I feel the need to rant a bit. Hopefully, something more substantive will arise from this, but for now I'm just upset and discouraged. The parallelomania by many Jesus mythicists has begun again.
It seems to come in waves. I suspect it has something to do with school and college (perhaps biblical studies has not yet reached its own Eternal September), but I have no way of proving it. Someone will write a blog post or an article at some magazine and the blogosphere ignites with it again.
The problem to me is not the Jesus Myth hypothesis. That is a valid exploration of the historical data (or to be more accurate, the near lack of historical data). I have my own argument with supporters of the Mythic position (usually about their binary approach to historical data, an approach that may have merit in the hard sciences but not as much in the soft sciences like history). My argument is with the parallelists.
These are the parasites that hang onto the discussions of the Jesus Myth hypothesis. "If there was no historical Jesus," the historicist asks, "then every aspect of his life, not just the miraculous and supernatural, is an invention. Where did the non-supernatural parts of the story arise?" A fair question and one that can be answered by looking at yet-older Jewish apocalyptic ideas and Jewish numerology.
Enter the Parallelist: a certain brand of Mythicist that is even more excited about the non-historicity of an ancient, Jewish apocalyptic prophet than the regular Mythicist or Historicist. They know where every aspect of Jesus's life came from. They came from everywhere else, obviously.
The Parallelist is quick to produce long lists of parallels. And they certainly seem compelling! Mithra, a divine being of Zoroastrianism, was born on December 25! Horus, the son of the Egyptian god Osiris, was baptized! Both Horus and Mithra had twelve disciples! Mithra was known as the "Good Shepherd" and the "redeemer"! Horus was crucified and rose from the dead! Even the Greek god Dionysus died and rose again, and he turned water into wine!
Wow! What a list, eh? It sounds so much like Jesus it'd take a complete idiot to not see a connection, right?
Here's my mean, rude, and completely hurtful statement: it takes a complete idiot to not at least attempt some research of these statements and just takes them for granted. Seriously, we're dealing with history here, and what is the provenance of these claims? The answer: for most of what I just listed there is none.
And every time I bring this up it seems I tend to tick off at least one of the Parallelists. I've been accused of being a biased Christian. After explaining that I am not a believer in the supernatural propagandas presented by the ancient Christian texts I've been accused of being a biased historcist. Because obviously if I stand with a particular hypothesis then my reasoning for supporting that hypothesis must be because of confirmation bias, whereas the reason they support their hypothesis has to do with "evidence" and totally not confirmation bias.
Here's the crux of how it stands. You can take the position that there was no historical existence of a First Century Jewish apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who was executed by the state for insurrection. That is fine. You can reject the historicity of the gospels as biased sources written decades after the fact; they are. The crux of the Jesus Myth Hypothesis is the lack of evidence. The Parallelist is occupying no more than a sideshow of the tent trying to grab the limelight from the main ring by being loud and showy. And by not being above some exaggeration and occasionally some outright creative construction of facts.
Those of us who grew up in the LDS Church are familiar with the works of Dr. Hugh Nibley. No matter what you think of him, he was an intelligent man and he has left a lasting mark on LDS scholarship. And when it came to defending the historical claims of Mormonism, Nibley enjoyed the use of parallel most of all. Those of us who have left have had to deal with his parallels between scholarship about the Ancient World and "How Could Joseph Smith Have Know This?" His parallels are, at first glance, impressive. But once you start looking into their source you see how they begin to break down.
The same is true of a disappointing majority of the Jesus Myth parallels. Sorry, Horus wasn't baptized. Sorry, Mithra wasn't born on Christmas (unless you're going to argue that the Roman cult of the Unconquerable Sun established by Marcus Aurelius was in actuality centered around Mithra: that's a doubtful claim you'll need to back up, too). Horus didn't have twelve disciples. Mithra wasn't known as the "Good Shepherd". If you've been passing these lists around you need to know that you have been duped (by people who have in turn been duped) and you haven't done the due diligence to back it up.
And if you are feeling angry and upset at my claim here, there is an easy way to resolve it that doesn't involve yelling at me: prove me wrong. My claims are falsifiable. I am claiming that the majority of those lists you see all over the Internet about figures like Mithra, Horus, and Dionysus are not accurate claims that can be backed up by direct textual evidence. All you need to do is to provide the quote from the ancient scroll(s) or inscription(s) that is the source for the parallel. Go ahead and dig into the sources from the books and YouTube presentations that lie behind the Parallelist claims. I'm pretty confident that you will emerge perhaps still a Mythicist but no longer a Parallelist. The sources are not there, and many of them were fabricated long ago (which is why I don't bear anyone now living much ill will over this; the faulty data was created generations ago).
Here's what you will find. You will find that there are certainly some parallels from various cultures. You will find, for instance, in one particular book evidence of Horus being conceived without sexual intercourse (in the more poetic "Book of the Dead"). But once you find the original sources you'll see that you are dealing with a stretched interpretation within the context of the source itself (Isis, Horus's mother, is certainly not a virgin even if you argue that Horus is conceived without sexual union with Osiris). You'll find that there are far more texts from the same culture spread across centuries of time that don't support the few true parallels you discover. And the very definition of confirmation bias is to support only the evidence in support of your theory while ignoring the evidence against it. Because even in the end, it's not enough to show that the parallel could have existed. You'll need to show the relative probability of this cultural viewpoint spreading to a small Jewish movement of the First Century. How likely was it that the nascent Jesus movement would have even been aware of the parallel in the first place to pull it from the foreign culture into the Jewish movement?
I respect the Jesus Myth position even as I have rejected it. Proponents of the Mythicist position have forced scholars to examine more closely the so-called genuine letters of Paul and their authorship as well as the nature of ancient Roman historical documentation entirely. Science, whether hard like physics or soft like history, is invigorated by scholarly critique and I believe that the position of the Historicist is benefited by the skepticism of the Mythicist.
However, the Jesus Myth Parallelomania is not the same as the Jesus Myth Hypothesis and it deserves to stand up to scholastic scrutiny and to live or die by the source materials. About the only thing I can think of that has resulted from this regurgitation of old lists is a renewed emphasis into the role of cultural astronomy in the ancient world view. So many of the parallels dovetail with ancient myths involving Venus, the solstice, and other aspects of the sky and the seasons. The ancient world was one where the stars were easily visible at night, and I do not doubt that there is merit in analyzing anew the relationship between the natural world and the creation of religious myth in the ancient world. But that does not mean that this relationship necessarily gave rise to aspects of the story of the supernatural Jesus's life: aspects that can be just as easily explained by an appeal to Jewish mysticism and numerology as they are to far-flung ideas of Sumerian myth and the Vedas. Just as they can also be partially explained by the short life of a poor, itinerant Jewish prophet from Galilee.
Oh and before I get the angry comment about my hypocrisy let me lay out my hypocrisy in the clear here: I'm not going to be putting footnotes on this blog post. I'm not going to be backing up my claims here with citations. As I said at the beginning, this is a rant written in the frustration of emotion. Go ahead and call my claims into question as I've called yours into question. And then why don't you begin to research your own position a bit further than you already have. Don't just depend upon some rock star scholar that you trust who taught these parallels to you. If they deserve the rock star status you give to them they'll have done the scholastically responsible thing of providing at least a bibliography where you can begin you search. Prove me wrong. I'm pretty confident, at least based on the work I've done myself actually trying to do so while I was myself a proponent of the Mythicist position, that you'll emerge with a better point of view on the uselessness of parallelomania.