New Religion of the Late Axial Age

Aphrodite and the Rabbis
by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
pp. 226-230

I have suggested here that rabbinic Judaism is a new religion, divorced and separate from the biblical, Israelite religion of the Temple cult that preceded it. Yet my discussion of the late biblical antecedents of Hellenism, added to the evidence I quoted earlier in this book about the possibility of synagogues’ existing before the destruction, should raise a flag of caution. In fact, the rabbinic obsession with Scripture, manifest in the rabbis’ interpretations of every detail of biblical law, including the minute facets of the moribund Temple and its procedures, makes it clear that rabbinic Judaism is not a wholly new religion, created ex nihilo, out of nothingness. This shift was already under way before the time of the rabbis. On one hand, there would be no wholesale assimilation to Hellenism with a loss of Jewish identity. On the other, ancient Jewish rituals were not abandoned. Rather, there would be a measured appropriation and adaptation of Greco – Roman culture that found its expression in post – 70 CE Judaism.

The ways in which I have characterized Judaism, whether as utterly new or as a remix of an old tune, are fraught with ideological significance. What characterizes the new Judaism and separates it from other emerging ideologies? Is rabbinic Judaism just one more new religion, one more flavor of many Judaisms in the Late Antique world, there to take its place alongside Christianity and other Greco – Roman religions? Or is rabbinic Judaism the one and only authentic inheritor of biblical “Judaism,” genetically similar by virtue of both the performed commandments ( mitzvot ) and the constant justyfying of those mitzvot through tying them to their presumed Scriptural origins? Remember that in the period I am considering, rabbinic Judaism was not the major face of Judaism it would become for the millennium of its European ascendance, say from 940 to 1940 CE. It was only in that much later period that rabbis had the actual power to enforce their dicta. The first millennium of rabbinic Judaism resembled the Judaism we have now, in which each individual Jew chooses adherence to the commandments and how that adherence is manifested in daily behavior. To get to now, the rabbis then needed persistence, vision, and Roman Stoic stolidity to survive. The very virtues the rabbis adopted from Roman culture were among the forces that allowed Judaism to survive against oppressive odds. […]

Even as one could distinguish between the rabbis and other Jews within the Jewish world—the rabbis themselves made this distinction—nevertheless they all shared a common Judaism that was heavily inflected by their common Hellenism. The details I have surveyed in this book have made it clear that by and large, the water they swam in was very good. And when they were asked “What the hell is water?” the answer, surely, was that among the many tributaries that made up the empire—from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, from the Euphrates to the Caspian Sea—Judaism took its place within the Roman Empire as a Roman people and religion. Its transformation from the Jerusalem – centered Temple cult to a world religion was a reinvention, a resurrection if you will, accomplished through the vivifying waters of Greco – Roman culture.

The Minds of the Bible
by Rabbi James Cohn
Kindle Locations 1089-1103

It is fascinating to consider that in the same moment that the New Testament is championed in Christianity as the fulfillment (and operatively the replacement) of the Old Testament, the Jewish world creates a new system of Rabbinic Judaism that accomplishes the same thing by a different route. Like the New Testament, the Mishnah cannot afford doctrinally to discard the Old Testament. Both insist that the Old Testament is divinely authored (and authorized), since neither could set aside the idea of a perfect, infallible revelation. But, like the New Testament, the Mishnah insists that it (and only it) is the true interpretation of the “voices” of the Old Testament — and then, like the New Testament, it proceeds to limit those voices for all time.

So I would re-frame this (wrong) question:
“As a religion, why is Christianity so much kinder and more loving that Judaism, which by contrast is sterner and more legalistic?”
The right question is,
“Why is it that, in the space of a scant millennium, religious authorization moves from the auditory reception of articulated voices, to the idea of an indwelling spirit whose essence is revealed in the written word (and, in the process, in the specific de-authorization of all future ‘voices’ as sources of binding religious belief and/ or law)?”

Neither the New Testament nor the Mishnah/ Talmud will admit that it is a new religion: both Christianity and Rabbinic (modern Orthodox) Judaism claim that they are simply fulfillments of the Old Testament. This is philosophically untrue (modern Orthodox Judaism has very little in common with Old Testament Judaism), but strategically effective (and successful, historically, in terms of survival).

RE: Top Ten Problems With the Jesus Myth Theory

I every so often check out the blog by the apologist Stephen J. Bedard.  I noticed some new comments and one particular comment was quite nice.  I’ll quote this comment in full because it’s such a perfect summary of the Jesus Myth position.  I’d been meaning to fully respond to this post of Bedard’s for a while, but just had only answered Bedard’s first criticism and so it has remained unposted until now.  I’ll first give my limited response, then share the other commenters response, and after that I’ll respond to Bedard’s response to the commenter.  Clear?

Top Ten Problems With the Jesus Myth Theory

1) The rejection of the Gospels as historical sources.  They are seen as faith documents and not modern biographies.  That is true but we do not have any unbiased ancient texts that meet the criteria of modern biography.  If we reject the Gospels, we would also have to reject most of what we know about ancient history.

Some mythicists may reject the Gospels as historical sources, but this has nothing directly to do with the mythicist theory.  The parallels are relevant whether or not there is any relevant historical references in the Gospels.  Besides, I doubt any mythicist claims that the Gospels entirely lack history.  In fact, all the mythicists I know of agree that the writers (and interpolators) were purposely adding history to make the Christ myth more convincingly real.  The difference from literalists is that mythicists either see the historical additions as coming later in the development of Christianity or they see a historical figure that was evemerized and whose biographical details now are (mostly or entirely) lost.

