Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.

Easter this year lands most fittingly on April Fool’s Day. Because indeed, the resurrection of Jesus is akin to the greatest prank in history. Not because anyone actually faked it (though the evidence we have left, remains fully consistent with their having done so: see Robert Price’s chapter “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle” in The End of Christianity, a book I highly recommend for all its great content). But rather, because the stories of it happening—written a whole generation after the belief began, in a foreign land and language, after all the real witnesses appear to have been dead and far from where they ever lived—are indeed pranks. Fake stories, that modern Christians totally swallow, hook, line and sinker, the true April fools they are.

Of course the original belief was started by “visions” (hallucinations or dreams believed or claimed to be real communications from the risen Jesus in outer space) inspired by “inspired” readings of scripture (which led some fringe cultists to believe the messiah would die and rise, and that this would signal the beginning of the end of the world); and not by actually meeting Jesus walking around in a resurrected body. That idea was invented long after the fact. Like Roswell’s flying saucer, which began as just some sticks and tinfoil some fool found in the desert, but then evolved—in the exact same timeframe—into a whole spaceship stored at Area 51 complete with autopsied alien bodies inside. Perhaps the second biggest prank in history.

Either way, the idea of a personal savior god dying and rising from the dead to live again was not original to Christianity. It was, in fact, fashionable. Many cultures all around the borders of, and traveling and trading through Judea, had one. It was all the rage. It was thus not surprising in that context, that some fringe Jews decided to invent one of their own. And they may have done so deliberately, in a bid to reform what they believed was a corrupt religious system; or they have done so unconsciously, their subconscious minds “reading into” the scriptures ideas they had unthinkingly absorbed from all these foreign cultures and fads, and then “convincing” their conscious minds it was true by conjuring visions confirming their subtly-influenced intuitions. Either way, Jesus is just a late comer to the party. Yet one more dying-and-rising personal savior god. Only this time, Jewish.

Understanding the Context

Within the confines of what was then the Roman Empire, long before and during the dawn of Christianity, there were many dying-and-rising gods. And yes, they were gods—some even half-god, half-human, being of divine or magical parentage, just like Jesus (John 1:1-18; Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-35; Philippians 2:6-8 & Romans 8:3). And yes, they died. And were dead. And yes, they were then raised back to life; and lived on, even more powerful than before. Some returned in the same body they died in; some lived their second life in even more powerful and magical bodies than they died in, like Jesus did (1 Corinthians 15:35-50 & 2 Corinthians 5:1-10). Some left empty tombs or gravesites; or had corpses that were lost or vanished. Just like Jesus. Some returned to life on “the third day” after dying. Just like Jesus. All went on to live and reign in heaven (not on earth). Just like Jesus. Some even visited earth after being raised, to deliver a message to disciples or followers, before ascending into the heavens. Just like Jesus.

In 2016 I wrote a survey of all the many different kinds of “virgin birth” beliefs that existed in the cultural air at the time such a birth was assigned to Jesus (Virgin Birth: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.). Every single one of those beliefs was different from every other. The differences are what establish them as different gods, and not just revamped versions of the same god. The differences are irrelevant. Cultural diffusion and syncretism by definition always produces differences between the originating, existing beliefs and the resulting, new beliefs. So it is illogical to argue that because God A is “different” from God B, that therefore God B’s mythology was not adapted from God A’s. To the contrary, ideas that are witnessed as pervasive (many different kinds of virgin births; many different kinds of resurrections) are seen as bearing a cultural commonality (“a” virgin birth; “a” resurrection), and that commonality is then adapted to a specific belief system, creating a new religion. The process always involves transformation: the creation of differences. Those differences are what is brought by the native, adopting culture, and then added, to transform the adopted culture.

