Dangled Over a Flame: Jews and Jesus Among Pagan Gods

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Justin Martyr provides an interesting look at apologetics in the century following Jesus’ life. His First Apology was dated to between 147 and 161 AD. Greek and Roman god worship was alive and well, and Christianity was trying to grow from the same cultural earth as these various competing religions.

To make his case, Martyr compares Christian claims about Jesus to the existent mythology of the culture. It must be noted that the pagan themes and beliefs pre-existed Christianity. They were antecedent, and Christian doctrine blossomed against this backdrop.

Martyr makes it clear that the pagans already had themes that appear in Christianity, for he makes the argument in several ways that “we propound nothing different from what you believe”, and he addresses several key areas:

  1. The Word
  2. Sonship
  3. Divine Conception
  4. Suffering and Death
  5. Resurrection and Ascension

Martyr’s leading argument (all emphasis following mine):

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth  of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.

Martyr goes on to give the backdrop of contemporary pagan thought for context, again tying back to the five themes above:

For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter:

– Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all;

– Æsculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven;

– and Bacchus too, after he had been torn limb from limb;

– and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toils;

– and the sons of Leda, and Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae;

– and Bellerophon, who, though sprung from mortals, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus.

– For what shall I say of Ariadne, and those who, like her, have been declared to be set among the stars?

– And what of the emperors who die among yourselves, whom you deem worthy of deification, and in whose behalf you produce some one who swears he has seen the burning Cæsar rise to heaven from the funeral pyre?

~ Justin Martyr, The First Apology, Chapter 21, Analogies to the History of Christ

Martyr goes on in the following Chapter 22 to further support his basic line of argument by tying such claims more directly to Jesus regarding sonship,  indicating the ubiquity of such claims within the culture of the day:

Moreover, the Son of God called Jesus, even if only a man by ordinary generation, yet, on account of His wisdom, is worthy to be called the Son of God; for all writers call God the Father of men and gods.

Regarding conception and birth:

And if we assert that the Word of God was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation, let this, as said above, be no extraordinary thing to you, who say that Mercury is the angelic word of God

And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus.

Regarding suffering at death:

But if any one objects that He was crucified, in this also He is on a par with those reputed sons of Jupiter of yours, who suffered as we have now enumerated. For their sufferings at death are recorded to have been not all alike, but diverse; so that not even by the peculiarity of His sufferings does He seem to be inferior to them.

Regarding his deeds as a great healer:

And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Æsculapius.

Several observations follow.

First, let it never be said that Christian propositions about Jesus bear no resemblance the pagan mythologies of the Greeks and Romans. Such analogies were clear enough to Martyr, a staunch Christian scholar actually inside the culture of the time.

Second, let it never be said that the propositions about Jesus were terribly original. It is clear that Martyr’s whole line of argument was that they were not – but for the Christian the difference was that Jesus was even better, superior to the Greek conceptions. Today one might say, “New and Improved.”

Third, and as mentioned already in the brief Section 7, New Testament, the Jewish expectations were not for a suffering nor an incarnate messiah [12, 52, 53]. Yahweh was not a suffering god. The messiah was not expected to be god incarnate. It was the Greek and Roman mythologies that had long included (1) gods who died and rose, (2) gods who suffered, and (3) demigods conceived by women that had been impregnated by a god [56].

Fourth, the specter of absurdity rises. Why would the monotheistic god of Israel fulfill the expectations of the pagans? Why commandeer the pagan themes of the divine conception, the god-man, the suffering death, the return from death, and the ascension?

Why make the greatest revelation of God to mankind look recycled?

It seems absurd to call the Jesus narratives revelatory when they inherit and recast story templates and themes from the idolatrous.

Recapping the dilemma: sequence is important, and there is a difference between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of the gospels.  The thematic elements of the Jesus story were all long in play before the first century – but not from ancestral Judaism. The interactions of ideas from Judaism and Hellenism are extraordinarily complex – the culture was saturated by Hellenism, and Gentiles comprised a significant part of the early church. What eventually came to be recorded in the gospels appears to have spent 30-60 years in oral tradition, churning through this trans-cultural mill first.

But I now think that there is a reason why the acclaimed Jesus traditions of Christianity were rejected by the Jews of the first century and following. Martyr reminded his pagan audience that Christianity was not claiming anything terribly absurd, and that they should be familiar with such propositions from their own prior mythology.

I suspect that the Jews recognized the storyline too, and they knew the source of such conceptions. Yahweh had long warned of the consequences of following the ways of the idolatrous. They held themselves apart, as instructed.

