Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

In this post, I am presenting MacDonald’s case beside Litwa’s criticisms. One may disagree with MacDonald’s thesis and the significance he sees in certain comparisons but that is another discussion. Here I am interested only in an assessment of Litwa’s criticisms.

M. David Litwa opens chapter 2, “A Theory of Comparisons”, of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, with the following epigraph:

The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.
Jonathan Z. Smith

It is all too easy to overlook differences, agreed. I seem to recall drawing questionable conclusions about the world’s religions from reading, many years ago, certain works by James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell. On the other hand, much of my reading in more recent years has been of scholarly discussions that give renewed insights into the significance and meaning of the differences between the compared works. Indeed, Smith is quoted elsewhere in that same book (A Magic Still Dwells) making that same positive point:

“. . . . The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.” Smith attempts to counter this trend by emphasizing that questions of difference are constitutive of the very process of comparison. [C]omparison is, at base, never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.” See Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” pp. 21, 35; 25-26, 40. Smith reiterates this point in his critique of Eliade in chapter 1 of To Take Place, pp. 13-14.”

(Holdrege, 89. Bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine.)

Unfortunately, Litwa continues to operate with the assumption that “comparativists” who have not embraced his methods of comparison have continued to “forget” the importance of differences. As we saw in my previous post, I think Litwa is mistaken here, and that the mythicist he sought with the most detail to expose as flawed did not at all fall into the “forget the differences trap”. Litwa made assertions without providing evidence, and the evidence that I cited, I believe, demonstrated that Litwa’s criticism was misguided in this particular area. I cover this ground again because Litwa recapitulates it in the opening of his second chapter:

To understand how mythic historiographies work, they must be compared in a way that is both thoughtful and sound. In chapter 1, I presented some instances of unsound comparison in my discussion of Jesus Myth Theory. In short, mythicists tend to genetically connect words and motifs for religious (or antireligious) ends. Often their zeal induces them to ignore or paste over differences in cultural setting and storyline. 

No evidence (or cherry-picked evidence that went contrary to the main arguments) was offered to support that claim.

. . . . Similarities that are isolated and superficial often conceal greater differences. What is worse, superficial similarities are sometimes employed to prove historical causation. Yet individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar (in some respect) are not necessarily genetically related. Similarities, no matter how precise, never amount to causation. (p. 46)

At this point, I am inclined to direct the reader to the words of Holdrege (citing Smith) above. Most of us are well aware of the dangers of confusing correlation with causation. When we have sound theories or explanations for particular types of similarities (e.g. comparing DNA samples) then comparisons can indeed be strong supports for appropriate arguments ranging from causation to coincidence.

Despite early slight missteps, Litwa does make an important point:

All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi in two different texts, then one must situate the texts in their sociocultural settings. When were the texts written? Where were they written? Who wrote them? For what purposes? Do they belong to the same culture or sphere of cultural codes? And so forth.

Only after this contextual work has been done can one even think about positing a relation between stories. The relation, moreover, is not always that the author of text B knew and copied text A. Sometimes the authors of texts A and B depended on another text, C, or perhaps they saw the same event X or heard a similar oral report Y or belonged to common culture Z. (p. 47)

Precisely. The only flaw I see in Litwa’s discussion is his inconsistency is acknowledging that even Jesus myth theorists, and another “comparativist” he discusses in-depth in this second chapter, do contextualize their comparisons as per above. And sometimes such contextualizing questions do lead to a strong case that the author of text B knew and copied text A. We know Virgil did copy Homer and that the authors of the gospels did indeed know and copy and adapt the Jewish scriptures.

The reason Litwa is attempting to cordon off arguments confusing correlation with causation and to demean suggestions that “genetic relationships” explain similarities is to establish the thesis of his book, “dynamic cultural interaction”:

We need to think of the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction: the complex, random, conscious and unconscious events of learning that occur when people interact and engage in practices of socialization. (p. 47)

I don’t know of any Jesus mythicist — and I’m thinking of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier — who would disagree. Nor does Dennis R. MacDonald disagree with the reality of such a process leading to similar literary motifs appearing in diverse literature. In this second chapter, it happens to be Dennis MacDonald’s turn to come under Litwa’s critical eye.

Overlooking MacDonald’s agreement with the principle of “dynamic cultural interaction”, Litwa misguidedly objects to MacDonald’s argument for “genetic” connections between the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics and wants to posit, instead, a more “complex, random, conscious and unconscious” series of interactions as an explanation for apparent similarities (or to deny even the reality of many of the similarities on the grounds that differences outnumber points in common). I don’t see the point of this argument. Does this sound like déjà vu back to my discussion of Litwa’s chapter on the Jesus myth theory? There is surely no problem with accepting Litwa’s overall explanation for similar motifs appearing in the gospels and classical literature but that explanation for some similarities does not mean another explanation for a more limited number of similarities must be ruled out. I know MacDonald’s Homeric thesis is of interest to many readers so I’ll take time to address Litwa’s criticism of it in detail.

The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:

    1. accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text
    2. analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
    3. density of the numbers of similarities between the texts
    4. order or sequence of the parallels
    5. distinctiveness of special features of the stories
    6. interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. why does Jesus want his Messiahship kept secret?)

MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:

7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)

Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:

Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.

The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities. 

(MacDonald, 4f)

It is not an either/or argument.

Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism

Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.

One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that

[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)

But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:

Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31

Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):

. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6

But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.

Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.

Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method

Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,

In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)

Okay, so I’ll let you be the judge. I’ll quote each objection of Litwa along with MacDonald’s indirect response. Continue reading “Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”


On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES

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by Neil Godfrey

Max Weber

It’s long overdue for me to type something serious in response to this sort of comment that one sees all too frequently:

Litwa writes, “The fact is, few Mediterranean gods actually die; even fewer die and rise. . . . To be sure, a few gods die; and of these, some of them return, in some fashion, to life. Yet they do so for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Mythicists such as Carrier fixate on abstract similarities. As a result, they often ignore or paste over important differences in the stories.” — from a comment on this blog.

I only touched on the fallacy expressed here a couple of months ago in Death and Resurrection of Baal.

The first indication that there is something wrong with Litwa’s argument is the use of “some” and “all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways”. Already Litwa is acknowledging that these gods can indeed all be classified as a group even though there are “all sorts of differences” among them. We know their respective stories are very different indeed but that does not prevent us from grouping them as, let’s say, a particular “type”. So the question that arises is, On what grounds do we omit Jesus from among “the few” and “the some” in his statement?

Robert M. Price has explained that comparisons among ancient “dying and rising” gods are based on the famous sociologist Max Weber’s explanation of “ideal types”. (Ideal here does not mean perfect but belonging to a common idea.) Price rightly identifies the fault in a milestone critic of such comparisons, Jonathan Z. Smith, as failing to grasp Weber’s discussion of how sociologists, historians and others justify making comparisons in the first place.

So here is a little background reading. I will quote liberally from a translation of ““Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy”, an essay in Max Weber’s On the Methodology of the Social Sciences.

