Messianic myths

Introduction

The argument from messianic myths is not so much an argument but rather a couple of related assertions:

  1. The messianic story of Jesus is remarkably similar to older messianic myths
  2. The messianic story of Jesus was copied from these older messianic myths

This reasoning has largely been abandoned and all claims have been found to be exaggerated however it is worth exploring these assertions below.

Analysis of assertion 1

Is the messianic story of Jesus remarkably similar to older messianic myths? Some claimed contenders have included:

  • Krishna of India
  • Osiris of Egypt
  • Horus
  • Adonis
  • Dionysus
  • Mitra (Mithra) of Persia

Even though there was a lot of excitement from viral films and books which was short lived, the reason this comparison has largely been abandoned is the stretch between the actual similarities of these stories and that of Jesus.

1. The majority of these messianic stories aren’t actually older than Jesus

The “dying and rising gods” entry in the Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) concludes:

“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….In most cases, the decipherment and interpretation of texts in the language native to the deity’s cult has led to questions as to the applicability of the category. The majority of evidence for Near Eastern dying and rising deities occurs in Greek and Latin texts of late antiquity, usually post-Christian in date.” 1

Professor Mettinger, alongside academic consensus, hold that there were no dying and rising gods before Jesus, or before the advent of Christianity in the early 1st century:

“The consensus among modern scholars — nearly universal — is that there were no dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity. They all post-dated the first century.” 2

From Ryan Turner

the first clear dying and rising god parallel to the resurrection story of Jesus occurs at least 100 years after the reports of Jesus’ resurrection.  For example, the earliest versions of the death and resurrection of Adonis appeared after A.D. 150. The accounts of Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation who was responsible for the death and rebirth of plant life, are not until the 3rd century A.D. (200 A.D.) or later.  Therefore, the Christians did not follow a genre of “dying and rising gods” since such parallels did not exist during their time period. 3

2. The majority of these messianic stories aren’t actually similar to the story of Jesus

Some of the claimed similarities between the messianic myths and the story of Jesus are:

  • Born of a virgin
  • Born on December 25th
  • Had 12 disciples
  • Rose from the dead

Atheist Richard Carrier said, on the subject of December 25th (in Kersey Graves book: The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Or Christianity Before Christ):

consider his emphasis on the December 25 birth date as a common feature. This is one of the things he gets right, at least regarding Greco-Roman religion: all gods associated with the sun shared the sun’s “birthday,” erroneously identified as December 25 (it is actually the 21st). But for Jesus, we can actually trace when and why Jesus was assigned this birthday for political reasons in the 4th century, 300 years after Christianity began. Graves seems oblivious to the distinction between the origins of Christianity and its subsequent development. Yet no Christian in the beginning believed Jesus was born on December 25. But Graves obscures this fact, leading to false conclusions about the origins of the Christ story. 4

On the subject of 12 disciples, Historian Glen Miller writes (on the claim that Horus had 12 disciples):

“But again, my research in the academic literature does not surface this fact. I can find references to four “disciples”–variously called the semi-divine Heru-Shemsu (“Followers of Horus”) [GOE:1.491]. I can find references to sixteen human followers. And I can find reference to an unnumbered group of followers called mesniu/mesnitu (“blacksmiths”) who accompanied Horus in some of his battles [although these might be identified with the Heru-shemsu in GOE:1.84]. But I cannot find twelve anywhere…]” 5

On the subject of the resurrection, Stephen H. Smith says:

“Some of these divine figures simply disappear, some disappear only to return again in the near or distant future; some disappear and reappear with monotonous frequency. 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.” 6

Tryggve N. D. Mettinger of Lund University in Sweden says:

“There is now what amounts to a scholarly consensus against the appropriateness of the concept [of dying and rising gods]. Those who still think differently are looked upon as residual members of an almost extinct species….The situation during the last half of the century was thus one when it seemed fairly clear that there were no ideas of resurrection connected with Dumuzi / Tammuz, and that the ideas of a resurrection in connection with Adonis are very late. The references to a resurrection of Adonis have been dated mainly to the Christian Era….Frazer’s category was broad and all encompassing. To Frazer, Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis were all deities of the same basic type, manifesting the yearly decay and revival of life. He explicitly identified Tammuz and Adonis. The category of dying and rising deities as propagated by Frazer can no longer be upheld.” 7)

From Ryan Turner

it is questionable if the pre-Jesus pagan resurrection accounts are actually referring to a resurrection.  In the accounts of Marduk, there is no clear death or resurrection mentioned. Adonis, in the earliest visions, contains no death or resurrection reports.  His first death and resurrection accounts do not occur until after A.D. 150. Osiris has conflicting accounts. Some accounts say that he is assigned to the underworld and others refer to him as the “sun.”  However, there are no accounts or claims that Osiris rose from the dead.

