The Invaluable Lori Pieper…

on Gospel, Myth, and Story

Excellent stuff. Atheists full of the tired wheeze about how the gospel is “really” just a warmed-over pagan myth need to a) read “Mythopoeia” and b) familiarize themselves with real biblical scholarship *outside* the cramped hothouse of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Price, and Bart Ehrman. The New Testament makes occasional passing reference to the mental world of paganism. But what is blazingly obvious to anybody without an urgent agenda blind to common sense is that the *real* mental world of the NT authors is totally and completely dominated by the Old Testament. These people are Jews and think like Jews, full of Jewish idioms, images, and habits of mind, not pagan ones. If you don’t begin with that fact and proceed from there, you are as ignorant as the flat earther who says “If the earth rotates, then why isn’t there always a breeze from the East? Huh? Huh? Showed you, you stupid fancy-pants scientist!”

Seriously, atheists: consider the possibility that, just as a six day creationist who just started thinking about the science last week has not overturned all of the sciences with a Google search or two, so the atheist who has picked up a couple of glib dismissals of the NT from some “Jesus never existed” quack. The notice of a couple of dubious parallels with paganism, coupled with the furious suppression of the huge differences between Christ and the pagan gods cannot force the square peg into the round hole. Christianity remains stubbornly itself and the New Testament remainss stubbornly unique. It is high time the atheist stopped imagining that finding the theological equivalent of the Young Earth Creationist with a Ph.D in ceramics who brandishes his Ph.D. to make claims far beyond his competence is any more sensible a way to proceed for the atheist than it is for the Young Earth Creationist. Gullible fanboys who think Bart Ehrman to be the source and summit of all biblical scholarship are no more engaged with reality than the internet creationist who imagines that a blurry photo of Noah Ark proves the earth is 6000 years old. When the “Jesus Myth” crowd can emerge from the tiny bubble of Jesus Myth “scholarship” and start to actually engage scholars who do not tell them only what they are bound and determined to hear, then I can take them seriously. Otherwise, they are are far as can be from “open-minded”. They are fearful cranks who worship, not use, the intellect.

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  • kenneth

    I don’t hold that Christianity is “warmed over paganism”, but neither it has more interface with its predecessors than many Christians care to admit. NONE of the key parts of the Christ mythology have not been done before, and usually more than once. Virgin birth, a “John the Baptist” figure killed for his trouble, born into humble surroundings, 12 disciples, miracles, a self-sacrifice (on wood) for humanity’s benefit, resurrection. Even Judaic cosmology is shot through with pagan influences, although it had long assumed a distinct monotheistic form by the time of the New Testament. Does that mean Christianity simply re-packaged these myths? I wouldn’t say that, but the underlying myths and their power were very well established and understood leading up to Christianity. Christianity did not take shape in a hermetically sealed culturally sterile vacuum chamber. Nor was Judaism the only rootstock, or even necessarily the primary one in the decades and centuries after the crucifixion. There was a riot of concepts about who or what Christ was for a long time, and a lot of cross-talk between the developing Christianity and the pagan cultures in which it took hold. Whatever the exact mix of its mythology origins, Christianity is unique in the meanings it drew from the sacrifice of its God-man and what they believe it meant for humanity. I do accuse Christianity of blatant rip-offs in one regard, and that is their timing of holidays. They are, for the most part, purposely overlaid with long pre-existing pagan seasonal rituals. There is simply no plausible reason to believe the Nativity took place on December 25, except to preempt the winter solstice/Saturnalia traditions. The events as described quite likely would have been much closer to September 11 than what we call “Christmas.” I can’t fault them for doing this. It’s smart marketing. The early missionaries knew that they had a much better chance of making the sale if they gave their pagan customers something they could relate to. A software upgrade if you will. If you thought the Rebirth of the Sun was cool, you’ll love the Rebirth of the Son! Renewal of the Earth, drunken holiday parties with the relatives you already hated, unappreciated gifts AND eternal salvation, all for one low price! Christmas and Easter for all that at least do have a truly unique Christian nature about them. All souls/saints day, not so much. That is pagan Samhain to the core, and at least the Mexican Catholics own up to that with Day of the Dead. On that day, those Mexican Catholics are the Jedi Masters of paganism, and we stand in awe of them!

    • ivan_the_mad

      Kenneth,check out G.K. Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man”. It’s available freely on sites like Project Gutenberg.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Wow, every single stupid Catholic=pagan myth in one single post. I stand in awe, sir.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        There is simply no plausible reason to believe the Nativity took place on December 25, except to preempt the winter solstice/Saturnalia traditions.

        There are only no plausible reasons because you have failed spectacularly to even look or listen for them. The feast of the Annunciation was determined much earlier than Christmas, and in keeping with Jewish/Christian tradition (see the connection once again? Jewish rather than pagan), holy men were killed on either their birthday or their day of conception. March 25, traditionally the date of Jesus’ death, was established as the Annunciation (his conception), and those science hating Christians figured out that 9 months later we would celebrate his birth.

        But it doesn’t fit your predetermined narrative, so it’s implausible.

