February 13, 2008

Is Jesus based on older pagan myths

Occasionally, I will post on this blog older posts from my personal Myspace blog which have to do with Christianity, Discipleship, Scholarship or Biblical Studies. This is one I posted back in the Fall that I'd like to make available to the Discipleship Dojo community. As usual, comments, questions, or feedback are always welcome!

Christianity is just a copy of older pagan religions!
[originally posted Tuesday, October 02, 2007 - 2:52 PM]

Okay, so I do alot of posting on the Religion General Forum on Myspace (go check it out and say hi sometime!) and one of the things I've heard so many times is the old "Jesus is just a copy of older pagan religions" song and dance. Usually, people will just assert it as if it's known historical fact and confidently list the things Christianity copied from various Mystery religions that predate Christianity, such as the cult of Mithras, Osiris, Horus, or Attis/Adonis. I frequently hear the argument that Mithraism taught that Mithras was:

Born of a virgin

Born in a cave

Born on Dec. 25th

Considered a great traveling teacher

Had twelve disciples

Promised his followers immortality

Sacrificed himself for world peace

Was buried in a tomb

Rose again three days later

Instituted a Eucharist

Now, that sounds pretty familiar doesn't it? Or how about the parallels between the Greek god of wine Dionysus and Jesus:

He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles.

Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25th and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger.

He "rode in a triumphal procession on a donkey which carries him to meet his passion with crowds waving bundles of branches.

He was a sacred king killed and eaten in a eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification.

Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25th.

He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine at the marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne.

He was called "King of Kings" and "God of Gods." He was considered the "only Begotten Son," "Savior," "Redeemer," "Sin Bearer," "Anointed One," and the "Alpha and Omega."

He was identified with the Ram or Lamb.

He was hung on a tree or crucified.

Dionysus becomes the wine and is himself 'poured out' as an offering.

Or how about Attis:

Attis was born on December 25th of the Virgin Nana.

He was considered the savior who was slain for the salvation of mankind.

His body as bread was eaten by his worshippers.

His priests were "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven."

He was both the Divine Son and the Father.

On "Black Friday," he was crucified on a tree, from which his holy blood ran down to redeem the earth.

He descended into the underworld.

After three days, Attis was resurrected on March 25th (as tradition held of Jesus) as the "Most High God."

He was pictured as being hung from a tree with the picture of a lamb at his feet and later his empty grave was found.

Similar claims have been made for the Egyptian Mystery cults of Osiris and Horus as well.

So what do we do with this??

Is the "Jesus myth" merely a Judaized version of older pagan cults that just happened to win out while they all faded into obscurity?

Um...actually...no, it is not. The main reason being that these 'similarities' all post-date Christianity by over 100 years. In other words, the "borrowing" of the motif of a dying and rising god-man went in the opposite direction than is normally claimed by those indicting Christianity with plagarism!

In his newest book, "The Case For the Real Jesus", Lee strobel interviews Michael Licona and Edwin Yamauchi (Yamauchi being one of the most proficient scholars of the ancient mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world and Ancient Near East). They, along with numerous other actual antiquities scholars (some Christian, some not) attest that while these 'parallels' were in vogue between the 1890s and 1940s among some scholars, they have long since been discredited.

As one Scandinavian scholar notes:

"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."
–T.N.D. Mettinger, "The Riddle of Resurrection" p.221 (Mettinger teaches at
Lund University and is a member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and
Antiquities of Stockholm)

The most amazing thing is that since almost NO ONE ever bothers to go back to the original sources to investigate the truth of these claims, they simply get passed along as if they're actually true. They are not. None of these mythical figures actually have such similarities as noted above. When you look at the actual texts which are supposedly the source of all this information you start to see really quickly, as Licona and Yamauchi point out in detail, that the similarities aren't so similar after all.

