Archive for September, 2016

Ehrman Errs: Yes, Bart, There Were Dying & Rising Gods

Posted in Uncategorized on September 6, 2016 by Derreck Bennett

 


The Pursu
it of Truth

On October 21st in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leading New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, will be debating Robert M. Price on the historicity of Jesus. Ehrman made quite a splash back in 2012 when he published Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which he decried, and arguably slandered, those who doubt the historical existence of Jesus, aka ‘mythicists.’ According to Ehrman, mythicists are simply anti-religious zealots, whose agenda to remove Jesus from history is driven by the desire to destroy religion. He chalks up the vast majority of those in the mythicist camp as mere Internet junkies, sensationalists, and hacks, who have no familiarity with either historical method or the ancient sources. Well, none of this is true of Bob Price, who remains friendly with evangelicals, and whose knowledge of biblical history is second to none. It isn’t true of the majority of mythicists whose work I’ve read, and it certainly isn’t true of me.

When it comes to the motivation behind those in the atheist movement at large, I think Dan Barker said it best:

What unites [many nonbelievers] is not revenge for having been victimized by the deceptions of religion, but a burning desire for actual facts. If we doubters do have a psychological motivation, perhaps it is the mental hunger, the intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge. [1]

That is what drives me, and the same motivation is at work when assessing the historicity of Jesus. To begin with, removing Jesus from the face of history is hardly necessary in order to refute Christianity. It’s enough to demonstrate the myriad, scriptural contradictions and absurdities, lack of evidence for various historical claims, etc. One can simply assume that there was a historical Jesus, and make the case that the miraculous feats attributed to him are unsubstantiated by the historical record, that his story was embellished like so many other ancient figures–Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great, Apollonius of Tyana, etc. There simply is no need to make Jesus vanish from history in order to vindicate atheism. But that, for me, isn’t the end goal, anyway. The end goal for me, and for many nonbelievers, is the pursuit of truth. More and more, I find myself in agreement with the mythicists. Not because I want to eradicate religion, but because I think they’re right.

Pursuit of Truth


Ehrman, Interrupted: The Risen Osiris

One of the key points in this debate is whether Jesus was modeled after a dying and rising god archetype. This is the contention of most mythicists, including Dr. Price, and it is the point that I wish to address here. Such an archetype, in and of itself, does not preclude the historical existence of Jesus. It’s possible that Jesus did exist, and that he was simply deified in accordance with this mythic template. Mythicism, naturally, entails many more factors for consideration, but this is one of the most important. According to Bart Ehrman, however, mythicists are fooling themselves on this point. The following video features Ehrman’s “rebuttal” of Dr. Price, et al., on the matter.

I will now tackle each of Ehrman’s points, one by one. His arguments are, to use his own words, “problematic up and down the line.” Beginning with the preeminent dying and rising god of ancient Egypt, Osiris:

All you have to do is read the ancient sources on Osiris. The most famous one is Plutarch, who has a very lengthy essay on Isis and Osiris … It’s true that Osiris gets killed. What is not true is that he gets raised from the dead. He doesn’t get raised from the dead! When Jesus gets raised from the dead, his body comes back to life and he comes out of the tomb and he ascends to heaven. Osiris stayed dead. His body was entombed, and there were various places, according to Plutarch, where different people, different locales, argued that his body was entombed, and they built shrines to this dead body. The body stayed dead. Now Osiris himself, his soul, lived on in the underworld. He became the king of the underworld. But his body did not come back to life. So he wasn’t resurrected from the dead. His body stayed dead. That’s very different from the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, which is that Jesus’ body came back from the dead.

I have read the ancient sources on Osiris. While the 2nd century historian, Plutarch, may be our principal source on the story, he is far from being our only source. Consider the following texts:

Osiris! look! Osiris! listen! Arise! Live again! (Pyr. 258 ff.)

Osiris! thou wert gone, but thou hast returned; thou didst sleep, but thou hast been awakened; thou didst die, but thou livest again! (Pyr. 1004 ff.)

