The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 3) Harmonizing the Empty Tomb Accounts

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

 

To review from last article, when reading ancient biographies, like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Now, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

 

MAKING SENSE OF MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT

Selective Chronology doesn’t really come into play with the accounts of the women and the empty tomb with the exception of — possibly — Matthew’s Gospel. This isn’t surprising since Matthew is the Gospel writer who most arranges things thematically and the one who regularly gives condensed versions of accounts that read very differently than the other Gospels’ accounts. 

When you read it, it’s easy to visualize what Matthew writes as unfolding as follows: 

(1) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb, (2) an earthquake happens, (3) an angel descends, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (4) The guards pass out. (5) Still sitting on the stone, the angel speaks to the women. 

But I don’t think this is the chronological order of these events. Is Matthew using “creative license” here with chronology? The other accounts make no mention of the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the actual rolling away of the stone. Matthew is the only one to mention these events, and it makes sense that they would have happened before the women arrived because the other accounts report the women find the stone already rolled away upon arrival (and they encounter the angle inside the tomb). 

I think the description of the angel rolling back the stone and the guards fainting is a flashback to what happened before the women arrived. I believe it’s acceptable to read Matthew’s account as: 

(1) An earthquake occurred, (2) an angel descended, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (3) The guards pass out. (4) Later, the women arrive (the guards have likely awoken and run off by now), and the women find the empty, open tomb. (5) The angel (no longer on the stone) speaks to the women inside the tomb.

Thus, the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the guards’ falling into unconsciousness is a flashback sandwiched between Matthew telling us the women went to the tomb and the angel speaking to the women. So, Matthew can be understood as follows:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, [before they arrived] there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But [after the women arrived] the angel said to the women [inside the tomb], “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen… (Matthew 28:1–6)

After looking at the other Gospel accounts, we see that Matthew drastically condensed his account, taking many shortcuts in his retelling, but giving the key elements. Because of Matthew’s “shortcuts,” it’s easy to visualize his account differently had we not had the other accounts to compare it to.

 

HARMONIZING THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS

But the big differences just don’t appear in Matthew, as we touched on in the last article. Understanding the ancient (and non-ancient) writing conventions we looked at in the last article will now continue to assist us as we put the pieces of the four Gospels together to get a complete picture of the events surrounding the finding of the empty tomb.

Based on a careful reading of all four Gospels, I believe the events played out in the following way:

  • An earthquake occurs, the angel descends and rolls back the stone before the tomb’s entrance and sits on it, and the guards “become like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)
  • Sometime later, around dawn, Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:55-24:1, John 20:1)
    • Selective Representation – John only mentions Mary Magdalene and the other writers mention select women with her.
  • Mary Magdalene and the other women find the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance. (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1)
  • Mary Magdalene splits from the other women and runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2) 
    • We’ll pick back on Mary Magdalene’s path below…
  • The remaining women enter the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing. (Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:3)
    • No specific women are named here — just a general reference to the women entering the tomb. Because of this, it’s easy to imagine Mary Magdalene still with them when we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but we know from John’s Gospel she has run off.
  • The women see at least two angels in the tomb.
    • Selective Representation – Luke mentions two angels, where Mark 16:5 and Luke 24:4 mention one, likely the one speaking.
  • The women are told Jesus is risen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5-7)
    • If we only had Matthew’s account, we can imagine the conversation taking place outside the tomb. Matthew’s condensed version leaves out the details of them entering the tomb.
  • The women are told to go tell the disciples (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:8-10).

 

A CHALLENGE IN MARK’S ACCOUNT

After this, both Matthew and Luke tell us the women go and tell the disciples, but Mark seems to make a big issue for us: Mark tells us the women flee the tomb in fear and tell no one! This is where his Gospel ends. How do we rectify this?

One common way, which I’ve encountered many times, is to say that the women at first didn’t tell anyone, yet we know from the witness of the other Gospels that they eventually did. It’s often said that Mark chose to end his Gospel at this moment to emphasize what Christians are not to do. Christians are not to “keep it to themselves,” but share the good news of Jesus Christ. I’ll let you decide if this is a reasonable solution to Mark’s ending, but based on what we talked about concerning ancient writing, I think we have another, better option.

I believe it’s possible that Mark is using Selective Representation. So, just like we had a person split off from the group when Mary Magdalene ran off after seeing the open tomb, here we have another split in the group of women: Some of the women listened to the angel and ran off to tell the disciples where another section of the group ran off and didn’t tell anyone. Mark is only focusing on those women who didn’t tell.

After all, Matthew tells us the women left the tomb with both “fear and great joy” [emphasis mine]. Are both groups of women in sight here in Matthew? Luke gives us a general statement about “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” telling the disciples, the same women named at the beginning of his account.  Salmone is the only woman named in any of the Gospels (in Mark’s Gospel) but not named here in Luke. Was she one of the unnamed “other women” in Luke or was she one of the women who didn’t tell anyone about Jesus’ empty tomb? Mark is the only one to name Salmone, and Mark is the only one to include that (some of) the women didn’t tell anyone. 

