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Jesus, the Lion King: Astrological Foundations of Christianity, the Sun Myth and the Jesus Zodiac

This is Chapter Five of the book Jesus Potter, Harry Christ (2011), by Derek Murphy.


CHAPTER FIVE

Jesus, the Lion King: Astrological

Foundations and the Journey of the Sun

“I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

IN THE FIRST SECTION OF THIS BOOK I challenged the traditional view of Jesus Christ, the historical figure, by noting the early historical debate over the physicality of his life and deeds. I’ve also tried to meet common criticisms and evidences that have been used to support the notion of a historical Jesus, and demonstrated that central themes in Christian folklore and practice relating to Jesus Christ are very similar to various older pagan deities, which may lead the impartial reader to the conclusion that Christianity extensively modeled on earlier organizations, customs and beliefs.

While all of this is necessary to even broach the topic, it does not go far enough. Enormous questions remain unanswered. Where did the shared symbols come from in the first place? Why didn’t Christianity choose completely different symbols? Why did vastly diverse cultures often maintain central motifs in the story of their mythical heroes: the miraculous childhood, the escape from an evil ruler, growing up in the wilderness, symbolized by a lion and fighting against a serpent, coming of age to avenge his father, being captured, tortured, and put to death before rising up and defeating his enemies?

If the communities who worshiped these similar gods gave their saviors a new name, altered rituals, and even changed the allegorical meaning of their customs, why did the biographical events of the story stay so rigorously exact? And why can we find traces of this same story from Asia to South America?

The answer, as we will explore in this chapter, is that the commonalities in the stories come from a very ancient drama, which humans have been watching play out in the skies since the dawn of time – it is the annual story of the sun’s passage through the heavens.

In modern society astrology is sometimes considered a fringe pseudo-science about as believable as the tooth fairy. However, humanity’s earliest spiritual sentiments were developed from watching the changing skies, and expressed through astrological symbols. Stories about the constellations and the moving planets developed into tales of gods and goddesses, which later became world religions. Understanding ancient conceptions of astrology helps us to decode many mythological and religious traditions. For the present study it is important to recognize that for the original myth-makers, these symbols and astronomical occurrences were observed with religious devotion. As New Testament Professor Clinton Arnold makes clear,

There can be no doubt about the existence of astrological beliefs in the first century. As with magic, astrology became an increasingly dominant spiritual force after the collapse of classical Greek religion in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. An awareness of the movements of the stars was believed to give one the key to unlocking the mysterious outworking of fate. In popular belief, the stars and planets were thought to bear a close association with angelic intermediaries. This opened up the possibility of altering one’s fate through manipulating the astral “powers.” In this respect, astrology is closely connected with magic which sought to harness and utilize the power of these so-called deities. Helios (sun) and Selene (moon), the planets, and the twelve animal-type images in the heavens (the zodiac) were regarded as most powerful. The rays of the sun and moon were also thought of as spirits, demons, or angels.[i]

While I will not claim that Jesus Christ is just a sun myth or solar deity, I hope to demonstrate that certain symbols and motifs found in Christianity can only be fully explained after exploring this ancient tale of the sun’s journey. I will also establish that at least some early Christian communities associated Jesus with the sun (or previous solar deities) and deliberately incorporated astrological symbolism into their texts, rituals and practices.

In order to deepen our understanding of and exploration into the literature of Jesus Christ, this chapter will provide the astronomical background to humanity’s oldest religious symbols and motifs, illustrate how the planets and constellations became anthropomorphized into gods and heroes, and affirm that certain elements found in Christianity can only be situated within the tradition of astronomical observation.

Astrology in Ancient Times

It should come as no surprise that Greeks and Romans thought of the planets as gods – the names we use for them today are the Roman names given to these deities. In the massive space of the sky, these celestial orbs are unique in having their own autonomous movements and actions. Unlike the great masses of stars, which appear to move together as the earth turns, the planets alone have their own unique trajectory; giving the impression that they are free to move as they like or have some urgent business to attend to. The various hues, size and speed of these planets inspired their humanistic features.

Mercury

Messenger of the gods with winged feet; the fastest moving planet

Venus

Goddess of love and beauty; the brightest planet

Mars

God of war and bloodshed; the planet with a distinctive red hue

Jupiter

King of the gods; the largest planet

Saturn

Oldest god, ruler of time and agriculture; slowest moving planet

There is also Neptune, god of the sea and Pluto, god of the underworld – but these planets are modern discoveries and were named using appropriate figures from mythology. Finally there is the Sun, whose life giving energy is the benefactor of all life on earth, and the Moon, whose cooling nocturnal influence reflects the sun’s light when he is away.

As ancient astronomers studied the skies, they found that the planets trace the same path annually. Every year, they pass through the same constellations, rise and fall on the same spots of the horizon, and routinely run into each other in small groups – easily leading people to wonder what they were up to.

Over the years, people began telling stories that explained their behavior and also allowed priests to forecast events and keep track of time. Elaborate myths were constructed, in considerable detail, chronicling the events, conflicts, reunions and challenges that the “gods” faced in their journeys.

At the same time, constellations were made by grouping nearby stars into recognizable figures, patterns and shapes, and held together in the tapestry of folklore. Great deeds and events, it was believed, merited “eternal life.” Hence, heroes and their accompanying items or companions were said to have “ascended into heaven” – or been preserved eternally in the night sky.

Different cultures would adapt existing myths to create their own cultural heroes, redefining existing constellations. The sign of “the snake bearer,” for example, which for a brief time was considered the 13th zodiac sign between Scorpio and Sagittarius, was originally viewed by the Sumerians as their god Enki. Later, Egyptians viewed him as Imhotep and the Greeks as Aesclepius. These diverse figures shared many of the same qualities, such as healing powers, and were all associated with the snake.

According to legend, both Imhotep and Aesclepius began their lives as mortals, accomplished great feats of healing and technological invention, and ascended into heaven (were immortalized by the gods as constellations).

Likewise, the heroic journey of Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed through many hardships to bring back the Golden Fleece, was commemorated by preserving their vessel in the stars – right, as it should be, on the horizon of the ocean:

More southern stars were visible to the ancient sailors of the Mediterranean than are visible today. Low on their horizon, in spring skies, there appeared the apparition of a great ship. This ship sailed ever westward skimming along the southern horizon. The ancient Greeks said it was Argo Navis, the ship sailed by Jason and his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece.[ii]

The story of Perseus, Andromeda and Pegasus is also written in the stars; the three constellations spin around the night sky as the sea beast Cetus raises its monstrous head out of the ocean (the head of this constellation, more modernly viewed as a whale, rises above the horizon while its body remains out of sight). Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s proud mother, sits sternly in her throne above the drama.

In today’s night sky you can also find Lyra, the Lyre of Orpheus; and Crater, the cup of Dionysus – which later was interpreted as the Holy Grail. In the middle ages “Christianized” star maps were made reinterpreting these symbols into the current mythos.

All of these legends were considered to have begun with a real historical event; even in ancient times scholars attempted to attribute the myths to real kings or heroes (human figures) of the past. But let’s not forget that for earlier civilizations, these were living stories with miraculous implications: the “proof” that they were true lay in the stars. The constellations were a record of humanity’s greatest deeds and interactions with supernatural characters, and promised the possibility of eternal reward and glory for those who suffer or persevere in their pursuit of greatness.

And they were not simply bedtime stories: these planet-gods were the main objects of worship in ancient times. According to Iamblichus (c. AD 250-325) Egyptians believed in nothing else:

Egyptians know of no other gods “but the planets and those stars that fill up the zodiac… and Robust Princes, as they call them.” Eusebius says “that the very arcane theology of the Egyptians, deified nothing but stars and planets, and acknowledge no incorporeal principle or demiurgick reason as thecause of this universe, but only the visible sun… see now what is become of this arcane theology of the Egyptians, that defies nothing but senseless matter or dead inanimate bodies.[iii]

It was also believed that the stars and planets had a physical connection and interaction with humanity. Understanding the heavens was seen as a kind of esoteric wisdom that could give users special powers: since the planets and stars influenced the affairs of men, understanding these subtle influences gave one control over them. Assman writes,

A major part of the Egyptians’ astronomical knowledge served specifically to measure time, especially the lunar month, whose beginning rested on observation, not calculation, as well as the hours, whose length varied – for day and night, from sunrise to sunset and sunset to sunrise, were always each divided into twelve segments of equal length. Above all, however, this knowledge was related to the course of the sun, which was conceived of as a journey through the sky and the netherworld and described down to the last detail. The oldest and most widely used Book of the Netherworld enumerates the 900 deities and beings who come nightly into contact with the sun god, precisely specifies the length of each of the distances he covers in one hour (eg 745 miles) and cites verbatim the words he exchanges with those in the netherworld. All this elaborate store of knowledge, so oddly compounded of observations, speculations, and mythological interpretations, had a cultic function.[iv]

The Sun Myth

For many early cultures, the sun was seen as the source of all life, an idea which, although scientifically precise, is often taken for granted today. According to an ancient Egyptian hymn which scholars have compared with Psalm 104 of the Old Testament, death comes when the sun sets or “hides its face.”

The world becomes on your hand, as you made them; when you dawn, they live, when you set, they die; you yourself are lifetime, one lives by you. (Akhenaten’s hymn 111-114)

Thou hidest thy face: they are troubled; thou takest away thy breath: they die and return to their dust; Thou sendest forth thy breath: they are created and thou renewest the face of the earth. (Psalm 104)

Of all the stories told about constellations and planets, the most important was the epic struggle of the sun with the forces of darkness. Each year, the sun defeated his enemies in the spring, rose to power and strength in the summer, and was overcome by darkness again in the fall. In the winter he was at his weakest, but people knew that somehow he would come back and save the world again.

The sun was usually depicted as male and had a female counterpart, the moon. Many cultures saw them as lovers, or sometimes twins, separated tragically and trapped in the cycle of time. The relationship between these two, the delicate balance, created and maintained the world. During solar eclipses, the pair were re-united, and their encounters generated life on earth.

One of the earliest written characters, found in pre-historic cave paintings, is the solar cross. The equilateral cross meant many things to early cultures, but at the earliest it was a probably a pictograph for the sun’s rays. It is often found by a full circle, or a crescent, which stood for the moon. The solar cross is a composition of these two symbols. Another is the Egyptian Ankh.

Granted, these symbols have meant many things to many people. I will not suggest that people who use these symbols today are still worshiping the sun. At the same time, it is vital to notice how human spirituality developed and the astrological roots of the symbols used today.

In the fall of every year, the sun gets weaker and weaker. The seasons change, the crops die, the ground freezes. Then in the spring, the sun comes back and saves life as we know it. This celestial struggle was elaborated with constellation folklore. The sun’s enemy, the dark winter, was symbolized by a snake. This is because of the constellation Hydra, the primordial sea-serpent, which at one point spread all the way across the night sky and even today remains the largest constellation. With night came the Hydra chasing the sun away, and in the morning the sun returned to defeat the Hydra. It is a never-ending battle, being re-enacted even today. Thus, the serpent became a symbol of night, and was also considered the ruler of winter, darkness. In some cultures it represented evil; in others esoteric wisdom or knowledge.

Cultural myths about heroes defeating monstrous snakes stem from the sun’s conflict with darkness and winter, represented by the Hydra. Babylonian sun god Gizdhubar fought the dragon as Tiamat (as did Gilgamesh), Apollo slew the Python, and Zeus killed the Typhon. Even Yahweh in the Old Testament was given credit with defeating an ancient sea serpent, the Leviathan, although this story was probably taken from descriptions about Baal killing the serpent Lotan in Northern Canaan.

The story becomes a romance when we add in the figure of the moon. The moon was the sun’s lover, lost or trapped in darkness, guarded over by the Hydra. The sun was always trying to find and rescue her. There are numerous versions of this story in mythology – a young hero has to enter into “the kingdom of death,” or hell, or Somewhere Really Dangerous, and kill a big snake of some kind to save his love. The sun is usually defeated or killed before his journey is through, but escapes or resurrects in order to win the final battle.

Another important constellation is Leo, the Lion. Leo is the constellation of the sun, the constellation that the sun is exalted in (the sun is in Leo in the middle of summer, when it is strongest). For this reason, while winter and darkness are represented by a snake, summer, light and the sun are represented by a lion. As snakes slither underground, the sun is flying over our heads in the sky; his “kingdom of light” is above us, while the “kingdom of darkness” is below. This is why the personified sun is usually depicted with wings of some kind: a magical flying horse (Perseus saving Andromeda, above left), wings on his hat or feet (Hermes, Mercury), or a flying chariot (Appollo) so that he can get around more conveniently. In other versions, wings are presented in the form of a pet bird or winged sidekick. In the picture of Hercules killing the Hydra, (above right), he is shown both with a lion’s head mask and wings, just like the Griffin – a lion with the wings and the beak of an eagle – which is also a sun symbol.

Myths about the moon are sometimes blended with stories about the constellation Virgo, which is right next to Hydra and comes into the sky at the same time as it does. Virgo is the 2nd largest constellation, only a little smaller than Hydra, and the constellation was worshiped as a great goddess. Due to their close positions, myths about her always involved Hydra. Hydra is also a feminine constellation (the masculine form would be Hydrus), and sometimes these two great constellation were merged to create a larger symbol of night; a creature with the tail of a serpent and the upper body of a woman.

Meanwhile, the constellation Leo immediately precedes Virgo in the night sky and seems to be escorting her past the treachery of Hydra. This is why, invariably, mythological sun saviors slay great serpents to save virtuous maidens. Their weapon of choice is almost always a sword, probably because it takes the same shaped as a cross, the oldest known symbol of the sun.

The Jesus Zodiac

As we have seen, certain constellations (Leo, Virgo, Hydra) were often featured in the sun myth. However there were others. The most important were the 12 signs of the zodiac. The zodiac signs are the constellations of stars that mark the sun’s path and have been used for at least 6,000 years to keep track of time. The Western zodiac signs are often seen in churches, catacombs, and Greco-Roman temples. Ancient Chinese, Mayan, Babylonian and Sumerian zodiac wheels sometimes use different figures for the constellations.

The zodiac refers to the signs that lie behind the sun’s apparent path. Each month, the sun is passing in front of 1 of the 12 signs. It is from the word “Zodiac” – which literally means circle of animals – that we get the modern word “zoo.”

Stories about the sun often include zodiac animals in the course of the hero’s quest; as the sun carved its path through the twelve zodiac signs, the hero would encounter or challenge the symbols which represented each sign. Krishna, for example, was chased by a snake and kills both a bull and a lion.

In Ovid’s Phaethon, the Greek sun god Helios promises his mortal son a gift, because he feels guilty for never spending time with him. The boy begs for a chance to drive his father’s golden chariot, which races across the sky bringing light to the world. Helios, knowing that only he can control the powerful horses, tries to dissuade his son.

Are you fancying that there are all sorts of wonders up there, cities full of Gods and beautiful things? Nothing of the kind. You will have to pass beasts, fierce beasts of prey, and they are all that you will see. The Bull, the Lion, the Scorpion, and the great Crab, and all will try to harm you. (Ovid, Metamorphoses II, Phaethon)

Hercules, often portrayed wearing a lion skin, is most famous for his twelve labors, which correlate to the twelve signs of the zodiac (although the specific acts seem to refer only to summer and fall constellations).

  • 1.     Slay the Nemean Lion and bring back its skin
  • 2.     Slay the Lernaean Hydra
  • 3.     Capture the Ceryneian Hind
  • 4.     Capture the Erymanthian Boar
  • 5.     Clean the Augean stables in one day
  • 6.     Slay the Stymphalian Birds
  • 7.     Capture the Cretan Bull
  • 8.     Steal the Mares of Diomedes
  • 9.     Obtain the Girdle of Hippolyte
  • 10.  Obtain the Cows of Geryon
  • 11.  Steal the Apples of the Hesperides
  • 12.  Capture Cerberus

Many other figures face similar challenges. These constellations “come out” or are more visible in the dark winter months. The boar that killed Attis and Adonis (Osiris was also dismembered by Seth under a wild boar), and which Hercules must also capture is Khrysaor, son of Medusa, who often took the shape of a winged boar and presided over the summer months (the harvest season). Vegetation gods die or are cut down under this month, due to the harvest. You can still find this tusked, charging boar constellation in modern star maps. Taurus, the bull is visible in September and October along the eastern horizon, but the most favorable time to observe Taurus in the night sky is during the months of December and January. Heroes associated with the sun like Mithras, Dionysus, and Gilgamesh overcame or destroyed the bull, symbolically ending winter.

Birth of the Sun

Although the great triumph of the sun was during the spring, there are four turning points which held monumental significance for ancient cultures. These points are related to the apparent path the sun travels, called the ecliptic, and the line of the equator projected into space, or the celestial equator. If you imagine that the earth stands still, the sun seems to go around the earth following a set path. Astronomers would calculate dates by looking at the constellations behind this line, and so marking it on star charts and world maps was a common practice. This is the ecliptic.

The celestial equator is equally important. If the equator were projected into space, it would cross the ecliptic in two places. These spots are exactly the points where the transitions between spring and fall occur. During the spring equinox, the sun crosses the equator heading north, making the days longer than the nights. During the fall equinox, the sun crosses going south, making the days shorter than the nights.

In the winter, less and less light from the sun reaches the earth, causing cool weather. The sun is at its farthest away (south) from the celestial equator. Due to the earth’s tilt, the sun will appear to “stand still” here for three days before heading north again. This takes place on December 21st, the winter solstice. The opposite occurs six months later during the summer solstice on June 21st. The sun has reached its farthest point north of the celestial equator, and after a brief pause, begins moving south.

Sites of megalithic stone structures such as Stonehenge in England or the older L-Imnajdrasite in Malta (c. 3000 BC) are oriented astronomically, aligned with the rising sun during solstices and equinoxes. In 1998 scientists discovered the huge stones slabs of Nabta in the Sahara desert of Egypt, which have been dated to around 4000BC, making them the oldest astronomical megaliths in the world. These sites demonstrate that the sun’s movements were noted and deemed considerably important even in prehistory. Although the sun doesn’t actually move, it is possible to mark the changing seasons based on where it rises or sets on the horizon. This is how megalithic structures function: a little hole is drilled marking the spot of the horizon where the sun will rise on one specific day of the year. Imagine this point on the horizon like a giant pendulum. Every day, it will move a little to the left or right, approaching one of the solstices. When it reaches the end of its path, it has to “slow down” and go back the other way. It will be seen on the same spot of the horizon for three days, before beginning to move in the opposite direction. On December 22nd, the winter solstice, (midnight of the 21st), the sun appears to stop moving. Early civilizations mythologized this event as a “death” of the sun – darkness had triumphed. But only three days later, at midnight on December 24th, the sun appeared to begin moving again. This was a “birth” of the new sun (and also a “resurrection” of the old sun), which would someday challenge the rulers of darkness and re-create the kingdom of light. This victory comes on the spring equinox, when light returns to triumph over darkness.

The astronomical alignment of ancient monuments show that December 25th was marked as a special day for thousands of years before the advent of Christianity. In the face of a long winter, it was celebrated as a time for hope in the eventual return of life and light. That December 25th was originally a pagan holiday is generally well known, but not everyone realizes that it was a birthday celebration for the infant sun. On December 24th, the priests waited for a sign that the sun had returned, so that they could announce the birth of a divine child. The sign the priests saw was probably the star Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the winter sky, which rises just before dawn. Edward Carpenter confirms this in Pagan and Christian Creeds:

The coming of Sirius therefore to the Meridian at midnight became the sign and assurance of the sun having reached the very lowest point of his course, and therefore having arrived at the moment of his re-birth.[v]

If this name sounds familiar, you might recall that “Sirius” is also the name of Harry Potter’s godfather. As Hans Andréa from Harry Potter for Seekers points out,

When Jesus was born, a star appeared in the east. When Harry was born, Sirius became his God-Father! Both boys had a star rise at their birth. He who understands the language of symbols will see that these two things are identical![vi]

People in those days believed that every night, the sun rested in a vast subterranean cave before rising again in the East. Therefore this “birth” of the sun was pictured underground, in a cave, or sometimes a manger. Late to the birth were three wise men following a star. Many traditions have called the three stars of Orion’s belt the “kings” or “magi.” They form a direct line to Sirius and appear to follow him straight to the birthplace of the sun. Try to find them early on Christmas morning – they’ll be the brightest stars you see.

The Wicked Ruler

Although the sun had been born, winter was just beginning. On December 22nd, the winter solstice marks the moment when Saturn, the slow moving king of winter, assumes his thrown, for a three month rule of tyranny, cold and darkness. (The 22nd is the beginning of Capricorn. Just as Leo’s ruling planet is the sun, Capricorn’s ruling planet is Saturn.)

Saturn, or in Greek, Chronos, was the father of time – from him we get words like “Chronology.” In the picture below, Saturn is seen with his symbol, the scythe, and with a dragon biting its own tail; the symbol for infinity. The inevitable consequence of time, of course, is death. The modern day Grim Reaper, shown below holding an hourglass, is based on images of Saturn.

In the Greek version of the myth, Chronos began to eat all of his children after hearing a prophecy from Uranus that one of his children would overthrow him. After losing five children, his wife Rhea saved the 6th, Zeus, by feeding Chronos a stone wrapped in blankets. Zeus grew up in exile but came back in strength to challenge his father.

This event – the threat from an evil tyrant and escape of the infant hero – became a common literary motif; one especially shared by sun gods. Just three days after Saturn comes to power on December 22nd, the baby sun (who is predestined to overthrow his rule) is born on the 25th. Saturn gets nervous and “eats all his babies,” or “orders a massacre of infants.” Mythical stories that employ this attribute include Dionysus, Hercules, and even Moses. The infant son, however, is smuggled away safely, usually by his mother. This incident also begins the sun’s travels: he is always moving, and generally going “up” and “down.”

The sun grows up in exile, becoming stronger all the time. After Saturn has lost his power, the sun will return to challenge the ruler of winter and overthrow his kingdom. This happens on the spring equinox, when the day becomes longer than the night. The sun has been victorious, at least until the fall equinox, when darkness comes to power again. On December 22nd, the sun dies, is buried for three days, and “resurrects.” Like the birth, this is depicted underground, or buried in a tomb. Of course, there are many variations: sometimes he descends into Hades for three days, sometimes he sleeps, sometimes he is imprisoned, and sometimes people just think he’s dead. The clue is the length of time (3 days) and the date near one of the solstices or equinoxes.

Sun myth features are apparent in some of the stories we explored earlier. For example in the Egyptian version of the myth which was popular throughout the Roman Empire in the first two centuries AD, the moon goddess was Isis, while Osiris and Horus were both aspects of the sun. Isis was considered a “virgin” because her consort is also her son; originally she needs to somehow get pregnant by herself. Later, she gives birth to Horus on December 25th (although as we saw the 23rd might have been used much earlier) and he grew up to become Osiris, his mother’s lover. At this time Isis’ brother Set was in power. Set was a figure of darkness, and in later traditions became identified with Typhon, the giant serpent. Set killed Osiris and scattered his body parts down the banks of the Nile.

Set wanted to kill the child Horus also, fearing that he would someday usurp his throne. Luckily, Isis was warned in time to flee and conceal the child. At the Spring Equinox, while Horus was returning to defeat darkness, Osiris had already died and needed to be resurrected. Isis collected all of Osiris’ body parts (except the penis which she couldn’t find) and brought him back to life. At the same time, Horus grew into manhood and defeated Set to avenge his father, freeing Isis from Set’s tyranny. Horus took his father’s place, and became Osiris. He and Isis would give birth to a new Horus the next year, restarting the cycle.

The Lion King

It may seem very foreign to give human characteristics to the sun, but you are far more familiar with this story than you know. This is because for centuries, and increasingly in the past few decades, modern stories have revolved around solar mythology. (This is mostly because our greatest story-tellers, from Disney to Lewis to Tolkien, have been well-versed in classical studies). As mentioned previously, the sun rules the zodiac sign of Leo, the Lion. The yellow color of this animal, as well as his flowing mane, have made it an ideal symbol for the sun – although the real reason is that the sun is considered to be at the peak of its “rule” during the hot summer months of July and August, when the sun crosses the constellation Leo. Historical and mythological figures, in order to elevate them to a divine status, were often affiliated with lions for this reason. Modern-day heroes and popular re-tellings of classical literature sometimes include the same symbols: the lion for goodness and light and the snake for evil and darkness. In fact, the easiest way to spot a sun-myth is to look for snakes and lions. Because the sun flew through the sky, he was given wings, a winged chariot, or a flying companion that symbolized his dominion over the air.

Many figures in contemporary literature, including J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, continue to act out the ancient motif. Harry is marked as a sun god by his placement in Gryffindor, whose emblem is a lion (or rather, a Griffin – a winged lion). He also has his characteristic mark, the lightning bolt on his forehead; the symbol of Zeus. He can fly, with a broomstick, and is also sometimes helped by Dumbledore’s phoenix. Like the sun, an evil power threatens him at birth and he is hidden away in obscurity. He battles the basilisk, an enormous snake, with a magical sword, in order to save the lost but virtuous maiden, Ginny. Eventually he will defeat Lord Voldemort and end the threat of darkness altogether – although he has to pay for it with his own life.

If you saw the 2004 movie Alexander by Warner Brothers, you probably remember that Alexander’s mother, played by actress Angelina Jolie, kept poisonous snakes around her, and the young Alexander was surrounded with snakes as a child. But did you notice that Alexander’s helmet is a lion? Or the scene when, to be even more explicit, he is wearing an actual lion’s head? Alexander is also accompanied by a pet eagle, and seems to have some psychic connection with it. Alexander strays farther away from his kingdom, where he is strong, and grows weaker and weaker until his own followers betray him.

The newest Peter Pan movie (2003, live action version) is also full of sun symbolism. In the beginning of the movie, “Never Never Land” is frozen in a deep winter and the pirates’ ship is stuck in ice. Spring hits fast and hard, and the ice melts, letting the pirates know that Pan (the sun) has come back. Peter can also fly, of course, and instead of a phoenix is accompanied by Tink, a winged fairy. Peter battles Hook with a sword to save Wendy from the pirates, so she can be mother to the boys. And although the giant alligator is Hook’s enemy, the creature is an effective representation of Hydra, the water serpent. There is also a significant scene, where the weather gets nasty because Peter is sad over Tink’s death. The pirates think Pan is dead, and that they have won, only to have him reappear triumphantly.

In the first Narnia movie (2005), based on the original chronicles by C.S. Lewis, Aslan is an obvious sun-savior who has to battle with the queen of winter to restore life and spring to Narnia. He meekly allows himself to be captured and tortured only to be instantly resurrected and continue the fight. Although many Christians consider Narnia to be a wholesome family movie, and Aslan to be a portrayal of Christ, all of the ideas in Narnia stem from the sun myth, which predates Christianity by thousands of years. (Lewis’ contemporary, Tolkien, criticized Narnia for being an “irritating blend of different cultural traditions”[vii]).

The “discovery” of Aslan’s resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is actually the discovery of the empty rock where Aslan’s body had been – which is shown with the rising sun directly behind it; the rising sun is used as an allegory for the resurrection of Aslan (and, for those who wish to further interpret, for the resurrection of Jesus). However, in fact the converse may be true – that Jesus’ resurrection has always been a symbol of the rising sun.

When the sun reaches his highest point on the summer solstice, he is depicted as the king of kings, seated on a throne and wearing a purple robe and a crown of golden rays. At the time when these stories developed, the summer solstice was actually in the sign of Leo. The sun could easily be identified as a “lion king.”

Not surprisingly, Disney’s animated motion picture “The Lion King” (1994) captures the sun myth surprisingly well. Simba can’t fly himself, but he is always near his winged chaperone, the toucan Zazu. In the first five minutes, we are inundated with sun references. The infant king is anointed with the juice of a fruit that has been lifted up to the sun, the clouds part and a single beam of sunlight illuminates the child. The catchy opening song mentions “the sun rolling high in a sapphire sky.” Some viewers have argued that the Lion King plot is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but Shakespeare most likely drew his ideas from Greek stories like Oedipus, whose tale also includes sun symbolism.

While Simba is still young and dreaming of being ruler, (“I just can’t wait to be king”), there is a quip about the king of kings having so little hair. Some sun gods, when they reached maturity, were shown with long flowing hair to symbolize their strong rays of light, and short hair when they were newborn or weak. This is the reason that Samson, a biblical sun figure, was defeated by the winter goddess Delilah when she cut off all his hair. This is also why, when Aslan had his mane cut off by his enemies, it instantly grew back once he resurrected. A fourth century writer records an Egyptian ritual with a similar motif:

In their desire to make a dedication specifically to the Sun himself the Egyptians have fashioned a figure whose head is shaven except for the hair remaining on the right side. The retention of these hairs teaches that in our world the Sun is never covered up. The hair which has been removed bears witness through the roots which stay that even when we do not see this heavenly body it still possesses the property of coming forth again like hair.’ (Macrobius, end of 4th century AD)[viii]

Soon after, Mufusa tells Simba, “A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. Someday, the sun will set on my time here and will rise with you as the new king.” Mufusa’s brother, Scar, is the ruler of death, or winter. He’s in league with evil hyenas, and plots with them in a fiery cave full of dancing skeletons. Scar succeeds in killing Mufasa, but Simba escapes into exile. The whole land falls into darkness and shadow when Scar takes over, but Simba grows up quickly outside of the kingdom. Simba runs into Nana, who thinks he’s back from the dead, and they have a brief spring love affair. (The sun and moon are necessarily lovers, in order for the new sun to be born each year). Simba is still struggling with the death of his father, but Rafiki the monkey-priest tells him, “He’s alive, and I’ll show him to you. You are your father. You are the same. He lies in you.”

Simba journeys home through the wilderness landscape that had once flourished under his father’s rule. The land is destroyed now and everyone is starving, on the brink of death. When Simba returns, they assume he is Mufasa back from the dead. There is a battle between Scar and Simba, now exactly the same size and strength. They exchange blows, and finally Simba grows a little bigger and wins. This fight demonstrates the spring equinox, when the hours of sunlight struggle with and then surpass the hours of darkness. “It is time,” says Rafiki. A cooling rain falls as the new king climbs majestically up to his place of power on the throne. A skull is washed away, signifying the end of winter, and the earth springs to life again. At the end of the movie, Simba and Nana have a new child and repeat the cycle.

You may have heard of another lion king, Jesus of Nazareth, also called the “Lion of Judah” and the “King of Jews.” Jesus has many symbols, one of which is the white dove; and, feathers or no, he has no trouble defying gravity. Like the sun, Jesus had to hide from an evil ruler soon after his birth, because King Herod heard a prophecy concerning a future king. Jesus refers to himself as the light of the world, and his enemy, Satan, is represented by the symbol of the serpent. Jesus comes to save his love, the Holy Mother Church (the earth-bound communities of those faithful to Jesus are always collectively feminine). He uses the symbol of an upright cross, which looks just like a sword, to defeat his enemies.

The question now is to explore how deeply these symbols go in the story of Jesus, and whether they came from the sun myth either unconsciously or deliberately. If inclusions were accidental, or later additions, then we should be able to take them away from the figure of Jesus Christ without any ill-effect; without changing the basic core structure of Christian belief. However, we will see that astrological symbolism permeates the gospel story in such a way that it is unlikely to be coincidental, and also impossible to extricate “the real Jesus” from it.

Astrological symbolism in Christianity

Before King Herod tried to find and kill the infant Christ, who was smuggled safely into Egypt, a Pharaoh tried to kill the infant Moses, who also survived. Both returned to triumph over their adversaries. Before either of them came Horus and many others, all based on the sun myth. In the most recent adaptation of this story, the infant Harry Potter survived an attack from his enemy Voldemort, went into hiding, and likewise came back to challenge his would-be murderer.

Only two of the four biblical gospels even include a birth story, and there are few scholars today who would deny that they were copied wholesale from pagan mythology. However, there is much more to say about Jesus than his miraculous birth. In this section, I’ll explain how the biographical details in the gospel account of Jesus Christ may be based on observations of the sun, and how specific symbols identified with the Christian movement like the crucifixion, the lamb and the fish also came from astrology.

What follows is an “astrological exegesis” of the life and ministry of Jesus. It may sound far-fetched at first. However the fact that the gospel story presents us with the exact figures, numbers, motifs and animals needed to construct this interpretation is, in itself, extremely telling. Moreover, as we will see, the interpretation of Jesus’ ministry as symbolizing the annual journey of the sun was confirmed and approved of by some very early Christian writers.

After the infant sun ran away from the powerful ruler (Saturn), we hear nothing about him until he is grown into adulthood. Jesus also leaps from a child to a 30 year old man in the gospels, apparently because there is nothing worth mentioning during the early part of his life. Many authors have written about where Jesus might have spent these years, failing to appreciate the nature of mythological literature. When specific numbers are used in mythology, they are rarely random; instead they help preserve astronomical trivia and are a way of passing on wisdom to those who could decode their meaning. In the sun myth, the number 30 has an astrological significance.

There are 360 degrees in the zodiac wheel, giving each of the 12 signs exactly 30 degrees (each section is called a Semisextile). Saturn’s reign is finished at the end of Capricorn, which means that after 30 degrees, the sun can come out of hiding. For a real man, 30 years is a long time, but for the sun myth, the number 30 only represents the degrees of Capricorn and is just 1/12th of the distance the sun will have to go. This is the reason why the first 30 years of the sun savior are only the very beginning of the story.

By the end of January, the sun has escaped the persecution of Saturn, but he is still weak and the weather is cold. Climbing up to the celestial equator, and defeating his enemies by crossing over it and ending winter, will be his final struggle and challenge. This process is often tied to the number forty, which like the years of the sun’s age, has an astrological significance. The winter solstice in the sign of Capricorn lies 16 degrees below the celestial equator. The spring equinox in the sign of Aries, where the sun will triumph over darkness, is 24 degrees above the celestial equator. Starting from his birth in Capricorn, the sun must climb a total of 40 degrees (16+24=40) before he escapes from the clutches of winter. According to Malik H. Jabbar in The Astrological Foundation of the Christ Myth,

This term forty represents the struggle of the sun in the wilderness, climbing toward salvation. With Israel, it was forty years in the wilderness, and with Noah, it was forty days of torrential rain, but regardless, the symbolism is the same; the plight of the young sun in the valley of Amenta, the Nether World, fighting his way to cross the forsaken territory between the zodiacal sign of the winter solstice and the spring equinox.[ix]

Jesus begins his ministry by spending forty days in the desert being tested by the devil. Like the sun, he then passes through Aquarius (baptism by St. John, portrayed with flowing hair and a jug of water) and Pisces (calling his first fishermen disciples to become “fishers of men”) before he can be exalted at the spring equinox in the beginning of Aries (as the crucified lamb of God.) After climbing these forty degrees, the sun is finally strong enough to defeat the darkness that has plagued him since birth. The length of days and nights on the spring equinox are exactly equal, but after the long battle that marks this day, the sun will be the victor. Crossing the celestial equator on the spring equinox was seen as the sun’s definitive triumph over evil, but it was also viewed as a kind of perpetual suffering.

Every year the sun had to face the same enemies, suffer defeat, and fight to regain his kingdom. Many myths illustrate the idea of the sun leading a life of toil for mankind, who brought light and life to the world at great personal cost. Tragic figures like Sisyphus, who was forced to push a boulder up a hill and then let it roll back again for eternity, or Prometheus, bound to a rock so his liver could be eaten every day, may represent the perpetual toil of the sun. Although climbing over the celestial equator is just one piece of the sun’s never-ending torment, it became a symbol for his great sacrifice.

As we already know from Justin Martyr, Jesus was not the first to be crucified; many sun saviors met their deaths on a cross of some kind, or else were hung from trees or nailed to boulders. (Osiris was locked in a coffin that got stuck inside the trunk of a tree that was later used as a temple pillar.) While these grim endings may appear dissimilar, drawings or representations of these saviors usually show them in an X or cross-shaped position.

The argument can be made that the motif of “crucifixion” comes from astronomy. The ecliptic, or path of the sun, crosses over the celestial equator at an angle, making the shape of an X. Plato, in his dialog, “Timaeus,” said that when the Creator of the universe first formed the cosmos, He shaped its substance in the form of the letter X: the intersection between the sun’s apparent path and the celestial equator.[x]

The massive event of critical importance, signifying the triumph of the sun and the end of winter, takes place on this cross. Many heroes met their fate with this cross, including the Greek King Sixion and St. Andrew, underscoring their divine status.

Here someone might interject that Jesus was crucified on a vertical cross, like the one worn by modern Christians; but there is no evidence for this. More likely, Romans would have used a T-bar shaped cross because they were easier to build. However, Jesus Christ may not have been crucified any more than Dionysus was actually ripped apart and eaten by his followers. The vertical cross is a spiritual symbol referring to a specific restorative salvation, not a historical fact.

The sun continues upwards until he reaches his northern-most peak at the beginning of summer. The summer solstice is the height of the sun’s glory and the beginning of his reign, but he has also reached the end of his path and will begin to regress. He may warn that his enemies will overthrow him, or that he has to leave but will return again. On the fall equinox, when the night is again longer than the day, the sun is weakened, captured, and taunted.

Just as the sun had to wait thirty degrees after his birth before beginning his mission, he also has to pass through the last thirty degrees that lead to his death. After passing through the twelve signs, he is delivered to his death at the beginning of Capricorn by the sign Sagittarius. For each degree that Sagittarius gains, the sun is closer to his death, leading to the idea of a betrayer who gets paid off to lure the sun to his death. In the gospels this is Judas, who sold Jesus to his enemies for thirty pieces of silver. Some scholars contend that Judas represented the sign of Scorpio, who is lord of the fall equinox. In this case, Judas leads Christ to his enemies at the beginning of the fall season, where he is tormented and afflicted for three months until his death at the hands of Sagittarius on the winter solstice. Either way, the motif of the thirty pieces of silver is most likely a reference to degrees of the zodiac.

When the sun reaches the winter solstice and holds still for three days, he has died and been buried in the tomb or cave where he began. He will remain in the underworld, in the land of the dead, or in the tomb, for three days, until he begins his return. While maintaining the three-day hiatus, some versions of the sun myth placed the death and resurrection together in the spring in order to tie it into the great victory reached when the sun crosses over the celestial equator.

The Lamb of God

Besides the lion, the animal most often associated with Jesus is the lamb. The choice of this animal, along with nearly all other Christian symbolism, comes from constellation mythology. As the sun passes through the twelve zodiac signs, the four signs that govern the four cardinal events in the sun’s journey are the most significant. Of supreme importance is the sign under which the sun crosses the celestial equator on the spring equinox. Astrological ages are named after this sign. For example, today we are somewhere at the end of the age of Pisces, because Pisces is the sign behind the sun when it crosses its midway point in the spring. Due to a slight imbalance in the earth’s wobble, these four signs change roughly every 2,200 years, in a gradual process called the precession of the equinoxes. It takes an entire 26,000 years for all twelve signs of the zodiac to pass behind the place where the sun crosses the celestial equator during the spring equinox. Every 72 years we slip backwards 1 degree of the zodiac, meaning that soon we will be entering the age of Aquarius.

Before the present age of Pisces was the age of Aries from about 2400BC to 200BC, and before that was the age of Taurus from 4600BC to 2400BC. During that period, the spring equinox was in Taurus, the summer solstice in Leo, the winter solstice in Aquarius, and the fall equinox in Scorpio. Although Scorpio is today represented by the Scorpion, that part of the sky used to be represented by another constellation, the Eagle or Phoenix. The symbols that represent these signs – the Lion, Eagle, Bull and Man – are often found in religious and mythological texts that were developed during the age of Taurus.

There are several references to these four animals in the Old Testament, which were later copied into the New Testament book of Revelation.

The first living creature was like a lion, the second like a bull, the third living creature had a human face, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. (Revelation 4:7)

These four symbols, which represented the four seasons and the four elements (fire, earth, water, air), were later assigned to four specific apostles whose names were given to the four books of the gospels.

  • Matthew = Human
  • Mark = Lion
  • Luke = Ox
  • John = Eagle

These animals are often put into the corners of religious iconography to represent “the whole world.” Among other things they correlate to the four houses at Hogwarts, the four children of Narnia, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and the four suits of a deck of poker cards. The same four animals are shown in the esoteric Tarot tradition of A.E. Waite, a mystic who developed illustrations for his Tarot deck based on the writings of 19th century occultist, Eliphas Levi. In the “Wheel of Fortune” card, the Bull, Eagle, Man and Lion surround a wheel, which is ruled over by another lion with a sword that represents the sun controlling the universe. The dog-headed man is the constellation Orion, who has ties to the Egyptian god Osiris. The three stars of Orion’s belt point to and follow the bright star Sirius, which is found in Canis Major, or the “big dog” constellation. The snake is Hydra, which appears to chase Orion around the world. Early Christian art uses many of the same motifs.

During the age of Taurus, (4600BC to 2400BC), bulls were sacred animals that figured prominently in religious worship and mythology. Sumerians regarded a bull as the bringer of spring, and the bull cult of Minoan Crete arose during this time. For Egyptians this was the period of Montu, the Bull, and it was also the time of the biblical golden calf. Taurus is a feminine earth sign, ruled over by the planet Venus, and goddess-centered religions flourished during this period. The ancient megaliths on the island of Malta for example are fertility goddess temples which were built and used doing the age of Taurus. When the sun rose in Taurus during the spring equinox, the bull became a symbol for the sun and shared his fate. Both were crucified on the celestial cross, sacrificing themselves to renew the earth. The blood of the bull became a sacrificial atonement for sins.

Later, this motif would be transformed into many bull-slaying deities like Mithras, whose great victory during the spring equinox depended on him defeating or passing through the bull. Mithras was often depicted driving his sword deep into a bull, clenching it like a massive lever, surrounded by the zodiac wheel. It is possible that besides representing the sun meeting the celestial cross under the sign of Taurus, Mithras was also seen as the divine force causing the precession of the equinoxes. His great act of slaying the bull would then also include ending the age of Taurus and rotating the zodiac wheel into the next sign. This is the view taken by Professor Religion David Ulansey in an article on the Mithraic Mysteries published by Scientific American:

By killing the bull – causing the precession of the equinoxes – Mithras was in effect moving the entire universe. A god capable of performing such a tremendous deed would be eminently deserving of worship. Furthermore, the ability to move the cosmos would be seen as endowing Mithras with other powers as well, such as the ability to overcome the forces of fate residing in the stars and to guarantee the soul a safe passage through the planetary spheres after death.[xi]

Mithras slew the bull with a sword, and it was this symbol, identical to an upright cross, that his followers imprinted on the round buns they used for their communion. To further clarify matters, sometimes the sword symbol was combined with an X shaped figure to show the cross of the celestial equator and ecliptic. Symbolically, the act of slaying a bull with a sword is identical to crucifying it on a cross.

The astrological symbolism in Mithraism has been noted by several scholars. According to Burkert, “one literary text explains the killing of the bull in astrological terms as the sun passing through the sign of Taurus. This is the ‘esoteric philosophy’ of these mysteries, the author says, admitting that this is not the accepted meaning, but at the same time claiming that it comes from insiders of the cult.”[xii] Dowden affirms this view:

Mithras, as he kills the bull, usually looks up and away – apparently to the sun-god with whom he is closely associated and for whom, maybe, he performs this vital feat: the sun is, after all, in the constellation Taurus (‘Bull’) in spring as life begins again.[xiii]

The age of Taurus was followed by the age of Aries, the Ram. Most of the symbols used in bull cults were adapted to reflect this shift. The lamb became a holy animal, identified with the sun and his celestial triumph. Like the bull, it died on the cross with the sun, and was considered a restorative offering. In ancient Egypt, lambs were sacred during this period, and sacrificed to the sun during the spring equinox. Linked to the sun’s resurrection, the lamb was thought to have regenerative powers. In Egypt the lamb-sun god was called Amun, and many enormous temple complexes were built, with exact celestial precision, in honor of him. Pharaohs like Tut-ankh-Amun were named after this god to give them supernatural status. Amun, as the sun, is both the ram and the lion at the same time.

He is the bas of Amun-Re, lord of Karnak, chief of Ipet-Sut, the ram with sublime face, who dwells in Thebes, the great lion who generated by himself, the Great god of the beginning… of whose nose the air comes forth, in order to animate all noses, who rises as sun, in order to illuminate earth.[xiv]

Many of the psalms in the Old Testament bear uncanny resemblance to Egyptian prayers to Amun, and it is possible that Christians to this day invoke this Egyptian god’s name at the end of their prayers by saying “Amen.” This word is commonly associated with truth, and used to mean “truly” or “verily.” When the Old Testament was translated into English, the word “Amen” became “truth.”

That he who blesseth himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of truth, and he that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth, because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from mine eyes. (Isaiah 65:16)

The Jewish communities spent a long time in Egypt (although even this has been disputed), and some of their religious ideas may have been taken from Egyptian practices. If you replace the original “Amen” in this passage and read it as a name, it can be seen as a psalm to the God of Amun, the lamb-headed sun god of Egypt. Even the concept of Israel in the Old Testament, made up of 12 tribes, shares remarkable similarity with the sun myth. As Mircea Eliade points out, citing from Josephus,

We find a similar temporal symbolism as part of the cosmological symbolism of the Temple at Jerusalem. According to Flavius Josephus the twelve loaves of bread on the table signified the twelve months of the year and the candelabrum with seventy branches represented the decans (the zodiacal division of the seven planets into tens.) The Temple was the imago mundi; being at the Center of the World, at Jerusalem, it sanctified not only the entire cosmos but also cosmic life–that is, time.[xv]

The founder of the covenant, Abraham, was given a test to prove his obedience to God – he was asked to sacrifice his first and only son Isaac. At the last minute God intervened and provided a ram to use instead. This story may be an astrological myth about how Aries came to be stuck on the celestial cross (Genesis 22:1). In an interesting reversal of the Abraham tale, Yahweh later rescued Israel out of Egypt by killing all of the first-born sons among the Egyptians. Israelites were told to mark their doorways with the blood of a specifically prepared sacrificial lamb, so that Yahweh could take note of which homes to pass over during his ethnic cleansing (Exodus 12:1).

