In PART 1 of my response to Dr. Richard Carrier's Feb. 21, 2013 UNCG presentation about the Jesus who never really existed I discussed the materialistic/naturalistic/atheistic worldview through which Dr. Carrier is examining the relevant evidence. I also discussed his charges of Christianity being a syncretistic version of Judaism and the surrounding Hellenistic/pagan beliefs and his charge that monotheism is the evolutionary offshoot of a more primitive polytheism.

In this post I want to examine Dr. Carrier's charge of similarities between Christianity and other "dying and rising gods" for paganism.

Similarities

While Dr. Carrier was careful to point out some of the nonsensical comparisons many try to make between Christianity and pagan religions (ex. the key figure being born on Dec. 25), he nevertheless provided three examples of “dying and rising god” myths that he thinks are strikingly similar, Romulus, Osiris, and Zalmoxis. Others are often mentioned, but these were the examples used. Let’s briefly look at each one. Our sources for Romulus offer conflicting reports that he either disappeared in a storm or was killed by the Roman Senate, taken to the afterlife, and glorified.1 Osiris, depending on which version of the legend you read, was murdered by his brother Set and cut into pieces. He was said to have been reassembled by the goddess Isis and made lord of the underworld. Zalmoxis is a very obscure figure who, as best as I can tell, was said to have simply disappeared (possibly into an underground living space he constructed) for a period of three years. The ignorant people he was leading and exploiting assumed his death. He latter showed himself again and was at some point taken to the afterlife.

These accounts are extremely different from the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Indeed, Dr. Carrier acknowledges this fact and says that it is the similarities we should be concerned with because they provide evidence for the general "dying and rising god" trend of religious development. Dr. Carrier, like others before him, went on to list a series of things these “dying and rising gods” all share in common. Things such as being “saviors,” “sons of god,” undergoing a “passion,” obtaining victory over death, etc. The common problem with such lists of commonalities, and there are other much longer lists, is that they often commit the composite fallacy by taking bits and pieces from various mystery religions and inventing a sort of universal mystery religion belief. Scholar Albert Schweitzer noted, “Almost all the popular writings fall into this kind of inaccuracy. They manufacture out of the various fragments of information a kind of universal Mystery-religion which never actually existed, least of all in Paul's day.”2

Another problem with such comparisons is that one can easily read Christian thought and terminology back into these stories and use the slightest similarity to draw out some type of commonality. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger called these “parallels made plausible by selective description.” As the authors of Reinventing Jesus note,

When it comes to parallels between Jesus Christ and pagan gods, too often the terms used by modern writers come from specifically Christian vocabulary, even though such terms have nothing to do with the pagan religions. Such language reveals the prejudices of the modern writer more than the substance of the ancient parallels.3

In addition, we can make such parallels with most anything. No doubt you’ve seen the list of at least 16 commonalities between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Other similarities between Lincoln and other mythical figures have been noted HERE. What do such similarities prove? Dr. Carrier maintains that the similarities provide evidence for the trend of ancient people to build religious myth. Again, he’s a committed atheist so, for him, ANYTHING beyond a materialistic/naturalistic explanation is automatically a myth. BUT, if God does exist, then these similarities could just as easily be evidence for the trend that humanity is constantly searching for God as the final end for which we have been purposed. As the authors of Reinventing Jesus observe,

“We might add that all religions, if they are to gain any converts, must appeal to universal human needs and desires. Should we be surprised, then, to discover parallels between Christianity and any other religion regarding the offer of life after death, identification with the deity, initiation rites, or a code of conduct?”4

But, off course, absolutely nothing about the truthfulness of Christianity or the existence of Jesus follows from this fact. Such an argument is like saying that since Star Trek episodes, and countless other early movies and radio shows about space, preceded the Apollo 11 mission we should doubt that we actually landed on the moon. It could also be argued that since monotheism (and if the Bible is true, belief in the one true God) preceded polytheism (as we’ve already examined) it should be no surprise to find remnants of the truth scattered throughout faulty beliefs. The early church father Eusebius (c.260-340) held a similar view that pagan myths helped prepare the way for the true Gospel.

It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of literary evidence we have for the ancient pagan religions that offer any type of substantive similarity comes after the time of Christ. Hence, it is far more likely that the mystery religions were borrowing from Christianity in order to make their teachings look parallel. The authors of Reinventing Jesus note that while there are vague similarities between Christianity and virtually any religion, including the mystery religions and myths, what sets Christianity apart is

(1) its insistence on historical credibility, which the mysteries didn't even pretend to have, versus the ‘going nowhere’ view of the vegetation cycle [many pagan religions revolved around the death and new life of the growing seasons];
(2) Christian proclamation of the gospel as accessible to all people [as opposed to only available to a select few or via some mystical and secret rite];
(3) its insistence on right belief instead of emotional frenzy; and
(4) the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming resurrection of believers [emphasized as real historical events].5

As resurrection scholar Gary Habermas notes,

Lastly, scholars now realize that there was very little influence from the mystery religions in first century Palestine. Michael Grant notes that this is a major problem with Wells’ thesis: ‘Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths of mythical gods seems so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit.’6

To be fair, remember that Dr. Carrier is not arguing for copying per se, but rather a general trend of ancient mythical development. But Judaism had no concept of a dying and suffering God. Indeed, this was what made Jesus’ death and resurrection so outrageous to his disciples.

Dr. Carrier may believe the similarities are more important than the differences, but aside from his anti-supernatural bias, why should he assume this? Let’s assume for the sake of analogy that the accounts of Jesus are much more similar than they actually are to other pagan belief trends. Imagine if I had two glasses of water that were quite similar. They were so similar, in fact, that they looked the same, smelled the same, weighed the same, and even tasted the same. One glass, however, contained a single unnoticeable drop of cyanide. Which glass of water would you drink? What if you thought cyanide was only a myth and you believed it was actually perfectly harmless? Would that change the results of your choice? There are times when it’s not the similarities that matter because, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and the differences can be mortally important.

In part 3 we'll examine the crux of Dr. Carrier's argument and see if it stands up to scruteny.

Endnotes

1. http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/religious_studies/rel_stud_res_claims_in_non-christian_religions.htm

2. J. Ed Komoszewski;M. James Sawyer;Daniel Wallace. Reinventing Jesus (Kindle Locations 2129-2130). Kindle Edition. 

3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 2163-2164. 

4. Ibid., Kindle Locations 2187-2189. 

5. Ibid., Kindle Locations 2281-2283. 

6. Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996.