To begin, note that Weber points out that the notion of an ideal type is not a fanciful extra, some ad hoc plaything, but is an absolute necessity for any historian who is making comparisons of different cultural groups:

If the historian (in the widest sense of the word) rejects an attempt to construct such ideal types as a “theoretical construction,” i.e., as useless or dispensable for his concrete heuristic purposes, the inevitable consequence is either that he consciously or unconsciously uses other similar concepts without formulating them verbally and elaborating them logically or that he remains stuck in the realm of the vaguely “felt.” (94)

Imagine we want to make comparisons between a church and a sect. How do we go about defining our terms: what is it (to take an example Weber uses) that makes a church a church and a sect a sect? To answer that question we look at the vast array of groups we classify as churches and sects. And when we do we soon find we are in trouble because there are simply so many different sorts of churches and sects. I know from first hand: when I belonged to the Worldwide Church of God cult I and fellow members frequently noted criticisms of cults and we saw core reasons why our church was not any of the cults listed and critics were making an ignorant mistake to classify us with them. If we pin down the attributes that define one sect as a sect we will almost inevitably encounter another instance that defies some of those determinants. If we want to compare different democratic governments, or specific social classes, or economic systems, or family structures, or religions, we will face the same problem.

Keep in mind that the word “ideal” in ideal type refers to the idea of something, not a “perfect” representation. So let the authority on ideal types speak. All italics are original, bolding and paragraph breaks are mine: Continue reading “On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES”


Death and Resurrection of Baal

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by Neil Godfrey

From Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

References to works against and for the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, with special focus on Weber’s explanation of an “ideal type” (addressed by Price, as many readers will know) — that’s a concept I have had lined up for a post here so with the prod from this discussion I must make that post soon. I have also often wanted to post on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books. (I don’t recall off-hand if I have yet done so on Trygge Mettinger’s Riddle of Resurrection.)

Last month I posted on a discussion between Christopher Hansen and Robert Price and remarked on their reference to Trygge Mettinger’s challenge to Jonathan Z. Smith’s attempt to deny a dying and rising god concept in the ancient world prior to Christianity.

Well, wonderful surprises can turn up when one does a spring clean and I discovered today that I did indeed post on at least one of Mettinger’s arguments way back in June 2008: Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. (Since my accident in Thailand I have been laid up so have had the opportunity to plod through a recategorization and tagging of all Vridar’s 3700 posts to make them more findable — it has been a good experience so far: some of those posts I had forgotten about and found to be really quite good (I found myself learning old things I’d forgotten and wondered if I really wrote them), others questionable — but after beginning a post by post review of it I think it’s not a bad blog. I’m glad you’re here to share it with.)

Anyway, back to the point: If you are interested in Trygge Mettinger’s case against Jonathan Z. Smith’s then click on Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. It’s not his complete argument. Just one chapter, I think. But it’s a start and will give you the idea. I hope to post on his other chapters in the reasonably near future.




Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

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by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to the emailer who brought me up to date with what’s happening elsewhere on the web, in particular a youtube discussion between Robert M. Price and Christopher Hansen about Christian origins, or more specifically the question of Jesus’ historicity.

Some points I particularly liked:

References to works against and for the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, with special focus on Weber’s explanation of an “ideal type” (addressed by Price, as many readers will know) — that’s a concept I have had lined up for a post here so with the prod from this discussion I must make that post soon. I have also often wanted to post on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books. (I don’t recall off-hand if I have yet done so on Trygge Mettinger’s Riddle of Resurrection.)

Another comment worth registering: nothing should be dismissed out of hand by anyone sincerely interested in scholarly inquiry. It is too easy to say Arthur Drews should be dismissed because so many books “debunking” his views have been published; what a scholar should do is always address an argument in his own terms, seriously, not dismissively.

Price cannot hold back from injecting his political views from time to time, but at least he does so with humour and we have to indulge him (hoo boy!). One has to sympathize with his agony when he points out the (one would think) obvious evidence that the pagan concepts of dying and rising gods preceded Christianity yet finding that some scholars seriously contemplate the possibility that Christianity was the influence that these religions copied in late(r) antiquity.

One little detail mentioned in passing by Price was a reference to a scholar (not Charles Guignebert) who said that a historical Jesus would not likely have been named Jesus. If anyone does hear that detail I would welcome a note in the comments on his name. I have posted Guignebert’s argument on the same point and would like to know how the two compare.

That moment was part of a discussion on whether or not we could call a figure a “historical Jesus” if he was so much at variance with our concept of Jesus. (That discussion reminds me of a colleague at the Singapore National Library Board who used to raise the question of the relationship of technology to copyright and identity by pointing out that Cindy Crawford has a beauty mark on her left cheek, but if we reverse her photo it will appear on her right cheek: deep philosophical question coming up — is that reversed image really that of Cindy Crawford given that CC’s mark is on her left, not right, cheek?


Another question that comes up in the discussion: what literature in the “pagan world” is comparable to the gospels insofar as it treats a historical character in mythical terms? An example of Augustus Caesar was given, also Vespasian. I think that that answer left something to be desired. The gospels can arguably be sourced from nonhistorical narratives and are clearly mythical (or some scholars would prefer to say “christological”) in their presentation of Jesus; accounts of Roman emperors are clearly derived from historical events and the mythical additions are generally noted as such, or with some reservation usually being expressed by the historian/biographer.

Christopher Hansen says he is a “historicist”, currently accepts that there was a historical Jesus who was a distinctive personality (how can one “do anything” with a very ordinary person?) who did claim to be god (I hope I have recalled that correctly). Similarly he thinks there was a historical Gilgamesh, and a Trojan War behind the Iliad. I can’t see those arguments, myself. Much good fiction (including ancient novellas) is placed in real settings and includes some introduction of historical persons. (I mean, there may have been a historical Jesus, Gilgamesh, Trojan War between Agamemnon and Priam, — but if so, we can never know.)

Anyway, those are some of the details that came to my mind reflecting back on the discussion.

One thing I appreciated was being alerted to some books I have not yet read and have now put on my wish list.

One piece of good news came up — Acharya S’s book The Christ Conspiracy is apparently being re-written (at her request) with Bob Price’s involvement to be a more scholarly presentation.

I am a little perplexed by Price’s leaning to the possibility that “the Romans” invented Christianity to somehow help pacify messianic Jews. I will have to read the book he mentioned (Creating Christ by Valiant and Fahy) with Brandon’s in mind to see what lies behind his thinking. I can understand Judeans elites “inventing” a form of “Judaism”  under the Persians since Thomas L. Thompson has pointed out that such religious innovations were a practice in those time to persuade people who had been resettled that they were there at a god’s bidding. But we have a very different sort of situation in the wake of the two Jewish wars against Rome. Something I need to read more about before further comment.

Price once again mentioned his personal friendship with Gregory Boyd, co-author of The Jesus Legend. Price has mentioned that relationship before and it pulled me up because some years ago I wrote a very judgmental review of Boyd’s (and Eddy’s) approach to the question of interpolation in 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Price’s comment reminded me that we are addressing our fellow human beings and it pays to treat them with respect and not get carried away with the quasi-anonymity or distance set up by the internet.





Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae

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by Neil Godfrey

No, I am not going to argue that Christianity grew out of the worship of Dionysus or that the original idea of Jesus was based upon Dionysus. Rather, I am exploring the possibility that the portrayal of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John is in significant measure a variant of the Greek Dionysus myth.

This possibility arises, I suspect, when we bring together the following:

  1. the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John
  2. an understanding of the techniques used by ancient authors to imitate earlier literary masters (this goes well beyond Stibbe’s own contributions)
  3. the various ancient versions of the myth of Dionysus (this is preparatory to the fourth point . . . . )
  4. an anthropologist’s structural analysis of myths, in particular the methods of Claude Lévi-Strauss (this brings together key themes and information from the above three areas in a manner that strongly indicates the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of John is a Christian variant of the Dionysus myth.) — And yes, I will take into account the several works of Jonathan Z. Smith supposedly overturning the possibility of such connections.

This should hardly be a particularly controversial suggestion. Most theologians agree that the Christ we read of in the Gospels is a myth. These posts are merely attempting to identify one source of one of those mythical portrayals.

Let’s look first at what Mark Stibbe (John as Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel) tells us about the literary affinities between the Gospel of John and the Bacchae, a tragedy by Euripides. Though the Greek play was composed five centuries before the Gospel it nonetheless remained known and respected as a classic right through to the early centuries of the Roman imperial era. Moreover, we have evidence that as early as Origen (early third century) the Gospel was compared with the play. See Book 2, chapter 34 of Origen’s Against Celsus.

But Stibbe does not argue that the evangelist directly borrowed from the play. Despite the many resonances between the two he writes:

It is important to repeat at this stage that I have nowhere put forward the argument for a direct literary dependence of John upon Euripides. That, in fact, would be the simplest but the least likely solution. (p. 139)

It certainly would be the simplest solution. The reason Stibbe thinks it is the “least likely” option, however, is the fact of there being significant differences between the gospel and the play. What Stibbe has failed to understand, however, is that literary imitation in the era the Gospel was characterized by similarities and significant differences that generally served to set the new work apart on a new thematic level. The classic illustration of this is the way Virgil imitated Homer’s epics to create the Aeneid. The differences that are just as important as the similarities and that even establish the very reason for the imitation. But all of this is jumping ahead to the next post.

Let’s look for now at the similarities, similarities that according to Stibbe may well be explained simply by the evangelist’s general awareness of the “idea of tragedy” in his culture.

Water into Wine

It is often noted that Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana reminds us of the myth of Dionysus turning water into wine. Stibbe writes that such a miracle is entirely possible Continue reading “Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae”


26. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 26

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by Earl Doherty


Mythicist Inventions: Part One – Creating the Mythical Christ from the Pagan Mystery Cults



  • Jesus as a dying and rising god
  • Common creations of the religious mind
  • The demise of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough
  • The case for borrowing lies in syncretism
  • Jewish and Greek forms of resurrection
  • Paul on Jesus’ resurrection as “firstfruits”
  • Jonathan Z. Smith’s case against dying and rising gods
  • The resurrection of Adonis: did the mysteries copy Christianity?
  • Gunter Wagner on discrediting the mysteries
  • The appeal of the mysteries
  • The lack of evidence on the mysteries
  • Historicist methodology and a Jewish camouflage


* * * * *

Mythicist Inventions: Creating the Mythical Christ

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 219-230)


If there has been one paramount apologetic concern in the long combat against Jesus mythicism, it has been the need to discredit any thought of Christian dependence on the Hellenistic savior god traditions. This has led historicism to adopt a ‘scorched earth’ strategy. Not only must any dependence on the mystery cults be refuted on Christianity’s own turf, the war has been carried further afield in an attempt to eliminate even the alleged sources. Thus, the armies of Christian independence are dispatched to the enemy’s home territory, there to destroy its own precepts.
No longer do the mysteries believe in dying and rising gods; no longer are they based on the cycle of agricultural death and rebirth; no longer do they practice rites which could have resembled and influenced the Christian one; no longer do they even worship such deities.And no longer do ancient Christians contemporary with the mysteries genuinely know anything about them.But the mysteries knew about Christianity, and they liked what they saw so much that they recast their own ancient beliefs in imitation of the Jesus story.


“Did the Earliest Christians Invent Jesus as a Dying-Rising God, Based on Pagan Myths?”

Having asked that question, Ehrman presents the situation this way:

ONE OF THE MOST widely asserted claims found in the mythicist literature is that Jesus was an invention of the early Christians who had been deeply influenced by the prevalent notion of a dying-rising god, as found throughout the pagan religions of antiquity. The theory behind this claim is that people in many ancient religions worshipped gods who died and rose again: Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Heracles, Melqart, Eshmun, Baal, and so on. Originally, the theory goes, these gods were connected with vegetation and were worshipped in fertility cults. Just as every year the crops die in winter but then come back to life in the spring, so too with the gods who are associated with the crops. They die (when the crops do) and go to the underworld, but then they revive (with the crops) and reappear on earth, raised from the dead. They are worshipped then as dying-rising deities. (DJE?, p. 221)

According to Ehrman, the view of almost all mythicists is that Jesus is an artificial Jewish version of a dying and rising deity of the above type; the significant parallels between the mysteries and the Jesus story prove this claim.

But this is something of a straw man. It envisions that some founder of the movement, or some Jewish study group (a scriptural book review club perhaps?), consciously sat down and ‘invented’ a new version of an old religion by emulating the latter’s features. Occasionally this sort of thing may happen (Ptolemy I deliberately syncretizing two gods into one to create a national-unity religion, or Joseph Smith inventing the whole gold plates business). But more often than not it is ‘in the air’ concepts and expressions that throw up a new set of ideas and interpretations within a break-away group or a particular cultural or sectarian entity.


Common inventions of the human mind

There is much in early Christianity which owes its presence to the Jewish culture . . . But there is also no question that fundamental aspects of the early Christian faith do not have a Jewish character but a Hellenistic one.

Almost every sect that looks back to a divine event or interaction with a deity develops a sacred meal as a commemorative thanksgiving or ritual reflection. (What is more fitting, or available, to give to a god than food and drink, or more traditionally associated with a god’s own nature and bounty?)

If the most fundamental religious impulse is to find a way to believe in a life after death, this is almost inevitably going to take the form of creating a deity who will bestow such a thing; and given our mystical predilections it should not be surprising that a process many would tend to come up with is the principle of the god undergoing the desired goal himself. It would indeed take a god to conquer death, but if we could just find a way to ride through that formidable barrier on his divine coattails. . . .

This is one mythicist who does not overplay the ‘deliberate borrowing’ principle to explain the origins of Christianity. Continue reading “26. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 26”


25. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism — Part 25

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by Earl Doherty


Is Jesus Based on Pagan Precedents?



