Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Urban Legend of the Non-Existent Jesus Comes to Monroe

Here's a picture of the city of Monroe, a sleepy theological place where radical ideas make a very slow entrance.

At our local news paper's website,, there's a chat place called "Your Talk.” One of the threads is “Ask an Atheist.” I made some posts there and dialogued with a young man who says he is an atheist.

At one point he said this: “I do not believe Jesus was a real person. I believe the Jesus of the Bible is a mish-mash of previous “Sons of God” or “Sun Gods” such as Osirus, Mithras or Dionysus, all were born of virgins, all were martyred. All were resurrected. It’s just a re-telling of the old tales into a new tale. Take Saul (Paul). When he was talking about Jesus, he didn’t even know if a physical Jesus existed. He was talking about the spiritual entity.”

Now this is false. Here’s why. [Note: In this presentation I am presenting work done by a number of scholars, but especially Greg Boyd and N.T. Wright.]

1. If you examine these parallels in detail, you find that most of the commonalities are superficial. For example, there is a legend of a man named Appolonius who is said to have risen from the dead. This is written by Philostratus, who’s writing 150 years after Appolonius lived. The supposed resurrection comes down to this. There’s a lady who had a dream. Appolonius appeared to her in a dream. But… that’s not a resurrection. It’s, maybe, a post-mortem vision. It has nothing in common with the Gospel stories, which has Jesus hanging out with people for 40 days. Jesus has breakfast with his disciples. He lets someone put a hand on his side.

2. The stories about others having a virgin birth, like Plato having a virgin birth, all happen after Christianity has spread into the world. People saw Christians claiming that Jesus had a virgin birth, so they begin to claim that their “hero” had a virgin birth so they could compete with Christianity.

3. Legends usually take a lot of time to develop. The story gets told and told and retold, like a fish story that grows over time. That’s what is typical of legends. They take decades and even centuries to evolve, even a millennium. The legends about Buddha are all more than 500 years after his life. The same with Plato, Alexander the Great, and others. But when it comes to Jesus you don’t have a millennium, you don’t have centuries, you don’t even have decades. You don’t have enough time for a legend to develop.

The first person to write about Jesus is the apostle Paul. Paul is writing two decades after Jesus lived. He is writing when people still are alive and who remember Jesus. There are real, historical figures involved, like Caiaphas the high priest and Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. These are people who lived and were contemporary with people who were still alive when Paul wrote. How could you have a legend evolve about a man who is just a normal carpenter and then, in just 10-15 years, he’s now the “Son of God?” How do you explain that when his brother James is still alive? In fact, how do you explain it when you have people laying down their lives for this story? The legend hypothesis does not work. You don’t have enough time. (See Boyd’s book cited below. In my points 1-4 I am largely quoting from a sermon given by Greg at his church on Easter Sunday 2007. Go here, click on “Woodland Hills Church,” and access the sermon.)

4. You also have the wrong culture. Not all cultures are equal when it comes to being receptive to legends. Our culture, on the whole, is quite resistant to legends. [Except, e.g., the legend of the legendary Jesus.] Most people don’t believe most of the legends that go around. Other cultures are more receptive.

First-century Judaism was resistant to legends. They had the Torah. It was the pagans who told the stories and the legends.

Usually when legends evolve there’s a sociological need that’s being met. Legends evolve to support traditional beliefs. The legend reinforces what they already believe. The story of Jesus doesn’t fit any of the cultural beliefs very well. In fact, Jesus flies in the face of established beliefs in first-century Judaism. For example, the Jews believed God was God and humans were humans and never the twain shall meet. The idea that God would become man is off-the-charts blasphemous. The point is: The Jesus-story is not the stuff of “legends.” Legends confirm traditional beliefs, they do not confront traditional beliefs.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this. Lewis’s area of real scholarship at Oxford was mythology. Lewis said: I know mythology. If there’s one thing the 4 Gospels are not, it’s mythology.
So, the legendary hypothesis does not work for a number of reasons.

5. The idea that, e.g., Osiris, Mithras, and Dionysus et. al. were [mythically] resurrected is false because a misunderstanding of the meaning of “resurrection.” In the 4 Gospels “resurrection” does not equal “resuscitation.” The word “resurrection” has to do with coming back to life with a different, transformed, immortal body. People in the ancient world in which Judeo-Christianity was situated did not believe that such a thing as “’resurrection’ was an option. For example, the two figures looming in the background as the paradigm-shapers of the Greco-Roman world were Plato and Homer. Plato was an anti-materialist. He denigrated the human body. So, the idea that a person would come back to life in a body was reprehensible. And Homer just did not believe people came back to life. (See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man)

6. The Osiris et. al myths were associated with pagan fertility rites. These gods “died and rose” every year. N.T. Wright says: “When the early Christians spoke of Jesus being raised from the dead, the natural meaning of that statement, throughout the ancient world, was the claim that something had happened to Jesus which had happened to nobody else. A great many things supposedly happened to the dead, but resurrection did not.”

Wright says: “The new life they might thereby experience was not a return to the life of the present world.” Nobody actually expected the mummies to get up, walk about and resume normal living: nobody in that world would have wanted such a thing, either… When the Christians spoke of the resurrection of Jesus they did not suppose it was something that happened every year, with the sowing of seed and the harvesting of crops. They could use the image of sowing and harvesting to talk about it; they could celebrate Jesus’ death by breaking bread; but to confuse this with the world of the dying and rising gods would be a serious mistake… When Paul preached in Athens, nobody said, ‘Ah, yes, a new version of Osiris and such like. The Homeric assumption remained in force. Whatever the gods – or the crops – might do, humans did not rise again from the dead.”

This is just an introduction to debunking the false idea that the story of Jesus co-opted pre-existing legends of “dying and rising gods.” If you want to study this more see especially:

- N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: (Christian Origins and the Question of God) – See especially Chapter 2, which brilliantly analyzes the so-called resurrection myths in other cultures.