03 Jul 2016

Jesus >> Zeus

Religious 21 Comments

People sometimes argue that believing in Jesus is as rational as believing in Zeus. Here are some quick thoughts on why that’s a silly view. (Disclaimer: I probably uttered a weak version of this statement when I was an atheist. When I say something is a “silly view” I don’t mean only silly people hold it. I’m saying the view is silly, upon examination.)

==> I’ve never heard someone make the argument in reverse. That is, I’ve never seen atheists spend a lot of time criticizing followers of Zeus, lamenting the role that Zeus plays in our society, and wishing Zeus’ disciples would see that his doctrines are as unsupported as those of Jesus Christ.

==> There is far more evidence (outside of the Bible itself) for the existence of Jesus than for Zeus. I don’t want to open up this line of argument right now (though people will no doubt go at it in the comments), but it’s odd that there would be early Christian martyrs, if His closest disciples knew that He actually hadn’t come back from the dead. I realize atheists will dismiss this evidence–though I think deep down you aren’t even really considering it, you “just know” the story can’t be true so you don’t need to really parse the arguments–but let’s at least admit that there is more here for a Christian to stand on, than anything analogous for Zeus.

==> The gospel accounts are not stand alone. They connect with the earlier books in the Bible, so that the entire Bible was written over the span of more than a thousand years by different writers in different languages.

==> If you read the gospel accounts, they are amazing in terms of the realism of the characters. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate this, because at that time I didn’t realize how awful people were. But the older and wiser I get, the more I believe the characters in the gospel accounts. (For example, the hypocrisy and jealousy of the Jewish leaders, and the weakness of Jesus’ top apostles–falling asleep outside the garden, let alone running/denouncing Him when He was in custody.)

So in that context, the character of Jesus is a towering presence, dwarfing everyone else in the story. At least to me, the gospel accounts now read as very realistic (in terms of characters, not the physical events) stories of characters, EXCEPT for the one Jesus, who is “too good to be true.” As Napoleon reputedly said, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ is no man.”

So my point here is that in terms of literary style, the gospel accounts describe humans very accurately–except this one character, Jesus, who is like nobody you’ve ever met. These are not simply mere tales of miracles; it’s not just stories about some guy healing the sick and then promising, “If you follow me, you will have paradise.” There is way way more to it than that; there is an internal logic and beauty to the accounts.

For example, just consider the single chapter of Matthew 22. In it we have Jesus teaching in parables–again, this is intricate, where a character in the story is Himself teaching the other characters through a set of very memorable stories (think of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan).

After the parable, Matthew 22 then describes how the scribes and Pharisees try to repeatedly trap Jesus with religious riddles, and His ability to flip things–this is extremely clever and would take a genius who is expert in the Mosaic Law to invent.

THEN we get a statement of the greatest commandment, and after that–as a flourish for style points and a flawless finishing move–Jesus shuts up His critics by posing His own riddle (based on their own belief system, in which they are supposed to be the world’s greatest living experts) that stumps them.

I’ll post (and end) with the chapter in full, but in reference to the original topic: What is there like this in Greek mythology? I’m not belittling it; it certainly teaches valuable lessons about hubris, and there are some clever things like the Sphinx’s riddle and Odysseus’ schemes. But even if we put aside any historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection (!) of Jesus, I think it is simply silly to say that today’s Christians are following a mere book of superstitions comparable to any myths.

Before I post Matthew 22, here is a discussion of C.S. Lewis and his views on myth:

When Lewis examined the Gospel narratives, having already become an expert in mythology, he was surprised that his literary judgment told him that they were more than myths. He said, “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter they set down in their artless, historical fashion … was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. … Here and here only in all time the myth must have come fact: the Word, flesh; God, man.”

If you liked the above, you should read the whole thing (it’s not too long). It talks about C.S. Lewis starting out as an atheist, and thinking Christianity was a myth like any other. Then he met Tolkien who opened up his perspective, by first showing him that actual myths, though not historically accurate, did contain important truths.


 

Matthew 22New International Version (NIV)

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Marriage at the Resurrection

23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him.25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[b]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

The Greatest Commandment

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Whose Son Is the Messiah?

41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

“The son of David,” they replied.

43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
    under your feet.”’[e]

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

21 Responses to “Jesus >> Zeus”

  1. E. Harding says:

    Clearly, Bob, you have not considered the evidence of early Greek mythology, which is far more copious than that of the gospels.

    “If you read the gospel accounts, they are amazing in terms of the realism of the characters.”

    -I do not see this. In any case, any novel-writer can write realistic characters; this does not require any historical information.

