Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch.4: Going Pagan — a review

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by Neil Godfrey

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962). Cover art b...
The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962). Cover art by Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(All posts in this series are archived here.)

Chapter four of Jesus Potter Harry Christ is predominantly a survey of pagan deities and heroes whose stories contain echoes of the Jesus Christ story: Gilgamesh, Dionysus, Pythagoras, Orpheus, Asclepius, Osiris, Tammuz (Adonis), Attis, Mithras. Derek Murphy is not arguing that the Jesus story was a direct borrowing of any of these or that these pagan gods and heroes are the same thing as Jesus. What Murphy does argue is that it is important to understand the cultural and ideological background from which Christianity emerged. To this end, the very clear similarities between these pagan figures, and certain practices associated with the worship of some of them, are significant, and especially so in an age of unprecedented religious tolerance and syncretism.

The title of the book is an attempt to focus readers on the argument that literary borrowing is often a more subtle and complex cultural process than a simplistic, deliberate, one for one correspondence from earlier iconic figures and stories. The author is currently a PhD student in comparative literature so it is not surprising to find a wider range of literary models than the Harry Potter series sprinkled throughout the book.

Fans of Marvel Comic’s The Incredible Hulk might have already noticed the similarities between Cúchulainn and Dr. Bruce Banner’s alter ego. The parallels are fascinating and demand the question, are the similarities purely coincidental? Given the difference in geography and time, we might assume so. On the other hand, the story of Leinster may have remained for centuries in the “collective unconscious,” or even been passed down from mothers to sons as a bedtime story, before unconsciously popping up as the big green monster. However, if it could be shown that one of the creators of the Marvel character was Irish or had studied Irish myths of that time period, and was most likely familiar with the story of Leinster, then of course we could make a pretty strong argument that The Incredible Hulk was a deliberate re-telling of the myth for a more modern audience. (p. 108, my emphasis)

So what does one do when one encounters some precise parallels between the Jesus story and earlier myths? Can it be demonstrated the authors of the gospels were familiar with those myths?

Murphy acknowledges that this question is handicapped today by naïvety and flawed arguments of some past researchers who used often flawed translations of texts and made unfounded sweeping generalizations to find parallels.

Nevertheless, some of today’s scholarly critics of the question of such parallels have even attacked the idea of similarity itself rather than particular similarities. (Robert M. Price has addressed this in his discussions of an ideal type.) But of course the obvious rebuttal to such criticisms, as Murphy points out with various quotations, is that the ancient church fathers themselves acknowledged the similarities between Jesus and the pagan gods. Murphy makes the interesting comparison between ancient Christians complaining that the similarities were planted by the Devil and our modern C.S. Lewis attributing them to the divine plan of God. Murphy also cites the evidence that Jews themselves were not so uniformly abhorrent of pagan customs and ideas.

So Murphy justifies the relevance of his discussion of pagan gods and heroes to his argument that the Jesus story is best explained as originating as a literary or ideological construct and not as a historical figure.

One detail of Murphy’s discussion I found intriguing was his argument that in some cases where certain specific images are found in very dissimilar functions in pagan and Christian stories (e.g. fish), the thematic meanings of such symbols are often very similar. Additionally, certain practices of followers, their communal organizations and rules, are also of interest as comparisons with our understanding of early Christianity.

The discussion of Asclepius was one I found particularly rewarding. Asclepius the gentle and personally accessible deity, lover of children, gentle, exorcist and healer, and one whose cult was considered at certain times the greatest threat to Christianity.

As mentioned in my previous installment, the one complaint I have is that I wish Derek had taken more time for proof-reading and tidying up some points of presentation. Quoting scholars is fine, but I found myself often turning to the endnotes and bibliography to identify a particular author of a quote, or if the author was named in the chapter, I was sometimes having to make a pencil note to check later exactly who that person was, what were his or her credentials, etc. Sometimes, however, there is no cited source when I really do want to see one, such as when he remarks that it was the cross formed by the elliptic and celestial equator that was one of the signs of Mithras. I can understand not wanting to hit an audience new to these ideas with too much detail, but sometimes there is a lack of consistency that I think would even confuse a new reader at times. After speaking of Apollo, for example, there is an unexpected reference to Phoebus. I know the two are identical, but how many others do?

Murphy has amassed a great wealth of detail for each of the figures he discusses, and it is all well-worth reading and thinking about. Questions he raises against some modern scholarly views — such as the evidence for Mithraism borrowing from Christianity rather than the other way around — are pertinent. Why, for example, would the successful cult of Mithraism feel a need to borrow from a despised and persecuted sect?

A dark side of Christianity is that as Christians did gain strength in numbers, too many of them displayed a violently destructive (sometimes murderous) contempt for their pagan rivals. Murphy reminds us that the success of Christianity was not necessarily all due to the sublime example of the blood of their martyrs.

Against the wealth of similarities between pagan myths and the Jesus story, what remains of the hypothesis that there was a historical Jesus behind it all and that he was merely lost beneath the layers of Jewish stories and pagan motifs used to interpret his life?