It’s a rather complex issue since the limited info allows for endless speculation.  There might’ve been a historical Jesus who was lost beneath mythology and then the later historicizing of the gospel writers may have attempted to reconstruct the hypothetical evemerized Jesus.  Or there might’ve been many historical figures that became amalgamated by which they were given a unified and coherent story through mythological motifs.  We conveniently don’t even have the unmodified writings (or even the first commentaries) of the earliest Christians/Gnostics to determine how they perceived their own process of storytelling.

All of this shows a difference in thinking styles.  To the degree that someone is a literalist, they think in black and white terms.  A literalist historical Jesus can’t be mythical (even if one allows for superficial mythical accretions).  The mythicist position, on the other hand, can allow for a historical Jesus.  As such, mythicists (unlike apologists) are in a better position to adapt to the evidence as it arises for they have no singular fixed position, no belief system held above doubt and question.  A difference here is that a historical Jesus is unimportant to a mythicist because history doesn’t prove theology nor does it disprove the mythicist theory.  Even if the litealist can prove a historical Jesus, it is utterly meaningless because what they’re really trying to prove is that he is the Son of God who died for our sins… which is outside of the proof of history.

Oddly enough, a number of Christians have supported mythicism even while they affirmed historicism, but these aren’t your typical literalists.  One of the greatest New Testament scholars was Rudolf Bultmann.  He believed in mythological parallels, but the apologist prefers to ignore Christians like him.  Another example is C.S. Lewis who is a favorite of apologists, and yet he accepted that Pagan parallels existed before Christianity.  Actually, the earliest apologists didn’t try to deny any of this, but some just said the Devil foresaw the coming of Christ and taught the Pagans false doctrines ahead of time in order to deceive.  Lewis followed a different tradition of interpretation (Justin Martyr speaks of “seeds of truth among all men” within 1 Apology 44. See: preparatio evangelica).  He argued that the pre-Christian parallels strengthened Christianity.  If the pre-Christian parallels were false, then Christianity would be false as well.  However, maybe Christianity took the truth of Paganism and added further truth to it.  What had been just mythological was now historically real… or so the argument goes.  But this ignores the fact that many Pagans believed their myths were also historical.  Anyways, it is insightful how apologists overlook this part of Lewis’ writings.

To be fair, I should point out that Bedard isn’t a simpleminded apologist (see: Reading the Bible Literally).  Bedard seems to be more in the latter camp as he was influenced by C.S. Lewis (see: Mere Christianity).  He accepts that Christian holidays are Pagan in origin (see: The Bible and Pagan Holidays), that the earliest Christian iconography copied Pagan images (see: Christ as Orpheus), and that the Judeo-Christian tradition was contributed to by Pagan ideas (see: Hellenistic Influence and the Resurrection).  To me, this seems to be as literalist as a Christian can be while maintaining some basic rational dignity, and Bedard claims his beliefs are based on rationality.

But if one were to take all of those Pagan elements away, what would be left?  A historical figure?  Well, Pagans had historical claims about their godmen.  A savior who is the Son of God?  Well, this motif can also be found outside of Christianity.  Bedard, obviously, feels there is something unique here… but exactly what?

Bedard at times does show his literalist tendencies in a black and white thinking.  No mythicist is using modern standards of biography to judge the Gospels.  It is absurd to argue we’d have to reject most of ancient history if we reject the Gospels.  That almost doesn’t even deserve a rational response.  For one, secular historians aren’t trying to prove anything theologically and so they always start from a position of questioning and doubt.  There is no reason to accept any text as true until other sources of info validate it.  In the case of the Gospels, they lack confirming sources.  No ancient historian spoke about Jesus while he was alive even though there were numerous historians (including Jewish historians) in the area Jesus supposedly lived.  Also, Romans were meticulous record keepers and the records of the time survived for us to inspect, and yet we discover no Jesus in them.  This lack of evidence may not be remarkable for an average person of the time, but Christians claimed Jesus had great impact on the Roman World.

Let me add one last point on this issue.  I was listening to Richard Carrier on the proper defense and improper defense of the Jesus Myth(scroll down).  Carrier makes an interesting point.  People aren’t idiots for believing in Jesus’ historicity.  They’re just looking at different data.  Just a few pieces of data not assimilated or countered by historical arguments won’t disprove it, but a few hundred pieces of data that promotes doubt causes one to consider alternative theories.  However, most people never get to that point.  This is particularly true for many (most?) New Testament scholars who are Christians (which is a large percentage) and hence who don’t have much motivation to seek out and seriously consider all of the contradictory data.  According to Carrier, it’s a bad argument to try to support mythicism by claiming silence on Jesus’ historicity.  The evidence that has survived could be interpreted as proof of a historical Jesus, but it could also be interpreted in other ways when placed in context of other evidence.  If one doesn’t take into account the plethora of Pagan parallels (either out of ignorance or dismissal), it isn’t irrational per se if one were to claim Jesus’ historicity.  However, as an apologetic argument, it’s just an empty claim that one can say little about… not that apologetics is meant to have substance beyond the belief motivating it.

Michael’s response to Bedard:

“As I sit here watching the documentary on Tom Harpur’s Pagan Christ, I find myself reminded of all the problems that I see in the Jesus myth theory. I will share my top ten problems with this theory. This is not a detailed analysis but rather my opportunity to vent on the glaring problems with this theory.

