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 3, Ehrman cited the work of Jonathan Smith who claimed that there were no unambiguous accounts of dying and rising gods in the ancient world. Witherington follows up with another question about the resurrection of Jesus:
In what way is the Jewish notion of a resurrection a different idea than either the fertility crop cycle idea, or what is sometimes said about pagan deities that either disappear or die?
One of the reasons for thinking that the belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is not exactly like what you can find in pagan myths about their gods is that it is solidly rooted in Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the first century. This should come as no surprise, since Jesus and his followers were not pagans with pagan views of the divine realm, but first-century apocalyptically minded Jews.
In some pagan circles, there was a belief in fertility gods, who would spend some time in the underworld and some time in this world, alternating year after year. These gods were closely connected to the crops: they (both the crops and the gods connected with them) die in the winter and come back to life in the Spring. And they do that year after year.
That obviously is not like the early Christian belief in Jesus, who does not go into the underworld then return to this world year after year. Instead, Jesus was believed to have gone to the underworld for three days and then to have been raised from the dead and exalted to heaven where he is to stay until he returns. This is not rooted in pagan mythology, but in apocalyptic theology.
After reading through Ehrman’s answers and checking other sources, here is my conclusion on the alleged parallel accounts of “divine men” of the ancient world. There are similarities to the accounts of Jesus, but they are on the surface, and somewhat trivial. Given the tendencies of people throughout history to repeat archetypes and themes in their stories, it is not surprising that we would find some of these repeated in the stories about Jesus.
When we start to dig deeper into the Jesus stories and try to find parallels in ancient accounts, we find that the similarities end. In particular, the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus are both unique in ancient history. There just aren’t other pagan accounts that mirror these important aspects of the Jesus narratives.
Given that the evidence does not support the mythicist contention that the Jesus stories were completely cribbed, I submit that there is no good reason to doubt the historicity of the person of Jesus based on alleged parallel accounts. Bart Ehrman and I can agree on this point.