Was the Resurrection of Jesus a Repackaged Pagan Myth?

Was the Resurrection of Jesus a Repackaged Pagan Myth?

Mythicism and the Resurrection of Jesus

The purpose of this brief essay is to confront the idea that the New Testament concept of the death and resurrection of Jesus was somehow borrowed or influenced by pagan religious traditions. The attempt to account for the origins of Christian beliefs in this way is often called Jesus mythicism, and is commonly found in popular-level conspiracy theories such as those put forward in the 2007 film Zeitgeist, and by authors such as Richard Carrier and Robert Price. The claim is that religions which predate Christianity contain stories about dying and rising gods, and that the early Christians borrowed and adapted these stories, and that they provide the true origin of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

The roots of this idea were initially popularized in the late-nineteenth century by James Frazer in his book, The Golden Bough,[1] and are typically not accepted among scholars working in the field of ancient religion today. The New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, who teaches at the University of North Carolina and is well-known critic of orthodox Christianity, wrote an entire book confronting the increasingly popular mythicist notion that Jesus did not even exist. In it, he offers the following comment on the complete lack of mythicist scholars working in the field:

At a reputable university, of course, professors cannot teach simply anything. They need to be academically responsible and reflect the views of scholarship. That is probably why there are no mythicists—at least to my knowledge—teaching religious studies at accredited universities or colleges in North America or Europe. It is not that mythicists are lacking in hard-fought views and opinions or that they fail to mount arguments to back them up. It is that their views are not widely seen as academically respectable by members of the academy. That in itself does not make the mythicists wrong. It simply makes them marginal.”[2]

Mythicist theories have not gained acceptance in the scholarly community.

Those who seek to apply mythicists ideas to the resurrection story usually do so by arguing that a belief in dying and rising gods in the ancient world was somehow borrowed by the early Christians and applied to Jesus. For them, this serves as an explanation of how the early church came to believe that Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead—it isn’t because it actually happened; it’s because the early Christians were recycling myths from pagan religions that contain stories about deities who experienced life after death. There are several major problems with this line of reasoning, each of which contains either lazy scholarship, extraordinarily bad logic, historical ignorance, appeal to weak parallels from ancient religious traditions, equivocation of key concepts such as “crucifixion” or “resurrection,” or all of the above.

General Problems with Resurrection Mythicism

Death is Not an Uncommon Problem

First and foremost, we need to ask whether it is surprising that any religion, old or new, should address the problem of death. The reality of suffering in general and death in particular is such a common problem throughout humanity that it goes without saying. Why would we think it unexpected, then, that ancient religions contain stories that portray their gods as somehow victorious over these things? The idea of life after death is simply not novel enough to warrant the conclusions drawn from it by mythicists. Is the only way to account for this idea across human cultures to say that borrowing has taken place? Would we argue that movies such as Beetlejuice, Ghost, the Friday the 13th series, or Coco are derivative of Christianity, simply because their characters experience life beyond the grave? Of course not. Why, then, should Christianity be regarded as derived from dying and rising myths, simply because it addresses this idea? It is worth pointing out also that some of these myths are as distant in the past from the historical Jesus as these movies are into the future![3]

Life After Death Does Not Equal Resurrection

The concept of resurrection as the future hope for believers, expressed in Christianity, has its roots in Judaism and is profoundly unique in the ancient world. The New Testament is very clear that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead in human history. After his resurrection, Jesus offers various “proofs” to his disciples to help their faith, most notably inviting them to touch him and eating with them. Note Jesus’ statement to his disciples in Luke 24:39: “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” This is not to deny that Jesus’ body was in some ways different after his resurrection. But nevertheless, the Christian story is that Jesus was not raised in merely some “spiritual” sense (whatever that would mean), but that he was was physically raised by the Father in real-world history. Resurrection, in Christian theology, refers to something that happens to the body after life after death.[4] By contrast, all of the alleged parallels offered by dying-and-rising-god mythicists either take place in a mythical realm, or are simply examples of divine figures finding good fortune in the afterlife. Only in Judaism and Christianity is there belief in a bodily resurrection, and only in Christianity is there someone who experiences this before the last day.[5] It is not Jesus’ ascension into heaven that is unique to Christianity, it is his resurrection.[6] In order to circumvent this problem, mythicists must use over-generalizing language (e.g., “dying and rising gods”) in order to establish parallels. But the point remains: if we’re not talking about physical resurrection in history, we’re not talking about Christianity, or anything like it. N. T. Wright observes,

