This is one of those questions that amaze me that it is STILL raised...so I decided to write it all up. Often I get an email that reads like this:
The reason for this letter is that I am wondering if you could answer a question I have. In one of your html pages the subject of Mithras is touched upon lightly and a link is given for further information. The link goes nowhere though, and I am really interested in finding out more about Mithras and other Dying-God mythologies. The reason is because I often enter correspondences and dialogues with atheists. Recently one such atheist raised his question, and I am still waiting to respond to him, because of my unfamiliarity with the subject. His letter went like this:
How can a historic personage (such as Jesus) have a recorded life (according to the New Testament in the Bible) almost identical to various other mythos out there including but not limited to:Now, before you say that I am jumping logic or that you have never ever heard of what I am talking about . . my question is this:
Both of these religions came *before* Christianity and are clearly labeled as myths yet the 'stories' of their lives are, in many ways, identical to the 'life' of Jesus the Christ.
- Mithras (Roman Mithraism)
- Horus (Egyptian God of Light)*IF* the information that I have just stated above is TRUEJust answer that directly.
*THEN* would it not bear strong evidence to the face that Jesus the Christ was and is not a historic personage?
I would appreciate any help or information you could offer on the subject. Thank you
Notice the general allegation--
There are material, significant, and pervasive similarities between the Jesus Christ of the New Testament and other Dying God-figures (and/or Savior-figures), and that these similarities are best explained by the hypothesis that the figure of Jesus is materially derived from (or heavily influenced by) these other Dying God/Savior-figures..Sometimes the allegation is worded strongly--Jesus was NOT a real person, but a legend; sometimes it is worded less strongly--Jesus was real, but was fused with these derivative mythic elements such that THEY became the core teachings about Jesus.
Now, before we try to analyze this notion, we need to gather some established criteria (from scholars) on how to detect and establish that 'borrowing' (especially "content/material" borrowing) has occurred.
Fortunately, there are a number of established criteria for this (so we don't have to 'make up' or 'create' our own), drawing largely from the work of scholars working in the area of Semitic influence on the Greek/Western world (e.g., Walter Burkert, Charles Pengrase, M. L. West), so let's start with some of their work:
"Since the discovery of the Akkadian epics and of Gilgamesh in particular, there has been no shortage of associations between motifs in these and in the Homeric epics, especially the Odyssey. These motifs can be highlighted and used to surprise, but hardly to prove anything: Approximately the same motifs and themes will be found everywhere. Instead of individual motifs, therefore, we must focus on more complex structures, where sheer coincidence is less likely: a system of deitites and a basic cosmological idea, the narrative structure of a whole scene, decrees of the gods about mankind, or a very special configuration of attack and defense. Once the historical link, the fact of transmission, has been established, then further connections, including linguistic borrowings, become more likely, even if these alone do not suffice to carry the burden of proof." [OT:ORNEI:88; his examples often contain elements that are 'holdovers'--elements that appear in the borrower that only made sense in the original source...they are unexpected and without purpose in the new usage, since they have been removed from their original context.]
"I can anticipate at least two possible lines of criticism that may be employed against my work. One would be that, in stressing similarities and parallels, I have ignored the great differences between Greek and Near Eastern literatures...my answer will be that of course Greek literature has its own character, its own traditions and conventions, and the contrast that might be drawn between it and any of the oriental literatures might far outnumber the common features. If anyone wants to write another book and point them out, I should have no objection...But even if it were ten times the size of mine (600+ pages!), it would not diminish the significance of the likenesses, because they are too numerous and too striking to be put down to chance. You cannot argue against the fact that it is raining by pointing out that much of the sky is blue." [HI:EFHWAE:viii]
"Difficult and hazardous are words which describe the study of Mesopotamian influence in Greek myths, and an appropriate method is essential. To establish influence, or at least the likelihood of influence, there are two main steps. First it is necessary to establish the historical possibility of influence, and then the parallels between the myths of the areas must fulfill a sufficiently rigorous set of relevant criteria." [HI:GMM:5]
"The second step of the method is to demonstrate the existence of parallels of the correct nature between the Mesopotamian and Greek literary material. Parallels must have qualities which conform to a suitable set of criteria in order to indicate influence or its likelihood." [HI:GMM:5]
"It is all too easy to run eagerly after superficial parallels which cannot really be sustained under a closer scrutiny. Accordingly, the parallels must have similar ideas underlying them and, second, any suggestion of influence requires that the parallels be numerous, complex and detailed, with a similar conceptual usage and, ideally, that they should point to a specific myth or group of related myths in Mesopotamia. Finally, the parallels and their similar underlying ideas must involve central features in the material to be compared. Only then, it would seem, may any claim stronger than one of mere coincidence be worthy of serious consideration" [HI:GMM:7]
What kinds of examples do these authors offer us?
Now, if we extract some principles from these scholars, we would end up with:
So, to apply these to our case here, we would need to show that:
Now, we need to be really clear about the time frame we are talking about here. The issue that I am trying to address deals only with the New Testament literature, specifically the gospels and post-Revelation epistles. I not at all interested in 'defending' the wide array of post-apostolic 'interpretations' and 'syncretistic methods' of any later Christian folk--including the Church Fathers. It is the Jesus of the gospels and epistles, and the claims made and images used of Him and His work on our behalf in them that concerns me here. This means that Christian material and events after around 65ad is of little concern to me (except as it bears on questions of NT authorship perhaps), and does not count as evidence for New Testament authors' "borrowing" of mythic/pagan elements in their creation of the foundational documents of the church--because of the time frames involved. For example, the fact that the New Testament nowhere assigns a specific date (year, month, date, or day of week) to the birthday of Jesus, means that any allegations that the post-apolstolic church later 'borrowed' a birthday from a rival figure (e.g. Mithras, Sol Invictus) is irrelevant to the original objection above. [We will, of course, have to discuss the sociological aspects of that possibility below.]
So, let's examine each of these in turn:.
The similarities between Jesus (as portrayed in the NT) and the other relevant Savior-gods are very numerous, very 'striking', non-superficial, complex, within similar conceptual or narrative structures, detailed, have the same underlying ideas, and be 'core' or 'central' to the story/image/motif enough to suspect borrowing;
However, there are several considerations that must be examined BEFORE we get into the alleged similarities:
Consideration: There is a surprising tendency of scholars of all persuasions to adopt Christian terminology in describing non-Christian religions, rituals, myths, etc. (e.g. "baptism", the "Last Supper"). [Joseph Campbell is sometimes a good example of this.] Sometimes this is done to establish some conceptual link for the reader, but often it borders on misleading the reader. Too often a writer uses such terminology imprecisely in describing a non-Christian element and then expresses shock in finding such similarities between the religions.
