In The Da Vinci Code professor of Religious
Symbology Robert Langdon explains that Christianity arose as a kind of
The vestiges of pagan religion in Christian
symbology are undeniable. Egyptian sun disks became the halos of
Catholic saints. Pictograms of Isis nursing her miraculously conceived
son Horus became the blueprint for our modern images of the Virgin
Mary nursing Baby Jesus. And virtually all the elements of the
Catholic ritual—the miter, the altar, the doxology, and communion, the
act of "god-eating"—were taken directly from earlier pagan mystery
Did Christianity Arise from the Mystery Religions?
When people try to analyze why the New Testament was
written, one of the things that some New Testaments scholars in the
Jesus Seminar are saying is that they had a pattern before they ever got
there. You have the mystery religions, you have other kind of legends
going on and they’ll say, you know take the virgin birth for example.
They’re all over Greek and Roman mythology. So if I have to accept that
Jesus was born of the virgin, what about these other mysteries, these
other legends? We asked Dr. Gary Habermas to answer this question:
Dr. Gary Habermas: Let’s
take our mystery religion pattern or Hellenistic religion, Hellenistic
divine man pattern. Let’s take a New Testament pattern and just look at
the Hellenistic or non-Christian miracles for example. And what you’ll
find, first of all, is a totally different philosophical framework.
We’re talking about anthropomorphic gods. We’re talking about gods who
are finite. We’re talking about cycles of vegetation. This is a cyclical
view of history, not a linear view of history, totally different. Now,
that’s one category, philosophical differences.
You’ve got historical differences. These people like
to tell you when they find a case of resurrection on the third day, for
example, they don’t tell you that’s it’s much later than the New
Testament, or that there are similar teachings on the 1st,
2nd, and 4th
days, so you have to look at differences there. Take Isis and Osiris.
One account says he’s cut up in 14 pieces, his wife or sister or
mother—the accounts varies so much—she finds 13 of the 14 pieces, puts
them together and he revivifies, then he descends to the underworld. But
another myth, she puts the pieces together and flaps her wings over
Osiris, so we have to look at the differences here. Philosophical
differences, historical differences.
Keep moving down the line, the gaps and the lateness
of the accounts are amazing. Most of the Hellenistic divine man
accounts, most of the mystery religions, postdate Christianity. Some of
the earliest are mid-first and mid-second century. Almost nothing is
Fourthly, these early accounts they are known to have
virtually no affect in Palestine. For example, there are dozens of
temples to Isis in Egypt. Dozens more around the Mediterranean world.
One in Israel and it’s late. So there’s very little influence in
Palestine. And fourth, this is one of my favorites, these characters are
not historical persons. They never lived in history, so what’s the
grounds for comparison? And I love the words of Plutarch, whose in his
famous story of Isis and Osiris, he says, now listen don’t you guys
think that this is a historical account, I’m telling you a story here,
and he says that twice. So, I think that’s important that there’s a
Now, when you get to the New Testament, you’re looking
at again, you’re looking at some early sources, you’re looking at some
eyewitness sources and in the case of the Resurrection of Christ, you’ve
got an empty tomb, so you’ve got remains where people can say, oh well,
not talking about a mere idea here are we? So to compare non-Christian
miracle claims to Christian miracle claims, I think we’re talking about
some serious differences that, philosophically speaking, weigh heavily
against some of the non-Christian accounts.
Do other scholars agree with those conclusions?
Habermas: Well, I think you
going to have to agree to this extent: virtually nobody is going to say
that the Christians copied off these ideas. That’s a pretty radical
idea. You could find it a couple of decades ago with some of the
Bultmannian ideas. You can find a hundred years ago with the history of
religions movement of similarities and comparisons. Both have died death
of a thousand qualifications. So in general, no one’s going to push the
heathen accounts, but they want to get them on the table because they
want to show you Jesus isn’t alone.
Christianity, the Resurrection of Christ and the
Many university and college courses in Christianity or
comparative religion express the view that Christianity is merely a
variation of a more ancient religious theme. They teach that the
Christian faith developed from or was influenced by the ancient pagan
mystery religions of Rome, Greece, Egypt, etc. Therefore, the conclusion
of such courses is that Christian faith is not unique (as it claims),
but at best an imitation faith, alleging to be something it is not.
