Every Easter & Christmas seasons the claims that Christianity is a rip-off of old pagan myths are abound. So, is there any truth to these claims? Is Jesus just another god like Horus or Mithras or Dionysus?
*Read the INTRO & PART 1 (How Did “Easter” Originate?) of this series here*
There was once this guy. He was a really nice guy, and he helped a lot of people with his amazing powers. He could even control the weather. One time, this nice guy brought someone back from the dead. In fact, if you think that’s impressive, he was killed and placed in a tomb, but he was resurrected. He was the one and only son of his father, who sent him to earth as a child. And this guy’s name is…
In this article, I will be arguing that the creators of Superman blatantly borrowed from the life of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the New Testament.
After all, Jesus was a really nice guy who helped a lot of people with his amazing powers. In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus controls the weather by calming a storm while on a boat. He also brought Lazarus back from the dead in John 11. Furthermore, he was killed and placed in a tomb, and he was resurrected. He was the one and only Son of God the Father, who sent his eternal Son to earth to be born as a child by Mary.
Actually, I have no intentions of arguing here that Superman is just a rip-off of Jesus, but if you had read my arguments as I presented them above, and you didn’t know any better, and you let the discussion end there, you probably would have been convinced.
But… you may be the suspicious type… or you may know a little something about both Jesus and Superman and ask some questions and raise some objections:
Wait, Superman couldn’t control the weather! When did Superman bring anyone back from the dead? In fact, when did Superman die and resurrect?
And this would be where my arguments start to break down…
ME: Superman at times would use his super breath and blow really hard and it produced powerful wind. And at the end of the first Superman movie, the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve, when Lois Lane dies, Superman flies around the earth so fast in the opposite direction of the earth’s spin that he changes the direction of the earth’s rotation and literally rewinds time so he is able to rescue Lois Lane before she dies*. Then, in the early 1990’s, DC Comics ran the storyline “The Death of Superman” where Superman was killed in a battle with Doomsday, but Superman returned after a long hiatus.
(*Thankfully, for all our sakes, Superman also corrected the spin of the earth. Even when watching this as a young boy, I thought this ending was ridiculous and spoiled what was an otherwise cool movie.)
YOU: Having super breath isn’t anything like controlling the weather. Rewinding time by flying around the earth to save someone before they die – though incredible* – is not the same as bringing someone back from the dead. And maybe Superman sort of “died” for a time and returned, but he was restored in a “regeneration matrix” in the Fortress of Solitude. In fact, if there’s anywhere where people are killed and brought back to life, it’s in comic books! It happens all the time! None of this is anything like Jesus’ life, nor do I see any connection.
ME: But what about the other stuff I said?
YOU: Superman was from the planet Krypton and his father was Jor-El. Jesus was the incarnation of the eternal Son of God of the Trinitarian God. Jesus and Superman were both usually nice guys and do help people with their powers, but Jesus performed miracles because he was divine. For instance, he healed the sick and the lame. Superman had powers because he was an alien from space. Jesus didn’t perform feats of incredible strength like Superman. Or fly. Or shoot lasers from his eyes.
ME: They were both their fathers’ one and only son.
YOU: OK, I guess I’ll give you that one.
ME: Also, the regeneration matrix in the Fortress of Solitude was like the tomb Jesus was placed in and emerged resurrected from.
YOU: Now you’re getting carried away again.
Is the Man of Steel actually the Son of Man?
Did Superman copy Jesus, who copied Horus… or Mithras… or Dionysus…or Krishna… or Attis… or Asclepius?
Did you find the argument above about Superman and Jesus ridiculous? Sadly, this is hardly any different than serious arguments about Jesus being a copycat of any number of pagan myths.
Whenever someone tries to argue that there are similarities between Christianity and pagan mystery religions – sometimes called the Pagan Copycat Theory or what I like to call the Pagan Myth Myth – the arguments often go like the one above about Superman and Jesus… Or they should go like that anyway.
Thus, we need to know how to reply to those who make these claims (and it’s fairly easy).
The copycat theory, the idea that Christianity is simply a Frankenstein-like cut-and-paste religion made from long dead pagan mystery religions, is the actual dead thing here. The debate has long been over in scholarly circles because the “evidence” was weak from the start, and true evidence clearly points to what we all knew from the beginning: Christianity started in the ancient Jewish land of Judea, spread by the Jewish followers of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth.
The copycat theory is an old theory that has long been refuted, and no new evidence to support it has arisen. Yet, the Misinformation Age keeps the pagan copycat accusations coming back every Easter and Christmas holiday season like that bad mayo on that club sandwich you keep burping up and tasting.
