Monday, January 02, 2006

Pagan Parallels And The Church Fathers

Dave Wave continues posting at Steve Hays' blog, and his material continues to be of low quality. One of his latest arguments is to quote the following passage from Justin Martyr:

"And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter" (First Apology, 21)

Dave then repeatedly emphasized the phrase "nothing different", as if such vague similarities between pagan mythology and Christianity are significant evidence against Christianity. Regarding this sort of misuse of Justin Martyr, J.P. Holding writes:

"[Richard] Carrier appeals to Justin Martyr's retort that Christians 'propound nothing new or different' when they proclaim Jesus' resurrection, as reason to suppose a lack of distinction between resurrection and pagan ideas of rising again. Our answer to Tom Harpur recently, who abused this quote in the same way, is just as relevant here: Please note, as a reader of ours once said of this passage, that Justin Martyr is making these stretches to try to justify Christian belief by making it sound similar to what pagans (who ridicule it) believe in the first place. Strangely enough, it is the pagans themselves who don't appear to be recognising these similarities. This destroys any contention by Carrier of recognizable similarities. If the pagans didn't recognize it, and Justin had to perform these stretches of analogy to create parallels, how likely is it that they are genuine?"

In the same chapter Dave cited from Justin's First Apology, Justin goes on to mention some differences between Christianity and paganism:

"And what kind of deeds are recorded of each of these reputed sons of Jupiter, it is needless to tell to those who already know. This only shall be said, that they are written for the advantage and encouragement of youthful scholars; for all reckon it an honourable thing to imitate the gods. But far be such a thought concerning the gods from every well-conditioned soul, as to believe that Jupiter himself, the governor and creator of all things, was both a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that being overcome by the love of base and shameful pleasures, he came in to Ganymede and those many women whom he had violated and that his sons did like actions. But, as we said above, wicked devils perpetrated these things."

Yes, Justin says that Christianity and paganism are similar in that they both believe in some concept of sons of gods, for example. But that's a vague parallel without much significance, and Justin goes on to mention differences between Christianity and paganism. Dave's emphasis on Justin's phrase "nothing different" is misleading, since anybody reading the context can see that Justin was saying that there's no difference in one vague sense, whereas there are differences on other issues. Dave should explain to us how the fact that pagans believed in some type of sons of gods, for example, is significant evidence against Christianity.

Elsewhere, Justin comments on how pagans have difficulty accepting Christian concepts such as resurrection, and he contrasts the evidence offered for Christian claims with the lack of evidence for pagan claims (First Apology, 19-20). Justin's view might be summarized in this sentence:

"If, therefore, on some points we teach the same things as the poets and philosophers whom you honour, and on other points are fuller and more divine in our teaching, and if we alone afford proof of what we assert, why are we unjustly hated more than all others?" (First Apology, 20)

In another context, after noting some vague similarities between paganism and Christianity, Justin goes on to mention some differences:

"I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it. But they who contradict themselves on the more important points appear not to have possessed the heavenly wisdom, and the knowledge which cannot be spoken against. Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians." (Second Apology, 13)

Are you having difficulty seeing how Justin Martyr significantly helps the case for somebody like Dave Wave? You're not alone. The concept that Christianity is significantly derived from pagan mythology is rightly rejected by the majority of modern scholarship.

Of course, Justin Martyr is just one early Christian source among others. The New Testament, which predates Justin, is highly Jewish and repeatedly condemns paganism, such as in Acts 17.

Concerning the church fathers in general, not just Justin Martyr, the New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg notes:

"A careful reading of the patristic evidence suggests that indeed the vast majority of early Christians did believe that the type of information the Gospel writers communicated was historical fact, even as they recognized the more superficial parallels with the mythology of other worldviews" (cited in Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 327, n. 27)

Let's consider some of the comments of fathers other than Justin Martyr.

Aristides most likely was a contemporary of the apostles, and he wrote in the early second century. He didn't think much of pagan mythology:

"The Greeks, then, because they are more subtle than the Barbarians, have gone further astray than the Barbarians; inasmuch as they have introduced many fictitious gods, and have set up some of them as males and some as females; and in that some of their gods were found who were adulterers, and did murder, and were deluded, and envious, and wrathful and passionate, and parricides, and thieves, and robbers. And some of them, they say, were crippled and limped, and some were sorcerers, and some actually went mad, and some played on lyres, and some were given to roaming on the hills, and some even died, and some were struck dead by lightning, and some were made servants even to men, and some escaped by flight, and some were kidnapped by men, and some, indeed, were lamented and deplored by men....Thus, O King, have the Greeks put forward foulness, and absurdity, and folly about their gods and about themselves, in that they have called those that are of such a nature gods, who are no gods. And hence mankind have received incitements to commit adultery and fornication, and to steal and to practise all that is offensive and hated and abhorred." (Apology, 8)

Writing later in the second century, Tatian, like Justin Martyr, notices vague similarities between paganism and Christianity, yet draws distinctions at the same time:

"We do not act as fools, O Greeks, nor utter idle tales, when we announce that God was born in the form of a man. I call on you who reproach us to compare your mythical accounts with our narrations. Athene, as they say, took the form of Deïphobus for the sake of Hector, and the unshorn Phoebus for the sake of Admetus fed the trailing-footed oxen, and the spouse us came as an old woman to Semele. But, while you treat seriously such things, how can you deride us? Your Asclepios died, and he who ravished fifty virgins in one night at Thespiae lost his life by delivering himself to the devouring flame. Prometheus, fastened to Caucasus, suffered punishment for his good deeds to men. According to you, Zeus is envious, and hides the dream from men, wishing their destruction. Wherefore, looking at your own memorials, vouchsafe us your approval, though it were only as dealing in legends similar to your own. We, however, do not deal in folly, but your legends are only idle tales. If you speak of the origin of the gods, you also declare them to be mortal. For what reason is Hera now never pregnant? Has she grown old? or is there no one to give you information? Believe me now, O Greeks, and do not resolve your myths and gods into allegory....And Metrodorus of Lampsacus, in his treatise concerning Homer, has argued very foolishly, turning everything into allegory. For he says that neither Hera, nor Athene, nor Zeus are what those persons suppose who consecrate to them sacred enclosures and groves, but parts of nature and certain arrangements of the elements. Hector also, and Achilles, and Agamemnon, and all the Greeks in general, and the Barbarians with Helen and Paris, being of the same nature, you will of course say are introduced merely for the sake of the machinery of the poem, not one of these personages having really existed. But these things we have put forth only for argument's sake; for it is not allowable even to compare our notion of God with those who are wallowing in matter and mud." (Address To The Greeks, 21)

Tatian goes on in the next chapter to contrast pagan morals with Christian morals.

Those who have read the writings of Theophilus of Antioch should know that he often compares Christian beliefs to common themes of human life, such as the healing of the body, and he sometimes makes comparisons to pagan religious beliefs. But he also refers to differences between paganism and Christianity. For example, he contrasts the ability of the Christian scriptures to predict the future with the failure of prophets from other religions to produce anything comparable (To Autolycus, 2:33-34). At one point, Theophilus refers to the pagan authors as "wholly deceived" (To Autolycus, 2:6). Since Dave Wave keeps emphasizing Justin Martyr's use of the phrase "nothing different" (First Apology, 21) with regard to similarities between paganism and Christianity, should we keep emphasizing Theophilus' use of the phrase "wholly deceived" to supposedly prove that there weren't such similarities? Here's what Theophilus wrote in the passage I just cited:

"And why should I recount further the vast array of such names and genealogies? So that all the authors and poets, and those called philosophers, are wholly deceived; and so, too, are they who give heed to them. For they plentifully composed fables and foolish stories about their gods, and did not exhibit them as gods, but as men, and men, too, of whom some were drunken, and others fornicators and murderers. But also concerning the origin of the world, they uttered contradictory and absurd opinions."

Similarly, Athenagoras writes:

"Then, as to the other complaint, that we do not pray to and believe in the same gods as the cities, it is an exceedingly silly one. Why, the very men who charge us with atheism for not admitting the same gods as they acknowledge, are not agreed among themselves concerning the gods....When, therefore, they differ among themselves concerning their gods, why do they bring the charge against us of not agreeing with them? Then look at the practices prevailing among the Egyptians: are they not perfectly ridiculous? For in the temples at their solemn festivals they beat their breasts as for the dead, and sacrifice to the same beings as gods; and no wonder, when they look upon the brutes as gods, and shave themselves when they die, and bury them in temples, and make public lamentation. If, then, we are guilty of impiety because we do not practise a piety corresponding with theirs, then all cities and all nations are guilty of impiety, for they do not all acknowledge the same gods." (A Plea For The Christians, 14)

It doesn't seem that Athenagoras and the Christians and pagans he's referring to saw as many similarities among themselves as Dave Wave sees.

Tertullian contrasts the virgin birth of Jesus with the accounts of pagan gods:

"Accordingly, He appeared among us, whose coming to renovate and illuminate man's nature was pre-announced by God - I mean Christ, that Son of God. And so the supreme Head and Master of this grace and discipline, the Enlightener and Trainer of the human race, God's own Son, was announced among us, born - but not so born as to make Him ashamed of the name of Son or of His paternal origin. It was not His lot to have as His father, by incest with a sister, or by violation of a daughter or another's wife, a god in the shape of serpent, or ox, or bird, or lover, for his vile ends transmuting himself into the gold of Danaus. They are your divinities upon whom these base deeds of Jupiter were done." (Apology, 21)

And Tertullian, like other early Christians, often contrasted Christian moral standards with pagan moral standards (Apology, 46). Notice that Tertullian, like other early Christians, was both opposed to paganism and opposed by pagans. Both sides recognized that they had significant disagreements with one another. As we see reflected in Celsus, a second century pagan critic of Christianity, pagans considered the Christian concept of incarnation repulsive:

"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)

Many other examples could be cited. But they shouldn't be necessary. Only people highly unfamiliar with the evidence and not critical enough in their thinking should be convinced by Dave Wave's vague references to pagan parallelism. The vague parallels that do exist aren't enough to compose a significant argument against Christianity.