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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A common tactic among Jesus Mythers, and not a few liberal New Testament scholars, is to approach with suspicion any part of Jesus’ life or teaching that recalls Old Testament stories or prophecies. The theory is that the early Christian communities invented actions and teachings of Jesus to match Old Testament expectations.

New Testament Similarities to the Old Testament


There are many problems this approach, and especially with those who take it to the extreme to argue that Jesus himself was a mythical figure. I have pointed out these problems here and here. In the most recent post, I explained three reasons that early Christian authors would refer to historical events in ways that recalled the Old Testament.

1. Christians were given to recounting actual events in ways that reminded them of the Old Testament. Which events in an episode to highlight, what terms to use to describe those events, and how to summarize events or speeches could be used to emphasize the continuity of actual historical events with the Old Testament.

2. Sometimes a coincidence is a coincidence. The Old Testament covers a lot of ground and has many diverse stories. Though there had been improvements in technology and society by then, the worlds were still quite similar in many ways. The cultures were largely agrarian, the governments authoritarian, and the cities laid out similarly (including having walls to prevent raids or attacks). Not only is it unsurprising to find similarities in the narratives of the New Testament, it should be expected.

3. Most Christian narratives involved Jewish or Christian actors who were just as aware of the Old Testament as we are. They also believed that God worked through human history. Knowledge of Old Testament prophecies or stories lead many to cast their own actions or teachings in the terms or narratives of the Old Testament.

In the prior posts, I provided many Christian and Jewish examples of verified historical events being cast in Old Testament terms. My conclusion is that the similarities to Old Testament narratives, teachings, and prophecies provide no basis for discounting the historicity of the implicated New Testament passage.

Alexander the Great Similarities to Homeric Narratives

As I was reading Will Durant’s Life of Greece, a non-Jewish, non-Christian example occurred to me: Alexander the Great. Alexander, though not attested by any extant contemporaneous writer, is one of the most influential and surest figures of the ancient world. So it is very interesting how much Alexander had in common with the largely legendary Achilles, central character of Homer’s Iliad. Both were famous warriors of royal blood renowned for their personal bravery and ability in combat. Both were said to be descended of gods. Both were products of Greek culture. Achilles and Alexander could be moody, allowing their emotions to affect their decisions. The mother of each prince played notable roles in their lives, even as adults.

Other similarities reveal an even greater level of detail. When launching his invasion into the Persian Empire, Alexander followed the accepted route of the Greek army as it attacked Troy. Alexander called his tutor by the name "Phoenix," who was Achilles’ tutor. When Achilles defeated the Trojan Prince Hector in combat, he dragged his dead body behind his chariot before the walls of Troy. When Alexander defeated Batis of Gaza in combat, he dragged his lifeless body before that city’s walls.

Alexander had a very close warrior companion Hephaestion, who some believe was also his lover. Achilles also had a very close warrior companion, Patrokolos, who was said by some to be Achilles’ lover. When Patrokolos died, Achilles suffered from a sever depression and had an elaborate funeral. When Alexander’s friend Hephaestion died, he too suffered from a severe depression and had an elaborate funeral.

Finally, both Achilles and Alexander died in their youth, accomplishing great deeds but with obvious unfilled potential.

Explanation of These Similarities

Given these similarities, and the legendary accomplishments of Alexander the Great, should we assume that he was a fictitious literary figure? Or at least do we conclude that all the parts of Alexander’s life similar to that of the mythical warrior Achilles? That would be difficult, given the broad scope of the similarities.

Some of the similarities can surely be chalked up to coincidence or historical context. Most ancient warriors whose stories have come down to us were noted for their skill, courage, and victories. And if they were leaders, they were usually royalty, as were Achilles and Alexander.

