Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior

Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior April 16, 2014

It’s Easter season. As with Christmas, I’ll be rerunning some posts relevant to the season for the next week or so. I hope you enjoy them.

EasterHistory records many dying-and-rising saviors. Examples from the Ancient Near East that preceded the Jesus story include Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal. Here is a brief introduction.

Tammuz was the Sumerian god of food and vegetation and dates from c. 2000 BCE. His death was celebrated every spring. One version of the story has him living in the underworld for six months each year, alternating with his sister.

Osiris was killed by his brother Set and cut into many pieces and scattered. His wife Isis gathered the pieces together, and he was reincarnated as the Egyptian god of the underworld and judge of the dead. He was worshipped well before 2000 BCE.

Dionysus (known as Bacchus in Roman mythology) was the Greek god of wine and dates to the 1200s BCE. The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Dionysus was killed and then brought back to life.

Adonis (from 600 BCE) is a Greek god who was killed and then returned to life by Zeus.

Attis (from 1200 BCE) is a vegetation god from central Asia Minor, brought back to life by his lover Cybele.

In the Canaanite religion, Baal (or Baʿal) was part of a cycle of life and death. Baal and Mot are sons of the supreme god El (yes, one of the names of the Jewish god). When El favored the death god Mot over Baal, the heat of the summer took over and Baal died. He was resurrected when his sister-wife killed Mot.

All these gods:

  • came from regions that were close enough to the crossroads of Israel (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor) for the ideas to have plausibly traveled there,
  • were worshipped well before the time of Jesus, and
  • died and rose again.

This is strong evidence either that the gospel writers knew of and could have been influenced by resurrecting god stories from other cultures or that these stories influenced the Jesus story when it was told from person to person. Remember that a newly converted gentile might have been a Dionysus worshipper. If the Jesus story at that point didn’t have him rising from the dead, memories that his prior god did would’ve put pressure on the Jesus story to improve in that direction.

Is it possible that Judea at this time was a backwater, and the people were unaware of the ideas from the wider world? That seems unlikely. The book of 2 Maccabees, written in c. 124 BCE, laments at how Hellenized the country was becoming. It says that the high priest installed by Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes “at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life.” The book complains about “an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways” and the youth “putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige.”

In fact, the gospels themselves report that the idea of dying and rising again was a familiar concept. Jesus in the early days of his ministry was thought to be a risen prophet.

King Herod heard of [the ministry of Jesus], for His name had become well known; and people were saying, “John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.” But others were saying, “He is Elijah.” And others were saying, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen!” (Mark 6:14–16)

Christian objections

One Christian website does a thorough job attacking poorly evidenced parallels between Jesus and these prior gods. For example, was Dionysus really born to a virgin on December 25? Did Mithras really have 12 disciples? Was Krishna’s birth heralded by a star in the east? The author offers $1000 to anyone who can prove that any of these gods’ lists of parallels are actually true.

I’ll agree that there are strained parallels. One early work that has been criticized for too many claims and too little evidence is The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves (1875). The recent “Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ” by Acharya S also may be reaching.

I don’t have the expertise to weigh in on these many issues, so let’s grant the complaints and dismiss the many unsupportable specific parallels. What’s left is what really matters: that the Jesus story arose in a culture suffused with the idea of dying and rising saviors.

Apologists raise other objections.

Many of these gods actually came after Jesus. That’s why the list above only includes dying-and-rising gods who are well known to have preceded Jesus. There are many more such gods—Mithras, Horus, Krishna, Persephone, and others—that don’t seem to fit as well. In fact, Wikipedia lists life-death-rebirth deities from twenty religions worldwide, but I’ve tried to list above the six most relevant examples.

But Jesus really existed! He’s a figure from history, unlike those other gods. Strip away any supernatural claims from the story of Alexander the Great, and you’ve still got cities throughout Asia named Alexandria and coins with Alexander’s likeness. Strip away any supernatural claims from the Caesar Augustus story, and you’re still left with the Caesar Augustus from history (and a month in our calendar named after him). But strip away the supernatural claims from the Jesus story, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary rabbi. The Jesus story is nothing but the supernatural elements.

