Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

In our search for the historical Jesus, we’re first examining the most broad challenges of the critics. These claims—if true—would be devastating to the biblical Christian faith, and so we want to consider them carefully. Last week, we saw strong evidence that Jesus was a real, historical person. Except for a few on the radical fringe, all Jesus scholars—Christians and non-Christians—accept the historicity of Jesus as firmly established.

This week, we’re looking at another common claim. From time to time you’ll hear someone say: “The pagan religions at that time had many ‘Christ’ myths. The early Christians copied the story of a resurrected god from these other religions.” Is this true? Let’s find out.

Consider the source
We should first notice from where these claims are (and are not) coming. We don’t hear these ideas from reputable scholars; we mostly find them touted by people who aren’t widely respected in the academic community. This should give us pause. If the most respected critics of Christianity don’t avail themselves of this claim, is there maybe something faulty with it?

Examples from history (and today)
Sometimes religions do borrow from one another. Many years ago, I attended a community function in the Bay area of California. This event was held at a local Buddhist “church.” I was more interested in this Buddhist church than I was in the event itself! I was surprised by the many similarities to Christianity I saw there. These Buddhists had “bishops” who were referred to as “Reverend” and who dressed in vestments as one would find in a liturgical church. Their literature spoke of “salvation” and “accepting the principles of Buddhism into your heart.” Apparently, they thought using these traditionally Christian trappings and terminologies would help them reach people who were culturally accustomed to them.

In the early 4th century, the Roman church leaders decided to designate December 25 as the birthdate of Christ. Many historians believe this date was originally a pagan holiday, but that the Roman church “converted” it. Our Christmas holiday today contains elements that predate the celebration of Jesus’ birth, such as yule logs, giving gifts and decorating trees. Many scholars also believe much of the grandeur of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches is partly the result of early attempts to compete with the pageantry of pagan temples and ceremonies. So copying from one religion to another does happen . . . but did it happen with the story of Christ?

A timeline problem
We can find evidence of copying between Christianity and other religions. The question is: Who copied from whom? For instance, if you do some searching, you can find descriptions of the newborn, Hindu god Krishna receiving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The only problem is these stories developed in just the last few years. Because this happened so recently, it’s very easy to determine that some Krishna devotees copied from the stories of Jesus’ birth.

So did the early Christians do the same thing to enhance the image of Jesus, or did the pagan religions copy from Christianity? When we examine the historical sources, the pattern becomes very clear. All of the pagan similarities to the Christian faith were recorded after Christianity became widely followed, not before. For example, the worship of Mithra was a popular religion in the ancient Roman empire. We can find in descriptions of their beliefs where Mithra is called the “Son of God” and the “Light of the World,” and where it’s claimed he was born on December 25, was buried in a rock tomb and then came to life three days later. This sounds much like Christianity, doesn’t it? But these descriptions were written hundreds of years after the Gospel stories about Jesus were written. What did the story of Mithra sound like in the first century?

Mithra was born (not resurrected) when he emerged from a rock. (No date is given for his birth.) He was carrying a knife and a torch, and wearing a Phrygian cap. He battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, which was thought to be the first act of creation. Mithra slew the bull, and this became the ground of life for the human race. This may remind us of ancient mythology, but it has no similarity at all to the story of Jesus Christ.

If you do the homework, you’ll find the same to be true of other alleged precursors of the Christ story. In every case, the seemingly uncanny similarities to Christianity were introduced after the widespread propagation of the Christian faith. We’re historically very confident the pagan religions copied elements of the story of Jesus, not the other way around.

“Similarities” that aren’t really similar
Some critics claim there’s a long pattern, predating Jesus, of gods who die and are resurrected. When pushed for examples, they appeal to fertility cults where the sun “dies” in winter and “rises again” in the spring—only to die again the following winter (and so on, and so on . . .). This bears little similarity to claims that a literal, historical person was publicly executed, came back to life and was worshiped as divine by his followers. These critics can’t show any direct parallels because there are none. These accounts are completely dissimilar. This seems almost to be a desperate clutching of straws for people who want to find an alternative explanation . . . any alternative explanation . . . for the story of Jesus Christ.

