A popular theory that some hold to is that Christians invented Jesus based off of earlier pagan deities such as Osiris, Horus, Mithras, Romulus, and many others in the seemingly endless list of gods these people produce. Almost all of them having been refuted by now, and so the pool of available options to produce a predecessor to Jesus has become strikingly small. Any reader of the four Gospels and epistles of Paul will clearly realize that the primary literary source of information and inspiration for the accounts of the Christians were obviously the texts of the Old Testament, not the Iliad or the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Nevertheless, many persist. Recently, in academia, two such claims have arisen. The first is from the scholar Dennis R. MacDonald, who has extensively written arguing for the claim that Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad formed the hypotext, the key to the composition of Mark’s Gospel on the basis of the application of methodologies he formulates like mimesis and transvaluations (his first book on this was published in 2000). Shortly after the publication of MacDonald’s works, he was refuted by a number of scholars, including the scathing critiques of scholars like Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes. Recently, Daniel Gullotta has also demonstrated numerous problems everywhere throughout MacDonald’s thesis (see pp. 336-340 of his paper). Even someone adopting MacDonald’s concept of mimetic criticism like Adam Winn concludes after reviewing MacDonald’s thesis that “MacDonald is unable to provide a single example of clear and obvious Markan interpretation of Homer… because MacDonald’s evidence is at best suggestive, it will ultimately convince few” (Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material (2010): 38-49)
Even more recently, however, another position has risen up to replace this one. In 2010, the scholar Richard C. Miller published a paper titled Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity in 2010 to the Journal of Biblical Literature, arguing that the entombment and resurrection narrative in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:1-8) was ultimately based off of the legendary Roman deity Romulus, acclaimed to have been the founder of Rome who was subsequently translated into heaven. Miller argues that the widespread influence of Hellenism and Greco-Roman culture on the authors who composed the Gospel accounts would have allowed them to be familiar with these myths. I have to applaud Miller on the point that his work presents the most well-argued case for pagan influence on the Gospels yet available, including his dense collection of the relevant material that he is working with and his cogent research into the Greco-Roman world throughout the centuries. Miller’s work has not changed the nature of scholarship on the Gospel of Mark or the historical Jesus. As early as 1993, Craig Evans wrote in a paper titled Life-of-Jesus Research and the Eclipse of Mythology that “the New Testament Gospels are now viewed as useful, if not essentially reliable, historical sources. Gone is the extreme skepticism that for so many years dominated gospel research” (pg. 14). So, while Miller’s thesis must be judged on its merits (just like MacDonald’s work was), the merits of his thesis, to be successful, would require a significant reworking of all the data that has lead to this conclusion. Greco-Roman influence undoubtedly influenced the Gospels, and to importantly note for the ongoing discussion, the standard work in the field on the genre of the Gospels is Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? (Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 2004) which argues that the Gospels were written under the genre of Greco-Roman biography, such as Plutarch’s Lives, which contrasts to Miller’s position which states that they were written and received as fiction.
