Why Is Jesus Different from the Gods of Other Religions That Claim a Virgin Birth and a Resurrection?
Dr. Alex McFarland
“. . . A hypothetical reconstruction, based on a medley of statements.”
(Albert Schweitzer, on the theory that Christianity was based on mythology, 1912)
It happens every December, and this year is no exception: Around Christmastime, some magazines, news stories, or TV shows will report that all that is believed about Jesus is traceable to ancient mythology. Books will be cited or a scholar may be interviewed on camera, and the assertion will be made that the life of Jesus―from the manger scene all the way to the empty tomb―is really just a re-packaging of previously existing myth stories. These types of claims regularly ring out in many a college classroom. Perhaps you’ve heard of such claims already. Did the early Christians simply borrow from Greek and Roman paganism in their quest to posthumously deify their departed leader?
Books and movies like The DaVinci Code have promoted this idea, and many people have come to assume it is true. However, scholarly rejection of this thesis happened long ago. Writing in the 1920s, French historian Andre Boulanger concluded, “The conception that the god dies and is resurrected in order to lead his faithful to eternal life is represented in no Hellenistic mystery religion.”1
As we go through this lesson, we will see that there are pronounced differences between the claims of Christianity and the stories of ancient mythology. Unlike the gods of Greek and Roman myth, Jesus comes to us from documentable first-century history. To see the supposed parallels that some critics say exist between Jesus and gods of ancient mythology stretches the imagination. Apparent similarities are often emphasized where none really exist.
An illustration is in order: Take a college class in philosophy or logic, and you may hear the phrase, “Similarity does not equal sameness.” Take, for example, a kitchen chair and a cocker spaniel. They both have four legs and a back. They are (in these respects, at least), similar. But they are not the same. A person and a book each have a spine. They may be similar, but obviously they are not the same.
So it is with a contrast of Christianity and mythology. Similarity does not equal sameness. Unlike mythical accounts, the New Testament accounts are based on eyewitness testimony. Just a few of the differences between Messiah and myth are pointed out by the following passage from II Peter 1:16: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Translation: Jesus’ life and deeds happened within time and space history. Real events, reported to us by real people, who really saw it all happen. This can’t be said of the ancient pagan deities.
The mystery religion theory, however, assumes that Jesus’ followers added to his mystique by borrowing elements from ancient legends they knew about. Greek and Roman stories of hero-gods became the primary source material from which early disciples drew inspiration in their attempt to “spin” the story of Christ. The question becomes, “Is Christianity based on actual historical events open to investigation?”
It is evident that within the lifetimes of the earliest discipleseyewitnesses who had seen Jesus before his death and after his resurrectioncare was taken to emphasize that what was being taught about Jesus was not myth. While Jesus’ followers did believe that he was God, who had done miracles in their midst, the disciples were not blind dupes who were inventing just one more brand of paganism. The teaching of Christ and assertions about Christ were based on historical events that real people had actually seen and heard.
Apparent correlations between Jesus and ancient paganism owe much of their credibility to statements like the following. by the late Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide: “In the ancient world there were not less than a round dozen of nature deities, heroes, philosophers, and rulers who, all long before Jesus, suffered and died, and rose again on the third day.”2 A writer from a century ago summed up the assumptions of many skeptics, past and present: “The Church has skillfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism.”3
But are such statements verified by the record of history? Has a tie between Jesus and the fertility religions been documented? The answer is: No. How could a smattering of different pagan legends allegedly morph into the unified, cohesive, world-changing message and movement known as Christianity? The apostle Paul is usually set forth as the likely reviser. Some assume that Paul is the “founder” of Christianity. They say that Paul had the idea to mesh some details about Christianity (which may or may not have been historical) with existing pagan beliefs and practices. The result was a new type of religion: “Christianity.”
So, is Jesus just one more mythical Savior?
