Was Jesus a copycat savior, with traits copied from prior mythologies?
(These Bite-Size Replies are responses to “Quick Shots,” brief Christian responses to atheist challenges. The introduction to this series is here.)
Challenge to the Christian: Jesus is a copycat savior.
Christian response #1: “Whether it’s Mithras, Osiris, Horus, or any other ancient myth, none of them resemble Jesus as much as skeptics claim.”
Jesus resembles Dionysus in that both died and rose again. He resembles Helen of Troy in that both had supernatural conceptions. He resembles Asclepius in that both miraculously healed the sick. He resembles the Oenotropae, three sisters who could change water into wine. These figures all preceded Jesus, and they all came from nearby cultures that influenced Palestine.
No, Jesus’s biography isn’t identical to that for Dionysus. If it were, we’d call him “Dionysus.” The claim isn’t that these other supernatural figures were identical to Jesus, just that they were each identical on one supernatural point.
What’s likelier, that the supernatural traits of the Jesus story are all true or, like the prior mythological figures that share those traits, Jesus is mythological as well? If Jesus were historical, he wouldn’t look like a copycat savior with a crazy quilt of supernatural features picked from neighboring religions. A real god would’ve done something lasting—eliminating disease or terraforming Israel from a desert into a meadow—rather than fleeting miracles.
What’s likelier, that the supernatural traits of the Jesus story are all true or, like the prior mythological figures that share those traits, Jesus is mythological as well? [Click to tweet]
Christian response #2: “Why would you be surprised that ancient people, when thinking about the existence and nature of God, would think of Him in ways that are similar to the true God?”
What true God? Honest scholars don’t presuppose a god into existence and then show it’s compatible with the evidence. Instead, they follow the evidence without preconception and let the conclusion take its own shape. There is no “true God” to test human religious ideas against.
But let’s accept the premise and suppose the true god were only vaguely perceptible. First, this shy and reluctant god doesn’t sound at all like Christianity. And second, we don’t see every culture with a vague sense of the true divine, comparing notes and coming together. World religions are diverging. Look at Christianity: there are tens of thousands of denominations, and this number grows by two per day. We find this same fertility in the world’s other religions.
You can imagine the Christian story as true and reinterpret other religions as supernaturally anticipating Christianity, but the naturalistic explanation is much more plausible. It neatly explains the facts, by hypothesizing that nearby cultures—Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and others—invented supernatural properties for their gods, and then a Jewish sect incorporated them into its new religion.
You can imagine the Christian story as true and reinterpret other religions as supernaturally anticipating Christianity, but the naturalistic explanation is much more plausible. [Click to tweet]Christian response #3: “Skeptics who claim the story of Jesus is similar to ancient mythological gods are exaggerating and cherry-picking.”
You can sift through history, searching for surprising similarities such as the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy (both presidents were shot in the head, both were succeeded by southern Democrats named Johnson, both assassins were themselves killed before their trial, and more). Searching through millions of potential pairings and keeping the handful with the most curious coincidences, like this one—that’s cherry-picking. Starting with Jesus and looking for precedents in the supernatural traits of the gods from surrounding cultures is simply resolving a sensible question.
This is a poor comparison. The Lincoln/Kennedy similarities are natural; by contrast, Jesus, Dionysus, and other gods are supernatural. Lincoln and Kennedy are from history, while Dionysus, Asclepius, and quite possibly Jesus are legend and myth. Kennedy’s biography wasn’t tweaked to make it match Lincoln’s, but the traits of Jesus might have easily been cherry-picked from earlier gods. The Lincoln/Kennedy coincidences are surprising, but the similarities between Jesus and other gods have an unsurprising natural explanation.
Similarities between Jesus and earlier gods don’t prove there was borrowing, but that’s the way to bet. The Jesus story is best explained as legend and mythology, not history.
Similarities between Jesus and earlier gods don’t prove there was borrowing, but that’s the way to bet. The Jesus story is best explained as legend and mythology, not history. [Click to tweet]
(The Quick Shot I’m replying to is here.)
For further reading:
- Wikipedia: Dying-and-rising deity
- Religions Continue to Diverge. What Does that Tell Us?
- Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior
- Lee Strobel’s Fragile Argument
- Was Jesus Born to a Virgin? William Lane Craig Answers This and More.
which is adequately explained by stupidity.
— Hanlon’s Razor
Image from Ruth Hartnup, CC license