Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Twenty Ways to Answer A Fool (Pt. 20)

Is Christianity borrowed from other ancient religions?

I come today to my final post addressing Chaz Bufe, the blues guitar picking, Christ-hating anarchist, and his 20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity. Its been a long journey to say the least, with frequent interruptions, but I can confidently affirm that I stayed my course to make it to my goal.

Chaz's final point argues that the key components of the Christian faith are borrowed from a plethora of ancient religions that pre-date Christianity. Most specifically, from the religious followers of Mithras, a Persian cult god that was extremely popular among the Roman soldiers during the first century. Chaz writes,

20. Christianity borrowed its central myths and ceremonies from other ancient religions. The ancient world was rife with tales of virgin births, miracle-working saviors, tripartite gods, gods taking human form, gods arising from the dead, heavens and hells, and days of judgment. In addition to the myths, many of the ceremonies of ancient religions also match those of that syncretic latecomer, Christianity. To cite but one example (there are many others), consider Mithraism, a Persian religion predating Christianity by centuries. Mithra, the savior of the Mithraic religion and a god who took human form, was born of a virgin; he belonged to the holy trinity and was a link between heaven and Earth; and he ascended into heaven after his death. His followers believed in heaven and hell, looked forward to a day of judgment, and referred to Mithra as "the Light of the World." They also practiced baptism (for purification purposes) and ritual cannibalism-the eating of bread and the drinking of wine to symbolize the eating and drinking of the god's body and blood. Given all this, Mithra's birthday should come as no surprise: December 25th; this event was, of course, celebrated by Mithra's followers at midnight.

Christianity is a faith grounded in history. In other words, the second person of the real Triune God, became a real man named Jesus, who lived in a real period of human history, walked a real geographic area, and performed real signs and wonders to demonstrate His claims of deity. This real, historical person Jesus, then gave Himself up to be falsely executed so as to die on a real cross so as to ransom a people from the penalty of their sin. He really resurrected from the dead 3 days after His execution, and will really return to judge the world at His historical second coming. There is nothing "mythical" about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The idea that Christianity is a religion based upon composite myths and stories borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient religions is rather new in literary studies. The first critics who speculated about the "Jesus myths" began to write in the mid-1800s. Many of them were the product of the atheistic enlightenment which attempted to displace the influence of the Christian church in western society. German philosopher, Bruno Bauer, who wrote out his views of Jesus in the 1840s, was probably the first "serious" attempt by a "scholar" to connect Christianity to pagan myths. Bauer even argued that Jesus never existed and was a total fabrication of the earliest sects of Christianity. One of Bauer's students, Karl Marx, promoted the belief Jesus never existed and made it part of his Communist dogma.

These "copy-cat" claims, however, were debunked early on by legitimate scholars, even by those who would be considered liberal. But the advent of the internet and the ability for any anti-theistic crank and his little brother to post this pseudo-intellectual nonsense without scrutiny, has brought about a resurgence of the "Jesus myth" fallacy among the network of various atheistic groups. Uniformed Christians who stumble upon the "scholarly" looking web articles become alarmed at what they read. If it is true Jesus never existed, or that the bulk of the Christian faith is hobbled together with bits and pieces of other existing religious myths, then our faith is unfounded and we are, as the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:19, men to be pitied.

To begin answering Chaz's assertions of parallel, copy-cat faiths, probably the most thoroughly written response for lay level readers is J.P. Holding's collection of essays addressing the variety of ancient religions atheists claim are borrowed by Christians. His research does a good job of debunking some of the alleged connections and demonstrating they are more contrived by the critics than based upon genuine similarities. More specifically, he has written an article addressing the Mithras connections Chaz directly mentions in his point. What J.P demonstrates in this article, and what Chaz fails to tell his readers, is that the real Mithras scholars, not the internet cranks smoking up their comparisons, deny any myth borrowing ever happened between Christians and followers of Mithraism. When the top scholars in the world of one of the most obscure and forgotten cults flat out deny the central tenant of your thesis, you're pretty much making stuff up in order to sustain your argument.

J.P.'s article is more than adequate to show Chaz doesn't have a clue what he is talking about, but let's consider a simple historical and biblical response.

First of all, it is true mystery religions flourished throughout the ancient world around the 1st century. Yet, the one place where they were not only uncommon, but also rejected, was Israel. The practice of pagan mystery religions were non-existent in ancient Palestine. That is simply because the Jews had learned a rather hard lesson about God's utter hatred against pagan cults nearly 500 years earlier when Babylon was used as the rod of punishment against Israel's idolatry.

Christianity is Jewish in origin, and it began in Jerusalem and flourished in Israel for nearly the first two decades after the Spirit's coming. The first Christians were also Jews who were raised with a revulsion toward cultic paganism. It is absurd to think that in the incubator of OT monotheism where Christianity was born and firmly rooted, that the main components of the faith were myths and symbols borrowed from a variety of pagan mystery religions that didn't even exist in the same country.

In truth, the historical background of Christianity grounded in the doctrine of the Person and Work of Jesus was well founded before missionaries began to even encounter pagan mystery religions. This is an important point to consider. We must realize that it takes a significant amount of time for "mythology" to be established within a religion and the components of Christianity were well-founded decades before the close to the first century. Paul's doxology of Christ he describes in Philippians 2:5-11 may well had been a citation from an early Christian doctrinal hymn. Paul wrote Philippians around 60 AD, which means he is citing an affirmed doctrine of Jesus Christ that had been believed by the faithful for at least 30 years prior to his writing that epistle.

