Saturday, January 07, 2006

Modern Critics Borrowing From Paganism

Dave Wave has written a response to me at his blog. That response is posted as a comment to an earlier post he wrote that wasn't directed to me. I don't know why Dave has chosen to reply to me in such a manner. He does this sort of thing a lot. He'll attribute his quotes to the wrong person, leave out quotation marks, claim that he's going to post something without ever doing it, etc. A lot of what I had written to Dave earlier is ignored in his latest response. Despite the incoherence of much of what Dave writes, I'm going to attempt to make sense of his latest response and interact with it here. My words will be in black, and his will be in red.

He quotes my citation of Bruce Metzger on the issue of how the New Testament writers put their claims in a historical context, whereas pagan mythology isn't historically rooted. Here's how Dave responded:

"Justin already admitted the parallels existed before the time of Jesus, so whether there's actual historical evidence available to us today to corroborate Justin's admission here, is irrelevant."

Notice that Dave is changing the subject. I cited Bruce Metzger on the issue of the historical nature of the New Testament as contrasted with the non-historical nature of pagan mythology. Dave responds by discussing whether Justin Martyr's comments on paganism indicate that the pagan beliefs Justin is addressing predate Christianity. I don't deny that Justin thought that the pagan beliefs in question predated Christianity. But that isn't the issue I was addressing.

"which answers none of the specific parallels cited by Justin, such as a god-man being the 'word' of the god who created him, or Jupiter being at the same time a aprricide and a son of a parricide, or Perseus being born of a virgin, or the motif of god-men performing medical wonders such as Asclepis did, etc, etc."

Notice, first of all, that Dave is repeating his claim about Perseus' being born of a virgin, despite the fact that I, Steve Hays, and Gene Bridges corrected Dave on this issue repeatedly. Dave has assumed that Justin Martyr meant to refer to Perseus as born of a virgin, but we've explained to Dave that Justin doesn't say so. And we aren't dependent on Justin to know what pagans believed about Perseus. We know that Perseus wasn't said to have been born of a virgin. Dave is repeating his errors even after being corrected, and he isn't even attempting to interact with what his opponents have said on the subject.

Notice, also, that Dave is combining a series of pagan figures from a variety of contexts, and he's assuming that borrowing occurred based on the vaguest of similarities. His Asclepius example is particularly ridiculous. Humans get illnesses. They get injured. Such things are common human experiences. The fact that pagans thought of the concept of gods healing people prior to the time of Jesus shouldn't lead anybody to the conclusion that Christian accounts of healing were borrowed from paganism. Healings occur in the Old Testament as well. How can Dave possibly know not only that borrowing occurred, but also that the early Jewish Christians in question borrowed from pagan rather than Jewish sources? Should it be necessary for me, Steve Hays, Gene Bridges, and other people to keep explaining these things to Dave? He knows about the Jewish background to the New Testament, because he goes on to refer to it, yet he keeps ignoring the Jewish background while claiming to somehow know that paganism is the source for the accounts in the New Testament.

"i admit the 'found in Judaism' part, and claim that Jesus' fulfillment of OT prophecy is pure fiction, and so, since he didn't fulfill anything of value to modern apologists speaking with bible skeptics, the resemblence of Jesus to OT things matters nothing."

I've given Dave examples of Old Testament prophecies Jesus fulfilled, and he's failed to refute any of my examples. Some of the examples he hasn't even attempted to refute. But even if I hadn't given him any evidence for prophecy fulfillment, how would an alleged lack of evidence for prophecy fulfillment justify ignoring the Old Testament on issues that aren't related to prophecy? For example, if the Old Testament contains accounts of healings, then how does Jesus' alleged failure to fulfill prophecy justify ignoring the Old Testament healings in order to claim that the pagan Asclepius figure is a source for New Testament healing accounts?

Furthermore, why would the alleged failure to fulfill Old Testament prophecy justify ignoring Jewish texts outside of the canon of scripture? The Jewish background of the New Testament isn't limited to the Old Testament.

"No-true-scotts-man fallacy. Whatever differences there are between say, Perseus and Jesus, do not for a moment erase their both sharing the commonality of being said to be born of virgins or born in peculiar manner of a god impregnating a woman, standard expected info on anybody professing to be a true god-man."

Again, Dave is assuming what needs to be proven with regard to Perseus. If Dave can't show that Perseus was said to have been born of a virgin, then the similarities between Perseus and Jesus become more vague.

