Is Christianity borrowed from other ancient religions?
I come to my last post addressing Chaz Bufe, the blues guitar picking, Christ-hating anarchist, and his 20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity.
Chaz’s final point argues that the key components of the Christian faith are borrowed from a plethora of ancient religions that pre-date Christianity. Most specifically, from the religious followers of Mithra, a Persian cult god that was extremely popular among the Roman soldiers during the first century. Chaz writes,
20. Christianity borrowed its central myths and ceremonies from other ancient religions. The ancient world was rife with tales of virgin births, miracle-working saviors, tripartite gods, gods taking human form, gods arising from the dead, heavens and hells, and days of judgment. In addition to the myths, many of the ceremonies of ancient religions also match those of that syncretic latecomer, Christianity. To cite but one example (there are many others), consider Mithraism, a Persian religion predating Christianity by centuries. Mithra, the savior of the Mithraic religion and a god who took human form, was born of a virgin; he belonged to the holy trinity and was a link between heaven and Earth; and he ascended into heaven after his death. His followers believed in heaven and hell, looked forward to a day of judgment, and referred to Mithra as “the Light of the World.” They also practiced baptism (for purification purposes) and ritual cannibalism-the eating of bread and the drinking of wine to symbolize the eating and drinking of the god’s body and blood. Given all this, Mithra’s birthday should come as no surprise: December 25th; this event was, of course, celebrated by Mithra’s followers at midnight.
Christianity is a faith grounded in history. In other words, the second person of the real Triune God, became a real man named Jesus, who lived in a real period of human history, walked a real geographic area, and performed real signs and wonders to demonstrate His claims of deity. This real, historical person Jesus, then gave Himself up to be falsely executed so as to die on a real cross so as to ransom a people from the penalty of their sin. He really resurrected from the dead 3 days after His execution, and will really return to judge the world at His historical second coming. There is nothing “mythical” about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The idea that Christianity is a religion based upon composite myths and stories borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient religions is rather new in literary studies. The first critics who speculated about the “Jesus myths” began to write in the mid-1800s. Many of them were the product of the atheistic enlightenment which attempted to displace the influence of the Christian church in western society.
German philosopher, Bruno Bauer, who wrote out his views of Jesus in the 1840s, was probably the first “serious” attempt by a “scholar” to connect Christianity to pagan myths. Bauer even argued that Jesus never existed and was a total fabrication of the earliest sects of Christianity. One of Bauer’s students, Karl Marx, promoted the belief Jesus never existed and made it part of his Communist dogma.
Those “copy-cat” claims, however, were debunked early on by legitimate scholars, even by those who would be considered liberal. But the advent of the internet provides the ability for any atheist crank and his little brother to post this pseudo-intellectual nonsense without scrutiny, and has brought about a resurgence of the “Jesus myth” fallacy among the network of various atheistic groups. Uniformed Christians who stumble upon the “scholarly” looking web articles become alarmed at what they read. If it is true Jesus never existed, or that the bulk of the Christian faith is hobbled together with bits and pieces of other existing religious myths, then our faith is unfounded and we are, as the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:19, men to be pitied.
To begin answering Chaz’s assertions of parallel, copy-cat faiths, probably the most thoroughly written response for lay level readers is J.P. Holding’s collection of essays addressing the variety of ancient religions atheists claim are borrowed by Christians. His research does a good job of debunking some of the alleged connections and demonstrating they are more contrived by the critics than based upon genuine similarities.
More specifically, J. Warner Wallace has written a lengthy article addressing the Mithra connections that Chaz directly mentions in his point. What Wallace documents in his article, and what Chaz fails to tell his readers, is that the real Mithra scholars, not the internet cranks smoking up their comparisons, deny any myth borrowing ever happened between Christians and followers of Mithraism. When the top scholars in the world of one of the most obscure and forgotten cults flat out deny the central tenant of your thesis, you’re pretty much making stuff up in order to sustain your argument.
Wallace’s article is more than adequate to show Chaz, along with the host of pseudo-scholars he depends upon, doesn’t have a clue what he is talking about. But let’s consider a simple historical and biblical response.
– First of all, it is true mystery religions flourished throughout the ancient world around the 1st century. Yet, the one place where they were not only uncommon, but also rejected, was Israel. The practice of pagan mystery religions were non-existent in ancient Palestine. That is simply because the Jews had learned a rather hard lesson about God’s utter hatred against pagan cults nearly 500 years earlier when Babylon was used as the rod of punishment against Israel’s idolatry.
Christianity is Jewish in origin, and it began in Jerusalem and flourished in Israel for nearly the first two decades after the Spirit’s coming. The first Christians were also Jews who were raised with a revulsion toward cultic paganism. It is absurd to think that in the incubator of OT monotheism where Christianity was born and firmly rooted, that the main components of the faith were myths and symbols borrowed from a variety of pagan mystery religions that didn’t even exist in the same country.
