The Mythic Origins of Christianity: How Is Christianity Similar to Pagan Religions?
Is Christianity Based on Mythical Characters?
During the first century CE the Roman Empire encompassed most of the territory surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including parts of Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Judea. Many different religions flourished in this time and place—pagan religions, Judaism, and the beginnings of Christianity.
Religious syncretism—the combining of different, even contradictory, beliefs and practices—was common. It was “cafeteria religion” run amok. Various gods and religions were merging with each other and splitting off from others all the time.
During the first century, hundreds of mystery cults thrived. A mystery cult was a secret religion that involved the worship of a god (or gods and goddesses). Many of these gods were savior-gods, with rites and rituals that included baptisms, the symbolic eating of the flesh and blood of the god, and celebrations of the resurrection of the god.
Christianity may have begun as a mystery cult or it might have only assumed some of the beliefs and practices of these cults. Ancient pagan cultures shared a common set of ideas about gods. Christianity may have adopted those ideas, and applied them to Jesus. It seems entirely possible that Jesus Christ began as a celestial god, then became a character in allegorical stories, and finally was seen as a historical person who actually existed.
The Roman Empire
Did Christianity Begin as the Worship of a Sun-God?
The “Christ” of Christianity may have just been another celestial god. There are a number of similarities between various pagan/mystery cult gods and Christianity.
- The birth date of most of the sun-gods is December 25. This is the date of the Winter solstice and the date adopted by the church as the date of the birth of Jesus Christ. The December 25 date is given despite the fact that the Bible says the shepherds were in their fields when Jesus was born which means that Jesus had to have been born in the Spring (Luke 2:8).
- At the time of the Winter Solstice, the sun "dies" for three days starting around December 22, when it stops its movement south; it is then born (resurrected) on December 25, when it begins its movement north.
- The sun was seen as traveling through the 12 signs of the Zodiac. It is possible that the twelve disciples of Jesus symbolized the 12 signs of the zodiac. The Sun-gods often had disciples or attendants (although not always 12 in number).
- The pagan gods had magical births and some were born to a virgin. The gods frequently impregnated young human maidens.
- The pagan gods often had titles like the “The Light of The World,” “The Way”, “The Good Shepherd, etc. These names were also used for Jesus Christ.
- The pagan gods sometimes had a “Last Supper” with their followers before their deaths.
- The pagan gods often were resurrected after their deaths.
- Baptism was a common ritual among the followers of the mystery cults. John the Baptist may have been mimicking this ritual, importing it into Judaism.
- The tradition of consuming bread and wine as the symbolic (or actual) blood and flesh of the god was part of the mystery religions. This corresponds to Jesus saying “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)
The early Christian church acknowledged these similarities. Christian apologists Justin Martyr (100-165 CE) and Tertullian (160-220 CE) commented on the similarities of the Christian beliefs, rites, and rituals to those of the mystery religions. However, they attributed these correspondences to the work of the devil who planted these similarities to discredit Christianity.
How Does Horus Resemble Jesus?
Horus is an Egyptian deity that dates to about 3100 BCE and was commonly worshiped during Greco-Roman times. Horus was a sky god—one translation of his name is “The One Who is Above.” He was also called “The Lord of the Sky.” He traversed the sky in the form of a falcon. His right eye was the sun and his left eye was the moon.
There are many different variations of the story of Horus as would be expected with a myth as ancient as this one. Different myths appear to have merged and become part of the Horus myth.
Horus had a magical birth. His mother, the goddess Isis, used her magic powers to reassemble her dead husband (also her brother) Osiris from his dismembered parts. His penis was missing so she fashioned a golden phallus and used it to conceive her son. The pregnant Isis had to flee her home because her brother Set who ruled at the time had killed Osiris and she knew he would want to kill her son as well. Horus was born at the time of the winter solstice.
He also came to be identified with Osiris, his father, so that he was both son and father at the same time. Horus was a god, but he also was a man because every pharaoh was considered the incarnation of Horus. The story of Horus was also blended with the story of Ra as they were both sun-gods. Ra was born to a mother who was a virgin impregnated by a divine spirit.
There are some common themes between the story of Horus and the story of Jesus Christ. Horus had a magical birth at the time of the winter solstice. Depictions of Isis suckling her son, Horus, closely resemble pictures of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. Both mothers had to flee because a ruler threatened to kill them (Set for Horus and Herod for Jesus.) Both were father and son at the same time and both took on human forms (pharaohs for Horus, an ordinary man for Jesus.) Both had followers (Horus had four and Jesus had twelve) and both preformed miracles (but different kinds of miracles). Horus’ father, Osiris, was resurrected after his death.
