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Many sceptics claim the gospels are legends, similar to many other legendary tales of gods, and the legend of Jesus has grown out of similar legends of pagan gods. I have investigated what the experts say.
It turns out the historians say that, for a whole range of reasons, the legends and rituals of pagan mystery religious could not and did not have a significant influence on the development of christianity.
Pagan (dying and rising) gods
There were many religions and many gods in the ancient world. Many of them have been called ‘dying and rising gods’ because it is said that the legends about them include their death and resurrection. Examples include Mithras, Dionysus (Bacchus), Attis, Osiris, Horus, Tammuz, Adonis, Persephone and Orpheus. (Sometimes the same god appears under different names in different cultures and languages.) These religions were followed in Graeco-Roman world in the period of about 500 BCE to 400 CE, but the Egyptian myths of Osiris and Horus go back 2000 years before that.
Each of these gods and religions have their differences, but it is claimed that they also have many commonalities, for example:
- the death and resurrection of the god, around our Easter;
- their virgin birth around 25 December;
- their association with the seasons and the vegetation cycle (‘fertility gods’);
- the god was a ‘son of God’ and/or a god in human form, who performed miracles;
- the ritual celebration of their death;
- the religion offered salvation to a small community of initiates into the mysteries of the religion (hence the common name ‘mystery religions’);
Mystery religions and Jesus
Around the beginning of the 20th century, some scholars argued that many of these features were common to many religions, including Jesus and early christianity. The same legends were simply adopted by christianity, they said, which should therefore be seen as another mystery religion.
However, as scholars discovered more texts and artefacts, the parallels became less and less clear. By about 30 years ago, the majority of historical scholars no longer accepted that the parallels were real and significant.
To my knowledge, only one recognised scholar (Robert Price) plus some other writers who are not recognised scholars, now believe the pagan religions have had any significant impact on christianity, though some scholars would see minor parallels.
What the scholars say
I have already summarised the scholars’ views on Horus and Mithras. Here I will outline conclusions on dying and rising gods generally. I have based my views mainly on the following scholars (references are below):
- JZ Smith – Professor of Humanities at Chicago University, one of the most respected historians of religion and a recognised expert on Christianity and pagan religions.
- TND Mettinger – Professor emeritus, Lund University, Sweden, author of the definitive work on Christianity and pagan religions.
- Ronald Nash – formerly professor of Philosophy and Theology at several universities, and author of two books relevant to this discussion.
- Bart Ehrman – Professor at the University of North Carolina and author of many books.
- Edwin Yamauchi – Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University and author of many books on (among other things) ancient Middle Eastern religions.
We don’t know very much about the mystery religions
Few of the teachings are written down, for they were only revealed to initiates.
- Bart Ehrman: “we know very little about mystery religions – the whole point of mystery religions is that they’re secret! So I think it’s crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this”.
- JZ Smith: “[The idea of dying and rising gods is] largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.”
The gods may have died, but they didn’t rise again
The closest we get are legends of gods who ‘die’ every year in the dry season or in winter and ‘return’ or are born again with the rains or the spring harvest.
- Prof Bart Ehrman: “there’s nothing about them [Hercules and Osiris] dying and rising again.” and “It is true that Osiris “comes back” to earth …. But this is not a resurrection of his body. His body is still dead. He himself is down in Hades, and can come back up to make an appearance on earth on occasion.”
- TD Mettinger: “there were no ideas of resurrection connected with Dumuzi / Tammuz” and “The category of dying and rising deities as propagated by Frazer can no longer be upheld.”
- Edwin Yamauchi: “there’s no resurrection of Marduk or Dionysus …… there was no real resurrection [of Tammuz].”
- Jonathan Z. Smith in The Encyclopedia of Religion: “There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.”
Some other of the supposed parallels are not factual
- Osiris/Dionyus was born on December 25th, but the Bible doesn’t mention 25th December and few suppose that was when Jesus was born.
