Sunday, January 3, 2010

Silencing Skepticism: Jesus, the Pagan Copycat

A popular claim from skeptics is that the story of Jesus recorded in the New Testament is merely a repackaging of ancient pagan myths. When one compares what is recorded of Jesus, they'll argue, with figures from myths and mystery religions that appear to predate Him, such as Mithras or Horus, one sees that their alleged lives are largely identical. Rather than being the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, Jesus' life as recorded by His disciples is merely a retelling of pagan mythology wrapped in a Jewish veneer.

On pages 55 and 56 of their book, The Laughing Jesus: Religious Lies and Gnostic Wisdom, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy wrote:

Each mystery religion taught its own version of the myth of the dying and resurrecting Godman, who was known by different names in different places...In Egypt, where the mysteries began, he was Osiris. In Greece he becomes Dionysus, in Asia Minor he is known as Attis, in Syria he is Adonis, in Persia he is Mithras, in Alexandria he is Serapis, to name a few.

This summarizes well the argument: Mystery religions predating Christianity each had their own version of the Jesus figure, the God in human flesh who was born of a virgin, died and rose again. We modern humans are accustomed to the concept of plagiarism; we tend to know when we see a claim that clearly copies another, older one. It stands to reason that, if the authors of the New Testament merely copied contemporary (to them) pagan mythological figures in their presentation of their alleged Messiah, their testimony is questionable at best.

As a personal aside, I can testify to the prevalence of this view, both outside the Church and within. In the former case, only a few months ago an atheist brought this up in a debate on Facebook. For her this was strong evidence that the Christian faith is misplaced, no different than belief in any other mythological figure or fairy tale. In the latter case, early on in my faith I went on a sort of retreat with other young Christians (at the time I was in my early twenties), and another professing Christian youth made this claim, too. She said it "had been proven" that Christianity "borrowed" from these mystery religions in their depiction of Jesus. Consequently, though she claimed to believe in Jesus, that in which she claimed to have faith was vague, nebulous and hard to define. It seemed to me as though for her, faith in "faith" was all that mattered.

How should the Christian respond to this claim? Is there legitimate and sufficient cause to question the truth of one's faith?


Skeptics will list numerous alleged similarities between the accounts of the life of Jesus in the New Testament and the stories of other divine figures who died and rose again. But the Christian needn't be shaken, for several reasons. First, despite claims to the contrary, most--if not all--mythological figures claimed to have been the source of Christianity's "dying and resurrecting Godman" find their origin after the authoring of the New Testament. Accounts of the alleged death and resurrection of Adonis appear no earlier than 150 AD, for example. Tales of Attis, allegedly responsible for the death and rebirth of plant life, no earlier than 200 AD. Stories of Mithras bearing an even remote resemblance to Christianity do not exist prior to the second century. Accounts of Jesus could not have borrowed from tales that didn't exist until decades or centuries later.


Second, even among accounts of such figures that are believed to have their origin before the New Testament, there are no clear parallels between their lives and the life of Jesus. Skeptics like to apply Christian terminology to these stories to make them seem similar, but they're inescapably and powerfully different. Tales of Osiris, for example, claim his brother killed him and cut him into pieces, and scattered them around the world. Isis tries to find the pieces to properly bury Osiris, but cannot find all of them, so she assembles those she finds and buries Osiris. He is not brought back to life in this world, but rather is made god of a gloomy, shadowy underworld. Mithras is not born of a virgin, he's born of a rock; he doesn't sacrifice himself, he sacrifices a bull; he doesn't die and rise again, in fact no tales exist of his death. The life of Jesus simply bears little, if any, resemblance to the lives of these figures from pagan mythology, no matter how similar the skeptic tries to make them by using Judeo-Christian terminology.


Third, even if there were accounts of similar mythological figures predating those of Jesus recorded in the New Testament--and there are not--there would still be no evidence that the latter copied the former. Instead, the only source material the authors of the New Testament could be argued to have copied was the Hebrew Scriptures comprising the Old Testament. They went to great length, in fact, in proving that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. This is true of His birth from a virgin (Matthew 1:18-25 and Isaiah 7:14); His being sold out by one of His disciples (Matthew 27:1-10 and Zechariah 11:12-13); His death by crucifixion (1 Corinthians 15:3 and Isaiah 53:5-12) and abandonment by His disciples (Matthew 26:31 and Zechariah 13:7); and His resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:4 and Psalm 16:8-11). In fact everything about the life of Jesus that skeptics claim was copied from pagan mystery religions is instead clearly Jewish in nature and origin.


Despite the popularity of the claim among skeptics that Jesus is merely a copycat of ancient pagan myths, this theory has been widely discredited and no longer accepted among scholars, Christian and secular alike. The historical evidence shows that tales of such pagan figures bearing any resemblance to those of Jesus were written decades or centuries after the New Testament, and thus could not have been its source material. Despite skeptics' application of Judeo-Christian terminology, stories of ancient pagan figures are not at all similar to those of Jesus, making accusations of plagiarism empty. And it is clear that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are thoroughly Jewish in nature, not pagan, and thus the New Testament has its roots in a tradition that goes back further than any tales claimed to have been copied by its authors.


My treatment of this topic above is very cursory. Visit these resources for additional information:

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