Sunday, January 2, 2011

Justin Martyr and the Virgin-born, Dying, Rising Man-Gods

Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr penned the work Dialogue with Trypho the Jew in which he sets forth numerous Hellenistic and Jewish objections to Christianity. Many of the objections addressed are placed into the mouth of a literary persona named Trypho, a Jewish objector to Christianity. Structured with Trypho as the objector, Justin provides his literary opponent with rebuttal. As valuable as Justin's replies can be esteemed as an attestation to early Christian (c. 130 CE) thinking and practice, the objections raised by Trypho provide an equally valuable insight into perceived Jewish and pagan thinking about Christianity.

In both Dialogue with Trypho the Jew and elsewhere, Justin records that Jews and pagans alike accused Christianity of borrowing or even plagiarizing from antecedent myths and legends. One such example is as follows:

For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter's] intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that Hercules was strong, and travelled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, 'strong as a giant to run his race,' has been in like manner imitated? And when he [the devil] brings forward sculapius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ? (Chapter LXIX, Roberts-Donaldson English Translation)

Justin here outlines items of the Christian Jesus narrative that find parallel in preceding legends. These include the following:

  • divine conception
  • healing the sick
  • raising the dead
  • violent death
  • resurrection
  • ascension to heaven
  • use of wine ["in his mysteries"]

Justin argues that "the devil" created the false narratives of these false deities. Justin then uses the Hebrew Bible in a rather associative, non-literal way to bolster his claims for Jesus. However, if all of the other divinely-conceived, healing, dying, rising, and ascending gods were phonies, how do we, today, know that Jesus in the Gospels is not just another divinely-conceived, healing, dying, rising, and ascending man-god—the product of a process of apotheosis and legend making? Frankly, we do not, and we need to apply the same naturalistic bias to all of these myths and so render them improbable and evidence of the common human tendency toward worshiping archetypes.

Does this of necessity devalue the Gospels? Does this mean that we should jettison the entire collection of writings in the New Testament and throw the baby out with the bathwater? If the Gospels and the New Testament literature can be taken critically and appreciated for what they are, then we need to keep them. We need to maintain them as part of our cultural heritage and an attestation to earlier ways of thought. However, if they become sheltered from criticism, placed on the pedestal of absolute inspiration and inerrancy, then not only do we do them and their writers a disservice, but we chose ignorance and outmoded ways of thought in lieu of learning and progress.

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