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The Christian belief in Jesus’s divinity relies heavily on the idea that the biblical “eyewitness” accounts of his miracles and resurrection couldn’t have just been made up – that there must have been some truth to them, or else they wouldn’t have gained the kind of traction (and inspired the kind of devotion) that they did. But just because Jesus’s followers were able to convince themselves of his divinity doesn’t prove that they were actually correct in their belief. After all, there are scores of other religions whose earliest members were equally convinced that their prophets were divine, and we can feel perfectly confident saying that they must have simply been confused or misled somehow (or maybe just got carried away by wishful thinking). Alexander points to Mormonism as a particularly revealing case study here:
One common apologetics tactic is the argument from the historicity of Christ and the Apostles. That is, the Apostles said they saw the Resurrection of Christ, and it would take quite a conspiracy to make twelve different people lie – not to mention to make them stick to the lie even after Christianity became unpopular and it became clear they would be persecuted or even die for their faith. If the Apostles had been making the story of the Resurrection up, there were ample opportunities for them to say so. Yet either they never did, or it never made it into the tradition.
One way to knock down this argument is to find a case of twelve people who said they saw something miraculous, didn’t recant despite persecution and strong self-interested reasons to do so – and yet everyone, atheist and orthodox Christian alike, agree they were wrong. Ever since I left Utah I’ve been slowly making my way through The Mormon People, and I was very excited to find a case of exactly that.
If you’re not familiar with Mormonism, it was founded in the 1820s by an American prophet named Joseph Smith, who claimed that an angel led him to a series of golden tablets written in hieroglyphics which, when translated by means of a magic stone, contained various revelations. He attracted various followers despite persecution and today there are over ten million Mormons who believe the insights he took from these tablets and various other angelic encounters form a new testament of the Bible called The Book of Mormon.
During Smith’s lifetime, there was obviously a lot of curiosity over whether his story about angels and golden tablets and hieroglyphics was true. This was compounded by his insistence that he had given the golden tablets back to the angel when he was done translating them and so couldn’t produce the originals for scholarly review anymore.
However, Smith was able to produce eleven witnesses (besides himself, for a total of twelve) for his story. Three witnesses claimed to have seen the angel holding the plates and heard the Voice of God tell them Smith’s story was true:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, his brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seeen [sic] the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shewn unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvellous [sic] in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.
Eight others saw the plates later, and although they did not encounter God or any angels, they confirmed that there were a set of mysterious golden tablets with hieroglyphics on them:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shewn unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shewn unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
All eleven signed official legal statements swearing their testimony, which were later incorporated into printed editions of the Book of Mormon.
What are we to make of this?
One obvious possibility is that Smith made some fake tablets and showed them off to few enough people for a brief enough time that the fake couldn’t be investigated closely. I don’t like this explanation for two reasons. The first is that it would be really hard for a dirt-poor farmer to construct a book seemingly constructed of gold tablets inscribed with hieroglyphics. He would need the cooperation of a couple of professionals, and he would have to rely on them keeping quiet. Even moving the tablets – they were said to have weighed several hundred pounds – would have been a production. No goldsmith or wealthy backer has ever come forward claiming a part in it, nor have any likely candidates been proposed. And second of all, this is less parsimonious than most alternative hypotheses. It would require Smith to be pushing two totally different plots at the same time – whatever plot got the first group to testify to angels and divine voices, and the plot to fake a golden book for the second group.
A second possibility is that Smith found a bunch of people who were willing to lie for him. But this suffers from the same problem that the “the Apostles lied” theory does. Several of the witnesses later had very public fallings-out with Joseph Smith and the incipient Mormon Church. Oliver Cowdery, one of the three who saw the angel, got into a fight with Joseph Smith over polygamy and some money matters and got excommunicated from Mormonism. He ended up moving to Ohio, becoming a Methodist, and declaring that he was “ashamed of his connection with Mormonism”. However, he always stuck to his story about seeing the angel and the Golden Plates, even when, according to Wikipedia, “that confession cost him the editorship of a newspaper”.
