“Once upon a time in a land called Jerusalem there was a man named Jesus…”Many would contend that this is how the narrative regarding the life of Jesus should begin. It has been increasingly popular within the skeptical community to make the claim that the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are not only similar to what amount to fairytales, but many go further and claim that Christianity’s central doctrines are directly borrowed from the myths of antiquity. Is Christianity simply religious plagiarism, a mere rehashing of the dying-and-rising-gods of ancient mythologies? In this paper we will pursue this question and demonstrate that this is not the case. First we will look at what is popularly believed to be the similarities between these ancient mystery religions and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We will then critique these beliefs against what is actually known about the mystery religions, comparing and contrasting them with Christ’s death and resurrection story in the hopes of clarifying any ambiguities and correcting misinformation. As a result it will be evident that “there is no clear motif of the dying-and-rising god in antiquity” from which it can be claimed the Gospel writers plagiarized.
One only has to do a brief Google search for the term “Christ myth,” “Mithras,” or “Horus” to see that it is a popular notion that Christianity borrowed from ancient mystery religions. We would be remiss if we didn’t start this examination with what is considered one of the most popular and well known sources of this information, the internet movie Zeitgeist. Zeitgeist is an independently made movie/documentary which spends its first 40 minutes comparing the Christian narrative to those of the gods from a number of ancient pagan religions. According to this film the ancient Egyptian sun god, Horus “was crucified, buried for three days and thus resurrected.” The creator of the film, Peter Joseph goes on to point out that these “attributes of Horus… seem to permeate many cultures of the world, for many other gods have found to have the same general mythological structure.” He then provides us a list which includes:
- Attis (1200 B.C.)– “Crucified placed in a tomb and after three days was resurrected.”
- Dionysus (500 B.C.) – “Upon his death he was resurrected.”
- Mithras (1200 B.C.) – “Was dead for three days and resurrected.”
Mr. Joseph concludes that “the fact of the matter is there are numerous saviors from different periods from all over the world which subscribe to these… characteristics.” And as such we should conclude that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection should be placed among them and classified as myths.
Leaving the movie Zeitgeist for another video, this time a debate on Faith Under Fire between Skeptic Magazine’s Tim Callahan and Gary Habermas, a foremost export on the resurrection of Jesus. Callahan in the debate claims that all the major mystery religions include death and resurrection stories which are similar to those found in the Gospels. As an example he mentions Dionysus saying, “all I can tell you is that the myth is that [Dionysus] is torn apart by the titans, eaten and then raised from the dead.” He goes on to defend that “the resurrection of Jesus isn’t original at all. But it is merely a story that is recycled from earlier mythology and mystery religions.”
It’s not just the internet that is flooded with this information. The “Religion” sections of most popular book stores reflect a similar thing. Tom Harper, Oxford University Rhodes Scholar and author has said “far from being an original contribution to the world of religious thought… Christianity was turned in the early centuries into a literalist copy of a resplendent spiritual forerunner.” Harper goes on the say that there is nothing the Jesus described in the New Testament said or did “that cannot be shown to have originated thousands of years before.” In his book, The Pagan Christ, Harper makes the claim that the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus is no exception. He writes that “Horus was crucified between two thieves, buried in a tomb, and resurrected.” Mr. Harper goes further to say “the description of the pierced, wounded, crucified Horus” matches the Gospel account with “unmistakable fidelity.” In fact Harper is so sure that the resurrection of Jesus is a copy of an older mystery religion he writes that he believes “with total assurance” that the Jesus of the Gospels is “Egyptian from first to last.”
John Jackson, atheist author of the short book Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth writes, “The myths and legends concerning such pagan christs as Osiris [and] Horus… were later interpolated into the biography of Jesus.” Mr. Jackson then provides us with what he posits as the sources for the death and resurrection of Jesus as according to the Gospel. “Many gods besides Christ have been supposed to die and be resurrected… This idea has now been traced back to its origin among primitive people.” He tells us that Osiris was the father of Horus and suffered a torturous death and was then resurrected. Jackson goes as far as to say that Mithraist’s believed Mithras to have been resurrected; an event which they celebrate as Easter. He claims that Attis was likewise believed to have been raised from the dead.
Alfred Loisy, an author and former Roman Catholic priest, said of Jesus, “like Adonis, Osiris, and Attis he had died a violent death, and like them he had returned to life.” In “The Christian Mystery” Loisy goes on to claim that Paul was actually influenced by these mystery religions and simply created his own myth. Loisy chalks Christ’s death and resurrection up to Paul’s imaginative response to the likes of Horus and Attis.
