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Copycat Gods: Did Christianity Steal from Pagan Religions?

I will always remember the moment I found out Disney’s The Lion King was based on a Shakespearean classic. I had studied some of the Bard’s more celebrated plays whilst at school but could not remember any involving talking lions or singing meerkats. But there was one play that did come to mind: Hamlet. The plot centres upon a king who was killed by his jealous brother. The brother becomes king in his place and the prince (Hamlet himself) seeks to avenge his father’s death. Although it has been many years since I saw The Lion King I remember well the jealous Scar disposing of his brother, the king Mufasa, in a scene that sent shockwaves through me as a child. The deposed prince, Simba, must return, avenge his father’s death and take his rightful place as king.


When placed side by side with its Shakespearen forerunner, Disney’s 1994 masterpiece starts to sound very 1601. It is true, the details of The Lion King are so far removed from Hamlet that, unless you know your Tudor plays well enough, (or you are like me and someone points it out to you!), you may never notice the connection. The form is unrecognisable. But the core is essentially the same.


Christianity is sometimes accused of doing to older religions what The Lion King did to Hamlet. The claim is that Christianity picked up the key themes of earlier belief systems and gave them a Jewish spin. In particular, the central figure of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ, is said to have had many previous incarnations in pagan mythology. From virgin births to resurrections, it is all there - or so we are told. Speaking of the pagan god Mithras, Christian writer Lee Strobel outlines some of the alleged parallels:

born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, [Mithras] was considered a great travelling teacher, had twelve disciples, promised his followers immortality, sacrificed himself for world peace, was buried in a tomb and rose again three days later, instituted a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper,” and was considered the Logos, redeemer, Messiah, and “the way, the truth, and the life.1


These apparent likenesses are so striking that, if they are true, it is hard to argue against the claim that the Christian faith is the ultimate in plagiarism.


Mithras is, of course, just one god of many, and Mithraism was one of a number of so-called mystery religions that flourished in the Greco-Roman world. These religions were distinct from the mainstream state religions, more like what we would call cults today than general religious practice. The name mystery reflects their emphases on mystical experience and acquiring secret knowledge.


Although mystery religions were most influentiual in the first three centuries AD, many of the ideas on which they were based long predated the birth of Christ. It is no easy task to understand the beliefs of these religions because we have very few writings, and those that we have are very late. So, historians are often left interpreting pictures and ancient artefacts to try to piece together what these groups actually believed. Despite the many differences between mystery religions, some key themes emerge.


So, how closely did these religious traditions really resemble Christianity? Let us consider two beliefs that are often said to be central in mystery religions: the conception of a god-man by a virgin and the god-man dying a sacrificial death before rising again to new life. These are, of course, essential to the story of Jesus.


As we make our comparison, we must remember what we learned from The Lion King. Detail is not the issue. It does not matter that Mithras's mother was not a young lady who was visited by an angel, or that the Egyptian god Osiris was not nailed to a cross in between two criminals. What matters if it is to be shown clearly that Christianity has copied from these pagan stories is whether the core concepts of virginal conception, vicarious atonement and bodily resurrection can be seen in them. As we explore this question, we will consider three prominent examples: Mithras, Osiris, and the Greek god of wine, Dionysus


Supernatural Conceptions in the Mystery Religions

When it comes to original birth stories Dionysus is definitely up there. His mother was the goddess Semele and his father was Zeus (or Jove in the Roman tradition). The writer Dorothy Murdoch recounts how Semele, “is mysteriously impregnated by one of Zeus's bolts of lightning - an obvious miraculous/virgin conception.”2 Admittedly, despite the content being different, one might see thematic parallels with Luke 1:35, in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary just how she will conceive Jesus: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”3 Both cases have a sense of the supernatural about them, but just how similar are they?

We need to tread carefully because there are many different retellings of the story of Dionysus, and it is not easy to know which (if any) was regarded as definitive. As we look at the primary sources, however, it becomes evident that the virginal conception of Dionysus has been overplayed. Roman poet Ovid (b. 43 BC), in his work Metamorphoses, implies that everything happened more naturally. He says, “Semele was pregnant, with the seed of mighty Jove.”4 This certainly does not sound like a virginal conception. Likewise, Homer (probably 9th or 8th Century BC), in Poems for Dionysus, suggests that he was born through a physical act of procreation. He writes, “I am Dionysus, the one with the great thundering sound. The mother who bore me was Semele, daughter of Kadmos, and Zeus made love to her.”5 Elsewhere, Apollodorus of Athens (born c. 180 BC), writing of Dionysus’ conception, tells us, “But Zeus loved Semele and bedded with her unknown to Hera.”6