The Passover Lamb became an integral feature of Judaism until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem; Exodus 12-13 gives careful instructions on how the lamb is to be prepared (roasted, without its head, feet, or inner organs being removed) and eaten (in haste: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand). Orthodox Christians in Italy and Greece continue to slaughter a lamb every year. Muslims follow similar procedures to prepare lambs for their own festival of sacrifice, Eid-ul-Adha, which is a commemoration of Abraham and Ishmael.

Early Christians continued this practice, relating the Passover Lamb to Jesus’ suffering on the cross, because it was placed on a cross-shaped spit made by the intersection of two sticks:

The mystery, then, of the lamb which God enjoined to be sacrificed as the passover, was a type of Christ; with whose blood, in proportion to their faith in Him, they anoint their houses, i.e., themselves, who believe on Him… and that lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo. For the lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb. (Justin Martyr, Dialog with Trypho, 40)

This great wealth of symbolic background was readily available during the foundational periods of Christian history. Jesus would become the sacrificed son, and at the same time the ram God provided to save Isaac. He would also be identified with the sacrificial lamb of Passover. Like the sign of Aries on the ecliptic and the Passover Lamb on the spit, Jesus makes his great restoration on a cross. Like the lamb, his death was a great sacrifice, and his blood washed away sin. The details recorded in the gospels about his crucifixion were written deliberately in order to clearly bring out this identification.

Jesus had to die on the cross, for example, without having any of his bones broken, because God commanded that the Passover Lamb be without blemish or broken bones. However, it is difficult to crucify a man’s body to a cross in such a way that the nails support his weight without breaking his bones, and it isn’t likely that the Roman soldiers would have been extra careful with Jesus in order to fulfill Jewish prophecy. The gospel writers were more concerned with spiritual allegory than actual circumstances, and took liberties with their version of events.

Early Christian catacombs identify Jesus as the sun god tied to the precession of the equinoxes rather than a historical victim of crucifixion. One of the symbols used was the Chi-Rho, also called the “Monogram of Christ” because it is made up of the first two letters in the Greek word “Christos.” Although Christians claim that this symbol is unique to them, it was used for centuries before the Christian era as symbol for luck and fortune. It was also a solar symbol, and includes the X shaped cross as a symbol of the sun’s triumph at the Vernal Equinox.

Instead of a crucified savior, the image of Christ often found in the catacombs is that of the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb over his shoulders, identifying him as a Lamb-God like Amun. Statues of other sun-saviors, carrying lambs to link them with the sign of Aries, have been found to predate Christianity by centuries. A contemporary of Jesus, the Gnostic god Abraxas, was drawn with the age of Aries at his head and the age of Pisces at his feet. Some statues, like the one below made in Athens around 570BC, show the Good Shepherd with a calf, a remnant of the age of Taurus.

Jesus became not only the Good Shepherd, but also the sacrificial lamb itself. As the sun, he shared the fate of Aries when it met the celestial cross. His suffering there was an act of restoration, and Christians refer to being washed in the blood of the lamb for the forgiveness of sins, just as Attis’ followers were washed in the blood of the bull. After the lamb, the next most popular symbol found in Christian catacombs is the fish – specifically, two fish swimming in opposite directions, or the zodiac glyph of Pisces. Early Christians identified themselves with this sign more than all others, calling each other “little fishes” and using symbols of fish to identify each other. As the mover of the equinoxes, it was Jesus’ role to end the Age of Aries and begin the Age of Pisces.

Persian dualism is a faith of the Age of Aries (second-first millennia BC), which is the sign of the Sun’s exaltation and Mars’ rulership; so Mithras, the solar warrior, is still re-enacting the close of the previous age of Taurus (fourth-third millennia BC) by slaying the cosmic bull. All the Arien leaders are fighters: the ram-horned Moses, Ammon and Mars/Ares himself. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, immolates the age of war in the only way possible: by sacrificing himself as the Ram or Lamb of God. In doing so he ushers in the Age of Pisces (second-first millennia AD), the era which cherishes in its heart an ideal of devotion and love[xvi]

Although Christianity has tried to separate itself from its pagan beginnings, some customs have proved difficult to suppress. After nearly 2,000 years, we still use trees and wreaths, and give gifts during the “Dies Natilis Invictus Solis,” the birthday of the unconquered sun. And while many profess to worship the birth of Jesus on December 25th, it is not hard to compare the most popular Christmas icon, Santa Claus, flying around the world in one night on a magical flying sled bringing presents and good cheer, with Sol Invictus and his golden Chariot; or, with his lamp and white beard, as “father time” – a direct descendant of Saturn and Chronos.

Jesus has been so far removed from his roots that identifying him with a pagan sun cult may seem offensive even for non-Christians. For the early church however, it was all too easy to assign qualities of the sun myth to the Jesus story. In fact, at least one of the four gospels included in the Bible’s New Testament was purposely structured to emulate the sun myth.

Jesus through the Zodiac in Matthew

Making these connections between Christianity and astrological symbolism may be intriguing – but is it true? How can we prove that it isn’t all a big coincidence, or that Christianity didn’t just blindly copy symbols from their contemporaries without also importing the esoteric meaning? While Christianity could have borrowed the symbolism and immediately reinterpreted everything as relating to their personal, historical savior and founder, devoid of any astrological associations, it appears that some early Christians deliberately identified Jesus with the sun. Problematically, the gospels themselves, upon which the paradigm and conception of the familiar, personal, human figure of Jesus Christ is based, may have been originally constructed with deliberate astrological associations.

Of the four gospels in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke largely share the same stories and parables, but the order varies with each one. In Matthew’s version of events, the parables and imagery appear to be arranged to match the progression of the sun through the zodiac.The following exegetical exercise is in no way given as proof; this is only a theoretical interpretation. Nevertheless, it is pertinent and interesting. Moreover, given the (already established) likelihood that gospel writers were familiar with similar pagan cults, who were openly associated with solar worship, and given the extent of astrological influence that pervaded Greek and Roman spirituality, it should not be surprising if the gospel writers recognized and expanded upon these parallels.

In Matthew, the parables of Jesus’ life are grouped into themes that match either the symbol or the influence of the zodiac signs. The imagery changes with the seasons and completes exactly a one year cycle, from December to December. Either the actual zodiac animal or the traits of the zodiac sign are used to keep the order. In some cases only a hint of the weather gives us an indication of the time of year, as if the author were trying to leave subtle clues. Notice the chronological order of the verse numbers.

Aquarius, the Water Bearer – Matthew 3:13 (January). Although modern astrology begins with Aries, the first sign the sun encounters after his birth in Capricorn is Aquarius. This constellation is shown as a solitary figure with long hair, living in the wilderness of winter, pouring water from a vase. Jesus begins his ministry with his baptism at the hands of John, who is often portrayed standing in a river with long hair, pouring water out of a vase. John also lives alone in the wilderness, like Aquarius.

Pisces, the Fish – Matthew 4:18 (February). Jesus calls his first disciples. They are fisherman, mending nets and fishing boats. Jesus tells them they will now be fishers of men.

Aries, the Ram – Matthew 5-11 (March). Aries is ruled by Mars, the Roman god of aggression and war. Jesus asserts his growing power and gives his first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. He pities the crowd of people, calling them sheep without a shepherd. Jesus cautions against pride and anger, (both traits of Aries) but also admits that he came not to bring peace, but the sword. Jesus also asks us to look at the birds of the sky and think of the flowers in the field, demonstrating that it is spring.

Taurus, the Bull – Matthew 11:28 (April). “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.” This curious metaphor is wedged into the story abruptly, and has no parallels in the other gospels, nor anywhere else in the Bible, although it is similar to bull-centered cults like that of Attis and Mithras. Its inclusion at just this point, rather than anywhere else, is necessary to preserve the zodiacal order.

Gemini, the Twins – Matthew 12:1 (May). This is a sign of restlessness, communication, and inconsistency. The Pharisees began to plot against Jesus, trying to trap him with loaded questions about Jewish law. Jesus says, “Everyone who is not with me is against me.” His disciples pick ears of corn from the stalks, showing it is early summer and the harvest has not yet begun.

Cancer, the Crab – Matthew 12:25 (June). Cancer is a water sign and represents domestic life. Jesus uses three parables here. The first is a reference to Jonah and the whale. The next two concern the home and family, both within the influence of Cancer.

Leo, the Lion – Matthew 13:1 (July). It is late summer now, and time for the harvest. Jesus speaks about “reaping the rewards of what you sow.” His parables are about the sower, the darnel, the mustard seed, and the yeast.

Virgo, the Virgin – Matthew 13:53 (August). Virgo is concerned with order, cleanliness and purity. Jesus quarrels with scribes over purity laws, saying, “What goes into the mouth does not make anyone unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean.” This section also begins a new chapter, called “First Fruits of the Kingdom.” The harvest is over and it’s time to prepare for winter. Two separate miracles of loaves are here. People are hungry and Jesus produces bread for them.

Libra, the Scales – Matthew 16:13 (September). Libra’s focus is on equality and justice. Jesus discusses heavenly rewards, rules and laws, judgment and financial matters. Topics include the danger of riches, the reward of renunciation, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The themes of judgment and retribution come up frequently. This is also where Jesus casts the money changers, along with their fancy scales, out of the temple.

Scorpio, the Scorpion – Matthew 12:18 (October). This section begins with the story of a barren fig tree. Often used to demonstrate the power of faith, it is also another indication of the season. There is no fruit on the tree because it is fall. Scorpio is the sign of union and marriage, so it is not surprising we find the entire collection of wedding parables here. Jesus talks about the bride, the bridegroom and the Wedding Chamber. There is a feeling of urgency, as Jesus warns that the end is very near and we must be careful not to be locked out in the cold. He tells us that when he is gone, we need to help those who thirst, are hungry, sick or without clothes. Winter is coming.

Sagittarius, the Archer – Matthew 26:36 (November). Many sun gods, although crucified, were actually killed on the cross (or under a tree, like Krishna and Attis) by an arrow; symbolically combining the betrayer Sagittarius at the beginning of December with the cross of the celestial equator. Jesus is betrayed by one of the twelve disciples for thirty pieces of silver. When confronted by a group of armed men he asks, “Am I such a bandit that you had to set out to capture me with swords and clubs?” Jesus may not have been killed by the cross, but by the soldier who stuck a lance into his side. “Lance” (Greek belos or Latin telum) can refer to any sharp object such as a spear, sword tip, or arrow.

Capricorn, the Goat – Matthew 26:57 (December). Jesus is scourged, tried and crucified at “Calvary” (from the Latin Calvaria; original Golgotha) which means “place of the skull.” The sun has reached its farthest, weakest point. There is an emphasis on darkness. “From the sixth hour there was darkness all over the land until the ninth hour,” showing that it is December 21st, the darkest day of the year. Jesus is buried in a tomb, which is found empty three days later. He has been resurrected, and will come again in power.

Even if we ignore the astrological associations and only look at the seasonal clues, it is clear that the ministry of Jesus in this gospel lasted for one year and ended in December. But why, if Matthew shows his death in winter, do Christians celebrate Easter during the spring? Actually, many early Christians were also confused by this issue; enough of them, in fact, to make church fathers commit the heresy to ink and lasting memory:

They endeavor, for instance, to demonstrate that passion which, they say, happened in the case of the twelfth Aeon, from this fact, that the passion of the Savior was brought about by the twelfth apostle, and happened in the twelfth month. For they hold that He preached only for one year after His baptism. (Ireneaus, Against the Heresies, II, 20)[xvii]

According to the Pseudo-Clementine Writings Jesus had 12 disciples because the sun has 12 months; while John had 30 chief men symbolizing the days of a lunar month.

There was one John, a day-baptist, who was also, according to the method of combination, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus; and as the Lord had twelve apostles, bearing the number of the twelve months of the sun, so also he, John, had thirty chief men, fulfilling the monthly reckoning of the moon, in which number was a certain woman called Helena that not even this might be without a dispensational significance. (Clementine Homilies, 2.23)[xviii]

Although people soon began to see Jesus as a human figure, the sun symbolism nevertheless has influenced Christian art since its inception. In dozens of cathedrals across Europe and Africa, the center dome is decorated with a giant zodiac wheel, with Jesus in the center radiating light and his twelve apostles surrounding him in even sections. Even the “twelve stations of the cross,” which Christians believe represent twelve specific events during the Passion of Jesus, may be a residual influence of the beliefs of early Christian communities who saw Jesus as the sun of God passing through the twelve signs of the zodiac.

The similarities between Jesus and other religions and philosophies of the Greeks and Romans are much more difficult to ignore now that we’ve discovered that, rather than accidental coincidences, they are intentional astrological symbols. Further, there were at least some Christians who understood the symbols and viewed Jesus Christ in astrological terms. Do the basics of the gospel story come from the same source as the other sun-saviors? It would certainly help to explain a passage in the gospel of Luke that identifies Jesus’ herald, John the Baptist, as the prophet of the rising sun:

And you, little child, you shall be called Prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare a way for him, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the faithful love of our God in which the rising Sun has come from on high to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness and shadow dark as death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76)

If constellations and the movements of the sun are the foundation for the biographical framework of the sun myth, how can we explain the similarities between the gospel stories and myths about the other sun-saviors? Can we expand the idea of “diabolical mimicry” put forth by the church fathers, and claim that Satan put the sun and the planets in orbit in just such a way as to cast suspicion on the later ministry of Jesus Christ? Is Satan then, the real creator of the universe?

Conclusions and Summary

Although most people consider sun-worship to be a superstitious and primitive practice, the truth is that we still worship the sun. Sitting your kids down in front of Peter Pan, Narnia or the Lion King is no different from attending a re-enactment of the adventures of Horus or Hercules 2,000 years ago. Harry Potter defeats his enemies with magic spells, and Jesus Christ overcomes his foes with miracles, but the symbolism from both stories comes from an ancient sun myth. Most of the world now takes “Sun Day” off as a day of rest, although the Jewish Sabbath was Saturday. (The practice of closing business on Sunday was enacted by Constantine in 321 AD and forms the basis of subsequent Christian legislation in this area.)

Even if the similarities between Jesus and pagan gods were accidental, how can we reconcile the evidence that many early Christians themselves worshiped Jesus as the sun? As we’ve seen, besides the many passages found in the Bible, there is also non-biblical evidence that Jesus was originally considered a sun myth by his followers.

If these events in the life of Jesus were taken from solar mythology, was the sun used as a metaphor to enhance Jesus’ saving role? Or, conversely, was Jesus the metaphor – establishing a new current of sun-worship among the traditionally exclusivist Jews?

Some modern Christian communities, familiar with Christianity’s inclusion of pagan symbolism, simply cut those features out of their worship. December 25th was not Jesus real birthday, they counter, but that doesn’t change his role as spiritual guide and savior. If we let go of the biographical details of the historical Jesus that are similar to solar worship, can we maintain, at the very least, the spiritual image of Jesus? Jesus as the first born, pre-existing son of god; Jesus as the forgiver of sins, as our spiritual comfort and companion; Jesus as the Word of God – the creator and sustainer of the universe? To answer this question, we need to dig deeper into the roots of Christianity’s spiritual claims and those of external religious traditions so we can see just how tightly they are wound together.


Notes

[i]Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 28.

[ii]Pam Eastlick, “Argo Navis,”

http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/extra/ArgoNavis.html

[iii] Quoted in Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 84.

[iv]Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 64-65.

[v] Edward Carpenter, Pagan & Christian Creeds : Their Origin and Meaning (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920; NuVision Publications, digital rpt. 2007), 20.

[vi]Hans Andréa, http://www.harrypotterforseekers.com/.

[vii] John J. Miller, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Aslanmas?”,

http://old.nationalreview.com/miller/miller200512220847.asp

[viii]As cited in R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 220.

[ix] Malik H. Jabbar, The Astrological Foundation of the Christ Myth (Dayton, OH: Rare Books Distributor, 1995), 37.

[x] David Ulansey, The Mithraic Mysteries, http://www.well.com/~davidu/sciam.html

[xi] David Ulansey, The Mithraic Mysteries, http://www.well.com/~davidu/sciam.html

[xii]Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 84.

[xiii]Ken Dowden, Religion and the Romans, 78.

[xiv]Cited by Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 202.

[xv] Cited in Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion(Orlando: Harcourt, 1987), 75.

[xvi] Joscelyn Godwin,Mystery Religions, 99.

[xvii] Available at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103220.htm.

[xviii]Available at http://www.compassionatespirit.com/Homilies/Book-2.htm.


Going Pagan: The Forgotten Prefigures of Jesus Christ and the Pagan Parallels to the Christian Myth

This is Chapter Four of the book Jesus Potter, Harry Christ (2011), by Derek Murphy.


CHAPTER FOUR

Going Pagan: The Forgotten Prefigures of Christ

“The very thing which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients also, nor was it wanting from the inception of the human race until the coming of Christ in the flesh, at which point the true religion which was already in existence began to be called Christian.” St. Augustine, 464AD.

AT TRINITY COLLEGE IN DUBLIN there is a medieval manuscript called the Book of Leinster which was compiled around 1160. In it we meet the Irish mythological hero, Cúchulainn, known for his terrifying battle frenzy or ríastrad, which turns him into an unrecognizable monster. Cúchulainn’s violent rage could only be soothed by women and cold water:

He sets off on a foray and kills the three sons of Nechtan Scéne, who had boasted they had killed more Ulstermen than there were Ulstermen still living. He returns to Emain Macha in his battle frenzy, and the Ulstermen are afraid he will slaughter them all. Conchobar’s wife Mugain leads out the women of Emain, and they bare their breasts to him. He averts his eyes, and the Ulstermen wrestle him into a barrel of cold water, which explodes from the heat of his body. They put him in a second barrel, which boils, and a third, which warms to a pleasant temperature.[i]

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.

A similar situation develops when we look at the parallels between Jesus Christ and Harry Potter. Harry Potter came almost 2,000 years after Jesus Christ, and since J.K. Rowling grew up in a Christian society, we might charge her with borrowing biblical or Christian imagery (and in fact, she’s admitted as much).

But what if these same symbols could also be applied to even earlier figures? Osiris, for example, or Gilgamesh, who we know came about 2,000 years before Jesus. The problem, of course, is that while Harry Potter or The Incredible Hulk are obviously fictional characters, Jesus Christ is assumed to be a historical figure – which makes direct comparisons all the more challenging.

Given a parallel so precise that it is unlikely to be coincidental, in two literary traditions from civilizations that were known to have been in contact with each other, originality should be given to the historically earlier instance. If it can be shown that the gospel writers were already familiar with stories that parallel the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ from contemporary mythologies, (such as Attis, Orpheus, Mithras, Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Dionysus, or Asclepius), it is very likely that Christianity adapted or assimilated portions of these mythologies into their own literary creations. This idea is not at all challenged by academics today, who, as we have seen, agree that in order to discover what was unique about Christianity (and thus might have come from a historical founder), we must first identify what was obviously borrowed or included.

However, at the same time, conservative biblical scholars or Christian apologists have been careful to refute claims of similarity that can weaken the supremacy and historical validity of Jesus Christ. This defensive position is somewhat justified, as Christ-Myth researchers have sometimes taken unfounded, sweeping liberties and minimized all differences in order to fit their theories. Nevertheless, these criticisms are usually leveled against the idea of similarity, rather than any particular similarities, and are invariably founded on the same set of (flawed) arguments.

The first is simply the reiteration of the historical Jesus. Taking support from the academia’s continued pursuit of a historical founder for Christianity, potential similarities (when used to question the Jesus of history) are immediately repudiated because “no serious scholar doubts the historical Jesus.” However, this merely ignores the otherwise very troubling evidence, and is no improvement from Justin Martyr’s original argument dealing with the same similarities: Jesus was real, while all other instances (of crucified saviors) were symbolic, and thus not equal. The only explanation ever put forward by Christians as to why pagan mythology and earlier saviors are so similar to the later, actual, life of Jesus is Justin’s concept of “Diabolical Mimicry,” which blames the similarities on wicked demons who were commissioned by Satan to spread similar stories throughout the world in a sort of pre-emptive attack against Christianity:

But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvelous tales, like the things which were said by the poets. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, LIV)

C.S. Lewis’ later acceptance of pagan Christs is virtually the same, although rather than blaming them on Satan, he sees it as only natural that God would create these mythical parallels, which were then actually and historically fulfilled. The only possible way to explain the similarities between Jesus and earlier figures not rooted in faith, however, is that the gospel writers copied from other sources – a natural, common and exceedingly probable solution.

The second tactic of modern apologists is to claim that no such similarities exist at all; they are all fabrications of modernity. To this end, they take any specific comparison and demonstrate the ways in which the apparent similarity is actually completely different – or else they undermine the research of the scholar making the claims. Although it is true that a great deal of the early arguments from similarity used poor translations or texts which are now no longer available, we know already from early sources, both Christian and pagan, that Jesus Christ was similar to other gods and that this was recognized at the time. These similarities caused controversy and discord between Christians and pagans for several centuries – as Frazer points out, for example, using the following example of Attis:

In point of fact it appears from the testimony of an anonymous Christian, who wrote in the fourth century of our era, that Christians and pagans alike were struck by the remarkable coincidences between the death and resurrection of their respective deities, and that the coincidence formed a theme of bitter controversy between the adherents of the rival religions, the pagans contending that the resurrection of Christ was a spurious imitation of the resurrection of Attis, and the Christians asserting with equal warmth that the resurrection of Attis was a diabolical counterfeit of the resurrection of Christ. In these unseemly bickerings the heathen took what to a superficial observer might seem strong ground by arguing that their god was the older and therefore presumably the original, not the counterfeit, since as a general rule an original is older than its copy. This feeble argument the Christian easily rebutted. They admitted, indeed, that in point of time Christ was the junior deity, but they triumphantly demonstrated his real seniority by falling back on the subtlety of Satan, who on so important an occasion had surpassed himself by inverting the usual order of nature.[ii]

Notice how, even as late as the fourth century, when the similarities between rival faiths continued to be a source of conflict, Christians still relied on Diabolical Mimicry rather claim historical priority.

Finally, critics argue that the Jews (and following them, the Christians), who were so careful to abstain from pagan worship of any kind (for example, choosing to be martyred rather than worshiping false idols) would never have adopted obviously pagan religious features. Therefore any potential similarities must be coincidental, because the opposite is unthinkable. This argument ignores the fact that, even if choosing to refuse them, the Jews would have already been familiar with most of these mythological figures, making their later acceptance of Jesus Christ all the more difficult. On the other hand, despite their restrictions and prohibitions, there are numerous examples of the Jewish people accepting and adopting pagan customs.

In Ezekiel, Yahweh points out the women of Israel mourning the death of Tammuz at the temple gates, the men prostrating before the rising sun in the inner court of the Temple of Yahweh, and the worshipping of carved idols of “every kind of reptile and repulsive animal” (Ezekiel 8:10-16). In Genesis, Rachel steals her father’s idols, hides them in her camel cushion, and pretends she was “as women are from time to time” so that he wouldn’t find them (Genesis 31:46). The Israelites, after leaving Egypt, made a golden calf to worship (Exodus 32). While it’s true that The Old Testament is a collection of prohibitions against idolatry, this is likely due to the fact that the Jewish people were otherwise quick to assimilate into their environments and abandon their iconoclastic religion.

In the syncretism and convergence of cultures brought about by the Greek and Roman empires, we find several Jewish writers who were fully at home in pagan society, interpreted the scriptures metaphorically, and found no conflict between their faith and the beliefs of contemporary philosophers or mystery religions. Philo of Alexandria, to give one example, used allegory to fuse and harmonize Stoic philosophy with Jewish exegesis.

Having knowledge that a controversy over the physical nature of Jesus Christ existed in the earliest days of Christianity, testimony of a conflict based around similarities in rival traditions, and examples of Jews worshipping idols or blending their native religion with paganism, we are well justified in looking for the similarities which were so obvious to those more familiar with the original pagan and Christian sources. Although some parallels will be obvious, others need may need elucidation. For example, Gilgamesh’s plant of immortality gets eaten by a snake, and Osiris’s phallus gets eaten by a fish; taken literally, there is not enough similarity here to argue for a relationship. But if these myths are understood according to their symbolic meaning, then the precise details are less important than the theme (the loss of immortality).

As for the dating, it will be shown conclusively that central ideas shared between paganism and Christianity predate Jesus Christ by several centuries, if not millennia. The order of these ideas will be presented in this chapter, as far as possible, from earliest to latest. This way we can see, not only that certain elements extend quite far back in time, but also how they evolved and mutated into diverse cultural manifestations. Keep in mind that some of these stories were used to justify religious ritual and practice for thousands of years; and that such practices found in one historical period cannot be assumed to have existed during a different period. At the same time, basic features of these traditions, despite minor differences in practice, are likely to be homogenous. While some of these figures are almost definitely historical, and others completely mythological, the line is often blurred: even the most extremely fictional characters were thought by ancient cultures to have once been historical rulers or kings, while the very historical figures are so wrapped up in mythology it is almost impossible to see them clearly. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but simply represents the most interesting and relevant figures to the present study.

Gilgamesh

As was pointed out earlier, the epic of Gilgamesh is not only one of the oldest recorded stories known to man, but was also familiar to Israel and may have been rewritten into the Old Testament. It should come as no surprise that elements from the epic of Gilgamesh might have crept into several other literary traditions.

It is likely that the story of Gilgamesh was used as a framework for religious rites or cult practices, as copies have been found in temples; copying the text may have been part of the training process for temple-astrologers.[iii] According to Sumerian cosmology, when Ea had created man, he mixed the blood of a god (who was slaughtered for the purpose) in with the clay, so that humans would have a divine spirit. However, the blood was not the best material: “In one tradition, at least, he was the leader of the rebels, who had instigated a mutiny.”[iv] Therefore men were made part divine, but also flawed and wayward. This theme (humanity receiving the divine spirit from a rebellious god who receives punishment) is found in several later traditions. Prometheus, for example, steals fire from the gods to give to humans. Interestingly the link could also be made to the character of Satan, who gives humanity the tree of knowledge so that they may become “like gods” and is then tormented by God for his transgression.

If Gilgamesh ever existed as an actual king (as tradition maintains), he would have flourished around 2750BC.[v] According to the myth, Gilgamesh was a tyrant whose mother was a goddess. He was a cruel ruler, forcing his people into labor and freely exercising his kingly right to sleep with girls on their wedding day. The people prayed to the gods to make a rival for Gilgamesh, and they created Enkidu – a creature that was half bull, half human. Enkidu was an idyllic spirit, living in harmony with nature. Gilgamesh ordered the harlot Shamhat to seduce him, which would weaken him by alienating him from nature. They coupled for seven days and seven nights. In language reminiscent of the biblical garden story, Enkidu finds himself a “changed but wiser creature.”[vi] Shamhat brings him to society, but he has trouble eating bread, drinking out of glasses, or wearing clothes. (Could Gilgamesh also be the root of the modern Tarzan story?) Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh and they fight, but recognize each other’s greatness and decide, rather than destroy each other, to work together and practice heroic virtue.

Thus begins a series of their adventures and conquests. First, they destroy the dragon (or ogre) Humbaba in the cedar forest, preferring fame to security, a dedication that may call Achilles or Beowulf to mind. In the next episode, Gilgamesh dresses so attractively that the goddess Ishtar (Ianna) wants to marry him, but he refuses her. In retribution, she asks permission from the great father god Anu to have the “Bull of Heaven” at her disposal to slay Gilgamesh. At first he says no, but she (as a goddess of the underworld) threatens to bring up all the dead so that they outnumber and consume the living. Anu relents and gives her the bull, however, Gilgamesh and Enkidu overpower and butcher it. Enkidu cuts off the leg of the bull and throws it at Ishtar as a terrible insult. Ishtar, after mourning the death of the bull, has the gods convene to decide on a punishment – they choose to kill Enkidu. Gilgamesh tries to bring him back to life in vain. Enkidu’s death instills in him a terrible fear of death, and so he begins a quest for immortality.

Only one man he knew of had ever been immortal – the Babylonian Noah named Utnapishtim (or Atrahasis), who, along with his wife, became immortal after the flood. Therefore, Gilgamesh determines to seek him out. First, he travels to the edge of the ocean that surrounds the world, where he encounters the wise Shiduri; she tells him he must find Ur-shanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim. Ur-shanabi takes him to Utnapishtim’s enchanted realm, and Gilgamesh hears the flood story. The gods had decided to destroy mankind, but one god, Ea, was friendly with Utnapishtim and determined to save him. Speaking to him indirectly (Utnapishtim was told to go into a reed hut first), Ea told him to disregard his possessions and construct an ark according to exact specifications, and to gather the seed of all living creatures, his wife, adequate supplies and a crew. Rains came, and then receded. The ark landed on a mountain. Utnapishtim sent out first a dove, then a swallow, then a raven, and determined that the earth was dry. He then got out and sacrificed to the gods, who hovered over the sweet-smelling sacrifice like flies. Utnapishtim and his wife became immortal.

They tell Gilgamesh to stay awake for seven days to see if he is worthy of becoming immortal as well, but he fails the test. Next, they groom him and give him a magical garment that won’t get dirty, and prepare him for his return journey. Utnapishtim’s wife discloses a secret mystery of the gods – a plant at the bottom of the sea that gives immortality – so he puts rocks on his feet and goes down to get it. Unfortunately he decides to save the plant for later and a snake eats it. Although he loses physical immortality, later versions of the story have Gilgamesh become a deified ruler of the shades in the underworld, and “give verdicts” or judge the dead.[vii]

The Gilgamesh myth almost certainly influenced the Old Testament, hence certain themes were bound to be included in the gospel stories of Jesus as well. A few key motifs will prove constructive: the creation of humanity from a fallen god; the quest for immortality in order to rescue or be with a loved one; a plant of immortality that is lost due to the meddling serpent; the slaying of the bull of heaven. These themes will be explored in more detail.

Dionysus

Despite obvious similarities between Dionysus and Jesus Christ, like wedding wine miracles and Jesus’ statements about being “The one true vine,” these two figures may seem poles apart: Jesus the meek and humble savior, and Dionysus the ecstatic, sexually active founder of wild, drunken revelry. However on closer examination, there are themes that run between the literary traditions of both figures that are closely tied. While it cannot be claimed that Jesus is nothing more than a pagan god of wine, parallels do exist and were easily identified by both believers and critics of the early Christian movement. These similarities have also been noted by modern researchers.

Dionysus, like Jesus, was son of the divine ruler of the world and a mortal mother, appeared in human form among mortals, was killed and restored to life. Early Christian writers, aware of the similarity between Christianity and mystery-cult, claim that the latter is a diabolical imitation of the former.[viii]

The correspondences between Christianity and the other mystery religions of antiquity are perhaps more startling than the differences. Orpheus and Christ share attributes in the early centuries of our era; and of all the major ancient deities, Dionysus has the most in common with the figure of Christ.[ix]

Dionysus was born from a mortal woman, Semele, Daughter of the King of Thebes, and Zeus, the Father of the Gods. Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife, planted seeds of doubt in the young mother’s mind, and Semele demanded that Zeus come down and take responsibility. However, as no mortal can stand the sight of Zeus without dying, she was burnt up by his firebolts. Zeus rescued the child and sewed him up in his thigh until he was ready to be born.

In another version of the story, which ties Dionysus even more closely to his sacred mysteries, Dionysus was son of Zeus and Persephone, queen of the underworld. The jealous Hera this time sent the Titans to rip the child to pieces by distracting it with toys and mirrors. After they’d dismembered him, the Titans ate all the pieces – except the heart, which was saved. Zeus destroyed the Titans with lightning, and it was out of their ashes that humanity was created. The heart was used to impregnate Semele, who gave birth to Dionysus again. In either version of the story, Dionysus was “twice born” – a title that would later be used frequently in conjunction with his role in the sacred mysteries; initiates of which were said to be “born again.” This story has been interpreted as the founding myth for many ancient spiritual traditions, in particular Orphism: it explains why sin or evil came into the world, and how humans are special in all of creation. As Guthrie explains, “Our nature therefore is twofold, born of Titans, wicked sons of earth, but there is in us something of a heavenly nature too, since there went to our making fragments of the body of Dionysus, son of Olympian Zeus, on whom the Titans had made their impious feast.”[x] Morford and Lenardon in Classical Mythology reflect,

Surely this is one of the most significant myths in terms of the philosophy and religious dogma that it provides. By it human beings are endowed with a dual nature – a body gross and evil (since we are sprung from the Titans) and a soul that is pure and divine (for after all the Titans had devoured the god). Thus basic religious concepts (which lie at the root of all mystery religions) are accounted for: sin, immortality, resurrection, life after death, reward, and punishment.[xi]

On a deeper level, Dionysus was identified as a powerful force that governed and controlled the universe. He was not only the “divine spark” inside of humanity – he was also the beacon for ethical and moral action, as well as the gateway to eternal salvation. This is the standard, orthodox reading of Dionysus as attested by the following passages:

Dionysus can free us, wherefore we call him “liberator,” Dionysus the immortal, the resurrected, of whose nature there is yet a small part in each and every one of us. Knowing all this, what other aim can we have in life but to purge away as far as possible the Titanic element in us and exalt and cherish the Dionysiac?[xii]

As son and heir of the cosmic deity, Zeus, Dionysus is also a creative deity, but creative through thought, as it were. He produces the idea of the world, and his knowledge sustains it in all its reality.[xiii]

In this way, the Orphic Bible provided the divine authority for belief in an immortal soul; the necessity for keeping this soul pure despite the contamination and degradation of the body; the concept of a kind of original sin; the transmigration of the soul to an afterlife of reward or punishment; and finally, after various stages of purification, an apotheosis, a union with the divine spirit in the realms of the upper aether.[xiv]

Despite his divinity, Dionysus lived among humans “not as a god but in disguise as a man”;[xv] and was somehow closer to humanity than any other deity. Stories of his life on earth, notably The Bacchae by Euripides, (which premiered at the Theatre of Dionysus in 406BC), make it clear that Dionysus’ true power was only recognized by his closest followers. Like Jesus, Dionysus freely allows himself to be captured and persecuted by his enemies, before finally revealing himself in his glory.

Apparently powerless submission (in the Homeric Hymn to the pirates, in Bacchae to King Pentheus) is transformed into its opposite by epiphany, an emotive transformation that is in some respects comparable to the release of Paul and Silas in the Acts of the Apostles. Chased away or imprisoned by mere mortals, but comes back in triumph: associated with victory.[xvi]

The Bacchae’s description of Dionysus submitting to his captors is eerily similar to the same motif in the Christian tradition. When the guard delivers him to Pentheus, he says:

Pentheus, here we are, having hunted the quarry you sent us after, and our efforts have not been unsuccessful. But we found this wild beast tame – he did not attempt to flee, but gave me his hands willingly; he did not even turn pale, but kept the flush of wine in his cheeks. With a smile he bade me tie him up and lead him away and waited for me, thus making my task easy. (Bacchae 434-442)

Dionysus goes through a trial of sorts, where he refuses to answer Pentheus’ questions directly, and instead antagonizes the ruler. Then he is put in prison, at which point there is an earthquake. Pentheus grabs a sword and rushes in, but Dionysus greets him calmly and promises he will not try to escape. This episode, although of course very different from that of Jesus, who is crucified, is remarkably similar to Acts of the Apostles 16:25-9. When Paul and Silas are imprisoned, singing to their god in the darkness, there is an earthquake. The doors open and the chains fall away from the prisoners. The jailor seizes a sword, and runs in to find that Paul and the prisoners are still there. Seaford concludes that the author of Acts borrowed directly from the Bacchae:

These similarities are too numerous to be coincidental. How are we to explain them? One possibility is that they derive from knowledge of the Bacchae. The Bacchae was indeed well known at this period: for instance, we hear of it being recited in Corinth in the first century AD… Moreover, in one version of the conversion of Saul the lord says to him ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (26:14). This expression occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but it does occur in early Greek literature, notably when Dionysus says to his persecutor Pentheus ‘Do not kick against the goads, a mortal against a god’ (Bacchae 796).[xvii]

There are other similarities between the life of Dionysus and the life of Jesus as well. Dionysus was a wanderer; his cult emphasized mobility. He does not give instructions for building a temple (as does Demeter in the Homeric hymns to Demeter, or Yahweh in the Old Testament). Worship of Dionysus was roofless – outdoors, in a temple under open sky; just like the early Christian practice, which was originally against the setting up of churches or worshiping indoors.

Dionysus is not only associated with but often actually identified with the animals that represent him, mostly the bull; just as he is associated and identified with wine. Dionysian cults ate raw flesh, and Dionysus himself could be called “eater of raw flesh.”[xviii] In the version cited by Frazer, Dionysus tried to evade the attacks of the Titans by changing forms: first a young man, then a lion, horse, and serpent. “Finally, in the form of a bull, he was cut into pieces by the murderous knives of his enemies.”[xix] Consequently, when we find that followers of Dionysus followed a cultic ritual of dividing up a bull and eating its raw flesh, and drinking wine in thanksgiving and remembrance of their god, it is not a stretch to argue that they believed they were eating the body and blood of their savior in order to reach a spiritual communion.

When we consider the practice of portraying the god as a bull or with some of the features of the animal, the belief that he appeared in bull form to his worshipers at the sacred rites, and the legend that in bull form he had been torn to pieces, we cannot doubt that in rending and devouring a live bull at this festival the worshipers of Dionysus believed themselves to be killing the god, eating his flesh, and drinking his blood.[xx]

Although Dionysus was not crucified, certain aspects of his worship have early Christian parallels. When Dionysus was torn apart by the Titans, a pomegranate tree sprouted from his blood. This is probably the root of the tradition of worshiping Dionysus in the form of a tree.

Maximus of Tyre writes that ‘the peasants honour Dionysus by planting in the field an uncultivated tree-trunk, a rustic statue’ (2.1), and according to Plutarch (Moralia 675) all Greeks sacrifice to Dionysus as tree god (Dendrites). Pausanias reports that two images of Dionysus at Corinth were made from this very tree: the Delphic oracle had ordered the Corinthians to find the tree and ‘worship it equally with god.’ (2.2.7)[xxi]

Likewise, Jesus is celebrated as the Tree of Life – a redemptive symbol counteracting the original Tree of Knowledge that led to the fall into sin. Countless churches in Christendom have worshiped relics or magical pendants made of wood purported to be from the original cross. Within early Christian communities, Jesus was even considered to have been hung on a tree rather than crucified. “It was the God of our ancestors who raised up Jesus, whom you executed by hanging on a tree” (Acts, 5:30).

Dionysus was a god of resurrection, and like other figures he descended into Hell and returned.

It is no accident that Dionysus is linked with Orpheus and Demeter and the message that they preached. He is in his person a resurrection-god; the story is told that he went down into the realm of the dead and brought back his mother, who in this account is usually given the name Thyone.[xxii]

Dionysus was also considered a great social leveler: in his festivals and ceremonies, there was no distinction given to class or rank. Dionysus “gave the pain-removing delight of wine equally to the wealthy man and to the lesser man” (Bacchae 421-3). He was also credited with freedom from prison, releasing slaves, as a liberator, and “in general resolved conflicts between peoples and cities, and created concord and much peace in place of civil conflicts and wars.”[xxiii] He was worshiped by everybody equally, all mixed up in a mob; this inclusiveness was a feature which “may not have appealed to some aristocrats.”[xxiv]

And then there are the wine miracles. It was Dionysus who brought wine to the aristocratic wedding of Peleus and Thetis; and during a festival at Elis, three pots were put inside the Dionysus temple behind closed doors and miraculously filled with wine – a feat similar to Jesus’ later miracle at the wedding in Cana. This act of Jesus, as well as his claim of being the “True Vine” (John 15:1), may have been direct attempts to usurp the powers and influence of Dionysus.

Another similarity emerges if we take theological liberties. Dionysus wanted to lay with the wife of King Oeneus (of Calydon in Aetolia). Oeneus, whose name means “wine man,” tactfully withdrew; for this he was rewarded with the gift of the vine, which benefited the whole community. Stories of gods fertilizing the wife of the king and producing a divine prince who becomes a savior/redeemer are not uncommon; in the epic of Gilgamesh, the tyrant king takes advantage of this principle, assuming the role of the god to have intercourse with brides on their wedding night. When applied to the Christian birth story, it could be argued that Joseph “made way” for God/the Holy Spirit to impregnate Mary, who produced Jesus, the True Vine.

Dionysus was also important to the Eleusinian and other mysteries as savior, liberator and ruler of the underworld. His name was a magical password of freedom; initiates who underwent mysteries were promised eternal life, and given special gold leaves that acted as passports into the next life. One of these, found at Pelinna in Thessaly and dating to the late fourth century BC, reads “Tell Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you” (Bakchios/Bacchus is the Roman name for Dionysus).[xxv]Interestingly, it is probably Dionysus’ role as ruler of the underworld and keeper of the dead that has been transfigured into the modern conception of Satan: Dionysus, as Bacchus, the bull or “the horned one” ruling over the underworld may have inspired the later Christian conception of the horned ruler of the underworld.

According to the doctrine of these mysteries (referred to in Plato), the soul is “imprisoned” in the body for an ancient crime or guilt, symbolized by the Titans’ murder of Dionysus (Cratylus 400c; Phaedo 62b). Humans, by being made from the remains of the Titans, have inherited this guilt; but also been given the gift of the Dionysian element, which, if cultivated, can result in eternal life.

The 5th century Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus regarded Plato as following Orphic myths and interpreting mystic doctrine. In this interpretation, according to Proclus, the dismemberment of Dionysus means that body and soul are divided into many bodies and souls, whereas the undivided heart of Dionysos, from which Athena recomposed his body, is cosmic mind of intellect (nous). In Neoplatonist philosophy nous is undivided; it comprehends in one act of intelligence all intelligible things; and it is merged with but superior to the soul.[xxvi]

There is no doubt that Dionysus, including his critical role in afterlife beliefs, came before Jesus. His name first appears on clay tablets from the Greek bronze age 3000 years ago.[xxvii] Poetry from the 6th century BC claims that Dionysus gave wine as “joy and burden”[xxviii] and the Bacchae, published in 405 BC, was an increasingly popular and well-known piece of literature. Although Jesus is certainly much more than any of these similarities, it is impossible to make the claim that early Christians were unaware of Dionysus, whose public processions were large, loud and involved the entire community.

When Christianity was establishing itself in the ancient Mediterranean world, the cult of Dionysus was its most geographically widespread and deeply rooted rival. And so the Christian church, while enclosing the revolutionary ethics of its gospels within the necessity of social control, was influenced by Dionysaic cult as well as opposing it.[xxix]

In fact, according to 2 Maccabees 6.7, the Jews themselves were compelled under Seleucid King Antiochus IV (175-164BC) to wear ivy wreaths and walk in procession in honor of Dionysus, an act which may have had lasting consequences: “Tacitus writes that various features of Jewish cult – the music of pipes and drums, ivy crowns, and the golden vine at the temple – give rise to the view that the Jews worship Liber Pater (Dionysus), the conqueror of the East.”[xxx]

How do we explain the similarities? There are really only two possibilities: either Jesus, aware of Dionysus, set himself up purposely to steal his rival’s spotlight, or early Christian writers included these stories and motifs into the gospel story to make their savior more competitive.

Pythagoras

Pythagoras is one of the most intriguing and mysterious figures in ancient history. Although today known mostly by his mathematical legacy, he was much more than a philosopher or mathematician – he was also the founder of a very secretive spiritual cult with serious political influence, focusing on initiation of the worthy, purification, and salvation.

Born around 570BC, Pythagoras emigrated to Croton in Southern Italy, and there founded a movement that was a blend of politics and mysticism. “Without a doubt, Pythagoras aimed for a viewpoint of the divine, and the opinions he expressed were taken by his followers as sacred revelations.”[xxxi]Although it is difficult to separate the man from the myth, there are striking parallels between Jesus and Pythagoras; most likely due to the extensive influence Pythagoreanism seems to have had on the Greco-Roman world through other mystery cults and schools of philosophy, especially Orphism and Platonism.

It is said that when Pythagoras arrived in Croton, he first appeared to the fishermen on the outskirts of the city and performed a miraculous sign; he told them exactly how many fish were in their nets, and he was right (they counted). News of the miracle spread into city and prepared the way for him.[xxxii] In the gospels of Luke and John, Jesus performs a similar miracle, although instead of counting the fish, he causes the fisherman to catch a great quantity. In Luke, this happens at the beginning of his ministry (5:1-11); in John, it occurs after Jesus had resurrected. Interestingly, we are even given the precise number of fish caught: “Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net ashore, full of big fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them” (John 21:1-14).

Although we are not given the exact number of fish in the Pythagorean story, the Pythagoreans regarded 153 as a sacred number due to its use in a mathematical ratio called “the measure of the fish,” which produces the mystical symbol of the Vesica Pisces – the intersection of two circles which yields a fish-like shape. It is unlikely that the Christian use of this number is accidental.