1) The rejection of the Gospels as historical sources. They are seen as faith documents and not modern biographies. That is true but we do not have any unbiased ancient texts that meet the criteria of modern biography. If we reject the Gospels, we would also have to reject most of what we know about ancient history.”

For the most part, proponents of the Jesus Myth (JM) regard the gospels as allegorical first and faith documents second. Also, proponents of the JM do highlight the fact that the early catholic church used purely theological arguments for the existence of Jesus and did not defer to historical sources. Barnabbas and Clement are very curious because when they refer to the passion of Christ they simply quote Isaiah 53… which is an odd thing to do if the exploits of Christ had been a matter of recent history and were purported to be world reknown.

And there does exist a good selection of actual historical documents from the 1st century, such as Pliny’s Natural History and Josephus’ Testimonium… the four gospels do not mirror the style and format of any known works of historical record from the time period they are alleged to have been composed in.

“2) The claim that Paul never mentions the historical Jesus. This is simply not true. Paul quotes Jesus, mentions aspects of his life and in 1 Corinthians 15 he challenges his readers to check out the surviving witnesses.”

That Paul “quotes” Jesus is not problematic for proponents of the JM. There’s nothing that prohibits the idea that the cosmic divine messiah taught his apostles. That Paul is aware of a sacred meal is not problematic either. Sacred meals are virtually universal. And in 1st Corinthians 15 Paul never differentiates between the nature of his experience with Jesus (revelatory vision) and the experience of the other apostles. Doesn’t Paul say at some point in the epistles, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord?” Paul wrote that there was no difference between his experience with Jesus and the other apostles experience. And in verse 45 Paul actually says that Jesus was not a human and draws a stark contrast between Adam and Jesus to illustrate the point.

You seem to be basing your 10 points off of a very faulty understanding of the JM, which is regrettable but predictable.

“3) The rejection of Josephus as a testimony of Jesus. Some authors reject Josephus as evidence for Jesus because it is clear that there is Christian tampering. Most scholars see an original core testimony that has been augmented by Christians not created. Plus we have what Josephus says about John the Baptist and James, the brother of Jesus.”

I am always very doubtful of anyone who says anything along the lines of “most scholars”. This kind of appeal to authority and reliance upon an alleged consensus is the heighth of intellectual laziness.

“4) The claim that gnosticism was an equally original valid of Christianity along side what became orthodox Christianity. The fact is that there is a clear continuity with our first century Christian documents as found in the New Testament and what became orthodox Christianity. Gnosticism with its rejection of the Jewish God, Jewish Scriptures, material world, and its focus on gnosis rather than sin were a later (mid to late second century) break away from Christianity.

5) The misuse of pagan myths. Many claims are made about the pagan myths by these authors but when you look at the myths themselves, these claims are often not accurate. You are expected to rely on their secondary sources and not to look at the primary sources.

6) Pagan myths are described in Christian language to strengthen their connection to Jesus. Mithras is said to be born of a virgin even though he was born of a rock. Horus is said to be born of virgin even though he was conceived in the post-death intercourse of his married parents.”

It is not a fact that there is clear continuity between canonical texts and what became orthodox Christianity. There is a record of development from the 1st century to the 2nd of an evolving human Jesus doctrine. This can be seen in primitive “gospel” references throughout Barnabbas, Polycarp, Clement, Paul, Ignatius, etc. and it leads all the way to the end of the 2nd century with the crystallization of the four gospels as referred to by Irenaeus in Against Heresies.

Please note that, unlike your baseless assertion this is an argument that is logical and supported by the documentary evidence.

Also, you over-state the case for pagan influences. You’re building one heck of a strawman. Certainly there was pagan influence, but any proponent of the JM worth his/her salt will tell you that the biographical data that came to be expressed in the gospels was drawn almost entirely from the Old Testament.

Again, your understanding the JM seems to be incredibly flawed.

“7) No respect for the dates of texts. Authors use pagan texts to establish connections to Jesus but sometimes (as in the case of Mithras) the texts post-date the New Testament. How do we know that the pagans did not borrow from the Christians?

8 ) Use of post-biblical traditions. Authors demonstrate pagan influence on the three wide men, the ox and ass, December 25 and a number of other traditions. The problem is that those are not biblical traditions. These things were added to the tradition later and any pagan influence says nothing about the origins of the Jesus story.

9) Misunderstanding of pagan influence on art. There are valid examples of pagan influence on Christian art such as Isis holding baby Horus being used as a model for Mary holding baby Jesus. It make sense that the new movement of Christianity would look beyond itself as it was developing its artistic side. This says nothing about pagan origins for the story.

10) The patchwork use of pagan myths. It is difficult to find large chunks of pagan myth that look like the Gospels. Jesus myth theorists take a word here and a phrase here, from dozens of myths from many cultures and say “Here is the Gospel!” If you start with enough stories, you can reconstruct almost any historical figure, ancient or minor.”

Strawman strawman strawman.

“These are just a few of the problems that I have with the Jesus myth theory. Unfortunately, it is not likely to go away any time soon.”

No, it won’t go away any time soon, in fact it is gaining traction.

– – –

I generally agree with this assessment of the Jesus Myth theory.  Bedard responded to this comment, but the commenter didn’t return.  So, let me have a crack at Bedard’s comment.

Regarding the Gospels, even the great allegorist Origen did not take them as strictly allegorical. While not exactly the same as Josephus, the Gospels do have much in common with ancient histories. They are closer to ancient biographies with Luke-Acts having stronger historical leanings. And as for the early church, they did not just rely on allegory or OT interpretation. They also stated these events as being historical events.