As I explained earlier, birth is a common human experience. And a birth will either be natural or supernatural. The fact that pagans often referred to supernatural births doesn't prove that Christianity could only get the concept of a supernatural birth by borrowing from paganism, nor does it prove that no supernatural birth account could be true. Ancient Jewish sources also referred to supernatural births. How does Dave know that Christianity didn't borrow from Jewish sources rather than paganism? How does he know that any borrowing occurred? He needs to address the historical credibility of the Christian accounts rather than assuming that they must be unhistorical just because other supernatural birth accounts were false. We can't assume that one account is false just because other accounts vaguely similar to it have been false.

"Justin's apologetic purpose in citing the parallels (to convince the Greeks that Jesus was just as big a player as any of their god-men, or bigger) could only suffer if he would have pushed the parallels to be more exact than they were in order to show how much Jesus fits their criteria of what a true god-man is."

In other words, Justin couldn't get much more specific, because vague parallels are all that exist. And those vague parallels aren't enough to make your case.

"you haven't proved they were vague"

How do we know that the parallels Dave is citing are too vague? Because those parallels have an obvious logical connection to universal human themes, which means that anybody could come up with the concepts without borrowing from paganism. Because the parallels are not only found in ancient paganism, but also in ancient Jewish sources. Because the pagans themselves considered the parallels so vague that somebody like Justin Martyr had to try to persuade them of those parallels, and they didn't find Justin's argument convincing.

Has Dave given us any eyewitness accounts proving that the earliest Christians borrowed from paganism? No. Has he given us any reports from people who knew eyewitnesses? No. Has he shown any literary dependence? No. Has he significantly interacted with alternate possibilities, such as the possibility of borrowing from Jewish sources or the possibility of actual historical events having some similarities to vague themes in pagan mythology? No.

"to prove they were vague would make Justin look like an utter idiot for making parallels to Jesus for a Greek audience who would immediately know whether he was citing their pagan histories correctly on the matter or not"

The issue isn't just whether Justin was citing the pagan accounts correctly. We also have to ask what he was attempting to prove. If he was only arguing for vague similarities, not similarities so detailed that they would require borrowing, then we don't have to assume that Justin was "an utter idiot" in order to reject the conclusions Dave is drawing from Justin's comments.

As I've documented, Justin accompanies his references to similarities between paganism and Christianity with references to differences between the two. Dave has done nothing to prove that the similarities are so significant as to require borrowing from one religion to another. And he repeatedly fails to interact with the contrary evidence I, Steve, and Gene have given him.

Dave's most emphasized example of alleged pagan parallels is the supposed virgin birth of Perseus, yet, as we've explained to Dave repeatedly, the Perseus account doesn't involve a virgin birth. Even if it did, that account would be just one among a larger number of accounts that involve sexual contact. If the New Testament authors were trying to appeal to pagans by fabricating accounts that resemble paganism, why would they borrow from a pagan account that was an exception to the rule? Why wouldn't they follow the mainstream pagan tendency of depicting births as coming from sexual contact?

And how does all of this alleged fabrication on the part of the New Testament authors coincide with the Jewish setting of early Christianity, the presence of Jesus' relatives in early church history, the historical genre of the gospels, the early Christian condemnations of paganism, etc.? Dave doesn't explain such things, because he can't, and, in some cases, he probably hasn't even thought that far. In one of his recent posts, he commented on how he doesn't deny the historical reliability of Luke, except on the census account. But if the infancy accounts in Luke's gospel are wrong, and the healings, the resurrection, the ascension, the apostolic miracles in Acts, etc. are all unhistorical, then how can Dave claim that he accepts the historical reliability of Luke? Again, Dave's arguments are so often incoherent and inconsistent.

"preaching to the choir, I have also seen those works, and wrote my own rebuttal to them, but alas, I'm not talking to them, but talking to you"

Raymond Brown was "preaching to the choir"? Since modern scholarship in general disagrees with you, including large numbers of liberal scholars who reject traditional Christianity, should we assume that they, too, are all "preaching to the choir"?

"Whether the pagan histories Justin cites were intended as factual biography or are just fictions is entirely pointless."

The genre of the relevant documents is "pointless"? No, if people like Matthew and Luke were in contact with members of Jesus' immediate family, and they report family events in documents written in a historical genre, such facts aren't "pointless". They're highly significant.

You've acknowledged that there are differences between the pagan accounts and the accounts of Jesus' life, and now you're dismissing another difference, a difference in genre, as "pointless". So, if there's a parallel as vague as "healing" (Asclepius healed people, and so did Jesus), or if there's a parallel as vague as "born in an unusual fashion" (a pagan figure was born by means of sex with a god, and Jesus was born of a virgin), you'll claim that such vague parallels are significant. But when there are differences, even differences as fundamental as genre, you claim that those differences are all insignificant. You aren't giving us any criteria by which you reach your conclusions. Rather, you just give us unargued assertions. At least I've given you reasons for why I reach my conclusions. I've discussed how concepts such as having an unusual birth or healing people could be derived from common human experiences. You, on the other hand, haven't given us any reason to think that such vague parallels require borrowing from one religion to another. You just assert that borrowing must have occurred. An assertion isn't enough.