- Adonis, Osiris/Dionysus, Horus, Mithras, Osiris and Tammuz were not born of a virgin as is sometimes claimed.
Raymond Brown: “no search for parallels has given us a truly satisfactory explanation of how early Christians happened upon the idea of a virginal conception …”
Some claimed parallels are far too late for christianity to have copied them
Many of the legends only appear after the first century. Where this is the case, there obviously couldn’t be copying by christianity – in fact, this may indicate the mystery religions copied christianity.
- TD Mettinger: “The references to a resurrection of Adonis have been dated mainly to the Christian Era”
- E Yamauchi: “the supposed resurrection of Attis doesn’t appear until after AD 150.” (Yamauchi says “supposed” because there is no real resurrection, just a preservation of his dead body.)
Some parallels are unremarkable
It is hardly surprising that a religion offers its followers salvation, or includes rituals resembling baptism or a ritual meal, nor that a god could perform miracles.
The stories of the gods were known at the time to be legends, not history
The stories of the dying gods do take place at a known time, but are legends with minimal historical reference. Plutarch (46-120 CE) warns his readers against taking the Egyptian stories literally. But there is good historical evidence for Jesus and the gospels are recognised by scholars to belong the literature category of biography, not legend – see Are the gospels historical? and Was Jesus a real person?.
This makes most comparisons between Jesus and pagan gods quite inappropriate. Edwin Yamauchi: “All of these myths are repetitive, symbolic representations of the death and rebirth of vegetation. These are not historical figures ….”
Pagan mystery religions did not influence in Jewish thinking
The Jewish people were fiercely monotheistic, and resisted the influence of foreign religions. Prof Martin Hengel: “Hellenistic mystery religions … could gain virtually no influence [in Jewish Palestine]”
Most scholars today believe that Jewish culture, history and scriptures (our Old Testament) provide the best understanding of Jesus. EP Sanders: ” the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”
The conclusion of the experts is almost unanimous. For a whole range of reasons, the legends and rituals of pagan mystery religious could not and did not have a significant influence on the development of christianity. There may have been minor parallels and influences, but nothing that explains the teachings of Jesus or his early followers.
Jesus was a historical figure, whose life and death occurred at a known time and place, with eyewitnesses present, whereas the pagan religious had no such historical basis. The pagan gods were fertility gods who died every year in some ritual sense, but not in history, whereas Jesus died once in history for quite different reasons. It is therefore difficult to see how the factual events of Jesus’ life could be copied.
In short, his life and death make sense within first century Judaism, whether one believes he was divine or not, and very little sense in a pagan context.
Those who promote the pagan parallels are mostly using old, and now refuted, information, and interpreting historical facts in ways that scholars in the field think have little or no basis. Their arguments often depend on the assumption that Jesus wasn’t a historical figure, and the gospels have no historical basis, and the stories of Jesus are legendary, a view held by virtually no scholars these days. Many of the claimed parallels sound plausible when compared to ‘dying and rising gods’ in general, but fall apart when the comparison is made with any one of the gods.
TND Mettinger has been more sympathetic to the pagan parallels than most scholars. After he completed a major study, he concluded that the idea of dying ands rising gods contained some truth, and he felt there some matters were still not fully resolved. But nevertheless, he concluded: “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.”
Bart Ehrman: “We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandised versions.”
JZ Smith: “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”
Craig Keener: “When you make the comparisons, you end up with a whole lot more differences than you do similarities.”
Ronald Nash sums up: “allegations of early Christianity’s dependence on its Hellenistic environment began to appear much less frequently in the publications of Bible scholars and classical scholars. Today most Bible scholars regard the question as a dead issue.”
Postscript: so what?
Even if the pagan parallels were shown to be correct, it need not throw doubts on christianity. Writing more than 50 years ago when the pagan parallels were still believed, christian scholar and writer CS Lewis saw the pagan beliefs as God’s myths and precursors of christianity. He believed that the resurrection of Jesus belonged in this category of myths, with the additional property of having actually happened.