  • A cult of parallels
  • Comparing Apollonius of Tyana
  • Kersey Graves as punching bag
    • Compare John Remsburg
  • Evaluating a range of different parallels
    • Birth of Mithras
    • Water into wine by Dionysos
    • Horus the shepherd-king
    • Isis and Horus, Mother and Child
  • Do Christian fathers give accurate knowledge of the mysteries?
    • Justin, Tertullian
    • Celsus via Origen
  • Cultural differences
    • Divine copulation or virgin birth
    • Variant forms of resurrection
    • Dying for sin
  • The pre-Gospel record contains no biographical parallels
  • Paul’s soteriology dependent on pagan concepts
  • The “cult of parallels” only arises with the Gospel story
  • Robert Price’s “mythic hero” archetype
  • Leaving a mark on history
    • Homer, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Buddha, William Tell, Aeneas, Romulus, Remus . . .


* * * * *

Claim 4: The Nonhistorical “Jesus” Is Based on Stories About Pagan Divine Men

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 207-218)


Bart Ehrman now addresses what is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of mythicism, or at least of some expressions of it. It forms very little of my own case for a mythical Jesus and I admit that this whole area must be approached with caution and qualification. One might call it “a cult of parallels.”

As Ehrman puts it,

. . . now rather than arguing that Jesus was made up based on persons and prophecies from the Jewish Bible, it is claimed that he was invented in light of what pagans were saying about the gods or about other “divine men,” superhuman creatures thought to have been half mortal, half immortal. (DJE? p. 207)


Apollonius Tyanaeus
Apollonius Tyanaeus (Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara)

Comparing Apollonius of Tyana

He gives as an example the career of Apollonius of Tyana, an ancient sage who was reputed to have had a miraculous birth, gathered disciples, taught a spiritual ethic, healed the sick, was in part divine, and after death at the hands of authorities came back to appear to his followers.

Apollonius is perhaps not the best analogy to offer in these circumstances, since he was a figure who apparently lived not prior to or even contemporaneous with the reputed Jesus, but a little after him (he is supposed to have died 98 CE). So there can be no question that early Christians modelled their Jesus on Apollonius. But he does represent a class of ‘divine man’ (the theios anēr) in the ancient world, including much older figures of dubious existence like Heracles, some of whose characteristics the story of Jesus shared.

Ehrman claims quite legitimately that such comparisons with someone like Apollonius of Tyana have little if anything to do with the question of Jesus’ existence. Since Apollonius himself is almost certainly an historical figure (we have a little better attestation to his existence than we do for Jesus), this shows that historical persons can acquire extensive legendary characteristics. But what of those figures who are generally not judged to be historical, more god than man, incarnated to earth in an undefined or primordial past?


Trotting out Kersey Graves

image of Kersey Graves
image of Kersey Graves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here Ehrman latches onto the very worst and most notorious expression of parallel-hunting in the history of mythicism: Kersey Graves’ 1875 The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Poor Kersey has become the favorite punching bag of historicists, much of it due to his own fault. Ehrman styles his work as “an exaggerated set of mythicist claims” with some justification, but his own remark that

Graves provides not a single piece of documentation for any of them. They are all asserted, on his own authority. (DJE? p. 211)

is itself an exaggeration. Graves’ references are anything but exact or even useful, but he is not quite appealing to his own authority when he says things like: “Their holy bibles (the Vedas and Gita) prophesy of [Chrishna] thus,” and goes on to quote several sentences from those bibles (1960 reprint, p.297). Graves hardly made up these passages himself. Continue reading “25. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism — Part 25”


The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s sit down and look at the score sheet. Richard Carrier kicked 11 “errors of fact” at the net of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?

Carrier says he could have kicked many more but that it was getting dark and the referee told him he had limited time.

Since beginning to write this post I have learned Richard Carrier has posted his own reply to Ehrman. But I have avoided reading his response so as to continue with my own thoughts for my own “review” of Ehrman’s book.

Here are the “errors of fact” Carrier kicked at Ehrman’s book, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze
  2. The Doherty Slander
  3. The Pliny Confusion
  4. The Pilate Error
  5. The “No Records” Debacle
  6. The Tacitus Question
  7. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  8. That Dying-and-Rising God Thing
  9. The Baptism Blunder
  10. The Dying Messiah Question
  11. The Matter of Qualifications

Here are the “errors of fact” Ehrman attempted to defend, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze, or Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”) (in a separate post)
  2. The Matter of Qualifications
  3. The Pilate Error
  4. The Tacitus Question
  5. The Dying and Rising God
  6. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  7. “No Roman Records”
  8. The Doherty “Slander”
  9. The Pliny Confusion

That means goalie Ehrman stood there texting on his mobile while two went through uncontested:

  1. The Baptism Blunder
  2. The Dying Messiah Question

Keep in mind that these “Errors of Fact” in Carrier’s critique of Ehrman’s book are not the only, nor even necessarily the most, serious faults in Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? But I cannot cover everything in one post so I deal with these before moving on in a future post to the even more significant errors and fallacies of Ehrman’s work. Continue reading “The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)”


That Mysterious Young Man in the Gospel of Mark: Fleeing Naked and Sitting in the Tomb

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by Neil Godfrey

Baptism of Christ. Fresco in Cappadocia
Image via Wikipedia

An old (1973) article in the Journal of Biblical Literature by Robin Scroggs and Kent I. Groff make a case that the young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and the young man (reappearing?) in the tomb to announce Jesus’ resurrection were originally created as symbols of the baptism ritual for new converts to Christianity.

The young man having his linen cloak (σινδόν / sindon) snatched from him is substituted by Jesus who is entering into his “baptism” of suffering, death and burial — as depicted by Jesus himself being wrapped in a σινδόν/sindon for burial. The young man then reappears in the tomb, sitting on the right side, clothed in white like Jesus at the transfiguration. These narrative scenes find their meaning in the baptism ritual of early Christians: the initiate first removed his garment and entered the baptism naked and was then given a new robe to symbolize a new life in the resurrected Christ. Continue reading “That Mysterious Young Man in the Gospel of Mark: Fleeing Naked and Sitting in the Tomb”


How Luke Timothy Johnson Stumbles Over the Mythical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I presented Luke Timothy Johnson‘s case against to the opening arguments of Robert M. Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Price gives reasons for suspecting there never was a historical Jesus. In this post I am giving both my own views and some of Price’s own “responses” to Johnson’s criticisms. (Price does not really “respond” to Johnson’s “response” in the book. I have chosen to highlight a few of Price’s arguments that I thought Johnson was dismissing too quickly. Most of the commentary, however, is my own.)

Johnson’s evidence for the historical Jesus

So in response to Robert Price’s demolition of any evidence for Jesus, how does Luke Timothy Johnson come back with clear evidence that this Jesus did exist in history?

  1. By saying there is multiple attestation for some things about Jesus
  2. By insisting that not all Gospel stories about Jesus are very like Torah stories
  3. By asserting that one cannot find Jesus stories in the Torah just by reading the Torah
  4. By insisting that it is a fact that Christianity suddenly emerged out of Jews by their thousands being persuaded that a failed messiah crucified as a criminal was the real messiah and now in heaven to be worshiped alongside God, and that Price has not explained how “this fact” happened
  5. By pointing to “the fact” that the New Testament books all talk about the same Jesus
  6. By reminding us that Josephus, Tacitus and Lucian all write about Jesus and early Christians
  7. And by noting that Paul said Jesus was a Jew, descended from David, and took commands from him, and called him by his personal (human) name Jesus.

