Do The Pagan Myths Invalidate Christianity?

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It is written:

Acts 17:26-28-And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27  so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28  for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’

One of the objections often raised against Christianity is that there are many pagan myths which predate Jesus Christ, and that the early Christians “stole” those ideas from the pagans and “Christianized” them.

Many people in our age have embraced this ideology, but is it true?

First, let’s remember that the life and ministry of Jesus Christ are based upon solid historical evidences, which are corroborated from both the internal nature of the New Testament Scriptures, and from many extra-biblical sources. Bible archaeologist, Titus Kennedy, elaborates upon some of this evidence:

“The discoveries of archaeology and the preserved ancient writings, thoroughly researched and analyzed, have given an exceptionally clear window into the world and life of Jesus of Nazareth, the root of this unprecedented Christian movement. Although the Gospel accounts about Jesus are frequently referred to by skeptics and critics as mythical, embellished, historically unreliable theological writings, or even propaganda in the form of a biography, archaeology, and ancient texts of the Roman period have demonstrated the accuracy and historical reliability of the Gospels. Myth, which comes from the Greek word muthos meaning “story,” had a wide range of meaning and no specific implication about historical truth in ancient times. However, in modern usage a myth refers to a legendary story that usually contains deities and has fictitious elements. Therefore, to refer to the Gospels as mythical suggests that they are severely limited in their historical accuracy and value. Yet, the Gospels record events that took place in real locations with real historical figures, not in mythical lands with characters unknown from any historical records or physical evidence. Prior to the development of archaeology and the widespread integration of archaeological discoveries and ancient manuscripts in evaluating the New Testament, many critical scholars and writers promoted a view of the Gospels as virtually devoid of history, with the most radical even denying the existence of an historical Jesus. Yet, due to archaeological and manuscript discoveries over the last century, there has been reevaluation and adjustment of many scholarly perspectives on Jesus and the Gospels. An examination of people and places in the Gospels demonstrates that the narratives record events set in known locations, with historical people, and in a particular time. At least 16 people mentioned in the Gospels have been confirmed as historical figures through ancient artifacts and manuscript sources unassociated with Christianity in the approximately four-decade time window of the Gospels, including every major political and religious figure mentioned. Additionally, groups of people such as the disciples of Jesus, Herodians, Judeans, Pharisees, Romans, Sadducees, Samaritans, Sanhedrin, and Zealots are all known from external historical sources. If ancient Christian sources were counted, and if tentative identifications were included, the number of historical figures attested would increase significantly. Nearly every city, town, village, and region, and even many structures mentioned in the Gospels have been confirmed as historical locations in existence during this time by archaeological and ancient historical sources of the Roman period. These places include major cities such as Jerusalem and Caesarea Philippi, towns such as Bethlehem, Capernaum, and Nazareth, structures such as Jacob’s Well, the Pool of Siloam, and the Temple Complex, and geographical features such as the Mount of Olives, the Jordan River, and the Sea of Galilee. The writers of the Gospels, although focused on only one person from the fringe of the Empire who was not a political, military, or religious leader, and primarily only a select few years of his life, purposely included specific names and positions of people and names and descriptions of locations to demonstrate the historical nature of the writings, which allows historical analysis to confirm the precision and accuracy of the story. The result of the demonstrated accuracy of locations, people, and general historical setting strongly suggests not only the intentions of the authors to record history, but the reliability of those accounts.” (Titus M. Kennedy, Excavating the Evidence for Jesus: The Archaeology and History of Christ and the Gospels, 285-286 (Kindle Edition): Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers)

Second, it is entirely reasonable that some elements of Christianity and paganism would be similar or even identical in some respects: for religion often deals with those aspirations of the human heart which transcend culture and religious belief. There are many elements of human nature which are naturally reflected in religious belief.

Former atheist and expert in “cold-case homicides” investigated this thoroughly when he was trying to disprove the New Testament. He made a list of fifteen seeming parallels between the various religions of the ancient world and Christianity. Here are the parallels he discovered: predicted by prophecy; born by unnatural means; protected as an Imani; faced temptation; was associated with shepherds; possessed supernatural power; engaged and taught humans directly; recognized the need for a sacrifice; established a divine meal; faced a trial; had the power to defeat death; offered enteral life; judge the living and the dead.