So, to continue our timeline:

  • Women Group A runs off and tells no one. (Mark 16:8)
  • Women Group B runs off to tell the disciples and meets the risen Jesus. (Matthew 28:8-10)
  • Women Group B tells the disciples all they experienced, but the disciples doubt it. (Luke 24:11)
    • Luke 24:11 includes Mary Magdalene here. We can assume she joins back with the other women later when she returns to the disciples. Even if that’s not the case, this is just a general statement by Luke about who told the disciples about the risen Jesus. 
    • This is where Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s account begin to overlap again with the other Gospels.
  • But Peter runs to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:3-9)
  • Peter returns home. (Luke 24:12, John 20:10)

 

JOHN’S GOSPEL & MARY MAGDALENE

Backing up in time a bit and returning to Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s Gospel:

  • After Mary Magdalene leaves the other women at the open tomb, she runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2)
  • Peter and John run to the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing and burial clothes laying inside. (John 20:3-9)
    • Selective Representation – Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Peter and John head back home. (John 20:10)
    • Selective Representation – Again, Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Mary weeps at the tomb. She has either arrived after Peter and John left (since they literally ran there – John 20:4-6) or she arrived while they were still there and remained after they headed back. (John 20:11)
  • Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angles, who speak to her. (John 20:11-13)
  • She turns and encounters the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:14-17)
  • Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the risen Jesus. (John 20:18, Luke 24:10)

There’s room for other interpretations within my timeline of these events, but I think this is a plausible option for harmonizing the four accounts of the women finding the empty tomb of Jesus and — more importantly — encountering the risen Lord himself.

All glory to Christ!

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

Related GFTM articles:

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 7 of 7 – Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive

 

Visit my ministry site: confidenceinchrist.net

Confidence in Christ v2

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

 

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

THE PROBLEM OF 4 ACCOUNTS

To get the most out of this short blog series, I suggest taking some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into some major challenges: All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

For instance, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salmone go to the tomb. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), Joanna, and “other women” go. And in John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

Further, in Matthew, it appears that an earthquake happens, an angel in a dazzling white robe rolls back the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance and sits on it as the Roman guards pass out from fear. Then, it seems, the angel speaks to the women from atop the stone about Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet, in Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb’s entrance when they arrive, and once they go inside, two angels in dazzling clothes announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women go and tell Jesus’ disciples.

In Mark, the women seemingly find only one angel in the open tomb, and the angel tells them to go tell Jesus’ disciples. Yet, the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone”!

And in John, it seems Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and Jesus’ body missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. After Peter and John race to the empty tomb, they leave, and then Mary encounters two angels and the risen Jesus. She, then, goes and tells Jesus’ disciples.

As you undoubtedly see, all four of these share similar key details but have considerable differences. What are we to make of this, and can the differences be rectified? Do we have to accept that the Gospel writers got the “big” details correct, but got the “smaller” details wrong?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHY

First, we need to understand some basic characteristics of ancient historical writing. The Gospels reflect the style of ancient biographies. In short, these ancient biographies sometimes used literary devices that may seem a bit odd to us today.

This has been thoroughly documented by Michael Licona in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography as well as elsewhere. What follows is my own simplified explanation and own phraseology, some of which differs from Licona. For a more in depth look at this, along with many more examples from the Gospels, see my earlier GFTM blog 7-part series: The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

Once we understand these ancient literary conventions (which, in truth, most are used by modern writers as well), the chain-of-events surrounding the empty tomb will fall into place. Understanding this will not just help here in understanding the differences between these passages, but will help any time you read parallel passages across the Gospels and notice differences.

 

1. Selective Details

First, writers must leave out much more than they include in a retelling of true events. All good writers are selective in what details they include, and they select those details for a specific purpose.

Keep in mind, a difference and a contradiction aren’t the same thing. Writers may select certain details to emphasize something while totally ignoring other details another writer may include. That’s not a contradiction. Things that contradict can’t both be true. So, when we’re looking at parallel passages, we have to ask ourselves: Can the differences all be true without contradiction?

 

2. Paraphrasing

Differences in dialogue between Gospels can be understood with two simple concepts.

First of all, the authors are likely not giving us the full dialogue but only selective sections.

Second of all, the dialogue — or at least parts of it — might be a paraphrase. Though modern Bibles have quotation marks around dialogue, quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek. Also, keep in mind, Jesus likely taught primarily in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus, we don’t know if what is written is supposed to be a word-for-word representation or a paraphrase or a summary. 

Even in modern times, when telling a true story, people rarely repeat the dialogue verbatim. Instead, they sum up the dialogue by paraphrasing.

 

3. Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)

Next, think of a telescope. A telescope can be extended to its full length or it can be compressed to a much smaller size. Ancient historians sometimes give a longer account with more details, but sometimes they compress the account, cut out details, and tell it in abbreviated form. To understand this better, share about a true event with your friend and take a good five minutes or more to tell it. Afterwards, tell the same story again but in 30 seconds.

To illustrate telescoping (as well as some other literary concepts covered here) let me tell you about Paterson, New Jersey and mixed martial arts fighter Jon Jones. 

Established in 1792, Paterson, NJ is the first planned industrial city in the United States, thanks to Alexander Hamilton and a 77-foot waterfall called the Great Falls on the Passaic River. The Great Falls produced a lot of energy for running mills, making Paterson a major player during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the city known for its cotton, wool, and (later) silk mills, but the first locomotives and the first Colt revolvers where manufactured there. I taught high school English for 16 years in downtown Paterson, a short walk from the Great Falls. It’s an interesting sight: A huge waterfall in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the United States. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established thanks to President Obama.

In 2011, I had been involved in martial arts for about as long as I had been teaching in Paterson when I heard the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was coming to Newark, NJ. On March 19, 2011, Jon “Bones” Jones would fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight belt. I bought my tickets and was anxiously awaiting fight night when these two very different parts of my world collided.

On the day of the fight, Jon Jones had visited the Great Falls. But the really exciting news was that he had stopped a thief from stealing a woman’s purse while there. I was at work when I heard this, barely a block away from where this happened, so I got on the internet as soon as I could to find out more details. Evidently, Jon Jones had gone to the Great Falls to relax before his big fight and, instead, found himself using his martial arts skills to take down a bad guy not unlike a comic book hero.

