Responding to Bedard’s Christ as Orpheus

Stephen J. Bedard had another blog I commented on: Christ as Orpheus.

And he linked to an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, but it cost money and so I didn’t read it.  The article he mentioned supposedly disproved that Christians borrowed from Pagans.  However, I can’t argue against that article as I don’t know what it says.  Interestingly, I did find another article at the Biblical Archaeology Review which supports borrowing.

Borrowing from the Neighbors: Pagan Imagery in Christian Art
by Sarah K. Yeomans

You are correct that, for  Christian apologetics, “It does not help that there seems to have been some sort of early Christian building that had a mosaic of Orpheus as a picture of Christ.”  Nonetheless, it is a fact.  And images like this are numerous.

Showing a pagan parallel doesn’t prove a Christian borrowing from Paganism, but the cumulative evidence is immense.  Nothing is proved absolutely in that we can only speak of probabilities.  Specific examples are only telling in relation to other examples.  This is why scholars of comparative religion and comparative mythology tend to provide many examples to back up any hypothetical connection.  To argue against the connection, you would need to argue in detail against the whole body of evidence. 

Anyways, what all of this does show is that early Christians were knowledgeable of other religions and incoporated into Christianity motifs from those religions.  Also, it causes one to suspect that the incorporating went further.

These Pagan images weren’t merely stylistic conventions.  Within the Christianized Pagan images, there are obvious Pagan mythological motifs.  Let me use some examples from another article I found at the  Biblical Archaeology Review website.

The use of the image of Helios within both Judaism and Christianity is telling because it goes beyond imagery.  Some of the respectable early Church fathers referred to Jesus as the “sun”.  This was simply a common way in the Pagan world to refer to a savior god-man, but it also entails a complex solar theology that was pervasive throughout the Graeco-Roman world.

More relevant to this blog are the images of the Orpheus-Christ.  Orpheus descends into the underworld and this same motif was used by Christians.  Significantly, as far as I know, this motif isn’t supported by Christian scripture even though it was found within early Christian tradition.  If it didn’t come from scripture, where did it come from?  Maybe the same place the images came from.  Also, the descent into the underworld was another common motif of solar mythologies in general.

The article also states outright that Christians borrowed the image of Mary nursing baby Jesus from the Egyptians.  Isis was one of the most popular deities worshipped in the Roman Empire.  Temples, shrines, statues, and icons of her were found all across Europe.  As you know, many have theorized the Black Madonnas were originally Isis statues.  Murdock spends about a hundred pages detailing the similarities between Isis and Mary.  She does this by referring to Egyptian scholarship including that of Christian scholars, and she analyzes the relevant hieroglyphics of virgin birth nativities.  Hieroglyphics are important to keep in mind because they’re not merely images and artistic styles but also a religious language based in religious concepts.

So, you seem to be admitting that early Christians borrowed imagery from the Pagans.  Also, I think I noticed in another blog you admitted that Christians borrowed their holidays from Pagans.  Are you trying to argue that all of this is mere superficial detail?  If you took awasy all of the Pagan elements, what would be left?

All of the elements of Christianity can be found in prior Pagan religions: historical god-men, virgin births, slaughter of the babes, resurrection deities, salvific messages, and the list goes on and on.  Some of these elements preceded Christianity by thousands of years.

No one can prove that there wasn’t a historical Jesus and no one can prove there was.  Even if you could prove a historical Jesus, it doesn’t disprove that the stories of him were partly lifted from Pagan mythology.  Removing the Paganism won’t prove the Good News of Christ’s coming to earth.  Paganism and Christianity have become so entangled that I would argue they’re practically fused together.  Considering what may be original to Christianity is important.  But, ultimately, that may be more of question for faith than for scholarship.

Despite your criticisms of Harpur’s scholarship, why not embrace his vision?  Wouldn’t a Christ figure that revealed himself to all cultures all over the world be more inspiring than a historical figure that no one of significance took notice of while he was alive?  Anyways, plenty of reputable scholarship can be found elsewhere (such as in the Biblical Archaeology Review article).

The other article you linked, I couldn’t read because I don’t have the money to spend.  If you could tell me the basic argument, I could respond.