Yet what amazed Wallace was that the more he studied these similarities, the differences with Jesus were evident.

“At first glance, these common descriptions seemed surprisingly similar to characteristics of Jesus. But a closer examination revealed something entirely different. None of the ancient mythologies possessed all the attributes described on this list. At best, a handful of deities displayed ten of the shared characteristics. Most had far fewer (from five to nine). And while these similarities existed broadly, the details among the ancient narratives differed dramatically. For example, although many ancient deities were said to enter the world unnaturally, the way they entered couldn’t have been more different. Attis, for example, was conceived when the god Agdistis was castrated and bled into the ground. From this blood, a tree grew, producing almonds that a goddess later collected and held to her bosom, causing her to conceive Attis. Dionysus’s father, Zeus, destroyed Dionysus’s mother but saved Dionysus by sewing him up in his thigh and keeping him there until Dionysus reached maturity. Krishna was conceived when the Hindu god Vishnu planted two hairs from his head in Krishna’s mother’s womb. Mithras was born out of solid rock. Quetzalcóatl was conceived when his mother swallowed an emerald. When you examine the details related to each similarity between Jesus and ancient mythologies, the resemblances begin to vanish. Jesus isn’t much like the other gods after all. The few broad similarities that do exist are reasonable expectations on the part of humans who are thinking diligently about their experience of the world and the existence and nature of supernatural beings. In the same way that Dr. Greene imagines a set of otherworldly minds to explain the nature of the universe and creates a set of attributes mirroring classic descriptions of deities, ancient humans arrived at a set of reasonable attributes given their common human expectations. The most common of these attributes—unsurprisingly—was simply the ability of each god to do what we expect of gods: they were able to perform supernatural acts.” (J. Warner Wallace, Person of Interest: Why Jesus Still Matters in a World that Rejects the Bible, 36 (Kindle Edition): Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective)

Others, indeed, have noticed that many of the similarities between Christianity and pagan mythology are reflective of the common themes which the broad category of “religion” deals with.

“The historical Jesus is real and certainly defendable. Once this argument is separated, the Savior myth can be refuted by pointing to the following facts: 1. The rising saviors, when examined individually, have virtually nothing in common. Any similarities between them and Jesus Christ usually prove to be part myth, part imagination. “There is now what amounts to a scholarly consensus against the appropriateness of the concept [of dying and rising gods]. Those who still think differently are looked upon as residual members of an almost extinct species . . . The category of dying and rising deities as propagated by [Sir James] Frazer can no longer be upheld.” 81 2. Human beings, whatever their cultural differences, are the same in nature the world over. Historical investigation supports the fact that most primitive human beings believed in one Supreme Being, immortal, existing from eternity. 82 This being is above lesser gods and is common to thousands of cultures. It is neither a great phenomenon nor a result of theft that saviors abound throughout the ancient world or that Christianity centers around the Savior, Jesus Christ. 3. The Mediterranean Basin is a small geographical area, and Neolithic cultures shared contact and exchanged cultural elements through this contact (8000 BC). 83 Trader caravans and ships spread knowledge between cultures for millennia. “The international character of the East Mediterranean culture is reflected by the intrusion of Canaanite gods into the Egyptian pantheon during the Empire Period. Astarte and Anath appear in the Contendings of Horus and Seth.” 84 113 4. Wars and weather extremes influenced cultural development. Joseph ruled Egypt (1520 BC), and Jacob migrated to Egypt because of famine approximately 1500 BC. The Israelites conquered Canaan (1300 BC). 5. The influence of ancient Judaism is evident throughout different cultures. 85 Monotheism and the prophecies of a Savior, born of a virgin, sacrificed for sins, and resurrected can be found throughout the Old Testament documents. The first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, was recorded approximately 1446 BC (oral tradition likely preserving it for countless years prior to that date), and the entire Old Testament was translated into Greek around 250 BC, making it available in the common language of the Hellenistic empire that extended to the ends of the known world. Since the Old Testament prophesied of the virgin-born Messiah, it is not surprising that the story spread before Christ’s first advent. An Egyptian papyrus dated to 340 BC reveals, “Who is the author of Re-birth? The Son of God, the One Man, by God’s Will.” 86 And from another source, dated to approximately the same time, “The Lord and maker of all . . . from himself made the second God, the Visible . . . whom he loved as his Son.” Although not in agreement with Christian doctrine as to the nature of the Son, these two writings predate Christianity and point to what can be considered a common knowledge. Old Testament history (both oral and written) provides a basis for the existence of mutual knowledge, since the cultural and religious practices of neighboring and distant nations is referenced several times by different authors. In light of these historical facts, the Savior myth can be seen as a common belief emerging from the similar nature of human beings, a diffusion of knowledge from a central base—the Middle East, and the direct result of the distortion of biblical prophecy. Common knowledge produced generally similar stories whose details were invariably different.” (Walter Martin, Jill Martin Rische, Kurt Van Gorden, The Kingdom of the Occult, 111-113 (Kindle Edition): Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)

