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.
After Witherington’s initial question about parallel accounts of “divine men” in the ancient world, he zeros in on the alleged accounts of dying and rising gods. He asks, “Why do you think this theory of dying and rising gods became so popular in the 20th century, and what caused its scholarly demise?” Here is Ehrman’s answer:
Yes, for a long time it was widely thought that dying and rising gods were a constant staple of ancient pagan religions, so that when Christians claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they were simply borrowing a common “motif” from pagan religions. This view was first popularized by Sir James George Frazer at the beginning of the twentieth century in his enormously influential (and very large) book, The Golden Bough. (As I explain in Did Jesus Exist, Frazer did in his day what Joseph Campbell did in ours – popularized the view that at heart, all religions are basically the same).
This view was exploded by Jonathan Z. Smith in the late 1980s, chiefly in an article on the “dying-rising gods” in the scholarly and authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion. Smith showed that the notion that there was a widespread category of gods who died and rose again was, in fact, a modern myth, not based on a careful reading of ancient sources. In his own words:
“The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation , must be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts. . . . All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case the deities return but have not died; in the second case the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.” (cited in Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. Lindsay Jones, (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005 [original: 1987]), 4:2535).
Ehrman summarizes the findings of Smith:
Smith’s findings were based not on new discoveries, but on a more careful reading of ancient sources. Unfortunately, even though these findings have made a major impact on the research of New Testament scholars and other scholars of Christian antiquity, they appear to be unknown to the mythicists, many of whom continue to make the now dated claim that the resurrection of Jesus was simply invented along the lines of the common pagan myth.
More from Witherington and Ehrman in part 4 of the series.