I had an online exchange earlier today with an academic sounding soul who wanted to push the old idea that Christianity is not truly unique as a religion because it stole many of its beliefs and practices from paganism. To set the stage: What set this gentleman off was someone who had posted to Facebook a still shot from Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus showing Him carrying the cross to Golgotha. I guess he wanted to rain on the Christian Easter parade (this weekend is the Western Easter) and enlighten us with the real origins of Christianity. I decided to post the conversation to my blog as an aid for others who may come across this objection to Christianity.
Here is the exchange I had with Carlo:
Carlo: The only religion remaining which relies on a sado-masochistic image…. With all due respect, there have been many religions in the past which have been based on the myths concerning the death and resurrection of a god, and also many which were based on a departed divine figure whose return was expected. My comment, however, was on the grisly images, which, combined with the custom of ritual cannibalism, denote strong, ancient ties with a pagan past.
Me: Superficial similarities are hardly evidence of linear descent.
It seems to me that most of the genuine pre-Christian similarities are strained at best (e.g. Osiris wasn’t truly resurrected, he was a cobbled together and incomplete zombie). Many other similarities between paganism and Christianity actually first appear evidentially in the pagan mystery religions AFTER Christianity had been around awhile (e.g. the supposed influences of the Mithraic cult- Virgin Birth, 12 Apostles, Eucharistic like meal, etc.).
This being the case, it would be reasonable to conclude that the “borrowing” was actually in the other direction as the mystery religions sought to make their cultus more popular by imitating the Christians.
Carlo: Not really: when December 25th was decreed as the day of Christ’s birth, this was certainly with reference to the death and resurrection (after three days) of the Sun God, and the festivity had remained in the Roman tradition since long before Christianity. The legend of Noah’s ark exists, with different timing and in different parts of the world, in various forms, and probably recalls an earlier legend. Faith is one thing, and deserves the greatest respect, but there are insurmountable gaps between matters of faith and historical reality, as, indeed, between Faith and Truth. It also has to be noted that the majority of the world’s population does not share the belied in the Christian story, and many different faiths are based on different stories. Even in the limited area of Western religions there are more differences than similarities between the Gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam ….. Either one and only one of them is right, or – the only logical alternative – none of them.
Me: The truth is actually a little deeper than that, Carlo. The Emperor Aurelian instituted the December 25th feast of Sol Invictus only in 274 AD in what was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of significance to the growing number of Roman Christians. Before Aurelian the pagan cult of the sun had no prominence in Rome.
Although the earliest evidence of Christians celebrating this date liturgically dates back to 336, there are several references in the Church Fathers that this date was the one they had celebrated as the Nativity before Aurelian. There are several Fathers who say that Dec. 25 was the Nativity but at the moment I only recall St. Hippolytus who writes this in his Commentary on Daniel before Aurelian was even born.
As for the story of Noah’s Ark, I will do you one better: the Old Testament fully reflects the ancient cosmology and literary genres of the ancient Near East. You will find in the OT a dome-like firmament, a flat disc-like earth surrounded by the primordial oceans, stars affixed to the dome, pillars of heaven and earth, etc. And yet it is reasonable to believe that the Scriptures are still communicating God’s revealed truth to us.
How? Do not forget that Christianity is based on Incarnation- Jesus is fully 100% God and 100% man. The Scriptures are also incarnational. They reflect in every way the knowledge and worldviews of the authors as ancient Near Eastern men while transcending their time and place by communicating revolutionary new spiritual Truths.
For example, there are many similarities between Genesis 1 and the Akkadian Enuma Elish as well as the four different ancient Egyptian cosmogonies. But whereas in the pagan myths the gods are violent, fickle, a part of nature and create man to serve them as slaves in fear by bringing them food- Genesis shows us ONE transcendent God above and outside of nature who creates everything without any help and then creates man not to be slaves but to be in relation to Him and in His image (in ancient terms this is calling man a king and not a slave since kings were considered “images of god”). The first thing the true God does is not to demand food from His slaves but to provide a Garden of Bounty for those He has made kings and queens. In the Flood Story (which bears incredible similarities to the earlier tales of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim [the Sumerian Noah]), the gods destroy man capriciously simply because they are irritated by the noise humanity is making. In the Bible, on the other hand, God destroys man because they had become irredeemably evil and He is perfectly holy- big difference.
This is how Scripture itself is an incarnation: using the human forms of communication in a way the ancients could understand given their worldview God transforms their myths to reveal real spiritual Truth. Honestly, how could it have been otherwise? When God chose to reveal Himself in human language He had to do so within the framework of one particular worldview. Should He have poured His spiritual Truths into the wineskin of the cosmology the original audience understood or distracted them from these Truths by also revealing all that we now know regarding the workings of the physical universe?
This culturally incarnational way God chose to reveal Himself in the Bible is an often overlooked manner in which Scripture reflects Christ (it is as 100% Divine and 100% human as He is). It is also further evidence of His great love for our ancestors that He met them where they were and told them of Himself in a way they could understand in much the same way we simplify things when we communicate ideas to children. Cosmologically the ancients were children compared to us so God was content to share with them the “one thing needful” and left it to their descendants- us- to discover ever more of His Creation.
We must remember that the point of the Bible is not to be a science or history book but to train us for righteousness that we can be saved (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We must detach ourselves from a modern worldview when reading Scripture and put ourselves as much as possible in the shoes of the original audience- although the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us.