Yes, there was a great variety in early Christianity.  It was common practice for Christians to take some of the Bible allegorically, but there was disagreement about which parts were allegorical and exactly how they should be interpreted.  Some Christians even believed that Jesus was entirely allegorical or at least entirely spiritual (non-physical/non-historical)… allegorical and spiritual being related in the ancient mind.

I personally wouldn’t argue that the Gospels entirely lack commonality in certain aspects of style with some ancient histories.  It wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world for history to be mixed with allegory (whether allegory as spiritual truth or as moral storytelling), and it’s not easy to tell how literally ancients took any given text as the common understanding would likely never have been written down.  The claims of emperors as godmen, for example, can be found in supposedly historical accounts.  Did the Romans actually believe their emperor was a godman?  I’m sure some did… just consider how gullible some modern people are even though modern education is far superior.

The Gospels show commonalities with many types of writing and storytelling and that is part of the point of the Jesus Myth theory.  There are a few comparisons that can be made.  Alan Dundes wrote the book Holy Writ as Oral Lit in which he shows the similarities of the Bible with folklore texts.  Other scholars have pointed out the similarity of the Gospels to the genre of Spiritual Romances which were a type of fiction popular at the time.  As an example of a novel of that time period, read The Life of Aesop which supposedly tells the biographical story of Aesop’s life and the style of it is reminiscent of the Gospels.  I’m not implying that there is any causal connection between the Gospels and The Life of Aesop, but I’m merely pointing out that this genre of storytelling was extremely popular in the early centuries of the Roman Empire.

Regarding Paul and the historical Jesus, in the first verses of 1 Cor 15 where Paul speaks of the resurrection historically and tags his experience to the witness of others. As for verse 45, Paul is contrasting Jesus with Adam but he is not denying that he is human. Read the passage from Genesis that he is quoting and you will see that the whole verse is about Adam. Paul is saying Jesus is a complete Adam.

I have no particular opinion about this.  Jesus and Adam are equally mythological and both were taken as historical figures by some believers.  On the other hand, there were also believers who interpreted the Bible as spiritual allegory which isn’t exactly fiction but which is far from historical fact.  The purpose of spiritual allegory is to point to a more profound truth.  The question is which belief was closest to the original Christians.  Well, I don’t know if there was any singular group of Christians that was orginal.  What I do know is that the Gnostics were the earliest Christians to organize the Gospels into a single book, were the earliest Christians to comment on the Gospels, and were among the earliest prominent Christian leaders both within and outside of the Catholic Church.

I hear what you are saying about “most scholars” but I have trouble when there is a strong consensus among a wide variety of scholars (not just Christian) and just a few scholars, usually those with a theory like the Jesus myth to promote, who deny the passage.

My opinion is that the concensus in Biblical studies isn’t the same thing as a concensus in science.  Most Biblical scholars have been and still are Christians or at least were raised in Christianity.  Most of the Biblical scholarship in the past was done as overt apologetics, and many scholars still act as apologists and see no contradiction in their ability to think objectively and critically.  Bedard himself is an apologist who has beliefs such as the virgin birth that contradict the concensus of scientists.  Shouldn’t the concensus of scientists supercede the concensus of apologists when it comes to a subject such as the biological possibility of virgin births in homo sapiens?

As examples of the importance of distinguishing apologetics from scholarship, read the following blogs and articles.  I also threw in some other responses to specific apologetic arguments just for good measure.

Robert W. Funk:

A letter of Concern for Prof. Dr. Gerd Luedemann

April DeConick:

Choosing your method

What do I mean by ‘confessional’?

The never-ending confusion about perspective

Robert M. Price:

Protestant Hermeneutical Axiomatics: A Deconstruction

Is There a Place for Historical Criticism?

MUST WE TAKE A LEAP OF FAITH? (HAVE WE ALREADY?)

Paradigm Shifting and the Apologetics Debate

Introducing the Journal of Higher Criticism

N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God

By This Time He Stinketh

Earl Doherty:

Challenging the Verdict

Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case

D.M. Murdock:

Is the Bible True?

Richard C. Carrier:

Bayes’ Theorem for Beginners

Epistemological End Game

Experimental History

History Before 1950

Related to apologetics is the issue of scientific understanding in the ancient world… and sadly the issue of scientific understanding in the modern world.

Richard C. Carrier:

Stark on Ancient Science

Books on Ancient Science

Science and Medieval Christianity

Statistics & Biogenesis

Yockey on Biogenesis

Defining the Supernatural

To continue with my response to Bedard:

I disagree with your statement about the continuity. Orthodox Christians agreed that Jesus’ Father was the God of the OT and that Jesus was human and divine. All of this found in the NT but denied by gnostics.

The Gnostics were the first to collect scriptures into a single book we now call the Gospels.  The Gnostics intentionally left out Jewish scriptures because the purpose of their creating the Gospels was because they specifically believed the OT God and the NT God were separate Gods (enemies even).  The Gospels were created for the purpose of demonstrating the distinct uniqueness of the Christian God.  Yes, there were some Jewish or Jewish-influenced Christians early on, but there is no proof that they were the first Christians.  Obviously, Judaism was a part of the milieu of early Christianity and so were a number of other religions.  As the earliest commenters on the Gospels were Gnostics who were also the creators of the Gospels as a singular canon, I think it’s fair to give them precedence on it’s interpretation… or at least it’s fair not to dismiss them out of hand.

