Jesus and Mythology: Three Views

The following are my lecture notes on the issue of "Jesus and Mythology". They are somewhat fragmentary and could be filled out in great detail if I had time to write a book. But I don't. So here are my notes on the question: How is the Jesus of the Bible related to the Mythology found in ancient cultures?

One of the earliest theological views of the relationship of Jesus to what we would now call "world religions" was surprisingly positive. Greek theologians such as Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen consistently taught that the Spirit of God has planted "seeds" of the Word of God (Greek: "logoi spermatikoi") in all people, all cultures, and thus all religions.

Thus, both from strong hints laid out in Scripture, and from some of the earliest theological musings of the Church, it seems that all people have hints of Christ's reality, hopes of a Love that defeats death, and clues to seek after the healing and wholeness found in Christ, even if they do not know Him by Name. [cf. Acts 14:16-17; 17:16-24; John 1:1-14; 3:8; 10:16; Rom 1:16-27; 2:10-16; 1Jo 4:7-8; Mat 25:37-40; Gen 9:16; 15:16; Gen 14 and Heb 7 (Pagan Melchizedek worships God); Amos 9:7; Heb 11; Mat 2 (Pagan astrologers/magi seek Christ)].

The picture of Jesus presented in the New Testament, particularly in Matthew, Luke, and John, conforms to a number of Greco-Roman religious myths and archetypes. An ARCHETYPE is a symbol found across cultures, which carries a similar religious or cultural meaning in the cultures it is found in. Thus, we may ask how are the following archetypes are related to our stories of Jesus, notably:

A. Archetype of the Incarnate God: In many pagan religions, the gods are said to take on human form, and live invincible human lives as great heroes (cf. Rama, Krishna [Hindu] Bodhisattvas [Buddhism] Hercules [Greek] Pharaoh [Egyptian] Caesar [Roman]). In Jesus, God empties his Divine power and takes on human form and limitations.

B. Archetype of Miraculous Born Divine Child: In many pagan religions, a Divine child is born from the union of gods and human maidens, or by a secret impregnation of a woman by the gods (cf. Horus [Egyptian] Buddha [Hindu-Buddhist] Apollo, Theseus, Dionysius [Greek] Virgil's prophecy of the Divine child Caesar [Roman]). In Jesus, God is born of a peasant woman who is a member of an oppressed people.

C. Archetype of Heroic Divine Self Sacrifice: In many pagan religions, a god or demi-god (part-human, part-divine hero) sacrifices his life for others. Often associated with fertility cycles and crops, and includes death on/near a tree or plant that symbolizes fertility (cf. Mithras [Near Eastern] Serapis the Sacrificial Bull [Egyptian] Buddha [India] Dying and Rising gods below). In Jesus, God is crucified to take into himself the consequences of human sin and hatred, that we may be freed from it.

D. Archetype of Descent into Underworld: In many pagan religions, a divine or semi-divine hero is said to go to the underworld searching for his/her beloved, or to get information from the dead for the living (cf. Inanna [Mesopotamian] Odysseus [Greek] Virgil [Roman]). In Jesus, God descends to hell to ransom and redeem those held in bondage there.

E. Archetype of Dying and Rising gods: In many pagan religions, fertility gods or sun gods are said to die and rise many times in order to renew the fertility cycle or cosmic pattern (cf. Baal, Mithras [Middle Eastern] Adonis, Dionysius [Greek] Tammuz, Ishtar [Babylonian] Osiris, Ra [Egyptian] Quetzalcoatl [Aztec] Cycle of Samsara [Hindu, Buddhist]). In Jesus, God is murdered on a cross and resurrected physically.

Although there are a range of ways to relate these archetypes to the story of Jesus, this range tends to fit within three broad views which either deny or affirm that Jesus is the fulfillment of these archetypes.

View 1: The Mythic Hoax View. All of these archetypes point to nothing: They are the desires of the human heart, projected upon the universe as myth, but which are never actually fulfilled. People really want someone to save them, to take their punishment for them, and to assure them they will somehow live on after death. Because people want these things, they project them onto the universe in the form of hopeful stories about made-up gods and goddesses. This acts as a soothing balm for the human conscience, a sort of drug to help them deal with the cruelties, chances, and changes of life.

If one takes such a view, then Jesus is just another in a long line of mythic hoaxes created to sooth a suffering humanity. Jesus is a continuation of the error of fantasy thinking which is keeping humanity from attaining Enlightenment and freedom from "our self incurred bondage". The "Jesus Myth" is just another of a long line of childish wish-fulfillment dreams that must be rejected, so we can begin the "adult" task of reconstructing society to deal with our problems.

A version of this view was shown recently in the movie Zeitgeist (2009). Originating in radical Enlighten-ment thinkers in 1700's Europe. Popularized in books such as "The Golden Bough", by James Frazer (1900) and "The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors" by Kersey Graves (1875).