The ancient Egyptian sources are quite clear: Osiris died, but he has risen, and he lives again. Plutarch, equally, speaks of Osiris’ “revivification and regenesis,” though it is possible that, as a Middle Platonist, Plutarch regarded this as a spiritual resurrection, only. Among the philosophers and the elite in the Greco-Roman world, a disembodied soul was the preferred state of immortality. But this was not the common view in antiquity, much less of the ancient Egyptians. As comparative religion scholar S.G.F. Brandon relates, Osiris’ resurrection was “conceived of in completely materialistic terms, involving the use of a reconstituted physical body.” [2] The pyramidal texts reveal an emphasis on the corporeal reconstitution of the god, confirming Brandon’s claim:

“I have come to thee…that I may revivify thee, that I may assemble for thee thy bones, that I may collect for thee thy flesh, that I may assemble for thee thy dismembered limbs, for I am as Horus his avenger, I have smitten for thee him who smote thee…raise thyself up, king, Osiris; thou livest!” (1684a-1685a and 1700 = Utterance 606; cf. also 670)

“Osiris, collect thy bones; arrange thy limbs; shake off thy dust; untie thy bandages; the tomb is open for thee; the double doors of the coffin are undone for thee; the double doors of heaven are open for thee…thy soul is in thy body…raise thyself up!” (207b-209a and 2010b-2011a = Utterance 676)

The Resurrection of Osiris (Philae, 2nd-3rd C. BCE)

The Resurrection of Osiris (Philae, 2nd-3rd C. BCE)

It is true that Plutarch mentions tombs of Osiris, and we find the existence of such tombs in ancient Egypt, as well. What this demonstrates is a diversity of ideas within ancient religious and philosophical traditions. For some, Osiris’s body remained entombed. For others, as the sources above illustrate, he physically rose form the dead. Such diversity was prominent also in early Christianity, as Bart Ehrman can certainly attest. Docetist Christians, for example, never conceived of a dying and rising Christ; he could not be put to death in the flesh, as he was a spiritual, not a physical, entity. Christianity had no uniformity until Catholic orthodoxy prevailed in the 4th century, stomping out and labeling all other views as “heresy.” Such diversity of ideas can still be gleaned, however, within the canon of the New Testament (just pit Paul against Matthew on whether the Mosaic Law still applies, etc.), and persists, even to this day, in the multitude of Christian denominations throughout the world.

Now, let’s circle back to something that Ehrman said earlier in the podcast:

I would like Bob to give a single reference from any Jew living anywhere within 200 years of Jesus who mentions the Osiris myth.

Ehrman wishes to establish that Jews from around the era would have had no familiarity with Osiris, much less dying and rising gods. But that is incredibly unlikely. Osiris had long been known in Palestine. Archaeological excavations reveal his presence there, and even scripture alludes to knowledge of him, e.g., the resurrection imagery of bones rejoining in Ezekiel 37, Psalm 78’s narrative parallels with an early Hymn to Osiris, etc. [3] [4] No surprise there, given that Egypt ruled Canaan from as far back as 3,000 BCE.

Early Christianity’s major centers of growth and development were in places like Alexandria and Antioch, home to Hellenized, Greek-speaking Jews who would’ve been all too familiar with Greco-Roman and Egyptian myths. Many of them may have embraced such myths, as 2 Maccabees informs us of “an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways” (4:13). Ehrman is essentially foisting an argument from ignorance. We don’t need explicit mention of Osiris by any Jew from the period in order to be reasonably certain that his myth was known to them.

Egyptian Funerary Stelae from Palestine

Egyptian Funerary Stelae from Palestine (Osiris at bottom)

Bart Ehrman’s attempt to minimize the relevance of the Osiris myth seems especially dubious in the face of what I consider to be the most salient point on the matter: Soteriology. What is eerily similar between Osiris and Christ is what their resurrections achieve for their devotees. In both cases, the resurrection of the godman is the conduit through which mortal men can conquer death and live eternally. [5] As Christ was raised, so too are Christians. As Osiris was raised, so too are his followers. By ritual identification with the risen god, one can be spiritually renewed, walking in newness of life (Met. 11.21-23; cf. Ro. 6:3-5). Both Jesus and Osiris ascend to heaven, where they take up their throne as Ruler and Judge. Both offer their body and blood in the sacrament of bread and wine. [6] [7] The similarities, in terms of theological function, are so staggering, they can only be the product of cultural diffusion and religious syncretism.

