Friday, January 06, 2006

An Unconvincingly Wide Net

Dave Wave continues posting at Steve Hays' blog. The emphasis of his latest comments is on the alleged pagan origins of Christian concepts such as the incarnation, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the ascension. I won't repeat everything I said to Dave on Steve's blog. Steve has posted in response to Dave as well, as has Gene Bridges.

In his commentary on Matthew, the New Testament scholar Craig Keener makes a comment that's relevant here, and he makes the comment while addressing one of the subjects Dave Wave brought up, the resurrection:

"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)

Earlier, Keener had cited Bruce Metzger:

"In all strata of Christian testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 'everything is made to turn upon a dated experience with a historical Person,' [quoting Nock] whereas nothing in the Mysteries points to any attempt to undergird belief with historical evidence of the god’s resurrection." (Ibid., p. 706)

The points Keener is making in these passages are applicable to all of the subjects Dave has brought up. The parallels with paganism are vague, can be found in Judaism as well and with more similarity, are accompanied by many differences, and are accompanied by radically different degrees of evidence.

Contrary to what Dave claims, I don't argue that Justin Martyr was "lying" when he referred to parallels between paganism and Christianity. Rather, I argue, with Keener and modern scholarship in general, that the net has to be cast widely in order to make those parallels. Vague similarities don't prove borrowing.

Glenn Miller has some good material at his web site on the issue of alleged pagan parallels to the virgin birth. He quotes some scholars who have studied the subject (Raymond Brown, David Adams Leeming, and Ben Witherington), and those scholars explain that there is no pagan parallel to the virgin birth. When paganism uses unhistorical myths to portray gods as being born by means of sexual contact, we can't assume that such accounts are the source for Christian Greco-Roman biographies written by people who were in contact with the birth family in question and who write about a virgin birth of God. An unhistorical myth is not a Greco-Roman biography written by people who were in contact with the family in which the birth occurred. A god is not God. And a woman who conceived through sexual contact with a god is not a virgin.

Dave quotes Celsus making vague references to similarities between paganism and the Christian virgin birth account, but, as with Justin Martyr, we aren't dependent on Celsus to know about the content of these myths. Celsus, like Justin, is referring to vague parallels accompanied by differences. And Dave doesn't quote Celsus on issues like the incarnation and the resurrection, where Celsus reflects the common pagan rejection of such concepts. Overall, Celsus does more to contradict Dave's theory than support it, and even the little support Celsus gives Dave is on a subject where we agree with Dave. We don't deny that there are vague parallels between Christianity and paganism. Themes such as birth and death are common to all humans, and we would expect there to be many accounts of unusual events of one sort or another surrounding events like birth and death. You can draw some parallels between paganism and Christianity (as well as between ancient wars and modern wars, one modern politician and another modern politician, etc.). But the parallels aren't such that Christian borrowing from paganism is proven.

I want to close with the comments of some scholars on the subject of differences between Christianity and paganism. Far more could be cited, but these are a few of many examples:

"As such this story [the virgin birth] is without precedent either in Jewish or pagan literature, even including the Old Testament (Machen)." (Ben Witherington, in Joel B. Green, et al., editors, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 70)

"It is indisputable that there was no Jewish expectation that God would become incarnate. Pagans believed that their ‘gods’ had taken human form from time to time; but their ‘gods’ were lesser gods with limited powers, not God, omnipotent and omniscient. There simply was no precedent, Jewish or pagan, for expecting an incarnation: God almighty truly taking a human nature. And that again is reason for supposing that the first Christians were not reading back into history something which they expected to occur." (Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], p. 115)

"Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent; outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection....Lots of things could happen to the dead in the beliefs of pagan antiquity, but resurrection was not among the available options." (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2003], pp. 35, 38)