What Are the Parallels Between Jesus and the “Divine Men” of the Ancient World? Part 2

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.  In part 1 of this post series, we reviewed Ehrman’s response to alleged parallel accounts of “divine men” in the ancient world.  After allowing that there are some parallels, Ehrman argues

that all of these figures about whom such stories were told were also different in key ways from one another. They were not all the same. The stories varied from one person to the next. The stories about Jesus are different in many ways from the others (just as each of them is different from the others).

Why is this important?  Why are the differences among accounts of ancient “divine men” damaging to mythicist claims?

This is important to bear in mind because mythicists often claim that everything said about Jesus can be paralleled in the myths and legends told about other divine figures on earth. And that simply is not true. A number of the key stories about Jesus are in fact unique to him, including some of the most important.

What are some examples of stories that are unique to Jesus?  According to Ehrman,

even though there are numerous instances of divine men who are supernaturally born, there is no instance of a divine man being born to a “virgin,” as happens in the case of Jesus, for example in the Gospel of Matthew. The entire point of most of the pagan supernatural birth stories is that a (mortal) woman is made pregnant by a God, precisely by having sex with her (often in human form, though sometimes Zeus preferred being in the form of a swan, or a snake, or…. some other animal, for some odd reason). I don’t know of any instances in which a woman gives birth as a virgin.

So too: the resurrection. The Gospel understanding of the resurrection is that Jesus came back into his body (a one-time corpse) which was then transformed and raised and exalted (explicitly in Luke-Acts) to heaven. This reanimation of the body type of resurrection is not attested, so far as I know, for any other divine man in antiquity.  This is an important point because mythicists want to claim that all the stories about Jesus were simply taken over from the pagan environment. And this is simply not true.

Neither the virgin birth, not the resurrection of Jesus, find parallels in other ancient accounts of “divine men,” according to Ehrman.  As these are two of the most crucial aspects of Jesus’s life, not finding these in other ancient accounts deals quite a blow to the mythicist assertion that everything written about Jesus’s life was just copied from other sources.

In part 3, we will continue looking at Bart Ehrman’s interview with Ben Witherington.  More to come!

  • I am rather puzzled here. Is Ehrman suggesting that the virgin birth and the resurrection are somehow evidence of historicity?

  • No. He is saying that these stories are unique to Jesus, and therefore were not copied from other ancient “divine men” accounts. That is the thesis of the mythicists, that virtually everything written about Jesus was just copied from other ancient accounts. Ehrman is showing that to be false.

  • I’m not really sure that the mythicists would claim that everything was “just copied.” However, if the things that weren’t copied don’t give us any evidence of historicity, I don’t see how it helps Ehrman’s case for Jesus’ existence. In effect, he’s just seems to be arguing that somethings were invented rather than borrowed, which I suspect any mythicist would be happy to concede.

  • The mythicist argument becomes completely ad hoc if they argue that everything in the Gospels is either copied or invented. Their whole theory hinges on the stories being copies of other stories, so I don’t think adding the “invention” category is a move they would want to make. It greatly waters down their theory.

  • Every story starts somewhere. Even the ones that are copied were either invented at one point or had their origin in some actual event. The mythicists do not require early Christians to have been completely devoid of any creativity or imagination.

  • Yes, but mythicists are trying to provide the source material for the inventions of the early Christians by claiming that they were getting their material from other ancient stories. For every case in the Jesus narratives where mythicists cannot find similar cases in other ancient texts, their theory weakens. The more significant these cases are, the worse the cracks are in their theory.

  • Isn’t the source for the virgin birth the Old Testament? Isn’t that an ancient story?

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