Additionally, Christianity was a public faith. Meaning the Gospel was proclaimed and taught out in the open to all people groups without exception. Mystery religions, on the other hand, like Mithraism, only tend to flourish among exclusive groups who are "in the know" as to the the content of the religion; individuals who have "earned" the right to be entrusted with the secrets of the religion. In order to know about Mithras, a person would have had to at least become a Roman soldier, something that was exclusively male, and then probably involve himself in a series of initiations in order to even be recognized as worthy of learning of Mithras. Roman soldiers, then, would have no interest in "evangelizing" for Mithras, or even promoting a belief in him, because it was a faith shared only among those who were Roman soldiers who had been initiated into the secret order. Thus, a copy-cat religion would be extremely difficult to develop, because it is impossible to cut-and-paste together parts for a new mystery religion when you don't even know the "mysteries" of the other religion to begin with.

Further, skeptics like Chaz don't like to consider the NT as being an historical document, but in reality it is. The first 5 books, the 4 Gospels and the book of Acts, are historical documents recording the events surrounding Jesus Christ and the spread of the Christian Church from Judea to the uttermost parts of the world at that time. When Christians began to engage the pagan, gentile world with the Gospel, it was obvious to the gentiles that Christianity presented unique truth claims that radically set it apart from the scores of mystery religions familiar to the gentiles. What made Christianity special was not that it borrowed already existent myths, but that it presented reality, a belief in a living God who was active in space and time and claimed to be the judge the entire world.

Never in any of the many encounters with gentiles as recorded in the NT do the pagans respond to the Gospel message as if it was just another mystery religion. For example, when Peter presented the Gospel to Cornelius in Acts 10, Cornelius, who was a Roman soldier, does not say, "Oh that sounds just like what the followers of Mithras believes." Moreover, there was a supernatural move of the Spirit that fell upon Cornelius and his household in the presence of Peter and the Jewish men with him. Such an occurrence of the "Spirit falling" upon people is absent the Mithras mythology. Moreover, when Paul was in Athens (Acts 17), a city completely given over to idolatry, cultic practices, and mystery religions, his preaching of Jesus to the people was a curiosity. His message was so unique that it caught the attention of the local authorities who brought him into meeting to have him explain his "religion" (Acts 17:22ff.). After Paul brought up the Resurrection of Christ, most of the people mocked, because the idea of a dead man rising back to life was unheard of. No one said, "There is nothing really new about this Paul's beliefs, this stuff sounds just like any other "mystery" religion."

And then finally, Christianity experienced periods of violent persecution for at least the first 200 years of its existence. In addition to severe state sponsored persecution, there were secular critics who wrote against the Christian faith. None of those critics ever attempted to debunk Christianity as being an off-shoot of Mithraism or a copy-cat of any other known mystery cult. If Christianity was nothing more than a collection of already pre-existent myths found in other ancient mystery religions, then there would be no need to persecute the Church or write against its beliefs. Why would anyone be threatened by another mystery religion with similar myths already believed and practiced by adherents of other similar faiths? Secular critics of Christianity accused them of atheism, because Christians refused to acknowledge the other gods. No other mystery religion was a threat to the social fabric of the times, because no other mystery religion god told its followers to abandon idolatry and believe in an historical person, or to turn from pagan temples and religious prostitutes to serving the One True God and living a life of ethical holiness.


Chaz ends his lengthy screed by offering a final word. He says that his 20 points are just a smattering of the problems with Christianity. He then states that even if a half of what he wrote, or maybe even two-thirds or even three-quarters, was discounted, the fact that Christianity must be abandoned would remain. That is a rather bold claim; however, I believe my meager responses show that it is really an embarrassingly laughable claim. Moreover, what he has to offer as a suitable philosophical replacement is unworkable in the real world.

Chaz is an obscure, amateur philosophy hack who has access to the internet. I would have never known he existed, but it was a goofy picture of a moon-bat, anti-war atheist holding a sign advertising his website which linked over to Chaz's site that made me aware of him. I took on his claims, not only for the blog fodder, but to show how Christianity can easily answer the prattlings of a fool. Chaz represents the type of Bible critic most Christians will encounter in the class room, or at work in the break room, or at the family reunions and holiday get togethers. Though I have taken a while to respond (almost 2 years or more), I do hope I have offered some stepping stones for my readers to use when they encounter the Chazes in their lives.



Blogger Ken Abbott said...

Fred, this has been a fine series. You are to be commended for your scholarship, grace, and patience. I believe the material in total could be worked up into a publishable book--get Phil to help you with it!

Has Mr. Bufe ever interacted with anything you've written?

9:39 AM, March 06, 2008  
Blogger Carl said...

Maybe the posts can be compiled and offered in book or electronic form?

8:55 PM, March 06, 2008  
Blogger Highland Host said...

One of the other problems with the claim that Christianity borrowed from the pagans is that the pagan documents that are cited are usually second century. The sceptics forget that it is at least as likely (and in fact more so) that the pagans borrowed from Christianity as that Christians borrowed from the pagans.

2:57 AM, March 07, 2008  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Ken and Carl,

I plan to shoot Chaz an email to alert him to my critique. I figured that by now, he has already taken notice of it. At least I would think so seeing how we have great Internet search engines to hunt down people talking about us. I held off contacting him personally until I was finished responding to each point. When I began this review, I was hoping to be down with in a month or so, but it is apparent that never happened. It is amazing how things can get away from you. Now that I am officially done I will give him a link to my tag that collects them all. I will let you know if anything transpires with Chaz.

Moving along, I doubt if I could ever turn these things into a physical book. Besides, I think it is subject material limited to the internet anyways. What I do plan to do is re-edit them and re-post them on my Fred's Bible Talk site sometime this year. But, I am in the process of learning how to manage my other site and it is a slow one indeed. None the less, I do hope they are accessible enough for you to utilize if you need to.


6:08 AM, March 07, 2008  

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