Top 5 Resurrection Myths – #3: The Resurrection Was Borrowed from Ancient Myths

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) tt 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.

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.
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.

29 Responses to “Top 5 Resurrection Myths – #3: The Resurrection Was Borrowed from Ancient Myths”

  1. If Justin Martyr acknowledged the existence of parallels to paganism in the 2nd century, I would think that pretty much settles the question. Isn’t that what you call enemy attestation?

  2. Vinny, which myth do you think provides a valid parallel (setting aside the JM issue which was dealt with—Origin did the same. I often do to, but it does not prove or even evidence borrowing).

  3. If I ever heard that from someone, I’d say, “Well…maybe the gospel is just not for you, at this time.”

    And then move on. The universe doesn’t revolve around one hardened individual who refuses to believe.

  4. Michael,

    I agree that the existence of parallels does not prove borrowing, however you wrote “upon examination the parallels are simply not there” and “the so-called parallels are not very striking.” Clearly there existed some parallels that were striking enough that the church Fathers needed to address them.

  5. I think you misunderstand them. But let’s grant it and let me ask you which parallel is the most persuasive to you.

  6. I am persuaded that the parallels that Justin Martyr blamed on demons were striking enough that he felt the need to blame them on demons.

  7. Please make an argument for them. Make sure that you argue how Christianity borrowed from them and give the text. Otherwise you don’t have an argument excerpt “ummm…what (I think) he said.” That is special pleading I don’t have time for brother.

  8. Michael,

    All I have disputed is your claim about the lack of parallels, which appears to me to be if not false, at the very least disingenuous. The implications of those parallels are a separate issue upon which I have not ventured an opinion. If you would care to explain why Justin Martyr’s statements do not constitute evidence that parallels exist, I would be happy to consider it. However, demanding that I defend a position that I have not taken doesn’t impress me in the least, brother.

  9. Vinny, JM statement is secondary. You must present the rival parallels or remain silent here. Evidence does not amount to saying “he said this …” But defending what you think he said and the parallels you are persuaded is valid.

  10. Michael,

    Why is Justin Martyr secondary? Surely he was much better acquainted with the similarities between pagan beliefs and early Christian beliefs than you are. He saw the parallels to Bacchus and Mithras as sufficiently striking that he felt compelled to explain them away as “diabolical mimicry.” I have no doubt that these fail to meet your criteria for “validity” (whatever that might be), but I think that the burden should be on you to defend your claims that the parallels are a “myth” that atheists “blindly and irresponsibly replicate.”

    You are of course free to block my comments rather than respond to them. It’s your blog.

  11. Vinny,

    Concerning Bacchus and Mithras, please give me the parallels and the text. Have you read these yourself and come to these conclusions? If so, lets talk. If not, it would be like me arguing that Robert Price enforced The Jesus Legend as evidence for my view. As fontes my friend.

  12. Michael,

    Haven’t you read Justin Martyr? Don’t you know which parallels he felt compelled to address?

  13. Yes. Please discuss which parallels you feel like Christianity borrowed from.

    Have you read them?
    Which specific aspect are “barrowed”
    Give the text.

    The burden is on you. Of you have not studied this, cool (which, by your diversion I am certain you have not).

    Let’s deal with the actual parallels.

  14. CS Lewis likened these pagan resurrection myths as God giving “good dreams” to the world. A sign pointing forward to the myth become fact. In his view even the pagan religions point to Christ.

  15. Mr. Patton:

    I have never read Justin Martyr, although I am informed he believed there are clear parallels.

    As part of your apologetics ministry, could you possibly help me along my path towards Christ by informing me what parallels he adduced, and why you feel this early church father was trafficking in an “easily dismissive [sic] fable”?

  16. Not in this post brother. We stick to the subject. Too important.

  17. Full disclosure: I am writing the final chapter of my dissertation on the mysteries and afterlife, focusing on Isis and Demeter. That doesn’t make me an expert, just means I’ve read too much about it! (and Michael, I know you are trying to avoid a rabbit trail so feel free not to post this comment or the portions about the Fathers).

