Christianity was not influenced by paganism
A review and response to claims that Christianity was influenced by paganism and other religions.
There is no shortage of scholars and writers who claim that there are striking similarities between Christianity and paganism, or that Christianity was influenced by paganism.
Christianity has been accused of borrowing from paganism virtually every important detail in the New Testament, including the virgin birth, the baptism, the Eucharist, the offer of salvation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. The implication is that Christianity does not come from God, but from a stew of pagan ideas and concepts.
Many of the claims grew out of the 19th and 20th century works of Franz Cumont, James Frazer, and Kersey Graves, who continue to be influential among scholars and writers today who continue a tradition of:
1. Using Christian terminology to describe pagan traditions,
2. Then remarking on the alleged similarities,
3. And then claiming that Christianity copied from paganism.
With this as an approach, any ancient tradition involving water could be described as a "baptism," any pagan artwork depicting food and beverage could be characterized as a "Eucharist," any tradition involving an unusual birth of a pagan deity could be framed as a "miraculous birth" or as a "virgin birth," and any deity related to the agricultural cycle could be made into examples of "saviors" who "died" and were "resurrected."
Many novels, books, magazines and web sites have made and repeated allegations that the New Testament writers borrowed ideas from the ancient mythologies of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Babylon and India. The most commonly cited examples involve the traditions of Adonis, Dionysus, Krishna, Mithras and Osiris, that these pre-Christian deities supposedly had much in common with Jesus Christ.
This article will review some of these ancient traditions, showing that they have not influenced the theology of Christianity or the "creation" of Jesus.
Adonis is a good starting point for learning about the more common weaknesses in the claims that Christianity borrowed from pagan traditions.
Adonis is one of the many pagan deities that some scholars and writers characterize as a pre-Christian god who, like Jesus, was born of a virgin, died and was resurrected. And because of these apparent similarities, some writers claim that he is a prototype on which the New Testament writers based their "creation" of Jesus.
For a little background on Adonis, he is often summarized as an annual "life-death-rebirth" vegetation god, meaning that he was associated with the agricultural cycle, during which plants die in the winter and revive in the spring. The Adonis tradition is often said to have originated with the Babylonian myth of Tammuz, by way of Syria, before being imported into Greek mythology. It also is claimed that the Etruscan legend of Attunis and the German myth of Baldr were copied from the Adonis tradition.
One of the earliest glimpses into the Adonis legend comes from a poem attributed to Sappho, a poet who lived during the 7th century BC, about 2700 years ago:
Gentle Adonis is dying, O Cythera, what shall we do?
Beat your breasts, O maidens, and rend your garments.
Gentle Adonis wounded lies, dying, dying.
What message, O Cythera, dost thou send?
Beat, beat your white breasts, O ye weeping maidens,
And in wild grief your mourning garments rend.
O for Adonis.
Coming from heaven, clad in a purple mantle.
Come rosy-armed Graces, virgin daughters of Zeus.
But Ares said he would forcibly drag Hephaestus.
Innumerable drinking cups thou drainest.
But thou shalt ever lie dead nor shall there be any remembrance of thee then or ever, for thou hast none of the roses of Pieria; but thou shalt wander unnoticed, even in the houses of Hades, flitting among the shadowy dead.
Forever shalt thou lie dead, nor shall there be any remembrance of thee now or hereafter, for never has thou had any of the roses of Pieria; but thou shalt wander, eternally unregarded in the houses of Hades, flitting among the insubstantial shades.
Scholars disagree as to which verses truly belong to Sappho and which verses might have been added later from other sources. But, the poem as represented above indicates that there was a tradition that Adonis dies. There is, however, no mention in this pre-Christian poem of a resurrection.
Another ancient text, this one an encyclopedia of Greek mythology called The Library, speaks of Adonis, and of his death, and of his parentage, but mentions nothing of a resurrection or virgin birth. The text is sometimes attributed to Apollodorus, who was a Greek writer born about 180 BC, about 2200 years ago. As for the manner of Adonis' death:
"And Adonis, while still a boy, was wounded and killed in hunting by a boar through the anger of Artemis." - Apollodorus, The Library, Book III.
