Monday, November 01, 2004

Mythology, "Dying & Rising Gods," and the Uniqueness of Jesus

Theolobloggy member Joe writes:

"I wanted to ask you what you thought about people who say that Christianity is nothing new in religion. I've heard people say that many religions have a "god" that comes to earth to save people, religions that are way older than Christianity. I kind of have a feeling that's not true, but I don't know how to discuss that with them.
Thanks John.

Thank you Joe for the question.

First, we can respond to this by pointing out that Jesus is an historical figure, whereas the gods of ancient Greece and Gnosticism are not historical.

Secondly, there is strong inductive evidence for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. See, e.g., N.T. Wright’s recent The Resurrection of the Son of God and the “Historical Jesus” section of William Lane Craig’s website.

Now note this:

  • Historical arguments cannot be made for mythological gods actually dying and rising from the dead.
  • Jesus, unlike all mythological figures, actually existed.
  • A strong inductive argument can be made that Jesus was crucified and later rose from the dead.
  • This makes Christianity radically different from mythological stories about dying and rising gods.
  • Even if there was one story about a dying and rising god that had a few similarities to the story of Jesus the existence of this story would not invalidate the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus any more than would the existence of an ancient story having similarities with the tragic 911 event invalidate that event's actual occurence in history.

But now, and most importantly, note also this: the "dying and rising gods" theory is outmoded and inaccurate, thereby false. Here's why:

  • For a more up-to-date study of dying and rising gods see: Tryggve Mettinger, The Riddle of the Resurrection: "Dying and Rising Gods" in the Ancient Near East. Such myths are themselves suspect as regards being at all analogous to the biblical claims of what happened to Jesus.
  • See David Frankfurter's (Univerity of New Hampshire) comments on Mettinger's work. Frankfurter writes: "It is precisely in this rigorous attention to differences and to the various meanings of gods' deaths and reappearances that Mettinger's work fractures the very usefulness of the category "dying and rising god." By the end of the monograph, the category emerges as a rather simplistic generalization for a very wide array of gods and a very murky range of rituals."
  • In other words, the "dying and rising gods" mythology has been called into question. The work of J.G. Frazer in The Golden Bough (from which this idea came from) has been and is being discredited.
  • And once more from Frankfurter: "Most recently, the historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith and the semiticist Mark Smith have declared the myth of the dying and rising god a fantasy, the product of uncritical comparison rather than a close consideration of evidence. More to the point, J. Z. Smith has used the dying/rising god myth as an example of the kinds of errors that cripple the enterprise of comparative religion when scholars ignore the following principles: comparison must always be towards differentiation in regard to a general category ("dying/rising god") rather than in finding links across individual examples ("Osiris like Attis"); concepts of "myth" and "ritual" must be defined and regarded as fundamentally separate dimensions for narrative; one should avoid generalizing elaborate patterns across all religions; one should consider the evidence for a myth or a ritual as the product of a particular historical context, not as timeless outcrops of a widespread pattern; one should not take similarity as evidence for genealogy or influence; and finally, in the face of evidence for gods who "die" but don't "rise," one should not impose the total Frazerian pattern but accept that one transition might occur without the other."
  • So - one can answer someone who still says this sort of thing by saying: There really are no clear, adequate historical antecedents to the death and resurrection of Jesus.