The “Pagan-Parallel Thesis”, and why practically every single major objection to it is false:

Summary:

The Pagan Parallel thesis suggests that Christianity borrowed many of its major features from pagan (Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman) religion and mythology that had ancient roots, but was contemporaneous with Christianity.  The evidence for this theory consists of showing parallels between parts of the gospels and Christian practices with those of pre-Christian paganism.  The theory reasons that as the pagan versions were earlier, Christianity must have borrowed features from these earlier traditions.  Hence, on this basis it is argued that Christian claims about Jesus cannot be literarily, historically true.

This theory is deeply controversial and is treated with disdain by conservative Christians.  Mainstream academics will concede some partial truth to the theory, though they generally believe that it goes too far, and they tend to conclude that Christianity emerged primarily from a Jewish context.  When considered in detail however, it is quite clear that the theory deserves far more credit then it receives, and pretty much every major objection to it turns out to be false.  Whilst this theory is often presented as a major part of the Christ-myth theory, this theory can also be consistent with a minimalized historical Jesus, though it is less frequently presented in this context.

It is indeed true that there have been many poor presentations of this theory.  However most amateur presentations of the theory are still far better then practically all attempts at rebutting them; including both rebuttals from conservative Christian apologists and secular historians and NT scholars (though the latter are always better than the former).  As for the better presentations of the theory they make a very strong case, and it is only incredulous incredulity that prevents the theory becoming more widely accepted.  When the theory is presented correctly it can answer every objection, and it is only a matter of time before religious scholarship turns around and gives it the credit it demands.  Whilst the following is not an attempt at presenting a positive case for the theory but rather a brief rebuttal of typical objections to the theory, it says a lot if all the objections to a theory are erroneous.

The facts are as follows: Christianity borrowed many of its concepts and practices from the Mystery religions, which themselves were derived from the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian cults of Inanna & Tammuz and Osiris.  Whilst there were some mythological motifs such as miraculous conception which were more general and weren’t specific to the Mysteries, Christianity was and is a pseudo-Jewish Mystery religion.  The primary feature of Christianity has always been its belief in the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus, and the belief that faith in this brings eternal life to believers.  The same was practically true of almost every Mystery cult with relation to their gods, though it is necessary to discuss the details to differentiate the better presentations of the thesis from the worse, though the conclusion remains the same either way.

Main Article:

I could not count the amount of times I have been on social media and seen someone post a link discussing the pagan parallel thesis, and I have wanted to comment but have stopped myself.  Why, you may ask, would I stop myself from commenting on a topic that I am very interested in, and of which I have spent a great deal of time studying?  Well, it’s not fear of disapproval, for if it were I would not be writing this article.  The thing is that it is frustrating having to give the same explanations over and over again to different people (or even the same people), and rebut the same erroneous objections again and again.  So, I often hold my tongue because I simply do not wish to be dragged into that muddy pit and have to spend my time doing something that I have done before, and will almost certainly have to do again.  Rather, I feel the most efficient use of my time is to write articles (and books) like this, in the hope that they can help those interested to sort through the mess of conflicting opinions out there, and understand the facts and arguments as they are.

If you listened only to Christian apologists you could be excused for thinking that the pagan parallel thesis was a crazy conspiracy theory espoused by Internet nutcases, and that there was no real evidence for it at all, but that it was all made up.  Apologists speak about the theory with such disdain, as if to make it so that one would be embarrassed to be associated with the theory.  Likewise, many secular historians and NT scholars treat the theory as a relic of the 19th century that has rightfully been let go, as new evidence has finally put the thesis to bed.  Hence, if you only listened to the consensus on the issue you could perhaps be excused for thinking that proponents of this theory were out of date, and were merely flogging a horse that died 100 odd years ago.

The thing is that we should not simply accept opinions on important issues simply on the basis of peer pressure.  It is always necessary to examine both sides of a debate, and see whether there are legitimate arguments on both sides.  If critics of the pagan parallel thesis were correct then we would expect to find that all presentations of the theory were deeply flawed.  However, if we actually take the time to examine the relevant details we discover the exact opposite.  It is not hard to validate the positive claims of the pagan parallel thesis, and likewise it is not hard to rebut and utterly debunk pretty much every single critical objection to the theory.