        • kenneth

          Nothing about a late December date is plausible. The dates of Zechariah’s priestly duties would have placed Elisabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy , the time of revelation of Mary’s own pregnancy, in December. Nine months later is September. In addition, none of Luke’s description of shepherds tending flocks in the field at night and lots of census travelers on the road makes sense in a late December setting. There would have been nothing for man or beast to eat in those fields at that time, and cold, wet and possibly frozen terrain.

          • Mark Shea


            Your expertise is hilarious. My friend, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, goes to the Holy Land on a regular basis. He always points out to his friends that the shepherds are out in the fields with their flocks in December, because so many of them “know” as you do, that this is impossible, due to the fact that they read crap on the Internet and mistake it for knowledge.

            • kenneth

              If Fr. Mitch went to Bethlehem in 4 b.c. and saw flocks in the fields, overnight, through December, I’m all ears. The fact that it may not be “impossible” to have animals out in the circumstances of modern climate, and more importantly, modern agriculture, says nothing about what went on 2,000 years prior. The fact that I can eat fresh citrus in the dead of winter is less than very thin evidence that the Indians living here 2,000 years ago were doing the same thing. Records of the ancient times are very consistent in noting that the day and night keeping of animals in the fields ended around October in those days. There was simply no good reason to be out there at that time. Nor were people traveling en masse during the winter months.

              None of the information or even reasoned speculation, taken as a whole, makes late December a sensible date. Not the agriculture, not the Judaic records relating to the annunciation, not the best guess about astronomical events, none of it. Most of the scholarship related to this is not atheist, it is stuff produced by devout Christians who simply aren’t convinced by the December date and who don’t see a different date as diminishing Christianity in any way. It’s also worth noting that the exact date of the Nativity was not fixed until what, 400 years after the fact, and was not even a matter of much concern in the early years of Christianity. The December date was fixed right about the time the ascending religion needed to challenge the prevailing paganism on its own mythological turf…

              • Andy, Bad Person

                If Fr. Mitch went to Bethlehem in 4 b.c. and saw flocks in the fields, overnight, through December, I’m all ears.

                Your speculation > greater than Fr. Mitch’s observations. Got it. It’s science!

                • kenneth

                  It’s not my speculation. It’s my read of the sum of scholarship (and speculation) from many different sources, many of the Christian. The sum of what they produced to me makes a strong, though not airtight case against Dec. 25. If we liken it to a jigsaw puzzle, the facts for a fall date fit together pretty well, even though a lot of pieces are missing. The “December” fitting of the puzzle CAN work, if we force the pieces enough, hammer a few in upside down and conclude that the resulting bizarre picture was meant to look like that. It was…a Picasso….yeah…

                  Unless Christians still feel like they’re competing with Saturnalia (or the very real commercial incarnation of it), there’s no reason they should feel all that invested in a Dec. 25 date. As a religion which places no stock in numerology or astrological portents, the Christ story should work as well on any day of the year. Christianity would find more traction if it stuck to its core claims (ie the whole salvation bit). When it demands, loudly, that people accept absurdly improbable historical claims as fact, people naturally start to wonder about the veracity of its other claims.

                  Saying that Christianity is “just” Paganism 2.0 is absurdly improbable, but so is the assertion that Christianity arose “untainted” or uninfluenced by anything that went before or the pretense that all of its holidays “just happened” to land on pre-existing festivals they were seeking to assimilate. Unzipping and watering my leg doesn’t mean it’s raining, and making authoritative pronouncements that it’s rain won’t make it so. Neither will getting mad at people who aren’t willing to buy it as rainwater.

                  • Mark Shea


                    Shorter Kenneth: Oh, you know. Everybody says it. All the best people!

                    I particularly like the bit about “absurdly improbable historical claims” when I’m the one pointing out the primary sources from patristics and Kenneth is the one vaguely waving his hands.

                    • kenneth

                      You ought to take the matter up with other Christians. Essentially every source I’ve read against Dec. 25 is a Christian source, and I would presume they’re not doing so in order to try to discredit the religion itself.

                    • Mark Shea

                      I assume the same thing. As I note, when I started drafting that chapter, I assumed the truth of the pseudoknowledge you continue to irrationally defend. The difference is, I researched the matter and found out I was wrong. You continue to spout pseudoknowledge and imagine that by citing other Christian sources who also uncritically accept the pseudoknowledge you have demonstrated the truth of your arguments. The reality is, we have not one jot of solid evidence that what drove the dating of Christmas was a need to accomodate paganism. What drove it was a focus on Jewish and Christian scripture and tradition. That’s not to say Christianity did not adapt pagan stuff. Of course it did. Indeed, pagan stuff was obviously festooned around Christmas (mistletoe, Christmas trees, etc). I’m not a Calvinist. I don’t worry about Christians taking themes from nature and referring them to the gospel because I am a sacramentalist who knows that the Redeemer and the Creator are the same God. I’m simply pointing out that the hard data we have points to the early Church looking to Jewish and Christian scripture and tradition in dating Christmas, not to concerns about the solstice (remember? a big chunk fo the early Church placed Christmas on January 6, not December 25). Your “scholarship” is based on a big fat guess made by a couple of 18th century Germans, not on actual data. And, admit it, you don’t actually know anything about what shepherds did in Judea 2000 years ago. You’re just waving your hands and regurgitating pseudoknowledge.

