This particular claim toward pagan sources for Christianity and Christian Holy Days goes under various names: Jesus Myth Theory, Jesus Mythicism, Mythicism, Copy-cat Theory, and probably other terms.
The basic claim is that Christ is a fake: an unoriginal copy-cat of some other supposedly more ancient pagan god or gods.
These claims are bunk. Both historians and Biblical theologians have been very thorough in debunking these claims since their earliest times.
A common example that circulates on the web, Twitter, and Facebook is the following graphic:
Most people who share this kind of post do not have the intellectual integrity to bother checking up on these claims. And having a reputation as an Atheist thinker doesn’t seem to keep even famous “thinkers” from falling for this fictional bunk.
But the fact is that this falsehood is widely and popularly promoted by people who claim to be objective. Yet they couldn’t be bothered to actually do the research.
A short list of recent so-called documentaries that have promoted this falsehood:
- The God Who Wasn’t There directed by Brian Flemming and featuring Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price (2005)
- The Pagan Christ produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and featuring Tom Harpur (2007)
- Zeitgeist: The Movie directed by Peter Joseph (2007)
- The Hidden Story of Jesus produced by Channel 4 and featuring Robert Beckford (2007)
- Religulous directed by Larry Charles and featuring Bill Maher (2008)
- Caesar’s Messiah by Joseph Atwill (2013)
A couple of recent books popularizing this fiction written by well known Atheist authors:
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, 2006
- God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (or god Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion) by Christopher Hitchens, 2007
[These are all 2005 and after, list is from Christ Myth Theory.]
But Hitchens, Dawkins, Maher, Atwill, Dan Brown and others are merely repeating the creative fiction of anti-Christian zealots from the 18th century and after. Back then it was hard for people to check up on the scholarship of a published work. Some of these original thinkers were:
- Constantin François Chassebœuf de Volney (1757–1820) and
- Charles-François Dupuis (1742–1809) both argued that Christianity derived from a mixing of various pagan religions. [The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900-1950 By Walter P. Weaver, 1999, pp. 45, 69] [see also here]
- Robert Taylor (1784-1844) began study to become an Anglican clergyman and turned radically against the Church. He claimed that Christianity was a mish-mash of solar myths in his The Diegesis (1829) and began a society to undermine the Church and challenge lectures and debates.
- Richard Carlile (1790-1843) joined up with Robert Taylor in 1829 to form the “Infidel Home Missionary Tour”, influencing a young student named Charles Darwin. Taylor was dubbed “The Devil’s Chaplin” and they began circulating a publication called “The Devil’s Pamphlet.” Carlile helped form one of the first Atheist groups in England. [A publication of sermons from The Devil’s Pulpit with a short biography of Taylor and his work with Carlile]
- Bruno Bauer (1809-82)–Student of Hegel, associate of Nietzsche, and inspiration for Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus [ praise on p. 159 in Chapter 11 describing Bauer here]. Always anti-Christian and antisemitic in his writings, in 1840 his work turned toward described Jesus as a fusion of Roman, Greek, and Jewish theology. [see also here]
- Gerald Massey (1828–1907) an English poet and Spiritualist author, affected by the Romantic movement, became interested in Egyptology and creatively asserted that Christ and Christianity was borrowed from Egyptian mythology, particularly Horus. The initial work was The Natural Genesis in 1883 (v. 1, v. 2), which was adopted by Madam Blavatsky and her new religion of Theosophy.
There are many other contributers to this stream of creative fiction. It is apparent by looking at their life and work that they had all their own vested interests in discrediting Christianity. The Wikipedia article on Christ Myth Theory is actually very helpful at gaining source information. It does contain some chronological inaccuracies about the movement. But a bit of careful reading can clear up the matter of who invented which idea when.
For many who pass this falsehood on there is an excellent and short video by Pr. Hans Fiene’s video commentary from Lutheran Satire titled “Horus Ruins Christmas” may be enough to help. The video is focused on the Horus variant, but includes Mithra and others.
Pr. Fiene recently revisited this issue with a new video titled Horus Reads the Internet.”
But there is a lot more background to this series of attacks against Christ, Christianity, and Christian Worship.
The following is a list of supposed originals that they claim formed the basis for Jesus. The list is mainly from James Holding’s very helpful website. Documentation for sources and rebuttals can be found at that website.