The earliest known record of a tradition involving a revived Adonis comes from Lucian of Samosata, the author of De Dea Syria. In that work, he wrote of an annual ceremony commemorating the death, or apparent death, of Adonis and that he was killed, or apparently killed, by a boar:
"They say, at any rate, that the deed that was done to Adon by the boar occurred in their land, and in memory of that misfortune every year they beat their breasts and mourn and perform the ceremonies, making solemn lamentations throughout the country. And when the breast-beating and weeping is at end, first they make offerings to Adon as if to a dead person; and then, on the next day, they proclaim that he is alive and fetch him forth into the air, and shave their heads as the Egyptians do when Apis dies."
Regardless of whatever conclusions could be drawn from De Dea Syria, it should be noted that it was written during the second century AD, after the time of Jesus, and this poses a problem for people claiming that the tradition of a revived Adonis influenced Christianity. The problem is that New Testament was written during the previous century, meaning that Christianity could not have been influenced by De Dea Syria.
It should also be noted that the revivification of Adonis is very different than the resurrection of Jesus. Theocritus, a Greek poet during the third century AD, after the time of Jesus, indicates in his Psalm of Adonis that Adonis is revived for a single day each year and then is carried out to the sea. In contrast, the New Testament, which was written two centuries earlier, portrays Jesus as being resurrected once, and for eternity.
In Christianity, Jesus is not only "revived," he is also resurrected. He returns to life, completely and permanently. He defeats death, completely and permanently. And he promises a resurrection for anyone who has faith in him.
In contrast, the mythical revivification of Adonis is temporary. He does not defeat death. In fact, he returns to death. His "death and revivification" mirrors that of plants, not people. Plants die in the winter and are revived in the spring. But after the plants are revived, they die again - they return to death, as does the mythical Adonis.
Resurrection and revivification are not the same. They are as different as people are from plants.
Despite the historical record involving Adonis, and the nature of his revivification, and the actual meaning of the word resurrection, scholars and writers continue to incorrectly claim Adonis' tradition included a "resurrection."
Modern scholars and writers also make the claim that Adonis was born of a virgin mother, whose name is represented in a variety of ways, including Myrrh, Myrrha, and Smyrna. One popular example can be found in The Jesus Mysteries, written by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy: "In Syria, Adonis' virgin mother is called Myrrh."
The authors do not provide a source for this claim, and it is contradicted by even the most readily available sources of information about mythology. The online Encyclopedia Mythica, for example, portrays the conception of Adonis as something other than virginal:
"The generally accepted version is that Aphrodite compelled Myrrha (or Smyrna) to commit incest with Theias, her father, the king of Assyria. Her nurse helped her with this trickery to become pregnant, and when Theias discovered this he chased her with a knife. To avoid his wrath the gods turned her into a myrrh tree. The tree later burst open, allowing Adonis to emerge. Another version says that after she slept with her father she hid in a forest where Aphrodite changed her into a tree. Theias struck the tree with an arrow, causing the tree to open and Adonis to be born. Yet another version says a wild boar open the tree with its tusks and freed the child; this is considered to be a foreshadowing of his death."
James Frazer, who is antagonistic towards Christianity, also cites the same tradition in his The Golden Bough, published in 1922, that Adonis was born of an act of incest.
And, The Library also confirms this tradition, in gentler terms:
"...this Smyrna conceived a passion for her father, and with the complicity of her nurse she shared her father's bed without his knowledge for twelve nights. But when he was aware of it, he drew his sword and pursued her, and being overtaken she prayed to the gods that she might be invisible; so the gods in compassion turned her into the tree which they call smyrna (myrrh). Ten months afterwards the tree burst and Adonis, as he is called, was born..."
Even so, the claim that Adonis was born of a virgin continues to be circulated in literature and throughout the Internet.
The Adonis tradition provides an overview of common weaknesses of "copycat" claims - the claims that Christianity copied from other religions or traditions:
1. The alleged similarities between Christianity and paganism often prove to be inconsequential, superficial, or non-existent. Both Adonis and Jesus die, but this much we all have in common. Adonis' annual one-day-only revivification, however, is substantially different in detail, nature and theology to the one-time-for-always resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the claim that Adonis was born of a virgin is flatly contradicted by pre-Christian texts that discuss his birth.
2. While it is true that many pagan deities pre-date the time of Jesus, many of their so-called similarities to Christianity don't exist in literature or artwork until after the time of Christianity. In the case of the Adonis tradition, the literature alluding to his revivification is too recent to have influenced Christianity's resurrection.