Professors draw numerous "parallels" between the motifs of "dying and
rising" "savior" gods, and then, observing the centrality of the death
and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Christian faith, assert that
certainly, or at least probably, Christianity was merely a later
revisionist form of such pagan religion.
In the last hundred years, numerous books have been
written which attempt to defend this idea. Among these are J. M.
Robertson’s Pagan Christs2
and Kersey Graves’ The World’s Sixteen
Crucified Saviors or Christianity Before Christ.3
This idea has also formed one line of argumentation for the larger theme
that Jesus never even existed, as in G. A. Wells’
Did Jesus Exist?4 More recently, this concept has been
popularized by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Power of
Myth, The Masks of God, and other books, largely as a means
to "discredit" Christianity.
What were the mystery cults? Allegedly, the teachings
of the mystery religions were revealed by the Egyptian god Thoth. They
were eclectic religious cults that stressed nature religion, oaths of
secrecy, brotherhood, and spiritual quest. They offered rites of
initiation that were associated with or dedicated to various gods and
goddesses of the ancient world. In fact, these rites often inculcated
contact, or "union," with the "gods" (spirits). Participants hoped to
attain knowledge, power, and immortality from their worship and contact
with these gods. In essence, the mystery religions were part and parcel
of the world of the occult in ancient Europe and Asia. They were
idolatrous, opposed Christian teachings, and not infrequently engaged in
gross or immoral practices.5
Nevertheless, it was the theme of alleged dying and
rising savior-gods which initially sparked the interest of some scholars
and many skeptics as to whether or not Christianity was a derivative of
the mysteries. For example, if there were religious cults in Palestine
at the time of Christ which believed in a mythological central figure
who periodically died and came back to life in harmony with certain
agricultural/fertility cycles, it could be argued that Christianity was
merely the offshoot of such a religion and that its distinctive
theological teachings were later inventions. Hence, the appeal of such
an idea to skeptics of Christianity.
If true, Christianity would have only been a variation
of an earlier pagan religious worldview, a religion that later evolved
its distinctive theological doctrines, e.g., about Jesus Christ being
the unique incarnation of God and Savior of men. In fact, in this
scenario, the biblical Jesus need never even have existed. The mysteries
were, after all, based on mythical gods. Hence, some critics (not
historians) argue that Jesus was only an invented figure patterned after
the life cycles of mythological gods such as Attis, Cybele, Osiris,
Mithra, Adonis, Eleusis, Thrace, Dionysus, etc.
Regardless, one consequence of interpreting
Christianity as an embellished mystery religion is the conclusion that
Christian faith per se is the invention of men, not a revelation from
God. In the end, virtually all the unique teachings of New Testament
theology, including the distinctive doctrines on Jesus Christ, God, man,
sin, salvation, etc., are viewed as mere religious innovation after the
fact. For example, concerning Jesus Christ, this would mean His
incarnation and virgin birth, miracles and teachings, atonement for sin,
physical resurrection from the dead, promised return, etc., are not
historical facts, but later revisions of pagan stories. In essence, the
cardinal teachings of orthodox Christianity become lies and falsehoods,
a conclusion that warms the heart of some people today.
But is it Christianity that is the invention and
deception or is such a theory itself the invention and deception of
atheists and skeptics merely to "discredit" Christianity? If we examine
the manner in which this concept is utilized, not to mention the fact
that not a shred of evidence exists in support, one can begin to see
where the real invention lies. One illustration is atheist John
Allegro’s text, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Allegro is
lecturer in Old Testament and Inter-Testamental Studies at the
University of Manchester. He weaves the origin of Christianity into
pagan religious sects, rituals, secret eulogies and the hallucinogenic
properties of a particular mushroom. Thus, "The death and resurrection
story of Jesus follows the traditional patterns of fertility mythology,
as has long been recognized."6 Logically then for Allegro,
the New Testament is a "hoax," because the "validity of the whole New
Testament story is immediately undermined."7 Not
surprisingly, he claims it is foolish for Christians to maintain their
religion is a unique revelation from God.8 As a result,
Allegro’s closing paragraph gives the reader the "assurance" that "we no
longer need to view the Bible through the mists of piety,..."9
The truth is that Allegro’s views are credible only to
skeptics who already wish to find "evidence" to support their
skepticism. Dr. J. N. D. Anderson is an authority on comparative
religion and Professor of Oriental Laws and Director of the Institute of
Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London. He observes that
Allegro’s book "has been dismissed by fifteen experts in Semitic
languages and related fields,... as ‘not based on any philological or
other evidence that they can regard as scholarly’— and has met with
scathing criticism in review after review."10
Yet today it continues to be used in college courses on Christianity.
