Jesus and the Problem of Myth

The Roman Catholic priest Ronald Knox  once preached a sermon wherein he  commented that “comparative religion is an admirable recipe to becoming comparatively  religious.” That may be true, but comparative religion certainly does not seem to result in one becoming even comparatively Christian. Instead, it seems that the  majority of comparative religion departments address  Christianity, at best, as a confused attempt to portray  God and, at worse, as a dangerous ideology worthy  of contempt. All in all, the general tone of these departments’ response to Christianity is  a big, long sneer. But why is this the case?

Many scholars of religion would argue—like an old, grizzled war veteran—that they’ve “seen too much” to believe in Christianity. Too many parallels, too many similar teachings, too many familiar archetypes. What they actually mean by all of these statements is sometimes not addressed, but I can guess what the argument is: that Christianity, because it bears  resemblance to many other religions, must therefore  be just as false as those other religions. There are two problems with this argument—what I like to call the problem of history and the problem of myth.

Historical Facts

First, the problem of history. The professors, while they explain away Christianity as just one among many stories, forget a crucial fact. That is, there is quite  abundant historical attestation to the fact that the life and death of Jesus Christ actually happened,  something which cannot be said about other myths. Although there could have been natural  phenomena or real-life individuals who inspired the  creation of a mythical god, there is no historical  record of Zeus living with the Greeks, or of Odin’s  crucifixion. Excluding whether or not the  resurrection occurred, most historical scholars  accept the fact that Jesus lived and was crucified.

Again, we are not discussing whether the Christian  story is beautiful or not, only whether it is true. When we look at the gospel accounts, we face a  historical fact. “What difference,” you may ask, “does this make for the Christian seeking to convince others  of the truth of Christianity?” It makes a tremendous difference, for Christianity revolves around the person  of Jesus. If he did not live and die and rise again then, as St. Paul argues, our faith is in vain. Yet he did live. He did walk with His disciples and teach for three years. He was condemned, beaten, and  crucified by the people he claimed to have come to save.

So, what does this mean for the pagan myths that bear such striking resemblance to Christianity?

“A Mirror, Darkly”

The answer to this question is contained in what I call ‘the problem of myth.’ As Christians, we believe that God revealed Himself to the Jews and then later, more fully, to the whole world in the figure of Jesus Christ. But  we also believe that God put His mark on the heart of  every individual, even those living before the incarnation and without Scripture. Because of this, humanity  has constantly tried to fulfill its need for God in  whatever way it can. This is where myths come from—the need to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts.

We see this yearning in many of the ancient pagan myths. In particular, the idea of a righteous man/god who is sacrificed in order to atone for the transgressions of a nation is present in many cultures. Mesopotamian societies had their abundance of “Corn-god” myths where a semi-divine figure was sacrificed and buried, like a seed in planting season, only to be later raised from death. The pagans believed that this process of death and rebirth fueled nature’s seasonal cycle and ensured a good harvest. The myths of Adonis in the Greco-Roman world, Balder in the Norse world, and Osiris in the Egyptian world address the same theme.

The sacrifice of Jesus, although most clearly prefigured  by Jewish rituals and prophecies, also found its  testimony amongst the Gentiles. The phrase “seeing  through a mirror, darkly”—used by St. Paul to  describe our imperfect vision of God here on Earth—also applies to the case of pagan myth. Even though we cannot take them to be infallible divine revelation, pagan myths should be studied and mined for wis­dom and insight that testifies to the unique position Christ has in our hearts, regardless of time or place.

Now, some critics may argue that Christianity  fulfilling all of the pagan myths is too fantastic, too  miraculous. Christians, however, have never claimed  that Christ’s incarnation[1] and resurrection was  anything less than miraculous. In fact, we emphasize this point fully. The main disagreement, then, is not over whether Christianity is miraculous, or incredible,  but whether it is truer than the pagan myths.

An Anecdote: Reality and Appearance

Let me demonstrate with an anecdote. Say there lived a man named Joe who was an expert in  sculptures. For decades, Joe had dedicated himself to studying the details of different statues from different  cultures. From all of this study, he’d gotten quite good at what he did. Let’s say our fictional scholar, however, had never met or even seen a living, human woman. All he had seen were statues of women. One day, Joe stumbles on an extraordinary find, what he believes to be the best sculpted statue of a woman he has ever seen. Joe brings his friend Jack over to have a look.

“Isn’t that the most life-like statue  you have ever seen?” Joe exclaims.

“But don’t you see,” Jack says “that’s not a statue, but a  real-life woman.”

“A woman, why that’s impossible,” Joe explains “look at how closely it resembles the other female statues I have over there. And besides, there aren’t any real women. That’s just a myth.”

“Of course they look alike; not because she looks like the statues but because the statues look like and are modeled off of her. How could there be any female  statues at all if there wasn’t a real woman out there to be a model.”

“But everyone knows that real women are just  make-believe.”

“Not according to the person standing in front of us.  Besides, that’s what we’re trying to determine. Your  assumption makes any evidence for the contrary  impossible.”

And so it is with many scholars of comparative  religion towards Christianity. But by examining their  arguments and their assumptions, along with  studying the Bible intensely and looking at the  comparisons it has with other stories, we see the parallels between Christ’s life and pagan  stories to be good reason to support Christianity.

Conclusion

C.S. Lewis called the Gospel “Myth become Fact.” Through the Gospel, the yearnings present in  every man’s heart from the beginning of time are met. Through Christ, the need for an atonement and rebirth is fulfilled. God has given us a religion that is both true and beautiful, and that stands out from pagan myths. This is the good news that Christ and the apostles after Him proclaimed. We have something worth being joyful about and spreading.

 

[1] By this concept, I mean the central Christian event that the Son of God (the second Person of the Trinity) took to Himself human Nature. I suggest reading St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation or St. Anselm’s Why the God-Man for more insight into this deep topic.

 

Max is a sophomore in Morse College majoring in Physics and Philosophy.

 

Jesus and the Problem of Myth

Image: Figure Study (detail) by Emily Moenning, The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Spring 2015

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