David Whitmer, another of the three witnesses to the angel, also got in a spat with Joseph Smith and was part of a coup attempt in the Mormon church to expel Joseph Smith as leader and replace him with himself. Smith excommunicated him and then sent a militia to harass him and his family; eventually he was forced to leave the state. Although he denounced Smith for the rest of his life, he continued to swear that he had seen the angel and the golden plates.
Further, the Mormons were getting persecuted ad nauseum by this point. On three different occasions, Mormon towns were burnt, the Mormons lost their land, and a bunch of Mormons were killed or jailed. Joseph Smith himself was killed by an angry mob. Eventually the Mormons got so sick and afraid that they all packed up and fled to Utah, which as anyone who’s seen Utah knows requires a special level of desperation.
This presents a serious problem for the Christian apologists, at least if they’re not Mormon. Their argument is that there’s no way twelve people would simultaneously hallucinate a mystical experience, and although twelve people might agree to lie about the mystical experience there’s no way they would all keep that lie throughout decades of church politics and terrible persecution. But now they’re faced with a dilemma. Either they have to throw out the argument that a dozen people testifying to something and holding to it means it definitely happened, or they all have to convert to Mormonism.
So what did happen with all those witnesses to Mormonism? Well, there are a few helpful hints. All of them were strongly predisposed in Smith’s favor to begin with. Some were his family members. All had a background in the sort of folk mysticism that was common in America at the time.
(notice none of this differentiates it from the Jesus case; those who saw the resurrected Jesus were his disciples, some were members of his family such as his brother James, and they were all steeped in the folk mysticism that was common in Palestine at the time. But I digress)
A number of the Mormon witnesses sort of change their stories in weird ways. One, Martin Harris, supposedly admitted later he saw the plate not with his earthly eyes but with his “eyes of faith”, and a neighbor said he “never claimed to have seen the plates with his natural eyes, only spiritual vision”. Then Harris totally denied ever saying this and said they were definitely literally real in every possible way. Another witness is supposedly on the record as saying the angel had “no form or shape” and was more of a “vague impression”, although again he’s also on the much more official record as totally denying this and saying it was all definitely really real. Apparently in contradiction to these, there is a record of one witness insisting he hefted the (quite heavy) plates and held them on his knees and felt the weight and so on.
The Jesus story also has some weird incongruities. In many cases, the disciples originally thought they were talking to someone else (a gardener, a traveler on the road), and later “realize” it is Jesus. Jesus tells Mary not to touch him, suggesting some kind of belief he might be a vision or apparition, but then Thomas very specifically does touch him, suggesting an attempt to dispel this belief. Although the Christ story admittedly does not have the sort of guarded-then-retracted attempts by the witnesses to say maybe it was really spiritual after all, we also have only about a thousandth as much material in the Jesus case as in the Joseph Smith case, and we totally lack any independent testimony from the Apostles involved let alone any evidence that they were ever questioned harshly by skeptics or had things they mentioned to their neighbors come back to haunt them.
Overall I think the Mormon experience proves (if you’re not Mormon!) that the sort of psychological forces surrounding mystical experiences can be more complicated than we naively expect. We wouldn’t expect twelve witnesses to swear up and down that they saw angels and magical golden plates and so on, and then stick to the story despite a host of opportunities to profit by denying it – and yet if we are to continue denying Mormonism we must admit exactly that. And coming to that conclusion should make us update our probabilities in the case of the Apostles as well.
If you are a (non-Mormon) Christian, of course, you might feel like there was something about Jesus that made him inherently different from other self-proclaimed prophets like Joseph Smith. You might feel like he was such an extraordinary figure, and his miracles so unique, that it somehow wouldn’t have been possible for any kind of made-up stories to develop around him in the same way that they did with these other supposed prophets. Again, though, this is just demonstrably untrue. Alexander continues:
Although there are some atheist accounts that allow for the truth of the Gospels as written while still casting doubt on Christ’s divinity, that’s not where the smart money lies – most atheists would deny to one degree or another the validity of the Gospels themselves. Either the entire thing was made up […] or a historical Jesus had various miracles falsely attributed to him by overzealous believers.
