Is Christianity built upon a myth? One of the enduring claims of atheists and skeptics is that Christianity rehashes the ancient world’s stories of gods dying and rising.
In this work, I will discuss the subject of mythology and examine the stories of dying and resurrecting gods in pagan thought. I will then explore what relationship the biblical world had to myth. Finally, I will juxtapose Catholicism with mythology.
Of Dying And Rising
Stories of kings and gods dying and being resurrected, while not common, were not entirely unknown in the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman world. These included stories of figures such as Mithra, Dionysus, and Osiris, dying and being resurrected.
Significantly, some have suggested that Christianity has borrowed or expanded on these ancient myths. One of those who took this view was the anthropologist James Frazier. In his book on comparative religion, “The Golden Bough,” Frazier suggests that the Ressurection of Jesus is a retelling of the fertility myths of the ancient pagan world. Fertility myths were often centered on crop cycles.
To properly address this question, it is beneficial to understand that a myth can be used in one of two ways. In a first way, myth is simply another way of stating that something is false. In a second way, myth refers to stories that explain various aspects of life. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell defined myth as “Clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.” In this sense, myths are symbolic of a deeper meaning.
Of course, when one argues that Christianity has copied a myth from the ancient pagan world, they are arguing that a key principle of Christianity – the death and Resurrection of Christ – is a retelling of a tale that has no basis in reality.
To adequately address this issue, it is beneficial to examine what the Biblical peoples believed about mythology.
Mythology And The Bible
The question of whether Christianity is another myth of a dying and resurrecting god must, ironically, begin with Judaism. This is because Catholicism should be understood as the fulfillment of Judaism. When Catholicism is placed in this context, one begins to see what Jesus means when He says that He has come to fulfill the law, that is, the Torah. (See Matthew 5:17). Understood inclusively, the Torah is the whole of the Old Testament. Exclusively interpreted, the Torah is restricted to the first five books of the Old Testament. Therefore, when Jesus says that He has come to fulfill the law, He is saying that He is the fulfillment of Judaism.
Therefore, we must begin with Judaism. It is evident from Scripture that Judaism was aware of the various gods of the pagan world. More significantly, the Jews were admonished to reject the pagan myths. The Shema begins with a rejection of polytheism so prevalent in the ancient world. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
It is also noteworthy that Judaism was aware of and rejected the pagan concept of gods as forces of nature. In Isaiah, we read, “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me, there is no God.” This statement is a direct refutation of the pantheon of gods in paganism.
More significantly, at least from the perspective of Catholicism, is the historicity of the Bible.
Catholicism In History
Put simply, the stories and events of the Bible are stories and events that occurred in history. The same cannot be said of the various pagan myths.
Of course, many would like to dismiss the historicity of the Bible, but to do so is illogical and poor scholarship. The vast number of manuscripts, the dating of the texts, and the archaeological evidence are highly persuasive. So much so that the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology concluded that “The historical books [of the Bible] are as accurate historical documents as any that we have from antiquity and are, in fact, more accurate than many of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Greek histories. These Biblical records can be and are used as are other ancient documents in archaeological work.”
That same historicity cannot be found in pagan mythology, particularly as they relate to the death and resurrection of individuals. Edwin Yamauchi, a Professor Emeritus of History, puts it this way, “All of these myths are repetitive, symbolic representations of the death and rebirth of vegetation. These are not historical figures.”
That is to say that the various gods of paganism were not historical figures. Whatever one believes about the divinity of Christ, the record is clear that He was a historical figure.
Still, is it not conceivable that these pagan stories in some way influenced the Gospel authors? Put differently, did the Gospel authors project the stories of death and resurrection in pagan mythology onto the events surrounding the death of Jesus?
The rebuttal to such a claim lies in the fact that Christianity persists. There are no followers of Mithra, Dionysus, or Osiris, but there are billions of followers of Christ. Furthermore, there is no reliable record of Mithra dying, Dionysus being crucified, or Osiris coming back from the dead (Frankfort, Henri. Kingship and the Gods. University of Chicago Press, 1948).
For this reason, philosophy professor Ronald Nash writes, “Allegations of an early Christian dependence on Mithraism have been rejected on many grounds. Mithraism had no concept of the death and resurrection of its god and no place for any concept of rebirth—at least during its early stages. Today most Bible scholars regard the question as a dead issue.”
Moreover, the stories of gods dying and being resurrected do not appear until after the Christian era had begun. (See the work of Tryggve Mettinger of Lund University). Perhaps it is more accurate to charge paganism with copying Christianity rather than Christianity with copying paganism.
Finally, every apostle of Christ suffered and died proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead. It is highly illogical that twelve men allowed themselves to be tortured and murdered for something that they personally knew was a lie.
Here, I echo the Biblical scholar N.T. Wright, that the only explanation from a historical perspective for the pervasiveness of the Christian faith is the resurrection.
In the preceding work, I have endeavored to address the claims that Catholicism is a rehashing of pagan myths. I have shown that there is no basis for these claims. Where pagan mythology is predicated upon nonhistorical tales, Catholicism is very much a religion steeped in history.
The French polymath Rene Girard once referred to Catholicism as the myth that happened. In a sense, Catholicism destroys mythology. Where the various stories of pagan mythology were symbolic but literally false, Catholicism is the great story that happened and continues to happen.