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 quoted 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; was visited by shepherds at birth; had 12 apostles, instituted a last supper and died for humanity – all of which the New Testament allegedly 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 three centuries, Christianity was despised and persecuted.

In first century Roman Empire, four 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 its familiarity but its difference. Christianity was regarded  a “strange religion;” an illegal religion (religio illicita), and this led to the murder of many Christians.

If Jesus was a myth and Christianity was merely an offspring of paganism, the disciples and early Christians wouldn’t have laid down their lives instead of giving it up.

The pagans who killed and persecuted Christians during those times knew full well that what they believed was far different from what their victims believed.

Mithraism 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, consistent and 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 his 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 any possibility of someone 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 and both deities shaking hands and at an altar with pieces of meat on a spit. One artwork shows Sol kneeling before Mithras who holds an object resembling a bull’s haunch. [4]

This difference is crucial, because the birthday of Sol Invictus was December 25, but that was not Mithras’ birthday. 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 version said he leaped out of the rock as a child, another says as a youth, another says as flames yet another said he emerged as thunderbolt. But there is no account of Mithras born by a virgin mother.

The claim of Mithras visited by shepherds at birth or having 12 apostles lacks documented evidence. This is simply a cheap attempt by hostile critics 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 observed by Mithraists. Modern critics, deploying a twisted logic, assume that since Mithraism had such ritual meals and was supposedly older, Christianity must have stolen the idea from them! This hypothesis falls flat on its face.

Most of the textual evidence for Mithraist doctrine dates after the New Testament was widely circulated. There is even the 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 Christians assert that 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 so as 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, but 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 is not saved. Actually, 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 New Testament 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; He created all languages and may not expect everyone to use the same name for Him. 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), Jésus (French) or Jesu (Yoruba, Igbo).

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.

Zeus’ infancy narrative even 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 wine, ritual madness, fertility 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.

End 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 University Press, 1991, 8.

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

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

6. Clauss Manfred, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries, Richard Gordon Books, 2001, xxi.

7. David Ulansey, p. 8.

8. David Ulansey, The Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras.

9. M. J. Vermaseren, Mithras, The Secret God, Chatto and Windos, 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.

Is Jesus a copy of Ancient “Hero” Deities?

naitivity

A couple of days before Christmas in 2016, a headline ricocheted some media outlets: “5,000 Year old Nativity Scene found in Egypt.” It was a report of 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 he be taken as an authority?

You see, the 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 less a coincidence; even if it was 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 in this century takes with any degree of seriousness. They are urban legends and propaganda mush.

Josh McDowell in his work, A Ready Defense, listed 4 major fallacies committed by critics who make the “Jesus is a copy of ancient gods” claim.

a) Combinationism: they roll all ancient pagan religions and their deities into one box and assume they were monolithic, coherent and unified belief systems from 1500 B.C.- 400 A.D.

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

c) Oversimplification: they select a common theme (such as resurrection) and claim that Christianity borrowed it from an ancient pagan myth while ignoring the wide conceptual differences between both.

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 it 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 answer the arguments 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, and they attached various attributes to each deity. There were different versions of Horus and Isis in the Kemet.

2. The movie’s narration of the myth of Horus was peppered with Christian 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.

The name “Anup” or “Asup” doesn’t occur in any major ancient text. Only one reference to baptism is made in an Egytptian text and it 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 audience to assume similarities where there are none.

3. There’s no extant record that says 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 our modern calendar, the winter solstice is Dec. 21/22, not Dec. 25. This even assumes that ancient Egypt used our 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 from the dead and fashion a golden phallus to conceive her son. Thus, it wasn’t a virgin birth as that of Christ.

5. Horus was not visited by any 3 kings; he didn’t teach in any temple; he had no 12 disciples and he 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 way to refute such arguments is to ask for the original source or documentation of the myths. The critic will either become silent or sing another tune.

6. Horus did not resurrect from the dead. Egyptian myths said Osiris came to life again in Horus, but this is even far off the bat from Christ’s resurrection.

The critics claiming otherwise are oversimplifying the word “resurrection” and trying to parallel it with that of ancient Egypt. This is at best, intellectual dishonesty.

Some other enemies of the gospel allege 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 Philippians 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 was written between 50-90 A.D. On the other hand, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – though he lived about 5 centuries before Christ – were passed down orally.

These teachings 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” (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, “Buddhism”).

