Second Temple Judaism and the Problem with the Mystery Religions/Paganism Hypothesis

Once upon a time there was what was called The History of Religions school. In this school of thought, scholars in comparative religion attempted to collect parallels to Christian beliefs in other religious movements, and some thought to explain those beliefs (including belief in Jesus’ resurrection) as the result of the influence of such myths. Sadly, the internet is full of allegations that the historical records of the life of Jesus are examples of religious plagiarism. The same old dying and rising god theme myth just gets rehashed over and over. What is even more problematic is the people who hold to this view automatically assume the New Testament witness to Jesus is false. Then they punt to the myths/mystery religions to explain the problems in the New Testament.

Supposedly, the Jesus story was borrowed from influence of myths about Osiris (a.k.a. Tammuz, Adonis) or divine–human figures like Hercules. Right? This theory has failed for several reasons. First, comparative studies in religion and literature have shown that these mythological figures are merely symbols of the crop cycle (Osiris, et al.). They are not even historical figures.

Second, they don’t have any body of literature (primary and secondary sources) to support their historicity.

Third, does the Osiris myth sound like the resurrection of Jesus? In this myth, Osiris’s wife Isis searches for the pieces of his dismembered body and buries them throughout Egypt. In contrast, the Jesus empty tomb narrative involves no search for the body because the place of Jesus’ interment is known. I fail to see the any similarity.

Furthermore, the entire premise that Paul and the other N.T authors would be so open to borrowing from mystery religions/myths stem from a lack of understanding about Judaism at the time of Jesus. Perhaps we should remember what N.T. Wright calls a “ Jewish covenantal monotheism.” The Hebrew Bible forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). Religious Jews knew of these pagan myths and found them abhorrent (Ez. 8. 14–15). There are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). The Jews regard Gentiles as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23).

In their book The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, authors Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy carefully lay out the details as to why Jewish people in the Second Temple period would be resistant to borrowing from paganism/mystery religions. Not to mention, the dating of them are in question. If they are dated in the second century and even further than that, it may be that early Christianity (pre-70 A.D), had more of an influence on them than the other way around. Same goes for the Mithra issue. It is hard to make them connect to the N.T. authors. Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. The similarities in pagan/mystery religions shows this was not the source of Paul’s mystery. A few more things to note:

1. The mystery of the cults was something that was known only to the selected few and to be revealed to the few. In the Bible, Paul uses in term “mystery” as something totally unknown to any man until God reveled it. The word “mystery” merely implies something contained in the Old Testament Scriptures but was withheld until Christ revealed it to His disciples.

2. In paganism, those who could not share it with others, but the biblical mystery is available to all of us.

3. As Boyd and Eddy note, “Similarity is not the same thing as sameness. Parallel terms do not equate to parallel concepts.” (pg 142). It seems when we try to say the early followers of Jesus would be so quick to borrow from other mystery relgions/paganism, we run into what is called the false cause fallacy. This fallacy occurs when someone argues that just because two things exist side by side that one must be the cause of the other.

T.N.D. Mettinger, a Swedish scholar, professor of Lund University, and member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities in Stockholm, has written a recent book on one of the academic treatments of the dying and rising gods in antiquity. He says:

“The death and rising gods were closely related to the seasonal cycle. Their death and return were seen as reflected in the changes of plant life. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a one-time event, not repeated, and unrelated to seasonal changes…… There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct , drawing on the myths and rites in the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The riddle remains.” (The Riddle of the Resurrection: Dying and Rising God’s in the Ancient Near East, 2001, pg 221.).

Mettinger’s comment shows that he thinks the belief in Jesus’ resurrection may be profitably studied against the background of Jewish resurrection beliefs- not pagan mythology


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