Nash is demonstrating one of the criteria we noted above--that the details must have the same underlying idea, for it to count as a parallel. [He uses the phrase "outward" similarities, in a similar usage to how Penglase uses "superficial".] A ritual dip in water, for example, is NOT a baptism if its purpose in the dogma of a particular religion is different. According the scholarly criteria, the lack of parallel in the underlying idea or 'conceptual usage' destroys this as piece of evidence for borrowing.
A good example of this might be the rite of the Taurobolium (from the cult of the Worship of the Great Mother or Cybele/Attis). In it a priest stood in a pit under a plank floor containing a bull and a lamb (the two are always connected in the inscriptions). The bull was slaughtered and the blood of the animal fell upon the priest below. The priest comes up 'consecrated' to the priesthood, and is hailed as 'reborn' (renatus). In one late text (fourth century), he is said to have been 'reborn eternally'.
Predictably, some writers have used the phrase "washed in the blood
of the Lamb" or "sprinkled with the blood of Jesus" to describe this ceremony,
and earlier commentators have seen this as perhaps the basis for Paul's
teaching in Romans 6 (union with Christ), images of 'spiritual childgrowth',
the new birth, and even resurrection. Although there are perhaps those
who still hold to this, this has largely been abandoned :
"Ancient Near Eastern religions had long had traditions of dying-and-rising gods, general vegetation deities renewed annually in the spring. Some ancient sources, especially early Christian interpretations of these religions, suggest that initiates into various mystery cults “died and rose with” the deity. Scholars early in the twentieth century naturally saw in this tradition the background for Paul’s language here. Although the evidence is still disputed, it is not certain that the mysteries saw a once-for-all dying-and-rising in baptism, as in Paul, until after Christianity became a widespread religious force in the Roman Empire that some other religious groups imitated. More important, the early Christian view of resurrection is certainly derived from the Jewish doctrine rather than from the seasonal revivification of Greek cults." [BBC, at Rom 6]
"On the basis of this evidence it can be firmly concluded that a direct influence from any mystery cult or from the Isis cult in particular, on Paul or on the theology of Rom 6:3–4, is most unlikely" [WBC, Romans, 6.3f]
“The older history of religions school sought to find the derivation of the notion ‘new birth’ in the mystery religions of the Hellenistic world, where initiates passed from death into life by being brought into a mysterious intimacy with the deity. But in the light of the scarcity of early ‘new birth’ terminology such as anagennao in the mystery religions, recent scholarship has sought an origin of the concept elsewhere…A more likely origin has been found in the OT and Judaism” [NT:DictLNT, s.v. ‘new birth’]
“Some scholars have seen the background for such terminology (e.g. childhood and growth) in the mystery religions, with their notion of spiritual progression through various cultic rituals. Though some aspects of these texts can be understood in this context, the notion of stages of faith was already present in some of the most distinctive teaching of Jesus, and ordinary family relationships provide a more plausible background here.” [NT:DictLN , s.v. ‘sonship, child, children”]
"Some scholars have suggested that it was taken over from Greek mystery religions, in which initiation was conceived in terms of death and resurrection. From considerations of the late date of the records of these rites and differences of interpretation, particularly as to whether initiates in such cults clearly identified with a deity in death and resurrection or were offered immortality through such ritual experience, the suggestion is highly unlikely [NT:DictPL,s.v., "dying and rising"]
“Some have suggested that Paul was influenced by the Greek mystery religions in his concept of dying and rising with Christ. But this hypothesis is unnecessary and unlikely: Baptism is a very Jewish phenomenon, and there is little doubt that it came to Christians directly or indirectly from John the Baptist. For John baptism was very much associated with the advent of the eschatological day of the Lord, and this eschatological dimension continues in Christian baptism. But for Christians like Paul the decisive eschatological events are the death and resurrection of Jesus; it is thus intelligible that baptism as the rite of initiation into the saved eschatological community should come to be associated with Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. There is therefore no need to invoke the mystery religions to explain Paul’s baptismal teaching. It is, however, possible that the Jesus-traditions that speak of taking up the cross and sharing in the sufferings of Jesus were influential.” [PFJFC:155f]
Now, the main reason this position has generally been abandoned (as noted above) is that it is altogether unnecessary, and less 'useful' as an explanatory construct: the elements in the gospels and epistles all make more sense as having developed out of mainstream Judaism and have much more 'numerous, complex, and striking parallels' to Old Testament/Tanaach themes and passages. Apart from issues of chronology and questions of motivation for borrowing (separate problems from that of detecting forceful parallels), the Jewish background furnishes us with a system of underlying ideas needed to make sense of the imagery.
Don Howell explains the general rationale for the diminishing of this
'borrowing' position [BibSac, V150, #599, Jul 93, p310]:
"Two pioneers in this field were Bousset and Reitzenstein. Bousset argued that the Jesus of the primitive Palestinian church was the eschatological Son of Man, largely derived from Daniel 7:13–14. But in the Greek-speaking Christian communities like Antioch, Jesus was transformed, under the influence of the Hellenistic mystery cults, into the acclaimed kurios. “Behind the personal piety of Paul and his theology there stands as a real power and a living reality the cultic veneration of the kurios in the community.” With consummate skill Bousset explored the Hermetic literature, Philo, Gnostic documents, and the cults of Isis, Osiris, and Orphis and discovered “parallels” with Paul’s Christ-mysticism ("in Christ"), doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Christ-Adam theology, cross and sacrament, and the dying-rising Redeemer. Reitzenstein, a philologist and authority on Eastern Gnosticism, researched the second-and third-century Hermetic literature and concluded that Gnostic terminology was the source of Paul’s Christology. Neill, in an extended survey of the History of Religions approach, credits the Harvard scholar Kirsopp Lake with popularizing in America the arguments of German scholars such as Bousset and Reitzenstein .
"The influence of the various religionsgeschichtliche models
has greatly diminished in recent decades with the discovery of the Qumran
scrolls and wider research in the Jewish materials of the intertestamental
(Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) and New Testament (rabbinical traditions)
periods. It is no longer feasible to separate Hellenistic and Jewish
influences into two hermetically sealed compartments. Paul’s Jewishness
is in the process of being rediscovered. But a more fundamental issue
is the entire logic of the comparative religionist methodology which presupposes
the apostle to have been an inclusivistic, impressionable absorber of alien
ideas rather than the proclaimer of a pure gospel of faith and repentance.
As Hunter comments,
"The subsequent course of scholarship has effectively dismantled many of the conclusions drawn by the History-of-Religions School. Various studies have demonstrated that there was not one coherent gnostic redeemer myth nor was there a common mystery-religion theology. We have already touched on the fact that Judaism was not the syncretistic religion that some scholars once thought that it was. Now most scholars are reluctant to assume that Gnosticism even existed during the genesis and early development of Christianity.