The alleged similarities include:
Demeter born of a virgin
Dionysus (Bacchus) born December 25
Orpheus three wise men
Attis had 12 disciples
Osiris (Serapis) performed miracles
Jesus rose from the dead
Who makes these claims? And when?
● A few scholars (mostly European) from the late 1800s–early 20th century
● Some college professors today
● Popular-level atheist writers today
● Bloggers on skeptic websites
What Evidence Is Offered?
The question, “Is Jesus just one more mythical Savior?” can be answered with a resounding, “No.” Nevertheless, there have been a number of books addressing the “mystery religion” concept over the last 150 years. However, the “go to” resource on this issue for many is a book by an obscure, self-taught skeptic from the 1800s, Kersey Graves. The title of Graves’ book summarizes the theory: The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity before Christ. Even Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code references it.
But even certain skeptics of Christianity shy away from Graves’ questionable conclusions. One popular “infidel” site posts the following disclaimer: “The scholarship of Kersey Graves has been questioned by numerous theists and nontheists alike; readers should be extremely cautious in trusting anything in this book.”4
Graves’ book and others influenced by it attribute Christian concepts to ancient Mithraism that simply do not apply. Within the mystery religions there was no teaching of a dying Savior, paying for the sins of others, who was later resurrected. Regarding Mithraism (the most frequently cited source from which Christianity supposedly borrowed), the most notable action done by Mithra was said to be the recovery and slaughter of a stolen bull. This was done at the command of Apollo, commemorating the annual renewal of life in spring.
Drawing directly from the extrapolations of The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code states, “The pre-Christian god Mithrascalled the Son of God and the Light of the worldwas born on December 25, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.”5 For many with questions about the Christian faithespecially impressionable teens and young adultssuch refutation becomes “gospel.”
But unlike the mystery religions, the New Testament deals with historical persons and historical factual events. Christianity almost begs: “Check it out, do the research. You’ll see that it’s all tied to history.”
The Facts Revealed upon Closer Examination
1. The New Testament deals with historical persons and historical, factual events. The mystery religions focused on mythical figuresand the followers of such knew this. Concerning the Bible’s teachings about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, C.S. Lewis observed, “It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.”6
2. No mystery religions claim to be reported via eyewitness account, as do the New Testament accounts of Jesus.
3. Of the pagan religions said to provide the raw material for Christianity, some of the proponents opposed the emerging faith of Christianity. Those who defended versions of paganism while opposing Christianity included well-known thinkers of the 4th century, Prophry, Iamblichus, and Procus. Even though they were unfavorable toward Christianity, they spoke of facts related to the faith as if they were historical events.7
4. The births of mythical “savior” heroes were not virgin births. The cohabitation of a god and a woman, a scenario taught by some of the mystery cults, is completely foreign to the New Testament. Though commonly referred to as “the virgin birth,” Jesus’ miraculous entry into the world and sinless state was actually achieved through Mary’s virginal conception (see Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:30-35). By not inheriting a fallen nature, Jesus was qualified to die as a substitute for the sins of the world.
5. The New Testament contains no secret ceremonies as mystery cults did.
6. Virtually all accounts of the mystery religions begin with phrase “It is said . . . ”; “They say . . . ”; or a variation. Historian Norman Anderson wrote, “The basic difference between Christianity and the mysteries is the historical basis of the one and the mythological character of the others. The deities of the mysteries were no more than ‘nebulous figures of an imaginary past’ while Christ had lived and died only a few years before the first New Testament documents were written.”8
7. The purpose of the fertility religions was to explain the cycles of nature. Notice the use of the term, “etiological myth” in the following quotation. “Etiology” is from a Latin word that means “cause.” Historian E.M. Blaiklock asserts, “There is nothing in the New Testament remotely resembling the etiological myth.”9
8. None of the so-called “savior gods” of mystery religions died for someone else.
9. Jesus’ death on the cross was an unrepeated, once-for-all death. Mystery deities died repeatedly, depicting cycles of nature.