Jesus & Osiris Enthroned

Jesus & Osiris Enthroned

Ehrman continues by adamantly denying any “common motif in pagan religions of a god who dies and gets raised from the dead.”

We don’t have evidence that pagans believed in a dying and rising god at all … with respect to the pagan myths, there simply is no plausible parallel to the idea of a divine being who dies and is raised bodily, physically, from the dead. You just don’t have any instances of dying and rising gods. This idea of a dying and rising god started being made popular … in the early 20th century … More recent scholarship over the last twenty years has shown that in fact that’s bogus, that in fact there are not instances of this. And if you actually press a mythicist to give you an example, they give you examples like Bob Price just gave of Osiris, which is definitely not a case of somebody being raised from the dead.

Osiris we’ve just covered, and the ancient sources most certainly convey a bodily resurrection from the dead, with salvific significance like that of Christ’s, to boot. Before we launch into a survey of other notable dying and rising gods, let’s look first at the earliest depiction of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. In Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, M. David Litwa explains:

…in early Christian texts we read that after Jesus’ death, God “highy exalted” him (Phil. 2:8-9), and seated him “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20) at the “right hand of God” (1 Pet. 3:21-22). In his monograph on Jesus’ ascent, A.W. Zwiep comments that “the general conviction in the earliest Christian preaching” is that “as of the day of his resurrection Jesus was in heaven, seated at the right hand of God.” This is assumed, notably, in Luke 23:43, where Jesus says to the thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Indeed, says Zwiep, resurrection and exaltation were regarded as two sides of the same coin; resurrection meant “resurrection to heaven.” [8]

The earliest New Testament texts make Jesus’ resurrection and ascension a synonymous event. Christian apologists attempt to counter this by appealing to the list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, though critical scholars have shown that the appearances most likely represent visionary experiences of the heavenly Christ, like that of Paul’s, not an earthly sojourn. [9] There doesn’t appear to be any tradition of Jesus walking the earth after his resurrection until decades later, beginning with the Gospel of Mark. Prior to that, however, Jesus was raised to heaven, and “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection” (Ro. 1:4). As Paul has it, Jesus achieved divine status upon his resurrection/ascension–what scholars refer to as an apotheosis (to become a god). According to ancient sources, the same was believed of several other, notable figures. If the earliest depiction of Christ’s bodily exaltation to heaven qualifies as a resurrection, then so do theirs.


Asclepius, Heracles, and Romulus

The Greek physician Asclepius healed the lame, the blind, and the paralytic, and raised the dead (First Apology, 22:6). Zeus struck Asclepius down for bringing forth too many resurrectees, but later raised him from the dead to become an immortal god (Autol. 1.13; Dial. Mort. 13.1).

The second-century Christian apologist Theophilus of Antioch affirms that Asclepius “was raised” [using the same Greek word as that used] for the resurrection of Jesus in Matt. 16:21; Mark 14:28; Luke 24:6 [etc.] … Out of mercy, says Lucian, Zeus raised Asclepius not just to a normal human life, but made him participate in immortality … Justin Martyr apparently understands Asclepius’ resurrection to involve a simultaneous ascent to heaven… [10]

The Rod of Asclepius is, to this day, a universal symbol of medicine and healthcare.

The Rod of Asclepius is, to this day, a universal symbol of medicine and healthcare.

 

Heracles (variously known as Hercules) suffered and died upon a funerary pyre, after which he was bodily raised to heaven, leaving not a trace of his mortal remains behind. In the 1st century play Hercules Oetaeus, Hercules appears to his weeping mother Alcmene following his death and apotheosis. He tells her to refrain from mourning, that he has been “granted [his] place in heaven” among the gods (1940-43; cf. John 20:11-15).