In truth, the historical background of Christianity grounded in the doctrine of the Person and Work of Jesus was well founded before missionaries began to even encounter pagan mystery religions. This is an important point to consider. We must realize that it takes a significant amount of time for “mythology” to be established within a religion and the components of Christianity were well-founded decades before the close of the first century. Paul’s doxology of Christ he describes in Philippians 2:5-11 may well had been a citation from an early Christian doctrinal hymn. Paul wrote Philippians around 60 AD, which means he is citing an affirmed doctrine of Jesus Christ that had been believed by the faithful for at least 30 years prior to his writing that epistle.
– Secondly, Christianity was a public faith. Meaning the Gospel was proclaimed and taught out in the open to all people groups without exception. Mystery religions, on the other hand, like Mithraism, flourished among exclusive groups who are “in the know” as to the the content of the religion; individuals who have “earned” the right to be entrusted with the secrets of the religion.
In order to know about Mithra, a person would have had to at least become a Roman soldier, something that was exclusively male, and then probably involve himself in a series of initiations in order to even be recognized as worthy of learning of Mithra. Roman soldiers, then, would have no interest in “evangelizing” for Mithra, or even promoting a belief in him, because it was a faith shared only among those Roman soldiers who had been initiated into the secret order. Thus, a copy-cat religion would be extremely difficult to develop, because it is impossible to cut-and-paste together parts for a new mystery religion when you don’t even know the “mysteries” of the other religion to begin with.
– Thirdly, skeptics like Chaz reject the NT as being an historical document, but in reality it is. The first 5 books of the NT, the 4 Gospels and the book of Acts, are historical documents recording the events surrounding Jesus Christ and the spread of the Christian Church from Judea to the uttermost parts of the world at that time. When Christians began to engage the pagan, gentile world with the Gospel, it was obvious to the gentiles that Christianity presented unique truth claims that radically set it apart from the scores of mystery religions familiar to them. What made Christianity special was not that it borrowed already existent myths, but that it presented reality: it taught a belief in a living God who was active in space and time and claimed to be the judge the entire world.
For example, when Peter presented the Gospel to Cornelius in Acts 10, Cornelius, who was a Roman soldier, does not say, “Oh that sounds just like what the followers of Mithra believes.” Moreover, there was a supernatural move of the Spirit that fell upon Cornelius and his household in the presence of Peter and the Jewish men with him. Such an occurrence of the “Spirit falling” upon people is absent the Mithra mythology.
Moreover, when Paul was in Athens (Acts 17), a city completely given over to idolatry, cultic practices, and mystery religions, his preaching of Jesus to the people was a curiosity. His message was so unique that it caught the attention of the local authorities who brought him into a meeting to have him explain his “religion” (Acts 17:22ff.). After Paul brought up the Resurrection of Christ, most of the people mocked, because the idea of a dead man rising back to life was unheard of. No one said, “There is nothing really new about this Paul’s beliefs, this stuff sounds just like any other “mystery” religion.”
– And then fourthly, Christianity experienced periods of violent persecution for at least the first 200 years of its existence. In addition to severe state sponsored persecution, there were secular critics who wrote against the Christian faith. None of those critics ever attempted to debunk Christianity as being an off-shoot of Mithraism or a copy-cat of any other known mystery cult. If Christianity was nothing more than a collection of already pre-existent myths found in other ancient mystery religions, then there would be no need to persecute the Church or write against its beliefs.
Why would anyone be threatened by another mystery religion with similar myths already believed and practiced by adherents of other similar faiths? Secular critics of Christianity accused Christians of atheism, because they refused to acknowledge the other gods. No other mystery religion was a threat to the social fabric of the times, because no other mystery religion god told its followers to abandon idolatry and believe in an historical person, or to turn from pagan temples and religious prostitutes to serving the One True God and living a life of ethical holiness.
Chaz ends his lengthy screed by offering a final word. He says that his 20 points are just a smattering of the problems with Christianity. He then states that even if a half of what he wrote, or maybe even two-thirds or even three-quarters, was discounted, the fact that Christianity must be abandoned would remain. That is a rather bold claim; however, I believe my meager responses show that it is really an embarrassingly laughable claim. Moreover, what he has to offer as a suitable philosophical replacement is unworkable in the real world.
Chaz is an obscure, amateur philosophy hack who has access to the internet. I just stumbled upon his online booklet from another obscure atheist site. I took on his claims, not only for the blog fodder, but to show how Christianity can easily answer the prattlings of a fool. Chaz represents the type of Bible critic most Christians will encounter in the class room, or at work in the break room, or at the family reunions and holiday get togethers. Though I have taken a while to respond, I do hope I have offered some stepping stones for my readers to use when they encounter the Chazes in their lives.