Regarding the pagan influence. I agree that there is a stronger case that the Gospels are based on the OT than on pagan sources but the Jesus myth people I have encountered (Tom Harpur, Peter Gandy, Timothy Freke) have focused mostly on the pagan sources.

As I see it, it isn’t either/or.  Yes, many biographical details were lifted at some point from the OT.  But, some argue, that this was simply a matter of Hellenistic Jews and other related groups reading the OT through the lense of Greco-Roman philosophy, theology and mythology.  In the ancient world, a new religion was deemed unworthy if it didn’t have precedent in an already existing religious tradition.  So, a new religion had to prove itself by interpreting older texts in a new light.  But this was just a matter of convenience and they weren’t trying to stay true to the original intent and purpose of those texts.  The Jesus story that they created was in contradiction to the traditional Jewish expectation of a Messiah, but all that mattered is that Jesus was portrayed as Jewish which gave him the appearance of respectability.  They had to detail his Jewish lineage in order to substantiate their claims.  However, from a strictly traditional Jewish perspective, such superficial reinterpretations were meaningless and outright blasphemous.

Let me make one last point about Bedard’s scholarship.  It’s obvious he lacks any full understanding of mythicism.  The three Jesus myth people he mentions (Harpur, Gandy, and Freke) are just popular writers.  He admits to having never read any serious scholarship about mythicism.  I appreciate popularizers for they communicate ideas to the general public, but there are several scholars I can think of offhand who are way more respectable than those three.  I linked some of these scholars above, but there are a few more besides.  I should mention Karen Armstrong.  She is a respectable scholar who, although doesn’t identify as a mythicist, seems to support the connections between pagan mythology, classical thought, allegorical thinking and early Christianity.  If you want to know more about the Christ myth theory and the scholars who have supported this position, then check out the Wikipedia article which gives a good overview.

As an apologist, it doesn’t matter that Bedard’s knowledge of mythicism is limited.  However, as a scholar, it’s very important.  Bedard is not only a published scholar but has specifically written a book about mythicism.  He presents himself as an expert and he is an expert in other areas of Biblical studies but not in mythicism.  I first commented on Bedard’s blog around the beginning of this year (2009) and the year is almost ended.  One of the comments I made to Bedard at that time was specifically that he claimed to have only read the popularizers of mythicism and that if he was serious about his scholarship then he should read some serious scholarship on the subject.  I was just perusing his blog and saw no evidence that he has since read any high quality scholarship on mythicism.

As far as I can tell by my brief interactions, I respect Bedard as a person.  He is one of the most easygoing apologists I’ve ever met.  Also, I read one of his articles published in a journal and I was impressed.  But none of that changes the fact that he isn’t an expert nor has read any experts in the field of mythicism.  His opinions about mythicism are no more worthy than the mythicist popularizers he has criticized.  As such, his writings on mythicism mostly serve the purpose of apologetics rather than scholarship.

That is fine if that is all he wants to do, but he seems to have a mind that is capable of so much more.  I’d love to see him (or some other apologist) do an in-depth analysis of the full range of mythicist scholarship.  I’m waiting…

Conclusion on Christian Scarab Symbolism

These are my concluding comments to my previous blog Church Fathers on Christ as Scarab.

Many scholars over the last couple of centuries have been quoting various Church Fathers in reference to Christ as Scarab.  This is  a truly profound fact and it’s utterly amazing how ignorant the average Christian is of early Christianity.  Some apologists dismiss these quotes out of hand.  Going by my research, even academic scholars have seemingly ignored this topic for the past century, not even attempting to disprove anything.  Apparently, these quotes and the claims about them, correct or not, were widely known in the 19th century and then there was deafening silence.  It reminds me of what Robert M. Price has written (in his Introducing the Journal of Higher Criticism).  He points out how old scholarship has been forgotten without ever having been refuted and new scholarship has become very conservative.

Gerald Massey’s scholarship is an example of this which D.M. Murdock discusses in her book Christ In Egypt. In my research, I confirmed a point that Murdock made numerous times (also with an extensive analysis in the introduction). Throughout the book, she compares Massey’s scholarship against that of other scholars. By doing this, she verified that at least some of his sources were reliable and that he wasn’t just inventing his claims out of thin air, although there remains much question about what the Church Fathers actually said in reference to the scarab (it makes me wonder about the original sources as many people, not only Massey, were quoting various sources over several centuries).

Two of the critics of Massey’s scholarship are Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard.  In their book Unmasking the Pagan Christ, they respond to Tom Harpur’s use of Massey.  But it seems telling that they don’t even mention Augustine’s quotes about the scarab.  It is true that Massey’s writings are a century old and so much has been discovered since then.  Also, it’s true that he had no formal education.  Still, he relied on the scholarship of the best scholars of his day including having his work proofed by some of these academic scholars.  Porter and Bedard are apologists, and so they’re criticisms aren’t fundamentally academic.  If they were to research as deeply as Murdock has, then they couldn’t as easily dismiss Massey’s work, whatever one thinks about the scarab issue.

Another critic is James Patrick Holding (AKA Robert Turkel).  His Tektonics website is seemingly the most popular apologetics site as it always comes up top in websearches.  It says a lot about our society that apologists get top page rankings.  He is your typical online Christian apologist.  He is notorious for immature behavior and a lack of intellectual honesty.  It isn’t fair to put him in the same category as Porter and Bedard.  Those latter two, even though lacking in a fundamental understanding of mythicist theories, are actual New Testament scholars.  Even so, Holding likewise criticizes Harpur and Massey.  He demands that others provide the sources of the Augustine and Ambrose quotes about the scarab, but that is just his sophistry talking.  If he actually wanted to know the sources, he could’ve done the research I’ve done just by doing websearches.  Doing research at a university library would bring up even further citations.
 