I said in a recent comment that it seemed those responding to Price were not really taking his chapter seriously enough to really try to muster a decent criticism. But that’s not really true. To come up with seven strands of “evidence” for the historical Jesus certainly demonstrates some serious effort. Each one may look rather flimsy on its own, but, as to be discussed in the next section, there is no denying that when multiple attestation even of insubstantial arguments can find a single point of convergence, it does at least begin to look serious.

(Johnson repeats some of these arguments in his own chapter in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. I will address some of them again in a future post when discussing that chapter specifically.)

The omission of “multiple attestation

Continue reading “How Luke Timothy Johnson Stumbles Over the Mythical Jesus”


Resurrection Appearances and Ancient Myths

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by Neil Godfrey


Revised: added Self-Opening Doors and P.S.

In the following I am not suggesting that the gospel resurrection appearance scenes were directly borrowed from ancient sources. Rather, that when we read of similar scenes in pagan literature we can recognize them as patently mythical. This is Robert M. Price‘s argument (Deconstructing Jesus, p.39), although Charles H. Talbert argues (What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels, p. 43) that the late sources for many of the following are known to have been drawing on much earlier (pre-Christian) narratives which, by implication, can be viewed as influencing the gospel authors. Influence does not necessarily mean direct literary borrowing: by definition no-one can evade the narratives of their culture.

On the one hand, his passing from mortal to immortal is attested by the absence of Jesus’ physical remains . . . reinforced by his appearances to friends and disciples in which further instruction is given . . . and by predictions made during his life . . . . On the other hand, Jesus’ ascent through a cloud is witnessed by the Galileans. . . There is no way a Mediterranean man could have missed this as a portrayal of Jesus in the mythology of the immortals (i.e. Asclepius, Hercules, Dionysus, and the Dioscuri, etc.) (What is a Gospel? p.41)

Jonathan Z. Smith‘s modern analyses of ancient myths notwithstanding, Justin Martyr in the second century (First Apology, ch.21) acknowledged that contemporary audiences could not avoid observing similarities between the gospel narratives and pagan tales of the likes of Asclepius and Heracles.

In some circles it is not politically correct to link gospel material with pagan memes. Some scholars (e.g. Ben Witherington) even link such arguments to late-nineteenth and early twentieth century anti-semitism. Ironically, there is another argument that links the current scholarly quest to explore the Jewishness of Jesus with a rebound against post-World War 2 anti-semitism and, in particular, with the West’s love affair with Israel since 1967 (e.g. James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror). So with cannon to the right, cannon to the left, I’ll charge into the valley . . .

Leaving Earth Through Self-Opening Doors

Apollonius of Tyana

The guardians of the shrine arrested him in consequence, and threw him in bonds as a wizard and a robber, accusing him of having thrown to the dogs some charmed morsel. But about midnight he loosened his bonds, and after calling those who had bound him, in order that they might witness the spectacle, he ran to the doors of the temple, which opened wide to receive him; and when he had passed within, they closed afresh, as they had been shut, and there was heard a chorus of maidens singing from within the temple, and their song was this. “Hasten thou from earth, hasten thou to Heaven, hasten.” In other words: “Do thou go upwards from earth.”

From Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 30

Mark 16:3-6

And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here

One scholar (name escapes me at the moment) has noted Mark’s use of the tomb as a metaphor for the Temple in Isaiah 22:16, which would enhance the resonance of this ‘door’ detail between the Apollonius and Jesus story in Mark’s gospel.

(After a night’s sleep I recall that the scholar I had in mind was Karel Hanhart who argued the point on Crosstalk2 some years back. He also attributed the exegesis to other Dutch, Swedish and English scholars. — See also Frank McCoy’s comment below for more details.)

This particular echo of massive doors being miraculously opened to make way for the mortal to enter eternal life is pointed out by Robert Price in Deconstructing Jesus (p. 41). Matthew 28:2-4 changes the sequence so that the door is opened supernaturally to show that the body of Jesus has already left — presumably as spirit. If the story of the empty tomb had been known to the author of 1 Corinthians 15 (Paul, let’s say) he may have kept quiet about it because it indicated a flesh and blood body rose from the dead, while he was arguing that the resurrected body is not flesh and blood. (I think Price makes these points, too, elsewhere.)

Price also notes the way the chorus of maidens in the Apollonius story has a counterpart in the young man at the tomb in Mark’s gospel. Both announce what has become of the one for whom the doors were sealed and opened.

The Missing Body – Evidence of Apotheosis

Empedocles the philosopher

For Heraclides, relating the story about the dead woman, how Empedocles got great glory from sending away a dead woman restored to life, says that he celebrated a sacrifice in the field of Pisianax, and that some of his friends were invited, among whom was Pausanias. And then, after the banquet, they lay down, some going a little way off, and some lying under the trees close by in the field, and some wherever they happened to choose. But Empedocles himself remained in the place where he had been sitting. But when day broke, and they arose, he alone was not found. And when he was sought for, and the servants were examined and said that they did not know, one of them said, that at midnight he had heard a loud voice calling Empedocles; and that then he himself rose up and saw a great light from heaven, but nothing else. And as they were all amazed at what had taken place, Pausanias descended and sent some people to look for him; but afterwards he was commanded not to busy himself about the matter, as he was informed that what had happened was deserving of thankfulness, and that they behoved to sacrifice to Empedocles as to one who had become a God.

From Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers

Heracles (Hercules)

Heracles, having abandoned hope for himself, ascended the pyre and asked each one who came up to him to put torch to the pyre. And when no one had the courage to obey him Philoctetes alone was prevailed upon; and he, having received in return for his compliance the gift of the bow and arrows of Heracles, lighted the pyre. And immediately lightning also fell from the heavens and the pyre was wholly consumed. After this, when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History

Aristaeus (a son of Apollo and the mortal Cyrenê)

Consequently among the inhabitants of Sicily, as men say, Aristaeus received especial honour as a god, in particular by those who harvested the fruit of the olive-tree. And finally, as the myths relate, he visited Dionysus in Thrace and was initiated into his secret rites, and during his stay in the company of the god he learned from him much useful knowledge. And after dwelling some time in the neighbourhood of Mount Haemus he never was seen again of men, and became the recipient of immortal honours not only among the barbarians of that region but among the Greeks as well.

From Diodorus Siculus, Library of History


A severe battle took place not far from Lavinium and many were slain on both sides, but when night came on the armies separated; and when the body of Aeneas was nowhere to be seen, some concluded that it had been translated to the gods and others that it had perished in the river beside which the battle was fought. And the Latins built a hero-shrine to him with this inscription: “To the father and god of this place . . .”

From Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities


Others think that it was neither in the temple of Vulcan nor when the senators alone were present that he disappeared, but that he was holding an assembly of the people outside the city near the so called Goat’s Marsh, when suddenly strange and unaccountable disorders with incredible changes filled the air; the light of the sun failed, and night came down upon them, not with peace and quiet, but with awful peals of thunder and furious blasts driving rain from every quarter, during which the multitude dispersed and fled, but the nobles gathered closely together; and when the storm had ceased, and the sun shone out, and the multitude, now gathered together again in the same place as before, anxiously sought for their king, the nobles would not suffer them to inquire into his disappearance nor busy themselves about it, but exhorted them all to honour and revere Romulus, since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king. The multitude, accordingly, believing this and rejoicing in it, went away to worship him with good hopes of his favour; but there were some, it is said, who tested the matter in a bitter and hostile spirit, and confounded the patricians with the accusation of imposing a silly tale upon the people, and of being themselves the murderers of the king.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus


Cleomedes also, who was of gigantic strength and stature, of uncontrolled temper, and like a mad man, is said to have done many deeds of violence, and finally, in a school for boys, he smote with his fist the pillar which supported the roof, broke it in two, and brought down the house. The boys were killed, and Cleomedes, being pursued, took refuge in a great chest, closed the lid down, and held it so fast that many men with their united strength could not pull it up; but when they broke the chest to pieces, the man was not to be found, alive or dead. In their dismay, then, they sent messengers to consult the oracle at Delphi, and the Pythian priestess gave them this answer:—

Last of the heroes he, Cleomedes, Astypalaean.”

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus


Not every good person was turned into a god. Alcmene was turned to a stone, but to Plutarch it was all a lot of rot for the gullible.

It is said also that the body of Alcmene disappeared, as they were carrying her forth for burial, and a stone was seen lying on the bier instead. In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

From Plutarch, The Life of Romulus

In all four gospels the central evidence in common for the resurrection is the missing body of Jesus — the empty tomb. A missing body of a person renowned for a notable life was a well-known piece of evidence that the hero had become immortal and one of the gods.

Matthew 28:5-6

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead . . .

John 20:3-9

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. . . . And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

After Death Appearances


At this pass, then, it is said that one of the patricians, a man of noblest birth, and of the most reputable character, a trusted and intimate friend also of Romulus himself, and one of the colonists from Alba, Julius Proculus by name, went into the forum and solemnly swore by the most sacred emblems before all the people that, as he was travelling on the road, he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, fair and stately to the eye as never before, and arrayed in bright and shining armour. He himself, then, affrighted at the sight, had said: “O King, what possessed thee, or what purpose hadst thou, that thou hast left us patricians a prey to unjust and wicked accusations, and the whole city sorrowing without end at the loss of its father?” Whereupon Romulus had replied: “It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. So farewell, and tell the Romans that if they practise self-restraint, and add to it valour, they will reach the utmost heights of human power. And I will be your propitious deity, Quirinus.” These things seemed to the Romans worthy of belief, from the character of the man who related them, and from the oath which he had taken; moreover, some influence from heaven also, akin to inspiration, laid hold upon their emotions, for no man contradicted Proculus, but all put aside suspicion and calumny and prayed to Quirinus, and honoured him as a god.


For they say that Aristeas died in a fuller’s shop, and that when his friends came to fetch away his body, it had vanished out of sight; and presently certain travellers returning from abroad said they had met Aristeas journeying towards Croton.

Both of the above from Plutarch, Life of Romulus.

Plutarch concludes with some scepticism:

In short, many such fables are told by writers who improbably ascribe divinity to the mortal features in human nature, as well as to the divine.

Matthew 28:9

And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

Luke 24:33-35

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.

Appearing Unrecognized to Dejected Followers Returning Home


Compare the following with the Emmaeus Road appearance of Jesus to disciples returning from Jerusalem after thinking their hopes had been dashed.

Sostrata of Pherae was pregnant with worms. When she was absolutely too weak to walk, she was brought into the sanctuary and slept there. When she did not see any clear dream, she went back home again. After that near Cornoi someone seemed to appear to her and her escort, a distinguished-looking man, who inquired about their misfortune; he told them to put down the litter on which they were carrying Sostrata. Then he cut open her stomach and removed a large multitude of worms, two washbasins full. Then he sewed up her stomach, and once he had cured her, Asclepius showed that it was he who had appeared, and ordered her to send votive offerings to Epidaurus

From the shrine of Asclepius in Epidaurus

Luke 24:13-31

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus . . . And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass therein these days? And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. . . . Then he . . . . expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . . And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Materializing as Flesh and Blood, not a Ghost

Apollonius of Tyana

Damis’ grief had just broken out afresh, and he had made some such exclamation as the following: “Shall we ever behold, O ye gods, our noble and good companion?” when Apollonius, who had heard him -for as a matter of fact he was already present in the chamber of the nymphs- answered: “Ye shall see him, nay, ye have already seen him.”

“Alive?” said Demetrius, “For if you are dead, we have anyhow never ceased to lament you.”

Hereupon Apollonius stretched out his hand and said: “Take hold of me, and if I evade you, then I am indeed a ghost come to you from the realm of Persephone, such as the gods of the underworld reveal to those who are dejected with much mourning. But if I resist your touch, then you shall persuade Damis also that I am both alive and that I have not abandoned my body.

They were no longer able to disbelieve, but rose up and threw themselves on his neck and kissed him . . .

From Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius

The disciples of Apollonius were gathered together in a room grieving over what they believed was the death of their teacher, Apollonius. They believed that his trial before emperor Domitian had inevitably resulted in his execution. Apollonius made a miraculous appearance, apparently divinely teleported from the place of trial to where his disciples were

“How then,” said Demetrius, “have you accomplished so long a journey in so small a fraction of the day?”

And Apollonius replied: “Imagine what you will, flying ram or wings of wax excepted, so long as you ascribe it to the intervention of a divine escort.”

and showed them he was not a ghost, but flesh and blood. Like Jesus, he invited them to touch him to prove this.

John 20:19-20

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

Luke 24:36-40

And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.

A Late Appearance to Convince the Lone Doubter

Doubting Thomas had his counterpart in a young disciple of Apollonius

Apollonius of Tyana

For there came to Tyana a youth who did not shrink from acrimonious discussions, and would not accept truth in argument. Now Apollonius had already passed away from among men, but people still wondered at his passing, and no one ventured to dispute that he was immortal. . . . The young man in question, however, would on no account allow the tenet of immortality of the soul, and said: “I myself, gentlemen, have done nothing now for over nine months but pray to Apollonius that he would reveal to me the truth about the soul; but he is so utterly dead that he will not appear to me in response to my entreaties, nor give me any reason to consider him immortal.

Such were the young man’s words on that occasion, but on the fifth day following, after discussing the same subject, he fell asleep where he was talking with them, and of the young men who were studying with him, some were reading books, and others were industriously drawing geometrical figures on the ground, when on a sudden, like one possessed, he leapt up still in a half sleep, streaming with perspiration, and cried out: “I believe thee.”

And, when those who were present asked him what was the matter; “Do you not see,” said he, “Apollonius the sage, how that he is present with us and is listening to our discussion, and is reciting wondrous verses about the soul?”

