Christianity and paganism
by Justin Martyr
(The author is a historian based at one the world's leading universities. He specialises in and is currently developing a publication record on ancient and modern myth.)
An argument frequently advanced against Christianity runs roughly like this:
It is the purpose of these notes to establish that this argument rests upon unwarranted premises and that its logic is fallacious. They will examine specifically the work of Sir James Frazer, Lord Raglan and the latest example, Dennis MacDonald.
Do many features of Christianity resemble features of other religions?
Obviously, on one level the answer has to be 'yes'. Christianity posits the existence of a personal god who takes an interest in humanity. It teaches that the individual does not cease to exist after biological death. It has a series of sacred texts which are used as a guide to doctrine and ethics and play an important role in public worship. The pre-Reformation branches of Christianity, moreover, have priesthoods, a developed theology of sacrifice and strong sacramental and ritualistic traditions.
Recognising this, however, doesn't get us very far: very many religions across human time and space exhibit and have exhibited the same characteristics. What we need are specific parallels in matters of detail. To meet this challenge, non-Christians generally advance two sets of parallels, which are not necessarily mutually incompatible but do not go particularly naturally together.
The first involves the construct of the dying-rising god. A full scholarly study of the history of this concept has yet to be written, but suffice it to say here that it was popularised by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Frazer believed that primitive peoples linked the annual cycles of agriculture with 'corn spirits' (a concept which he borrowed from the German scholar Mannhardt). In its developed form, the theology of these primitive agriculturalists posited that the corn spirit died and was reborn annually, typically in the form of the divine king in whom it was incarnated. Frazer believed that the religions of the ancient Near East provided several examples of dying-rising gods who had emerged from primitive belief-systems similar to these, most notably Attis, Adonis and Osiris.
Frazer's theory is loaded with problems. Whole books criticising his theory have been written, and nowadays it is extremely difficult to find any recognised and reputable anthropologist who will accept it even in a modified form1. Here are some of the major difficulties with it:
The greatest problem with Frazer, however, is that construct of the dying-rising god is simply a fantasy. The distinguished scholar J.Z.Smith, a man who most certainly cannot be regarded as a defender of Christianity, wrote an important article for Mircea Eliade's 'Encyclopedia of Religion' (New York 1987) in which he took various alleged examples of dying-rising gods and showed that none of them actually fits the category. (My own researches lead me to believe that the Phoenician god Melqart, whom Smith does not discuss, is the one exception - but he is very much the exception.) Certainly, Frazer's star witnesses of Attis, Adonis and Osiris suffer from the fatal flaw in each case of dying and then failing to be resurrected.
Even if Frazer and his followers were right about the dying-rising god, the relevance to Christianity would be doubtful. The Christian story makes no connection whatever between Christ and the agricultural year or the rhythms of the natural world. Moreover, Frazer's followers who elaborated his work with particular reference to the ancient Near East made it clear that their dying-rising gods and kings were tightly enmeshed in a series of bizarre annual rites with no conceivable parallels in Christianity.
The second 'copycat' model advanced by sceptics involves the prototypical schemas of the life of the hero sometimes drawn up by scholars.
The sceptic will typically appeal to the work of Lord Raglan, even though it's now 70 years out of date and a number of different schemas have since been proposed. There are serious problems with Raglan. In order to get mythical figures to fit his schema, you often have to cheat quite blatantly; and, in any case, real-life historical figures such as Hitler and Napoleon fit the pattern just as well as the ancient heroes whom he adduced.
In general, the 'monomyth' schemas are of limited usefulness. They prove a certain amount about the patterns followed by the lives of heroes in different cultures, but they don't prove very much, and what they do prove isn't always very comforting to the sceptic.
To begin with, if one puts all the schemas that have been proposed together and looks for common elements, the results that emerge are often vague or unhelpful. For instance, the hero will typically have a miraculous conception or birth - but it's hardly legitimate to compare the story of the virgin birth recounted in the Gospels with, say, Zeus raping Leda in the form of a swan simply because both involve some sort of supernatural element. What such 'similarities' boil down to seems to be the earth-shattering revelation that supernatural things happen to supernatural figures, which is essentially a tautology.