Anyways, I don’t know why these quotes, assuming they are true, from the Church fathers should be surprising.  Augustine and Ambrose were called Church Doctors because of their Greco-Roman educations.  The Greco-Roman tradition was grounded within Hellenism which was a mix of Greek philosophy and Egyptian religion. The scarab itself was an important symbol in Greek writings centuries before Christianity arose (for example, Aesop and Aristophanes).  Augustine grew up in North Africa which was a hotbed for hereticism, and he was a Manichaean for about a decade before becoming a Christian.  Manichaeanism arrived in Roman North Africa from Egypt (Ancient Gnosticism, by Birger A. Pearson, p. 310).  Roman religions based on and influenced by Egyptian religion were the most popular religions of the time (e.g., Serapis whose worshippers included early Christians).  Also, early Coptic Christians inscribed crosses on scarabs and invoked Jesus side by side with Horus.

Re: Meri, Mary and the Mother of the Saviour

Meri, Mary and the Mother of the Saviour by Stephen J. Bedard

And my response:

Those are good criticisms. D.M. Murdock responds to them, but you’d have to be the judge of how well she does.

The main point probably is that, by the Christian era, Isis was one of the most (if not the most) well known Egyptian deity, and one of the most widely worshipped in the Roman Empire. So, it’s possible that the term Meri was beginning to be identified with her. However, Isis (and Isis syncretizations) were referred with meri and similar terms all the way through the centuries prior to Rome being Christianized.

Even though the Egyptian term Meri could refer to even inanimate objects, I don’t know if there is any evidence that Jews and Romans would’ve been familiar with that meaning. It probably would’ve been most known as an epithet or, as Murdock argues, maybe even as a name. Very few non-Egyptians could tell an ipethet or a name apart when it was stated both as Isis-Meri and Meri-Isis. Murdock sees evidence that Meri was beginning to be used by itself.

As for the second problem, Mary isn’t used exclusively for either Egyptians or for Jews. Mary was a common name for Pagan goddesses. So, it isn’t surprising that it was a popular name for people as well. As for the 6 Marys of the NT, Murdock mentions this and hypothesizes a possible connection to 6 Hathors (as Hathor was the goddess of love that became identified with Isis).

All of this is is just one tiny aspect of the mythicist theory. It doesn’t stand or fall on one single detail. Meri is just a possible connection that many reputable scholars have written about. There are many other possible connections that mythicists point out. As the possible connections increase so does the probability of those connections.

Response to Bedard’s Hellenistic Influence and the Resurrection

 Stephen J. Bedard posted a blog where he linked to an article of his that was published in Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism.

 http://1peter315.wordpress.com/2008/12/11/hellenistic-influence-and-the-resurrection/

 HELLENISTIC INFLUENCE ON THE IDEA OF RESURRECTION

IN JEWISH APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE

http://www.jgrchj.net/volume5/JGRChJ5-9_Bedard.pdf

I must say I was very impressed with that article.  It is exactly the kind of scholarship that interests me.  You did a good job of conveying the complexity of the Graeco-Roman world.  You showed the subtle connections that are missed by thinking of religions as being entirley isolated from eachother.

I haven’t read as much about Judaism, and so I was glad to see you go into some detail about the Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.  I knew Judaism had contact with Hellenism, but I’m not very familiar with the specifics beyond having read about Philo.

I noticed you mentioned Set and Osiris.  Murdock writes about some theories of Set.  Based on several quotes from scholars, she proposes that Set was originally the Samaritan god Seth, and that Seth entered Egyptian religion when the Samaritans conquered Egypt.  The scholars she refers to are: James Bonwick, Dr. Samuel Sharpe, Dr. Louis Herbert Gray and Rev. Dr. Sayce

She also points out that Set originally wasn’t considered evil, but only later became the opponent of Osiris by playing a negative role in his death and resurrection story.  Interestingly, Osiris and Set were considered brothers and were even combined as the dual god, Horus-Set.

Murdock doesn’t write about this, but I see a potential connection with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas attributed to Didymos Judas Thomas.  I was reading elsewhere that, in later tradition, Judas “the twin” was considered the twin of Jesus.  This isn’t to say that Set was a direct borrowing superimposed upon Judas.  But, in the way you demonstrate in your article, Set may have been an influence on certain traditions about understanding Judas’ role.

The following quote from your article reminded me of something else that Murdock writes about.

“For a long time, the Egyptian idea of resurrection would have held little attraction for the Hebrews as it originally was a privilege only for the Pharaoh, and later for the very wealthy who could afford the elaborate burial procedures. However, the Middle Kingdom brought great theological advancements…”

Prior to the New Kingdom, love (mri) was bestowed upon a subordinate by a superior which also included by a god bestowing love to a follower, but this was strictly hierarchical except in certain situations such as a leader being beloved by his people.  With the New Kingdom, love became a more common ideal where the follower could offer love to a god.  There was an equality in that the person could, through love, join with their god.  It was at this time that the epithet meri became extremely popular and was applied widely, in particular with Isis. 

