Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Essay: Christianity and Other Ancient Religions by Stephen J. Bedard

Christianity and Other Ancient Religions by Stephen J. Bedard
Why should Christianity be thought of as true?  The challenge is there were other religious movements in the first century Mediterranean that were just as popular. Why should Christianity have a better claim to truth than some of the mystery cults of the Greco-Roman world?  Some authors have even suggested that the story of Jesus was based on these mystery cults and that the Gospels simply put a Jewish garb on a universal myth found within the mystery cults. There are many ways to respond to such a Jesus myth hypothesis, but one can look at these religious movements from a historical perspective and conclude that Christianity has a better claim to truth.
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Mystery Cults
There were numerous mystery cults within the Greco-Roman world but the ones most often compared with Christianity are the cults of Mithras, Dionysus and Osiris-Isis. It has been argued elsewhere that the supposed parallels with Christianity are either exaggerated or simply false.1 However, there are other ways to differentiate these cults from Christianity.

Mithraism was a religious movement that some have claimed could have supplanted Christianity as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. The origins of Mithraism are shrouded in mystery. There seems to be some connection with Hinduism and Persian religion but by the time Mithraism became a popular religion among the Romans it had been transformed into something completely new. The defining event in Mithraism was Mithras’ slaying of the bull. However, this was not a datable historical event. The slaying of the bull took place in the primordial past. In fact all of the events of Mithras’ life, including his ascension into heaven was not understood as having historical importance but rather ritualistic value.

The Osiris-Isis cycle, which includes the myth of Horus, provided the story for a very popular religious cult. While the actual myth is quite different from the Gospel, there is another difference. The story of Osiris, Isis and Horus takes place in the mythic past. There is no way to place these stories in a historical context. While the myths may have been valued by the ancients, they were not able to describe the events in a historical manner.

The cult of Dionysus is also a movement that is often compared to Christianity. The best account of the myth of Dionysus is found in Euripides’ play The Bacchae. The story describes Dionysus’ anger at being refused worship and the punishment that he inflicts. This play was first presented in 405 BC but it describes events that supposedly take place approximately 2000 BC, according to Herodotus.2 Unlike most cults, it is placed in a specific context, although it is still a legendary age where figures are created as founders of important cities.

Christianity is different from the contemporary pagan religions and cults in many ways, but one of the most important is it is a historical religion. By a historical religion I mean that it is a faith movement that is grounded in historical events rather than the mythic past and that the stories were recorded close to the actual events. Luke at the beginning of his Gospel makes it clear that he is recording actual events and that the events that took place had a specific historical context.3 This is important as Christianity is not based simply on philosophy, enjoyable mythology or practical ethics but it is based on historical events.

What is the historical evidence for Christianity?  We have exactly what we would expect considering the area of the Roman Empire in which the events took place. The messianic claims of a lower class Jew and the worship of his followers would have held little interest to most citizens of the Empire in the first century.4

What about Jewish reports of the ministry of Jesus?  Surely if Jesus was preaching and performing miracles, some of the witnesses would record their experiences. There are two issues to take note of. One is that the literacy rate was quite low and most reports would take the form of oral traditions. Secondly, the climate of Galilee and Judea was too humid for most texts to survive. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are the exception that prove the rule.

Having said that, there is some Jewish evidence for the life of Jesus. In his Testamentum Flavianium, Josephus actually speaks about Jesus. Claims that this passage is a forgery are over ambitious. No doubt there were Christian additions, but scholars have been able to restore the original text.5

More important than Josephus is the testimony of the New Testament itself. The Gospels are sometimes discounted as pious fiction and yet this is unwarranted. Second and third century non-canonical Gospels betray influence from Greco-Roman novels but the canonical Gospels are closer to the genre of biography and history.6 Although the Gospels were written between thirty and fifty years after the events, this does not take away from their value. They are based on older oral traditions7 and compared to our available texts for other ancient figures such as Alexander the Great, the Gospels are relatively close to the events.8

Even earlier than the Gospels is the testimony of Paul. Paul wrote as early as twenty years after the events and seems to cite even earlier traditions. Claims that Paul never speaks of the historical Jesus are exaggerated.9 In 1 Corinthians 15:1-6, Paul is so confident in the historical reliability of the Gospel that he presents the resurrection as something to be confirmed by eyewitnesses.

Why should Christianity’s claim to truth be taken seriously?  Unlike other ancient religions and cults, Christianity is firmly planted in history. There is no mythological or legendary age in which the events took place. The Gospel was preached in a time and place where people could confirm the facts. Christianity is not just based on blind faith but is based on historical reliability.

1 Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ (Toronto: Clements, 2006).
2 Herodotus, Histories Book II 2.145.
3 Luke 1:1-5.
4 There are some early Roman references such as Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger.  See Porter and Bedard pp. 129-39.
5 Porter and Bedard, pp. 139-44.
6 Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
7 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). Bauckham even suggests that some of the oral traditions of individual witnesses has made it into the text.
8 Our earliest life of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is from Plutarch who wrote in the second century AD.
9 Stephen J. Bedard, “Paul and the Historical Jesus: A Case Study in First Corinthians,” in McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7:9-22 (2006).


Ken Pulliam said...


Thanks for your essay. There is not much in it for me to take issue with. I agree with you that Christianity grew out of a historical situation which is not so clear for some of the other ancient religions. However, that alone does not argue for its validity as we have examples of other religions that have likewise grown out of real historical events and people, e.g. Islam and Mormonism.

One point I would take some issue with is when you say: the canonical Gospels are closer to the genre of biography and history.. Yes they are closer to the genre of ancient biographies but that alone does not guarantee that all of their details are literal historical happenings. Plutarch, the most prolific ancient author of biographies, was said to have sometimes "improved on the truth." In other words exaggerated or embellished the truth in some places. This embellishment was not uncommon in recounting the lives of "heroes" in antiquity. It could be that the gospels are more like hagiographies than biographies .

SJBedard said...

Ken, thanks for your comments. You make some good points. You are right that Islam would have a greater claim to truth than a non-historical religion such as Hinduism. As for Mormonism, although there is a historical context for Joseph Smith, the context for the events of the Book of Mormon are bit more fuzzy.

What I argue is that the Gospels should be seen as ancient biography and history not 21st century biography and history. They should be judged and interpreted in the context of their ancient form. I am currently doing research into how Luke used ancient rhetorical methods.

Thanks again for your comments.


Ken Pulliam said...


I think we are in agreement that the gospels are not like modern biographies but my point was that even ancient biographies and especially ancient biographies of "heroes" tended to take on some exaggerated elements as seen by the comment about Plutarch's writings. That is why I think the gospels are more like hagiographies than they are biographies

SJBedard said...

Sure, Plutarch uses exaggerations, but the question is: are Plutarch's writings biographies or hagiographies? Where is the line in the ancient context? I believe that the Gospel writers really thought that they were recording the events and sayings of Jesus that the early church needed to know. What do you think the Gospel writers were attempting?


Ken Pulliam said...


I think the gospel writers were attempting to gain converts. Their writings were more like long tracts. They included history as all biographies do, but they were not disinterested historians. They were writing about their "hero" and we know from other biographies of heroes in the ancient world that these stories often included attributing supernatural powers to the hero.

SJBedard said...

Sorry to take so long to respond. Ken, I would like you to give me any example of 'disinterested history', either ancient or modern. Of course the Gospel writers had a purpose. John, makes that explicit in his Gospel. But that does not take away from their historical value. If having a purpose did that, then we just lost all of world history.

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