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Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 8

CONTINUATION!   Ben Witherington, a conservative evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, has asked me to respond to a number of questions about my book Did Jesus Exist, especially in light of criticism I have received for it (not, for the most part, from committed Christians!).   His blog is widely read by conservative evangelicals, and he has agreed to post the questions and my answers without editing, to give his readers a sense of why I wrote the book, what I hoped to accomplish by it, and what I would like them to know about it.  He has graciously agreed to allow me to post my responses here on my blog, which, if I’m not mistaken, has a very different readership (although there is undoubtedly some overlap).   It’s a rather long set of questions and answers – over 10,000 words.   So I will post them in bits and pieces so as not to overwhelm anyone.  The Q’s are obviously his, the A’s mine.

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).

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Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 9
Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 7



  1. Avatar
    marcrm68  May 23, 2016

    What about Sol Invictus?

  2. Avatar
    Michele  February 27, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    “In the first case the deities return but have not died; in the second case the gods die but do not return”

    But scholars such as Barry Powell have suggested Dionysus as an example of resurrection because he dies and than returns. Is it true? What do you think about?

    Thank you,

    Michele Fornelli

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2019

      What ancient discussions is he thinking about?

      • Avatar
        Michele  March 1, 2019

        Specifically, I can’t indicate which discussions are he thinking. I think he refers to the legend in which Dionysus after being dismembered is brought back to life by a piece of his heart. This at least is the reason most often mentioned in the discussions of historians that attribute to Dionysus the idea of ​​resurrection. I don’t know if he is among them, but the result to which he comes is the same

  3. Avatar
    Michele  March 4, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    so what you think about Dionysus’ possible resurrection? Is it true or there’s an evaluation mistake of the legend ?

    Thank you very much,

    Michele Fornelli

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2019

      I’m afraid I’ve been on the road for a week and don’t have access to any of my books to see what the problem is — *summaries* of what happened are not of much use in seeing what the stories actually *say*, and so knowing the precise ancient source that the person is referring to is absolutely crucial. Could you remind me what it is?

      • Avatar
        Michele  March 5, 2019

        For example in the Encyclopaedia Britannica is wrote:
        “In Orphic legend (i.e., based on the stories of Orpheus), Dionysus—under the name Zagreus—was the son of Zeus by his daughter Persephone. At the direction of Hera, the infant Zagreus/Dionysus was torn to pieces, cooked, and eaten by the evil Titans. But his heart was saved by Athena, and he (now Dionysus) was resurrected by Zeus through Semele. Zeus struck the Titans with lightning, and they were consumed by fire. From their ashes came the first humans, who thus possessed both the evil nature of the Titans and the divine nature of the gods”

        Thank you Dr Ehrman,

        Michele Fornelli

        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2019

          Right: that’s a summary. I would need to see the ancient source.

          • Avatar
            Michele  March 6, 2019

            For example in the 5th–4th century BC Heraclitus, unifying opposites, declared that Hades and Dionysus, the very essence of indestructible life (zoë), are the same god.
            This actually concerns a kind of Trinity and does not in itself say much about the resurrection but for Taylor-Perry Rosemarie the role of unifying Hades, Zeus and Dionysus as a single tripartite god was used (in the Orphic religion) to represent the birth, death and resurrection of a deityand to unify the ‘shining’ realm of Zeus and the dark underworld realm of Hades.
            I’m sorry but this is the best I can do. Unfortunately, not being a scholar I can’t say I’ve an organized method of work for the search of the sources.
            Anyway, I don’t think that even if this is the case, these can provide a valid parallel with the traditions of Jesus. There may be similarities but I think they must be analyzed separately. Quite right?

            Thanks a lot,

            Michele Fornelli

  4. Avatar
    Michele  July 23, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    “All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities.  In the first case the deities return but have not died; in the second case the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity”.
    It is still so?

    Thank you for your kindness,

    Michele Fornelli

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2019

      Yup. Nothing’s changed on that front!

      • Avatar
        Michele  July 24, 2019

        Dr Ehrman,
        Dag Øistein Endsjø in “Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity” says that: “In his refutation of Frazer’s Greek ‘dying and resurrecting gids’ Jonathan Z. Smith for some reason did not discuss Frazer’s claim that Dionysus was among this deities”.
        I’ve found the ancient source that lead some historians to consider Dyonisus as a dying and resurrected gods. An Orphic variant called the Titanomachy, the battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans, found in Diodorus of Sicily 3.62.3 (= Orphica fr. 59.iii Bernabé):
        “The mythographers have reported a tradition that he also had a third birth: they say the god was born of Zeus and Demeter, and that he was torn apart by the Giants and boiled down. His body-parts were reassembled by Demeter and he was born anew, from scratch; and they link this story to various natural forces.”

        Other sources are:
        Philodemus On piety 16.1 Gomp.
        Servius on Georgics 1.166
        Proclus Hymns 7.11-15
        Cornutus Compendium 30

        What do you think about?

        Thank you,

        Michele Fornelli

        • Bart
          Bart  July 29, 2019

          Sorry — I looked all this up years ago when I was doing my research on it, and came away unconvinced. But I haven’t thought about it in years and don’t have any resources to look it up again just now (I’m out of the country). What I can say with some assurance is that Jonathan Z. Smith was intimately familiar with the myths about Dionysus! What I don’t know is what he said/thought about it, or what I concluded about it at the time. I’m afraid this one will have to wait.

          • Avatar
            Michele  July 29, 2019

            Thanks anyway Dr. Ehrman, if you don’t mind I’ll try to ask you the same question when you have more time to answer. I am very interested in your opinion about it!

            Good summer,

            Michele Fornelli

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