As far as the ancient pagan world was concerned, the road to the underworld ran only one way. Death was all-powerful; one could neither escape it in the first place nor break its power once it had come. Everybody knew there was in fact no answer to death. The ancient pagan world then divided broadly into those who, like Homer’s shades, might have wanted a new body but knew they couldn’t have one and those who, like Plato’s philosophers, didn’t want one because being a disembodied soul was far better. . . . Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense.[7]

The very notion of dying and rising gods in antiquity is a matter of significant debate among scholars. Jonathan Z. Smith, of the University of Chicago, begins his highly influential article on this subject by commenting, “The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.”[8] Later, he adds,

All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case, the deities return but have not died; in the second case, the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.[9]

It should be noted that Tryggve Mettinger has attempted to restore the category of dying and rising gods as an appropriate label for some ancient Near Eastern deities.[10]

Unconvincing Parallels

Another major problem with attempting to trace the origin of Christ’s resurrection from myths about dying and rising gods arises when we consider the myths on their own terms. The first order of business for anyone investigating the claims of mythicism should be to read the original sources—not the selective retelling of them by mythicists, but the stories themselves. Mythicist claims should not be accepted without references to the texts that they claim to support their views. When we examine the various mythologies, the alleged parallels begin to break down before our eyes. In what follows, I give a short rundown of the gods who are usually placed in the dying and rising category, and a brief response to each.

Before doing so, it is worth noting that one particularly unfortunate tactic used by mythicists is what has been called the terminology fallacy, where “events in the lives of the mythical gods . . . are expressed using Christian terminology in order subtly to manipulate viewers [or readers] into accepting that the same events in the life of Jesus also happened in the lives of mythical gods.”[11] And so, it is common to hear mythological elements described as baptisms, virgin births, crucifixions, resurrections, and so on. For example, atheist Richard Carrier deceptively claims that, in Mesopotamian mythology, the goddess Inanna was “crucified (nailed up) during her mythical descent into the underworld.[12] But in the text to which Carrier is referring, the Sumerian version of “Inanna’s Descent to the Netherworld,” Inanna is not crucified; she is killed, and her already dead body is hung on a hook for three days and three nights.[13] Crucifixion was a much later form of execution, not a means of displaying an already dead body. Likewise, Acharya S., the main consultant for the Zeitgeist movie, attempts justify her “crucifixion” language in the following way:

When it is asserted that Horus (or Osiris) was “crucified” it should be kept in mind that it was not part of the Horus/Osiris myth that the murdered god was held down and nailed on a cross, as we perceive the meaning of “crucified” to be, based on the drama we believe allegedly took place during Christ’s purported passion. Rather in one myth Osiris is torn in pieces before being raised from the dead, while Horus is stung by a scorpion prior to his resurrection. However, Egyptian deities, including Horus, were depicted in cruciform with arms extended or outstretched, as in various images that are comparable to crucifixes.[14]

This apparently justifies referring to any deity depicted with outstretched arms as having been crucified, even when those images have nothing to do with the deity’s purported death! If this is the standard we are going to use to identify crucifixions, then we have a much bigger issue than the one identified by mythicists, because it just so happens that plenty of people stretch out their arms for all kinds of reasons. Kate Winslet, being held by Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic, was crucified! Willem Dafoe, being shot to death in Vietnam in Platoon, was crucified! Even Bane, while fighting Batman in the batcave was crucified! Can anyone say Zeigeist sequel (ca-ching!)? Excuse my sarcasm, but the point is that we need to be very careful when we encounter Christian terms being used to make similarities to pagan myths sound closer than they really are.

Specific Examples

            I would now like to illustrate some of the principles I have just discussed by giving brief descriptions of some of the more common ancient divine figures who are often cited by mythicists as examples of dying and rising gods whose stories influenced the narratives about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Of course, there are others (there are always others!), but these, in my reading and experience, are the most common, and the most credible. Feel free to email me with questions you might have about deities that are not mentioned here.