10. Jesus died voluntarily, and in triumph rather than defeat. Deities of the pagan stories valiantly tried to fight off death, resisting their destiny or fate. In the Roman mind, death was only seen as defeat. Jesus’ death was a victorious “laying down of his life” (John 10:15).
11. The mystery religions contain nothing comparable to New Testament concept of atonement for sin.
12. Christian redemption led to change of moral character; the mystery religions not only lack moral authority, their teachings and rituals frequently had sexual overtones and immoral influence. Even Ian Wilson (who at the time spoke of the New Testament in largely unfavorable terms), said, “The Christian story of death and resurrection is really quite different from the symbolism of the crop cycle which lies at the heart of the old fertility religions. On close inspection the parallels are unimpressive.”10
13. Defenders of the mystery religion concept make comparisons with Christianity and draw parallels where none truly exist. The mystery religion thesis depends on the selective citing of unrelated facts for support. Additionally, there is the undocumented assumption that Jews contemporary with the time of Christ would have had much exposure to the pagan mysteries, and would have been inclined to invent Christianity from this.
In a landmark work focusing in on the history of early Christian teachings, Albert Schwietzer noted, “Almost all the popular writings (on the subject of Christianity and ancient paganism) fall into this kind of inaccuracy. They manufacture out of the various fragments of information a kind of universal mystery-religion which never actually existed, least of all in Paul’s day.”11 He went on to point out that there never was a well-defined set of teachings or doctrines about the mystery deities, as there has always been about Jesus Christ: “Those who are engaged in making these comparisons are rather apt to give the mystery religions a greater definiteness and articulation of thought than they really possess.”12
The late Ronald NashPh.D. and former head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky Universitycomments on the error of generalizing about such issues of history: “Attempts to find analogies between the resurrection of Christ and the alleged ‘resurrections’ of mystery deities involve massive amounts of oversimplification and inattention to detail. Furthermore, claims about the centrality of a notion of rebirth in certain mysteries are greatly overstated.”13
14. Christianity did not borrow from mystery religions that are assumed to have permeated Palestine in first century. Rather, the mystery religions most likely borrowed fromand revisedexisting Christian teaching. During the explosive growth of Christianity in the first century, other religions adopted Christian elements in order to attract new converts and prevent loss of existing adherents. Bruce Metzger states, “It was to be expected that the hierophants (priestly leaders) of cults which were beginning to lose devotees to the growing church should take steps to stem the tide.”14
15. Scrutiny of the alleged parallels show that Christian elements predate mythological elements. In other words, the mystery religions likely borrowed from Christianity, and not the other way around. Think of ithow could Christian teachings about the life, ministry, and message of Jesus be just the latest version of then current paganism, when the pagan teaching supposedly borrowed from did not exist in Palestine at that time? C.S. Lewis notes, “It (the birth of Christian teaching) happened in a circle where no trace of the nature religion was present.”15
Christianity’s chief opponent in the contest for the hearts and minds of people in the ancient world was Mythraism. It is commonly asserted that Christian teachings about Jesus’ resurrection were “borrowed” from mystery religions. And yet the only pagan reference remotely resembling teachings about a resurrection from the dead are from the fourth century A.D. Historian Robert Speer explains the early church’s understanding ofand tenacious defense ofthe unique claims of the Gospel:
“No Christian teacher of the first two centuries conceived the Christian Gospel as a gospel to be bracketed in a fellowship with Stoicism or Neoplatonism, or Christ as a Savior to be named with Mythra, or the Lord Jesus to be named with Lord Serapis or Lord Dionysis. The early church named One Name, and One Name Alone (c.f. Romans 5:15, 17, 19) and it steadfastly resisted every heresy from gnosticism onward. The Christian thought of the first two centuries stood its ground utterly and unyieldingly.”16
16. Christianity arose out of Judaism. It is unlikely that Jews (especially one such as Paul) would borrow from, and endorse, religions and a worldview that was rooted in pantheism, and other concepts anathema to Judaism.
