(The author is a historian based at one the world's leading universities. He specialises in and is currently developing a publication record on ancient and modern myth.)
An argument frequently advanced against Christianity runs roughly like this: there are many features of Christianity that resemble features of other religious, particularly ancient pagan religious; therefore, Christianity has copied those features; therefore, Christianity is not true.
It is the purposes of these notes to establish that this argument rests upon unwarranted premises and that its logic is fallacious.
- Do many features of Christianity resemble features of other religions?
Obviously, on one level the answer has to be 'yes'. Christanity posits the existence of a personal god who takes an interest in humanity. It teaches that the individual does not cease to exist after biological death. It has a series of sacred texts which are used as a guide to doctrine and ethics and play an important role in public worship.
The pre-Reformation branches of Christanity, moreover, have priesthoods, a developed theology of sacrifice and strong sacramental and ritualistic traditions.
Recognising this, however, doesn't get us very far: very many religions across human time and space exhibit and have exhibited the same characteristics. What we need are specific parallels in matters of detail.
To meet this challenge, non-Christians generally advance two sets of parallels, which are not necessarily mutually incompatible but do not go particularly naturally together.
The first involves the construct of the dying-rising god. A full scholarly study of the history of this concept has yet to be written, but suffice it to say here that it was popularised by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
Frazer believed that primitive peoples linked the annual cycles of agriculture with 'corn spirits' (a concept which he borrowed from the German scholar Mannhardt). In its developed form, the theology of these primitive agriculturalists posited that the corn spirit died and was reborn annually, typically in the form of the divine king in whom it was incarnated.
Frazer believed that the religions of the ancient Near East provided several examples of dying-rising gods who had emerged from primitive belief-systems similar to these, most notably Attis, Adonis and Osiris.
Frazer's theory is loaded with problems. Whole papers, even books, criticising his theory have been written, and nowadays it is extremely difficult to find any recognised, reputable anthropologists who will accept it even in a modified form. Here are some of the major difficulties with it:
- Frazer's sources were frequently inaccurate or irrelevant, or else he interpreted them in tendentious ways.
- Frazer himself subscribed to discredited nineteenth-century ideas such as the evolutionist model of human societal development (which has nothing to do with the theory of biological evolution and is today firmly rejected by experts) and the notion that present-day primitive tribesmen can be studied as a means of finding out what things were like at the dawn of civilisation.
- Evidence which has emerged since Frazer wrote has not merely failed to back up his hypotheses: it has fatally undermined them. For interesting critiques of Frazer's work, see e.g. Sir Edmund Leach's articles in Daedalus 90 (1961) and Current Anthropology 7 (1966); also (in much greater detail) J.Z.Smith, 'The Glory, Jest and Riddle', Diss. Yale 1969 (by one of the greatest living historians of religion).
The greatest problem with Frazer, however, is that construct of the dying-rising god is simply a fantasy. The distinguished scholar J.Z.Smith, a man who most certainly cannot be regarded as a defender of Christianity, wrote an important article for Mircea Eliade's 'Encyclopedia of Religion' (New York 1987) in which he took every alleged example of a dying-rising god and showed that none of them actually fit the category.
(My own researches lead me to believe that the Phoenician god Melqart, whom Smith does not discuss, is the one exception - but he *is* very much the exception.)
Certainly, Frazer's star witnesses of Attis, Adonis and Osiris suffer from the fatal flaw in each case of dying and then failing to be resurrected.
Even if Frazer and his followers were right about the dying-rising god, the relevance to Christianity would be doubtful. The Christian story makes no connection whatever between Christ and the agricultural year or the rhythms of the natural world.
Moreover, Frazer's followers who elaborated his work with particular reference to the ancient Near East made it clear that their dying-rising gods and kings were tightly enmeshed in a series of bizarre annual rites with no conceivable parallels in Christianity.
The second 'copycat' model advanced by sceptics involves the prototypical schemas of the life of the hero sometimes drawn up by scholars.