The Egyptian Neith’s literally spontaneous, totally virginal birthing of the God Ra, for example, well known across the Empire at the time the Gospels were written, had already likewise inspired attributing magical insemination by spiritual forces in other virgin goddesses, such as Danaë, inseminated by God’s golden rain, or Olympias, inseminated by God’s celestial bolts, or Nana, inseminated by touching a magical almond. Which adaptations are not meaningfully different from God’s insemination of Mary by a magical fluid called the Holy Spirit. She was “found with child by the Holy Spirit” (ek pneumatos hagiou: Matthew 1:18), as even said by the Lord’s angel to Joseph (in Matthew 1:20), or to Mary (in Luke 1:35): “the Holy Spirit shall come on thee” (epeleusetai epi se) “and the power of the Most High shall cover you” (episkiasei soi) and that’s why “the Holy Thing you give birth to” will be “called the Son of God.” The obsessive removal of any literal implication of sex is the Jewish addition to the adopted mytheme. Yet even that had precedent—in Egypt’s Ra, most clearly, a culture neighboring Judea’s; but even in Olympias, where a bolt of lightning is not in ancient religious conception any meaningfully different from a magical dove flying into Jesus. Either way, it’s just a manifestation of “the power of the Most High” entering in to transform the blessed. And when the one entered is a virgin, and remains so even unto birth (as with Danaë and Nana), the parallel is sufficiently complete.

The same goes for resurrected gods.

Every dying-and-rising god is different. Every death is different. Every resurrection is different. All irrelevant. The commonality is that there is a death and a resurrection. Everything else is a mixture of syncretized ideas from the borrowing and borrowed cultures, to produce a new and unique god and myth. In my article on virgin births, I also mentioned this about resurrected gods, with citations of all the evidence I already published under peer review in On the Historicity of Jesus (pp. 45-47, 56-58, 98-100, 105-06, 168-73, 225-29). I also list and discuss a lot of the evidence and theology of resurrection in the world Christianity was born from and in full knowledge of—both Jewish and Pagan—in Not the Impossible Faith (Chapter 3). But on my blog, in the same paragraph, I also mentioned Derreck Bennett’s article, “Ehrman Errs: Yes, Bart, There Were Dying & Rising Gods,” as making a start on showing this. Though I said I felt there were some errors in that, and that I’d write about this myself someday to shore up the facts and get them as right as possible, the same way I did for the virgin birth concept. Well, here we go.

The Savior-God Mytheme

Not in ancient Asia. Or anywhere else. Only the West, from Mesopotamia to North Africa and Europe. There was a very common and popular mytheme that had arisen in the Hellenistic period—from at least the death of Alexander the Great in the 300s B.C. through the Roman period, until at least Constantine in the 300s A.D. Nearly every culture created and popularized one: the Egyptians had one, the Thracians had one, the Syrians had one, the Persians had one, and so on. The Jews were actually late to the party in building one of their own, in the form of Jesus Christ. It just didn’t become popular among the Jews, and thus ended up a Gentile religion. But if any erudite religious scholar in 1 B.C. had been asked “If the Jews invented one of these gods, what would it look like?” they would have described the entire Christian religion to a T. Before it even existed. That can’t be a coincidence.

The general features most often shared by all these cults are (when we eliminate all their differences and what remains is only what they share in common):

  • They are personal salvation cults (often evolved from prior agricultural cults).
  • They guarantee the individual a good place in the afterlife (a concern not present in most prior forms of religion).
  • They are cults you join membership with (as opposed to just being open communal religions).
  • They enact a fictive kin group (members are now all brothers and sisters).
  • They are joined through baptism (the use of water-contact rituals to effect an initiation).
  • They are maintained through communion (regular sacred meals enacting the presence of the god).
  • They involved secret teachings reserved only to members (and some only to members of certain rank).
  • They used a common vocabulary to identify all these concepts and their role.
  • They are syncretistic (they modify this common package of ideas with concepts distinctive of the adopting culture).
  • They are mono- or henotheistic (they preach a supreme god by whom and to whom all other divinities are created and subordinate).
  • They are individualistic (they relate primarily to salvation of the individual, not the community).
  • And they are cosmopolitan (they intentionally cross social borders of race, culture, nation, wealth, or even gender).

You might start to notice we’ve almost completely described Christianity already. It gets better. These cults all had a common central savior deity, who shared most or all these features (when, once again, we eliminate all their differences and what remains is only what they share in common):

  • They are all “savior gods” (literally so-named and so-called).
  • They are usually the “son” of a supreme God (or occasionally “daughter”).
  • They all undergo a “passion” (a “suffering” or “struggle,” literally the same word in Greek, patheôn).
  • That passion is often, but not always, a death (followed by a resurrection and triumph).
  • By which “passion” (of whatever kind) they obtain victory over death.
  • Which victory they then share with their followers (typically through baptism and communion).
  • They also all have stories about them set in human history on earth.
  • Yet so far as we can tell, none of them ever actually existed.

