The Titanic: reality, legend, and the use of parallels.

In Commentary, Foundations, In the News by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

It is a dark, cold April night in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The world’s largest luxury liner is on a voyage between the New York and England. Because it is thought to be ‘unsinkable’ (due to its watertight compartments) it is travailing at a speed in excess of 22 knots and is only carrying lifeboats for less than half its capacity of 3000 (as few as regulations would allow). It is a behemoth vessel, nearly as long as three football fields, end to end, weighing in at over 45,000 tons. Suddenly, terror sets in as the three giant props push it into an iceberg on the starboard side about 400 miles from Newfoundland. This fatal blow causes the ship to sink, killing the majority of the passengers and crew.
April 14th (Saturday) & 15th (Sunday) of 2012, mark the 100th anniversary of the awful collision (11:40 pm) of the Titanic in the North Atlantic and her subsequent sinking (2:20 am). Of the 2229 aboard, only 713 survived. (1)The number of passengers, crew, and survivors vary due to the circumstances, as well as problems with record-keeping. However, I probably tricked you slightly with the title of this article and the above picture of the HMS Titanic.
In the above details I’m actually referring the Titan from a fiction novel written over a decade before the Titanic’s voyage, by Morgan Andrew Robertson, published in 1898. The similarities are uncanny, leading some to question whether Robertson was prescient. In fact, the design of the Titanic wasn’t even discussed until mid-1907. (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Titanic This fiction book was called “Futility” or “The Wreck of the Titan” and followed the story of a person aboard a British luxury liner. Even the choice of names is eerily close.

But, one might also take another approach. What if I were skeptical about the story of the HMS Titanic? What if I told you that these stories were so similar that it is obvious that the story of the Titanic was copied (and therefore fabricated), based on the story of the Titan? In light of having direct, eye-witness testimony until recently, and some incredible submarine technology which has sent back video and photos of the wreckage on the ocean floor, you would call me crazy. But, what if we jump forward a couple thousand years in time, or push the events back in time a couple thousand years? In other words, we put some historical distance between the events and our investigation. Let’s say we only find some fragments of paper from one of Robertson’s books which can be dated to around 1898 from which we reconstruct the story of the Titan. We have some other fragments of paper, maybe newspaper clippings, which date from 1912 from which we reconstruct some witness testimony of what happened at the Titanic scene? The situation seems a bit different now; this concept of copying takes on a bit more power.

This use of parallels to question historic events is the type of reasoning Christian apologists sometimes face concerning the life of Jesus. You might have come across people making the claim that other gods of the Mystery Cults, such as Horus or Mithras, were born of a virgin, on December 25th, died and were resurrected. Does this argument sound familiar?

The story of the Titan and Titanic isn’t really a good analogy, especially given the small historical time separation, however it does drive home an important point. Just because we have something earlier that appears to be a parallel DOES NOT indicate the latter was copied from the former! It doesn’t shed much light on an account being true or false either. Take another look at the Titanic story. Would anyone seriously claim it was just a legend or a copy-cat reenactment? Yet, it is seriously claimed by some, that the Biblical account of Jesus is just that.

In comparison to the Mystery Cult parallels brought against Christianity, the story of the Titan is a much closer parallel. Even so, taking a look at the flaws in my attempt at making the parallel above should help us think about the types of flaws we will find in the comparison of Jesus to the Mystery Cults.

First, the similarities are cherry-picked while the differences are ignored.

  • For the Titanic, over 700 are rescued, while only 13 are rescued for the Titan.
  • The Titan is 800 feet long, while the Titanic is 882 feet long, they differer in number of watertight compartments, lifeboats, weight, power, speed, etc.
  • While both ships sank, exactly what they hit and how they sank varied. (The Titanic hit an iceberg, causing holes, the ship broke and sank; the Titan ran onto an ice-sheet which tipped it on its side, taking on water, it sank.)
  • While the trip was in April for both, the Titan doesn’t list a date. It was also traveling in the opposite direction, though sank in roughly the same area.

Second, generalities are often used.

  • I was purposely vague in how many survivors there were, saying the majority were killed.
  • I was able to be a bit vague in the physical description of the ship to make them seem the same.
  • By avoiding the details of exactly what happened, how the ships sank isn’t an issue.
  • Picking the vague date of the month of April, and not listing the departure and destination keeps the discrepancy from being readily seen.

Third, due to the subject matter, some things will naturally match, but indicate no ‘genetic’ parallel.

  • Wouldn’t a shipwreck at that time in history in the middle of the ocean generally have a minority of survivors? They didn’t have helicopters or as good of communication.
  • The ships are actually fairly close in physical characteristics, yet if one were to conceive of a ‘biggest of some class’ one is likely going to be similar if at all being realistic, given the technology of the time period.
  • If a ship hits some large object in the ocean, it will probably sink. It doesn’t have to be ice, but ice was a fear of the time (they simply thought these ships were going to be impervious to it). The routes where well enough established to be less afraid of rocks, which plagued previous generations of sea travel.
  • These are two common destinations. Ships would take a similar path. In this time of year (spring), ice would be a big concern as it broke from ice shelves and flows.