This is where Murdock points out that there is good evidence for an etymological connection not only between meri and Christian Mary but also meri and Jewish Miriam.  She references a couple of sources that hypothesize that Miriam may have been an Egyptian name (the Catholic Encyclopedia and an editor’s note in Faiths of Man by Major-General James G.R. Forlong).  She also references Rev. Dr. William Robertson Smith as connecting Miriam with Meri, and references Rev. Henry Tomkins as connecting Mary and Meri.  Furthermore, she references both Dr. James Karl Hoffmeier and Alan H. Gardiner as connecting both Mary and Miriam with Meri.

Origins of Christian Values

I’ve been writing a fair amount about the mythological parallels between Christianity and previous religions, but I haven’t written much about how this relates to values.  Christians could argue that the mythological similarities are just superficial details.  It is true that details are just details and in some ways Christians did put those details together in a new way.  Then again, so has every other religion.  Despite literalist Christians insistence on worshipping a particular narrative, a story is still just a story.  What actually matters is the values out of which the story formed.

There are several traditions that influenced Christian moral and theological beliefs.  I went into great detail about Augustine who was influenced by Gnosticism, NeoPlatonism, and Stoicism among other traditions. 

Many Gnostics had an ascetic attitude towards the material world and the body.  The Christian mistrust of sexuality is based in this.  Also, this is part of the Hellenistic atmosphere in general.  Egyptian and Greek philosophy had elements of dualism.  NeoPlatonism gave Christianity its love for higher truth and reality where God is absolute, but also NeoPlatonism offered the hope of an intuitive knowing, a faith that God would reveal himself.  Stoicism in particular lent an ascetic bent to Christianity with its ethics of Natural Law (which is particularly important as modern Democracy is built upon it).  Zoroastrianism created the extreme dualism of dark and light, good and evil; and this emphasized God as being in polar opposition to evil.  This was conceived as a battle for souls where God was fated to win. 

This metaphor of light and dark was part of the solar theology that had become popular prior to the common era.  Egypt had a major hand in popularizing solar theology which portrayed God as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.  God according to solar theology was both far away and yet close like the sun and sunlight.  God was present to his believers and responsive to their prayers.  God was in the world as light shines in the dark and yet above the world unsullied by the material realm.  Egyptian religion also made the distinction between God who created the sun and the sun itself as the solar disk.  God was the spiritual light that could be experienced within. 

Along with Judaism, all of these traditions had concepts of monotheism or monism.  Egyptian religion is the earliest known example of monotheism.

Another element is savior theology which was very popular in all cultures at the time.  These saviors were conqurerors of evil.  They were teachers, healers and miracle workers.  They offered themselves as examples to live by and they acted as guides, as mediators, as shephards.  As godmen, they stood between earth and heaven.  They were personally accessible to prayers and they acted as guardians.  Saviors are resurrection deities that provide the pathway of rebirth for their followers.  As tradition says of Jesus, some of these saviors even go down into the underworld before ascending.

Related to saviors, were their virgin mothers.  Godmen tended to have strange conceptions and births.  The concept of their mothers being virgins doesn’t make sense rationally or scientifically, but it symbolizes deep archetypal truths.  These virgin mothers are fertility deities (even when made into historical figures).  As such, they are virgins because their fertility is eternal and infinite, their purity and goodness is inviolable.  They are the source out of which all life emerges.  The birth of the savior is the birth of us all.  The savior is similar to the first man, and this is why Jesus is called the Second Adam.  Death had been brought into the world at an earlier time, and the savior comes to defeat death.  Without the Goddess, the God couldn’t manifest in order to accomplish this.  The Goddess gives form.  The Virgin Mary gave Jesus his body, and when Jesus was placed into the womb of the cave his spiritual body was given form.

The name Mary has its most likely etymological origin in the Egyptian epithet of meri which means ‘beloved’.  This epithet could apply to any god or goddess, but Isis became increasingly popular.  By Roman times, shrines and temples of her were found widely to the very borders of the Empire and beyond.  The image of Isis nursing Horus is also the most likely prototype of the image of Mary nursing Jesus.  To this day, some of the Black Madonnas worshipped in Europe were originally Isis statues.  The importance of this meri epithet is that it represented an ideal of love.  In earlier Egyptian culture, love was something given by a superior to a subordinate.  This was the relationship of the worshipper to an Emperor or to a god.  Sometime around the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BCE), the understanding of love changed.  Love became an ideal of equality.  A god didn’t just offer love but also received love.  The believer could join their god in a relationship of love.

This seems related to the Axial Age (800 to 200 BCE). Some common traits of the Axial Age religious traditions: a quest for human meaning, reverence for the human worth of individuals, establishment of a compassionate moral code, idealization of an absolute and eternal reality beyond the mind and senses, development of a spiritual elite and travelling scholars, questioning gender roles in particular in terms of Patriarchy, and a challenging of authority.  The latter is interesting because of the ideal within Christianity of martyrdom, but Christianity was a later emergence of Axial Age principles.  Christianity inherited its martyrdom tradition from the Stoics who challenged authority in the hopes of being persecuted.  Also, in challenging authority, Axial Age prophets challenged the rulling religious dogma which included the gods and the conceptions of the gods.  This led to a popularization of monotheism and monism, but it also led to the first signs of atheist philosophy.  Also, allegorical thinking was developed.  Stories and personifications were symbols of a higher truth, but were deceiving and even idolatrous if taken literally.

As you can see, Christian moral ideals and understandings didn’t arise within a vacuum.  Just like every mythological motif, the cherished values of Christianity preceeded Christianity.

Graeco-Roman Tradition

I was writing about Greek thought in my previous post, but in this one I want to delineate some lines of development.

