Monday, August 22, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Do parallels between the Bible and other cultures invalidate the Bible?

This is the last thing I wanted to respond to:

"Second, I began reading up on ancient cultures of the Middle East, and found
that many biblical stories have equivalents (or parallels, or just very
similar stories) in other ancient near eastern cultures. Along with this, I learned that most of the names for God in the bible were the names of gods in several of the cultures that were present in that part of the world. Adonai, for example, was the name of a Sumerian god, and was adopted into the Hebrew language/culture. El Shaddai was the name of a Canaanite god. Now, I know a Christian would argue that this is true only because God was revealing Himself to humanity throughout history, but I don't buy that. I also saw the many similarities that the biblical God had with these other gods..."

My impression is that this was your biggest reason for rejecting Christianity. I saved the best for last. :-)

I've got several things to say about this. I'm going to take it in two parts--first the parallel stories, and second the terms used to refer to God.

I know a lot more about parallels between Jesus' life and other ancient stories (especially in the mystery religions) than I know about parallels in old testament stories, so my comments are going to have to be general.

Depending on how old some of these stories are, it shouldn't surprise us that there would be parallels. After all, most of the middle eastern people's share a common ancestery, and therefore a common past. Take the flood story for example. That story exists in various forms among several different peoples. It seems to me the best explanation is that a flood actually happened, not that a flood DIDN'T happen. The same would apply to creation stories. In fact, any story about events that took place before the founding of the nation of Israel should be found among different people, because they share a common past.

I don't know about the old testament parallels, but many of the supposed new testament parallels are contrived. This is especially true with regard to mystery religions. By explaining the myths of the mystery religions in Christian terminology (e.g. dying and rising savior gods), the parallels can be made to appear more striking than they really are. Since I have seen this happen so much, I'm skeptical of supposed parallels people draw between different cultures and religions. It seems that with a little creativity, anybody can "find" parallels.

Parallels don't necessarily indicate that one religion has borrows from another. There are some striking parallels between Christianity and some native American cultures. Everybody is familiar with the paralles between Christians and Aztecs, but do some reading about the Iroquois sometime. Personally, I think those parallels are even MORE striking than with the Aztecs. These parallels are so striking that some have speculated that maybe a very early missionary somehow made it to North America, but I think this is just a mistake in reasoning. Similarities in stories, myths, beliefs, etc., do not necessarily indicate a causal connection. You have to demonstrate that such a connection exist; pointing to similarities isn't enough.

Suppose you have a situation where there are two stories that are strikingly similar--one early, and one late. Suppose further that these two stories appear in two cultures who have had a lot of contact with each other. If it could be found that the earlier story was just a made up myth, it still wouldn't follow that the later story is also made up. If you read something in the news paper that sounded a lot like a made up story you had heard years before, it wouldn't follow that the news paper story was made up, too. It could be that it actually happened. Likewise, it could be that there's an old made up story, and that there's a recent actual event that is very similar to the made up story.

Let me give a recent case example of why I don't think parallels prove anything. Have you ever considered the striking similarities between the story of Lincoln and Kennedy? You can just type in "lincoln and kennedy" in google, and you are sure to find a list of these similarities. When you read over them, it's creepy. I suppose two thousand years from now, if historians reason the same way they do today, they might conclude that the Kennedy story is made up since it obviously borrows from the Lincoln story. But we know that isn't the case. It turns out in the case of Lincoln and Kennedy that BOTH stories are true.

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  If Jews borrowed terms for God from other cultures, does it follow that Judaism derived from those other cultures?


At 8/22/2005 10:49 AM , Blogger Paul said...

I recently had to field a question on this very topic, which I might post on my blog in the near future. I like your point of showing similarities even between cultures that have no possible cultural ties.

In my more mystical pre-Christian days I never really used this objection as I see others, like Angie, doing. I simply took the similarities between the various stories (e.g., flood, creation) to be evidence that such things actually happened. I just avoided the idea that one of the stories might have been more accurate and authoritative than all the others.

At 8/22/2005 9:05 PM , Blogger cellisangel said...

Eph, in your response, you basically said that either similarities are there because of proximity and common heritage, or similarities are there because of random chance... Obviously both of your arguments have value, but they don't settle the question for me.

I realize that the peoples of the ancient Near East shared a common ancestry. That's precisely my point...the cultures shared many common cultural traits - including their gods. The Hebrews chose a god to focus on and borrowed many names for him... this is also what Mohammad did later when founding Islam.

The Bible claims that the Hebrews did not choose God, but that God chose them. And what people does not claim this and teach it to their own? What ancient religion did not teach that the people who believed it had a special relationship with their god(s)?

I guess that what it comes down to is this - I once believed that Christianity was unique. After learning about the history and the cultures that it grew around, I no longer believe that. For every unique aspect, there are many that are the same as a half dozen other religions. I guess I reached a point near Paul's experience that led him to avoid "the idea that one of the stories might have been more accurate and authoritative than all the others." There just doesn't seem to be evidence compelling enough to convince me otherwise.