3. Pagan traditions were constantly adopting and adapting, changing and updating. We see this with Adonis in a very fundamental way, in that he was grafted into Greek mythology from a Syrian tradition, which had evolved from the Babylonian legend of Tammuz. So even if we have evidence that a pagan cult believed in a particular doctrine after the time of Christianity, we cannot conclude that it held that same belief prior to the time of Christianity.
Dionysus (also known as Bacchus)
The mythology of Dionysus has many striking similarities to Christianity, according to some scholars and writers, who claim that Dionysus had a miraculous birth, a mortal mother, a god for a father, as well as a death and resurrection.
He is even said to have performed a miracle in which he changed water into wine - at a wedding.
And, there is actual pre-Christian evidence that scholars and writers can use when attempting to support their claims involving Dionysus.
One example of this pre-Christian evidence is a play called the The Bacchae, written about 400 BC, about 2400 years ago, by a Greek writer named Euripides. In the context of this play, Dionysus disguises himself as a man and returns to the village where his mother died, to avenge her honor. The play makes it clear that Dionysus is a god, that his father is a god, and that his mother was mortal.
In the mind of some scholars and writers, we have these and other "striking" similarities, neatly packaged in a well-known pre-Christian source. But, as is often the case, a closer look at the "similarities" often reveals striking differences.
There are conflicting traditions within the Dionysus mythology as to who his mother is said to be. As claimed by Frazer in The Golden Bough, some traditions say that he was born of a deity, such as Persephone, the Greek mythical queen of the underworld, or Demeter, a Greek goddess of agriculture who is sometimes revered as the Mother Goddess. Neither of these traditions allow for any meaningful comparison to the birth of Jesus through a human mother.
But, in another branch of the Dionysus myth, he is born of a mortal woman named Semele.
Aside from his maternal lineage, Dionysus' father is usually said to be Zeus, who in Greek mythology is the king of gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus, as well as the god of the sky and thunder. In Roman mythology, Zeus' name is often given as Jupiter. (Many pagan deities were known by more than one name).
But even the Semele branch of the Dionysus mythology poses problems for people attempting to make comparisons with Jesus. As confirmed in The Golden Bough, some Semele-related traditions say that Dionysus was first born of Zeus/Jupiter and Demeter/Persephone, and that as a young child he was torn apart by Titans, and that his remains were then transferred to the womb of Semele. (And there are differing versions as to how his remains were transferred).
In this case, Semele doesn't actually conceive Dionysus, for he had already been conceived, and birthed, by Demeter or Persephone.
And there also was a tradition that Semele never actually gives birth to Dionysus, as we learn from Ovid, a first century Roman poet who wrote Metamorphoses. Ovid informs us that Semele asks to see the god who impregnated her. The god presents himself as a storm. Although the god tries to restrain himself, he inadvertently kills Semele:
"But still Semele's mortal body could not endure the storm, and she was consumed, by the fire of her nuptial gift. The infant Bacchus, still unfinished, is torn from the mother's womb, and (if it can be believed) is sewn into his father's thigh to complete his full term." - Metamorphoses, book III, section 273-315.
Even aside from the mythical traditions in which Semele neither conceives nor gives birth to Dionysus, there remains one more critical difference between her and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Semele, within the context of Greek mythology, was a descendant of the gods of Mount Olympus. This detail is often omitted by people who claim that there were remarkable similarities between the mothers of Dionysus and Jesus.
Many ancient sources of literature, including The Bacchae, relay the mythical tradition that Semele was the daughter of Cadmus, who was the son of Agenor. Agenor, as we are told by ancient Greek writers, including Apollodorus, was the son of Poseidon, the legendary god of the sea, who also was known as Neptune.
Semele's great-grandfather Poseidon/Neptune was one of the very greatest gods of Greek mythology. He was also a brother to Zeus. And to complicate matters even more in terms of trying to suggest that there are similarities between Semele and Mary, Semele's mother, Harmonia, was an immortal goddess who was the daughter of Aphrodite (also known as Venus).
And herein lays a common deception: When scholars and writers present Semele as a "mortal woman," readers naturally assume, perhaps without realizing it, that Semele was human. In fact, within her mythology, she was not. She was a descendant of the gods. In contrast, Mary was human.
