What is the Contention?
Contention: The story of Christ’s resurrection was actually borrowed from ancient mythology that predated it by many years. While these myths eventually died out, for some reason the Christ story was able to survive. Why should anyone give special pleading to Christianity? As Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy put it:
“Why should we consider the stories of Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, Mithras, and other Pagan Mystery saviors as fables, yet come across essentially the same story told in a Jewish context and believe it to be the biography of a carpenter from Bethlehem?” (The Jesus Mysteries).
For me, this myth about the Resurrection of Christ is the most disturbing. My negative feelings toward it do not come from its viability, but from two things: 1) it provides an incredibly effective sound bite that can quickly bring about severe doubt in believers who have never examined the claim, even though 2) it is about the most easily dismissible fable concerning the Resurrection of Christ.
I ran into a distraught Christian the other day who told me her faith was in a tailspin due to this tale. She simply did not know how to respond, and felt like her faith was losing is grounding. Many “Internet atheists” love this argument. I don’t know whether they have ever looked into it themselves (I have to believe they have not), but it is blindly and irresponsibly replicated in blogs, videos, and atheistic evangelism (yes, there is such a thing!) slogans.
1. It is rejected by the scholarly world
Most people don’t realize that this theory was first presented in the late 19th century. It gained some traction, as it was the “new kid on the block” for dismissing the Resurrection of Christ in favor of a naturalistic worldview. However, the scholarly world (conservative and liberal alike) dropped it in the early twentieth century, and now considers it a non-issue.
As Mettinger writes in The Riddle of the Resurrection,
“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.” (221)
Again, it has been “resurrected” of late by the quick and easy proliferation that media outlets and the Internet provide. Normally, the “special pleading” is required by the atheist who either has never studied this subject in any depth and/or does not want you to.
Now, of course, its general rejection in the world of scholarship does not mean that one should dismiss it, but it does give one pause as to why, with no recent discoveries of new evidence, this theory is showing is face once again.
2. The evidence does not support it
The primary reason why we can reject the idea that Christianity borrowed from ancient mystery religions is that, upon examination, the parallels simply are not there. Of course there is always some borrowing from the culture of the day for liturgical or cultural reasons, but when it comes to the key doctrines of Christianity–especially the death, burial, and Resurrection of Christ—the so-called parallels are not very striking.
For example, Mithra is said to be a figure that was born of a virgin and was resurrected from the dead. However, the truth is that he was born of a rock (maybe the rock was a virgin?) and there is no record of his death, much less resurrection.
Baal is said to be a parallel figure. However, this is an incredible stretch. Baal, the god of thunder and rain, was taunted by his brother Mot, the god of the underworld, to come fight him. When Baal finally conceded, he was trapped by Mot, but later released to produce the rain again. This in no way parallels the claims of Christianity.