During the Roman Empire, the most influential religions other than Judaism and Christianity were the mystery religions. In broad terms, these religions of the Mediterranean region can be divided into two groups: (1) state or civil religions, which achieved a certain level of cult status, and (2) private, or individualistic, religions. The cults most often compared with Christianity are the cults of Demeter and Dionysus from Greece, the cults of Cybele and Attis from the Phrygian region of Asia Minor, the cults of Isis and Osiris from Egypt, the cult of Adonis from Syria and Palestine, and the cult of Mithras from Persia (modern Iran).
. . . Because these religions were practiced during the formative years of Christianity, questions arose: Did early Christians copy or borrow certain rituals and key concepts from these pagan religions and weave them into Christianity to make it more appealing to potential converts? Did Christianity plagiarize these mystery religions? Are there any aspects genuinely unique to Christianity?
. . . let’s look at the most common myths and deities that are claimed to have influenced Christianity, specifically the account of Jesus’s resurrection.
Isis and Osiris
Osiris is an ancient Egyptian god who was introduced to the Greeks around 300 BC as an adaption of the Greek god Dionysus. The myth of Osiris is that his brother killed him and chopped him into fourteen pieces. His wife, Isis, found all but one of the pieces and reassembled Osiris. It is uncertain whether Osiris was raised back to life or continued to live in the underworld. In either case, this would not be considered a resurrection in the same manner of Jesus’s resurrection.
Cybele and Attis
The goddess Cybele loved a shepherd named Attis, but when he was unfaithful to her, she drove him insane. In his insanity, Attis castrated himself and bled to death. Cybele’s grief brought death to the world, but when she returned Attis to life, the world came back to life as well. Here, we see an obvious connection between the deaths of Attis and the world, as well as Attis and the world both being brought back to life. The myth of Attis has a direct link to the vegetation cycle. In fact, worshipers of Cybele and Attis enacted this myth to grant them a good crop.
There are two versions of the myth of Adonis. In one, he is loved by the goddesses Aphrodite and Persephone, and Zeus decides Adonis will live with each goddess for half of the year. In the second myth, Adonis is killed by a boar and mourned by Aphrodite. It is only in later versions of the myth, which appear after the rise of Christianity, that Adonis is brought back to life. Thus, it seems that Christianity influenced the myth of Adonis, not the other way around. Also, there is no evidence that Adonis was ever worshiped as a dying and rising god.
From these three examples, we should be able to see that there is little resemblance between alleged dying and rising gods and Jesus of Nazareth. None of the myths present anything close to Jesus’s resurrection. And when cultists reenacted the death and rising of their god, it was always understood to be a metaphor of the changing of the seasons.
— Josh McDowell is the founder and president of Josh McDowell Ministry (A Cru Ministry). He has written or co-authored 152 books in 128 languages, including the multi-million selling More Than a Carpenter and Evidence That Demands a Verdict (named one the twentieth century’s top 40 books by World Magazine). He has addressed more than 45 million people, giving over 27,000 talks in 139 countries.
— Dr. Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, co-author, or editor of many books including Is God Just a Human Invention? and Evidence that Demands a Verdict (with his father, Josh McDowell). He is an associate professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and leads the Bible department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools in California. He is a popular national youth speaker on a variety of topics related to culture, students, and apologetics. Sean and his wife have three children.
image: The judgement of the dead in the presence of Osiris
Excerpted from Evidence for Jesus: Timeless Answers for Tough Questions about Christ by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell (Thomas Nelson, 2023). Used by permisson.
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