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 throughout the East and West, so if there was a borrowing or plagiarism, it must have been from Christianity to Buddhism.

Some critics have also claimed that 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 South African Muslim writer, A. S. K. Joomal, wrote that 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, p. 145).

Here, again, we see a cheap attempt to Christianize a pagan deity by employing loaded Christian words like “saviour,” “crucified” or “second coming.”

But here’s what the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (Crescent Books, NY, 1987, p. 430) says about Quetzalcoatl:

Quetzalcoatl, the Snake-bird, god of wind, master of life, creator and civiliser, patron of every art and inventor of metallurgy, was originally a deity of Chololan, but was driven out by the intrigues of Tezcatlipoca and decided to return to the old land of Tlapallan after the fall of the Tulla. He burned his houses, built of silver and shells, buried his treasure, and set sail on the Eastern sea preceded by his attendants who had been changed into bright-hued birds, after promising his people he would return to them. Ever since then sentries were stationed on the East coast to watch for the god’s return.

Once again, the original myth conflicts with the agenda-driven narratives of the Bible hater. These false accusations and sensational theories actually tell a lot about the ethics and character of those disseminating them.

The Divine Exchange

The entire message of the Gospel revolves around one unique historical event: the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. With this single, sovereign act, God offers to us an all-sufficient solution to all the problems of man. A divine exchange took place at the cross and it’s imperative that we understand what it entails and live in its reality.

1. Jesus took our punishment and offers us the reward of His obedience.

All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53:6)

The Hebrew word translated as “iniquity” is avon. It stands for our collective rebellion against God and the punishment or evil consequences attached to iniquity. In Leviticus 16:22, concerning the scapegoat released on the day of Atonement, God said:

The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land.

The goat symbolically bore not just the iniquities of the Israelites, but also all the consequences of their iniquities. Similarly, Jesus wasn’t guilty of any sin, but God laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Like the scapegoat that prefigured Him, He carried them away so that they might not return again upon us. He endured in our place all the evil consequences that we deserved by divine justice and in exchange, God offers us all the good that was due to the sinless obedience of Christ.

2. Jesus dealt with both sin and sickness.

Isaiah 53:4-6 says “Surely he took up our infirmities [literally, sicknesses] and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.

Jesus received the punishment due to our sins that we might have peace with God and He also bore our sicknesses that through His wounds we might be healed. He “bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2:24)

3. Jesus took our sins upon Himself that we might receive His righteousness.

Through the sin offerings of the Mosaic law, God showed us the necessity of the shedding of innocent blood and the giving of life to pay the price of sin. This was accomplished once-for-all by the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Jesus. “He poured out His soul unto death” (Is. 53:12). “For He [God] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

4. Jesus died our death that we might receive His life.

The final outcome of sin is death: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezk. 18:4). Thus, as Jesus became identified with our sin it was inevitable that He should also experience the death that is the outcome of sin. “For the wages [just reward] of sin is death, but the [unearned] gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23)

To all who accept His sacrifice, Jesus said: “I came so that my sheep will have life” (Jn. 10:10b).

5. Jesus became poor with our poverty that we might become rich with His riches.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9)

Jesus became poor on the cross. It was there He was hungry, thirsty, naked and in need of all things. Even after His death, He was buried in a borrowed robe and tomb. These are the features of poverty (Dt. 28:48).

In exchange, God offers to all who believe, a life of abundance exemplified by Jesus: “And God is able to make all grace abound towards you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have an abundance for every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).

6. Jesus endured our rejection that we might have His acceptance as God’s children.

Spiritual alienation from God came about through the Fall. But this was promised: “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit – a wife who married young, only to be rejected.” (Is. 54:6) This is seen in the agony of Jesus at the cross when He cried out: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” and He cried again “yielded up His spirit” (Mt. 27:46, 50).

And at that instant, the veil of the temple was torn into two. Sinful man can now have direct fellowship with a holy God. Through the rejection of Christ, God adopted us as His children. “Having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Himself … He [God] has made us accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:5-6).

7. Jesus became a curse at the cross that we might receive the blessings of Abraham by faith.

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law having become a curse for us for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:13-14).

Through the death of Jesus Christ, God has provided us a release for us from all the curses listed in Deuteronomy 28. We can therefore appropriate the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ to be removed from the shadow of curses into the sunlight of God’s blessings.

As Christians, our response should be a deep appreciation of what Jesus did for us at the cross. We need to thank God ever day for the great exchange that took place at Calvary.