“But where is he?” the others asked, “For we cannot see him anywhere, although we would rather do so than possess all the blessings of mankind.”

And the youth replied: “It would seem that he is come to converse with myself alone concerning the tenets which I would not believe.

From Philostratus, The Life of Philostratus, 31

It looks quite mythical when told of Apollonius. How could ancients have seen the tale of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas any differently?

John 20:24-28

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

Witnesses to Heavenly Ascent

Alexander the Great

Alexander had prayed to Zeus (Alexander Romance, 3:30):

And if it be thy will, receive me too in heaven, as the third mortal.

The other two mortals who had been taken into heaven were Heracles and Dionysus, whose steps Alexander had been following in his conquests into India. These two (angelic divinities) made their appearance at his death in the form of a star and an eagle:

And when Alexander had said this and much more, a mist formed in the air, and a great star appeared, shooting  from heaven to the sea, and together with it an eagle, and the statue in Babylon that they said was of Zeus stirred. The star returned back up to heaven, and the eagle followed it too. And when the star was lost from view in the heavens, immediately Alexander sank into eternal sleep.

From Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Alexander Romance

Augustus Caesar

a certain Numerius Atticus, a senator and ex-praetor, . . . swore that he had seen Augustus ascending to heaven after the manner of which tradition tells concerning Proculus and Romulus.

From Dio Cassius, Roman History

There was even an ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven.

From Suetonius, The Life of Augustus

Luke 24:4

two men stood by them in shining garments

Gospel of Peter, 35-40

But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. . . . and both the young men entered. . . . again they see three males who have come out from the sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one . . .  but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens.

As for the loud voice, compare the moment the philosopher Empedocles was taken from this earth in the previous section.

Luke 20:50-51

And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.

Acts 1:9-10

And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel

Words Exchanged from Jewish Myth

Words to Mary

In Tobit 12:20, after the angel Raphael revealed his identity (after he had been thought a fellow mortal) he said:

for I go up to him that sent me;

Compare John 20:17 and Jesus’ words to Mary:

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father:

Words of Thomas

When Tobit rejoiced in experiencing the presence of Raphael, he said (13:4):

for he is our Lord, and he is the God our Father for ever

Compare John 20:28 when Thomas witnessed the resurrected Jesus:

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God

Indications and Absurdities

To quote from an old article of Charles H. Talbert (JBL, 1975):

So . . . there are indications that some early Christians did think about Christ in terms of the mythology of the immortals. (p.433)

More bluntly, Robert M. Price (Jesus Is Dead, p. 168) writes:

The idea that these stories do not smack of mythology is just palpably absurd. Rather than functioning as an argument on behalf of faith, the claim has by now itself become an article of faith, so drastically does it contradict all manner of evidence.

Is there a worse example of the fallacy of special pleading, the double standard, than to dismiss all these mythical stories from other ancient religions and to claim that in the sole case of the gospels they are all suddenly true? Laughable in the one case, convincing in the other?


There are more links between the gospel resurrection stories and various other myths. The famous example of Pythagoras knowing the exact number of fish being hauled in (Iamblichus’s Life of Pythagoras) and the Pythagorean number of 153 being the number of fish caught at Jesus’ command is one.



“Heaven above and Hell below” : a cosmos in the brain and genesis of religion?

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Heaven above, Hell below, and the level of anxious humanity in between appear in one form or another across the globe. Why should this be so? In the materiality of daily life there is, after all, no evidence whatsoever of hidden spiritual realms above and below. (David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, p.144)

David Lewis-Williams, in his pioneering The Mind in the Cave, argues that the universally held beliefs of a three-tiered cosmos, with spirit worlds above and below the here and now of daily life, are best explained by the wiring of the human brain, in altered states of consciousness, to generate the experience such a cosmos.

Laboratory experiments and reports from “an extremely broad range of shamanistic (and other) societies” point to this near universal concept originating in certain experiences of an altered state of consciousness.

The ubiquity of institutionalized altered states of consciousness is borne out by a survey of 488 societies included in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. Erika Bourguignon, who carried out this survey, found that an overwhelming 437, or 90 per cent, of these societies were reported to have ‘culturally pat­terned forms of altered states of consciousness’. She concluded that ‘the capacity [necessity] to experience altered states of consciousness is a psychobiological capacity [necessity] of the species, and thus universal, its utilization, institutionalization, and patterning are, indeed, features of cultures, and thus variable.’ (p.131)

Lewis-Williams adds that the Ethnographic Atlas defined altered states of consciousness too narrowly so that sub-Saharan African societies were excluded from being counted among those who recognized the importance of altered states. The difference is that they do not create the same overt institutionalization around them as other cultures.

It seems, then, that Bourguignon’s ‘capacity’ should be changed to ‘necessity’, if the full range of altered states is recognized and the ways in which they may be institutionalized are seen as highly variable. (p.131)

Cultural bias against these altered states has led to an undervaluing in scientific studies of their significance as a valid experience of being human. These experiences of a state of consciousness frowned upon by modern western institutions have nonetheless formed a fully valid and important role in the institutions, beliefs and ways of living in other societies.

Altered states of consciousness — the genesis of religion?

Lewis-Williams: “I am not alone in emphasizing the importance of making sense of altered states of consciousness in the genesis of religion.”

Peter Furst: “It is at least possible, though certainly not provable, that the practice of shamanism . . . may have involved from the first — that is, the very beginnings of religion itself — the psychedelic potential of the natural environment.”

James McClenon: “Shamanism, the result of cultural adaptation to biologically based [altered states of consciousness], is the origin of all later religious forms.”

Weston La Barre: “All the dissociative ‘altered states of consciousness’ — hallucination, trance, possession, vision, sensory deprivation, and especially the REM-state dream — apart from their cultural contexts and symbolic content, are essentially the same psychic states found everywhere among mankind; . . . shamanism or direct contact with the supernatural in these states . . . is the de facto source of all revelation, and ultimately of all religions.”

(All cited from The Mind in the Cave, p.135)

The spectrum of consciousness

The normal trajectory from Alert to Autistic states of consciousness, although like the light spectrum there is no clear dividing moment between any of the stages:

  1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
  2. Daydreaming
  3. Hypnagogic states
  4. Dreaming
  5. Unconsciousness

But there’s another far more intensified spectrum that leads to hallucinations. This one can be induced by sensory deprivation that leads to the compensatory release of internal imagery, certain psychopathological states and drugs.

  • meditation techniques shutting out of the environment
  • audio-diving with prolonged drumming
  • sustained rhythmic dancing
  • fatigue
  • pain
  • fasting
  • psychotropic substances
  • schizophrenia
  • temporal lobe epilepsy

The intensified trajectory that results:

1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
2. Daydreaming
3. Entoptic phenomena (see entoptic images here and also a pdf view of normal and pathological images)
4. Construal (brain attempts to decode these entoptic images by fitting them into its store of recognized images (e.g. a circle becomes an orange to one who is hungry, a breast to one sexually aroused, cup of water to one thirsty, or a bomb to one who is fearful)

between #4 and #5 there may be the experience of a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel drawing the person down into it; its walls are marked by a lattice of squares like tv screens displaying spontaneous hallucinatory images; sometimes a bright light in the centre creates this tunnel effect, with images moving into and/or away from the centre

5. Hallucinations (in any of the 5 senses) — i.e. “altered states of consciousness”

The imagery of the tunnel (between #4 and #5) is also a western construct. It can be similarly called a funnel, an alley, a cone, a corridor, a pit. In other cultures it is often seen as a hole in the ground; or as a falling through a tube; gliding down through the sea; following roots of a tree down into the ground . . .