17. The assumption that Christian doctrines are the result of synchretism with ancient mythology is refuted by the facts of history. Such a belief can only be held by ones who are (according to the late scholar Ron Nash, Ph.D.), “non-historians.” He writes, “The tide of scholarly opinion has turned dramatically against attempts to make early Christianity dependent on the so-called dying and rising gods of Hellenistic paganism.”17
Noteworthy Ancients on Jesus and the Christians
Tacitus (AD 155, a Roman historian): “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the procurator, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea (the first source of evil) but even in Rome.”
Pliny the Younger (AD 112, Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus). He wrote to Emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians. He testified that Christians “sang to Jesus as to a God.”
Lucian (AD 125-190, a Roman satirist). He ridiculed Christians for “worshiping that crucified sophist.”
Celsus (AD 177, a Roman philosopher): “And their worship of this Jesus is the more outrageous because they refuse to listen to any talk about God, the father of all, unless it includes some reference to Jesus.”
Not only is not plausible that Christianity borrowed from paganism, history indicates that the rapid spread of the Gospel caused the ultimate doom of the mystery religions. Rather than being symbiotic, the beliefs systems were irreconcilably at odds.
Historian Bruce Shelley documents the friction that existed caused by the emergence of Christianity’s unique teachings: “The cause of endless hostility was the Christian’s rejection of pagan gods. The Greeks and Romans had deities for every aspect of living for sowing and reaping, for rain and wind, for volcanoes and rivers, for birth and death. But to the Christians these gods were nothing, and their denial of them marked the followers of Jesus as, ‘enemies of the human race.’”18
Historian Bruce L. Shelley notes, “One could not reject the gods without arousing scorn as a social misfit.” Acknowledgement of the pagan gods did indeed permeate much of everyday life: Meals were precipitated with offerings to pagan deities. Feasts and festivals were held in temples only after various types of sacrifices had been made. Shelley documents, “A Christian could not go to such feasts. Inevitably, when he refused the invitation to some social occasion, the Christian seemed rude, boorish, and discourteous. . . . This widespread hatred of Christians helps explain the first persecution from Roman hands.”19
The record of history does not support the concept that the teachings of Christianity developed from ancient mythology or paganism. Superficial, apparent similarities vanish upon close inspection of the facts. The late University of Chicago religion scholar Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) said it well: “There is no reason to suppose that that primitive Christianity was influenced by Hellenistic mysteries. In fact, the reverse may actually be true.”20
1. Quoted in Nash, Ronald. Christianity and the Hellenistic World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984. p. 102.
2. Lapide, Pinchas. The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983. p. 40-41.
3. Jackson, John G. Christianity Before Christ. Parsippany, New Jersey: American Atheist Press, 2002. p. 63.
5. Brown, Dan The DaVinci Code. New York: Random House, 2003. p. 305.
6. Lewis, C.S. God In the Dock. Walter Hooper, ed. New York: Ballantine, 1970).
8. Anderson, Norman. Christianity and World Religions. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1984. P. 53.
9. Blaiklock, E.M. Jesus Christ: Man or Myth? Nashville, Tennesee: Thomas Nelson, 1984.
10. Wilson, Ian. Jesus: The Evidence. San Fransisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1984. p. 141.
11. Schweitzer, Albert. Paul and His Interpreters: A Critical History. London: Adam and Charles Black Publishers, 1912. P. 192-193.
12. Ibid., 192.
13. Nash, Ronald. Christianity and the Hellenistic World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984. p. 126-127.
14. Metzger, Bruce. Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan Jewish and Christian. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968. p. 11
15. Lewis, C.S. Miracles. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. p. 183.
16. Speer, Robert. The Finality of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishers, 1968. p. 100.
17. Nash, Ronald. Christianity and the Hellenistic World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984. p. 173.
18. Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language, 2nd Edition. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1995. p. 39.
19. Ibid., 39-40.
20. Mircea Eliade, quoted in Snyder, Tom. Myth Conceptions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995. p. 194.
