Why Jesus’ Resurrection Is Not Borrowed from Pagan Myths

Skeptics will argue that Jesus’ resurrection is just one more instance of the dying-and-rising-god motif prevalent in the religions of the ancient Near East. The Scottish social anthropologist James Frazer popularized this motif in his 1890 book The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion. The idea continued in modern skeptic circles, as the popular film Zeitgeist has shown.

Skeptics like to parallel Jesus’ resurrection with pagan deities such as the Egyptian gods Osiris and Horus, as well as the Greek gods Attis and Adonis. But are these parallels accurate? Do these claims undermine the Christian story of Jesus’ resurrection, making our Christian faith in vain? Here are four responses that show why these claims don’t prove our belief in the resurrection to be in vain.

Response 1: The objection disregards the evidence that supports the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection

Multiple eyewitnesses and close associates of eyewitnesses report Jesus’ resurrection (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, the women, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp). Paul’s creedal formula—“Christ died . . . was buried . . . and rose on the third day" (1 Cor. 15:3-5)—dates to within six years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, thus satisfying the early testimony criterion. Paul maintains that this saying was a part of the apostolic preaching (1 Cor. 15:11), and therefore it is probable that he received it in A.D. 36 when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion in A.D. 33 (Gal. 1:18-19). If he received it at that time, then that means the saying must have been formulated prior to that, thus dating it to within five years after Jesus’ death (A.D. 30).

The historicity of Jesus’ resurrection also stands out when one considers how the alternative naturalistic explanations (e.g. Conspiracy Theory, Hallucination Theory, Legend Theory, etc.) fail in accounting for the historical details that make up the resurrection narratives. For the pagan dying-and-rising-god motif to be a plausible explanation, a skeptic would have to undermine the historicity of the details in the resurrection narratives—a project that will not succeed in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.

Response 2: Pagans generally didn’t believe in resurrection

In her essay “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Stories," Christian apologist Mary Jo Sharp writes, “In the ancient pagan world, death was a one-way street" (Come Let us Reason). St. Athanasius (A.D. 296-373) points this out in his work On the Incarnation:

For although the Greeks have told all manner of false tales, yet they were not able to feign a resurrection of their idols— for it never crossed their mind, whether it be at all possible for the body again to exist after death.

This is confirmed in Acts 17 when the Athenians mock Paul for his preaching about Christ’s resurrection (32). Greek literature even contains passages mocking the idea of bringing someone back from the dead. In the Iliad, after Achilles kills Priam’s son Hector, Achilles taunts the grief-stricken father, saying Priam won’t be able to bring his son back.

How could the early Christians have copied from Greek mythology when the Christian idea of a bodily resurrection was foreign to the Greek worldview?

A skeptic may answer, “Perhaps resurrection was foreign to the Greeks, but not to the Egyptians. Both Osiris and Horus died and rose again. Maybe the Christians copied from Egyptian mythology." This leads us to our third response.

Response 3: Parallels between the story of the rising Jesus and the stories of rising pagan deities are false

Take as an example the most common alleged parallel, namely, that of the Egyptian god Osiris. Scholars are quick to point out that in Egyptian mythology Osiris never really rose from the dead: he reigned as king of the underworld. As the Egyptologist Henri Frankfort explains in his book Kingship and the Gods, “Osiris…was not a dying god at all but a dead god. He never returned among the living."

This is why the Book of the Dead has a prayer the Egyptian believer prayed to Osiris requesting a permanent place in the afterlife: “Grant thou [Osiris] to me a place in the nether-world, near the lords of right and truth, my estate may it be permanent in Sekhet-hetep."

How can there be a parallel between Jesus and Osiris’s experience of life after death if Osiris never came back to this life?

The Egyptian god Horus is said to have been stung by a scorpion and then revived by his mother Isis she performed magical spells given to her by the god Thoth. But it is disputed as to whether the mythology says Horus actually died.