Many of the similarities are most likely explained by the pervasive influence of Homer, ancient epic poet behind the Iliad and Odyssey. These stories held a place in Greek culture roughly comparable to that of the Old Testament in Jewish and early Christian culture. Just as the Old Testament infused all of Jewish and Christian culture as religion, literature, and history, so too did Homer’s writings have an expansive effect on Greek culture in the areas of history, literature, and religion. As explained by Ennis Rees, “The two Homeric poems became the primary and most important educational influence on Greek culture.” Introduction his translation of The Illiad of Homer, page vii.

Homer’s subject matter, the Trojan War and the return of Odysseus to Ithaca, was almost universally believed to concern beliefs that really happened and persons who really existed. Homer, in short, was history. It did not need to be invented. What he said about events, men, the gods and most other matters was for a long time accepted as part of the traditional beliefs of the early Greeks.

T.J. Luce, The Greek Historians, page 1.

But rather than assume this only resulted in prompting creativity, we must recognize that it first fostered emulation. It is unsurprising, therefore, that growing up Alexander was fascinated by Homer's Iliad. It was the character of Achilles -- the hero of the story and the exemplar of all manly virtues -- that especially attracted him. Sometime in Alexander’s formative years he decided to model himself after Achilles. His teacher Aristotle encouraged him to do just that. According to Plutarch, Aristotle personally annotated a copy of the Iliad for Alexander, who kept it with him throughout his later travels, even keeping it under his pillow as he slept.

An ambitious young man determined to conquer all, Alexander worked to evoke in others, and perhaps himself, the belief that Alexander was the present day fulfillment of the great heroes of old. Achilles being the greatest of these heroes, he was Alexander’s prime historical example and model.

Thus, for example, it was Achilles’ dragging of Hector’s body behind his chariot before the walls of Troy that inspired Alexander to treat his enemy in a similar fashion. As explained by classical historian Jon Prevas,

This was done in emulation of the Greek hero, Achilles, who nine hundred years before had dragged he lifeless body of the fallen Trojan Prince, Hector, around the walls of Troy in a similar manner. What occurred at Gaza had been a sadistic and barbaric episode, yet it was an incident that was consistent with Alexander’s romantic notions and neurotic misconceptions of himself as a Homeric episode like Achilles.

Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-fated Journey Across Asia, page 23.

The same is probably true for Alexander's choice of invasion routes in to the Persian Empire, the name he used to refer to his tutor, and the extended period of mourning he undertook upon the death of his companion, Hephaestion. Historians believe that Alexander was consciously imitating Achilles’ grief over the death of his companion, Patrokolos.

We should also not overlook the direct impact of Homer and his Iliad on the historians and biographers who wrote about Alexander. If anything, they were more influenced by Homer than the rest of Greek culture. “The debt of the ancient historians to Homer is enormous…Everyone accepted the epic tradition as grounded on hard fact, and the Homeric heroes were believed in some sense to be the forebears of the Greeks of later times.” Michael Grant, Greek & Roman Historians, page 25. This influence cannot be limited to hypothetical fictitious invention, but clearly affected the selection and presentation of material. Accordingly, when it comes to the selection and editing of material, ancient Greek historians and biographers selected and editing their material to emphasize the similarities between Alexander and Achilles.

Conclusion

All told, the study of Alexander and Achilles adds further support to the conclusion that similarities with Old Testament passages or prophecies are, at best, a precarious basis for doubting authenticity. Sometimes coincidences are just coincidences. And when they are not, it cannot be claimed that ancient writers were inspired by their culture to invent material based on significant culture antecedents without also admitting that those antecedents would also have inspired the actions or teachings of the writers’ subjects. Nor can we ignore the fact that ancient writers may have selected and edited existing historical material with an eye towards evoking memories of significant culture characters. Indeed, it may be because of such similarities that the author chose his subject.

24 comments:

Beautiful. I love these little 'case studies' where the Jesus mythers' tactics are applied in such a way as to reveal how vacuous and absurd they really are. But personally my favorite is the astonishing parallel between Jesus and JFK:)

If we applied the same standards that Jesus mythers use to other matters, then much of history would become fiction.

'Achilles and Alexander could be moody, allowing their emotions to affect their decisions.'