Let us therefore consider what are the objections that both Christian apologists and secular scholars give to the theory:

  • 1)  The relevant claims made about paganism are false, and/or unverifiable.
  • 2)  Any true sources for pagan parallels actually post-date Christianity, and hence were most likely influenced by Christianity, rather than the other way around.
  • 3)  The claimed parallels are in truth vague, incidental and inconsequential, and the differences between them outweigh any similarities, and make them mute.  Pagan gods did not come back to life on earth in bodily form as did Jesus, and hence should not be referred to as resurrected.  As for Osiris, he was the god of the dead, and did not come back to life after death but rather lived on in the underworld.
  • 4)  The pagan parallel thesis is outdated, as it’s based on old scholarship that was debunked a century ago.  Scholarship has shown that Christianity emerged from a Jewish environment, without Greek influence.  The pagan parallel thesis is only put forth today by amateur mythicists on the Internet, who make the same mistakes endlessly.  No serious scholar today gives any time to this thesis; rather it deserves mockery and nothing more.
  • 5)  There is no evidence of any “dying and rising god” or Mystery religion within Judea, and the early Christians did not have any exposure to them.
  • 6)  Jews and Christians were exclusive, and were extremely guarded against syncretism with the cultures and faiths around them.
  • 7)  Correlation does not necessary prove causation, and even it were true that there were similarities between paganism and Christianity, it would not necessarily follow that Christianity borrowed from paganism.

I will now go to show that every single one of the above objections is ultimately false. Whilst there are in some cases some half-truths to the objections, it is easily demonstrable that these objections are all erroneous. Let us begin then:

1)        Critics often state that the claimed parallels between Jesus and pagan gods do not actually exist, and that proponents of the theory literarily make this stuff up, with no primary sources to back up their claims. So firstly lets deal with the half-truths and then get to the real dirt.  It certainly is true that many early proponents of this theory from the 18th-20th century did not reference their work (case in point Kersey Graves infamous work “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors”), and in many cases it is difficult (if not impossible) to verify many of their claims.  Likewise, the Internet is full of memes comparing Jesus to pagan gods such as Horus and Mithra. However, brief attempts to verify the claims of these lists are disappointing in that a quick Google search does not provide corroborative evidence but rather the opposite; lots of people rebutting the claims of these lists.

So, critics are indeed correct that amateur proponents of this theory (and outdated scholars) have indeed made unverifiable claims.  That however simply applies to the worst that the field has to offer, and does not speak to what the best can do.  As for the Internet memes and so forth, they certainly often make claims that are not easily verifiable, and hence are not examples of the best of the field, but rather the opposite.  However, amongst these lists are many legitimate parallels which can indeed be verified, and even some of the claims which aren’t easily validated can indeed also be verified if one looks in the right place.

So having dealt with the partial truth to the objection, let me show why it is ultimately misleading.  Lets start with miraculous birth.  We have the case of Dionysus’s miraculous birth where his mortal mother Semele was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a lightning bolt, attested by Euripides in the 5th century BCE (“The Bacchae”, verses 1-5) and Hesiod in the 8th century BCE (“Theogany”, 940).  There is Virgil’s famous “prophecy” of a virgin birth from the 1st century BCE (“The Pastoral Poems”, Eclogues, 4), and the virgin birth of Perseus in which his virgin mother Danae was impregnated by Zeus through a golden shower (Diodorus, Library of History, Book 4, 9:1, or Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.697ff, or Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 2.4.1).

As for rebirth and resurrection, we have the death and resurrection of Inanna as found in “The descent of Inanna” (with clay tablets from the 2nd millennium BCE and also the later work “The descent of Ishtar”), in which Inanna enters the underworld in lavish dress, descends through 7 gates and sheds clothes at each point until she is naked, is stripped of her powers and given a “look of death”, after which her corpse is literarily hung on a hook, before being brought back to life after 3 days and nights by the magical acts of other gods.  Likewise we have the ancient story of Osiris in which he was drowned inside a box in the River Nile by Set, found by his wife Isis embedded in a tree trunk, temporarily brought back to life with a magical spell, hidden in the desert, found and dismembered by Set, and then bandaged together again by Isis, before being finally and permanently brought back to life by the other gods.  Whilst there may appear to be nothing in common between this myth and the Jesus narrative, it formed the basis of a funerary cult, which sought to imitate the death and resurrection of Osiris and offer eternal life to the practitioner, as did all of the Hellenistic Mystery religions that followed.

Whilst a complete narrative of this myth isn’t attested to anywhere in ancient texts until Plutarch (1st century CE), pretty much every feature of this myth is attested from around 3,000 BCE, and is likewise continuously attested all the way through to the Common Era. The Pyramids texts repeatedly refer to the resurrection of Osiris, as do various other Egyptian texts; we even have a stone tablet (the Ikhernofret Stele) dating from the 12th century BCE which tells of a public “passion play” (as Herodotus later referred to it in the 5th century BCE) re-enacting the death and resurrection of Osiris, during which the crowd mourn at his death and later celebrate his resurrection.

