Tag Archives: mythology

Mythbusters: The Uniqueness of Jesus

In the first century CE, there was a man born in a remote part of the Roman empire, who’s life would later be described by his followers as “miraculous”.

Before he was born, his mother had a visitor from heaven tell her that her son would be no mere mortal, but in fact divine.  His birth was accompanied by unusual sign in the heavens.

As an adult he left home to begin his preaching ministry.  He went from village to town, telling all who would listen that the should not be concerned about their earthly lives and their material goods; they should live for what was spiritual and eternal.  He preached to both the common peasants and the elite.

He gathered a number of followers around him who became convinced that he was no ordinary human, but was the Son of God.  He did many miracles that confirmed their beliefs: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising people from the dead.

All was not well however, as he aroused opposition from the ruling class of Rome and was eventually put on trial.  He was accused of receiving the worship that is due only to God.  He was sentenced to death.

They may have killed his earthly body, but they could not kill his soul!  He ascended into heaven where he lives to this day.  But to prove that he lived, he appeared to one of his followers doubting followers.  This followers later wrote books about him which we can still read today.

The man’s name was Apollonius.

He was a polytheist and a renowned philosopher who came from the town of Tyana.  His followers thought that he was divine and immortal and worshiped him long after his death.  What is know about him comes from the works of his devotee Philostratus.  Philostratus’s book was written in eight volumes in the third century.  He had done considerable research for his book, and his stories were largely based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and companions of Appollonius himself.*

If this all sounds strikingly similar to the account of Jesus, there’s a very good reason for that.

Myths are stories that are based on tradition.  Some may have factual origins, while others are completely fictional.  But myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures.  A myth taps into a universal cultural narrative, the collective wisdom of man.  An excellent illustration of the universality of these themes is that so many peoples who have had no contact with each other create myths that are remarkably similar.  So, for example, cultures worldwide, from the Middle East to the distant mountains of South America have myths about great floods, virgin births, creation, paradise, the underworld, the afterlife, etc.  These commonalities are known as archetypes – universally symbolic patterns.  True to their universal nature, archetypal characters and stories appear again and again in myths across many diverse cultures.

The account of Jesus as described in the Gospels is one such story.   As we’ll see , the myth of Jesus follows a very old and familiar literary pattern familiar to nearly all hero legends. “We should not think of Jesus as unique”, states New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, “if by that term we mean that he was the only one ‘like that’ – that is, a human who was far above and very different from the rest of us mere mortals, a man who was also in some sense divine.  There were numerous divine humans in antiquity.”

The similarities between Jesus and Apollonius are striking, but they are far from unique; there were many stories that followed this archetype in the ancient world.  This is because they both follow what is often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey”– the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.  Also referred to as monomyth, examples of this can be found throughout the history of literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  

A more specific version of hero’s archetypes is the Rank-Raglan mythotype which are narrative patterns that lists different cross-cultural traits often found in the accounts of heroes, including mythical heroes.  Raglan developed a 22-point myth-ritualist Hero archetype to account for common patterns across Indo-European cultures for Hero traditions.  These points are:

  1. Mother is a royal virgin
  2. Father is a king
  3. Father often a near relative to mother
  4. Unusual conception
  5. Hero reputed to be son of god
  6. Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather
  7. Hero spirited away as a child
  8. Reared by foster parents in a far country
  9. No details of childhood
  10. Returns or goes to future kingdom
  11. Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast
  12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor)
  13. Becomes king
  14. For a time he reigns uneventfully
  15. He prescribes laws
  16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects
  17. Driven from throne and city
  18. Meets with mysterious death
  19. Often at the top of a hill
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him
  21. His body is not buried
  22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs

A Hero’s tradition is considered more mythical the more of these traits they hold.  Popular characters who make the cut include Romulus, Heracles, Dionysos, Apollo, Zeus, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Alexander the Great.  How many points does Jesus get?

One can clearly see that the story of Jesus follows the Hero’s tradition.  Is this merely a coincidence?  The number of points the Jesus story gets and the close resemblance to other deities makes it a tough point to argue.