"The majority of scholars are reaffirming the essential Jewishness of the early Christian movement. The background of various Christian rites, ideas and terms is being illustrated out of the OT and Judaism, in contrast to the previous generation that pointed to gnostic texts and the mystery religions. The background of the Christian practice of baptism, for instance, is now seldom traced to the mystery initiation sacraments of Attis, Adonis or Osiris but to the OT initiation rite of circumcision and the Jewish water purification rituals.
"Gunkel, Bultmann and others clearly undervalued the formative influence of the OT and Judaism for early Christianity. Neither were they sufficiently open to the possibility that the NT writers could use religious language shared by adherents of other religions without adopting the full meaning of that language, as it was understood in other religious contexts. In other words, Christian writers could use the term mystery (e.g., Rev 10:7; Ign. Magn. 9.1; Diogn. 4.6) without implying that Christianity is a mystery religion like the cults of Cybele or Mithras. John could use the image of light (1 Jn 1:5, 7; 2:8, 9, 10) without dependence on a gnostic light-darkness dualism. Both of these terms have long histories of usage in the OT that provide us with the essential conceptual framework for understanding their NT usage. Yet at the same time they are terms that would communicate in a Gentile world, albeit now with a different set of connotations.
"There is also evidence that the apostles and leaders in the early Christian movement made explicit and earnest attempts to resist the syncretistic impulses of the age. For example, when Paul preached in Lystra (Acts 14:8–20), he was faced with an opportunity to make a syncretistic innovation to the gospel. Luke records that after Paul healed a crippled man the people of the city mistook him for Hermes (the messenger of Zeus) and Barnabas for Zeus. Rather than allowing any form of identification with their gods (even the identification of “the living God” with Zeus), Paul takes the bold step of telling them to “turn from these worthless things” to the one God, the Creator (Acts 14:15). Earliest Christianity appears to have made stringent effort to resist the larger cultural trend toward the identification of deities and directed people to the God of Israel, who had now revealed himself in the Lord Jesus Christ.
To illustrate this from one of the alleged examples of borrowing, "washed in the blood of the Lamb" makes perfect sense being seen against the background of OT usage:
Likewise, the same goes for "sprinkled with the blood of Jesus", which could refer back to either of two OT passages/themes [although the Numbers 19 passage does not have any blood actually in the water of purification]:
"More significantly, Hebrews uses the same language (where the LXX did not) in connection with the institution of the Mosaic covenant: Moses built an altar at the foot of Sinai, and when he had sacrificed cattle he threw half of the blood against the altar; the other half he put in bowls, and read aloud to the people out of the scroll of the covenant the Lord's commands. When they promised to obey all that the Lord commanded, Moses took the bowls and threw the remaining blood at the people, saying (in the words of Heb 9:20), “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you” (cf. Exod 24:3–8; Heb 9:18–21). In Hebrews, the blood of the covenant poured out by Moses corresponds to the “blood of sprinkling” shed by Jesus, the “mediator of the new covenant” (Heb 12:24; cf. 10:29). The participants in this new covenant are invited to “draw near with a true heart in the full confidence of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse a guilty conscience and having the body washed in pure water” (10:22). Peter lacks the direct reference to Christian baptism (although cf. 3:20), but the close connection between obedience and sprinkling suggests that Exod 24:3–8 is as determinative for his imagery as for that of Hebrews. Without speaking explicitly of a “new covenant” or the “blood of the covenant” (which may in his circles have been reserved for the Eucharist, cf. Mark 14:24; 1 Cor 11:25), Peter relies on language that had perhaps become already fixed among Christians as a way of alluding to the same typology. To “obey” was to accept the gospel and become part of a new community under a new covenant; to be sprinkled with Jesus’ blood was to be cleansed from one's former way of living and released from spiritual slavery by the power of his death (cf. 1:18). Peter’s choice of images confirms the impression that he writes to communities of Gentiles as if they were a strange new kind of Jew.
The First Covenant was inaugurated with this ceremony (cf. also Heb 9.18ff):
As the New Covenant--from the New Moses of Deut 18-- was inaugurated with Christ's blood (but not physically literal):
(By the way, these biblical events are covenant inauguration events--NOT acts of individual dedication, consecration, or ordination. The underlying ideas/structures of these events would be more 'parallel' to the sacrifices performed when Cybele was first 'adopted' by the Romans in 204 bc, than to the multiple, individual ordinations of priests and high priests. Even the passage in 1 Peter 1.2 is not individual in nature: "In the Old Testament and Judaism, God's people were corporately “chosen,” or “predestined,” because God “foreknew” them; Peter applies the same language to believers in Jesus. Obedience and the sprinkling of blood also established the first covenant (Ex 24:7–8)." [BBC, at 1 Pet 1.2]...the underlying ideas needed to establish non-superficial parallels, in this case, reveal major structural differences between the events in the bible and the taurobolia of Roman times)
Now, unless one is going to argue that the OT passage is somehow dependent on some at-best-first-century-AD taurobolic experience (perhaps on the basis of both having the 'striking parallels' of sacrificial bulls and sprinkling of blood...sarcastic smile), it should be obvious why modern, mainstream scholarship has abandoned such notions. Any alleged parallels between the Jesus story and the Attis/Cybele/Taurobolic experiences are dwarfed by a host of 'numerous, complex, and detailed' parallels with OT/Judaism.
If one considers carefully the details of the history of the
ritual (see mostlybull.html), the taurobolic
ceremony (of Cybele/Attis--NOT the one by Mithra) in the Roman period was:
Apart from the general, "non-striking", and ubiquitous motifs of sacrifice, consecration, (possible) rebirth, blood sprinkling, and substitution, there just aren't any 'numerous, complex, and detailed' correspondences with the NT documents. Even the closest candidate--sprinkling with blood--was too general a practice in the ancient world to be 'striking' [e.g., in several orgiastic cults the priests/priestesses would whip or cut themselves with knives, and sprinkle their blood on the idols of the god/goddess].
And the next closest candidate--'rebirth'--is neither a technical term
of the Mysteries, nor is it close enough in meaning to NT usage to consider
Another very common alleged similarity is the virgin birth. Other religious figures, especially warrior gods (and actually some heroic human figures such as Alexander the Great) over time became associated with some form of miraculous birth, occasionally connected with virginity. It is all too easy to simply accept this on face value without investigating further. In Raymond Brown's research on the Birth Narratives of Jesus [BM:522-523], he evaluates these non-Christian "examples" of virgin births and his conclusions bear repeating here:
"Among the parallels offered for the virginal conception of Jesus have been the conceptions of figures in world religions (the Buddha, Krishna, and the son of Zoroaster), in Greco-Roman mythology (Perseus, Romulus), in Egyptian and Classical History (the Pharaohs, Alexander, Augustus), and among famous philosophers or religious thinkers (Plato, Apollonius of Tyana), to name only a few.And the history-of-religions scholar David Adams Leeming (writing in EOR, s.v. "Virgin Birth") begins his article by pointing out that all 'virgin births' are NOT necessarily such:
"Are any of these divinely engendered births really parallel to the non-sexual virginal conception of Jesus described in the NT, where Mary is not impregnated by a male deity or element, but the child is begotten through the creative power of the Holy Spirit? These "parallels" consistently involve a type of hieros gamos (note: "holy seed" or "divine semen") where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration. In short, there is no clear example of virginal conception in world or pagan religions that plausibly could have given first-century Jewish Christians the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus."