The sceptic will typically appeal to the work of Lord Raglan, even though it's now 70 years out of date and a number of different schemas have since been proposed. There are serious problems with Raglan: in order to get mythical figures to fit his schema, you often have to cheat quite blatantly; and, in any case, real-life historical figures such as Hitler and Napoleon fit the pattern just as well as the ancient heroes whom he adduced.
In general, the 'monomyth' schemas are of limited usefulness. They prove a certain amount about the patterns followed by the lives of heroes in different cultures, but they don't prove very much, and what they do prove isn't always very comforting to the sceptic.
To begin with, if one puts all the schemas that have been proposed together and looks for common elements, the results that emerge are often vague or unhelpful. For instance, the hero will typically have a miraculous conception or birth - but it's hardly legitimate to compare the story of the virgin birth recounted in the Gospels with (say) Zeus' rape of Leda in the form of a swan simply because both involve some sort of supernatural element.
What such 'similarities' boil down to seems to be the earth-shattering revelation that supernatural things happen to supernatural figures, which is essentially a tautology.
Secondly, where hero-stories do concur, they often concur in ways which question the utility of applying them to the story of Jesus. Incest and parricide are recurrent themes of the schemas, for example, as is the link between the hero and kingship (you can get out of this by suggesting that Jesus was the heir of King David, or that he heralded the Kingdom of God, but this is just the sort of cheating that drains the schemas of their credibility).
Even Raglan's schema falls down on this point, most obviously because Jesus didn't marry a princess (a motif which appears in other schemas too).
- Even if they exist, what do the parallels prove?
Many non-Christians seem to believe that, in order to be true, Christianity must be unique. This is utterly fallacious - if anything, the precise opposite is the case. If Christian doctrine were strange and deviant and had no similarities at all to that of other religious systems, it would be *more* likely to be a weird, aberrant construct, not *less*.
To take one obvious example, a simple and economical explanation for the widespread human tendency to posit supernatural figures who, like Christ, mediate between man and God, is that humans correctly realise that we *do* need such a mediator.
(Hence, ironically, some of the scholars most eager to prove the existence of dying-rising gods in the ancient Near East and elsewhere were *Christians*. One thinks here especially of the scholars behind the three volumes of essays 'Myth and Ritual' (Oxford 1930), 'The Labyrinth' (Oxford 1935) and 'Myth, Ritual and Kingship' (Oxford 1958).)
Points of contact between Christianity and other religions are damaging to Christianity's truth claims only if actual borrowings can be proven - not if the parallel features have simply sprung from the same psychological source common to all humans - that is, from the innate religious instinct which Christians regard as a gift of God.
I cannot think of a single case in which Christianity can be shown to have borrowed a core doctrine from another religion. This does not include minor borrowings which everyone admits, such as the dating of Christmas to 25th December (an old Roman sun-festival), or the use of holy water and incense in worship, or the wearing of wedding rings, or dedicating churches to named saints (just as pagan temples were dedicated to different deities).
In such cases, the borrowings were not clumsy or furtive: rather, they were deliberate and unashamed. A good example is the Pope's use of the old Roman chief priest's title 'Pontifex Maximus', a title which the Christians deliberately appropriated to emphasise that their religion had defeated and replaced Roman paganism.
None of the attempts made by sceptics to demonstrate that Christianity is false because it contains alleged pagan elements is credible or convincing. There are admittedly many good arguments against Christianity, but this simply isn't one.
The purpose of these notes is to establish that the career of Sir Winston Churchill contains multiple features which correspond with suspicious closeness to Raglan's schema of the life of the hero, and hence that he is probably a fictitious personage.
Let us take Raglan's motifs one by one.
- The hero's mother is a royal virgin
Churchill's mother was Jennie Jerome, a prominent member of American high society: a quasi-princess. Her father was Leonard Walton Jerome, a wealthy financier.
- His father is a king and
- often a near relative of the mother, but
Churchill's father was Lord Randolph Churchill, an extremely prominent aristocrat and politician. He was descended from the Dukes of Marlborough and hence a member of one of the best-known most illustrious noble dynasties in Britain. He could not have been made the son of a king, since at the time of his birth Britain was ruled by a female monarch, the great Queen Victoria.