Most of those gods were used to explain the cycles of the seasons. Jesus isn’t like them. Yes, Christianity is different from all the other religions, but so is every other religion. If Christianity weren’t different from one of the earlier religions, it would just be that religion.

In another post I explore the Dionysus myth more fully to show the parallels with the Jesus story. That post also notes how Justin Martyr (100–165 CE) not only admitted to the similarities but argued that the devil put them in history to fool us.

Okay, they’re all myths, but the Jesus story is true myth. This was the approach of C.S. Lewis, who said, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in 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.”

So you admit that the Jesus story indeed has many characteristics of mythology but demand that I just trust you that it’s true? Sorry, I need more evidence than that.

And the throw-in-the-towel argument:

Just because Christianity developed in a culture that knew of other resurrecting gods doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t the real thing. And just because the Amazing Randi could do Uri Geller’s spoon-bending stunt through trickery doesn’t mean that Geller wasn’t doing it for real (but that’s the way to bet).

“You haven’t proven the gospel story false” isn’t much of an argument. Those who seek the truth go where the evidence points.

And here’s where the evidence doesn’t point: that humans worldwide invent dying-and-rising saviors … except in the Jesus case, ’cause that one was real!

I found that God never began to hear
my prayer for liberty until I began to run.
Then you ought to have seen

the dust rise behind me
in answer to prayer.
— Frederick Douglass

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 4/15/12.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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  • The point in this article that really struck me, the one I think I’m most likely to be able to use, is that Herod thought Jesus was John raised from the dead. It proves to a Bible believer that in those days, people really thought that could happen, and they thought this before Jesus supposedly actually raised anyone. They were ready to believe it.

    • Jim Jones

      > Herod thought Jesus was John raised from the dead.

      Or, the Greeks who wrote the gospels 100 years after the supposed events imagined Herod thinking that.

      • Good point, and I realized that as I made my comment. To clarify, when talking to a Bible believer who thinks that large numbers of people couldn’t have been swayed by a story of resurrection unless it were true, it could be useful to point out that according to their own scripture, even a king seemed to think such a thing was likely.

    • MGreen

      People had been raised from the dead before in the bible. Either Isaiah or Ezekiel does it too.

      • Greg G.

        I believe Elijah and Elisha raise dead people. Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. I wonder if that story was so his follower Elisha could rise without people asking why Elisha didn’t bring him back to life. If two people who could raise the dead lived at the same time and knew each other, why aren’t they both still alive? Ah, one of them was taken into heaven in bodily form.

        • Pofarmer

          It’s because of “The Fall.”

  • MNb
    • Mick

      You little scallywag!

  • MGreen

    An interesting Baal Adad parallel is that Baal not only is killed by Death but he eventually returns and Death kneels before Baal and accepts his authority. A very anthropomorphic variant of the Jesus story dating to at least 1,300 years before Jesus and from the same region.

    I’m not convinced that the mythic elements of Jesus needs to have been copied from anywhere. It’s a pretty simple idea. But it’s interesting.

  • David Chumney

    Some of those who question the dying/rising parallels [not just Christian apologists, but even serious historians such as Bart Ehrman] point out that other so-called “rising gods” remained in the realm of the dead; yet they rarely stop to acknowledge that that’s exactly where the Christian faith leaves Jesus (after some number of appearances witnessed coincidentally only by believers). He’s “up there” in heaven, not walking the earth, so what’s the big difference?

    Some scholars suggest that the earliest Christian faith was based on the belief that God exalted the crucified and buried Jesus directly to heaven and that the empty tomb accounts represent later tradition.

    The authentic letters of Paul seem to presume first century CE Jewish views of resurrection, which do seem somewhat different from other dying/rising myths, but your point about pagans (non-Jews) having the dying/rising gods in their worldview would help to explain how/why a Jewish concept of “resurrection” could be accepted so willingly by people from the wider Roman world.

