The Pagan Christ

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The Pagan Christ

Isn’t the account of Jesus and His resurrection borrowed from pagan mystery religions? Isn’t the central Christian story just modified mythology? Several years ago the mockumentary Religulous attempted to trot out this argument once again. So, how is the Christian to respond? In this short article I want to discuss three ‘rules’ for assessing the accusation that the first Christians were plagiarizing the pagans (I use the word ‘pagan’ throughout this article as a descriptive rather than derisive term). 1For a more thorough examination of these arguments see Mary Jo Sharp’s essay entitled, “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Stories?” found in the book, Come Let Us Reason Together. Also, see the essay “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie” by Mark W. Foreman found in the aforementioned volume.

Check the Sources

Despite the popular but exaggerated claims on the world-wide web, historians have long since refuted the sensational claim that the resurrection of Jesus, to give one highly significant example, was ‘stolen’ from pagan myths like the story of Osiris, Isis and Horus. Thankfully, one can read many of these ancient myths by searching the Internet and primary sources are always best! In the case of Osiris and Isis a cursory reading of this Egyptian tale 2There are actually at least two different versions but my comments would apply to both. will prove to any objective reader that there are no relevant similarities between the resurrection of Christ and this Egyptian story, whether in teaching or literary genre. Osiris wasn’t resurrected in the Jewish or Christian sense of the word, he undergoes a crude resuscitation but only to live on in the underworld, his shredded body pieced together by his devoted wife Isis.

From this example we learn that the first rule when encountering the assertion that the first Christians copied pagan mystery religions is to read the pagan stories yourself when possible – an original source like The Egyptian Book of the Dead. 3This advice would be hard to apply in the case of Mithras, which contains no substantive written record. However, this should make one wary about the validity of any alleged parallels between the cult of Mithras and Christianity. For example, Mithras is called the savior, but our only evidence of this comes from a single inscription that post-dates Christianity. P. 157 of Come Let Us Reason Together. Then compare the pagan stories to the Christian Gospels. Often the alleged similarities are just not there.

Check the Date

He was a 1st century itinerant preacher. He gathered followers, performed miracles and convinced others that he was more than human. He was known as the Son of God. He ran afoul of the Roman authorities and was put on trial. His body was killed but his soul could not die and he ascended to heaven where he continues to live. To prove his continued existence after his death he appeared to at least one of his doubting followers. Do you recognize this description? It sounds a lot like Jesus of Nazareth. But it is not. This is a description of a man named Apollonius who lived around the time of Jesus.

Many skeptical scholars make much of the corresponding life details of Jesus and Apollonius. But what is often conveniently left out in the above accounting is that the stories of Apollonius were written down in the 3rd century A.D. by a man named Philostratus. That means that the stories about Apollonius postdate the Gospels by several hundred years. If Philostratus was writing long after the Gospel authors while Christianity was rapidly spreading throughout the Roman Empire, who do you think was copying from whom? The answer should be obvious.

The second rule when encountering these sensational copycat claims is to research when the alleged similarities appear in the pagan texts. The mystery religions were syncretistic and if the parallels post-date the Christian Gospels you can be assured that if there actually was borrowing, the pagans were most likely guilty of it. 4The two examples chosen above, involving the Egyptian tale of Horus and Isis and the stories about Apollonius, are noteworthy because they are typical of other alleged comparisons between Christianity and the pagan mystery religions (i.e. the cults of Dionysus or Mithras); either the similarities are non-existent, exaggerated, and/or post –date the growth and spread of Christianity (e.g. stories about Apollonius).

The Real Similarities

The points of contact that do exist between the pagan myths and Christianity represent commonalities that are prevalent in most religions. Examples would include: salvation motifs/promises of immortality and the use of light and darkness as metaphors. It is fallacious to suppose that this type of correlation necessarily implies causation. Years ago in a remarkable essay entitled Is Theology Poetry?, C.S. Lewis taught us how to think about these possible points of congruence:

What light is really thrown on the truth or falsehood of Christian Theology by the occurrence of similar ideas in Pagan religion? Supposing for purposes of argument, that Christianity is true; then it could avoid all coincidence with other religions only on the supposition that all other religions are one hundred percent erroneous…The Truth is that the resemblances tell nothing for or against the truth of Christian theology. If you start from the assumption that the Theology is false, the resemblances are quite consistent with that assumption… But if you start with the assumption that the Theology is true, the resemblances fit equally well. Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men…We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story – the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. 5C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. “Is Theology Poetry?” p. 127,128

The third rule is that some of these parallels should be expected. The difference between Christianity and the pagan myths, Lewis goes on to point out, is that the Gospels are historical writings that intend to record the facts of what really happened to Jesus of Nazareth and, therefore, don’t bear the literary characteristics of myths.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is worth noting that there is no historical data that the mystery religions were prevalent in 1st century Palestine. Moreover, there is significant historical data that indicates 1st century Jews were fiercely resistant to pagan ideas, especially when marched into town by the oppressive boots of the Roman army (e.g. The Cult of Mithras). It is unthinkable that the first Jewish disciples of Jesus would construct stories about his ministry or his resurrection based on these pagan mythologies. These provocative but ill-founded assertions represent a school of comparative religion that was, at one time, prevalent in Germany, but is now close to a hundred years out of date. Responsible scholarship has moved on and so should we.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For a more thorough examination of these arguments see Mary Jo Sharp’s essay entitled, “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Stories?” found in the book, Come Let Us Reason Together. Also, see the essay “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie” by Mark W. Foreman found in the aforementioned volume.
2. There are actually at least two different versions but my comments would apply to both.
3. This advice would be hard to apply in the case of Mithras, which contains no substantive written record. However, this should make one wary about the validity of any alleged parallels between the cult of Mithras and Christianity. For example, Mithras is called the savior, but our only evidence of this comes from a single inscription that post-dates Christianity. P. 157 of Come Let Us Reason Together.
4. The two examples chosen above, involving the Egyptian tale of Horus and Isis and the stories about Apollonius, are noteworthy because they are typical of other alleged comparisons between Christianity and the pagan mystery religions (i.e. the cults of Dionysus or Mithras); either the similarities are non-existent, exaggerated, and/or post –date the growth and spread of Christianity (e.g. stories about Apollonius).
5. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. “Is Theology Poetry?” p. 127,128

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