Post Author: Bill Pratt
Mythicists claim that the stories about Jesus were merely copied from other pagan myths circulating around the Roman Empire in the first century. If this is true, it does cast some doubt on the uniqueness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and it certainly makes one wonder if all the stories about Jesus were borrowed from other sources.
In order to discuss this claim, I will call to the stand one Bart Ehrman, a man who is no friend to Christianity. Ehrman was interviewed by Ben Witherington in a seven-part series last summer after Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus Exist?, was published. When asked in the seventh interview post what his research revealed about the alleged parallel stories, Ehrman first affirms that there are some similarities:
There are several points that need to be made, I think, about all the parallels that exist between the stories of Jesus and other supposed “divine men” of ancient Greece and Rome. The first is that there were indeed a number of similarities between the ways Christians talked about Jesus and the ways pagans (and in some instances, Jews) talked about other “sons of God.” There is no point denying this (it comes as a huge surprise to my students). We have stories of other “divine men” from antiquity who were thought to have been supernaturally born; to have been preternaturally wise, religiously, while still youths; to have engaged in itinerate preaching ministries; to have done miracles such as miraculously feeding the hungry, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead; and at the end of their lives to have ascended to heaven. These other stories do exist (and not just about Apollonius of Tyana.)
Not surprisingly, there were other stories in the ancient world of men supernaturally born, who engaged in preaching ministries, who performed miracles, and who ascended to heaven. In fact, even though I am not a historical scholar, I would wager to say that these kinds of stories have existed throughout the history of mankind, even up to the present day.
What should we make of these parallels? Do they lead us inevitably to the conclusion that the stories about Jesus were manufactured, that Jesus never existed? Ehrman argues that
the fact that Jesus was talked about in ways similar to how others were talked about does not mean that he (or they) did not exist. Some of these stories are told about figures who are absolutely and incontrovertibly historical (Alexander the Great; the Emperor Vespasian; Apollonius; and so on). If you wanted to tell stories about a figure you considered to be more than human, to be in some sense divine, these are the kinds of stories you told.
As Ehrman rightly points out, these kinds of stories were often told about real, historical people. Given that fact, concluding that Jesus never existed, as the mythicists do, is a completely unwarranted move. We cannot determine that a person never existed because they were said to have been born supernaturally, performed miracles, and ascended to heaven. If this is the criteria we use to determine whether people existed, we are going to have to redact a lot of historical figures from our history textbooks.
In part 2 of this series, we will continue to look at Ehrman’s exploration of this topic in Ben Witherington’s blog post.