View 2: The Christ-Only View. In this view, Christ is the only truth, and all archetypes are demonic hoaxes sent to draw people away from the truth that is in Christ. This reduces all similarities between Christ and the archetypes to cleverly planned deceptions created by cosmic powers of evil to blind people to the truth. While this view raises Christ up to the level of ultimate truth, it is surprisingly similar to the Mythic Hoax view. Both assume that the archetypes have no relation to reality, and are fundamentally deceptive. While this view is held by modern Christian conservatives who wish to elevate Christ as the Savior of the World, it is not actually the oldest Christian view. The oldest Christian view assumes that the archetypes are not deceptive, but rather preparations for the Gospel.

View 3: The Mythic Fulfillment View. Jesus is "Myth Made Fact": The mythic archetypes are "preparations for the Gospel" that point to a real historic fulfillment in his life, death, and resurrection. In this view, signs and symbols ultimately point to something- or someone- rather than pointing at nothing. Imagine if someone was touring the country, and saw a series of road signs, some large, some small, some new, some beat up, in different languages and typefaces, all pointing in a similar direction and claiming there was a large city over the mountains. The most logical assumption would be that there was a city somewhere in that direction. Perhaps still vibrant and alive, or perhaps in ruins. But the assumption is that they point to something real.

In the same way, if there are a series of archetypical symbols planted across religions, cultures, and eras, it is as least as logical to assume that they point to some type of real fulfillment at some point in history, rather than to assume they point to nothing. The probability that this assumption is logical is raised dramatically if an event has multiple witnesses which are close in time to the event, and a basis in archaeology and the social currents of its day.

This is the case with the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and the New Testament documents. While they are by no means as well fact-checked or as accurate as modern historiography, there are a number of details about the "Christ Event" that converge and present impressive amounts of collaboration from textual criticism, archaeology, coherence with the social currents in first century Judea, and even other contemporary writings outside the New Testament (cf. Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Apostolic fathers of the Church, and so-called "heretical" writings such as the Gospel of Thomas).

All of these sources, when sorted for common convergences, present at least a minimal historical picture of Jesus as (1) a wonder-working Jewish preacher and teacher, (2) who came from Galilee but also (3) preached in Jerusalem, (4) who proclaimed "The Kingdom of God" while (5) healing people of diseases and casting out evil. (6) He gathered to himself a group of disciples, and (7) welcomed those generally considered outsiders and unclean to his table, while (8) preaching the values of love, forgiveness, compassion, healing, and justice. He was (9) perceived as a threat by religious authorities (Pharisees and Sadducees) and civil authorities (Roman imperial power), and on this basis was (10) unjustly convicted and murdered by crucifixion. His disciples (11) claimed that he rose again from the dead, and (12) on the basis of this experience they began proclaiming the "Good News" that Jesus is the resurrected (13) Messiah and (14) the embodiment of God.

To this minimal portrait of Jesus, various New Testament sources add details which compliment this portrait, but which are not collaborated by the other sources. For instance, Matthew and Luke add the (15) miraculous birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, which is not spoken of elsewhere in the NT. Certain Pauline Epistles (such as Ephesians) and the letters of Peter add that (16) Jesus "descended" into the underworld to redeem those who are there. Unlike details 1-10 above, the details of 11-16 have no empirical method of collaboration, and thus are left at the level of inference from the reliability of sources, and coherence with already established patterns.

It is at this point of looking for "already established patterns" that we look at the archetypes presented in the religious myths that predate Jesus. And as we look at those myths, we find many divergences from the stories of Jesus, but also a great many convergences at key points. For instance, these myths usually present the "gods" as limited, finite, and often petty (unlike the universally good and all powerful God that Jesus calls "Father"). But, at the same time, these myths do point to a trajectory in which the gods become embodied in human form, often through miraculous births, and then die as sacrificial heroes, only to rise again. This archetypal set of patterns converges quite well with the broad outline of Jesus' life attested by multiple inter-dependent and independent sources.

When one looks at the matter from this angle, it is easy to see why one might hypothesize that God had been preparing cultures for the coming of Jesus by sending them "Good Dreams" in the form of archetypal patterns (to use JRR Tolkien's phrase). Versions of this view were popularized by Early Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr in the 100's, Clement and Origen in the 200's, and Eusebius in 300's CE as well as George MacDonald (d. 1905) and CS Lewis (d. 1962) and JRR Tolkien (d. 1973)

Choosing the best fit for the data. Given the data above, which of these three hypotheses best fit the evidence? Why? How do they answer the following questions the data could raise:

Many in our culture value being "open minded". Which is more "open minded" and "liberal": To believe all religious myths and archetypes are universally wrong, or to believe they are all at least partially true?

Why would Matthew and Luke include many of these archetypes, since they were so offensive to Jewish monotheism, if it wasn't true? Were they making the point that Jesus fulfilled these archetypes?

Why have myths of virgin births and dying and rising gods all but stopped since the Christ event, given how common they were before? Was he the fulfillment, and thus no more "hints" were needed from God?

If Jesus is the fulfillment of these archetypes, how might it change the "Christian conservative" view of Jesus as the "Savior of the World"? If God planted "seeds" of Christ in many cultures, how broad is his salvation?

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.