Thursday, August 6, 2009

Topics for Further Research: Religulous

Last night I was browsing in my neighborhood video store while Bill Maher's Religulous was playing on the display set. The segment I overheard excited my interest in only a negative way, though: Maher was questioning some Christian believer on Jesus' credentials as a deity. He mentioned that all around "the Mediterranean" for a thousand years before the Christian era, gods had shared certain traits and experiences. Krishna, for example, according to Maher, had been hanging around the Mediterranean for a thousand years before Christ, and was also a carpenter. The Persian god Mithras was around the Mediterranean for a thousand years before Christ, was born on December 25, died and rose from the dead on the third day. Maher mentioned a couple of other examples of gods from the Mediterranean who were also born on December 25, died and rose on the third day, and were born to virgins.

Or something. I promise I'll watch the damn movie soon and take notes. But what I heard last night indicated serious problems with Maher's polemic. Where did he get his "facts," I wonder? I'm not an expert on Hinduism, but I know a little and did some quick checking, and I can't find that Krishna was thought of as a carpenter. It's certain, however, that Krishna was never part of the Mediterranean pantheons -- he's an Indian god, from a good distance away from the Mediterranean.

Numerous gods, especially those associated with the sun, were said to have been born on December 25, around the time of the winter solstice when the days start getting longer and the sun 'conquers' winter darkness. Jesus acquired some sun-god traits as Christianity assimilated itself to Roman paganism, just as he acquired a priesthood and other accoutrements of Roman religion, and that may be why he was assigned a birthday in common with Dionysos, Apollo, and even Zeus. Wikipedia says,
According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the date of creation was considered to be on March 25th. The early Christian writer Sextus Julius Africanus (220 A.D.) thought this dating plausible and suggested that Christ became incarnate on that date. According to Julius, since the Word of God became incarnate from the moment of his conception, this meant that, after nine months in the Virgin Mary's womb, Jesus was born on December 25th.
Whether his followers borrowed the date from other gods or by speculation about the date of Creation, December 25th didn't become Jesus' birthday until a century or so after the New Testament was written. The biblical writers didn't know the year he was born, let alone the day.

I'm skeptical about the other similarities Maher ascribed to Mithras. It's not certain that Mithras had been around for a thousand years when Jesus was born. Mithras' cult left behind no written material, unlike the early Christian churches, so everything you hear about Mithras is speculation based on the imagery -- sculpture and murals -- in sites devoted to his worship. Some modern scholars have speculated that he was born on December 25, but I will have to see what basis these guesses have. One of my readers pointed me to claims that the cult of Mithras, like that of Jesus, involved drinking the blood of the god, but this turned out not to be true: Mithras killed a bull, and the blood of a bull was used was used in the Mithraic initiation rite, but it's not clear that the initiate drank the blood, or that the blood was identified with Mithras. (In the Christian cult, the god's literal blood isn't consumed, unless you consider Jesus to be a wine god.)

Other gods, like the Egyptian Osiris, died and were resurrected, but usually in different ways than Jesus, whose story was rather historically specific. Osiris, for example, in some versions was murdered by his brother Set and brought back to life by his devoted wife/widow Isis. If it was so normal for gods to die and rise, why did the early Christians encounter such derision for saying that theirs had done so? A lot of people work hard to find correspondences between Christianity and other religions, but many of the supposed parallels collapse under examination.

Maher was more confident in the claims he made than the facts warrant. It doesn't look like he's in any position to criticize Christian believers for gullibility or carelessness about the truth. I'll watch Religulous soon and post more about it.