If he didn’t die and only became ill, then obviously there is no parallel with Jesus. But if he did die, then the death and raising of Horus would still be very different in every other detail from the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Since the suggested parallels are so weak, there is no reason to think the early Christians borrowed the Egyptian dying-and-rising deities to construct their story about Jesus.

The same applies to parallels proposed outside of Egyptian mythology. For example, after dying, the spirit of the Phrygian vegetation god Attis entered a pine tree. That’s hardly a resurrection.

Response 4: Christians had no need to borrow the concept of resurrection from paganism since they already had it in Judaism

Unlike the pagans, the Jews of the first-century believed in a resurrection. Martha reassures Jesus of her belief that her brother Lazarus will “rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (John 11:24). This is no surprise given that the Jewish prophets foretold it (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2), and her Jewish ancestors believed it (2 Macc. 7:23).

If the Jews believed in the concept of resurrection—the Sadducees being an exception (Acts 23:8)—then why would the Christians need to go outside their Jewish culture to borrow the concept of resurrection when such a concept was already a part of it? The appeal to an outside source would be unnecessary.

The question is not “where did the early Christians get the idea of a rising deity?" but given their Jewish culture the question is “where did they get the idea of an individual rising before the general resurrection at the end of time?" We should also ask why the early Christians believed in a resurrected Messiah. As N.T. Wright explains in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, that these beliefs were not part of Jewish theology in the first-century. The only adequate explanation of these facts is Jesus’ resurrection.

Christianity is not a copycat religion. The “dying-and-rising-god" objection doesn’t discredit the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Although, by itself, this doesn’t show Jesus was raised, it does show that Christianity’s central claim is not taken from pagan myth.


By Karlo Broussard













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5 comments

  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Personally, I think Jesus was a mythical, celestial being who never lived on earth; and although there are some connections with pagan gods, I don’t think Jesus was specifically borrowed from pagan myths, but more likely from Jewish myths. However the author’s points are pretty weak:

    1. No gospel writer, or any of the other writers mentioned, claims to have personal eyewitness knowledge. Paul knows nothing of a physical crucifixion. His evidence is all from his personal visions and from scriptures (and those scriptures probably include texts not found in the bible today. There were many such “scriptures” at that time). The author quoted this passage. Note that Paul does not claim personal or even hearsay knowledge – only scripture and visions:
    .
    3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve.
    .
    Note as well, that Paul knows nothing of Jesus’ birth, family, baptism, disciples, ministry, miracles, or sermons. All he knows is the crucifixion and this appears to be a celestial event for Paul. Something that occurred in the firmament.
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    2. “This is confirmed in Acts 17 when the Athenians mock Paul for his preaching about Christ’s resurrection (32).” So Paul and other apostles are preaching on the streets about a risen Jesus, a convicted criminal who was supposed to have been executed. Why is Pilate not hauling the apostles in for interrogation? It is inconceivable that Pilate, one of the most vicious of rulers would have allowed his authority to be challenged by letting a prisoner escape his capital execution. There are even apostles hauled into court for other things in Acts, but not once is anyone asked about the empty tomb. That’s surely because there was no empty tomb.
    .

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    For some reason I can no longer post responses beyond a certain length…
    .
    3. I agree, given I think the Jesus myth grew more out of Jewish scriptures – including scriptures not included in the bible.
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    4. Exactly – there is enough in the Jewish scriptures to support the myth of a rising god; but that’s all it is. There was no earthquake recorded at that time, no eclipse, and certainly no reports of dead people coming out of graves and walking around. The gospels are written in the language of mythology, not history.

  3. Peter Aiello Reply

    The idea that because two cultures have similar stories, then one had to borrow from the other, does not necessarily follow because they each may have the story because of their own separate experiences.

  4. Matt Reply

    Jesus did rise from the dead and He will return and take His people to Heaven to be with Him and the Father

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