Friday, August 05, 2011

Slaying dragons: Did Christianity copy Egyptian mythology?

Earlier this year I spoke at an evangelistic event at Bath Spa University. A student stood up in the Q&A and read from a piece of paper a description of something that sounded very like Christianity before asking me, what do I make of that. I bounced the question back to him before he revealed that it was a description of an Egyptian religion, lifted it transpires from the writings of retired Professor Richard Dawkins.

The other day I came across a 150 year old book: William Haslam - The Cross and the Serpent via on Acts 15:21 - Moses preached in ancient times. Haslam studies the idea of the serpent (to be crushed according to Genesis 3) and the cross in the mythologies of the ancient world. He considers the presence of these kind of stories and indeed prophecy of the cross to be entirely expected in ancient cultures - the LORD revealed and his people spread through the world carrying the story.

Of the Cross, Haslam writes: "He was consigned to the ignominous Cross; and there with the outstretched arms of ancient prophecy, He was lifted up to draw all men to Him! to complete the work of man's redemption! He was bruised in the heel, but He bruised the serpent's head; he triumphed over death, and ascended to his throne in heaven." p262

He examines the mythologies of Egypt and Scandinavia and Greece, India and China and so on. Noticing - "the mysteries of the Gospel revelation, hidden in their own mythology, and in their own gods! how enticing and convincing would be the proof of this to their heart" p177 such that "many who waited patiently for the fulfilment rejoiced greatly when it was announced to them, with conviction, that the long-cherished hope of heathendom was fulfilled, and that the cross was triumphant in fulfillment, as it had long been in prophecy" p180-1

Reflecting on Paul's preaching in Athens: "What can we imagine would be more successful in teaching the heathen the nature of God, than to lead them from their own tenets in all the warm ardour of their heart beyond them to a purer belief? What text more engaging for inculcating the doctrine of the Trinity, than the heathen's triad, consisting of a ruling father, and incarnate though ascended and triumphant son, and a pervading spirit? What process of reasoning will be more conclusive as to the fallen state, and the necessity of expiation, than the heathen's ceremonies of sacrifice? Their assertion of the necessity of human sacrifice, and their sacrifice of their deity, can easily be explained to them: the conquest of the dragon by the incarnate deity, the efficacy of water and the sign of the Cross are so many admitted truths. All these may be selected, or they are not so much overlaid with subsequent superstitions as not to be easily selected, and set before the votaries of the serpent in their proper order. Their eyes have long been holden so that they have been unable to see; but they may be opened by the power of Him who has vanquished the serpent. Will not their heart burn within them at such tidings? Will not the Holy Spirit, who ever loves to guide the humble-minded to the truth, while that truth is so near them, while the appointed messengers of truth are praying and striving for success in their ministry, will not that Holy Spirit guide to all truth those who can devote their bodies and their lives for the love of God whom they worship; who can conquer their infirm rebellious heart within them, and subdue their nature so as to make it subservient to the dictates and precepts of religion?" p270-1

We're quick to speak of the uniqueness of Christianity, unlike any other mythology/story. Yet Haslam would suggest another tack. Christianity is the story we've been waiting for. It is, in Tolkein/Lewis/Keller terms, the fairy tale that became true. So Tolkein (On Fairy Stories): "It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified."

The question I was asked was not easy to respond to, but it was a great opportunity - and should it arise again I hope I'll bring more of this kind of thinking into the conversation. I got as far then as Israelites having been in Egypt so of course the Christian hope was known there. But we can say much more.

The embedding of gospel hope in cultures around the world surely means that like Tim Keller we will set out not just to challenge the culture but to console it - to identify with the world and the story it's longing for - showing that in the cross of Christ we find fulfilled, as Haslam observes: "the ardently cherished promise that men should eventually be delivered by an Incarnate God from the cruel bondage of the evil serpent" p130.


  1. I love this Bish, great work. It makes sense of a niggling doubt that has churned away, quite well ignored in the back of my mind, and confirms what I had taken from Keller on Tolkien: all stories point this way!

  2. C S Lewis is big on this - once he'd been corrected by Tolkien (see his wonderful poem-argument on the subject, here). For that matter, don't just go back as far as Egypt: all cultures should have memory of the Serpent-Crusher promise of Gen 3. All cultures should have memory of sacrifice for sin (as Cain & Abel). All cultures should resonate with a huge flood, and a new humanity started by salvation. God was 'doing' new life through death & judgement, among his 'sons', right from the beginning. We would expect these echoes to be heard throughout each culture's mythology - corporate understanding of original and identity - even if we have been foolish enough to start extrapolating from man to God, making gods in our image, and confusing these with our true 'memory'. Of course, even that is a backwards echo of our being made in God's image...

  3. Haslam sees it beyond Egypt, I highlight that because it was the q I faced - though saying its older and more prevalent is a good retort to dawkins.

  4. A very helpful post, thanks. Good comment too estrangere.