    “So my point here is that in terms of literary style, the gospel accounts describe humans very accurately–except this one character, Jesus, who is like nobody you’ve ever met.”

    -[That’s the point.]

    “THEN we get a statement of the greatest commandment, and after that–as a flourish for style points and a flawless finishing move–Jesus shuts up His critics by posing His own riddle (based on their own belief system, in which they are supposed to be the world’s greatest living experts) that stumps them.”

    -See; this is obvious fiction. Real life rarely has any “flawless finishing move” to appreciate. “No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.” -this never happens. Real life is much more chaotic.

    “If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. … Here and here only in all time the myth must have come fact: the Word, flesh; God, man.”

    -That’s the point. I wouldn’t call the Gospels artless or historical. They’re very artful and ahistorical. Almost like a novel with the main character expounding doctrinal points in various settings vaguely based on reality.

    • Dan says:

      “-[That’s the point.]”

      If you’re criticising the bible because Jesus isn’t like any other man, then your point is idiotic.

      • E. Harding says:

        Dan, if anyone is idiotic here, it is not I.

  2. E. Harding says:

    “That is, I’ve never seen atheists spend a lot of time criticizing followers of Zeus, lamenting the role that Zeus plays in our society, and wishing Zeus’ disciples would see that his doctrines are as unsupported as those of Jesus Christ.”

    -This is because there are no more followers of Zeus. But Zeus used to command his legions of followers, just like Jesus commands his today in America. Were atheists alive 2000 years ago, they would be just as insistent at criticizing Zeus and his followers as they are at criticizing Jesus and his followers today.

    “but it’s odd that there would be early Christian martyrs, if His closest disciples knew that He actually hadn’t come back from the dead.”

    -Look at Mormonism. Joseph Smith died a martyr; ergo, he really saw the Golden Plates. Doesn’t work that way.

    “but let’s at least admit that there is more here for a Christian to stand on, than anything analogous for Zeus.”

    -Uh, Ancient Greek religion was a state religion; it had no need for martyrs.

    “They connect with the earlier books in the Bible, so that the entire Bible was written over the span of more than a thousand years by different writers in different languages.”

    -So? Jesus is clearly written to be analogous to OT figures like Elijah. How is this evidence for Jesus being God?

    “They connect with the earlier books in the Bible, so that the entire Bible was written over the span of more than a thousand years by different writers in different languages.”

    -I’ll let more knowledgeable men answer that.

    • Gil says:

      +1

    • anonymous says:

      Speaking of Joseph Smith, How many Christian martyrs shot back at their murderers?

      • E. Harding says:

        Mark 14:47, Luke 22:36 indicate this could possibly have happened more than once.

        • anonymous says:

          Oh, yeah. I remember clearly how Christians at the time Paul was murdered took their automatic rifles and began shooting at the Pretorians yelling “Revenge!”. Many famous paintings from the Renaissance record those glorious events.

  3. LK says:

    ” If you read the gospel accounts, they are amazing in terms of the realism of the characters. “

    lol… there are dozens of novels of which the same thing can be said. Read Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula. Plenty of realism in it. But it’s still fiction.

    • Tel says:

      Dracula was a real person you know. Yes there have been fanciful elaborations, but most stories get bigger with retelling.

      Bram Stoker wasn’t the first to write about Dracula either.

  4. GabbyD says:

    isnt the clearest metric that jesus>>zeus the fact that there are no more followers of zeus now, but xtianity is going strong?

    • John says:

      The evidence suggests Jesus was a real person who lived (obviously) around 1 to 33AD. Zeus was not a real person. This is a significant difference. There is, however, no rational or evidentiary basis to believe that Jesus was a supernatural being or had supernatural abilities, or that his powers were “realer” than Zeus’s powers, as described in Ovid, Homer, and other works of parallel brilliance to the Bible. I am a great admirer of C.S. Lewis and think his analysis of issues related to man’s characteristic spiritual dilemmas is wonderful. But his attempts to “prove” God’s existence or to differentiate between Christian myths and Islamic, Hindu, Greek, Persian, and other myths have been refuted many times.

      This is not to say that Jesus was NOT divine. It’s just to say that there is no more reason to think so than to think Mohammed was the messenger of God. These things are matters of faith. Trying to “prove” them or show they have evidentiary basis will I think tend to confirm the unbeliever in his or her views, not change those views. Belief (at least I think this is true) comes from somewhere else.

  5. Major.Freedom says:

    I’ve never heard someone make the argument in reverse. That is, I’ve never seen atheists spend a lot of time criticizing followers of Zeus, lamenting the role that Zeus plays in our society, and wishing Zeus’ disciples would see that his doctrines are as unsupported as those of Jesus Christ.