Adonis

Greek traditions indicate that Adonis was originally worshiped as a god of vegetation in Byblos in the first millennium BC. Adonis is the Greek version of the ancient Mesopotamian shepherd-god Dumuzi (see below). His nearby shrine was destroyed by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD. An ancient mythical compendium from the second century AD, Bibliotheca, claims he is the son of a Syrian king named Theias (possibly Toi of 2 Sam 8:9–10?). According to the myth, the infant Adonis is locked in a chest by Aphrodite and given to her sister Persephone, who refuses to return her. Zeus settles the dispute by allowing Adonis to spend part of the year in the upper-world (with Aphrodite) and the other part in the underworld (with Persephone). In another account, Adonis is killed by a boar and Aphrodite commemorates him with a flower. In the first story, Adonis does not die. In the second, he does not rise.

Attis

The mythology of this Phyrgian deity does not give a hint of resurrection. In the Phrygian version, he is killed by being castrated (possibly by himself!). In another story, he is killed by a boar sent by Zeus. The notion that he was raised comes from a questionable interpretation of a later festival dedicated to the goddess Cybele, who was Attis’ consort (and much more commonly worshiped). Part of this week was called Dies Sanguinis, the “Day of Blood,” which was followed on the next day by the Hilaria, the “Day of Rejoicing,” during which Attis was celebrated as reborn. While this is a concept similar to resurrection, the problem with seeing Christianity as being derived from this is that there is no evidence of this festival until it is mentioned in the Chronography of 354, from—you guessed it—354 AD. There is no mention of Attis’ “resurrection” whatsoever until the work, De errore profanarum religionum, by Julius Firmicus Maternus (ca. 346 AD). Lynn Roller, of the University of California, even notes that “in the fourth century CE, the cult of Cybele and Attis formed a conspicuous rallying point for that part of the Roman aristocracy that had not been converted to Christianity.”[15] In other words, the celebration of Attis as risen from the dead is first attested in the same century that upper class Romans turned to it as a viable alternative to following Jesus of Nazareth (what a coincidence! >cough<).


 

Baal

Although Baal is known throughout the Old Testament as a title for a variety of foreign gods, by far, the most detailed information we have about his worship comes to us from an epic story preserved on six clay tablets found in the ancient city of Ugarit (modern day Ras Shamra in Syria), which was destroyed at the end of the Bronze Age in approximately 1200 BC.

Among the peoples that lived in the ancient Near East, Baal was considered a storm deity who brought rain, often depicted riding on clouds, brandishing a battle-axe in one hand and lightning in the other. In the Baal myth, Baal, after slaying his rival Yam (the god of the sea) and establishing his rule, ventures to the underworld to challenge Mot, the god of death. It is unclear what happens next. Immediately before the confrontation, Baal copulates with a heifer, who conceives a male child whom Baal clothes. Unfortunately, the tablet is damaged here and over forty lines are missing immediately after this. When the text resumes, El, the chief deity, is receiving news of Baal’s death. Has Baal actually died, or has he fooled Mot into killing his heifer-offspring instead?[16] We cannot be sure. What we do know is that the warrior goddess Anat vengefully slaughters Mot, and soon after Baal returns and slays his enemies.

Scholars disagree whether or not Baal can be considered a dying and rising god. Mark Smith, who produced the most authoritative and influential translation of the story described above, does not think so.[17] In 1998, Smith even wrote a lengthy article exposing the many inaccuracies and methodological problems associated with the dying and rising god hypothesis, not just regarding Baal, but with Adonis, Dumuzi, Heracles, Melqart, and Osiris as well.[18] Jonathan Z. Smith (mentioned above; no relation to Mark) concurs.[19] On the other hand, there are other reputable scholars, such as Dennis Pardee and John Day who are quite happy to consider Baal a dying and rising god based on this text.[20] What is clear, however, is that any attempt to draw a line between what happens to Baal in this myth and what happened to Jesus is an exercise in futility. The text, which is broken at several key points, is simply too ambiguous. At best this serves to illustrate the point made earlier, that victory over death (here quite literally) is an important achievement for a deity.

