Of course, Christ had followed a long procession of man-gods in the ancient world, many of whom were said to have performed prodigies and who shared with Christ the tradition of a virgin birth, a divine nature, a resurrection, and an ascension. And so it appears that the miracles surrounding Christ, including his divine nature, were very likely modeled on the miracles of more ancient cultures — and are therefore mythical. In this respect, the miracles of the Old and New Testaments share a common heritage. [Robert Gillooly, “Shedding Light on the Light of the World: How Original Are The Miracles of Christ,” from Free Inquiry: Celebrating Reason and Humanity 25, no. 1 (December 2004/January 2005), page 30]
I purchased a copy of Free Inquiry magazine not too long ago (for those of you who may not know, it is a secular humanist magazine collection featuring articles that attempt to discredit all religion of any kind, at least from what I’ve gathered so far). The particular edition I picked up, the December 2004-January 2005 edition, was based on the direct advice of Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion, where he mentions Gillooly’s article:
In the December 2004 issue of Free Inquiry…Robert Gillooly shows how all the essential features of the Jesus legend, including the star in the east, the virgin birth, the veneration of the baby by kings, the miracles, the execution, the resurrection and the ascension are borrowed — every last one of them — from other religions already in existence in the Mediterranean and Near East region.” [Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: First Mariner Books, 2008), page 119]
It was Richard Dawkins’s advice that motivated me to pick up a copy. So, I did.
Gillooly’s quote above is one I’ve heard before. Contrary to atheist belief that Christians have never heard such arguments, I have. I’ve read enough atheist literature to know when the same argument is recycled again, and again, and again. Of course, I am quoting from a 2004-05 article, but this argument is still being used and propagated by atheists today — even in 2018!
The claim Gillooly makes is that prior to the written Scriptures regarding the birth and life of Jesus (that is, prior to the four Gospels), many religious traditions in pre-biblical times had the same themes of a star to mark the deity’s birth, the deity’s human and divine natures, miracle-working wonders, death, and resurrection. Since these themes are common in the ancient world and aren’t unique to Christianity, then Christianity must be false.
And yet, the truth claim of Christianity has little to do with the fact that it shares common themes with other traditions. After all, no matter the religion, all religions will claim that their leader is deity; does that make Christianity false because it claims that Jesus Christ alone is God? No, of course not.
Let’s dive into a little bit of reasoning on the matter.
The common themes of Christianity and other religions: Why the argument makes little sense
A few examples will suffice to show that common themes are not an argument against the Bible’s authenticity.
If someone has an idea for a business and goes and publishes it, and then finds out that someone else has a similar idea for a business, does that mean that the person’s hard work to craft an idea is false? No it doesn’t. We know that in the world, certain ideas are common to humanity and resurface from time to time.
Copyrighting Book Titles
The US Copyright Office says in its laws that it is unable to copyright titles to books: what this means is that, ten years down the line, someone could take my book title or the book title of thousands of other authors and plaster them on new books written by new authors. If those authors write new books, are their works invalidated because they use a title that has been used by other authors? No. Perhaps it’s the case that they simply thought the title was more fitting for their book. And apart from the title of the work, what about the content itself?
The content of books that share the same title could be as different as night and day, with later books having better content than their shared-title counterparts before them. One can never tell what a book will turn out to be by looking at or reading a title. It’s been said to “never judge a book by its cover,” but we can all agree to “never judge a book by its title” as well. Dismissing a book because of its title is too presumptuous, too initial a reaction, to rise to a hasty judgment without examining the words on the pages, the chapters, the argument over the chapters the author makes.
Elements of Successful Narrative
What does it take to write a successful book? If you’re writing a fictional work such as “The Adventures of Sally Sue,” you’ll need to make sure to keep the reader interested. Nearly every English class I’ve ever taken in life (even at the university level and beyond) starts by focusing on key elements for a successful narrative or a story with a plot line. First, there has to be development of a character (readers don’t like stale, static characters, but love dynamic ones that grow and change and perhaps come back full circle after having fallen from their initial state); then, there has to be a conflict that ultimately, is resolved.
