Gospel Lifts

By Ed Neumann, May 12, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Are the gospels purely historical accounts, or were elements borrowed from pre-Christian myths and rituals?

Those who’ve studied both ancient mythology and the bible often come away with the impression that certain scenes in the gospel narrative were purposeful literary imitations of older myths. Dennis MacDonald, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology, relates a striking example of one such lift by demonstrating how the disciples James and John had been based, at least in part, on the Gemini Twins.

The Twins, Castor and Pollux, had a mortal father named Tyndareus, while also going by the collective epithet Dioscuri—sons of Zeus, “the Thunderer.” Famed as Argonauts about whom bright-eyed muses would sing, Jove’s boys were also known to call fire down from the sky—referring to their father’s lightning bolts—and had been known in Greek myth to have destroyed entire villages with that power. Ancient coins and gems often depict them positioned on either side of enthroned deities such as Zeus, Serapis, Mars, and Mithras.

Compare these facts with the story of James and John in the Gospels. They are sons of the mortal Zebedee, yet in Mark 3:17, Jesus gives them the collective label Boanerges—“Sons of Thunder.” In Mark 10:35-40, we find James and John—who are always together and even seem to speak in unison—requesting to sit on the right and left of their Lord in his glory, the heavenly throne.

But the smoking gun is Luke 9:54. When Jesus is refused entry into a Samaritan village, the brothers ask, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them?” Jesus rebukes them for their quick tempers, but it’s assumed they have this power.

Really? These two backwater fishermen could order destruction from the sky? No wonder Jesus wanted them on his team!

A possible model for another gospel scene was the ancient Jewish Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16 describes the scapegoat ritual performed during the annual Yom Kippur observance. The high priest of the temple would order two identical goats brought to the altar, where he would kill one in blood sacrifice while the other was released into the wilderness to carry away the people’s sins.

Recall the pre-crucifixion scene in Mark. In what was not at all traditional, Pilate asks the mob to choose who they would have him set free, the murderer Barabbas or Jesus? The crowd chooses to release Barabbas, a name meaning “son of the father.” Interestingly, in ancient Syriac manuscripts he was Jesus Barabbas.

So here we have Jesus, son of the father released into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel, while Jesus, Son of God the Father is sacrificed to atone for those sins. Historian Richard Carrier feels Mark’s allegorical setup clearly duplicates this two goat tradition.

Finally, since before Christian times, the death & resurrection of Romulus was celebrated in an annual public ceremony in Rome. According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of the god Mars and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia. Rome’s king and namesake, Romulus, was killed by the first Roman senate. His corpse vanished from the tomb and he subsequently appeared to his loyal follower Proculus (Latin—“to proclaim”) on the road from Alba Longa to Rome. The demigod orders him to announce a message to his fellow Romans—if they are virtuous, they will conquer the world.

Likewise in Luke, after Jesus is killed and his corpse vanishes, he appears to Cleopas (Greek—“to tell all”) on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Jesus, too, orders his follower to proclaim his words.

Let’s look at the parallels: Both Romulus and Jesus are born of virgins and are hailed as “God,” “Son of God,” and “King.” Both incarnated to establish kingdoms and are killed by a conspiracy of ruling powers. Both of their deaths were accompanied by a supernatural darkness, and both corpses later vanish. Both appear around the break of dawn to close followers whose names literally mean “to proclaim,” traveling from east to west on roads of roughly equal length. Romulus’ ethereal body gleams, befitting his glorious message of empire. Jesus materializes in humble disguise, befitting his message of humility—that the virtuous will join the spiritual kingdom.

The similarities here are too numerous to be accidental. The scenes appear to be parallel myths, the latter intentionally lifted from the former.

These were only a few examples of many that clearly demonstrate Mark et al drew from earlier source material for their versions of the gospel tale. Though such imitation was not an uncommon practice in ancient story writing, it casts doubt on the assertion that the New Testament narratives are “gospel truth.”

Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society

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