George Holley Gilbert, a religion scholar and author wrote,
The nucleus of the popular cults, as the cults of Attis, Osiris and Adonis, is this: a divine being comes to earth, assumes human form, dies a violent death, rises, and, through union with him… men are redeemed. And what does Paul teach? A being who existed in the form of God appeared on earth in the likeness of sinful flesh, was crucified, and rose from the dead. Men, through their relation to this experience of a celestial being, are redeemed.
These are but a few of an overwhelming number of sources that offer similar claims that the Christian teachings regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection were borrowed from the likes of Horus, Attis, Dionysus, Mithras or Osiris. From just this sampling it seems quite evident that skeptics would have us think that they have uncovered what amounts to a major scandal within the Church. But have they?
Critique and Examination: Death of Jesus
I was a Criminal Justice major in my undergraduate years at American University in Washington, DC. Being in that location I had the privilege to have access to the top local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in the world. When studying the forgery and counterfeiting of money an instructor from The Secret Service said that they do not teach new recruits using forged documents, instead they learn the originals so well that when a fake is presented the discrepancies literally stand out. Before we examine the claims made above we should take a similar approach here and examine the Christian claims made about Christ’s death.
For our purposes there are six important questions to ask in regards to Jesus’ death.
- Who did Jesus die for? Jesus died for someone other than himself. He died for us. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
- Why did Jesus die? Jesus died for a specific purpose, our sin. “He gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the resent evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” (Galatians 1:4)
- How many times did Jesus die? Jesus died just once. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)
- How do we know that Jesus died? We have an actual historical account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses.” (Luke 1:1-2)
- Did Jesus fight? Jesus died voluntarily without a struggle. “No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again.” (John 10:18)
- Was Jesus defeated by the cross? Was his death a defeat? No, it was a triumph. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory. Where, O death, is your sting. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54b-56)
These six questions and the answers are vital in understanding why Christ died and what his death means. Now that we have an accurate picture of Christian thought in regards to the death of Jesus, we are free to see how the gods of the mystery religions stack up.
Critique and Examination: Death of Pagan Gods
First, who did these pagan gods die for? None of the pagan gods of mystery religions died for someone else. ‘The notion of the Son of God dying in place of His creatures is unique to Christianity.”
Why did these pagan gods die? Nowhere in any of the mystery religions is it claimed that their god died for sin. Gunter Wagner writes, “To none [of the pagan gods] has the intention of helping men been attributed. The sort of death that they died is quite different (hunting accident, self-emasculation, etc.)”
How many times did these pagan gods die? The short answer is many. Most of these gods were vegetation deities who played out a continual cycle of death and resurrection in correlation with the seasons. Even skeptics rightly admit this, “There are two principle types of savior-gods recognized by hierologists, namely: vegetation-gods and sun-gods.” In addition, the movie Zeitgeist is replete with references to these gods in relation to the season. Greg Koukl sums it up nicely by writing that “the mythical, ‘resurrected’ deities were invariably tied to the seasons of the agricultural cycle, ‘dying’ and ‘rising’ repeatedly every calendar year, while Jesus’ resurrection was a one-time event unrelated to seasonal changes.”
The forth question has to do with the historicity of these gods. How do we know that any of these pagan gods died? Well, we don’t. We have very little in the way of historical evidence of their existence and even so when compared to the amount evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical account, to try and compare the two is laughable. These stories are just that, stories; dramas with no ties to actual history. It is clear that the early church believed, as fact, that Jesus died and was raised, and that the foundation of this belief was rooted in history. This knowledge makes absurd any attempt to derive this belief from the mythical, nonhistorical stories of the pagan cults. A.D. Knock expresses it well when he writes,
In Christianity everything is made to turn on a dated experience of a historical Person; it can be seen from I Cor. 15:3 that the statement of the story early assumed the form of a statement in a Creed. There is nothing in the parallel cases which points to any attempt to give such a basis of historical evidence to belief.
Compare this with the fact that “no serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed.” I have searched high and low; no one is willing to make this claim with respect to the gods of the mystery religions.
