Were the Stories of Jesus Copied from Previous Pagan Mythology?

BY ADDISON WIER

“…The Jesus story is hardly original, much of it copied from other, earlier myths.  Hercules had a prophesied birth, a divine father and mortal mother, and at the end of his life uttered the words, ‘It is finished’ before ascending to Olympus.  Osiris was born of a virgin, was hailed as king, rose from the grave and went to heaven.  The early Romans had the pagan god Attis, born December 25th, crucified and rising again on a Sunday 200 years before the story of Christ.  Dionysus, the Greek god and son of Zeus, was also born December 25th of a virgin mother, healed the sick, turned water to wine and was resurrected from death to save mankind.  It’s also interesting to note at the December 25th Christmas holiday is actually based on the week-long Babylonian festival of Saturnalia (the festival of Saturn, the sun god, a pagan celebration).”

…Or so says the people over at The Thinking Atheist,1 a secular website (as well as a radio podcast and online community) hosted by former religious broadcaster Seth Andrews.  Are they right?  Are the stories of Jesus really no more than “plagiarized poppycock?”2

Let’s see if the arguments given by these guys actually hold water.

“Hercules had a prophesied birth, a divine father and mortal mother, and at the end of his life uttered the words, ‘It is finished’ before ascending to Olympus.”

I’m not aware of any evidence in favor of a prophesied birth attributed to Hercules, nor any that have him uttering the words, “It is finished,” before ascending to Olympus.  As for him supposedly having a divine father and mortal mother, that may be so, but it seems that the circumstances were very different from that of Jesus, at least according to the sources that I’ve cited.3  Unless they can provide evidence showing otherwise, we are at least at a stalemate.

“Osiris was born of a virgin, was hailed as king, rose from the grave and went to heaven.”

They’ve presented no evidence of Osiris ever being said to have been the result of a virgin birth.  I could probably reward them a point for the part about him being hailed as a king;4 however, as for the rest, Osiris was not resurrected in the same sense that Jesus was, at least according to Mediterranean scholar Edwin Yamauchi.  While he was brought back to life in at least one of his accounts, unlike Jesus, he was the ruler of the underworld.5

“The early Romans had the pagan god Attis, born December 25th, crucified and rising again on a Sunday 200 years before the story of Christ.”

December 25th is of no relevance, since that date was not chosen as the birthdate of Jesus until after the Gospels were written down.6  Even then, I am not aware of any evidence that indicates that this date was attributed to Attis in any way.7

Moreover, the closest parallel to Jesus’ crucifixion that I’m aware of was reported by Frazer, in which a flute player challenged Apollo to a fluting contest and lost…and therefore was tied to a tree and flayed limb to limb.  The writer suggested that, because the flute player was a comforter of Cybele, he therefore ought to be equated with Attis, which really just seems like creative writing on Frazer’s part.  Also, any sign of a doctrine having Attis rising from the dead doesn’t come until after the birth of Christianity.8

“Dionysus, the Greek god and son of Zeus, was also born December 25th of a virgin mother, healed the sick, turned water to wine and was resurrected from death to save mankind.”

Once again, December 25th is of no relevance (for the reasons I stated before).  I am also not aware of any evidence in favor of a virgin birth attributed to Dionysus,9 nor do they give any such evidence.  They also don’t give any evidence of him allegedly healing the sick either.  The source we have of him turning water into wine doesn’t date until after the Gospel of John;10 11 and as for Dionysus’ alleged resurrection to save mankind, there are a variety of ideas, all of them rather problematic if one is trying to demonstrate a parallel to Jesus.12

“It’s also interesting to note at the December 25th Christmas holiday is actually based on the week-long Babylonian festival of Saturnalia (the festival of Saturn, the sun god, a pagan celebration).”

Unfortunately, I’m not as knowledgeable about the origins of Christmas as I would like to be, so I’ll simply direct one to a video series made by J.P. Holding,13 as well as an article written by Andrew McGowan.14  However, I will say this: Even if such claims were true, it’s not at all clear that it demonstrates the New Testament accounts of Jesus to simply be plagiarized myths, since the celebration of the nativity is mentioned nowhere in the Gospels or Acts, and this holiday does not originate until after these accounts were written down.15

Two More Problems with These Claims

As one can see, these claims made by the people over at The Thinking Atheist are non-evidenced at best (or, if they are evidenced, such evidence has not been provided), and some are just downright misleading (or false!).  However, there’s actually a few more factors that cause problems for these arguments.  First, first-century Jews (especially those of Palestine) were rather resistant to pagan religious ideas, making it unlikely that they would have made up stories based on such mythology.16  Second, if someone wants to say that the stories of Jesus were based off such myths, then they are going to have to do more than point to the parallels; they’re going to have to show the causal connection, especially since some things just have very striking similarities, as historian Mike Licona points out.17

Therefore, if the people over at The Thinking Atheist want to keep using these claims as one of their arguments against Christianity, they can…but as we’ve seen from all of the facts mentioned in both this paragraph and the previous ones, they have a lot of ground to cover before they can actually make their argument convincing.

For Further Reading:

–          Holding, Ed. James Patrick, Shattering the Christ Myth: Did Jesus Not Exist? (2008), pg. 201-263 and 277-288

–          Bedard, Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J., Unmasking the Pagan Christ: An Evangelical Response to the Cosmic Christ Idea (2006), pg. 25-104

–          Eddy, Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R., Lord or Legend?: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma (2007), pg. 29-38

–          Strobel, Lee, The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ (2007), pg. 165-198

–          Ehrman, Bart D., Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012), pg. 207-216 and 221-230

 

Notes and Citations

  1. Written in a note at the bottom of the section titled, “Did Mary and Joseph Flee to Safety?” here: http://www.thethinkingatheist.com/page/bible-contradictions#NativityStory
  2. A reference to a rather humorous video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0-EgjUhRqA
  3. http://tektonticker.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-adventures-of-herc-and-rom.html and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MfOsYjIers
  4. “Most notable was the voice which came from the holiest shrine in the temple at Thebes on the Nile, which today is called Karnak, speaking to a man called Pamyles bidding him proclaim to all men that Osiris, the good and mighty king, was born to bring joy to all the earth. Pamyles did as he was bidden, and he also attended on the Divine Child and brought him up as a man among men” (“The Story of Isis and Osiris”: http://www.egyptianmyths.net/mythisis.htm).
  1. Edwin Yamauchi, The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ (2007), by Lee Strobel, pg. 187
  2. Yamauchi, pg. 181; Ed. James Patrick Holding, Shattering the Christ Myth: Did Jesus Not Exist? (2008), pg. 229
  3. Holding, pg. 229
  4. Ibid, pg. 231
  5. And neither is Yamauchi.  See Yamauchi, pg. 189-190
  6. Holding, pg. 234
  7. Though he was the god of wine.  See scholar Stephen J. Bedard here (2:27): http://www.stephenjbedard.com/jesus-from-the-pagans/
  8. For example, while we do have a single description from Thasos that describes Dionysus as a god who renews himself and returns rejuvenated every year, we have no context in which to define this description.  For more examples, see Holding, pg. 234-235
  9. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLapIcULLvvefevybwC0Xkam_lPRotjRUZ
  10. McGowan, Andrew, “How December 25 Became Christmas” (republished Dec. 2nd, 2015): http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/
  11. Ibid.
  12. For the evidence in favor of such resistance, see Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Lord or Legend?: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma (2007), pg. 34-35
  13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOS2a4WhCmg
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