Back in 2008, a comedian by the name of Bill Maher made a “documentary” titled “Religulous” which attempted to show how ridiculous religion was and subsequently prove that God does not exist. While I wouldn’t go so far as to classify this film as a documentary because of the lack of objective investigation, however I would like to address one of its primary points regarding what it presents as knock down evidence against Christianity. This is the accusation that the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ was plagiarized from numerous stories of pagan gods. Maher presents this accusation as a fact without any substantive proof of his source material that would serve as a foundation for these accusations against the authenticity of Jesus Christ. Let’s take a look at the authenticity of these claims.
On the internet (and a viewing of Religulous), you’ll likely run into numerous claims discussing how Christianity has been debunked due to the alleged copying of Jesus from ancient pagan gods. After personally watching Religulous, I looked online to see how many people have actually placed stock in the theory that Jesus could be the product of a pagan god/or gods. It was unfortunate to see how many conspiracy theorists there were floating around enthusiastically spreading this material and how Religulous had been so influential in its propagation of this particular conspiracy theory.
The three primary pagan gods that are typically referenced when speaking about the copycat Jesus are Osiris, Horus, and Mithras. The most common accusation is that Jesus stole these pagan god’s stories concerning the virgin birth, death, resurrection, and title as “savior”. With that being said, I’d like to present a brief summary of these three gods individually so as to show how truly distinct each is from Jesus Christ (Sharp, 2012).
Historically, the only complete account of Osiris’ story is found in the second century AD (after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) and there are assorted pieces of information found from Egyptian and Greek sources that date between 2686-2160 BC. The story of Osiris didn’t develop into its full context until the second century AD when Plutarch wrote the book “Concerning Isis and Osiris”. Osiris, unlike Jesus, was born of an adulterous affair between two gods. While Osiris was in his mother’s womb, he fell in love with his sister, Isis. These two fetuses have intercourse and give birth to Horus. After Osiris is grown, he mistakes his sister, Nephthys, for his wife and has intercourse with her. Oddly enough, Nephthys is the wife of his brother, Lot. Lot becomes upset with Osiris because he had sexual relations with his wife/sister and Lot traps him in a sarcophagus and throws it into the Nile in an attempt to kill him. Isis becomes distraught and searches for Osiris and eventually finds his dead corpse in the river. She retrieves the corpse and takes it back home to Egypt; however she decides to have one last bit of sexual intercourse with it on the way home. Once she arrives home with the corpse, she tries to hide Osiris’ body from Lot but fails to do so. Once Lot finds Osiris’ body, he chops his body into 14 pieces and scatters the pieces throughout Egypt. After this, Isis collects all of these pieces from Egypt except his male reproductive organ. Following this collection, magical incantations are recited and Osiris is raised in the netherworld and assigned as king of the dead (Sharp, 2012).
Horus is hard to fully understand because the story isn’t as abundant in information in comparison to the story of Osiris. The majority of texts found for Horus are found in the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, the Book of the Dead, Plutarch, and Apuleius. All of these texts are consistent in the fact that Horus is the son of Isis and Osiris, as stated above. Playing off the above story about Osiris, Isis hides Horus from Uncle Lot who is still mad about Osiris having intercourse with his wife/sister Nephthys. After Horus was taken away into hiding, Horus is stung by a scorpion. Isis finds her son Horus dead on the floor. Isis prays to the Egyptian god Ra, and Ra sends the god Thoth. Thoth provides Isis with magical incantations to bring Horus back to life. Horus is then brought back to life after receiving the magical spells. After coming back to life, Horus revenges his father by fighting Lot. In the process, he chops off one part of Lot’s genitals and Horus loses one of his eyes. This eye serves as a sacrifice for his father, Osiris, and he is brought new life in the underworld. Osiris and Horus then join up as a father-son team where Horus plays the role of striking down enemies of Osiris (Sharp, 2012).
Lastly, Mithras is a piecemeal story that is compiled from inscriptions, depictions, and surviving caverns of worship. Not very much is known about Mithras or its doctrines. It is said that Mithras was born from a generative rock next to a river bank under the shade of a tree. He was born with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other. Mithras was then given the opportunity to test his strength by fighting with other existent creatures. He fought the sun but eventually became friends with it. He then battled a bull, which he was victorious over. From the slain bull’s body came all useful animals, herbs, and plants. According to this legend, everything else came into being from the sacrifice of this slain bull (Sharp, 2012).
