Post Author: Bill Pratt
If it could be conclusively shown that the gospel accounts of Jesus were literally cribbed from pre-existing pagan sources, it would be quite damaging to the credibility of the gospels. As I was re-reading Geisler and Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist the other day, I was impressed by their succinct treatment of this issue, so I will share it with you.
First they summarize the skeptic’s charge:
This theory asserts that the New Testament is not historical because New Testament writers merely copied pagan resurrection myths. Skeptics are quick to cite supposed resurrections of mythical characters like Marduk, Adonis, and Osiris. Is the New Testament just another myth? Could this theory be true?
They answer this question in the negative and start to present several reasons why this skeptical theory fails:
First, as we have seen, the New Testament is anything but mythological. Unlike pagan myths, the New Testament is loaded with eyewitness evidence and real historical figures, and it is corroborated by several outside sources. . . .
Second, the pagan-myth theory can’t explain the empty tomb, the martyrdom of the eyewitnesses, or the testimony of the non-Christian writings. . . .
Third, ancient non-Christian sources knew that the New Testament writers were not offering mythical accounts. As Craig Blomberg observes, “The earliest Jewish and pagan critics of the resurrection understood the Gospel writers to be making historical claims, not writing myth or legend. They merely disputed the plausibility of those claims.”
Fourth, no Greek or Roman myth spoke of the literal incarnation of a monotheistic God into human form (cf. John 1:1-3, 14), by way of a literal virgin birth (Matt. 1:18-25), followed by his death and physical resurrection. The Greeks were polytheists, not monotheists as New Testament Christians were. Moreover, the Greeks believed in reincarnation into a different mortal body; New Testament Christians believed in resurrection into the same physical body made immortal (cf. Luke 24:37; John 9:2; Heb. 9:27).
Fifth, the first real parallel of a dying and rising god does not appear until A.D. 150, more than 100 years after the origin of Christianity. So if there was any influence of one on the other, it was the influence of the historical event of the New Testament on mythology, not the reverse.
Were there any accounts of a god surviving death that existed before Jesus lived? According to Geisler and Turek,
the only known account of a god surviving death that predates Christianity is the Egyptian cult god Osiris. In this myth, Osiris is cut into fourteen pieces, scattered around Egypt, then reassembled and brought back to life by the goddess Isis. However, Osiris does not actually come back to physical life but becomes a member of a shadowy underworld. As Habermas and Licona observe, “This is far different than Jesus’ resurrection account where he was the gloriously risen Prince of life who was seen by others on earth before his ascension into heaven.”
But what if there were myths about dying and rising gods that existed before Jesus lived? What follows from that?
Finally, even if there are myths about dying and rising gods prior to Christianity, that doesn’t mean the New Testament writers copied from them. The fictional TV show Star Trek preceded the U.S. Space Shuttle program, but that doesn’t mean that newspaper reports of space shuttle missions are influenced by Star Trek episodes!
One has to look at the evidence of each account to see whether it is historical or mythical. There’s no eyewitness or corroborating evidence for the historicity of Osiris’s resurrection or for that of any other pagan god. No one believes they are true historical figures. But, as we have seen, there is strong eyewitness and corroborating evidence to support the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This final point is important. Numerous skeptics have come on my blog and pointed to mythical stories from antiquity and made the following argument: “We know that ancient people wrote mythical stories, so the stories about Jesus must also be mythical.” But how does that follow?
Numerous people today make up stories, and numerous people have made up stories throughout human history! But, on the other hand, the opposite is also true. Numerous people today give accurate accounts, and numerous people have given accurate accounts throughout human history. The only way to distinguish an accurate account from a fictional account is to look at the evidence for each account.
When we look at the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life, we find more than enough evidence that they were attempting to accurately record real historical events. The evidence that the New Testament accounts are purely fictional just isn’t there.