"A virgin is someone who has not experienced sexual intercourse, and a virgin birth, or parthenogenesis (Gr., parthenos, "virgin"; genesis, "birth"), is one in which a virgin gives birth. According to this definition, the story of the birth of Jesus is a virgin birth story whereas the birth of the Buddha and of Orphic Dionysos are not. Technically what is at issue is the loss or the preservation of virginity during the process of conception. The Virgin Mary was simply "found with child of the Holy Ghost" before she was married and before she had "known" a man. So, too, did the preexistent Buddha enter the womb of his mother, but since she was already a married woman, there is no reason to suppose she was a virgin at the time. In the Ophic story of Dionysos, Zeus came to Persephone in the form of a serpent and impregnated her, so that the maiden's virginity was technically lost."
What these scholars are talking about is the textual data in the account. In other words, does the relevant sacred text describe or imply in any way, a means of impregnation or conception? Leemings comment that Mary was "simply 'found with child'" documents the textual data from that miraculous conception story--the text simply omits any comment, description, or implication about the method/manner of her becoming pregnant--the sexual element is simply missing altogether. If other accounts suggest or give details of this process--even if not the 'normal' type of intercourse (e.g. a snake, a piece of fruit)--then, according to these scholars, it is not a 'virgin conception' (by comparison). Ancient gods and goddess were typically very sexually 'explicit' and sexually 'active' (!), and this element is completely absent from the biblical narratives and material, especially the story of the virginal conception of Jesus.
This issue of agency/means is a distinguishing trait of
the gospel accounts, compared with other stories of divine-engendered births:
"Mary and Joseph were in the one-year waiting period when Mary was found to be with child. They had never had sexual intercourse and Mary herself had been faithful (vv. 20, 23). While little is said about Joseph, one can imagine how his heart must have broken. He genuinely loved Mary, and yet the word came that she was pregnant. His love for her was demonstrated by his actions. He chose not to create a public scandal by exposing her condition to the judges at the city gate. Such an act could have resulted in Mary's death by stoning (Deut. 22:23-24). Instead he decided to divorce her quietly.
"Then in a dream (cf. Matt. 2:13, 19, 22), an angel told Joseph that Mary's condition was not caused by a man, but through the Holy Spirit (1:20; cf. v. 18). The Child Mary carried in her womb was a unique Child, for He would be a Son whom Joseph should name Jesus for He would save His people from their sins. These words must have brought to Joseph's mind the promises of God to provide salvation through the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37). The unnamed angel also told Joseph that this was in keeping with Gods eternal plan, for the Prophet Isaiah had declared 700 years before that the virgin will be with Child (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14). While Old Testament scholars dispute whether the Hebrew almah should be rendered “young woman” or “virgin,” God clearly intended it here to mean virgin (as implied by the Gr. word parthenos). Mary's miraculous conception fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy, and her Son would truly be Immanuel . . . God with us. In light of this declaration Joseph was not to be afraid to take Mary into his home (Matt. 1:20). There would be misunderstanding in the community and much gossip at the well, but Joseph knew the true story of Mary's pregnancy and Gods will for his life.
"As soon as Joseph awakened from this dream, he obeyed. He violated all custom by immediately taking Mary into his home rather than waiting till the one-year time period of betrothal had passed. Joseph was probably thinking of what would be best for Mary in her condition. He brought her home and began to care and provide for her. But there was no sexual relationship between them until after the birth of this Child, Jesus. [Bible Knowledge Commentary, at Matt 1.18ff]
The most detailed text we have about this event is Luke 1.35:
The "Holy Spirit coming upon you" is not to
be conceived as some kind of spiritual 'intercourse'--this is a stock,
generic phrase from OT literature. It means empowerment, being
set apart for a special task, and the such like. Look at some of the examples:
And when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel. [Jud 3.9]
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. [Jud 6.34]
Then Samson went down to Timnah with his father and mother, and came as far as the vineyards of Timnah; and behold, a young lion came roaring toward him. 6 And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily, so that he tore him as one tears a kid though he had nothing in his hand; [Jud 14.5]
Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man. [1 Sam 10.6]
Then the Spirit came upon Amasai, who was the chief of the thirty, and he said, “We are yours, O David, And with you, O son of Jesse! Peace, peace to you, And peace to him who helps you; Indeed, your God helps you!” Then David received them and made them captains of the band. [1 Chr 12.18]
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. [Is 42.1]
And it will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. 29 “And even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. [Joel 2.28ff]
[and of course, all the prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, as the "Spirit came upon them"]
On of the more interesting uses occurs is in Isaiah 32.15, which might
be echoed in the Virgin conception and in the cases of 'barren conceptions'--the
image of miraculous/spectacular fertility:
This is part of the reason why the NT scholars I cite here are so confident
(even for 'cautious' scholars) that pagan sexual elements are NOT in the
New Testament texts.
The angel had paid a visit to her home, and "gone into/unto/to her"
(same Greek phrase as Joseph 'going into Pilate' to ask for the body of
Jesus in Mk 15.23; the angel 'going into/unto' Cornelius in Acts 10.3;
and the accusation of Peter 'going into/unto' Gentiles and eating with
them in Acts 11.3). The angel announced the good news of God's promise
to Israel and Mary asks 'how'? The verse in 1.35 actually doesn't answer
the question at all, but it does avoid saying some things (even
Instead, the verbs express more general notions of God's providence and faithfulness to His promises:
So, one needs to be VERY careful and detailed in examining alleged parallels between figures widely separated in space and time. [And remember, we are focused only on the formation of the New Testament documents (and the content-traditions behind them)--NOT what the post-apostolic community will do with them!]
Consideration: We need also remember that our question deals only with the issue of the New Testament content--not the Councils, not the hymns, not the Fathers, not the sects, not the Apocrypha. We are concerned with the Jesus of the gospels and of the message of the post-ascension early Church. Items and elements 'borrowed' from non-Christian religions after the first century AD. simply cannot be used to argue for borrowing in the years 33-70 a.d., when the NT was composed.
Pushback: "Well wait a minute, bud...didn't the late church start 'stealing ideas' from paganism--like Sol Invictus' December 25th birthday for Jesus? And if later Christians did that, why in the world would we believe the first ones wouldn't steal ideas, too?!"