So what is the probability that, given some historical tradition of Jesus, it will get embellished with made-up miracles and people will write gospels about it? Approximately 1 [i.e. 100%]: both Christians and atheists agree that the vast majority of the few dozen extant Gospels are false, including the infancy gospels, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Peter, et cetera. All of these tend to take the earlier Gospels and stories and then add a bunch of implausible miracles to them. So we know that the temptation to write false Gospels laden with miracles was there.
What’s more, on top of the dozens of false Gospels that were written about Jesus, there were also hundreds of forged epistles and other apocryphal texts that falsely attributed all kinds of fantastical miracles and teachings to Jesus. In fact, even the Bible itself talks about some of the outlandish false stories about Jesus that had already begun circulating before he had even died. Matthew 16:13-14 and Mark 8:27-28, for instance, talk about a widespread belief that Jesus was actually the reincarnation of John the Baptist – a notion that, according to Matthew 14:1-2 and Mark 16:6, even Herod Antipas himself (the one who had had John the Baptist put to death in the first place) believed. As ProfMTH says:
So during the life of Jesus – while he was walking around – there were some people who believed that John the Baptist – a man who was approximately the same age as Jesus – had been raised from the dead in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. People believed this – including, most astonishingly, the man who had ordered John’s execution. If this outlandish claim could garner adherents during the life of Jesus, it’s not at all difficult to believe that any number of outlandish claims could have developed and garnered adherents [decades] after Jesus’s life – including a claim that Jesus himself had been raised from the dead.
The folklore surrounding Jesus is so sketchy, in fact, that some critics of Christianity have even raised the possibility that Jesus might not ever have actually existed as a historical figure at all – that he was just a purely mythical character, like Robin Hood or King Arthur. This is an understandable position, considering that there’s no historical documentation of Jesus’s existence – none whatsoever – from the time period when he’s supposed to have lived. Outside of the books of the New Testament (which themselves were written decades after Jesus’s death), there’s no mention of Jesus anywhere in the historical record until around 100 AD, as Ehrman points out:
Most people don’t realize this, but Jesus is never mentioned in any Greek or Roman non-Christian source until 80 years after his death. There is no record of Jesus having lived in these sources. In the entire first Christian century, Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher, or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and it is never found in a single piece of private correspondence. Zero – zip – references. The first time Jesus is mentioned in a Roman source or a Greek source is by the Roman governor of a province of Asia Minor, a governor named Pliny, in the year 112 – 80 years after Jesus’s death – and even then Pliny doesn’t even name him “Jesus,” he simply refers to his name “Christ” in passing. That is the only reference within 80 years of Jesus’s death. Jesus is mentioned two times, very very briefly, by the Jewish historian Josephus in the year 93 – over 60 years after his death – but he is mentioned in no other Jewish source of the first century at all. If you want to know about Jesus, you have to turn to Christian sources. There is no choice!
Having said all this, though, Ehrman still maintains that Jesus most likely did exist as a historical figure – and I’m inclined to agree with him. As convenient as it might be for the case against Christianity if Jesus really were purely fictional, I think that labeling him as such goes further than the evidence can justify. Christopher Hitchens makes a good point here: If the biblical authors had really made Jesus up out of whole cloth, then why would they have had to go through such contortions to make the details of his life fit with the story they actually wanted to tell? Why, for instance, would they have made up a census that never really happened in order to provide some kind of justification for how Jesus of Nazareth could have “actually” been born in Bethlehem (in order to fit the prophecies), as opposed to just saying he was originally from Bethlehem? As Hitchens puts it:
If they were simply going to make up the whole thing, and there’d never been any such person [as Jesus], then why not just have him born in Bethlehem right there and leave out the Nazarene business? […] The very falsity of it, the very fanatical attempt to make it come right, suggests that, yes, there may have been a charismatic, deluded individual [named Jesus] wandering around at that time.