These are not all the successful elements of narrative, but they are what you’ll hear in every English course taught in the world. Why? Because the basic narrative foundations have proven successful time and time again. And yet, despite the basic narrative foundation and elements of successful narrative, are there not manifold works across the world that are unique and different in their details?
I say all this to say that one cannot rule out the four Gospels because they share elements with other works of the ancient world. Even Gillooly points out a specific claim about how the four Gospels and Jesus are different from other ancient-day works and deities:
The virgin birth of Christ followed Greek tradition in that a god, the Holy Spirit, breathed the figurative seed of Christ into the Virgin Mary’s womb; but it departed from the Greek tradition, as exemplified by the amorous Zeus, in that there was no suggestion of sexuality connected with the event…Thus, in the best tradition of classical antiquity, but with no concession to sexual imagery, a god begat a man-god through the agency of a mortal woman. And Jesus was born of Mary.” (Robert Gillooly, “Shedding Light on the Light of the World,” Free Inquiry 25, no. 1, page 28)
The four Gospels then, share themes with ancient-day religious works but differ from them as well. This makes the case for four genuine Gospels that tell a genuine, original story.
Why Common Themes Make the Case for the Bible and Christianity
I’ve given some examples to show how similarities do not, in effect, rule out differences, uniqueness, or even the authenticity of a claim (or the writings of the four Gospels). Now, though, I want to take time to show the biggest issue I have with Gillooly’s argument.
If three witnesses see a shooting between the police and a suspect break out, and all three witnesses have overlapping stories that match in many ways (with some differences), would law enforcement assume that the eyewitness accounts “couldn’t be trusted”? No; rather, they’d assume that there’s some kernel of truth to the stories because there are shared elements. This is the same approach Christians have used with regard to the four Gospels over the years.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all called “the Synoptic Gospels,” the word synoptic meaning “common,” or, “what is in common” (commonality). That is, what is shared between two or more things, items, or Gospels. And yet, Richard Dawkins says that there are so many differences as to rule the Gospels fabricated and unreliable as historical documents. Even the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are a testimony to their internal contradictions, Dawkins says.
Think about it: there are a lot of religious traditions recorded throughout history, yet many of these religious traditions believe in a deity (at least one for many, if not more), that the deity was born on earth with a star in the sky (Gillooly’s words) as a product of divine and human conception, who grew up to become an adult, did miracles, died a human death, and was then supernaturally resurrected.
What are we to make of this? Are we to conclude that all religions are false because of these common themes? Of course not. Only if you’re an atheist or secular humanist would you believe that to be true. Those of a religious persuasion would say that, contrary to Gillooly, the presence of common themes is powerful testimony to the fact that a God does exist, who was born as a star appeared in the sky to testify to His birth, a God who was born of a woman but was also divine, a God who performed miracles to testify to His identity, a God who died but rose from the dead. Yes, all these religions point to the truth that there is a God of whom all these things are true.
Christianity and the four Gospels, then, affirm common themes that can be found elsewhere in other ancient traditions. Their commonality with other ancient traditions is proof that there’s some kernel of truth to the Gospels and Christianity, not evidence against them.
As always, the question comes down to whether or not the common themes of all these ancient-day religions are true; if the common themes are all true, and only one religion or faith can be correct, then Christianity has at least solidified itself in the line of what can be termed credible faiths.
There have always been competing religious leaders and claims throughout history, as can be seen in Exodus 7:8-12 and Acts 5:34-39, but that doesn’t mean that Christianity is false. Rather, the similarities prove that even ancient-day religious traditions agree with Christianity. And the one difference, that Jesus wasn’t born out of sexual intercourse, is a unique claim that remains to be investigated.