One popular internet meme would have us believe that Christianity is superior because of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

Those who share this meme should spend a little more time studying the history of religion and ancient mythology.  Gods rising from the dead was commonplace in ancient cultures and examples are plentiful:

Attis –  born of a virgin by unusual means, gruesome death, death involved a tree, resurrected/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Adonis – born of royal blood, unusual conception and birth, gruesome death, resurrected/ascended to heaven/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Osiris – son of royalty, became king, taught his people a new way of living, traveled to teach others, was murdered by someone close to him, resurrected, became a god

Dionysus – born from a union between a god (Zeus) and a human (Semele), traveled to spread his message, had disciples, brought people back from the dead, gruesome death (dismemberment), brought back to life, celebrated in spring

Tammuz – parents were divine, had power over nature, foreshadowing of death, descended into the other world but was brought back to life, celebrated in the spring

All of these example proceeded the life of Jesus, some by thousands of years.  You’ll notice some other similarities that I included as well, again, examples of the hero mythology archetype.

Speaking of rising from the dead, some have tried to argue that Jesus’s resurrection is proof of his divinity.  Yet, according to the Bible people being brought back to life, while considered a miracle, was not unusual.  Elijah and Elisha both raised people from the dead.  In fact, Elisha’s powers continued after death as someone was even resurrected simply by touching his bones.  Jesus raised Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow on Nain.  Peter raised Dorcus and Eutychus was raised from the dead by Paul.  In a scene straight out of a zombie movie, we hear of whole cemeteries opening up and saints wandering the streets after the crucifixion (Matt. 27:50-53).  Are we to consider all of these people divine as well?


Interesting similarities can also be found between Jesus and Buddha, who pre-dates Jesus by 400-500 years.  Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was:

  • Born to a royal family
  • Birth foretold in dream
  • Visited by “wise men” shortly after birth
  • Prolonged fasting before starting ministry
  • Renounced worldly riches and required his disciples to do so also
  • Taught that true riches are not material
  • Extensive traveling to spread his message
  • Had disciples who traveled with him
  • Performed miracles, such as curing blindness and walking on water
  • Dispatched disciples, shortly before his death, to spread his message

Some have claimed that what set Jesus apart were his teachings, yet while Jesus’s message was certainly counter-cultural, it was nothing original.  As with Apollonius, Buddha taught many of the same principles that we find in the Gospels.  Here are a few examples:

The Golden Rule

Buddha
Jesus
“Consider others as yourself.” (Dhammapada 10:1)
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Love others

Buddha
Jesus
Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.” (Sutta Nipata 149-150)
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Love your enemies

Buddha
Jesus
Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth. (Dhammapada 1.5 &17.3)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6.27-30)

Turn the other cheek

Buddha
Jesus
“If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words.” (Majjhima Nikaya 21:6)
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” (Luke 6:29

Help others

Buddha
Jesus
“If you do not tend to one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick.” (Vinaya, Mahavagga 8:26.3)
“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:45)

Do not judge others

Buddha
Jesus
“The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of oneself is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbour’s faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides.” (Dhammapada 252.)
“Judge not, that you be not judged… And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1–5)

Disdain wealth

Buddha
Jesus
“Let us live most happily, possessing nothing.” (Dhammapada 15:4)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

Do not kill

Buddha
Jesus
“Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword.” Digha Nikaya 1:1.8)
“Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Spread the word

Buddha
Jesus
“Teach the dharma which is lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely at the end. Explain with the spirit and the letter in the fashion of Brahma. In this way you will be completely fulfilled and wholly pure.” (Vinaya Mahavagga 1:11.1)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Does mean that the writers of the Gospels simply copied the story of Buddha?  Trade routes between India and Middle East were well established at that time and goods, as well as ideas, certainly traveled back and forth between them.  While it is certainly possible that the Gospel writers knew of Buddhism, it’s doubtful they simply retold the Buddha myth to match that of Jesus.  I bring up the similarities to once again illustrate how common the Hero archetype was and how influential it was on religious mythology of the time.

While some have argued that Jesus was not an actual historical figure, the majority of scholars and historians would believe that he was.  However, while these scholars would agree that a religious leader named Jesus likely existed, the stories surrounding him are most certainly the product legend and mythology; a story retold over time to fit the hero’s narrative. 