Pythagoreans believed (much like Orphics and modern day Buddhists) in reincarnation, or a wheel of rebirth. They were vegetarians and tried to cultivate purity. Although the soul was immortal, it had to be freed from the contaminating influences of the body. Only a “lover of wisdom” leading the best of lives could escape the prison of the body at the moment of death and break free of the cycle.

Tradition holds that Pythagoras gained his mystical knowledge by spending seven years in the underworld or land of the dead. Diogenes Laertius records the claim of Hieronymus, who said “that when he descended to the shades below, he saw the soul of Hesiod bound to a brazen pillar, and gnashing its teeth; and that of Homer suspended from a tree, and snakes around it, as a punishment for the things that they had said of the Gods”[xxxiii]. Laertius also mentions how Austophon says in his Pythagorean:

He said that when he did descend below
Among the shades in Hell, he there beheld
All men who e’er had died; and there he saw,
That the Pythagoreans differ’d much
From all the rest; for that with them alone
Did Pluto deign to eat, much honouring
Their pious habits. (Diogenes Laertius, XX)

There is also the story told by Hermippus, about how when Pythagoras returned from the underworld, he was considered a God.

Pythagoras came up again after a certain time, lean, and reduced to a skeleton; and that he came into the public assembly, and said that he had arrived from the shades below, and then he recited to them all that had happened during his absence. And they, being charmed by what he told them, wept and lamented, and believed that Pythagoras was a divine being; so that they even entrusted their wives to him, as likely to learn some good from him; and that they too were called Pythagoreans. And this is the story of Hermippus. (Diogenes Laertius, XXI)

According to legend, in a past life Pythagoras had been a son of Hermes named Aethalides. Hermes promised him any gift (except immortality), and Aethalides/Pythagoras wished to remember everything, even after death. Thus, Pythagoras remembered all of his previous lives. While staying at Argos, for example, he saw a shield from the spoils of Troy nailed up to the wall. He began to weep, claiming that the shield had been his in a last life when his name was Euphobus and that he had used it at the battle of Troy. He even offered proof: his previous name, Euphobus, was written on the inside. They took the shield down from the wall and found the name written as he had claimed.[xxxiv] In another story, he recognizes the reincarnation of an old friend in a stray dog.

And once, they say, when he passed by a dog which was being maltreated, he pitied the animal and said these words: “Stop! Don’t beat him! For he is the soul of a friend whom I recognized straight away when I heard his voice.”[xxxv]

Pythagoras believed that the entire universe was musical: each planet made a certain vibrational frequency as it passed through the heavens, and everything on earth could be assigned to one of these seven frequencies: there are 7 notes on a scale, 7 colors of the rainbow, and 7 primary organs of the body.

According to a legend told by Iambliochos, when Pythagoras heard the different sound made by hammers in a forge, he realized that tones can be expressed in quantitative relationships, and hence in numerical values and geometrical measures. Using stringed instruments, he then discovered the connection between vibration frequencies and pitch. The whole world, according to Pythagoras’ theory, consisted of harmony and number.[xxxvi]

This life, Pythagoras claimed, was a sentence for a sin or evil done at the mythical level in pre-history. Therefore, we should do our time well and get out quickly, rather than avoiding our punishments and stretching the sentence out longer. Earth was not meant to be enjoyed: “Do not assist a man in laying a burden down; for it is not proper to be the cause of not laboring (also translated as ‘idleness’ or ‘lack of effort’); but assist him in taking it up.”[xxxvii] Christianity has parallels in its monasticism, valuation of the poor, the weak and the suffering, and ascetic traditions. There are also passages like the following:

Then, speaking to all, he said, “if anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it. What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world and forfeit or lose his very self.” (Luke 9:23-26)

The life of a Pythagorean was “governed by strict rules and routines that covered a wide range of issues, everything from dietary restrictions to purification rites to religious taboos to the observance of decorous behavior, not to mention a host of magical practices.”[xxxviii] These pedantic rules inspired a constantly introspective lifestyle:

Tradition does mention, though, a great number of taboos and prescriptions, such as ‘Do not wear a ring’, ‘Do not step over a broom’, ‘don’t use cedar, laurel, myrtle, cypress or oak to cleanse your body or clean your teeth: they are for honouring the gods’. The observance of all these rules must have made the life of the Pythagorean an extremely self-conscious one, in which a moment of carelessness could be fatal.[xxxix]

Although the similarities between the actual life of Pythagoras and Jesus may be limited, it is interesting to notice the parallels between the two movements each figure left behind. As we shall see, it was the bureaucratic organization of the Christian movement, more than the originality of its beliefs or practices, which really ensured its survival; this organization may have had its roots in Pythagoreanism. As Professor Konstantine Boudouris of the University of Athens reports, the Pythagorean communities were “unions of people, the members of which had accepted certain principles and doctrines, and who lived, thought, and acted collectively, and whose acts were dictated or related to the beliefs that they had accepted.”[xl] The chief characteristic of the Pythagorean movement, however was secrecy – with underground political motivations:

While the overall tone of Pythagoras’ teaching appears concerned with morality, virtue, and religious piety, the mission of the secret group seems to have been the infiltration and takeover of the government. Thus, it functioned as a political conspiracy on the one hand, while on the other projecting the outward appearance of a bona fide political association.[xli]

The speeches ascribed to Pythagoras that have been handed down to us are nothing particularly special: be good, honor your elders, refrain from evil, etc. There was certainly more to the movement than his words of wisdom (although there may have been much that was lost). The power of the movement was in its initiations and secrecy. Membership was extremely selective, and the initiation process not for the faint of heart. There was first a series of tests for candidates, followed by a background check involving the applicant’s personal life, relationships and behavior: “Did he talk too much or laugh on the wrong occasions? How did he get along with other students? What, for example, made him happy or sad?”[xlii] Finally there was a physical examination. If he passed these preliminaries, he was sent away for three years and totally ignored, but secretly watched (not unlike Tyler Durton’s modern day initiation cult rendition in Fight Club).

If they were admitted, candidates had to turn over all of their belongings – money, properties and income – to a special board of trustees,[xliii] and for the first 5 years, they took a vow of silence. If they were later rejected from the higher levels of initiation, they had their investments returned in double but were treated as if they were dead by members. Likewise, in the earliest periods of Christianity, such socialist practices were also the rule, and strictly enforced. Luke has Jesus caution, “None of you can be my disciple without giving up all that he owns” (Luke 14:33), and according to the Acts of the Apostles, “And all who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (Acts 2:44). Acts also relates the curious incident of Ananias and Sapphira, new converts to Christianity who secretly held back some of their earnings rather than sharing it with the Church. Their transgression was punished by a miraculous execution – they fell down dead when confronted by Peter.

Like the Pythagorean cult, the early church had “administrators” who were responsible for maintaining the wealth and finances of the community. This feature of early Christianity didn’t last (later converts were allowed to keep their property), but its presence and inclusion into the Bible suggests external influences. Although Judaism, especially during the decades surrounding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, did have socialistic sects where Christianity may have found this feature, these sects were themselves more similar to Pythagoreanism than to traditional Judaic worship.

According to Josephus, the Essenic communities shared all of their property and wealth communally, had no personal possessions, did not sacrifice animals, and focused on cleansings and purity. After a three year probation, newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practice piety towards “the Deity” and righteousness towards humanity, to maintain a pure life-style, to abstain from criminal and immoral activities, to transmit their rules uncorrupted and to preserve the books of the Essenes and the names of the Angels (The Wars of the Jews, 2.137–142). They also believed in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.18, The Wars of the Jews. 2.153–158).

Another source of commonality is the theme of secrecy, with truth being revealed only to an inner group.

The notion that Pythagoras founded a movement whose mission was the “education and enlightenment of the masses” is wonderfully romantic, yet the very sources who have sought to convey this impression have also persevered old sayings that paint a very different picture.[xliv]

The eventual fall of Pythagoreanism may have been due to the contradiction inherent in a selective, spiritual minority ruling the alienated majority. Likewise, although Jesus Christ is often heralded for his democratic inclusion of all people, there are passages in the Bible which make it clear that not everybody would make it into the kingdom, but only the worthy, and characterize the Christian cult as a small, non-inclusive group of separatists: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 20:16). Moreover, Jesus frequently speaks in riddles and parables, which he later explains only to his inner group of disciples. Although in theory a community of brothers, it should not be forgotten that Christianity was managed by a select authoritarian group that demanded absolute allegiance and complete surrender of personal property, and which quickly grew in wealth and power.

Finally, like Christians, Pythagoreans were taught to fight against sin and lawlessness. They even had a custom of confessing each day’s sins:

As soon as they got up in the morning, members were required to disclose to one another a detailed account of the activities and events of the previous day. Supposedly, this exercise had a twofold aim: to train a person’s memory and to teach him to assess his conduct, in order to, as Diodorus says, “gain knowledge and judgment in all matters.”[xlv]

Some of these lifestyle choices, beliefs and practices would become fairly common in the centuries before and after the coming of Jesus Christ; mostly in various mystery cults and religions. Their inclusion into Christianity is not surprising, and yet proved problematic for the early church, who constantly needed to differentiate themselves somehow from other groups who believed very similar things and practiced similar rituals and habits.

The powerful figure of Pythagoras would grow to supernatural proportions; as we have seen, he was believed to have been born of a God (Hermes, in a previous life), descended into the underworld, and taught specific instructions about surviving after death. In the religious-political system that he created, Christianity had a ready template for its own organization.

Orpheus

Orpheus is the figure credited with a new type of spirituality which began to permeate Greece in around the 6th century BC. He is chiefly considered a prophet, magician, astrologer and musician. The movement known as Orphism, as well as various pieces of poetry known as “Orphica” are ascribed to him. Even in antiquity, Orpheus was regarded as the founder of mystery religions; the first to reveal to men the meaning of rites of initiation. He is chiefly regarded as a human figure – a prophet of Dionysus – however his story is so blended with mythology that it is impossible to say whether or not he ever truly existed. According to Jan Bremmer in The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, Orpheus was a mythological figure created as a mouthpiece for certain developing ideas resulting from the blending of Pythagoreanism and Bacchic ideologies: “Orphism was a product of Pythagorean influence on Bacchic mysteries in the first quarter of the fifth century… but Pythagoras belongs to history, and Orpheus to myth.”[xlvi] For other scholars, Orpheus was the prophet who turned the Dionysian spirituality into an organized way of living:

From the fourth century BC, the killing of Dionysus by the Titans made it possible to explain the state of man, thrown into the world, and was at the origin of the way of life invented by Orpheus for the salvation of the individual soul.[xlvii]

His father was Apollo (or Oeagrus, a Thracian river god) and his mother was Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. His magic power was his perfection of music – with his song and lyre he allured the trees, the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks to follow him (Ovid, Metamorphoses XI). The power of Orpheus’ music has its roots in the Pythagorean belief that the universe is made up of vibrations like a musical chord: different notes produced the different states of matter. Plants, animals, metals and gemstones were in harmony with the frequencies produced by the planets and could be used in a sort of sympathetic magic.

Orpheus plays the same instrument as his father Apollo, symbolizing the music of the seven planets and the universal laws of septenary manifestation whose knowledge gives magical power over all created things. Orpheus could charm beasts, plants and even the denizens of the Underworld, i.e. he understood the laws of sympathy and harmony that link every level of creation, and was able to put them to use.[xlviii]

His music also allowed him to perform miraculous feats; for example, when he sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus muted out the Sirens’ seductive call with his own music, and, according to some accounts, also calmed the guardian dragon to sleep so that Jason could retrieve the Golden Fleece.[xlix] The most famous story about Orpheus, however, is his descent into the Underworld to save his wife, Eurydice (also known as Agriope).

While she was escaping from Aristaeus (son of Apollo), Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and was bitten on the heel. Orpheus mourned her with a song that was so touching that all the gods and nymphs wept. At their insistence, he traveled to the Underworld to try to save her. He used his music to soften the hearts of Persephone and Hadesas well as Charon, the boatman of the river Styx, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates. In fact, everybody in Hell ceased momentarily from their constant torment to listen to the beautiful music. Persephone and Hades allowed him to retrieve Eurydice from the dead, but on one condition: she was to follow behind him and he must refrain from turning around and checking on her. But he was so anxious that he turned around too early, and she disappeared forever. This motif is similar to many other stories in world literature, including the Genesis episode of Lot and his wife.

Orpheus finally met his death at the hands of Thracian Maenads for failing to honor Dionysus (apparently, at the end of his life Orpheus became monotheistic and worshiped only Apollo). In another version, the Ciconian women, also Dionysus’ followers, were angry at him for refusing their advances (he’d forsworn women after the death of Eurydice) and threw sticks and stones at him. At first, his beautiful music stopped the projectiles like a magic shield, but the enraged women then tore him apart – just like Pentheus in The Bacchae, and also reminiscent of Dionysus’ first death at the hands of the Titans. The Muses gathered up his pieces and buried them beneath Mount Olympus. His head floated to the island of Lesbos, where it prophesied until it was silenced by Apollo.

Orphism, a religious movement that emerged around 600BC, claims to have at its core the revelations given by the head of Orpheus in the cave of Lesbos, after it had been detached from his body. These records – known as the Orphica – are a collection of hymns and poetry.

Orphism developed an elaborate cosmogony (a theory explaining the creation of the universe) based on the mythical death of Dionysus. As we have seen, the killing and eating of Dionysus by the Titans, and Zeus’s subsequent destruction of the Titans (from whose ashes rose the human race), gave humanity a dual nature: both Dionysiac (divine and good) and Titan (earthly and evil).

Orphic belief and ritual existed in some form in the fifth century BC, being referred to by Herodotus and Euripides and others. It is a question therefore of how much of the belief and ritual concerning Dionysus goes back to that time – a time when Dionysus was one of the chief gods of every Greek city, worshipped at seasonal festivals with elaborate public rites and with another kind of belief, the local myths pertaining to each festival. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is archaeology which in recent decades has contributed striking details of Orphic belief and ritual: they draw us especially to this matter of Dionysus. The Derveni papyrus, recovered from a funeral pyre in Thessaly, contains a truncated commentary by a ritual adept upon an Orphic creation story dated to c. 500BC or even the sixth century.[l]

Through initiation into the Orphic mysteries, and by living an ascetic life of abstention from meat, wine and sexual activity, individuals sought to suppress their earthly natures and cultivate their divine, Dionysian, selves. Full liberation of the soul could be achieved only through a cycle of incarnations. Orpheus’ descent into and return from the underworld gave him unique knowledge and wisdom of the afterlife; hence his followers believed he could act as an intermediary with the forces below.

The secrets of Hades were in his possession. He could tell his followers what the fate of their souls would be, and how they should behave to make it the best possible. He had shown himself capable of melting the hearts of the powers below, and might be expected to intercede again on their own behalf if they lived the pure life according to his precepts. That was the important thing. The reason which once took him there was secondary.[li]

Orphism seems to have had a missionary basis, and spread rapidly. Plato mentions traveling priests, from 400BC or earlier, selling spells and initiation rites into the Orphic way of life. Initiates were taught to control their passions, have respect for all life and refrain from eating meat (because of their belief in transmigration). The object was to free their souls from the cycle of rebirth. Once freed, they could ascend up to “ultimate bliss on the Isles of the Blessed or in the realm of the starry ether.”[lii] Jan Bremmer claims that the Orphic reservation of an especially desirable afterlife only for initiates, or worthy persons, later influenced Christian ideas concerning the afterlife:

It is in the fifth century, then, in Orphic-Pythagorean milieus that the contours of the later Christian distinction between heaven and hell first become visible.[liii]

In Orphic teachings, “man is suddenly promoted to the climax of creation. Moreover, we can observe that the diversity of the Greek pantheon has been reduced to a virtually monotheistic rule by Zeus, although Dionysus, whose position in the normative Greek pantheon was more ‘eccentric’, is also indispensable.”[liv] Orphics dressed in white to demonstrate their aspirations to purity, and followed strict rules of propriety. Free will and personal responsibility were also essential and important parts of the Orphic code.[lv]

What distinguished Orpheus from other pagan heroes was his meekness and humility, traits that today are usually believed to have been unique to Jesus Christ:

The influence of Orpheus was always on the side of civilization and the arts of peace. In personal character he is never a hero in the modern sense. His outstanding quality is gentleness amounting at times to softness.[lvi]

Although Orpheus cannot be said to have resurrected or come back from the dead (at least not since the first time he did it, when rescuing Eurydice), we do have the curious prophecies of his disembodied talking head, which gave the bulk of his teachings after he’d been violently murdered. Strikingly, Christianity has its own version of a miraculous talking head. Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome, is said in Matthew 14:8 and Mark 6:25 to have asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter; the presentation of this head often appears in art. In medieval times it was rumored that The Knights Templar had possession of the talking head of St. John, and multiple records from the Inquisition in the early 1300s make reference to some form of head being worshiped by the Knights.

Guthrie suggests that Orpheus’ magical pacification of animals and the forces of nature were the inspiration of Jesus’ similar power.

The common representation of him sitting playing his lyre surrounded by beasts wild and tame who are lulled into amity by his music suggests naturally the picture of the lion and the lamb lying down together.[lvii]

In fact, many early Christians seemed only too ready to make this identification themselves; the motif of Orpheus playing his lyre has been found intermingled with other symbolism in Christian catacombs, as noted by Littleton in Gods, Goddesses and Mythology:

As an allegory, the pagan story even found its way into early Christian iconography. In the catacombs of Jerusalem, for example, Jesus was depicted in the guise of Orpheus with the lyre. In some later Christian tombs, Orpheus is shown delivering the Sermon on the Mount or acting as “the Good Shepherd.”[lviii]

This is less surprising when we consider that the Old Testament already had a musical shepherd of its own:

It was easy to see in the characteristic picture of Orpheus not only a symbol of the Good Shepherd of the Christians (and we remember the Orphic bukoloi), but also parallels to the lore of the Old Testament. It too had, in the person of David, its magical musician playing among sheep and the wild beasts of the wilderness, and the resemblance did not pass unnoticed.[lix]

A final bit of interesting trivia is Orpheus’ personal antagonism towards women, and their resentment of it leading to his violent death, which was used to justify sexist cultural practices. The ritual of tattooing among Thracian women, for example, was said to be the punishment inflicted on them by their husbands for the murder of Orpheus.[lx] Thus, we have women being blamed and punished for a mythological event; not unlike Christianity’s subordination of women – “the weaker sex” – for Eve’s fall and the temptation of Adam.

Orpheus, a meek and humble bringer of peace, founded a mystery cult of spiritual initiation aimed at eternal salvation based on ritual purity, moral behavior and self-control, after he’d suffered a violent death at the hands of his enemies. He descended into Hell and returned, had unrivalled magical powers, and promised salvation to his followers. It’s no wonder that early Christians identified him with Jesus Christ.

Asclepius

It is perhaps telling that Asclepius is so little known in modern society. While most people are familiar with other Greek and Roman gods – Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite – and Christ myth theorists talk passionately about the similarities between Mithras, Attis, Osiris and other dying and resurrecting gods, the name “Asclepius” has almost completely disappeared outside of academic references. And yet, Asclepius was the largest and most persevering challenge to early Christianity:

The correspondence between Christianity and the other mystery religions of antiquity are perhaps more startling than the differences. Orpheus and Christ share attributes in the early centuries of our era; and of all the major ancient deities, Dionysus has most in common with the figure of Christ. It was the son of Apollo, however, Asclepius, the kindly healer and miracle worker, who posed the greatest threat to early Christianity.[lxi]

As we have seen, the claim of Christ’s historical nature, above all else, was crucial for distinguishing him from the beliefs of the pagans. All apparent similarities between Jesus and pagan gods could be explained away with diabolical mimicry and the assertion that, while other gods were mythological symbols, Jesus was a real human being. However, apart from the tenacity of his followers, the proof that Jesus Christ was historical – the signs he gave that he was who he claimed to be – were his miracles; notably, his miraculous healings. Jesus restored sight to the blind, he raised the dead, he cured the sick, he cleansed lepers, and he healed paralytics. These healings are reported in the gospels as signs of his divinity; they are the proof that Jesus was the son of God.

However, long before the Christian movement, Asclepius was universally known as the expert of medicine and healing. And he wasn’t considered just a myth: Asclepius was believed to have been a real man, who died a real death, but then came back. Whether “resurrected” or “ascended into heaven,” after death he was (reportedly) physically present in his temples to affect miraculous healings. Asclepius was widely believed to provide actual, physical healings, which were directly experienced by many people. He was a living god, prayed to, worshiped, and intimately familiar to every Greek and Roman citizen of the pagan world.

His mother was Coronis, daughter of Phelgyas in Thessaly, (or Arsinoe, daughter of Leucipuus) and his father was Apollo. Apollo loved Coronis, but her father made her marry another man. Apollo cursed the raven who brought the tidings – made it black instead of white – and killed Coronis. Her father placed her on a funeral pyre, but as she was burning Apollo recovered the baby from her womb and brought it to Chiron, the Centaur, by whom the baby was raised and taught the arts of healing. Asclepius became such a great surgeon that he even gained the power to raise the dead – a power for which Zeus struck him down with a lightning bolt:

And having become a surgeon, and carried the art to a great pitch, he not only prevented some from dying, but even raised up the dead; for he received from Athena the blood that flowed from the veins of the Gorgon, and while he used the blood that flowed from her left side for the bane of mankind, he used the blood that flowed from her right side for salvation, and by that means he raised the dead. But Zeus, fearing the men might acquire the healing art from him and so come to the rescue of each other, smote him with a thunderbolt. Angry on that account, Apollo slew the Cyclops who had fashioned the thunderbolt for Zeus.[lxii]

After his death he ascended into heaven (was placed in the stars) and thus became an immortal god. It was said that he was born as a man, died a mortal death and was resurrected.[lxiii]

In another version of the story, Asclepius was the son of Phlegys (who came to Peloponnesus) and Apollo; she bore the child, but exposed him on a mountain. A goat gave him milk, a watchdog of the herd guarded him, and a goatherd found him. Still later, Priscus, contemporary of Cicero, says he was born of uncertain parents, exposed, nourished by a dog, found by some hunters, and turned over to Chiron for medical training. He lived at Epidaurus, but was from Messenian. Cicero claims he was buried at Cynosura.[lxiv] These increasingly detailed reports are the result of an attempt to classify or catalog mythology into a rational account of history. Whether or not Asclepius actually lived as a historical person remains unclear.

At any rate, Asclepius proved an extremely popular and powerful deity in the classical era. Pindar has Apollo give his approval for the worship of his son, citing the fact that Asclepius restores sight to the blind, makes the lame get up and walk, and raises the dead:

If, then, the son of Coronis accomplished anything meet for a god; if he restored to the blind the sight which had slipped away from their eyes; if he bade the dead return to life; if, making the lame swift of foot, he commanded them to go home rejoicing, then let him be enriched with our due admiration, too; if he was in high repute among some of the most feeble, let him, too, be praised as most nobly going about the task of his medical skill. Yes let him not dishonor the “understand thyself.”[lxv]

The story of Asclepius was known at least five centuries before Christianity. In Aeshylus’ play, Agamemnon (458BC), it is clear that Asclepius was chiefly known for his ability to raise the dead, and his subsequent punishment: “But man’s dark blood, once it hath flowed to the earth in death, who by chanting spells shall call it back? Even him who possessed the skill to raise from the dead – did not Zeus put a stop to him as a precaution?” (1019-24).

Homer sang of Asclepius as one of the fighters before Troy (T135), and according to Plato, Socrates’ last words were “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it” (Phaedo, 118). These references show just how integral Asclepius was to the ancient world. Although the meaning of Socrates’ last words remains unclear, it may have something to do with Asclepius’ role as protector and guardian of the dead. Asclepius’ symbol was a snake climbing a pole; it continues to be used by many modern health organizations.

The temples of Asclepius served as hospitals in ancient times. Priests went through rigorous medical training. The sick or injured would come for incubation or a “sleeping-cure.” While they slept they would receive the god’s instructions in dream – or sometimes even experience some kind of psychic surgery, where they experienced the god cutting them open. When they woke up, if they were not already miraculously cured, the priests would interpret the dream and prescribe a remedy. The effects of these cures are corroborated by the hundreds of ex-voto offerings that were left at temple sites by the healed:

They were of terracotta, marble, bronze, silver or even gold, depending on the means of the faithful whose prayers had been granted, but chiefly of clay, the majority of the clientele of the island in the Tiber being of humble estate. There were feet, hands, breasts, intestines, viscera in an open torso, genital organs, eyes, ears, mouths… Above all, it was necessary to demonstrate gratitude by way of an inscribed tablet bearing the account of the miraculous treatment.[lxvi]

These very detailed descriptions of prescriptions and healings were further affirmed with the claim that the healing took place in the presence of a crowd and that the healed publicly gave thanks for the cure.

Asclepius was unlike the other pagan gods, whose stories were full of indiscretions and selfish acts; there was nothing in the Asclepius myth that was in the least reminiscent of the divine legends ascribed to the other deities such as thieving, wenching or dealing deceitfully:

Granted that the tradition is fragmentary, that stories may have been current which are not preserved, there can have been no stories of love affairs or of dissension, tales amoral in tone or character. Otherwise it would be incomprehensible that the Christian polemic, eager as it was to find fault with the outrageous behavior of the pagan gods, does not refer to any derogatory incident in the life of Asclepius, the most dangerous enemy of Christ.[lxvii]

Moreover, Asclepius was unique in offering a more personal, humane relationship to the divine. Since the 5th century BC, philosophers had been arguing that true gods should be free from envy or malice, and were seeking an individual relationship with the divine rather than collective worship.

There was a craving for a personal relationship to the deity, and the belief in divine providence progressed steadily. In such a world it was natural that Asclepius found favor, for if any god was interested in the private needs of men, in their most personal affairs, if any god showed providence, it was Asclepius.[lxviii]

Asclepius only healed the pure of heart and mind. He healed the poor and he did it for free, out of love and kindness. Images of Asclepius show him as youthful and bearded. He “radiates dignity mixed with compassion; eyes turned upward looking saintly and benign. Curly locks falling over the back and down to the eyebrows.”[lxix] He was fond of children.

The similarities between Asclepius and Jesus Christ did not go unnoticed. Justin Martyr cites Asclepius’ healing miracles, and argued that the resurrection of Jesus was no different from Asclepius dying but being raised to heaven:

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was produced without sexual union, and that He was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing new and different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter… Asclepius, who, though he was a great healer, was struck by a thunderbolt, and ascended to heaven. (First Apology, 21:1-2)

When we say that He (Jesus) made well the lame and the paralytic and those who were feeble from birth and that he resurrected the dead, we shall seem to be mentioning deeds similar to and even identical with those which were said to have been performed by Asclepius. (First Apology,  22:6)

Asclepius was also, like Jesus, given the power to cast out demons, as is mentioned by the apologist Lactantius in his Divine Institutions:

Behold, someone excited by the impulse of the demon is out of his senses, raves, is mad: let us lead him into the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; or since Jupiter knows not how to cure men, into the fane of Asclepius or Apollo. Let the priest of either, in the name of his god, command the wicked spirit to come out of the man.[lxx]

Likewise, in the apocryphal work The Acts of Pilate, possibly written in the 4th century AD, when Jesus is accused of being “a sorcerer, and by Beelzebub the prince of the devils he casteth out devils, and they are all subject unto him,” Pilate responds, “It is not possible to cast out devils in the name of an impure spirit but rather in the name of the god Asclepius” (Acts of Pilate).

Asclepius was given power over the elements, as testified by a passage from Aristides (530BC-468BC) which prefigures the calming of the seas miracle which Jesus will later perform: “Now I have heard some people saying that, when they were at sea and in the midst of a storm, the god appeared to them and stretched forth his hand.”[lxxi] He was even regarded as a muse for inspired writings, as testified by Libanius:

‘And he not without the aid of the gods’ says Homer, ‘nor do you (Acacias) write these words without the influence of Asclepius, for manifestly he joined with you in the writing. It is, of course, fitting for him, as the son of Apollo, to have some of the cultural talent of his father and to apportion it to whomever he desires. How then would it be possible for him not to assist you in these discourses concerning himself?[lxxii]

His role as healer was sometimes expanded into a universal force – Asclepius could thus be considered a ruling or governing principle that kept the universe itself in order and governed all things. According to Aristides, Asclepius was “the one who guides and rules the universe, the savior of the whole and the guardian of the immortals.”[lxxiii] Julianus says “shall I now go on to tell you how Helius took thought for the health and safety of all by begetting Asclepius to be the savior of the whole world?”[lxxiv]

Later, the Neoplatonists expanded this idea. Asclepius was the soul of the world, who held creation together and kept the universe healthy and young.[lxxv] At the same time, despite this supernatural role, Asclepius always remained a humble healer. Scholar Emma J. Edelstein gives the following overview of the similarities between Jesus Christ and the Roman god of healing:

Christ did not perform heroic or worldly exploits; he fought no battles; he concerned himself solely with assisting those who were in need of succor. So did Asclepius. Christ, like Asclepius, was sent into the world as a helper of men. Christ’s life on earth was blameless, as was that of Asclepius. Christ in his love of men invited his patients to come to him, or else he wandered about to meet them. This, too, could be said of Asclepius. All in all, it is not astonishing that Apologists and Church Fathers had a hard stand in their fight against Asclepius, in proving the superiority of Jesus, if moral reasoning alone was to be relied upon. The nature of the godhead of the two saviors was indisputably identical: both were man-gods. Sonof God and mortal woman, the story of Christ’s birth in many ways resembled the birth saga of divine Asclepius. God died… through god had risen to heaven, immortal on account of virtue. Human and divine, Asclepius was called a ‘terrestrial and intelligible’ god.[lxxvi]

According to Diogenes Laertius, Phoebus gave to mortals Asclepius and Plato, the one to save their souls, the other to save their bodies. Jesus will become both; however, could the stories, healings, philosophy and world view of Jesus Christ have emerged spontaneously and fully developed without the centuries of competing traditions? When the apostles preached that a man in Jerusalem had healed the sick, raised the dead, resurrected and ascended into heaven, would these claims have astounded anyone already familiar with the many miracles of Asclepius?

Osiris

Osiris was the Egyptian god of the dead, and also a vegetation and resurrection god. Although the story of Osiris is already told in the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt (2400BC), his popularity exploded when his cult (or rather, the cult of Isis, which included him and his son Horus) was imported into the Roman empire. The main story of Osiris, which features his death and resurrection, as well as the magical healing powers of Isis and the birth of their son, Horus, is as follows:

Osiris was the great benefactor of humanity; he gave humankind laws, the institution of marriage, civil organization, taught them agriculture, and how to worship the gods. “He conquered the nations everywhere, but not with weapons, only music and eloquence.”[lxxvii] He ruled the land in peace with his consort (wife/sister) Isis. However, his brother Seth (in earlier versions Typhon), was filled with envy and malice, and decided to kill him. Knowing that Osiris was more powerful, Seth designed a clever trap: he made a beautiful chest out of wood, exactly the size of Osiris, and promised it as a gift to whomever it fit. Everybody tried, but nobody could fit in the box. Finally, Osiris tried; but as soon as he lay down inside, Seth with his companions closed the lid, nailed it shut and threw the chest in the Nile river. Isis wept and mourned, tearing her hair and beating her breast. Dressed in black, with shorn hair, she wandered up and down the banks of the Nile, searching in vain for the body of Osiris. The chest had come to rest on the bank of the river, and the power inside was so great that a large tree blossomed; the chest became part of the tree trunk, which was then used as a column in a palace. Isis discovered the truth, and with a wave of her magic wand, split open the column, revealing the wooden coffin. She took the body of Osiris and hid it in a swamp. But Seth found it (as he was out hunting a wild boar) and tore it into 14 pieces. Isis in her magnificent power found the pieces and put them together again, with the exception of the phallus, which was eaten by a fish. She raised Osiris from the dead, at least enough to impregnate her, and he became the ruler of the underworld. Isis then fled with her infant son Horus into hiding, in fear of Seth. However, when Horus grows up and is strong enough, he will return to defeat Seth and avenge the death of his father. According to Witt, “On this founding myth was built a robust system of Egyptian religious belief and ritual, which included the suffering and burial of Osiris, the mourning of Isis, the birth of the divine child, and then the exuberant celebration of his return.”[lxxviii] German professor of Egyptology Jan Assman explains these rituals further:

The rejoicing of the triumph of Horus is the precise counterpart of the mourning over the death of Osiris. Both are extreme and all encompassing. Just as the death plunges the entire world into the depths of despair, so the triumph transports it into the heights of rapture. The two emotions belong together as a pair at the beginning and the end of the story that transpires between them. The entire land participated in the story in an annual cycle of festivals, and all who took part in them experienced them.[lxxix]

Osiris is undoubtedly a vegetation god, sometimes associated with corn or grain, but he could also be a solar deity, “bringing light and food especially to those Yonder, the denizens of the netherworld, as he makes his nocturnal journey through their midst in his boat.”[lxxx]

When he was called “the Great Green” he was the life-giving fresh water of the river and under this aspect even the salt water of the sea. Manifested in the grain he was the “Bread of Life,” and as with other gods of Egypt he could be addressed as a bisexual being: “You are Father and Mother of men. They live from your breath and eat of the flesh of your body.”[lxxxi]

At the same time, as ruler of the underworld, he was “the resident king of the dead, true of heart and voice, watching with an eye that was never at rest over the rewards of those who came into his realm.”[lxxxii] The story of his resurrection had been used for millennia to justify the potential for life after death.

Osiris was the dying and rising god, the mythic precedent and guarantee that one could say to the deceased king, and later to every person, “Stand up!” The fact that he had risen invested these words with meaning. As is well known, this role of Osiris has led to his being classified with a series of “dying and rising” vegetation gods from western Asia: Tammuz, Attis, Adonis. This might be true to a certain extent. Without doubt, Osiris had a relationship with the agricultural cycle and other processes of death and rebirth in nature.[lxxxiii]

According to Frazer, Egyptians were sometimes entombed with life-sized effigies of Osiris, which were hallowed out; then sealed inside in a water tight compartment were placed water, dirt and barley seed, which would “live forever.”

In laying their dead in the grave they committed them to his keeping who could raise them from the dust to life eternal, even as he caused the seed to spring from the ground. Of that faith the corn-stuffed effigies of Osiris found in Egyptian tombs furnish an eloquent and unequivocal testimony. They were at once an emblem and an instrument of resurrection.[lxxxiv]

The annual commemoration of the Osiris story was an enormous cultural event; it retraced the passion, death and resurrection of the god, and was celebrated even in the Roman capital (the Egyptian cult was established in Rome around 50BC). The Iseum of Pompeii was decorated with two paintings of the passion of Osiris.[lxxxv] According to Witt, Isis would discover she was pregnant on the 3rd of October, and rose up the new god Horus in an egg. The search for Osiris’ body lasted until the 3rd of November, followed by the embalmment of the body. The mummified body was entombed on the 21st December, and two days later, on the 23rd, Isis would bring forth her child, “23 December being in the Egyptian Calendar the date of the simultaneous burial and rebirth of the Sun God. Of cardinal importance for the chronology of the whole tale is the winter solstice.”[lxxxvi] The precise dates are difficult to determine, as Egypt used a shifting calendar. Dowden argues that the mourning period lasted three days:

For three days his dismemberment at the hands of his enemy Seth or Typhon is mourned; then he is found by Isis and reassembled… This is the experience which is shared in some way by those who have been initiated into the secrets of the religion, maybe the Melanephoroi (‘wearers of black’) whom inscriptions mention: it is a death and resurrection, despair and new hope story.[lxxxvii]

Osiris had his own mysteries, and followers of the Egyptian cult believed that they could, like Osiris, find eternal life after death. He was called “The Good Shepherd” and is always shown with the Crook and Flail; shepherd’s tools that became symbols of leadership carried by the pharaohs. Gordon claims that the idea of an afterlife, as either a reward or punishment based on the merits of each individual, is unique to Egypt:

Egyptian religion developed a kind of Passion Play concerning Osiris, the god of the dead, showing his suffering, death, and revival. Each dead person was identified with Osiris on the assumption that the deceased would undergo, but emerge triumphant like Osiris from, a trial full of vicissitudes to qualify for life eternal… This fully developed concept of personal judgment, whereby each man enters paradise if his character and life on earth warrant it, appears quite remarkable when we consider that centuries later there was still no such idea in Mesopotamia or Israel.[lxxxviii]

Assman stresses the mourning of Osiris’ suffering, noting that followers practiced castration:

In the innermost part of their temples they buried an idol of Osiris: This they annually mourned, they shaved their heads, they beat their breast, tore their members, etc., in order to bewail the pitiful fate of their king… the defenders of this mourning and those funerals give a physical explanation: the seed, they say, is Osiris, the earth Isis, the heat Typhon. And because the fruit is ripe as a result of the heat, it is collected for the living of men and thus separated from earth’s company, and when winter comes it will be sowed into the earth in what they interpret as the death and burial of Osiris. But the earth will become pregnant and bring forth new fruits.”[lxxxix]

Osiris’ son, Horus (known as Harpocrates by the Greeks), an infant god described in the Pyramid Texts as “the young one with his finger in his mouth,” was a favorite figure of paganism in the time of Christ.[xc] Even as a young child, he was given absolute power. “He shall rule over this earth… He will be your master, this god who is but an embryo.”[xci]

The birth story of Horus (the massacre of infants, retreat into hiding, triumphant return), is very similar to that of Jesus. Horus was reborn every year on January 6th [xcii] – the date on which the birthday of Jesus was celebrated for centuries until 354AD, when the bishop of Rome ruled in favor of December 25th. Some statues of Isis with the baby Horus in her lap are nearly indistinguishable from those of Mary and Jesus and were accidentally worshipped in Christian churches for centuries.

When the Egyptian cult was introduced to Greece and Rome, Horus became identified with Apollo, Heracles, Eros (god of love) and the sun.

The Beloved and indeed Only Begotten Son of the Father, the Omnipotent Child, he has under his control the circuit of the solar disk and so assumes the lotus which itself is the emblem of the rising Sun.[xciii]

Demonstrating the trend towards religious synthesis, Horus assimilated the roles and symbols of other gods. In the depictions of Horus found in Pompeii, “He can don the wings of Eros, anticipating the angel-iconography of Christianity, and in his left hand carry the cornucopia of Bacchus. He possesses the quiver of Apollo and the fawnskin of Dionysus.”[xciv] When Horus grows up, he defeats the dragon/crocodile Seth in a magnificent battle. This battle almost certainly influenced Christian iconography:

In the period during which Christianity was establishing itself as a world religion the figure of Horus/Harpocrates in conjunction with that of a crocodile typified the triumph of good over evil, exactly the same as the victory over the dragon by the saintly combatants Michael and George… Moreover, the dragon was pyrrhous in color: and Plutarch thrice applies the same epithet to the complexion of Seth-Typhon.[xcv]

It was Isis, however, as great mother-goddess, who was the most powerful of the trilogy. Isis gives Horus his powers, and it was Isis who restored life to Osiris. She was a gifted healer – priests of her temples had to study six branches of medical science: anatomy, pathology, surgery, pharmacology, ophthalmology and gynaecology.[xcvi]

She was the great sorceress. The art of medicine was hers. Horus, the child born weak, is named ‘son of an enchantress’. It is to Isis the divine sorceress that the great god Re is forced to reveal the secret of his name. Her magical nature renders her potentially hermaphrodite. So she is not bound by the normal law of sex. She can resuscitate the dead Osiris and by spells obtain the gift of a son. We learn that she discovered health-giving drugs and simples as well as the elixir of life. Like Apollo and Asclepius she was an expert in making men well when they betook themselves to her temples, where after incubation they could look forward in hope to gain a cure. Skilful as healer and discoverer of the mysteries of birth, life and death, she was the lady who saved. She resurrected. The gates of Hell, besides salvation, were in her hands.[xcvii]

Isaic temples held mysteries of redemption involving “living water,” challenging initiation rites, and obedience.

Certainly, Isis gives her children the sure hope of eternal salvation: but in return she demands from them unquestioning, even blind obedience, just as she subjects them to the most grueling tests before they reach their haven of rest.[xcviii]

She had the power to control “demons” (elements) and “nature” (astrology).[xcix] She loved sinners; according to Lucius, in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, “Thou doest always bestow thy dear love on wretched men in their mishaps.”[c] She also made her mysteries available to rich and poor alike, “not just to the affluent citizen who made his fortune in shipping but even to the man of lowly birth and the down-trodden slave.”[ci] One inscription to her, found at the temple of Neith at Sais, reads “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe has never yet been uncovered by mortal men.”[cii] Like Horus and Osiris, Isis increasingly usurped the roles, symbols and powers of other gods; she became all things to all people.

After this with her untold wealth of titles she could take the one that pleased her best. She could assume the eagle of Zeus and the dolphin of Poseidon, the lyre of Apollo and tongs of Hephaestus, the wand of Hermes, the thyrsus of Bacchus and the club of Heracles.[ciii]

The similarities between the Egyptian cult and Christianity are many: the entire birth story, as well as the Christian iconography of the infant Jesus; the triumph of good over evil; the death and resurrection; the “Great Virgin” and “Mother of God” (Isis was called both before the Christian era). Most importantly the emotional catharsis involved, which is also to be found in most other mystery traditions, in mourning the death and then celebrating the return of the deity. Some researchers claim that the Egyptian myth is unique because it has two generations:

If we are somewhat reminded of the sorrow of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday, it should again be stressed that in the myth of Osiris, we are dealing with two generations. The god who triumphs is a different one from the god who is killed.[civ]

However, Horus grows up to become Osiris every year, and makes a new Horus; if you combine Horus and Osiris together into one figure, you’d create a figure much like Jesus Christ. Of course, the story is very different; the details of Jesus’ life and personality so clearly presented in the gospels make him dissimilar to the Egyptian myth. But we must ask, what is most relevant to the figure of Jesus Christ – the historical details that make him an ordinary man, or his death and resurrection, role in salvation, and divinity?

Tammuz (Adonis)

Tammuz (Sumerian Dumuzi) was the consort of Ishtar. He is mentioned, already in the Epic of Gilgamesh, as a suffering lover of the goddess, a shepherd beloved and scapegoat of the netherworld. When Ishtar tries to become Gilgamesh’s lover, he points out that her past lovers have not fared well. “Dumuzi, the lover of your youth, year upon year, to lamenting you doomed him.”[cv] When Gilgamesh is mourning the death of Enkidu, he presents a carnelian flute for “Dumuzi, shepherd beloved of Ishtar,” so that he may welcome his friend and walk at his side.[cvi] Thus Dumuzi, who has been considered as a historical king that entered into sexual union with the goddess, was also viewed as a suffering god in his own right. The great age of this cult is attested by the Uruk Vase of the outgoing fourth millennium BC, which depicts the central event of the rite of the sacred marriage.[cvii]

His demise is tied to the story of Ianna’s descent into the underworld. The reason she gives for entering the underworld is to attend her brother-in-law’s funeral rites (Gugalana, the Bull of Heaven which had just been killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu). After she decides to go down into the Great Below, she leaves instructions for her rescue in case she does not return. (Incidentally, the Underworld or the Great Below is, for gods who reside above in heaven, actually the earth.) As she descends, she is required to remove one of her seven layers of clothing at each of the seven gates, until she stood before Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, naked and humble. Ereshkigal “fixed the eye of death” upon her and she was turned into a corpse, and hung from a hook on the wall like a piece of rotting meat.

After three days and three nights, her servant Ninshubar, following instructions, tried to persuade the gods to save her. Only one, Enki, agreed to help. He fashioned two sexless creatures from the dirt under the fingernails of the gods, and gave them the food and water of life to sprinkle on Ianna’s corpse. She returned to life, and Ereshkigal agreed to release her, but she had to provide another in her place. When she came back to heaven she found Dumuzi enjoying himself in her absence (on her throne or under a tree), rather than mourning for her, and “fixed the eye of death” upon him. The demons took him down to Hell; however his sister loved him so much she wanted to go in his place.

So, Dumuzi spends half of the year in the underworld, while his sister spends the other half. During the time that Dumuzi is in the underworld, his lover Ianna misses him; this infertile time is fall and winter. When Dumuzi returns from the underworld and he is with Ianna, their love fills the world with life, causing spring and summer. The poetry of their love is graphic – but also reminiscent of the biblical Song of Songs.

My untilled land lies fallow.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva!
Who will plow my high field!
Who will plow my wet ground!

Great Lady, the king will plow your vulva.
I, Dumuzi
the King, will plow your vulva.

Make your milk sweet and thick, my bridegroom.
My shepherd
, I will drink your fresh milk.
Wild bull
, Dumuzi, make your milk sweet and thick.
I will drink your fresh milk.
Let the milk of the goat flow in my sheepfold.
Fill my holy churn with honey cheese.

The cult of Dumuzi is primarily a (tragic) romance – a story of betrothment and sexual awakening, but also mourning as the groom dies.

The cult comprises both the happy celebrations of the marriage of the god with Ianna (who originally, it seems, was the goddess of the communal storehouse) and bitter laments when he dies as the dry heat of summer yellows the pastures and lambing, calving, and milking come to an end.[cviii]

This story is similar to the myth of Demeter and Persephone; both explain the coming of winter through a goddess grieving for a lost loved one, who then returns. At the same time, Dumuzi was revived by Ianna after death (as his sister was allowed to take his place for half of each year), and so he is also a returning vegetation god.