First, let's note that it is not at all certain that this
theft actually occurred--the data is mixed:
"Aurelian celebrated the dies natalis Solis Invicti ("birthday of Sol Invictus") on December 25. Whether this festival was celebrated earlier than the third century is unknown. Nor is it certain that December 25 was the birthday of Mithras as well as of Sol Invictus. This has not prevented many scholars from assuming that Mithraic influence upon Christianity was involved in the adoption of this date for Christmas...Roger Beckwith concludes that 'a date in the depths of winter (January-February) is therefore one of the two possibilities; and it may be that Clement, and through him Hippolytus, were in possession of a genuine historical tradition to this effect, which in the course of time had been mistakenly narrowed down to a particular day.'...Clement of Alexandria (circa 200) in his Stromateis (1.146) noted that Gnostic Basilidians in Egypt celebrated Jesus' baptism either on January 10 or January 6. By the early fourth century Christians in the East were celebrating Jesus' birth on January 6..." [OT:PAB:520f]
Later church tradition remembered it as a 'competitive strategy': "The reason, then, why the fathers of the church moved the January 6th celebration to December 25th was this, they say: it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same December 25th the birthday of the Sun, and they lit lights then to exalt the day, and invited and admitted the Christians to these rites. When, therefore, the teachers of the Church saw that Christians inclined to this custom, figuring out a strategy, they set the celebration of the true Sunrise on this day, and ordered Epiphany to be celebrated on January 6th; and this usage they maintain to the present day along with the lighting of lights." (12th century bishop, cited in [HI:CP68C:155]
"The equinoxes and solstices must have been especially sacred.
This was verified for the spring equinox of 172, the day when the
Mithraeum 'of the Seven Spheres', at Ostia, was opened to a new community.
The vernal equinox marked the anniversary of the sacrifice that had revived
the world. Perhaps at the winter solstice (25 December) they celebrated
the birth of Mithras emerging from the rock..." (HI:TCRE:234,
emphasis mine...and I might ask the question here as to how many solar
deities did NOT celebrate the Winter Solstice as a 'rebirth'?! All the
ones I know of did (e.g. HI:SSK:157-65),
not sure that really counts as a 'historical birthday' in the same sense
as Jesus'; so, Eliade: "The anniversary of the Deus Sol Invictus was set
at December 25th, the 'birthday' of all Oriental solar deities"
But back to the pushbak: There are two ways to look at this issue:
First, the pushback doesn't actually provide any evidence that borrowing occurred during the construction of the New Testament.
Let's agree that the later church--somewhere, sometime, someway--did some 'illegal syncretism'. What would that actually prove? Only that some Christians did borrow, and by implication (loosely speaking, though) that other Christians could have done the same thing. And, in the mouth of the pushbacker, it could have been the New Testament authors who could have done this, in the 35-70 AD timeframe.
But no one is arguing (certainly not me) that they couldn't have done it, but rather that they didn't do it. The evidence may support borrowing later; but in our (earlier) case, it doesn't...That's my argument--that "the evidence leads us to believe borrowing did not occur", and NOT that" our presumptions about the purity of the apostolic church leads us to believe it"! Huge difference...
I don't put syncretistic borrowing past anyone (pagan or Christian),
and we know that splinter groups in the apostolic age did just
that. The apostles are constantly having to deal with
people who were trying to smuggle non-Jesus elements into the early
church: the Jesus-plus-Law group (cf. Galatians), the Jesus-plus-magic
group (cf. Acts 19.17ff), Jesus-plus-ApolloTyrimnaeus (cf. Rev 2.20, Thyatira),
Jesus-plus-Epicureanism (the adversaries in 2 Peter), Jesus-plus-PlatonicDualism
(First John), Jesus-plus-Phrygian-cults (Colossians), Jesus-plus-astrology
(Eph 1). Paul himself can be seen in active, aggressive, and 'antagonistic'
combat against the various pagan systems of his day; NOT a 'borrowing
kind of guy' [quotes below are from NT:DictPL, s.v. "Religions,
The issue, then, is not could they, but did they. And that is what we are trying to analyze in this article. If our study of the alleged parallels don't turn up some really 'numerous, complex, detailed, striking" and "with underlying ideas" parallels, then any cases of 'borrowing' at any other time period remains irrelevant to our discussion.
The church was never unclear in its exclusivistic message--the
pagan world knew exactly what its "mission" was relative to 'other gods':
"If we stop here a moment, however, to assess the various familiar ways...in
which Christianity differed from the general context of opinion around
it, the one point of difference that seems most salient was the antagonism
inherent in it--antagonism of God toward all other supernatural
it is not really necessary to discuss this (given the evidential nature
of our task here), I should point out that the
post-Constantine church had a radically different set of pressures and
issues on them, than did the NT church, and that much of the later 'borrowings'
would be unique (and generally 'reluctant'!) to that later period.
So, MacMullen, in his study of exactly this--the interaction between Christianity
and Paganism in the 4-8th centuries--consistently points this out [quotes
are from HI:CP48C], explaining the historical process as it unfolded:
"By the turn of the fourth century, it [Christianity] could claim a substantial minority of the population in the eastern provinces though only a small minority in the west.Thereafter, as it registers more clearly in our surviving sources, an estimate of its place becomes less uncertain. It constituted perhaps as much as a half of the population by A.D 400. The figure is not likely to be far wrong; unlikely, then, that the far lower estimate for the church is wrong, either, at the moment when Constantine was converted; for rapid growth in the intervening period is quite evident. Constantine and his successors held out many new and effective inducements to join. In the course of the response, greater numbers but also a greater diversity of human types and temperaments were swept into the church, and along with them, a far greater diversity of demands and expectations. In consequence, the deficiencies noted just above began to be supplied from paganism, partly unopposed, partly against the leadership’s wishes, but necessarily, because of the numbers of newer converts and the impossibility of entirely reeducating them.” (p.151)
“[T]he old means of satisfying them (the needs met by pagan social and artistic life) were denied or destroyed [by the Roman emperors], and the equivalent in Christianity did not exist. Unlike the forms of expression developed by communities of Christians in the first century or two of their history, those developed by non-Christian communities had had a very long time indeed to incorporate the arts and pleasures of life into worship. ..The remarkable diversity of cult-centered arts, activities, and psychological rewards…All these, church leadership wished converts to surrender….Many or most converts simply could not make so great a sacrifice. It could not and did not happen.” (p.152)
“In the nature of the case no one today can make any good guess at the depth or prevalence of the converts’ inner feelings. Only, no one can doubt that loyalties and preferences, the conscious and the unthinking, still attached them to the old ways. The bishops certainly thought so and say so often enough in both eastern and western sermons.” (p153)
“Inflow of novelties into the church was perpetual. And why should this
not be so since the period post-Constantine brought about the baptism
of so many persons raised in another religious faith? Though baptized,
they were nevertheless not easy to reach for more perfect instruction:
they were poor and rural and hard to get at, rarely to be seen in church.
they counted in the tens of millions. Small wonder that the church
which included them, looked at sociologically and demographically rather
than theologically, underwent significant change of character in the process
of taking them in.” (p144)
“The church calendar was thus to some considerable degree amplified (though the names of the days of the week, to be called by plain numbers, were advertised in vain). In the same way, the choice of where to build shrines for Christian worship was dictated by the location of the antecedent pagan ones. They must be challenged and resanctified, if not rather destroyed.” (p155f) [Notice how the church leadership attempted to remove the pagan elements--even the names of the days of the week!--but their attempts failed, due to the overwhelming number of people now joining the body of the church.]