In truth, there were actually numerous individuals named Jesus wandering around at that time – because Jesus was a fairly common name in that part of the world back then. Even the prisoner whom Pilate allowed to go free instead of Jesus – Barabbas – shared Jesus’s first name; “Barabbas” was his last name. (Later translations of the Bible, of course, would edit out this uncomfortable detail, but you can still see it in the earliest copies.) To say, then, that someone named Jesus existed in that part of the world sometime around 30 AD is a trivial point; there were plenty of people named Jesus at that time. The real question is whether one of them actually said and did all the things the Bible attributes to him – and that’s the claim that falls apart under scrutiny. If there had actually been someone who could cure every disease, feed the masses with just five loaves of bread, and even bring people back from the dead – all while astounding thousands of followers with his sermons and appearing before such high-profile figures as the Jewish high priest, the governor of Judea (Pontius Pilate), and even King Herod Antipas himself – it wouldn’t have somehow escaped the notice of every single person in the world who could have written it down at the time. Just imagine such a person appearing today – what an unprecedented historic event it would be. All diseases could suddenly be cured; world hunger could suddenly be solved; even death itself could suddenly be reversed. It would be an absolute game-changer in every sense. Does it really seem plausible to imagine that nobody would think to take note of it until decades later?
I mentioned a story earlier from the Quran in which Muhammad splits the moon in half, pointing out that obviously this couldn’t have really happened, or else at least one or two other people on the planet would have noticed it and documented it. But Jesus’s story suffers from the same problem. In Matthew 2:16, for instance, Herod orders the massacre of every male infant in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Does it not seem odd that not a single person other than the author of Matthew would take note of this mass genocide (not even Josephus, who despised Herod and made it a point to document all of his misdeeds in detail)? Similarly, in Matthew 27:45, as Jesus is dying on the cross, “all the land” is plunged into three hours of darkness, even though it’s the middle of the day; and then, when Jesus finally dies a few verses later in Matthew 27:50-53, there’s a massive earthquake and the dead start rising from the grave and roaming the streets of Jerusalem, “appear[ing] to many people.” Yet this never warrants any mention from any source other than those few verses? The sun goes dark in the middle of the day, there’s an earth-shattering seismic event, and there’s even a literal zombie horde rising from the dead and invading the city – and yet not a single person notices this except the author of Matthew (who doesn’t even bother to make a note of it himself until over half a century later)? At the very least, surely we’d expect to see every other religion scrambling to put their own spin on such incredible events and attribute them to their own gods. But what we see instead is… nothing. Not a single word from anyone other than Matthew’s author. Shouldn’t this be a red flag that Matthew’s story might not be describing events entirely honestly? Isn’t the most likely explanation here that these extraordinary events were simply made up, just like the events in the dozens of other forged Gospels that everyone agrees are false?
If you’re a lifelong Christian, it might be hard to entertain the idea that Jesus’s followers could have just made up all the legends about him; how could such mass self-delusion even be possible? But again, if you’re going to take the stance that it’s impossible for large numbers of people to mistakenly convince themselves that their prophets are capable of amazing miracles, then you have to explain how that very thing could have happened so many times with all the other religions throughout history – not just with Joseph Smith and Mormonism, but with countless others as well, especially in the ancient world. After all, in the historical setting in which Jesus lived, supposed miracle-working savior figures were practically a dime a dozen. Even in his own neighborhood, Jesus was far from unique in his divine claims; he was just one among many.
Even before he was born, it was known that he would be someone special. A supernatural being informed his mother that the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. He was born miraculously, and he became an unusually precocious young man. As an adult he left home and went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not for the material things of this world, but for what is spiritual. He gathered a number of disciples around him, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired, in no small part because he himself was divine. He proved it to them by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. But at the end of his life he roused opposition, and his enemies delivered him over to the Roman authorities for judgment. Still, after he left this world, he returned to meet his followers in order to convince them that he was not really dead but lived on in the heavenly realm. Later some of his followers wrote books about him.
