Some unbelievers argue that various pagan religions had stories about virgin births, and dying and rising gods, centuries before the gospels were written, and that the gospel writers simply took those stories and made them about Jesus. This concept was first popularized by German scholars in the early 1900s, in what is usually called the “Old History of Religions School” (Religionsgeschichtliche) of thought.
By the mid 1900s these proposals fell out of favor with historians (for reasons we will discuss in a minute). But lately they have been “resurrected” and promoted by a new generation of skeptics.
For instance, one of the characters in The Da Vinci Code says this:
The pre-Christian God Mithras—called the Son of God and the Light of the World—was born on December 25, died, and was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days. By the way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus. The newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even Christianity’s weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans (p. 232).
This revival of the old school of religion theories is having an impact. One young lady wrote to me: “The fact that pagans had dying and rising gods shows that the idea was certainly possible in that time period, and since we have throughout the bible the constant battle with the jews getting involved with paganism, it is not unlikely that they developed this idea from the pagans and mixed it in with their own theology.”
-The gospel writers were Jewish!
-The worship of Christ as God developed very early (Phil. 2:6-11).
Critical explanation – many Jews in the first century were susceptible to Greek (Hellenistic) influence, and borrowed from Hellenistic culture (language, architecture, philosophy, religion etc).
What the evidence shows:
1. Hellenization did influence cultures in superficial matters (language, architecture), but did not transform worldviews. Evidence of “Torah-true” religion in first century Galilee (even though it is alleged to be the region most open to Gentile influence:
a. Discovery of many ritual baths (miqvaot) and stone vessels.
b. Coins lacking human representation.
c. Lack of pork bones.
d. Second-shaft tombs for Jewish burial.
e. Absence of pagan temples.
2. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest Jews generally responded to Hellenism by becoming more – not less – conservative in their religious convictions.
a. Particularly true after the Maccabean revolt (168 BC).
b. “The most striking thing about the Jewish encounter with Hellenism, both in the Diaspora and in the land of Israel, was the persistence of Jewish separatism in matters of worship and cult” (Hellenism in the Land of Israel, p. 55).
c. The “arch-conservatives” in Acts were Diaspora Jews (Acts 6:9; 21:27).
3. The alleged parallels with pagan religion are not parallels at all.
a. Virgin birth parallels.
1. Critics claim Mithras was born of a virgin on December the 25th and that the New Testament simply copied those details and changed the name to Jesus.
2. Mithras was NOT born of a virgin. Mithras was born of a rock.
1. Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) was the product of Zeus and a woman named Alcmene he thoughtwas hot, and so he came to her in the form of her husband and had relations with her.
2. Not a virgin birth!
b. Resurrection parallels.
1. Babylonian god called Tammuz or Dumuzi. His wife, named Iannna, decided to take a trip to the underworld, for reasons that are unclear. She asked an attendant to send help if anything went wrong. Well, things did go wrong; she was given the look of death by a jealous sister and trapped in the underworld, needing to be rescued. Her attendant found help, and she was revived and returned to her palace, chased by demons, who demanded that someone be sent back in her place. When the demons came upon Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband, he was sitting in nice clothing and enjoying himself despite his wife’s demise in the underworld. Inanna was really ticked off by this, and decreed that the demons take him and gave him the “look of death.” However, Dumuzi’s sister, out of love for him, begged to be allowed to take his place. It was then decreed that Dumuzi would spend half the year in the underworld and his sister would take the other half.
And that’s where the gospel account came from!
And that’s where the gospel account came from!
2. The only connection between this story and the Bible is that Ezekiel says some of the Jews practiced this idolatry in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem inEzek. 8:14.
1. In Egytpian mythology Osiris is married to Isis. Osiris is murdered by his brother Set. Set built a coffin according to Osiris’ measurements, then at a party said whoever could fit in the coffin could keep it. Osiris got in, Set nailed it shut and sent him down the Nile. Isis found the coffin, but before she could save Osiris Seth got his body and chopped it into 14 pieces and scattered them around Egypt. Isis searched for them, found 13 of them, and impregnanted herself using his corpse to give birth to Horus. Osiris then became lord of the underworld.
2. Impossible to imagine Jews would build gospels on so many practices abominable in the Law.
Such parallels are absurd. Frankly, if you work hard enough, you can find a paralle in almost anything (see “The Oxford Solar Myth” by R.L. Littledale).
There is, so 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. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection beliefs, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. - Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of the Resurrection, p. 221.