Unfortunately for skeptics, when Allegro’s theory—or
that involving any other mystery tradition—is objectively examined and
compared with Christianity, only superficial similarities remain because
Christianity and the mystery religions are as distinct as night and day.11
Even secular scholars have rejected this idea of Christianity borrowing
from the ancient mysteries. The well-respected Sir Edward
Evans-Pritchard writes in Theories of Primitive Religion that
"The evidence for this theory… is negligible."12
Negligible is defined in Webster’s New World Dictionary as, that
which "can be neglected or disregarded because small, unimportant, etc.;
In fact, the gods of the mysteries do not even
resurrect; at best they are only resuscitated within the context of a
gross mythology. Samuel N. Kramer’s thorough work showed that the
alleged resurrection of Tammuz (a fertility god of Mesopotamia) was
based on "nothing but inference and surmise, guess and conjecture."13
Pierre Lambrechts maintains that in the case of the alleged resurrection
of Adonis, no evidence exists, either in the early texts or the
pictorial representations. The texts which refer to a resurrection are
quite late, that is, from the second to the fourth centuries A.D.14
He reveals that for Attis there is no suggestion that he was a
resurrected god until after 150 A.D.15
In the case of Adonis, there is a lapse of at least 700 years.16
If borrowing occurred, it seems clear which way it went.
The cult of Isis and Osiris ends with Osiris becoming
lord of the underworld while Isis regathers his dismembered body from
the Nile River and subsequently magically restores it. E. A. Wallace
Budge, who, Dr. Wilbur Smith asserts, is "one of the greatest
authorities of our century on ancient religions,"17
has this to say about the cult of Osiris:
There is nothing in the texts which justify the
assumption that Osiris knew he would rise from the dead, and that he
would become king and judge of the dead, or that Egyptians believed
that Osiris died on their behalf and rose again in order that they
might also rise from the dead.18
Smith also observes French scholar Andre Boulanger’s
observation that, "The idea that the god dies and rises again to lead
his worshippers to eternal life does not exist in any Hellenic mystery
It would appear then, that the real mythology is not
in the origin of Christianity but in the minds of skeptics who are
confusing such beliefs with the historical person and work of Jesus of
Nazareth. (This is especially evident when one considers the immoral
lives and deeds of the pagan deities since these are entirely
disharmonious with the life and deeds of Jesus Christ.)
Indeed, as noted, scholars long ago refuted the idea
that Christianity is related to the mysteries. Consider just a few of
the great differences between Christian belief and the mystery cults
that makes the claim of identity look foolish:
As for the motif of dying and rising saviour-god,
which has so often been compared with the unique event which gave
birth to Christianity, Metzger points out that the formal resemblance
between them must not be allowed to obscure the great differences in
content. In all the Mysteries which tell of a dying god, he dies "by
compulsion and not by choice, sometimes in bitterness and despair,
never in a self-giving love." There is a positive gulf between this
and the Christ who asserted that no man could take his life from him
but that he laid it down of his own will (Jn. 10:17; Mt. 26:28); the
Johannine pictures of the cross as the place where Jesus was
"glorified" and the Christian celebration of the Passion as a victory
over Satan, sin and death. Similarly, there is all the difference in
the world between the rising or re-birth of a deity which symbolizes
the coming of spring (and the re-awakening of nature) and the
resurrection "on the third day" of an historical person.20
Former atheist and Cambridge and Oxford scholar C.S.
Lewis emphasized that the biblical concept of God in both Old and New
Testaments is in no way compatible with the nature gods of the
On the other hand, Jahweh is clearly not
a Nature-God. He does not die and come to life each year as a true
corn-king should…. He is not the soul of Nature nor any part of
Nature. He inhabits eternity; he dwells in the high and holy place;
heaven is his throne, not his vehicle; earth is his footstool, not his
vesture One day he will dismantle both and make a new heaven and
earth. He is not to be identified even with the "divine spark" in man.