So, here’s how all this about Paterson, Jon Jones, and the Gospels intersect: As I read various online articles about the incident — some very short, some longer — it was interesting to see how different articles gave different details. Longer articles would fill in details that the shorter articles left out. The shorter articles took shortcuts in retelling the story. It wasn’t until after reading several different articles that I felt like I had a full picture of what happened.

For example, one article only mentioned that Jones stopped a thief who stole a woman’s purse, so in my head I was picturing a purse-snatching or mugging. But another article explained that the purse was grabbed through the window of a parked car. One article only stated that Jones chased down and physically stopped the thief, where another gave the detail that a double-leg takedown (a standard wrestling move) was involved.

This is similar to the differences we find between the four Gospels. Ancient writers write differently than we’re used to and we can’t expect them to write like modern newspaper reporters, but there are shared similarities. In their articles, modern reporters select the details they will or will not share; sometimes they include direct quotes and sometimes they paraphrase or summarize what someone said; they “telescope” — sometimes they retell the events in a longer format or they compress it all into a shorter telling.

Finally, they also use “Selective Representation.”

 

4. Selective Representation

Selective Representation is when an ancient writer only focuses on one person instead of everyone involved. At other times, the writer may focus on several people to represent the larger group. This explains why Matthew and Mark mention only one angel in the empty tomb, but Luke mentions two. Matthew and Mark appear to be only focusing on one, likely the one who spoke. Let me point out this isn’t a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if one of the writers claimed that there was only one angel in the tomb, which none of the writers do. 

Likewise, this explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention different women with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is the most known of the women, so John only focuses on her. This may seem odd to us today to not mention the other women with her at all, but even modern writers do this. When I read the articles about Jon Jones stopping the purse thief, several writers only mentioned Jon Jones being involved. It wasn’t until I read other articles that I learned that Jon Jones’ trainers were also involved in chasing and stopping the thief! Thus, some of the articles focused only on the person with the big name, the most famous person involved — Jon Jones. Likewise, John’s Gospel only focuses on the “big name” of the women, the most “famous” person involved — Mary Magdalene. Again, let me point out that this isn’t a contradiction. For it to be a contradiction, John would have had to written that only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.

 

5. Selective Chronology

Of these literary conventions used by ancient authors, this may be the one that is most odd to us today. Ancient writers, even when retelling true events, didn’t feel as compelled as us today to place things in chronological, linear fashion. Ancient writers used more flexibility in narrative sequence than modern writers. In other words, they were okay with moving things around to emphasize a point. Sometimes they organized things in topical or thematic groups. The overall structure of the story remains the same, but the smaller units within the bigger framework may be moved around. 

For example, in Matthew 13 we find several parables of Jesus with similar messages. Did Jesus say all of these parables one-after-another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar themes together? Either option is possible. 

Another example: When did Jesus drive the merchants out of the Temple? John has it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels has him doing it at the end. One possible explanation is that John is using Selective Chronology to emphasize Jesus’ zeal at the beginning of his Gospel. (Of course, another simple explanation is that Jesus drove out the merchants twice — once towards the beginning and once towards the ending of his ministry.) 

To sum up, when reading ancient biographies like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Next, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

NEXT: The third (and final) article in this series: Harmonizing the empty tomb accounts.

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

READ Part 1 of The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WOMEN WITNESSES 

Women-at-tomb

After Jesus’ arrest, Peter — one of Jesus closest disciples — denied association with Jesus three times and the rest of the remaining 12 “inner circle” disciples ran off, abandoning Jesus (Mark 14:50). Even if we were to take a skeptical stance when reading the Gospels, this doesn’t seem like an invented detail by the early church since it certainly doesn’t make the disciples look good; these same men would be leading the early church, especially Peter. It was the woman who stayed by Jesus to watch him die on the cross (along with John)(Matthew 27:55; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-27), and it was the women to first see him alive afterwards.

The New Testament Gospels report that at least five women, several who are named, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances were to Mary Magdalene and (at least some of) these other women (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). Considering that in first-century Israel women’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, even in a court of law, this is an interesting detail.

The Talmud, a written commentary on the Jewish oral law, gives us insight into attitudes towards women in first-century Israel when it puts the testimony of women as witnesses on the same level as gamblers (dice-players and pigeon-racers, to be exact) and slaves [1]. A well-known morning prayer for Jewish men thanks God that “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” With this, first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15)

In fact, when the women share that they witnessed Jesus alive, the disciples don’t take them seriously (Luke 24:10-11) — yet another detail not likely to be invented; it certainly makes the future leaders of the church look clueless. Even 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, an important early confession of the church, mentions numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrection by name but leaves out naming any women. (We can assume the women were numbered with the 500 unnamed witnesses it mentions.)

So, the big question is: Why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? Even in the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a “half-frantic woman.” [2]

Therefore, it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would invent this detail if they were only looking to convince people of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, this detail points towards the opposite: The Gospel writers were more concerned with reporting what they believed to be true than creating a story of mass appeal. 

The combination of the embarrassing details of Peter’s denial and the male disciples’ abandonment of Jesus; the absurdity of worshipping a crucified God-man to first-century Jews and Romans (which I wrote about before); and the first witnesses of the resurrection being women all are details very unlikely to be invented if the Gospels were mere fictions, especially if they were invented to win converts to a new religion. 

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

As I pointed out before, when we read the retelling of the same event in more than one Gospel, sometimes they’re told differently and this often causes confusion. (Let me point out, this is often the case when reading four independent accounts of any incident.) For instance, the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke share key details but are also extremely different, almost seeming like two different stories. But when we read them carefully, we can figure out how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Much of Matthew’s account — including the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt — occur later than many of the events recorded in Luke’s account, perhaps months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth.

