(Due to questions I’ve received about supposed virgin-born, crucified saviors in other religions, I’ve reposted an edited version of an article I wrote for Apologetics Press last year.)
Today the church finds itself bombarded with all kinds of criticism. One of these is the notion that Christianity owes its origins to pagan religions. One particularly troubling issue for some Christians is the massive amount of misinformation circulating on the Internet concerning the various “crucified saviors” of the world. Jesus is claimed to be no different than dozens of other saviors who were crucified for the sins of mankind, and later resurrected. If this were true, then Jesus would be merely a Johnny-come-lately to the religious scene, no different and no more authoritative than Zeus, Odin, or Thor.
The nineteenth century saw the rise of comparative religion, which sought to analyze and discover the connections between various world religions. This approach had significant problems. Critics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were guilty of glossing over important differences for the sake of making connections between different religious traditions, including Christianity. Usually these connections were highly dubious in nature, and it took less than a century for the approach to be abandoned. While it can be shown that some ancient pagan religions migrated, developed, and influenced others over time, Christianity is a different matter altogether.
The specter of comparative religions has risen again. Some modern writers can be quite adamant that Christianity plagiarized ancient mythology when constructing the Bible and its supposed mythological traditional about Jesus. This idea is found in documentaries such as Bill Maher’s Religulous, Brian Flemming’s The God Who Wasn’t There, and Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist, the Movie. It appears frequently in publications as well, such as Dorothy M. Murdock’s The Sons of God, The Christ Conspiracy, and Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection. All of these promote the idea of the “mythic Christ.”
Where did the idea of the mythic Christ originate? Much of it began in the writings of two amateur Egyptologists named Godfrey Higgins (1772-1833) and Gerald Massey (1829-1907). Both wrote extensively on the idea of the mythic Christ. They claimed one parallel after another between the Bible and pagan mythology, making it appear as if the biblical writers borrowed biblical stories wholesale from ancient tales. Virtually all scholars today recognize that this approach as fundamentally flawed because of the underlying assumptions involved. For nearly all of the supposed parallels these two men discovered, no genetic connection exists between the Bible and the myths these two men examined.
Both Higgins and Massey were self-taught religious enthusiasts, which generally holds true for proponents of the Christ myth theory. Dorothy Murdock, also known as Acharya S, laments that these supposed intellectual titans have been forgotten. She heaps effusive praise upon Massey in particular (pp. 13-26), calling him a “pioneer.” Neither Massey nor Higgins is remembered in scholarship today because neither made any significant contributions that added to our knowledge of religious beliefs in antiquity. Subsequent scholarship has discredited most of their ideas. Consequently, they are virtually unknown in modern Egyptology.
The work of Higgins and Massey was picked up and continued most famously by Kersey Graves, who authored the book The Sixteen Crucified Saviors of the World. This antiquated book is still standard reading for militant atheists. Unfortunately, Graves’ fans do not appear to realize that his book was based on the work of our two error-prone amateurs. To make matters worse, Graves did not appear to consult the original myths himself. It appears that he may have even falsified some of his work. In all of the cases of his “crucified saviors,” none were actually crucified, and none of them died salvific deaths. Indeed, some of them never died at all.