Bacchus/Dionysus - changing water into wine
Within the many traditions in which Dionysus is associated with wine, grapes and alcohol, there is a claim that he performed a miracle of turning water into wine, at a wedding. This claim is repeated by Freke and Gandy in The Jesus Mysteries:
"According to myth, the miracle of turning water into wine took place for the first time at the marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne. This same miracle is attributed to Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana." - The Jesus Mysteries.
At first glance, this Dionysus tradition appears to remarkably similar to the miracle that Jesus performed, as related in the Gospel of John, which was written during the first century AD, more than 1900 years ago. But, the earliest known source for this Dionysus tradition comes from Achilles Tatius, in his romance novel, Leucippe and Cleitophon, which is most commonly said to have been written during the second century AD, less than 1900 years ago.
It is uncertain when Tatius lived; scholars provide many guesses, and their guesses range from the first century AD to the sixth century AD. As reflected by this range of speculation, very little is known about Tatius. But two of the first people to write about him were Photius and Suidas, and neither lend themselves well to a scholar or writer who wishes to claim that the New Testament was somehow influenced by Tatius' water-into-wine story.
Photius, for example, suggests that Tatius lived as recently as the fifth or sixth century, although some scholars dispute this. Nonetheless, Photius, who was a teacher of grammar, rhetoric, divinity and philosophy, was a scholar himself.
He was a Christian who lived during the ninth century AD, and he is credited with preserving many ancient writings that otherwise would be lost to us today. He compiled what is known as the Bibliotheca, which is also called the Myriobiblon, which contains portions and complete copies of 280 volumes of classical authors.
Photius' claim that Tatius lived during the fifth or six century AD is at least partly based on his belief that Tatius was imitating and parodying another writer, named Heliodorus, whom Photius believed had lived during the fifth century AD. (Some scholars now say that Heliodorus probably lived during the third century AD.)
If Photius is correct in saying that Tatius was influenced by Heliodorus, then Tatius would have lived at least a few centuries after the writing of the New Testament, and therefore he would not have been able to influence it.
In fact, another writer, named Suidas, who lived during the tenth century AD, suggests that Tatius was very much influenced by the New Testament, in that he became a Christian and rose to the rank of bishop.
Suidas compiled a Byzantine Greek historical encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, called The Suda. In that work, Tatius, who is referred to as Statios, is described as such:
"Of Alexandria, the writer of the story of Leucippe and Cleitophon and other love stories in eight books. He became at last a Christian and a bishop."
Some scholars challenge the accuracy of Photius and Suidas in regards to their claims about Tatius. But the fact remains that these two compilers are the among the very first in history to refer to the author of Leucippe and Cleitophon, and it just so happens that their accounts of Tatius work against people who try to claim that the Gospel of John somehow influenced by Leucippe and Cleitophon.
It is possible that Tatius lived during a more ancient time than suggested by Photius. As related by Helen Morales, in her Vision and Narrative in Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon, two fragments of papyrus have been discovered that appear to be portions of Leucippe and Cleitophon, and these fragments have been dated to the second century AD.
But even if the assessments of these fragments are accurate, they still would not provide a sound basis for claiming that Tatius could have influenced the Gospel of John, which was written during the first century AD.
Bacchus/Dionysus - crucifixion
Some scholars and writers allege many more similarities between Dionysus and Jesus, including a claim that Dionysus was resurrected.
One source for this claim grows out of the Semele-related vein of his mythology, in which he is born to a female deity, torn to pieces by Titans, re-gestated by Semele who is accidentally incinerated, and then sewn into the thigh of Zeus/Jupiter, until he reaches full term for the second time, and is born for the second time, from the thigh of Zeus/Jupiter. Even granting the underlying assumption that the New Testament authors, who were first-century Jews, would have viewed this as a death and resurrection, the tradition still is remarkably different than the death and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament.
Amulet, perhaps a forgery, supposedly showing a crucified Bacchus, possibly from the third century AD.
Perhaps a more inventive claim that Christianity "borrowed" the crucifixion motif from paganism comes from an image on the book cover of The Jesus Mysteries. On one edition of that book, the cover shows an amulet depicting a crucifixion. The image is striking. It looks very much like any number of modern-day pendants depicting Jesus on the cross. But, on the lower part of the amulet is the inscription of the name of Bacchus (Dionysus).
