May 25, 2005

Pagan Roots?

I'm writing this in response to some reactions to my review of James White's The King James Only Controversy over at Blogcritics. Most of the comments on the review have little to do with the actual subject of the book (the controversy over modern translations of the Bible), but rather toiuch on the roots of Christianity itself. One of the commentors mentioned the alleged pagan roots of Christianity -- in particular, a Norse myth that has Odin being hung on a tree and having his side pierced by a spear for his followers' benefit. The plethora of virgin births, dying saviors, eternal punishment, etc. has been mentioned; the allegation is that Christianity merely borrows from these other religions, fabricating a myth around the alleged life of Jesus of Nazareth (who may or may not have even existed).

I admit first that I'm not an ancient religions expert. My research tends to focus on the middle ages, and the changes that the church was going through at that time (which were numerous!). But I've heard these arguements most of my adult life, and I've finally taken the time to look into their validity.

I had never heard of the Odin story -- my mythological knowledge is limited to the very basics of Greek and Roman myths. The only exposure I've ever had to Norse myth was back when I read Thor comic books. So I had to do a Google search on the whole Odin-crucifixion story -- found one retelling here.

He hanged himself from the tree Yggdrasil, whilst pierced by his own spear, to acquire knowledge. He remained thus for nine days and nights, a number deeply significant in Norse magical practice (there were, for example, nine realms of existence), thereby learning nine (later eighteen) magical songs and eighteen magical runes. The purpose of this strange ritual, a god sacrificing himself to himself because there was nothing higher to sacrifice to, was to obtain mystical insight through mortification of the flesh; however, some scholars assert that the Norse believed that insight into the runes could only be truly attained in death.
I won't nitpick regarding the time Odin hung on the tree vs. the time Jesus hung on the cross (9 days vs. several hours), because the motivation is what seems to me the most different in the two stories. Odin is looking for something he wants -- Christ is paying a penalty for us -- there was nothing in it for Him. That seems, to be an important difference.

There is speculation that this story helped Christianity to spread throughout northern Europe, but my question is: IF this story is the basis for the Christian story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, HOW did a dozen Jewish fishermen learn about Odin and the Yggdrasil? And, being good Jews that they were, what possible motivation could they have had to appropriate parts of this story to start their own religion -- an act that resulted in their deaths? This seems to be more like something the syncretistic Romans would have done than something the devoutly monotheistic Jews would have done. (Interestingly, some scholars have seen this story as having been influenced BY, rather than having an influence ON, the Christian crucifixion story.)

There are also many virgin-birth stories that are said to have influenced the Christian nativity story. The problem still remains -- why would Jews borrow from pagan tradition? And clearly it was Jews who first taught the virgin birth of Christ -- Matthew is our earliest source for the birth narrative, and the book was certainly written by a Jew, and written for Jewish readers (Irenaeus is our earliest source for this, though it is at least partially attested to by Papias).

One of the prevalent theories concerning the development of Christianity is that it grew out of Paul's fascination with mystery religions that proliferated in the Tarsus area -- specifically with Mythraism. On top of the obvious dificulty in Paul becoming familiar with the inner workings of these mystery religions, many of the dates simply do not match up. In other words, when examined closely, the mystery religions are far more likely being influenced by Christianity than having an influence on Christianity. I'd recommend Ron Nash's book The Gospel and the Greeks as a good starting point for inquiry into this subject -- most of what I would be able to contribut to the discussion are things I learned either from reading this book or talking to Dr. Nash. J. Gresham Machen offers The Origins of Paul's Religion, which is on my (ever-growing) reading list, as is Seyoon Kim's The Origens of Paul's Gospel.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 10:06 AM | No Comments | Add Comment
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