Mithras, Zeus and Jesus Christ

One of the arguments used by anti-Christians to discredit the historicity of Christ, His atonement for sin and Christianity as a whole is that Jesus was “modelled” after older pagan deities like the Roman Mithras or the Greek Zeus. One of them quotes Gerald Berry’s Religions of the World, saying:

Both Mithras and Christ were described as ‘the Way, ‘the Truth,’ ‘the Light,’ ‘the Life,’ ‘the Word,’ ‘the Son of God,’ ‘the Good Shepherd.’ The Christian litany to Jesus could easily be an allegorical litany to the sun-god. Mithras is often represented as carrying a lamb on his shoulders, just as Jesus is. Midnight services were found in both religions. The virgin mother… was easily merged with the virgin mother Mary. Petra, the sacred rock of Mithraism, became Peter, the foundation of the Christian Church.

These critics also allege that Mithras was born on December 25; visited by shepherds at birth; had 12 apostles, instituted a last supper and died for humanity – all of which the New Testament adopted for Jesus.

First, we all need to understand the historical setting of the Roman Empire where Christianity and Mithraism thrived. The early church consistently refused to integrate with the surrounding syncretic religions. This was why for 3 centuries, Christianity was despised and persecuted. In first century Roman Empire, 4 major classes of religions were embraced:

Nature religions – revolving around belief in supernatural power in natural things and worship of trees, sun, moon, rivers, stones and deities in charge of them e,g Greek paganism.

State religion – the Emperors were believed to be gods and accorded divine honours. Festivals were held in their honour and sacrifices offered to their images for the unity of the Empire.

Mystery religions – secret societies or cults that claim to help people out of difficult life situations and provide a bridge to the afterlife. They had certain ceremonial acts such as water rites, ritual meals, blood sacrifices which were kept secret to non-initiates e.g Mithraism, Eleusinian mysteries, Bacchanalian mysteries, mysteries of Isis.

Judaism – the early Romans couldn’t initially distinguish Jews who practiced Judaism from Christian Jews. In Acts 18:12-17, Gallio the Roman governor, dismissed Paul’s case as a dispute within the sects of Judaism. But as unbelieving Jews increasingly opposed Christianity, the heathen also joined them [1]

What impressed the pagan world of the new faith of Christianity was not the familiarity, but the difference. They considered Christianity a “strange religion;” an illegal religion (religio illicita) and this led to the murder of many Christians. If Jesus was a myth and if Christianity was an offspring of paganism, the disciples and early Christians wouldn’t have laid down their lives instead of giving it up.

Mithraism, however, was a mystery religion practiced between 1st-4th century A.D. The religion had its roots in the Hindu Vedas. It developed in Persia about 500 years before Christ and further developed in Zoroaster’s (Zarathustra) movement about 200 years before Christ. Mithraism reached its peak in third century Rome, during the same period Christianity was rapidly growing.

Those who claim Mithras was a prototype of Christ assume that Mithra worship was a cohesive, monolithic religion, but this is not so. “The god is unique in being worshipped in four distinct religions: Hinduism (as Mitra), in Iranian Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism (as Mithra), and in the Roman Empire (as Mithras).” [2]

Not only were there variations in name, each religion’s beliefs about Mithra also differed. The Persian cult differs markedly from the Roman one. The Roman Mithras is said to have slain a bull but there is no evidence that the Persian Mithra ever had anything to do with killing a bull. Some writers agree that the bull-slaying Mithras must have been a god worshipped in the 1st century BC to whom an old name was applied. [3] This eliminates the possibility of modelling Christ after Mithras.

Many critics also ignorantly conflate Mithra with Sol when they identify him as the sun god. Various artworks depict Mithras dining with Sol, Mithras ascending behind Sol in the latter’s chariot, both deities shaking hands and at an altar with pieces of meat on a spit. One artwork shows Sol kneeling before Mithras who hold an object resembling a bull’s haunch. [4] This difference is crucial because the birthday of Sol Invictus was December 25, but not that of Mithras. Amongst Roman mystery cults, Mithraism had no “public” face; its ceremonies were confined only to the initiates. The festival of Sol Invictus on December 25 wasn’t specific to Mithraism. [5]

Mithras wasn’t born of a virgin like Jesus. He was said to have been miraculously born from a rock and there are different accounts of this. One said he leaped out of the rock as a child, another says as a youth, another says as flames and another as thunderbolt. But there is no account of Mithras born by a virgin mother.