The cult rituals for Dumuzi began with laments sung as a sacred cedar tree was cut down in the compound of the temple Eanna in Uruk. The rite closed with a triumphant procession that followed the god downstream. According to Jacobson, Dumuzi could represent the sap lying dormant in the rushes and trees during the dry season but reviving, to the profound relief and joy of the orchardman, with the river’s rise.[cix]

The mourning of Tammuz was a widespread annual ritual, which even appears in the Bible. Yahweh, giving Ezekiel a tour of the idolatry being practiced by the Israelites, points out the women sitting by the entrance to the north gate of the Temple of Yahweh, weeping for Tammuz. “Son of man, do you see that?” he says, “You will see even more loathsome things than that” (Ezek. 8:14).

Much later, in Greek communities, Tammuz was called Adonis and considered a consort of Aphrodite (Roman Venus). The cult of Adonis existed in Sappho and Lesbos as early as 600BC. As Adonis is a mutation or evolved form of Tammuz, in a different cultural setting, the two figures are not exactly the same.

The cult of Aphrodite’s paramour Adonis held a special appeal for Greek women, combining the erotic adoration of a beautiful youth with the emotional catharsis of lamentation for his death. The Adonis cult was an early import from the Levant, probably via Cyprus, but while many of the outward forms remained the same, its cultural context and significance changed. Adonis was modeled upon Tammuz, the consort of Ishtar whose death was annually lamented by women, and his name is a direct borrowing of the West Semitic adon, Lord.[cx]

There are multiple versions of Adonis’ birth story, but the commonly accepted version is that Aphrodite urged Myrrha to commit incest with her father, Theias. Myrrha slept with her father in the darkness, until he used an oil lamp to learn the truth and chased after her with a knife. Aphrodite turned Myrrha into a myrrh tree, out of which Adonis was born (either when Theias shot an arrow in the tree, or when a boar tore off the bark with its tusks). He was such a beautiful baby that Aphrodite locked him in a trunk and gave him to Persephone – queen of the underworld – for safe keeping; however Persephone was so enthralled by him that she refused to return him. Finally Zeus decided that he would be shared – six months with Aphrodite, who later seduced him, and six months with Persephone.[cxi]

Adonis met his death by a wild boar. According to Ovid in The Metamorphoses, Aphrodite (Roman Venus), who’d been pricked by Eros’ arrow of love, specifically warned him to be careful and stay away from wild beasts:

The wild and large are much too wild for you;

My dear, remember that sweet Venus loves you,

And if you walk in danger, so does she.

Nature has armed her monsters to destroy you –

Even your valour would be grief to me.

(Ovid, Metamorphoses X)

But the young Adonis ignored her warning (due to “pride and manliness”) and headed off into the wood with his hunting dogs, where he woke the great boar who pierced his white loins with a powerful thrust. Adonis bled to death.

Although the cult of Tammuz “enjoyed near-universal recognition in Mesopotamia and his festival was so important that a Babylonian month was named after him,”[cxii] worship of Adonis, while popular, rarely gained state sponsorship. It was viewed as a foreign cult; moreover Adonis was mostly mourned by women, in rituals not tied to a sanctuary, temple or sacred space.

Women sit by the gate weeping for Tammuz, or they offer incense to Baal on roof-tops and plant pleasant plants. These are the very features of the Adonis cult: a cult confined to women which is celebrated on flat roof-tops on which sherds sown with quickly germinating green salading are placed, Adonis gardens… the climax is loud lamentation for the dead god.[cxiii]

To perform the Adonia, which took place in late summer, women ascended to the roof, where they sang dirges, cried out in grief, and beat their breasts. Greek poetess Sappho mentions that the women tore their garments, a standard sign of mourning.

O Forest-maidens, smite on the breast,

Rend ye the delicate-woven vest!

Let the wail ring wild and high:

‘Ah for Adonis!’ cry.[cxiv]

Other features of Adonis’ ritual belong to the cult in Classical Athens. A few days before the Adonia, garden herbs and cereals were sown in broken pots. These tender young plants were brought to the rooftops during the festival, to be withered in the hot sun as emblems of the youthful Adonis’ death. Another custom involved the laying out of Adonis dolls for burial.[cxv]

Frazer notes the similarity between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the cult of Adonis; the tradition is much the same even today. They bring out an effigy of the dead Jesus and parade it through town, mourning. They bury it, fast all day, and then at midnight on Saturday, cry ‘Christ is risen!’ – “and at once the whole town bursts into an uproar of joy, which finds vent in shrieks and shouts, in the endless discharge of carronades and muskets, and the explosion of fire-works of every sort.”[cxvi] The fast is broken and people enjoy the Easter lamb and wine. Frazer concludes that the Christian celebration of Easter was modeled on the earlier ritual concerning Adonis:

When we reflect how often the Church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faithon the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria in the same season.[cxvii]

Some researchers have denied the claim that Adonis’ resurrection was celebrated; the focus always seems to be on the mourning of his death rather than the celebration of his revival. However, Frazer may have had the cult of Attis in mind, which was very similar to that of Adonis, and did stress, not only the death, but the return of the god. Incidentally, it may be noted that Adonis, like “Christ,” is a title meaning lord, rather than a specific name; even Yahweh in the Old Testament is called Adonis.

Attis

Attis was the consort or lover of the Phrygian mother goddess, Cybele, whose cult, although ancient, was introduced into Rome around 200BC. The addition of Attis into this cult, however, may have occurred later; the first literary reference to Attis is a poem by Catullus (84-54BC). The worship of Attis was primarily an annual celebration of his suffering, death and rebirth (linking him to Osiris and Tammuz), but with notable differences – for example, its emphasis on castration.

Cybele rejected Zeus as a lover, but he spilled his seed on her while she was sleeping and she gave birth to Agdistis – a wild demon that was so fearful the gods cut off his testicles to render him powerless. From the blood grew an almond tree. Nana, daughter of the river god Sangarius, took an almond to her breast (or ate the fruit) from this tree and nine months later gave birth to Attis; hence he was miraculously born, half divine.

According to the Phrygian story Attis was extremely handsome and his grandmother Cybele desired him. Having no idea about his divine nature or his grandmother’s desires, he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of the king of Pessinus and wished to marry her. Cybele was so jealous that she caused him to become crazy. He ran through the mountains and castrated himself (and so died) at the foot of a pine tree. From his blood grew the first violets. The tree took Attis’ spirit, and his flesh would have decayed if Zeus had not helped Cybele bring him back to life. In another version Zeus, angry at the Lydians for worshipping Attis and The Mother, sends a wild boar that killed him and destroyed the Lydian Crops. In still another version, Attis was killed accidentally by a poorly thrown spear during a boar hunt. Frazer notes that bulls sacrificed during rituals were bled to death with a consecrated spear – which may have its roots in this myth, tying the death of Attis to the cleansing blood of the bull.

In works of art, Attis is represented as a shepherd with flute and staff, sometimes near or under a tree. The cult of Attis and Cybele became extremely popular in Greek and Roman society, and a public festival, commemorating the death and rebirth of Attis, was the first of its kind to be celebrated in Rome.

Noteworthy variations distinguish the versions of the legend, but from the time of Claudius (AD 41-54) Romans took part in March in a kind of ‘holy week’ whose rites conveyed the myth of Attis, a god who died and came to life again each year; it was the first of its kind in the liturgy of the Urbs. The methods may have evolved before becoming fixed in the Antonine period, but its highlights were celebrated as early as the first century.[cxviii]

The “Passion” of Attis began on the 15th of March with a procession of reed bearers. On the 22nd, a pine tree was cut, and a ram sacrificed on the stump. The tree was wrapped in wool, like the corpse of Attis had been, and carried to the sanctuary; usually an effigy (like a doll) of the god Attis was fixed to the top. The tree was laid to rest in the Temple of Cybele. The 24th was a day of mourning and fasting, but “after a night of doleful lamentation, on 25 March, the joy of the Hilaria erupted, celebrating the revived Attis. In the imperial period it became the great springtime festival enlivened by a kind of carnival.”[cxix] Attis’ followers embraced the suffering of Attis on the 24th, through acts of self-mutilation or even castration.

The next day was one of vociferous mourning, and on the day following, the ‘day of blood’, the Mother’s worshippers would whip themselves and some of them, carried away by ecstacy, would perform the irreversible act. With the dawn of 25 March came the day of rejoicing for some – convalescence for others – as Attis’ resurrection was celebrated.[cxx]

Such public displays of self-violence, while not common to imperial cults, were preserved in Christianity. The Bible contains many passages recommending physical suffering or suffering with Christ.

As Christ has undergone bodily suffering, you too should arm yourselves with the same conviction, that anyone who has undergone bodily suffering has broken with sin, because for the rest of life on earth that person is ruled not by human passions but only by the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1)

In fact, the closest public rituals in the world today to the ancient cult of Attis are probably the Good Friday celebrations of the Philippines; where, in a bloody display of faith, followers of Jesus flog themselves as punishment for the sins they’ve committed during the year. Some even choose to be crucified, enduring the pain that Christ met on the cross.

Besides the public ceremony, Attis had his own mystery cult involving secret rituals with mystical meaning. One of the central rites was the Taurobolium, or baptism in the blood of a bull. The great Basilica of St. Peter on Vatican Hill is founded on a site of Cybele worship, which had included a Taurobolium – a place to slaughter the bull and use its blood in purifying rituals. Initiates who underwent the somewhat gruesome process of the Taurobolium were said to have been “born again.”

Its hot reeking blood poured in torrents through the apertures, and was received with devout eagerness by the worshipper on every part of his person and garments, till he emerged from the pit, drenched, dripping, and scarlet from head to foot, to receive the homage, nay the adoration, of his fellows as one who had been born again to eternal life and had washed away his sins in the blood of the bull.[cxxi]

It is worthwhile to keep in mind that blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins or to attract favors from the gods was an integral part of not only pagan, but also Judaic spirituality: “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11). Although this passage from Leviticus was used by Christian theologians to justify the need for Christ’s saving blood, and the Jews themselves were strictly prohibited from consuming blood themselves, innumerable animals (bulls and rams) were nevertheless sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem up until it was destroyed in 70AD. (Most of the animals were eaten by worshipers or priests; only some were burnt offerings wholly consumed by fire.)

Christian symbolism of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who gave his blood so that we may be washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation, 7:12), is far more similar to the Attic ritual of being washed in the blood of the bull than it is to the Judaic tradition. Jews were commanded to spill the blood on the ground, but keep separate from it – they would have found the idea of bathing in it barbarous. Of course, Christianity’s use of the lamb (rather than the bull) is most likely due to the theology of Jesus as the Paschal lamb of Judaic tradition; however this may also have had an economic basis. New converts of the other mysteries, who couldn’t afford to buy a (very expensive) bull, could elect to buy a ram instead, or even a lesser animal. “Poorer people made do with a criobolium, in which a ram was killed, and were ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb.’”[cxxii] However, it seems Christianity, which had no temple and consisted mostly of poorer segments of society, early began interpreting Christ’s death symbolically and not requiring an actual sacrifice. (At the same time, the doctrine of transubstantiation, in which the Eucharist wine is believed to become the actual blood of Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, testifies to the fact that symbolic blood alone is not totally acceptable.)

Initiates from the mysteries of Attis would need to recite certain magical formulas or creeds: “I ate from the tympanon, I drank from the cymbal, I carried the composite vessel (kernos), I slipped under the bedcurtain.”[cxxiii] Followers abstained from pork because a boar killed their god. The most zealous of Attic priests, the Galli, even became eunuchs by castrating themselves – a sacrifice said to have been made also by Origin, one of the first great Christian apologists, and not alien to the Christian tradition: “There are eunuchs born so by their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs made so by human agency and there are eunuchs who made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19:12).

The castrated priests of Cybele would speak in falsetto and wear bright women’s clothing. According to some legends, Cybele resurrected Attis as a woman. One can’t help but wonder whether there is a connection between Attis worship and the Dionysiac story of the Bacchae, in which Dionysus makes Pentheus dress up as a woman, before approaching the maenads (who then rip him into pieces while he’s sitting on top of a pine tree).

A god that dies, is mourned, and celebrated after three days as having risen from the dead; a god whose initiates can be washed in blood and freed from sin – these similarities to Christianity seem more than coincidental.

Like Christianity, the cult of Cybele promises immortality and resurrection. In both cases this promise came as a result of an act of sacrifice and death… Moreover Attis as a shepherd occupies a favourite Christian image of Christ as the good shepherd. Further parallels also seem to have existed: the pine tree of Attis, for example, was seen as a parallel to the cross of Christ.[cxxiv]

There was also rivalry in ritual. The climax of the celebration of Attis’ resurrection, The Hilaria, fell on the 25th of March, the date the early Church had settled on for Christ’s resurrection. (Today Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, which falls between the 22nd and the 25th.) According to A.T. Fear,

Once again the closeness of the dates and the fact that the metroac festival of resurrection would fall on the day of Christ’s execution both threw down a psychological challenge in itself and may well have undercut the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ in the public mind.[cxxv]

A few scholars argue that the definitive features of the Attis cult arose late – in the third or fourth century AD – as a response to the threat of Christianity. And while this may be true, the fact remains that features of the worship of Jesus Christ were adopted from customs of this cult that are still in use today. For example, the ritual of cutting down a Christmas tree (evergreen pine), decorating it and placing an angel on the top, seems far more Attic than anything found in the Bible.

Although the debate is unsettled, it is unlikely that Jesus came first: The Holy Week of Attis was already a State Ceremony by 41-54AD; moreover, Cybele had been worshiped by Romans for centuries, (she was adopted into Roman religion in 204BC after being credited with an exceptional harvest). Also, the numerous clay ex-votos depicting Attis (many of which are datable to the second century BC) unearthed during excavations prove that the god had already reached the ordinary populace long before the appearance of Jesus.[cxxvi]

In order to distinguish Attis from Jesus, critics have argued that stories about Attis nowhere explicitly mention any kind of salvation or afterlife prospects, and argue that Attis may have offered some benefit in this life – although what possible benefit could be great enough for followers to castrate themselves, they don’t care to guess. They have also argued that Attis was not actually resurrected, at least not until much after the spread of Christianity. While it is true that hard documents proving the existence of such beliefs have not survived, it would require a leap of faith rather than an educated guess to conclude that followers of Attis mourned, mutilated themselves, and then celebrated a story about Attis’ death and return – especially in a society where other similar figures did clearly offer afterlife rewards – without themselves hoping for some form of salvation. We also know that the cult of Attis was a mystery cult, which did not openly reveal its central doctrines; and so we should assume that a hidden central doctrine of salvation did exist.

For our purposes it is enough to note that the cult of Attis was already a robust spiritual organization in the founding period of Christianity, which proved to be a serious threat to the early church. Early Christian reactions to the cult demonstrate that the similarities were recognized early on. While mystery religions in general were not the focus of Christian polemic, Attis and Cybele appear to have been a favorite target for the invective of Christian writers. Some have seen the attack going back to the earliest days of Christianity, and interpret the Whore of Babylon of Revelation 17.3-6 as a veiled depiction of Cybele.[cxxvii]

While the brutal, bloody and ecstatic worship of Attis may seem at odds with modern Christianity, we must not ignore the fact that Christianity – to an outsider – might have appeared just as strange and violent. As Joscelyn Godwin in Mystery Religions in the Ancient World points out,

And if generations of Christians believed that Jesus died on the cross as the only means to pacify his father’s anger at mankind, it was no more absurd for the devotees of Attis and Cybele to worship a jealous goddess and her mutilated son.[cxxviii]

Like Attis, Jesus was sometimes referred to as hung on a tree (Acts, 5:30), and today’s mournful Easter processions, carrying the bloody, crucified Christ through the streets, to place in the Church until his resurrection, are hardly dissimilar to the same practices performed by the Attic cult. Likewise, the modern celebration of Christmas, with its candles, trees and gifts, may have roots in the Attic story.

Mithras

Mithras was originally an Indo-Iranian sun god – his name is found in both the Vedas and the Avesta (Hindu and Persian sacred texts), in which he is a light or solar deity, and second to the chief god Ahura Mazda. The inscriptions of the Achaemenidae (seventh to fourth century BC) assign him “a much higher place, naming him immediately after Ahura Mazda and associating him with the goddess Anaitis (Anahata), whose name sometimes precedes his own. Mithras is the god of light, Anaitis the goddess of water.”[cxxix] He became associated with Chaldean astrology and worship of Marduk, and finally came into contact with the Western world through Alexander’s conquests. Mithraism spread rapidly through the entire Roman Empire and reached its zenith during the third century.

Predominantly a cult of soldiers, stress was laid on brotherhood, fellowship, bravery, cleanliness, and fidelity. Mithraism was also a mystery religion, and demanded a very rigorous initiation process. According to Pseudo-Nonnus, an early 6th century author of a commentary on Gregory of Nazianzen’s first four orations, fasting was first imposed upon the neophytes for a period of about fifty days. If this was successfully endured, for two days they were exposed to extreme heat, then again plunged into snow for twenty days.[cxxx] The severity of the discipline was gradually increased: there was also immersion in water, passing through fire, solitude and fasting in the wilderness, and numerous other tests. Participation in the rites of Mithras was not allowed to anyone who had not passed through all the grades and proved himself pure and disciplined.[cxxxi]

Pictures of Mithras show him being born out of a rock, often surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac. He was also symbolized as a lion. A major motif, found in the central location of places of worship, was the image of Mithras standing over a bull, slitting its throat with a sword. Although this led some early researchers to conclude that Mithraism revolved around the Taurobolium (the practice of slaughtering a live bull and drinking or bathing in its blood), there was no physical space for such a procedure in the Mithraea. It is unlikely that this act was any more than a symbolic, commemorative allegory, and “seldom if ever would the initiate be sprinkled with the blood of a slain bull.”[cxxxii]

According to Plutarch, Zoroaster taught (500 years before the Trojan war) that Mithras was the mediator between two divine beings, the god Horomazes (Ormuzd) and the daemon Areimanios (Ahriman).[cxxxiii] As a mystery cult, Mithraism had at its core secret spiritual doctrines. Researchers have speculated that Mithraics believed, through certain ritualistic processes, they could achieve immortality.

After baptism into the Mysteries of Mithras, the initiate was marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross. (The cross was already a magical religious symbol as a pictograph of the sun; the cross formed by the elliptic and the celestial equator was one of the signs of Mithras.) There were seven levels of initiation – each level was tied to a metal, color and planet. A criticism of Christianity by the philosopher Celsus, which has been recorded by Origen, is that this “ladder” (which represented the soul’s passage through the heavens) is the same ladder that Jacob saw in the Old Testament, with angels going up and down. “These things are obscurely hinted at in the accounts of the Persians, and especially in the mysteries of Mithras, which are celebrated amongst them.” Celsus demonstrates some of the complexity of this system:

The first gate they assign to Saturn, indicating by the ‘lead’ the slowness of this star; the second to Venus, comparing her to the splendour and softness of tin; the third to Jupiter, being firm and solid; the fourth to Mercury, for both Mercury and iron are fit to endure all things, and are money-making and laborious; the fifth to Mars, because, being composed of a mixture of metals, it is varied and unequal; the sixth, of silver, to the Moon; the seventh, of gold, to the Sun, – thus imitating the different colours of the two latter. (qtd. in Origen, Contra Celsum, 5.22)

According to Origen, Celsus also demonstrates the musical reasons and explanations of these levels; no doubt tied to the Orphic/Pythagorean belief in the harmony of the spheres.

Unfortunately, Mithraic written texts and studies on Mithraicism (such as the many volumes on Mithras written by Eubulus, as recorded by Jerome) have been destroyed. What remains are the symbolic and graphical representations found in the cave-like Mithraic grottos, and the unflattering criticisms of Christian apologists. What is clear, however, is that Mithraism and Christianity had a lot in common. Godwin points out a few of the more remarkable similarities:

He is one of the gods, lower than Ahura Mazda (the Supreme Deity of Light of the Persians) but higher than the visible Sun. He is creator and orderer of the universe, hence a manifestation of the creative Logos or Word. Seeing mankind afflicted by Ahriman, the cosmic power of darkness, he incarnated on earth. His birth on 25 December was witnessed by shepherds. After many deeds he held a last supper with his disciples and returned to heaven. At the end of the world he will come again to judge resurrected mankind and after the last battle, victorious over evil, he will lead the chosen ones through a river of fire to blessed immortality. It is possible to prepare oneself for this event during life by devotion to him, and to attain a degree of communion with him through the sacramental means of initiation.[cxxxiv]

Although it is impossible to prove that the last supper of Mithras is like the communal meal experienced by the Christians, the following passage from Justin Martyr makes it likely:

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (First Apology, 65-67)

M.J. Vermaseren, in his 1963 book Mithras, The Secret God has Mithras say, “He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved”;[cxxxv] however, this passage has been questioned and may actually belong to Zarathustra in an older Persian / Zarathustrian text. A fragment found in a Mithraic site reads, “You have saved us too by shedding the external blood,”[cxxxvi] but this is probably about Mithras killing the bull. Like Dionysus and others, Mithras was sometimes himself identified with the bull, so this could theoretically indicate a self-sacrifice. Another early church father, Tertullian, (c.160-c.220AD) draws a more detailed comparison in his Prescription Against Heretics, which includes baptism, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection, and hints at forgotten Christian rituals:

The question will arise, By whom is to be interpreted the sense of the passages which make for heresies? By the devil, of course, to whom pertain those wiles which pervert the truth, and who, by the mystic rites of his idols, vies even with the essential portions of the sacraments of God. He, too, baptizes some that is, his own believers and faithful followers; he promises the putting away of sins by a layer (of his own); and if my memory still serves me, Mithras there, (in the kingdom of Satan) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown. What also must we say to (Satan’s) limiting his chief priest to a single marriage? He, too, has his virgins; he, too, has his proficients in continence. (Ch. 40)

Modern apologists argue that the features Mithraism shared with Christianity did not develop until late in the Christian era; however, Celsus seems to have been one of the first to analyze the similarities between Christianity and the Persian cult, which proves that Mithraism was already very well formed in the 2nd century, while the somewhat floundering Christianity as yet could not agree on central doctrines. Furthermore, certain Mithraic principles, such as the transmigration of souls, vegetarianism, communal meals (that may have involved eating the body and blood of the god), the passage of the soul through the seven planets, the musical theory behind this harmonic arrangement, can all be traced back to earlier groups such as the Orphics or Pythagoreans. The same can be said of the central motif of Mithraism, the killing of a sacrificial bull, which is a motif that is found in several other mystery cults, even going as far back as Gilgamesh, and almost certainly has an astronomical origin.

Thus, we could conclude (as Charles François Dupuis did in 1798) that since early Christian apologists both confirm and fail to explain the similarities between Jesus and Mithras, the similarities must exist; and since practices found in Mithraism are older, Christianity must have borrowed from Mithras:

Of course, Tertullian calls again the Devil to his assistance, in order to explain away so complete a resemblance. But as there is not the slightest difficulty, without the intervention of the Devil, to perceive, that whenever two religions resemble each other so completely, the oldest must be the mother and the youngest the daughter, we shall conclude, that since the worship of Mithras is infinitely older than that of Christ, and its ceremonies a great deal anterior to those of the Christians, that therefore the Christians are incontestably either sectarians or plagiarists of the religion of the Magi.[cxxxvii]

While it is impossible to deny the claim that Mithrasists may have borrowed from Christianity, this claim seems unlikely and based on poor logic. Bremmer, for example, in The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, argues that the success of Christianity also influenced other religions either to revalue their belief in the resurrection (i.e. Zoroastrians) or to copy the belief (Mithraism, Attis). “Success stimulates imitation – not only in economics, but also in the market of symbolic goods.”[cxxxviii]

While the statement “success stimulates imitation” may be true, Christianity was not particularly successful during the formative period of Mithraism. In fact, Christianity was a persecuted sect, always at odds not only with the ruling classes, but also with philosophers, Gnostics, and mystery cults. Why would Mithraism have needed to borrow from Christianity when the elements shared between them were common to other organizations which did clearly predate them both?

Fearful of the identification of Mithraism with Christianity, elaborate efforts have been made to distinguish between the two. Consider the following passage found in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Christ was an historical personage, recently born in a well-known town of Judea, and crucified under a Roman governor, whose name figured in the ordinary official lists. Mithras was an abstraction, a personification not even of the sun but of the diffused daylight; his incarnation, if such it may be called, was supposed to have happened before the creation of the human race, before all history. The small Mithraic congregations were like Masonic lodges for a few and for men only and even those mostly of one class, the military; a religion that excludes the greater half of the human race bears no comparison to the religion of Christ. Mithraism was all comprehensive and tolerant of every other cult, the Pater Patrum himself was an adept in a number of other religions; Christianity was essentially exclusive, condemning every other religion in the world, alone and unique in its majesty.[cxxxix]

Basically a summary of Mithraic scholarly conclusions, this passage argues first that Christ was historical, while Mithras was not; a distinguishing feature which this book will take great lengths to refute. Second, that Mithraism excluded women, while ignoring the blatant misogynist practices of the church and continuing refusal of women into the priesthood; and third, the “exclusivity” of Christianity, which has always been its most dangerous and destructive feature. Absolutely, Christian exclusivity and condemnation of all other religions made it unique; the same intolerance continues to be an integral feature of many forms of Christianity today. This feature should not, however, be used to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity over more inclusive traditions.

If Mithraism did borrow, then it borrowed and thrived; it also borrowed within decades and became a fully independent, complicated organization replete with rituals and allegorical meaning. If nothing else, we can say that the cult of Mithras was a challenging contemporary movement of Christianity. An illuminating anecdote from the Christian historian Socrates (305-438) illustrates the climate. According to him, when Emperor Constantius turned over a formerly pagan temple to the Christians, in the process of cleaning it they found the bones and skulls of human beings, which they claimed had been sacrificed to Mithras (in some kind of magical divination practice). We have no way to check the truth of this statement; it is equally likely that they had raided a sacred burial ground. In fact the language used, “were said to have…” sounds a lot like rumor. Christians, who had been persecuted, marginalized and, even more hurtfully, ignored, by the pagans for centuries, were excited to be given the upper hand and quickly used the opportunity to furnish proof against the heathens.

In the process of clearing it, an adytum of vast depth was discovered which unveiled the nature of their heathenish rites: for there were found there the skulls of many persons of all ages, who were said to have been immolated for the purpose of divination by the inspection of entrails, when the pagans performed these and such like magic arts whereby they enchanted the souls of men. (Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chap. 2)

Demonstrating the righteousness, immaturity, lack of propriety and respect for tradition which made them disliked by their contemporaries, the Christians took all the bones and skulls and ran around town showing them off. The pagans were furious, and killed many Christians in retaliation.

On discovering these abominations in the adytum of the Mithreum, (the Christians) went forth eagerly to expose them to the view and execration of all; and therefore carried the skulls throughout the city, in a kind of triumphal procession, for the inspection of the people. When the pagans of Alexandria beheld this, unable to bear the insulting character of the act, they became so exasperated, that they assailed the Christians with whatever weapon chanced to come to hand, in their fury destroying numbers of them in a variety of ways: some they killed with the sword, others with clubs and stones; some they strangled with ropes, others they crucified, purposely inflicting this last kind of death in contempt of the cross of Christ: most of them they wounded; and as it generally happens in such a case, neither friends nor relatives were spared, but friends, brothers, parents, and children imbrued their hands in each other’s blood. (Book III, Chap. 2)

This story is, of course, written to vindicate and justify the Christians while demonizing the barbarism of the pagans; however we can learn much more from it. Although Christianity had been made the legal religion, and was growing in property, riches and political power, it was still unpopular. Moreover, the majority of the citizens of Alexandria weren’t willing to bear insult to the god Mithras (or perhaps having the remains of their loved ones exhumed).

A final point of interest is the relationship between Mithras and the archangel Michael. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Michael became the patron saint of soldiers; immediately usurping the role of Mithras. Mithraea were converted into shrines for Michael (for instance, the sacred cavern at Monte Gargano in Apulia, refounded in 493); and many such shrines still have bull imagery. Michael is always depicted standing over Satan or the Dragon, winged and with a sword and shield – much like Mithras, and exactly like Perseus, who was the highest grade of initiation.

Michael is the field commander of the army of god. In Catholic tradition, it is Michael who defeated Satan and Michael who will come back to defeat the antichrist at the end of times. Michael was also a great healer – founding healing springs and sites of medicine; taking over the traditional medicinal authority of Asclepius.

It is unlikely the soldiers of the Roman empire would have been satisfied with Jesus. (Indeed, how are any soldiers to be satisfied with Jesus’ ethical advice to “turn the other cheek” and his Old Testament commandment of “Thou shall not kill”?) The inclusion of St. Michael was crucial for the success of Christianity, because it allowed Mithras worship to continue under another name. This should not be seen as the superiority of Christianity or the insignificance of Mithraism – rather it is a testament to the strength and popularity of the “god of the rock.”

Conclusions and Summary

As I mentioned before, I am not trying to make the argument that these gods are exactly the same thing as Jesus Christ. Of course they are not – they are each unique cultural manifestations and syntheses of older traditions. However, a number of them share very precise similarities. Moreover, the ritual practices of many of these gods, (a communal meal, baptism, fasting or asceticism, and the ideas they held about their gods’ divine natures and saving roles), show common ground.

The growth of the Roman Empire witnessed an unprecedented level of religious tolerance and syncretism: that the majority of these figures did adapt and assimilate each other’s distinguishing features is widely agreed by scholars. Many of them were routinely interpreted as being merely translations, different in title only. Initiates of one cult could (and did) also join several others. Family altars were filled with diverse gods. At the same time, there was an academic pursuit of a better, philosophical god – a ruling power or wisdom; the order behind the universe.

Set in this background, as a human, Jewish prophet in Palestine, we would expect Jesus Christ to have very little similarity to these other mythological figures. But in fact, we have seen that the opposite is true. It is impossible that the human Jesus would have been unaware of or unfamiliar with the stories of these other figures; and if we rule out that either God or Satan planted these similarities for some ulterior motive, or that Jesus Christ was a fraud who deliberately copied other traditions, then we can only be left with the conclusion that Christian writers assimilated elements from paganism into the Christian mythos.

While some features of Christianity definitely come from Jewish tradition, there are other features (such as eating the body and blood of the god), which are completely alien to Judaism. The idea of a historical Jesus has been preserved mainly by differentiating him from these pagan influences, based on the claim that he is historical, and by trying to tie him exclusively into the Jewish tradition. However, the pagan influences on Christianity cannot be ignored. It may be easy to conclude that Jewish theological and prophetic literature, plus the ritual practices of salvation mystery cults, were added unto the tradition left by a historical Jesus and quickly overwhelmed him. 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 both the human prophet (Orpheus) and the 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 or 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.

Yet divergent ideologies in what became Orthodox Christianity really were unique. The novelty factor of Christianity derives from its unusual claim that Jesus had recently been a historical figure and had physically risen from the dead.  Indeed, it was the resurrection of the flesh, and Christians’ stubborn insistence on it, that proved most difficult for their contemporaries to accept.


[i]Cecile O’Rahilly, trans. and ed., Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster(Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970),82-84.

[ii]Sir James George Frazer,The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 419.

[iii]Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgramesh, Great Britain: Penguin, 1999), xxvii.

[iv]Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgramesh, xl.

[v]Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgramesh, xxxi.

[vi]Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 45.

[vii]Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgramesh, li.

[viii]Richard Seaford,Dionysus(New York: Routledge, 2006), 126.

[ix]Mark P.O. Morford, and Robert J. Lenardon, Classical Mythology,8th ed.(New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 385.

[x]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 83.

[xi]Morford and Lenardon,Classical Mythology, 313.

[xii]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 83.

[xiii] Joscelyn Godwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World(London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), 133.

[xiv]Morford and Lenardon, Classical Mythology,384.

[xv]Morford and Lenardon, Classical Mythology,294.

[xvi]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 44.

[xvii]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 124-25.

[xviii]Richard Seaford,Dionysus,24.

[xix]James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 567.

[xx]James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 470.

[xxi]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 23.

[xxii]Morford and Lenardon, Classical Mythology,313.

[xxiii]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 29.

[xxiv]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 27.

[xxv]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 55.

[xxvi]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 115.

[xxvii]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 3.

[xxviii]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 21.

[xxix]Richard Seaford,Dionysus, 4.

[xxx]Richard Seaford,Dionysus,122.

[xxxi]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides(Las Vegas: Parmenides, 2004), 17.

[xxxii]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God,43.

[xxxiii] Laertius, Diogenes. “Pythagoras: The lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.” Translated by C.D. Yonge. Classic Persuasion.

http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/diogenes/dlpythagoras.htm

[xxxiv]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 25.

[xxxv]Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife: The 1995 Read-Tuckwell Lectures at the University of Bristol (London: Routledge, 2002), 12.

[xxxvi]Alexander Roob,Alchemy and Mysticism (Italy: Taschen, 1996),92.

[xxxvii]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 49.

[xxxviii]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 19.

[xxxix]Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, 13.

[xl] As quoted in Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God,50.

[xli]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 51.

[xlii]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 53.

[xliii]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 53–54.

[xliv]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 55.

[xlv]Arnold Hermann, To Think Like God, 59.

[xlvi]Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, 24.

[xlvii]Yves Bonnefoy, Mythologies, trans. Wendy Doniger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 161.

[xlviii]Joscelyn Godwin,Mystery Religions, 146.

[xlix]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 28.

[l]Noel Robertson, “Orphic Mysteries and Dionysiac Ritual,” in Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults, ed. by Michael B. Cosmopoulos (London: Routledge, 2003), 218.

[li]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 29.

[lii]C. Scott Littleton,Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2005), 1062, http://books.google.com.tw/books?id=HC93q4gsOAwC&pg=PA1057&lpg#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[liii]Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, 5.

[liv]Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife22.

[lv]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion,183.

[lvi]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 40.

[lvii]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 23.

[lviii]C. Scott Littleton,Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology, 1058.

[lix]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 264.

[lx]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 50.

[lxi]Morford and Lenardon, Classical Mythology, 385.

[lxii]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1945), 9.

[lxiii]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 75.

[lxiv]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 1617.

[lxv]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 16.

[lxvi]Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, trans. Antonia Nevill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 108.

[lxvii]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 74.

[lxviii]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 113.

[lxix]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 224.

[lxx]Quoted inEmma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 176.

[lxxi] Quoted inEmma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 162.

[lxxii] Quoted in Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 338.

[lxxiii] Quoted inEmma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 150.

[lxxiv] Quoted inEmma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 150.

[lxxv]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 136.

[lxxvi]Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius, 136.

[lxxvii]Thomas Bulfinch,The Age of Fable(New York: Airmont, 1965), 238.

[lxxviii] R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 27.

[lxxix]Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 145.

[lxxx]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 38.

[lxxxi]Quoted in R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 44.

[lxxxii]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 38.

[lxxxiii]Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian,129.

[lxxxiv]James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 443.

[lxxxv]Yves Bonnefoy, Mythologies, 246.

[lxxxvi]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 213.

[lxxxvii]Ken Dowden, Religion and the Romans, 72.

[lxxxviii]Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 60.

[lxxxix]Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 68; de dea Syria, 1058.

[xc]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 210.

[xci]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 210.

[xcii]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 211.

[xciii]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 214.

[xciv]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 215.

[xcv]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 16.

[xcvi]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 92.

[xcvii]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 22.

[xcviii]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 135.

[xcix]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 134.

[c]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 134.

[ci]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 85.

[cii]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 67.

[ciii]R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, 129.

[civ]Jan Assman, Moses the Egyptian,145.

[cv]Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgramesh, 137.

[cvi]Andrew George, trans., The Epic of Gilgramesh, 68.

[cvii]Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 26.

[cviii]Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness, 26.

[cix]Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness, 72.

[cx]Jennifer Larson, Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide (New York: Routledge, 2007), 124.

[cxi]Edith Hamilton, Mythology(New York: Warner Books, 1999), 94.

[cxii]Jennifer Larson, Ancient Greek Cults, 124.

[cxiii]Walter Burkert,Greek Religion, trans.John Raffan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 177.

[cxiv]Julia Dubnoff, trans. “Poems of Sappho,” http://www.uh.edu/~cldue/texts/sappho.html.

[cxv] Quoted in Jennifer Larson, Ancient Greek Cults, 124.

[cxvi]James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 401.

[cxvii]James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 401.

[cxviii]Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, 111–112.

[cxix]Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, 113.

[cxx]Joscelyn Godwin,Mystery Religions, 112.

[cxxi]James George Frazer, The Golden Bough,408.

[cxxii]Joscelyn Godwin,Mystery Religions, 111.

[cxxiii]Cited by Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 98.

[cxxiv]A. T. Fear, “Cybele and Christ,” in Cybele, Attis & Related Cults: Studies in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren, ed. Eugene N. Lane (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 39.

[cxxv]A. T. Fear, “Cybele and Christ, 40.

[cxxvi]Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, 111.

[cxxvii]A. T. Fear, “Cybele and Christ, 38.

[cxxviii] Joscelyn Godwin, Mystery Religions, 111.

[cxxix]Kevin Knight, “Mithraism.”New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia,http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10402a.htm.

[cxxx]‘Nonnus’, Comm. in Greg. Nazian; quoted in Roger Pearse,“Mithras: All the Passages in Ancient Texts That Refer to the Cult,”The Tertullian Project,http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/mithras/index.htm.

[cxxxi]Clauss, p. 102: ‘Nonnus,’ Comm. in Greg. Nazian. Oratio 4. 70 (Migne, PG 36: 989),as cited by Roger Pearse, http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/mithras/.

[cxxxii]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 277.

[cxxxiii]T.R. Glover, Conflict of Religions, 106.

[cxxxiv]T.R. Glover, Conflict of Religions, 99.

[cxxxv]M.J. Vermaseren, Mithras, The Secret God, trans. Therese and Vincent Magaw (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963).

[cxxxvi]Ken Dowden, Religion and the Romans, Classical World Series (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992), 79.

[cxxxvii]Charles François Dupuis, The Origin of All Religious Worship, 248.

[cxxxviii]Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, 55.

[cxxxix]Kevin Knight, “Mithraism.”


Where’s the Proof? An Overview of the Evidence and Arguments for the Existence of Jesus Christ

This is Chapter Three of the book Jesus Potter, Harry Christ (2011), by Derek Murphy.


CHAPTER THREE:

Where’s the Proof? An Overview of the Evidence and Arguments for the Existence of Jesus Christ

Yamauchi’s response seemed uncharacteristically strong. ‘From time to time some people have tried to deny the existence of Jesus, but this is really a lost cause,’ he said with a tone of exasperation. ‘There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus did exist, and these hypothetical questions are really very vacuous and fallacious.’ Strobel, The Case for Christ, 81

WHEN CONFRONTED WITH ARGUMENTS that Jesus may not have been historical, the majority of Christians will refer to the hard evidence that Jesus really existed; but not without first displaying a certain sense of desperation. On the one hand, they are right – any reliable historical records that prove that Jesus was historical would automatically weaken theories to the contrary. But is there really, as Yamauchi claims, such “overwhelming evidence”?

In fact, even academics that believe Jesus was historical openly acknowledge that there are far too few reliable historical records of Jesus Christ. The handful that does exist – they maintain – are enough. But before we look at the evidence, it will be worthwhile to review some common preconceptions concerning Jesus Christ that are widespread in popular culture and that influence individuals’ beliefs on the subject.

As we’ve seen, the claim that Jesus was mythological, not historical, has a long history. It has “been refuted” time and again by Christian apologists, who are often exasperated to learn that there are still some people who won’t let it go. The majority of scholars, as well as the general public – whether religious or secular – believe that Jesus Christ was historical (that there was a historical teacher who began the movement); however, the arguments used to support this theory are often a mixture of inferences, deductions and references to common knowledge and unfounded associations. Because many readers will have these same concepts nagging in the back of their minds, it will be worthwhile to review them.

Isn’t there a great deal of evidence for the historical Jesus? Wasn’t it necessary for there to have been a founder of the Christian movement? Would the martyrs have died for a myth? Can archaeology or other sources prove the veracity of some parts of biblical narrative? Is there any historical evidence, either from within the Christian communities or without, that can support the idea of a historical Jesus? In order to be thorough, these questions need to be answered. In this chapter, therefore, we will deal with the evidence and arguments commonly used to support the idea of a historical Jesus.

Archaeological Evidence Confirms Many Biblical Accounts

Every few years there is an archaeological discovery that “proves” Christianity to be true and makes media headlines. This makes it appear that the Bible records sound historical testimonies of things that really did happen. Although there haven’t actually been any archaeological discoveries that prove Jesus was real, there have been, some claim, discoveries which enhance the reliability of the testimonies by confirming real names and places involved. If these places, mentioned by name by the writers of the gospels, really existed, and the authors had included these seemingly innocuous details into their story, it appears to raise the trustworthiness of the source. After interviewing John McRay, professor and author of Archaeology and the New Testament, Lee Strobel concludes,

Here’s the bottom line: ‘If Luke was so painstakingly accurate in his historical reporting,’ said one book on the topic, ‘on what logical basis may we assume he was credulous or inaccurate in his reporting of matters that were far more important, not only to him but to others as well’.[i]

A comparable argument, however, might be that Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code is a true story because it includes so many true facts and research; or more relevantly – that Harry Potter is true (despite amazing events) because it mentions many real places (like London) and describes accurately minute details and customs from Harry’s relatives’ muggle household. First of all, reliable testimony about mundane historical events is simply not equal to testimony about miraculous events. If a modern witness gave us a lot of firm details about a suspect, but then said something outlandish like “the suspect flew away on a pink giraffe,” we should be less inclined to believe even the commonplace aspects of his account. Why is this not also true when dealing with the Bible? Secondly, this argument avoids the main reason the historicity of Jesus is challenged at all – the similarities to older traditions. And thirdly, there are a few specific historical details recorded in the gospels that go against trustworthy historical sources. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion:[ii]

Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole – but it happened too late: in 6 AD, long after Herod’s death. Lane Fox concludes that ‘Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent,’ but he sympathizes with Luke’s plight and his desire to fulfil the prophecy of Micah.

The Martyrs Would not Have Been Willing to Die for a Lie

This emotionally-charged argument goes something like this: “If there was no Jesus Christ, what did all those martyrs die for?” The online source All About Religion uses it the following way:

In light of the cruel and torturous deaths of the first and second generation Christians, all theories that Christianity is a fabricated myth, created for the personal gain of its followers, must be rejected. Even today, many will die for a belief, but none will die for a lie.[iii]

The argument assumes that if Christianity were a myth, its followers would have known about it and therefore been adverse to martyrdom. However, I believe the Christian martyrs were very convinced in their own minds that Jesus Christ was a historical person. Interestingly, not all Christians were willing to be martyrs. Christians who believed in Jesus as a spirit or non-physical entity, or who didn’t think Jesus felt real pain or suffered like humans, felt no need to die as martyrs and conscientiously avoided persecution.

St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp, two of the earliest Christian martyrs, were already fighting against these “heretics” who weren’t willing to die for their cause. Ignatius, outraged, gives in essence the first instance of the martyrdom argument.

For if it is merely in semblance that these things were done by our Lord, I am also a prisoner in semblance. And why have I given myself up to death, to fire, to the sword, to wild beasts?[iv]

Why indeed? If he did not have an answer then, so close to the time of Christ, nor any proof to offer heretics who denied the physicality of Jesus, how could the mere fact of his willingness to die for his beliefs be used as evidence nearly 2,000 years later?

Christianity Could not Have Started Without a Founder

Some claim that Jesus existed because there is a Church, and it must have had a founder. This argument is used by, for example, W.K.C. Guthrie in Orpheus and Greek Religion:

If there were no other evidence for the real existence of the founder of Christianity, a strong case might still be made based on the difficulty a man might feel in accounting for the rise of Christianity without the impulse of a historic Jesus behind it.[v]

An offshoot of this argument is sometimes that, unlike Christianity, all the various pagan religions died out, and Christianity survived despite very challenging periods of persecution. Either it was “God’s Will,” or Christianity had something no one else did: a historical founder. German scholar of Greek mythology Walter Burkert uses this argument against the ancient mysteries:

The basic difference between ancient mysteries, on the one hand, and religious communities, sects, and churches of the Judeo-Christian type, on the other, is borne out by the verdict of history… With the imperial decrees of 391/92AD prohibiting all pagan cults and with the forceful destruction of the sanctuaries, the mysteries simply and suddenly disappeared.[vi]

Notice, however, the contradiction implicit in this quote: the mysteries were first outlawed, and then their sanctuaries were forcibly destroyed – after which Burkert makes it sound like the disappearance of the mysteries was mysterious and unexplainable. Not irrelevant to the survival of Christianity is the fact that the early Christian church had both a fixed authority and an organizational structure, not to mention a great deal of wealth; and that all traces of paganism were either destroyed or assimilated. This, more than a founder, can account for its preservation.

The Life of Jesus Was Prophesied in the Old Testament

This is the argument used within the Bible itself to justify Jesus Christ, and it continues to be used today. As written, the New Testament makes Jesus fulfill hundreds of Old Testament prophecies. Most of these prophecies are written in past tense about specific events and give no indication that they are to be used for the future; however, in order for orthodox Jews to accept Jesus as Messiah, he needed to appear as Jewish as possible. Therefore Jesus was made to do a lot of strange and inconvenient things (many of which were done in private or secretly), so that the gospel writers could say, “And Jesus did this, to fulfill the prophecy.”

