Some skeptics claim that Christians copied their belief in Jesus' atoning death and resurrection from paganism (sometimes called the "copycat hypothesis"). They point to "dying gods" such as Balder and Osirus, calling them "pagan christs" and alleging that they are proof of Christian plagarism.
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.
The first problem with the copycat 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 or more recent 'popular literature' (based on those out-of-date resources) that is NEVER cited in the scholarly works of the past twenty years.The author then goes on to quote Mircea Eliade, an expert on traditional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]). More on this below.
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not cite a SINGLE scholarly work dealing with primary materials, and its main supports are from works hopelessly out of date (e.g. Joseph Wheless, Kersey Graves, Albert Churchward, Gerald Massey, Robert Taylor).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 the notion that pagans worshiped "dying and rising gods", so popular in the nineteenth century, has been largely discredited by more reliable modern research.
What Hath Hislop Wrought?
Though nineteeth-century atheists loved this "Christian plagarism" theory, one of its most influential proponents was, ironically, 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, as does Sacred Scripture (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 naively 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 worshipped the true Jesus and believed in the truths of the Bible, while Catholics "really" worshipped Babylonian gods and participated in ancient pagan rites, regardless of what they said or thought, or whether their beliefs had any biblical parallels.
This illogical and ahistorical idea is still just a step away from discrediting all of Christianity. Indeed, some of Hislop's arguments have since been used by atheists, Muslims 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 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..."
Critique of the "Copycat Hypothesis"
Why has this theory, so dear to Hislop and the atheist skeptics, been all but abandoned by modern scholars? 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's killed by his trecherous brother, Seth - but never actually rises from the dead. His wife, Isis, regatheres most of his dismembered corpse, but it never "reconstitutes" or comes alive again. Instead, his spirit went to the underworld, where he became judge of everyone who would pass into 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 these divinities could die 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. Second, His death is a sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. None of the pagan "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 "copycat 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.
Once again, as we have pointed out in past articles in this series, early Christians did not like paganism very much. They would never have patterned their Lord after the pagan deities which they detested as demons (I Corinthians 10:18-21). The very notion is strange and incongruent.
So the "copycat hypothesis" falls apart under careful scrutiny. Jesus' historical, vicarious, triumphant and sin-cleansing sacrifice on the Cross is far removed from pagan legends 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 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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