The fifth question asked above has to do with how these other “savior-gods” die? Did they give themselves over in a similar manor as Jesus did? No they did not. In fact, and again, there is nothing in any of the mystery cults that resembles anything like the voluntary death of Jesus Christ. The Metternich Stele, a stone dating to the third century B.C. which tells the story of Horus, depicts a scene of his death that is utterly different than that of Christ. Here we see that Horus died not by freely giving himself for others. Instead the Stele depicts Horus dying as a result of a scorpion sting. Comparing the manner in which these pagan gods died with Jesus, Princeton theologian John Machen wrote,
Christ is represented as dying voluntarily, and dying for the sake of men, He ‘loved me,’ says Paul, ‘and gave himself for me.’ There is absolutely nothing like that conception in the case of pagan religions. Osiris, Adonis, and Attis were overtaken by their fate; Jesus gave his life freely away. The difference is stupendous.
And the final question we must ask of these gods of the ancient mystery religions is was their death considered a defeat? Nowhere among the stories of these pagan savior-gods do we see a message of triumph come from their death. Followers of these pagan gods wept and mourned the death of their deity. They were distraught. Compare this with the picture we have of Christ. Not only was the message of Jesus’ death a message of victory, even as he was being brutalized and humiliated, he was the true victor. This stands it the starkest of contrasts to the likes of Horus, Attis or Osiris.
Critique and Examination: Resurrection Accounts
Having taken on the task of comparing the death motifs from the pagan myths to Jesus’ own death it is quite obvious that the narratives are vastly different. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the resurrection claims. The two have been kept separate for one very important reason; the resurrection claims of ancient mystery religions are ambiguous at best. While there are clear claims to the death of their god within the mystery religions, this is not always the case in regards to a resurrection accounts. Whether there is actually a resurrection story isn’t the only issue in play here. Also in question are the dates attributed to the accounts. In the examination and critique of these myths we must first ask which of them actually lay claim to a resurrection and then what’s the date of the evidence.
A few pagan myths can be eliminated right of the bat. There are no early texts that refer to Attis having been resurrected at all. To claim otherwise is at best a misunderstanding and at worst a misrepresentation. Also to be mentioned is that all source material for Attis postdates biblical texts. Paul could not have copied from something that had yet to be written.
Similarly Dionysus can be crossed off the list of resurrected gods. While his worshipers did believe in eternal life they never expressed a hope for a resurrection or any kind of faith in Dionysus’ rebirth.
Mithras, the god of Christianity’s early rival pagan religion is victim of a later date. Edwin Yamauchi, Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University, comments that “those who seek to adduce Mithras as a prototype of the risen Christ ignore the late date of Mithraism.” Even so, Mithras cannot be describes as a dying and rising god because no death and resurrection ritual has ever been associated with Mithraism.
Osiris’ resurrection claim suffers a similar fate but in different way. While there is clear and early evidence of a resurrection account from the second century, it’s a leap to relate Osiris’ “resurrection” to Jesus’. The way the myth is told is that Osiris’s body was dismembered and scattered. After his scattered body parts were collected he was resuscitated and became “Lord of the Underworld.” But to relate the Egyptian view of the afterlife to the resurrection as according to the Hebrew-Christian tradition fails miserably. They are incomparable. In fact, Osiris’ “resurrection” might not be conserved a resurrection at all. Bruce Metzger agrees, “Whether this can be rightly called a resurrection is questionable, especially since, according to Plutarch, it was the pious desire of devotees to be buried in the same ground where… the body of Osiris was still lying.”
On this very issue Roland de Vaux, former director of the Ecole Biblique comments,
What is meant of Osiris being raised to life? Simply that… he is able to lead a life beyond the tomb which is an almost perfect replica of earthly existence but he will never again come among the living and will reign only over the dead… This revived god is in reality a ‘mummy’ god.
As with the other gods of mystery religions examined the comparison of Osiris to Christ just simply does not lead one to conclude that any of the Gospel authors or Paul turned to these false pagan myths as source material.
So, is the resurrection and death account of Jesus dependent upon the “dying and rising” gods from Hellenistic paganism? Through the examination and critiques of these pagan gods of ancient mystery religions as compared to the Jesus story we are left with no other option but to conclude that the claim that Jesus is a copycat god is purely false. As such one must agree with Tryggve Mettinger that “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.”
So does the Christian story resemble a fairytale from long ago? Should we begin the narrative “Once upon a time…” as we read in Sleeping Beauty or Snow White? Where a woman is in distress, surrounded by evil only to be then saved by a prince galloping on a white horse; where they ride into a new kingdom to reign happily forever together? If it does, you have it exactly backwards. Fairytales sound like this. If the death and resurrection accounts of Christ are not true then this is a false religion and we should move on. But if the death and resurrection accounts are true then it is the most amazing story of all time and it’s deserving of everything we have. It is my contention that the latter is true and fairytales pale in comparison to the glories gained through Christ’s death and resurrection.