Christianity: Unique Among All Religions.
Mythicists confidently assert, “Christianity is nothing more than a patchwork quilt of ancient pagan and mystery religions.”
Bottom line: They believe that the early Church borrowed heavily from pagan deities already in existence at the time of Jesus. To make their case, they cite extensive lists of apparent similarities between Christianity and these religions. “Jesus, the Son of God? Hardly,” they say. “He’s just another copycat.”
The charge that Christianity plagiarized from surrounding pagan religions came to the fore in the late 19th century, becoming prominent in academic circles at the turn of the 20th century. Though this notion has largely been rejected by the academic community, because historical facts don’t support it, it lingers as a vague idea in popular culture. It’s a popular argument that mythicists — scholars focused on debunking the historicity of the Bible — like to promote.
Yet do their charges of “Christ, the copycat” hold up? Nope. When one takes the time to study the similarities they suggest, it’s quickly apparent that the differences are actually much greater than any commonalities.
Some of the pagan deities they compare to Jesus include Isis, Osiris, and Horus, which originated in Egypt. Too, the cult of Adonis, which rose in Syria and Palestine. And Mithra, which started in Persia (Iran), but was widely practiced across the Roman empire.
Here’s the truth: Although these pagan religions are historically earlier than Christianity, scholars have uncovered almost no historical record of what these religions believed before Christianity. Almost all of the earliest writings of these cults date from the third and fourth centuries A.D.
As Sean McDowell notes in this short video, history could make the case that these mystery religions may have been the copycats — not the other way around.
So, What’s a “Mystery Religion”?
Good question. Neo-Paganism.com puts it this way:
“They are called ‘mysteries’ because some aspects of the traditions were kept secret, but also because the experiences conveyed by the rituals were ineffable; they could not be communicated, only experienced. Aristotle stated that ‘the initiated learned nothing precisely, but they received impressions and were put into a certain frame of mind. Not to learn (mathein) but to suffer (pathein) was the reason for participation in the Eleusinian ritual; and this was exactly the effect of the celebration.’”
Writes Hank Hanegraaff on the Christian Research Institute website:
“While followers of Christ were committed to essential Christian doctrines, devotees of the mysteries worked themselves into altered states of consciousness. They were committed to the notion that experience is a better teacher than words. … Far from being rooted in history and evidence, the mysteries reveled in hype and emotionalism.”
Comparing Apples to Oranges
Right there we see one of the major differences between those religions and Christianity: sound doctrine.
Certainly, parallel terms existed between Christianity and these mystery religions. But there is little evidence for parallel concepts. For example, all spoke of “salvation.” But what early Christians meant by the term had little in common with what devotees of these mystery religions meant by it.
“The terminological fallacy occurs when words are redefined to prove a point,” clarifies Got Questions Ministries. “For example, the Zeitgeist movie says that Horus [the son of Osiris and Isis] ‘began his ministry,’ but the word ministry is being redefined. Horus had no actual ‘ministry’ — nothing like that of Christ’s ministry. Those claiming a link between Mithra and Jesus talk about the ‘baptism’ that initiated prospects into the Mithra cult, but what was it actually? Mithraic priests would place initiates into a pit, suspend a bull over the pit, and slit the bull’s stomach, covering the initiates in blood and gore. Such a practice bears no resemblance whatsoever to Christian baptism — a person going under water (symbolizing the death of Christ) and then coming back out of the water (symbolizing Christ’s resurrection).”
Mythicists propose that Mithra shared many commonalities with Christ: Both were both birthed from virgins. Both were miracle-working teachers accompanied by 12 disciples. Both died, were buried in tombs, and resurrected three days later for the benefit of the world. And both were hailed as “the way, the truth, and the light.” Umm…no, not, not even close.
In actuality, there were three versions of Mithra — and not one of them left behind ancient writings outlining the cult’s beliefs. Historians have only been able to piece together bits of the religion using second-hand sources and inscriptions. In the Roman version of the cult, Mithra was born not of a virgin, but sprang from a rock. In other versions he was created as an adult. No proof exists that he had disciples, and there’s no evidence of his self-sacrifice. And there is no indication, in any version, that Mithra resurrected.