"What makes you say impregnation by a god removes the woman's virginity? How did a Zeus' appearence as a shower of gold, remove Danae's virginity?"

Zeus took the form of a shower of gold to get into the room where the woman was. The woman was later found with a child. Since Zeus had a history of having sexual intercourse with women, the more natural interpretation is that the child came from sexual intercourse after Zeus had come into the room. If you want us to believe that a virgin birth was involved, you need to explain why. So far, you haven't given us any evidence.

"What is it about ancient Greece and Rome and Jerusalem that caused their inhabitants to expect divine births to be from virgins?"

Again, you haven't documented even one case of a pre-Christian virgin birth account in paganism, yet you're referring to such accounts as what was "expected" in Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem. You need to give us more documentation to accompany your assertions.

And if a virgin birth was expected in Jerusalem, then how do you know that paganism had to have been the source that influenced the Christian claim?

"did the story of god impregnating virgins, and virgins giving birth, exist before Jesus lived, yes or no?"

It seems that you're now changing your argument in mid-discussion, as you've done before. Apparently, you're now defining "virgin birth" as any birth that comes from a woman who used to be a virgin. If a pagan god has sex with a virgin, you'll claim that the birth that follows is a "virgin birth", since the woman had been a virgin prior to the sexual contact. But that isn't how Christianity defined the virgin birth. If the woman only needs to have been a virgin prior to sex, then every woman who gives birth after first having sex can be said to have produced a "virgin birth". Virgin births would then be far too common to limit pre-Christian examples to pagan mythology. If every Jewish woman who got pregnant the first time she had sex was producing a "virgin birth", then how can you claim to know that the concept of virgin birth could only have come from a borrowing from pagan mythology?

If, on the other hand, you aren't redefining "virgin birth" in such a way, then you need to document these pre-Christian virgin birth accounts you keep referring to. So far, you haven't documented a single one.

On the issue of whether pagans and Jews were expecting the incarnation of God, Dave writes:

"Oh, so I guess Isaiah 9:6 wasn't Jewish?"

Isaiah lived several centuries prior to Christianity. In the quote of Richard Swinburne Dave is responding to, Swinburne is addressing the timeframe of Christianity's origin. The Messiah wasn't expected to be God incarnate.

Notice that Dave hasn't addressed the pagan rejection of such an incarnation. And he hasn't addressed the popular Jewish view of Isaiah 9 at the time of Christ. Dave has told us that the gospel writers were fabricating accounts in an attempt to be popular with pagans. But if the concept of God incarnating Himself was not only absent in paganism and contemporary Judaism, but was even considered repulsive to pagans (as illustrated in my earlier citation of Celsus), why should we believe that the early Christians were fabricating accounts in an attempt to appeal to pagans?

With regard to the distinction between an incarnate god and God incarnate, Dave writes:

"irrelevant trite differences do not erase the points of similarity Justin cites"

The difference between an infinite God and a finite god is "irrelevant" and "trite"? No, it isn't. Let me use the example of Celsus again. Remember, Dave has appealed to Celsus (incorrectly) on the virgin birth issue, so he should think highly of Celsus' comments on this subject as well. Yet:

"This assertion [the incarnation], says Celsus, 'is most shameful and no lengthy argument is required to refute it' (c. Cels. 4.2). God is not the kind of being who can undergo mutation or alteration. He cannot change from the purity and perfection of divinity to the blemished and tarnished state of humans." (Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 102)

It doesn't seem that the early Christians were fabricating concepts like the incarnation in order to appeal to pagans like Celsus.

"False, the idea of coming back to life after dying was prominent before the time of Jesus. See Osiris, Tammuz, etc, who, although not exactly the same as claimed of Jesus' resurrection, nevertheless prove that the concept of the body coming back to life, however it is fabled to have happened, was indeed known and believed before the time of Jesus."

