, and invented the detail that that individual had been executed by the Roman overlords? Is it not more likely that the configuration results from people believing that an actual person was that figure, and after he was executed they found a way of maintaining their belief?

        • Greg G.

          I don’t see the scoffing element…

          Galatians starts with a standard greeting but with “sent not from men nor by a man” inserted into it. In verses 6-10, he complains that someone has preached a different gospel to them and implies that the other person was trying to please men while he was not. Then he claims he found Jesus, he did not “consult any human being”. Three years later he went to Jerusalem for a couple of weeks to hang out with Peter and must have received an appointment to meet James.

          In chapter 2, Paul says he went back to Jerusalem fourteen years later to compare notes with the other apostles. In verse 6

          As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.

          He says some were held in high esteem but he scoffs at that and says he didn’t learn anything from them. In verse 9, he names James, Cephas, and John as the ones he scoffed at in verse 6. Next he tells us how he got in Peter’s face, how Peter wasn’t kosher until James sent some agents, and makes him out to be a hypocrite over it.

          Chapter 3 begins with such scoffing phrases as
          “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”
          “Are you so foolish?”
          “Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?”

          We can infer that someone was sent to the Galatians by another person and Paul scoffs at that. We see that James had power that reached to Antioch in Syria and he sent people on missions. We see that Peter knew that what happens in Antioch doesn’t stay in Antioch, so he kowtows to James. We see Paul scoffing at that power structure. Finally, we see Paul scoffing at the Galatians.

          James 1:6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

          That sounds like a swipe at what Paul said about receiving the information from God while he was a doubter. Verse 27 sounds like a reference to Paul’s mention of “remembering the poor” and a defense of Peter keeping kosher.

          Chapter 2 starts off deflecting Paul’s charge of “reputed to be pillars” with a lesson on favoritism. He quotes Leviticus 19:18, just as Paul did near the end of Galatians, as a point of agreement but goes into criticising Paul’s points. Paul made several points using Abraham as an example of being blessed because of his faith but James insists that it was the works that were important.

          After a contradiction of Paul’s argument, James starts chapter 3 by saying “Not many of you should become teachers”, another backhanded swipe.

          It’s too late to stop for brevity’s sake but to wrap it up, I’ll point out that the common topics and the order shows tends to point to a relationship between the two letters. The author James is very probably the James mentioned by Paul. James’ first verse was “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” with no mention of a literal blood relationship.

          Also note that both letters reference Old Testament verses but neither ever quotes Jesus. A quote from their master should trump the opponents arguments.

          I want to point out that my breakdown of “Polyphemus” is in addition to every other element of the Legion story corresponding to The Odyssey and not just random bits drawn from the entire story but elements from specific passages. This pattern is followed throughout Mark. It is my understanding that some ancient authors in the Greek language used Homeric structure to tell about things that actually happened. Why wouldn’t Mark have done that? Helms shows that the miracles in Mark are exaggerations of the miracles of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. Mark would need a framework to work them into the story, so why would he not use mimesis of The Odyssey?

          Mark is a fascinating read when you can see his sources and references.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I obviously have no problem with the exploration of possible influence of the Odyssey or any other literature on the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels. What I find problematic is the suggestion that those later literary depictions can be used to claim that Jesus was invented from whole cloth through such a process of literary borrowing. Paul relates himself to earlier stories in describing his own sense of calling, but it doesn’t mean that he had no such sense of calling, much less that he was a purely fictional being himself.

          I do not accept Paul’s claim – which he himself tempers elsewhere – to not depend on anyone else for his knowledge about Jesus. First, because I don’t find it plausible that Paul miraculously had revealed to him information that corresponded to what those who were the leaders of the early Christian community believed before him. Second, because his persecution of the early Christians implies some knowledge of their beliefs and practices, even if inaccurate or distorted. Third, because the letter to the Galatians provides a plausible motive for his wanting to claim independence from authority figures who he feared were siding with his opponents rather than himself.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          James:

          I don’t find it plausible that Paul miraculously had revealed to him information that corresponded to what those who were the leaders of the early Christian community believed before him.

          So Paul didn’t have a miraculous vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus?

          I read somewhere (a book by Randall Helms?) arguing that Paul’s back story (he was a hard core Pharisee, etc.) has holes in it. Perhaps you’re in this camp?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I don’t doubt that at some point Paul had one or more dreams or something of the sort in which Jesus featured. What I find implausible is the mythicist suggestion that Paul means in Galatias that everything he knew about Jesus, he learned through such means. He clearly had a significant amount in common with Peter and James, whatever they may have disagreed on. And to appeal to visions to account for that is to appeal to a miracle, something historians must not do.

        • Greg G.

          Hi James,

          Thank you for the reply. You have given me some food for thought. Where does Paul back off the claims that he received his information only by revelation from Jesus?

          When Paul says he “persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it”, it sounds like the hyperbole of preachers at revivals exaggerating about how evil they were before they got saved. If “my immediate response was not to consult any human being” is also hyperbole, then Galatians 1:20 is super-hyperbole where he vainly swears an oath to God that he isn’t lying when he tells us that. When he calls James “the brother of the Lord” immediately before that, it is the second highest hyperbole in a crescendo of hyperbole. It doesn’t make sense to hang your hat on that one factoid from an entire passage of stuff that isn’t quite so. We can infer that Paul thought James was a big-wig in the church who bossed people around. Verse 19 sounds as if Paul was accusing James of assuming the authority Jesus would have. Paul opposed the heirarchy.