“For, when peace came after so many and such violent persecutions, crowds
of pagans wishing to become Christians were prevented from doing this because
of their habit of celebrating the feast days of their idols with banquets
and carousing; and, since it was not easy for them to abstain from
these dangerous but ancient pleasures, our ancestors thought it would
be good to make a concession for the time being to their weakness and
permit them, instead of the feasts they had renounced, to celebrate
other feasts in honor of the holy martyrs, not with the same sacrilege,
but with the same elaborateness” (Augustine Ep 29.8f…cited at p.114f;
notice that part of the motivation of the leadership in trying to offer
alternatives was that of sympathy and consideration for the needs of these
“It made inevitable some bringing in of inherited rites and beliefs to the church. But influences and alternatives which their bishops might disapprove of pressed heavily on Christians from their surrounding society, too, even if they had been church members from birth.” (P117)
“In other respects the Christian vigils seem to have been nearly identical
with the pagan. Too nearly: they were sometimes condemned as immoral
by church authorities, as has been seen; yet the authorities also
tolerated them, having little choice, or, like the pope, actually instituting
them [as oppositional alternatives].” (p124)
“This may be the place to mention early images of Jesus, with Paul and Peter on display in places of worship—a practice, it need hardly be said, originating neither in Judaism nor in primitive Christianity. Nor did it originate among the Christian leadership. The Council of Elvira of ca. 306 forbade it inside churches. It had nevertheless become a popular element in cultic settings by the third century…” (p130)
“Until grown familiar, however, veneration of images could hardly escape suspicion as heathen idolatry.” (p131)
“Against all these [seers], so commonly sought out by their flock, the
bishops spoke very harshly.” (p139)
“’How many’ exclaims another Syrian voice, ‘how many are only Christians
in name but pagans in their acts…attending to pagan myths and genealogies
and prophecies and astrology and drug lore …’” (P145)
So, even apart from the fact that the evidence of pre-NT borrowing is
just not there (our main line of investigation), even this Pushback argument
casts little 'doubt' on the interpretation of the evidence.
Another common example offered is the Mother
& Child iconographic evidence. The images of Horus-the-Child
on the lap of his mother Isis was certainly used by the post-Constantine
church as a exemplar for the post-NT elaboration of the Mary & Child-Jesus
art [TAM:159]. We saw in the above
discussion that this was done--after Constantine and therefore several
centuries later than is relevant to our discussion here-- as a concession
to help the new converts, and done with every effort to not 'confuse' them
about their new faith. Many were destroyed, and others retained for teaching
The same can be seen in the use of the motif
of "the Cross". The several forms of a cross have been major
symbols in world religion since humanity began, but the NT church didn't
use ANY of this symbolism! Julien Ries in Eliade's Encyclopedia
of Religion, s.v. "Cross" documents the almost universal usage of some
kind of cross symbol, and draws out the elements involved in the symbolism:
Anyone familiar with NT usage of the images of cross and crucifixion will note the obvious: there is nothing remotely similar between the symbolism of the cross in the words of Jesus (i.e., of death to self) and the words of the apostles (e.g., judgment on sin, example of resignation to God's will) and the "essential" elements of "the number four, weaving, and navigation", and there is nothing remotely similar with the NT usage of the word/image of 'tree' (e.g., place and means of execution, place of God's cursing) and "power, verticality, or communication"...The geometry of the place of Christ's death (i.e., the shape of the cross) is never evoked, commented on, or 'exegeted' for this meaning in the NT. The parallel is simply not there, and this seems like another case of 'no parallel underlying idea' again. [Note, however, that AFTER the NT, some of the Church Fathers began to use the Cross in more "symbolic ways--cf. Ries's article, pp.163ff--but this wouldn't apply to NT usage and the words of Jesus.]
Let me make sure this last point is clear...The NT does not make the cross central--as a symbol--in its proclamation; rather, it makes Jesus who died for humanity's sin and who was raised from the dead its central proclamation. The centrality of the apostolic message was on Jesus, on his sacrificial death, and on the significance of that death for the possibility of New Life and a New Future for us. The 'cross' aspect--for them--was in its element of shame, and not an evocative symbol of religious 'power'.
And historically, the negative implication and imagery associated
with the act of crucifixion at that time vastly outweighed
any 'evangelistic value' any more general symbolic associations with a
cross-shape might have had. The cross of Jesus was weakness, folly,
madness, scandal in that world:
"The crucifixion of Jesus, attested by the first generation of Christians, lies at the heart of the Fathers' theology and early church teaching. However, the image of a god abandoned to a shameful punishment and nailed on a cross was not likely to arouse enthusiasm. On the contrary, such an image created serious difficulties in the eyes of the pagans, who were unable to resolve the apparent contradiction of a crucified god who in so dying became a savior." [Ries, p.161; notice, btw, that the copycat advocate has to maintain, on the contrary, that this 'contradiction' was NOT a problem for the pagans--that they in fact celebrated it in all their mystery religions and their myths...]
