"Answering Objections" part 7
The Origin of Our Beliefs about Jesus
by Greg Hanson

Would it surprise you to find out that our beliefs in the birth, the death, and resurrection of Jesus all come out of pagan mythology? The early disciples were influenced by other beliefs that were rampant at the time, so they just adopted a belief here or there and gradually those beliefs became part of what we know as Christianity. Does that surprise you?

It would surprise me, because it’s not true. Yet it’s a growing belief that’s being circulated these days. The allegation is that our beliefs in a virgin birth, in a dying God, and a resurrection all have their origins in paganism, or in mystery religions.

This idea was first floated back in the late 1800s when Kersey Graves released a book called “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors.” And for a while it gained some traction. But by the mid-1900s, the idea had been debunked by scholars and the issue was considered to be settled. That was true even for skeptics who consider Christianity to be just another natural religion. They rejected the idea that Jesus had pagan origins. Even today, atheistic websites warn that the book by Kersey Graves is not to be taken seriously.

Just to give you an idea of the reliability of the book, one of the crucified saviors that he mentioned that you might be familiar with was Mohammed. In the late 1800s, not many Westerners would be that familiar with Islam, so he might have been able to get away with that then. But Muslims do not believe that Mohammed was crucified or that he had a resurrection. Besides, Mohammed came along centuries after Jesus, so stories about him have nothing to do with Jesus.

So through the rest of the 20th century no one argued that there was a connection between Jesus and paganism.

That is, until the rise of the Internet. You know what the Internet’s like... people can write whatever they want to write, they could be making the whole thing up, they could be inventing conspiracies, and they can put their ideas online regardless of whether there’s any substance to them or not. And that’s what has happened with this alleged pagan connection. Somebody started the whole thing rolling again, and it spread from there.

And along the way, there have been a few people who have cashed in and promoted the idea that Jesus had pagan origins. It’s been woven into best-sellers, into movies, into documentaries... maybe you’ve even seen some of them. Like in “The DaVinci Code”... one of the main characters made the comment that “nothing in Christianity is original.” What did he mean? He meant that all our beliefs came from other ancient pagan religions.

The movie Zeitgiest has convinced a lot of people about these claims. In that movie, Horus is one of the pagan gods that Jesus supposedly stole from. Just to kind of give you a breakdown of that claim...

Horus was born on December 25. Actually, he was born in the month of Khoiak which would span October and November. Doesn’t matter, anyway, since Christians do not claim that Jesus was born on December 25. That’s just the date chosen to celebrate His birth, but we don’t know His actual date of birth.

Horus’ mother was supposed to be Isis Mary, a virgin. But Isis was never called Mary. And besides, Mary is just our anglicized form of Miriam. And Isis was not a virgin. She was the widow of Osiris.

The movie talked about three kings visiting the newborn savior Horus. But there was no belief about any kings visiting Horus. And the Bible never says there were three, so the number is irrelevant. And Horus was not seen as a savior.

The movie talked about Horus being a prodigy teacher at the age of 12. But there’s no account of that in mythology.

Horus was supposedly baptized when he was 30. But the only story about Horus that involved water was when he was torn to pieced and Isis asked the crocodile god to fish the pieces out of the water.

Horus was supposed to have 12 disciples. Actually, the belief was that he had four semi-gods following him as well as 16 humans and a bunch more who went into battle with him.

The movie says Horus was betrayed, but there’s no record of that. It said he was crucified; there are a variety of stories about how Horus died, but none of them involved crucifixion. And it says he was buried for three days before coming back to life. But there was no belief that he was buried for three days or that he physically came back to life, although some of the stories involved him coming to life in the underworld.

So those are some of the claims that are being made. Basically, these allegations are conspiracy theories. The problem is, as soon as you call them a conspiracy theory, you get accused of turning a cover-up. So maybe the best thing you can do when someone presents this idea to you is to ask for specific examples. What are the similarities, and in what ways are they similar? Because when you start looking at the details, the similarities between Christianity and pagan religions begin to fade away. However, if you’re not willing to put the time or effort into checking out the claims, it’s easy to be deceived.

And this subject is important, because Christianity is not based on what we choose to believe or not to believe; it’s based on what actually happened or didn’t happen. It’s about historical events. If the history is false, then all of Christianity is false. So if Jesus never really died and rose again... if that belief was just taken from other religions... then Christianity is worthless. That’s why it’s important for you to know the truth yourself and how to respond to others.

