“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”—Luke 2.11
This holiday season, as many Christians around the globe celebrate the “virgin birth” of Jesus, I want to embark on a series that seriously addresses the challenges that have surfaced since the late 19th century concerning the historicity of the Jesus story itself. This is an extremely relevant question, one that I continually revisit. After all, on a deeply personal, philosophical level, if there is a God, for me, this God must look like the Jesus we see in the canonical gospels; to be honest, I find it very difficult to want to “spend eternity” with a deity of any other description. I will be transparent from the very start; all my eggs are in one basket. I could be wrong about everything else I believe and teach, and at the end of the day, I would be okay—save for this one belief. This belief is everything to me. It is the belief that not only is there a God, but that this God looks just like the Jesus we find in the “Jesus stories” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and yes, even John. But as with everything else we teach at Renewed Heart Ministries, we want to hold this belief in a relationally responsible way, where relationships with others, even those who believe differently than us, are fostered rather than sacrificed, and we also want to hold whatever beliefs we have in an intellectually honest way. So let’s be honest. Christian history does not fare well when compared with the actual Jesus story. In other words, the religion that today bears the name of Christ is, in so many ways, on a completely different plane, living in a radically different paradigm than the plane or paradigm we witness being taught by the Jesus we find in the gospels.
I know those words are strong, and praise God for the few exceptions, but to a large degree, when I view the damage Christianity has done in the lives of so many today (I know, I know, Christendom has done some good as well, but the good it has accomplished is almost wholly eclipsed in the perspectives of many of the non-Christians I meet, some who still choose to believe in Jesus but who no longer call themselves “Christians”), I believe these words are more than warranted.
A week does not go by where I do not find myself on my knees deeply troubled by another sincere story of someone who has been driven to the brink of agnosticism or atheism, not by some “heathen,” but rather by someone claiming to be “believer.” Sometimes I too wrestle with the question of how so much misrepresentation can be overcome. If I am honest, I too moments of transcendent clarity where I become keenly aware of just how out of harmony modern Christendom is from the principles of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. I too wonder how God is going to be able get through to people that He actually does look like Jesus when there seems to be such a formidable obstacle in the way of so many by what we have labeled “Christianity.” Don’t get me wrong. I believe He will. But I would be amiss if I did not confess moments of being overwhelmed when I talk with others who Christians would label as “outsiders.” Actually, I am convinced they are closer to the Kingdom that what some have assumed.
Which leads me to a preliminary word I need to preface this series with. Yes, within this series we will be looking at why the Christmas story can be historically reliable. BUT, this series is not about simply calling skeptics to follow Jesus; rather, it is a call to those who call themselves “believers” to be open to the possibility that if this story is true, we, as believers in this story, may be in greater need of repentance than many of those we have judged as outsiders. Again, I know those words are strong, and I can already feel the backlash I will receive in my inbox, but please remain open. This series is much less about calling unbelievers to become believes and much more about calling those who claim to be believers to go beyond “believing” in the details of a “story” as beautiful as we may feel that story is, and to actually become a “follower” of the “teachings” of the person this story is about!
So without further ado, let’s embark on this week’s eSight. This week, I want to talk about parallelism, especially the claim of many Jesus myth theorists that the Jesus story we find in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is riddled with blatant parallels of other pagan mystery religious legends to the extent that the Jesus story itself is completely untenable, being far from original, but rather completely borrowed and therefore just another legend or myth in the long history of legends and myths.
First, let’s discuss parallelism in general and then explore parallelism in the context of the canonical Jesus story and the claims that it is simply borrowed, based on parallels, from the mystery religions.
Today, we are witnessing a heightened interest in conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory (some of which may be true, but many of which are completely bogus) and some conspiracy theorists focus on what others are calling paralellemania. Parallels are fascinating because you can, to some extent, draw parallels between almost any two things. Let me give you an example that was shared with me. Below, are the top ten parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy; follow closely:
10. Both Lincoln and Kennedy were concerned with civil rights;
9. Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Kennedy in 1960;
8. Both were slain on a Friday and in the presence of their wives;
7. Both were shot from behind and in the head;
6. Their successors were both named Johnson;
5. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808. Linden Johnson was born in 1908;
4. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in 1939;
3. Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy. Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln;
2. The names Lincoln and Kennedy both contain seven letters; and
1. Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater. Kennedy was shot in a Ford car, which, ironically, was a Lincoln.
Now, these parallels closely follow the pattern we find with many conspiracy theories based on parallels. We find some of these parallels are exaggerated to contain more significance than what actually exists. For example, in numbers 10 and 1, many presidents have been interested in civil rights, and during the Kennedy years, Ford cars were VERY common. Another tactic of parallelism is, and I want to be kind here, to simply make up parallels out of thin air, a phenomenon reflected in numbers 4 and 3. Booth was actually born in 1838 not 1839, but rounding up makes it sound better, and we have absolutely no record of the either president having a secretary with the above names.
