Mythicists (people who claim Jesus is a mythical character) are regularly derided for relying on parallelism for explaining the Jesus story. They compare the Jesus story to myths of other similar pagan gods and find parallels between the tales. Most scholars, who are not mythicists, focus on the Jewish origins of the faith. Yet, the scholars who focus on the Jewish aspects of Early Christianity are also using parallels between Christianity and Judaism in their descriptions. Christianity was not Judaism. The first Christians rejected Judaism, as defined by the Pharisees, the forerunners of Rabbinic Judaism. In the New Testament stories, the Pharisees were the enemies of the Christians. Sure, there are many, many Jewish aspects to Early Christianity; but, Judaism was far from being the only religion in Palestine during the 1st century CE. Judaism gets too much blame for Christianity and those other traditions deserve far more credit in creating the Jesus story. The influence of those other traditions can even be found in the stories about Early Christian characters, commonly accepted as real people.

John the Baptist is usually described as a real, historical person. The Wikipedia article about John even gives him a birthday between 6-2 BCE and death in 36 CE. Baptism and ritual bathing were quite the fashion in several religious traditions of the time; so, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to question the existence of a guy named John, preaching baptism, when the evidence for him is taken at face value. But, the face value description lacks the cultural backdrop needed for understanding his story.

Ritual bathing was a fashion during the Greco-Roman period in the neighborhood of John. Its popularity in Judaism is evidenced by a number of ritual bathing pools found in the region, dating to the Greco-Roman period. But, ritual bathing was also a feature of pagan cults in the Levant. The temple of Eshmun in Sidon was famous for the healing powers of its sacred stream and the priests sold their services as baptizers. Eshmun was one of the several boy-god cults that sprang up during the early Iron Age, as the royal cults of Canaanite/Phoenician city states. All of the boy-gods shared similar myths about a boy who was killed and became the savior god of their respective cities. The boy-gods were local; but, all associated with the great goddess of West Asia, called Dea Syria or Atargatis by the Greco-Roman period. And, she was very popular in all the areas associated with Early Christianity. She was worshipped all along the Jordan River, as evidenced primarily in Nabetaean art. A Hellenistic period Atargatis temple was located in the Gilead, east of the Jordan. She was also worshipped in Gaza and had a temple in Ashkelon. The whole of the Levant was permeated with Dea Syria worship. Her cult sites included ritual fish pools and she was often portrayed as a mermaid during the Greco-Roman period. She became an increasingly fishy character after the 5th century BCE, when the Pisces constellation was redefined. The earlier Babylonian constellation of the goddess as Anunitum with her dove was changed to feature primarily fish in the river of Pisces. Anunitum was one of the many epithets for the goddess best known as Ishtar. Ishtar was a gender bending goddess, represented by the planet, Venus. She changed from female to male, as the morning and evening star. So, she had a male alter-ego.

The origins of ritual fish pools goes back to Mesopotamia, with archaeological evidence of pools decorated with fish and healers portrayed as mermen. Berossos retold myths about the fishy healers in the character of Oannes. Oannes was fish-tailed prophet, who taught alongside waterways and did not eat meat. Oannes showed up in the Levant, where he was conflated with the Canaanite god, Dagan. He also shows up in the Old Testament under a few guises, with Jonah being the most obvious. Oannes and Jonah are the same name and Jonah was a prophet with a fish tale. Oannes is also the same name as John, who taught alongside the river and did not eat meat.

Josephus is credited with providing the proof of a real John because he tells the story of Herod executing John the Baptist. However, it is certain that Josephus was familiar with Berossos’ stories, because Josephus cited Berossos a few times in his books. And, using myths to tell stories about kings was extremely common in ancient history writing. Ancient historians regularly took the “fly on the wall” perspective in telling tall tales about kings. There are many examples of historians using myths as the basis for stories about kings, even about kings who lived near the same time as the historian. So, assuming that Josephus was telling a true story is a very simplistic understanding of ancient history books. There could have been a real person called John executed by Herod. But, the reason he was called John was because of his type of ministry. He was a prophet of John, rather than being the John. It is also possible that the John the Baptist story is yet another example of an ancient historian using myths to make up history. Some critics think that Josephus’ tale about John the Baptist was a later interpolation by a Sabian, which takes the story right back to the Mesopotamian Oannes. No matter how you look at it, the story of John demonstrates the pagan origins of Christianity.

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Comment by Jo Jerome on September 19, 2010 at 11:24pm
On baptism - From a purely common sense point of view, it seems to me that cleansing through water as a ritual would be a near-universal theme. Water does literally 'clean' your body, and what cleans the body must clean the soul. Plus, all things being equal, the person who cleans more often is less susceptible to disease (HUGE asterisk there as there are so many other factors to disease, particularly in the ancient world - but still, it seems like it could be a factor).