Miller begins by outlining a widespread pattern, or topus of elements that belonged to pagan deities by which he later seeks to impute onto the picture of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. By adducing numerous examples throughout Greco-Roman literature, he successfully establishes that many deities were regularly thought to have (1) suddenly vanished and then (2) get translated into heaven where they (3) undergo deification (become a god) and (4) are worshipped. They vanish immediately before or right after their death because “the body must not see decay, lest the remains demonstrate in perpetuity the mortal status of the hero” (pg. 764). Miller then starts providing numerous sources where this occurs in pagan literature;
The ubiquity of this topos, as Pease did aver, persists, yielding a robust array of literary instances throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Once Herakles had ascended his martyr’s pyre, as Diodorus Siculus and Lucian attest, Zeus sent his mighty thunderbolt consuming Herakles, wood, and all in conflagration. The bystanders afterward, being unable to find Herakles’ charred bone remains amid the ash, declare that he had been translated and had achieved the rank of the demigods (Diodorus Siculus 4.38.14; Lucian, Cyn. 13). Statius and Herodianus tell of the body of Homer’s deceased Ganymedes having disappeared at Zeus’s decree that he be deified so as to become his heavenly court cupbearer (Statius, Silvae 3.4.12–18; Herodianus Historicus 1.11.2). Pindar tells of Amphiarus having disappeared along with his horses and chariot within an opened fissure in the earth, having achieved heroic status (Nem. 10.14). Dionysius of Halicarnassus, likewise, records the disappearance of Aeneas, the epic hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, while in battle near Lavanium; the Latins built a “hero shrine” to him there with the inscription “To the father and god of this place, who presides over the waters of the river Numicius.” Because of his disappearance, they said that Aeneas had been “translated to the gods” (Ant. rom. 1.64.4–5). (pg. 764)
And Miller goes on and on and on. He also produces a lengthy citation of Plutarch’s Life of Romulus which contains the myths of Romulus that he posits that Mark directly borrowed from (Plutarch himself does not consider these myths to be true). However, from the outset, Miller’s thesis encounters a significant obstacle: the primary literary source for Mark and the other Evangelists, including Paul and every other Christian writer of the first century, was the works of the Old Testament, not any classical pagan/Greco-Roman mythology or writings. In fact, this is how the Gospel of Mark begins:
Mark 1:1-3: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
The opening/editorial of the Gospel of Mark immediately begins with an overt citation of the Old Testament scriptures. As the scholar Rikke E. Watts writes, “In keeping with the role of the opening sentence in literary antiquity, Mark’s sole explicit editorial citation of the OT should be expected to convey the main concerns of the prologue and, therefore, his Gospel” (pg. 90, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark). In other words, Mark explicitly tells us that it is the scriptures of Israel that is his main source and concern. This is why scholars are incredibly skeptical of the postulation of pagan sources, rather than Jewish sources, as the basis of any literary story in the New Testament. Of course, Miller knows about this fact and responds;
Several factors, in my view, conspire, prohibiting a clear understanding of how such a text would have likely performed in the ancient Mediterranean world. First, scholars tend to subsume Mark under a Judaic literary domain, thus seeking its primary semiotic indices and cultural conventions within early Jewish literature. There appears, however, to be little basis for this appetence, except a rather non-scholarly insistence on a “pristine,” “non-pagan” well from which the academy ought to draw nearly all cultural, literary, and ideological antecedents. (pg. 1)
Little basis? Actually, there is an overwhelming basis for why scholars do such a thing. Mark cites and alludes to numerous events, narratives, and people of the Old Testament, and forms a prophetic basis for a number of the things he reports about Jesus. Not only did Mark do this, however, but all the Evangelists, including Paul, did. This reflects the clear Jewish paradigm under which the life of Jesus proliferates by, which we see develops all throughout his ministry. Paul Eddy writes that “one of the most characteristic forms of Jesus’ teaching style-the parable-has no real Cynic parallels and is a fundamentally Jewish form” (pg. 461, Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis, italics not mine). There are literally hundreds of citations and allusions in the New Testament to the Old Testament, and not a single quotation, citation, allusion or reference in the New Testament to a single work of pagan mythology or pagan hero. In fact, the recent major and highly (!) important monograph of Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (BUP 2016) shows the sheer whirlpool of the world of the Old Testament that the Gospels were written under.