How Does Mithra Resemble Jesus?
Mithra was an ancient Zoroastrian deity, a god of light. The myth dates to 1400 BCE, but probably goes back much further. He was called the “The Way,” and “The Truth and the Light.” Mithra was associated with other sun-gods—the Greek god, Helios, and the Roman god, Sol Invictus. Anahita, a virgin goddess of fertility, is sometimes identified as his companion/consort. (In some stories, she is his virgin mother.)
Mithraism was a strong competitor with Christianity to become the most popular religion of the time. Some of the Roman emperors were followers of Mithra and called him the “Protector of the Empire.”
Mithra was born from a rock and shepherds heralded his birth. He was known as a god of truth, light, justice, and salvation. He performed many miracles while on Earth and after his death he ascended to heaven. He promised to return for a final day of judgment of the living and the dead.
The slaying of a bull was part of the ritual of the cult of Mithra. His followers would eat the flesh of the bull and drink (some say bathe in) its blood. If a bull were not available, bread and water or wine could be substituted.
The worship of Mithra also included a eucharistic-style “Lord’s Supper.” Mithra had a banquet with his followers right before his death. An inscription found in a temple of Mithra reads "He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation."
Compare this to the words of John 6:53-54, "...Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." (KJV)
How Does Attis Resemble Jesus?
The Attis cult began around 1200 BCE in Phrygia in Asia. Attis’ mother, Nana, was a virgin, who conceived by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom. In some stories, Cybelle, the “Mother of the Gods” and a great Asiatic goddess of fertility, is his mother. He was reported to have been a shepherd or herdsman beloved by Cybele.
There are two different accounts of the death of Attis. According to one, he was killed by a boar, like Adonis. According to the other, he castrated himself under a pine-tree, and bled to death on the spot. Consequently, the priests in the service of Cybele ritually castrated themselves on entering her service of the goddess. After his death, Attis is said to have been changed into a pine-tree.
Could the celibacy of Catholic priests be a carryover from the worship of Attis?
Are All the Reported Similarities Between Jesus and the Pagan Gods True?
They are not all true. In fact, they are not even mostly true. Many of those who proclaim these similarities have been overzealous in their quest to find similarities.
It appears that these untrue claims are based on the theories of Gerald Massey, an English poet (1828-1927) who had an interest in Egyptology. He wrote several books about the similarities between Horus and Jesus. He got his facts wrong, but his ideas have persisted.
As Richard Price, author of The Christ-Myth, wrote “Those of us who uphold any version of the controversial Christ Myth theory find ourselves immediately the object of not just criticism, but even ridicule. And it causes us chagrin to be lumped together with certain writers with whom we share the Christ myth but little else.”
I only had space to mention three gods who have multiple similarities to Jesus. There are many others including Odysseus, Romulus, Dionysus, Heracles, etc.
I have done my best to sort out the false claims from the true claims. Some of the correspondences may just be coincidences. And I should add the fact that Christianity adopted many pagan beliefs and rituals is not proof that Jesus did not exist as an actual person. Nonetheless, the similarities that I have confirmed are enough to suggest the story of Jesus was blended with the story of pagan gods.
I have noticed that Jesus Christ is often depicted with a golden round glowing orb behind his head. Does it represent the sun? Is it a holdover from the days of sun-gods?
It is used for gods and heroes in many cultures—Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and other religions.
A Word About Mythicism
Saying "Christ is a myth" is not something new. Some scholars have been saying exactly that since at least 1793 when the Enlightenment scholar Charles Dupuis began to publish his 13-volume Origine de Tous les Cultes, ou Religion Universelle, which postulated the mythical origins of Christianity and other ancient religions. Currently people who hold to the theory that Jesus did not exist as a historical person are called "mythers."
The myther theory is very much a minority opinion, but acceptance for it has been growing in recent years.
In this essay I tried to summarize a few of the myths and the practices of religions based on those myths. There are many variations of the mythical stories. I tried to find the most common beliefs. I tried to use objective sources for the myths. Some of the atheist websites thought the myths were identical to the Christ story; some of the Christian apologist websites thought there were no similarities at all. I looked for websites who were in neither of those camps and which told the mythical stories and the religious practices without bias.
If you do your own research you may find information that differs from what I have reported. That does not mean that one of us is wrong. There is a lot of information on this topic. I used the information I judged to be most credible.
For Further Reading
I'd like to know what my readers think.
Which comes closest to your view?
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Catherine Giordano