"In his important survey of the treatment of crucifixion in ancient literature, Hengel queries whether, outside early Christianity, death by crucifixion was ever interpreted in a positive manner. Within the Gentile world, he finds in Stoicism the use of crucifixion as a metaphor “… for the suffering from which the wise man can free himself only by death, which delivers the soul from the body to which it is tied” (Hengel 1977, 88; cf. pp. 64–68). However, beyond this the cruelty of the cross seems to have forbidden any positive interpretation or metaphorical use of death by crucifixion...If this was true for the Gentile world, it was even more so for the Jewish. Inasmuch as the use of crucifixion by the Romans as a deterrent against Jewish nationalism was widespread, we might have anticipated that the cross would come to serve as a symbol for martyrdom. However, in addition to the humiliation and brutality associated with this form of execution, for Jews an additional, profoundly religious, obstacle existed...Already by the time of the first century A.D., the victim of crucifixion was understood in terms of Deuteronomy 21:22–23—specifically, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under the curse of God.” In its own context, this passage refers to the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. But the NT gives evidence that this meaning was expanded considerably within the early church to include persons who had been crucified. This is seen in the verbal allusions to Deuteronomy 21:22–23 (e.g., Acts 5:30; 13:29; 1 Pet 2:24) and Paul's explicit citation of Deuteronomy 21:23 in Galatians 3:13. Apart from and prior to Christianity, evidence from the Qumran literature (4QpNah 3–4.1.7–8; 11QTemple 64:6–13) as well as from the writings of the first-century Alexandrian Jew Philo (Spec. Leg. 3.152; Post C. 61; Somn. 2.213) attests that victims of crucifixion could be understood this way within Judaism. Thus, the cross could not be interpreted positively as a symbol of the Jewish resistance." [NT:DictJG, s.v. "Death of Jesus"]
The implications should be clear: the negative associations of crucifixion would have precluded the apostolic group from trying to use the Cross as a 'symbol of superstitious significance' in their evangelism, teaching, and writings. Both to the Romans and to the Jews of that time, the image of the Cross was a significantly negative one, and one that would not in any way contribute to the winning over of pagan people to the message of Jesus. This negative imagery would have been consistent throughout the Greco-Roman world of the time--anywhere Roman crucifixion was used as a means of execution. [BTW, this negative association with the image of the cross is one of the reasons NT scholars are convinced that Jesus' own words about the cross must be authentic--in the culture of the day, the early church would not have 'made that up' because it would have been so negatively understood by pagan and Jew alike. (The technical name for this NT principle is the "criterion of embarrassment"--the church would be unlikely to make up embarrassing sayings and put them on the lips of Jesus.)
Consideration: It must be remembered that SOME general similar traits of leadership MUST apply to any religious leader. They must generally be good leaders, do noteworthy feats of goodness and/or supernatural power, establish teachings and traditions, create community rituals, and overcome some forms of evil. These are common elements of the religious life--NOT objects that require some theory of dependence. [For example, the fact that that Aztec divine heroes were said to have done wonders similar to those from Asia Minor doesn't necessitate us coming up with a theory of how one of these religions 'borrowed' from the other...smile.] In our case, to argue that since Jesus allegedly did miracles and so did the earlier figure of Krishna, the Jesus 'legend' must have borrowed from the Krishna 'legend' is simply fallacious. The common aspect of homo religiosus is an adequate and more plausible explanation than dependence, in such cases.
"Words such as light, darkness, life, death, spirit, word, love, believing, water, bread, clean, birth, and children of God can be found in almost any religion. Frequently they have very different referents as one moves from religion to religion, but the vocabulary is a popular as religion itself. Nowhere, perhaps, has the importance of this phenomenon been more clearly set forth than in a little-known essay by Kysar. He compares the studies of Dodd and Bultmann on the prologue (John 1.1-18), noting in particular the list of possible parallels each of the two scholars draws up to every conceivable phrase in those verses. Dodd and Bultmann each advance over three hundred parallels, but the overlap in the lists is only 7 percent. The dangers of what Sandmel calls parallelomania become depressingly obvious."Parallelomania has been described as "the associative linking of similar words, phrases, patterns, thoughts, or themes, in order to claim the influence or dependence of one text or tradition on another. Many of the earlier studies using rabbinic sources were based on isolated and superficial similarities in very dissimilar texts." [Sounds a lot like our criterion of 'underlying ideas' and 'complex structures'.]
The need for caution (as noted already many, many times) is highlighted
when we move into the area of religious-oriented language and ideas:
So, to say that Horus was called the "Son of the Father" or that the Iranian version of Mit(h)ra was called the "Light of the World" or that Krishna was called a "Shepherd God" is not saying very much at all. Each case would need to be examined more closely, to see if the underlying concepts suggested 'striking' parallels. Many of these generic religious terms just cannot carry much weight in supporting a theory of borrowing. And, again, we would have to determine the 'most probable source' for the individual term.
For example, take the 'Light of the World' title. In the case
of Jesus, it is significantly more likely (noted in detail earlier)
this came from the Jewish background than from a non-Jewish one:
Or take the phrase "Shepherd God"...Not only was Jesus never actually called this exactly (He is called the good Shepherd, the great Shepherd, the chief Shepherd), but this is a perfect example of the "underlying idea" criteria, for 'shepherd' had different underlying meanings for Krishna and for Jesus.
For Krishna, the reference to Shepherd God was to highlight his
background--he actually was a shepherd (or cow-herd, actually).
But in Jesus' case (who never actually worked at shepherding--He
was a carpenter by trade) the term refers to his Davidic lineage of
messianic royalty--a HUGE conceptual "underlying" difference:
And the phrase "Son of the Father" (of Horus) was simply too common/general a title in a world of very 'sexually active' Greco-Roman gods...nothing striking about divine paternity in the ancient world at all. Even slightly more specific titles, such as "Corn Mother" might be too general--it is found in Eurasian, Germanic, and Native American cultures (not that easy to prove/assume 'borrowing' between...smile) [see discussions in HI:FG:45-47 (and index) and WR:MNNA ].
And, as with all users of a language, the speaker will often have to 'qualify' their use of the term to avoid confusion on the part of the listeners--Christian or not. Shared categories of language and concepts require that from all "sides". The Mystery Religions, for example, had to 'qualify' their use of the term 'salvation' sometimes--when talking to their more 'conservative' pagan neighbors. NeoPlatonists had to do the same, as did the later Gnostics, and the earlier pagan monotheists. They were not 'borrowing' from their audiences, they were simply explaining themselves via shared vocabulary and language conventions.
Likewise, when the early Christians used language shared with their
"pagan" neighbors (as the movement spread into the Gentile community),
they had to explain how their terminology was 'different' from their varying-by-location
audiences. There is nothing 'odd' or 'shady' or 'sinister' about this practice--this
is a basic feature of conceptual communication. EVERYBODY has to do this...Aristotle
pointed out long ago that to understand something you have to first
place it in its 'class or group', and then learn how it differed
from the other items in that class...This is how we communicate
matters to one another, and it is no different for religious terms
For example, the Christian had to use the two 'shared' categories of deity at the time to 'start the conversation':
"It has not been our intention to oversimplify what is in fact an extremely complex subject, namely, the ways in which ancient Mediterranean peoples conceived of their Savior Gods. Nevertheless, during the Hellenistic-Roman period (300 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) there seems to have been a definite pattern across many cultural boundaries regarding certain Gods, who were consistently called "Saviors." They seem to have been of two types. One was the divine/ human offspring of a sexual union between a God(dess) and a human, who was rewarded with immortality for her or his many benefactions. The second type was the temporary manifestation in adult human form of one of the great, immortal Gods, who came into the human world to save a city or nation or the whole civilized world. We have called these, for lack of better labels, the demigod type and the incarnation type. One thing is certain. Justin Martyr had good reason for saying that Christians did not claim anything about their Savior God beyond what the Greeks said about theirs. [DSG:15-16]And then they had to 'differentiate' their specific usage by additional details, and by additional 'negations'(!):
"However, it has not been our intention to oversimplify in the other direction either, that is, by glossing over or ignoring the manifold ways in which Christianity stood out as a unique and unusual religion in its time. If Christians utilized familiar concepts and terms in order to communicate their faith, they made two significant changes to them. First of all, they used them in an exclusivist sense. When they proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the Savior of the world, it carried with it a powerful negation: "Neither Caesar, nor Asklepios, nor Herakles, nor Dionysos, nor Ptolemy, nor any other God is the Savior of the world--only Jesus Christ is!"...And the pagan (and Jewish) audiences understood exactly what the Christian content was--and the result was shock, unbelief, and eventually, persecution as 'atheists':
"The apologists devoted much time to explaining that the gods of paganism were demons or dead men or did not exist" [GASC:31; and so they 'borrowed these concepts from them"?!]