The chart below gives the names of the gods that Graves and others traditionally claim were crucified saviors. The problems become apparent rather quickly:
|Adonis||Adonis dies when he is gored by a bull (Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 10).|
|Attis||In a moment of madness, Attis commits suicide by emasculating himself (Ovid, Fasti Book 4). In another version he is killed by a boar (Pausanias, Description of Greece Book 7).|
|Baal||The text is unclear due to a gap in the text, but Baal’s death is announced to El, the head of the pantheon. Baal later reappears from the underworld. (The Ba’al Cycle).|
|Bacchus/Dionysus||As an infant, Dionysus (Bacchus is his Roman name) is attacked by the Titans, who devour almost all of his body. They leave only his heart behind. He is later reincarnated (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica Book 4; Clement, Exhortation to the Greeks Book 2).|
|Balder||In the Norse myths, Balder is invincible to all known objects, except for mistletoe. One of the gods’ pastimes is throwing objects at Balder, who cannot be harmed. Loki crafts a magical spear from this plant and tricks the god Hodur into throwing it at Balder, killing him (Snorri Sturluson, Poetic Edda). In another story he is killed with a magic sword (Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum).|
|Beddru||Supposedly a Japanese figure. Either Graves had a bad source or he simply invented the name, as no figure with this name exists in Far Eastern literature. It may be that he meant to say “Beddou,” who is a Japanese figure some have equated with the Buddha. Regardless, there is no record of the crucifixion of this individual, if he even existed.|
|Devatat||This is uncertain, but appears to be the name of the Buddha in some places in the Far East. The literature states that the Buddha died at 80 of a natural illness, though some suggest poisoning. Regardless, the Buddha dies after becoming ill following a meal (Mahaparinibbana Sutta).|
|Hercules||Hercules dies when he is burned on a funeral pyre and taken up to live among the gods (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca Book 2)|
|Hermes||Hermes never dies in the Greek myths.|
|Horus||Horus never dies in the Egyptian myths.|
|Krishna||Krishna is mortally wounded when a hunter accidentally shoots him in the heel with an arrow (Mahabharata).|
|Mithras||Mithras does not die in the Persian myths.|
|Orpheus||In one account, Orpheus is torn apart by Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus (Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 11). In other accounts he either commits suicide (Pausanias, Description of Greece) or is struck by one of Zeus’ lightning bolts (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers).|
|Osiris||Osiris is killed when his brother Seth drowns him in the Nile. Seth later recovers the body and dismembers it (Plutarch, Moralia; Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica Book 1)|
|Tammuz||Originally called Dumuzi by the Sumerians, Tammuz is taken to the underworld when his lover, Inanna, is given a deal where she can be released if she finds a substitute. She is enraged that Tammuz is not mourning her death, so she chooses him to take her place in the realm of the dead. There is no mention of crucifixion (several Sumerian compositions, including: “Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld,” “Dumuzi’s Dream,” and “Dumuzi and the galla”).|
|Thor||Thor dies in Ragnarök, the final battle that will end the world, when he is bitten by Jörmungand, the Midgard Serpent. His sons inherit his hammer Mjölnir after his death.|
|Zoroaster||Zoroaster was murdered while at an altar (Ferdowsi, Shahnameh).|
Upon even a cursory inspection, it becomes clear that none of the so-called “crucified saviors” were actually crucified. Indeed, none of them are saviors. Worse yet, none of them resurrected from a tomb. A few of the divine figures on the list were revived (or deified), but in a far different manner than the Christian concept of resurrection. In short, this list consists purely of non-crucified non-saviors. Why are these connections made if they never truly existed? In short, it is due to careless research and preconceived biases that are immune to evidence.
While the idea of the pagan or mythic Christ draws from a variety of ancient mythologies, it is heavily influenced by Egyptian mythology, perhaps because the early proponents of this theory worked primarily with myths from Egypt. They also made connections based on poorly interpreted evidence. Some examples of the typical connections include the following from Gerald Massey’s book Historical Jesus and the Mythical Christ:
- Jesus’ casts a group of demons calling themselves “Legion” into a group of pigs, which is equated with a story in which Horus turns someone into a pig (p. 62-63).
- Jesus and Horus are claimed to have each had two mothers – two Marys for Jesus, and the goddesses Isis and Nephthys for Horus (p. 118).
- Herod the Great, despite being a well-known figure to historians, is equated with Herrut, the Typhonian Serpent (p. 95).
In their book Unmasking the Pagan Christ, Porter and Bedard summarize Massey’s position this way:
[H]is conclusions rely on exaggerations and forced parallels that too often used later interpretations of the Gospels, rather than the primary texts themselves. To make matters worse, Massey cites numerous parallels without any indication of the original references in the Egyptian texts. Massey also begins the practice…of describing Egyptian myths with biblical language in an attempt to find a causal link (Porter and Bedard 2006, p. 30).