For instance, although the “massacre of the infants” or the persecution of the child-hero is a common literary motif, the writer of Matthew links it to a passage from Jeremiah, which reads “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Incidentally, very few biblical scholars consider any of the birth narratives of Christ to be historically genuine, so similar are they to pagan mythology. If this episode didn’t happen, it makes it all the more easy to see how the writer could take a common theme, apply it to the character of Jesus Christ as a biographical episode, and link it to the Jewish tradition via prophecy. The prophecy argument is also used by Jesus himself in the gospels; however, being Jewish, it would have been natural for him to use phrases and quotes from the Old Testament in reference to his own life.

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.” (Zechariah 13:7)

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” (Matthew26:31)

Many of the major biographical details of Jesus in the gospels also arise out of prophecy. He had to be born in Bethlehem, for example, but he also had to be from Nazareth and then move to Egypt. And so that is how the story is written. Moreover (as we saw previously), the fact that these are real, historical cities lends credence to the idea that these events really happened. Since the identical correlation between Jesus’ life and the Old Testament prophecies is unlikely to be coincidental, the fact that Jesus actually did these things is taken as proof that he was the coming savior. However, it takes faith in the historical reliability of the Bible (and the miraculous intervention of an all-seeing God into history) before this proof can be convincing. Thus it is self-referential, equivalent to “I know the Bible is true because the Bible says so.” Skeptics will argue that the gospel writers just wrote the story of Jesus to include as many of these prophecies as possible, something that is also acknowledged by biblical scholars. It is also important to recognize that if Jesus had been a historical Jew, he would have been familiar with all of the prophecies in the Old Testament which were later interpreted to refer to him. If he had “fulfilled” them, he would have been doing so deliberately and conscientiously rather than incidentally – leaving him open to the criticism that he was a charlatan.

Jesus was the Founder of Ethics

This horribly uninformed idea, especially common in American Country music, is that all goodness, love and truth came into the world with Christ, and before him people had limited ethical ability. Alan Jackson, for example, sings:

I’m just a singer of simple songs

I’m not a real political man

I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you

The difference in Iraq and Iran

But I know Jesus and I talk to God

And I remember this from when I was young

Faith hope and love are some good things he gave us

And the greatest is love

Where were you when the world stopped turning

Anyone familiar with world literature knows that ethical considerations and practical morality have always been a concern for human civilizations. There are many pearls of ethical wisdom that can be found several thousand years before the Christian era; and in the pagan milieu that gave birth to the Christian movement, the philosophical quest for concepts such as “Truth”, “Love”, “Goodness” and “Virtue” was seen as a pressing issue of ultimate importance. Many contemporary philosophical schools urged restraint, humility, abstinence, or fasting. Jesus’ teachings on ethics were nothing new. His famous moral precepts “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are not unique to him but can be found in much earlier religious literature; a point Bertrand Russell raises in his article, Why I’m not a Christian:

You will remember that He said, “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That is not a new precept or a new principle. It was used by Lao-tse and Buddha some 500 or 600 years before Christ, but it is not a principle which as a matter of fact Christians accept.[vii]

Now that we’ve dispelled some common preconceptions, we can turn to the actual evidence. Although I have neither the expertise nor the aspiration to judge the reliability of the testimonies and documents which have been used as proof in the historical Jesus, they are important to consider – if only because they continue to be heavily cited, scrutinized and bickered over. In the following overview, I will merely point out why they have been questioned by some scholars, why they are not considered universally reliable, and why therefore, they cannot be trusted to bear light on our present study.

Historical Evidence

In 1944, Alvin Boyd Kuhn wrote the book Who is This King of Glory? A Critical Study of the Christos-Messiah. In it he disparages not only the documents used as historical evidence for Jesus Christ, but more keenly the discrepancies that exist in the understanding of these texts and the fact that they are recommended to the faithful without acknowledging that they have been questioned by academic research:

The average Christian minister who has not read outside the pale of accredited Church authorities will impart to any parishioner making the inquiry the information that no event in history is better attested by witnesses than the occurrences in the Gospel narrative of Christ’s life. He will go over the usual citation of the historians who mention Jesus and the letters claiming to have been written about him. When the credulous questioner, putting trust in the intelligence and good faith of his pastor, gets this answer, he goes away assured on the point of the veracity of the Gospel story. The pastor does not qualify his data with the information that the practice of forgery, fictionizing and fable was rampant in the early Church. In the simple interest of truth, then, it is important to examine the body of alleged testimony from secular history and see what credibility and authority it possesses. First, as to the historians whose works record the existence of Jesus, the list comprises but four. They are Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus. There are short paragraphs in the works of each of these, two in Josephus. The total quantity of this material is given by Harry Elmer Barnes in “The Twilight of Christianity” as some twenty-four lines. It may total a little more, perhaps twice that amount. This meager testimony constitutes the body or mass of the evidence of ‘one of the best attested events in history.’[viii]

The information gap between Christians and biblical or historical researchers has not improved in the 50+ years since the publication of Kuhn’s book. Although his claims may have been overstated and academic scholars easily dismiss him, he correctly mentions the four main historical referents to Jesus Christ which continue to be used today. Search online for any one of them and you’ll find that they are constantly and readily given as the definitive historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, on many thousands of faith-based and apologetic websites. However, among biblical scholars and church historians (even Christian academics) they are not universally accepted. Although all four of them were considered complete forgeries throughout much of the last two centuries, today an uneasy truce has been established that in general recognizes that at least some of the quotes may be partially authentic. The following is a brief overview of the passages.

The first and most widely quoted non-Christian reference to Jesus comes from Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his book, The Antiquities of the Jews. It is called the “Testimoniam Flavianum” and was written in the late first century AD.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not, for he appeared to them thereafter again the third day, as the divine prophets foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And even now the tribe of Christians so named from him is not extinct. (18.63-64)

Some scholars argue that at least some of this passage is genuine, while others see it entirely as an inserted Christian passage (it fits poorly into the surrounding text, and the style stands out as being dissimilar). If a forgery, it may have been written by Emperor Constantine’s church historian, Eusebius, who was also the first to quote from it. While Christians today continue to use it as a proof for their faith, it was questioned as early as 1770 by Bishop Warburton of Gloucester, who called it a “rank forgery, and a stupid one, too.”[ix] Over a hundred years ago it was discounted in more depth, by a book called Christian Mythology Unveiled, written by Mitchell Logan in 1842.

The famous passage which we find in Josephus, about Jesus Christ, was never mentioned nor alluded to in any way whatever by any of the fathers of the first, second, or third centuries; nor until the time of Eusebius, ‘when it was first quoted by himself.’ The truth is, none of these fathers could quote or allude to a passage which did not exist in their times; but was to all points short of absolute certainty, forged and interpolated by Eusebius.[x]

Below is a more exhaustive treatment of this passage outlined by a Dr. Larner, first published in 1760 and reprinted in T.W. Doane’s 1882 book, Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions:

1.     It was never quoted by any of our Christian ancestors before Eusebius.

2.    Josephus has nowhere else mentioned the name or word Christ, in any of his works, except the testimony above mentioned, and the passage concerning James, the Lord’s brother.

3.     It interrupts the narrative.

4.     The language is quite Christian.

5.     It is not quoted by Chrysostom, though he often refers to Josephus, and could not have omitted quoting it, had it been then, in the text.

6.     It is not quoted by Photius, though he has three articles concerning Josephus.

7.     Under the article Justus of Tiberius, this author (Photius) expressly states that this historian (Josephus), being a Jew, has not taken the least notice of Christ.

8.     Neither Justin, in his dialogue with Typho the Jew, nor Clemens Alexandrinus, who made so many extracts from ancient authors, nor Origen against Celsus, have even mentioned this testimony.

9.     But, on the contrary, Origen openly affirms (ch. xxiv., bk. i, against Celsus), that Josephus, who had mentioned John the Baptist, did not acknowledge Christ.[xi]

As Dr. Larner points out, another passage in Josephus mentions James, the brother of Jesus (20:9); this passage is less passionately contested. Despite arguments like these, the Josephus passage is mostly accepted today as partially genuine. According to Paula Fredrikson, “Most scholars currently incline to see the passage as basically authentic, with a few later insertions by Christian scribes.”[xii] Earl Doherty, however, in The Jesus Puzzle, points to the difficulty these two passages have in supporting the burden placed on them:

In the absence of any other supporting evidence from the first century that in fact the Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels clearly existed, Josephus becomes the slender thread by which such an assumption hangs. And the sound and fury and desperate manoeuverings which surround the dissection of those two little passages becomes a din of astonishing proportions. The obsessive focus on this one uncertain record is necessitated by the fact that the rest of the evidence is so dismal, so contrary to the orthodox picture. If almost everything outside Josephus points in a different direction, to the essential fiction of the Gospel picture and its central figure, how can Josephus be made to bear on his shoulders, through two passages whose reliability has thus far remained unsettled, the counterweight to all this other negative evidence?[xiii]

The next passage is from The Annals of Roman historian and Senator Tacitus (c. 68). Tacitus is generally considered a reliable historian, which has been used to give this passage added weight.

Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius 14-37 at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Tacitus 15:44)

First of all, Tacitus was not infallible. In referring to earlier references, Tacitus confirms that Moses led a colony of lepers (the Jews) out of Israel, thus giving the rumor that the Jewish people were originally a leper colony a pseudo-historical foundation. Assmann reflects, Tacitus’ “authority as a historian imparted the dignity of authentic historical research to this product of imagination, projection, and distorted memory.”[xiv]

Even so, a strong case can also be made against the authenticity of this passage. Larner and Doane point out that it was discovered only in the 15th century (this is confirmed by the Catholic Encyclopedia) and that there was “no vestige nor trace of its existence anywhere in the world” before then:

The original MSS. containing the “Annals of Tacitus” were “discovered” in the fifteenth century. Their existence cannot be traced back further than that time. And as it was an age of imposture, some persons are disposed to believe that not only portions of the Annals, but the whole work, was forged at that time. Mr. J. W. Ross, in an elaborate work published in London some years ago, contended that the Annals were forged by Poggio Bracciolini, their professed discoverer. At the time of Bracciolini the temptation was great to palm off literary forgeries, especially of the chief writers of antiquity, on account of the Popes, in their efforts to revive learning, giving money rewards and indulgences to those who should procure MS. copies of any of the ancient Greek or Roman authors. Manuscripts turned up as if by magic, in every direction; from libraries of monasteries, obscure as well as famous; the most out-of-the-way places,—the bottom of exhausted wells, besmeared by snails, as the History of Velleius Paterculus, or from garrets, where they had been contending with cobwebs and dust, as the poems of Catullus.[xv]

Nevertheless, the passage is generally accepted as authentic by modern researchers. At the same time, it has been noted that it can offer no information regarding the historical Jesus, since “Christ” is not a name and could have referred to any number of individuals. Another claim is that Tacitus is only repeating Christians’ own perception of their history.

Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan in 112 about certain Christians who refused to worship the emperor. This letter has also been used to justify the historical Jesus – although it refers only to the existence of Christians.

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do – these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ. (Pliny the Younger 10:96-97)

Finally, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69-140), a secretary and historian to Emperor Hadrian wrote the following in his Life of Claudius: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome” (25:4). That this passage is referring to Jesus Christ assumes the following:

1. The “Chrestus” causing disturbance in Rome refers to a “Christ” who actually resided some years earlier in Palestine.

2. The information is not secondhand via Christian sources.

3. The presence of Christians in Rome by 49 implies the existence of an actual “Christ” rather than a developing legend.

4. “Chrestus” means “Christ,” rather than its translation “Useful One.”

Suetonius later mentions that, because of the great fire in Rome of 64 AD, “punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and harmful superstition” (Lives of the Caesars, 26:2).

Putting aside the question of whether these passages are authentic or forgeries, in fact they are not strong witnesses for the historical Jesus anyway. They were all written after the life and times of Jesus, by non-followers who had only second hand, anecdotal evidence about him. They don’t mention any of the miraculous deeds or teachings of the Bible. If anything they only support the idea that there were at the time some Christians who believed in a historical Jesus – a point which I have no intention of challenging. As Kuhn pointed out in the quote above, these meager historical sources are incongruous to the claim that the life of Jesus Christ was one of the best-attested events in history.

Some scholars have noticed, with surprise, that there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus of any kind. When used against the idea of a historical Jesus, this is sometimes referred to as the “argument from silence.” Kersey Graves, for example, writing in 1875, commented strongly on the lack of historical testimony:

The fact that no history, sacred or profane,—that not one of the three hundred histories of that age,—makes the slightest allusion to Christ, or any of the miraculous incidents ingrafted into his life, certainly proves, with a cogency that no logic can overthrow, no sophistry can contradict, and no honest skepticism can resist, that there never was such a miraculously endowed being as his many orthodox disciples claim him to have been. The fact that Christ finds no place in the history of the era in which he lived,—that not one event of his life is recorded by anybody but his own interested and prejudiced biographers,—settles the conclusion, beyond cavil or criticism, that the godlike achievements ascribed to him are naught but fable or fiction. It not only proves he was not miraculously endowed, but proves he was not even naturally endowed to such an extraordinary degree as to make him an object of general attention.[xvi]

Defenders of Christianity respond to this argument by claiming that Jesus was a small time preacher living in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, and as such shouldn’t be expected to have received much attention anyway. However, in the gospels his death and resurrection were witnessed and believed in by both Roman and Jewish officials; the word would have been sure to spread very quickly. As Mead pointed out in 1903,

It has always been unfailing source of astonishment to the historical investigator of Christian beginnings, that there is not a single word from the pen of any pagan writer of the first century of our era, which can in any fashion be referred to the marvelous story recounted by the Gospel writer. The very existence of Jesus seems unknown.[xvii]

Of course the “argument from silence” can’t prove that Jesus didn’t exist; nor can questioning the authenticity of the passages cited above. For the purposes of the present study, however, the above documents are refuted as proofs for the historical Jesus: the reason for this conclusion has nothing to do with the documents themselves, but is simply based on the perception that controversy and argumentation surrounding these documents continues, and appears irresolvable. For obvious reasons, a document used as evidence to give testimony about an individual should be a reliable and trusted source of information. If experts cannot agree on the validity of the document, and if they argue for centuries about whether or not it is genuine, a forgery, or a well-intentioned interpolation, and if in general there is no consensus, then the document should not be used as valid evidence in a research investigation.

However, that’s not to say that these passages couldn’t be used as strong supporting or secondary evidence – but only in the absence of other evidence pointing at a different solution, or after an irrefutable (or at least much more secure) primary source of testimony was first established. This is an assertion that most Christians can agree with, maintaining that the most reliable testimony of the life of Jesus Christ can be found in the Bible. On his website, Mark D. Roberts, author of Jesus Revealed, quickly dismisses the main Jewish and Roman sources used to support the historical Jesus and even makes the early Christian writings dispensable. In the end, however, he finds in the Bible plenty of evidence for the historical Jesus.

If all we had were the second-century Christian writings, we’d have a hard time sorting out what Jesus really did and said. The gulf between orthodox and heterodox treatments of Jesus was wide and growing wider in this century as Gnostics claimed Jesus as their heavenly redeemer while orthodox Christians insisted that his ministry included far more than revelation. At its core, they argued, it had to do with his death and resurrection, something the Gnostics rejected, preferring a revealer who didn’t really suffer. But, I’m glad to say, we don’t have only the second-century writings. In fact we have access to texts from the earliest days of Christian faith, writings which are collected in the New Testament.[xviii]

But is the Bible really historically accurate? Who wrote the New Testament and for what purpose? What can we learn about Jesus from the gospel stories? These questions will be explored in the next section.

The Old Testament

The modern Bible is a collection of writings that attempt to link Jesus, as a historical figure, to the much older (and more exhaustive) Old Testament, or Jewish scriptures. It was generally maintained by Christians that Jesus had come as the Jewish Messiah, and as such, the Old Testament writings were interpreted as references to Jesus and his coming kingdom. It is important to note that the New Testament was most likely written by Jews or at least scribes who were very familiar with traditional Jewish writings. Therefore, before we examine whether the New Testament is a reliable historical source, it will be advantageous to examine the Old Testament to develop an understanding of just what kind of writing it is. Specifically, is the Old Testament historically reliable and accurate?

We should also understand that the concept of an “Old Testament” is completely Christian. Although the bulk of the Old Testament is the Jewish Pentateuch or Tanach, as well as collections of Jewish writings, the organization of them into one linear text starting with the beginning of history (creation) and ending in the fulfillment of Jesus Christ (New Testament) is a reflection of Christian ideology. To Jews who continue to maintain the supremacy of their scriptures, the prefix “Old” is insulting; it reflects the Christian paradigm that Christ fulfills and supersedes the Law. It is mostly the Christian understanding of the New Testament as literal history, miracles included, which has likewise spread the view that the Old Testament is also to be read literally – a practice which conflicts with historical records.

In fact, when we study the Old Testament within the social and geographic context in which it was developed, we will see that the main stories of the Old Testament – David and Goliath, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Joseph, the Ark, the garden – are all refurbished pagan stories; assimilated and transformed to give Jews their own national heroes. This demonstrates that Jewish scribes, rather than writing in a vacuum, were already relying on a rich and very ancient literary tradition. The best example of this is from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, the greatest literary accomplishment of Mesopotamia, was widely translated throughout the ancient Middle East. There are many parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh, pagan mythology, and the Old Testament. We will focus on just one (the story of the flood) to demonstrate how closely the parallels run and how it can be effectively proven that the Old Testament borrowed from earlier sources. The similarities between the story of Noah should be apparent to anyone familiar with the biblical account of the flood.

The Babylonian Noah was named Utnupishtim, who with his wife became immortal after surviving the great food. Gilgamesh, in his quest for immortality, seeks him out and gets to hear the story first hand. The gods had decided to destroy mankind, but one god, Ea, was friendly and determined to save Utnupishtim. He told him to disregard his possessions, construct an ark according to exact specifications, and take the seed of all living plants and creatures (as well as his wife, adequate supplies and crew). Cyrus Gordon, an American scholar of Near Eastern cultures, notes that the Babylonian account is “more detailed and realistic than the biblical version because the Mesopotamians were more advanced than the Hebrews in material civilization in general and specifically in the arts of naval construction and operation.”[xix] Rains came and the ark was carried on the waters. Finally it came to rest on a mountain. The survivors sent out a dove, and then a swallow, and then a raven to determine whether the earth was dry. Utnupishtim got out and sacrificed to the gods, who hovered over the sweet-smelling sacrifice like flies.

Exploring the similarities between these two literary traditions, Gordon makes a clear argument regarding their relationship:

Here we need to say a special word about the relationship between the flood accounts as preserved in the Bible and in the Gilgamesh Epic. It is obvious that the two versions are strikingly similar and must be related in some way. The consensus of scholars is that the Babylonian version influenced the Israelite version. The reasons for this are manifold. First, all things being equal, a greater society is more likely to influence a lesser society than vice versa. Babylonia was the dominant culture of the Asiatic near East and Israel represented a backwater of sorts. Secondly, the manner of destruction, i.e., by flood, is typical of Mesopotamia, where the great Tigris and Euphrates Rivers regularly flooded their banks and cause havoc and destruction. Israel, by contrast, is very arid; it is unlikely that anyone in that part of the Near East would conceive of a divine destruction of the people through flooding. Third, the geography of the biblical accounts points to a Mesopotamian origin. Noah’s ark lands on the mountains of Aratat, at the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates; if the story had originated in Canaan we would expect Mount Hermon (c 7,500 feet high), for example, as the locale of the ark’s resting place. Fourth, as we have seen, the Gilgamesh Epic was the literary masterpiece of antiquity, and one fragment even has been found in the land of Israel (at Megiddo). Fifth, the earliest Hebrews come from Mesopotamia, and it is unlikely that Abraham and his entourage would have been unfamiliar with the story.[xx]

Interestingly, the fact that flood stories appear also in other cultural myths have been used to support the reliability of the Bible; however in this instance, the parallels are so precisely mirrored – the releasing of the birds, the sweet-smelling sacrifice that pacified the god (Genesis 8:20-12) – that this cannot be an instance of a universal tradition, but rather a direct influence. Although the Bible seems to give a clear picture of the history of mankind from the beginning of creation until the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ, the truth is that there were already extremely advanced and developed civilizations before the Old Testament was written, and the Old Testament authors were undoubtedly influenced by these civilizations.

For example, before Yahweh gave the Jews their 10 commandments, the first king Urnammu of the Third dynasty of Ur (2028-1920BC), developed the first code of laws known anywhere in the world. There are also countless business documents of this period, dated by month and even to the day. Soon thereafter, the king of the Babylonian First Dynasty Hammurapi (1704-1662) made a much more advanced code of law: there were three classes of society, rich, middle and slaves. Prices were fixed. Laws were precise and included traffic violation, marriage, care of children, and a Veteran’s Bill of Rights. Moreover, it was specifically devoid of legalistic jargon – so that anybody could understand the law.

The Jews were heavily influenced by their 70-year Babylonian exile, something that can be seen, for example, in their calendar. “Babylonian unity is reflected by the spread throughout the land of a single calendar, whose month names persisted to the end of Babylonian history, and which live on in the religious calendar of the Jews, who adopted it during the Babylonian Exile.”[xxi] This is not to say they assimilated; in fact the extreme disapproval of adapting outsider customs and pagan religions, as well as the ritualistic laws and strict punishments for idolatry, may have been formulated as a way to protect an autonomous Jewish identity.

In addition, many of the stories in the Old Testament disagree with archaeological evidence. In the story of Exodus, for example, Moses led his people out of Egypt and across the river into Canaan, where they destroyed the Canaanite cities and decimated the local population. As Karen Armstrong, author of The Bible: A Biography, points out,

Israeli archaeologists, who have been excavating the region since 1967, have found no evidence to corroborate this story; there is no sign of foreign invasion or mass destruction, and nothing to indicate a large-scale change of population. The scholarly consensus is that the story of Exodus is not historical.[xxii]

The Old Testament is a collection and compilation of Jewish writings, which reflect the Jewish belief in a national divinity and His covenant with them as a people. However, rather than an account of historical events, the Old Testament is an Israel-centered pastiche, which reflects the cultural and ethnographic heritage of the Jews, and for which the various writers freely used and adapted existing literatures from different traditions. It was then organized, translated and copied by Christian scholars, who interpreted it as a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. Although many of the accounts in the Old Testament may be historical – i.e. the names of specific places or rulers – the writers in general adopted myth, fable and folklore and tied it into current Jewish happenings, as a commentary on contemporary events. In identifying this process in the Old Testament, we already have a working model of how the New Testament gospels may have been written.

The New Testament

It is awkward to talk about the New Testament as providing proof for the historical Jesus, if only because of the stark contrast in respective beliefs concerning the Bible. Many people believe firmly, without a doubt that the New Testament is not historical; and others believe just as firmly that it is. Although it has long been concluded by literary experts, biblical exegetes, and historical scholars that the four gospels of the New Testament reflect specific theological trends within the early church rather than dispassionate historical reports, they are still considered eye-witness testimonials and historical evidence by perhaps the majority of Christians (and thus a large portion of the world population).

As I mentioned previously, we should not be concerned here with proving the matter one way or another; all that is needed is to fully understand the various reasons why each side claims what it does. To begin with, it can be reiterated that the academic community hasn’t considered the gospels as eye-witness accounts since the early days of biblical criticism (although they might say the gospels reflect the genuine or authentic spirit of the early church). In 1986 for example, Robert Funk created the Westar Institute with the aim of exploring the reliability of the New Testament as testimony. He organized the Jesus Seminar, an inter-disciplinary panel of scholars, to investigate the historical accuracy of the New Testament sayings of Jesus. In 1993, the seminar published the findings of their vote-based investigation, in a work called, The Five Gospels.[xxiii] Their conclusion was that only 16% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels may have actually been spoken by him.

Some of the reasons for this are not difficult to find if reading the Bible objectively. For example, the gospels never say “I saw Jesus do this and was afraid.” Instead, they use the third person – as would someone telling a story or legend – and say, “The disciples saw Jesus do this and were afraid.” They frequently talk about things that happened behind closed doors or among their rivals.

They are also incredibly impersonal; they share no private conversations or anecdotes, no complaints, and no worries or thoughts of the author (which might be expected if the author had traveled in an intimate band of companions for a year). Moreover, scholars generally agree that Mark came first, and the other two Synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, copied from him and added their own material to support the agenda of their community. In Mark, the earliest gospel, there was no birth story and no account of the resurrection (the current ending of Mark, which includes Jesus appearing to his disciples, is considered a late addition.) Mark may have been based on an earlier tradition or literature that scholars refer to as “Q.” Daniel Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, has written an excellent paper, “The Synoptic Problem,” exploring some of these issues.[xxiv]

In fact there is nothing in the text themselves that would give the impression that they are eye-witness accounts; it is only tradition, which later gave the gospels names of specific apostles, which has led to the modern belief that they were written by original followers of Christ. The fact that they were not is universally accepted among scholars; although some claim that they still record genuine testimony, passed down from original witnesses. “Pseudonymity was the rule until 135 at least… then writings were placed under names of apostles to demonstrate that they represented the ‘true workings of the spirit’ and guaranteed orthodoxy.”[xxv]

What are the gospels, if not eye-witness accounts? To understand why and how the gospels were written, we need to remember that the first few centuries of Christianity were filled with controversies. Dozens of schisms, sects, and communities worshipped Jesus independently and called each other heretics. Some groups, in order to claim authority, tried to create a direct link of transmission between themselves and the disciples who actually knew Jesus. The concept of “apostolic succession” was an attempt to strengthen the particular ideology of certain Christian communities. Moreover, communities selected, altered or crafted stories about Jesus to support their own particular theology and to raise the status of the apostle their group claimed to have received direct transmission from.

Many Christian communities were the result of the hard work of the apostle Paul, whose letters (both authentic and those forged in his name) make up nearly half of the New Testament. Interestingly, it seems Paul himself was completely against the idea of apostolic tradition. He argued that believers could experience Jesus personally – without any human intermediary – and that this metaphysical experience of Jesus made them equal to any others: “I did not receive it [the gospel] from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12) “Am I not an apostle, have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1:Cor. 15:7).

Against the teachings of Paul, and unlike the earliest Christian texts (such as the Didache[xxvi] (c. 50-120AD) in which roles are merit based and there is no hierarchy, or the book of Matthew, which rejected fixed forms of ritual) by around 100BC a body of teaching was becoming established to which appeal could be made. Its authenticity could be guaranteed by reference to the apostles and to Christ himself, and it was represented by an ordered hierarchy that could claim descent from apostolic times.[xxvii]

Faced with controversy on all sides, the early church fathers developed a canon (or plumb-line) of “orthodox” writings; the criteria for which was that they could be traced back to a disciple of Christ. Thus, they could claim absolute authority via direct apostolic transmission. However, in order to validate the appropriate texts, pseudepigraphy (forgery) was used to assign the texts to various apostles. As Hermann Detering comments,

The history of the investigation of the New Testament writings has led to the generally recognized conclusion that of the all-together twenty-seven writings in the New Testament, apart from those that supposedly derive from Paul – not a single one can be traced back to an apostle, or a student of an apostle – and this is the case even though all the writings of the New Testament claim direct or indirect apostolic authorship, which then constitutes the presupposition for their inclusion in the canon![xxviii]

The communities that insisted on a fixed canon and apostolic tradition were the same communities preaching a Jesus “in the flesh,” as opposed to one that came only in appearance; thus they naturally had a stronger claim to the historical transmission of dogma or truth. Other communities with a more integrative, spiritual focus also began to use apostolic tradition to justify their teachings; but without a clear, physical human founder, their claim of authenticity was weakened. This is probably why in the Bible, which is a result of a “normative Christianity,” Peter (considered one of the actual disciples) is made the rock on which Jesus founded his church, rather than Paul (who never met Jesus).

In the apocryphal gospel of Thomas, however, Jesus chose James to be ruler. In the gospel of Mary Magdalene, we find it is Mary who was closest to Jesus and had been given ultimate knowledge. In fact it was quite easy for a sect or community to attribute their theology to Jesus – they could just claim another revelation from the spiritual Christ, or a private conversation between him and a disciple not yet recorded. This opportunity was fortified by the fact that Jesus had resurrected, and could appear in the flesh (or in dreams) to anybody, at any time. It was probably this atmosphere of intense competition that made it necessary for the orthodox to deny the spiritual Jesus as much as possible and emphasize his one-time-only historicity. As such, they could codify a set of gospels to which nothing more could be added. (Even so, they constantly had to fight against communities who claimed Jesus had revealed secret knowledge to other disciples).

At the same time, it is worth noting the style of the earliest Christian documents with regard to Jesus. Rather than the eye-witness testimonials which we would expect, they refer very generally (if at all) to Jesus, and rarely in a human context. The impression of Jesus Christ was interpreted less in terms of the Gospels than in those of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.[xxix] 1 Clement and the Didache present Christ as “the servant,” and quote Isaiah to demonstrate qualities of Christ, rather than any historical events. For example, they would say that Christ was humble; not because of his humility under Pilate, but because Isaiah said he would be.

Likewise, Clement 1 proves the possibility of immortality through a reference to the phoenix, instead of the empty tomb. Ethical teachings of the early communities were based on the “Two Ways” of Job, the Proverbs and the book of Ecclesiastics rather than the Sermon on the Mount. Judith and Esther are used as examples of self-sacrificing, modest women; not Mary Magdalene or Jesus’ mother.

The Jesus of the early Christian communities, rather than a recently deceased historical person, was primarily a literary construct – a synthesis based on an academic exegesis that interpreted Jewish scripture as prophecy about the coming Messiah. Karen Armstrong explains how a “blurring” of several Old Testament motifs was used to form the character of Jesus Christ.

They were also attracted to the mysterious figure of the servant in Second Isaiah, whose suffering had redeemed the world. The servant had not been a messianic figure, but by constantly comparing the servant with Jesus Christos, using the same ‘blurring’ technique, they established for the first time the idea of a suffering messiah. Thus three separate figures – servant, messiah and Jesus – became inseparable in the Christian imagination.[xxx]

As Armstrong points out, this Christian exegesis was so thorough that “there is scarcely a verse in the New Testament that did not refer to older scriptures,” and that, therefore, “some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that it would be possible to construct an entire gospel from the Jewish scriptures, without quoting a single word by Jesus himself.”[xxxi]

The gospel story about Jesus Christ begins with his theological role and relationship with the Old Testament; however at the same time, there are anomalous elements that could not have come from Judaism. The Holy Communion, for example, is in direct violation of the command in Leviticus 17:12 not to eat raw blood.

Early writings like the Didache[xxxii] mention Jesus only as the “servant to God” who initiated the Eucharist. The Didache doesn’t mention Christ’s resurrection; and while it speaks of a “Son of God” and “Lord,” this figure is never explicitly identified with Jesus Christ. He was expected to arrive, rather than being present. The Didache also lists ethical commands, without linking them to Jesus. Do not do to others what you would not done to you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Pray for your enemies. If someone takes your cloak, give him your coat. The meek shall inherit the earth. These maxims were part of the “Way of Life” (as opposed to the “Way of Death”) and would later be attributed to the figure of Jesus.[xxxiii]

The specific details of the gospel, and the story of the human, physical life of Jesus, were told only when needed by Christian communities to confront the claims that Jesus had not lived a human life. In the second century there was no canon of prescribed texts because there was “as yet, no standard form of Christianity.”[xxxiv] Jesus Christ was then placed in a historical context, and pre-existing statements (like those from the Didache[xxxv]) were prefixed with “Jesus said –.” According to W.H.C. Frend in The Rise of Christianity,

Communities needed an account of the life of the Savior for their edification and in order to refute those who denied that he was the Messiah or claimed that his ministry was not real.[xxxvi]

Part of the confusion over the gospels is that they appear to be historical; they are written in a way, and with the inclusion of historical data, which makes them seem like historical documents. This stylistic feature is often pointed out as evidence. Craig Blomberg for example, Professor of the New Testament at the Denver Seminary in Colorado, argues,

But if you’re going to be convinced enough to believe, the theology has to flow from accurate history. Besides, there’s an important piece of implicit evidence that can’t be overlooked. Consider the way the gospels are written – a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writings.[xxxvii]

Overlooking the claim that a story about a man who walks on water, pulls coins out of fish and rises from the dead is “sober and responsible” and not “outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing,” we could easily argue that the gospels were written in this particular style precisely because the authors wanted them to be considered as historical testimonies – which in no way proves that they actually were. The gospels that were canonized were the ones that presented Jesus the man; and they were chosen because they focused on the physical Jesus and could support a claim of apostolic tradition and the authority of a particular Christian community (with the exception of John, which presents Jesus in transcendental terms that for many were irreconcilable with a physical human being). Some scholars have argued that it is the consistent style of these gospels that implies a historical mover behind them. Welsh New Testament scholar and influential Protestant theologian C.H. Dodd takes this approach:

The Synoptic writers give us a body of his sayings so coherent, and withal so distinctive in style, manner and content, that no reasonable critic could doubt that whatever reservations he might have about individual Sayings, we find reflected here the thought of a single, unique teacher.[xxxviii]

Early Christian writings, however, testify that like the Old Testament, the stories in the New Testament were allegories deliberately written as “historical narratives” that held deeper meaning meant to be interpreted. Christian apologist Origen, in Contra Celsum, writes:

It is sufficient however, to represent in the style of a historical narrative what is intended to convey a secret meaning in the garb of history, that those who have the capacity may work out for themselves all that relates to the subject. (Book 5, Chapter 29)

In fact, for much of its existence, it was understood that the Bible was meant to be treated as allegory. Origen’s three levels of meaning in exegetical practice formed the basis of biblical study well into the Middle Ages. But along with the Reformation, and the Protestant cry of sola scriptura, came an emphasis on a literal reading of the Bible. The complications inherent in mixing spiritual allegory with historical fact are many. Richard Dawkins points out one such example in The God Delusion. In Christian theology, Jesus is the “New Adam” necessary to redeem the sin of Adam; but Adam, or “first man,” is without question a literary construct – his alleged transgression merely a theological explanation for why there is sin in the world. Even if a real Jesus did come in the flesh, why would his actions remove the “stain of sin” from a mythical figure?

To cap it all, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place: an – awkward fact – excusably unknown to Paul but presumably known to an Omniscient God (and Jesus, if you believe he was God?) – which fundamentally undermines the premise of the whole nasty theory. Oh, but of course, the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic? So, in order to impress himself, Jesus had himself tortured and executed, in vicarious punishment for a symbolic sin committed by a non-existent individual?[xxxix]

Jesus and the Stoic Philosophers

What about the teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament? Can they be traced to innovative ideas that may have come from a historical founder? Actually, many “Christian” ideas were already present in Jewish spiritual communities and pagan philosophy. The Pharisees, for example, systematized works of mercy and charity towards the poor, as well as care of the dead (burial of corpses and care of graves), which was to become characteristic of Christian practice. They also already believed in an afterlife and a last judgment:

Nonetheless, the Pharisaic belief in the afterlife, in its rewards and punishments, in angels and demons, and also in the ability of each individual to repent of sins and earn forgiveness, and of the duty to die for the Torah rather than compromise its prescriptions, were accepted by the people. Lazarus’s sister Martha took it as a matter of course that her brother would rise again in the resurrection at the last day.[xl]

The Jesus movement appears unique in preaching that, rather than at the end of time, the Kingdom and the resurrection was to be found right now – in this lifetime. This passionate and motivating belief, however, can be traced to the community at Qumran:

Like Jesus himself and the early Christians, the Covenanters expected the rapid end of the age, they were concerned with membership of the future kingdom, and they shared with Jesus’ followers a deep interest in discovering signs that might warn them of the approach of the end.[xli]

A similar theme is found in the Stoic writings. The Stoic doctrine of the “world conflagration” described the destruction of the present scheme of things so that it may begin anew. Hence, Epictetus teaches non-attachment, and “not to stray too far from the ship.”

On a voyage, when the ship calls at the port and you go ashore for water, it amuses you to pick up a shell or a plant by the way; but your thoughts ought to be directed to the ship and you must watch lest the captain call, and then you must throw away all those things, that you may not be flung aboard, tied like the sheep. So in life, suppose that instead of some little shell or plant, you are given something in the way of wife or child nothing need hinder. But, if the captain call, run to the ship letting them all go and never looking round.[xlii]

Early Christianity developed a similar doctrine of the End of Times, when God would destroy the world with fire and natural disasters, and Jesus would return to judge the living and the dead.

Immediately after the distress of those days, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. (Mat 24:29-31, NIV)

On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (Luke 21:25-28, NIV)

Rather than Epictetus’ metaphor of the ship, the gospel writers preferred the parable that Jesus would come “like a thief in the night.”

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (2 Peter 3:10, NIV)

Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed. (Revelation 16:15, NIV)

The Qumran community used a dualistic system marked by light and dark symmetry – the two ways or two paths – which is in common with early Christian texts. The Manual of Discipline, for example, reads “Now this God, created man to rule the world and appointed for him two spirits he was to walk with until the final Inquisition.”[xliii] This division, between a higher, divine self, and a lower, animal self, was also common in most pagan philosophical and spiritual traditions. It was believed that developing the higher self would lead to life, while giving in to the passions of the body would lead to death.

Stoicism also taught, like the Gospel of John, that the Word of God (Spermaticos Logos) was the creative force through which the universe was created, that existed with the Father in the beginning, and descended even into men. According to Seneca,

This fabric which you see, wherein are divine and human, is one. We are members of a great body. Nature has made us of one blood, has implanted in us mutual love, has made us for society.

The gods are not scornful, they are not envious. They welcome us, and, as we ascend, they reach us their hands. Are you surprised that a man should go to the gods? God comes to men, nay! Nearer still! He comes into men. No mind (mens) is good without God. Divine seeds are sown in human bodies, and will grow into likeness to their origin if rightly cultivated.[xliv]

As Bultmann pointed out, if the ideas recorded in the New Testament as teachings of Jesus were already present in his environment, they cannot have originated with him. Specifically, although he may have been a Jewish teacher or rebel leader who drew from those beliefs and formulated his own message, those teachings – not being original – cannot be used to identify or locate the historical Jesus.

The reverse, however, is also true. Just because the New Testament may not refer to a specific, unique historical person, and instead may be a compilation of Christian theology, beliefs and mythology, doesn’t prove that there was not a historical founder behind them. The conclusion can only be that the gospels of the New Testament are not focused on the historical Jesus, and as such should not be expected to give strong evidence of him. Without conflicting evidence, there is no reason not to take them at face value as relating to a specific historical individual:

In their final form the Gospels are works reflecting the faith and attitudes of Christian communities some two generations after the crucifixion. Their writers were concerned with “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) and not with historical biography. The story they tell, however, can hardly relate to a situation other than Palestine in the first half of the first century A.D. and to an individual who lived in those times.[xlv]

The story of the gospels is about an individual that lived in a specific period of history, and, as recent scholarship has proved, we can generate a lot of details about that individual by researching relevant historical data. But it should not be forgotten that this method begins with the hypothesis of a historical Jesus.

To elaborate this point, consider the novel Gone with the Wind. It is about a woman named Scarlett O’Hara, who lived during a specific episode of American history – the civil war. Gone with the Wind is full of passion, relationship, adventure and dialog, and made realistic by the inclusion of history-specific details, such as descriptions of soldiers’ uniforms or references to real battles that took place or real political leaders. However, we recognize that Gone with the Wind is a story written in a certain genre: historical fiction or historical narrative. It can move us, inspire us, motivate and entertain us; and a person like Scarlett may really have existed and had similar experiences. However, by examining the literary components, we can separate the fact from fiction.

Many scholars still believe that the gospels preserve genuine Jesus-inspired traditions, recollections and evidences of Christianity’s historical founder, and in the absence of other indicators, biblical studies would do well to continue searching for him. However, there is other evidence, which is discarded for being irrelevant simply because it doesn’t lead to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was historical. This circular argument is that any evidence which describes Jesus in non-historical terms has no relevance to the historical Jesus. At the same time, some of this evidence comes from Christ-worshipping communities and traditions, and therefore can be useful in understanding the development of Christian history and ideology.

The Gnostic Gospels

In 1979 Professor of Religion at Princeton University Elaine Pagels first published her book The Gnostic Gospels, a popular introduction to the ancient manuscripts discovered near the upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1943. The word “Gnostic” refers to possessing intellectual or spiritual knowledge. These documents, which were buried to avoid persecution in the 3rd or 4th century, depict a Jesus concerned with illusion and enlightenment rather than sin and repentance. According to Pagels, “Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.” Pagels’ book revealed that the early Christian communities were diverse, held vastly differing beliefs about their savior Jesus Christ, and used several gospels that were not included in the Bible.

Contemporary Christianity, diverse and complex as we find it, actually may show more unanimity than the Christian churches of the first and second centuries. For nearly all Christians since that time, Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox, have shared three basic premises. First, they accept the canon of the New Testament; second, they confess the apostolic creed; and third, they affirm specific forms of church institutions. But every one of these – the canon of Scripture, the creed, and the institutional structure – emerged in its present form only toward the end of the second century. Before that time, as Irenaeus and others attest, numerous gospels circulated among various Christian groups, ranging from those of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to such writings as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth, as well as many other secret teachings, myths, and poems attributed to Jesus or his disciples. Some of these, apparently, were discovered at Nag Hammadi; many others are lost to us. Those who identified themselves as Christians entertained many – and radically differing – religious beliefs and practices.[xlvi]

But can the Gnostic Gospels really tell us anything about Jesus? Traditional biblical scholars insist that Gnosticism was a schism or heresy from the original Jesus movement, and that it was most pagan and had nothing to do with the authentic teachings of Jesus. This argument was used early by the church, who claimed ultimate possession over the Christian legacy. As Frend relates,

An assumption, which started early and continues to hold weight today, is that these Gnostic communities came late and as such have no bearing on the historical Jesus. Tertullian, for example, argues that Gnostics had no right to use scripture in any way. They were usurpers, latecomers whose sects had come into being long after the church had established itself and therefore held a possessory right over Scripture.[xlvii]

Today “Gnostic” is commonly used as a broad term to refer to certain groups and ideas of the 2nd century. Anything Gnostic then, by definition, can be satisfactorily restrained to the safety of the second century as an offshoot of mainstream Christianity. Another method used to marginalize Gnostic writings is to say they are not concerned with the historical Jesus, or don’t believe in him, and therefore have nothing useful to say about him. It can be demonstrated, however, that the beliefs and ideologies of Gnosticism come directly from traditions that are older than mainstream Christianity. Therefore, rather than offshoots of orthodox Christianity, they actually represent co-existing, contemporary communities which developed around the same time as normative Christianity. Although I will not argue that the Gnostic gospels have more authority or are earlier than the canonical ones, I think it reasonable to accept that they may have at least something to tell us about the diverse early practices of worshipping Jesus, as well as the reliability of the tradition of a historical founder.

Gnosticism is basically a philosophical form of Christianity that focuses on esoteric wisdom and metaphysics. Many Gnostics believed in dualism: the earth is the lowest of seven universes or planets, and our souls (remnants from the perfect light of the first world) are stuck here in corrupted, physical bodies. We can find these beliefs in Saturnius (c. 100-120), the disciple of Menander (c. 60-100), who was the disciple of Simon Magus. The world was viewed as evil matter, and Christ came to save us from the “seven angels” (planets or powers) – one of whom was the Yahweh of the Old Testament.[xlviii] As was already pointed out, “orthodox” Christianity also had strong dualistic tendencies; but with the emphasis on the historical Jesus and resurrection of the flesh, it became problematic to vilify the physical body.

Influenced by logical inquiry and pagan philosophy, Gnostics read the Old Testament description of Yahweh (which shows him to be possessive, jealous and angry) and concluded that he could not be the real God, who must be perfect. Instead, they called him Demiurge – a malevolent force that produced the world by blunder.

Gnostic writings demonstrate a synthesis of Jewish and pagan thought, and also employ New Testament figures like Jesus, Peter, John, Mark, Paul and Mary. A few of the most influential Gnostic teachers were Basilides (c. 130-150), Valentinus (c. 140-160) and Heracleon (c. 170-180). Basilides taught the Demiurge, and claimed the crucifixion was not real (for Christ could not suffer). In Basilides’ account of the Passion, Simon of Cyrene takes on the appearance of Jesus, and Jesus stands by and laughs in scorn as the Jews try to kill him. Interestingly, Simon of Cyrene also appears in the gospel of Mark, as the bystander who carries the cross for Jesus (Mark, 15:21).

In the account of Valentinus (c. 140-65), Sophia, a great Goddess, gave birth to the creator of the universe (the Demiurge) but then fell into matter and became trapped (or in some accounts, sacrificed herself.) A savior, Jesus, is sent to Sophia. He separates her from her passions, saving her. Like all Gnostic myths, the symbols are meant to be interpreted. Sophia means “wisdom,” and it is she who is also found in the book of Wisdom. The qualities of Wisdom are very similar to those later given to the “Logos,” which were then placed onto the person of Jesus Christ:

Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; so nothing impure can find its way into her. For she is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, and image of his goodness. Although she is alone, she can do everything; herself unchanging, she renews the world, and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls, she makes them into God’s friends and prophets; for God loves those who dwell in wisdom. (Wisdom 7:24-28)

When we reflect that “Sophia” or wisdom is what the Gnostics prized above all else, the book of Wisdom actually seems more attune to gnosticism than what became orthodox Christianity. Although the above qualities given to Wisdom could also be attached to the Holy Spirit, they certainly reflect a pre-Christian trend which was more common to Gnostics and pagans than to early Christianity. According to the myth, when Sophia fell to the earth she became trapped in “dirt” (humanity); giving human beings the spark of the divine, or reason. Jesus, for Valentinus, was the savior who came to liberate our souls or higher selves from the prison of the flesh.