We’re in this series about “Answering Objections,” and I want you to be able to respond when people raise this kind of objection. And I want you to know that the claims pose no real threat to what you believe.

One of the books that talks about Jesus having a pagan connection was “The Laughing Jesus” written by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy...

“Each mystery religion taught its own version of the myth of the dying and resurrecting Godman, who was known by different names in different places. In Egypt, where the mysteries began, he was Osiris. In Greece he became Dionysus, in Asia Minor he is known as Attis, in Syria he is Adonis, in Persia he is Mithras, in Alexandria he is Serapis, to name a few.”
~ Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy in “The Laughing Jesus”

So that’s the claim. Is there any validity to it? No, there’s not. Let’s talk about why...

Didn’t the early Christians “borrow” beliefs from pagan religions?

A.    There are several misleading or deceptive arguments in this theory.
(Adapted from “Reinventing Jesus” by Ed Komoszewski, James Sawyer, and Dan Wallace)

•    The problem of treating all the different pagan religions as one. (The Composite Fallacy)

Those who make the comparison between Jesus and pagan religions typically lump all the pagan religions together and treat them as one. That way it makes it look like there are a lot more similarities than there really are. Say you took a dozen different pagan religions, and there was one similarity that each one had with Christianity, if you lump them all together then you have twelve similarities. That might seem pretty significant, but when you start to compare them one at a time, you quickly find out that there aren’t all that many similarities after all.

•    The problem of the chicken or the egg. (The Chronological Fallacy)

For example, Mithras was one of the pagan gods Christianity supposedly stole from. But many of the beliefs of Mithraism didn’t develop until at least a hundred years after the time of Jesus, including the alleged similarities. So if there really are similarities, it would be Mithras borrowing from Jesus and not the other way around. Plus, Mithraism was a religion of the Roman military and would be unlikely to appeal to the early followers of Jesus. On top of that, there’s no archaeological evidence that any pagan religions existed in first century Palestine. The Jews and the early Christians were fiercely monotheistic while the pagan religions were polytheistic, and so the pagan religions had no presence in their society. It wasn’t until centuries later that they would have begun to interact. And Christians from the beginning insisted on the uniqueness of Jesus. They weren’t looking to borrow ideas.

Ronald Nash wrote...

“The uncompromising monotheism and the exclusiveness that the early church preached and practiced make the possibility of any pagan inroads . . . unlikely if not impossible.”
~ Ron Nash in “The Gospel and the Greeks”

“Historians acknowledge that there are several variations to many of these myths and that they also evolved and changed under the influence of Roman culture and, later, Christianity. Historical research indicates that it was not until the third century A.D. that Christianity and the mystery religions came into real contact with one another.”
~ Patrick Zukeran, “The Pagan Connection: Did Christianity Borrow from the Mystery Religions?”

The fact that the beliefs about Jesus were not already being spread around in other forms is seen in the way that people responded to the Christian message. When Paul preached about Jesus to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the city of Athens--a people and place that would have known about pagan religions--how did they respond? Did they say, “Oh, you mean like Horus.” Or, “Ah, so just like Mithras.” No, the message about Jesus was revolutionary. It certainly wasn’t something they were already familiar with. Take a look...

Acts 17:18-21 (NLT)
When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”
Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)

It’s clear that these Greek philosophers, as scholarly as they may have been, had never heard about a dying and rising Saviour before. It certainly wasn’t something they had heard from other religions.

•    The problem of redefining terms. (The Terminology Fallacy)

For example, Mithras is said to have had a virgin birth. But what does that mean? The story of Mithras is actually that he emerged from a rock fully grown. That was his supposed “virgin birth.” In our society, you hear that Mithras had a virgin birth and you go, “Whoa... conspiracy!” But if you mentioned a virgin birth to the ancient followers of Mithras, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. (Partially because they wouldn’t have spoken english, but also because they didn’t think of it as a virgin birth.)

Dionysus is also said to have had a virgin birth. But the actual story is that the god Zeus took on the form of a man and had sex with a human woman. Zeus’ wife (Hera) tried to destroy the woman and the unborn child, but Zeus rescued the fetus. He then sewed the fetus into his thigh where it remained until its birth. That’s how Dionysus was born--not a virgin birth at all and entirely different from the birth of Jesus where Mary had no physical relationship with a man or a god.