Secondly, where hero-stories do concur, they often concur in ways which question the utility of applying them to the story of Jesus. Incest and parricide are recurrent themes of the schemas, for example, as is the link between the hero and kingship (you can get out of this by suggesting that Jesus was the heir of King David, or that he heralded the Kingdom of God, but this is just the sort of cheating that drains the schemas of their credibility). Even Raglan's schema falls down on this point, most obviously because Jesus didn't marry a princess (a motif which appears in other schemas too).
Even if they exist, what do the parallels prove?
Many non-Christians seem to believe that, in order to be true, Christianity must be unique. This is utterly fallacious - if anything, the precise opposite is the case. If Christian doctrine were strange and deviant and had no similarities at all to that of other religious systems, it would be more likely to be a weird, aberrant construct, not less. To take one obvious example, a simple and economical explanation for the widespread human tendency to posit supernatural figures who, like Christ, mediate between man and God, is that humans correctly realise that we do need such a mediator. Hence, ironically, some of the scholars most eager to prove the existence of dying-rising gods in the ancient Near East and elsewhere were Christians2.
Points of contact between Christianity and other religions are damaging to Christianity's truth claims only if actual borrowings can be proven - not if the parallel features have simply sprung from the same psychological source common to all humans - that is, from the innate religious instinct which Christians regard as a gift of God.
I cannot think of a single case in which Christianity can be shown to have borrowed a core doctrine from another religion. This does not include minor borrowings which everyone admits, such as the dating of Christmas to 25th December (an old Roman sun-festival), or the use of holy water and incense in worship, or the wearing of wedding rings, or dedicating churches to named saints (just as pagan temples were dedicated to different deities). In such cases, the borrowings were not clumsy or furtive. Rather, they were deliberate and unashamed. A good example is the Pope's use of the old Roman chief priest's title 'Pontifex Maximus', a title which the Christians deliberately appropriated to emphasise that their religion had defeated and replaced Roman paganism.
Dennis MacDonald’s 'The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark'
It is my intention to divide this short review into three sections: ‘Why I think that MacDonald is wrong’; ‘Why MacDonald’s thesis is antecedently improbable’; and ‘Why it doesn’t really matter anyway’. These sections have been arranged in reverse order, in the hope that anyone who doesn’t get to the end will at least see the most important bits.
Why Macdonald's thesis doesn’t really matter anyway
The most irritating thing about MacDonald’s thesis are people with axes to grind who make use his research for purposes for which it is ill-suited.
The thing that they think it proves is the theological bankruptcy of Christianity. Here’s why it doesn’t.
Lay Christians assailed by atheists triumphantly brandishing copies of MacDonald who don’t know much about classical literature or NT scholarship will probably immediately take refuge in one of two arguments:
(a) similarity doesn’t prove influence; and
(b) Mark could have used Homer for ‘literary reasons’.
And these are, in fact, the main arguments that I come across in refutations of MacDonald on Christian websites. Now, atheists are entitled to scoff at them, since they show every sign of having been plucked from the air by people who know that MacDonald can’t be true and have chosen to take refuge in a couple of apparently fail safe replies. Fortunately for the Christians, however, on closer inspection the arguments turn out to be perfectly good and valid ones.
Below, I’ll try to show that most of the supposed parallels are quite illusory. But suppose that MacDonald had proved his case beyond all reasonable or even all possible doubt. So what? Would Mark’s harnessing of Homer as a literary model prove that Christianity wasn’t an authentic revealed religion? Of course not. If I wanted to write a biography of one of my friends or colleagues, I’d have no difficulty in singling out episodes in their lives bearing some resemblance to episodes in Homer (remember that the forty-eight books of Homer are each several hundred lines long, while Mark's Gospel is quite a petite little text - the shortest of all the Gospels, in fact).
The only indictment which could plausibly lie against Christianity on the basis of MacDonald’s study is that (to put it crudely) Mark made up bits of his Gospel to fit his Homeric model. Now, I hardly need point out that the notion that Mark massaged details or made creative use of narrative structures in pursuit of his literary ends would be problematic only to a hardcore inerrantist (or an atheist who has already decided that MacDonald’s book proves that there is something fishy about the Bible, whatever it may be, and doesn’t want to relinquish what he feels sure must be a valuable weapon). I can say with confidence that, even if it were proved that Mark had, as a creative artist, taken literary and/or historical liberties with his material in a way which adherents of modern positivistic historiography might find uncomfortable, that fact would not even come close to proving that the creation of his text was not inspired by God to stand as an authoritative witness to the life of Jesus Christ. After all, you don’t have to be a liberal to accept that the Christic discourses in John’s Gospel can’t be read like a news report in yesterday’s New York Times.