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into the same challenge but worse. All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

Take some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

Next article, we’ll tackle how to understand these differences.

NEXT: Differences vs. Contradictions & the Gospels as Ancient Biographic Literature

[1] Rosh Hashannah 1.8

[2] Quoted by Origen in Against Celsus.

A Short Message for Resurrection Sunday: Blind Faith or Trust?

 Jesus_tomb

“Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46)

God the Son has existed for eternity in perfect fellowship with God the Father. When God the Son became Jesus, though he was both God and man, he voluntarily gave up his rights as God and submitted wholly to the will of the Father.

Philippians 2:6-8 tells us Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

When Jesus took on himself the sins of the world and willingly endured the utter terror of crucifixion, he demonstrated perfect faith in God the Father.

As a former self-professed atheist, I can tell you, skeptics don’t like the word faith. They portray faith as “blind faith” — as belief without evidence. But a more accurate understanding of Christian faith is found in the word “trust.” As your time with Christ grows, so will your trust of him. As you pray, grow more familiar with His Scripture and live according to it, and partake in His church, your trust will strengthen. Nonbelievers can’t understand Christian faith because they have never walked with Christ.

When the Holy Spirit woke me out of the murkiness of atheism years ago, I did take a leap of faith. Now, after nine years of walking with Christ, when I don’t know what the future holds, I can say with confidence, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Faith is not belief without evidence, but belief because of prior evidence.

All praise to the God who was crucified, who rose from the tomb three days later, defeating death and sin. All praise to the God who completed the work for our salvation, and just as He freely offered his life for our sins, now offers us His free gift of salvation – a free gift we can accept or reject, but a free gift nonetheless – free for us but not for him.

Three_Crosses

Does Christianity Have Pagan Roots? (Part 3) Easter Eggs & Christmas Trees Have Pagan Roots… Yeah, but so what…?

Early Christianity has no connection to paganism, but what about later traditions – like Easter eggs & bunnies & Christmas trees?  Aren’t they pagan?  Probably… but so what?

Christmas&Easter 

In the first two parts of this series, I argued:

(1)  The name “Easter” itself has no pagan origin.  (Read Part 1 here.)
and
(2)  There is no evidence that ancient pagan religions had any influence on early Christianity or modern Bible-based (Sola Scriptura! – “by Scripture alone”) Christianity (Read Part 2 here.) 

But there are always loose ends:  What about Easter eggs?  And rabbits?  What about Christmas trees?  Or Santa Claus or mistletoe?

Since the first two parts of this series were somewhat long, I want to give you a short answer for this third and final part…  followed, of course, by a long answer because I can’t seem to address any issue quickly…

 

THE SHORT ANSWER

QUESTION“May I ask what the chocolate and coloured eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Christ?”  (This was asked in the comments section for Part 1 of this series.)

RESPONSE:  “… The answer to your questions is: absolutely nothing… whether bunnies and eggs have pagan roots doesn’t matter.  The practices are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Bible.  Thus, the practice is neutral.  It’s similar to how the music used in churches is essentially neutral as long as it glorifies God; it doesn’t matter if the music is contemporary or traditional.  So, if people want to have an egg hunt with their kids on Easter, there’s nothing wrong with that from a biblical standpoint.  On the other hand, if a Christian doesn’t feel comfortable with the practice/tradition (not doctrine) of egg hunts because it may have pagan roots and that person chooses to abstain from it, that is what they should do and it is perfectly acceptable as well.”

 

 THE LONG ANSWER

 Do eggs, bunnies, mistletoe, and decorated trees have pagan roots?  Probably.

Even Bruce Metzger – one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th Century and highly respected by both evangelical scholars and liberal theological scholars – in his essay arguing against any pagan influence on early Christianity (Read it here), wrote that post-Constantine Christianity in the fourth and fifth Centuries, long after the New Testament had been written, did adopt some pagan-influenced practices.  (Yet the Protestant Reformation and Sola Scriptura did away with all of the practices he cites.)

But this is what happens when something – whether it be punk music or Christianity – goes “mainstream.”  The devout few grow into the nominal many.  The strict core remains, but they’re surrounded by the lax masses.  And somewhere along the way eggs, bunnies, mistletoe, and decorated trees joined in.

Do eggs, bunnies, mistletoe, and decorating trees have pagan roots?  Probably.

But… who cares?

To be honest, I didn’t even research this question because it doesn’t matter…

 

TRADITION VS. DOCTRINE

There is a difference between church doctrine based on biblical teachings and traditions from outside the Bible.  There is a difference between biblical practices and non-biblical practices, even if those non-biblical practices are practiced by Christians – even practiced by Christians at a church or during a holiday celebration.

At my church (and most churches), we pass out bulletins.  Did Jesus command us to do this?  No.  Do the writers of the Bible tell us to do this?  No.  Did the first Christian churches do this?  I doubt it.  Does this mean we have corrupted Christianity with a secular practice?  No.

Say I’m in a jazz band, but I really like that mohawk I saw on that guy in that punk rock band.  So, I grab an electric shaver and give myself a mohawk.  Does that mean my jazz band is now a punk rock band?

Mohawk_Rancid

 

CLAIMING IT FOR CHRIST

The God of the Bible is Truth and Creator of all things.  Even if something is connected to something sinful, it can be reclaimed for Christ.  For example, I know there are exceptions, but the majority of popular hiphop artists I’ve heard rap about embarrassingly shameful subjects – celebrating materialism, misogyny, ego, drug culture, violence.  But Christian hiphop artists like Shai Linne, Lecrae, and Andy Mineo have claimed rap for Christ, using their lyrics not to objectify women or glorify themselves, but for glorifying their Lord and Savior.  Likewise, we can claim anything for Christ and use it in honor of Him.