4 thoughts on “Responding to Bedard’s Christ as Orpheus

    • It depends on what you’re considering. Hellenism was having a decent impact on pre-Christian Judaism. The linked article mentions that Pagan god images and astrological symbols have been found in pre-Christian synagogues. I read another article about a synagogue that showed Helios surrounded by a pantheon of gods. I don’t know if any of these synagogues were pre-Christian.

      However, Philo is a good example of pre-Christian Pagan influences on the Jewish community. Many Jews were mixed within non-Jewish communities. They knew Greek philosophy such as Philo who Platonically interpreted Jewish scriptures. I’ve even read that some Jews had participated in the Greek mystery religions.

      As far as I understand, Judaism wasn’t a monolithic religion at that time. They were under foreign rule and were becoming scattered. Some scholars even argue that it was the pre-Christian mixing of Judaism and Paganism that set the stage for Christianity.

  1. “The reason I can not embrace Harpur’s vision is that it is based on falsehood. It is not that I just don’t want to believe it.”

    I was contemplating what this statement means to you. Your faith is based on objective facts? So, if different facts became compelling enough, you’d change your religious beliefs? You would embrace a mythological/mystical Christ if the parallel Pagan evidence became so overwhelming that you were unable to deny it?

    I’ve heard other apologists claim their faith is based on rationality, but I always have doubts when I hear it.

    I personally would accept Jesus as a historical figure if there was enough evidence. I even think it’s probable that some original person existed that was the seed around which the mythology aggregated. But it doesn’t matter to me because I don’t believe my salvation is dependent on proving (or else accepting without proof) ancient historical facts.

    I do, however, sense deep truth within Christian mythology. Even though I look for my scholarship elsewhere, I’m vaguely similar to Harpur. I see spiritual truths as archetypal… such as was proposed by Jung and which is part of the Neo-Platonic tradition.

    Neo-Platonism has been a favored philosophy within the Judeo-Christian-Gnostic tradition ever since Philo Platonically interpreted the Jewish scriptures. His allegorical interpretations were accepted by many of the early Church fathers such as Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine.

  2. You seem to misunderstand me. I’m not anti-Jesus, and I’m certainly far from being an atheist. Jesus may or may not have existed, but we can only speak of probabilities. Besides, evidence for or against his historicity has nothing directly to do with mythicism.

    Nonetheless, it’s true that the evidence is limited. Of the sources that claim to be direct remembrances of him, the only versions that survived are from the second century. They don’t even describe his appearance and the earliest images presented him as a Pagan godman.

    The only clear references to Jesus are from Christian texts, but Alexandar the Great is referenced in various texts including the Bible which is from a religion that didn’t revere him. Augustus’ life was well documented and many images of him were made shortly after his death. As for Hillel, I’m not familiar with him and apparently there have been a number of historical figures by that name.

    But all of that is besides the point. Just like Jesus, I don’t really care if those people historically existed. My faith isn’t dependent upon nor justified by history. I don’t discount Jesus because he was a savior figure. It’s because he was a savior figure like so many others that I accept him.

    BTW I was just listening to Richard Carrier speak about the mythicist position. He originally was a major critic of mythicism and he still is very critical of Freke and Gandy, and probably Harpur as well. He has become one of the major proponents of mythicism and supports the scholarship of Doherty and Price.

    I just wanted to point out that even mythicists agree that the likes of Harpur, Freke and Gandy aren’t the best representatives of mythicism despite their names being more familiar to the average person.

    I haven’t read Carrier, but I suppose I will eventually. Have you?

    One other point I’d like to make is that I’m not a materialist either. I don’t disbelieve in miracles and in the supernatural. I don’t deny Jesus being a godman who walked the earth.

    Still, it’s an extraordinary claim requiring significant evidence. I’ve never met Jesus while he was alive and so I can’t confirm it for myself, I’ve never even met a godman and so I don’t even know if such a thing is even possible… especially as it is entirely outside of the realm of scientific evidence.

    In such cases, I trust my own experience. I sense something is true about the Jesus story but it doesn’t require historical facticity.

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