A Skeptic’s Letter to Lee Stroebel

Dearest Lee,

Whether or not there are traces of pagan religion to be found in Christianity is a topic of profound interest to me. After all, if Christianity inherited ideas from ancient mythology, then it is less likely to be a true revelation from God and more likely to be a product of superstitious man in ancient times. If, however, Christianity is so far removed from ancient pagan beliefs that its doctrines are otherwise inexplicable as anything less than divine revelation, then one must consider, as you posit, that it is the one true religion revealed by God. So, I took to the section of your latest work in The Case for the Real Jesus, in which you refute the idea that Christianity Copied Its Beliefs about Jesus from Pagan Religions, with zeal.

In so doing, I couldn't help but notice your frustration with Internet bloggers who claim that Christianity exhibits pagan beliefs, even going so far as to express "a rising indignation" toward them. Well, what an opportunity this is for you! Because, I am one of those pesky Internet bloggers. And I found your examination of this issue to be so inadequate and uncritically biased, that I will continue to blog about the pagan origins of Christianity until you can up the ante and prove a lowly Internet blogger such as myself wrong. Yes, this is a splendid opportunity for you indeed. Because, if you can prove me wrong, that's one less pesky Internet blogger and one more saved soul. Not to mention, a fine example for those to whom you can witness through this process – resulting in even more saved souls! But, the question remains: can you do it? More importantly, will you even bother to try? According to your belief system, there is much at stake here. So, how will you respond?

Let's start with a brief look at your chapter on Biblical prophecy. You set forth the argument that Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecy as can be gleaned, most importantly, from Isaiah 53. You might have done well if, in addition to understanding its contextual relation to the Babylonian exile, you offered up a reason as to why the suffering is presented in the past tense rather than in the future tense (what we should surely expect from a prophetic vision of something that has yet to take place). Or why some Rabbis associated it with the Messiah, sure, but most do not. And perhaps if you consulted a modern Rabbi, or quite simply a Jewish Study Bible, which can be found in just about any local library or book store, you'd understand that such phrases as "stricken by God, smitten by him, afflicted, pierced, crushed, led like a lamb to the slaughter, cut off from the land of the living, assigned a grave with the wicked, poured out his life unto death" are indeed poetic expressions of suffering rather than literal accounts of death.

What's more, the notion that God would "prolong his days" says nothing of resurrection, much less eternal life. The phrase "he will see the light of life," with its resounding Christian connotation, is simply not to be found in that portion of the Tanakh based on the original Hebrew. So much for authenticity. But, this is the game apologists must play when dealing with such vague and ambiguous language, isn't it? We dismiss Nostradamus for precisely the same reasons. All of this considered, Isaiah 53 hardly looks like a prediction of any literal death and resurrection of anyone, much less the Messiah. And given its expression of the Israelites suffering during the Babylonian exile, whether describing the nation as a whole or a vicarious individual, why must it signify anything beyond that? I remain unconvinced.

Forging forward, you've thus far failed to prove that the Old Testament foretells the Messiah's death and resurrection, or that such passages as Isaiah 53 have anything to do with anything other than the Babylonian exile. Making matters worse, what about the notion that such a vicarious death and resurrection would serve not merely as atonement for sin, but as the prerequisite for man's salvation in the afterlife? The idea that the death and resurrection of God himself would institute a privileged lot beyond the grave for the faithful? Where might we find that in the Hebrew scriptures? Allow me to presumptively answer that question – it ain't there. Consult your apologetic scholars. Ask your pastor. Read your Bible from cover to cover. Make it your life's mission to find such a prophecy in the Old Testament. I can say with very great confidence that you won't. Judaism simply held no such belief.

This raises the question: where did such an idea come from? If the idea of salvation in the afterlife by way of a god's death and resurrection is not to be found in the Old Testament, then how do we account for God's failure to make mention of this in his initial portion of "revealed scripture" to his "chosen people"? Why would we not be confronted with such an idea until we get to the New Testament? Perhaps God chose not to fully reveal this particular message until then. Perhaps Christianity developed this idea all on its own with no clear precedent in Judaism. But, if such ideas were already present in the very setting from which Christianity emerged, what is more likely? That these ideas indeed originated with Christianity? Or that Christianity is simply a product of its time and place – saturated with the very ideas from which it came? Ockham's Razor is worth considering here.

You make mention of the ancient mystery cults. You discuss "dying and rising gods" with Michael Licona and Edwin Yamauchi. In the process, we find that the most recent scholarly research on the topic, that of T.N.D. Mettinger, affirms that there were dying and rising gods prior to Christianity – according to his scrupulous analysis – despite what Mettinger notes as a "majority consensus" among scholars who think otherwise. And, logically, Mettinger's conclusion makes sense. Because, if such deities were personifications of the life-death-rebirth cycle of vegetation, then there can be no doubt that such an ideology predates Christianity, given that agriculture precedes your religion by at least 8,000 years. Ah, but the mythic character of the pagan gods' resurrections distance them from the Christian resurrection by leaps and bounds! In no way can these fables have influenced the more realistic version of Jesus' resurrection!