Hardly any non-Christian scholars question the historical existence of Jesus or try to attribute the unique aspects of his story to early Christians copying from pagan religions. They don’t do this because it’s just not good scholarship. So where does this leave us in our quest? We can be confident Jesus existed at the time and place the Gospel stories describe, and we can’t dismiss the accounts of Jesus as stories his followers borrowed from other religions. Where do we go next? Next week, we’ll begin looking at the original sources that claim to tell us about Jesus. Which accounts can we trust, which ones do we reject, and why? We’ll discuss this next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions? [see above]

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

8 thoughts on “Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

  1. Outstanding post Curt! I wish an atheist friend of mine could be brought to see this. He is absolutely anti-Christian though interestingly enough not anti-me. He is constantly ridiculing the Christians and I have to admit that some of what he ridicules is indeed quite ridiculous.

    Lately he too has been harping on about how Christianity has borrowed from other religions. I have been meaning to do some quick research on that but your post gives me something to go on in whatever further conversations I have with him.

    Thanks for posting Curt!

    Carlos

  2. Curt…your Koinonia blog in the blogroll appears to be no good anymore. The link goes nowhere. Just thought I would let you know.

    Carlos

  3. None of the religions that copied each other are 100% copies. But you can tell IDEAS were borrowed. And to think that every single other religion older and newer than Christianity is made up and Christianity is the real deal is, well, a blind-faith Christian kind of thing. I always find it funny how an all powerful, all knowing, insightful god would advocate slavery. Please, no posting about how the old testament was different times.

    God says he is never changing.. James 1:17 says God has “no variableness”. So, it’s hard to stick with one issue when there are always going to be underlying issues, also, because of contradictions. They are undeniable, although I have a feeling this site claims to put all the contradictions to rest without even addressing them.

  4. This takes the cake, though:
    “If you do the homework, you’ll find the same to be true of other alleged precursors of the Christ story. In every case, the seemingly uncanny similarities to Christianity were introduced after the widespread propagation of the Christian faith. We’re historically very confident the pagan religions copied elements of the story of Jesus, not the other way around.”

    I hope people do their homework.

  5. Hi, Freak. Thanks for your comments. Let me start with some clarification on how this blog works. I want to keep the comment threads focused on the specific issues discussed in the original post. This keeps the discussion from becoming convoluted, and it helps people locate discussion on related issues. For instance, if someone is looking for a discussion about the Old Testament regulation of slavery, I don’t think they’re going to look for a post on whether Christianity was copied from other religions! And I fail to see how this constitutes an “underlying issue” for the purely historical question addressed in this post.

    Keeping the comment threads on topic also forces all of us to do the work of focusing on specific issues and questions without throwing out a lot of unrelated and unsubstantiated claims or challenges. When people do that, other commenters have to either follow all these various rabbit trails or appear unwilling to respond to challenges. I try to let everyone know up front that I’ll keep each comment thread on topic. I’d be happy to discuss your challenges regarding slavery in Scripture or possible biblical contradictions, but please make these comments on the appropriate posts. I suggest clicking on the category “authority of Scripture” above and to the right to find a good post for such a discussion.

    And, one more thing, I’m committed to keeping this a “snark-free” zone 🙂 for everyone (Christians and non-Christians alike), so please keep your comments respectful and reasonably attitude-free.

    (I’ll address your on-topic input in a separate comment.)

  6. Freak, I find your comments a bit ironic. You seem to imply that Christians exercise a blind faith and fail to do their homework, while you quickly move past the specific historical question addressed in this post and challenge claims that aren’t presented here at all. This post isn’t asking (or answering) the question of which religions are made up and which are real. It’s simply addressing the question of whether Christianity was copied from other religions. It’s true that no religion is a complete, wholesale copy of another and that religious ideas have been borrowed by other religions. But these observations don’t oppose or contradict anything in the post.

    Here’s my challenge to you, Freak: Have you done your homework? Since you seem skeptical of what I’ve written in this post, have you done the historical research to determine that Christianity did indeed copy the Christ story from another religion? Can you give substantive reasons why you reject the claims of this post? Or are you exercising your own blind faith?

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