A series of Attic and Apulian vases appearing from about 420 BCE show Heracles being bodily carried away to Olympus from his pyre … That Heracles was actually bodily removed from his pyre is also suggested by Diodorus of Sicily, who has Heracles’ companions search for the bones of the hero after his cremation–to no avail (Bibl. Hist. 4.38.5). Heracles’ body is gone, because it has ascended to the divine realm, leaving no remainder (cf. Jesus’ empty tomb). [11]

The Ascension of Heracles

The Ascension of Heracles

 

After Romulus, first king of Rome, was raised from the dead to become the god Quirinus, he appeared before Proculus to deliver a great commission: “Go, and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Livy, Hist. 1.16.2-8; cf. Mt. 28:16-20).

Romulus departed from this mortal life and was transformed into an immortal, transcendent being. His metamorphosis was simultaneously an ascent to heaven … Ancient authors agree … that Romulus’ body did disappear. The mortal remains, for those who believed in his ascent, were taken up and transformed for celestial life. On this point, Tertullian explicitly compares Romulus and Jesus: both were “encompassed with a cloud and taken up to heaven” (Apol. 21.23; cf. Acts 1:9-11). For Tertullian’s comparison to work, Romulus must have been taken up bodily, like Jesus. [12]

Romulus, Legendary Founder of Rome

Romulus, Legendary Founder of Rome

 

 The Mystery Religions: Dionysus, Attis, and Adonis

The mystery cults were originally agricultural faiths whose dying and rising gods symbolized the death and rebirth of croplife–thus the spring celebrations of popular gods like Attis. Over time, man came to believe that performing certain rituals of initiation could mystically unite him with the fate of the risen god, effecting for him a spiritual rebirth in this life, and, ultimately, a blessed existence in the next. This mystical concept is featured in such passages as Rom. 6:3-5 and Col. 2:12, in which baptismal initiation of the Christian neophyte brings about his metaphorical death and resurrection to new life in Christ, with the implication that he will share literally in the gift of eternal life to come. The roots of this salvation scheme may lie in the ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris. As esoteric studies expert Arthur Versluis notes, Greeks and Romans regarded ancient Egypt as a land of great power and mystique, and scholars “have shown conclusively the links between Egyptian traditions and the Greco-Roman Mystery and magical traditions.” [13]

Dionysus was the central figure of both the Dionysian and Orhic mysteries. He was the Greek god of theater, fertility, and wine, and was believed to be the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele. The Epicurean, Philodemus, records that “after his dismemberment by the Titans, Rhea gathered together his limbs and he came to life again” (On Piety 44). Similarly, Diodorus of Sicily relates, “his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time” (Libr. Hist. 3.62.6). Plutarch explicitly identifies Dionysus with Osiris, stating, “the tales regarding the Titans and the rites celebrated by night agree with the accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis” (Is. Os. 35.364).

Dionysus: God of Wine, Fertility, and Rebirth

Dionysus: God of Wine, Fertility, and Rebirth

 

Attis was a Phrygian god whose jealous consort, Cybele, drove him to madness, leading him to castrate himself and bleed to death under a pine tree. Plagued with regret, Cybele invoked Zeus to have his body preserved, never to rot or decay. At some point in the legacy of Attis’ myth, the mere preservation of his body morphed into a full-blown resurrection, leading to a “Passion Week” by the 1st century CE under the reign of Caesar Claudius. [14] Author G.A. Wells discusses the evidence brought to bear by Maarten J. Vermaseren in his seminal work, Attis and Cybele: The Myth and the Cult.

Attis died emasculating himself under a tree; but ancient art includes ‘scenes of the emasculated Attis dancing,’ indicating his resurrection. The oldest evidence is a Hellenistic Greek vase depicting ‘the dancing Attis hilaris … from the 4th century BC.’ Vermaseren also instances two later statues from Ostia which point to the god’s periodic resurrection. One (from Roman Imperial times) shows ‘another young Attis standing ready to replace the dying one.’ The other statue (dedicated in the second century AD) depicts the ‘lying and triumphant Attis, his entire figure indicating the resurrection which is also shown by the decoration of various kinds of flowers and plants.’ [15]

The Risen Attis (1st C. BCE)

The Risen Attis (1st C. BCE)

 