Murdoch’s account might be a misreading of Roman writer Gaius Hyginus’s (b. 64 BC) Fabulae, which is, in effect, a genealogy of the Roman gods. He writes that Jove, who had lost his son Liber to the Titans, put Liber’s heart in a cup and gave it to Semele to drink and that, “she was made pregnant by this”. Later, Semele slept with Jove, “and was smitten by a thunderbolt.” Semele was, however, already pregnant with Dionysus at this point. Now this account sounds more like a virginal conception. No physical act between Jove and Semele is recorded. But, one could counter that, in drinking from the cup containing Liber’s heart, Semele still took into herself something from Liber which contained the potential for Dionysus’ birth. This stands in contrast to Mary’s conception, which was a miraculous working of God within her womb. Mary herself did nothing, nor did any earthly biological information enter Mary to conceive Jesus.


Considering Mithras, we also discover frequent claims that he was believed to have been conceived by a virgin (as the earlier quote from Lee Strobel indicates). But details about what his worshippers believed about his origins are extremely sparse. Most of our knowledge of Mithraism comes not from written sources but from archaeological interpretation and the artefacts we have tend to show Mithras being born as a fully-grown man out of a rock. This, clearly, bears no similarity to the birth of Christ and, significantly, it tells us nothing about Mithras’ conception. In one version of the story, the god Saturn was aroused in his sleep and his semen landed upon a rock in which Mithras was conceived. Other legends say Mithras had a mother named Anahita, but we do not specify how she became pregnant.


Is it plausible, then, to claim that Dionysus or Mithras gave the idea of a virgin conception to Christianity? Only one account of Dionysus’s conception could be described as miraculous in any way, and it is not straightforward parallel. Stories of the conception of Mithras, meanwhile, were categorically different to the conception of Jesus. It is hard to understand how a rock can be considered a virgin, while insemination by Saturn is an essential element lacking in Luke’s Gospel.


It is also important to recognise that Jesus’ virgin conception has deep theological significance in Christianity. Jesus is conceived of the Holy Spirit but born of a sinful woman. He is, therefore, able to be the ‘God-man’ – fully God, yet also fully human, but free from the curse of sin. In this way, Jesus can be the perfect mediator between God and people. The virgin birth is, therefore, purposeful and highly important to the Christian story. The conception stories of Dionysus and Mithras, by contrast, appear to have no deeper significance. Luke has theological reasons for highlighting the virginal conception, which suggests it is more than a mere copy.


Death and Resurrection of the God-Man

Another alleged point of Christian plagiarism is Jesus’ death and resurrection. As the quote from Lee Strobel suggested, it is often said that Mithras was believed to have given his life to bring peace to the world. But when we look at the ancient sources, we find that no such claim was ever made of Mithras. Rather, his act of killing a bull is said to have given rise to the creation of the world.


Unlike Mithras, there is no question that our third god who is often cited as a prefigure for Jesus, Osiris, was said to have suffered a death and then returned to life. The story goes like this. His jealous brother, Seth, tricks Osiris into getting into a coffin, then closes the lid and nails it down. Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (born around AD 46) writes, “they carried the chest to the river and sent it on its way to the sea through the Tanitic Mouth.”7 Osiris, as might be expected, drowned. Seth then had his body cut into fourteen pieces and scattered around the land. Osiris’ heartbroken wife, Isis, searched all over to find his body and piece it back together again. When she did, Osiris came back to life.


So, we have a kind of death and return to life, but there are important dissimilarities with Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Osiris certainly died, although, importantly, his death appears to lack any theological significance. Osiris was simply the victim of jealousy and his own naivety. Jesus, by contrast, fulfilled a sacrificial system instituted millennia before his birth. To make sense of Christ’s death from the Bible, we must go all the way back to Genesis 3:21. In the aftermath of the first human sin, we read that, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.”8 This is the Bible’s first record of God showing people undeserved favour (his grace) in the Bible, and it comes through the shedding of blood.


This same principle of grace through shed blood runs through the Law of Moses and points us to Christ. The Old Testament, therefore, provides the context in which the significance of Jesus’ death is to be understood. The myths of the mystery religions lack such theological meaning and historical background. If Jesus’ death was based upon previous religious myths, how can we account for these Jewish roots? Why would we conclude that Christ was merely a cut out from a theologically-irrelevant system?


