Lots of people (esp. on the Internet!) say that the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection were modeled on widespread beliefs in the pagan world of “fertility” gods, whose life-cycle dictates the fertility of the earth. They are born (spring); they become productive as the earth becomes fertile (summer); they become ripe for harvest (autumn); and then they die (winter). But they “rise again” (spring) and the pattern then repeats itself. Wasn’t Jesus like that?
That is the question I was asked in this final segment in my interview with Ben Witherington, a prominent evangelical biblical scholar. Ben and I don’t agree about a lot when it comes to religion, and have crossed academic swords in public contexts. But we have an amicable relationship and agree on some very basic things. For example: Jesus existed! Hey, it’s a start.
And we agree a lot on the relationship of Jesus to Judaism and the need to situate him in his own Jewish context (rather than some mythical pagan context). And so, here is the final question and answer of the interview..
Q. In what way is the Jewish notion of a resurrection a different idea than either the fertility crop cycle idea, or what is sometimes said about pagan deities that either disappear or die?
A. One of the reasons for thinking that the belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is not exactly like what you can find in pagan myths about their gods is that it is solidly rooted in Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the first century. This should come as no surprise, since Jesus and his followers were not pagans with pagan views of the divine realm, but first-century apocalyptically minded Jews. In some pagan circles, there was a belief in fertility gods, who would spend some time in the underworld and some time in this world, alternating year after year. These gods were closely connected to the crops: they (both the crops and the gods connected with them) die in the winter and come back to life in the spring. And they do that year after year. That obviously is not like the early Christian belief in Jesus, who does not
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