This is sounding even more like Christianity, isn’t it? Odd that. Just mix in the culturally distinct features of Judaism that it was syncretized with, such as messianism, apocalypticism, scripturalism, and the particularly Jewish ideas about resurrection—as well as Jewish soteriology, cosmology, and rituals, and other things peculiar to Judaism, such as an abhorrence of sexuality and an obsession with blood atonement and substitutionary sacrifice—and you literally have Christianity fully spelled out. Before it even existed.

You can find all the evidence and scholarship establishing these facts in Elements 11 and 31 of my book On the Historicity of Jesus (pp. 96-108; 168-73). This “common package” was indeed simply “syncretized” with Jewish elements, ideas, requirements, and sensitivities (e.g. Element 17, ibid., pp. 141-43). The mytheme was simply Judaized. And thence Christianity was born. The “differences” are the Jewish element. The similarities are what were adopted from the widespread mythemes raging with popularity everywhere around them.

The Dying-and-Rising God Mytheme

Not all these savior gods were dying-and-rising gods. That was a sub-mytheme. Indeed, dying-and-rising gods (and mere men) were a broader mytheme; because examples abounded even outside the context of known savior cults (I’ll give you a nearly complete list below). But within the savior cults, a particular brand of dying-and-rising god arose. And Jesus most closely corresponds to that mythotype.

Other savior gods within this context experienced “passions” that did not involve a death. For instance, Mithras underwent some great suffering and struggle (we don’t have many details), through which he acquired his power over death that he then shares with initiates in his cult, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a death. Mentions of resurrection as a teaching in Mithraism appear to have been about the future fate of his followers (in accordance with the Persian Zoroastrian notion of a general resurrection later borrowed by the Jews). So all those internet memes listing Mithras as a dying-and-rising god? Not true. So do please stop repeating that claim. Likewise, so far as we can tell Attis didn’t become a rising god until well after Christianity began (and even then his myth only barely equated to a resurrection; previous authors have over-interpreted evidence to the contrary). Most others, however, we have pretty solid evidence for as actually dying, and actually rising savior gods.

I noted in my article on the virgin birth mytheme:

Bart Ehrman is one of those secular historians who, all too often, can’t be bothered to check his facts, but just repeatedly apes Christian apologetics, again and again, on both the dying-and-rising mytheme (no, Dr. Ehrman, Jonathan Z. Smith did not refute [the dying-and-rising god] mytheme; he didn’t even address 99% of the evidence for it, but flat out ignored almost all of it, and focused on only one obscure and consequently irrelevant example—much as did, also, N.T. Wright), as well as the virgin-birth mytheme.

As to the virgin birth part, I have already thoroughly covered that. Now I shall cover the dying-and-rising god part. N.T. Wright’s coverage of the subject (in The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 80-84; 64-68) so egregiously ignores vast amounts of evidence as to be effectively fraudulent (I already demonstrated this in Chapter 3 of Not the Impossible Faith). Likewise the treatments of Ronald Nash (The Gospel and the Greeks, e.g., pp. 159-62) and Eddy & Boyd (The Jesus Legend, pp. 142-46). Those authors essentially do no actual research, and grossly misrepresent the facts. Valid methodology, is replaced with apologetic rhetoric. Their work on the subject is entirely useless to any serious scholar. Even Bruce Metzger’s notorious (and notoriously obsolete) essay on the subject is fact-challenged and illogical (see my treatment of that in OHJ, p. 97, n. 72). For more honest scholarship on the dying and rising gods, see Element 31 in On the Historicity of Jesus (especially the scholars and primary sources cited in the many footnotes there).

Historians still tend to be dogmatically ignorant of the actual facts pertaining to these gods, refusing to look at any of the evidence. Which failure discredits them on this point. No correct opinion can be had, in ignorance of all the relevant facts pertaining to it. Bart Ehrman, for example, ignorantly claimed that the notion of Osiris “return[ing] to life on earth by being raised from the dead” is a fabrication because “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods).” That’s so wildly false it’s shocking any honest scholar would say it (as I’ve already demonstrated). Let’s just check the evidence. The actual evidence. You know, like you are supposed to. But first a logic check…

Of course many an atheist has already cited the second century lament of the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (Dialogue 69):

When we say…Jesus Christ…was produced without sexual union, and was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call Sons of God. [In fact]…if anybody objects that [Jesus] was crucified, this is in common with the sons of Zeus (as you call them) who suffered, as previously listed [he listed Dionysus, Hercules, and Asclepius]. Since their fatal sufferings are all narrated as not similar but different, so his unique passion should not seem to be any worse.