Osiris

Boasting a mythical tradition of over a thousand years, mythicists often attempt to connect the events surrounding this prominent Egyptian deity’s death with Jesus. According to the story, Osiris’ brother Seth kills him. The motive and details differ depending on the text. By the time we reach the New Kingdom (ca. 1550 BC), the claim is that Osiris had been dismembered and his body parts scattered throughout Egypt, with each part representing each of the forty-two nomes of Egypt.[21] His wife, Isis, then scours Egypt to collect his parts and reassembles him, with the help of some of the other gods, whose powers are needed for the process. This provides the mythical prototype for the Egyptian practice of mummification (in iconography, Osiris is always mummified). He then is able to conceive his son Horus, the earthly embodiment of whom are the Egyptian Pharaohs (upon coronation, a king received his “Horus name”). Osiris, on the other hand, lives on to rule Duat, the realm of the dead.[22] This is not a resurrection.

Dumuzi/Tammuz

Dumuzi was worshiped in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, usually as the god of shepherds. He was worshiped in a funerary cult, which sang hymns of mourning during the month that bore his name (which was adopted into the Hebrew calendar). This coincided with the dry and barren months of summer. Such mourning rituals continued far into the common era, and are even referenced in Ezekiel 8:14 as an “abomination.” In the Sumerian version of “Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld,” Dumuzi is condemned to death as a replacement for his wife Inanna, who chooses him for this fate when she sees him being entertained by servant girls while she is in the realm of the dead. He returns annually, restoring his wife’s powers of fertility. In the Sumerian poem, The Return of Dumuzid, Inanna allows him to spend half the year with her, restoring her powers of fertility, and half in the underworld, foreshadowing the almost identical compromise imposed by Zeus on Aphrodite and Persephone in the Adonis mythology. Other, more obscure texts, give different accounts of Dumuzi’s death.

            Interestingly, the only known individual from the ancient world who interpreted Dumuzi/Tammuz mourning rites as concluding with a resurrection was the early Alexandrian Christian theologian Origin, in his Selecta in Ezechielem. Otherwise, the Dumuzi myths were understood for what they were—stories of a god who was constantly given over to death, and whose was as much at home in the abode of the dead than he was in the land of the living.

Final Observations

This has been intended is a short response to the idea of resurrection mythicism, not a definitive refutation of all the ideas associated with it (and they are legion!). In grappling with these things, it is sometimes easy to lose track of the bottom line: The resurrection of Jesus is a true historical event. Our confidence in this does not come from our ability to refute mythicists, but from the testimony of the Scriptures and, to a lesser extent, from the historical evidence of the resurrection. Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate; his burial in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea; the empty tomb; his post-mortem appearances to the women, the eleven disciples, and to other eyewitnesses; the rise of early Christianity in Jerusalem where many of these things had taken place; the lack of embellishment and theologizing in the Gospels’ crucifixion and resurrection accounts; the use of women as the primary witnesses[23]—all these factors and more should establish a very high degree of confidence in the resurrection of Jesus (and perhaps should be the subject of a subsequent essay). My point, however, is that the attempted assault on Christian faith by mythicists should never be a reason for a believer to doubt the truthfulness of the resurrection. This is so, not only because the mythicists’ claims are exceedingly weak and disreputable among scholars, but because all of the positive reasons to believe in the resurrection remain, despite those claims.

            To many, the analysis of the mythicists position given above might be new and unfamiliar territory. For clarity and simplicity, I will end with a restatement of the main points.

  1. Jesus mythicists are not representative of mainstream scholarship.
  2. Fear of death and questions about the afterlife is common to virtually all human cultures. It is not surprising therefore that many ancient myths would address this subject matter and would portray some of their deities as having overcome death.
  3. The New Testament concept of resurrection is a unique idea that has its roots in Judaism, not pagan mythology. True resurrection is something that happens to physical bodies. For this reason alone, none of the myths put forward by the mythicists are legitimate parallels to Christian belief.
  4. The parallels that are often cited fail on several grounds.

    1. Life in the realm of the dead, or being permitted to vacillate between the realm of the dead and of the living, is not resurrection. This applies to Adonis, Osiris, and Dumuzi.
    2. The story of Attis rising from the dead postdates the Christian belief in the resurrection, and quite possibly arose as an alternative to it.
    3. The myth of Baal is ambiguous and is damaged at the relevant section, and we therefore lack sufficient knowledge of whether or not he died, let alone whether he was raised. And even if we say that he was, this is merely an example of a deity achieving victory over death (see point 2 above).
  5. Mythicist claims do not sufficiently address the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

 

[1] James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (London: Macmillan, 1890).