BONUS: LOOKING FOR ANSWERS IN THE STARS?
For many families, it’s not really Christmas until they’ve gently unpacked a tabletop nativity scene and set each delicate figurine in its place of honor. If your crèche is like mine, it includes the three wise men bearing gifts for baby Jesus.
But exactly who were those visitors from the East? And how was their stargazing any different from astrologers’ study of celestial bodies today?
Who Were Those Guys?
Our knowledge of the Magi is somewhat limited. At the time of Christ’s birth, castes of learned men from outside Palestine existed in parts of the ancient world. Scholars believe the particular troupe mentioned in the New Testament came from Persia. And although Christmas cards and carols usually depict just three wise men (an assumption based on the trio of gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—referenced in Matthew 2:11), their entourage was most likely larger than that.
The early Christian writer Tertullian concluded from certain Old Testament prophecies (Psalm 72:10; Isaiah 49:7, 60:3) that the wise men must have been Eastern kings of power and wealth. Who else could undertake the trek to Jerusalem, gain audience with Jewish and Roman leaders along the way, and be able to afford such extravagant gifts?
As for their spiritual orientation, magos―the Greek word from which magi is derived―could mean a variety of things. In the ancient world, this same root word was used to speak of a learned man, a scientist, or even a sorcerer. Indeed, beyond its appearance in Matthew 2:1-12, magi is found only two other times in the New Testament, both referring to occult activities (Acts 8:9; 13:6-12).
However, Matthew 2 in no way implies that the men immortalized in my little porcelain manger scene practiced the dark arts. Rather, their trip to Jerusalem seems motivated by a familiarity with the Jewish belief that a special leader would be coming, possibly from prophecies dispensed by Daniel during his captivity in Babylon. The Magi’s gifts and careful, guarded interaction with Herod imply wisdom and sincere piety, and nothing like occultism.
So what connection, if any, exists between the Magi of Matthew 2 and present-day astrology? After all, weren’t they looking for answers in the stars?
Astrology Then and Now
When we think of astrology in itsmodern context, we picture horoscopes, signs of the zodiac, and squishy, fatalisticpredictions based on the alignment of celestial bodies. But in ancient times, astrology included what we now accept as the legitimate science of astronomy. Both shared the same mystical roots. The Columbia Encyclopedia notes, “The earliest astronomers were priests, and no attempt was made to separate astronomy from astrology.”
The wise men may have been part of some ancient priestly guild that mixed the two. Besides studying the stars and planets and assuming their influence on human affairs, the wise men also had at least some grasp of the Jewish Scriptures. But that human understanding—not to mention the guiding light of a supernatural beacon—could only take them so far.
Commendably, they made it all the way to Jerusalem by following the star. But they needed help to make it all the way to Jesus. Upon arriving in the holy city, they still had to ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). This company of wise men may have been practitioners of astrology, but their stated purpose in traveling so far (“We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him”) shows that they were not just idolatrous pagans. They followed the light they had in an apparent quest to more fully experience a Deity they did not yet know.
What We Learn from Those Wise Men . . .
We should note that the wise men:
• personally worshiped Jesus;
• sacrificially followed God’s leading;
• took a public stand for their beliefs.
Therefore, far from being an implicit endorsement of horoscopes or astrology, the story of the wise men reflects genuine faith and obedience.
It is touching that Jesus’ birth was made known to lowly shepherds and these non-Jews from the East. Clearly, the Christ child was to be the Savior for all people. These “Wise Men” sought the One who is Himself wisdom. They carried with them earthly treasures on their quest for the One who is the heavenly treasure. And even with a star for guidance, the Magi had far less divine enlightenment than we do.
Perhaps this Christmas you’ll have an opportunity to set up a manger scene, or find yourself positioning statues of Wise Men among the shepherds and livestock. At the very least, I’m sure you’ll see such a display. As you do either, reflect on their level of devotion, which conveys a faith and wisdom that can be an inspiration to us all.