“Christianity is just a copy of older pagan religions! Jesus is just Mithra/Horus/Dionysus version 2.0 that Christians copied as the Gospels!”
I’ve heard this claim many times, and I imagine you have too, Dojo readers. If you watched the Bill Maher documentary “Religulous” or the internet film “Zeitgeist”, or spent any time on skeptic message boards or social media posts (often accompanied by a smug "stay woke!" or "Christianity DESTROYED in 5 mins!" type exhortation), then you’re quite familiar with this claim. Usually, people sharing it will assert the above claim as if it’s known historical fact and confidently list the things Christianity "copied" from various Mystery religions which predate it, such as the cult of Mithras, Osiris, Horus, or Attis/Adonis.
For instance, it is claimed, 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 supposed 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 in the end while they all faded into obscurity? Is it just another example of a primitive fairy-tale that was cobbled together from various strands of superstition throughout the Mediterranean?
No, Dojo readers, it is not. The claim is the epitome of "fake news" (unlike so many uses of that term...this one ACTUALLY IS 100% false from a purely factual standpoint!).
The main reason we know this is because most of these ‘similarities’ post-date Christianity by over 100 years. In other words, any proposed “borrowing” of the motif of a dying and rising god-man went in the opposite direction if anything.
In his book, “The Case For the Real Jesus“, Lee strobel interviewed 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) all attest that while these alleged ‘parallels’ were in vogue between the 1890s and 1940s among some scholars, they have long since been discredited and dismissed by actual historians today. 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 reason such comparisons continue to circulate online and among the skeptic community is that since almost NO ONE ever bothers (or lacks the linguistic/cultural proficiency required) to go back to the original primary sources to investigate these claims, they simply get passed along as if they’re actually true.
They simply are not.
NONE of these mythical figures actually have the similarities claimed 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 Egyptian texts, 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 going to take the time to investigate these claims by digging through Ancient Egyptian texts in a library?
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 (who was anything but an orthodox or evangelical Christian apologist) is noted 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?
No. 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. There is 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 due to a tradition surrounding the likely time of his conception.
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 gives 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 in Strobel’s book. Yamauchi has written extensively, but on this issue, “Persia and the Bible” is a good place to start.
Some authors, however, that still appeal to these discredited supposed-parallels (and therefore are worth knowing in case you see them referenced by someone in such discussions or recommended by skeptic friends) 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”
Fortunately, Christian scholars aren’t the only ones who’ve started taking to task those who perpetuate these urban legends… even the skeptics of reddit have called out such sloppy claims, and have done so in meme format, of course:
Stay woke, fam...