Thanks for the prolongation of these copycat theories can be given to the Internet and to conspiracy videos like Zeitgeist. As Mark W. Foreman writes in his essay “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids” in the book Come Let Us Reason, “Arguments don’t stop being bad simply because of their upgraded, flashy attire.”
Egyptian god Horus… My interpretation of this art is Horus is on a hot date.
Here are the issues with these copycat theories:
1. A Bad Start
To begin with, many making these claims are starting off with a poor understanding of the specific pagan mystery religions they’re citing anyway. These pagan religions are called “mystery religions” simply because, well… they’re mysteries.
Pagan mystery religions held to secret teachings that only those indoctrinated into the religion knew. The followers of these religions took vows of secrecy. Thus, there’s not a lot of material out there about their specific beliefs and practices.
Unlike Christianity, the mystery religions didn’t have books – scriptures or any records – that explained their beliefs. Moreover, because of this, there was a lot of diversity; for most, no one authoritative story exists. Knowledge of these religions come from scattered sources, such as inscriptions or art. For instance, all we know about Mithrasim, a late Roman mystery religion, comes from graffiti, statues, and some writings from Christian and neo-Platonist outsiders.
So, it’s sort of like putting together a puzzle, but we can’t use the shape of the pieces to guide us on how they fit together. For example, Mark W. Foreman points out that the conspiracy documentary Zeitgeist does this with Horus, the Egyptian god. The Zeitgeist version of Horus is “pieced together from a number of sources, some of which conflict.”
Thus, some of those proposing a connection between Christianity and pagan religions often not only have a poor understanding of Christianity, but also are basing their understanding of pagan religions on what are probably not even accurate portrayals of the pagan mystery religions to begin with.
2. Exaggerations & Blatant Fabrications
This is the biggest issue with these copycat theories. As with the Superman argument above, many of the supposed parallels between Christianity and paganism are unabashed exaggerations, which call for large leaps in logic, or downright lies.
(To be fair, some people passing along these theories – perhaps on Facebook or a blog – may not be aware they’re passing along lies, but some of these claims are so outrageous someone had to know they were being dishonest in starting them.)
For instance, it has been claimed that Krishna was born to a virgin. Krishna, a Hindu god, was the eighth son of his mother! (That’s a pretty loose definition of “virgin.”) My favorite claim is the one that says the Roman god Mithras was born of a virgin. How this idea ever came about is befuddling because Mithras was born from a rock! (Well, I guess rocks can be considered virgins, right?)
One strategy used to mislead is to use Christian terminology to describe events or details in pagan myths to make them sound much more Christian than they actually are. Above, I describe Superman’s emergence out of the regeneration matrix in the Fortress of Solitude after his sort-of death as him being resurrected. I even attempt to call the regeneration matrix a tomb to illustrate this point, and though it may seem like a stretch, it’s no more of a stretch than the actual claims of some of these copycat theorists.
There have been claims that Krishna and Attis, a Greek god, were “crucified.” Actually, Krishna was shot in the foot with an arrow. Attis castrated himself and died! I have a feeling neither case is quite what would come to mind for the Romans when they heard the word “crucified.”
D. M. Murdock in his book Christ in Egypt: The Jesus-Horus Connection claims that artistic depictions of Egyptian gods, including Horus, show many of them crucified. Yet, what he means is simply these gods had their arms extended or outstretched! (Does that mean every time someone stretches out their arms, they’re being crucified?)
Further, just like my Superman argument above, proponents of the Christian/pagan myth myth like to cherry-pick information to “expose” supposed parallels. Yet, when the Christian and pagan accounts are read as a whole and compared, the similarities are hardly similarities at all.
For example, claims have been made that dying and resurrected gods were a regular theme in pagan myths. Often Osiris, an Egyptian god, is one of the prime examples. Yet, Osiris didn’t return to life in the world of the living; he became the king of the netherworld – the underworld, the land of the dead. The only dying and rising gods found have all been related to the continuous, never-ending life-and-death cycle of vegetation and the seasons. These are hardly comparable to the death by crucifixion and the one-time resurrection of Jesus three days later.
Christian apologist William Lane Craig tells of a time he once debated Robert Price on Jesus’ resurrection. Price claimed that Jesus’ healing miracles were copied from the healing stories of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. So, Craig insisted Price read to the audience from his primary source about Asclepius. Once Price read the primary source, the lack of similarities became obvious to all. (Read Lane’s full article here.)
This is an “overemphasis on (supposed) similarities between two things while ignoring the vast and relevant differences between them,” Mark W. Foreman writes.