Greek thought had a crises when the Greek city-states lost power.  The Greek philosophers had a strong civic sense.  Debates happened in public and this was the pride of the culture.  A philosopher had great respect and great influence.  Philosophy and politics went hand in hand.  Also, it was a democratic society where everyone participated.  There were no standing armies.  When there was a war, every able-bodied person fought.  The city-state was upheld by philosopher and common person alike.

This all changed during the Alexandrian Age which was a period of empire-building.  The average person wasn’t as connected to the workings of politics and philosophy was something for the elite.   The philosophers practiced now in schools.  Furthermore, Greek thought itself became less directly involved in politics and the sharp focus of the Greek mind became divided by a vast multi-culturalism.  And yet this was a time of immense innovation.  There was less certainty as society had become more complex.  To balance out the probing of the Greek mind was the centralizing power of Egyptian religion.  The Egyptians were great synthesizers and this helped guide Greek thought into the wider world (and some have theorized that this was the main mythology at the heart of the early Gnostic-Christian movement).  Out of this mix (or maybe clash would be more appropriate) came Hellenism. 

I should add that Eastern thought was also an influence during this historical period.  I know that Hindus and Buddhists were known as these religions had travelled widely during those tulultuous times.  Easterners were also great philosophers and synthesizers, but they weren’t the dominant voice of the culture and so their influence has mostly been forgotten (although some, including early Christians, have speculated that the Therapeutae were the earliest Christians and some have further speculated the Therapeutae might’ve been Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced).

A similarity between Egyptian and Eastern mythology was the heavy use of astrology and astro-theology.  Actually, these were heavily used in many of the cultures at that time.  For example, Judaism apparently was largely built upon astrological mythologies.  Astro-theology was one of the biggest forces of synthesis across cultures because it was a common language that transcended regional differences.  The other major synthesizing system was Neo-Platonism which is better remembered today.  Christians were influenced by both astro-theology (Christ was often referred to as Sol) and Neo-Platonism (Christ was also often referred to as Logos), but the former wasn’t spoken about as openly… although a number of early church fathers wrote about Christianity’s similarity to (and in some cases origins in) sun worship, often all the while denouncing it as the product of Satan.

The reason these synthesizing systems were needed is because Greek tradition had splintered.  Intellect had become separated from emotion, science from religion, individuality from imperialism. 

The Greek tradition promoted rationality and this became a force unto itself.  There were two main strains of rational philosophy within Hellenism: Epicureanism and Stoicism.  Stoics promoted a strong moral sense rooted in Natural Law and denounced the passions.  In the Roman era, the Stoics would influence Christianity and many Stoics converted to Christianity.  Some of the supposed sayings of Jesus are actually traditional Stoic sayings.  The Stoics and Christians were so similar that the earliest observers couldn’t tell them apart.  Based on this, some have assumed that Christianity was simply a Judaized form of Stoicism.  This is entirely possible as many Jews had Hellenistic educations, Philo being the most famous example and Philo being the one who wrote about the Therapeutae.  By the way, Philo helped to popularize Jewish thought through his fame.  His style was so similar to Plato that there was a saying about whether Philo Platonizes or Plato Philonizes.  Philo’s allegorizing of Jewish scripture set the stage for Christianity.

In contrast to the extreme rationalism of Greek philosophy, most people still had a need for religious experience and social ritual.  The Mystery religions filled this need (including the needs of many dispersed Jews who partook of the Mysteries).  These Mystery religions were a mix of cultures.  They heavily used astrological symbolism, but also Neo-Platonism.  Some of the Mystery religions took on more philosophical forms.  Two of these, Hermeticism and Orphism, were major influences on Gnosticism-Christianity.   Orphism is particularly interesting because, along with Orphic mythology (wine, twice-born, etc.), the images  of Dionysus/Bacchus were borrowed by Christians.   There is even a Roman coin with Dionysus/Bacchus on one side and Yaheweh on the other.  Anyways, the solar mythology of the savior figure comes out of the Mystery religions.  Scholars have written thousands of pages about the similarities between Jesus and the other solar deities (e.g., Buddha, Krishna, Osiris).

The Alexandrian Age was a part of the larger Axial Age.  All of the religions of the ancient world were experience transformations.  This was also the time of the Jewish Reformation which was when they were finalizing their scriptrues and also being influenced by Hellenism.  The great world religions mostly formed during this time.  The religions of the Roman period such as Christianity are considered a later blooming of the Axial Age.  The Axial Age includes the entire thousand year reign of Graeco-Roman culture, after which the early Middle Ages (formerly known as the Dark Ages) began.

The Romans took this whole mess and confusion and brought some formalized order to it.  The profusion of philosophies and religions caused the Greek thought to lose some of its potency.  The Romans weren’t as innovative, but they did continue the tradition of diversity.  The legalistic mind of the Roman Empire brought a slight dogmatic element.  Traditions became formalized and any new tradition would have root itself in an older tradition.  Christians were influenced by many traditions, but they had to choose one that would give them legitimacy.  The Jewish prophecy of Messiah served as a useful foundation, and Judaism was further useful as Philo had made it respectable.  Unfortunately, the Roman tendency to formalize that helped to save Hellenism included a tendency towards dogmatism.  As the Empire declined in later centuries, Catholicism came to fully embody this dogmatism and the Catholics nearly destroyed what the Romans had tried to save.

After this, the Graeco-Roman tradition continued to survive in the East which included Islam.  Enough of this tradition survived in the West that Graeco-Roman writings were welcomed when they were re-introduced almost a thousand years later.  The humanism that came before Christianity was revived and Christians started to remember their own moral origins.