But what I want you to notice is that even with the factual parallels between these two presidents, NO ONE believes that one of these characters is a completely fictional character, made up based on the other. Again, parallels are fascinating because you can draw parallels between almost anything two things to some extent.
Now let’s take a quick look at some of the parallels that are claimed to exist between Jesus and some of the mystery religions previous to the story of Jesus. The list that I will be using, just for simplicity sake, is a list based on the Internet-hyped, 2007 documentary, Zeitgeist. It must be noted, however, that even skeptics agree that the parallels made in this film are very suspect. Skeptic magazine’s Tim Callahan, criticizing the first part of the film (on the origins of Christianity), wrote, “Some of what it asserts is true. Unfortunately, this material is liberally—and sloppily—mixed with material that is only partially true and much that is plainly and simply bogus” (emphasis added).
First let’s take a look at the list of other stories that the Jesus story is claimed to imitate:
Beddru of Japan
Let’s take a quick look at each of these, and I apologize in advance for the brevity of the following descriptions. Given the nature of eSights, this week’s devotional is already going to far exceed the intended length of our weekly articles. But I do want to say a few words, at a bare minimum, about each and you can conduct your own research as well. If you use Google, just check your sources. Take nothing for granted (there is a lot of unscholarly garbage floating out there on the Internet), and make sure you read more than one source.
Baal’s battle with Met is the closest parallel of any in this list; nevertheless, it is a far stretch. The story follows Baal, the god of rain, as he descends to the underworld and is challenged by Met. Met set a trap set for him, and when Baal arrives, Met swallows him whole. Meanwhile, Baal’s mother realizes that it has stopped raining, puts two and two together, and goes to see what has happened. In short, she convinces Met to vomit Baal back up, after which, Baal returns to the skies and the rains come once again. So, you have Baal going away and coming back again, but that is the closest we ever come to ANY parallels to the Jesus story. In my opinion, this parallel is not even close!
The only parallel is a miraculous birth. Mithra was born out of a rock, which is in itself a bizarre birth, but it is not a virgin birth, unless you really want to argue the point that all rocks are technically “virgins” since rocks do not have sex. Nevertheless, Mithra’s story contains no crucifixion and no resurrection whatsoever.
Attis’ mother was impregnated after eating semen-embedded fruit. Again, bizarre, but nothing even remotely similar to what we find in the gospels of Matthew and Luke about Jesus’ birth. Some versions of the story also have Attis dying in a hunting accident from a spear that was intended for a boar. Other versions, which most scholars agree are most reliable, state that Agistis, Attis’ father, created turmoil during Attis’ wedding. Attis’ bride somehow dies (the cause varies by versions), and Attis reached down, ripped off his own gentiles, ran off, and bled to death under a pine tree. Again, bizarre, but not really a parallel. Agistis then goes to Zeus, feeling responsible for his son’s death, and begs Zeus to resurrect Attis. But please notice Zeus’ response. Zeus says, “No, I can’t. The fates have already spoken.” But Zeus does offer a consolation. Zeus preserve the flesh of Attis so it never decays, and although Attis remains dead, his hair perpetually grows and one of his little fingers will move perpetually. Again, bizarre.
Dionysus was born multiple times in the stories, one time out of Zeus’ thigh, but there was no virgin birth or crucifixion
Krishna was born to Devaki, who had seven children previously. Clearly, she was not a virgin. To be fair, Krishna’s birth was miraculous, but it was not a virgin birth. Krishna, according to the stories, also dies in a hunting accident and is reincarnated, but not resurrected. Again, a bizarre story, but there are no parallels between Krishna and the actual Jesus story events whatsoever.
The parallels many claim between Jesus and Horis are completely made up and based largely on the work of Gerald Massey. Massey claimed to be able to read story details in the hieroglyphics concerning Horis at the Temple at Luxor. Massy was not an Egyptologist. He was not academically trained in Egyptology. He saw in these hieroglyphics what no other Egyptologist had seen. His findings could not be verified at the time or since.
Massey claimed that the Horis contains the following parallels:
Three kings present at Horis’ birth;
Horis was baptized at age 30 by Annup;
Horis had twelve disciples; and
Horis’ mother was named Mary.
