Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange

See Farrell Till's article The Pagan Origins of Resurrection and Mark McFall's (ITW) article OH-SIGH-RIS for context.

by Richard C. Carrier

Copyright 2002. The right to quote or reproduce this work in full is granted to anyone who credits the author and does not use it for profit.


Mark McFall asked my opinion of an ongoing debate he has been having with Farrell Till. As a degreed expert on ancient history, my assessment of the most recent exchange in the Mar-May 2002 issue of In the Word is that, overall, Till and McFall are both right and both wrong. Before I discuss this, however, disclosure is appropriate: I am an atheist and have also written an online essay on pagan parallels and ideas of resurrection, the historical merit of the evidence for the reality of Christ's resurrection generally, and the case for the Pauline notion of a spiritual resurrection: see "Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story" 2000.   Everything I say below draws on what is presented in that essay or on my own personal experience in ancient history. [Though do note warnings at that site that that essay is now obsolete and has been superseded by subsequent print publications.]

First of all, as their able arguments show, doubt can be thrown on both cases: there is no certain answer known to us today regarding what anyone really believed about Osiris in the time of Christ. This is all the more so since the only sources cited by both challengers are either ancient (preceding even Classical Greek literature) or very unreliable. This is most damning in the case of Plutarch, who was a rabid Platonist with an obvious and explicit disdain for popular religion. He is well known for rewriting and distorting facts to suit his genteel Greek sensibilities and his unabashedly Platonist dogmas, and he actually says many times that he has dismissed or omitted much out of disgust with popular notions. Yet Christianity arose from the illiterate masses, and waited quite a long time before scholars of any note took interest in it. Thus, Plutarch's views could be worlds away from anything Osiris worshippers, or the earliest would-be Christians, may have known or believed.[1] This source problem only compounds what is already evident from the Till-McFall exchange: the evidence can legitimately be interpreted in many different ways.

On the one hand, Till's case is overly repetitive and polemical in tone (we don't really care what McFall's ulterior motives may be--they are irrelevant to the issue in dispute). Likewise, he relies too much on the notoriously unreliable opinions of Frazer (I would never trust myself what that man wrote) and an anachronistic view of ancient culture. He has also picked a relatively lame horse, since Osiris worship remains little understood.

On the other hand, McFall makes four general mistakes of his own. I will address McFall's errors first, then conclude with Till's. Number one. McFall writes as though Till's (or any skeptic's) argument is that "New Testament writers borrow[ed] the resurrection concept from myths." That is an over simplification on two counts. On the one hand, whether Christians did get the idea from some particular religion or religions is not something we can likely ever know; rather, what is significant is that the idea was "in the air" and thus not novel. A skeptic might ask why a God would enact a plan of salvation that assembles syncretically the ideas of false religions actively practiced at the time. Such a syncretic assembly is the hallmark of human invention, not divine plan. On the other hand, it is quite easy (and has happened again and again) for a religious movement to unconsciously adopt, and in the process mold and transform, a popular notion in the surrounding culture. Rather than conscious borrowing, the existence of potent ideas in the broader culture will affect what people expect, what they believe to be possible, and how they will interpret strange events or escape a psychological crisis. The first Christians may have had no idea of the influence of pagan ideas on their interpretation of the events surrounding and following the death of their beloved leader.

Number two. McFall overplays just a bit the "x is not enough like y" card. By finding differences between Christianity and other myths, like that of Osiris, he claims there could therefore be no influence. That does not follow. Every religion is unique. It is not therefore true. You would struggle in vain to find the precedent for the Attis cult's practice of self-castration and the carrying of trees all over Italy. People invent novel, even wildly strange religions all the time. Appeals to popular hatred of the novel are also in vain, since despite the almost universal disgust the Greeks and Romans felt toward castrated men the Attis cult nonetheless flourished, even in the heart of Italy itself. Likewise, the Attis cult's notion of a God dying and then being resurrected with the agricultural cycle is obviously a borrowing from the numerous agricultural-resurrection cults of the day, yet it is entirely novel for the cause of death: castration. It would be quite wrong to say, perhaps, "No other pagan gods died that way, so those dying-and-rising gods are not parallels inspiring the Attis myth." That is obviously not true. Thus, finding differences between Christ and Osiris carries little weight. It still remains that a dying-and-rising god motif exists in both cases and thus the Christian belief is not entirely novel. It remains worth exploring just how novel it is, and why, but we cannot dismiss obvious similarities simply because there are differences.

When we revisit the issue of syncretism we see that while the most popular pagan notions of divine and personal resurrection appear to be metaphorical or to relate to events that are real but carried out in some other sphere beyond that of earth, the Jews had already brought the resurrection idea down to earth in a purely physical form. It is not hard to see how a simple uniting of the two ideologies produces Christianity: the ethereal resurrection of a single divine man combined with the physical, mass resurrection eagerly expected by the Jews. It makes too much sense to dismiss too easily.