Note how Justin is less of a fool than modern Christian apologists. He admits that differences don’t matter. Since each and every one of the suffering and dying gods are slain by different means, one cannot argue the mytheme requires exactly the same means of death. “But Osiris can’t have inspired the Jesus myth because Osiris wasn’t nailed to a cross” is a stupid argument. The mytheme is simply death. Being killed. Suffering and dying. The exact mode of death can vary freely. It makes no difference to the existence and influence of the mytheme. It’s simply the particular instantiation of a generic abstraction. And Justin’s argument (that Satan invented these fake religions to confuse people) entails Justin agreed the mytheme existed: indeed, it was demonically promulgated, multiple times. Intentionally.

Likewise, Justin notices the mytheme is not virgin birth, but sexless conception. Of which many examples had already been popularized in pagan mythology (there just happens to also have been examples of actual virgin born gods as well). And by his argument (that the Devil was deliberately emulating the Jesus mytheme, in advance), Justin clearly accepted the same principle for “rising again” after death: the particular exact metaphysics of the resurrection could, like the exact method of death or conception, vary freely. The mytheme consists solely of the abstraction: returning to life. Somehow. Some way. We will say bodily, at the very least. But what sort of body (the same one, a new one, a mortal one, an immortal one), didn’t matter. If it had, Justin would have made the argument that “those gods” weren’t really resurrected. But that argument, never occurs to him. Nor did it to any other apologist of the first three centuries.

Ancient Christians well knew there was nothing new about their dying-and-rising god. Not in respect to the mytheme. Their claims were solely that his particular instantiation of it was better, and the only one that actually happened. They didn’t make up the stupid modern arguments that dying-and-rising god myths didn’t exist or weren’t part of a common mytheme everyone knew about. For example, in the same century, Tertullian, in Prescription against Heretics 40, makes exactly the same argument as Justin. Funny that. They had better access to the evidence than we do. They knew what was really and widely the case. We should listen to them.

But now let’s look at the evidence that survives…

Osiris

Not only does Plutarch say Osiris returned to life and was recreated, exact terms for resurrection (anabiôsis and paliggenesia: On Isis and Osiris 35; see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and also describe his physically returning to earth after his death (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19), but the physical resurrection of Osiris’s corpse is explicitly described in pre-Christian pyramid inscriptions!

Plutarch writes that “Osiris came to Horus from the other world and exercised and trained him for the battle,” and taught him lessons, and then “Osiris consorted with Isis after his death and she became the mother of Harpocrates.” It’s hard to get more explicit than that. Contrary to Ehrman, there is no mention of Osiris not being in his resurrected body at that point. To the contrary, every version of his myth has him revive only after Isis reassembles and reanimates his corpse. As Plutarch says, “the soul of Osiris is everlasting and imperishable, but his body Typhon oftentimes dismembers and causes to disappear, and that Isis wanders hither and yon in her search for it, and fits it together again” (On Isis and Osiris 54).

And indeed, carved on the walls of the pyramids centuries before Christianity began were the declarations of the goddess Isis (or Horus, or their agents), “I have come to thee…that I may revivify thee, that I may assemble for thee thy bones, that I may collect for thee thy flesh, that I may assemble for thee thy dismembered limbs…raise thyself up, king, [as for] Osiris; thou livest!” (Pyramid Texts 1684a-1685a and 1700, = Utterance 606; cf. Utterance 670); “Raise thyself up; shake off thy dust; remove the dirt which is on thy face; loose thy bandages!” (Pyramid Texts 1363a-b, = Utterance 553); “[As for] Osiris, collect thy bones; arrange thy limbs; shake off thy dust; untie thy bandages; the tomb is open for thee; the double doors of the coffin are undone for thee; the double doors of heaven are open for thee…thy soul is in thy body…raise thyself up!” (Pyramid Texts 207b-209a and 2010b-2011a, = Utterance 676). That sure sounds like a physical resurrection of Osiris’s body to me. (As even confirmed by the most recent translation of James P. Allen, cf. pp. 190, 224-25, 272. The spells he clarifies are sung to and about the resident Pharaoh, but in the role of Osiris, receiving the same resurrection as Osiris, e.g. “there has been done for me what was done for my father Osiris on the day of tying bones together, of making functional the feet,” “do for him that which you did for his brother Osiris on the day,” etc.)

