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Jesus vs the pagan gods

July 28th, 2012

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.

Conclusion

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.

Read more

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?

7 Comments

  1. Irrespective what the experts state there are definite parallels; but then there are parallels in stories found throughout history regarding any number of fables/myths etc. The Epic of Gilgamesh immediately springs to mind.
    How one interprets the veracity of the Jesus story – and especially the divinity claims- largely depends on faith: there are certainly no contemporary witness accounts.
    In the case of the Jesus story one of the major bones of contention is the claims of a virgin birth, (something that was unknown during the early days of Christianity) and any biblical student worth his salt will know that the reference to a virgin was a error in translation; either accidentally or purposely, and gave Christianity the ‘boost’ it needed to push ahead with its claims of a divine savior.

    It is unlikely that Christianity borrowed directly from other mythical characters, although bearing in mind what Eusebius wrote in his ‘History’ it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there were certain embellishments to add to the mystique of the character and story.

  2. I appreciate the point you have made with your post. I would add to it that reading the New Testament alone even without being familiar with pagan literature makes one prone to agree with you. The New Testament is so thoroughly dependent on the Scriptures of ancient Israel which preceded it that removing them from that context would render them practically meaningless.

  3. Akhenaten, thanks for visiting and commenting. As usual, I agree with some of what you say, but I think some of your comments are not based on a good historical understanding.

    “the veracity of the Jesus story …. largely depends on faith: there are certainly no contemporary witness accounts”

    It is true that we have no contemporary accounts, if you mean written from within his exact lifespan. But the historians, almost without exception, agree that: (1) we lack “contemporary” accounts for many historical figures, but we still have sufficient accounts, (2) the accounts of Jesus’ life are closer and more numerous than for most other historical figures, and (3) we therefore can know a lot about Jesus from history, not by faith. Here are the views of two eminent scholars who are not believers and so are not using faith:

    “We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.” Prof Bart Ehrman.

    “we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died.” EP Sanders.

    “any biblical student worth his salt will know that the reference to a virgin was a error in translation”

    I think this is a misunderstanding. I have investigated in detail the way the NT writers quote the OT, and it turns out that in only about half the cases do they quote the passages verbatim (as far as translation can do that), in context and with the original meaning. In the other half of the cases they change the meaning, add to it, apply it in new ways. In other words, they have different methods of interpretation than we might expect. So we must read with that in mind.

    So it wasn’t a mistranslation but a taking of the passage, which mentions a young girl who would have been expected in that culture to be a virgin, and applies the passage to the new situation of Jesus. The idea of the virgin birth didn’t arise because of a mistranslation, but the passage was re-interpreted in the light of the virgin birth.

  4. “The idea of the virgin birth didn’t arise because of a mistranslation, but the passage was re-interpreted in the light of the virgin birth.”

    Oh, dear…here we go again, semantics.
    Why don’t you actually go find an accurate translation?
    This way you will see that the two words were OBVIOUSLY different and the Greek word was virgin; so why didn’t the gospel writer merely use the Greek word for Young woman?
    The Catholics tried this type of nonsense when they suggested the word for brothers and sisters in ref: to JC could mean cousins.
    Besides, all said and done the Old Testament reference to the ‘Alma’ had nothing to do with Mary.
    Time you went and had a squizz at your Old Testament again, methinks?

  5. Akhenaten, thanks for visiting again and commenting. Unfortunately, my reading of your comment suggests you have not understood what I wrote. Most of what you said agrees with what I have said, but you seem to think it disagrees. Perhaps you could re-read, then make a clearer comment that I could then respond to? Thanks.

  6. I must have forgotten to click on several email reminders on posts.
    Sorry for not responding.
    Anyhow, better late than never I suppose…

    “The idea of the virgin birth didn’t arise because of a mistranslation, but the passage was re-interpreted in the light of the virgin birth.”

    Okay, let me see if I can work out what you are getting at here…

    Are you saying that, after Mary (who was a virgin) conceived the NT or the OT text was “re-interpreted” to reflect that she was a virgin?

    So you believe she actually did give birth while still a virgin and her impregnation was due to a supernatural occurance?

    Please be as specific as you can on this issu for clarity sake.

    For what it’s worth’ the Hebrew word ‘betulah’, which does mean a virgin in every sense, was used by the author of Isaiah on several occasions.

  7. “Are you saying that, after Mary (who was a virgin) conceived the NT or the OT text was “re-interpreted” to reflect that she was a virgin?”
    Yes, that is what I am suggesting might be true.

    “So you believe she actually did give birth while still a virgin and her impregnation was due to a supernatural occurance?”
    Yes, that is what I believe.

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