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 215), considered a saint by the church until the 17th century, believed that Jesus had a true human nature but felt no emotions, pleasure or pain. Clement also quoted from Valentinus, who said that “Jesus ate and drank in a manner peculiar to himself and that the food did not pass through his body” (Miscellanies VI.9.71 1-2). A fragment (in a Latin translation) of a commentary of Clement’s on the first Epistle of John contains the following curious statement, which directly contradicts the biblical story of “doubting Thomas”:

It is said in the tradition that John touched the surface of the body of Jesus, and drove his hand deep into it, and the firmness of the flesh was no obstacle but gave way to the hand of the disciple.[xlix]

Clement was familiar with Indian religions and customs, and it has been pointed out that his spiritual beliefs may have been more Buddhist than Christian. This just shows the ease and ability with which Jesus’ Gnostic followers integrated with other traditions.

Basilides also interpreted scripture allegorically and related it freely to other myths. Based on the writings of Paul (Romans 7:9), Basilides taught the “transmigration of souls” (reincarnation), a common theme shared between Orphism, Plato and mystery cults. Heracleon, like Paul, criticized the orthodox for still acting like Jews; celebrating Passover in the Eucharist and making the mistake of interpreting literary events historically.[l]

According to Heracleon (and most Gnostics), spiritual beings comprehended the passion of the savior as spiritual allegory for their own restoration to the Father. Heracleon also taught that the baptism of John was only for the body, and thus imperfect, while the baptism of the Gnostics is spiritual. Significantly, according to New Testament writings, early Christianity originally had two baptisms – one of the flesh and one of the spirit. John’s baptism is of water, while Jesus’ baptism is of fire and the holy spirit. In Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul finds whole communities that did not receive the 2nd baptism. The fact that modern Christianity celebrates only one baptism is an indication of what has been lost.

Marcion (85-165) distinguished between the Demiurge, who symbolized righteousness (reward and punishment) and the real god, which was pure goodness. Citing from Isaiah, Marcion pointed out that Yahweh was the creator of evil: “I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). This vengeful creator god was not the same as the meek, passive Jesus. Jesus is the inner man, and though revealed as a man was not a man; he had a body only in appearance, and was subject to no nativity or passion, except in appearance.

Therefore, Marcion was against tying Jesus to the Old Testament or keeping Jewish Law. After nine years living and teaching in the Christian community in Rome, Marcion was finally expelled. As was customary, he had donated money and property to the church when he joined, and this was returned to him. When he was barred from orthodoxy, he used his fortune to start his own churches, in which membership was restricted to the truly dedicated. In Marcion’s churches you had to abandon all family ties and obligations. Baptism was granted only to those ready to abandon the world and its joys.

According to Frend, “This was, however, the way leading to the status of a respected sect, such as the Parsees in India, but not to that of world religion.”[li] Marcion’s god was not interested in flaming fire and eternal punishment. This passive and meek god was derided by the orthodox, who did not see how a good god could make people behave.

Listen, you sinners, and any of you not yet so, that you may be able to become so. A better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness. (Tertullian 144)

The orthodox position, which stressed fear of punishment and hope for reward, blind faith and a fearsome god, proved conducive to establishing a grounded historical movement. The Gnostics, on the other hand, melted too easily into their surrounding environment; however, it should be pointed out that the triumph of Christianity was due more to the specific beliefs of orthodoxy rather than the teachings of a potentially historical founder.

To worship an unknown God, sending Christ as a “healthful Spirit swooshing down from heaven” on an alien world to guide humankind, was to make Christianity into another mystery religion with no roots in the past… The good-natured spirit preached by Marcion was not one to inspire most would-be Christians to break from the world and accept the test of martyrdom.[lii]

The main difference between orthodoxy and Gnosticism is that, while orthodoxy was developing a canon, a hierarchy, rules and regulations, and an organizational structure, the Gnostics were searching for truth. Gnostics were “intellectually superior and better attuned to the ideas of their age than were their orthodox rivals, and they were less bound to what was hardening into formal and legalistic tradition.”[liii] They drew easily from contemporary philosophies and literature; Homer, Plato and Paul were placed on the same level of authority.

When they encountered a contradiction or logical problem within their gospels or beliefs, they fixed them; which led to the rapid expansion of Gnostic sects. Their ideas were based on reason and intelligence rather than revelation. These values made it easy for them to blend into the intellectually progressive environment of the Roman Empire.

The Gnostic teachers therefore stood in the mainstream of second-century religious speculation. They molded current ideas into their own systems, and associated them with Christ, the heavenly Messenger, who had appeared on earth in historical times.[liv]

For the same reason, critics claim that Gnosticism can say nothing about the historical Jesus because it is too pagan. However, the synthesis between Judaism and paganism had begun before the arrival of Jesus, and most of the elements used by the Gnostics predate Christianity.

It is impossible to think of the emergence of Gnosticism in the second century without the background of wisdom literature, of Philo, and the speculative preoccupation throughout Jewry with angelology, with the planets and the zodiac, and with mysteries connected with the sacred name of Yahweh. In these respects, it was one more successful manifestation of that extraordinarily vigorous Jewish culture that flourished at the time of Jesus, and of which Christianity was largely the heir.[lv]

As was pointed out earlier, the main reason for discarding the Gnostic gospels in the quest for the historical Jesus is because they do not present the narrative picture of Jesus that we’ve come to expect. They are talking about some other Jesus entirely; and if Jesus did exist as presented in the gospels, the Gnostic gospels must be mistaken.

And yet it is difficult to see how the appearance of the historical figure of Jesus Christ could produce one community which remembered him as a human being and several other communities which worshiped him as an eternal, spiritual entity. On the other hand, a model of how certain Jesus-based communities developed the need of a historical Jesus to justify their unique beliefs about a physical resurrection, which is supported by all available evidence, can be presented very clearly.

It is also possible to show that the tradition of a historical Jesus may have appeared later than the Gnostic tradition: Justin Martyr and Irenaeus record that Gnosticism started from Simon Magus, a popular magician-preacher recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Simon’s teachings, meanwhile, seem to have been rooted in the Essene community:

Simon, then, had been active “for a long time,” and his teachings concerning “the Great Power” was acceptable throughout the whole Samaritan people… If Simon himself was a disciple of a previous teacher named Dositheus, then the pre-Christian origins of the movement that came to be identified as Gnosticism would be evident, for Dositheus seems to have been connected at one time with Essenes.[lvi]

According to Detering, who claims that all of the Pauline letters were fabricated by the Gnostic Marcion (scholars agree Marcion was the first to reference them), Simon represented the first Christian mission, which was then brought back down to earth by the more sober Peter.

It can be inferred that this Simon had also turned to the Gentiles and carried out missionary activity here as well. Even the Pseudo-Clementines could not avoid mentioning Simon’s great missionary success; through him even before Peter, many Gentiles were supposedly converted to Christianity.[lvii]

If Simon’s teachings (which are very similar to Marcionite and Valentinian ideas) can be traced back to the Essenes – even if contemporary scholarship only labels them “Gnostic” in their later, second century form – then they preserve the earliest form of Christianity, which was later altered to fit the idea of a suffering, physical Messiah. Noting that St. Paul fits more snugly in the Gnostic tradition than in the orthodoxy which later embraces him, Deterring goes as far as to argue that Paul and Simon were actually the same figure.

Orthodoxy continues to claim that its gospels are earlier – closer in time to the actual life of Jesus Christ and thus authoritative – while maintaining that Gnosticism is a later offshoot because, given a historical Jesus, it had to be. Much more important, however, are the ideas contained within both traditions. The canonic gospels present the unique ideology and values of a Christian community that was dissimilar to its environment by believing in the physical Christ, and they were chosen for precisely that reason. However, even if they are read literally and seem to describe Jesus the man, there are symbols, motifs and elements in them which stem from the same mystic and philosophical blend of paganism and Judaism which also gave rise to Gnosticism, lending credence to the claim that the story was originally created by those who intended it to be interpreted allegorically.

Conclusions and Summary

One response to challenges that Jesus wasn’t historical is, there is no evidence that can prove Jesus didn’t exist. Of course this is true, but it is also meaningless: if Jesus did not exist, then why would there be any evidence? In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the inability of evidence to disprove matters of faith is a motif illustrated by Xenophilius Lovegood: when the skeptical Hermione asks how the Resurrection Stone can be real, Xeno’s response is short and instructive: “Prove that it is not.”[lviii]

At the same time, it is possible that Jesus did exist and left no evidence; we should not doubt a historical founder of Christianity simply because there are no contemporary records of him, and only a handful of later (possibly forged) accounts. However, in searching for the truth, we cannot afford to automatically discount evidence from external traditions that problematize the historical Jesus on the grounds that they fail to edify his actual existence.

As I’ve demonstrated in this chapter, the danger in trusting the Bible as a historical testimony is that it was written for precisely that purpose. Given the fact that the New Testament, narrative version of Jesus Christ’s ministry was written in response to the pre-existing communities and teachers such as Simon, it represents exactly the idea of a historical Jesus, which was necessary to secure its own authority, rather than reliable history.

Even if none of the above arguments and evidences for Jesus Christ were convincing, it would still be very acceptable to believe, in the absence of other indicators, that he was a historical person. It can be maintained that there was an oral tradition based on the teachings of Jesus Christ that was later written down in the gospels, which viewed him as a blend of Messiah and the suffering servant of Isaiah. These texts might have included the immediate expectation of the apocalypse and a connection with Jewish scriptures, and became quickly inundated with pagan elements, leading to the rise of Gnosticism.

Unfortunately, as has long been noted by critical historians, when you begin identifying the specific features that did not come from Jesus and taking them away from him, there is virtually nothing left. The problem intensifies when you look outside of Judaism and compare Jesus to older mythological and religious traditions. This is true especially of his central features: his resurrection and ascension, miracles and teachings, forgiveness of sins, relationship to God, and role in creation as the Logos or Word. Is the evidence for the historical Jesus strong enough to save him from this unraveling process? The short answer is no – in fact, it points in the other direction: that Jesus may have originally been a literary metaphor and religious symbol, which became historicized deliberately for a specific agenda.

The goal of the previous chapters has been to establish the basis of the controversy surrounding the historical Jesus, analyze the relevant modern assumptions and pre-established beliefs about the subject, and re-examine critical evidence in the debate. At this stage, if nothing else, we can say that the question of Jesus Christ’s true nature remains an enigma which traditional evidence and Christian accounts of history do not explain. In the absence of evidence supporting the idea of a historical Jesus Christ, the historicity of Jesus Christ itself cannot be used to differentiate him from other mythological traditions (including the modern myth of Harry Potter); hence when we discover a parallel between Jesus Christ and earlier mythology and literature so precise that it is unlikely to be coincidental, we must assume it has been assimilated into the literary tradition surrounding Jesus rather than recording a factual, historical occurrence. Identifying the literary, mythological Jesus from the gospels, it will be easier to compare this figure to Harry Potter – one literary figure to another.

To this end, in the following chapter I will give descriptions of the major deities and mythical figures that have been compared to Jesus Christ, using ancient testimonies and Christian sources. Special attention will be paid to the timeline so that priority can be established.


[i]Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998), 99.

[ii]Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 94.

[iii]Drive Thru History with Dave Stotts,
(Palmer Lake, CO: Coldwater Media, 2005),http://www.allaboutreligion.org/polycarp-video.htm.

[iv] W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 138.

[v]W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion(London: Methuen, 1952; rpt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1993), 3.

[vi] Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 53.

[vii]Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian,http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz /whynot.html.

[viii] Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Who is This King of Glory? A Critical Study of the Christos-Mesiah Tradition (Elizabeth, NJ: Academy, 1944), 258–59.

[ix]Acharya S. [D.M. Murdock],“The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled,” http://www.truthbeknown.com/josephus.htm.

[x] Mitchell Logan, Christian Mythology Unveiled (1842; rpt. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 79.

[xi]T.W. Doane, “Appendix D,” in Bible Myths And Their Parallels In Other Religions (New  York: Commonwealth,1882), 564-568, http://www.archive.org/details/biblemythsandthe00doanuoft.

[xii] (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, page 249)

[xiii] Quoted inAcharya S. [D.M. Murdock],“The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled,” http://www.truthbeknown.com/josephus.htm.

[xiv]Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 43.

[xv]T.W. Doane, “Appendix D,” in Bible Myths And Their Parallels, 566 n. 1.

[xvi] Kersey Graves,  “All History Ignores Him,”in The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours(Reprint of the 1875 edition, Forgotten Books, 2007) 260, http://books.google.com/books?id=9ysYffLU-mcC&pg=PA260&lpg=PA260&dq=Kersey+graves+all+history+ignores+him

[xvii]G.R.S. Mead, Did Jesus Live 100BC?(London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1903), 48,http://www.christianorigins.com/mead/ch3.html.

[xviii]Mark D. Roberts, “How Can We Know Anything About the Real Jesus?”http://www.markdroberts.com/htmfiles/resources/knowaboutjesus.htm.

[xix]Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East,4th ed.(New York: W.W. Norton, 1997),48.

[xx]Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 50.

[xxi] Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 78.

[xxii] Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), 5.

[xxiii] Robert Funk, et al. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993).

[xxiv] Daniel Wallace, “The Synoptic Problem,”http://bible.org/article/synoptic-problem.

[xxv]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 243.

[xxvi]Didache 44, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html.

[xxvii]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 137.

[xxviii]Hermann Detering,“The Falsified Paul,”43.

[xxix]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 136.

[xxx]Karen Armstrong, The Bible, 68.

[xxxi]Karen Armstrong, The Bible,68.

[xxxii]Didache,45.

[xxxiii]Didache,46–47.

[xxxiv]Karen Armstrong, The Bible, 66.

[xxxv]Didache, 48.

[xxxvi]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 135.

[xxxvii] Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 40.

[xxxviii] C.H. Dodd (b.1884; d.1993); quoted in W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 55.

[xxxix]Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 253.

[xl]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 25.

[xli]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 28.

[xlii]Quoted in T.R. Glover, Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire(London: Methuen, 1909; rpt. Boston: Beacon, 1960), 50.

[xliii]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 29.

[xliv] Quoted in T.R. Glover, Conflict of Religions, 61-63.

[xlv]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 55.

[xlvi]Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), xxii – xxiii.

[xlvii]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 282.

[xlviii]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 160.

[xlix] Cited inT.R. Glover, Conflict of Religions, 299.

[l]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 210.

[li]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 216.

[lii]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 217.

[liii]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 230.

[liv]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 202.

[lv]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 203.

[lvi]W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, 160.

[lvii]Detering, “The Falsified Paul,” 159.

[lviii]Greg Garrett, “Magic, Faith, and Belief In Harry Potter,” The Other Jesus: A Blog for the Other Christians, http://theotherjesus.com/?p=233.

Doubting Jesus: Ancient and Modern Controversy over the Historical Jesus

This is Chapter Two of the book Jesus Potter, Harry Christ (2011), by Derek Murphy.


CHAPTER TWO

Doubting Jesus: Ancient and Modern Controversy

“To the question, then, on what grounds do you deny that such a person as Jesus Christ existed as a man? The proper answer is, because his existence as a man has, from the earliest day on which it can be shown to have been asserted, been as earnestly and strenuously denied, and that, not by enemies of the Christian name, or unbelievers of the Christian faith, but by the most intelligent, most learned, most sincere of the Christian name, whoever left the world proofs of their intelligence and learning in their writings, and of their sincerity in their sufferings.” – Reverend R. Taylor, 1834

IN THE LAST CHAPTER WE EXPLORED the similarities between Jesus and Harry Potter and ended with the question, is Jesus, like Harry, a purely literary figure? To begin with, we need to understand that this is not a new question. As Reverend Taylor pointed out in 1834, the idea that Jesus Christ existed as a historical man has been denied not only by modern critics, but also by Christian communities (now branded as heretics) since the earliest periods of the Christian movement.[i]

St. Ignatius. for example, who was martyred before 117AD, fought against the Docetist heresy, which denied that Jesus had come in the flesh. Docetists, most likely with the Platonic split between spirit and matter in mind, believed that Jesus had come in the appearance or “semblance” of a human only, but did not have physical body. Ignatius had to vigorously dispute the claim that Jesus was born, crucified and raised only in appearance. T.R. Glover captures the spirit of his writing:

Men around him spoke of a phantom crucified by the deluded soldiers amid the deluded Jews. – No! cries Ignatius, over and over, he truly suffered, he truly rose, ate and drank, and was no daemon without a body – none of it is seeming, it is all truly, truly, truly. He has been called hysterical –death before him, his Lord’s reality denied, and only time for one word –Truly.[ii]

Overlooking Ignatius’ zeal and emphasis on the Jesus who truly existed, how can we reconcile the traditional account of Christian history with the fact that early “heretics” denied that Jesus had come in the flesh? The Docetist understanding of Jesus is not some late schism; the New Testament Epistle of John shows that similar beliefs were active and threateningly popular very early in the Christian communities:

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. (1 John 4: 1-3)

Rather than the traditional account of one, Catholic (universal) message of Jesus Christ, in the first few centuries of Christianity there were dozens of factions, each of which believed very different things about Jesus, and many of whom believed that the major events in Jesus’ life only occurred in appearance.

At the same time, classically educated scholars familiar with ancient philosophy, poetry or religion have been struck by the similarities between Jesus Christ and other mythological figures. Jesus raised the dead and healed the sick, and so did Asclepius; Jesus provided wine at a wedding feast, and suffered so that humanity might be saved, as did Dionysus; Jesus descended into Hell, and had powers to make the lion and lamb lay down together, just like Orpheus. These parallels were much more obvious in the first few centuries of the Christian movement, when these other figures played an active role in religion, spiritual practices, literature and culture, than they are today. Hence Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote a condemnation of the Christian movement in the 2nd century AD, could ask:

Are these distinctive happenings unique to the Christians – and if so, how are they unique? Or are ours to be accounted myths and theirs believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs? In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe, except that they believe it to the exclusion of more comprehensive truths about God.[iii]

This alone should come as a surprise to those familiar with traditional accounts of Christian history. Jesus was supposed to be something entirely new. His miracles, death and resurrection were expected to shock and awe; even his humility and ethics are assumed to be in stark contrast to the wild revelries of the pagans. Actually – as Celsus pointed out – there was nothing in the doctrine of Christianity that was at all surprising to their contemporaries.

Writing several decades earlier than Celsus and trying to justify his beliefs to critical outsiders, the apologist Justin Martyr, who converted to Christianity around 130 and was martyred around 165, acknowledges the parallels between Jesus and pagan figures without ever making the modern claim that these similarities are simply coincidental:

When we say that the Word, who is first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus). For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all; Æsculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven; and Bacchus too, after he had been torn limb from limb; and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toils; and the sons of Leda, and Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon, who, though sprung from mortals, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus (First Apology XXI).[iv]

Justin’s formal argument is that although other pagan gods are also said to have been “born without sexual union, crucified, died, rose and ascended into heaven,” Jesus Christ physically and actually performed this feats, and is therefore unique:

But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically. (First Apology LV)

This argument is no different from the assertion that Harry Potter and Jesus Christ are fundamentally different, because Jesus was real. However, this distinction is only possible with faith that Jesus genuinely performed the supernatural deeds that other figures accomplished only “symbolically”; thus, the critical question is whether Jesus was a historical figure who performed his miraculous feats of power in the flesh, rather than just in appearance. The importance of this criterion was not lost on the early church fathers. Faced on all sides with the criticism that the gospel stories were spiritual allegories and not intended as historical truth, the early church fathers argued passionately for the fact of Jesus’ physical body. That they needed to argue at all, and so vehemently, that Jesus was a real person despite his similarities to other traditions, is an indication that this claim was not widely accepted.

The purpose of this chapter is to show, first, that the claim of Jesus Christ being either in part or in totality comparable to the mythologies of other cultures is not a modern invention of conspiracy fanatics, but has been argued and supported by some of the greatest thinkers in history; and second, that the current academic consensus that there was a historical founder behind Christianity is the product of a specific trend in academic thought, rather than a conclusion based on reliable evidence.

At the same time, the arguments and quotations presented here are not to be construed as an argument for or against the existence of Jesus Christ; many of the works presented have already been criticized, called into question or disputed as academic research into the subject has progressed. My goal is only to demonstrate that a modern controversy over the historical Jesus exists, that it has a long and substantial history, and that, in effect, the jury is still out.

I also want to show that certain claims regarding Jesus are not modern delusions of “fringe” scholars – in fact there are few claims made about Jesus today that were not made centuries earlier. The reason a few writers (myself included) continue to re-raise these arguments is because most people are completely unaware that they can be made at all. After demonstrating that the hypothesis of Jesus Christ as Christianity’s historical founder is not the only logical possibility, and that the evidence used to support him is not unanimously accepted, can we move into more speculative theories.

The Modern Debate

In the year 1600, scientist and astronomer Giordano Bruno reiterated Celsus’ argument that the gospel stories of Jesus Christ were akin to pagan mythologies. Unfortunately, at the time, the Church did not permit such blasphemous accusations – after a seven-year trial he was burned on the stake. As R.E. Witt relates,

Excommunicated by an obscurantist ecclesiasticism he went to the stake for his beliefs. He was convinced that the wisdom and magic-born religion of ancient Egypt excelled the fanatical theory that burnt dissident thinkers as heretics. For the Biblical record was on par with the Greek myths. Refusing to retract his teachings, he met his doom dauntlessly, for he had less cause than his judges to fear the verdict of history and could snap his fingers at them in warning. Giordano Bruno, the unfrocked monk, perished on 16 February 1600, for his intransigent denial that Christianity was unique.[v]

Bruno’s death represents perhaps the birth pains of the Enlightenment; an age when mankind flexed its mental prowess and attempted to find logical answers through reason rather than by faith, superstition or revelation. Although most scholars attribute the movement to the 18th or 19th centuries, it can be traced back to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (1637), or even the Scientific Revolution that began about a century earlier (Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543). An interest in classicism and the translation of mythologies from newly discovered parts of the world, critical biblical scholarship, along with the weakening power of Church censorship, led to the publication of many dozen treatises investigating the historical nature of Jesus Christ.

One of the earliest of these essays was published by G.E. Lessing (based on notes by Reimarus), under the general title Wolfenbüttel Fragments, between 1774 and 1778. It concludes that Jesus was wholly terrestrial and never meant to start a new religion. French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), although maintaining the idea of a historical, crucified founder, cautions that very little of the gospels could be taken at face value. Voltaire claimed that the Gospels were “written by persons acquainted with nothing, full of contradictions and imposture” and that “the whole history of Jesus – only a fanatic or a stupid knave would deny it – should be examined in the light of reason.”[vi] Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis, two great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, published works in the 1790’s claiming that the stories of Jesus Christ found in the gospels, as well as many other myths, were based on movements of the sun through the zodiac. According to Dupuis:

Jesus is still less man than God. He is, like all the deities that men have adored, the sun; Christianity is a solar myth. When we shall have shown, that the pretended history of a God, who is born of a virgin in the winter solstice, who is resuscitated at Easter or at the Vernal equinox, after having descended into hell, who brings with Him a retinue of twelve apostles whose chief possesses all the attributes of Janus—a God, conqueror of the prince of darkness, who translates mankind into the empire of light, and who heals the woes of the world, is only a solar fable, … it will be almost as unnecessary to inquire whether there was a man called Christ as it is to inquire whether some prince is called Hercules.[vii]

The writings of Constantin Volney (1757-1820) were also influential in challenging the claim that Jesus was historical. In 1808, Napoleon I was under the influence of Volney when, in a conversation that he had with Wieland at Weimar, he said it was a great question to decide whether Jesus had existed.[viii] Another theory was raised in Germany around the same time by Bahrdt and Venturini, who introduced a skeptical movement into Jesus’ life that “so far forsook the gospel representation as to leave his real historical form largely a matter of conjecture.”[ix] Jesus, they said, was a protégé of the Essenes, who had drawn upon secret wisdom from Babylonia, Egypt, India and Greece. Thus, he was revealer of ancient and secret wisdom, but not the savior portrayed in the gospels.

Thomas Jefferson, in a book now frequently called the Jefferson Bible, wrote under the premise that the Gospel authors had incorporated both events and teachings that could not be historically accurate to Jesus himself.[x] In 1829 Reverend Robert Taylor published The Diegesis, which professes Christianity did not originate with a historical founder and in fact has far more ancient roots. Prior to this work, Taylor founded the Christian Evidence Society, among whose central claims were that the persons in the gospels never existed and the events in the gospels never happened. Taylor was thrown in jail for blasphemy and conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion. A more influential (and controversial) work was David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, first published in 1835 and translated into English in 1846. The Life of Jesus is an attempt to remove all of the mythical elements from the gospel accounts in order to search for the genuine figure behind them; as such Strauss is considered a pioneer in the historical investigation of Jesus.

The first Gospel accounts, in Strauss’s opinion, have not been drawn up from an historical point of view. They do not relate the events as these took place, but express certain ideas by means of images and symbols, or, to employ the exact term that Strauss makes use of, by myths. What is important in the notion of the myth is not the idea of unreality, but that of a symbolical expression of a higher truth. The mythical explanation seems to Strauss the synthesis which resolves the antibook between the naturalist and the supernatural explanations of the life of Jesus.[xi]

Strauss’s research was continued by Bruno Bauer, who accepted Strauss’s premise but focused on the mythical rather than historical Jesus. Starting in 1840, he argued that Jesus was merely a fusion of Greek, Roman and Jewish theologies. In Christ and the Caesars (1877),[xii] Bauer argued that the language of the New Testament was more in line with Stoicism and Roman culture than Judaism. Hermann Detering notes, “The ‘demon’ to whom Bauer submitted had whispered to him that all the Pauline letters were inauthentic and that an historical person named Jesus very probably never existed.”[xiii] Wilhelm Wrede would later (1901) repeat many of Bauer’s ideas in his book, The Messianic Secret. Going back in the other direction, Vie de Jésus (life of Jesus) by Ernest Renan in 1863 – mostly a compilation of German criticism – was directed at the public and consequently attracted more attention. Renan’s novel paints a literary picture of a (very human) gentle dreamer, and makes the claim that the idea of a risen God comes from the passion of a deluded woman. In 1875 Kersey Graves published The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors (or Christianity Before Christ). In his preface, Graves states that Jesus taught no new doctrine or moral precept; that he inculcated the same religion and morality as other moral teachers; and that he differs so little in his character, preaching, and practical life from some of the oriental Gods, that “no person whose mind is not deplorably warped and biased by early training can call one divine while he considers the other human.”[xiv]

Around the same time, the “Rosetta Stone,” found by Napoleon’s army in 1799 and translated by Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822, inspired a frenzied academic study of Egyptian mythologies. This movement motivated specifically Egyptian comparisons between Christianity and mythology. In 1877 W.R. Cooper published The Horus Myth in its Relation to Christianity, in which he writes:

The works of art, the ideas, the expressions, and the heresies of the first four centuries of the Christian era cannot be well studied without a right comprehension of the nature and influence of the Horus myth. We cannot ignore these facts. We have as Christians no reason to be afraid of them.[xv]

Egyptologist Gerald Massey, (1828-1907) author of Gnostic and Historic Christianity and other works, also compared Jesus’ biography with Egyptian mythology. Once having made this identification, however, he goes on to conclude that the figure of Jesus is completely mythological, and could never have been historical. In a private edition of his lectures published at the turn of the 20th century (c.1900), he says:

Nothing is more certain, according to honest evidence, than that the Christian scheme of redemption is founded on a fable misinterpreted; that the prophecy of fulfillment was solely astronomical, and the Coming One as the Christ who came in the end of an age, or of the world, was but a metaphorical figure, a type of time, from the first, which never could take form in historic personality, any more than Time in Person could come out of a clock-case when the hour strikes; that no Jesus could become a Nazarene by being born at, or taken to, Nazareth; and that the history in our Gospels is from beginning to end the identifiable story of the Sun-God, and the Gnostic Christ who never could be made flesh.[xvi]

John Mackinnon Robertson (1856-1933) wrote several books in his lifetime about the mythical Jesus, whom he identified as the solar deity of a Jewish cult. Based on the evidence that everything found in the gospels can be paralleled to pagan mythology, and that the Jesus Paul speaks of is a “speechless sacrifice” rather than a person of action and teaching, Robertson concluded that Jesus was a composite of pagan myths.[xvii] He is perhaps most famous for Pagan Christs: Studies in Comparative Theology, which was published in 1903. Also published in 1903 was G.R.S. Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 B.C, which finds a Talmudic basis for the Jesus of the gospels. In 1906 Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a classic work of biblical historical criticism. Thomas Whittaker, meanwhile, in The Origins of Christianity (London, 1904; 1909), argued “Jesus may not be an entirely fictitious person, yet the gospel stories are almost wholly mythical.”[xviii] These texts influenced Arthur Drews’ The Christ Myth (1909), which synthesized and strengthened many of the earlier arguments, and W.B. Smith’s Ecce Deus, that earned a full review in The New York Times on August 13, 1911. A little later we find Edward Carpenter’s Pagan and Christian Creeds (1920) and Jesus of Nazareth: Myth or History by Maurice Goguel (1926). According to Goguel:

Jesus must, then, have been at the beginning the God of a mystery. At the time of Paul neither the God nor the mystery had become historical. They were to become so in the period to follow the creative age, when it would be no longer possible to understand the high spirituality which had inspired the primitive faith, and when the celestial drama upon which Christianity of the first generation had lived had been transported to earth.[xix]

After a century of debate over the historical Jesus, by the beginning of the 20th century it was generally conceded that Jesus, even if he existed, was virtually unknowable. The great German scholar Rudolf Karl Bultmann and his new literary ­critical school of Formgeschichte (form criticism), effectively shut down inquiry into the historical Jesus with his memorable 1926 statement, “I do indeed think that we can know nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.”[xx] This position – that the historical Jesus is beyond the scope of rational inquiry – was taken for granted in 1927 by philosopher Bertrand Russell in his treatise, Why I am not a Christian:

Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one.[xxi]

In response to this apparent dead-end, research into the historical Jesus led in two distinct directions. The first was a continued emphasis on comparative mythology, wherein the historical Jesus was ignored in favor of the interpretation of the mythos and its importance for understanding the human condition. This was the direction which gained prominence through the writings of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Sir James George Frazer. The second was a renewed interest in discovering the historical Jesus, by identifying and removing all traces of mythology, which focused on identifying dissimilar elements in the Christ movement that might have originated with a historical founder.

Mythology, Archetypes and the Subconscious

James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (first published in 1890) scandalized Europe by equating the story of Jesus Christ with mythologies from more primitive and ancient peoples, and arguing that all mythical heroes that die and come back are really vegetation gods representing the changing seasons.[xxii] The Golden Bough had a major influence on anthropology and many of the poets and authors of the 20th century, and invited the interpretation of mythology and religion as allegories.

Frazer was an early piece of a movement towards the appreciation and universalism of humanity. With the ongoing synthesis and comparison between different religious and mythological traditions, it became clear to many that human beings, rather than gods, were responsible for the creation of their own myths – and moreover that the similarities between these stories reflected some as yet unknown common link between all humans. The study of mythology became seen as a way to access the raw, original subconscious desires and motivations of mankind.

In the late 1890’s, Sigmund Freud interpreted mythology as the result of repressed sexual desires. For example, Sophocles’ classic myth of Oedipus Rex (the King) was considered by Freud to be incestuous in nature, and to support his claim that all men have a subconscious desire to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers. Freud’s studies have become so widely appreciated that few people have not heard of the Oedipal Complex, which Freud explains in his work “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours – because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.[xxiii]

It must be pointed out, however, that Freud’s thought is rooted in the assumption that dreams and mythology are productions of the subconscious mind, and that subconscious motivations are universal. There may be truth in Freud’s theories, but there are also many controversial claims that are simply not adequately supported. Critics of Freud have christened Freudian analysis the “find the penis” game. Trying to read Harry Potter, for example, along Freudian lines, is both possible and ultimately unsatisfying. In Harry Potter’s Oedipal Issues (2001), Kelly Noel-Smith explains

Given that it is every child’s phantasy to remove, by death, his or her father to enjoy exclusive possession of his or her mother (and, inversely, to eliminate one’s mother to take her place with one’s father), the reader of Harry Potter is able to indulge in wish fulfillment of the most basic phantasies without the grief which would ordinarily attach to them: we know, at a conscious level, that the story is not true; unconsciously, the deaths of Harry’s parents represent a wonderful fulfillment of Oedipal phantasies.[xxiv]

Less commonly known about Freud is his interest in comparative mythology. His book Moses and Monotheism (1938) explores the link between the Judaic monotheism of Moses and the sun-centered religion of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, claiming that Jewish monotheism was inspired by this violently intolerant Egyptian religious movement. As Jan Assman says in Moses the Egyptian, “Freud stresses (quite correctly) the fact that he is dealing with the absolutely first monotheistic, counter-religious, and exclusivistically intolerant movement of this sort in history”[xxv]

Carl Gustav Jung later argued that the human psyche is by nature religious, and that mythology, religions, dreams, art and philosophy can be used to explore the unconscious:

Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes.[xxvi]

Like many of his peers, interest into comparative mythology greatly influenced his work. As a student of Freud, his early position was that myth originates and functions to satisfy the psychological need for contact with the unconscious. He was “staunchly committed to independent invention” of myth and asserted there is “no evidence and indeed no possibility of contact among all of the societies with similar myths.”[xxvii] Based on the similarities between various world traditions and the presumed impossibility of contact, Jung came up with the concepts of “the collective unconscious” and “psychological archetypes.” In other words, since many cultures use the symbol of a dying and resurrecting savior figure, and since these cultures did not share the symbol with each other, it must have come out of universal subconscious forces.

Jung argued that Christianity, although once vital, stopped interpreting its myths and so stopped being relevant to modern people. “Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.”[xxviii] Noting the conflicts between the claim of a historical Jesus and comparative mythology, Jung reasons,

(…) if the statement that Christ rose from the dead is to be understood not literally but symbolically, then it is capable of various interpretations that do not conflict with knowledge and do not impair the meaning of the statement.[xxix]

According to prominent Jungian Mircea Eliade, all myths are religious myths, (except for modern myths, which may be secular). Eliade also continues the Jungian idea that you cannot go from sacred to profane; in other words, it is possible for humans to create religious myths (sacred stories) based on mundane experience (profane), but not the other way around. Mythologist Joseph Campbell continued this emphasis, even subjugating the historical to the mythic. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) his primary purpose was to explore the similarities between Eastern and Western religions. Later, in his four-volume series of books The Masks of God (1959-1968), Campbell tried to summarize the main spiritual threads common throughout the world while examining their local manifestations. He made it clear that it is the stories themselves that are important – not whether or not the stories have historical basis.

We may doubt whether such a scene ever actually took place. But that would not help us any; for we are concerned, at present, with problems of symbolism, not of historicity. We do not particularly care whether Rip van Winkle, Kamar al-Zaman, or Jesus Christ ever actually lived. Their stories are what concern us: and these stories are so widely distributed over the world – attached to various heroes in various lands – that the question of whether this or that local carrier of the universal theme may or may not have been a historical, living man can be of only secondary moment. The stressing of this historical element will only lead to confusion; it will simply obfuscate the picture message.[xxx]

Campbell represented mythology studies at its most matured; however, by continuing in the tradition of Freud and Jung, he sought only the universal aspects of humanity which gave rise to specific mythological symbols, and was not interested in finding any shared external source for these symbols.

Christian apologist C.S. Lewis reflects many of the humanistic tendencies and shifts Christianity went through in the middle of the 20th century. During the rise of the “modernist heresy” much of Christian thought and writing involved Neo-scholasticism and biblical literacy, along with the adamant refusal of the studies mentioned above. In the 1950’s, however, under humanist theologians like Kahr Rahner and John Courtney Murray, Christian theology began to turn towards tolerance, inclusion and inter-faith dialog. The Second Vatican Council (1962) is a record of these changes, although the Catholic Church has since moved back to a more conservative position. An inspired theologian, C.S. Lewis accepts the universal mythology of Jung or Campbell and models a very modern (liberal) Christianity – one which could accept the mythical nature of the gospels without being threatened by it. His conclusion is that all the other figures who are similar to Jesus Christ were legends, stemming from the imagination, and that Jesus Christ was the same story, but as a historical reality:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. . . God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “Pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome.[xxxi]

Lewis’ hypothesis however, is based on the assumption that there is a great deal of evidence for the historical Jesus: “it is all in order.” If Jesus existed, then similarities to mythology are simply irrelevant. Thus, the similarities between Jesus and other mythological figures are not threatening to Christians, but only as long as the evidence for the historical Jesus is strong enough to silence our incredulity that a historical person should have so much in common with mythology.

One limitation of the focus on psychological undercurrents of universal mythology is that, although popularizing the similarities between various mythological traditions, it also chained the rich field of comparative mythology into the fixed, limited historical period of the movement. Consequently the rich field of comparative mythology research is unfortunately seen as “dated” or only relevant for psychology majors.

The Criteria of Double Dissimilarity

While mythologists were busy exploring the similarities between Jesus Christ and world mythology and claiming that they were produced out of some universal human need or shared unconscious, biblical scholars continued the quest for the historical Jesus with a shifted focus. Using a methodological tool first advocated by Bultmann, the Criteria of Double Dissimilarity (or “CDD”), scholars tried to identify the genuine historical founder behind the Christian movement by combing through the Bible for ideas that could not be traced either to Judaism or the Early Church. As Bultmann says in The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921),

We can only count on possessing a genuine similitude of Jesus where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterised the preaching of Jesus; and where on the other hand we find no specifically Christian features.[xxxii]

Bultmann’s Criteria of Double Dissimilarity was reiterated and expanded by Ernst Käsemann and Norman Perrin, gaining the seal of approval among academics, and has since remained influential in academic research into the life of Jesus.

We can only sketch in a few bold strokes the embarrassment of critical research. It lies in this; while the historical credibility of the Synoptic tradition has become doubtful all along the line, yet at the same time we are still short of one essential requisite for the identification of the authentic Jesus material, namely, a conspectus of the very earliest stage of primitive Christian history; and also there is an almost complete lack of satisfactory and water tight criteria for this material. In only one case do we have more or less ground under our feet, when there are no grounds either for deriving a tradition from Judaism or for ascribing it to primitive Christianity. (Käsemann )[xxxiii]

Thus we reach the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must be built, which we propose to call the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. Recognising that it follows an attempt to write a history of the tradition concerned, we may formulate it as follows: the earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this will particularly be the case where Christian tradition orientated towards Judaism can be shown to have modified the saying away from its original emphasis. (Perrin)[xxxiv]

Although the CDD is a reasonable academic process, it has a few disadvantages. First of all, it is made possible by first completely ignoring the mythological and pagan elements in the gospels. Biblical scholars (of the Bultmann variety) unanimously conclude that these are “later additions” and can tell us nothing about the historical Jesus. In other words – if Jesus was pagan, i.e. if all of those mythical elements were the core of him, and he consisted of nothing else, he would not be historical; thus leading to a dead-end in research and the impossibility of knowing any more about him. Therefore, scholars focus on what Jesus, as a hypothesized historical figure, must have been. Since many of the elements in the Bible came either from pre-Christian Jewish movements or post-Jesus Christian apologetics, Jesus (according to the CDD) is to be found somewhere between these two.

This has been the motivating reasoning behind research into the historical Jesus for the last few decades. It must be noted, however, that with this type of research, the historical Jesus remains only an unproven theory: Jesus the historical figure is the binding element given to any untraceable idea, phrase, philosophy or theology from a specific time period. Based on the fact that the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ are almost completely filled with earlier Jewish ideology or later Christian theology which developed over time (and hence can say little about a historical founder), the only way to talk about the historical Jesus intelligibly is to talk about the type of person he could have been: he was either Jesus the Jew (who got immediately transformed into something very different by his followers) or nothing at all.

This trend is clearly shown by a few of the more popular titles published about Jesus in the last few decades: Jesus the Jew (1973); Jesus and Judaism (1985); The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991); A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991-2001); and Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (1999). In 2002, Theisen and Winter published The Quest for the Plausible Jesus, which uses a softer form of the CDD to envision the Jesus who might have been.[xxxv]

The danger with this line of reasoning is that, when we do a close examination of the Jewish sources, we find very little in the gospels that cannot be traced to earlier movements within Judaism. We could theorize that Jesus was the person who put these pieces together and fueled them with passion, but it is also possible to remove the hypothesis of a historical Jesus without weakening an understanding of the historical developments. Consequently, when searching for the historical Jesus with academic rigor, it is possible to go too far and actually weaken the position that there was one at all. This problem was recognized in a 1963 article printed by TIME magazine:

“We Can Know Nothing.” During the 1920s, Bultmann sealed the doom of the old quest, as far as Europe was concerned.* He argued that the Gospels were interested not in presenting a dispassionate portrait of Jesus but in expressing the kerygma—the proclamation of the early church’s faith in a Risen Christ. This meant that although the New Testament might be a primary source for a study of the early church, it was only a secondary one for a life of Jesus. Since the faith of later generations was really based upon the shining faith of the first Christians and not upon Jesus himself, theologians should forget about seeking the earthly Jesus and analyze the formation of the kerygma. “We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus,” Bultmann wrote in one of the shaping dicta of modern theology. Bultmann himself later moved a step farther to the theological left and argued that to become credible for modern man, the kerygma must be “de-mythologized” – stripped of such unbelievable elements as its heaven-above, hell-below framework. But demythologizing, Robinson points out, threatened to end up with “the conclusion that the Jesus of the kerygma could well be only a myth.” Deprived of its link with the historical Jesus, Christianity might end up as some kind of existentialist philosophy, of which Christ was little more than a mythological symbol.[xxxvi]

The modern situation has not improved. In an article published by Christianity Today in April of 2010, professor of religion at North Park University in Chicago Scot McKnight, who has been intimately involved in “Historical Jesus Research” for the past several decades, describes how after years of passionate research the quest for the historical Jesus is at a dead end.

Illustrating this point in his classroom, he asks students to take a test about what kind of person they think Jesus was. Was he outgoing, shy, friendly, pensive, exciting, etc. Then they take the same test, only about themselves. The results show that people picture Jesus to be just like themselves; and the same is true, McKnight concludes, of religious historians. McKnight quotes Dale Allison, one of America’s top New Testament scholars, who confesses,

Professional historians are not bloodless templates passively registering the facts: we actively and imaginatively project. Our rationality cannot be extricated from our sentiments and feelings, our hopes and fears, our hunches and ambitions. Maybe we have unthinkingly reduced biography [of Jesus] to autobiography The fragmentary and imperfect nature of the evidence as well as the limitations of our historical-critical abilities should move us to confess, if we are conscientious, how hard it is to recover the past. We wield our criteria to get what we want.[xxxvii]

In other words, with virtually no evidence regarding the historical Jesus, the best historians can do is project their interpretations of him. McKnight also admits that the majority of New Testament scholars are not orthodox Christians: they may be believers, but theirs is a mature faith, which doesn’t accept the New Testament at face value. While they maintain that Jesus was at least in part historical, they also accept that much of the New Testament is not historically accurate. At the same time, as believers, they project into their research their own preexisting theological affirmations. McKnight adds,

One has to wonder if the driving force behind historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian’s genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise.[xxxviii]

Incidentally, we might be justified in asking whether historical New Testament scholars are really the experts on the historical Jesus at all; wouldn’t someone studying mythology, comparative religion, history or sociology be better qualified to explain the motivations behind the Christian movement than someone who is seeking and inserting the savior they need to find in order to justify their beliefs?

Despite the article’s subtitle, “Why scholarly attempts to discover the ‘real’ Jesus have failed. And why that’s a good thing,” McKnight concludes without giving any indication of the benefits of the failure to discover the real Jesus. We can only guess that McKnight feels this creates a space for people to believe whatever they want to believe, without any proof or need of justification; “If there is no proof it happened, there is also no proof that it did not happen,” believers might argue. McKnight finishes his article with an unintentional demonstration of the way faith can cloud academic judgment:

As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us.[xxxix]

Would an unbiased researcher conclude that the corpse of Jesus getting up, walking out of his grave and ascending into heaven is more rational than any other explanation, however improbable?

The main problem with the human, Jewish Jesus at the center of modern research into biblical history is that nobody really believes in him. He is a necessary hypothesis in order to preserve the possibility of Christian faith, but he is nobody’s hero or savior; only a historical premise. Moreover, in stripping away the mythical elements in the gospel, academics are also removing central concepts of Christian belief (the virgin birth, the miracles, the death and resurrection of Jesus). In proving the historical Christ, they are also, albeit indirectly, disproving the Jesus of Faith.

There have been a few contemporary researchers who disagree with the trendy insistence on the historical Jesus. These scholars are aware that the Jewish Jesus, while necessary to preserve the possibility of a historical Jesus of any kind, is very tenuously based on the Bible and the assumption that Jesus was real; and that although he remains the focus of academic investigation, a very different hypothesis, which does not presume the historical Jesus, is also possible. This hypothesis is often referred to as the “Christ-Myth Theory.”