There was also Simon Magus (AKA Simon the Sorcerer), another prophet who lived alongside Jesus and rivaled him in popularity. According to legend, Simon performed miracles and even had the ability to levitate and fly at will; in fact, he was so powerful that even the biblical authors themselves believed that his abilities were real. As Acts 8:9-10 says: “There was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.” The threat that Simon posed to Christianity was apparently so serious that the author of Acts felt it necessary to go out of his way to discredit him; Acts 8:12-24 describes Simon coming across Jesus’s disciples and being so impressed with their ability to channel the Holy Spirit that he drops what he’s doing and converts to Christianity himself. He even offers them money and says, “Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost” – but the disciples rebuke him for his materialism, and he begs their forgiveness and asks them to pray for him. The apocryphal Acts of Peter goes further still in its campaign against Simon; as Wikipedia explains:
The text condemns Simon Magus, a figure associated with gnosticism, who appears to have concerned the writer of the text greatly. Peter preaches that Simon is performing magic in order to convert followers through deception. In Peter’s outrage, he challenges Simon to a contest in order to prove whose works are from a divine source and whose are merely trickery. It is said that Simon Magus takes flight and Peter strikes him down with the power of God and prays that Simon be not killed but that he be badly injured. When the Magus falls from the sky, he suffers a broken leg in three places, and the converted believers of Peter stone him from the city. The Acts then continue to say that he was taken to Terracina to one Castor “And there he was sorely cut (Lat. by two physicians), and so Simon the angel of Satan came to his end.”
But as formidable as Simon Magus supposedly was, he wasn’t the biggest rival to Jesus’s claim to be the Jewish messiah; in fact, he wasn’t even the biggest one named Simon. There was also Simon bar Kokhba, a Jewish leader who was descended from King David, led a rebellion against Rome, and actually won – all things that the messiah was supposed to do (as opposed to Jesus’s more submissive attitude of “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17)). He freed Jerusalem from Roman occupation, defeated Roman forces throughout Judea, and declared himself Prince of Israel – leading many to believe that the true savior had finally come, and that it wasn’t Jesus. (This fervor was short-lived, though, since Rome finally crushed his forces a few years later and eradicated Judaism from the region for the next 2,000 years.)
The list goes on. As Nathan Williams summarizes:
Judas the Galilean led a failed violent uprising against Roman occupation, losing sons to crucifixion. Simon of Peraea dubbed himself the “King of the Jews” and was promptly beheaded, his followers crucified. JC contemporary Theudas inveigled the poor to revolt against the status quo, with unsurprising results.
More is written of “The Samaritan Prophet” than Jesus in ancient history books, the most famous penned by a historian named Josephus. Likewise, the SP met a swift end at the hands of a busy Pontius Pilate. Josephus also mentions “The Egyptian” who shared an interest in the Mount of Olives, raising a cult hostile to Rome, “promising deliverance.” Spoilers for anyone who is behind on their first-century history reading, he didn’t. Then there was Manahem, whom Josephus writes off as a jackass opportunist. And finally, there’s “Jonathan the Weaver,” an assassin-rabble rouser of Cyrene.
On top of all these outside rivals (and more), Jesus even had to compete for followers with someone on his own side – John the Baptist. John was much more popular and widely known than Jesus was at the time – so much so, in fact, that some scholars even believe that Jesus himself actually started off as one of John’s followers, rather than the other way around. As Kirsti Barrett Copeland explains:
The fact that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is one of the few things we can know for sure about the historical Jesus, because it proved to be such an embarrassment for his followers that they had to neutralize the claim. Because if you think about it, it’s problematic if your savior, your God, had been someone else’s follower, someone else’s disciple – which is in fact when it means for Jesus to have been baptized by John the Baptist. So Jesus was in fact John the Baptist’s disciple before he broke out on his own.
After John was executed, of course, most of his followers switched to following Jesus instead (although one sect, known as the Mandaeans, refused to accept that Jesus was the messiah and continued to venerate John as their prophet – and in fact, the sect still survives to this day, with tens of thousands of Mandaeans worldwide). Jesus did become more popular in the end; but it required considerable effort on the part of his followers to separate him from the crowd – and if not for a few lucky breaks (most notably the Roman emperor Constantine converting to Christianity himself in 312 AD, and the emperor Theodosius making it the official state religion shortly thereafter), Jesus might very well have faded into obscurity along with all the other self-proclaimed messiahs of his day.