Dionysus was known in the ancient world as the Greek version of Osiris, and it is little wonder that many considered them to be the same god via a different name.  Hence, it is truly extraordinary that there are those today that deny that Dionysus was believed to be resurrected (at least in pre-Christian times).  In truth, there are multiple myths of Dionysus that all relate to death-resurrection, including the two versions of his rebirth, the second of which is most certainly a resurrection (as attested by Diodorus in the 1st century BCE, “The Library of History”, Book 3, 62:6 and Book 5, 75:4 relating the myth to the Mysteries), the story of Dionysus descending to the underworld to save his mother (Ibid, Book 4, 25:4), or the similar descent and ascent from Aristophanes comedy “The Frogs” (5th century BCE), or finally his ascent to heaven (alluded to in pre-Christian sources and vase paintings).

You couldn’t really be thought of as identical to Osiris if death and resurrection wasn’t a primary motif in your myth and initiatory rites now could you?  As for the other Greek Mystery religions, they also revolved around themes of death and resurrection, with both the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries again revolving around myths of a descent to and ascent from the underworld (for Demeter and Orpheus respectively), again well attested to in pre-Christian times (for example, the Homeric Hymns circa 7th-6th century BCE and Plato, Symposium 179d).  Then we have Herodotus’ highly relevant discussion of Zalmoxis (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 4, Verses 94-96), in which Herodotus wasn’t sure whether the story which he was familiar was a euhemerized version of a local gods myth, or the real historical account of a religious conman.

As this is only a brief blog piece I don’t really need to go on; needless to say however the closely related gods Attis and Adonis both also shared motifs relating to resurrection, first attested just prior to the Common-Era (if you know where to look) and well attested contemporaneous to early Christianity.  As for the claims about Horus and Mithra also being resurrected (as found on many Internet memes, let alone Zeitgeist 1:1), it is not as if these claims have been simply made up, although you will not be able to verify them with a quick Google search.  Horus was indeed resurrected, but you basically need to read the works of D.N. Boswell or D.M. Murdock to get the sources and understand the context.  As for Mithras, there are features of the mythos, which were used as the basis for the resurrection motif in the Mystery cult named after him (notably, both Mithras and the Bull take on new forms when reborn in Heaven), however there is no traditional resurrection (as Mithras does not die).

What then of all the other claimed parallels made about pagan gods, such as they walked on water, turned water into wine, were ritually eaten by their followers, had 12 disciples, were born at the winter-solstice and so forth?  Well, many of them are true in part, only that again Internet memes commonly misrepresent them.  There were indeed stories and visual depictions of pagan gods walking on, rising from, floating on or flying over water, though some post-date Christianity.  There are a number of pre-Christian sources that tell of water being given the flavour of wine or wine flowing from the ground in association with Dionysus, and there is even a similar motif found in ancient Egypt where the Nile would literarily run red (from sediment) with the “blood of Osiris”.

Egyptians ritually ate “Osiris cakes” (bread baked in the shape of Osiris) during the Osirian rites, pre-Christian vase paintings depict meals of bread and wine with Dionysus tied to a pole or post in the background, and during the Common Era initiates in the Mithraic Mysteries took part in a ritual meal that Christian authors felt was disturbing similar to their own Eucharist.  Ancient Egyptian art commonly depicts groupings of 12 people, gods (or the like), in some cases as “helpers” of Horus or “followers” of Re or Osiris.  Dionysus had been depicted with the signs of the Zodiac in pre-Christian times (though not always with 12 signs; there is a depiction from the 4th century BCE with only 11 signs), and in the Common Era Mithras was commonly depicted alongside all 12 zodiac signs.

In this case however we can probably assume that the number 12 for Jesus’ disciples was derived from the 12 tribes of Israel, to which we should note that the number 12 appears a disproportionate amount of times in the Hebrew Bible.  We should conclude that both pagans and Jews derived their obsession with the number 12 from the fact that there are 12 moons in a calendar year, as this was the foundation for many ancient calendars.  So, in this latter case both pagans and Jews derived their motif of 12 from nature, though again, pagans did it first.  As for the whole winter-solstice thing, that really deserves its own space to clear up all the misconceptions and erroneous objections, plus it tends to bring out the rhetoric in many critics, so I think I will leave it alone today.  Anyways, that should be enough to show that no, proponents of this theory aren’t simply making this stuff up.  The parallels are real and have real sources.

2)        I have already given a number of sources for parallels that significantly predate the Common Era, so how on earth could anybody claim that the sources for the pagan parallel theory post-date Christianity, and how on earth could anyone think that it was actually pagans that copied Christians? Well, this is one of those bizarre things that shouldn’t exist if everybody was reasonable, but unfortunately here we are in 2015 still having this conversation.