Some of the bigger differences:

  • The Titan was on the third voyage, while the Titanic was on the first.
  • The Titan had 92 watertight doors, while the Titanic had only 12.
  • The Titan was full, while the Titanic, fortunately, was not at capacity.
  • The Titan hit the ice in foggy conditions, while the Titanic on a clear night with no moon.
  • Traveling in opposite directions.
  • Huge difference in number and percentage of passengers surviving.

All this considered, in the case of the Titan story and Titanic account, there is enough detailed similarity to make one a bit uneasy about simply writing the parallels completely  off. Yet, without some kind of prophecy or prescience, one will have to conclude the similarities are coincidence. We certainly know the Titanic story is true. With the Mystery Cults and Jesus, however, the parallels can, I believe, safely be written off.

Consider the idea that Mithras was a parallel to Jesus. First, we don’t even have any text concerning Mithras to give us details. What we know about Mithras comes from interpretation of wall murals. I guess they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but depending on who is looking at the picture and what presuppositions or intentions they bring, those thousand words might be quite different. Second the supposed similarities are huge stretches and everything else is ignored. For example, it is said that Mithras also had 12 disciples and was born of a virgin. The 12 disciples idea is drawn from the images where the zodiac signs surround Mithras. It is quite a stretch to link this with Jesus disciples. Mithras was born out of a rock. I suppose rocks are generally considered virgins!? Mithras was a saviour who sacrificed himself to save the world? Well, he slayed a dangerous bull, if that counts

Other things about Mithras are crude generalities or things we would simply expect to find when talking about a deity. For example, he is said to have celebrated a ‘Eucharist’ such as Jesus’ Last Supper (and consequent Communion or Eucharist of Christians). There is a bit of truth to this, as Mithras followers did celebrate a fellowship meal, however so did just about every religious group in this time and place. In other words, the assumption that Christianity is unique in the generalities of a fellowship meal is the mistake in thinking here. Or, take the concepts that Mithras was a great teacher or performed miracles. These are simply things we’d expect to find within just about any religion involving a deity. These kind of claims may be unique to Christianity in being true, but they aren’t unique claims of religions in general.

One could look at any of the other Mystery Cult figures and offer a similar analysis. This is only scratching the surface. If you do a bit more research, the absurdity of this kind of parallel claim will become even more obvious. Bruce Metzger, renowned New Testament scholar, gave the following advice when looking at supposed parallels.

“Some of the supposed parallels are the result of the modern scholar’s amalgamation of quite heterogeneous elements drawn from various sources.” “Even when the parallels are actual and not imaginary, their significance for purposes of comparison will depend upon whether they are genealogical and not merely analogical parallels.” “Even when parallels are genealogical, it must not be uncritically assumed that the Mysteries always influenced Christianity, for it is not only possible but probable that in certain cases the influence moved in the opposite direction.” (3)Bruce M. Metzger, “Considerations of methodology in the study of the mystery religions and early Christianity,” Harvard Theological Review 48 no 1 Ja (1955), p 8-10.

On Metzger’s last point, for example, consider that it is said Mithras followers celebrated on Sunday. While this may be true, it is true in Rome, from post-Christian times. In other words, it certainly looks like Mithras followers copied this from the Christians, not the other way around.

For more great information on these Mystery Cult claims and the problems with them, put forth in an easy-to-read, but well-researched manner, see Jim Wallace’s excellent set of articles at PleaseConvinceMe.com. On the left side, look for the pages on Mithras, Horus, and Osiris, as well as pages on the historical evidence for Jesus (4)Jim also mentions this Titan / Titanic link in these articles.

Also, while I have only looked in a cursory manner so far (5)We’ll cover this in depth in future articles., I have noticed similar assumptions and sometimes problems when considering the (quite popular) view in Old Testament studies about parallels between Ancient Near East (ANE) worldview and religious ideas, and the Book of Genesis. While there are certainly valid parallels present (with Genesis often acting as a polemic), they are often overdrawn and imposed to indicated a genetic link in the ‘development’ of Genesis and other texts of the Old Testament. We (and everyone else) need to be much more careful when we make such parallels.

Marilynne Robinson issues just such a warning with a modern day context when she speaks of scholars analyzing our culture from the distant future. She says, “They will ponder our holding great civic elections on Tuesday, and our expressing ritual gratitude for Friday, confident that Norse polytheism flourished among us.” (6)Marilynne Robinson, “No other gods,” Theology Today, 63 no 4 Ja (2007) p 429.

Statistics on Titan and Titanic pulled from (among others):

Image credit: Black Country Living Museum – The S.S. Titanic – sign by ell brown (cc, some rights reserved)

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