                  • Andy, Bad Person

                    Christianity would find more traction if it stuck to its core claims (ie the whole salvation bit). When it demands, loudly, that people accept absurdly improbable historical claims as fact, people naturally start to wonder about the veracity of its other claims.

                    So Benedict XVI should stop work on his upcoming encyclical, Defending the Date of Christmas from Internet Critics and get to work on something really important? Come off it, man. The only one who finds the date of Christmas even worth discussing is you. I will agree with you on one thing: it doesn’t actually matter what day on which he was born. Pretending that the date was selected because Christians were trying to compete with pagans? Nonsense. Christ crushed paganism with his blood and the blood of the martyrs centuries before the Church established the date of Christmas.

                    In other words, when you can get Constantine on board, it’s a bit unnecessary to play with dates just to win converts.

                    • I think Benedict might concede a few lines to the controversy in Part III of Jesus of Nazareth, which will be on the Gospels’ infancy narratives. Can’t wait!

              • Mark Shea

                Soooo… you know for a fact what shepherds did in Judea 2000 years ago how?

                I know this is difficult for you kenneth. The “Jesus was born in September because my pseudoknowledge source tells me all about ancient shepherds in Palestine” myth is a cherished one for folks by you. But the reality is, you don’t actually know jack. What you know is an oft-regurgitated meme that you couldn’t document if your life depended on it. What drove the dating of Christmas in the early Church was not the solstice, but Jewish and Christian scripture and tradition. Deal with it.

              • Maureen

                It was warmer in Roman times than it is today. (Hence all the Roman vineyards, orangeries, etc. in places like York and Kent.) So shepherds should have been comfier in December back then, than today.

                • It’s not my speculation. It’s my read of the sum of scholarship (and speculation) from many different sources, many of the Christian.


                  When you say “scholarship” do you mean the writings of scholars? Or the natterings of a few lone nuts with keyboards who just happen to be able to make their work available on the Internet? If you could provide links to scholarly articles, that would be great.

                  And just because people are Christian doesn’t mean they don’t have an agenda against other Christians. There are quite a few “anti-Christmas” Christians out there trying to destroy the holiday, by any means necessary, fair or foul. They think it is “pagan” and of course, way too Catholic. At any rate, it certainly doesn’t mean they are right.

                  Incidentally, I’ve always been more puzzled by the description of the shepherds being out with their sheep in the field at night. It doesn’t really square with what I’ve always understood about sheep herding, but I don’t have much expertise in the field at all.

                  • Mark Shea

                    What funny is that I actually trace the history of the “scholarship” in my article and kenneth just goes on regurgitating the meme.

      • Sal

        Well, not every one.
        He didn’t mention the Dagon fish hat.

      • Jared

        Not so. He missed pointing out that the Bishop’s miter totally comes from a Babylonian fish god (instead of, you know, Exodus)

    • SDG

      Kenneth: To pick just one of the more glaring problems with your comment: Resurrection (as opposed to resuscitation) is a uniquely Jewish concept. N. T. Wright’s THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD exhaustively surveys relevant classical and pagan literature and establishes that the pagan consensus was: People don’t come back from the dead. Even in stories about mythic heroes, let alone reports of historical figures, attempts to come back from the netherworld are almost infallibly failures. The idea that a man died and was subsequently raised again to bodily life (no corpse), but to immortal, transcendent bodily life, has no precedent I am aware of.

  • I’m not a huge fan of Bart Ehrman either, but it’s unfair to lump him with the “Jesus never existed” folks. In fact he just recently burnt some of his cred with the more rabid atheists by writing a book on how that bunk is bunk.

    • ivan_the_mad

      “Gilbert”, says I to myself. There’s a pretty good chance that refers to GKC. So I bit, and clicked. Chesterton, Catholicism, *and* mathemagicks? Huzzah, sir.

      “This is part two of a series on Fourier analysis and intuition.” Eh? EH??? SERIES, you say?!?!? Puntastic.

      • Thank you kind sir. Your flattery is flattering.

    • Mark Shea

      Ehrman opposes the Jesus Never Existed rubbish. That’s my point: even a quack like him knows that stuff is garbage.

  • I wake up on a fine Friday and find myself in the company of Tolkien in Mark’s praise! Thanks a million, good sir.

  • Lori’s piece is great – looking forward to the continuation. A welcome palate cleanser after reading a piece a friend linked on FB that analyzed Ridley Scott’s _Prometheus_ and tried to prove that the movie _wasn’t_ a yucky mishmash of myth, hamfisted Christian references, and postmodern materialist dread. :p

    • Thanks! Hope I have time to write it before too long.

  • Carbon Monoxide

    Hey, hey, hey… I actually HAVE a Ph.D. in Ceramics. Let’s not go there….