At 8/22/2005 9:07 PM , Blogger cellisangel said...

Sorry about the two comments I deleted... I couldn't figure out how to just edit them, so I deleted and reposted.

Evidently, I should've used the "preview" feature... Just call me Einstein!! :)

At 8/22/2005 10:19 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Augh!!! I was just telling you to use a text editor, and then I turn around and didn't use a text editor, and I lost the whole post.

Well it makes my day that you decided to stop in, Angie. Everybody has heard so much about you! Now lemme see if I can rewrite my post from memory. (I keep hitting "refresh" hoping it's just taking a long time to get posted.)

I'm going to leave out the part about God's names and titles, because I'm posting about that in tomorrow's blog.

I completely agree with you that Christianity has things in common with other religions. In fact, I can't think of a single religion that doesn't have at least one thing in common with Christianity. But what I fail to see is how this has any bearing on whether or not Christanity is true. You agree with me that common heritage has something to do with why Judaism has things in common with other semitic religions. How does that invalidate Judaism, especially considering the fact that it's consistent with the claims of Judaims?

Every religion is unique in a sense. If they weren't, then it would be impossible to distinguish any religion from every other religion. But Christianity does not even claim to be wholly unique. Rather, it claims continuity with Judaism. And Islam doesn't claim to be wholly unique either. It claims continuity with Abraham, and it recognizes Jewish prophets such as Elijah, and Jesus. Why fault a religion for not being wholly unique when it doesn't even claim as much for itself?

But Islam is distinguished by its claim that Muhammad is God's prophet, and that God revealed the Quran to Muhammad. Christianity is distinguished by its claim that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Lots of people in the first century claimed to be the messiah. Does it follow that nobody was the messiah? Of course not! We have to see if there's any reason to believe any of them over and against the others. Christianity claims that Jesus rose from the dead; consenquently, Christianity is the only messianic movement that survived the death of its leader.

You said: "The Bible claims that the Hebrews did not choose God, but that God chose them. And what people does not claim this and teach it to their own?"

Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, New Ageism, Wicca, Mithraism, and a plethora of tribal religions. But let's assume that every nation who has ever existed claims that its god chose them. Does it follow that no god chose any of them? Certainly not!

What we have to ask is not whether a religion is unique, or whether a religion is the only one that claims God chose them. Rather, we have to ask if the essential claims of that religion are true. I'm a Christian, because I have what seem to me to be good reason to think the essential claims of Christianity (which I listed in a previous blog) are true. So it's completely irrelevent to me that other religions have things in common with Christianity.

Now maybe you have looked at those reasons and found them unpursuasive. Maybe you don't think the arguments warrant the conclusion. But as I said in one of my first emails to you, the only reason anybody should be a Christian is if they think Christainity is true. That's the only question we should concern ourselves with, because it's the only question that's relevent. We have to look at the arguments for and against Christianity. It's completely irrelevent how much Christainity has in common with other religions; we have to take the case for Christianity on its own merits.


At 8/24/2005 5:44 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Angie, since there are highly plausible answers to this charge, it is not a logical defeater for Christianity. For this reason, I hope this is not what you based your skepticism on. At best, you could take the presupposition that Christianity is a fiction and then take these other "similar" stories and craft your own plausible explanation for them. We can both apply and explain this data, so its value is negated in the debate; you must move on to some other proof or counter-proof. However, if this is an emotional sticking point for you personally, then by all means, it ought to be explored.

A few points I would make:

1) Remember that centuries before the Hebrew infusion into Canaan, Abraham and his growing clan and their descendants were out-and-about the region making friends and enemies. Much knowledge and culture was left behind from this influence. In fact, when Moses goes into his exile, he finds a group in Midian who seem to know all about this God of the Hebrews. In addition to this, there was surely some knowledge of God carried forward from Noah's line, which spread far and wide, and we can easily imagine that any such knowledge would be maintained to a greater or lesser degree -- more likely "lesser" if God was not intervening with corrections as in the case of the Hebrews. I think this is Sam's "common source" argument, and I think it is absolutely consistent with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. In fact, due to the historical narrative found in the Bible, if we did NOT find any similarities at all (i.e., it was entirely unique, as you seem to desire), then that would be more of a logical defeater for us.

2) Scripture claims that there is a certain amount of common knowledge about God for which mankind is to be held responsible (it's not ignorance of Jesus that condemns the pagan; it's the rejection of the God that they do subconsciously know). There is no surprise, then, if we see some of this intrinsic knowledge (along with the ancestral) bubbling up in the various cultures. And it would seem unjust of God if He allowed all mankind to languish in absolute ignorance (and threaten judgment) until He saw fit to reveal ANYTHING about Himself to just one isolated group.

3) I would challenge you to find one of these other similar tales, read it in full, and then note for yourself the vast differences in quality, historical indicators, and "mythical" aspects between it and its biblical "counterpart." Then you must decide if a) they are really all that similar, b) if the pagans muddled up the biblical story, or c) the biblical authors "cleaned up" the pagan story.


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