So, basically some Christian apologists are happy to acknowledge that there may have been parallels between Christianity and paganism post-Christianity, but they will not accept that these features were there in paganism in pre-Christian times.  For example, I have seen many Christian apologists concede that Adonis was resurrected (falsely believing that the resurrection of Adonis could only be verified in post-Christian times).  Likewise, Gary Habermas is famous for claiming that Dionysus was not resurrected in pre-Christian times (thus implying that he may have accepted a resurrection motif during the Common Era), despite the fact that as a professional scholar he should have been aware of all of the evidence for the existence of the motif in pre-Christian times.

Certainly many Christian authors themselves wrote about parallels between pagan and Christian beliefs, though the approach to this evidence from both Christian apologists (and/or scholars) and mainstream scholars beggars belief.  I have already discussed in detail the dishonesty that Christian apologists apply to the relevant passages found in the work of Justin Martyr.  Most of the other Christian writers that discuss these parallels do not concede that the pagan motifs came earlier than Christianity; hence Christian apologists do not generally feel a need to contest that the parallels exist, only that some of them have (incredibly) tried to argue that pagans obviously copied Christianity due to the success of the new faith.  As for mainstream scholars, many of them have argued that Christian writers themselves stretched the facts and were themselves reaching for parallels due to their own motives.

The important point to make is that the distinction that Christian apologists make between pre and post-Christian sources is entirely erroneous. There is no great change that we see in paganism in the Common Era as a result of its exposure to Christianity.  In truth, every single feature of paganism that can be presented in post-Christian times as being parallel to Christianity can be verified by pre-Christian sources.  It is utterly extraordinary that anyone could claim that pagans copied Christianity.  What is even more extraordinary is that such claims are even made by professional scholars, such as Gunter Wagner, who claimed in his well-known work “Pauline Baptism and the pagan Mysteries” that resurrection wasn’t part of the Osirian cult until after the onset of Christianity.  I have to wonder how on earth anyone with any knowledge of Egyptian religion and the archeological record could make such a claim?

3)        This objection is the primary one used both by Christian apologists and secular scholars, and I have already given a response to it in my (rather long) article on Justin Martyr and Diabolic Mimicry.  Nevertheless, allow me to summarize here.  Both Christian and secular scholars frequently claim that the parallels that proponents of this theory present are superficial, and that the “differences outweigh the similarities”; hence there is no causal relationship between the parallel motifs.

In making this argument, skeptics of the theory are ignoring the standard rules that we apply to determining influence on any subject, and ignoring both ancient witness on the subject and modern-day examples, which make the issue clear.  It may indeed appear that this argument is possibly more subjective than some of the others here, in which case one might not necessarily be able to rebut it as much as argue a contrary case.  However, there are very clear facts, which are frequently ignored by those that present the objection, that show again that the objection is entirely erroneous.

Human beings apply standard common-sense laws when examining different things to work out if there is any relationship between the two.  We do not expect two different people to look identical to be able to determine that they are biologically related, nor do we expect two pieces of music to use the same instruments or belong to the same genre to have a relationship.  Stated simply, it does not matter whether there are many differences between two things, but rather whether there are significant similarities that are unlikely to be due to chance.  Coincidences do appear to happen all the time, as in a vast universe, vastly unlikely things will happen all the time.  However, if vastly unlikely things happen repeatedly or many unlikely parallels can be found, it is most likely that there is a causal relationship at work.

For space reasons alone, lets just stick to the primary motif that is relevant here; that being resurrection.  In the case of Inanna, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, Orpheus, Zalmoxis, Attis and Adonis, they all conquered death in at least one way, and they all had cults based around the mourning and celebrations of their death and resurrection (regardless of how literal those words apply to their particular myth; for example the descent and ascent of Demeter and Orpheus).  In the case of all of the above bar Inanna, we know of Mystery cults in their names that promised eternal life to the initiate through ritual identification with the death and resurrection of the god.

Now, C.S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” offered an explicit parallel to the death and resurrection of Christ, its redemption from sin and its result in eternal life through Aslan’s death and resurrection. Surely then it goes without saying that if a magical talking Lion being killed and resurrected in a magical kingdom can be openly admitted to be a deliberate parallel to the story of Jesus, then other gods being killed and resurrected on earth (in some examples) or through a descent and ascent from the underworld are also likely to be causally linked to the story of Jesus.  Surely the story of Osiris’s death and resurrection has every bit as much in common with that of Jesus as does that of Aslan?  The New Testament itself compares the death and resurrection of Jesus to Jonah being in the belly of the fish for 3 days (Matthew 12:40).  Surely again, if the death and resurrection of a god can be paralleled to somebody being swallowed by a giant fish and then released after 3 days, then surely another god being killed and resurrected 3 days later is a legitimate parallel to a god being killed and resurrected 3 days later!