The claims of Mithras visited by shepherds at birth or having 12 apostles lacks documented evidence. This is simply a cheap attempt to “christianize” the myths of Mithras and create a false parallel with Christ. A scholar admits: “We possess virtually no theological statements either by Mithraists themselves or by other writers.” [6]

The alleged salvific death of Mithra is based on an inscription that says “and you have saved us … in the shed blood.” But no written narrative or theology from Mithraism survives and limited information can be derived from these inscriptions. “However, in the absence of any ancient explanations of its meaning, Mithra’s iconography has proven to be exceptionally difficult to decipher.” [7] According to Robert Turcan, Mithraic salvation had little to do with the other worldly destiny of individual souls, but was based on the Zoroastrian pattern of man’s participation in the cosmic struggle of the good creation against the forces of evil. That is far from what the New Testament teaches.

The so-called “last supper” by Mithras is a fanciful deduction from the ritual meal Mithraists observed. Modern critics, deploying a twisted logic, assume that since Mithraism had such ritual meals and it supposedly was older, Christianity must have stolen the idea from them! This hypothesis falls flat on its face. Most of the textual evidence for Mithraist doctrine was written after the New Testament was widely circulated.

There is even possibility that Mithraism adopted the communion rite from Christianity, because they had no concept of death and resurrection of their god. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (chapter 66) accused the Mithraists of diabolically imitating the Christian communion. David Ulansey therefore concludes:

“Owing to the cult’s secrecy, we possess almost no literary evidence about the beliefs of Mithraism. The few texts that do refer to the cult come not from Mithraic devotees themselves, but rather from outsiders such as early Church fathers, who mentioned Mithraism in order to attack it, and Platonic philosophers, who attempted to find support in Mithraic symbolism for their own philosophical ideas. [8]

In light of the post-Christian origins of the mysteries of Mithras, Dr. Edwin Yamauchi states “Those who seek to adduce Mithra as a prototype of the risen Christ ignore the late date for the expansion of Mithraism to the west” [9]

Zeus and Jesus

Some uninformed critics and misguided Christian assert Jesus was modelled after Zeus by some crypto-pagans in the early church who stripped Christianity of its Hebrew roots and changed the Saviour’s name into a pagan god’s to merge it with paganism. A. B. Triana wrote in Origins of Christianity:

They (the Graeco-Roman World) had worshiped Zeus as the supreme deity. Their savior was Zeus, so now they were ready to accept Jehoshua as Jesus – Ieosus, meaning hail Zeus. Now our translated scriptures say that Jahwah’s (Jehovah’s) Son’s name is Jesus, which is a compound word made up of Ie and Zeus (Hail Zeus)

Proponents of this bizarre conspiracy theory (mostly Hebrew Roots adherents) are not only bereft of proofs, they are also stumped by their own imaginations. They teach that anyone who uses the name of Jesus instead of His Hebrew name Yahshua is worshipping a false god and not saved. In fact, the Hebrew name of Jesus is Yeshua, a form of the name Joshua and both mean the same: “Yahweh is salvation.”

The similarity in pronunciation between Ieosus and Zeus doesn’t imply a borrowing of one from the other. To suggest that the name Bruno was derived from Juno is a phonetic fallacy. The Greek word for “hail” is xaipe or xaipete and it’s not a constituent of the Greek name Ieosus, so the “hail Zeus” accusation is hinged on wholesale ignorance.

Ieosus is the Greek name of Christ and that was the language in which the NT was written. First century works of Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius – written in Koine Greek – refer to at least 20 different people with the name Jesus (i.e Ieosus). [10] The Hebrew name of Jesus is not “too sacred” to be transliterated into another language neither does its translation change its meaning. God’s name is not limited by human language.

The name of Jesus given in Matthew 1:21 is the one by which men shall be saved from their sins. This name carries the same power and authority whether as Iesus (Latin), Yasu (Arabic) or Jesu (Yoruba). The name “Jesus” is the Anglicized form of Ieosus or Yeshua and it has nothing to do with Zeus. No informed person with a modicum of intellectual honesty would claim Jesus is a copy of Zeus. His infancy narrative alone has varying accounts. One version says he was raised by Gaia, another says by a goat named Amalthea, another says by a nymph Adamanthea, another says a nymph named Cynosura, yet another says by a shepherd family.

