Some skeptics claim that Christians copied their belief in Jesus' atoning death and resurrection from pagan mythology. They call various "dying gods", such as Balder and Osirus, "pagan christs" and allege that they are proof of Christian plagiarism. Did Jesus' early followers really try to "beef up" the image of their executed Master by creating a "Christos mythos" (Christ myth) derived from pagan mythology? Let's examine this theory.
What Hath Hislop Wrought?
Nineteenth-century atheists loved the notion of "pagan christs", since it seemed to refute Christianity's claim of divine origin and superiority over paganism. Ironically, however, one of the theory's most influential proponents at the time was a Christian: the Reverend Alexander Hislop. He was pastor of the East Free Church in Arbroath, Scotland, and the author of The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and his Wife, a deeply-flawed book which, unfortunately, remains in print today.
Unlike the anti-Christian skeptics, Hislop did not wish to disprove Christianity as a whole - only Catholicism (as is obvious from its subtitle). His strategy was to look for any "similarities", no matter how slim, between pagan myth and Catholic belief. Once he found something promising, he offered it as "proof" of his outrageous theory that Catholicism is actually the pagan religion of ancient Babylon masquerading as Christianity!
Oddly, however, he did not limit himself to pagan parallels of beliefs peculiar to Catholicism. Hislop claimed that pagan "triads" of deities were the real "trinity" worshipped by Catholics (a notion refuted in a previous article), that the Catholic "Jesus" was a thinly-disguised "dying god" named Tammuz (refuted below and in this article), and that the Dove in Catholic art is not a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but of the "goddess Semeramis"!
Now, all Christians believe in the biblical doctrines of the Trinity and the saving death of Christ, and many use a dove to symbolize the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Sacred Scripture records that the Holy Ghost appeared in this form at Our Lord's Baptism (Matthew 3:16). So Hislop's arguments, if true (they are not), would be damning to Christianity itself - and to the New Testament! Yet that has not kept some anti-Catholic Fundamentalists from na´vely reading, reprinting and selling The Two Babylons in their bookstores. It has also become the basis for many scurrilous anti-Catholic broadsides, most notably those of one Jack T. Chick.
Hislop himself did not seem to believe that his work in any way refuted the whole Christian faith. In his twisted view, Protestants worship the true Jesus and believe in the truths of the Bible, while Catholics "really" worship Babylonian gods and participate in ancient pagan rites, regardless of what they say or think, or whether their beliefs have any biblical parallels.
This illogical and ahistorical notion is still just a step away from discrediting all of Christianity. Indeed, some of the same arguments Hislop used have been used by anti-missionaries, Muslims, atheists and various other detractors in an attempt to disprove Christianity as a whole, not just Catholicism. His theory has even led to the formation of the Noachides, a movement of ex-Evangelicals who have renounced their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, abandoned Christianity as "pagan" and embraced a quasi-Jewish observance of the Noachide Laws.
It's easy to see how such a flawed theory could, if taken to its logical conclusion, ultimately lead to a rejection of Christ and Christianity. As Our Lord Himself said, "By their fruits you shall know them...every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit." (St. Matthew 7:16-17). The evil fruit of apostasy speaks volumes about Hislop's book
One Explanation: Myth becomes Reality
G.K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, countered the "pagan christs" hypothesis, which was very popular among intellectuals in their time, by arguing that Christians did not steal these ideas from paganism - rather the pagans derived them long ago from an ancient revelation from God!
You see, the Old Testament mentions certain "righteous Gentiles"; men not descended from Abraham who, nonetheless, sought and served the One True God. Enoch, Noah, Job, Jethro the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:16), and Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18:20) are all such men. Though he's not mentioned in Scripture, some think that Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, might also have been in this number, since many scholars believe he was a monotheist (though Zoroastrianism later became dualistic, it has recently returned to monotheism).
The One True God, the Creator of all peoples, revealed Himself to any sincere seeker with a heart open to Him, even if that person dwelt in a heathen land. Perhaps the Lord even revealed something of His plan of future redemption to these righteous Gentiles, so that they, like His Chosen People, could have faith in the coming Messiah. C. S. Lewis suggests that God may have sent them prophetic visions and "good dreams", in which they foresaw Christ's future birth from a Virgin, His Death and Resurrection. Maybe they then shared these wonderful revelations with others, who passed them on and on until these visions became part of the folklore of the people.
Of course, as stories get passed from generation to generation, they tend to change. So, over the centuries, God Incarnate mutated into a pagan "dying god", like Balder, and His human Mother was convoluted into a "mother goddess" like Frigga. As each generation told and retold the story, the details of Christ's death were gradually altered and became increasingly fantastic, until each pagan mythology finally possessed a different version of a "dying god" legend. When Christ finally came, it was as though the "dying god" myths of paganism suddenly became Reality. The long-awaited Event at the core of these myths finally occurred; God became Man to redeem us, fulfilling both the Messianic prophecies of Scripture and the "good dreams" of righteous Gentiles.