 

WHAT’S SYNCRETISM?

When speaking about religion, syncretism is the combining or uniting of religious beliefs.  For example, we see a combination of Catholic Christianity and tribal African religions (often called voodoo) in places like New Orleans.  This would be an example of syncretism completely unacceptable to a strictly Bible-believing Christian because certain practices of tribal African religions clearly contradict the teachings in the Bible (and, thus, Christian doctrine) in many ways (whether we’re speaking about Protestantism or Catholicism).

On the other hand, say you go to church on Easter Sunday to worship God and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and then you come home and hide colored eggs, which most likely are originally pagan symbols.  Is this syncretism — perhaps a “lighter” type?  Many strictly Bible-believing Christians find no problem with this tradition because it doesn’t defy nor contradict the teachings in the Bible.  No other deity is being worshipped in the act of an egg hunt.  No pagan rituals are being performed.  No sin is being committed.  Yes, colored eggs may have pagan origins, but the pagan significance has lost its meaning.

Easter_rabbint_eggs

Music is a good example to understand this idea.  Certain passages in the Bible definitely speak of worshipping God with music.  But does it state a specific style of music?  No.  If the music glorifies God and can be sung in unison as a congregation, few should find any issue from a biblical standpoint concerning the style of music in Christian churches.

Just as popular music styles change over time, the songs Christians were singing in honor of Christ in the 1st Century in Jerusalem or Rome were certainly a different style than the songs sung in American churches today.  (This is why it’s so baffling to me when Christians get hung up on traditions and get into battles over not having contemporary music in churches.)  The style of music used in church is tradition and preference, not biblical doctrine.  Thus, churches in Africa, Asia, Indonesia, and Northern Europe can worship God with music specific to their cultures.

Another illustration borrowed from one of my professors at SBTS, Dr. David Sills – professor of missions and anthropology, and author of Reaching and Teaching – will help:

In the New Testament, Jesus clearly teaches that those who repent and believe in the Gospel of Christ Jesus should be baptized – a symbolic, public declaration of their faith.  This is an example of a command from Jesus, and thus, a biblical doctrine.

Dr. Sills shared how the people of a certain tribe in Africa wore many necklaces and bracelets with all sorts of talismans — amulets, charms — hanging from them, according to their traditional religious beliefs.  Some of the natives, after accepting Christ, would cut off the necklaces and bracelets and throw them into a fire before being baptized.  As a new Christian, the necklaces, bracelets, talismans, and amulets would certainly have to be left behind because this would be syncretism that contradicts the teachings in the Bible.  But what about the part concerning casting them into the fire?

Was it acceptable for them, as Christians, to do this?  Of course.  There’s no biblical reason why they shouldn’t throw the talismans into the fire.  The act was a powerful statement of their belief in the one true God, but should they make it a requirement, an addition to the act of baptism?  No!  To add anything to or to take away anything from baptism as given by Christ would be against Scripture.  Can this act be made an optional tradition?  Sure!  Likewise, in many American churches, people often give their testimonies before being baptized.  Is this required by Scripture?  No.  Is this forbidden by Scripture?  No.  Can it be an optional tradition?  Sure.

Likewise, does a Christian have to hide eggs on Easter?  No.  Is it forbidden to hide eggs according to Scripture?  No.  Can I hide eggs if I want to?  Sure.  Can I decide to not hide eggs because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of it having pagan roots?  Yes, that’s okay too.

 

HALLOWEEN?

Let’s look at one more example: Halloween.  Now, many claim Halloween has pagan roots. I recently learned more about the origins of Halloween, and this doesn’t appear to be the case, but there’s no reason to go into all of that here. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say Halloween does have pagan roots.  Should Christians participate in Halloween?  That’s a question individual Christians have to make.  Two questions have to be honestly considered by all Christians, whether it concerns trick-or-treating or hiding eggs or decorating a tree:

(1)  What biblical teaching may I be violating?

and

(2)  Have the pagan “meanings” of Halloween been lost in our current culture to the extent that it no longer can be considered “pagan”?  (Similar to how Christmas has become a secular holiday for many, and the true reason for celebrating it has been lost – or ignored – in secular society.)

The possible ways of answering these questions can be seen in how different churches have responded:  Some churches (like the one I grew up in) had no problem with Halloween.  (We even did a haunted house in the church basement!)  Other churches carve pumpkins, hold (non-scary) costume contests, and pass out candy, but call it a “Fall Festival.”  Some churches ignore Halloween (or Fall Festivals) all together.  Likewise, some churches have decided to simply call Easter Resurrection Sunday because of the possible pagan origins of the name Easter (though I showed in Part 1 that this is most likely inaccurate).

 halloween

 

THE EXCEPTION: STUMBLING BLOCKS

What I’m writing about here is sometimes referred to as “Christian Freedom.”  Yes, there are clear commands and prohibitions in the Christian life, but there is also a considerable amount of freedom (despite the tendency of both misguided Christians and non-Christians throughout history to demean our faith to simply being about following legalistic rules).  For example, is there a way all Christians should dress?  No.  We have freedom to dress as we please.  Of course, there are Christian principles that should guide how we dress to an extent.  For example, women shouldn’t dress in ways that cause men to lust after them.

Another big exception to Christian Freedom is explored in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  In his letter (See 1 Corinthians, Chapters 8-10), Paul addresses a debate in the Corinth church about whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols.  People would bring bulls and other animals to the pagan priests for sacrifice for one reason or another, and that sacrificed animal would more than likely end up being someone’s dinner.  As odd as this seems to us today, it was a common practice in the Roman world in the 1st Century, and it gives us an important biblical principle for today.