This poses a problem for Christianity, as it depends on the mythology of Jesus.  Without the immaculate conception, miracles, death and resurrection, Jesus is just another ancient religious figure.  As Bob Seidensticker explains: “Strip away any supernatural claims from the story of Alexander the Great, and you’ve still got cities throughout Asia named Alexandria and coins with Alexander’s likeness. Strip away any supernatural claims from the Caesar Augustus story, and you’re still left with the Caesar Augustus from history (and a month in our calendar named after him). But strip away the supernatural claims from the Jesus story, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary rabbi. The Jesus story is nothing but the supernatural elements.”  This is why it is not hard to find apologist desperately attempting to explain away evidence like what I have presented and insisting the Jesus was more than just a teacher/philosopher, but in fact was God, and has to be God.

So, where does all of this leave us?  For me, understanding the true nature of the Jesus story, it’s origins, and how similar it was to other narratives, was part of what led to my de-conversion.  It is yet further evidence that Christianity is a man-made religion, following a similar pattern of mythology, allegory, and legend-making that can be found in all religions.  Christianity is not unique, it is not special, and it certainly isn’t the one true religion as most of its followers would like to believe.

I do, however, admire the central teachings of Jesus and wish more people, specifically his devotes, would actually follow them as it would make the world a much better place.  The practice of treating others as equals, helping others, being slow to anger and judgment, and avoiding materialism, are principles which everyone should embrace.  Whether these principles are coming from Jesus, Buddha, Gandi, MLK, or a host of others; they are universal in nature and lead to a more civil, progressive, and humane society.  It’s when these principles are replaced by religious dogma that we see social progress slow down or even move backwards.  It’s time that the myth of Jesus be put in it’s rightful place so that we, as a society, can move forward.

Thanks for reading.

 

*The story of Appolonius was taken from Bert Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”

**Some apologists have argued that the claims regarding ancient figures such as Adonis and Dionysus can’t be proven to be historically accurate.  It can’t be proven that Jesus was born on Dec 25th either, yet his followers universally celebrate that date.  The same holds true for the gods the preceded Jesus – little may be known about their actual existence (if they had one), but we can make certain claims regarding what their followers believed and how they worshiped.  

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

For anyone who has ever served on a jury or watched a lot of Law & Order, you know how important the burden of proof is for the prosecution.  They must prove to the jury using evidence and testimony that the facts being presented could not have happened any other way.  The defense’s job to present conflicting evidence and instill doubt the jury’s mind.  It’s not a perfect institution, but I do think it’s a good one.  Being someone who is pretty logical and is skeptical by nature, it definitely resonates with me.

I use this same system in dealing with matters of faith and theology.  I spoke in my last post about deconstructing all of my previously help beliefs and looking at them anew.   When deciding what things should stay, go, or be changed, I put them through a sort of “trial” in my head.  I’d go searching for evidence and ask myself:  How do these ideas stack up against modern thinking?  Can they be proven using science, history, or reason?  Is this helpful or harmful to myself or others?  If the evidence didn’t mount up, if there was sufficient doubt as to the authenticity or authority of any claim; out it does.  The litmus test for any religious claim should be: could I explain this idea or concept to a non-religious person in a way that would makes rational sense?  

This is not to say that things must be proven to be absolute, only that you can be reasonably sure that it is true.  I heard a lawyer explain reasonable doubt as doubt that you act on.  For example, if I leave my house and have a reasonable doubt that I forgot to lock the doors, I will turn around, go back and check.  An unreasonable  doubt would be doubting that Japan really exists just because I haven’t been there personally.

While most would probably agree with my overall assessment, when one takes a look at the long-list of “truths” that are claimed as irrefutable facts by many people of faith, you will quickly see that the burden of proof is not met.  Christians have a whole laundry list of claims that would never hold up in a modern trial.