    First, I agree with Michael’s assessment here. There is no evidence that these gods were presented as resurrected–defined as returning to life as it was before death, with a physical body. Ther is especially no evidence of this belief before (or during) the writing of the NT. Like he said any evidence is only from Attis and that is later (3rd-4th ct) so it may be a “parallel” but does not indicate dependence. Parallels and similarities may exist without being the result of borrowing. To prove or suggest borrowing you have to address other issues like date, historical proximity/plausibility, and trace the development of such borrowing. Even then, the idea of borrowing or dependence may not be the most likely explanation. In fact, sometimes we have “seen” resurrection in these religions because we are looking at them with Christian categories.

    I’ll put my thoughts about the Fathers in a separate comment…

  18. Regarding Justin Martyr and Tertullian. Both noted similarities between the mysteries (as practiced in their day) and Christianity (as practiced in their day). Justin saw similarities in the Lord’s Table and in baptism and Tertullian added similarities in resurrection. Two points: First, their descriptions and understandings of the mysteries were likely not the most accurate. Their information about the mysteries is second hand and the mysteries were extremely secretive about their actual practices (their myths were common knowledge, but not their private initiation rituals). If you were not an initiate, you did not know the whole story. We also have to consider the Fathers’ bias against the mysteries and their purpose to discredit what they see as demonic. This doesn’t always lead to accurately describing your opponent. Second is the issue of date. The mysteries these fathers are describing are not indicative of the mysteries that may have existed during the formative years of the NT and early Christian theological development. The mysteries became quite popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries but there is little evidence of their widespread influence in the first. Third, as I said above, parallels and similarities do not always equal borrowing or dependence.

  19. Good post with equally helpful comments thus far..

  20. I think that one of the most persuasive and compelling arguments against the resurrection account being merely a copycat of pagan myths is that no expert in the respective pagan myth thinks that is the case. For example, in debunking the allegation that the resurrection merely copied the story of Krishna, an apologist spoke with Dr. Edwin Bryant, a professor at Rutgers University who is a scholar on Hinduism. He said that such an allegation is “absolute and complete non-sense.” I’ve seen similar opinions from scholars on Persian and Egyptian mythology (Mithras and Osiris) on the assertion that the resurrection was merely copied from their respective myths. Typically, the purported similarities in the myth turn out to be fabrications not present in the original myth.
    Perhaps another question to ask a proponent of a copy-cat myth theory is to cite to a relevant scholar who agrees that the similarities between the stories suggest that copying was likely. So far, I’ve been unable to unearth any reputable scholars on a particular pagan myth who agrees that the resurrection story copied their myth. On the other hand, contrary scholarly opinions such as that of Dr. Bryant are abundant.

  21. Hello Michael.

    Why could we not say like C.S. Lewis that the myth of an unjustly condemned god who died while suffering and rose from the dead is an archetype of the human psyche as psychologists Jung described them?

    These ideas spring naturally from the nature God gave us. And He decided to enact one of these myths in the real world with Himself as the main character.

    Why do you reject this theory celebrated by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien?

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  22. I don’t understand. This is about the Christ Myth theory where Christianity borrowed from its pagan predissesors and is mythology like them. It is not about the analogies we find to our faith in our hearts or in the world (which I don’t care about for apologetic purposes—too subjective and concedes to a fideistic mindset).

  23. Lewis said, myth of the “dying god” came true once! “In myth, we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as abstraction.” (God in the Dock).

    Indeed C.S. Lewis was a ‘most reluctant convert’, he lived and chased the real Myth! And finally overcame both the lure of the occult and unbelief in the truth in the Old Beliefs, even after the death of his wife! “The life, death and resurrection of Christ not only fulfilled Old Testament types but also embodied – literally – central motifs found in all the world’s mythologies.” (David C. Downing: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith, The Most Reluctant Convert)

  24. Awe, but again the “true fideism” … “Faith as intellectual assent usually involves a degree of excess subjective certitude, even in matters of science and history.” (God in the Dock)

    Btw, Lewis writes quite like no other on the matters of Faith! “Faith does not exclude us from dismay, as evidenced by Gethsemane.” (Letters of C.S. Lewis) But what the believing Christian does with his dismay.. makes the man/person!

  25. I could quote Lewis day and night on this subject: Imagery, use of the “vulgar” [common]: ‘If it gets across to the unbeliever what he desperately needs to know, the vulgarity must be endured.’ (Again, God in the Dock) Indeed Lewis knew that man simply must hear the “myth” of truth, i.e. the reality in and of God higher than ourselves, “demons, angels”, even in the logical order!