When producing many of the deities and examples Miller outlines to establish his topus, he refers to the authors that write about these pagan myths. These writers include Diodorus Siculus, Lucian, Plutarch, Statius, Herodianus, Pindar, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Vergil, Strabo, Sophocles, Aelian, Pausanius, Eusebius, and others. A problem to note here is that, while acknowledging the early existence of this topus, many of these authors couldn’t have been a source or influence of Mark since they were written decades or even centuries after Mark. Lucian, Aelian, Pausanius, Eusebius, Statius, Herodianus and many other sources Miller cites all wrote in the 2nd century and later, and Statius wrote in 80’s or 90’s, and therefore could not have been a source for Mark. Even Plutarch’s Life of Romulus, which is supposed to contain the primary myths that Mark supposedly drew from was written about half a century after Mark himself! I will admit though, on this point, that he does provide a number of sources that do predate Mark and so these are the ones we should be looking towards to find out if Mark is really doing what Miller tells us he’s doing.
Finally, we must take a look at Miller’s putative parallels. The legible features of pagan mythology Miller cites are, as I shall argue, either not legible, and if they are, can be traced to either the Old Testament or Greco-Roman biographical accounts rather than the writings regarding pagan mythology. One of the primary tenets of the myth pattern Miller adduces is that the hero becomes a god after they vanish at the end of their earthly lives and are translated into heaven. In Mark however, Jesus possesses divine status before his death throughout the course of the Gospel. When the High Priest asks Jesus “Are you the Messiah, Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus responds “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:60-62) — alluding to both Daniel 7:13-14, but more importantly, Psalm 110:1 (“seated at the right hand of the Power”) (for more on this significance, see Richard Bauckham, “Is High Human Christology Sufficient?” Sufficient?” 2017: 6). In Mark 6, we’re told that Jesus sees his people as “sheep without a shepherd”, which is a major intertextual echo to Ezekiel 34, a passage where Israel is portrayed as a scattered flock where the Lord God Himself looks on them and seeks to become their shepherd. Once Jesus finally dies after the crucifixion, the centurion confesses that “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39) all along. So Jesus never becomes a god after His death, Jesus already was one.
Also troubling is that Jesus is also never translated into heaven in the Gospel of Mark. After the women find Jesus’ tomb empty, the angels tell them that Jesus is risen and going ahead to Galilee! Miller also tries to draw a parallel from Romulus and other deities suddenly vanishing and the women finding Jesus’ tomb empty. However, this parallel too is superficial. In Plutarch’s Life of Romulus, Romulus’s body “disappeared suddenly, and no portion of his body or fragment of his clothing remained to be seen” (Plutarch, Rom. 27.4.5). On the other hand to Romulus’s sudden disappearance, Jesus is captured by the authorities, tortured, and crucified for all to see. After his death, Joseph of Arimathea eventually requests and receives permission from Pilate to bury Jesus’ body, and after he is buried, the women come a few days later to find the tomb empty. In contrast to Romulus’s sudden vanishment from, being completely healthy beforehand, Jesus’ path to disappearance is a clearly gradual and arduous process. Furthermore, the function of the story of disappearance of body is also different in Mark than in Plutarch’s work, because in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ body disappears because Jesus has been resurrected from the dead, and the empty tomb plays a function to indicate to the women that Jesus is no longer dead and is resurrected. Nothing like this ever happens in Plutarch. Is this a parallel?
Earlier, we’ve seen one part of Miller’s topus according to Miller is that “the body must not see decay, lest the remains demonstrate in perpetuity the mortal status of the hero”. This is exactly the opposite of what happens with Jesus. Not only does Jesus fail to suddenly disappear when he is threatened with death, but Jesus is interrogated, beaten and tortured, mocked, and crucified in front of entire crowds, where Jesus body remains there for hours until he finally dies. Additionally, Jesus constantly predicts his imminent death (8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:27-28) and even his resurrection (14:28) so much so that this is one of the primary themes of the Gospel of Mark. Yet, this is the opposite of what we would expect if Mark was basing his account off of a myth where one of the primary patterns is that the “mortal status of the hero” is not demonstrated. If Mark were trying to make it appear as if Jesus wasn’t mortal, he has done a terrible job. Every single major theme in Mark’s Gospel is nowhere to be found in Romulus or other Greco-Roman deities, and every major theme of the stories of Greco-Roman deities is nowhere to be found in Mark. Miller’s entire arguments rest on parallels that seem to be, at times, indistinguishable from non-existence (for example, see pp. 772-3 where he lists parallels like “taken away in a cloud” which appears a single time in Acts 1:9, and anyways, this likely parallels the OT, cf. Exodus 16:10, 13:21-22; Leviticus 16:2; 1 Kings 8:10-12, Nahum 1:3, etc, and especially 2 Kings 2:11 where a whirlwind takes Elijah away to heaven). Miller claims that the account of the earthquake and darkness over the earth after Jesus dies reflects pagan sources (Ovid, Metam. 14.816–22; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 2.56.2–6; Plutarch, Rom. 27.6–7), resulting in him missing the real intertextual echo for this account, namely where the Old Testament prophecies an earthquake and darkness over the earth in the days of King Uzziah:
Amos 8:8-9: Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.