If the idea of a “crucified savior” had been as common as the critics allege, then it wouldn’t have been included among the criticisms leveled against the early Christians. The apostle Paul stated that the cross was a stumbling block to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23), which would have been quite strange if the Greeks recognized any of the so-called “crucified saviors” mentioned by Graves and others. Justin Martyr admitted that preaching a crucified Christ appeared to be madness: “[The opponents of the church] say that our madness lies in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place to the unchangeable and eternal God, the creator of the world” (Apology I 13.4). If everyone had crucified gods, then they wouldn’t have criticized the Christians for having one, too.
The picture that quickly emerges when looking at the original sources is one of exceedingly poor research on the part of the critics. It is one thing to make an honest mistake, but their litany of errors is academically unacceptable. At times, even other skeptics and atheists chide their fellow unbelievers for their careless work. Writing a review of Zeitgeist, the Movie in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, leading skeptic Tim Callahan is highly critical of the “sloppy assumptions” in the documentary, concluding, “Zeitgeist is The Da Vinci Code on steroids” (Callahan, 2009, p. 67).
Some of this sloppy work includes failing to cite sources properly. Graves wasn’t the only one guilty of failing to cite his sources or inventing material out of whole cloth. Of the critics in the 19th and early 20th century who promoted the Christ myth theory, apologist J. P. Holding says, “Kersey Graves … assures the reader that he has before him plenty of original documentation for his claims of crucifixion parallels, but … doesn’t have room to include any. And this is the rule, not the exception. Lundy, Higgins, Inman, Graves, Doane, etc., they all claim they have read or heard this or that, but none of them can site [sic] a single source document” (Holding 2008, 376; ital. in orig.)
Because of its manifold problems, the idea of the mythic Christ is difficult even for many atheists to swallow. On the anti-Christian website Infidels.org, historian and atheist Richard Carrier lists ten major problems with Graves’ work, the last of which is that “Graves’ scholarship is obsolete, having been vastly improved upon by new methods, materials, discoveries, and textual criticism in the century since he worked” (Carrier, 2003). Scholars see Graves’ work as worthless. Critics find it absolutely indispensible, perhaps because there are no scholarly treatments that agree with their presuppositions.
The Christ myth theory has not been answered by many scholars, simply because they choose not to waste their time debunking fringe theories. Academicians are usually preoccupied with teaching and research, with a few of them engaged in archaeology and other academic pursuits. This leaves little time for answering the preposterous claims of the “Christ mythers.” (In personal emails to three leading New Testament scholars, each noted that the Christ myth theory holds no place of respect in modern scholarship. Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary said, “this whole discussion is considered beyond the pale and beyond belief, even with liberals.” When asked whether the paucity of scholarly material on the pagan Christ was because scholars don’t waste their time on “crackpot theories,” Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary said, “I think you have got the reason you cannot find stuff.” Thomas Schreiner of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary confessed, “I do not know anything about this issue…I am tempted to think it is the lunatic fringe.” The issue is so intellectually bankrupt that liberal scholarship does not endorse it, and other scholars may not be familiar with it even.)
Critics will always “discover” parallels between Christianity and pagan religions in the attempt to make believers look foolish. Ironically, this quest only demonstrates their academic shortcomings. Time and time again Christianity demonstrates it uniqueness among the world religions. It is the hallmark of truth for a world in desperate need of history’s one and only crucified Savior.
Callahan, Tim (2009), “Greatest Story Ever Garbled: A Critique of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”—Part I of the Internet Film Zeitgeist. Skeptic (vol. 15, no. 1): 61-67.
Carrier, Richard (2003), Kersey Graves and the World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors.” [Online] URL: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/graves.html.
Graves, Kersey (1919), The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors or Christianity Before Christ, sixth ed. New York, NY: Peter Eckler Publishing Company.
Holding, James Patrick (2008), Shattering the Christ Myth: Did Jesus Not Exist? Maitland, FL: Xulon Press.
Massey, Gerald (1996), Historical Jesus and the Mythical Christ or Natural Genesis and Typology of Equinoctial Christolotry. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.
Murdock, Dorothy M. (2009), Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection. Seattle, WA: Stellar House Publishing.
Porter, Stanley E. and Stephen J. Bedard (2006), Unmasking the Pagan Christ. Toronto, ON: Clements Publishing.