The only account of a god who survived death that predates Christianity is found in Osiris.  However, as mentioned above, there are several versions of his story. In one, he is killed by his brother, cut into fourteen pieces, and scattered in Egypt.  The goddess Isis then collects his parts and bring him back to life, but she was only able to find thirteen parts. Furthermore, it is questionable whether Osiris was brought back to life on earth or seen by others like Jesus.  Osiris descends and is given the status in the underworld of god of the mummies. Interestingly, it is more of a zombification rather than a resurrection! Finally, the hero in the story is not Osiris, but Isis or Horus, their son.  This is extremely different from Jesus who is the heroic risen prince of life who was seen by others on earth before his ascension into heaven 8

One example is the comparison with Krishna Richard Carrier said:

almost all his sources on Krishna long postdate Christian-Nestorian influence on India. No pre-Christian texts on Krishna contain the details crucial to his case, apart from those few that were common among many gods everywhere. 9

Also the stories are not the same. It is claimed that “Krishna was crucified. Died for three days. And was resurrected.” However the Mahabharata, Book 16, 4 says:

“A fierce hunter of the name of Jara then came there, desirous of deer. The hunter, mistaking [Krishna], who was stretched on the earth in high Yoga, for a deer, pierced him at the heel with a shaft and quickly came to that spot for capturing his prey.” 

Analysis of assertion 2

This assertion seems suspect too. This would be a stronger claim if there were no accounts of Jesus until recently but that’s not the case as there are numerous accounts of Jesus within a short space of time after he dies.

1. The story of Jesus was already known too quickly for it to be a myth

A myth consisting of an amalgamation of other stories would not have been able to be created in such a short space of time. It is generally accepted that the following books were genuinely written by Paul:

  • Romans
  • 1 and 2 Corinthians
  • Galations
  • Philippians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Philemon

Within this list is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 says:

3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:

1 Corinthians is believed to have been written around 55 AD as Paul had visited the Corinthians earlier in 51 AD. The things he “received” from the apostles was the early creed that predates Paul’s conversion. The consensus is that Paul received the ​story from Peter and the apostles around 35 AD when he was with them in Jerusalem, just a few years after the death of Christ.

There are also numerous contemporary records of Jesus from Canonical books, Early Christian commentary/writings, Non-canonical books and Secular records

2. No-one raises this objection until much later

Also no one complained at the time. It’s easy now to look back and spot similarities. As Mikel Del Rosario said:

Interestingly, the earliest critics of Christianity never said Jesus’ story was ripped off from Hinduism. Right from the get-go, the Apostle Paul acknowledged that Gentiles found the idea of a crucified savior tough to accept (1 Corinthians 1:23), not like it was a common theme in pagan mythology. Even in the second century, the Greek Apologist Justin Martyr made a similar observation in Apology I: Skeptics said the idea of a crucified savior was absolutely crazy 10
 

Conclusion

The idea that Jesus was created from messianic myths has largely been abandoned. Of course some of the myths predate Christ and there are many similarities but they are so far stretched that this argument is not taken seriously.

Tryggve N. D. Mettinger said:

“There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The riddle remains.” 11

  1.  “Dying and Rising Gods”, volume 4, pages 521, 522 article by Jonathan Z. Smith, from The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade[]
  2. Quoted in Strobel, 160-61. [In his interview with Strobel, Michael Licona states that Mettinger takes exception to that nearly universal scholarship by claiming that there are at least three and possibly as many as five dying and rising gods that predate Christianity. However, after combing through all these accounts and critically analyzing them Mettinger adds that “none of these serve as parallels to Jesus.” Mettinger writes, “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.… The death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions.”][]
  3. Ryan Turner. 2009. Was the resurrection story of Jesus borrowed from pagan mythology?. [ONLINE] Available at: https://carm.org/was-resurrection-story-borrowed. [Accessed 20 April 2018].[]
  4. Richard Carrier. Kersey Graves and The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors (2003). [ONLINE] Available at: https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/graves.html. [Accessed 20 April 2018].[]
  5. W., C., 2017. The Sunset of Science and the Risen Son of Truth. AuthorHouse.[]
  6. H., S., 2016. A Sense of Presence: The Resurrection of Jesus in Context. Matador.[]
  7. T.N.D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East [2001], page 7, 40, 41[]
  8. Ryan Turner. 2009. Was the resurrection story of Jesus borrowed from pagan mythology?. [ONLINE] Available at: https://carm.org/was-resurrection-story-borrowed. [Accessed 20 April 2018].[]
  9.  Richard Carrier. Kersey Graves and The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors (2003). [ONLINE] Available at: https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/graves.html. [Accessed 20 April 2018].[]
  10. Mikel Del Rosario. 2018. Was Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Copied from Krishna?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://apologeticsguy.com/2016/11/jesus-christ-krishna/. [Accessed 20 April 2018].[]
  11. N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 2001), 221[]