The fact that Jesus had to contend with so many rival prophets and miracle-workers, though, shows just how common it was back then for people to believe in all kinds of wild supernatural claims. Stories of divine conception, miraculous feats, and resurrection from the dead could be traced all the way back to the legends of classical Greco-Roman mythology (still widely believed at the time) and its tales of gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Dionysus. Dionysus in particular is an interesting example here, since just like Jesus, he was supposedly born of a mortal mother and a divine father, was persecuted and put on trial for claiming divinity, performed miracles, and had his physical body destroyed only to be “eventually restored to a new life” again. He once even miraculously conjured up wine at a wedding – much like how Jesus’s first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding – and he likewise taught his great-granddaughters, the Oenotropae, how to turn water into wine, grass into wheat, and berries into olives so that no one around them ever had to starve – just like how Jesus fed the masses by miraculously conjuring up an endless supply of loaves and fishes. In light of all these parallels, some scholars have speculated that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s miracles may have been influenced by the Dionysus legends – particularly the Gospel of John, which “may have used Dionysian imagery in effort to show Jesus as ‘superior’ to Dionysus,” as the Wikipedia article puts it:
Mark S. W. Stibbe has argued that the Gospel of John also contains parallels with The Bacchae, a tragedy written by the Athenian playwright Euripides that was first performed in 405 BC and involves Dionysus as a central character. In both works, the central figure is portrayed as an incarnate deity who arrives in a country where he should be known and worshipped, but, because he is disguised as a mortal, the deity is not recognized and is instead persecuted by the ruling party. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as elusive, intentionally making ambiguous statements to evade capture, much like Dionysus in Euripides’s Bacchae. In both works, the deity is supported by a group of female followers. Both works end with the violent death of one of the central figures; in John’s gospel it is Jesus himself, but in The Bacchae it is Dionysus’s cousin and adversary Pentheus, the king of Thebes.
But again, Dionysus wasn’t the only pre-Jesus deity to have supposedly been divinely conceived, or to have performed miracles, or to have come back to life after their apparent death. Tales of divine conception were commonplace back then, like in the cases of Heracles, and Helen, and Perseus:
According to the myth, Zeus came to Perseus’s mother Danaë in the form of a shower of gold and impregnated her. Although no surviving Greek text ever describes this as a “virgin birth”, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr has his Jewish speaker Trypho refer to it as such in his Dialogue with Trypho.
There was also Asclepius, who was supposedly born of a divine father and a mortal mother, performed miracles including healing the sick and raising the dead, and was called “the one who leads and controls all things, the savior of the whole world, and the guardian of mortals.” Even historical figures like Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, and Plato were widely believed to have been virgin-born – and were often praised as “savior of the world” themselves.
And just like these legends of miraculous birth, legends of divine figures being resurrected after the destruction of their physical bodies can also be traced back to well before Christianity, even as far back as ancient Egypt, Canaan, and Sumeria. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is killed and then resurrected to become king of the afterlife realm. In the Canaanite religion, the god Baal (whom you might remember from the Old Testament, where he was one of Yahweh’s rival gods) becomes king, gets killed, comes back to life, and reclaims his throne by defeating Death. (Incidentally, the first part of this story is also considered by scholars to have been “the prototype for the vision recorded in the 7th chapter of the Biblical Book of Daniel.”) Maybe most interesting of all, the ancient Sumerian story of Inanna (AKA Ishtar) describes her dying and then returning after three days, with two divine escorts accompanying her back into the earthly realm (just like how Jesus was resurrected after three days, with a pair of angels heralding his return). The story also features the concept of redemptive substitution that would later become so central to Christian doctrine – with Inanna and her husband Dumuzid alternatively taking each other’s place and suffering punishment on the other’s behalf.