Creationism is perfect example.  Creationism is the belief, based on a literal interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only 6,000 years old, was created in 7 days, and Adam and Eve were two historical figures who birthed all of humanity.  I simply cannot get behind any claim that this story is anything but a mythological story told by an ancient civilization that predates modern science by at least 3,000 years.  There is zero scientific evidence to support Creationism.  Evolution, on the other hand, is a nearly undisputed fact in all science fields across the globe, and has decades worth of scientific research to support it.  On the logical side, the idea of talking snakes, angels with fiery swords, and all of civilization being decedents of two people (incest, anyone?) is just too much to be taken as fact.

Another long-held assertion of the Christian faith is virgin birth of Jesus.  The Apostles Creed states it as Jesus being “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”  The idea of a virgin conception contradicts everything we now know about biology, genetics, and human reproduction.  The Bible doesn’t present a solid case for the stories validity either.  The miraculous birth is not recorded in the earliest gospel, Mark, nor does Paul ever mention it.  In fact, Paul refers to Jesus as being “born of a women” (Gal 4:4) and as a “descendant from David according to the flesh”  (Rom 1:3).  The virgin birth narrative first appears in the book of Matthew, where the author quotes Isaiah 7:14,  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).   Many scholars believe the word “virgin” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word meaning “young women”.  It is also important to note that the verse in Isaiah is taken from a narrative in which God promises a sign to the king of Judah, pledging that his nation would not fall to the enemies(Syria and Judah) that were surrounding Jerusalem in the eighth century BC.  It is not a prophecy about the coming of Jesus some 800 years in the future.  The Gospel of John also makes no reference to the virgin birth story, but refers to Jesus as the son of Joseph (1:45, 6:42).  Does all of this evidence conclusively proof  that the virgin birth of Jesus never happened?  No.  But it certainly casts a reasonable doubt on the authenticity of the story.

Faced with these arguments, people are quick to say, “But what about what it says in the Bible?  Don’t you believe in the Bible?”  My issue is not with what the Bible says, but with how people understand and interpret it.   When the Bible is used as a scientific text book, it’s going to get misconstrued.  When parts of the Bible that were meant to be read allegorically or metaphorically are read literally, you’re going to run into problems.  When instructions for churches written 2,000 years ago are treated as a rule book for modern day living, things get ugly.

“You just need to have faith!” I can here people crying.  This seems to be the go-to declaration anytime Christians run into question that can’t be answered logically.   What some would call faith, I would call blind obedience.  Many long-standing traditions are still around, not because they have proven to be true, but because of people’s blind devotion to upholding them.  Faith should never be absent of reason.   Hebrews 11:1 say that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Notice that it says “not seen,” but doesn’t say “not known.”  Just because I haven’t seen Japan doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.

A better way to understand faith is in the context of a marriage.  I have total faith in my wife.  I have never doubted my wife’s devotion or loyalty to me and our marriage.  But, my faith in her is not something I simply chose to believe or excepted without warrant.  My faith in her is based on her character, her integrity, and her moral convictions.  It is based on the trust that we developed over the seven years we’ve been together.  Does this mean that I can be 100% certain that she will never be unfaithful to me?  No.  We are all human and make mistakes.  But I have no reasonable doubt as to her devotion.  What doubts I may have because of my own insecurities do not warrant being acted on.

What I don’t doubt, though, is Jesus.  Historically speaking, along with the four gospels in the Bible, there are some 20 gospels that account the life of Jesus.  Historical writers from the 1st century, such as Josephus, also make mention of Jesus.  The movement that was started by Jesus is well documented.  This movement didn’t start from nothing, someone had to influence these people in such a way that they were willing to face hardships and persecution in order to follow his ways.  Jesus is represented in nearly every major religion on earth and is well respected even among unbelievers.  While some have argued over Jesus’s earthly existence, his teachings have stood the test of time.  Men such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have made revolutionary changes in their countries by following the philosophies of Jesus on non-violent resistance.  Jesus and his teachings have a good track record and I haven’t found a better example of how to life a meaningful, fulfilling life.

I encourage everyone to take stock of their faith and their belief system.  Unpack it all, run it through a trial, and see how it stack up against logic and facts of our modern world view.  See if it’s worth hanging on to, and don’t be afraid to let it go if it’s found faulty.   I can tell you from personal experience that shedding all the baggage of my earlier faith life has given me so much freedom and peace.  No longer do faith and reason have to be disconnected.