Could this explain the alleged similarities between pagan "dying god" myths and the Christian doctrine of Jesus' atoning death? Such righteous Gentiles did indeed exist, and God could certainly have revealed His plan to them, which they may have passed on to others. However, as we shall see, the "pagan christs" charge which Chesterton and Lewis tried to answer was largely inaccurate in the first place.
The first problem with the "pagan christs" hypothesis is that it is based on an outmoded theory of the history of religions. The following quote from the article Was Jesus Christ just a CopyCat Savior Myth? illustrates this:
If one looks at the 'skeptical' literature on the subject, the citations and sources used are generally a century old (!) or more recent 'popular literature' (based on those out-of-date resources) that is NEVER cited in the scholarly works of the past twenty years.The author then goes on to quote Mircea Eliade, an expert on traditional religions, who says, "The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts" ("Dying and Rising Gods" The Encyclopedia of Religion [Macmillian: 1987]).
Just for example, the abysmal piece on "Origins of Christianity" cited by some who come through the ThinkTank--besides being riddled with gross errors of fact and method--does not cite a SINGLE scholarly work dealing with primary materials, and its main supports are from works hopelessly out of date (e.g. Joseph Wheless, Kersey Graves, Albert Churchward, Gerald Massey, Robert Taylor). The few recent works cited in the piece either (1) do not even TRY to defend/document their assertions(!)--e.g. Lloyd Graham's Myths and Deceptions of the Bible; or (2) mix such non-documented assertions with statements supported only by secondary materials--e.g. Barbara Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. [I have been told by a prominent skeptic on the web that these works are considered 'embarrassments' to their cause.]
So more current research has largely discredited the theory, so dear to skeptics, that pagans worshipped "dying and rising gods".
Critique of the "Copycat Hypothesis"
Why have modern scholars abandoned this notion? In part because there is no evidence of any pagan god who dies and then rises from the dead!
Take for instance, the myth of Osirus. He does indeed die - he is killed by his treacherous brother, Seth - but he never rises from the dead, triumphant over death never to die again. His wife, Isis, regathers most of his dismembered corpse, but it never "reconstitutes" or comes alive again. Instead, he goes to the underworld, where he becomes judge of all who seek to enter the afterlife. There is no true resurrection in the myth of Osirus.
The same is true of Attis, Adonis, Mithra, Tammuz and Balder; they all die, but the myths do not present them as returning to life again. So one could hardly call them "dying and rising gods"! There is no real precident for the Resurrection of Christ in pagan mythology.
We should also note that the fact that the death of these divinities is nothing unusual. We are so used to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic idea of an eternal God, Whom death cannot touch, that we sometimes forget that pagans did not believe that their gods were innately immortal. Their lives often had to be sustained, perhaps by eating a substance which gave them immortality (such as ambrosia), but they could still potentially be killed under particular circumstances.
So the even the deaths of these gods did not necessarily have some deeper meaning, involving some grand sacrifice for the world. They were simply part of the tragic epic of their lives; cruel twists of "Fate", to which pagans believed all are subject, both men and gods.
Contrast this with the death of Christ. First of all, He does not die as God, but as Man. He is immortal in His Deity, and therefore must assume a human nature in order to partake of our mortality (the pagan dying gods do not become man). Second, His death is a sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. None of the "dying gods" were ever said to have died for sins, or for anyone else, for that matter. Third, His Crucifixion was part of a greater Divine Plan, not merely a cruel fate.
Critics of the "pagan christs" hypothesis point out many other differences as well. Jesus' death is an historical fact, while the "dying gods" are just myths with no historical basis. The Lord laid down His life willingly, while the "dying gods" were all slaughtered against their will. And the Crucifixion was a paradoxical triumph, not a defeat like the deaths of the pagan gods. The cult of Tammuz, for instance, was primarily a funeral rite for the god, mourning his fate with no sense of victory in his passing. Contrast that with the strong Christian emphasis on the Resurrection, and the rejoicing of the Paschal Season!
So the surface similarities between Jesus and certain "dying gods" actually mask much deeper differences. When one considers these profound differences, it becomes hard to see how Jesus' sacrificial death for sin could have been copied from paganism.
Christ's salvific death is the central theme of the New Testament, which was mainly written by Christians of Jewish descent. Why would early Jewish believers in Jesus portray His death in terms of pagan mythology? Why would St. Paul, who taught that pagan gods are really demons (I Corinthians 10:18-21) portray Christ in terms of a pagan god? "And what concord hath Christ with Belial? ... And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?" (2 Corinthians 6:15-16). The very notion is strange and incongruent; it makes no sense whatsoever.
So this hypothesis simply falls apart under scrutiny. There are no "pagan christs". Our Lord's historical, vicarious, triumphant and sin-cleansing sacrifice on the Cross is far removed from pagan tales of the senseless killing of certain gods, and His physical Resurrection from the dead has absolutely no parallel in ancient myth. Early Christians did not recycle secondhand pagan legends, rather they proclaimed the divinely-revealed truth about the victory of the Messiah over sin and death. He is the One we Catholics have always worshipped and always will worship, not "Tammuz". Sorry, Hislop!
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