It is not as if resurrection is a mere mundane part of life; rather claims of people coming back to life are extraordinary, and hence when different sources share this motif there is a valid reason to see a connection between them.  Despite the vast number of differences in the details of the accounts of Osiris and Dionysus (and the rest of the crew), numerous ancient witnesses (Herodotus, Diodorus, Pausanias and Plutarch etc.) tell the tale that they were in-fact the same god, known by a different name, and some of these authors openly admit the relationship between the Hellenistic Mystery religions and the Egyptian funerary cult (as did some Christian authors).

It is frequently argued that the aforementioned pagan gods are different to Christ as they were symbolic of the cycles of nature, in comparison to the resurrection of Christ, which is claimed to be literal.  Making this argument is however either dishonest or ignorant (or both), as in truth these pagan myths were explicitly designed to complement both public and private rites, and the Church fathers themselves compared Christ’s resurrection to the cycles of nature!

Another subset of this objection is that Jewish and Christian conceptions of resurrection are very specific and were unique in the ancient world; hence the examples that proponents of this theory present are not real parallel to Jesus’ resurrection, but should rather be defined as revivification or similar.  Again however, despite being very common, this argument is entirely false.  Firstly, the Greek words used in the NT for resurrection were actually the very same words that Greek historians used to refer to the resurrection of Osiris and other pagan gods.  In truth, the word resurrection is a modern English word, which in common use is applied to everything from a business to a football team (i.e. “They hadn’t won a game for half the season, but fortunately the new coach managed to resurrect the team”).  Secondly, there was in fact significant variety in what early Christians believed about the afterlife, and different sects held different ideas about in which form they would spend eternity. The same is likewise true in the religions of Egypt, Greece and Rome etc.

The ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to preserve the bodies of their dead, in the sincere belief that preservation of the body was vital to aid resurrection and eternal life.  Despite this, we do however have some late witnesses that state that Egyptians held belief in a spiritual afterlife.  The reality is that the two do not cancel each other out; some Egyptians (at some point) believed in physical resurrection in a physical afterlife, whilst others believed in spiritual equivalents of both.  The same is also true both of early and modern Christians, as we have abundant evidence for.

Christian apologists and even mainstream scholars (who aren’t Egyptologists) frequently claim that Osiris was never resurrected, but simply lived on after death as god of the dead.  Real Egyptologists of course will tell you that Osiris was resurrected, and with good reason.  In the public rites the people mourned when Osiris was killed, and they celebrated when he returned to life; clearly a distinction is made between the two events.  It is quite obvious that the ancient Egyptians did not believe that the natural course of events after death was for a person (or their soul) to live on in the underworld.  Rather, they believed that miraculous (or magical) resurrection was necessary for life after death.

So, it is easy to see that again this objection is quite erroneous, and those making it seem to be ignoring the obvious responses to all the variants of it.  Truth be told, the resurrection motif is a remarkable common belief that stands out from all the differences in the details.  The differences tell us that Christianity is not identical to the cult of Osiris-Dionysus (et al.), but the common features tell us that it almost certainly was and is related.

4)        It is indeed true that the pagan parallel theory was given more consideration roughly 100 years ago, but since then mainstream scholarship has moved towards the view that Christianity emerged primary from a Jewish context, with acceptance that some early Christian communities borrowed some ideas from Greek philosophy and mythology.  It is also true that some of the older theories and claims related to this theory (and mythicism in general) have been rendered untenable from developments in the field over the past 100 years.  For example, a century ago there were radical scholars suggesting that the NT texts weren’t written until as late as the 4th century CE.  Such claims are indeed completely untenable today, and nobody should repeat such theories knowing what we know now.  However, modern proponents of the pagan parallel thesis are entitled to discard erroneous claims and theories of older generations, and retain arguments that remain plausible.

As human beings, academics are just as prone to aberrations and trends as are laymen, and I would argue that this is indeed the case here.  A major reason in this case is that the study of religious history is often pursued by people with strong religious beliefs, and hence religious scholarship and apologetics often overlap.  The perfect example of a major work that contributed to this trend was Gunter Wagner’s aforementioned “Pauline Baptism…”, which unfortunately has been mistaken for scholarship instead of being viewed as the propaganda that it is (as in truth, Romans chapter 6 does indeed place Christian baptism in terms that relate it directly to the sympathetic magic of the Osirian cult and the Mystery religions).

Other works from mainstream scholars contributed to this trend (albeit without the direct religious motive) simply through the same human flaws that appear in every field of human endeavour.  There is no question that Christianity has Jewish roots; however it is foolish to deny the heavy Hellenistic influence on all aspects of Christianity.  There is no doubt in my mind that in the near future the trend will be reversed, and mainstream academia will again recognize Hellenistic influence upon Christianity as a major force in its origins.