This is a pretty startling parallel , which can't be explained away as coincidence.

A more startling example of parallelism is that both Elijah and John the Baptist wore leather belts, which clearly means that the baptist was modelling himself on Elijah.

But Layman has found an even stronger parallel between the moody Alexander and the moody Achilles.

This is no

Well, that's great Carr, why don't you go through ALL of Layman's parallels and be so snooty?

-Cam

It is pretty obvious that Jesus fixed the price on his head as 30 pieces of silver.


Early Christians naturally looked to the Old Testament.

For example, when Paul wanted an example of a betrayal of something vital in exchange for something useless, he naturally turned to the story of Esau.

And when Paul wanted a story of a birth of a child , a child of spirit, whose birth ushered in a new covenant, he naturally turned to the story of Isaac (see Galatians 4)

Where else would this early Christian have thought of getting his examples from?

Carr,

So you don't like the moody comparison? Then I suppose you have equal disdain for the lists of the supposed similarities between Jesus and all those "dying and rising" savior gods in pagan literature?

Which was kind of the point of that point.

And the other, more probative points of comparison? You know, the ones that follow my transition to discussing similarities that have "an even greater level of detail"?

Sometimes I wonder how seriously you take yourself.

"It is pretty obvious that Jesus fixed the price on his head as 30 pieces of silver."

No one said that he did. Nor does anything in my proposal--had you read it--require that he did.

You speak as if Matthew (the only gospel that specifies the amount paid, though others emphasize Judas' greed) was making this up out of Old Testament messianic prophecies. But what evidence is there that Zech. 11:12-13 was understood in this way? None that you have presented and I have not found any. On the face of it, this does not come across as a messianic prophecy or a scripture that would stir messianic fervor. Nor does it necessarily fit the context well. In Zech. the thirty pieces of silver were paid to God's servant and cast aside as an unworthy wage. In Matthew, the thirty pieces of silver go to the evil one. As Craig Blomberg notes, "the lack of closer parallelism between the scriptural texts and the events narrated testifies to their historicity. Mathew is obviously not falsifying history in order to conform it to passages of Scripture. Rather, he is seeking passages that may in some way illumine the events as they occurred." Matthew, New American Commentary, page 409.

It could be a coincidence. 30 pieces of silver would have been about four months wages. Not a facially implausible price.

If more explanation is needed, it could be that other historical characters were motivated by their own understanding of the Old Testament. The priests could have seen their payment of 30 as symbolic of what was paid to a good shepherd (Judas) after dealing with the shepherds who had been leading Israel astray (in their opinion, Jesus). Or they could have seen it as an ironic amount as that is how much Exodus required to be paid to a slave owner whose slave was injured by another's animal. Ex. 21:32.

Matthew than takes the amount paid and refers to the Old Testament to illuminate the passage.

Finally, you do not contest the point that early Christian and Jewish writers regularly referred to real events in ways that recall the Old Testament.

Upon further reflection, I wonder if Carr even read much of my post.

Carr's criticism: "This is a pretty startling parallel, which can't be explained away as coincidence."

One of my arguments explaining similarities: "Sometimes a coincidence is a coincidence. The Old Testament covers a lot of ground and has many diverse stories.... Not only is it unsurprising to find similarities in the narratives of the New Testament, it should be expected."

'Finally, you do not contest the point that early Christian and Jewish writers regularly referred to real events in ways that recall the Old Testament.'

Huh?

They do it in a completely different way from Matthew reading in the Old Testament about 30 pieces of silver.

Huh?

They do it in a completely different way from Matthew reading in the Old Testament about 30 pieces of silver.


How so?

Layman appears to be upset that certain scholars (particularly those who have come to the conclusion that the Jesus of the earliest Christians was a mythical figure, and also many "liberal NT scholars") assume that if a story about Jesus has a match in the OT then there is no historical basis for that story in history.

