My good friend and fellow LDS researcher/scholar Ben McGuire has yet again written a profound response to a very good question which we Christians run across from time to time. McGuire's response is seriously thoughtful, and powerfully discussed. Well worth the reading! Thanks Ben for allowing me to post this!The Question is:I recently came across a video presentation courtesy of my ex wife
called zietgiest (one and two) which talks// shows parallels of saviour figures
thru mythology and biblical parallels...quite convincing figures that predate
christ and the hidden symbology meanings..has anyone come across this..quite
sophisicated anti christian thing before and is there any information that
dicusses this on a scholarly level..i understand this is meant to destroy faith
and the position of christ as the saviour<<Ben McGuires' Response:
There are several things that go on with this kind of claim. I know one of the professors at BYU who teaches statistics. One of the things he introduces to his students is the notion that apparently weird stuff happens. His example that he likes to use is of the guy who wins a million dollar lottery twice in a seven year period. The probability seems tiny. After all, the odds of winning once (in this example) is about 1 in 13 million. So the probability of it happening twice would seem to be that number squared - or 1 in a half quintillion. That just couldn't happen - so this guy must have cheated right?
However, this is all done by identifying things after the fact. It would have been that way if we attempted to identify this guy before he played the first time. However, given the number of people who play the lottery over that same seven year period, the odds of it happening to someone, somewhere is over 90%. What seems like a coincidence so unlikely to be unbelievable is actually quite reasonable. The same kind of issue happens here. Religions in general share a language of the sacred. They often independently relate their messages in similar ways. The more you read about this kind of process of comparison, the more you realize that what seemed quite convincing at first isn't really convincing at all.
If you want a basic overview and an understanding of this notion from a scholarly perspective, the very best work on the subject (at a reasonable price even) is a book by Johnathon Z. Smith titled _Drudgery Divine_ (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1994). You can get a copy from Amazon delivered for about $25.00.
Here are a couple of bits from that book -
"The most frequent use of the terminology of the ‘unique’ within religious studies is in relation to Christianity; the most frequent use of this term within Christianity is in relation to the so-called ‘Christ-event’. … The uniqueness of the ‘Christ-event’, which usually encodes the death and resurrection of Jesus, is a double claim. On the ontological level, it is a statement of the absolutely alien nature of the divine protagonist (monogenes) and the unprecedented (and paradoxical) character of his self-disclosure; on the historical level, it is an assertion of the radical incomparability of the Christian ‘proclamation’ with respect to the ‘environment’. For many scholars of early Christianity, the latter claim is often combined with the former so as to transfer the (proper, though problematic) theological affirmation of absolute uniqueness to an historical statement that, standing alone, could never assert more than relative uniqueness, that is to say, a quite ordinary postulation of difference. It is this illicit transfer from ontological to the historical that raises the question of the comparison of early Christianity and the religions of Late Antiquity." (p. 39)
Smith explains here that the notion of uniqueness in the context of early Christianity deals with two separate and distinct concerns. On the one hand,
there is the claim within Christianity of a Jesus that is absolutely incomparable (the ontological and theological claim). This is Jesus as God. On the other hand there is a statement of an environmental uniqueness – that the historical process was different (relatively speaking) from any other historical
process. The problem occurs as Smith notes when we suggest that ontological/theological claims are identical with the historical claims – and thus suggest that all we needs to be done to deny the ontological and theological claims is to place them in an environment by stressing similarities (and not differences) within that environment. This is what these comparisons try to do. Christian (and Mormon) apologists develop this concept of ‘uniqueness’ in response to charges that it was not in any way unique (even if there was and is some validity in the ontological arguments).
Smith's book then goes on to discuss this issue within the context of various religious movements and their opponents. These kinds of parallels are often effective (as you note) as a means to destroy faith because individuals often share misconceptions with those who forward these kinds of arguments. Larry Hurtado discusses this issue in some detail in his book _Lord Jesus Christ Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity_ (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2003). There he introduces two major lines of thought dealing with the development of the idea that Jesus was divine. The one group claims that there is nothing extraordinary about such a belief – it is easy to understand Jesus as divine simply because he was divine. The other group he describes “arose in large part in reaction against this naïve and ahsitorical view”. For these, the notion of Jesus as divine wasn’t particularly noteworthy either. After all, when viewed as a historical process, early Christian devotion could be seen as a natural expansion on ‘pagan’ views. But of these two positions, Hurtado notes:
"Before we proceed further towards analyzing Christ-devotion as a historical phenomenon, however, it may be helpful to note a relevant (and in my view misguided) assumption shared by both the pre/anticritical and the history-of-religion approaches. It is worth identifying because it continues to be influential in both popular and scholarly circles. This is the notion that the validity of a religious belief or practice is called into question if it can
be shown to be a truly historical phenomenon, and the product of historical factors and forces that we can attempt to identify and analyze. … Wishing to preserve the religious and theological validity of traditional christological claims, the anticritical view attempted to deny or minimize as far as possible the historically conditioned nature of early Christ-devotion. On the other hand,
the history-of-religion scholars were convinced that their demonstration of the historically conditioned nature of early Christ-devotion proved that it was no longer to be treated as theologically valid or binding for modern Christians. In both views the assumption is the same: if something can be shown to have arisen through a historical process, then it cannot be divine "revelation" or have continuing theological validity."