That’s a common strategy. Skeptics will redefine terms so that it seems like there’s more in common than there really is. Even when you look at various cults today, you’ll find that Christian terms are used but they mean something different. For example, while the term “Son of God” is used by Christians to highlight the divinity of Jesus, Jehovah’s Witnesses use it to describe Jesus as an angel. And so you have to be careful not to be deceived by the terms.

•    The problem of how history is unfolding. (The Intentional Fallacy)

In pagan religions, our existence is cyclical, like the seasons. What goes around comes around. We’re in a never-ending cycle of rising and falling, living and dying... everything repeats itself.

But Christianity is very different from that. Christianity recognizes that our existence is linear... that we’re moving toward something. There’s a purpose to our existence, as God is unfolding His plan. That by itself makes Christianity fundamentally different from pagan religions.

B.    Only Jesus willingly chose to die for our sins, and He died once for all.

The pagan gods died as a result of hunting accidents, emasculations, murder, or other mishaps. And as part of the cyclical view of our existence that we talked about earlier, in some pagan religions the gods rise and fall repetitively. By comparison, what does the Bible say about Jesus?

1 Peter 3:18 (NLT)
Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.

C.    The resurrection of Jesus was physical and predates other accounts of dying and rising gods.

This is another problem of redefined terms. People might tell you that the Egyptian god Osiris had a Resurrection, but did he really?

The actual story is that Osiris was murdered by his brother Set, he was put in a coffin, and the coffin sank to the bottom of the Nile River. When Osiris’ wife, Isis, recovered the body, Set was enraged and cut Osiris’ body into fourteen pieces. Those pieces were then thrown into the Nile, and Isis was only able to recover thirteen of them. However, she took those thirteen pieces, bandaged them all together, and created the first Egyptian mummy. As a result, Osiris came to life in the underworld, ruling over the realm of the dead in a zombie-like state. Is that really a resurrection story? Not by the way we define the word.

Attis is also said to have had a resurrection. The actual story is that Attis was a simple shepherd that a mother-goddess named Cybele fell in love with. But Attis cheated on her, so she made him go insane. (No, I’m not going to draw any parallels to women driving men insane today.)

Anyway, in his insanity, Attis castrated himself and died. Cybele felt so bad that she preserved his body, which allowed his hair to continue to grow and his little finger could move. In some versions, Attis came back as an evergreen tree. Any belief in a physical resurrection for Attis dates to a hundred and fifty years after the time of Jesus. So again, any actual similarity would be because Attis stole from Jesus, not the other way around.

There are no pagan beliefs in a dying and physically rising god that predate Jesus. It makes a compelling story, but there’s no truth to the claim that our beliefs about Jesus came from pagan religions.

D.    Christianity came out of Judaism, not paganism.

The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies... some dating back over a thousand years before the time of Jesus. Judaism pointed toward the coming of Jesus and foretold the very things that people today claim came from pagan religions. That’s a revisionist view of history, and you’ve got to make some pretty big leaps and some pretty sweeping generalizations to even begin to make that claim.

Okay, so Jesus did not come from pagan religions. But still, couldn’t everything about Him be made up? What if He never really existed, but instead all the stories about Him were cooked up?

Why should I believe Jesus was even a real historical figure?

This is the “Jesus Myth Hypothesis,” the idea that maybe Jesus never really existed but is instead just a myth. This is an objection you might hear from time to time, usually from people who have never done any research and are just spouting off a hypothetical situation. Because there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the historicity of Jesus. In fact, G.A. Wells wrote a book called The Jesus Myth denying that Jesus ever existed but now, because of the evidence, he has changed his mind and admits he was wrong. So let’s talk about why you and the people you talk to should recognize that the Jesus of Christianity was a real, historical person.

A.    When you have ancient document that bears the earmarks of recording actual history, you do not reject it as false unless you have good reason.

And “I don’t like it or its implications” is not a good reason.

All the Gospels bear the earmarks of recording actual history. They all present themselves as genuine historical records, talking about real events in a real place at a real time in history. I’m not a historian, but from what I understand--whenever you uncover ancient documents--you accept them as being factual unless you have good reason to do otherwise.