It is impossible to underestimate the significance of these few basic facts. They don’t merely discredit the atheists’ strongest MacDonald-based argument: they completely destroy their only one.
Why MacDonald’s thesis is antecedently improbable
What MacDonald doesn’t do is explain that he’s got an uphill struggle on his hands (excuse the mixed metaphor) from the outset. There are several reasons for this.
Perhaps the biggest omission in MacDonald’s book is that he never explains why Mark allegedly drew on Homer so heavily (not MacDonald’s fault, since that’s not the function of his work). It seems probable a priori that Mark’s intention was to write a text which could be used in the instruction and/or evangelization of sub-élite Romans. Now, while Mark’s target audience will have been reasonably familiar with the contents of the Homeric epics, the idea that they would have picked up on the sort of things that MacDonald purports to have identified is almost incredible. That would have taken long, hard study by a skilled and determined scholar. Did Mark really go to all that trouble just to put together a playful little jeu d’esprit for the benefit of an educated minority? Or was his principal concern the salvation of souls after all?
If Mark had wanted people to pick up on the Homeric parallels adduced - and it’s difficult to believe that his motives in writing his Gospel were identical to those of Elgar composing the Enigma Variations - he would have made it very clear. If the Homeric epics really had provided the interpretative key to the Gospel of Mark, the fact would have become well-known. Indeed, it could plausibly be argued that it would never have been forgotten - at any rate, one would expect to find some reference to the Gospel of Mark’s Homeric pedigree in the record somewhere. Instead, there’s a deafening silence. None of our Christian forebears mention anything about Mark being influenced by Homer, not even the Apostolic Fathers, despite the fact that they tell us a reasonable amount generally about the authorship of the Gospels and the circumstances of their composition. That fact alone should set alarm bells ringing in our minds.
This brings me onto another vital point: if MacDonald were right, it would almost defy belief that the extensive and detailed parallels which he uncovers lay hidden for twenty centuries before being excavated by him. The Fathers knew their Homer - as MacDonald himself points out, various later works of Christian literature are manifestly Homeric hypertexts. Yet none of them noticed anything fishy about the Gospel of Mark. Archbishop Eustathius, Ecumenical Patriarch (Head of the Orthodox Church) during the Middle Ages, was one of the greatest Homeric scholars in history: he even wrote a massive commentary on both epics that dwarfs every single one of its successors. Yet he didn’t smell any rats. And what of the nineteenth-century German sceptics? Homer was just as popular a target for Wellhausens as the text of the Bible, and dozens of academics working on the NT would have been just as familiar with Homer as Mark. It is incredible that MacDonald is unable to call to the stand any of these distinctly unsympathetic witnesses.
Then there is the linguistic argument. Briefly, Homer wrote in a very peculiar dialect. When later authors deliberately Homerised, they frequently added Homeric colouring to their work at the verbal or syntactic level. Mark simply doesn’t do this. (To be fair, MacDonald is aware of this problem, but he never really surmounts it.)
Finally, there is little formal resemblance between the epics and the Gospel of Mark. When Virgil ripped off Homer’s entire twenty four book oeuvre, he wrote a twelve book poem which followed the Odyssey for the first 6 books and the Iliad in its second half. Likewise, Nonnus’ Dionysiaca received forty eight books - to show that it was as good as both Homeric epics put together. There isn’t even a ghost of this in Mark.
I could go on and point to things like the absence of a prooemium (which would be an absolute gift to a Christian writer - just look at the beginning of Paradise Lost) but you get the idea.
Why I think that MacDonald is wrong
Let’s now take a bird’s eye view of MacDonald’s case for associating the Marcan Jesus with Odysseus, which he conveniently summarises at the start of his book.
1. Both sail seas with associates far their inferiors, who weaken when confronted by suffering.
Yes, but Odysseus wanders, lost, for 10 years while trying to get home from the wars, spending much of his time in mythical space, while Jesus takes a few short boat-trips on inland seas in Palestine. The whole purpose of Odysseus’ companions is that they point up a contrast with the hero. And it’s hardly surprising that the disciples didn’t always match up to the Messiah. Not really a parallel at all.