Now that brief summaries have been laid out for these three pagan gods, we are able to view these alleged parallels within their proper context. You may wonder how these parallels could be conceived given their complete utter lack of relation to the story of Jesus Christ. In reality, these are simply parallels that are drawn by farfetched and creative imaginations. These conclusions that claim that Jesus is a copycat of these pagan gods are guilty of the highest form of special pleading (Sharp, 2012).
Trying to compare Osiris’ appointment to king of the netherworld to Jesus’ resurrection is blatantly inaccurate given that Osiris never actually resurrected back to a living body. Egyptologist Henri Frankfort (1962) describes the alleged parallel with the following:
“Osiris, in fact, was not a dying god at all but a dead god. He never returned among the living; he was not liberated from the world of the dead,…on the contrary, Osiris altogether belonged to the world of the dead; it was from there that he bestowed his blessing upon Egypt. He was always depicted as a mummy, a dead king”
In addition to Osiris’ resurrection claim, Mithras is titled as being a “savior” because of his sacrifice with the bull that led to the existence of all things. There is no historical text that dates prior to late first-century or early second-century that would title him as being a “savior”. It strongly appears that Christianity influenced this story among the Roman Empire in which Mithras’ story was originated as Christianity was in the early stages of developing in that area of the world (Sharp, 2012). The claim has also been made that Mithras was born of a virgin. If you’ll recall, Mithras came from a rock. Clearly, this doesn’t resemble the birth of Christ at all.
Next, Horus is found dead but is brought to life by magical incantations of another Egyptian god. This is not a resurrection. To define resurrection, we can look to N.T. Wright (2003) to identify the Christian view of resurrection:
“”Resurrection” denoted a new embodied life which would follow whatever “life after death” there might be. “Resurrection” was, by definition, not the existence into which someone might (or might not) go immediately upon death; it was not a disembodied “heavenly” life; it was a further stage, out beyond that. It was not a description or redefinition of death. It was death’s reversal”
If we look at the context of how death was viewed in the Egyptian and Greek world, we’d see that they didn’t intend on returning to their physical life once they were dead. Their mindset was that they were free of their flesh and could rejoice in being united with their gods in a spiritual place (Sharp, 2012).
Using the same logic that the supporters of this conspiracy theory have implemented, we can relate any individual to just about any other person. This theory that Jesus is simply a copycat is a huge stretch of the imagination and it is an example of cherry-picking information at its finest. To show an illustration of how parallels can be grossly misleading, I’ve included parallels of President Abraham Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy:
• Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.
• Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860. John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.
• “Lincoln” and “Kennedy” each have seven letters in their names.
• Lincoln had a secretary name Kennedy; Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln
• Both married, in their thirties, a 24 year-old socially prominent girl who could speak fluent French.
• Both Presidents dealt with civil rights movements for African-Americans
• Both Presidents were assassinated on a Friday, in the back of the head, before a major holiday, while sitting next to their wives.
• Both their assassins were known by three names consisting of 15 letters (John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald).
• Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and was captured in a theater; Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and was captured in a warehouse.
• Both assassins were shot and killed with a Colt revolver days after they assassinated the president before they could be brought to trial.
• Both presidents were succeeded by vice presidents named Johnson, from the South, born in 1808 and 1908 respectfully
By viewing these parallels, would you change your mind on whether President John F. Kennedy was actually a president or whether the actual historical records were accurate about his existence? No rational person would. While these parallels are coincidental, they have no bearing on the historicity of either of their presidencies.
In conclusion, these outlandish accusations are nothing more than mere imaginations running off the deep end. The truth cannot be easily dismissed by obvious tall tales. We can rest assured that history has presented us with strong facts concerning the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Our faith can rest confidently in Christ.
Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1962), 289; cf. 185; cited in Mettinger, Riddle of Resurrection, 172
Mary Jo Sharp, “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Religions?” in Come Let us Reason, Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 151-168
N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 83