This is a fallacious assertion about how such scholars reach their conclusions about the historicity of a particular word or action of Jesus, or even of the existence of Jesus himself. It is simply not true of any scholarly author I know. But maybe Layman has read scholars making their claims on the basis of this reasoning. I would be interested to know if his list includes any that I have read and taken seriously. Or maybe Layman has misread them and assumed that some of these authors are doubting Jesus existence or works "because" they are found echoed in the OT.

Every historian knows that Alexander consciously modelled himself on Achilles. But every historian knows that there are more reasons to believe in the existence of Alexander than a flimsy collection of anecdotes that recall the deeds of his Homeric hero.

I have cited the historical grounds for believing in Alexander as opposed to the grounds for believing in Jesus
some months ago here.
The difference has nothing to do with either character modelling himself on a character from fiction.

Layman does not have to stop at Alexander. The emperor Hadrian also modelled himself on Dionysus. Alexander did, too.

Where the literary borrowing idea IS important is when it stands alone. Virgil's Aeneas is clearly modelled on Odysseus. We have every reason to believe that Aeneas was a creation of Virgil's imagination which he based on his reading of Homer. A teacher marking assignments sees remarkable similarities between two works, with the exception of a few nonessential details, and suspects cheating or plagiarism. What these have in common is that there is no external basis for verifying the authenticity or originality of the works that appear to reflect earlier sources.

If ALL the evidence we have about a particular character or work can be attributed to an earlier character or work, then what is any reasonable person (not a necessarily overly suspicious one, just a healthy sound-minded one) to conclude?

I don't know any scholar who discredits a word or work or even the existence of Jesus just because there is an echo of the same in the OT.

They only say that the stories or words about Jesus are made up if there is no other evidence independent of the OT allusions. That is, after all, the simplest explanation -- Okkam's razor and all that -- nothing to do with "suspicion" or hyper-scepticism.

Do Christians have any more reason for believing Jesus and his deeds were historical than that those of Aeneas were too?

But speaking of modelling oneself on a famed ancestor, who is it Jesus was said to have modelled himself on anyway? Was it Moses or Elijah or Joshua or Elisha or David or anyone else in there as well? When you think about the many different persons Jesus is modelled on in the gospels, I think it become even more compelling that, given the absence of external evidence (such as we have to verify Alexander and Hadrian), it was the authors who were doing the modelling, not their central hero.

By Anonymous, At 10/02/2007 09:09:00 AM

If we applied the same standards that Jesus mythers use to other matters, then much of history would become fiction.

My comment:

So what's the problem with that? Would you rather we have standards that allow us to believe fiction is truth? But the fear is groundless anyway, because the same methods in fact ARE applied to the secular evidence and historical sources -- it is the fundamentalists etc who are upset when standard historical methods are applied to their sacred texts. I was reading earlier today, for example, a debate among historians over whether Pliny copied some of his writings and anecdotes from Polybius. Historians really DO apply these methods to their sources in secular history. What do biblicists have to fear?

Neil,

Surely you joke?

First, my argument is not as limited as you seem to suggest. My argument is not just that OT/NT similarities standing alone are an insufficient basis to establish creativity, but that such similarities are almost worthless as a criteria of authenticity. Only if a passage or story has already been rendered dubious might the comparison suggest a source of invention.

Second, it is not true that no scholar does what I suggest -- use similarities with the OT as evidence of creativity. The term "prophecy historicized" is an apt description of J.D. Crossan's approach to the Passion Narrative. He uses a similar approach to the Birth Narratives. Indeed, Mark Goodacre's response to Crossan claims that these similarities are not "prophecy historicized" but "history scripturized."

