Did the New Testament Writers Merely Copy Pagan Myths?

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.

  • “We know that ancient people wrote mythical stories, so the stories about Jesus must also be mythical.”

    Well…yes and no. First of all, I agree the “dying and rising god” stories had very little (if any) influence on Jesus’ tale. However, it is not simply the claim there were other mythical tales and therefore Jesus’ story is mythical—it is the clues within the story itself.

    Imagine I started off recounting an event with “Once upon a time…” In our current society, we immediately recognize this as a clue what is about to transpire is a fictional account. Even if it includes real people, real places, real possible happenings, etc. The initial four words inform the audience regarding the genre.

    In the same way, there are clues within Jesus’ tale informing the recipients regarding the nature of the tale. When great persons were born, it was expected to have extraordinary signs, such as astronomical, or earthquakes, or miracles. Therefore, the extraordinary events surrounding Jesus’ birth (the star and angels) would equally be understood as fictional inventions of the time. The same way Matthew was portraying Jesus as the next Moses, so he pops him off to Egypt (after a threatened birth) and has Jesus come out of Egypt to rescue his people. Just like Moses.

    The philosophers were expected to have clever repartee, and Jesus is painted as such with quick-witted replies immediately baffling the Lawyers, Scribes and Pharisees. (Even when Jesus incorrectly quotes scripture!) Even Dr. Licona is moving away from the zombie saints being an actual historical event and instead conforming to fictional inventions within the genre. The other events at Jesus death—darkening, earthquake, temple veil ripping—are also clues and expected at a great person’s death.

    Once one understands the bios genre, and what was expected within the First Century Mediterranean culture, many accounts within Jesus’ tale are seen as non-historical by the very clues within.

  • rericsawyer

    I am rather fond of an idea I first read in C S Lewis, remembering his own struggle with this issue before his conversion.

    He suggested that if the claims of Christianity are not simply true, but are the hinge around which all history turns, then it would be more surprising if there were *not* any pre-visioning of the story. As humanity has grappled with religious thought and with theology over the millennia, there would likely be themes seen as through a mist (vicarious suffering of the just for the unjust, the dying god, death and rebirth in the agricultural and celestial cycles, etc.), themes that resonated strongly enough with something in the soul that those themes were worked into stories of great importance. These stories may (or may not!) have many errors, but they perhaps wrestle with ideas that somehow seem like they must be connected to reality.
    The Christian account is that in the midst of all of these things, dimly seen and poorly understood, the living fact itself broke forth and became present in the world. The connection of Science Fiction with technological reality is an apt parallel.

    If there were not such stories, it would suggest that the Christian story, even if true, would be at most a secondary tale in the course of history; it could not be the central point to which everything either points, or from which it is derived. And of course, that is the claim.