"Second, if the Christians took over many basic concepts and ideas from their cultures [notice: not 'from the pagan religions']--and how could they do otherwise--they nevertheless filled them with such new meaning that their contemporaries were often mystified and even violently repelled by what they heard. The same Justin Martyr who was conscious of the similarities also said:"People think we are insane when we name a crucified man as second in rank after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all things, for they do not discern the mystery involved." (Apol. 1.13; lest we mis-understand Justin's use of "man" here, let me simply note that Justin is very clear on the deity of Christ as well as his humanity--cf. GASC:60-63)"The Apostle Paul had also experienced the painful rejection of his so-called 'good news': his Jewish kinsmen considered it an abhorrent blasphemy, while his Greek listeners thought it utter foolishness. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him or other Christians from continuing to use--and break up and reshape into new meaning--all of the familiar concepts and well-known categories in their attempts to communicate something new, something radically unfamiliar, which had been revealed to them by their God through his Son Jesus Christ, about the whole divine-human relationship." [DSG:15-16; notice, btw, that something 'radically unfamiliar' cannot be something 'borrowed without major modification'...]
"One of the traits of their religion which Christians emphasized from the first was that it was a revolt 'against the old ways.' To pagans the most startling way in which the novelty of Christianity appeared was in its substitution of new ideals for old..." [CAP:17]
A great example of this pagan-clarity would be the brilliant skeptic Celsus, who saw the unique Christian content very clearly:
"However, it is clear from a closer reading of Celsus's work that he recognized, as did Galen, that Christianity had set forth some new and original religious teachings, and these are the chief target of his polemic." [CRST:102; note that he was not 'confused' by their terminology, but understood quite clearly the differences in how the 'words' were used.]
His first target was the Incarnation, as a new idea: "The first is the Christian claim that God came down from the heavens to live on earth among men. This assertion, says Celsus 'is most shameful and no lengthy argument is required to refute it'" [CRST:102; note that Celsus doesn't understand the Incarnation as something similar to pagan theophanies, etc.]
His second target was the resurrection, as a new idea: "His more
serious criticism, however, is directed against the idea that God could
reverse the natural process of the disintegration of the human body, or
that a body that had rotten could be restored again...As Origen observed,
Celsus 'often reproached us about the resurrection', suggesting that pagan
critics realized that the resurrection was one of the central and distinctive
of Christian doctrines." [CRST:104; note
that the pagans recognized the difference between Christian usage of 'resurrection'
and their own pagan uses of the same word...there was no confusion
here as to what the Message was.]
The problem this creates for us is that we will sometimes be comparing
Jesus (one individual in the NT) to the combined characteristics of multiple
agents that are all called by the SAME NAME. For example, "Horus" applies
to several DIFFERENT deities in the multi-threaded Egyptian religion [see
Lesko, in EOR:s.v. "Horus"]. Horus literally has some TEN to TWENTY different
names/versions/forms, some of which are: "Horus-the-Child" (Egyptian),
Harpokrates, Harsomtus, Horus (as king), Harsiese, Horus-Yun-Mutef, Harendote
Harakhti, Horus of Behdet, Harmachis, and several local versions (Nekhen,
Mesen, Khenty-irty, Baki, Buhen, Miam) [EGG:87-96].
All of these have slightly different characteristics and legends--esp.
with the wide variation between Horus the King and Horus the Sun-God:
"The evidence upon which our knowledge of the so-called mystery religions rests is for the most part fragmentary and by no means easy to interpret. Very much of it consists of single lines and passing allusions in ancient authors (many of whom were either bound to secrecy or inspired with loathing with regard to the subject of which they were treating), inscriptions (many of them incomplete), and artistic and other objects discovered by archaeologists."An example of where this would apply to our study can be seen in the grossly out-dated (but, AMAZINGLY, still widely cited by skeptics) work of The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves. The chapter in which he identifies these 'saviors' (some of whom will be discussed below) is dependent TOTALLY on a secondary source (without citations often) that itself is based almost TOTALLY on interpretations of iconographic data. And these interpretations were made 150 years ago, without the benefit of the virtual explosion of knowledge in comparative religion, cognitive archaeology, and ANE thought, and without the scholarly 'control' of even slightly later works (such as Budge, GOE). Graves identifies 16 of these 'crucified Saviors' whereas modern scholarship, working on a much broader base of literary and archeological data, disagrees. So, Martin Hengel, in the standard work of the day [Crux:5-7, 11]:
"True, the Hellenistic world was familiar with the death and apotheosis of some predominantly barbarian [as judged by the ancient authors themselves] demigods and heroes of primeval times. Attis and Adonis were killed by a wild boar, Osiris was torn to pieces by Typhon-Seth and Dionysus-Zagreus by the Titans. Heracles alone of the 'Greeks' voluntarily immolated himself of Mount Oeta. However, not only did all this take place in the darkest and most distant past, but it was narrated in questionable [note: to the ancients] myths which had to be interpreted either euhemeristically or at least allegorically [by the Graeco-Romans]. By contrast, to believe that the one pre-existent Son of the one true God, the mediator at creation and the redeemer of the world, had appeared in very recent times in out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews, and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness...The only possibility of something like a 'crucified god' appearing on the periphery of the ancient world was in the form of a malicious parody, intended to mock the arbitrariness and wickedness of the father of the gods on Olympus, who had now become obsolete. This happens in the dialogue called Prometheus, written by Lucian, the Voltaire of antiquity."The point should be clear: perhaps there was not enough data when Graves wrote, but there is now--and Jesus of Nazareth starkly stands out as unique in His manner and purpose of death, among claimants to "all authority in heaven and earth"! (cf. Matt 28.18)
These alleged "identicalities" generally attempt to identify Jesus with deities within a couple of categories (which have some overlap).