And though they don't belong in the same league, Doherty falls back on such arguments as well. As I state in my fuller article on the subject:

In his book and on his website Doherty often dismisses seeming references to a historical Jesus because of their relationship to the Hebrew Bible. Because he finds connections between how Jesus is described and Hebrew Bible passages, Doherty determines that they are not describing an earthly figure. In his article on Hebrews, Doherty dismisses the reference that Jesus was "was descended from Judah" because "[t]he verb anatellein, to spring (by birth), is also the language of scripture. It is used in several messianic passages, such as Ezekiel 29:21 (“a horn shall spring forth”), and Zechariah 6:12." Doherty also claims that Gal. 4:4 ("born of a woman") is derived from Isaiah 7:14 ("a young woman shall be with child and give birth"). Similarly, Doherty finds significance in Jesus being "wounded" (Isaiah 53:5) and "pierced" (Psalm 119:120). Most significantly, Doherty claims that Zech. 12:10, is "the source for the 'fact' that Jesus had been crucified." (Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, page 81).

And your argument that there is more evidence for Alexander than for Jesus completely misses the mark. That just reinforces my point. Alexander--a well attested historical figure--could very well be seen as an Achilles-type figure with numerous similarities and evidence of an intent to cast him in that type of heroic image.

And its hard to take your reference to Aeneas seriously as a point of comparison. It strikes as more "I know classical literature better than you" boasting than a real contribution to the discussion. Virgil writes about Aeneas not as history, but in a rather typical example of Greek epic poetry, like Homer and the Iliad. Virgil begins by writing, "I sing of arms and the first men who came from the coasts of Troy to Italy." He calls on the muses to tell the story, "O Muses, tell the causes for what affront....". Virgil writes about Aeneas in heroic hexameter, a trademark of classic epic poetry.

Virgil also writes about events taking place about a thousand years earlier, with no reference to historical sources or other apparent traditions to call on.

None of this is similar to the Gospels, writing about events mere decades before (even accepting the unlikely late dates advocated by some) and in a definite historical context with the leaders, peoples, movements, and events of that time otherwise known to us.

In other words, if this is the best comparison you can make from ancient literature, you've utterly failed to make any serious response. We know Virgil wrote epic poetry and not biography or history because he wrote in the genre of epic poetry, not because of similar themes and events to that of Homer. As I pointed out, those who wrote about Alexander also had many points of contact with Homer, including explicit references thereto, but those authors were writing about a real historical figure who engaged in real and great events, not writing epic poetry.

Layman, my point is very simple and you have managed to avoid it completely:

if we strip away the literary allusions from a bio and are left with nothing left then there mr occam would say the simplest explanation is that the bio was derived from the literary allusions. if we strip away literary allusions and are left with material that can be substantiated with archaeology or other norms of historical evidence then we have a case that there really is "historicity" behind the bio.

The latter is the situation re Alexander the Great. The former is the case re Jesus.

Neil,

I responded to your points head on. Your "very simple" point is simplistic and riddled with whopping assumptions you have not even begun to back up. The appeal to occam is -- as is usually the case with skeptics -- simplistic. It only works if you start with the assumption that the gospels are nothing more than literary allusions. I think it much more likely to conclude that a people who liked to explain events they considered significant in biblical terms explained these events in their lives in biblical terms. That is hardly a stretch and certainly not something "mr occam" would avoid.

And the Aeneas expample fails miserably, leaving you with nothing.

What the example of Alexander the Great proves is that even the Greeks could write about historical figures in terms heavily reminscent of previous literary figures.

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You fail to grasp the logic of the Aeneas argument and think that by tossing in a thousand year gap you can simply ignore my argument. Do you use the same time argument in relation to Genesis that was written how many thousand years after the Creation event it supposedly describes? I suspect not.

And as for Alexander, I have said over and over and over the very point you are claiming is your refutation of my argument. Of course it proves Greeks could write about historical figures in terms of mythical characters. You know what? Alexander even saw himself as a mythical figure! He was attempting to imitate the mythical exploits of Dionysus. So did emperor Hadrian! But we have non-mythical and other hard evidence to substantiate the historicity of these characters -- we have nothing comparable in the case of Jesus.