The imagery the hallucinations #5 are largely derived from memory and hence vary across cultures. An Inuit will see talking seals or bears; Hildegard of Bingen saw angels and strange creatures from scriptures, medieval wall paintings and illuminations. They are vivid. Not described as being “like” something, but as the real things themselves. Sometimes entoptic phenomena remain as part of the image, as geometric patterns behind or framing the images, or blending with them (e.g. a man with zig-zag legs). The hallucinator blends with the geometric and iconic imagery, sensing him or herself changing into an animal and other transformations.

The spectrum of consciousness is ‘wired’, but its content is mostly cultural. (p.126)


Characteristics of hunter-gatherer shamanism:

  • it deploys a range of institutionalized altered states of consciousness
  • the visual, aural and somatic experiences of those altered states lead to perception of a tiered alternative reality (spirit realms above and below)
  • the shamans are believed to have the powers to access this alternative reality
  • the human nervous system in certain altered states creates the illusion of dissociation from one’s body (sometimes understood as posses­sion by spirits)

These altered states are “used” for the purposes of:

  • contacting spirits
  • healing the sick
  • controlling the movements and lives of animals
  • changing the weather

Spirit helpers assist the shamans to enter their altered states and perform the above duties. These helpers include:

  • various supernatural powers
  • animal-helpers and other spirits

Altered states of consciousness are not restricted to one form of trance. Some “contact the spirits” in visions and out-of-body travel in a number of states, ranging from “light trance” in which the shamans are aware of their surroundings (healing the sick, divination, etc); in ordinary dreams; and “deep trance” where they appear to lie dead while their souls travel elsewhere. Some societies place great importance on the entoptic imagery; others on the full hallucinations where contact is made with the figures they know from myths.

I’m not saying Jesus was a shaman, but that is how he appears in the gospels. Some scholars have suggested that. With those in mind it is interesting to note that Jesus is said to have spoken to spirits, healed the sick, kept wild animals at bay while in the wilderness and sent 2000 pigs hurtling into a lake, and stilled a storm and darkened the earth at his death. He began his career with the power of the spirit entering into or upon him in the form of a dove.

Brain wiring creates the upper-lower spirit world cosmos

One form of altered consciousness state is the wired neuropsychological experience of weightlessness, dissociation and the sense of one’s body being stretched out with superlong limbs. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of flight or floating — into a spirit world above.

Another form of altered consciousness state that is the wired-into-the-human-nervous-system is the experience of travel through a vortex, often accompanied by a difficulty in breathing, hearing sounds, distorted vision, weightlessness and a sense of being in another world. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of travel underground or underwater — past spirits talking or singing and into a spirit world below. Some cultures speak of entering caves through this experience, others of following the roots of a tree, or of going down animal burrows (Alice in Wonderland?).

However they are interpreted, the fundamental sensations of being underground or underwater remain universal: they are the most obvious, most logical explanations for the effects created by the behaviour of the nervous system in altered states. An ‘introcosm’ is projected onto the material world to create a cosmology. (p.146)

In sum:

Taken together the neurologically generated experiences of travelling underground and flying are, I argue, the origin of notions of a tiered cosmos.

This is, I believe, the best explanation for so universally held beliefs that have no relation to the material experience of daily life.

Such beliefs were not inferred from observations of the natural environment.

Nor did they easily and swiftly diffuse from a single geographically located origin because they made excellent sense of the world in which people lived.

Rather, they are part of the in-built experiences of the full spectrum of human consciousness.


(p.147 — formatting mine)

Beyond Paleolithic cave art

David Lewis-Williams is proposing an explanation for Paleolithic cave art. There is, of course, much more to the explanation but what is summarized here is a fundamental part of his hypothesis.

He also discusses the positioning of various artistic depictions within the caves, their relationship to natural protuberances and cavities on the cave walls (the spirits of these lay just behind those cave walls?), their inclusion of geometrical and boatlike (entoptic?) shapes, and what appear to be swarms of bees or enormous numbers of spears in some human forms (palaeolithic interpretations of the experience of the stinging of the skin as one “descended through the earth”?), the bleeding noses, the phallic signs of sexual arousal (sometimes accompanying hallucinogenic states), the elongated limbs (an hallucinatory experience), the animals and humans that seem to be a mixture of different creatures in the one body (hallucinations of turning into other animals?), the overlapping of some images, and more. As I read The Mind in the Cave I felt those decorated caves taking on a Paleolithic equivalence to a cathedral in Rome. The meaning of the art in both is drenched in religious experience. The neuropsychological roots of the earlier one are more obvious and less controversially explained.

Not everyone in societies that value these alternate states of consciousness experiences them. But everyone does experience enough (dreams, entoptic images) to validate the experiences of those who do.

Moving on from Paleolithic times, we encounter the Delphic oracle and other Sybils. We know the image of the old woman at the cave mouth who communed with the god within.

So what emerges with such an explanation is a template for the earliest myths from historical times.

The legends of Orpheus, Odysseus and Aeneas and earlier Mesopotamian heroes and divinities descending into the underground abode of spirits and returning are familiar — and would appear to go back to the earliest experiences of homo sapiens’ consciousness. (Evidence suggests that Neanderthals and other pre homo sapiens hominids lacked consciousness of the extended past and future in order to experience the same.)

The concept of a human able to communicate with the spirits, to travel to and from the upper and lower places of spirits, of being possessed or infused with the power of the spirits, may well be an inevitable universal part of the way the brain of homo sapiens is wired.

And what is equally interesting to me is that such a template foreshadows the pattern of a human departing this world, appearing to die, and suffering piercings of the skin as they descended down to the underworld, before finally “returning victorious” to their bodies.

Many modern scholars have attempted to distance themselves from the “parallelism” of Sir James George Frazer (of The Golden Bough fame) by lurching with a vengeance into the embrace of Jonathan Z. Smith (Drudgery Divine, Map is not Territory, To Take Place, Imagining Religion, etc.). But as Robert M. Price has noted, and without denying the real weaknesses in Frazer’s work, Smith’s “demolition” of the apparently obvious is based on a denial of the broader conceptual notion of similar ideas. By attributing greater weight to the subsidiary culturally bound details than to the larger whole one can in effect deny the possibility of any comparison at all.

But how can one fail at least to wonder at the possibility of a template of a man who dies and returns, spirit empowered, to an even more respected and higher role from which to guide a community to health and safety, perhaps even eventually salvation from death?

Perhaps all religions with motifs of suffering, death and redemption or resurrection of some form are all essentially congenital in origin and appeal.