Was the Gospel Based on Pagan Myths?
by Timothy Jones
It’s an accusation that’s been around a long time.
Even in ancient times, critics of Christianity noticed some parallels between Christian beliefs and pre-Christian myths. In the late second century, a pagan philosopher named Celsus charged, “The Christians have used the myths of Danae and the Melanippe, of the Auge and Antiope in fabricating this story of virgin birth!” In more recent times, skeptical scholars such as Marvin Meyer and Robert Price have claimed close connections between the resurrection of Jesus and the myths of dying and rising deities that marked many pagan mystery religions.
In the simplest possible terms, here’s what these critics contend: The most marvelous claims in the Gospels—a miraculous birth, for example, as well as the idea of a deity who dies and rises again—are paralleled in pagan religions that predate Christianity; therefore, early Christians must have fabricated these miracles based on their knowledge of pre-Christian religions.
To be sure, there are some surface-level similarities between ancient myths and certain events in the Gospels. Long before the first century A.D., the myths of Egyptians deities such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Horus included tales of death and rebirth. The Persians venerated Mithras, a deity who (according to some recent claims) was born of a virgin and who died and rose Fain. Sacramental bread and the fruit of the vine make appearances in a few mystery cults as well.
So why should anyone see Jesus as being distinct from the pagan gods? Could it be that the New Testament stories of Jesus represent the fictive myth of an ancient mystery cult that’s survived for two thousand years? Or is there something different about the accounts of Jesus’ time on planet earth?
The Pagan Parallels Aren’t Particularly Parallel
In the first place, it’s important to be aware that most of these supposed pagan parallels aren’t nearly as parallel as the skeptics suppose. When the actual sources behind the pagan myths are closely examined, the supposed parallels have little in common with the New Testament narratives.
For example, there are dying and rising gods in some earlier religions—but these deities died and arose each year, certainly not the same pattern as Jesus’s once-for-all sacrifice for the sake of others. And the pagan myths of miraculous births are closer to divine impregnation—a mortal woman conceives a child as a result of sexual relations with a god—than to the virginal conception described in the Gospel According to Matthew and Luke.
To exemplify how these supposed parallels aren’t nearly as parallel as the critics claim, let’s take a look at one particular mystery-cult myth that’s often presented as a predecessor to the New Testament, the myth of Mithras…
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