Paul explains that eating meat sacrificed to idols is harmless because, after all, what is an idol?  An idol is nothing but a statue.  There is no god behind it because there is only one God (8:4-6).  But then Paul goes on to explain that not all Christians are as insightful or mature in their understanding of these things, and if eating meat sacrificed to idols will cause them to struggle in their faith – such as causing an unclear unconscious – the more mature Christian should willfully abstain from such practice for the sake of his or her brother or sister in Christ (8:7-13).

Furthermore, Paul continues, if a non-Christian has you over for dinner and offers you meat, accept it graciously and don’t ask where it comes from.  But if the non-Christian tells you that the meat comes from a sacrificed animal, then don’t eat it – not for your own sake, but for the sake of the non-Christian (10:27-29).

This is the “stumbling block” concept (8:9).

zeus_statue

If your actions cause a brother or sister in Christ to “stumble,” than you are to show grace and patience – the same grace and patience God has shown you – and refrain from those practices.  Likewise, if your actions (though they may be allowed by Christian Freedom) somehow damage the perception of our faith by non-believers, we should refrain from them as well.

A good illustration concerns drinking alcohol.  The writers of the Bible tell us not to get drunk, but the drinking of alcohol is not prohibited.  Jesus, after all, turned water into wine (John 2), and Paul recommended to Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23).  But if a friend of yours, who is not yet strong in the faith, feels strongly that Christians shouldn’t drink, it’s better not to have a beer with dinner when you invite him over.  This is even truer if you have a friend who has a drinking problem.  Have no doubt about it: To cause your brother or sister in Christ to stumble is a sin.

As Paul writes:

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful.  ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.  Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:23-24)

and

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (10:31)

(To be clear, in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul further explains that though eating meat offered to idols is essentially harmless, a Christian shouldn’t participate in any rituals dedicated to idols or pagan gods.)

CONCLUSIONS

  • There is a big difference between doctrine and tradition.
  • If a tradition or practice doesn’t contradict or disobey biblical teachings, it’s fair game.
  • Conversely, if a tradition or practice becomes a “stumbling block” to others in their faith in Jesus Christ or in coming to faith in Jesus Christ (or even if it doesn’t sit well with your own conscience) it should be refrained from out of Christian love and grace.

Frankly, it may be worth ceasing the traditions of eggs, rabbits, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and even the use of the word “Easter” simply so Christians no longer have to address these weary matters.

Thoughts?  Share ’em below please!

Santa-Claus-The-Easter-Bunny

Do meaningless secular holidays have their origin in religious pagan myths?… Possible future article idea??

READ:

 

Does Christianity Have Pagan Roots? (Part 2) The Pagan Myth Myth… No, I’m Not Stuttering

Every Easter & Christmas seasons the claims that Christianity is a rip-off of old pagan myths are abound.  So, is there any truth to these claims?  Is Jesus just another god like Horus or Mithras or Dionysus? 

————–

*Read the INTRO & PART 1 (How Did “Easter” Originate?) of this series here*

——-

TRUE STORY

There was once this guy.  He was a really nice guy, and he helped a lot of people with his amazing powers.  He could even control the weather.  One time, this nice guy brought someone back from the dead.  In fact, if you think that’s impressive, he was killed and placed in a tomb, but he was resurrected.  He was the one and only son of his father, who sent him to earth as a child.  And this guy’s name is…

Superman.

In this article, I will be arguing that the creators of Superman blatantly borrowed from the life of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the New Testament.

After all, Jesus was a really nice guy who helped a lot of people with his amazing powers.  In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus controls the weather by calming a storm while on a boat.  He also brought Lazarus back from the dead in John 11.  Furthermore, he was killed and placed in a tomb, and he was resurrected.  He was the one and only Son of God the Father, who sent his eternal Son to earth to be born as a child by Mary.

OK, Seriously

Actually, I have no intentions of arguing here that Superman is just a rip-off of Jesus, but if you had read my arguments as I presented them above, and you didn’t know any better, and you let the discussion end there, you probably would have been convinced.

But… you may be the suspicious type… or you may know a little something about both Jesus and Superman and ask some questions and raise some objections:

Wait, Superman couldn’t control the weather!  When did Superman bring anyone back from the dead?  In fact, when did Superman die and resurrect?

And this would be where my arguments start to break down…

ME:  Superman at times would use his super breath and blow really hard and it produced powerful wind.  And at the end of the first Superman movie, the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve, when Lois Lane dies, Superman flies around the earth so fast in the opposite direction of the earth’s spin that he changes the direction of the earth’s rotation and literally rewinds time so he is able to rescue Lois Lane before she dies*.  Then, in the early 1990’s, DC Comics ran the storyline “The Death of Superman” where Superman was killed in a battle with Doomsday, but Superman returned after a long hiatus.

(*Thankfully, for all our sakes, Superman also corrected the spin of the earth.  Even when watching this as a young boy, I thought this ending was ridiculous and spoiled what was an otherwise cool movie.)

YOU:  Having super breath isn’t anything like controlling the weather.  Rewinding time by flying around the earth to save someone before they die – though incredible* – is not the same as bringing someone back from the dead.  And maybe Superman sort of “died” for a time and returned, but he was restored in a “regeneration matrix” in the Fortress of Solitude.  In fact, if there’s anywhere where people are killed and brought back to life, it’s in comic books!  It happens all the time!  None of this is anything like Jesus’ life, nor do I see any connection.

(*Corny, actually.)

ME:  But what about the other stuff I said?