    Murphy, are you seriously suggesting that atheists run into actual followers of Zeus anywhere near as frequent as followers of Christ? Of course you’ve never heard of atheists spend time criticizing followers of Zeus. There aren’t any! Or maybe there are, but I bet you have never met any.

    There is far more evidence (outside of the Bible itself) for the existence of Jesus than for Zeus.

    But atheists are talking about Yahweh and Zeus, not Jesus and Zeus. There is as much evidence for Yahweh as there is for Zeus, namely none. Comparing apples to apples would have the comparison between Yahweh and Zeus, and Jesus and Perseus. Gods and Sons of God.

    It is unfair to compare Jesus and Zeus when most atheists would agree that a mystic mortal man named Jesus lived in the middle eastern desert.

    The gospel accounts are not stand alone. They connect with the earlier books in the Bible, so that the entire Bible was written over the span of more than a thousand years by different writers in different languages.

    The Bible is stand alone with itself. The various gospels and books were written and rewritten and its current content was unified by Constantine. That which the elite did not want to keep, was purged. What remained would of course become a singularly themed collection of disparate texts.

    The Greek myths were written over more than 1000 years. Zeus was first mentioned about 3400 years ago. Zeus is also mentioned in the New Testament, in both Acts 14 and Acts 28. Zeus is also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, written about 760 BC.

    So…Greek myth wins for length of time in writings?

    ==> If you read the gospel accounts, they are amazing in terms of the realism of the characters. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate this, because at that time I didn’t realize how awful people were. But the older and wiser I get, the more I believe the characters in the gospel accounts. (For example, the hypocrisy and jealousy of the Jewish leaders, and the weakness of Jesus’ top apostles–falling asleep outside the garden, let alone running/denouncing Him when He was in custody.)

    Oh sure, real alright. Jonah living in a fish. Jacob engaging in Greco Roman wrestling with God himself. Joshua making the sun stand still for hours so the Israelites could win their battle. Etc etc.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      MF wrote:

      Murphy, are you seriously suggesting that atheists run into actual followers of Zeus anywhere near as frequent as followers of Christ? Of course you’ve never heard of atheists spend time criticizing followers of Zeus. There aren’t any! Or maybe there are, but I bet you have never met any.

      I know MF, that’s my point. Isn’t it odd that the case for Christ is just as solid (weak) as the case for Zeus, in light of this disparity in believers?

      • E. Harding says:

        Argumentum ad populum, Murphy? Really? By that standard, you should be a Keynesian.

        • tapeworm says:

          I did a survey among 300 people asking whether they beleived that two plus two equals four. 298 answered yes, and found two followers of Montaigne who yelled desperately “What do I know!”.

          But I know that it would be fallacious to say that two plus two equals four because 298 people I asked told me so, thus I logically conclude that two plus two does not equal four. Am I wrong?

          • E. Harding says:

            “it would be fallacious to say that two plus two equals four because 298 people I asked told me so,”

            -Exactly.

            “thus I logically conclude that two plus two does not equal four”

            -Nope, but that the case is, ceteris paribus, not necessarily any weaker or stronger than that for some other, much less-believed claim.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          E Harding: For the record, you think the following?

          (a) A person believes that billions of people believing proposition X, while virtually no one believes proposition Y, is evidence (not conclusive, but evidence) that it must be wrong when people claim that the case for proposition X is just as strong as the case for proposition Y.

          IMPLIES

          (b) That same person must believe that an economic doctrine embraced by millions of academics is superior to an economic doctrine embraced by thousands of academics.

          • E. Harding says:

            Yeah; pretty much.

  6. knoxharrington says:

    “==> The gospel accounts are not stand alone. They connect with the earlier books in the Bible, so that the entire Bible was written over the span of more than a thousand years by different writers in different languages.”

    “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY; THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT.’” Mark 1:2-3 (NASB)

    The writers of the gospels had access to the Old Testament and, your not going to believe this, the “prophecies” found there came true in the gospels. In the first three verses of the earliest gospel you have a call back to Isaiah. I wonder if there was a plan afoot to make Jesus the fulfiller of the OT prophecies. No – that would be too convenient. Jesus ACTUALLY did everything predicted and lo and behold they just happen to coincide. Beating a dead horse here but this is the reason for the fake census that allowed Jesus to fulfill the prophecy of being born in Bethlehem. This is all so horribly convenient that it is baffling that anyone can find it something other than ludicrous.

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