Do Pre-Jesus Mythical Figures Debunk Christianity?

dionysus
Dionysus

I almost fell asleep reading another tired article about how Christians borrowed their construction of Jesus from ancient mythological gods and figures, but I pounded a Red Bull and decided to write a post about it.

Those who take time to research these supposed Jesus-like figures see how ridiculous the claims are, because they often simultaneously exaggerate and oversimplify the comparisons. The video below is satirical and silly, but is actually very informative about some of the pre-Jesus figures who supposedly mirror Jesus in significant ways.

I’ll let the video cover some of the inconsistencies and flat out lies associated with this narrative, but let’s look at the most common example from the most commonly compared story–Jesus and Dionysus, which is not featured in the video–as an illustration:

“Dionysus and Jesus were both born of a virgin.” Assuming Dionysus’s mother was a virgin in the first place, that’s where the legitimate comparison ends.

  • Dionysus’s mother, Semele, was a human woman who conceived her son through an adulterous sexual affair with the chief god named Zeus. Zeus’s wife, the goddess Hera, was none too pleased. Hera tricked Semele into begging Zeus to reveal his full glory to her, and when he finally did, it killed her. Dionysus was never actually born, but was rather saved by Zeus in utero in the tragedy of Semele’s death. Half-god/half-man, Dionysus is essentially a half-breed bastard child who was not elevated to the Olympian pantheon of supreme gods for that very reason.
  • Jesus’s mother, Mary, was a human woman, engaged to a human man, who was just as surprised as anyone to find out she was with child. God had no sexual relations with her and he was not married to some other goddess, but instead supernaturally gave a child to Mary–God the Son, co-equal with his Father; he’s not some merely mortal concoction, made on earth with some divine DNA. She also demanded nothing from God and he did not kill her, but rather she was obedient to him as his reluctant servant (not as his scorned lover). Jesus was actually born, and his (fully)God-(fully)man status made him not a redheaded stepchild, but the perfect man whose life and ministry were aimed at redeeming all of creation.

By the way, the Cretans and many others had similar stories about Dionysus, but with different details (e.g., Dionysus’s mother was a goddess rather than a human; a human couple adopted him and raised him as a girl; etc.). So, to make it work, I suppose you’d have to pick which of the several stories about Dionysus actually works best to fit your comparison needs. They all have similar or more ridiculous logical pitfalls, though. Again, watch the video below for more interesting deity comparisons that are just as silly.

Even if we grant that some comparisons are true (and some are admittedly striking at times), the wholesale buy-in that comparisons create a viable apologetic against Christianity is based on several assumptions:

1. The assumption that because Jesus’s story doesn’t appear to be unique, it isn’t. This is a lesson in confirmation bias. The one seeking to discredit Christianity does not need to spend much time searching to find similarities between Jesus and mythological figures. There were hundreds of deities in Greek mythology alone, not including countless deities from other religions. Comparisons, especially exaggerated and oversimplified as they often are, can be found.

I went to a random co-worker this afternoon as a test-case and realized that we have several life details in common: we are both white males, under 30, born to young mothers, with blonde wives, who love the color blue and have the same favorite sitcom. He’s younger, so he’s the copycat. Check. Mate.

2. The assumption that Jesus is not a real, historical person and that Christianity is not unique. To begin your claim with “Jesus’s story is a copycat” is to assume that Jesus isn’t a real, historical person. Christian claims to his deity aside, it’s becoming more and more difficult to dismiss the historical Jesus himself, so ad hominem attacks on the supposed idiocy of Christian faith aren’t all that impressive as a priori arguments.

Tips for those attacking Christianity: demonstrate first that Jesus wasn’t a real person and/or deal with the actual claims of Christianity on their own terms, then come back with the assumption that modern Christians are unintelligent and that early Christians were mere copycats. You’ll find that the similarities are unimpressive. If you’d like to challenge the merit of Christian claims instead, you’ll find more ammunition.

If a man who fits my description commits a heinous crime, I’d appreciate the police first interviewing and investigating me before locking me up for being inevitably similar to someone else. Assumptions based on a vague sketch won’t get you very near to the truth.

3. The assumption that pre-Jesus stories resembling Jesus’s story are a problem in the first place. I remember having a crisis of faith in my early 20’s when I came across this narrative. It took weeks of scouring different mythical stories and texts for me to finally realize the shaky foundation beneath these claims. But another point came to mind: if Jesus really is God incarnate, and if sin has fractured the perfect worship of God, then pre-Incarnation descriptions of the metanarrative of human history (which would eventually include Jesus stepping into said history) are not surprising. If Ecclesiastes 3:11 is true, that “God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end,” then it should not surprise us that his story was being told, even in loose and incorrect ways, long before he came.

Some have convincingly argued that John and other biblical writers are actually using these very myths to prove Jesus’s supremacy. And the early church, for example, had no problem using pre-Jesus mythical stories to demonstrate that Jesus is the truth myth above all others. They would even incorporate the icons of mythical figures into their art! Why? Because they weren’t afraid of the modern, post-Enlightenment problem to which we fall prey. They weren’t assuming that truth is only found in scientific method accuracy that can be explained in a Petri dish or journal article. Now I’m not saying we should all hang Dionysus up in our baptistries, but I think its significant to consider how skeptical we are today.

If even one pre-Jesus story were found to be identical to Jesus’s, it’s not a necessary debunking of Christianity. C. S. Lewis says it this way:

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”

Now, as I said above, enjoy the video:

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