Now you're telling us that a resurrection isn't necessary, as long as there's a "coming back to life after dying", and you go on to suggest that the body might be involved in at least some cases. But here the comments of Craig Keener that I posted earlier are relevant:

"When the early Christian picture of bodily resurrection derives directly from Jewish eschatological teaching, one casts the net rather widely to make all human hopes for afterlife parallel to it." (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 709)

Dave gives us no documentation regarding Osiris or Tammuz, perhaps because he's just repeating what he's heard without having any documentation. As we've told Dave before, pagan beliefs changed over time, so Dave needs to give us documentation of pre-Christian accounts and explain to us why he thinks that those accounts were the source of the New Testament claims. The concept of resurrection is found in the Old Testament, so Dave will have to both document the existence of a similar belief in pre-Christian pagan sources and explain why we should think that the early Christians borrowed from such sources rather than being influenced by the Old Testament, for example. Since Dave acknowledges that even the Osiris and Tammuz accounts he's heard of don't contain the Christian concept of resurrection, but rather just contain some other form of coming back to life, why should we think that such sources were more influential than the Old Testament? Why should we overlook a closer parallel in Jewish literature in favor of less close parallels in paganism?

"Ok, so the Christians didn't make Jesus to look exactly like some previous resurrected god-man, so? None of the pagan-stories themselves represent god-men with the exact same details either. Does that thus mean that each such pagan story WASN'T borrowed from earlier similar pagan motifs?"

If the Christian differences are Jewish and/or repulsive to paganism, then why should we conclude that a borrowing from paganism has occurred? Dave has failed to give us any reason to think that Christianity was dependent on paganism. He's mentioned vague concepts such as Jesus' having "an unusual birth", but there are unusual births in Jewish sources also, not just in paganism. Dave mentions "healings", but healings occur in Jewish sources also, not just pagan sources. And Dave mentions "coming back to life", but Jewish sources not only had such a concept, but even had accounts that are closer to the Christian view than are the pagan accounts. If these parallels are found in Jewish sources, and the parallels in Jewish sources are closer parallels, and Christianity began in Israel, and the earliest Christians and the earliest pagans responding to Christianity thought that their belief systems were highly opposed to each other, why is Dave pointing us to paganism?

Christianity has far more to do with Jewish influences than it has to do with pagan influences. But even where there's Jewish influence, is borrowing a sufficient explanation? No, because Christianity sometimes develops Jewish concepts in ways that Jewish thought wasn't expecting. For example, a general resurrection was expected in the future, but not the resurrection of an individual prior to that time. The Christian concept of resurrection is highly Jewish, but it isn't just a repeat of common contemporary Jewish thought.

More significantly, the early Christians placed their claims in a historical context, so those claims have to be historically examined. The fact that the concept of resurrection was popular in ancient Jewish thought doesn't justify the conclusion that the early Christians must have been borrowing from Jewish sources rather than reporting a historical resurrection. The Christians' historical claim has to be evaluated by means of all of the relevant historical evidence available. People like Dave Wave can't just point to the popularity of the concept of resurrection in ancient Jewish thought as a justification for dismissing Jesus' resurrection as unhistorical. The fact that a reported event is consistent with popular thought doesn't prove that the event didn't occur. Many events that all of us accept as historical are consistent with popular thought.

"I'm sorry to hear that your scholars don't have a good memory of basic pagan religion 101. Remember Castor and Pollux?"

Maybe you wouldn't be so dismissive of a scholar like N.T. Wright if you weren't so ignorant of scholarship and so ignorant of the subjects we're discussing. Here's what Mythology Guide, an online source on ancient mythology, reports about the alleged "resurrection" of Castor and Pollux:

"Castor was slain, and Pollux, inconsolable for the loss of his brother, besought Jupiter to be permitted to give his own life as a ransom for him. Jupiter so far consented as to allow the two brothers to enjoy the boon of life alternately, passing one day under the earth and the next in the heavenly abodes. According to another form of the story, Jupiter rewarded the attachment of the brothers by placing them among the stars as Gemini, the Twins."

The fact that there were alternate, inconsistent forms of the story circulating should tell you something. And where is a resurrection mentioned? Do you even know what a resurrection is, Dave? It involves the same body coming back to life in a transformed state. Where are you seeing a resurrection in the accounts of Castor and Pollux?

Even if there had been a resurrection in such accounts, why would we think that unhistorical pagan myths were the source of a reported resurrection in highly Jewish Greco-Roman biographies? As if a first century Jew like Matthew would have found the myths of Castor and Pollux inspiring and would have written his gospel under their influence? How did adaptations of the Castor and Pollux myths convert the apostle Paul? Or James? If the early Christians were reporting events that didn't occur, then why do the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources to comment on the New Testament treat the documents as historical reports? Why do the New Testament writers mention the Jewish influences in their lives explicitly and repeatedly, but never mention any of these pagan myths and, instead, speak negatively of paganism? Why did the early pagans hold a highly negative view of Christianity and consider doctrines such as the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection repulsive?

It should be obvious to every reader by now that Dave Wave hasn't given these issues much thought. The problem isn't that N.T. Wright, Raymond Brown, Craig Keener, and the other scholars I've been citing are ignorant. The problem is that Dave is ignorant.