5)        This objection is one of my favourites, simply because of how easy it is to falsify.  Truth be told, no one should be making this claim, and it is an embarrassment to religious scholarship that even secular academics make this claim.  The argument is attempting to claim that early Christians could have conceived of Jesus’s resurrection without any influence from the Mystery religions (and not only that, it is suggesting that Jews in Judea had never even heard of Inanna, Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, Orpheus, Attis or Adonis).  Of course, this is absolutely ridiculous.  To think that Judean Jews could have never heard of Osiris is like suggesting that you could live in the US today and never hear about Jesus.

Firstly, we have the fact that the Old Testament itself references Jewish women mourning for Tammuz in front of the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:14).  So that alone refutes the argument.  Furthermore, pretty much every single Greek historian who mentioned Osiris or Dionysus noted that pretty much everyone, everywhere worshipped them.  Even if there weren’t any Jews that worshipped them (and I’m being conservative here), Jewish people most certainly would have been aware of the myths and (public) rites of the Osirian and Dionysian cults.  To argue otherwise is to presume that just because orthodox Judaism was highly exclusive and shunned the religion of other cultures, that they would lived in a box in which they had no awareness of the religious beliefs and practices of the cultures around them, which is of course completely untenable.

Furthermore, we have the accounts found in 2nd and 3rd Maccabees of Jews being forced to take part in Dionysian rites.  Certainly there is question as to the historicity of these accounts, and it is commonly believed that they were written by Alexandrian Jews (and thus were written outside of Judea).  However, the fact still remains that we have Jewish sources that claim that Jews were forced to take part in Dionysian rites (in pre-Christian times), and this is certainly relevant.  Considering all of these facts (the first of which is sufficient to make my case), nobody at all should be using this objection to the pagan parallel thesis, as it is utterly false.

6)        Moving on, this objection is every bit as bad as the last one, and just as easy to refute.  Just because some Jews (and Christians) were highly exclusive and guarded against syncretism, does not mean that all Jews and Christians were.  In fact, we know as a fact that some Jews and Christians did indeed practice syncretism, and we know that not all people that considered themselves Christians were exclusive (some heterodox Christians openly read pagan philosophical and religious texts alongside Christians ones, and were fine with honouring and worshipping religious figures and deities outside of their own tradition).

The Hebrew Bible itself repeatedly speaks (in very negative terms) of the Jewish people reverting back to worshiping the other Canaanite gods; hence this fact alone disproves the objection.  Just to spell it out in case you missed it, the Hebrew Bible itself repeatedly says that some Jews did indeed worship other gods and practice other religions.  Now, the pagan parallel thesis suggests that at very least early Christians practiced syncretism in blending pagan and Jewish ideas together, and the Christ myth theory likewise suggests that Christianity has its very origins in the blending of Jewish and pagan mythology, philosophy and religion by Hellenistic Jews (such as those found in Alexandria).

Now obviously, noting that not all Jews and Christians were exclusive does not in and of itself prove that the pagan parallel thesis or the Christ myth theory is correct (remembering that the two are not necessarily always found together, though I personally endorse forms of both).  However, what it does do is absolutely refute this objection to both theories.  Hence again, nobody should be using this objection to the theory.

7)        Finally, we have what may seem at first to be a reasonable assertion; that even if it could be established that there were real similarities between pagan and Christian beliefs, and even if it could be established that the pagan motifs were older, it would not necessarily follow that Christians borrowed or stole these motifs and beliefs from paganism.  If we are to be honest with ourselves, we are unlikely to ever have strong enough evidence to absolutely prove any particular theory of Christian origins over another; hence we must ultimately play the possibilities against each other.  This is a game of likelihood, plausibility and so forth.

So, I have asked myself the question: ‘Knowing what I know about comparative religion, what is the possibility that Christianity could have developed the way it did without direct influence from paganism, in particular the cults of Osiris and his merry band of followers?’ Knowing what I know, I cannot help but answer: ‘Almost none at all’. You are free to disagree with me of course, but can I suggest that if you wish to do so you adjust your case to take into account the facts as they stand, and if you wish to continue to reject the pagan parallel thesis then you need to come up with some new objections that can’t be rebutted as easily as these.  Or, you could jump ship and see the world from my side of the fence, and accept that Jews and Christians were and are ultimately the same as everyone else, and that they did the same things that everybody did and does, both then and today.

Human beings share ideas, and evolve concepts developed by those that came before them.  This occurs in every single field of human endeavour, from cooking, architecture, farming, art, dance, music, warfare, and yes, philosophy, mythology and religion.  The people of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Asia and everywhere else all shared religious motifs, and whilst orthodox forms of Judaism and Christianity may have idealized a belief that they were distinct from their evil, idolatrous neighbours, the reality is that they too practiced syncretism.  This reality is only challenging if you are either attached to Christianity as a religion (and feel that if it is threatened or diminished then you are threatened or diminished), or for whatever reason you are attached to an academic theory of Christian origins that says that Christianity emerged either primarily or entirely from a Jewish context.