Miller also posits that the claim that a work that claims to be the derivative of eyewitness testimony also constitutes evidence that it borrows from pagan mythology since apparently, pagan mythology claims that the information it contains has been transmitted through eyewitnesses, and thus the claim of eyewitness testimony is included in Miller’s topus of elements. Miller, however, cannot maintain this since works of Greco-Roman historiography and biography also stress eyewitness testimony and is reflected across many ancient historians, including Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, etc. According to William Campbell, “Thucydides … establishes strict criteria for the historical reliability of the events of the war to be included, claiming a preference for those that he observed personally or that were reported by eyewitnesses” (pg. 391, The Narrator as “He,” “Me,” and “We”: Grammatical Person in Ancient Histories and in the Acts of the Apostles). Polybius himself writes in his works “… because of the significance of events . . . but most of all because I have been not only an eyewitness to most of them, but of some a participant and of others even an administrator, I was persuaded to write” (3.4.13). One of Miller’s references to where the New Testament proclaims eyewitness testimony is in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, however in this Pauline passage, scholars have long noted his use of the words “received” (greek parelabon) and “delivered” (Greek paredoka) are the equivalent to the rabbinic terms for the passing on of tradition, which further shows this passage draws from Jewish rather than pagan thought. A powerful alternative to Miller’s thesis, as reflected extensively in our ancient Greco-Roman biographies (the primary genre historians consider the Gospels to reflect), is that the Gospels incorporated claims of eyewitness testimony as this was considered a reliable medium by the ancients to transmit information.
Towards the end of his paper, Miller produces a citation from the works of Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD) in his 1 Apol. 21, an early Christian who wrote that what the Christians proclaimed about Jesus, such as his virgin birth and death, is no different from what the pagans believed in their own deities, and so Miller takes this as a prima facie admission from Justin that the earliest Christians patterned their beliefs off of the Greco-Roman accounts. Of course, there are several historical and critical problems that disallow any such conclusion. To begin with, Justin’s account is evidently wrong when he says that “we are conveying nothing new”. By actually comparing any of the accounts of any of the legends Justin compared to Jesus, numerous dissimilarities quickly proliferate. Recently, Jan Bremmer has criticized Justin Martyr’s shallow comparisons;
In his book Justin comments on the similarities between Christian institutions and pagan ones. Regarding baptism he says that, having heard of the institution of baptism, demons instigated the pagans to rinse themselves when entering a sanctuary and to wash themselves when leaving. It is important to note that Justin does not connect baptism with Mystery rites, though modern scholars have often done so. His comparison is also not very persuasive. Pagan purificatory rites with water usually took place at the beginning of a ritual or when entering a sanctuary. Unlike baptism, it was thus not a unique event that changed a person’s position in life by making him the permanent member of a new group. Moreover, the Christians had a preference for ‘living water’, which certainly was not always the case in pagan sanctuaries. So why would Justin compare baptism to pagan rituals? (Bremmer, Jan. Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. De Gruyter, 2014, 156-7.)