YOU:  Superman was from the planet Krypton and his father was Jor-El.  Jesus was the incarnation of the eternal Son of God of the Trinitarian God.  Jesus and Superman were both usually nice guys and do help people with their powers, but Jesus performed miracles because he was divine.  For instance, he healed the sick and the lame.  Superman had powers because he was an alien from space.  Jesus didn’t perform feats of incredible strength like Superman.  Or fly.  Or shoot lasers from his eyes.

ME: They were both their fathers’ one and only son.

YOU:  OK, I guess I’ll give you that one.

ME: Also, the regeneration matrix in the Fortress of Solitude was like the tomb Jesus was placed in and emerged resurrected from.

YOU:  Now you’re getting carried away again.

Superman

Is the Man of Steel actually the Son of Man?

Did Superman copy Jesus, who copied Horus… or Mithras… or Dionysus…or Krishna… or Attis… or Asclepius?

Did you find the argument above about Superman and Jesus ridiculous?  Sadly, this is hardly any different than serious arguments about Jesus being a copycat of any number of pagan myths.

Whenever someone tries to argue that there are similarities between Christianity and pagan mystery religions – sometimes called the Pagan Copycat Theory or what I like to call the Pagan Myth Myth – the arguments often go like the one above about Superman and Jesus… Or they should go like that anyway.

Thus, we need to know how to reply to those who make these claims (and it’s fairly easy).

The copycat theory, the idea that Christianity is simply a Frankenstein-like cut-and-paste religion made from long dead pagan mystery religions, is the actual dead thing here.  The debate has long been over in scholarly circles because the “evidence” was weak from the start, and true evidence clearly points to what we all knew from the beginning: Christianity started in the ancient Jewish land of Judea, spread by the Jewish followers of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth.

The copycat theory is an old theory that has long been refuted, and no new evidence to support it has arisen.  Yet, the Misinformation Age keeps the pagan copycat accusations coming back every Easter and Christmas holiday season like that bad mayo on that club sandwich you keep burping up and tasting.

Thanks for the prolongation of these copycat theories can be given to the Internet and to conspiracy videos like Zeitgeist.  As Mark W. Foreman writes in his essay “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids” in the book Come Let Us Reason, “Arguments don’t stop being bad simply because of their upgraded, flashy attire.”

Horus

Egyptian god Horus… My interpretation of this art is Horus is on a hot date.

Here are the issues with these copycat theories:

1. A Bad Start

To begin with, many making these claims are starting off with a poor understanding of the specific pagan mystery religions they’re citing anyway.  These pagan religions are called “mystery religions” simply because, well… they’re mysteries.

Pagan mystery religions held to secret teachings that only those indoctrinated into the religion knew.  The followers of these religions took vows of secrecy.  Thus, there’s not a lot of material out there about their specific beliefs and practices.

Unlike Christianity, the mystery religions didn’t have books – scriptures or any records – that explained their beliefs.  Moreover, because of this, there was a lot of diversity; for most, no one authoritative story exists.  Knowledge of these religions come from scattered sources, such as inscriptions or art.  For instance, all we know about Mithrasim, a late Roman mystery religion, comes from graffiti, statues, and some writings from Christian and neo-Platonist outsiders.

So, it’s sort of like putting together a puzzle, but we can’t use the shape of the pieces to guide us on how they fit together.  For example, Mark W. Foreman points out that the conspiracy documentary Zeitgeist does this with Horus, the Egyptian god.  The Zeitgeist version of Horus is “pieced together from a number of sources, some of which conflict.”

Thus, some of those proposing a connection between Christianity and pagan religions often not only have a poor understanding of Christianity, but also are basing their understanding of pagan religions on what are probably not even accurate portrayals of the pagan mystery religions to begin with.

asclepius

Asclepius

2.  Exaggerations & Blatant Fabrications

This is the biggest issue with these copycat theories.  As with the Superman argument above, many of the supposed parallels between Christianity and paganism are unabashed exaggerations, which call for large leaps in logic, or downright lies.

(To be fair, some people passing along these theories – perhaps on Facebook or a blog – may not be aware they’re passing along lies, but some of these claims are so outrageous someone had to know they were being dishonest in starting them.)

For instance, it has been claimed that Krishna was born to a virgin.  Krishna, a Hindu god, was the eighth son of his mother!  (That’s a pretty loose definition of “virgin.”)  My favorite claim is the one that says the Roman god Mithras was born of a virgin.  How this idea ever came about is befuddling because Mithras was born from a rock!  (Well, I guess rocks can be considered virgins, right?)

One strategy used to mislead is to use Christian terminology to describe events or details in pagan myths to make them sound much more Christian than they actually are.  Above, I describe Superman’s emergence out of the regeneration matrix in the Fortress of Solitude after his sort-of death as him being resurrected.  I even attempt to call the regeneration matrix a tomb to illustrate this point, and though it may seem like a stretch, it’s no more of a stretch than the actual claims of some of these copycat theorists.

There have been claims that Krishna and Attis, a Greek god, were “crucified.”  Actually, Krishna was shot in the foot with an arrow.  Attis castrated himself and died!  I have a feeling neither case is quite what would come to mind for the Romans when they heard the word “crucified.”

Krishna

Krishna

D. M. Murdock in his book Christ in Egypt: The Jesus-Horus Connection claims that artistic depictions of Egyptian gods, including Horus, show many of them crucified.  Yet, what he means is simply these gods had their arms extended or outstretched!  (Does that mean every time someone stretches out their arms, they’re being crucified?)

Further, just like my Superman argument above, proponents of the Christian/pagan myth myth like to cherry-pick information to “expose” supposed parallels.  Yet, when the Christian and pagan accounts are read as a whole and compared, the similarities are hardly similarities at all.