The image has been copied and displayed on a variety of Web pages that use it as part of an argument against the validity of Christianity.
To the uninformed viewer, the amulet might appear to bolster claims that Christianity was influenced by the Bacchus/Dionysus tradition. But a closer look reveals problems with the amulet:
1. The image on the book cover is not a photograph of the actual amulet. Instead, it is an artist's rendition of the amulet. And the artist's rendition is not based on the actual amulet itself. Instead, it is based on a line drawing of the amulet, which is said to have been destroyed or lost during the Second World War.
2. The amulet is dated by scholars as having been created two centuries, or more, after the crucifixion of Jesus. If the dating is accurate, it would be impossible for the New Testament to have been influenced by it.
3. It is unknown if the amulet is truly of pagan origin.
One of the first scholars to provide a date for the amulet was Robert Eisler, in his Orpheus - The Fisher. Eisler claimed that the amulet was created during the third or fourth century, which would be two or three centuries after the writing of the New Testament and its account of the crucifixion of Jesus.
In fact, Eisler concludes, however reliably or unreliably, that the amulet does not show a crucified pagan but that it actually shows a crucified Jesus. And, it should be noted that Eisler was not a pro-Christian scholar. His writings provide ample evidence of antagonistism towards Christianity.
A third century AD date for the amulet is assigned in Orpheus and Greek Religion, published in 1952, by WKC Guthrie, in a caption that explains an illustration of the amulet.
In a 1993 reprint edition of Orpheus and Greek Religion, there is an added footnote that quotes a review from Otto Kern, a German scholar, in which Kern states that he believes the amulet "is almost certainly a fake." Kern also cites a few other scholars who question the authenticity of the amulet.
The amulet, if indeed it ever existed, would function better as an example that pagans copied from Christianity, rather than the other way around.
One of the early Christian writers who documented examples of pagan cults imitating Christian rites was Justin Martyr, who lived during the second century AD. From his perspective within the second century, he wrote that there were no examples of pagan traditions involving a pagan deity being crucified:
"But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically." - Justin Martyr's First Apology LV.
Dionysus, as we recall, was a son of Zeus. And a second century AD source, one who was familiar with examples of paganism imitating Christianity, wrote that this was one element of Christianity that the pagans had not yet copied.
Some scholars and writers have claimed that there are striking parallels between Krishna, of the Hindu religion, and Christ, including:
Cropped image showing Yashoda bathing Krishna (center) as a child.
• The sound and meaning of their names.
• Being born on Dec. 25.
• Being born in a manger.
• Being born of a virgin.
• Having a carpenter for a father.
• Being targeted by an act of infanticide.
• Being killed by crucifixion.
• Being resurrected.
Many of these claims were popularized by Kersey Graves, a 19th century writer, and others who rely on his work as a basis to claim that Christianity borrowed from paganism and other traditions. Graves' work continues to be influential, especially with Web sites that attack Christianity.
Although the words Krishna and Christ might sound phonetically similar, they have different meanings. "Krishna" means "the black one," or "dark one," whereas the "Christ" means "anointed one" or "messiah."
As for the Dec. 25 "similarity," the New Testament says nothing of that date in regards to the birth, life or death of Jesus Christ. Many Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25, but the date is a matter of tradition, not theology. Hindus celebrate the birth of Krishna in August.
The Mahabharata, a Hindu religious text with details about the life and teachings of Krishna, says that Krishna was born in a prison, not a manger, and that his father was a nobleman, not a carpenter.
As for a virgin birth, the Mahabharata says that Krishna's parents were Princess Devaki and Vasudeva, (Mahabharata Book 12, Section 48), who had several children before he was born.
As for the claim of infanticide, there is an account of this in the Mahabharata, which says that Devaki and Vasudeva were imprisoned by her cousin, Kamsa, because he was told that one of her sons would kill him. Kamsa killed the first six children born of Devaki.
The infanticide described in the New Testament involved a massacre that targeted the young children in the town of Bethlehem, because King Herod feared that the Christ-child, who was to be born in Bethlehem, would rise up and assume the throne. Herod, an Idumean, had been appointed as "king" by the Romans to rule over the land of the Jews. By trying to kill Jesus, Herod was hoping to secure his illegitimate claim to the throne.
