Was Christianity plagiarized from pagan myths?
Published: 10 January 2009 (GMT+10)
Refuting the copycat thesis
I have been a supporter of Creation since the early 1990s, and (thanks to your very good scientific reasoning) I’m still convinced of Intelligent Design of nature (and still no supporter of Dawkins), but the article referred in passing to Jesus’ life coming from earlier, pagan God-men, and the reference for that takes the reader to another site (“Tektonics” or something very similar) which doesn’t really answer the theses of Jewish copying of earlier Greek, Egyptian & Indian God-men/saviours.
I’ve read Kersey Graves’ “The Sixteen Messiahs”, and though he often descends into unscholarly vitriol, much of his book calmly & convincingly chronicles many pre-Jesus figures whose life details match Jesus’ in all the most important events. Even more convincing (because there was far less vitriol and far more reasoned argument), was Freke & Gandy’s “The Jesus Mysteries” (or something very similar — have loaned it out).
I am interested in a calm, reasoned detailed critique of this model (that argues for previous ‘fully-God/fully-human’ Saviours from other cultures, who also were born 25th December, who also were born of a virgin, who also were crucified, and who also were said to have risen in a matter of days later, and who also ascended back to their ‘Father in Heaven’), and of Freke & Gandy’s book in particular.
What has impressed me with Biblical Creationists is your calm, reasoned arguments against Evolutionists. Increasingly, it seems to me that this calm logic seems to be lacking in those writers who criticise everything that could be named under “Gnosticism”. In these articles, the critics start to sound like carping Evolutionists who attack the man, or only the argument with emotive words and an attitude of ridicule.
From all my experience through Marxism, Christianity, the ‘New Age’ movement, etc, emotive & personal attacks always turn out to be a thin covering for shaky ground (logical-argument wise).
I’m glad that you are still convinced of intelligent design, but sad that you are wrong about the even more important issue of the identity of the Designer. My own book By Design doesn’t shrink from this vital question, hence the subtitle Evidence for nature’s Intelligent Designer—the God of the Bible.
For the record, I came accross that Kersey Graves book in NZ in debates with sceptics, a little while before I had joined CMI and heard of Tekton. It was clear even then that the so-called copycats were nothing of the kind. E.g.:
- These allegedly crucified saviours were neither crucified nor resurrected in the original legends.
- Those like Osiris were not at all a parallel to a Resurrection on this earth—he was not resurrected at all, but became Lord of the Underworld, whereas Jesus appeared on Earth to 500 people at once and ate fish. Also, death-rebirth-death cycles in paganism have nothing to do with the once and for all resurrection of Jesus
- The alleged “virgin birth” parallels were really stories of gods impregnating women, who were thus not virgins by definition. Mary on the other hand was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, so had no sexual intercourse until after Jesus was born. See also The Virginal Conception of Christ.
There was also the major difference that Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection were reported well within the lifetime of eye-witnesses, while the reports that Graves cites were centuries after the alleged events. See for example the articles under Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead? For the reliability of the Resurrection accounts of the New Testament, Dates and Authorship of the Gospels to show that they were written soon after the events they record and recorded accurately and honestly, and The Textual Reliability of the New Testament for evidence that the text we have now is essentially what was originally written.
I actually addressed most of these arguments before I joined CMI in the co-authored paper What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong?
Some of the alleged parallels Graves adduces actually post-date Christianity, e.g. the usual “Christian parallels” cited about Mithra—see Mighty Mithraic Madness: Did The Mithraic Mysteries Influence Christianity? Similarly, Graves’ sources on Krishna also post-date the arrival of Christianity in India. That is, any borrowing occurred in the opposite direction.
The Tektonics site has documented that Graves has most of his facts wrong, and some of his “saviours” like “Beddru of Japan” are nowhere to be found in the literature at all so look like pure inventions. See also Holding’s page Confronting the Copycat Thesis: A Multi-Essay Examination, which which links to some specific examples.
Alleged December 25 parallels are irrelevant, since Christianity doesn’t depend on this in the slightest. As for celebrating Jesus’ birth on this day, what happened is that the early Church thought that the best way to win pagans to Christ was to take over their festivals and replace pagan elements with Christian ones. It’s much like one major store chain putting on a huge sale, and a rival chain puts on a sale on the same day to draw away its customers. Indeed, it was so effective that in my university days, people in Pagan Fellowships complained that the pagan elements are almost forgotten today!
[Update: Actually, information that I came across after I wrote the article suggests that the 25 December birthdate for Christ was derived from a Jewish tradition: a prophet would have a ‘perfect lifespan’, an exact number of years from conception to death. Since Jesus died at Passover (the antitype of the lambs’ sacrifices), early on the Church celebrated the Annunciation on 25 March, when Gabriel announced the conception to Mary. A ‘perfect pregnancy’ of nine months resulted in a birth date of 25 December. The Roman Sol Invictus or Unconquered Sun festivals actually post-date this Christian observance, which, as shown above, is common for alleged pagan parallels. Observation of this date by Christians goes back at least as far as AD 202 by Hippolytus of Rome in his Commentary on Daniel, while it wasn’t AD 274 that Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed a celebration of Sol Invictus, and no clear evidence that this date was celebrated until AD 354. I recommend the article The pagan origins of Christmas? for some historical information that is not widely known about Christmas (despite some ‘intemperate language’).]