The only similarity I’ve come across that may be legitimate is with the Greek god Dionysus – called Bacchus in Roman mythology. Dionysus certainly turned water into wine. Jesus performed his first known public miracle in John 2 by turning water into wine. But the similarities end there. And, as one blogger astutely points out, Dionysus was, after all, the god of wine – and sexual ecstasy – and he liked to party.
Dionysus, in all his glory
Since there are other articles about this, I’m not going to run through every purposed pagan god to have supposedly inspired stories about Jesus. But here are some links to quick sources that do so:
3. Wrong Chronology
As stated above, pagan mystery religions changed over time because they did not have scripture that was strictly held to like Christianity. Furthermore, they were open to blending other religions and beliefs. Today, Christianity may have many denominations with different traditions or different interpretations of minor doctrines, but the core of Christianity has stayed the same for 2,000 years because we have the Bible to always refer back to. On the other hand, there are many versions of the pagan mystery religions and their myths.
Often, when some sort of parallel is made between paganism and Christianity that looks legitimate (and not an extreme exaggeration or fabrication), it has been found the similar characteristic doesn’t appear in that pagan religion until long after Christianity had been established. Thus, it appears Christianity influenced the pagan religion, not the other way around.
For example, the Christian similarities with the mystery religions of Mithras, Osiris, Horus, and Attis/Adonis are all found over 100 years after the rise of Christianity, and claims of the Hindu god Krishna’s resurrection don’t appear until the 6th or 7th Century.
Mithras, whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers, is often connected to Jesus. Mithras was a Persian god dating as far back as the 14th Century BC, but in an interview with Lee Stobel in The Case For the Real Jesus, Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi explains that Mithras didn’t appear in Rome until 66 AD. But this is still “not the same” version of Mithras found in the Roman mystery religion. Moreover, most of the evidence for Mithraism comes from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Centuries AD. Evidence refutes the claim that Mithras was called “savior” before Jesus, because the evidence is from an inscription dated after Christianity was proclaiming Jesus as savior. The Roman mystery religion of Mithraism developed after the New Testament was written.
There is “no evidence that there was any pagan mystery influence in first-century Palestine,” Mark W. Foreman writes. Mystery religions reached their peak in the Mediterranean in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, and there is little evidence of these beliefs being there in the 1st Century.
Mithras… My interpretation of this art is that Mithras coined the phrase: “Beef — it’s what’s for dinner.”
4. Logical Leaps
Logically, we have to remember that even if a similarity exists between Jesus and a pagan god (and it doesn’t run into the issues mentioned above), even that doesn’t automatically mean they are related, copied, or influenced. A connection must be proved. Religions, by nature, will have some general things in common, like beliefs about an afterlife. Further, many religions have some sort of tradition with a common meal. Similarity doesn’t prove dependence.
5. Christianity’s Nature
Finally, Christianity, like Judaism, has always been an exclusivist faith. Throughout the New Testament, Christians are explicitly warned against mixing their faith with other beliefs and from straying away from the Gospel as it had been originally given to them. (See the letter to the Galatians, for example.) Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, and Jude all warned against false teachers who corrupt the message of Christ. (See Matthew 7:15; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1-3.) Unlike Christianity, paganisms emphasized feelings and experience over doctrine and belief, and the mixing of religions and beliefs was normal.
Moreover, Christianity is rooted in history. Unlike these pagan myths (and most other religious myths), Jesus was a historical person; the Gospel records of Jesus’ life provide information that show that the events took place in a specific place and time in history; and all of the Christian scriptures were written within the lifetime of those who witnessed these events. The New Testament lacks the vague “other-worldliness” of myth. (Read earlier articles I wrote exploring these ideas: “Is the Bible Any More Accurate than Other Religious Texts?” “Is There Evidence of Jesus’ Existence?” & “How Do We Know About Jesus?”) The pagan mystery religions cannot make these same claims.
Cybele & Attis
So, What Now?
So, when someone claims there are similarities between Christianity and pagan religions, simply respond this way:
- Where did you get your information?
- Is it reliable?
- If it’s not a primary source, where did they get their information?
- Have you read the primary source(s) of the information we have about this pagan myth?
- Can you get your hands on the primary text? I’ll bring my Bible. Let’s read and compare.
- When did these similarities appear — before or after Christianity spread?
- And always remember: Context! Context! Context!
Some of my articles:
**Much of the information for this article is from Mary Jo Sharp’s essay “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Stories?” and Mark W. Foreman’s essay “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids” from the book Come Let Us Reason, and Lee Strobel’s interviews with Dr. Michael Licona and Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi in Chapter 4 of the book The Case for the Real Jesus.