Ultimately, this issue shouldn’t make much of a difference to our overall worldview (if any at all).  Rather, I would like to suggest that if it does then your worldview is like a castle built on the sand, in that your perspective of reality is build on very fragile foundations that can easily be washed away.  Reality does not change if the claims of one particular religion are proven to be not entirely true, and we should always be open to new information, even about topics that we hold sacred.

Peace

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12 thoughts on “The “Pagan-Parallel Thesis”, and why practically every single major objection to it is false:

  1. Another home run. Can I press you for your opinion on a few things?

    In Diodorus, in his account of how the body of the deceased Attis had to be buried and paid honours to Cybele, he writes that an effigy had to be made in its place because his body had disappeared i.e. disintegrated, and that these rites continued to his day: do you think that this can be confirmation of the Hilaria in a pre-Christian source? I know it doesn’t (explicitly) mention his his “bodily” resurrection, it might allude to his “annual” rebirth, as images from around the same period depict the older Attis dying and a younger Attis taking his place.

    Also, in Plutarch’s Moralia, he comments about a Phrygian god who sleeps during the winter and wakes during the spring. Is he referring to Attis or some other Thracian god like Sabazios?

    And speaking of Sabazios, what is your opinion of the ideal of Jews worshipping a variant of Sabazios? You mention the Books of Maccabees in which Jews were forced to partake in the cult of Bacchus, and both he and Sabazios were syncretized by that time, and Diodorus and Plutarch said that Jews worshipped Bacchus under the epithet of Iao. I just wanted to know your take on this.

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    • Well, James pretty much took the words right out my mouth, i.e. off my keyboard. I too consider the disappearance in Diodorus to be the arborification. We have several monuments from that time which depict Attis emerging reborn from either a pine cone and/or a calyx, naturally this being his rebirth from the tree which he turned into. Very similar to the Osiris tale, which Attis was already identified with by this time as well. So I don’t think Diodorus conflicts with a bodily rebirth of Attis, and if anything, kind of corroborates with it.

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      • As for whether Sabazios or Attis is meant in the ambiguous Plutarch passage- why either/or? As you, James, and others here have noted, this time was HEAVILY syncretistic theologically, and that can’t be overemphasized, and we know that by this time Attis had already been identified with Sabazios as well as Mithras, Dionysus, Adonis, Osiris, etc. Plutarch himself even attests to some of these conflations. So it’s not actually a dichotomy here. I think the passage can be equally applied to both since they were essentially the same interchangeable figure, by analogy, like one theological Mr. Potato head, if you will.

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      • Just in case there is any confusion, the reason why I took the words out of DN Boswell’s mouth is because my opinions on the topic are based directly on his work. Boswell has pretty much mentored me on these topics and I am fortunate enough to have a copy of his book. I personally don’t think we need to make a huge deal out of exactly when the Hilaria can first be dated to. Obviously it would be nice to have a definite pre-Christian verification of the festival due to its parallels to Easter, and the typical BS that we hear from Christian apologists (such as Holding) on the matter. The point as I see it however is that every single feature of the Hilaria festival (and Easter) can be attested to in pre-Christian times, though not always in the same place. Pretty much every single relevant pagan death-resurrection motif was related to the passing of the seasons in public rites, so they were always celebrated (and mourned) at significant seasonal markers (hence in Egypt the Osirian rites coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile, plus the two births of Horus at the winter solstice and vernal equinox etc). It was a no-brainer that Christians would also do the same, though they generally try to argue for different reasons why. Ultimately the resurrection motifs for Attis and Adonis are derived from that of Osiris, regardless of whether they were dated before or after the turn of the Common Era (though they both predate the Common Era in truth). Christian apologetics on the subject deserve to be ignored; it is such a shame they mislead so many though, hence why we do what we do.

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      • Sorry for any misunderstandings. When I read Diodorus’s account I never took it as his transformation into a tree. Maybe it was the translation I was reading.

        As for my comments about a bodily resurrection versus an annual rebirth (which I consider the same, mythologically speaking–don’t get me wrong) I was speaking more in line of how, similar to Dionysus and the Lenaia, the effigy of Attis was not just a substitute or symbol for him but would have been thought by his worshippers to be Attis himself, and so his annual “re-burial” would also indicate his annual death and rebirth/resurrection. (Much like Adonis in Theocritus and Dionysus in the Lenaia).

        Yeah, I agree that if one spoke of Attis then they would invoke Osiris, Zagreus, Sabazios, etc, as well. And since rebirth/renewal/resurrection were both apart of the Attis and Sabazios cults, I guess it really doesn’t matter in the end.

