Here I continue with the Q&A I had years ago with evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, focused on my book Did Jesus Exist. I think I can say with relative confidence that this is the ONE book of mine that evangelicals on the whole were (mainly) pleased with. A nice change! And why do they like it? Because I argue there must have been a man Jesus. OK, then! Doesn’t seem like a lot to be grateful for, but I’ll take what I can get.
Ben’s questions were more astute than that, dealing with some of the key issues at a scholarly level. Here are two more of them, and my responses.
Q. It appears that mythicists have not read Jonathan Z. Smith, and do not realize that there is no unambiguous evidence for the historical argument that ancients believed in dying and rising gods before the time of Jesus, and that therefore the story of Jesus is just a historicized version of that myth. Why do you think this theory of dying and rising gods became so popular in the 20th century, and what caused its scholarly demise? Was there new evidence that Smith and others unearthed, or just closer reasoning about the existing evidence?
A. Yes, for a long time it was widely thought that dying and rising gods were a constant staple of ancient pagan religions, so that when Christians claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they were simply borrowing a common “motif” from pagan religions. This view was first popularized by Sir James George Frazer at the beginning of the twentieth century in his enormously influential (and very large) book, The Golden Bough. (As I explain in Did Jesus Exist, Frazer did in his day what Joseph Campbell did in ours – popularized the view that at heart, all religions are basically the same).
This view was exploded by Jonathan Z. Smith in the late 1980s, chiefly in an article on the “dying-rising gods” in the scholarly and authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion. Smith showed that
You will sometimes hear people say that Christians talked about Jesus’ resurrection other gods in the ancient world were said to die and then be raised from the dead. Is that true? Join the blog and you can keep reading! Click here for membership options