Third, these similarities between paganism and Christianity testify to a yearning within the heart of man that existed in the world long before the time of Christ. This was the hope that the Creator would redeem and restore mankind. Clymer has documented:

“Starting from the beginning of history, we find the story of man and woman’s sin and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But mankind is given a promise—a Sacred Promise of a Redeemer who would restore to man the immortality he lost in the “fall.” Ancient man wrote that story into the constellations; they wrote it into their myths; they incorporated its ideas into their pagan mystery rites. Seiss explains that even through the darkness of idolatry still shone the true prophetic light. 54 The ancient reverence which people have always held in regard to the myths of the constellations suggests that they believed they were telling a divine message. Skeptics who wrote that Christianity copied from the pagan myths were, in reality, seeing truths which have flowed from the very beginning of history. In the constellations we see Virgo with the ear of corn in her hand, showing the idea of the promised Seed. In Libra we see that the promised Seed would come to redeem. The next sign Scorpio shows what the price would be—a conflict with the serpent in which the head of the serpent would be bruised, while the Redeemer would be bruised in the heel. Ophiuchus (Asclepius) and Hercules show in picture form an illustration of Genesis 3: 15, the conqueror of the serpent, the Sacred Promise, bringing hope to mankind. The myths also incorporate this idea of a god-man who would struggle with a serpent, representing the evil one. We have noted the written declarations of a redeemer as we see in Balaam, the prophet from Mesopotamia. Balaam declares, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24: 17). The great astronomers from Persia recognized a star that signaled the birth of the King of the Jews. This same star is noted among the astronomers of China. The Sacred Promise has been revealed in history, and the Redeemer has come as a man. He died a cruel death, but his body has been gloriously resurrected. If we believe in him, we too can someday have a resurrected body. We are not lost and hopeless; we are not put in this world without a purpose. We are called to honor God and to do his will. We need to be faithful like Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, who gained approval because they believed things not yet seen (Hebrews 11).” (Lois Clymer, Sacred Strands: The Story of a Redeemer Woven Through History, 85-86 (Kindle Edition): Sisters, Oregon: Deep River Books)

Finally, the existence of these myths and their similarity to Christianity serve as a powerful evidence of how God was preparing mankind for the First Coming of His Son. One author has graphically illustrated this truth:

“THOUGH MOST READERS ARE AWARE that C. S. Lewis, arguably the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century, was a former atheist, many do not know that his conversion occurred in two distinct stages. Before embracing Christ as the only begotten Son of God, Lewis spent two intermediate years as a theist, believing in the existence of God but still rejecting the doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation. Among the events and influences that led Lewis to make the leap from theism to Christianity, the most important was a long evening talk he had with a close friend, a devout Roman Catholic named J. R. R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings). As they walked along the grounds of Magdalen College in Oxford, Lewis confided in Tolkien that his knowledge of mythology (which was extensive) prevented him from accepting the gospel narrative as true. After all, the mythologies of the world were filled with stories of gods who came to earth, took on human form, died violent deaths, and returned again to life: Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, Mithras, Balder and so on. Was not Christianity just another such myth, albeit a more sophisticated one? In response, Tolkien acknowledged the prevalence of god-men in pagan myths and legends, but then went on to suggest a different way of interpreting this phenomenon. What if, Tolkien challenged his skeptical friend, the reason that the story of Christ sounded so similar to the pagan tales of dying and rising gods was because Jesus was the myth that came true? Tolkien’s challenge revolutionized Lewis’s way of viewing mythology, and not many days would pass before he would surrender his life to Christ, the historical God-man. No longer a stumbling block, the ancient Greek, Roman and Norse tales that Lewis so loved would become one of the mainstays and bulwarks of his new faith. Rather than dismiss the miraculous elements of Christmas and Easter as having no more historical validity than the scapegoat tales of Oedipus or Prometheus (as many moderns do), or reject the myths themselves as either irrelevant to faith or lies of the devil meant to deceive (as many Christians do), Lewis came to view the myths as glimpses, road signs, pointers to a greater truth that was someday to be revealed literally and historically in a specific time and place. To quote Lewis himself The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…. God is more than a god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “Pagan Christs”: they ought to be there-it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.’ For Lewis, it is just as vital that we proclaim and accept the full historicity of the Christian gospel as it is that we celebrate and experience its full mythic power. Yes, Lewis asserts, Christ is more than Balder (or Achilles or Hercules or Dionysus) in the sense that his death and resurrection occurred in real time and had real consequences. But we must not allow his status as the historical dying god to rob him of his mythic splendor. Christ should speak not only to our rational, logical side, but to our sense of wonder and awe as well. If Christianity is true, then the God who created both us and the universe chose to reveal himself through a sacred story that resembles more the imaginative works of epic poets and tragedians than the rational meditations of philosophers and theologians. The historical enactment of the Passion did not render the old pagan tales unclean; on the contrary, it had the reverse effect of baptizing and purifying them. The coming of the Jewish Messiah made clean the lawless, nonkosher Gentiles (see Acts 10); may it not have made clean as well their deepest mythic yearnings? The relationship between Mary and the baby Jesus has made potentially sacred the relationship between every mother and child both B.C. and A.D.; in a like manner, the gospel story spreads its light both forward and backward to uplift and ennoble all stories that speak of sacrifice and reconciliation, of messianic promise and eschatological hope. It was through the Psalms and the Prophets, which were written in poetry, as well as the “epic” tales of the Old Testament-Abraham’s long, circuitous journey, Joseph and his brothers, the Passover and Exodus-that Yahweh prepared the hearts and minds of his people for the incarnation of the Christ. Is it so unbelievable that he should have used the greatest poets, storytellers and “prophets” of antiquity to prepare the hearts of the pagans? Indeed, as these pagans were without the Law and cut off from the special revelation given to the biblical writers, how else could God have reached them? Yes, God certainly spoke to them through the natural world (see Acts 14:15-17; Romans 1:18-20), but how was he to reach them at the deeper levels of their being? According to Lewis, before the full revelation of Christ, God communicated with men in three basic ways: through their consciences, through his historical struggles with a single, chosen race of people, and through what Lewis calls “good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”2 It has been the burden and joy of this book both to examine and celebrate some of these “good dreams” as they were distilled and reshaped by the finest poets of Greece and Rome. I have, of course, widened the scope of those good dreams to include tales and characters that embody pre-Christian themes and yearnings not directly related to the dying and rising scapegoat; however, I have tried to keep true to the belief shared by Lewis, Tolkien, Dante, Newman and many others that the light of God’s revelation shines (if dimly and intermittently) through the literary masterpieces of antiquity.” (Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, 2947-2982 (Kindle Edition): Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic)

Christians have nothing to fear of pagan similarities with the Bible. Many are to be expected from the nature of religion itself, from the knowledge of God delivered through the star constellations, and from His revelation in the world before the coming of Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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