Likewise, while McFall makes much of the fact that Biblical resurrections other than that of Jesus are not a final conquest of death, he misses two facts: first, that Jews already had the idea of a conquest of death in the final resurrection of all Israel (it would be a return to the paradise of Eden, free of death and disease and want, as is clear throughout Philo, Josephus, and the Talmudic and Mishnaic literature); and, second, that the most popular pagan salvation cults already had the notion of a conquest over death in an individual resurrection into a heavenly or otherworldly paradise in exchange for faith, ethical conduct, and initiation into a ritual mystery. Christianity, again, can easily be described as the amalgamation of both views. Indeed, a skeptic can note that there is no particular reason either for the deification of Jesus or for the rampant use of mystery religion vocabulary in the Epistles, or for the adoption of a rebirthing ceremony, apart from the fact that these ideas were already popular among pagans. For instance, if Jesus were an ordinary man who was the "first fruit" of the Jewish resurrection, that would indeed be a remarkable innovation. But the Christians made him a divine man, thus making his resurrection fall in line with pagan expectations of what was possible and appropriate. That fits with a theory like Till's at least as well as McFall's.

Though to his credit McFall did not use the tired argument that the Jews would not unite their views with pagan notions, I would like to head that falsehood off from the start: not only do we know for a fact that Jews did just this (Philo's Platonic Judaism, the Jewish Orphics, the appearance of the Persian flaming hell in Hellenistic Jewish theology, etc.), we also know there were numerous Jewish sects each with radically different ideas, each more or less accumulating ideas from surrounding cultures, and to top it all off, Christianity began far more successful among Gentiles and Hellenized Jews than among conservative heartland Jews (as Paul's letters demonstrate). It is also worth pointing out that McFall mistakenly assumes a netherworld was not regarded as a real, material place located on earth (most ancient cultures held such a belief, even while other beliefs gained popularity), and he ignores the fact that Christians even as early as Paul believed Jesus did indeed go to the netherworld before rising, so the parallel of an Osiris raised in a netherworld looks a bit more like early Christian belief than he lets on, despite the differences that remain.

Number three. McFall goes off on a long tangent arguing there is better evidence for a real resurrection of Jesus than for Osiris. This is not entirely relevant here. No one, least of all skeptics, argues that Osiris was really resurrected. We are not talking about what happened, but what people believed, what ideas were considered viable, popular, ripe for the taking, potent influences. Making a case that the physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened is a wholly different argument than whether the idea of such a resurrection was already alive among pagans and pre-Christian Jews. Both in fact could be true, so even if successful here (and I am not persuaded) McFall has not refuted Till's primary point that the idea of such a resurrection could have causes other than historical fact. McFall could grant that and still argue that the evidence leads us to historical fact anyway.

Number four. Always beware of apologists who are not classicists. McFall breaks this rule when he buys into Nash's inept anachronism of a distinction between resurrection and resuscitation. No such distinction existed in the conceptions of ancient peoples. Since there was no such distinction then, you cannot use such a distinction as a wedge to argue that one group would not get the idea of resurrection from another group's idea of resuscitation, because both groups in those times would have comprehended both concepts, and employed the same terminology for both. Indeed, McFall is in an even worse position here than Till makes out. For the original Christian words for "resurrection" are actually very vague: anastasis and egeiromai, and their cognates, simply mean "rise up, get up" and were hardly ever used to refer to returning from the dead before the Christians used them in that sense. Instead, the usual use of these words was for waking up from sleep or standing up from a prone position.

Thus, the original Christian vocabulary was actually far closer in basic meaning to Nash's idea of "resuscitation" than resurrection. The fact that Christians had no trouble adding many layers of double meaning onto such a concept only further proves they were ignorant of Nash's distinctions. In contrast, Plutarch's words, which McFall himself cites for the "resurrection of Osiris," are far more specific and potent: anabiôsis means quite literally "back to life," leaving far less room for ambiguity. It is hard to imagine how a spiritual resurrection could be called "back" to "life," much less a passage to another world, for neither is a return to anything previous (entailed by the prefix ana-), and biosis is the antonym of nekrosis, "death," and those in Hades are called the "dead" (nekroi) so it would not make much sense to refer to someone in Hades as biotês (the "living"). So why does Plutarch use this word of Osiris? That is a legitimate question.

Likewise, paliggenesis (palin, "back again," and genesis, "birth") leaves little ambiguity: as "rebirth" it was a standard word for regeneration, which refers to one's body (even Christians use it thus: Matt.

Now to Till's blunders. First, he is a fish out of water when he asks the rhetorical question "why did Isis go to such great lengths to find all of the scattered body parts and reassemble them?" Any expert in ancient cultures would know the answer to this: because the souls of the deceased could not find rest, could not pass into the underworld, until their whole bodies were properly buried. Greek tragedies are rife with the notion, as is Jewish Talmudic law, even history: the Athenians actually executed their naval commanders who did not try to retrieve the bodies of sailors lost at sea. There is no need here of any connection with a resurrection motif.