First, no kings were present at the birth of Jesus in the Jesus story. When Jesus was a toddler, He was visited by the Magi, but they are never referred to as kings and there number was not given. But even if three kings were somehow present at Jesus’ birth, Horis did not have three kings at his birth. There is absolutely no record of this happening. Also, Horis is never seen with twelve associates or even friends, much less disciples. There is no number twelve in Horis’ story. Horis died of dismemberment, not crucifixion. He was not baptized by Annup at age 30 either. When Massey was challenged on this point by the academics of his day, stating that there was nothing that even looks like a baptism for Horis anywhere, Massey claimed he did not get that story detail from the hieroglyphics but from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Scholars combed these records and found no record of a baptism at anytime for Horis. Baptism was not even an Egyptian custom; it was strictly a Jewish practice. Lastly, Horis’ mother was called Isis Mary. In Egyptian, Mary means beloved—”Beloved Isis.” That would be the equivalent of calling my wife, Crystal, Mary. It is a title, not a name, but even at that there is no linguistic connection between Jesus’ mother Mary and Isis. Mary is the English transliteration of the Hebrew name Miriam, which means sea of bitterness in Hebrew. There is no connection between the Hebrew name “Miriam” and the affectionate title of the Egyptian word “mary.” It is a linguistic pun at best. Again, absolutely no parallels when each of Massey’s claims are examined.
No genuine parallels whatsoever.
No genuine parallels either.
Again, no parallels (As discussed above, one of the techniques of parallelism is to simply invent parallels, but the next example takes the cake!)
The Beddru of Japan
Completely fictional character. There is no record of the existence of a Beddru of Japan anywhere in any history at any time.
I want to begin wrapping things up this week with a look at where the idea of creating parallels between the Jesus story and known myths came from as an attempt to weaken the credibility of the Jesus story. It all started in 1875, with a book by Kelsey Graves, entitled The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. It was dismissed and discredited by the scholars of the time, both secular and religious, but it is still fodder for those prone to outlandish conspiracy theories.
Secondly, I believe the real party to blame for the claim that the story of Jesus is borrowed from pagan mythology is, and this may surprise you, Christians themselves. Let me explain.
We have actually set the stage for Jesus mythicists by focusing on the story arch of Jesus almost to the exclusion of Jesus’ actual teachings. Jesus’ teachings in themselves establish that there was a Jesus. This is why the Jesus myth theorists NEVER address the actual teachings of Jesus. NO ONE can argue that the teachings are borrowed. They are unique. These teachings are new, original, “unborrowed.” And while radical to all previous religious teachings, they are still thoroughly enmeshed in a Jewish world-view. In other words, what you have are revolutionary teachings, unique even to Judaism, but still growing out of the root system of a very Jewish belief system. Everyone agrees these teachings have existed from the first century. And these teachings did not just appear out of thin air! Someone had to actually teach these teachings back then. And I do not care whether that someone’s name was Bob or Jesus, call him Bob for all I care; I want to follow whoever was teaching this stuff (it just so happens that Bob is not a very first century, Jewish name)! Joshua on the other hand is, and the Greek version of Joshua is, you guessed it, Jesus. But this is my point. The details of the story become insignificant when you embrace the actual teachings of Jesus. The solution to the myth theorists is simple. Establish the birth of these new teachings in the first century (which no can argue), then the existence of the actual teacher becomes moot. We can then discuss the details of his life. But this is an entirely different discussion now. Since it is Christmas, let’s take virgin birth for instance. I mean really, if you were in God’s shoes, and you could only have one, which would you rather have? Someone who believes in Jesus’ virgin birth but does not follow Jesus’ teachings? Or someone who actually follows the teachings of Jesus but might have significant questions about whether the virgin birth really occurred? If I had to pick one or the other, I would pick the “follower” any day over the “believer.”
But this is not the path reflected in the history of Christianity. The councils and creeds created through Christian history have, without exception, centered around and focused exclusively on theology concerning the details of the “story arch” of the Jesus story while wholly ignoring the actual “teachings” of the center person of this story.
Let me illustrate this with the Apostles’ Creed itself.
1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
5. He descended to the dead. On the third day, He rose again.
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit;
9. the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints;
10. the forgiveness of sins;
11. the resurrection of the body; and
12. life everlasting.