But the legendary figure whose story shares the most striking similarities with Jesus’s (at least in my opinion) is Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. Supposedly, Romulus was born of a divine father and a mortal mother. Shortly after his birth, the king attempted to have him killed, but he was hidden away and then grew up in a poor family (of shepherds, no less). Upon reaching adulthood, he was hailed as a king, but then was killed by conniving elites who were envious of his power. At the moment of his death, the land was covered in darkness, and his body subsequently disappeared. However, he later returned in a new immortal body with a shining, radiant appearance. He appeared to one of his followers on the road from the city (similar to how Jesus appeared to two of his followers as they traveled from Jerusalem to Emmaus in Luke 24) and gave him the good news of his resurrection. Then he delivered an inspiring speech from a mountaintop, gave his followers instructions for the future, and ascended bodily into Heaven. All these things were supposedly attested to by eyewitnesses, and became the basis for widespread belief by the Roman people. And all these things supposedly happened sometime between 700 and 800 BC – centuries before Jesus’s time.
Of course, just because Jesus’s story has so many parallels with earlier legends doesn’t necessarily mean that Christianity was outright plagiarizing from them; the authors of the Gospels could have just been subconsciously influenced by them – or some of the parallels could have even been purely coincidental (although it seems unlikely that all of them were). Having said that, though, there was at least one religion from which the Gospel writers most certainly do seem to have been deliberately lifting biographical details from earlier prophets in order to give Jesus’s story more legitimacy – the religion of Judaism itself. Wikipedia continues:
According to E. P. Sanders, a leading scholar on the historical Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels contain many episodes in which Jesus’s described actions clearly emulate those of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Sanders states that, in some of these cases, it is impossible to know for certain whether these parallels originate from the historical Jesus himself having deliberately imitated the Hebrew prophets, or from later Christians inventing mythological stories in order to portray Jesus as one of them, but, in many other instances, the parallels are clearly the work of the gospel-writers. The author of the Gospel of Matthew in particular intentionally seeks to portray Jesus as a “new Moses“. Matthew’s account of Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus, Jesus’s family’s flight into Egypt, and their subsequent return to Judaea is a mythical narrative based on the account of the Exodus in the Torah. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus delivers his first public sermon on a mountain in imitation of the giving of the Law of Moses atop Mount Sinai. According to New Testament scholars Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, the teachings preserved in the sermon are statements that Jesus himself really said on different occasions that were originally recorded without context, but the author of the Gospel of Matthew compiled them into an organized lecture and invented context for them in order to fit his portrayal of Jesus as a “new Moses”.
This observation that the Gospel authors may have been consciously embellishing parts of Jesus’s story in order to boost his credibility as a prophet provides a perfect explanation for why certain passages in the New Testament contradict each other – like why Luke 6:17-20, for instance, says the Jesus’s first sermon was delivered on a flat plain, while Matthew 5:1-3 claims it was delivered from a mountaintop. It also explains why the narratives surrounding Jesus’s birth and death are such a mess; scholars believe that they were largely contrived as “legends designed to fulfill Jewish expectations about the Messiah.” So the Gospel authors would have wanted to throw in lots of details that would have “confirmed” Jesus’s identity as the true messiah, even if those details produced contradictions or historical inaccuracies. And likewise, they would have wanted to include stories about the most impressive miracles they could think of – including some that had previously been attributed to other prophets and deities – in order to show that Jesus could not only compete with these older gods, but could prove superior to them.