Moreover, Till's citation of several sources used in connection with funerals and mummification seems unenlightened by the cultural facts at hand. He cites language directed at preservation, not resurrection, and for a specific and well-known reason: the Egyptians (and, incidentally, the Jews, as attested in early Judaic texts) believed that if the body were disfigured by damage or decay, the soul, which was fond of wandering, would be unable to recognize its abode and so would get lost. This is why Egyptians made such heavy use of realistic statuary and painted or engraved masks and sarcophagi, since it was felt that even should the body rot, these items, by retaining the visage of the deceased, would remain as markers for the wandering soul.

However, I join Till in his belief that Paul preached a spiritual resurrection and I have gathered far more evidence for this than he has. But McFall's response to this is still largely correct. We cannot import contemporary ideas into ancient thinking. And the idea that souls do not have mass, that souls are not "bodies" with location, made of a material, was unusual in antiquity, unlike today. In fact, the common idea of a massless, immaterial soul is largely a product of medieval thought, though the idea already had a nascent place in Platonism and certain pagan cults. Thus, it may well be that Paul and other early Christians believed the resurrected Christ had a new "body," though now made of incorruptible material--which could not be "molecules" as McFall suggests, since those would be by definition earthly and therefore subject to decay. Rather, it was certainly the pure homogenous element of aether, the material of the heavens, well-known to all thinkers of the day as the only indestructible, unchanging material in the universe. This belief was almost certainly held by Paul, and would be compatible with both the belief that the tomb was empty (i.e. Jesus' flesh disintegrated altogether, and now he walked in an aetherial body) and the belief that the body of Jesus remained in the tomb to decay while the real Jesus assumed and walked in a new form (a concept for which there were numerous precedents in Persian and Essene belief as well as Platonic and Orphic spiritology). As Paul is silent on which belief the Christians held, and as both are compatible with what he does say, we cannot claim to have refuted either view from this material alone.

Finally, I am not sure I understand Till's longwinded focus on the Osiris myth in the first place. This is easily the least persuasive parallel with Christianity among extant religions of the day.[2] There are far more convincing cases for a pagan belief in a physical resurrection. Take Castor and Pollux (or Polydeuces). These two brothers, called the Dioscuri, won a special deal from the gods: though both had died, only one of them had to actually sit in Hades, while the other got to live again on earth, and they exchanged places either every six months or every other day. Massively popular as savior deities and protectors, often "seen" physically appearing and acting in battles and other crises, there is no way anyone, especially anyone who spoke much less wrote Greek, would not have heard of these gods and their myth. This is an indisputable case of an idea of physical resurrection on Earth, and one that was ubiquitous in the time of Christ. This is all the more important a parallel since there are signs that Mark deliberately employed the Dioscuri typology in his Gospel (Dennis McDonald devotes a whole chapter to this in his book The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 2000). Yes, differences remain, but its the similarities that matter.

In another respect there is the story of Inanna, which included not only a clearly genuine belief in her return to earth after death (and subsequent rule over Sumeria), but her manner of death was identical to that of Jesus: she was crucified (differences in procedure notwithstanding). This myth cycle, though very ancient, was the direct ancestor to several forms of goddess worship extant in the time of Jesus. In still another respect there is the story of Zalmoxis in Herodotus, another clear case of belief in physical resurrection (the Greek euhemerization of the Thracian religion he describes would not make any plausible sense otherwise). And there are many more parallels, showing a wide diversity of views about resurrection arising in the very century that Christianity began. This cannot be mere coincidence. It is clear that ancient peoples were experimenting with many different concepts of resurrection, and the idea was becoming popular, at the very time that one of these experiments, Christianity, arose.

This does not entail that Jesus' resurrection was false. But it does support any argument to that effect. There is as far as I have seen nothing significant about Christianity that was novel: everything of importance had precedents in other religions, pagan or Jewish, and can easily be explained as a syncretic combining of numerous different ideas into one. The combination was certainly novel and unique, as every religion is, but not inexplicable. It may still be genuine divine truth despite all this (and Christian apologists of the 2nd century and later blamed pagan parallels like these on the Devil), but such a case is still weakened when there are plausible human causes like this. This at least deserves acknowledging, no matter what you conclude in the end.


[1] Since writing this I collected abundant evidence to the contrary. Plutarch's discussion is probably correctly describing the teachings of the Osiris priesthood (even if not those of the rank-and-file lay believer; although he does describe those as well, and denounces them as inaccurate or vulgar). The evidence is now presented in On the Historicity of Jesus (2014).

[2] Since writing this I collected abundant evidence to the contrary. Osiris is a stronger parallel than I believed. The evidence is now presented in On the Historicity of Jesus (2014).


ITW extends appreciation to Richard Carrier for taking the time to respond on this issue. 

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