Neither is there evidence to support their claims that Jesus and the Egyptian god Horus shared these proposed commonalities: 12 disciples, crucifixion between two thieves, and resurrection. We can also blast apart supposed similarities with Krishna, Attis, Dionysus, and other mythic gods.
But jump on YouTube, and you’ll find video after video echoing the false claim that Christianity is a copycat religion. Perhaps the mythicist approach is: “Tell a lie, repeat it, keep asserting that it’s true, and those too lazy to verify our supposed facts will simply believe and help us spread them.”
So why have billions of people chosen to call Jesus, “Lord”? Are they all stupid, hoodwinked sheeple? If so, how do we explain when diehard atheists — Josh McDowell included — become diehard Christians while trying their best to debunk Christianity as a copycat religion? They cite the avalanche of historical evidence that eventually becomes too great for them to ignore. Jesus rises to the top, uniquely original!
Three Truths That Show Christianity Isn’t a Copycat
Let’s look at just three important truths that nullify the argument that Christianity is a copycat religion.
Jesus: The Only Historically Vetted Religious Figure.
This point is so important! Jesus wasn’t a fabricated character or mythical creature, like Osiris, Adonis, and Attis, but a real person who walked this earth. Historians are largely unanimous in their agreement that Jesus lived, was crucified, and buried. The Gospels, which tell us about the resurrection, go to great lengths to speak to the where, who, and when of Jesus’ ministry. They practically beg readers to check out the historical documentation to prove its truth. Secular historical sources have helped to validate Scripture. And archeologists continue to uncover details that support that biblical details are, indeed, authentic.
Jesus Died Once; Pagan Deities Cyclically Died and Rose Each Year.
The cyclical process of nature is a standard theme of mystery pagan religions. The annual crop cycle depicts the renewal of life each spring, and death each fall. Thus, these religions attached deep symbolic significance to the natural, ongoing process of growth, death, decay, and rebirth. Their deities repeatedly died and rose. But Jesus died only once. He controls nature; He’s not bound by it! The mythical figure Osiris was forced to rule over the land of the dead when he resurrected. Unlike Jesus, he had no power over life.
Christianity is Doggedly Monotheistic.
True to its Jewish roots, Christianity did not accept other gods. Unlike the Gentiles of that era, early Christians strongly resisted pagan ideas. As the early apostles spread the Gospel message, they found themselves not only introducing people to the strange idea of a man risen from the dead, they came face-to-face with a polytheistic culture. Yet they made no accommodation on this front. Christ, alone, they declared, is the Savior of the world. On that point they weren’t going to budge in order to attract followers.
The Copycat Claim Just Doesn’t Hold Up
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I want to reiterate this point: the deities of these pagan religions weren’t real people. They were mythical characters created to explain aspects of everyday life. They’re fun to read about, but they’re not deities worthy of our commitment.
In contrast, Christianity tells the story of Jesus, which history documents as having literally existed, just as the Bible tells us. All during His ministry Jesus said and did things that reinforced His claim that He is the Son of God. When scores of witnesses saw His resurrected form, they believed, and spread the word. The four Gospels, written by His disciples or person who intimately knew them, give us minute details of Christ’s ministry, both before and after His death. We see the heart of God, and what’s important to Him. Chiefly among them: that we would know that He loves us so much that He was willing to be the ultimate sacrificial lamb.
In no way is Jesus like any of the pagan deities to which He is compared. His unique gift to the world: Himself, so that you and I can have a relationship with Him, just as He always intended.
Choosing to give Jesus a chance to prove Himself is really hard for some people. In part because it does take faith to believe that Christ resurrected. And because our increasingly secular society tells us to abhor the concepts of “sin” and “savior” and “sacrifice” and “submission.” And given our societal embrace of all forms of “truth,” many find it really difficult to believe that there is really only one single, universal standard of truth: God.
The claim that “Nothing in Christianity is original” — one of the lines penned by author Dan Brown in his fictional tale The Da Vinci Code — can only be claimed by those who don’t yet know Him. Jesus a copycat? No way, no how. Study the Bible before you jump on the “Jesus is a myth” bandwagon.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.