Is the story of Jesus just a legend, copied from common stories at the time about ‘dying and rising gods’? Some sceptics are saying so, but what are the facts? I have already looked at Mithras, one of the gods most often compared to Jesus, now to consider all the other pagan gods.
Dying and rising gods
Many gods were worshiped in the ancient world – Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, etc. Some of these were fertility gods, who brought the change of seasons and the rain necessary for the growth of crops; some were ‘mystery religions’, whose worship was limited to initiates.
According to the critics, the gods of many pagan religions died and rose again – e.g. Mithras, Dionysus (Bacchus), Attis, Osiris, Horus, Tammuz, Adonis, Persephone and Orpheus. Not only that, but the stories of Jesus contained other elements borrowed from the pagan mystery religions – the gods’ virgin birth around 25 December, the ritual celebration of their death, and many more.
This being so, it is argued, this shows that the stories of Jesus were simply myths, and don’t have any historical value.
That was then, this is now
The trouble is (for the sceptics, at least), while these parallels were thought to be true a century ago, historians have long since investigated them, and generally rejected them as having no historical basis. The critics are half a century behind the best scholars.
The scholars are now almost totally agreed that:
- We don’t know much about the mystery religions (they were mysteries, not revealed except to initiates!), so many of the claimed parallels are based on fancy rather than facts.
- Some of the gods died, but none were resurrected – at least not until after Jesus.
- Some claimed parallels are far too late (anywhere from late first century to fourth century) for christianity to have copied them. It is doubtful there was any connection between them and christianity, but if there was, the pagan religions must have copied christianity.
- Some parallels are unremarkable. Both christianity and pagan religions may have offered devotees salvation, both may have included ritual meals, and both their gods may have performed miracles, but these similarities are hardly surprising in religions.
- The stories of the gods were known at the time to be legends, not history, with the gods dying and being reborn (not resurrected) every year in some mythical way, but not at a known time and place. On the other hand, christianity has always been a historically based religion with Jesus living and dying at a known time and place.
- Pagan mystery religions did not influence in Jewish thinking. Scholars are almost unanimous that Jesus is best understood against the background of the Old Testament and first century Judaism.
Respected historian of religion, JZ Smith sums it up: “That which was posited as most ‘primitive’ — a myth and ritual pattern of ‘dying and rising’ deities …. has turned out to be an exceedingly late third or fourth century [AD] development in the myths and rituals of these deities”
So we each have a choice – to believe the vast majority of expert historians, that early christianity was not significantly influenced by pagan religions, or believe that the sceptics are right and there is an enormous conspiracy by thousands of eminent scholars to keep the connections hidden from the public.
I have written up more details of the facts on this matter, including quotes from the best experts and references to the arguments on both sides, in Was Jesus a copy of pagan gods?