Did Resurrection Myth Precede Jesus?

Sheera Frenkel of The Times (of London) reports a debate of a Dead Sea tablet called Gabriel’s Vision of Revelation. She writes:

Israel Knohl, a biblical studies professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued yesterday that line 80 of the text revealed Gabriel telling an historic Jewish rebel named Simon, who was killed by the Romans four years before the birth of Christ: “In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.”

Professor Knohl contends that the tablet proves that messianic followers possessed the paradigm of their leader rising from the grave before Jesus was born. …

Professor Knohl defended his theory at a conference at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem marking 60 years since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He said that New Testament writers could have adapted a widely held messianic story in Judaism to Jesus and his followers.

Others, of course, dispute this interpretation of a damaged text.

I regard it as an intriguing but unproved theory.

But it won’t affect modern Christianity, either way. If it were shown definitively that resurrection stories preceded Jesus, Christians would respond by saying that of course the resurrection was prophesied, and this is not diminished by its application to a false prophet.

It’s not as though this is the only myth suspected to precede Christianity; other resurrection myths are known to precede it. For example, Paul Tobin summarizes:

The myth of Adonis was known to the Greeks as early as the fifth century BCE. The Egyptian myth of Osiris dates back to at least 4,000 BCE and was recorded in detail by the Greek biographer Plutarch (c46-120 CE). The Persian Sun-God Mithras was mentioned in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus (c480-c245 BCE). The cult of Mithraism reached Rome in the first century BCE.

The way the early church fathers defended against the mystery religions showed that they knew these pagan myths antedated the Christian ones. Justin Martyr (c160-165) claimed that the devil plagiarized Christianity by anticipation with the pagan religions in order to lead people from the true faith. He claimed the myth of the virgin birth of Perseus, an ancient Greek legend that preceded Christianity, was pre-copied by the “deceiving serpent” (Dialogue with Trypho: 70). Similarly he asserted that the cultic rites of Mithraism had a diabolical origin (Apology 1:66). Tertulian (c160-c225) made the same claim: that it was the devil that provided this “mimicry” [notes omitted].

If you believe that there is a God who can raise people from the dead, that you will live forever in Heaven, that you talk to God, etc., then you’ll hardly be troubled by conflicting resurrection stories. This is, after all, about faith. If we restrict the discussion to proof, then all resurrection stories are easily recognized as myths.

One thought on “Did Resurrection Myth Precede Jesus?”

  1. From a non-Christian point of view, it is by no means necessary to show that other resurrection myths preceded Christianity, although it seems fairly clear–no matter what the scholarly obfuscators may claim–that this is in fact the case.

    On the contrary, it makes perfect sense to see e.g. Mithraism and Christianity as taking historical form at roughly the same time as responses to developments in the Roman world.

    In fact, historically speaking, this is a far more plausible view than one that requires strict genetic relationships between alternative versions of similar myths.

    The fact that a variety of materials went into the mix that created these contending cults, some older and some of longer standing, makes a non-Christian view more rather than less plausible, since the point is that Rome needed a cult to repair the gaps in the patchwork of its official beliefs, and that if Christianity had not arisen spontaneously it would have been as necessary to invent it as it was for the Alexandrian Greeks to invent Serapis.

    Likewise with regard to the historicity of Jesus, it is not essential to prove that there are no historical materials in the bricollage that is Christianity.

    There may have been someone called something like Jesus who was executed in some fashion by Romans, maybe even by Pontius Pilate, whose historicity is indisputable.

    But there is no factual evidence whatever to support projecting on this still-shadowy being any clear-cut narrative whatever. The problem is not a debate between a historical Jesus and a mythical Jesus, but rather the question of whether such historicity as Jesus may have possessed has anything substantially to do with what became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

    And that is the crux of the matter. If Christianity had not become the official religion of Rome, we would not be discussing Jesus today. That Christianity arose to that position out of a welter of contending cults that all addressed similar perceived deficits in the official patchwork of Roman religion is beyond dispute.

    The question is not whether this is true but what it means. How easy it is to lose sight of this fundamental matter! At its origins, Christianity is merely the most successful of a number of contending Roman cults.

    In my opinion, that is still the most useful light in which to regard it.

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