While it is true that the Mahabharata and the New Testament both contain an account of infanticide, it should be noted that Herod's act has more in common with events described in the Old Testament than with the Mahabharata. During turbulent times in ancient Israel, usurpers would attempt to kill the children of a king, in the hopes of illegitimately seizing the throne.
As for the crucifixion and resurrection, it is true that the Mahabharata says that Krishna, who is alternately referred to as Keshava, is killed and that he returns to life, but he was not crucified. Instead, he receives a mortal injury to the heel while meditating in the forest:
"A fierce hunter of the name of Jara then came there, desirous of deer. The hunter, mistaking Keshava, who was stretched on the earth in high Yoga, for a deer, pierced him at the heel with a shaft and quickly came to that spot for capturing his prey." - Mahabharata, Book 16, Section 4.
There are other texts associated with Hinduism that contain other accounts of Krishna, but these texts are believed by many scholars to have been composed from 400 AD to 1000 AD, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to prove that the first-century New Testament could have been influenced by them.
Even with the Mahabharata, a person faces a difficult task in trying to claim that it could have been an influence on the New Testament. Even though the writing of the Mahabharata is believed to have been started during pre-Christian times, many scholars claim that it wasn't completed until at least a few centuries after the time of Jesus. One example is Edward Washburn Hopkins, an American Sanskrit scholar who lived during the 19th century, who claimed in his book, "The Religions of India," that most of the scholars known to him would agree that the Mahabharata was completed by the sixth or seventh century, after the time of Jesus.
One of the more common claims that Christianity was influenced by paganism involves the ancient Roman cult of Mithras. This might be partly due to the popularity of the best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, by fiction writer Dan Brown:
Most of what we know about Mithras comes from speculative interpretations of artwork that postdates Christianity.
"Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian god Mithras - called the Son of God and the Light of the World - was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days. By the way, December 25 was also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus. The newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh." - The Da Vinci Code.
As is true with many of the claims that Christianity borrowed from paganism, there are no historical sources to support the allegations:
"Mithraic studies do not find any attribution of the titles 'Son of God' or 'Light of the World,' as Brown claims. There is also no mention of a death-resurrection motif in Mithraic mythology. ... There is not a single story in actual Hindu mythology of Krishna being presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh at his birth." - de-coding Da Vinci: The facts behind the fiction of The Da Vinci Code, by Amy Welborn.
And as for the claims involving Dec. 25, it is important to note that the New Testament does not claim that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, and that the tradition of Christmas on that date is a matter of tradition, not a matter of theology. The pagan celebrations that took place on or near Dec. 25 during ancient times did not change Christian theology. Christian theology, however, did change the nature of the celebrations involving Dec. 25.
The ancient practitioners of the cult of Mithras did not provide us with writings about their beliefs. They did not leave behind a religious text for us to study. Much of what we presume to know about the traditions of Mithras comes from scholarly speculations about artwork found in Mithraeums that were created during the second, third and fourth centuries, after the time of Jesus Christ.
Franz Cumont, a scholar credited with the beginnings of scholarly research into the study of Mithras, paradoxically, and without explanation, claimed that the birth of Mithras was witnessed by shepherds and that Mithras was born before men and animals were created. Compare these two passages from Cumont's The Mysteries of Mithras, which was published in 1903:
Statue of Mithras being hatched from egg of rock
• "The tradition ran that the 'Generative Rock,' of which a standing image was worshipped in the temples, had given birth to Mithras, on the banks of a river, under the shade of a sacred tree, and that shepherds alone, ensconced in a neighboring mountain, had witnessed the miracle of his entrance into the world. They had seen him issue forth from the rocky mass, his head adorned with a Phrygian cap, armed with a knife, and carrying a torch that had illuminated the somber depths." - page 132 of an English translation of The Mysteries of Mithras.
• "For although the shepherds were pasturing their flocks when he was born, all these things came to pass before there were men on earth." - page 133 of an English translation of The Mysteries of Mithras.
Given the incompatible accounts involving the birth of Mithras, one might conclude that the myth of his birth changed over time, adopting and adapting elements from Christianity, even though those elements conflicted with the original Mithraic myth. In any event, there is a fourth century AD bas-relief depicting the birth of Mithras that includes figures who appear to be shepherds. But this artwork is too recent to have influenced the New Testament, and not old enough to prevent someone from claiming that it was influenced by the New Testament.