To be sure, belief in Jesus' resurrection probably did not find its inspiration originally from that of the mystery cult gods. Resurrection of the dead, as you well know, had already been conceived of in the Hebrew Bible; not directly associated with the Messiah, and certainly not with God himself, but with mankind in general. This was an apocalyptic expectation that the Jews themselves probably inherited from the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, after they'd been freed from captivity by Cyrus the Great. Though the Sadducees saw no validity in such a belief, the Pharisees certainly did. Therefore, any conception of Jesus' resurrection, real or not, should take on the more direct, simplistic, and realistic (if such a thing can be deemed "realistic") form of Jewish resurrection – not the fantastical and clearly mythological resurrections of the pagan deities.

But, what of the salvific significance of Jesus' resurrection – the promise of eternal life as the grand result of such triumph? As I mentioned, this scenario of salvation based on the god's victory over death is not spoken of in the Jewish scriptures. That being the case, where did it come from? I couldn't help but notice you quoted the renowned scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, as having remarked, "There is no reason to suppose that primitive Christianity was influenced by the Hellenistic mysteries." I dare say, if you promote what Eliade stated in 1954, then surely you'll embrace the works he published from 1970 onward; the three-volume series, A History of Religious Ideas. Regarding the mysteries, Eliade summarizes:

"….the promise of salvation constitutes the novelty and principal characteristic of the Hellenistic religions. Uppermost, of course, was individual salvation. The divinities who were believed to have undergone death and resurrection were closer to individual men than were the tutelary gods of the polis….Indeed, syncretism is the dominant characteristic of the period. An immemorial and abundantly documented phenomenon, syncretism had played an important part in the formation of the Hittite, Greek, and Roman religions, in the religion of Israel, in Mahayana Buddhism, and in Taoism, but what marks the syncretism of the Hellenistic and Roman period is its scale and its surprising creativity. Far from manifesting attrition and sterility, syncretism seems to be the condition for every religious creation. We have seen its importance in post-Exilic Judaism. We shall later discover a similar process in certain creations of Iranian religiosity. Primitive Christianity also develops in a syncretistic environment."
(A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 2, pp. 277-278)

Interesting. And what about Jesus?

"After a few generations the collective memory can no longer preserve the authentic biography of an eminent personage; he ends by becoming an archetype, that is, he expresses only the virtues of his vocation, illustrated by paradigmatic events typical of the model he incarnates. This is true not only of Gautama Buddha or Jesus Christ but also of far less influential personages, such as Marko Kraljevic or Dieudonne de Gazon." (Volume 1, p. 303)

Don't shoot the messenger. Of course, the details about Jesus aren't passed down to us "after a few generations". You do an exceptional job bringing this to light in The Case for Christ. Nevertheless, Dr. Robert Price illustrates the rapid legend-mongering and deification associated with such figures as Sabbatai Sevi, Jehudah the Hasid, and William Marrion Branham – even in modern times! One can only imagine how much more footing such ideas had among superstitious minds in antiquity when religious myth abounded. As for the delusive notion that naysayers would have kept such stories in check, I have one word for you: Roswell.

I especially found your discussion of the ancient Egyptian deity, Osiris, to be extremely lacking, merely sloughing his resurrection off as a "zombification" without any detailed discussion about the meaning of the myth and its relevance to ancient Egypt. Eliade states, with regard to the passing of the Pharaoh, that certain passages from the pyramid texts "allude to the Pharaoh's identification with Osiris. We find such formulas as this: "Even as Osiris lives, this king Unis lives; even as Osiris does not die, so this king Unis does not die" (Pyr. 167 f.)."
(Volume 1, p. 97)

What once was reserved for the Pharaoh eventually applied to everyone. Eliade concludes, "Osiris becomes the model for all those who hope to conquer death. A Coffin Text proclaims: "Thou art now the son of a king, a prince, as long as thy heart (i.e., spirit) shall be with thee." Following Osiris' example, and with his help, the dead are able to transform themselves into "souls," that is, into perfectly integrated and hence indestructible spiritual beings."
(Volume 1, p. 100)

My, how this sounds like the apostle Paul's concept of the indestructible "spiritual body" which finds everlasting glory by unison with the resurrected Christ. This is clearly visible whether Paul is referring to a material body or not. And it's hard to imagine he was, given his proclamation in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8: "Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord."