That doesn’t mean you have to accept every little detail as being accurate, but you would typically accept the document as valid. While you may debate about the writer’s intention or their perspective, you would accept the writing as containing actual history.

That’s the way it is with every other ancient book or document. Unless it is discovered to be unreliable or fictitious, you accept it. It’s only the Bible that people try to change the rules for, despite the fact that the Bible is the most reliable of all historical documents when measured by the number of manuscripts, the people who wrote it, and the timeframe in which it was written.

B.    An early Christian creed can be traced back to within a couple years of the alleged crucifixion.

In particular, there’s a creed that Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians that many scholars believe can be traced back to within 2-3 years of the crucifixion.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (NLT)
Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve.

2-3 years. Actually, there are even those who date it as early as 18 months. And of course, there will be some that would date it a bit later. Maybe 5-10 years.

Either way, that’s still incredibly early. People were writing about and talking about something that literally “just happened,” not something that happened a long time ago. It was far too early for a myth about Jesus to arise. It takes at least a couple generations for a legend to develop, because you need time for eyewitnesses to die and for people to not be able to check the evidence.

So in addition to the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which were written very early on, you have the even earlier verbal record of this creed that Paul quotes.

C.    There are several early documents—both Biblical and extra-Biblical—that portray Jesus as real.

A lot of people will tell you that you can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible. But what you can do is treat the Bible as any other ancient book. And we’ve already talked during this series about the historical validity of the New Testament. Remember, it’s not one book; it’s a collection of 27 different books written by nine different people. The Bible by itself is pretty convincing evidence of the historicity of Jesus.

But even if for some reason you do disqualify the Bible, there are several other ancient sources that talk about Jesus. Here’s a list, mostly from the first and second centuries...

  • Clement of Rome (c. 96 AD)
  • Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107-110 AD)
  • Flavius Josephus (37–100 AD)
  • Julius Africanus (c. 221 AD)
  • Acts of Pilate (c. 37 AD?)
  • Babylonian Talmud (70-200 AD)    Pliny the Younger (c. 61-112 AD)
  • Mara bar Sarapion (1st-3rd century)
  • Suetonius (c. 70-130 AD)
  • Justin Martyr (103-165 AD)
  • Apocrypha & Gnostic writings (up to 4th century)    Lucian (c. 125-180 AD)
  • Celsus (c. 180 AD)
  • Tacitus (c. 56-117 AD)
  • Thallus (c. 50-100 AD)
  • Papias (c. 90)
  • Quadratus (d. 124)

We have more evidence for the existence of Jesus than we do even for some of the Roman emperors! And what’s really amazing is that we have all this evidence despite the short time Jesus was in the spotlight and the relatively unimportant area where He spent His life.

Remember, Jesus was only in the public eye for about three years. Not long at all. And He lived in occupied territory under Roman rule, but he mainly interacted only with the Jews. I wouldn’t expect most historians to mention Jesus, let alone write much detail about Him.

“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.
“He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. . . .
“While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth—His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.”
~ James Allan Francis

If you want to know why there aren’t more Roman records about Jesus, the answer is that He wasn’t seen as being that important. Plus, even if there were more records about Jesus, remember that Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in AD 70. There would have been a lot of official documents that would have been destroyed during that siege.

Yet despite the relative unimportance of Jesus during the time between His birth and His crucifixion, we do have all of these other external records that have survived to the current day.

The most famous extraBiblical record of Jesus is probably from Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish historian who was writing about the history of the Jews in the first century. And being a devout Jew, Josephus didn’t much like Jesus.

Josephus mentions Jesus in two places in his writings. In one of those, it’s obvious that what Josephus wrote was later edited by someone else... perhaps a Christian trying to explain more about who Jesus was. The other passage has no such problem. It’s considered to be authentic to the original writings. And even considering the possibility of the first passage being edited, there’s no disputing that Josephus on two occasions wrote about Jesus as a real person.

Now, this whole idea that Jesus was not an actual historical figure seems to stem from a belief that the apostle Paul never referred to real events in the life of Jesus. Paul is supposedly silent about the life and ministry of Jesus.

But was he really? In your notes, I’ve included a whole list of things that Paul does teach about Jesus. And all of them come from the letters of Paul that are undisputed. You can read through them on your own, but it’s clear that Paul did write about the life and ministry of Jesus. And that’s true even though it wasn’t his objective to write a biography about Jesus, nor did he need to. He was writing to people who were already Christians and already knew about the life and ministry of Jesus. So he just used a snippet here or there as an example or as an illustration.