Hurtado sees the problem in terms of two sides competing with a similar but flawed set of assumptions. The assumption that Hurtado sees at work is that if something can be shown to arise through a historical process, then it cannot be revealed. This is largely the same argument that Jonathon Smith provided. The one side attempts to show that because of the historical process, the subject matter cannot be revealed. The other side denies the historical process and simply claims revelation. Hurtado is quite clear about this: “the misguided assumption I am criticizing here has obviously worked mischief in scholarship. ... it has led a good deal of historical-critical scholarship to opt for some simplistic historical analyses in the interest of opposing traditional Christian beliefs.”
The notion is applicable to your question – because the same principle is at work. The basic idea is that through the comparison, those things that we felt
were "original" or "unique" are shown to be perhaps quite ordinary. And the underlying notion is that not only is it quite possible for such a belief to have developed without a need for revelation or some kind of origin in God, but that it seems almost that we should have expected just such a development.
In the 18th century, this approach was widely employed by various groups generally in a polemical fashion to attack other religious groups. And in fact some of this literature had an influence on the early LDS Church and its leaders (for example, the idea of a "primitive church" as expressed in our Articles of Faith comes largely from this kind of literature). By the end of the 19th century, this kind of comparative effort had come under attack, and in the early 20th century (and certainly by 1930), this kind of approach had largely been abandoned within scholarly literature.
As an example, William E. Paden in the introductory material to his book: _Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion_ wrote (quoting the 1994
"Comparison has also been used as a polemical weapon by religions themselves to show the inferiority of other traditions and the superiority of one's own. It has been used to show that all religions are really the same. It has been used to show that all religions are false. Many people sense that the absoluteness of their own beliefs is threatened by the existence of parallels elsewhere. To there is a kind of politics of comparison.
In some ways comparison is simply unavoidable. We all employ comparison every day, and thinking itself is in large measure based on it. It is built into language and perception. What a thing "is" is determined by its similarity and diference with other things like or unlike it. Science would be impossible without it, and without it the realm of metaphor would vanish. The analogical process is part of the way every cultural system classifies its world.
Comparison can create error and distortion as well as insight and knowledge, and this is noticeably so in the area of relgion. Religious phenomena have been compared for centuries, but not necessairly in the pursuit of fair description or accurate understaning. Comparison is most often a function of self-interest. It gets used to illustrate one's own ideology. It easily becomes an instrument of judgment, a device for approval of condemnation."
Paden goes on to provide several guidelines for these kinds of comparisons that help to limit the abuse and enhance their use for understanding - I have summarized three of them here:
1 - Historical facts are necessary to keep comparisons honest - to challenge in particular generalizations that comparisons like to use (things are always more similar when we make generalizations about them as opposed to getting specific details).
2 - comparative analysis deals with analogy, not identity. It compares things that have similarities that are otherwise quite different. Looking at distintive and original features is just as important as looking at the similarities.
3 - Comparison is not an end in itself - it merely supplies a comparative perspective, which should add to our understanding of all of the elements being compared.
In the end, I think that Mormonism as a whole reacts to different aspects of this in different ways. On the one hand, we believe in ongoing revelation. There is no fixed canon. We do not believe that we already know everything that we need to know, or that all the necessary knowledge about God is already encoded in our scripture. In fact, we accept the idea that new revelation when it occurs (and when it becomes necessary) can correct or reinterpret or even replace what we previously held as revelation. We see in our own faith the idea that a religion can both be revealed and grow out of an environment that has influenced its past teachings and leaders. The other thing that we can see is that while it is also possible to compare Mormonism to other religious movements, and to talk about Mormonism on these same terms, we find that there are things within it that are quite distinctive and perhaps even original. When we look at the Christ event - when we look at Jesus Christ and his life and teachings - it isn't so much the things that we find everywhere that are useful to help us understand our faith - it is the things that are very distinctive. To use the language that Johanthon Smith used in the first book I quoted from, when we place Christianity within a historical context, we may find things that are not unique, that are shared with other events and movements and religious narratives. But, within its ontological and theological context, Christianity presents us with something that is not ordinary, and that is not commonplace, and any simplistic analysis will simply avoid this part of the discussion, pretending (as Smith tells us) that these two issues are merely one and the same.
The more you read of current approaches to parallels and the scholarly literature discussing comparative religion, the less and less convincing these kinds of parallels will seem. The appear convincing mostly because we haven't ever taken the time to consider their impact.
For a very detailed scholarly look at the topic (and you will probably want to find a library with this book, as it costs a significant amount) I recommend
_Comparing Religions Possibilities and Perils?_ by Thomas Athanasius Idinopulos, Brian C. Wilson, and James Constantine Hanges, eds. (Brill: Leiden, 2006)