What if the Messiah, upon final arrival, seems as much pagan as Jewish? What if the Messiah lived up to pagan expectations more than Israel’s prophecies? What if he seemed more recycled than revelatory? This presents an interesting pickle for the ardent follower of Yahweh, awaiting with patience the Messiah king. The good news was that the Messiah had come; the bad news was that he was dressed as an impostor, and a pagan one at that. The sentence both for belief and for unbelief was clear enough. Death for rejection. Death for idolatry.

Would God dangle true believers over such a flame?

Reflection brings unease at affirming that He would. Which is the more likely? That God took the occasion of his greatest self-revelation to humanity as an opportunity to celebrate paganism and dangle the true-hearted faithful? Or that a mixed group of mostly illiterate Jews and Gentiles circulated stories for a few decades, before a later generation penned Hellenized histories about a moving teacher who met a dramatic end? Which is the more likely, given the history of religion?

One thing is certain: the gospel story of Jesus spread and took root. Believers point to this as evidence of the gospel’s veracity, never-minding the sister examples of Islam, Mormonism, etc.

It seems obvious that the story had to spread – that the odds were better than middling that it should. After all, it played existing cultural chords through a visceral story that intermingled multiple themes already proven to be irresistible – the suffering & dying & rising gods, virgin births, returns from the dead, ascensions to heaven, promises of eternity, self-sacrifice, unbounded love, and the humble hero. All such themes had been done before, many times over. But this one further gave the peasant class new hope – no need for education, for understanding, for money, or even a priest. One need only think a certain thing true, and all was satisfied. Low requirement for entry. High resonance with Gentile themes. Legitimacy of an ancient tradition. Guarantees of a better life for those that would otherwise never have one. A key-and-lock fit with populist needs of the downtrodden.

It was a flame that eventually spread across the Roman world. But the rage of the wildfire was perhaps more indicative of the tinder-dry forest than the purity of the spark. The flint had been well-used.


  1. @Jericho,
    Your blog is fantastic, I really like the colors and layout, very clear and easy on the eyes.

    You know, any time we discuss what all these religions have in common it’s perfectly fine with Christians. However, as we share the similarities with Christianity it is often met with “that’s because Satan was imitating God”. I just scratch my head and wonder “hundreds of years, even thousands of years prior, folklore (to me all mythology is folklore) beat out Christianity?” This sends out the message that God is not all knowing, but the Devil is because he outwitted God. Does it not?


    • CHope,

      Thanks very much. And yes, you’re right about the imitation. I cannot count how many times I (as a believer) heard the old mantra about counterfeits and the genuine article. The Bible was the genuine article; the pagan beliefs were the counterfeits, the imitations. As you say, the sequence presents real difficultly there.

      But in a world where the faithful will claim that the earth only appears old, that perhaps the fossil record was falsified by demonic forces, and that pre-existent mythology was the copy of the late-arriving genuine, its not a discussion often aimed toward coherence.

      It is amazing to me that this game has been played in the open since the 2nd century, but that folks on the “inside” like myself were kept so unaware of it. The average evangelical Christian today thinks the Jesus story is unique or novel – The Greatest Story Ever Told. Its unfortunate.


      • It is amazing to me that this game has been played in the open since the 2nd century, but that folks on the “inside” like myself were kept so unaware of it.

        Yep, this is what kept hitting me as I was going through my deconversion. It’s staggering.

        And great job on this post! I had heard people mention Justin’s quote that Christianity was much like Greek mythology, but I had never seen all the supporting arguments he laid out.


        • Thanks Nate, I appreciate that. I’m in the process of mining information from the deeper past to develop some posts that hopefully demonstrate contextual thought transmission from neighboring cultures into Judaism. Up next: Enuma Elish. 🙂


  2. Gotta love apologetics! Nothing like apologizing for the basis of a belief system. 🙂


  3. Alice G. says:

    It’s funny how obvious it all seems after one “sees” it.


  4. Superb! I’d never seen this before and Justin does come across as a marketing manager bringing a foreign product to market; assuring the customer the “name might be different but the taste is just the same, if not a little better!”


    • Its interesting to attempt to project back to that day and time, when all the mythology was still alive and well. My son reads the Percy Jackson stuff now, and it seems novel. What would it have been to try to sell Christianity in the original pagan culture? Fun to muse on. 🙂


  5. Great post. I’d like to respond more at length right now but I’m spread thin today, I’ll be back to read this again.


  6. Wonderful analysis. One of the most concise and commonsense approaches to this issue I have ever read.


  7. The good news was that the Messiah had come; the bad news was that he was dressed as an impostor, and a pagan one at that.

    Love that sentence. A great post. Makes me marvel at the idea of Christianity even more.



  1. […] a favorite, though I would have to include the posts on dinosaur blood, the New Testament timeline, Justin Martyr, and Pontius Pilate as strong […]


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