Although the following definition does not apply equally to all writers, in brief the Christ-Myth Theory argues that there is no need for a historical founder to explain the rise of the Christian movement; that all episodes and events in the gospels can be traced to earlier traditions, and that certain early sects of Christianity began to believe (mistakenly) that the stories of Jesus Christ were about a real, historical figure. This theory may sound unbelievable at first, but bear in mind that it is already not so different from the orthodox position. Modern scholars already accept that the early Christian communities, who worshipped Jesus as the dying and resurrecting son of God, glossed over the real historical Jesus in favor of the “Jesus of Faith” – a Jesus that incorporated elements from mythology, philosophy and the theology produced by early Christian writers. The Jesus that they believed in and even died for was not the historical Jesus still being investigated by modern scholarship.

The Christ-Myth Theory is in general not supported by the academia because they have already decided to look for the historical Jesus, and acknowledge that comparative mythology cannot shed light onto the object of their investigations. Those few historians and academics that are interested in researching the mythical Christ hope to present an argument strong enough to withstand the foregone presumption of critics that the theory is outdated or has already been adequately disproved. Acharya S., author of several books on the mythical Christ whose research was a key resource for the viral documentary Zeitgeist, is forced to argue with those who doubt that the controversy over Jesus is worth exploring; when in fact, as we have seen, it has a long history.

The most enduring and profound controversy in this subject is whether or not a person named Jesus Christ ever really existed…. when one examines this issue closely, one will find a tremendous volume of literature that demonstrates, logically and intelligently, time and again that Jesus Christ is a mythological character along the same lines as the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Indian or other godmen, who are all presently accepted as myths rather than historical figures.[xl]

Meanwhile biblical historians focus exclusively on Jesus the Jew, theologians focus exclusively on Christology and theory, and the very real difficulty in putting the two together is ignored.

For the general public however, whether or not Jesus Christ as presented in the gospels was a historical figure is a source of much interest, and books on the subject have been both well-received and heavily criticized. Titles taking the Christ Myth approach include G.A. Wells’ Did Jesus Exist? (1975), as well as his later books The Jesus Legend (1996) and The Jesus Myth (1998). In 1999, three books on Christ Myth theory were published: The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S; The Jesus Mysteries: Was Jesus a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy; and The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty (an expanded version was published in 2009 under the title Jesus: Neither God nor Man-The Case for a Mythical Jesus). There was also Robert M. Price’s Deconstructing Jesus (2000) and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (2003), and more recently Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ (2005) and sequel Water Into Wine (2007).

Critics respond that modern scholars affirm the historical Jesus and that Christ-Myth Theory is centuries old and based on bad scholarship; which is generally true. Going further, they reject outright any similarities – which for them either do not exist at all (usually because, as Justin Martyr affirmed, Jesus actually existed as opposed to the others who did not) or are a case of reverse borrowing (i.e., Jesus did it first). Unfortunately, they also ignore all of the critical research that has gone into the historical Jesus, cite historical evidences that were discarded as proof by experts centuries ago, and use regurgitated arguments that have no logical foundation to prove that Jesus existed as a historical person. (In fairness, the same can be said for most online supporters of Christ-Myth theory).

Conclusions and Summary

Part of the confusion surrounding the historical Jesus is the lack of consensus on the subject matter. What is Jesus? Is Jesus the Son of God, Savior, miracle worker, who was born of a virgin, died, came back to life and ascended into heaven? Or was Jesus one of dozens of Jewish rebel leaders during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem? Among scholars, the former is generally refuted (or ignored) and the later is affirmed. As a result, conservatives often point out that no “serious” scholar doubts the historical Jesus. However, not only is the historical Jesus of modern academics completely different from the Jesus Christ of the gospels, there is also a very specific reason – one which is not based on evidence – for the current academic support of the historical Jesus.

The common, popular understanding of the historical Jesus goes something like this: scholars and academics still believe that there was a historical founder of Christianity, but disbelieve in the miracles because they aren’t scientific (or are too similar to pagan mythology). Christians believe in the historical Jesus as well – which is not irrational because they are supported by the academic community – and also have faith in the miraculous events. There is a paradox in this situation which is not often pointed out: the method and technique that scholars have been using for centuries to try and find the “historical Jesus” is to first get rid of all the blatant mythological or pagan elements in the Bible, usually because they are believed to be additions from alternative (non-Jesus) sources. They are, in effect, the very things least likely to have been said or done by Jesus, not because they are unrealistic, but because they are not unique to an authentic, Jesus-inspired tradition. The result is a historical founder of Christianity which, rather than providing a doorway or foundation for Christian faith, is actually diametrically opposed; for if the historical founder of the scholars did exist, it is only possible due to his dissimilarity from the Jesus Christ of the gospels.

At the same time, the idea that Jesus Christ was the historical founder of Christianity is so heavily defended by Christians and biblical scholars that to even raise the possibility of an alternative theory – one in which the savior figure of the gospels may not have been historical – is automatically derided. This has unfortunately led to the development of rhetoric, assumption and a great deal of obstinacy on both sides of the controversy. Before we could even begin to look at the actual similarities between Jesus Christ and other mythological traditions, we had to first explore the history of the debate in modern times and trace the historical developments that have led to the contemporary academic and popular positions on the historical Jesus.

Once we understand that various interpretations of Jesus Christ have been made, ranging from Jesus as only a physical man, to Jesus as only a supernatural deity, and that a definitive conclusion is perhaps more a matter of belief than evidence, we may be able to view the entire matter more objectively and review the evidence based on its own merits. At the same time, the difficulty of approaching this subject without presumptions or ideological baggage must be acknowledged. The idea that Jesus really existed and that the Bible is at least in part historically valid is a paradigm supported by modern culture even among the non-faithful.  Due to the number of magazine articles and TV documentaries exploring the investigation into the historical Jesus, showing new archeological discoveries purporting to prove biblical testimony, reviewing the findings of biblical scholars or debating controversies such as the Turin Shroud, there is a passive acceptance that, whatever Jesus might have been, he almost certainly was historical.

At the same time, the dispersion of Christ-Myth ideas such as those found in the documentaries Zeitgeist (2007) and The God Who Wasn’t There (2005), which introduced the Christ-Myth hypothesis to record numbers of people, sparked a new level of Internet fervor over the subject. The controversy now rages stronger than ever – but both sides recycle arguments and evidence that the other side then blithely discredits or ignores. The current state of frenzied disagreement is all too often based on bias, semantics and sophistry rather than a close investigation of the evidence, and also fails to give – on either camp – a clear explanation of Christian history that fully supports the evidence available.

An objective analysis of the evidence simply cannot be done without first identifying the general ideologies and assumptions surrounding the historical Jesus, which will be done in the next chapter. After examining some of the modern ideas concerning the historical Jesus Christ, which pre-condition how adherents approach this debate, I will identify the evidence and documents used to support the idea of a historical Jesus and question whether they can be accepted as proof.


Notes

[i] Robert Taylor, The Diegesis, facs. ed. (Boston: Abner Kneeland, 1834;Kessinger,1992), 254.

[ii] T.R. Glover, Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire (London: Methuen, 1909; rpt. Boston: Beacon, 1960), 146

[iii] Quoted in Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God? (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 27.

[iv]Justin Martyr, First Apology, trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson,http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-discourse.html.

[v] R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1971), 267.

[vi]Maurice Goguel,Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History, trans. Frederick Stephens(London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1926), 14, http://www.christianorigins.com/goguel/ch1.html.

[vii]Charles François Dupuis,The Origin of All Religious Worship(New Orleans, 1872; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2005), 251, MOA Digital Library,http://name.umdl.umich.edu/ajf3298.0001.001.

[viii]Maurice Goguel,Jesus the Nazarene, 15.

[ix]Shirley Jackson Case,The Mythical Christ of Radical Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1912), 33, http://www.christianorigins.com/case/ch2.html.

[x]L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), 101.

[xi]Maurice Goguel,Jesus the Nazarene, 16.

[xii] Bruno Bauer, Christ and the Caesars: The Origin of Christianity from Romanized Greek Culture(Christus und die Caesaren, 1877), trans. Frank E. Schacht (Charleston, SC: A. Davidonis, 1998).

[xiii]Hermann Detering, “The Falsified Paul: Early Christianity in the Twilight,” in The Journal of Higher Criticism, 10 no. 2 (Fall 2003):47, http://www.radikalkritik.de/FabricatedJHC.pdf.

[xiv] Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity Before Christ, 9, http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/kersey_graves/16/.

[xv] William Ricketts Cooper, The Horus Myth in its Relation to Christianity (London: Hardwicke & Bogue, 1877), 49, http://books.google.com/books?id=EA4GAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3&dq=horus+myth+in+its+relation+to+chri#v.

[xvi]Gerald Massey, “The Historical Jesus and the Mythical Christ,” Gerald Massey’s Lectures,accessed October11, 2009, http://www.hermetics.org/pdf/Gerald_Masseys_Lectures.pdf.

[xvii]Shirley Jackson Case,The Mythical Christ of Radical Criticism,43.

[xviii] Shirley Jackson Case,The Mythical Christ of Radical Criticism, 41.

[xix] Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene, 28.

[xx] R. Bultmann, Jesus and the World, (1926; ET New York: Scribners, 1935) 8.

[xxi]Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian(1927; rpt. in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays, ed. Paul Edwards [New York, 1957]), http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html.<http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html.

[xxii]Robert A. Segal, Jung on Mythology (London: Routledge, 1998), 4.

[xxiii]Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams(New York: Avon Books, 1980), 296.

[xxiv]Kelly Noel-Smith, “Harry Potter’s Oedipal Issues,” Psychoanalytic Studies (2001)3: 199-207.

[xxv]Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism(Cambridge: Harvard, 1997), 167.

[xxvi]Carl Gustav Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 154.

[xxvii]Robert A. Segal,Jung on Mythology,14.

[xxviii]Carl Gustav Jung, Civilization and Transition, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York: Routledge, 1964), 265.

[xxix] Quoted in Robert A. Segal, Jung on Mythology, 38.

[xxx] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces3rd ed. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 197–98.

[xxxi]C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 66-67.

[xxxii] Rudolph Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921; trans. and rpt. San Francisco: Harper, 1976), 71.

[xxxiii] Ernst Käsemann,“The Problem with the Historical Jesus,” Essays on New Testament Themes, trans. W.J. Montague (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 36-37.

[xxxiv]Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 43.

[xxxv]Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter, The Search for the Plausible Jesus, trans. M. Eugene Boring (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox,  2002).

[xxxvi]“The New Search for The Historical Jesus,” Time Magazine, June 21, 1963, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,874918-1,00.html.

[xxxvii] Dale C. Allison,The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009).

[xxxviii] McKnight, Scot. “The Jesus We’ll Never Know.” Christianity Today, 9 Apr. 2010.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/april/15.22.html.

[xxxix] McKnight, Scot. “The Jesus We’ll Never Know.” Christianity Today, 9 Apr. 2010.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/april/15.22.html.

[xl]Acharya S [D.M. Murdock], “The Origins of Christianity and
the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ,” http://www.truthbeknown.com/origins.htm.

Background

big eBook coverAt the beginning of the J.K. Rowling’s internationally popular phenomenon, Harry Potter was first viewed with suspect, and then damned outright by religious conservatives claiming that Rowling’s stories encouraged children to embrace witchcraft. The fallout from this controversy has included law suits, worker strikes, book burnings, and several campaigns to educate Christian families against the evils of Harry Potter. The “boy who lived” became Jesus’ arch-nemesis: the icon or rallying point behind which infuriated Christians could gain support (and a much needed platform) against a society embracing vampires as boyfriends, witches as heroes, and monsters as merely misunderstood. None of this slowed the success of Harry Potter, whose books, and then the movie franchise produced by Warner Bros, have been not only an unchallengeable model for marketing strategy and economic success, but also an integral part of the lives of millions of fans who have watched Harry grow up – and grown up with him.

As we reached the end of this journey, the final coming of Harry Potter was being treated as Messianic; blogs were calling the release of the first installment of Harry Potter 7 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I) “a historic event.” However, the tension between Jesus and Harry has not been forgotten. A few extremist groups continue to burn books or protest movie openings or mount the pulpit in frothy defense of Christianity against the madness of modern culture’s obsession with wizardry. At the same time, however, the general Christian stance towards Harry Potter has taken a profound shift after the publication of the final book, in which Harry dies a sacrificial death, is tortured using the Cruciatus curse, and has an afterlife experience of sorts at “King’s Cross.” Potter then comes back to life and triumphs over his evil adversary, Voldemort. These motifs have guided many Christians to ask whether JK Rowling used Bible symbolism and consciously crafted the Harry Potter story after the Passion of Jesus Christ. Is Harry Potter a Christ-Figure? In fact this question had been asked by sharp-minded readers since the early days of Potterdom. Many bloggers correctly guessed that the details of Harry Potter’s life would mirror the sacrificial death of Jesus. In 2002 Beliefnet.com hosted an online debate between several scholars who had published books on the subject (“Harry Potter, Christ Figure?”). Now that the 7th book has been released, these early musings have been justified; especially in light of several comments by Rowling herself to the effect that she knowingly crafted parts of her story around the biblical story of Jesus Christ. Suddenly preachers are making headlines, not for burning Harry Potter, but for championing him. Harry Potter is claimed to be a Christian story, which parallels the story of Jesus Christ and thus can help open a dialogue between Christians and the broader public.

And yet the most fascinating question has so far been ignored: Why do these similarities exist at all? Although it is easy to accept that Rowling crafted the literary character of Harry Potter after the figure of Jesus, shouldn’t it pique our interest that Jesus – a monumental figure in modern world religion generally believed to have been historical – has so much in common with the obviously fictional fantasy world and character of Harry Potter? This book will trace the genesis of the story of Jesus Christ and examine the controversy concerning the historical founder of Christianity, to see if Jesus can be distinguished from Harry based on the claim of history.

Interest and controversy over the historical nature of Jesus Christ and his relationship to pre-existing pagan mythologies have been developing steadily in the past several decades, and although the internet today is full of websites and viral videos such as Zeitgeist exploring the origins of Christianity, there have been very few publications giving this topic a full and comprehensive evaluation. Whether or not the Jesus Christ as presented in the gospels was a historical figure is a source of much interest, and books on the subject have been both well-received and heavily criticized. Titles exploring the mythical or literary Jesus include G.A. Wells’ Did Jesus Exist? (1975), as well as his later books The Jesus Legend (1996) and The Jesus Myth (1998). Three brilliant books on Christ Myth theory were published in 1999, bringing the debate to the general public: The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S; The Jesus Mysteries: Was Jesus a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy; and The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty (an expanded version was published in 2009 under the title Jesus: Neither God nor Man-The Case for a Mythical Jesus). There was also Robert M. Price’s Deconstructing Jesus (2000) and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (2003), and more recently Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ (2005) and sequel Water Into Wine (2007). Due to the interest and lack of modern material, some publishers have begun reprinting older books on the subject, for example, Alvin Boyd Kuhn’s 1944 Who is this King of Glory (republished with a modern cover in 2007). On the flip side, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (1998) has enjoyed huge success as a defense for the historical Jesus. Finally, the quickly growing atheist movement is becoming interested in the subject as well, and celebrity thinkers such as Richard Dawkins have posted articles concerning the mythical Jesus Christ on their websites, generating a great deal of online buzz. This unresolved controversy is a topic of great personal interest for many people, and yet fundamental questions regarding the controversy over the historical Jesus remain to be fully answered.

Read Jesus Potter Harry Christ Online! (Look Inside)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface
Introduction

PART I: THE HISTORICAL CONTROVERSY

1. Sacrificial Half Breed Warlocks
2. Doubting Jesus: The Historical Controversy
3. Where’s the Proof? An Overview of the Evidence
4. Going Pagan: The Forgotten Prefigures of Christ

PART II: THE ROOTS OF THE CHRISTIAN MYTHOS

5. Jesus, the Lion King: Astrological Foundations
6. Meeting Satan Again: Draco and the Creation Myths
7. Jesus the Handsome Prince: The Higher Self

PART III: THE ACCIDENTAL HISTORY

8. Abracadabra: The Magical Name
9. Stupid Galatians: The Resurrection of the Flesh
10. From Mystery to History: Conflict and Martyrdom

Final Conclusion
Notes
Index

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Author’s Challenge: Think I’m wrong, that this book is blasphemous and you’ve got clear, firm evidence that Jesus was historical?
Don’t let that stop you from reading the book! Click here to learn why you should read it anyway.

Product Information

Format: Paperback

ISBN: 978-0615430935

Publisher: HB Press

Number of Pages: 490

Publication Date: 2/15/2011

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Sacrificial Half Breed Warlocks: Harry Potter as Christ Figure and Rowling’s Christian imagery

This is Chapter One of the book Jesus Potter, Harry Christ (2011), by Derek Murphy.


CHAPTER ONE

Sacrificial Half Breed Warlocks: Harry Potter as Christ Figure

Warlocks are the enemies of God! And I don’t care what kind of hero they are, they’re an enemy of God and had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death! –Becky Fischer, Pentecostal children’s pastor, 2006

LET’S SKIP THE INTRODUCTIONS. You don’t need me to tell you that Jesus Christ and Harry are two of the most famous celebrities in the world, whose stories have been translated into dozens of languages and found international support in diverse cultures. What you may not be aware of, however, is the mysterious, complicated and intriguing relationship between them. For example, did you know that the topics “I read Harry Potter and Jesus still loves me,” “Even Jesus reads Harry Potter” and “Harry Potter will return sooner than Jesus” each have their own Facebook group, or that Wikipedia has a page dedicated to “Religious debates over the Harry Potter Series”? Much more remarkable than their respective popularity is the significant tension – and unexpected affinity – between them.

At first glance it may seem that J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard and the crucified Jesus prophet who became the Christian savior have absolutely nothing to do with each other – and yet the unease and sometimes outright animosity between the followers of these two figures suggests otherwise. Harry has been banned, burned, and abused by religious fundamentalists for over a decade. Just what is it about Harry Potter that Christians find so threatening?

On the surface, the conflict appears simple. The Bible prohibits witchcraft absolutely, on pain of death. Consequently, some Christians argue that the popularity of Harry Potter can lead children to accept that magic is OK – if used for the right reasons – and thus lure them into evil practices that lead to damnation. At the release of Rowling’s final book, however, many readers were surprised to discover parallels between Jesus and Harry that, in such apparently diverse world-views, had no right to be there. As a result, recent years have witnessed a revolution in Christian responses to Harry, with many groups, writers and religious leaders praising Rowling’s young sorcerer as ultimately Christian and a clear metaphor for Jesus Christ. A few of the similarities that have been raised include the following:

  • Magic father, human mother
  • Miraculous birth, foretold by prophecy
  • Threatened by an evil ruler, had to go into hiding as a baby
  • Power over animals, time, and matter
  • Symbolized by a lion / enemy symbolized by a snake
  • Descended into the underworld
  • Broke seven magical seals
  • Went willingly to his death
  • Suffered and died (or appeared to die) willingly, was mourned
  • Came back to life
  • Defeated his enemy in a glorious final battle

Can this list really be applied to both Jesus Christ and Harry Potter equally? If so, where do the apparent similarities come from? More importantly, why do some Christian groups deem Harry Potter satanic, while Jesus Christ is revered as the Son of God? What key differences allow Christians to make the distinction between them? In order to answer these questions, this chapter will trace the raging controversy over the Harry Potter series, examine the Christian responses to J.K. Rowling’s character, and then explore the potential similarities themselves. I will conclude by arguing that the key variance between the two is that Harry Potter is obviously a fictional character, while Jesus Christ is almost universally accepted as a historical figure.

Background

The character of Harry Potter popped into Joanne Rowling’s head in 1990, when she was returning by train to London after flat-hunting in Manchester. She didn’t have a pen, so for the next four hours she simply sat and thought; dreaming up the story of the scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard.[i] She started writing Philosopher’s Stone as soon as she got back to her Clapham Junction flat. The manuscript grew after she moved to Manchester, but on December 30th, 1990 Rowling’s mother passed away after a 10-year battle with multiple sclerosis. This was a traumatic event for Rowling.

9 months later, desperate to get away, Rowling took a job in Portugal teaching English. There she met and married Portuguese television journalist Jorge Arantes, and in July of 1993 their daughter Jessica Isabel Rowling Arantes was born. Soon after, however, Rowling separated from her husband, and in December 1993 Rowling and her daughter returned home to live near her sister in Edinburgh.

During this period Rowling was diagnosed with clinical depression, and contemplated suicide. It was the feeling of her illness that brought her the idea of Dementors, soul-sucking creatures introduced in the third book. Before she started teaching again she was determined to finish her book; so when her daughter was sleeping she crafted her novel in nearby cafés, surviving on state welfare support. After some initial rejection, Rowling found her agent, Christopher Little. The book was submitted to twelve publishing houses; all of which rejected the manuscript. Then in August, 1996, Christopher called to tell her that Bloomsbury, a small publishing house in London, had made an offer.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone became an overnight sensation when it hit bookstores. It was the first children’s book to make it onto the New York Times best-seller list since E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in 1952, and was followed shortly by Rowling’s next two books, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. These three books held the top three positions on the New York Times bestseller list in 1999. On December 18th, 2001, USA Today announced that J.K. Rowling had become the best-selling author in the world, displacing mystery writer John Grisham, and in 2004, they named Rowling the most successful author of the decade, landing five of the top six spots on the list of the 100 best-selling books of the past 10 years. In 2007, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final volume of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series, sold 11 million copies in just 24 hours, and 8.3 million copies in another week; making it the fastest selling book in history.

Bookstores and publishers have been surprised, not only by the sales, but by the passion of supporting fans, who find the books irresistible. Part of this can be chalked up to a brilliant marketing campaign, but even so, it is clear that Rowling has presented an intriguing story, with central characters that fans identify with and a rich magical world.

It would be a mistake to identify the series exclusively as children’s literature; the books have received an enthusiastic reception from adults as well, and in the seriousness of the later books it is clear that Rowling has a mature audience in mind. Horror writer Stephen King notes that the great secret of the Harry Potter series is that Rowling’s kids grew up. The books, which certainly began as children’s literature, developed into something much more sober as Rowling’s depiction of the conflict between good and evil, her characters, and her writing skills reached maturity:

These books ceased to be specifically for children halfway through the series; by Goblet of Fire, Rowling was writing for everyone, and knew it. The clearest sign of how adult the books had become by the conclusion arrives — and splendidly — in Deathly Hallows, when Mrs. Weasley sees the odious Bellatrix Lestrange trying to finish off Ginny with a Killing Curse. “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” she cries. It’s the most shocking bitch in recent fiction; since there’s virtually no cursing (of the linguistic kind, anyway) in the Potter books, this one hits home with almost fatal force. It is totally correct in its context — perfect, really — but it is also a quintessentially adult response to a child’s peril.[ii]

The popularity of Harry Potter has also drawn the attention of academic research and popular non-fiction titles about the series. As such a universal element of contemporary culture, Harry Potter has been used to shed light on more complex social and political issues. In “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Colonialism,” Tracy Douglas seeks to place Harry Potter “within the wider context of the British literature canon’s tendency to define the foreigner against a characterization of English identity.”[iii] Gwen A. Tarbox, in “Harry Potter and the War on Terror,” argues “If the earlier books in the series were designed to engage children’s sense of wonder, it would appear that the later texts are designed to encourage children’s skepticism of the current geopolitical situation.”[iv] Nancee Lee-Allen, meanwhile, in “Understanding Prejudice Utilizing the Harry Potter Series,” claims

Harry Potter’s world is full of prejudicial ideas, though not the ones found in our world. In Harry’s world, people are not discriminated against for the color of their skin, religious affiliation, or sexual identity; it is all about blood – pure, half or muggle. Teens easily identify with characters and are able to relate to the idea of prejudice in the magic world. These books allow us to explore inner feelings about people who are different without identifying anyone as a real-world racist, which can lead to a better understanding of ourselves and begin to build respect for those who are different.[v]

Academics have also tried to isolate what gives Harry Potter its distinctive appeal. Tricia Sindel-Arrington writes, “J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are modern Gothic novels which incorporate symbols to create vivid imagery while connecting to the adolescent’s self-discovery journey.”[vi] Janet Neilson finds that “J.K. Rowling draws from global sources for inspiration for everything from spells to magical creatures. These sources are woven throughout the text to create depth and a sense of cultures beyond the one in which Harry lives.”[vii] John Granger, one of the first writers to comment on the Christian symbolism in Harry Potter, notes that Rowling “wields the tools of narrative misdirection, literary alchemy, the hero’s journey, postmodern themes and traditional symbolism to engage and entrance us well beyond suspended disbelief.”[viii]

The academic interest in the Harry Potter phenomenon has inspired over a dozen literary conferences focused on the Harry Potter series. In 2008 alone, the list of Potter conferences included Terminus in Chicago, Convention Alley in Ottawa, Portus in Dallas, and Accio in England, and even more have been held in the years since. For serious researchers, a 275-page hardcover called Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text was released in 2005 and sold on Amazon.com for $109.95.[ix] According to Debbie Mynott, Area Children’s Librarian at Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council (UK), the articles in the book “demonstrate the richness Harry Potter and his world provide for literary critics and scholars.”[x]

Harry’s quickly expanding fandom has even inspired comparisons to be made between the Potter series and the Bible, which popular culture has dubbed the “best-selling book of all time.” Although the Bible is still winning, Rowling’s novels are catching up:

According to Rowling’s agent, Christopher Little, the seven Harry Potter books have so far been translated into 67 languages, amassing the 400m figure since the publication of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in 1997. Despite the furious pace of sales, Harry Potter will still have his work cut out to catch The Bible, which, according to the Guinness Book of Records, has sold 2.5b copies since 1815, and has been translated into 2,233 languages or dialects.[xi]

Along with its success, however, came controversy. The overwhelming popularity of the Harry Potter series might have been what first raised the suspicions of conservative Christians, who – citing the examples of magic and witchcraft in Harry Potter’s world – have declared Rowling’s fiction satanic propaganda designed to lead children into the occult. The continuing debate among Christian communities over whether children should be allowed to read the Harry Potter series has frequently been reported by the media; for example in news reports of lawsuits attempting to ban Harry Potter books from school and public libraries, or the even more startling accounts of public book burnings. Aside from evolution, Harry Potter is one of the most controversial subjects in the heated debate over what we should be teaching our children. (While these issues are predominantly constrained to U.S. politics and culture, the spread of evangelical forms of Christianity abroad have debated similar issues). On August 2, 2000, Education Week reported that

The American Library Association reports that at least 13 states witnessed attacks on the Harry Potter novels last year, making them the most challenged books of 1999. Given the enormous publicity and forecasted sales of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we can expect the attacks to escalate when schools reopen in September.[xii]

These initial responses were enflamed by a spoof article called “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children,” posted by the satire news site the Onion on July 26, 2000. Using made-up interview statements and provocative language, it painted a frightening picture of Harry’s Satanic influence on kids.

“I used to believe in what they taught us at Sunday School,” said Ashley, conjuring up an ancient spell to summon Cerebus, the three-headed hound of hell. “But the Harry Potter books showed me that magic is real, something I can learn and use right now, and that the Bible is nothing but boring lies.”

“I think it’s absolute rubbish to protest children’s books on the grounds that they are luring children to Satan,” Rowling told a London Times reporter in a July 17 interview. “People should be praising them for that! These books guide children to an understanding that the weak, idiotic Son Of God is a living hoax who will be humiliated when the rain of fire comes, and will suck the greasy cock of the Dark Lord while we, his faithful servants, laugh and cavort in victory.”[xiii]

Although the article was meant to ridicule the fears of Christian parents protesting the Harry Potter books and poke fun of the controversy, it was unexpectedly used by Christians (either deliberately or without realizing that the Onion is a satire site) as definitive proof against the series. Soon after the article appeared, a chain letter was created and forwarded in a massive email campaign which heavily cited the passages of the Onion’s fabricated news story. By mixing truth with fiction, it proved a powerful motivator in the fight against Rowling’s young wizard.

Date: Fri, 4 Aug 2000 01:59:13 EDT

Subject: Fwd: Harry Potter Books?

This is the most evil thing I have laid my eyes on in 10 years… and no one seems to understand its threat. The Harry Potter books are THE NUMBER ONE selling children’s books in the nation today. Just look at any Barnes & Noble or Waldenbook storefront. Go to Amazon.com and read the reviews. Hear the touting by educators and even Christian teachers about how “It’s great to see the youth so eagerly embracing the reading experience!”

Harry Potter is the creation of a former UK English teacher who promotes witchcraft and Satanism. Harry is a 13 year old ‘wizard.’ Her creation openly blasphemes Jesus and God and promotes sorcery, seeking revenge upon anyone who upsets them by giving you examples (even the sources with authors and titles!) of spells, rituals, and demonic powers. It is the doorway for children to enter the Dark Side of evil. (…) My hope is that you will see fit to become involved in getting the word out about this garbage. Please FWD to every pastor, teacher, and parent you know. This author has now published FOUR BOOKS in less than 2 years of this “encyclopedia of Satanism” and is surely going to write more. I also ask all Christians to please pray for this lost woman’s soul. Pray also for the Holy Spirit to work in the young minds of those who are reading this garbage that they may be delivered from its harm. Lastly, pray for all parents to grow closer to their children, and that a bond of sharing thoughts and spiritual intimacy will grow between them.

Letters such as this one ignited outrage and inspired a deliberate movement against J.K. Rowing’s novels. In 2001, several book burnings were held with Harry Potter as the main stimulus. In early January 2002, the Christ Community Church of Alamogordo, New Mexico, became the topic of international media attention for its book burning after the pastor, Jack D. Brock, preached a sermon on the topic “The Baby Jesus Or Harry Potter?” Brock stated he considered the Harry Potter books to be “an example of our society’s growing preoccupation with the occult. The Potter books present witchcraft as a generally positive practice, while the Bible expressly condemns all occult practices.” The event became the topic of news features in both the United States and England.[xiv] Pastor Brock admitted to never having read any of the four Potter novels. In August 2003, the Jesus Non-denominational Church in Greenville, Michigan, also burned Harry Potter books. According to the report, “The pastor says stories like Harry Potter that glorify wizardry and sorcery will lead people to accept and believe in Satan.”

Evangelical Protestants were not the only ones worried that positive depictions of wizardry would mislead children. In a letter from March, 2003 Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) thanked the author of Harry Potter – Good or Evil for her “instructive” book, saying,

It is good, that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.[xv]

Harry Potter has also been a dividing factor in many communities. For several years, J.K. Rowling’s series topped the American Library Association’s lists of most-challenged books, for reasons including “anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint and violence” (reasons cited in 2001). Attempting to educate Christians about the dangers of Harry Potter, Robert McGee of Merritt Island, Florida, released a documentary in 2001 (Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged; Making Evil Look Innocent) claiming that Rowling’s books introduce kids to human sacrifice, witchcraft and even Nazism.[xvi] School boards in Cedarville, Arkansas, and the Eastern York School district in Pennsylvania were challenged on decisions regarding whether Harry should be allowed in school libraries. In 2002, the police department of Penryn, Pennsylvania refused to direct traffic for the YMCA triathlon because Harry Potter was read to kids attending the YMCA after-school program. In a letter sent to the YMCA, the town’s police captain questioned whether it was “serving the will of God” by reading Harry to children, adding “As long as we don’t stand up, it won’t stop. It’s unfortunate that this is the way it has to be.”

Although the controversy softened with the continued success of Harry Potter and its endorsement by many mainstream religious organizations, pockets of resistance remain. In 2006 the conflict resurfaced with the documentary Jesus Camp, which shadowed a Christian camp aimed at using children to proselytize. Leader Becky Fischer’s bold comments on Harry Potter were quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Traces of the early email campaign based from the Onion article continue to condition Christian responses to Harry Potter. In July 2009 Reverend Douglas Taylor and his “Jesus Party” received media attention for protesting the opening of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”; these protests were mocked by satire site Land Rover Baptist as part of their continuing (fictious) campaign against Harry Potter:

Each night in July during the release of the Satanic film, “The Half Blood Prince,” JESUS YOUTHS will be armed with fire-extinguishers filled with compressed lamb’s blood. “Our brave Baptist youths will innocently approach theater lines and spray unsaved moviegoers with the warm blood of the Lamb. They’ll shout the name of Jesus and throw Chick Tracts into the dazed crowd,” says Pastor. “They need to run like their dickens are on fire after witnessing time is over because they are outreaching for Jesus outside of church property! And there might be some unsaved police officers about! Church vans will be waiting a quarter mile away from each theater to escort JESUS YOUTHS back to the Main Sanctuary for a de-brief with the Board of Deacons. Then it’s off to Friendly’s for 20-minutes of ice-cream fellowship.[xvii]

On October 24, 2010 the following article was posted on the blog Everyday For Life Canada:

As the Harry Potter phenomenon continues to contaminate the hearts and minds of Canadian youth, I felt it necessary to address my concerns and that of so many other like-minded Christians, who clearly understand the Harry Potter controversy, that it glorifies and propagates the occult. Make no mistake, the Harry Potter story line is about witches and wizards, the practice of divination, necromancy and sorcery. It is all presented in a glorifying way through the exciting adventures of a young boy’s life. [xviii]

What’s the big deal? Christian Responses

It is tempting to simply dismiss or discredit these reactions as fundamentally misinformed or baseless. However, there is a very real anti-Harry sentiment among conservative Christian churches – and it has a biblical foundation. Thus it is important to look more deeply into the issue and to understand what the religious debate against Harry is all about. As esteemed author Judy Blume points out, it would be a mistake to overlook the real impetus behind the protests:

The real danger is not in the books, but in laughing off those who would ban them. The protests against Harry Potter follow a tradition that has been growing since the early 1980’s and often leaves school principals trembling with fear that is then passed down to teachers and librarians. What began with the religious right has spread to the politically correct… And now the gate is open so wide that some parents believe they have the right to demand immediate removal of any book for any reason from school or classroom libraries. The list of gifted teachers and librarians who find their jobs in jeopardy for defending their students’ right to read, to imagine, to question, grows every year. (…) I knew this was coming. The only surprise is that it took so long – as long as it took for the zealots who claim they’re protecting children from evil (and evil can be found lurking everywhere these days) to discover that children actually like these books. If children are excited about a book, it must be a suspect. [xix]

At the same time, from a Christian perspective the issue is very clear: the Bible explicitly forbids witchcraft. The command “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” of Exodus 22:18, which was used to justify the persecution of women during the Inquisition and later during the Salem Witch trials, is also cited against Harry Potter. The other biblical passage quoted often in arguments against the Harry Potter series is from the book of Deuteronomy:

There must never be anyone among you who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire of sacrifice, who practices divination, who is soothsayer, augur or sorcerer, weaver of spells, consulter of ghosts of mediums, or necromancer. (Deut. 18:10-12)

While this passage clearly forbids believers to practice sorcery, ambiguity remains. Is reading about witchcraft the same as practicing it, and therefore also banned? As Connie Neal clarifies in What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter,

(…) reading Harry Potter is a disputable matter because we are not debating whether it is okay for Christians to practice witchcraft of spells. The Christian position on that is clear. We agree that we should never participate in or practice anything listed in Deuteronomy 18:9-14. But reading Harry Potter is not the same as practicing witchcraft or even – as some assert – promoting it. However, some can take it to mean just that. Therein lies the disputable part of these issues that Christians debate in earnest.[xx]

To a skeptical reader who doesn’t believe in magic, this controversy might seem exasperating; but the root of the issue is that Christians do believe in a super-natural world (and hence, the possibility of magic), and also that the Bible outlines appropriate responses to that world. A literal reading of the Bible makes it clear that magic, spell-casting, divination and communion with spirits are not only real, but also very dangerous. The fear is that children reading the Harry Potter books and playing around with make-believe spells and magic may end up being drawn towards more occult practices later, or even accidentally contacting real evil spirits.

Although these biblical prohibitions may be the root of the criticisms made against Harry Potter, as J.K. Rowling’s novels grew in popularity, Christians opposed to Harry Potter searched for further ways to demonstrate the potential dangers of the books for children. The following is a summary of some of the early Christian responses to the Harry Potter series. It should be noted that critics who are against the reading of the Harry Potter series have rarely read the books themselves. This means that their information about the novels comes only from 2nd or 3rd place testimonies, book jackets, literature reviews and conjecture. Moreover, many of the following responses were formulated after only the second or third Harry Potter novel, and are inadequate to deal with the Potter series as a whole.

Promotes the Idea that Magic is Just Fantasy

The belief that witches and wizards are harmless because they don’t really exist is a dangerous fallacy for Christians who believe that magic and witchcraft are real and condemned by God. This point is demonstrated admirably by the preface of Michael D. O’Brien’s Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture. O’Brien describes how he was inspired to write the book after hearing from three independent and unconnected Christian sources whose attempts to read Harry Potter caused them to experience physical nausea. He then claims that when he started publishing, he was cursed by three witches, whose spells were only broken by his faith in Jesus. The fantastic elements in his account are worth quoting in full:

The witches’ spells against me were utterly terrifying, nearly paralyzing, and only when I cried out the name of Jesus were the spells broken and pushed back. I had to keep repeating His name to preserve the defense, and woke up in a state of terror that did not dissipate in the manner of bad dreams. My wife woke up too and prayed with me, and finally we were able to go back to sleep in peace. In a similar dream the following night, the three witches returned, now accompanied by a sorcerer, and once more they cast a hideous spell against me. Again it was repelled by the holy name of Jesus and also by the prayers of the saints, especially St. Joseph. A third dream that occurred not long after was the most frightening of all. In it, I had been captured and taken to an isolated house deep in a forest. The building was filled with men and women involved in witchcraft and sorcery. They were waiting for a man who was their chief sorcerer to arrive, and I was to be the human sacrifice in the night’s ritual. When he entered the room I felt that all hope had been lost, a black dismay filled me, along with terror of a kind I had never before felt. Even then, I was able to whisper the name of Jesus. Instantly the walls fell backward onto the ground outside the house, the cords that had bound me fell from my wrists and ankles, and I ran for my life. Leaping out of the house, I was astonished to find the entire building surrounded by mighty angels, who by their holy authority had immobilized all of the sorcerers within. I leaped and danced with joy, and realized that I had been transformed into a child. Jesus appeared in the sky above and began to descend. I continued to dance in jubilation and relief, crying out greetings to him as he arrived. At which point I woke up, filled with utter joy. And that was the last of the bad dreams.[xxi]

Like O’Brien, many Christians accept the fact that an invisible spiritual warfare is constantly going on between Jesus and the forces of evil, and live in a word just as fantastic as that of Harry Potter.

Makes a Distinction Between Good Magic and Bad Magic

Fans of Harry Potter would probably agree that Harry and his companions are moral characters who use magic for good purposes, as opposed to their unethical enemies, who use magic for evil and selfish purposes. But this distinction could lead children to the conclusion that magic can be good or “safe,” depending on the moral choices made – a dangerous path for Christians who see all magic, for any purpose, as unacceptable. Alison Lentini explores this theme in her article “Harry Potter: Occult Cosmology and the Corrupted Imagination”:

For those who seek conformity with the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, “safe magic” is wishful thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and an invitation to the spiritual deviations that the Hebrew prophets bluntly referred to as “harlotry,” and the New Testament apostles forbade. As such, the “safe magic” of Harry Potter offers a message that is as morally confusing to a generation of children as the current ideology of “safe sex.”[xxii]

Introduces Children to the Occult

Wicca = Witchcraft = Satanism. Or at least that’s the connection made on many fundamentalist blogs and websites, who view the accepted modern day religion named Wicca as positive proof that New Age ideologies and the contemporary tolerance of pluralism are Satan’s ploy to capture the souls of those who wander too far into occult territory. Although Harry Potter, as a fictional character who employs magic to defeat his adversaries, is not unique in children’s literature, he is the most popular manifestation of contemporary society’s demand for magic and fantasy, and has therefore become a primarily target of criticism. The threat is voiced clearly by Alan Jacobs in “Harry Potter’s Magic,” which claims “such novels could at best encourage children to take a smilingly tolerant New Age view of witchcraft, at worst encourage the practice of witchcraft itself.”[xxiii] The overly zealous author of the website Exposing Satanism, who has placed Taoism and Buddhism under the title of “False Beliefs,” illustrates a stronger response:

The whole purpose of these books is to desensitize readers and introduce them to the occult. What a better way to introduce tolerance and acceptance of what God calls an abomination, than in children’s books? If you can get them when they are young, then you have them for life. It’s the oldest marketing scheme there is.[xxiv]

Has No Moral Compass or Ethical Authority

Another criticism raised against the Harry Potter series has been that there is no absolute moral authority. Although there are good characters and bad characters in the books, there is also a lot of moral ambiguity and no supreme authority for establishing and policing universal ethical laws. Moreover, ‘good’ characters often behave very poorly – being angry or jealous for example. Harry himself often lies and breaks the rules, is rude towards authority figures and prone to violent encounters with his enemies. This argument usually goes hand-in-hand with a defense of other, more Christian works like the C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, both of which (mostly on account that the authors were practicing Christians) are championed as appropriate books for Christian children. As writer Richard Abanes proclaims, “the books clearly present far too much moral subjectivity and patently unbiblical actions to be of any ethical value.”[xxv] Lindy Beam agrees, in an article about the appropriate Christian response to Harry Potter:

The spiritual fault of Harry Potter is not so much that it plays to dark supernatural powers, but that it doesn’t acknowledge any supernatural powers or moral authority at all. Rowling does not write from the basis of Judeo-Christian ethics. So her characters may do “the-wrong-thing-for-the-right-reason,” often lying, cheating, or breaking rules in order to save the day.[xxvi]

However, this argument becomes very weak if we agree that the criticism should be applied to every novel equally and not only to the Harry Potter series; there are very few works of literature in which the protagonist is sin-free and ethically meticulous. In response to this argument, Connie Neal points out that the Bible itself is hardly bereft from moral ambiguity itself, and cites a handful of biblical indiscretions worsened by the fact that the characters acted purely out of self interest: Abraham and Isaac lied about their wives, calling them sisters in order to escape persecution; Jacob and his mother deceived Isaac with an elaborate disguise and lied to cover the deception; Rachel stole her father’s idols, hid them, and lied about it; ten of the Patriarchs sold their brother into slavery. She concludes, “If we decide that we will only read stories to kids where those on the good side never do wrong, we would not be able to read the Bible.”[xxvii]

Uses Satanic Symbols

Still others have found Satanic symbols in the Harry Potter stories. Arguments following this kind of logic mention that the Bible often depicts Satan as being a snake (Genesis 3:1-4; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9; 20:2), and that in book two of the Potter series, we discover that Harry has a gift of speaking with snakes (Chamber of Secrets 145-147). This language is called Parseltongue, and is already openly associated with the dark arts in the series. Harry, however, got this power from the truly evil character, Voldemort, and always uses it for the greater good.

Another connection is made from the lightning bolt figure on Harry’s forehead. Associating lightning with Satan based on the passage, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning” (Luke 10:18), and noting that the forehead is meant to be a place reserved for the name that God will put on those who love Him and serve Him (“And they will see His face; and His name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4)) some fundamentalists have argued that to put any other mark there, especially a Satanic mark, is a mockery to God.

As we’ve seen, arguments like these, when used in conjunction with anti-Potter propaganda and riveting “proofs” of Harry’s Satanic influences, stirred up the fury of religious extremists enough to cause public demonstrations, lawsuits or book burning events. Although in today’s liberal culture of tolerance, book burning is generally frowned upon (in nearly every case more liberal members of the community protested the burnings – ashamed that their towns had become harbors for such violent and discriminatory practices), the burning of books on witchcraft is a biblically sanctioned practice. The following story is found in the Acts of the Apostles:

And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the Word of God and prevailed. (Acts 19: 18-20)

It should be pointed out, however, that the story above is a bit of ecclesiastical advertising and rather than denounce witchcraft, it actually acknowledges its power. Early Christian communities believed that Jesus Christ eclipsed all magical spells; not because they weren’t real, but because Jesus had a higher magical efficacy than the best alternative methods. This is why new converts could converge and cast their expensive books into the fire. This is not the same as burning books about magic simply because they are evil.