    In other words, maybe those pagan beliefs really weren’t the “source” of the primitive Christian belief, but they still could have influenced the acceptance of the Christian belief among non-Jews.

    Not only is there little to the Jesus myth once you omit the supernatural elements, but what’s also important is how much of the Jesus myth seems to be dependent on literary parallels from the Jewish scriptures. Once you recognize how many of the stories about Jesus are clearly influenced by (fabricated from?) such literary parallels, you realize there is not much left that can claim to be actual memories.

    Consider one example–the so-called “temple tantrum” [Paula Fredriksen’s apt phrase for the story traditionally known as the cleansing of the temple]. Once you recognize the scriptural foundations of that dubious account (Malachi 3:1b; Zechariah 14:21b; Isaiah 56 7b; and Jeremiah 7:11), you realize it’s a fictional account composed to explain a historical fact, i.e., Jesus’ crucifixion.

    Here are other obvious examples: Matthew has created the story of the magi following the star and bringing gifts to the infant Jesus based on Numbers 24:17 (the star) and Isaiah 60:3, 5-6 (foreigners bringing gifts of gold and frankincense). Likewise, Matthew has created the story of King Herod giving orders to kill all the male children of Bethlehem based on Exodus 1:15-22 (where Pharaoh orders the killing of all the male Israelite infants) and Jeremiah 31:15 (which describes Rachel mourning for her dead children).

    Dominic Crossan calls these examples “prophecy historicized,” and Robert Price calls it “Old Testament midrash.” Whatever you call it, what seems probable is that many of the stories about Jesus are not based on memories of actual events but instead on material from scripture that has been creatively “reinterpreted.” Thus, as Randel Helms has argued, “The gospels…are largely fictional accounts concerning an historical figure.”

    • wtfwjtd

      When it comes to the gospels, once you strip out the OT parallels, and the other obviously fabricated story elements, about all you have left is a rabbi who was baptized by John the Baptist, and who was crucified by Pilate.
      As for the NT epistles, none of the writers or characters have ever met Jesus, most seem to speak of him in mythical terms, and a few later writers seem to have the belief that he was a historical person(and these few may have gotten this notion from the gospels themselves). So there is very little left of an actual historical person, if there ever really was one.

    • Greg G.

      The authentic letters of Paul seem to presume first century CE Jewish views of resurrection, which do seem somewhat different from other dying/rising myths, but your point about pagans (non-Jews) having the dying/rising gods in their worldview would help to explain how/why a Jewish concept of “resurrection” could be accepted so willingly by people from the wider Roman world.In other words, maybe those pagan beliefs really weren’t the “source” of the primitive Christian belief, but they still could have influenced the acceptance of the Christian belief among non-Jews.

      This is a question I am mulling over. The early Christians certainly knew about other religions. Paul talks about Jesus hundreds of times but only gives about a dozen facts, all of which seem to be from Old Testament verses and most of those are out of context. I’m thinking that the ideas from other religions opened the minds of the early Christians to start seeing OT stories as allegories of hidden mysteries.

      Not only is there little to the Jesus myth once you omit the supernatural elements, but what’s also important is how much of the Jesus myth seems to be dependent on literary parallels from the Jewish scriptures. Once you recognize how many of the stories about Jesus are clearly influenced by (fabricated from?) such literary parallels, you realize there is not much left that can claim to be actual memories.

      I started to look at the 16% of the gospel stories that the Jesus Seminar voted as likely to be authentic. The first was the sabbath debate between Jesus and the Pharisees from Mark 2:23ff. There are so many things wrong with Jesus’ argument that it seems more likely that Mark just saw 1 Samuel 21 as the basis for an argument without reading it carefully or reading the surrounding material in 1 Samuel.

      When you eliminate the supernatural events from Mark, you’re left with some events that are possible but some are not plausible from their internal content. If you first eliminate all the events in Mark that appear to have happened to others in the literature of the day, ther isn’t much left.