Secondly, Justin, who wrote long after the doctrines of the New Testament had been written, simply didn’t know how the origins of these doctrines had ever came about, and so he is too unreliable when it comes to determining the origins of the belief in the virgin birth, crucifixion, etc. In some cases, we know some of the things Justin cites have no derivative from pagan ideologies, such as the virgin birth, which actually came from the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (LXX). Finally, as Bart Ehrman points out (Did Jesus Exist? pp. 213-214) Justin had a clear apologetical agenda by trying to make the Christian beliefs sound similar to the Greco-Roman beliefs — his entire argument is dependent on the fact that the Christians are very similar to the pagans, and therefore the pagans should not oppress or persecute them (1 Apol. 24), something that commonly occurred throughout the 2nd century AD (e.g. Pliny’s letter to Trajan). Not to mention the fact that many early Christians had an agenda to exaggerate similarities between Christianity and earlier pagan traditions to make it appear as if they were unsuspecting signposts for the coming of the ultimate truth of Christ. Bremmer also suggests further reason for why Martyr made these comparisons in pg. 157 of the aforementioned book. Miller also claims that Origen, Tertullian, Minucius Felix and Arnobius made similar admissions, however these ‘admissions’ are both vague and suffer from similar problems I’ve already mentioned (like, for example, the bias Justin had to intentionally exaggerate similarities). Sometimes, these writers actually even rebuke supposed similarities (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 55; Tertullian, Apol. 21; Origen, Cels. 3.23, 25). And to add on, Justin Martyr even said that while the demons tried to imitate the prophecies of Jesus Christ, they ultimately failed and thus did not actually replicate Jesus.
When they [wicked demons] heard it predicted through the prophets that Christ was to come, and that impious men would be punished by fire, they put forward a number of so-called sons of Zeus, thinking that they could thus make men suppose that what was said about Christ was a mere tale of wonders like the stories told by the poets… But, as I will make clear, though they heard the words of the prophets they did not understand them accurately, but made mistakes in imitating what was told about our Christ. (1 Apol. 54)
These are some of the problems I have with Miller’s thesis. I recommend everyone evaluates Miller’s arguments themselves, including reading his article and recent book Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge 2015). Wherever we are today, the evidence will unequivocally lead the future.
UPDATE: Richard C. Miller has responded to this post here on his Facebook page by accusing me of lunacy and delusion. He says during our email exchange I “eventually disclosed” that I was the author of the blog — in fact, I did so almost right away. He misclaims I see myself as “distinctly gifted” and “adopted the role of the Christian Defender of the Galaxy.” I tried engaging with this post and a few of the comments by requesting that everyone reads Miller’s arguments and my arguments for themselves and come to their own conclusions, although Miller just deleted all my comments and then blocked me.
In our email interactions, he accused me of deliberately maligning him and misrepresenting his arguments literally everywhere (and eventually swore at me). When I asked him to clarify, he just sent more of said emails. So I invited him to personally rewrite any sections of my portrayals of his arguments he thought was inaccurate, but I was just accused again of maligning his character (I made over a dozen edits to try helping this out, including adding positive comments about his work, distancing his work from fringe theories, and removing any comments he might have taken as offensive, but I couldn’t do any more after this point).
Miller did not try to address any of my arguments or requests for thoughts, instead saying he would rather see me look like a fool. He also likens my response to him like an amateur responding to a member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, although I have published in a professional historical encyclopedia before and so this would not be the most apt analogy. I can say nothing more since my arguments were not addressed, this update simply reflects my thoughts on his harsh-toned (one may borrow Miller’s words, maligning) post on what I wrote.
UPDATE 2: After further conversation and debate regarding specific arguments and elements on the nature of this discussion, me and Dr. Miller seem to have agreed to disagree (the conversation eventually included too many points at once) and, in the way I see it, let the evidence speak for itself once it has been unbiasedly reviewed from both viewpoints. To that, I say Amen.