He is "God and not man." His thoughts are not our thoughts….21
In fact, Lewis had previously recorded that upon his
first serious reading of the New Testament, he was "chilled and puzzled
by the almost total absence of such ideas in the Christian documents."22
In other words, he was familiar with the theories suggesting resemblance
between Christianity and the Mysteries, expected to find them, and was
shocked to discover their absence.
E. O. James concludes,
There is no valid comparison between the
synoptic story of Jesus of Nazareth and the mythological accounts of
the mystery divinities of Eleusis, Thrace, Phrygia or Egypt....
Similarly, the belief in the resurrection of Christ is poles removed
from the resuscitation of Osiris, Dionysus or Attis in an annual
ritual based on primitive conceptions of mummifications, and the
renewal of the new life in the spring.23
No less an authority than the great comparative
religion scholar, Mircea Eliade, points out that not only is the idea of
Christian borrowing from the Mysteries wrong but that any borrowing
probably first began on the part of the mysteries:
In 1958, one year before [Joseph] Campbell started
publishing his fanciful theories in the Masks of God volumes,
Mircea Eliade published in Patterns of Initiation a series of
lectures he had given at the University of Chicago in the fall of
1956. In one of those lectures, Eliade said recent research did not
support the theories that the origin of Christianity was influenced by
pagan mystery cults. "There is no reason to suppose that primitive
Christianity was influenced by the Hellenistic mysteries," said Eliade.
In fact, the reverse may actually be true….24
Further, and probably most damaging, there is simply
no evidence that the mystery religions exerted any influence in
Palestine in the first three decades of the first century. If so, where
did the material originate to make Christianity a mystery religion? In
fact, one wonders why such parallels would be suggested at all.25
The manuscripts we possess prove that the teachings of Jesus and Paul
are those given in the New Testament; sufficient time never existed for
the disciples to be influenced by the mysteries even if they were open
to the idea, which they weren’t.
Finally, when the influence of the Mysteries did reach
Palestine, principally through gnosticism, the early church did not
accept it but renounced it vigorously as trafficking in pagan myths. The
complete lack of resulting syncretism is difficult to explain if
Christianity was ultimately a derivative of such paganism. Obviously, it
As the Apostle Peter emphasized, "We did not
follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power
and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of
his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16)
1 Dan Brown, The Da Vinci
Code (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003), p. 232.
2 John M. Robertson, Pagan
Christs (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1967).
3 Kersey Graves, The World’s
Sixteen Crucified Saviors or Christianity Before Christ (New Hyde
Park, NY: University Books, 1971).
4 G. A. Wells, Did Jesus
Exist? (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1975).
5 Cf. Encyclopedia
Britannica, Macropedia, 15th edition, s.v., "Mystery Religions."
This material is taken from the author’s The Secret Teachings of
the Masonic Lodge: A Christian Perspective (Chicago: Moody Press,
1991), pp. 244-245.
6 John Allegro, The Sacred
Mushroom and the Cross (New York: Bantam, 1971), p. 154.
7 Ibid., p. 193.
8 Ibid., p. 192.
9 Ibid., p. 205.
10 J. N. D. Anderson,
Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale, 1970), p.
11 Cf., Jack Finegan, Myth
and Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical
World (Baker, 1989).
12 In Tom Snyder, Myth
Conceptions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 191, citing the
1965 ed., p. 42.
13 Samuel N. Kramer,
Mythologies of the Ancient World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday,
1961), p. 10 from Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict
(Arrowhead Springs, San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ,
1972), p. 263.
14 P. Lambrechts, "La’
Resurrection de Adonis," in Melanges Isidore Levy, 1955, pp.
207-240 as cited in Edwin Yamauchi, "The Passover Plot or Easter
Triumph?" in Montgomery, ed., Christianity for the Tough Minded
(Minneapolis, MN: Bethany, 1973).
16 Encyclopedia Britannica,
1969, Vol. 15, article on Adonis.
17 Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore
Stand (New Canaan, CT: Keats, 1981), p. 583.
20 J. N. D. Anderson,
Christianity and Comparative Religion (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 38.
21 C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A
Preliminary Study (London: Collins/Fontana, 1970), p. 119.
22 Ibid., p. 118.
23 Anderson, p. 41, emphasis
24 Snyder, p. 194.
. E.g., Anderson, p. 22.