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      • Ahhh, okay, so you mean similar to how the Eucharist wafer is seen (in some denominations at least) to be THE literal body of the savior himself? 😉

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  2. Thanks again Daniel. I would once again refer you to my friend DN Boswell’s work “The Amen Creed” for information on Attis, though I think it is temporarily unavailable (unless you already have a copy) as he is doing some updates. Diodorus mentions how the body of Attis had disappeared; the obvious conclusion being that it had turned into a tree already. Also in book 3, chapter 58, verse 4 Diodorus refers to Attis becoming a god after death, in doing so implicitly referring to the presence of the rebirth-resurrection aspect of Attis’ mythos already in his day. Yes, I would assume that Plutarch was referring to Attis (though he could be speaking of another); I don’t think there is really any way to be certain. His comparison with Bacchic celebrations leads me to suspect Attis, as he was syncretised with Dionysus during the Hellenistic period. As for the passages about Jews worshiping Sabazios, I chose to leave them alone due to their contentious nature. Certainly Jews everywhere would have been aware of Dionysus, his mythos and rites. Certainly some Jews practiced syncretism (particularly those in Alexandria), and probably some went apostate and joined pagan cults. As for whether there were common Jewish festivities which equated Yahweh with Dionysus, I choose to err on the side of caution personally, until someone can make that case in a convincing manner.

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    • Thank you for your reply. I haven’t been able to procure a copy of it, and was only able to read a tidbit of it when it was available on Google books.

      Yeah, the apotheosis of Attis was before the common era, and what’s funny is I’ve heard critics say that, much like what they say of Osiris, Attis died and stayed dead. And the Phrygian Hymn also invokes this by calling him a corpse and then a god in succession. This, along with the pre-Christian image of him dying under the tree with a new Attis waiting to take his place pretty much confirms his rebirth and resurrection in pre-Christian times. My question about Diodorus was whether or not he was referring to the Hilaria, or some form of it, which I think is the case; and that includes the belief in his rebirth.

      The Sabazios-Yahweh connection has always baffled me because scholars maintain that it was the pagans making the identification, yet not only does the aforementioned 2 and 3 Book of Maccabees say that Jews had been introduced to the cult of Bacchus and forced to partake in his worship, coins minted in Israel from the fourth century BCE depicts Yahweh in a like manner to Zeus.

      All arguments I’ve heard against this relationship between Sabazios, Dionysus, and Yahweh, all seem to be motivated by special interest. It just seems conspicuous to me to say that Jews lived in a diverse and syncretic world yet did not themselves practice similar beliefs.

      Of course that’s not to say all Jews were doing this. But it does prove that there were Jews living close to the time Christianity emerged that did partake in syncretism; if not mythically, then philosophically (like Philo).

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  3. There is abundant evidence for the presence of the rebirth-resurrection mythos for Attis in pre-Christian times, and as there is a tradition that the Hilaria festival was brought to Rome in the 1st century CE, I would presume that Diodorus was most likely referring to the same rites.

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    • Something I always find amusing about apologists is they assume that the first mention of something is when it started. Like how Holding states that because our first mention of the Hilaria and the resurrection of Attis are both post-Christian, this must mean that the belief was post-Christian as well. Or how every god brought up in these discussions didn’t have resurrection accounts until 200 AD, or some other arbitrary year, because they weren’t explicitly stated to have done so in older sources (well, so they say). I cannot tell you how many times I have had to go over this vey simple concept that, in order for something to be written about, it first has to exist. Not the other way around! Mithras is a prime example.

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  4. There is a book called “Jesus Outside The New Testament” which purports to destroy the claims made by enlightened thinkers that linked the Jesus story with earlier myths. The author repeatedly uses the same weak argument, declaring that the claims were attacked by such and such a scholar without detailing the content of said attacks.
    Begin Quote: “During the 1870s and 1880s, several members of the “Radical Dutch School” (a name given by Germans to a group that made the Tübingen School seem moderate) also pronounced against the existence of Jesus. Centered at the University of Amsterdam, this group had the “most extreme skepticism” about the historical value of the Bible. Allard Pierson, its leader, flatly denied the existence of Jesus, and A. Loman and W. C. van Manen followed him. Their arguments were stoutly attacked in the Netherlands, especially by other scholars, but largely ignored outside it. They wrote almost exclusively in the relatively unknown Dutch language, and as a school focused on the Old Testament.”
    End Quote

    His treatment of “L’Origine De Tous Les Cultes” is exactly the same.

    The author actually begins is book by saying that claims of the non historicity of Jesus have been laid to rest in recent years.

    Not a compelling much less convincing argument.

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  5. Yes. Opponents of the pagan parallel thesis or mythicism in general largely rely on the argument from authority to try and stop people from actually considering their opponents case. Its quite ironic though when conservative Christians use this argument, as on most relevant topics academic consensus actually goes against them rather than in their favour.

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