Some critics have also attempted to forge a link between Christ and Dionysus, the Greek god of grape, wine, ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy. The mysteries of Dionysus was known as a ‘cult of souls’ in which priests forged necromantic links with the dead. But the Lord Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament. He has no link to any ancient pagan deity neither was Christianity built on the foundation of myths artfully spurn by pagans.

Notes

1. Titilayo Dipe, History and Doctrines of the Early Church, University of Ibadan Press, 1992, 2-4.

2. John Hinnells, Studies in Mithraism, Rome, 1990, 11.

3. David Ulansey, Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, Oxford Univ. Press, 1991, 8.

4. Roger Beck, Mithraism, 2004, 287-287.

5. Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, Harvard Univ., 1987, 10.

6. Clauss Manfred, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries, xxi.

7. David Ulansey, p 8.

8. David Ulansey, The Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras.

9. M. J. Vermaseren, Mithras, The Secret God, 1963, 76.

10. Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Baker pub., 2007, 129.

 

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Is Jesus a copy of Ancient “Hero” Deities?

naitivityOn December 23, 2016 a news headline read: “5,000 Nativity Scene found in Egypt.” It reports a reddish rock art found in 2005 by Marco Morelli, a geologist, in a small cave within the Sahara desert. It showed a mother and father standing over a newborn, with two animals present and what looked like the sun (?) on the right side. By terming this “a Nativity scene 3,000 before Christ” the liberal media was baiting the prejudice of the season. In the painting, a lion was painted at its top and a monkey below. How does this tally with Christ’s birth recorded in the Bible?

Marco said “when the baby is drawn above the parents, it usually resembles a birth or pregnancy in ancient Egyptian art.” Is this man an Egyptologist or why should his words be taken as authority? You see the inherent conclusion fits a ready made narrative: to portray Christ as a copy of pre-Christian mythical gods like Horus, Baal and Attis. That painting is more or else a coincidence; even if it is religious in nature, it fails to indicate ancient Egyptian religion was the prototype of Bible narratives.

A popular YouTube video Zeitgeist: The Movie, also attempts to parallel Jesus with ancient demi-gods worshipped prior to Jesus birth. Its narrator says:

“Broadly speaking, the story of Horus is as follows: Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east, which in turn, three kings followed to locate and adorn the new-born saviour. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry. Horus has 12 disciples he travelled about with, performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water… After being betrayed by Tryphon, Horus was crucified, buried for 3 days, and thus, resurrected.”

There’s nothing new about these claims. They are old, disproved theories drawn from late 19th century agnostic works like T. W. Doane’s Bible Myths, George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Arthur Weigall’s The Paganism in Our Christianity, which no scholar takes with any degree of seriousness in this century. They are urban legends and propaganda mush. Josh McDowell in A Ready Defense, listed 4 major fallacies of critics who make this “Jesus is a copy of ancient gods” claims.

a) Combinationism: they roll all ancient pagan religions into one box and assume they are monolithic, coherent and unified belief systems from 1500BC – 400 AD.

b) Colouring the evidence: they lace ancient myths with Christian terms to make them seem prototypes of Christian beliefs.

c) Oversimplification: they find something such as resurrection and claim that Christianity borrowed it from an ancient myth whereas there are startling conceptual differences.

d) Who influenced whom: critics assume that if there is an element in an Eastern religion as well as Christianity, the Christians must have borrowed from the Eastern religion, since the religion’s founder lived first. They fail to consider that the Eastern religion absorbed Biblical narratives into their own myths.

With these logical fallacies in mind, let’s examine the claims made in the Zeitgeist movie.

1. Ancient Egyptian religion wasn’t a coherent belief system that could be copied wholesale. As it evolved, so did its stories. The Oxford Guide: Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology says different forms of Horus are recorded in history and these are treated as distinct gods by Egyptologists. Ancient Egyptians viewed the multiple facets of reality, hence had different perceptions of the same multi-layered deity with various attributes.

2. The relayed myth of Horus is peppered with Christian and Jewish terms like “baptized,” “disciples” and “ministry” to further their agenda. There is no way ancient Egyptians would use such terms to refer to their religious rites. I cannot find the name “Anup” or “Asup” in any major ancient text. Only one reference to baptism is made and that refers to a ritual coronation for the pharaoh (and it varied in age, rarely 30). No reference work speaks of Horus and his baptism. These contrivances were deliberately made up by anti-Christians to mislead their viewers to assume similarities where there are none.