  26. This is an argument against a straw man. No one who is serious argues that christianity borrowed the story of Jesus. There are certainly many things about the Jesus story that are common in other mythologies, but no one who has given it a moment’s consideration, thinks that the story is a whole-cloth retelling of some other ancient myth. The argument is that there is no reason to believe the christian myth and dismiss the others. If one is to believe one story about a son of god who is born in miraculous circumstances, does great deeds, and ascends to heaven after being tortured then why not believe them all?

    There are many parallels to christiantiy in other ancient myths. This was pointed out by the second century christian apologist Justin Martyr. Justin said,

    “we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter.”

    The fact that you argue against a silly argument that is easily refuted shows the paucity of your overall case and lack of conviction. Clearly, early christian stories fit within a larger mythological framework. There were many influences on the 1st century jewish thought that later became christian.

  27. I find it interesting that you dismiss stories that don’t exactly write the same way as non-parallel, essentially redefining parallelism to suit your needs in this entirely intellectually dishonest discourse.

    Circular logic 101: Let your reason be the premise for your conclusion.

    Then you deflect with “present proof.” You presented no proof refuting a parallel. You actually listed parallels. That they did not take the exact same arc is irrelevant. It’s like saying “Well, Christians didn’t steal Christmas from the Roman Saturnalia because Christmas isn’t 7 days,” all the while completely ignoring the fact Saturnalia fell on the exact day of the adopted birth of the fictional jewish messiah.

    Also: citing the bible as proof of the existence of Christ is absurd. If that is the case, you must accept the religious texts of all other religions as proof of other gods and their pantheons. Otherwise, you’re just cherry picking according to the brainwashing you received as a child and the ratings you want to obtain as a dishonest adult.

  28. The resurrection accounts in the Gospels would date to 30-60 years after the event itself. This is hardly enough time for a “myth” to develop, especially when there were probably hundreds of thousands of Jews who were familiar with the events and were still alive to refute such a myth. But let’s look at other evidence from the New Testament about the resurrection written in the letters of Paul.

    1 and 2 Thessalonians were both most probably the earliest NT documents, written around 50 AD, not long after Paul visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. Luke records in Acts 17:2-3 that Paul proclaimed the Jesus’ resurrection in Thessalonica:
    “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.”
    Acts records that later that year Paul moved on to Berea and Athens, which is probably where he wrote his letters to the Thessalonians.

    According to Luke, Paul also proclaimed Christ’s resurrection in Athens in his speech to the Greek philosophers at the Aeropagus on Mars Hill (Acts 17:29-31):
    29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

    Now let’s look at Paul’s letters to the church he had planted in Thessalonica. In 1 Thessalonians 1:8-11, Paul confirms Luke’s report:
    7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

    Paul goes on to link the resurrection of Christ to believers hope in their own resurrection when Christ returns and the end of the age, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14:
    13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

    Furthurmore, Paul affirms that Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifice for us in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10:
    9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

    This means that less than 20 years after the events of Jesus death and resurrection, Paul had both preached the propritiary death and resurrection of Christ as the fundamental tenant of the Christian faith and written letters about it to those who had received his message and had formed assemblies of believers.

    Therefore having no reason to believe that the account of Jesus’ resurrection was itself a myth, we can accept Luke’s account in the book of Acts that the resurrection of Jesus was the primary focus of the message of Peter and Paul, in every one of their recorded sermons. Why then would 2 Jews, one a Pharisee, borrow from pagan myths to try to convince other Jews (their primary focus initially) that Jesus was the Messiah, when they could point to Messianic scriptures in the Old Testament (Psalm 16, Isaiah 53). The whole notion that the early Christians (who were Jews) borrowed pagan myths to create a resurrection story about Jesus is simply absurd. The most logical explanation is that they actually believed he rose from the dead, because they saw him alive.

  29. Vinny. Which parallel do you want to deal with?

    And, have you actually read these parallels yourself?

    Brother, in my worldview there is a concept of a sinful waste of time. I am done here until you give me examples. My post has some examples. The burden is yours. But I do think you have demonstrates the point of my post well.

    To the rest, just ask people to give you examples. It works.

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