ancient-myths

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.

Problems:

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.

Osiris, whose body was cut into 14 pieces, is put back together by Isis (with one missing piece). He then becomes god of the netherworld. This relates to the Christ story how?
Attis’ and Adonis’ “resurrection” stories do not appear until a hundred years after Christ. Heck, it might be better to say that these stories copied from Christianity!
On and on we could go. What we end up finding is that the so-called parallel stories are either not parallel at all, or they post-date Christianity.

3. Even if there are parallels, they does not weaken the evidence for Christ’s Resurrection

Let us grant the parallels for a moment. Let us say that there are many ancient myths that pre-date Christianity and provide striking parallels. My response is, “so what?” My belief in Christ is not based on the uniqueness of his story. Even Justin Martyr argued this way in the early Church. He actually expected Satan to attempt to counterfeit Christianity. But this does not deal with the historic evidence for the resurrection of Christ.
We do not believe in Christ because he presents the most unique story we have ever heard. Uniqueness is not evidence for truth. We believe it because it is a historic event that is falsifiable. There are times, dates, people, multiple early attestations, and all the historic markers we would want and expect if the Resurrection of Christ were true and intellectually binding. All these “parallel” stories have none of these characteristics, as the history is late and vague. They are myths and fall into the myth genre, not because we simply want that label on them, but because they have no historic verification.
[Tweet “We do not believe Christ because he presents the most unique story, we believe because he is historic.”]

How to Respond to this Theory

 Here is how I encourage Christians to respond to this objection to the resurrection:
1. Let those who make such claims know that the mystery religions do nothing to discredit the historic evidence of Jesus. This may avoid endless time-consuming debates.
2. Then ask them to give specific evidence for their claims. Do not let anyone get away with broad statements that have no backing. Ask this person which myth they think relates to the Resurrection and have them read the text with you. Make sure you discuss the date of the text as well. I guarantee that nine times out of ten, the person will reveal that he has not ever actually read the myth stories for himself. Remember, we have our historic evidence. The burden is on the one who claims the parallel to put forward theirs.
3. Get the Credo course by Gary Habermas (The Historicity of the Resurrection) to prepare for these objections. He has many class session that deal with these so-called parallels.
In all of this, do not take my word for it. Get your hands dirty and do some research. It does not take much for this issue.
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C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.

Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    2 replies to "Was the Resurrection Story Borrowed from Ancient Myths (Alternative Theory #4)"

    • JTapp

      I recently read Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus where he also has a chapter interviewing Edwin Yamauchi on Mithras and more ancient myths the Gospel authors are alleged to have “borrowed.” Some of his comments and reference son the matter are included on the top of this page: http://www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/yama.html

    • robin

      C.S. Lewis mentions these similarities as “good dreams” that God gave to the Gentiles to point them to the eventual truth of the Resurrection.

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