I have spent many hours this past week reading up on the Egyptian god Horus and the claim that more than a hundred aspects of the life of Jesus recorded in the gospels were copied from the mythology of Horus – and hence that the Jesus stories must also be myth.
What I have found reveals as much about people as it does about mythology.
Who was Horus?
Horus was one of the most important ancient Egyptian gods, being worshipped for more than three millennia, from before 3,000 BCE through to the Roman period. Many of the myths about him changed over that period so there is not one clear story of Horus.
The alleged parallels with Jesus
I have outlined a little more about Horus in Egyptian god Horus and Jesus. That page contains a table listing 16 claimed parallels, many of them with several different aspects. Some examples:
- Horus was born of a virgin mother whose name was Meri (Mary?).
- His birth was accompanied by angels, a star in the east, three celestial visitors and shepherds.
- He had 12 disciples, and he performed miracles such as walking on water and raising El Osiris (whose name is similar to Lazarus) from the dead.
- He died by crucifixion and was raised to life 3 days later.
Of course if these claims could be substantiated, it would throw considerable doubt on the truth of christianity. It is apparent that many people believe the claims.
Sources of these claims
The supposed parallels were originally noted by Gerald Massey (1828-1907), an English poet and writer on Spiritualism and Ancient Egypt. Massey was self taught, but had access to records in the British Museum, and taught himself to read Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Massey’s views were first taken up by Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963). These two in turn influenced Tom Harpur and Acharya S, who have written on this topic in recent decades. The same ideas are repeated on an apparently authoritative website, Religious Tolerance, in the films Zeitgeist (2007) and Religulous (2008), and on many websites that have copied the claims from one of these sources.
Evaluation of the claims
The claims can be evaluated by reading reference material on Egyptian mythology. Reviewers, both christian and non-christian, have come to the same conclusion – the claims are almost totally spurious. There are a few unsurprising commonalities (e.g. both performed miracles), but almost all the alleged parallels are either:
- minor similarities that have been exaggerated (e.g. Jesus was tempted in the desert and Horus was opposed by the god of the desert),
- obscure interpretations that are contrary to the main mythologies (e.g. Horus isn’t resurrected in the main mythologies, but one person’s translation of a variant story includes a possible resurrection),
- total misunderstandings or fabrications (e.g. Horus wasn’t born on December 25, his mother wasn’t known as Meri and she wasn’t a virgin, Horus didn’t have 12 disciples, he didn’t raise anyone from death, Osiris was never known as El Osiris and Horus wasn’t crucified).
Scholars have expressed little respect for Massey’s and Kuhn’s ideas, and they have generally concluded that there is no evidence that Egyptian mythology had any influence in first century Israel.
And yet the claims continue to be repeated.
What is going on?
I haven’t read any of the books which suggest the Horus-Jesus parallels, but as far as I can find out, most of them offer little in the way of references to support their claims:
- Massey’s and Kuhn’s writings are considered very speculative and apparently contain few references to justify their statements about Horus and Jesus (see Unmasking the Pagan Christ, Porter and Bedard, quoted by Dewayne Bryant).
- Tom Harpur apparently bases a lot of his statements about Horus on Massey’s and Kuhn’s work, and offers little in the way of solid references (but see also below).
- Acharya S provides few references apart from Massey and Kuhn and many she does supply apparently don’t support the statements she makes.
- The Religious Tolerance website offers no references to Egyptian mythologies, only a general reference to Harpur’s book.
- Despite much searching on the internet I haven’t been able to find a website that provides useful original references – all simply repeat the claims.
Harpur fights back
Tom Harpur is the most qualified of any of the Horus-Jesus proponents (he has an MA in ancient history and has studied theology and patristics, but he has no qualifications in Egyptology), and his work has received more critical attention than the others.
W. Ward Gasque wrote a strong critique of Harpur’s ideas, based on responses he received from 10 “leading Egyptologists”, who supported none of the Harpur claims presented to them. Gasque also pointed out that Harpur hadn’t referenced any original evidence, but based all his ideas on Kuhn and Massey.
Harpur responded, arguing that his views were supported by two leading Egyptologists, Siegfried Morenz and Erik Hornung. I can only do an online search of the relevant books (which isn’t ideal), but Harpur’s case appears to be weak:
- Neither author appears to endorse any of the detailed claims of parallelism that would place the historical evidence for Jesus into jeopardy.
- Morenz does offer support for some theological influence, mainly in the doctrine of the Trinity, but he also says that the births of Horus and Jesus were very different.
- Hornung says a little more: “The miraculous birth of Jesus could be viewed as analogous to that of Horus, who Isis conceived posthumously from Osiris, and Mary was closely connected with Isis by many other shared characteristics”. But this doesn’t help Harpur’s case much, as Hornung confirms that the birth stories are very different and the shared characteristics of Mary and Isis aren’t outlined.
So it is reasonable to conclude that very little of the supposed parallels have been clearly shown to be in Egyptian mythology, and that all the claims rest ultimately on the writings of Massey, who himself offers very little evidence and much speculation and invention.
The perils of not checking evidence
So it seems that this whole case is one of people not checking original evidence, and instead believing what others have said. Perhaps there is also some degree of confirmation bias.
Christians often get accused of both these things – confirmation bias and not basing their views on evidence. But it seems this isn’t a peculiarly christian characteristic, but a human one.
The Religious Tolerance site seems particularly guilty of these behaviours. I have found on several historical matters that the site ignores the most respected scholars and instead references some very one-sided authors with few qualifications, and ignores letters suggesting improvements. The site has ignored at least one attempt to put the record straight on Horus. The Religious Tolerance site is owned by The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, an impressive name, but the bulk of the writing is done by one person who is less qualified than I am to write on religion. The site claims to present all sides of a topic in a fair way, but on this topic it has clearly failed.
Picture: Egyptian god Horus (Wikipedia).