However, since the earliest accounts of Christianity do not point to a historical Jesus, and since many early Christians believed that Jesus did not come in the flesh at all, this theory lacks credibility.

This is not to say that Jesus is just the same as or identical to other figures of mythology; indeed, Jesus would be something entirely new simply by virtue of his being an assimilation of the best features of each. Jesus is the culmination and combination of all other religious traditions of his time: while Orphism had a human prophet (Orpheus) and a divine god (Dionysus), in two separate stories, Jesus became both human and divine — prophet and god — in a mysterious, impossible Truth that was beyond all sense and logic. Without any attempt to make the story coherent, Jesus was given every feature, every power, every moving anecdote, parable and saying found in rival literature. (p. 178)

What made the Jesus story distinctive, Murphy concludes, is the unusual claim that Jesus had been a historical figure and had risen physically from the dead. It was this insistence on the resurrection of the flesh that proved the most difficult for contemporaries to accept. Murphy has already given hints — and they are found in other scholarly literature too — of the political impetus behind the development of this doctrine.

Overall, despite the shortcomings of some referencing and proof-reading, this chapter contains a valuable 65-page chunk of detail of myths and practices associated with a constellation of pagan gods and demi-gods or heroes. The extent to which the Jesus story is the product of direct or indirect cultural influences is still something I’m personally thinking through. It is not a line of thought I have paid much attention to, and that is probably partly a reaction against my own past bad experiences with some over-generalized bad scholarship that did attempt to grapple with this question in an earlier generation. But the richness of detail Murphy provides here makes stimulating and thought-provoking reading when applied against what is known of the beliefs and practices of early Christians.

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch.4: Going Pagan — a review”

  1. “What Murphy does argue is that it is important to understand the cultural and ideological background from which Christianity emerged.”

    At what point did “Christianity” “emerge”? In other words, how do you define “Christianity”. Why couldn’t “Christianity” have “emerged” in the first place out of Judaism, only to be modified almost immediately by what are obviously both mythical characteristics and lies? If this occurred, who were the powerful people who could have created such a religion? – “Murphy reminds us that the success of Christianity was not necessarily all due to the sublime example of the blood of their martyrs.”

      1. I do…

        That does not mean that older Jewish writings weren’t used as a basis for the newer religion, but that the creators seemed to have a bit too much disdain for Judaism itself, for them to have been born and raised Jews.

        In fact, apart from the assertions made in the NT, what physical evidence do we have for any Christians and/or proto-Christians having been anywhere near Palestine in the first century AD?

        1. I know of no reason to assume Palestine was the birthplace of Christianity. The narrative of Jesus is set there, but that’s all. And the place names are often puns on the stories set there, and Galilee itself is taken from Isaiah 9.

          But Jews were not confined to Palestine. Other candidates are Alexandria in Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria.

          There may have been a famous three pillars at Jerusalem at an early stage, but not even that is an indisputable fact.

        2. Well, Paul says he traveled to Jerusalem, that Peter and James were there (see Gal 1). Paul also made a collection for the Jerusalem church and found in his letters and Acts. That seems like pretty good evidence to me.

          1. It’s pretty good, agreed. But there’s also a lot of other discussion about Galatians on the shelves that still leaves the back door open. I am not saying I disregard the evidence. I am only saying it is not indisputable.

            1. Sure, there is much to consider in any of Paul’s letters, but unless one is arguing Paul is lying (why?) or the letter is a fabrication with no historical underpinnings, then it is sufficient evidence that there were major Christian figures in Palestine in the first century. I don’t see any other way to discount this source on this point. It’s not an extraordinary claim in the least, so the simple claim of traveling to Jerusalem cannot be rationally denied–otherwise I have to question anyone for any case they claim to go anywhere. Ordinary claims requires ordinary evidence (so says Bizarro-Carl Sagan).

              1. No problem with ordinary evidence…

                The problem is that Christianity is basically a refutation of Judaism. It could be that some Jews decided to crap on their own culture, but I don’t need to buy it simply because some unprovenanced texts make the claim. Especially considering the penchant that the Romans had for tweaking what they found lying around.

              2. Christianity that totally refutes Judaism is what Marcionism looks like. But if we accept Paul’s letters as mostly more or less in tact, then we find he bases his arguments on the Jewish scriptures; the gospels also base their narratives of Jesus on the Jewish scriptures; the Jewish scriptures were the foundational text of early Christians — as we see throughout the epistles in the New Testament. Christianity was essentially an allegorical reinterpretation (and co-option) of the Jewish scriptures. Where gospel narratives and some of the theological views in the epistles vary from the Jewish scriptures they do express other sectarian Jewish views (e.g. those found in the Enochian literature).

                So despite the increasing anti-Jewish sentiments we find among Christians in the second century (or earlier if you accept the first century dating of the gospels of Matthew and John), the evidence that Christianity was a mutation of Jewish sectarians is strong.

