(Continued from Part I) In the late 1980s, Jonathan Z. Smith wrote an article on the “dying-rising gods” in the scholarly and authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion, and showed that the notion that there was a widespread category of gods who died and rose again was not based on a careful reading of ancient sources. “The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts,” Smith said.
These so-called parallels often result from some scholars uncritically describing pagan beliefs and practices in Christian language, and then being in awe at the striking similarities they think they have discovered. “It appears that mythicists have not read Jonathan Z. Smith, and do not realize that there is no unambiguous evidence for the historical argument that ancients believed in dying and rising gods before the time of Jesus, and that therefore the story of Jesus is just a historicized version of that myth,” said Theologian, Bart Ehrman.
Most source material about the pagan religions alleged to have influenced early Christianity are dated very late. Frequently, skeptics quote from documents written 200 – 300 years after Paul in efforts to produce ideas that apparently influenced Paul’s story of the resurrection of Christ. “We must reject the assumption that just because a cult had a certain belief or practice in the third or fourth century after Christ, it therefore had the same belief or practice in the first century,” said the late Professor Ronald Nash, who taught and studied philosophy and apologetics for over forty years.
Too many skeptics use this late source material uncritically and then reason back to what they think must have been the earlier nature of these pagan myths. “This practice is exceptionally bad scholarship and should not be allowed to stand without challenge,” Nash asserts.
So, what constitutes good scholarship? In his exhaustive research book on the resurrection of Jesus from a historiographical approach, Dr. Michael Licona devoted a lengthy chapter on important considerations for historical inquiry pertaining to the truth in ancient times.
“Perceptions involve interpretations based on the horizon of the subject and/or author,” Licona said, explaining that each one of us has a so-called “horizon” in which we filter information; in other words, our worldview and presuppositions. To establish a historical fact, the scholar must try to transcend his horizon by submitting his ideas to unsympathetic experts, consequently, detaching oneself from bias. If research cites sources that only confirm a particular horizon, then objectivity is not achieved, making a hypothesis implausible.
All good scholarship should include explanatory scope and power, meaning that it includes the most relevant data and quality of facts. No one should push the facts to fit a theory. The pagan myth theory possesses an ad hoc component because it enlists non-evidenced assumptions, relying largely on amateur sources rather than serious, academic sources.
In direct contrast, the sources surrounding the resurrection of Christ are credible. Skeptics often accuse biblical scholars of using the New Testament documents alone to justify the historicity of Christ, as if that is less credible. It must be noted, however, that when the gospels were written, the New Testament didn’t exist. These were separate, ancient manuscripts circulating in the first-century, testifying to eye witness accounts of a bodily resurrection of Jesus. It wasn’t until the fourth-century that these manuscripts were canonized into what we know today as the New Testament. Using New Testament documents as historical source material is considered reasonable by most historians today.
For those not satisfied in using the gospels alone to attest the historicity of Christ, there is solid extra-Biblical evidence to demonstrate that Jesus was a bonafide historical figure. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote Annals in the first century in which he mentions Christ. A contemporary of Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, was known for executing Christians who would not recant their faith. In a letter to Emperor Trajan, (Lib. X, 96: C. Plinius Traiano Imperatori),he shares how he handled Christians brought to trial before him. Josephus was a Jewish aristocrat who also wrote extra-biblically about Jesus. In Jewish Antiquities, he writes, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man…” There is ample evidence that Jesus Christ was a historical figure based on these historical documents, among others not cited.
(Part III will be published in the next blog.)