This is part 3 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 2 here.
Another common claim is that the whole life of Jesus is based on myths. This claim is most commonly made in reference to Mithraism, a popular mystery religion that began in Iran as an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. Admittedly, I learned of this in an undergraduate philosophy course and, at the time, had no answer for it. As it turns it, though, there are several problems with this claim. One major objection is that there is no evidence that Mithraism was even known in Jesus’s context; rather, all evidence points to the second century as the establishment of Mithraism in the Roman world. Ronald Nash concludes that Mithraism “could not have possibly influenced early Christianity.”
In Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus, Edwin Yamauchi challenges many of the claims that have been made about the similarities between Mithra and Jesus. The similarities are that Mithra came to life through a virgin birth, born in a cave on December 25th, that he had twelve disciples, that eternal life is gained through his sacrifice, and that he was resurrected. There is an issue with each of these claims, however. First, Mithra was born out of a rock, not a virgin woman. Second, the Bible does not state that Jesus was born in a cave (though this was a popular early tradition dated back to at least the second century), nor does it state that he was born on December 25th (the earliest date used to commemorate the birth of Jesus was January 6th). Third, Mithra is never described as having twelve disciples in any writings. The idea that Mithra had twelve disciples comes from murals that show Mithra with the twelve signs of the zodiac. This imagery is also post-Christian. Fourth, Mithra sacrificed a bull, not himself, and the only evidence we have of this leading to eternal life is dated after AD 375, well after the life of Christ. Mithraism may be older than Christianity, but that does not mean every aspect of it is. And finally, we do not have much information on the death of Mithra, and no evidence of any sort of resurrection. Ronald Nash explains that “attempts to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of Mithraism face enormous challenges because of the scanty information that has survived.”
In the case of Mithraism, then, whatever parallels do exist, we see them flowing in the opposite direction. Indeed, as Porter and Bedard succinctly state, “The timing of the development of the various features of Mithraism suggests that, rather than Christianity being influenced by it, the mystery religion was influenced by Christianity.” This is not surprising giving the syncretistic nature of Mithraism. Classicist scholar AD Nock explains perhaps why Mithraism would have borrowed from Christianity. He states that “much of what we know of the mysteries relates to the third and fourth centuries, and at that time some of them were probably assimilated of set purpose to Christianity in the hope of countering its attractions.”
Another god often credited with supplying Christianity with its beliefs about Christ is the Egyptian deity Horus. Horus is one of the most easily recognizable gods of Egypt due to his falcon head. In the case of Horus, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus are accused of being parallels. But when we look further into the claims, we see that once again they are a bit exaggerated.
In their book Unmasking the Pagan Christ, Porter and Bedard interact with a relatively popular book making the claims that Jesus is a Horus facsimile.The book in question claims that Horus, the Egyptian Savior, is born from the virgin Isis, that the young Horus is hunted by “Herut” (corresponding to the name Herod), that the three Magi who visited Jesus correspond to the three Egyptian solar deities, that Horus was crucified between two thieves, then buried in a tomb, and then—you guessed it—resurrected from the dead.
There are a couple of things that should seem suspect from the beginning: first, the biblical account never says there are three Magi. Rather, the Magi, however many there were, brought three types of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is true that this account has been traditionally depicted in our Nativity scenes as being three Magi, but that is not found in the biblical text itself. Also, the Gospel writers obviously did not make up the name Herod in order to make some parallel to Herut. Herod the Great was beyond doubt a real person, as attested by his friend, the Jewish historian Nicolaus of Damascus, and Flavius Josephus.
Beyond those initial head-scratchers, Porter and Bedard helpfully bring to light more details as they compare the Gospel accounts with the actual accounts that can be found about Horus from ancient Egyptian texts. For instance, the texts indicate that Horus was not born of a virgin. Isis, his mother, had already been married to Osiris for some time, and the text explicitly says that she “conceived a child [Horus] by her husband.” Plutarch gives a slightly different story, but still with the understanding that Osiris and Isis together created Horus. And, to top it all off, there is no Herut in the primary texts. So, yes, as Porter and Bedard summarize, “Both Horus and Jesus were conceived supernaturally, made their appearance on earth as babies and were of a royal line,” but, they continue, “this is not strong enough evidence to build a case of New Testament plagiarism of Egyptian sources,” because when one looks to the primary texts rather than others’ summaries of those primary texts, a whole other picture emerges in which only extremely tenuous and vague similarities exist.
Porter and Bedard also had trouble tracking down any primary source describing Horus as dying in the same way as Jesus, between two thieves on a cross, then placed in a tomb, and then resurrected. What they do find is far from convincing. “While there are some similarities to the death of Jesus—a person dies and a mother grieves, and with a little imagination, there is some similarity between being pierced by a scorpion [the method of Horus’ death] and being pierced by nails—on the whole the stories are radically different.” Furthermore, Horus died while still a child, and there is nothing sacrificial or atoning concerning his death. “It was simply the senseless murder of a child.” In the accounts they were able to track down, there is also no mention of this crucifixion happening between two thieves. As is often the case, the most striking parallels are absent from the primary sources. There is always the chance that perhaps the wrong versions of stories are being consulted (indeed, there is no “official” set of Egyptian texts), but no references are given to any other sources that would confirm the details in question.
Lastly, we come to the resurrection. In the primary sources, Horus is awakened from death by the god Thoth after his mother, Isis, prays for him. Thoth used spells to bring back to life the senselessly murdered Horus. What Thoth did not do is raise Horus (who was not Thoth’s “only begotten Son” as he was not Thoth’s son at all) by his own power in accordance with the predetermined plan, enacted by love, to save all humankind from sin, death, and the devil through a sacrificial life and death. Horus was killed by a scorpion and raised by magic spells.
The meaning of Horus’s rescue from death, furthermore, is not a resurrection to redeemed life. Rather, as Mary Jo Sharp rightly determines, the point is that worshippers of Isis will have their children protected by the goddess. Professor Sharp also details another variation on the Horus story where he grows at an accelerated rate and eventually loses an eye in battle, which is given as an offering to Osiris’s mummified body, thus bringing it to “life” (or rather, living death) in the underworld. He is later depicted as the one who introduces the dead to Osiris in the underworld.
When it comes to Egyptian deities like Osiris and Horus, we find very little reason to conclude any borrowing has taken place, and often the leaps made to make such accusations are much too wide a rational chasm to jump. As already described above when Michael Bird was explaining divinized humans, parallels are highlighted and much more obvious. Parallels are not there by accident, but on purpose, in order to make a larger statement. And indeed, Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection include many purposeful allusions and parallels to older stories and prophecies from the Old Testament, not because He is imaginatively derived from them, but because He is a divine fulfillment of them.
This is part 1 of the Historical Jesus series. You can read part 4 here.
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 Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 133.
 Edwin M. Yamauchi in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 171-75.
 Nash, 134.
 Stanley E. Porter and Stephen J. Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ (Toronto, ON: Clements Publishing, 2006), 104.
 Ibid., 61-68.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 65-66.
 Ibid., 67.
 Mary Jo Sharp, “Does the Story of Jesus Mimic Pagan Mystery Stories?” in Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (eds.), Come Let Us Reason (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 157.