Aside from any debate involving the chastity of the rock from which Mithras is hatched, there is little, if any, opportunity to seriously compare the "virgin" birth of Mithras to the birth of Jesus.
Perhaps the oldest example of a pagan tradition involving a god who supposedly died and was resurrected is that of Osiris, an Egyptian deity who might have originated about 5000 years ago. Many scholars and writers have claimed that Christianity was influenced by the tale of Osiris.
Some writers, including Farrell Till, editor of the Skeptical Review, claim that Osiris died and was resurrected, and had thousands of believers, long before the time of Jesus, repeating a claim that was popularized during the 1800s by writer Kersey Graves, in his The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors. The implication is that the Osiris tradition includes a bodily resurrection that the New Testament writers could have borrowed.
Till took part in a debate in 1994 with a Bible scholar named Norman Geisler. Below are some comments that Till made in regards to the "resurrection" of Osiris:
"Dr. Geisler made the statement that the pagan saviors were not like Jesus because they did not experience bodily resurrection. But I want to assure you, my friends, that that is not so. O-s-i-r-i-s, write it down, O-s-i-r-i-s, he was an ancient Egyptian, virgin-born, savior-god who died, and he was resurrected. You research and you'll find that his [wife] searched for his body that had been torn to pieces, put it back together, sort of like in Frankenstein manner, and he was resurrected bodily back to life. That's just one example that I could give you...He [Geisler] is depending upon your ignorance, people. And I'm not trying to be insulting to you. Your preachers do it all the time. You get the wool pulled over your eyes, and it's your own fault, because you don't know the Bible, first of all, and you certainly know very little about the history of religion. If you would go examine the evidence, you would see that many of the things that he is telling you have no basis in fact." - The Geisler-Till Debate, 1994, "Did Jesus of Nazareth Bodily Rise from the Dead?," featuring Norman L. Geisler and Farrell Till.
Despite the claims, the tradition of Osiris does not involve a bodily resurrection. The traditions do allow for what some scholars phrase as a "resuscitation" or a "revivification," of the type that is consistent with other pagan deities whose traditions were intertwined with the annual dying and rising of crops, but not a bodily resurrection as characterized by the Bible.
A basic outline of the Osiris myth is provided by Plutarch, in his work entitled Osiris and Isis, that Osiris is tricked into lying in a wooden box which then is nailed shut like a coffin. The trapped Osiris is then drowned in the Nile. But his body is later recovered and dismembered, divided up into 14 or more pieces and scattered throughout the land. Isis, the wife of Osiris, collects the pieces of his body and re-assembles them, by wrapping them with linen.
There are two passages within the writing of Plutarch that might lead one to assume that the reconstruction of Osiris leads to a resurrection:
• "Later, as they relate, Osiris came to Horus from the other world and exercised and trained him for the battle." - Plutarch, Osiris and Isis.
• "In this way we shall undertake to deal with the numerous and tiresome people, whether they be such as take pleasure in associating theological problems with the seasonal changes in the surrounding atmosphere, or with the growth of the crops and seed-times and ploughing; and also those who say that Osiris is being buried at the time when the grain is sown and covered in the earth and that he comes to life and reappears when plants begin to sprout." - Plutarch, Osiris and Isis.
In the first passage, it is clear that Osiris returns in some form, but some scholars, including Anthony Mercantante, conclude that he returns in spirit form, not in body. In the second passage, the phrase "comes to life" is too ambiguous to conclude a bodily resurrection, because we are not being told whether he "comes to life" (or in some English translations, "returns to life") in a spirit form, or in a purely symbolic sense, or whether is coming to life as the plants themselves.
The traditions referenced above are at best too ambiguous to support claims of a bodily resurrection. And, at worst, they are too consistent with other pagan traditions, especially those that have been intertwined with the annual dying and rising of crops, to be of use as a prototype for a one-time-for-always bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It also should be noted that Plutarch, who lived during the second-half of the first century AD, is credited with writing the first coherent and detailed account of Osiris. There is no account within Plutarch's Osiris and Isis that could be construed as a virgin birth for Osiris, who is said to have been born of two other Egyptian deities, namely the god of the sky and the god of the earth.