Did you catch it? What’s missing? This creed jumps from the “virgin birth” all the way down to Jesus’ Crucifixion. What about all that happened in between? There is a whole ministry filled with teachings that are not even represented here defining what a Christian is and what a Christian is not. This definition of a “Christian” says nothing of the teachings of Jesus, but centers wholly and exclusively on the details of the story arch. And this creed is not an exception, but rather the pattern we find throughout all creeds; the Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. And it is completely unacceptable for a Christian to try and excuse this reality by claiming that during this time, Church leadership had to fight deadly heresies of belief! At the time these creeds were created, there were serious heresies of LIFESTYLE as well, where Christians followed a completely opposite ethic than taught by Jesus, with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence being a key and central ethic. But as we said last week, in the fourth century, with the baptism of Constantine and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the actual teachings of Jesus became marginalized. Christianity became, almost overnight, a persecuting majority rather than a persecuted minority. The ethics of Jesus became abandoned to such an extent that many scholars admit that Christianity after the fourth century was completely and wholly unrecognizable with the Christianity that existed before the fourth century. Some even claim that Christianity was “birthed” with Constantine, claiming this time period as the time when the Jesus story was invented, paralleling other pagan myths. The problem with that theory again is the actual teachings of Jesus which are, rather than supporting, completely counter ethical to the ethics we find being followed by Christians post Constantinian shift. After Constantine, what determined if someone was a Christian was simply if one believed certain details about the “story” of Jesus. Following the actual teachings of Jesus became relegated to a small few. And the world’s picture of God and His character became grossly corrupted. When those who claimed to be the “light” of the world came to power, we embarked on a period of time today referred to as the “dark” ages. If there is any concern that others would see God for who He really is, by contrast to how Christianity has misrepresented Him, never has there been a more crucial time for those who embrace Jesus’ name to re-embrace Jesus’ actual teachings. It was through these teachings that Jesus gave us a revelation of God before. And today, within these teachings we find the only hope of this planet being “lightened” with God’s beauty put on display once again.
As a side note, taking this all into account, during this holiday season (and please forgive me), it may be more advantageous for the Kingdom to stop fighting the cultural war over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” or to cease fighting to keep “Christ in Christmas” or to defend Jesus as the “reason for the season” (which historically is not true if you understand where Christmas even came from). It may be more advantageous for the Kingdom to spend less time defending the “story’s” details and much more advantageous to take time reconnecting with and recommitting to being a follower of Jesus’ teachings, rather than simply a believer in the story’s details.
We can continue to debate whether or not there are parallels in the story arch of Jesus with other mythical figures. Again, even the supposed parallels are not as strong as some would have us believe. The elements of virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection originated with the Jesus story. Although this point can be debated, it still stand that these elements themselves are not borrowed. But what cannot be debated is that there are no parallels between the “teachings” of Jesus and any other previous teachings. These teachings are unique, radical, new, and not borrowed from any pagan religious system. How do you explain the origin of these teachings in the first century if you take away an actual historical teacher? You cannot. Someone was teaching this stuff back then. I believe his name was Jesus.
I know that some concerned reader out there will ask, “But Herb, do you believe in the virgin birth yourself?” And the answer is yes. The virgin birth is original to the Jesus story. Even the report of the virgin birth of Alexander the Great, all scholars today agree, comes from a source much later than the Jesus story. So if “borrowing” occurred back then, Alexander’s “virgin birth” was borrowed from Jesus’ virgin birth, not the other way around. Nonetheless, given that only two out of the four gospels even mention a virgin birth speaks volumes to me. Mark and John did not think it was necessary to know about the virgin birth, much less to believe in it, to be a Christian. What all four gospels do have in common are the actual teachings of Jesus we find repeated over and over in each version of the story.
In closing, this is why I believe so many have a deep interest in disproving the Jesus story. You have a simultaneous push and pull if you will. You have the Holy Spirit pulling each person to take an interest in Jesus, while the intensely violent history of a religion bearing Jesus’ name keeps pushing sincere people the other away. There has been more bloodshed committed by Christians in the name of Jesus than any other name in human history. This, among other things, for many is unacceptable. G.K. Chesteron is reported as saying, “The history of Christianity does not prove the teachings of Jesus have been tried and found wanting. The history of Christianity proves the teachigns of Jesus have been found difficult and left untried.” Today, we have many who have experienced abuse from others claiming to follow Jesus. We have a religion that today is taking the story arch and name of Jesus but wholly ignoring Jesus’ actually teachings regarding priority of beliefs, lifestyle, the nature and character of the “church,” and how we are (and how were are not) to engage with our surrounding society. Just stop for a moment and imagine what would happen if Christians actually started following the teachings of Jesus once again. Before the teachings of Jesus were marginalized in the fourth century, Christianity was growing exponentially, even though those who became followers were threatened with death. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually began following Jesus’ teachings once again? You would no longer see a pull/push phenomenon, but rather a PULL-PULL Christian renaissance! How many would follow Christ if Christians themselves could truly get in harmony with what their Christ was genuinely all about.
So this Christmas season, stop for a moment and let’s not only revisit the “story” of Christmas; let’s take some time to become reacquainted with the teachings of the Man the Christmas story is all about. Celebrating the story once a year while we ignore Jesus’ teachings on violence, greed, idolatry, religion, and the value of others regardless of their lifestyle or beliefs, to me, is meaningless. The story only becomes special if I have bought into the teachings themselves. In other words, I fall in love with the Teacher, only after I have fallen in love with His teachings.
We will begin looking at those actual teachings next week!
Happy Holidays, everyone!
Keep living in love, loving like Christ.
I will see you next week.