For instance, according to the actual legends, Osiris was killed by his brother Seth, put in a coffin and sunk to the bottom of the Nile but is revived by the goddess Isis. However, he is later killed and chopped into 14 pieces and scattered around the world. Isis then goes and finds 13 of the parts to give him a proper burial. But Osiris doesn't come back to life, rather, he's given the status of god of the underworld. Does that even remotely resemble the idea of Jesus' bodily resurrection? No. But who's gonna take the time to investigate these claims?
Or what about Dionysus' "virgin birth"? Well, actually it was taught that Zeus, disguised as a human, fell in love with Semele and impregnated her. Hera, Zeus' wife, arranged to have Semele burned. Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus and sewed him into his thigh until he was ready to be born. That's not exactly the depiction we see in "Merry Christmas Charlie Brown" now, is it?
Albert Schweitzer is noted by Strobel as saying that popular writers made the mistake of taking various fragments of information and manufacturing 'a kind of universal Mystery-religion which never actually existed, least of all in Paul's day'.

Let's look at Mithras as an example. When asked about the "parallels" between Mithras and Jesus, Yamauchi (who was a member of the Second Mythraic Congress in Tehran, Iran in 1975--a gathering of Mithraic scholars from around the world) clarifies the facts about Mithras:

Born of a virgin?
No, actually Mithras is said to have emerged fully grown from a rock, naked except for a Phrygian cap and holding a dagger and a torch.

Born in a cave?
Nope. See above. Later Mithraic sanctuaries were made to look like caves, but it should be
noted that the New Testament doesn't even teach that Jesus was born in a cave. No parallel here.

Born on Dec. 25?
Not a parallel because Jesus wasn't born on Dec. 25th. The earliest Christians celebrated His birth on Jan.6th. The later tradition of Dec. 25th has to do with the winter solstice being chosen as the day to celebrate Christmas.

Considered a great traveling teacher? Had twelve disciples?
No. He was not known to be a teacher with disciples. He was a god.

Promised his followers immortality?
This is the hope of almost every religion!

Sacrificed himself for world peace?
No. He Didn't sacrifice himself, he killed a bull in battle!

Was buried in a tomb? Rose again three days later?
There are no known references to Mithras' death in any sources...thus there are also no references to any resurrection three days later from a tomb either.

Instituted a Eucharist?
Mithraism celebrated a common meal; but this is found in the 2nd century AD, long after Jesus celebrated Passover with His disciples.

Similar things can be seen when the other myths are looked at regarding the other god figures.

But the point is simply that all the "similarities" are actually huge generalizations, date more than a century after Jesus, or are simply bogus claims that haven't been checked for accuracy.Yamauchi ends his interview with Strobel by giving advice on how to not be deceived by all the stuff online we read regarding these similarities (which can be found just by Googling "Jesus" "Mithras" or similar searches):

"[These writers] don't have the languages, they don't study the original sources, they don't pay attention to the dates, and they frequently quote ideas that were popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but have already been refuted. Reputable and careful scholars like Carsten Colpe of Germany, Gunter Wagner of Switzerland, and Bruce Metzger of the United States have pointed out that, number one, the evidence for these supposed parallels is often very late, and number two, there are too many generalizations being made...be careful of articles on the web. Even though the internet is a quick and convenient source of information, it also perpetuatese outdated and disproved theories. Also check the credentials of the authors. Do they have the training and depth of knowledge to write authoritatively on these issues? And be sure to check the dates of the sources that are quoted. Are they relying on anachronistic claims or discredited scholars? And finally, be aware of the biases of many modern authors, who may clearly have an axe to grind."

I definitely recommend reading the whole interview with Yamauchi in Strobel's book. Yamauchi's written tons of stuff, but on this issue, "Persia and the Bible" is probably best.

Some authors that still appeal to these discredited supposed-parallels (and therefore are worth knowing in case you see them referenced by someone) are

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, "The Jesus Mysteries" and "The Laughing Jesus"

Tom Harpur, "The Pagan Christ"

Hugh J. Schonfield, "Those Incredible Christians"

John H. Randall, "Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis"

Tim Callahan "Secret Origins of the Bible"

Jesus claimed to be unique. History seems to agree.

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