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 220. I have chosen to cite Ehrman, not because I agree with all his views on Christianity and the New Testament, but to give an example of an unbelieving scholar who has written against the views of the Jesus mythicists. Ehrman has an entire section on dying and rising gods and their irrelevance to the resurrection of Jesus on pages 220–40 of his book. I do not agree with some of his reasons for rejecting mythicists claims, but his argument through page 230 is sound.

[3] For example, Dumizi and Osirus were both worshipped as early as the 2000’s BC. We tend to lump all things “ancient” or all things “BC” into one grand category, while in reality, history stretched back from Christ further into the past than it does forward to our own day. Consider the story in Genesis 12, where Abram flees to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. At that time (ca. 2000 BC), many of the pyramids were already ancient monuments.

[4] “Life after life after death” is a phrase coined by N. T. Wright.

[5] Note Martha’s confusion over Jesus’ words about her brother Lazarus in John 11:23–14: “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’” Grounded in the Old Testament, this Jewish belief in a physical eschatological resurrection is also the background of several other passages in the Gospels (e.g., Matt 13:43; Mark 12:18–27; John 5:29).

[6] Perhaps this is why a mythicist such as Richard Carrier is so concerned to advance the spurious argument that Paul (who gives us our earliest example of the core Christian message about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15) did not preach a physical, but a “spiritual” resurrection.

[7] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 35–36.

[8] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” Encyclopedia of Religion (2d. ed., ed. Lindsay Jones; Detroit: Macmillan, 2005), 4:2535.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of the Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm: Almquist and Wiskell International, 2001).

[11] Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroid,” in Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics (ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012), 176.

[12] Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), Kindle location 1990.

[13] This happens only in the Sumerian version of the story (lines 164–72, available from The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature at http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section1/tr141.htm). The text reads, “The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.” In the later Akkadian version, in which the deity is called Ishtar, she is simply “diseased” from head to toe (lines 69–75, Stephanie Dalley, “The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld,” in Context of Scripture Volume 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World [eds. William Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr.; Leiden: Brill, 2003]: 1.108).

[14] D. M. Murdock, Christ in Egypt: The Jesus-Horus Connection (Seattle: Stellar House, 2009), 335. Cited in Foreman, 178. “Acharya S” is Murdock’s pen name.

[15] Lynn E. Roller, “Cybele,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 3:2110.

[16] Johannes C. de Moor, The Seasonal Pattern in the Ugaritic Myth of Baʿlu According to the Version of Ilimilku (AOAT 16; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Butzon & Bercker, 1971), 188 ; J. C. L. Gibson, “The Last Enemy,” SJT 32 (1979): 159–60.

[17] Mark S. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle: Volume 1. Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1–1.2 (VTSup 55; Leiden: Brill, 1994) and Mark S. Smith and Wayne T. Pitard, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle: Volume 2. Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.3–1.4 (VTSup 114; Leiden: Brill).

[18] Mark S. Smith, “The Death of ‘Dying and Rising God’ in the Biblical World: An Update, with Special Reference to Baal in the Baal Cycle,” SJOT 12 (1998): 257–313. Summarizing Smith’s article, Ehrman states, “According to Smith, the methodological problem that afflicted Frazer [the father of the dying and rising god idea] was that he took data about various divine beings, spanning more than a millennium, from a wide range of cultures, and smashed the data all together into a synthesis that never existed. This would be like taking views of Jesus from a French monk of the twelfth century, a Calvinist of the seventeenth century, a Mormon of the late nineteenth century, and a Pentecostal preacher of today, combining them all together into one overall picture and saying, ‘That’s who Jesus was understood to be.’ We would never do that with Jesus. Why should we do it with Osiris, Heracles, or Baal” (Did Jesus Exist?, 229).

[19] “Dying and Rising Gods,” 4:2536.

[20] Dennis Pardee, “The Baʿlu Myth,” in Context of Scripture Volume 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World [eds. William Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr.; Leiden: Brill, 2003]: 1.86; John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (JSOTSup 265; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 117–18.

[21] Nomes were different territories ruled by different administrators.

[22] M. Heerma van Voss, “Osiris,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2d. ed.; Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. vand der Horst; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 650.

[23] Note that the women had already dropped out of the common telling of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15.

 

For more information, or if you have questions about this resource, you can contact Doug Becker, Pastor of Theology.