What of Osiris’ resurrection? The story of Osiris ends with him becoming god of the Underworld (the abode of the dead). So, he came back to life in some sense, but it is hardly a resurrection in the Christian sense. The Bible claims that God brought Jesus back from death to a full and eternal life. Nothing in the Osiris story comes close to this. Furthermore, the Bible claims that Jesus’ resurrection was a one-time event that turned history on its head and would bring those who believe in him out of death into life. By contrast, Osiris is often depicted as dying and “rising” repeatedly, reflecting the cycle of the seasons.


Positive Evidence for Jesus’s Death and Resurrection

Jesus’s death and resurrection differ from the mystery religions in a crucial way we have not considered yet. Those who wrote about them claimed they were historical events which happened at a particular place and time. They also claimed to be eyewitnesses or to base their accounts on what people who saw Jesus die and saw him alive a few days later told them. This stands in stark contrast to the primeval myths of the Greeks and Romans. People who are sceptical about Christianity cannot dismiss the resurrection simply by saying it was based on earlier religions. They have to take into account the positive evidence for the resurrection, including the evidence for the empty tomb and the fact that the disciples truly believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.


This latter point is often under-appreciated. Even atheist Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, concedes that, “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.”9 This belief arose despite the fact that first century Jews, like Jesus’s disciples, had no concept of a resurrection happening before the end of time or of the Messiah (the king promised by the prophets) being crucified and resurrected. The fact that some of the apostles were willing to die for their faith is puzzling to say the least if they did not believe their own claims. Furthermore, the Christian movement could never have begun if the Jewish authorities had simply produced Jesus’ body. Despite the location of Jesus’ grave being common knowledge, no body was ever produced.


The Dangers of Misinformation

The accusation of Christian plagiarism is often made by people who have heard soundbites but have not studied the evidence for themselves. The result is a great volume of misinformation. Returning to Lee Strobel’s summary of the claims made about Mithras, we find that most of it is false or irrelevant. Even if Mithras was believed to have been born on December 25th, this has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, since the Bible does not date it. The claim that Mithras had twelve disciples is a distortion based on depictions of Mithras surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac as he emerges from the rock. We have already seen that the claim that Mithras sacrificed himself for world peace is mistaken. So, too, are the claims that he was called the Logos, the redeemer, the Messiah, or even “the way, the truth, and the life”. False claims abound. Everything must be researched thoroughly and accurately.


Final Thoughts: Is Jesus Really the Great Plagiariser?

Stories about Dionysus, Mithras and Osiris do contain some similarities to the Bible’s accounts about Jesus. The pivotal question is whether these compel us to conclude that the Jesus story is no more than a Jewish retelling of these myths. As we have seen, the alleged parallels with Christian belief are often tenuous and the pagan stories lack any theological meaning. By contrast, the narratives of Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection are rich in theological significance that explains why events needed to happen as they, while Jesus’ resurrection is supported by historical evidence. The amount of misinformation often makes the case for plagiarism sound far stronger than it actually is.


The Christian message has a substance and credibility that pagan myths do not have. William Lane Craig writes:

Today… scarcely any scholar thinks of myth as an important interpretive category for the Gospels. Scholars came to realise that pagan mythology is simply the wrong interpretive context for understanding Jesus of Nazareth.10


Christianity is not a mere copy of ancient mystery religions. It is a faith based on historical events which fulfilled earlier patterns and prophecies. The Bible accounts of the life of Christ cannot be dismissed as mythology. They must be considered on their own merits.




Endnotes

1. Strobel, L (2007) The Case for the Real Jesus Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 159


2. Murdock, D.M.; Acharya, S., Dionysus: Born of a Virgin on December 25th, Killed and Resurrected after Three Days in ‘Truth be Known’ <https://www.truthbeknown.com/dionysus.html> Accessed 09.10.2023


3. Luke 1:35


4. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III (tr. Kline, A.S.) <https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph3.htm> Accessed 09.10.2023 Note: Jove is the Roman name for the Greek god Zeus


5. Homer, Homeric Hymns to Dionysus (tr. Nagy G.) ‘The Center for Hellenistic Studies’ <https://chs.harvard.edu/primary-source/homeric-hymn-to-dionysus-sb/> [accessed 11.10.2023]


6. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Different Versions of the Birth of Dionysus. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/birth-of-dionysus-117975


7. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris Retrieved from: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/moralia/isis_and_osiris*/a.html [Accessed 21.10.2023]


8. Genesis 3:21


9. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, (Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 276.


10. Craig, W.L. (2009) Jesus and Pagan Mythology ‘Reasonable Faith’ <https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/jesus-and-pagan-mythology> [Accessed 02.11.2023]

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