Again, though, the reason for pointing all this out isn’t to say that Christianity was just a blatant rip-off of earlier religions, or that it was outright “copying” from them. The point here is just to show that legends like those attributed to Jesus were everywhere at the time the Gospels were written. Religious superstitions and fantasies of divine wonders and miracles absolutely dominated people’s thinking back then. So to say that it wouldn’t have been possible for a story like Jesus’s to have taken root unless it had actually happened, as some modern-day Christians claim, is just demonstrably untrue. We know that it would have been perfectly easy for entire populations of people to falsely convince themselves that their favorite prophet had been born of a virgin, performed miracles, and rose from the dead – because it had already happened so many times before the Gospels were written, and would continue happening afterward. Jesus was just one in a long line of miracle-working savior figures – and in fact, the first Christians even acknowledged this openly; one of the ways they tried to convert people who believed in the traditional Roman gods was to point out that Jesus was actually just like the Roman gods. Here’s Church father Justin Martyr:
When we [Christians] say also that the Word, who is the first-birth 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; Aesculapius, 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. For what shall I say of Ariadne, and those who, like her, have been declared to be set among the stars? And what of the emperors who die among yourselves, whom you deem worthy of deification, and in whose behalf you produce some one who swears he has seen the burning Caesar rise to heaven from the funeral pyre? And what kind of deeds are recorded of each of these reputed sons of Jupiter, it is needless to tell to those who already know.
The early Christian Church would continue to deliberately blur the line between Christianity and other religions, too, by adopting the beliefs and customs of rival sects and incorporating them into Christian doctrine. Beliefs like Jesus being born on December 25th, or even the depiction of him having a beard, weren’t originally part of Christianity and aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but were taken from other religions in order to make the process of converting to Christianity feel like less of a dramatic leap to those who had previously worshiped other gods. If people could believe in these other religions, the thinking went, then they could just as easily believe in Christianity, and vice-versa – because these religions were all making the same kind of claims. And the Church fathers were even more right than they realized; the miracle claims of Christianity really are just like the miracle claims of all these other religions. The fact that Jesus’s miracles seem so extraordinary does nothing to prove that they “couldn’t have just been made up” – because people believed all kinds of extraordinary things back then that were just made up. And just to drive the point home here, people still believe all kinds of extraordinary things that are just made up, even today. Here’s Harris again:
Consider Christianity. The entire doctrine is predicated on the idea that the Gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true. This is why people believe Jesus was the Son of God, divine, etc. This textual claim is problematic because everyone acknowledges that the Gospels followed Jesus’s ministry by decades, and there’s no extra-biblical account of his miracles. But the truth is quite a bit worse than that. The truth is, even if we had multiple contemporaneous, eyewitness accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this still would not provide sufficient basis to believe that these events actually occurred.
But why not? The problem is that firsthand reports of miracles are quite common – even in the 21st century. I have met literally hundreds, at this point, of Western-educated men and women who think that their favorite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers. The powers ascribed to these gurus are every bit as outlandish as those ascribed to Jesus. I actually remain open to evidence of such powers; but the fact is that people who tell these stories desperately want to believe them. All, to my knowledge, lack the kind of corroborating evidence we should require before believing that nature’s laws have been abrogated in this way. And people who believe these stories show an uncanny reluctance to look for non-miraculous causes. But it remains a fact that yogis and mystics are said to be walking on water, and raising the dead, and flying without the aid of technology, materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future – right now. In fact, all of these powers have been ascribed to Sathya Sai Baba, the South Indian guru, by an uncountable number of eyewitnesses. He even claims to have been born of a virgin – which is not all that uncommon a claim in the history of religion. Or in history generally – Genghis Khan was supposedly born of a virgin, as was Alexander. (Apparently parthenogenesis doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to turn the other cheek.) But Sathya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure; he’s not the David Koresh of Hinduism. His followers threw a birthday party for him recently and a million people showed up. So there are vast numbers of people who believe he is a living god. You can even watch his miracles on YouTube. (Prepare to be underwhelmed.) It’s true that he has an afro of sufficient diameter as to suggest a total detachment from the opinions of his fellow human beings; but I’m not sure this is reason enough to worship him.
In any case […] consider, as though for the first time, the foundational claim of Christianity. The claim is this: that miracle stories, of a sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba, become especially compelling when you set them in the pre-scientific religious context of the first-century Roman empire, decades after their supposed occurrence. We have Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories, attested to by thousands upon of thousands of living eyewitnesses, and they don’t even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel. But you place a few miracles stories in some ancient books, and half the people on this earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around them. Does anyone else see a problem with that?