3. Where was it stated that Horus was born on December 25? In Plutarch’s account, Horus was born “about the time of the winter solstice … imperfect and premature” (Isis and Osiris, Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 5, 1936). This leaves a gap of weeks before or after December. In modern calendar, the winter solstice is Dec. 21/22, not the 25th. This even assumes that ancient Egypt used modern calendar, because ancient myths don’t specify any date at all for the birth of their deities. Notably, Jesus’ birth date is not known and celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 has nothing to do with the winter solstice.

4. In Plutarch’s account, Isis used her magic powers to raise Osiris and fashion a golden phallus to conceive her son. It clearly wasn’t a virgin birth as that of Christ.

5. Horus wasn’t visited by 3 kings, didn’t teach in any temple, had no 12 disciples and didn’t heal the sick. Horus battled Set for 80 years and won, finally becoming a patron of Lower Egypt. Horus wasn’t crucified either. Egyptian texts spoke of Isis and “describes the death of Horus through the sting of a scorpion… Thoth now appeared to her and advised her to hide herself with her unborn child” (The History of Isis and Osiris, Summary: VIII, lxxiv).

This incident occurred long before Horus’ adulthood and Thoth purged the venom from his body. You see, once you consult the source of the myth, a vastly different picture is seen. This is why one good way to refute such arguments is to ask for the original sources of the myths. The critic will either become silent or sing another tune.

6. Horus did not resurrect from the dead. Egyptian myths claim Osiris came to life again in Horus, but this is even far off the bat from Christ’s resurrection. The critic is oversimplifying “resurrection” and trying to parallel it with that of ancient Egypt. This is at best, intellectual dishonesty.

Some other critics theorize that Christianity borrowed some ideas from Buddhism because Buddha was born before the time of Christ. Femi Aribisala, a self-acclaimed “scholar” who seems to be seeking relevance on social media, alleged that Phil. 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” was plagiarised from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta Buddhist scriptures. But here is the quote:

“And now, brethren, I take my leave of you. All the constituents of being are transitory. Work out your salvation with diligence” (Digha Nikaya ii. 155-56 Mahaparinibbana Sutta).

Buddhists don’t believe in sin and their use of the term “salvation” is attaining nirvana or nothingness – a concept utterly remote from the Bible. Comparing the dates of the written documents of Christianity and the religion from which the supposed plagiarism occurred quickly exposes the critic’s assertion. Manuscript evidence shows that the New Testament were written between 50-90 A.D.

But the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), even though he lived about 5 centuries before Christ were passed down orally. They became so fragmented and had variant interpretations that a council was held in the third century BC – hundreds of years after Buddha’s death – to purify his teachings.

“This council refuted the offending viewpoints and expelled those who held them. In the process, the compilation of the Buddhist scriptures (Tipitaka) was supposedly completed, with the addition of a body of subtle philosophy (abhidarhma) to the doctrine (dharma) and monastic discipline (vinaya) that had been recited at the first council” (Quoted from “Buddhism” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 1998).

The earliest manuscript evidence of Buddhist teachings are fragments written on tree barks in 60 A.D. The Diamond manuscript, an early Buddhist text is dated 868 A.D., that is over one thousand years after Gautama lived. During this time frame, however, the Bible had been completed and Christianity had spread extensively through the East and West, so if there was a borrowing or plagiarism, it must have been from Christianity into Buddhism.

Some critics have claimed Krishna, Attis and Baal were prototypes of Jesus, but when you compare the myths of these deities, you will be amazed to behold the critics’ feeble attempts to roll different idols of different ages, characteristics and natures into one and re-cast them in the mould of Jesus Christ.

A Muslim writer, A. S. K. Joomal says the Jesus of the Gospels was patterned after a Mexican idol, Quetzalcoatl who was also a saviour born of a virgin, tempted by Satan, fasted 40 days and was “crucified and that the Mexicans looked forward to his second coming” (The Bible: Word of God or Word of Man, 145).

Here, again, we see a cheap attempt to Christianize a pagan deity by employing loaded Christian words like “saviour,” “crucified” or “second coming.” The Larousse’s New Encyclopedia of Mythology says Quetzalcoatl was one of the Mexican deities represented as a snake-bird and a white haired human old man with red face mask. He wasn’t crucified, instead, he sailed away with a promise to return to his people. These speculative theories actually tell more about the ethics and character of those disseminating them.