Neil,

I did much more than throw out the thousand year gap in response to your argument about Aeneas. Please reread the section and comment on my other points if you are really interested in substantive discussion. Here, I'll repeat some of it:

Virgil writes about Aeneas not as history, but in a rather typical example of Greek epic poetry, like Homer and the Iliad. Virgil begins by writing, "I sing of arms and the first men who came from the coasts of Troy to Italy." He calls on the muses to tell the story, "O Muses, tell the causes for what affront....". Virgil writes about Aeneas in heroic hexameter, a trademark of classic epic poetry.

Further, the reference to Genesis is a red herring. The point of comparison had to do with literary similarities. My point was that the gospels were written by people who would have had access to traditions about the subject matter and who wrote about events, people, movements, and ideas that are otherwise attested. Whereas Virgil's writings about Aeneas have no such advantage. In other words, Virgil was not writing historiography and sends all the right signals that he wasn't writing historiography. He was writing epic poetry. Luke-Acts, on the other hand (and as you admit), signals that it is to be understood historically.

As for this, But we have non-mythical and other hard evidence to substantiate the historicity of these characters -- we have nothing comparable in the case of Jesus, it is nothing but sheer assertion. It's like setting the chess board up starting with check mate of white and black congratulating himself on a hard won victory.

And you are distorting the evidence for Alexander. The evidence we have--that you seem to accept--that Alexander patterned himself after mythical characters and otherwise shows such similarities is not the stuff that is substantiated by "hard evidence." Are you willing to dismiss all the literary evidence that betrays such similarities and accept only the "hard evidence" as likely historical? I doubt that. And if you did I would suspect your motives since you obviously are much more invested in attacking Christianity than Greek mythology.

You ask: Are you willing to dismiss all the literary evidence that betrays such similarities and accept only the "hard evidence" as likely historical?

Sorry Layman, but this tells me you have no interest in attempting to understand the arguments you read that you see as something you have to pull down.

Attacking Christianity? Do you feel threatened somehow?

Neil,

Once again you bail out of the discussion when we get down to the details.

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This comment has been removed by the author.

I find that an amusing charge when you and a bunch of others simply walked away from our last discussion.

But Layman, there is nothing you have said that I have not addressed a dozen times before and each time you simply ignore my arguments and repeat ad nauseum your same line, deaf to what anyone else says, and ramble ramble ramble with the most tedious non-sequiturs. (These are what you call "nitty gritty details" -- yet it is the details that pertain to logical analysis that you habitually avoid or respond to with sarcasm.)

That approach might work in wearing down and dulling the senses of magistrates or pew-sitters but has no place in truly non-authoritarian open and rational discussion.

Besides, if you were a nicer person and refrained from your sarcastic digs and insults that you with innocent pose pretend are not insults I might find you a more engaging dialogue partner.

But I used to be a bit like you and have been trying to recollect the thought processes of a fundamentalist and why this avoidance, incomprehension and inability to hold to a single logical thread in argument and do understand that it is your identity as a believer that is threatened. In other words, there is no room for dialogue here. So, So long and thanks for all the fish!

I find that an amusing charge when you and a bunch of others simply walked away from our last discussion.

Not sure to which discussion you are referring, but I have a job and it has kept me extraordinarily busy lately. I have attempted to pick up loose threads, such as here and with the roll out of new posts responding to your series on Acts' genre. That is hardly walking away. Are you demonstrating the kind of fairness you claim to want in a discussion by opportunistically jumping on me about my other responsibilities? And after I returned to where I thought we had left off.

The rest is just more of your whiny conclusory assertions. You haven't addressed my points a dozen times before. We've never argued about Aeneas for example. You seem to think that the only people you can rationally discuss things with are those who start by agreeing with you that there is nothing historical about the gospels or Acts. Like I said, you want to set the chess board before the match.

In any event, I made very factually based responses to your assertions and you waved them away.

Not sure to what innocent prose you are referring. I did not mean the Neil "spare me the details" Godfrey comments to be innocent. But then accusing your dialogue parter of not being able to hold a single logical thread in argument isn't exactly high praise. Of course I would expect nothing less from a guy who regularly ascribes any disagreement with his outlier conclusions as being motivated by ignorance and bias.

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