Adonis is believed to be the Greek counterpart of the Babylonian Tammuz–a name that graces one full month of the Jewish calendar. Though widely known as a god of beauty and desire, he also belongs to the category of dying and rising gods, as he too was associated with seasonal worship and fertility. Ritual mourning and lamentation accompanied the death of the god; though, like Tammuz, he would triumphantly rise again. [16]

They say, at any rate, that the deed that was done to Adon by the boar [i.e. the death of the God] occurred in their land, and in memory of that misfortune every year they beat their breasts and mourn and perform the ceremonies, making solemn lamentations throughout the country. And when the breast-beating and weeping is at end, first they make offerings to Adonis as if to a dead person; and then, on the next day, they proclaim that he is alive and fetch him forth into the air…  (Lucian, Syr. God., Ch. 6)

Women bemoaning the slain Adonis

Women bewailing the slain Adonis

 

Conclusion

Bart Ehrman is a top-notch New Testament scholar and textual critic. There is no denying either his brilliance or his contribution to the field of New Testament studies. However, in assessing the claims of mythicists, and scholars of comparative religion in general, he seems to have stepped well outside of his area of expertise. Despite Ehrman’s adamant claims to the contrary, there were dying and rising gods, as well as mythic figures like Romulus and Asclepius who were divinized upon their resurrection, like Jesus in the earliest New Testament texts. They rose physically, not merely spiritually, leaving not a trace of their bodies behind. Osiris is certainly to be counted among them, as ancient Egyptian texts and relevant scholarship make abundantly clear. And the scholarship on these matters is not outdated; Litwa’s work in Iesus Deus, for instance, was published a mere few years ago.

Bart Ehrman writes and lectures about the diversity within early Christianity, in such works as Lost Christianities and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. He knows, as well as anyone, that emerging orthodoxy supplanted and effaced all other opposing views. In a strange twist of irony, Ehrman himself has become the champion of The New Orthodoxy within New Testament scholarship, railing against any views that aren’t represented by “mainstream, biblical scholarship.” But mainstream, biblical scholarship still lies on the conservative end of the spectrum for a reason: Because evangelical Christianity still exerts a mighty influence within the halls of academia. And, there, the fashionable opinions of mainstream scholars matter more than what the ancient sources themselves have to say. True discovery must recede behind the dominating shadow of the status quo. This is why independent scholars like Robert Price, Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, etc. are the true heroes. They don’t give a damn about the status quo. They’re not in it to be “mainstream.” They’re following the evidence wherever it leads them. They, like me, are only interested in pursuing the truth.


Works Cited:

[1] Dan Barker and John W. Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2010), 11.
[2] S.G.F. Brandon and E.O. James, ed., “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the ancient Near East.” The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation, (Manchester University Press, 1963), 23.
[3] Alfred Bertholet, “The Pre-Christian Belief in the Resurrection of the Body,” The American Journal of Theology, (20:1 [1916]: 10).
[4] Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett, “Power Over Egypt in the Hymn to Osiris,” NIV Archaeological Study Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 877.
[5] S.G.F. Brandon and E.O. James, ed., “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the ancient Near East.” The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation, (Manchester University Press, 1963), 17-33.
[6] Joseph D. Reed, Arsinoe’s Adonis and the Poetics of Ptolemaic Imperialism, (American Philological Association: First Edition, 2000), 331.
[7] Internet Sacred Text Archive, The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden (Col. XV.), http://sacred-texts.com/egy/dmp/dmp18.htm (2010).
[8] M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 173-74.
[9] Matthew Ferguson, 1 Corinthians 15 and the “500 Witnesses,” https://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/1-corinthians-15-and-the-500-witnesses/ (2013).
[10] M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 156-57.
[11] Ibid., p. 159.
[12] Ibid., p. 164.
[13] Arthur Versluis, Magic & Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism, (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 12.
[14] Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, “Reader Feedback and Author’s Response,” http://www.jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/rfset27.htm (2007).
[15] G.A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1992), 202.
[16] S. N. Kramer, “Dumuzi’s Annual Resurrection: An Important Correction to ‘Inanna’s Descent'” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 183 (October 1966:31).