Is Jesus Just a Copy of Pagan Myths?

650px-Mithras_tauroctony_Louvre_Ma3441b

Roman relief of the deity, Mithras, slaying a bull. This sculpture is in the Louvre in Paris.

A popular argument used by some to discredit Christianity is that the story of Jesus is simply a compilation or retelling of earlier “god man” or “dying and rising god” myths taken from pagan religions at the time.  People making this argument typically offer a long and very compelling list of similarities that seem to make their case unassailable.  To someone who has never heard this argument, or its counters, it can sound convincing that Christianity is just a fairy tale that is copied from other fairy tales.

The problem with this argument is that it is completely untrue.  Most of the so-called similarities between Jesus’ story and those of other “gods” are simply made-up.  They have no basis in fact at all.  Others are so exaggerated that they take a very small, passing similarity and make it sound like a carbon copy.  Some of the similarities are in fact very real.  However, upon research, we find that these similarities were actually added to the pagan myths after Christianity arose.  Therefore it is most likely they were actually borrowed from Christianity in order to bolster their own deity.

Jesus vs. Mithras

Mythological gods often compared to Jesus in this way include Mithras, Horas, Krishna, and Dionysus, among others.  Most of these comparisons take basically the same form, pointing out almost identical similarities to Christ, while just changing the name of the copied deity.  Therefore, for expediency’s sake, we will limit this discussion primarily to Mithras (a Roman deity with potentially Persian origins) since he appears to be the most popular comparison.

The argument typically goes something like this.  “Early Christians simply made up stories about Jesus and based most of them on the god Mithras.  For example, Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25 in a cave, his birth was attended by shepherds, and he had twelve disciples, promised immortality, performed miracles, and sacrificed himself, but arose three days later.”  Let’s look at each of these claims to learn the truth.

Claim 1:  “Mithras was born of a virgin”

This claim is simply false.  Mithraic legend maintains that he was born from the side of a mountain.  There is no virgin, or humanoid mother of any kind, described.  It is also claimed that the myths of Dionysus, Horus, and Krishna assert that these deities were born of virgins.  However, a review of their respective mythologies shows this not to be the case.

Claim 2:  “Mithras was born in a cave and his birth was attended by shepherds”

This claim is an example of stretching the myth to ridiculous proportions to create a similarity.  Since Mithras was allegedly born from the side of a mountain, his birth created a cave.  The shepherds that attended actually helped extricate him from the side of the mountain, according to the story.  So while one can (loosely) claim Mithras was born “in” a cave and was attended by shepherds, the story is absolutely nothing like that of Jesus.  In addition, this part of the Mithraic legend comes about 100 years after the New Testament, so it is impossible that Christians copied it.  Rather, it seems the opposite is true.

Claim 3:  “Mithras was born on December 25”

Mithraic legend does not mention a particular date, but Mithras’ followers did celebrate his birthday on December 25.  However, they seem to have selected that date based on earlier winter solstice celebrations.  As for Jesus, the Bible does not mention December 25th as Jesus’ birthday and early Christians did not recognize that date.  It wasn’t until about the 4th century that Christians began to celebrate December 25 as Jesus’ birthday.  Numerous reasons are given for the use of this date, ranging from an actual belief in its accuracy to the “borrowing” of it from pagan traditions so that Christians could celebrate Christmas without persecution.  Regardless, this “similarity” did not arise originally from either Christianity or Mithraic mythology, and is meaningless to demonstrating that Jesus was a copy of Mithras.

Claim 4:  “Mithras had 12 disciples”

There is no mention of 12 disciples in Mithraic legends.  This claim is based not on any writings, but on a mural showing Mithras surrounded by the 12 signs of the zodiac.  In addition, the mural is post-Christianity, so it is impossible that early Christians borrowed from this tradition.

Claim 5:  “Mithras promised immortality”

There isn’t any mention of this in Mithraic myths.  However, it would not be surprising if it was included or believed.  Most religions offer some means of attaining rewards in the afterlife.  The difference is that Jesus actually knew what He was talking about!

Claim 6:  “Mithras performed miracles”

This is a meaningless comparison.  Mithras was believed to be a god.  Of course his followers believed that he performed miracles!  The difference here is that Jesus actually performed his miracles in reality and not mythology.  Even anti-Christian, extra-biblical historical sources talk of Jesus as a sorcerer or magician, lending credibility to the notion that He did inexplicable feats.  Mithras is only credited with such power in Mithraic legend.

Claim 7:  “Mithras sacrificed himself for others”

There is absolutely no example of Mithras sacrificing himself in his legends.  It is fabrication to assert that this element of the Christ story is a rip-off of the Mithra legend.  In fact, Mithra does not die at all in his mythology.  Interestingly, other “god comparisons” make similar claims, even stating that Horus and Dionysus were crucified, just as Christians say Jesus was.  However, Horus was an Egyptian god that pre-dated the Roman practice of crucifixion by over a thousand years!  And the stories of Dionysus’ crucifixion are based on a picture from a 4th century amulet.  So again, Christianity could not have copied it.

Claim 8:  “Mithras arose from the dead after three days”

Mithras could not have risen from the dead since, as stated above, he didn’t die in his mythology!  This is another fabrication intended purely to create doubt among Christians.   There are writings from the early church leader Tertullian (~200AD) that references Mithras’ followers re-enacting resurrection scenes.  But this was over 150 years after Christ.

A brief examination of the claims that Jesus’ story was simply borrowed mythology shows them to be false.  Further, not only are the claims inaccurate, most are intentionally so.  They are either totally fabricated or greatly twisted and are intended purely to deceive.  There is no real similarity between the Jesus and Mithras traditions.  The same can be said for the other gods that are substituted into the claims above (and other claims not covered).

There is one final point that no one making the “borrowed mythology” argument ever recognizes.  The gods they like to use as examples are clearly made-up, legendary beings.  But Jesus was a real, historical person.  Many sources (including 27 separately-written New Testament texts and numerous extra-biblical writings) verify his existence, his miracles or unexplained feats, his claims to deity, his death, and his real or supposed resurrection.  Maybe that’s because it’s actually true!

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