- the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
- he is also reputed to be the son of a god
Churchill's mother was allegedly a serial adulterer, and her admirers are known to have included such illustrious figures as the future King Edward VII. Though historians have avoided suggesting that Winston was a bastard, doubts have certainly been expressed concerning the paternity of his younger brother Jack. An earlier version of the story may have been less circumspect.
- at birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or maternal grandfather, to kill him, but
- He is spirited away, and
- Reared by foster-parents in a far country
Churchill's relationship with his father was cold, and he was treated with unusual violence by his teachers (father-substitute). He was sent away from home to several private boarding schools and colleges; even before that, he is believed to have been much closer to the nurse to whom he was entrusted than to either of his natural parents. We may also note that as a youth he worked abroad for some time as a journalist and soldier in South Africa, Sudan, Cuba and elsewhere.
- We are told nothing of his childhood, but
It is a notorious fact that the only period of Churchill's life which ever receives any attention is his late adulthood, from the 1930s to the 1950s, though a few stories exist concerning his conduct in the First World War and his activities as a war reporter in the Boer War.
- On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
After the Boer War, Churchill's series of exiles ended and he settled down in Britain for good.
- After a victory over the king and/or giant, dragon, or wild beast
- He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
- becomes king
Churchill's return to Britain was followed closely by his entry into politics. His 'victory' may plausibly be identified with his exploits in South Africa, which first thrust him into the limelight (he received a hero's welcome after his escape from an Afrikaner concentration camp).
His marriage in 1908 to Clementine Ogilvy Hozier, an aristocratic princess-figure, coincided precisely with the first peak of his political career: from 1906 onwards, he began to receive a series of high-profile government jobs, notably that of Home Secretary in 1910-11.
Churchill's second phase of political success came from 1940 onwards, when he served as Britain's wartime Prime Minister. During the 1930s, he had struggled at length with the metaphorical beasts of Nazism and Communism.
- For a time he reigns uneventfully and
- Prescribes laws but
Churchill did just this, serving with distinction as a government minister for several years from 1906 to 1915. Later, his first term of office as Premier (1940-1945) was distinguished both by Britain's victory over Nazi Germany and by the passage of a series of important legislative measures such as the 1944 Education Act, which laid the foundations of Britain's modern school system.
- later loses favor with the gods and or his people and
- Is driven from from the throne and the city after which
- He meets with a mysterious death
- often at the top of a hill.
After a series of military failures, notably the disastrous Dardannelles expedition in 1915, for which he was held responsible, Churchill was sacked as First Lord of the Sea in 1915 and resigned from the government altogether shortly afterwards. This series of events is suspiciously paralleled by his subsequent ill-starred involvement in the Russian Civil War and the Anglo-Irish War, which was followed in 1922 by his departure from Parliament.
Later in his life, Churchill's second term as Prime Minister (1951-1955) is generally regarded as a failure both because of his irresolute economic policy and his abortive attempt to end the Cold War through a peace conference. Though he was not actually killed nor defeated at the polls, he did suffer a stroke at around this time, and his departure from the political stage was earnestly sought for and welcomed when it came.
- his children, if any, do not succeed him.
Churchill's son and heir Randolph was not half the man that his father was. He attempted to follow a political and literary career like that of his father and failed miserably.
- his body is not buried, but
- nevertheless he has one or more holy sepulchres.
Churchill's grave at Woodstock is still an object of veneration.
The duplication of several motifs leads one to suspect that more that one version of the Churchill myth circulated, and that the several were combined by a relatively late redactor. The necessity of fitting so many events into a single lifetime has meant that Churchill has been given an implausibly eventful career and a suspiciously long life, especially given his liking for cigars and brandy (he was allegedly born in 1874 and died in 1965).
Incidentally, any politician who really had won a world war for Britain would without doubt have been offered a peerage, perhaps even a dukedom. That Churchill is said to have died 'Sir Winston' is deeply suspicious.