Positive Christian Responses

The fact that there have been a few isolated cases of Harry Potter book burning by fundamentalist religious groups should not lead us to the assumption that all Christians are anti-Potter. On the contrary, many of the most authoritative sources have given the series their support. On January 10th, 2000, for example, Christianity Today published the editorial “Why We Like Harry Potter,” which claims:

Rowling has created a world with real good and evil, and Harry is definitely on the side of light fighting the “dark powers.” Third, and this is why we recommend the books, Rowling’s series is a Book of Virtues with a preadolescent funny bone. Amid the laugh-out-loud scenes are wonderful examples of compassion, loyalty, courage, friendship, and even self-sacrifice. No wonder young readers want to be like these believable characters. That is a Christmas present we can be grateful for.[xxviii]

Christians who have read the series even find that they can be useful instruments for spreading the gospel message. John Killinger, for example, says glowingly “The Potter stories, far from being ‘wicked’ or ‘Satanic’… are in fact narratives of robust faith and morality, entirely worthy of children’s reading again and again, and even becoming world classics that will be reprinted as long as there is a civilization.”[xxix]

Christians who approve of Harry Potter have trouble accepting the argument that Narnia or the Lord of the Rings – which also feature magic, spells, warfare, mythological symbols, talking animals and half-breeds like elves and centaurs – are better material for Christian children. Indeed there is no argument that can hold against Harry Potter and not also be used against hundreds of other classic and contemporary children’s stories. Neal argues that the content of the stories, rather than the intention of the authors, must be honestly appraised; and if we ban one book based on specific criteria, all others should be judged similarly: “Must we say that Lewis’s stories promote Wicca and conclude that they are unsuitable for children and Christians? If we take this position about the Harry Potter stories, then the answer is yes.”[xxx] This argument can be extended to include most other popular fairy tales: the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz; the magic in Disney stories like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast or the Little Mermaid – many of which are allowed by Christian parents. As Marcia Hoehne argues in a letter to the editor of Christianity Today:

Rowling’s story, which she has described as an epic novel in seven parts rather than a book with six sequels, is an epic novel of good versus evil, where the heroes require help beyond natural strength, and where good wins out. Are Hogwarts’s witches more sinister than Oz’s? Than Mary Poppins? It would be refreshing if Christians would look up from the pulp fiction and animated videos long enough to educate themselves in the field of literature, so they might think through and discuss its complexities and themes as ably as the world does.[xxxi]

Supporters of Harry Potter point out that the plot revolves around a battle between good and evil, and also that Jesus Christ has at least a little in common with Harry Potter. In addition, the two stories share moral themes like love, sacrifice, honor, bravery, honesty and friendship; as well as challenging moral lessons that must be learned as the characters struggle through the plot. Harry Potter therefore, it can be argued, stems from a Judeo-Christian ethos. The willingness of non-Christians to discuss an interesting and “neutral” topic such as Harry Potter can even be used as a platform towards more in-depth conversations about spiritual themes. Chuck Colson instructs that interest in Harry Potter can be used to turn readers towards “more Christian” books:

If your kids do develop a taste for Harry Potter and his wizard friends, this interest might just open them up to an appreciation for other fantasy books with a distinctly Christian worldview. When your kids finish reading Harry Potter, give them C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. These books also feature wizards and witches and magical potions – but in addition, they inspire the imagination within a Christian framework – and prepare the hearts of readers for the real life story of Christ.[xxxii]

It is also noted that the Harry Potter series and Christianity share a certain number of esoteric symbols, such as the lion for bravery and righteousness, the snake for evil, the phoenix for rebirth, and the unicorn for purity – although the reason for these similarities is debated. Neal stresses that while Christians can interpret the symbols in Harry Potter within a biblical paradigm, these associations were not deliberately intended by Rowling:

We Christians can associate the symbol of the Lion for Gryffindor House with the Biblical symbol of Jesus (supremely good) being the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.” We can associate the snake of Slytherin House with the biblical symbol of the evil one represented as a serpent. (…) However, we must remain absolutely clear on this point: The author of Harry Potter never makes any association between Harry Potter’s fantasy world and Satan, the devil, or any other aspect of occult spiritual forces revealed in The Bible as real in our spiritual world. If we choose to create such an association, it is our own choice.[xxxiii]

Others, however, have noted the similarities and claimed that Rowling’s inspiration must have come directly from the Bible. After quoting a lengthy passage from the Book of Revelation, Killinger says, “The sweep and imagery are not that different from those employed by Rowling. In fact, there can be little doubt where Rowling got the idea of the King of Serpents for her story, whether she did so consciously or unconsciously.”[xxxiv]

The strength of the Christian arguments in support of Harry Potter, however, depend upon the ability to see Harry Potter as a Christian story built around a Christian framework. Killinger enthuses, for example, that the Potter mythos “is not only dependent on the Christian understanding of life and the universe but actually grows out of that understanding and would have been unthinkable without it.”[xxxv]

However, in this passage we can detect an extremist worldview that, while prevalent amongst a few fundamental Christian groups, is academically impermissible. This is that all love and goodness came into the world only after Jesus Christ, and no true ethics can be found before him. Therefore anything good in Harry Potter, deliberate or not, must have been influenced by Christianity.

There has been only one great plot engine for all fiction since the coming of Christ, and that is the struggle of good to overcome evil. Before Christ, in the eras of great Hellenistic and Roman literature, this was not true. There was struggle in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, but it was not about the conflict between good and evil; this essential ingredient in all great Western literature (and even many of the lesser writings) is derived from Hebrew and Christian theology, and especially from the Gospels, with their portrayal of the battle between Christ and the forces of darkness.[xxxvi]

Killinger’s conclusion – that any good and evil struggle where good wins is a Christian Story – is hard to accept. Incidentally, this argument reveals a troubling inconsistency in Christian dogma: strictly speaking, in Christian theology there should be no struggle at all between good and evil: Judeo-Christian monotheistic belief makes it very clear that there is only one God, and he is omnipotent. There never was, nor can there be, any real conflict between good and evil in such a scenario. It is not possible for evil to win the battle against God. Although it can be argued that the battle is waged for the soul of each person, based around the issue of “free-will,” it is more likely that instances of light against dark imagery and the epic battles between the forces of good and evil are vestiges of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion from which Christianity has always tried, with little success, to distance itself. It would seem that in this case Harry Potter and Christianity (against its better judgment), are both borrowing themes from older traditions. However, the theme of light and dark, good versus evil, is so universal that it would be reckless to suggest that a story based on such conflict is guilty of plagiarism.

Embracing the Harry Potter fad as a way to reach children, in 2003 Trudy Ardizzone of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Del Mar California created the Vacation Bible School program “Wizards and Wonders”; a kind of Harry Potter role-play with biblical substitutions. According to the online description, God “delights in any path that leads to us him,” so there’s no reason not to use Harry Potter as a fun and engaging activity:

Through drama, crafts and games, participants connect the hero’s story to Bible stories. In an engaging set of experiences, mirroring some of Harry’s, you will explore issues of identity, alliances, team work, spiritual gifts, life’s direction, temptations, moral choices, courage and faith. Two thousand years ago, Jesus taught the public through parable, metaphor, and simile. How could he make simple people grasp such vast and impossible ideas such as God, heaven, and grace? He did so by relating them to objects and experiences the people understood. The glory and majesty of our Lord and his divine plan were in no way tarnished or diminished by comparing them to humble shepherds and sheep, mustard seeds, yeast and lost coins. The task of each generation is to read the Bible through the fresh filter of its own experience. If we believe we are a people led and inspired by the Holy Spirit, we should have no problem finding new metaphors for grace, love, forgiveness, and even the divine in our contemporary world. I believe God infuses his creation with the holy and makes many diverse opportunities available for our connection and revelation. My religious imagination thinks that God delights in any path that leads us to him, even if it is in tales of lonely but courageous orphan boys, silly spells, school friendships and loyalties, magic, and evil wizards.[xxxvii]

In 2010, a congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa used Trudy’s program to run a successful Vacation Bible School with 30+ children, which was picked up by the local Iowa City newspaper and then spread through online news services.

Since 2007

The landscape for Christian-Potter relations significantly changed, however, after the publication of Rowling’s final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, on July 21st, 2007. Not only did the book sell 11 million copies in the first 24 hours of release (in only three markets) – breaking all previous sales records and becoming the fastest selling book in history – it also shattered the religious opposition to Harry Potter with its inclusion of specifically Christian motifs, themes and plot events. According to Paul V.M. Flesher, director of the religious studies program at the University of Wyoming and the author of an article about Harry Potter for the Journal of Religion and Film,

At the end of the last book, we have a dying and rising Potter – he has to be killed to deliver the world from the evil personified by Voldemort. There’s a Christian pattern to this story. It’s not just good versus evil. Rowling is not being evangelistic – this is not C.S. Lewis – but she knows these stories, and it’s clear she’s fitting pieces together in a way that makes sense and she knows her readers will follow.[xxxviii]

These revelations, and the increasing support from religious leaders, have spurred the proliferation of articles like the one published in Boston Globe of August 16, 2009, called “The Book of Harry: How the Boy Wizard Won Over Religious Critics.”[xxxix] The sudden praise of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard also allowed some religious leaders to gain an instant platform simply for approving of the boy wizard and encouraging other Christians to do the same. Mary Hess, for example, of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes in the journal Word & World:

Rather than decrying as wicked certain elements of the series – as far too many Christians have done – we ought to be inviting our communities into deeper appreciation of both the similarities and the contrasts between the stories and our Christian faith.[xl]

This task has been taken up with remarkable passion by numerous writers, both online and in print. Although books on the spiritual or religious symbolism in Harry Potter are not new, there has been a marked increase in interest and media coverage. A few of the available titles include:

  • Harry Potter Power
  • The Seeker’s Guide to Harry Potter
  • Looking for God in Harry Potter
  • The Hidden Key to Harry Potter
  • Harry Potter and Torah
  • What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter?
  • A Charmed Life: The Spirituality of Potterworld
  • Harry Potter and the Meaning of Life
  • Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magic
  • Harry Potter’s Bookshelf
  • Does Harry Potter Tickle Sleeping Dragons
  • How Harry Cast His Spell
  • The Wisdom of Harry Potter
  • The Mystery of Harry Potter
  • The Gospel According To Harry Potter

One of the most recent books exploring the Christian symbolism in Rowling’s work is One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter by Baylor University professor of English, Greg Garrett.[xli] Answering the question “How would C.S. Lewis respond to the Harry Potter series?” in an online interview, Garret responds,

I have no doubt that the Christian apologist part of Lewis would have celebrated the fact that there is no more powerful contemporary retelling of the gospel narrative than Rowling’s 4100 pages. (…) Now that the series is complete, we know that the shape of the finished Potter narrative is the shape of the Christian story: A prophesied savior willingly lays down his life in order to defeat the power of death, fear, and hopelessness, and usher in a beautiful new world. The qualities of love, community, sacrifice, compassion, and courage that Rowling celebrates in the novels seem to me to be the qualities Christians most need to live an authentic and faithful life, so even though no one in the books preaches, the books preach.[xlii]

What Does Rowling Have to Say?

J.K. Rowling has always been careful responding to questions about her spiritual views, maintaining that she couldn’t comment on the books’ religious content until the conclusion of book seven.[xliii] In a 2000 interview, she stated:

If I talk too freely about whether I believe in God I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.[xliv]

Not surprisingly, along with the final book of the series, which culminates in Harry’s sacrificial death, some readers have made the claim that Rowling’s early refusals to discuss religion, hinting that it would give away the ending of the story, proves that the entire series has been a conscious and deliberate recreation of the gospels. According to the editorial “Is Harry Potter the Son of God?” (2007) posted on mugglenet.com by Abigail BeauSeigneur,

The secret to Harry Potter is tied to Rowling’s Christianity. The master of the red herring has done it. She has tricked the entire world. What appears to be a book about witchcraft is a story about Jesus Christ. (…) The story of Harry Potter is, and always was, a Christian allegory – a fictionalized modern day adaptation of the life of Christ, intended to introduce his character to a new generation.[xlv]

And there is some truth to this view. Rowling could not have failed to be aware of the similarities between Harry and Jesus as she was writing. In fact, after the publication of book seven she’s admitted in several interviews that Harry Potter was, in some sense, modeled on the Christian narrative. In a 2007 interview, when asked by a young reader about Harry’s being referred to in the books as the “chosen one,” Rowling replied

Well, there… there clearly is a religious… undertone. And… it’s always been difficult to talk about that because until we reached Book Seven, views of what happens after death and so on, it would give away a lot of what was coming. So … yes, my belief and my struggling with religious belief and so on I think is quite apparent in this book.[xlvi]

At the same time Rowling, although reported to be a regular churchgoer whose daughter Jessica was baptized into the Church of Scotland, has been careful to say that she didn’t set out to convert anyone to Christianity.

I wasn’t trying to do what CS Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia) did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it’s perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God.[xlvii]

She reaffirmed this position during her appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show (Oct. 1, 2010), insisting that her books have no religious agenda:

I’m not pushing any belief system here; although there is a lot of Christian imagery in the books. That’s undeniable. But that’s an allusion to a belief system in which I was raised.

Comparisons between Jesus and Harry Potter

Now that we’ve established that similarities between Jesus and Harry do exist and have been recognized by academics, religious leaders and even Rowling herself, we should take a closer look at the parallels themselves before continuing. I’ve listed a few of the main items below; of course there is no end to this kind of exegesis, and acute readers will be able to find many more connections.

Miraculous Birth

Both Jesus and Harry have a miraculous birth story, which includes the survival of an attempt on their lives by an evil power, who tried to kill them because of a prophecy that the child would someday challenge their rule. Jesus goes into hiding in Egypt with his parents when king Herod orders the massacre of all the young male born children in Bethlehem because of prophecy he’d heard from the Magi (Matthew 2:16-18). Harry Potter’s parents, meanwhile, weren’t lucky enough to be warned by an angel, and Lord Voldemort kills them both. However, when he tries to kill Harry, the powerful magical protection put on Harry by his mother’s love makes the killing curse backfire and hit Voldemort. Harry is taken away in secrecy by professors McGonagall and Dumbledore, and left in the house of his only living relative.

Childhood Miracles

Of both Jesus and Harry, very little is known until after they are older. Rowling reveals a few episodes where, before Harry learned how to use magic properly, it accidentally caused accidents when he was angry. Likewise, although not recorded in the canonical gospels, there are apocryphal writings of Jesus as a child using his miraculous powers for less than noble reasons. In The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, Jesus killed a boy for throwing a stone at him, and another for spoiling the pools of water he’d made. The parents of the town came to Joseph and said, “It is impossible for thee to live with us in this city: but if thou wishest to do so, teach thy child to bless, and not to curse: for he is killing our children, and everything that he says is certainly accomplished” (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 4). While the biblical story of Jesus then jumps to his adult years (or year – his ministry as recorded in the Bible appears to be just one year long), Harry’s main battles are all completed as a teenager.

Magical Powers

It may be controversial to suggest that Jesus, like Harry, is a magician; however it is no secret that the figure of Jesus was endowed with miraculous powers, and many of his feats in the Bible may seem to critics little different than party tricks. This claim was raised, for example, by the pagan philosopher Celsus (178 AD) who claimed that Jesus had learned magic in Egypt:

Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain [magical] powers… He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god… It was by means of sorcery that He was able to accomplish the wonders which He performed… Let us believe that these cures, or the resurrection, or the feeding of a multitude with a few loaves… These are nothing more than the tricks of jugglers… It is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of [miraculous] power.[xlviii]

Even in his own time, the miracles of Jesus were not particularly impressive; similar – and greater – feats of supernatural prowess were regularly associated with other mythological figures. Early converts confessed they had difficulty separating the miracles done by Jesus and the apostles from those done by the heretics and apostates. In the Pseudo-Clementine Literature, for example, Simon Magus (who was said to be, like Jesus, a disciple of John the Baptist) walks through fire, flies through the air, makes statues walk and turns stones into bread. He becomes a serpent, changes himself into gold, opens locked doors, and makes dishes bear themselves and wait on him.[xlix] The author admits “if we did not know that he does these things by magic, we ourselves should also have been deceived.”[l]

What feats did Jesus perform as evidence of his divinity? He changed water into wine (Harry could have learned to do that in “transfiguration” class), walked on water (Harry would have used the spell, “wingardium leviosa”), and multiplied fish and loaves of bread (a similar spell was put on the contents of Bellatrix’s bank vault, which Harry broke into in Book 7). The truth is that there is no miracle performed in the gospels that is in any way more astounding than the many magical feats in Harry Potter’s world. A large part of what has always made the gospel stories exciting to readers, just like the Harry Potter novels, are the elements of magic, fantasy and power.

Battles with Evil

Jesus often battles with demons that have taken possession of a person. He “calls them out” or sends them away. Harry Potter’s enemies are also sometimes disguised as or have taken over the appearance of someone else. Jesus’ power comes from the One who sent him, and his enemies are all manifestations or pawns of Satan, the deceiver. Harry Potter’s challenges are overcome through his faith in Dumbledore, who continuously teaches that Love is the greatest magic, and Potter’s enemies are mostly agents of Voldemort. Also, Jesus, while good, is given power to command demons and evil forces, who must obey him. Likewise, Harry is given the gift of Parseltongue, the rare ability to talk with snakes; thus he alone has control over “evil” or dangerous elements in the books; a power he often uses to the benefit of others.

The Power of Faith and Love

A central theme in Christianity is faith: God has a plan, and people should listen to and heed God’s call, and believe in him even when things don’t seem clear. A similar theme is found in Harry Potter, between Harry and Dumbledore. Throughout the seven novels, it becomes clear that Dumbledore has more information about the truth of things than he is willing to share, and has a definite plan in store for Harry, even though he won’t tell him what it is. Although in the beginning, Harry has enough faith and loyalty in Dumbledore to summon Fawkes, the sorting cap and Gryffindor’s sword, as things get more difficult Harry has to continuously struggle to keep his faith in Dumbledore. After the death of Dobby in Book 7, however, Harry’s faith is finally given unconditionally:

He had made his choice while he dug Dobby’s grave; he had decided to continue along the winding, dangerous path indicated for him by Albus Dumbledore, to accept that he had not been told everything that he wanted to know, but simply to trust. He had no desire to doubt him again, he did not want to hear anything that would deflect him from his purpose. (Deathly Hallows, 454)

Another important Christian theme is Love. The golden rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is sometimes recognized as Jesus’ single greatest ethical teaching, and the simple claim that “God is Love” is not infrequently given as a definitive statement of Christian belief. Likewise, in the Harry Potter series, we learn that love is the greatest magic; it is more powerful than Voldemort’s dark skills. It is the magic that protects Harry from his enemies and guarantees his eventual victory. Dumbledore, the surrogate God-the-Father figure in the novels, promotes the idea that love is more powerful than all other magic, something that Voldemort never accepts:

“The old argument,” he said softly. “But nothing I have seen in the world has supported your famous pronouncements that love is more powerful than my kind of magic, Dumbledore.” (Halfblood Prince, 444)

Incidentally, a passage from the book of John concerning love can be used in defense of Harry Potter. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:7-12). In the series, Harry Potter knows love and it is this power that enables him to defeat Voldemort. Therefore, it could be argued that Harry Potter is “born of God and knows God.”

Sacrificial Death and Subsequent Resurrection

There is nothing so crucial to Christian theology, nor so sensitive to criticism, as Jesus’ sacrificial death (which is believed to break the chains of sin and save all humanity) and his subsequent resurrection (the evidence that Jesus is God’s son, savior, and that believers can likewise expect life after death.) Jesus’ physical resurrection is the epicenter of Christian faith. It is revealing that before the last book of Harry Potter was even published, several critics were already forecasting that Harry would face some sort of sacrificial death. Based on the similarities between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ, many bloggers guessed that the 7th novel would have Harry die to save the world:

But perhaps Harry will perform the ultimate sacrifice by defeating Voldemort and dying himself so everyone else will have the chance to live on. We really won’t know until the releases of Half-Blood Prince and Book 7, but it’s still fun to make predictions based on the possible foreshadowing and Biblical symbolism.[li]

His death will be a noble one, it is prophesied in the blogs, a death both sacrificial and necessary to save the world from the satanic Lord Voldemort. I agree with this line. I also expect Harry’s death to show that his character’s path is modeled on the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and, more significantly, that the link between him and wizardry-school headmaster Albus Dumbledore is patterned on the most essential relationship in the Christian Bible – that between Jesus the Son and God the Father.[lii]

As it turns out, the way in which Harry faces his death in Book 7 is more similar to the Passion of Christ than anyone could have guessed. Harry Potter fully realizes that Dumbledore intended him to die at Voldemort’s hand. Such is his love and faith in Dumbledore that Harry goes willingly to his death; hoping by his sacrifice to stop Voldemort and effectively save the world:

Finally, the truth. Lying with his face pressed into the dusty carpet of the office where he had once thought he was learning the secrets of victory, Harry understood at last that he was not supposed to survive. His job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms. Along the way, he was to dispose of Voldemort’s remaining links to life, so that when at last he flung himself across Voldemort’s path, and did not raise a wand to defend himself, the end would be clean, and the job that ought to have been done in Godric’s Hollow would be finished: neither would live, neither could survive. (Deathly Hallows, 554)

The exact nature of Christ’s resurrection is likewise a hotly contested topic – and has been throughout the history of the Church. A central tenet of Christian faith is that the term “resurrection” means the physical, bodily re-animation of a fully deceased human body. As such, the Christian tradition is unique in claiming that Jesus Christ was actually raised, in bodily form, from the dead. Any other accounts of figures dying and re-appearing differ substantially, it is argued, because they were only mythological or symbolic. The same criticism will of course be used against claims that Harry Potter resurrected. And perhaps he did not, strictly speaking. However, Book 7 includes all of the right literary requirements to designate Harry Potter as a dying and resurrecting savior of the type that has been celebrated in various traditions for thousands of years. How we interpret the differences between Jesus’ death and Harry’s cannot mask the underlying similarities.

Harry went willingly to his death, gave no resistance, and was hit by a killing curse. It was the intent of his self-sacrifice that sealed his victory over evil. He found himself in a heaven of sorts (significantly it was “King’s Cross” station) where he was able to talk to his deceased friend and guide, Dumbledore:

“But I should have died – I didn’t defend myself! I meant to let him kill me!”

“And that,” said Dumbledore, “Will, I think, have made all the difference.” (Deathly Hallows 567)

Dumbledore told him, that if he so chose, Harry would ‘go on’ to other things, leaving his body behind.

“I’ve got to go back, haven’t I?”

“That is up to you. ”

“I’ve got a choice? ”

“Oh yes.” Dumbledore smiled at him. “We are in King’s Cross, you say? I think that if you decided not to go back, you would be able to… let’s say… board a train.”

“And where would that take me?”

“On,” said Dumbledore simply. (Deathly Hallows 567)

We must assume that if Harry had “boarded a train,” then his physical body would never reanimate and he would be truly dead. He chose, instead, to go back and try and defeat Voldemort once and for all.

Harry was subjected to humiliation by his enemies, as Voldemort (believing Harry to be dead) celebrated his triumph by performing the “Cruciatus Curse” on Harry’s body (582). He was believed dead by all of his followers and friends, who wept for him. His body was carried in a procession by Hagrid, and displayed as a symbol of Voldemort’s triumph. Briefly, it seemed that evil had won the battle, but then Harry rose up, fought the final battle and defeated Voldemort forever. More important than the scientific nuances of the word “resurrection” are the literary themes found here: the hero appeared dead and was mourned. His followers are then later surprised that he is not actually dead, and celebrate his return. Such a literary motif would apply equally to both Harry and Jesus.

For those familiar with mythology and able to look in the gospels for universal symbols, themes and motifs rather than strictly literal accounts of history, the connections between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ can go even deeper.

Half-breeds

One common motif in mythology is that of the “half-divine hero.” Stories and folklore from nearly all cultures explain their heroes’ supernatural strength and powers by giving them a unique parentage; usually a mortal mother and an immortal father. The mother is sometimes referred to as a virgin – but this can mean simply that, rather than becoming pregnant through intercourse with a mortal male, the infant is sired through supernatural means. Often these heroes are raised by a human father, who may not even know that his wife secretly bore the child of a god. These figures are sometimes referred to as half gods or Demi-gods. Dionysus, Hercules, Gilgamesh, Perseus and many more heroes are on this list, as well as historical figures like Alexander the Great. Any sufficiently grand personage could be given a higher status through this mythological motif. The divine parentage manifests in special abilities; or, in other versions, figures are given miraculous gifts and special items later by their divine parent.

To take a familiar example, the sorcerer Merlin was son of a mortal woman and a spirit of the air, giving him his magical ability. Jesus was born of a mortal woman and the Holy Spirit (a face of the triune God) and announced by an angel. He was raised by his father Joseph, but knew that he also had a divine father. Incidentally, some critics have argued that Rowling’s boy wizard is indebted mostly to the Merlin myths. Like Jesus and Harry, Merlin was also terrorized by a powerful ruler (named Voltigern) as a baby, due to a prophecy by his astrologers. Although Voltigern and Voldemort sound a little alike, there is no indication that Rowling got her inspiration from the Merlin story – although she may well have.

Rowling’s treatment of the Demi-god motif is innovative. Rather than having a mortal woman for a mother and a divinity or deity for a father, Harry’s mother (Lily) was a “mud-blood,” who came from a mundane, non-magical family, while his father (James) was a warlock, who came from the magical world. Harry, like his enemy Voldemort, is a half-blood: half ordinary and half magical.

Lions and Serpents

Harry Potter is associated with the lion through his placement in Gryffindor, whose symbol is a lion. His enemies are collectively and repeated identified with snakes and serpents: “Draco” Malfoy, placed in “Slytherin,” whose symbol is a snake, and Voldemort with his pet companions Nagini, a giant, venomous, hooded snake that Voldemort makes into a Horcrux, and Salazar Slytherin’s basilisk, which Harry defeats in Book 2.

Jesus is called “The Lion of Judea” and frequently identified as a lion, and Satan’s symbol has always been a serpent – probably because of the snake’s role in the temptation episode of Genesis. If these symbolic representations of good and evil were unique to Harry Potter and the Bible, we would probably conclude that Rowling had done the borrowing; the symbols are just too specific for them to be accidental attributes. However, the lion has been a symbol of divinity, righteousness, courage, and the triumph of good over evil for a very long time – at least a thousand years before the Christian era. Likewise, the snake has long been identified with evil, sin, or philosophically, with time and the cycle of death and rebirth.

A Girl, a Sword, a Snake, and a Flying Hero

A very common motif in mythology, easily recognizable in the second Harry Potter novel and also identifiable, although with more difficulty, in the Bible is the story of a hero with a powerful sword and a magical means of flight that saves a princess or maiden from the captivity of a dragon or sea-monster. Manifestations of this story include, most famously, Perseus on Pegasus the flying horse saving the chained Andromeda from being sacrificed to the sea beast, or the Christian legend of St. George the dragon slayer. It is essentially a battle scene between good and evil, although it has a much deeper esoteric significance.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ron’s sister Ginny is possessed by Tom Riddle (Voldemort’s teenage self) and taken deep into the belly of the caverns under Hogwarts. Harry descends into the underworld to save her, and his faith and bravery is rewarded by a magical sword, which he uses to slay a basilisk and “save the girl.” He then uses Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix capable of bearing many times its own weight, to fly himself and Ginny to safety. The same motif can also be found in the Book of Revelation, where the battle takes place in the heavens between a snake, a mother fleeing from the snake’s venom, and a mighty, armed, winged protector (usually identified as the archangel Michael).

However there is a more symbolic reading as well. Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, defeated his enemy, Satan (always represented as a serpent, as he was in the Garden of Eden). Jesus came to save the Church, the collective body of believers, represented collectively as a feminine entity: “The Holy Mother Church.” Although he may not have wings, he can both walk on water and ascend bodily into heaven. Jesus also had a sword – but it is well hidden in the symbol of the cross. The cross and the sword are actually identical figures, symbolically: (†). It is only the Christian interpretation of that symbol and the emphasis on the death and resurrection, rather than the struggle over the adversary, which makes the distinction. Jesus is often thought of as a pacifist, but he makes it clear that he came “not to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10:34). It is perhaps Christianity’s unique inversion of classical symbolism from the sword of conflict to the cross of non-violence that is responsible for its peaceful reputation. Ironically, the symbol that has come to represent peace in modern times is an inverted cross with broken arms (☮) – although this symbol was actually designed for the Nuclear Disbarment campaign and has no overt religious meaning.

7 Seals, 7 Horcruxes

In the Book of Revelation, the plot revolves around the destruction of the seven seals that bind a sacred scroll. The seven seals must be broken to open this manuscript, which will undo the work of God’s creation and end the world. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll, because he made the sacrifice that saved many people (Rev. 5-6). Similarly, Harry’s quest in Books 6 and 7 is the destruction of seven magical objects that hold a piece of Voldemort’s soul, called “Horcruxes.” All of the Horcruxes must be found and destroyed before Voldemort can be killed.

The symbolism of the number seven, however, predates Christianity and comes from classical cosmology and ancient philosophical traditions. The system of Pythagoras, for example, was very detailed: there were seven known visible planets, and each planet had a certain vibration or sound – which gave rise to the seven notes in an octave (the eighth note being a repetition of the first on a higher scale). Many Greco-Roman religions and spiritual communities believed that to get from this place (earth) to heaven (the source), you had to travel back through the seven planets or heavens.

The similarities in this case are most likely due to Rowling’s interest in alchemy (which has preserved classical symbolism, cosmology and thought more accurately than the Bible) rather than any Christian-based inspiration. In a 1998 interview, Rowling remarked:

I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ logic.[liii]

According to the website Harry Potter for Seekers, which aims to “discover the many layers of spiritual symbolism hidden beneath the excitement, mystery and fascination of Harry Potter,”[liv] Rowling even consciously crafted the titles and order of the seven books along alchemical guidelines.[lv]

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Earth
Air
Water
Fire
Quintessence
Soul
Spirit
STONE
CHAMBER
AZKABAN (island)
FIRE
PHOENIX
BLOOD
HALLOW (Holy)

We might wonder whether C.S. Lewis had a similar inspiration for the organization of the seven books of his Narnia series, which ended in The Last Battle.

Is Harry Potter a Christ-Figure?

Although Rowling is obviously aware of the parallels between Jesus and Harry, it is difficult to claim that Harry is only a modern retelling of the story of Jesus Christ. Rowling not only borrows from a wide range of mythological and literary motifs, she also creates innovative characters, plot events and magical items. Hence the claim that Harry Potter is a Christ-Figure – although it can be made – is problematic.

A “Christ-Figure” is simply a literary referent used to identify a fictional character that seems to symbolize Jesus Christ in a significant way, such as through the endurance of suffering, a sacrificial death, or a (perceived) rebirth or resurrection. Many literary figures have been called Christ-figures by various researchers, including Ahab of Moby Dick, Gandalf or Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings, Galahad in the Grail Quest, and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex has even been called a Christ-figure, although his story was written centuries before Christianity. Killinger gives this brief overview on an online discussion about Harry Potter’s relationship with Jesus Christ:

A Christ figure is a literary device, a particular way of shaping an important character in a novel. He (or she) may not conform in every instance to the biblical image of Jesus, but bears enough of the traits or characteristics to suggest the relationship and send us looking for important messages in the text.[lvi]

The following are a few credible criteria for potential Christ-figures:

  • Comes from an extraordinary origin
  • Possesses a “secret identity” and dual nature
  • Displays a distinctive appearance
  • Exhibits extraordinary powers
  • Generates awe and wonder
  • Gathers and leads disciples
  • Saves others
  • Suffers a sacrificial death
  • Descends into “hell”
  • Rises from the dead

Harry Potter certainly meets most, if not all, of these factors. His “descent into hell” occurs during Book One. To get into the Chamber of Secrets, Harry first had to pass the three-headed dog that guards the door. In classical mythology, Cerberus, the three headed dog, guards the gates of Hell. Defeating this monster was one of the twelve feats of Heracles. As we mentioned earlier, “rising from the dead” is open to interpretation.

Given the similarities between Jesus Christ and Harry Potter, it is no surprise that Harry Potter was identified as a Christ-figure by some writers even before the final book was released:

Harry Potter . . . is a witting or unwitting Christ figure who actually battles the forces of darkness for the souls of the faithful and wins a place in readers’ hearts because he so admirably conforms to our expectations of such a redemptive figure.[lvii]

Other readers have been strongly opposed to this identification. In November of 2002, Beliefnet.com hosted an online debate on the topic, “Harry Potter, Christ Figure? Professional Harry watchers on whether J.K. Rowling’s hero is meant to resemble Christ.” Although the debate ran when only four books of the series were available, the opinions given are worth revisiting. Professor Thomas L. Martin, from Florida Atlantic University writes,

Leaving aside Harry’s “Christlikeness” for the moment, Harry Potter does conform to what (mythologist Joseph) Campbell would call the pattern of the mythic hero. Potter is marked at birth for something special, prophecies foretell the high destiny he faces, the various mentors and rivals he encounters along the way, and then, of course, the ultimate showdown with evil. These characteristics not only link him to Christ – in Campbell’s system – but also Cinderella, Odysseus, Buddha, and other heroes of other times and places.[lviii]

Professor Andrew Blake of King Alfred’s College, Winchester (UK) agrees: “My first responses to Harry Potter were that he is being written (and remember, he hasn’t yet been fully written) as a redeemer. So far, so Christ-like.”[lix]

Richard Abanes on the other hand, author of Fantasy and Your Family, argues “at best, Rowling’s novels are terribly derivative of age-old myths, legends, and stories. In fact, she habitually borrows from older (and better told, I might add) tales to flesh out her stories. Rowling’s work is really nothing but a long string of mini-derivations dressed up in 21st century garb.”[lx] Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, contributes to the conversation by expanding this idea:

Of all the irritating literary games people play, Find-the-Jesus is one of the most wearying to me. Not every book has Christ symbolism. Let it go. People use stairs. People suffer. People have fathers. People make noble sacrifices. And, in fantastic stories, people come back from the dead. Odin did it. Osiris did it. Sherlock Holmes did it. Buffy did it. Spock did it. Hell… Voldemort died and came back. It takes more than that to make a Christ figure. You want good Jesus symbolism in a fantasy story? Go to Aslan in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a Christ figure for you. Harry is, at best, just following a standard sacrificial hero archetype. It’s a storyline that was old before Jesus was born.[lxi]

Remarkably, both sides of the above argument rely on the same evidence to support their claims. On the one hand, those who don’t see Harry as a Christ figure argue that any apparent similarities are in fact common in mythology and literature, and J.K. Rowling was simply throwing together ancient mythological symbols that have nothing to do with Jesus – because the story was “old before Jesus was born.” Those who do see Harry as a Christ figure, on the other hand, also see Harry as a mythological composite, but in their view, this connects him to Jesus Christ, who is also in some way related to mythological tradition.

In other words, everybody agrees that Harry Potter and Jesus Christ have a lot in common but disagree about how important these similarities are or where they came from. In fact the determining factor has very little to do with Harry Potter, and everything to do with the reader’s understanding of Jesus Christ. Is Jesus absolutely unique in history, divorced from common universal mythological traditions, making all apparent similarities therefore unbinding or irrelevant? Or is he related to those mythologies, either as founder, or product?

Of course today, in light of Rowling’s own admissions on the subject and the parallels in the seventh book that have led even Christians to accept Harry as one of their own, the voices denying the similarities between Jesus and Harry have lessened. And yet the most spine-tingling question has so far been ignored: Why do these similarities exist at all? Although it is easy to accept that Rowling crafted the literary character of Harry Potter after the figure of Jesus, shouldn’t it pique our interest that Jesus – a monumental figure in modern world religion generally believed to have been historical– has so much in common with the obviously fictional fantasy world and character of Harry Potter?

Now that we’ve seen the similarities between them, can we spot the differences? The main distinction, it will be argued, is that Jesus Christ is real: Jesus has traditionally been viewed as a historical figure, while Harry is instantly recognized as fiction. But does this distinction apply to the many seemingly mythical elements in the gospels? Can Jesus’ miracles be separated from Harry’s magic tricks because they really happened – or will we allow that certain features of the gospels were exaggerated or intended to be literary. And if so, where do we stop? What protects Jesus from the claim that he is, like Harry, a fictional character?

Perhaps the real question we need to ask is not whether Harry Potter is a “Christ Figure” (similar to a historical religious savior), but rather whether Jesus Christ is a “Potter Figure” (a composition of redemptive mythological symbols and philosophies). The remainder of this book will aim at exploring this issue.

Conclusions and Summary

Similarities between Jesus Christ, Harry Potter, and countless other figures do exist; but Jesus Christ is the only figure whose followers have faith that his life and acts (including the nature-defying miracles) have a historical basis.

As long as the biblical account of Jesus is assumed to be historically valid, any apparent connection with mythology (including the modern re-writing of mythology that is Harry Potter) can be automatically discounted. However, if we can present evidence that destabilizes the claim that the Bible records historical events, the boundaries between Harry Potter and Jesus become very thin.

Critics argue that Harry Potter is only borrowing from universal mythological symbols, but if this is true, can Jesus be accused of the same? Could the similarities between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ have resulted from Christianity’s inclusion of mythological motifs, rather than Harry Potter’s inclusion of biblical ones?

In recent decades, every attempt to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is a literary figure, or that most of his deeds in the Bible are adaptations of pre-existing traditions, has been so strongly repudiated by conservative scholars that any claim to that effect is automatically discredited. As we will see in the next chapter, however, the charge that the life of Jesus has too much in common with pagan gods and mythological traditions has been leveled against Christianity repeatedly and consistently, all the way back to the very earliest periods of the church.

Just how much of the gospel accounts of Jesus are based on pre-existing mythology?  Can we find the historical founder of Christianity by removing the mythology from around him? Is there reliable evidence that Jesus Christ was a historical person? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in the next chapter.


Notes

[i] www.jkrowling.com, biography

[ii]Stephen King,“J.K. Rowling’s Ministry of Magic,”Entertainment Weekly, August 10,  2007,http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20050689,00.html, emphasis in the original.

[iii] Tracy Douglas, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Colonialism,” in Phoenix Rising: Collected Papers on “Harry Potter,” 17–21 May 2007, ed. Sharon K. Goetz(Sedalia, Colorado: Narrate Conferences, 2008), 280–92.

[iv] Gwen A. Tarbox, “J. K. Rowling’s Narrative Turn: Harry Potter and ‘The War on Terror’” (paper, Phoenix Rising, New Orleans, LA, May 17–21, 2007).

[v] Nancee Lee-Allan, “Understanding Prejudice Utilizing the Harry Potter Series,” in Goetz, Phoenix Rising, 350–54.

[vi] Tricia Sindel-Arrington, “Gothic Harry: Connecting to Teens’ Self-Discovery Journeys”(paper, Phoenix Rising, New Orleans, LA, May 17–21, 2007).

[vii]Janet Neilson, “World Influences on Harry Potter from Asiatic Anti-Venoms to Zombies”(paper, Phoenix Rising, New Orleans, LA, May 17–21, 2007).

[viii]Quotedin Jaime Bates,“‘Hogwarts Professor’ to Lecture on Harry Potter and the Christian Faith,” Baylor University, news release, September 18, 2008, accessed January 9, 2011,http://www.baylor.edu/pr/news.php?action=story&story=52844.

[ix]Cynthia Whitney Hallett,Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen, 2005).

[x]Cited by M. O. Grenby, review ofScholarly Studies in Harry Potter,by C.H. Hallett, Amazon web page, accessed January 9, 2011, http://www.amazon.com/Scholarly-Studies-Harry-Potter-Literature/dp/0773460101.

[xi] Guy Dammann,“Harry Potter Breaks 400m in Sales,”The Guardian, June 18, 2008,http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jun/18/harrypotter.news.

[xii] Jonathan Zimmerman, “Harry Potter and His Censors,” Education Week, August 2, 2000, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2000/08/02/43zimmer.h19.html?qs=august+2+2000+harry+potter.

[xiii] “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children,” The Onion,July 26, 2000, http://www.theonion.com/articles/harry-potter-books-spark-rise-in-satanism-among-ch,2413/.

[xiv] As seen on CNN.com and BBC.com news.

[xv]Domenic Marando, “Harry Potter: The Warnings,” Everyday For Life Canada: A Blog on Canadian Life, Family and Cultural Issues, October 28, 2010, http://everydayforlifecanada.blogspot.com/2010/10/harry-potter-warnings.html.

[xvi] Robert S. McGee and Caryl Matrisciana, Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged; Making Evil Look Innocent (Menifee, CA: Jeremiah Films and Caryl Productions, 2001).

[xvii]“Emergency JESUS YOUTH Memo Regarding Release of Half-Blood Prince—July 2009,”The Landrover Baptist Church,accessed January 9, 2011, http://www.landoverbaptist.org/news1199/potter.html.

[xviii]Domenic Marando,“Harry Potter, the Occult Controversy,”Everyday For Life Canada, October 24, 2010, http://everydayforlifecanada.blogspot.com/2010/10/harry-potter-occult-controversy.html.

[xix] Judy Blume, “Is Harry Potter Evil?” Op-Ed, New York Times, Oct 22, 1999, http://www.judyblume.com/censorship/potter.php.

[xx] Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2001), 88. The emphasis is original.

[xxi] Michael D. O’Brien, preface to Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture (Rzeszow, Poland: Fides et Traditio, 2010); February 10, 2010, http://www.studiobrien.com/writings_on_fantasy/preface-to-harry-potter.html.

[xxii]Alison Lentini, “Harry Potter: Occult Cosmology and the Corrupted Imagination,” quoted inConnie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do, 24.

[xxiii] Alan Jacobs, “Harry Potter’s Magic,” quoted in Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do, 22.

[xxiv]Jon Watkins, “Harry Potter, a New Twist to Witchcraft,” Exposing Satanism,accessed April 11, 2009, http://www.exposingsatanism.org/harrypotter.htm.

[xxv] Richard Abanes, quoted in John Killinger, God, The Devil, and Harry Potter: A Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), 3.

[xxvi] Linda Beam, quoted inConnie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do, 165.

[xxvii] Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do, 172-173.

[xxviii]“Editorial: Why We Like Harry Potter,” Christianity Today, January 10, 2000, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/january10/29.37.html.

[xxix] John Killinger, God, The Devil, and Harry Potter, 11.

[xxx] Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do, 119.

[xxxi] Quoted in Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do,121.

[xxxii]Chuck Colson, “Witches and Wizards: The Harry Potter Phenomenon,” quoted in Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do, 16.

[xxxiii]Connie Neal, What’s a Christian to Do, 176.

[xxxiv]John Killinger, God, The Devil, and Harry Potter, 50.

[xxxv]John Killinger, God, The Devil, and Harry Potter, 11.

[xxxvi]John Killinger, God, The Devil, and Harry Potter, 35.

[xxxvii]Trudy Ardizzone, “Wizards and Wonders: Introduction and Sample Session,” accessed December 28, 2010, http://leaderresources.org/downloads/A-All_Samples/Wizards_and_Wonders.pdf.

[xxxviii]Quoted in Michael Paulson,“Harry Potter and the Admiring Faithful,” Opinion, Sunday  Commentary, Dallas Morning News, August 28, 2009, http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/points/stories/DN-paulson_30edi.State.Edition1.2385323.html.

[xxxix]The article by Michael Paulson is available for purchase at http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/16/how_the_boy_wizard_won_over_religious_critics/?page=full. A version of the article can be viewed at the Dallas News website in the preceding note.

[xl]Mary E. Hess, “Resisting the Human Need for Enemies, or What Would Harry Potter Do?” Word and World: Theology for Christian Ministry 28/1 (2008) 47-56; quoted by Michael Paulson in the Dallas Morning News article noted above.

[xli]Greg Garrett, One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2010).

[xlii]Jana Riess, “Harry Potter, Christian Hallows, and C.S. Lewis: A Q&A with Greg Garrett,” Flunking Sainthood, October 6, 2010, http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2010/10/harry-potter-christian-hallows-and-cs-lewis-a-qa-with-greg-garrett.html.

[xliii]Ernest Tucker, “No End in Sight for Pottermania,”Chicago Sun-Times, October 22, 1999, http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/1099-chictimes-tucker.html.

[xliv]Max Wyman, “‘You Can Lead a Fool to a Book But You Can’t Make Them Think’: Author Has Frank Words for the Religious Right,”Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), October 26, 2000,http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/1000-vancouversun-wyman.htm.

[xlv]Abigail BeauSeigneur, “Is Harry Potter the Son of God?”July 13, 2007, http://www.mugglenet.com/editorials/editorials/edit-beauseigneura01.shtml.

[xlvi]J.K. Rowling, interview, TodayShow/Dateline NBC,NBC, July 29, 2007, http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/books/postdh.

[xlvii]Auslan Cramb, “Harry Potter is ‘Christ-like’ Claims Theologian,”Telegraph, October 24, 2010,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/harry-potter/8083870/Harry-Potter-is-Christ-like-claims-theologian.html.

[xlviii]Celsus,On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against Christians(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen161.html.

[xlix]TheAnte-Nicene Fathers, Volume VIII, Pseudo-Clementine Literature, The Clementine Homilies, Homily II, Ch. XXXII, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ante-Nicene_Fathers/Volume_VIII/Pseudo-Clementine_Literature/The_Clementine_Homilies/Homily_II/Chapter_32.

[l]Homily II, Ch. XXV, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ante-Nicene_Fathers/Volume_VIII/Pseudo-Clementine_Literature/The_Clementine_Homilies/Homily_II/Chapter_25.

[li] Amanda, “Biblical Symbolism in the World of Harry Potter,” November 24, 2004, http://www.mugglenet.com/editorials/editorials/edit-amandah01.shtml.

[lii]Jeff Diamant, “The Gospel According to Rowling,” Star, July 14 2007, http://www.thestar.com/Religion/article/235813.

[liii]Quoted in Hans Andréa,“Exploring the Spiritual Foundation of Harry Potter,”Harry Potter for Seekers,accessed November 4, 2009, http://harrypotterforseekers.com/alchemy/alchemy.php

[liv]Hans Andréa, http://harrypotterforseekers.com/index.php.

[lv]Hans Andréa, “Alchemy,” accessed January 11, 2011, http://www.harrypotterforseekers.com/alchemy/alchemy.php.

[lvi] John Killinger in “Harry Potter, Christ Figure?” a discussion, accessed January 11, 2011,http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Books/2002/11/Harry-Potter-Christ-Figure.aspx.

[lvii]John Killinger,God, The Devil, and Harry Potter, 14.

[lviii]Thomas L. Martin in “Harry Potter, Christ Figure?” a discussion, accessed January 11, 2011, http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Books/2002/11/Harry-Potter-Christ-Figure.aspx.

[lix]Andrew Blake in “Harry Potter, Christ Figure?”

[lx]Richard Abanes in “Harry Potter, Christ Figure?”

[lxi]Patrick Rothfuss in “Harry Potter, Christ Figure?”

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