(from http://www.bede.org.uk/jesusmyth.htm)
  • Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Gal. 4:4)
  • Jesus was referred to as “Son of God”. (1 Cor. 1:9)
  • Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. (Romans 1:3)
  • Jesus prayed to God using the term “abba”. (Galatians 4:6)
  • Jesus expressly forbid divorce. (1 Cor. 7:10)
  • Jesus taught that preachers should be paid for their preaching. (1 Cor. 9:14)
  • Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thess. 4:15)
  • Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Cor. 3:22)
  • Jesus had a brother named James. (Gal. 1:19)
  • Jesus initiated the Lord’s supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
  • Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
  • Jesus’ death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Cor. 5:7)
  • The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Cor. 2:8)
  • Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Rom. 15:3)
  • Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus’ death. (1 Thess. 2:14-16)
  • Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Cor. 13:4 et al)
  • Jesus was physically buried. (1 Cor. 15:4)

D.    The “Jesus Myth Hypothesis” ignores the historical evidence in order to promote a biased agenda.

The only reason people have to dispute the historicity of Jesus is that they do not want to believe that the stories are true. There are no real historical grounds to deny His existence, the time of His existence, the dates of the writings about Him, nor the belief that Jesus was believed to deal in the supernatural.

You might still question His claims of divinity, but that’s a separate issue. As for the historicity of Jesus, there is no basis claiming He didn’t exist. You’ve got to close your eyes to the evidence and buy into some kind of baseless conspiracy theory.

Why do we believe in Jesus? Where do our beliefs come from? They come from a real person who lived and walked among us about 2000 years ago. This man, named Jesus, claimed to be divine, He performed miracles, He taught about the Kingdom of Heaven, He was crucified on a cross, and as we talked about last week hundreds of people reported seeing Him and interacting with Him after His death, which would mean the Resurrection claims were true. Our trust is not in a fairy tale; it’s in a real person who lived, died, and rose again in history. Jesus really existed, and is alive and well today. But more than that...

E.    Jesus did not just exist in history; He changed history. And he has changed me.

I read a quote from James Allan Francis earlier outlining how Jesus would have been seen as relatively unimportant during His lifetime. But Francis went on to say…

“Nineteen long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress.
“I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.”
~ James Allan Francis

The name of Jesus is the most recognized name in the world. About a third of the population of the planet identify themselves with Him by the name Christian. Even among Muslims, Jesus is regarded as the second most important prophet after Mohammed. And for everyone else, most people have at least heard of Him.

There’s really no doubt that Jesus has greatly influenced our world more than anyone else. From issues of morality and faith, to law, to science, to medicine, to technology, to exploration, to art and literature... the legacy of Jesus has transformed society through those who still follow Him today.

But beyond all of that, I know He exists because He has changed me. And I understand, that’s a subjective thing that you can accept or reject. But I know He exists because He has changed me. My life is different because of Jesus. My outlook is different because of Jesus. My purpose is different because of Jesus. My future is different because of Jesus.

I chose to give my life to Jesus when I was just a young boy. I haven’t always gotten it right, and I still struggle in some ways today as I strive to follow Him. There are still things I don’t understand and I still have questions. But I can’t imagine my life without Him. He is continually transforming my life, making me more compassionate, making me more loving, making me a better person, and ultimately I believe making me more like Him.

I could give you a variety of objective and logical reasons to believe in Jesus, and that’s what I’m trying to do throughout this series. And you can use some of those reasons to answer objections that people might raise.

But ultimately it comes down to the fact that Jesus has changed me. And hopefully, that He has changed you, too. If you have experienced the presence and power of Jesus in your own life, then you know what I’m talking about. And so you can talk as well as I can about your joy and your hope and your purpose... about how your life has been changed. And I hope you do take advantage of opportunities to talk about that.

If you’re here and you haven’t experienced that transforming presence of Jesus and you’ve never actually chosen to live for Him, then I want to invite you to make that choice this morning.

Because it’s not just about learning about Jesus. It’s not just a matter of the mind, although that’s important. It’s about giving Him your will. It’s about giving Him your heart. It’s about choosing to live for Him and to follow Him. So here’s what I want you to do...


Copyright © 2011 Greg Hanson