James White has a video up on his blog responding to an older video by Rob Bell which apparently discusses the relationship of the Jesus tradition to the traditions of Mithra and Attis. I haven’t seen Bell’s video, beyond what White shares in his video, and don’t know where he’s going with his discussion, but his characterization is poor and highly rhetorical, and it seems to rely on old Golden Bough ideas about genetic relationships between these ideologies. Irrespective, White takes issue with Bell’s discussion and makes the following comment, which is what I’d like to address today:
We don’t have to look outside of the context that the Bible itself provides for us to look for Jesus and a proper explanation of who Jesus was and what he did.
This statement is demonstrably false and promotes an incredibly naive approach to the New Testament. It seems to me to be a bit too aggressive a reaction to those who assert the dependency of the Christ tradition on Greco-Roman religion. The significance of the gospels to Christianity, and the existence of an historical Jesus, is in no way compromised by the notion that they were written to interact in some capacity with religious ideas current during the time period. Additionally, asserting that there’s no relationship whatsoever between the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus and Greco-Roman religion is simply uninformed. In Acts 17 Paul repeatedly and explicitly couches his presentation of God in vernacular he pulled from Greek literature and cult. He points to their altar to the unknown god and identifies that god with the Jewish God. Then he cites two Greek poets. The first quotation likely comes from Epimenides or other poets who quote or allude to him, and the second clearly comes from Aratus’ Phaenomena. In both instances, Paul presents the poets’ statements as legitimate expositions of his theology. Does he mean to entirely identify their presentation of God with his? No, of course not, but he recognizes the currency of those ideas among the demographic to which he is speaking, so he couches his presentation in terms that will resonate with them and will provide a bridge from their ideology to his.
If Paul can do this, why can’t Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Their books were written in Greek, meaning their target audiences were either Greek speaking Jews, Greek speaking non-Jews, or both. Either James White rejects the notion that the gospels had any non-Jews as intended readers, or they had non-Jews as intended readers, but for some reason or another intentionally avoided accommodating them at all in their literary conceptualization of Christ. There’s absolutely no evidence for either, and plenty of evidence against both. It’s no coincidence that “God Most High” is a term common to both Jewish and Greco-Roman ideology (if Paul was on the Areopagus in Acts 17 he would have been in front of the cult place of the “Most High God,” who was “not admitting of a name, known by many names”). I think it’s no coincidence that the word we translate “gospel” is used in parallel ways in reference to Jesus in Mark 1:1 and in reference to Augustus in the Priene inscription. I think it’s no coincidence that Jesus is presented as a god that is not recognized as such when he comes to visit his people, just like Dionysus. I would also point out that ancient Christians and Jews also didn’t think it a coincidence. Philo spends quite a bit of time in De Vita Contemplativa describing the Therapeutae as a Jewish analogue to Dionysus. The author of the Letter of Aristeas has Demetrius describe the Jewish God as Zeus known by another name. Justin Martyr recognizes that the relationship is not coincidental. We’ve already seen the example of Paul. In light of all this, there’s simply no support for White’s assertion outside of naive dogmatism. The notion that the Christian tradition developed absolutely independent of the culture in which the transmitters of that tradition lived is absolutely indefensible. To best understand the Jesus presented in the gospels, you have to understand the culture into which they were published.