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