Further complicating any claim that Osiris had a bodily resurrection is a writing from a Greek traveler named Strabo, who lived from about 63 BC to about 24 AD, and wrote of his travels throughout ancient world. In his book entitled Geography, Strabo wrote:
"A little above Sais is the asylum [tomb] of Osiris, in which the body of Osiris is said to lie; but many lay claim to this, and particularly the inhabitants of the Philae which is situated above Syene and Elephantine; for they tell the mythical story, namely, that Isis placed coffins of Osiris beneath the earth in several places (but only one of them, and that unknown to all, contained the body of Osiris), and that she did this because she wished to hide the body from Typhon, fearing that he might find it and cast it out of its tomb." - Strabo, Geography, Book XVII.
The key point here is that Strabo records a legend in which the body of Osiris is believed to be lying in a tomb, flatly contradicting the claim of Till or Graves that the Osiris legend culminates with a bodily resurrection.
The mythology of Osiris, in fact, culminates not with a bodily resurrection but with Osiris becoming some sort of a spirit who rules the underworld.
Horus, son of Osiris and Isis. A striking resemblance to Jesus?
While on the topic of Osiris, there are also claims that his son Horus is similar to Jesus in that he was born of a virgin (Isis) and a god (Osiris). But, according to Plutarch, Isis lost her virginity before she was born:
"... but Isis and Osiris were enamoured of each other and consorted together in the darkness of the womb before their birth. Some say that Arueris came from this union and was called the elder Horus by the Egyptians, but Apollo by the Greeks." - Plutarch, Osiris and Isis.
Isis and Osiris were not only husband and wife, they were brother and sister. In fact they were twins. And in accordance to their mythology, they had consummated their love for one another before they were born. There is also a tradition that Isis later marries her son Horus, further complicating any reasonable comparisons to Christianity.
But even so, such comparisons continue to persist in scholarly and non-scholarly works.
Evaluating the evidence
This article explores several allegations that Christianity stole from, borrowed from, or was influenced by paganism. Here are five ways to evaluate claims of this nature:
1. First, consider whether an allegation, even if it were true, would actually matter.
Some allegations are inconsequential. For example, the allegation that Christians stole the practice of celebrating on Dec. 25 from pagans. Even if this were true, it wouldn't matter, because the tradition of celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 has not changed the theology of Christianity. In fact, the reverse is true - the theology of Christianity has changed the traditions involving Dec. 25.
2. Does the allegation include an attribution, citation or source?
Claims are easy to make. Anyone can make a claim, about anything. But, finding historical evidence to support them is a very different matter. This is particularly true for Kersey Graves in his The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors. He fails to provide historical evidence for his claims, because there is no historical evidence for his claims. (In fact, Graves, finally, after a few hundred years of publication, is being rejected by atheists for his inaccuracy and his dishonesty). If a scholar or writer fails to produce evidence to support a claim, consider the possibility that the evidence doesn't exist, and consider the possibility that the claim is false.
3. Does the allegation involve a meaningful similarity between paganism and Christianity?
While it might be said in a general sense that Dionysus and Jesus both die and return to life, the details are extremely different in their nature and theology.
4. If there is a similar belief in paganism and Christianity, who had it first?
Even though the mythology of Adonis is older than Christianity, the first-known evidence of a tradition that he rose again after dying is contained in a second century writing, which is too recent to have influenced the New Testament. Pagan traditions, even those that pre-date Christianity, changed over time, sometimes adopting and adapting elements of Christianity.
5. And, most importantly, can the Christian belief be traced back to the Old Testament?
If a Christian belief, whether it involves the Eucharist, baptism, the virgin birth, or resurrection, etc., can be traced back to the Old Testament, then there is no need to suspect or conclude that it was "borrowed" from a pagan source. After all, the New Testament writers made it clear that the New Testament was to be regarded as the continuation and fulfillment of the Old Testament.
©G.R. Konig of About-Jesus.org
• Alleged Similarities Between Jesus & Pagan Deities
Excellent article, graphical, comprehensive.
• Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions?
A scholary explanation that Christianity did not borrow from paganism, by Ronald H. Nash.
• Confronting the Copycat Thesis
Comprehensive apologetics site. This page links to several articles dealing with 'copycat' claims.
• Five ways to evaluate a claim that Christianity was influenced by other religions
Companion article to our "Did Christianity steal from paganism?"
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