Jesus Christ and Pagan Parallels
Born of a virgin
Hailed as God and man
Surrounded by 12 Disciples
Performed miraculous deeds
Internet sites abound with alleged similarities between the events of the New Testament narrative, in particular the person and work of Jesus Christ, and ancient mythological accounts of gods. Horus, Osiris, Dionysius, Mithra: all allegedly share in characteristics which Christians uniquely attribute to Christ. What are we to make of these parallels?
People love conspiracy theories. From JFK to the moon landing, we all want insider knowledge of secret schemes that go all the way to the top of some clandestine organization. “Christians overlooked books that should have been in the Bible.” “Jesus secretly married Mary Magdalene.” Nowhere is this more evident than in claims that the early Church simply borrowed legends and myths from surrounding religions.
It is a juicy and salacious tale undercutting the very foundations of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, for the conspiracy theorists, such theories are a mile wide and an inch deep. Rather than substantial, they are shallow and superficial attempts to confuse and mislead in an area in which few are personally informed. “A friend of a friend of a friend told me about this website that makes this claim.” But there is a vast difference between reciting “facts” and actually researching such claims.
Here are a couple of examples of such distortions of the actual evidence:
The internet is a abuzz each December as Christians celebrate the incarnation and skeptics sharpen their swords with lethal intent to demythologize the birth of Christ. “Christianity is just one in a long line of legends of virgins giving birth.” Surely, it is only our ignorance of history that has shackled us to such a silly and nonsensical superstition.
While, it is certainly true that a few myths and religions spoke of something which has been described as a “virgin birth,” examination of the source texts reveal that such terminology is misleading and irresponsible. Those accounts are decidedly sexual in nature with a male deity procreating with a female (an actual virgin or not in some cases) in order to produce a son. In other words, a male god is engaging in physical sex with a female woman. Not to be too scientific, but if a male (deity or not) has sex with a female, then it is not a virgin birth because she is no longer a virgin. To call this a “virgin birth” is absurd. To further draw a parallel with the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth is an irresponsible and inaccurate representation of the Christian belief.
For the Christian understanding of the virgin birth, read in particular Luke 1:34-35. God did not sexually interact with Mary. The pagan pictures of “virgin birth” are extremely dissimilar to the biblical account of the conception of Christ in which the power of the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” Mary.
The parallel is weak and unconvincing.
What of the many other mythical accounts of dying and rising gods? Analysis reveals that this too is hardly analogous to the Christian doctrine of resurrection. Those “gods” rose again each year as part of the agricultural cycle—not as a watershed moment in history. It is the historical account of resurrection that sets the Christian claim apart and it is the central question which must be answered. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is false (1 Corinthians 15) and should be discarded as such. But if He did rise, this reality has profound implications for us and our lives.
The reality of the resurrection best accounts for the objective data that we have. We know for a historical fact that the early church professed the resurrection (i.e. it was not invented some years later). We know for a historical fact that the disciples were willing to lay down their lives for that message (i.e. this makes it extremely unlikely that they stole the body). No body of Christ ever surfaced. Why not? Did the Romans or Jews steal it? That is extremely illogical since it would have only intensified the claims of Christianity. Was it a random grave robber? We have absolutely no evidence for that. Though it might grate against man’s rational desire for natural explanations, the resurrection simply best explains what we know to be historically true. Denial of the resurrection demands great faith in speculative answers to the questions which are raised by the historical data of the first century.
[For an in-depth analysis of the absolute uniqueness of the biblical account of resurrection, set aside a large portion of time to begin to work through N.T. Wright’s mammoth The Resurrection of the Son of God. Wright looks at pagan accounts in particular and analyzes the claim that Christianity merely borrowed the concept of resurrection from surrounding cultures. Wright evidences that the Christian conception of resurrection was totally dissimilar to the expectations of the Ancient Near Eastern culture of that time or previous. There is a marked contrast between the hope of Christian resurrection and the pagan desire for life after death.]
The following summarizes the resurrection “parallels” quite nicely, “It is superficial and unfounded to say that the study of the history of religions has shown the dependence of the resurrection of Jesus on mythology. On the contrary, it is precisely the comparison with the history of religion that gives rise to the strongest objections to any kind of mythifying of the resurrection of Jesus.” (Walter Kunneth, as quoted in “Reinventing Jesus”)
When one examines the claims of pagan parallels, one finds that such comparisons are incredibly shallow. Ultimately, it is not the similarities that are incredible; it is the depth of dissimilarity. The uniqueness of the biblical portrait of Jesus is astounding.
The Existence of Parallels
Though the parallels are weak, the fact that there are similarities still should be considered. We will limit our consideration to similarities pointed out within the text of the Old Testament (for the sake of time as I have posted a few resources which deal more specifically with claims of parallels in the New Testament).
First, I think it is important to consider that many parallels are intentional devices on the part of the authors of Scripture to show YHWH’s superiority over, not similarity to, pagan gods. Biblical studies have shown indeed that the language of the Scriptures often alludes to surrounding myths in taking a polemical posture against those religions and their idols. The Scriptures were not given from within a vacuum devoid of context. In speaking against Baalism in early Israel, it is only fitting that the authors of the Scriptures use language that parallels and supersedes that which was used by proponents of Canaanite paganism. The Bible is full of such intentional engagement with false teachings. For example, many believe that Psalm 29 is intentionally aimed at displaying the superiority of YHWH to Baal. YHWH’s voice is highlighted (7 times in the 11 verses) and is described as a thunderstorm to evidence His great power. This is particularly enlightening when one considers that Baal was considered the “storm-god” whose “voice” was heard in storms. In using the same language and imagery of the pagan god, David is here elevating the voice (7 being a number of completion or perfection in Hebrew culture) and power of YHWH over that of Baal. Rather than simply borrowing from ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) myths, the Scriptures are using similarities as inroads to consider the superiority of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the “gods” of the culture (similar to how Paul will use cultural inroads and accommodate his language without compromising the message in passages like his famous speech at Mars Hill in Acts 17).
Second, I think that in many cases parallels actually strengthen the case for the biblical account. For instance, the vast distribution of pagan flood accounts in the ANE should not lead us to conclude that there was no flood, but rather that something actually happened. If one were investigating a murder and witness “A” claimed to hear an explosion late at night, witness “B” testified to fireworks sometime after 11:30, witness “C” argued for a backfiring car about 12:05, and witness “D” described a gunshot at 11:58, you would not conclude that they were all colluding or lying. Only a foolish detective would consider the contrasting accounts to be necessarily contradictory. They instead carry the common theme of a loud noise sometime around midnight. Even more foolish would be to assume that nothing actually happened. Further investigation of the evidence would highlight whether indeed there was a gunshot wound and approximate time of death. Likewise, similar accounts in regards to the flood should lead us to conclude something of the sort and then begin to examine which account is most likely on the basis of other substantiating information.
What are we ultimately to make of the existence of some parallels? If the biblical account is true, then man and demons are rebellious resisters of the revelation of God. If so, is it not extremely likely that both would seek to corrupt the account by reinterpreting actual events? Pagan parallels do not disprove Christianity any more than a witness who swears that he heard a car backfire disproves a murder.
Recommended Resources for Further Study:
Reinventing Jesus - Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace (in particular, read chapters 16-18 which deal with issues of alleged parallels)
Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology – Niehaus
Dethroning Jesus – Bock and Wallace