It is that time of season again. The time that we celebrate the coming of spring and how death was conquered through the mythical death, burial and miraculous resurrection of Osiris. When we stop to ponder the mystery of the Holy Trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus.
Well, now there was a more recent usurper of this ancient and venerate religion. That of Christianity. This religion also boasts a killed and resurrected God, as incarnated in one Jesus, with yet another trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’m oft told that Christianity is unique because God loved as so much that he incarnated as a human and sacrificed himself to save us from the universal rules of punishment for sin that he set up (well, not in those exact words). I don’t really see the sense of this, but it seems that the idea of dying and resurrected gods is not so unique. In fact, humanity in the Mideast seems to have been plagued with dying and resurrecting gods. From where did this idea arise?
To start, we see that the earliest religions had gods which seemed to represent different aspects of nature. For example, the sun, moon, weather, and so on. The sun rises and sets to rise again the next day. The moon changes phases disappears during the new moon and resurrects a couple of days later. Crops are harvested and vegetation dies every winter to be resurrected in the spring. It seems natural that gods would acquire the characteristics of the natural elements they represented, along with the human characteristics of the people creating them. In fact, I found a fairly decent discussion of this here. In this essay, an observation is made that many of the mystic numbers (3, 7, 12, etc.) common to many of the Mideastern religions (also found to be special in the Bible) arise out of simple astronomical observations. Observations critical to knowing when to plan and harvest crops, for example. How these observations made their way into the various myths of that region is given fairly plausible explanations.
From the link:
Here then, are the core ingredients for all future religious theology and mythology. They are all in one place, in the minds of one group, at one particular time in history. This place and time is the area of the world’s first civilisation, Sumer in Mesopotamia pre 3500 BCE.
With my fellow Sumerians I take these core religious ingredients and make up stories for them, creating characters to represent the objects and the elements as Gods. We also create characters for most of the natural things we do not quite understand which results in a plethora of demi-gods. We give form and names to the groups of stars in the sky and relate these images to the demi-gods we have created. The stories we create are parables and allegories; they all contain constant references to the magical numbers, particularly 7 and 12 representing the 7 heavenly bodies and the 12 Moon phases per year. 3 and 4 also feature heavily in the stories either as themselves or as multiples of themselves; 3 being the two extremities and the mid point in the experiment with the steaks …
The stakes (misspelled as steaks) refer to possibly used posts to align with the extreme and mid-positions of the sun as we pass through the seasons. The number 4 is the number of the seasons, which may be its special significance.
One of the earliest gods was Tammuz, a Sumerian deity, later incorporated into the Greek Adonis. He was a god associated with agriculture, vegetation, and fertility. He was killed when vegetation died and then resurrected when it came back.
Another god to arise in the Mideast out of these various patterns was Mithra (Mithras for the Roman incarnation). His birthday was December 25th, and according to some stories he died, and rose 3 days later. He also had a Eucharist, or “Lord’s Supper”. This was before the Jesus stories. More information can be found here, although there does appear to be some controversy on some of the parallel aspects of the Mithras myth. It does seem indeed that the specific relationship between Mithraism and Christianity may not be so clear cut. I would be interested to see if anybody else has more specifics on this.
The Greek Dionysus (and here) was yet another dying and resurrecting god, associated with wine, the earth, and vegetation. It is interesting to note that Dionysus was a child of Zeus and a mortal woman (Presumably a virgin. For more virgin births see here).
Of course, the most famous example is the Egyptian trinity of Horus, Isis and Osiris (Be careful. The font is horrible and you may want sunglasses.) This was another agricultural god. The I-kher-nefert stele describes the Passion of Osiris. It is interesting to note here the distributing of the body of Osiris which was eventually eaten in a Eucharist. The Egyptians took the story a bit further and associated a shared immortality with the god. They were quite concerned with an afterlife. From the first Osiris link:
According to Egyptian scriptures, “As truly as Osiris lives, so truly shall his follower live; as truly as Osiris is not dead he shall die no more; as truly as Osiris is not annihilated he shall not be annihilated.” Believers were “in Osiris,” the equivalent of being “in Christ.”
Be sure to check out all these myths and more as they are pretty fascinating in how they originated and developed.
Of course, as many Christian apologists will take care to explain, there are also some differences between the individual myths and the Christian story. But, the important fact is that all the elements were there. We humans are quite good and adopting and developing stories. Evolving them to meet the needs of the audience. There is simply nothing in Christianity that can not conceivably be easily extrapolated from what has gone before. At Pagan Library, an argument is made that all these patterns were there so that people would be receptive to the gospel. As one Christian correspondent told me, “Eternity is written into the hearts”. But the patterns motivating the myths were based on natural cycles, governed by Newtonian mechanics (gravitation, rigid body motion, etc.). The motion of the sun and moon. The tilt of the earth that results in seasons that give the appearance of the death and resurrection of vegetation, of life (the ultimate wish). These patterns have purely natural explanations and require nothing else. The explanation that these were purposeful foreshadowings of some sort adds no explanatory power and raises far more questions than it answers.
Another difference often stated is that in contrast to all these myths, Christianity is based on an actual historical person, somebody who actually lived among historical people, got crucified and rose again. We’ll pass by the easy argument that, in fact, all accounts of this person were written years after the alleged events and not by any eyewitnesses. There is a more fundamental argument. There is strong evidence that Jesus not only may not have existed as a historical person, but that the earliest Christians may not have viewed him as historical. An essay at Ebon Musings eloquently discusses this in some detail. Another essay by Earl Doherty fills in much extra detail which supports this. As an example, a smoking gun verse is Hebrews 8.4
8:3 For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer.
8:4 For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:
8:5 Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.
The “he were earth” reference refers to Jesus. In fact, the original Greek is a perfect tense saying “if he had been on earth”. The clear implication is that the writer of Hebrews did not think of Jesus as a historical person. He is seen as a heavenly being in a mystical Platonic realm. The idea of earthly things being imperfect reflections of heavenly things was a prevalent idea and the Hellenizing influence common in the Mediterranean made Platonic ideas quite popular among the gnostic sects and mystery cults. We see that in 8.5, where the earthly sacrifices are seen as the imperfect shadows of the heavenly sacrifice performed by Jesus.
What we have is the development of a story, springing out of the existing myths of the time, dressed up for a contemporary audience using popular contemporary ideas. Nothing surprising here. It was simply a resurrection of the resurrection myth.