              3. The sorts of studies I have in mind:

                — Paul’s account of his going to Arabia being a “midrashic” piece based on Elijah’s fleeing to the wilderness. (So if this itinerary is a fiction . . . .);

                — the letter being written by a Marcionite or Marcion himself and using Jerusalem as a cipher for Rome (as another letters uses Babylon for Rome), with the encounter described shadowing Marcion’s version of his experience in Rome;

                — the use of Jerusalem elsewhere as a kind of metaphor or symbol for a place where all the evil spirits dwell, and that represents the antithesis of God’s kingdom — the place where Christ is crucified. Also the tendentious choice of Jerusalem as a foundational base for Christianity by the “orthodox” who were countering an anti-Jewish/scriptural form of Christianity. (Jerusalem was not always understood as a literal city in our understanding of that);

                — the conflict we have with the idea that Galilean fishermen would set up a “world HQ” base as prominent religious leaders in Jerusalem (especially if we add to this accounts of Christians being driven out of Jerusalem by persecution);

                — the appearance of Galatians in the external record at the same time as many other fictitious texts were appearing about and by Paul (e.g. the Pastorals, Acts, Acts of Paul and Thecla), and the apparent tampering by later editors with the passage (e.g. Cephas and Peter appearing together).

                I do not say I subscribe to all of these ideas (I don’t, though I may play with some of the ideas at times to see what happens), and some of them contradict others, but only list them to point out that the evidence is not indisputable. I will usually speak of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem as if it is a fact. But I do not do so with the same degree of confidence as I do when I say Josephus wrote Antiquities. (I know, some do dispute that latter statement, too, but I have not taken those arguments on board.)

    1. So how did Jews become “Christians”, or “proto-Christians”, or original “Christians”. There must have been a stage when “Christians” either in Judea, or somewhere else, where they were recognised as Jews with a leaning to accepting Gentiles on certain conditions. Paul Berry records (in Correspondence Between Paul and Seneca) the finding of an inscription in Pompeii (of all places) discovered by the German archaeologist Alfred Kiessling: CHRISTIANOS. This was buried among the ashes of Mount Vesuvius in 79 when all suppression of the original “Christians” was not complete. And how long had the inscription been there before burial?

  2. Neil, I have to second your concern with Murphy’s editing process. I also found it difficult at times to push through the various typos or seemingly persistent failures to use the proper homonym (thrown for throne was my largest bugaboo). One thing that specifically troubled me was his use of the number 8 on page 368 (I know I am not in the proper chapter) as a pictograph for infinity when turned on its side. Both the modern numeral system and the modern symbol for infinity didn’t exist during the first century CE.

    1. Hi Neil, I appreciate the comments and also for sharing this in the Jesus mysteries group. I apologize for sending out the review copies before final proofing; I’ve continued to catch mistakes and believe that the final book, and the ebooks available on the site are now clean. I’ve also fixed a few things, like the problem of the number 8 that Evan pointed out. I’m grateful for all the feedback. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve made some pretty serious errors – but hopefully I’ll catch them all soon.

      As for the birthplace of Christianity, my vote is in Alexandria, where you already have Jewish scribes deliberately making a Jewish-pagan synthesis of philosophy and literature. Also, while Christianity is given a Jewish background, and it is possibly that it was a Jewish movement that became Pagan, the difficulties are that the core theology of Christianity is Pagan (even if we find a historical Jesus – he will not be the Jesus of the gospels or of Christianity). And I don’t think we need to argue for some mysterious conspiracy group ‘fabricating’ the life of the historical Jesus; rather the development of a Pagan/Jewish synthesis and the accidental communicative decay which led to the misunderstanding of the literature is not difficult to trace.

      1. Having read your book but not having much familiarity with the mythology you discuss or, for that matter, Harry Potter, the one thing that seems apparent to me, whether it was intended or not, is that the way stories spread in the period between the life of Paul and the writing of the Gospels may not really be so very much different than the way dubious stories spread on the Internet today.

        A case in point is one of those “pass it along” emails I received today from a person who has me in her address book but does not really know me. Typically, she sends these to groups of about 20 people, and they usually advocate American right-wing politics, right-wing religiosity, or “patriotism.” I have noticed that they are often renditions of messages that have been on the web in HTML format for a period of time. The one I received today is very much like the HTML version that PZ Myers commented on just over two years ago. The version I got via email is titled “God is Busy,” and I also find an HTML version with that title on About.com, which is internally dated 19 June 2010. However, the email version, ends with “The classroom erupted in cheers!,” and I find an HTML version dated 12 Jan 2010 with that ending.

        The earliest version of this story that I found is dated Oct 2004 and is much shorter than the subsequent versions, which would appear to be embellishments. Nowhere did I encounter a version which names the professor or the Marine that took exception to his overt atheism, so I think it safe to presume that the story was fabricated by someone with a politico-religious axe to grind.

  3. I liked part two of this book a lot better than part 1. Although I see that part 2 is pretty much a copy of one of his earlier books, and there are a lot of typos in it.

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