Adonis — The Greek deity.
Alcides (Or Hercules) –The Greek strongman/demigod.
Alexander of Abonuteichos — A charismatic figure who started a quasi-religious movement; this is more of a claim of a social parallel.
Apollonius of Tyana — Pagan performer of miracles and traveller.
Attis — Phrygian and later Greco-Roman demigod.
Baal — Ancient Near Eastern deity.
Balder — Norse deity.
Beddru of Japan — a non-existent entity.
Chu Chulainn — Celtic hero.
Crite — non-existent figure.
Dazhdbog — Russian heroic figure.
Deva Tat — Heroic figure from Siam.
Dionysus [Bacchus] — Greek god of wine.
The Flavian Dynasty — Caesars of Rome that supposedly invented Christ.
Hesus — Deity associated with druids.
Horus — Egyptian deity. Also covers Osiris.
Krishna — Hindu deity.
Mithra — Persian deity.
Osiris — Egyptian deity.
Prometheus — Greek demigod.
Quetzalcoatl — Mesoamerican deity.
Romulus — co-founder of Rome.
Salivahana — Indian teacher.
Serapis — Mediterranean deity.
Tammuz — Sumerian shepherd-god.
Zamloxis — Thracian hero.
Zoar — Unknown figure.
Zoroaster — Religious founder.
James Holding also published a book dealing specifically with this attack against Christianity.
Holding, James Patrick. Shattering the Christ Myth. s.l.: Xulon Press, 2008.
Finding research online to debunk these claims is not actually a difficult thing to do.
One Example: Jesus is Mithra
The following link is an example of a page promoting this falsehood. The article is by a person named Kevin Williams.
Jesus as the Reincarnation of Mithra.
What we should note is how academic or scholarly it pretends to be. Consider just for example this point in William’s post:
7. Reverend Charles Biggs stated: “The disciples of Mithra formed an organized church, with a developed hierarchy. They possessed the ideas of Mediation, Atonement, and a Savior, who is human and yet divine, and not only the idea, but a doctrine of the future life. They had a Eucharist, and a Baptism, and other curious analogies might be pointed out between their system and the church of Christ (The Christian Platonists, p. 240).
What the text actually says in context is the following:
The disciples of Mithra formed an organized church with a developed hierarchy. They possessed the ideas of Mediation, Atonement, and a Saviour, who is human and yet divine, and not only the idea, but a doctrine of the Future Life. They had a Eucharist, and a Baptism, and other curious analogies might be pointed out be tween their system and the Church of Christ. Most of these conceptions, no doubt, are integral parts of a religion much older than Christianity. But when we consider how strange they are to the older polytheism of Greece and Rome, and when we observe further that Mithraism did not come into full vogue till the time of Hadrian, that is to say till the age of Gnosticism, we shall hardly be wrong in judging that resemblances were pushed forward, exaggerated, modified, with a special view to the necessities of the conflict with the new faith, and that differences, such as the barbarous superstitions of the Avesia, were kept sedulously in the background with the same object. Paganism was copying Christianity, and by that very act was lowering her arms. [emphasis mine]
Yes, simply looking up the references used as evidence in support for their arguments usually undercuts what they claim. In this case, Kevin Williams’s proof is actually a statement of an idea that the original work is arguing against.
There are two websites I’d suggest for rebuttals specific to the Mithra claim. But take these with a grain of salt. Tekton, for instance, doesn’t accurately deal with the Dec. 25th date in two ways.
First, the establishing of this date for the celebration of Christ’s birth is very early in the Church [by the end of the 2nd century].
Second, there is no birth date for Mithra given in the ancient sources. The association of Dec. 25 with Mithra was a conjecture by a scholar named Cumont.
The study of Mithraism is itself very useful. And, in fact, you can in less than a day learn all there is to know about the actual textual evidence left to us about this religion. The iconography and art would take a bit longer, but those are left to wide and wild interpretations.
A valuable website with all you would ever need to know about what is really known about Mithraism has been put together by Roger Pearse.
- The Roman Cult of Mithras
- All extant ancient documents on Mithraism are gathered here.
- A useful page on Mithraism and Christianity
- And a useful page on Modern myths: “Mithras and Jesus”