      I use “temple tantrum” a lot but it wasn’t original to me. Thanks for mentioning the source. I see the sequence of the fig tree being cursed followed by the temple tantrum followed by them later noticing the withered fig tree as a syllogism that would evoke the memory of the destruction of Jerusalem in the late first century world. Price points out an OT source about a fig tree and “withering to its roots”. It’s in a link I posted yesterday. I’m not on a computer and I’m too lazy to look it up with my thumbs right now.

  • RichardSRussell

    I’ve put together a 4-column “Resurrection Chronology” that lists each event of the original Easter opposite its counterpart from the other gospels, so you can see how and where they depart from each other. Available by e-mailing me directly at

    • I’ve got a copy. Quite handy when doing a careful study of the precise differences.

  • freethinker57

    I found The Jesus Mysteries series, Freke & Gandy, handy in evaluating the myriad of dying-resurecting godman prevalent throughout the ME/Med long before the time of Jesus. All works have their flaws, and these are not perfect (there are 3 in series), but they raise interesting points/parallels and they do cite their sources.

  • trustandobeyalways

    Oh ye of little…this gem I share and no one dare have thought it. It says that Jesus suffered as every man. I mean he wanted to prove himself the messiah by doing great miracles. WRONG. His first miracle? His mother pushing him into turning wedding water into the finest wine at the wedding in Canaan. He resented it because he had to grow in faith that he was indeed the Messiah by lineage and stories not by a miracle three times a day. Do you think he grew up knowing from age 2 he was the seed of Abraham? That is RC silliness. God the Father bragged on him only once. He had to trust from Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and the study his own readings that he was the messiah just as we must come to a conclusion. After his Father bragged on him {Just once} “and behold a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased….(lk 3:17) Now did the devil come over and grab his hand as they entered the nasty Valley? no way- when you feel you are flying around spiritually where everything is roses ,feel convicted, unless of course you are guilty of something real. The important thing here is that Jesus could with an eyeblink supply all of Satan’s request. But as above he chose because he is fighting as a man armed only with the Scripture vs the devil and with faith wins handily without bringing to bare any of his true powers. The Holy Spirit sometimes leads us directly into “trouble” as everyone (especially James) judges you but pay him no mind, he has so many good works but he never shows a soul what they are. Now if you want to rock your mind get a copy of Galatians by Luther (Briscoe)Modern addition- when he talks about that bad boy David.
    Two of the most powerful protestants- Luther had OCD as well as Bunyan “Grace abounding to sinners” The things he accomplished with that tormented mind…IF you do suffer from OCD’s need for certainty you must cling to Sola Fide, almost a dead doctrine as James is preached in one of three pulpits including Protestants. It is so abundantly clear with truth (sola fide) that works as lever to God is utterly ridiculous. Robert Duff Gordon, Wharton 77, Villanova MA in Theology 08

    • No idea what you’re talking about and little desire to find out.

      However, if you have good arguments for believing the gospel story, those are welcome.

  • Eric Thorson

    Whenever I hear the “Jesus is just one of many dying and rising gods” theory, I want to see primary sources. This idea has been so popular in theosophic/new age/atheist circles for over a hundred years that we don’t seem to ever get back to the primary sources which would tell us about these gods. The writers all just reference each other. I think that giving all of them the description of “savior” is probably not accurate at all, as each of these gods would be understood with many roles other than savior. Then, from a literary perspective, it is very easy to see the difference between the literary voice of the Gospels and the literary voice of myth. While miraculous things happen in the Gospels, people are amazed because they know that the world does not work that way. The Gospels take place in the same world we are familiar with. The narrator never takes us to the underworld or the spirit world. The world of myth finds the fantastical to be commonplace. One might ask instead about the emotional need to make these very faint connections between Jesus and Near-Eastern myths. There is something beyond a mere concern for facts driving the need to discredit the Christian message.

    • I’m missing the big point here. Are you saying that there’s little reason to imagine any cross-pollination between the many other god stories and the gospel story?

      Also, I don’t think myth is the word for the Jesus story; “legend” is more apt.

      And yes, it’s precisely a concern for the facts that drives this.

  • Andrea Fitzgerald

    Always a good read, Bob. 😉