On literalism - Well, related anyway. I recall very early in my break from Christianity watching a documentary on authors of the New Testament. Someone on the show made an almost passing comment that plagiarism around that time/place was not only acceptable but widely practiced. In addition it was common practice to sign not your own name to your work but that of your teacher/mentor/idol/hero. A way of acknowledging "If it weren't for so-and-so, I never would have come to my brilliant conclusion, so he gets the credit."

Having no idea at the time if it were true or not, A) it made plausible sense and B) either way, serves as a reminder to look at a culture in their own context. We can, and must, compare and contrast to other cultures and social trends, but also keep open that door of possibility that their culture is *shocker* different from ours.

On veneration of specific objects/symbols - In one of my classes we're currently delving deep into the Hopi. I knew they were all about the corn but...damn! They are seriously all about the corn man! Everywhere one looks; corn symbology, colors of the 4 directions based on colors of corn, whole rituals for planting, growing, harvesting, preparing. And with good reason; it's a crop that literally revolutionized their culture. Allowed them to settle in one place, to eat well year-round. Got into a good discussion in class about how even today, even for those who take a less literally-theistic view, there remains a lot of value in passing on those traditions. For one, a lot of their culture is wrapped up in the belief system. For another, even for the most staunch Atheist Hopi, if you continue to treat the earth, the ground, the water, the crops as something alive and sacred, you automatically treat it with more respect.

Anyway, interesting perspective. Thanks for posting!
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 19, 2010 at 10:52pm
"Note that she is very careful not to say that Jonah and John are the same, but simply implies it. "Oannes = Jonah" and "Oannes = John" (a = b and c = b) ergo Jonah = John (a = c). They even sound similar. Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. Because of roots, we know that Jonah and John are completely unrelated."

That is true, I was careful not say they were the same because they are not.

"The word Jonah (יונה) in Hebrew does not have any relationship with fish gods or kaliilu. It actually means a dove or a pigeon." Once again correct, and providing the link to Anunitum and her dove in the Pisces constellation.

I try not to decorate my blog posts with etymologies from languages that most people do not understand. It strikes me as a condescending style of writing. Also, etymology is only part of the story. A firm understanding of West Asian religions is necessary for describing the origins of the character of John.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 19, 2010 at 9:07pm
It came to my attention that some people are having difficulty understanding the word "conflated." The Canaanite grain god, Dagan was conflated with Oannes, probably when the Levant came under the political control of Mesopotamian Empires. Although Dagan originally had nothing to do with fish, the choice to conflate him with the Mesopotamian Oannes was probably due to "dag" composing part of his name. "Dag" means "fish." Anyway, that is the best guess of scholars.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 19, 2010 at 2:24pm
I agree with you completely, Jeffrey. That is one of the reasons I think it is so important to expose the total irrationality at the core of Christianity. The 'feel good" rationalizations of the origins of their religion obscure the fact that it was just as ridiculous as belief in Thor or Odin. Focusing on a human Jesus as the preacher of "turn the other cheek" theology avoids dealing with Jesus as a mythical creature of ancient West Asian religion.
Comment by Jeffrey P. Murphy on September 19, 2010 at 2:14pm
@Fred: their political aggression *IS* the issue at hand.

I don't care what anyone believes - and I get the impression I'm in (if not 'good', lots-of) company. It's when someone attempts to make their religion law, local or federal, or aren't content killing other believers of different faiths but determine that they need to get NON-believers out of the way first, that I have an issue.

Oh yeah...and imposition of shariah values on a free society.

When Odin or Thor are the reason that stem-cell research is banned or abortion is illegal even when the mother's life is at stake or making criticism of the myths that talk about them hate-speech, then I'll be happy to put down belief in Thor and, for that matter, the believers in Thor. But until then, it's Yahweh and Allah.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 19, 2010 at 2:06pm
Fred, Literalism was a feature of the proto-orthodox, who became the Catholics. They eliminated 'heretics" who were less literal and paganism. But, you are right, that modern people tend to be extremely literal and it does serve to promote faith in our culture because we like rationalizations. "To rationalize" can be defined two ways:

1. To think in a rational or rationalistic way.
or
2. To devise self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for one's behavior.

Definition #2 is the heart and soul of modern liberal Christianity. And, it is fundamental in so many of the historical descriptions of Early Christianity.

Neo-paganism is as irrational as any other -ism; but, doesn't cross atheist radar as often as the more agressive religions. But, I get a bit alarmed when they start trying to recreate ancient rituals. Particularly the rituals behind Christian mythology were really awful and should not be repeated.

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