2. Both heroes return home to find it infested with murderous rivals that devour the houses of widows.
I wondered what MacDonald was talking about here until I discovered later in his book that he is lumping together various assorted money-changers, scribes, Pharisees who feel the rough edge of Jesus’ tongue with the suitors of Penelope. Now, most of Jesus’ enemies aren’t murderous, just self-righteous and hypocritical; and none of them have much to do with widows (though some of them are vaguely referred to as oppressing women whose husbands have died). Penelope isn’t a widow, anyway, and Homer never describes her as one. Nor are Jesus enemies in his ‘home’ (the Temple - the House of the Father - is in no way analogous to Odysseus’ palace).
3. Both oppose supernatural foes, visit dead heroes, and prophesy their own returns in the third person.
Nearly all heroes oppose supernatural foes, and the supernatural foes of Odysseus (notably, Poseidon and the Sun) are manifestly not comparable to Jesus’ supernatural adversaries. Odysseus visits the underworld in a book-long interlude and sees or converses with various great men of the past; the nearest Jesus comes to this is the Transfiguration (entirely different - much fewer ‘heroes’ are involved, and not much conversation takes place). Later in the book, MacDonald will compare each of these incidents with something completely different in the other text. Notably, the Transfiguration gets compared with Odysseus’ recognition by Telemachus, which seems truly bizarre, an impression which isn’t assuaged when one reads MacDonald’s feeble attempt to marry arbitrarily chosen passages from the two texts. And does anyone, even MacDonald himself, take seriously the suggestion that Jesus’ prophecies of the Second Coming were suggested to Mark by his reading of Homer?
4. A wise woman anoints each protagonist, and both eat last suppers with their comrades before visiting Hades, from which both return alive.
The woman at Bethany who anoints Jesus (a almost completely obscure character of whom we know almost nothing and who plays an insignificant role in the Gospel of Mark) is supposed to counterpoint Eurycleia (Odysseus’ old nurse who has known him from childhood and plays a major role in the later books of the Odyssey), on the basis that the latter pours oil onto Odysseus’ body too. Say no more. Moreover, Eurycleia’s recognition of Odysseus by his childhood scar is supposed to counterpoint the Bethany woman’s recognition that Jesus is going to die (and here MacDonald has to torture the text to extract this particular detail - apparently, she anointed him because she realised he was a goner). Nothing in the Odyssey even slightly resembles the Last Supper, so I won’t waste time on this alleged parallel, which is gossamer thin even by MacDonald’s hair raisingly generous standards. Odysseus’ trip to the underworld is divided into two parts - the first is spent on earth talking to some ghosts who rise out of a trench and appear in front of him; the second (which was probably inserted into the Odyssey’s text at a relatively late stage) is spent actually walking around in Hades looking at sinners suffering unspeakable punishments. Now, you (and Prof. MacDonald) might see some point of contact here with the Crucifixion and Resurrection, but I’m afraid that I’m personally less than convinced.
These ‘notes’ have gone on for too long already, and I haven’t got time to explain why (my personal favourite!) Jesus’ Resurrection bears no resemblance to the ransoming of Hector’s body by Priam from Achilles, or why connecting the three lengthy laments which end the Iliad with Mk 15:47-16:1 takes considerably more imagination than I possess. The aroma of coffee, we are told, is like sex in that it promises more than it can ever deliver. ‘The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark’ might be an equally appropriate analogue.
None of the attempts made by sceptics to demonstrate that Christianity is false because it contains alleged pagan elements is credible or convincing. There are admittedly many good arguments against Christianity, but this simply is not one of them.
1) For interesting critiques of Frazer's work, see, for example, Sir Edmund Leach's articles in 'Daedalus' 90 (1961) and 'Current Anthropology' 7 (1966) and also (in much greater detail) J.Z.Smith, 'The Glory, Jest and Riddle', Diss. Yale 1969 (by one of the greatest living historians of religion).
2) One thinks here especially of the scholars behind the three volumes of essays 'Myth and Ritual' (Oxford 1930), 'The Labyrinth' (Oxford 1935) and 'Myth, Ritual and Kingship' (Oxford 1958).
© Justin Martyr, 2002. All quotations or references to this essay should be accompanied by a link back to this page. This essay may be reproduced without permission as long as no omissions or additions are made.
Last revised: 15th July, 2002.