XFiles Friday: Grasping at strawsMarch 6, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)
Geisler and Turek are wrapping up their attempt to out-skeptic the skeptics, and today we look at the last three of their six arguments for why they don’t believe pagan resurrection myth contributed anything to the Christian story. We pick up at argument number four which seems to argue that the Christians didn’t borrow anything from pagan myths because they didn’t borrow everything from pagan myths.
Fourth, no Greek or Roman myth spoke of the literal incarnation of a monotheistic God into human form…by way of a literal virgin birth…followed by his death and physical resurrection. The Greeks were polytheists, not monotheists as New Testament Christians were. Moreover, the Greeks believed in reincarnation into a different mortal body; New Testament Christians believed in resurrection into the same physical body made immortal…
And since none of the Greek gods was named “Jesus” nor had 12 apostles, that proves that no pagan myth had any influence on any NT writer or early Christian believer whatsoever. No really. It does. Yeah? C’mon, it dooooooes.
Geisler and Turek seem rather unfamiliar with the common practice of adapting what you’ve adopted from other cultures to fit its new usage. Christmas trees aren’t Christian, they’re pagan, but they’ve been adopted and adapted to suit Christian purposes. Holly was believed to have magical properties in druidic religion, but there is no significance to a “crown of thorns” accompanied by drops of “blood.” This doesn’t change the fact that early Christians adopted holly and holly berries from the druids and gave them that new, Christianized interpretation. Even the halos in Christian icons are actually sun disks borrowed from pagan paintings of Apollo.
What Geisler and Turek are doing is emphasizing the differences in order to distract us from the similarities. Indeed, they’d much rather discuss the differences than pay too much attention to the elements the stories have in common. They’re not so much discussing pagan contributions to Christian concepts as they are changing the subject to the safer topic of pagan distinctives not shared by Christians, and vice versa. But the similarities are still there, so for their fifth argument, they take an even bolder stance.
Fifth, the first real parallel of a dying and rising god does not appear until A. D. 150, more that 100 years after the origin of Christianity. So if there was any influence of one on the other, it was the influence of the historical event of the New Testament on mythology, not the reverse.
The only known account of a god surviving death that predates Christianity is the Egyptian cult god Osiris. In this myth, Osiris is cut into fourteen pieces, scattered around Egypt, then reassembled and brought back to life by the goddess Isis. However Osiris does not actually come back to physical life but becomes a member of a shadowy underworld.
Not surprisingly, Geisler and Turek are, shall we say, presenting a Christianized version of the myth of Osiris, emphasizing the idea that he wasn’t “really” brought back to life. He just became one of the most powerful and widely-worshiped deities in the Egyptian pantheon. You call that living? (Well, yes, actually. Even Jehovah would be jealous.)
But notice the little trick with how Geisler and Turek present their case. Here is a major deity in a major religion dating back thousands of years and culturally transmitted by one of the most powerful and influential empires in the ancient world, and this deity is famous because he dies, is raised to life, and is exalted into majesty, honor, and power. So how do Geisler and Turek present this fact to us? They first make the very broad and non-specific claim that the first “real” parallel (according to their standards) comes after Christianity. Then they gloat about how that means the Christian story must have influenced the pagan myths. Then they admit that, ok, a very similar story had been a major feature of a major religion for thousands of years before Christ. Or, sorry, no, they don’t mention anything about how widespread or influential this story was, or by how much it preceded Jesus. They just admit that some vague religion about Osiris does exist in some vague sense, and then once again insist that this doesn’t count, because they can find differences.
I have to say, I have a hard time seeing this as honest scholarship. This is a con job, pure and simple. The shattered disciples, in their hour of grief and desperation, when they most urgently needed some larger context that could somehow make sense of their loss, had access to a well-known and widely-respected concept about a god triumphing over apparent defeat by rising from the dead and assuming a throne. And if this god was raised in a spiritual body rather than a mortal body, so much the better. They already knew that spiritual truth was more true than mere mundane, materialistic facts. Jesus had already taught them not to judge according to the outward appearances. And besides, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God anyway.
The Osiris myth and the Resurrection myth have quite a lot in common, and deserve better than to be simply swept under the rug, as Geisler and Turek try to do. They pull the same trick they’ve been using all along: constructing a contrived and overly specific definition for what a “real” parallel would have to be, just to create a pretext for dismissing a prior myth that is surprisingly parallel in a number of ways, and quite probably a source that could offer significant insights into how the resurrection story originally developed. They come not to praise the truth, but to bury it.
Their sixth and final argument ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
Finally, even if there are myths about dying and rising gods prior to Christianity, that doesn’t mean the New Testament writers copied from them. The fictional TV show Star Trek preceded the U. S. Space Shuttle program, but that doesn’t mean that newspaper reports of space shuttle missions are influenced by Star Trek episodes!
This is actually not an unfair observation. It’s true: the existence of prior myths doesn’t mean that the early Christians necessarily consciously adopted elements of the Osiris myth into their own version of a dying and rising God. Then again, if the earlier myths and legends are no big deal, why is this argument the only one Geisler and Turek felt like they had to refute by no less than six distinct arguments, each one an increasingly desperate attempt to grasp at any straw that might help?
For all that Geisler and Turek try to brush this aside and laugh it off, I think they’ve saved the best for last. This is the argument that, despite being evidentially the weakest, is actually the one they find most compelling, because it reveals Christianity as being, not the unprecedented and inspired victory of a God wiser than men, but merely a cultural “Me Too!” from a movement savvy enough to combine the most popular elements of one major cult (Osiris) with the most popular ideas of numerous popular sacrificial religions.
True, Christianity is not a direct plagiarism of the cult of Osiris, just as West Side Story is not Romeo and Juliet (which in turn is not Pyramis and Thisbe). But the common elements are there, and stand as an available human source for some rather fundamental and even intimate details of what Christians would like to wish was a unique and distinctive seal of divine authenticity. We don’t need to appeal to the supernatural to find origins for the stories men tell about God, and given God’s failure to show up in real life, we don’t have any particular need to look past the human sources. The evidence we have is human evidence: stories, superstitions, speculations and subjectivism. It needs no more than a human explanation. And we’ve got plenty.