Scholar of comparative religion, S.G.F. Brandon, explains, "Although he was thus raised to life again, Osiris did not resume his earthly life in Egypt where, as the texts indicated, he had been a king." Nevertheless, he continues, "the image was that of a divine hero who had suffered and died, and then rose from the dead. Thus Osiris was not some remote transcendent deity such as Re, the sun god, but one who had endured the grim ordeal that awaited all men. In his image, moreover, the Egyptian devotees saw also the promise of their own resurrection from death and eternal life in the realm of Osiris. Phenomenologically, if not historically, Osiris was thus a prototype of Christ." Appropriately enough, this passage appeared in an encyclopedia co-edited by Mircea Eliade. (Man, Myth & Magic, pp. 1939-1940)

Would Ronald Nash have swung his apologetic hips about in disdain while reading that passage? I suppose so, if he had the audacity to claim that Christianity has some kind of trademark on words and phrases such as "raised to life again, suffered and died, rose from the dead, resurrection from death, eternal life," etc. But, when the English language is all we're working with, what are we to do? Deliberately seek a different choice of words so that we can distance another religion as much as possible from Christianity, despite the noteworthy similarities? Assert words such as resuscitation, revivification, or rejuvenation in place of resurrection as Nash does, when, given their religious context, they essentially mean the same thing? C'mon, Lee. Don't be silly. That amounts to nothing more than special pleading for exclusive ownership of one's favored vocabulary.

What about Osiris' subsequent role as Ruler and Judge in the afterlife, where it is his judgment that determines the eternal fate of the deceased – whether they will attain a joyous hereafter in the paradisical "Field of Reeds" or a "second death" at the jaws of Ammit, much like the second death spoken of in the book of Revelation? No Christian parallel there! Oh, but surely this is only a coincidence, even though Plutarch reveals that such a story was well known in the Greco-Roman world during the very time that Christianity was taking its first steps.

Regarding the Hellenistic mysteries of Isis and Osiris, Eliade states "the mystes descent to the underworld and his ascent through the cosmic elements bear witness to a specifically Hellenistic conception."
(A History of Religious Ideas, Volume, 2, p. 294)

A specifically Hellenistic conception, Eliade? Not a Christian derivative? Additionally, notice how much the dying and rising of the worshiper has in common with Paul's ideology in Romans 6:1-14. Both feature a symbolic rite of shared death and resurrection between the mystes and the deity, or what Eliade refers to as imitatio dei.

"The great popularity of the Egyptian mysteries during the first centuries of the Christian era, together with the fact that certain features of the iconography and mythology of the Virgin Mary were borrowed from Isis, shows that we have here a genuine religious creation and not an artificial or obsolescent revival. The gods of the Mysteries must be regarded as new epiphanies of Isis and Osiris. What is more, it is these Hellenistic interpretations that will be developed by the neo-Orphic and neo-Platonist theologians. Assimilated to Dionysus (who was also killed, dismembered, and resuscitated) Osiris admirably illustrated the neo-Orphic theology: the cosmology conceived as a self-sacrifice of the divinity, as the dispersal of the One in the Many, followed by "resurrection," that is, by the gathering of the Multiplicity into the primordial Unity." (Volume 2, p. 294)

At this point, Lee, I'd love to keep this going with more of Eliade's insightful commentary on the ancient mysteries, but I think you get the point. Need I delve also into the pre-Christian mysteries of Eleusis and their implications for the afterlife which Judaism lacked? Or the pre-Christian Orphic mysteries which featured Dionysus Zagreus, whose death and resurrection is attested by the 1st Century B.C. Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus, despite Gary Habermas' unawareness of such evidence in his skewering of Tim Callahan on your Faith Under Fire segment?

But, surely deities representing the mere cycles of vegetation could not have been the inspiration for Christian salvation. Right? Well, had you consulted Dr. Price's Deconstructing Jesus, you'd have found this:

"Originally all these myths were rehearsed yearly in rites intended either simply to commemorate the change of seasons, or actually to facilitate the change. At this stage of the game, either the king/chief himself was put to death and "raised" in the form of his replacement, a new consort for the queen, or else some hapless "surrogate" died as "king for a day," whereupon the real king returned to the throne. Eventually a new inner significance to the myth was "discovered" by those elite few for whom the external ceremonies of an agricultural faith were spiritually unsatisfying. These people were familiar with the ritual passage from childhood to adulthood, at which time they had been educated about the rituals of their people and declared qualified to participate in them. Was it possible, they wondered, to undergo yet a further stage of initiation to a still greater maturity? Was it possible for them to participate in the god's death and resurrection in some way, and so gain an immortality like his? Sure it was. And the Mystery Religions were born. The Mystery cult would be the esoteric core of a traditional religion whose exoteric concern was the renewal of the fields in spring." (Deconstructing Jesus, p. 87)

What might Eliade have to say in this regard? Perhaps the earliest example of this common religious archetype in antiquity would prove useful:

"The cult of Tammuz is disseminated more or less everywhere in the Middle East. In the sixth century, Ezekiel (8:14) cried out against the women who wept for him even at the gates of the Temple. Tammuz ends by taking on the dramatic and elegiac figure of the young gods who die and are resurrected annually….In short, the two cosmic modalities—life/death, chaos/cosmos, sterility/fertility—constituted the two moments of a single process. This "mystery," perceived after the discovery of agriculture, becomes the principle of a unified explanation of the world, of life, and of human existence; it transcends the vegetable drama, since it also governs the cosmic rhythms, human destiny, and relations with the gods. The myth relates the defeat of the goddess of love and fertility in her attempt to conquer the kingdom of Ereshkigal, that is, to abolish death. In consequence, men, as well as certain gods, have to accept the alternation life/death. Dumuzi-Tammuz disappears, to reappear six months later. This alternation—periodical presence and absence of the god—was able to institute "mysteries" concerning the salvation of men, their destiny after death."
(A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1, pp. 66-67)

Despite the cyclical nature of such mysteries, they seem to have taken on a linear interpretation in the one-time death and resurrection motifs of Osiris and Dionysus Zagreus. Could the same have happened with Christianity, Lee? Sure it could. And that's precisely what we would expect given the tone set by Judaism's valorization of linear, historical time. What's more, Eliade's examination of Tammuz reveals that the model of salvation via the resurrected deity was present in the very part of the world where Christianity originated, despite apologists claims that no such pagan mysteries existed in Palestine. Ouch.

Mircea Eliade, whom you delighted to quote, brilliantly demonstrates the salvific significance associated with the dying and rising deities of the ancient mysteries. I care very little about what Eliade stated in 1954, since, given its obvious opposition to what he implicitly declared in the magnum opus he produced a decade and a half later, it can only mean that he later discarded such a blanket statement regarding nascent Christianity and the Hellenistic mystery religions. Were the mysteries of Attis and Cybele, of Adonis, or of Mithras influential upon Christianity? Perhaps not based on the evidence at hand. But, what about the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus and Dionysus? Probably so based on the evidence. Dr. Joseph G. Muthuraj agrees: "Quite rightly, Eliade considers in his second volume of A History of Religious Ideas, Vedas, Upanishads, Yoga, Buddhism, Jainism, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Greco-Oriental Mysteries, Iranian religious synthesis as forerunners of Christianity."

Least of all should we forget the words of Plato in the 4th Century B.C.:

"….they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them, no one knows what awaits us."

Once again: the death and resurrection of a god whereby salvation in the afterlife is the consequential benefit is not accounted for in Judaism or the Old Testament. So, what is more likely? That Christianity developed this idea independently? Or that it inherited an idea that already permeated the landscape of the Greco-Roman world from which it emerged? If this were the case, then the imagery of Jesus' resurrection may well have retained its Jewish flavor, making it far different in appearance from that of the Hellenistic mystery gods. But, where influence can be deduced, the salvific aspect – a blessed life after death for the faithful – seems clearly to have been a derivative of the pagan mysteries. In other words, Jesus' death and resurrection need not look anything like that of Tammuz, Baal, Osiris, Dionysus, Persephone, etc. It was the meaning conveyed by their conquest of death that would prove to be instrumental.

As for the accusation that skeptics are merely engaging in broad sweeping generalizations, it might help if you understood religion as a socio-anthropological phenomenon, just like language. Pointing to detailed differences between Christianity and ancient pagan religions for the sake of decrying influence is tantamount to suggesting that modern English has no connection with ancient Greek, because, on the surface, they're different! But, modern English is a derivative of such ancient languages, and the most prominent similarities one should expect are general patterns, syntax and mechanics. This is the simple nature of the case – one that is evidently lost on someone who misrepresents the skeptic's stance by using trite words like "copycat". Nothing was deliberately "stolen" or "copied". In the same way, English didn't "steal" anything from ancient Greek. To represent the case as such reveals a gross misunderstanding on your part.

Furthermore, appealing to differences between Christianity and the mystery religions blatantly ignores the common underlying principle: salvation via the death and resurrection of a god. If this is the least common denominator, it is a substantial one. For it bids us ask a valid question: how can Christianity be a true revelation from God if the idea at its very core is demonstrably pagan?

Derreck Bennett


Bibliography

Strobel, Lee: The Case for the Real Jesus . Zondervan, 2007
Eliade, Mircea: A History of Religious Ideas . 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, ET 1978
Price, Robert M.: Deconstructing Jesus . Prometheus Books, 2000
Price, Robert M.: Jesus is Dead . American Atheist Press, 2007
The Jewish Publication Society: The Jewish Study Bible . Oxford University Press, 2004
Brandon, S.G.F.: "Osiris" Man, Myth & Magic . Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1970