Finally, the whole pagan copycat idea commits the genetic fallacy, the error of trying to disprove a belief by tracing it to its source. For example, Kekulé thought up the (correct) ring structure of the benzene molecule after a dream of a snake grasping its tail; chemists don’t need to worry about correct snake biology or dream psychology to analyse benzene! Similarly, the rightness or wrongness of these celebrations is independent of the truth or falsity of their alleged parallels. Jesus’s death and Resurrection are well attested facts of history. The Impossible Faith by J.P. Holding demonstrates 17 reasons why Christianity could not have survived in the ancient world unless it had indisputable evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. So the copycat ideas are red herrings, since even if they had some basis, they could not invalidate real history.
If this is not enough, you should be aware that even the ardently anti-Christian group Internet Infidels has warned of the gross historical inaccuracies in Kersey Graves’ book:
The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Or Christianity Before Christ is unreliable, but no comprehensive critique exists. Most scholars immediately recognize many of his findings as unsupported and dismiss Graves as useless. …:
- Graves often does not distinguish his opinions and theories from what his sources and evidence actually state.
- Graves often omits important sources and evidence.
- Graves often mistreats in a biased or anachronistic way the sources he does use.
- Graves occasionally relies on suspect sources.
- Graves does little or no source analysis or formal textual criticism.
- Graves’ work is totally uninformed by modern social history (a field that did not begin to be formally pursued until after World War II, i.e., after Graves died).
- Graves’ conclusions and theories often far exceed what the evidence justifies, and he treats both speculations and sound theories as of equal value.
- Graves often ignores important questions of chronology and the actual order of plausible historical influence, and completely disregards the methodological problems this creates.
- Graves’ work lacks all humility, which is unconscionable given the great uncertainties that surround the sketchy material he had to work with.
- Graves’ scholarship is obsolete, having been vastly improved upon by new methods, materials, discoveries, and textual criticism in the century since he worked. In fact, almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today.
It seems unwise to rely on a book that even informed anti-Christians regard as extremely unreliable and embarrassing, especially when your eternal destiny is at stake.
Freke and Gandy are also fringe authors not scholars, and their claims are unsupported in the academic world, which is hardly friendly to Christianity.
(from the instructive Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions? By Ronald Nash, Christian Research Institute):
Seven arguments against christian dependence on the mysteries
I conclude by noting seven points that undermine liberal efforts to show that first-century Christianity borrowed essential beliefs and practices from the pagan mystery religions.
- Arguments offered to prove a Christian dependence on the mysteries illustrate the logical fallacy of false cause. This fallacy is committed whenever someone reasons that just because two things exist side by side, one of them must have caused the other. As we all should know, mere coincidence does not prove causal connection. Nor does similarity prove dependence.
- Many alleged similarities between Christianity and the mysteries are either greatly exaggerated or fabricated. Scholars often describe pagan rituals in language they borrow from Christianity. The careless use of language could lead one to speak of a Last Supper in Mithraism or a baptism in the cult of Isis. It is inexcusable nonsense to take the word savior with all of its New Testament connotations and apply it to Osiris or Attis as though they were savior-gods in any similar sense.
- The chronology is all wrong. Almost all of our sources of information about the pagan religions alleged to have influenced early Christianity are dated very late. We frequently find writers quoting from documents written 300 years later than Paul in efforts to produce ideas that allegedly influenced Paul. We must reject the assumption that just because a cult had a certain belief or practice in the third or fourth century after Christ, it therefore had the same belief or practice in the first century.
- Paul would never have consciously borrowed from the pagan religions. All of our information about him makes it highly unlikely that he was in any sense influenced by pagan sources. He placed great emphasis on his early training in a strict form of Judaism (Phil. 3:5). He warned the Colossians against the very sort of influence that advocates of Christian syncretism have attributed to him, namely, letting their minds be captured by alien speculations (Col. 2:8).
- Early Christianity was an exclusivistic faith. As J. [Gresham] Machen explains, the mystery cults were nonexclusive. A man could become initiated into the mysteries of Isis or Mithras without at all giving up his former beliefs; but if he were to be received into the Church, according to the preaching of Paul, he must forsake all other Saviors for the Lord Jesus Christ…. Amid the prevailing syncretism of the Greco-Roman world, the religion of Paul, with the religion of Israel, stands absolutely alone. This Christian exclusivism should be a starting point for all reflection about the possible relations between Christianity and its pagan competitors. Any hint of syncretism in the New Testament would have caused immediate controversy.
- Unlike the mysteries, the religion of Paul was grounded on events that actually happened in history. The mysticism of the mystery cults was essentially nonhistorical. Their myths were dramas, or pictures, of what the initiate went through, not real historical events, as Paul regarded Christ’s death and resurrection to be. The Christian affirmation that the death and resurrection of Christ happened to a historical person at a particular time and place has absolutely no parallel in any pagan mystery religion.
- What few parallels may still remain may reflect a Christian influence on the pagan systems. As Bruce Metzger has argued, ‘It must not be uncritically assumed that the Mysteries always influenced Christianity, for it is not only possible but probable that in certain cases, the influence moved in the opposite direction.’ It should not be surprising that leaders of cults that were being successfully challenged by Christianity should do something to counter the challenge. What better way to do this than by offering a pagan substitute? Pagan attempts to counter the growing influence of Christianity by imitating it are clearly apparent in measures instituted by Julian the Apostate, who was the Roman emperor from AD 361 to 363.