For example, claims have been made that dying and resurrected gods were a regular theme in pagan myths.  Often Osiris, an Egyptian god, is one of the prime examples.  Yet, Osiris didn’t return to life in the world of the living; he became the king of the netherworld – the underworld, the land of the dead.  The only dying and rising gods found have all been related to the continuous, never-ending life-and-death cycle of vegetation and the seasons.  These are hardly comparable to the death by crucifixion and the one-time resurrection of Jesus three days later.

Christian apologist William Lane Craig tells of a time he once debated Robert Price on Jesus’ resurrection.  Price claimed that Jesus’ healing miracles were copied from the healing stories of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing.  So, Craig insisted Price read to the audience from his primary source about Asclepius.  Once Price read the primary source, the lack of similarities became obvious to all.  (Read Lane’s full article here.)

This is an “overemphasis on (supposed) similarities between two things while ignoring the vast and relevant differences between them,” Mark W. Foreman writes.

The only similarity I’ve come across that may be legitimate is with the Greek god Dionysus – called Bacchus in Roman mythology.  Dionysus certainly turned water into wine.  Jesus performed his first known public miracle in John 2 by turning water into wine.  But the similarities end there.  And, as one blogger astutely points out, Dionysus was, after all, the god of wine – and sexual ecstasy – and he liked to party.

Dionysus

Dionysus, in all his glory

Since there are other articles about this, I’m not going to run through every purposed pagan god to have supposedly inspired stories about Jesus.  But here are some links to quick sources that do so:

3.  Wrong Chronology

As stated above, pagan mystery religions changed over time because they did not have scripture that was strictly held to like Christianity.  Furthermore, they were open to blending other religions and beliefs.  Today, Christianity may have many denominations with different traditions or different interpretations of minor doctrines, but the core of Christianity has stayed the same for 2,000 years because we have the Bible to always refer back to.  On the other hand, there are many versions of the pagan mystery religions and their myths.

Often, when some sort of parallel is made between paganism and Christianity that looks legitimate (and not an extreme exaggeration or fabrication), it has been found the similar characteristic doesn’t appear in that pagan religion until long after Christianity had been established.  Thus, it appears Christianity influenced the pagan religion, not the other way around.

For example, the Christian similarities with the mystery religions of Mithras, Osiris, Horus, and Attis/Adonis are all found over 100 years after the rise of Christianity, and claims of the Hindu god Krishna’s resurrection don’t appear until the 6th or 7th Century.

Mithras, whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers, is often connected to Jesus.  Mithras was a Persian god dating as far back as the 14th Century BC, but in an interview with Lee Stobel in The Case For the Real Jesus, Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi explains that Mithras didn’t appear in Rome until 66 AD.  But this is still “not the same” version of Mithras found in the Roman mystery religion.  Moreover, most of the evidence for Mithraism comes from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Centuries AD.  Evidence refutes the claim that Mithras was called “savior” before Jesus, because the evidence is from an inscription dated after Christianity was proclaiming Jesus as savior.  The Roman mystery religion of Mithraism developed after the New Testament was written.

There is “no evidence that there was any pagan mystery influence in first-century Palestine,” Mark W. Foreman writes.  Mystery religions reached their peak in the Mediterranean in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, and there is little evidence of these beliefs being there in the 1st Century.

Mithras… My interpretation of this art is that Mithras coined the phrase: “Beef — it’s what’s for dinner.”

4.  Logical Leaps

Logically, we have to remember that even if a similarity exists between Jesus and a pagan god (and it doesn’t run into the issues mentioned above), even that doesn’t automatically mean they are related, copied, or influenced.  A connection must be proved.  Religions, by nature, will have some general things in common, like beliefs about an afterlife.  Further, many religions have some sort of tradition with a common meal.  Similarity doesn’t prove dependence.

5. Christianity’s Nature

Finally, Christianity, like Judaism, has always been an exclusivist faith.  Throughout the New Testament, Christians are explicitly warned against mixing their faith with other beliefs and from straying away from the Gospel as it had been originally given to them. (See the letter to the Galatians, for example.)  Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, and Jude all warned against false teachers who corrupt the message of Christ.  (See Matthew 7:15; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1-3.)  Unlike Christianity, paganisms emphasized feelings and experience over doctrine and belief, and the mixing of religions and beliefs was normal.

Moreover, Christianity is rooted in history.  Unlike these pagan myths (and most other religious myths), Jesus was a historical person; the Gospel records of Jesus’ life provide information that show that the events took place in a specific place and time in history; and all of the Christian scriptures were written within the lifetime of those who witnessed these events.  The New Testament lacks the vague “other-worldliness” of myth.  (Read earlier articles I wrote exploring these ideas: “Is the Bible Any More Accurate than Other Religious Texts?” “Is There Evidence of Jesus’ Existence?” & “How Do We Know About Jesus?”)  The pagan mystery religions cannot make these same claims.

Cybele_Attis

Cybele & Attis

So, What Now?

So, when someone claims there are similarities between Christianity and pagan religions, simply respond this way:

  • Where did you get your information?
  • Is it reliable?
  • If it’s not a primary source, where did they get their information?
  • Have you read the primary source(s) of the information we have about this pagan myth?
  • Can you get your hands on the primary text?  I’ll bring my Bible.  Let’s read and compare.
  • When did these similarities appear — before or after Christianity spread?
  • And always remember: Context! Context! Context!

Links:

Some of my articles:

**Much of the information for this article is from Mary Jo Sharp’s essay “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Stories?” and Mark W. Foreman’s essay “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids” from the book Come Let Us Reason, and Lee Strobel’s interviews with Dr. Michael Licona and Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi in Chapter 4 of the book The Case for the Real Jesus.

ComeLetUsReason

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