Plutarch goes on to explicitly state that this resurrection on earth (set in actual earth history) in the same body he died in (reassembled and restored to life) was the popular belief, promoted in allegorical tales by the priesthood—as was also the god’s later descent to rule Hades. But the secret “true” belief taught among the initiated priesthood was that Osiris becomes incarnate, dies, and rises back to life every year in a secret cosmic battle in the sublunar heavens. So in fact, contrary to Ehrman (who evidently never actually read any of the sources on this point), Plutarch says the belief that Osiris went to Hades was false (On Isis and Osiris 78); and yet even in that “public” tale, Osiris rules in Hades in his old body of flesh, restored to life. Hence still plainly resurrected. But as Plutarch explains (On Isis and Osiris 25-27 & 54 and 58), the esoteric truth was that the god’s death and resurrection occurs in sublunar space, after each year descending and taking on a mortal body to die in; and that event definitely involved coming back to life in a new superior body, in which Osiris ascends to a higher realm to rule from above, all exactly as was said of the risen Jesus (who no more remained on earth than Osiris did). The only difference is that when importing this into Judaism, which had not a cyclical-eternal but a linear-apocalyptic conception of theological history, they converted the god’s dying-and-rising to a singular apocalyptic event.

And that’s just Osiris. Clearly raised from the dead in his original, deceased body, restored to life; visiting people on earth in his risen body; and then ruling from heaven above. And that directly adjacent to Judea, amidst a major Jewish population in Alexandria, and popular across the whole empire. But as Plutarch said in On the E at Delphi 9, many religions of his day “narrate deaths and vanishings, followed by returns to life and resurrections.” Not just that one. Plutarch names Dionysus as but an example (and by other names “Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes“). And we know for a fact this Dionysus wasn’t the only example Plutarch would have known. Plutarch only names him because he was so closely associated with Osiris, and the most famous.

Dionysus

Dionysus (also popularly known as Bacchus) had many different tales told of him, just as Osiris did. But in one popularly known, he was killed by being torn apart as a baby (Justin Martyr, Apology 1.21; Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 35; Diodorus, Library of History 5.75.4 and 3.62.6); he was then resurrected by a human woman (Semele) conceiving a new body for him in her womb after drinking a magic slushy made from bits of his corpse (Hyginus, Fabulae 167). This is a literal resurrection again, just by an elaborate mechanism. The god definitely dies, and then returns to life by acquiring the same kind of body he once had, assembled and “regrown” from parts of his old one. In this version of his myth, he is a full god (son of Zeus and Persephone) but still mortal (capable of being killed by dismemberment, like a vampire); he then is “reborn” a demigod (from the womb of a fully mortal human woman). He was the savior god central to the Bacchic mysteries, one of the most widely known and celebrated in the Western world at that time. Those baptized into his cult received eternal life in paradise; and just like Christians (1 Corinthians 15:29), Dionysians could even baptize themselves on behalf of deceased loved ones, and thus rescue those already dead.

Zalmoxis

Zalmoxis was also a resurrected savior. Greeks making fun of the Thracian cult worshiping him made up the polemic that he didn’t really die, he just hid in a cave, and thus pretended to have resurrected from the dead. But this polemic tells us the Thracians did believe Zalmoxis had died and rose from the dead, and appeared to disciples on earth to prove it (see my discussion in Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 100-05). His disciples then believed they would benefit from his power to bring them into eternal life in paradise. In a book that became standard reading in the schools of rhetoric all Christian biblical authors had to have attended just to write such complex works in Greek as they did, Herodotus reports that Zalmoxis “fed the leaders among his countrymen” in a hall “and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things,” and then vanished underground “for three years, while the Thracians wished him back and mourned him for dead,” and then “in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and thus they came to believe what he had told them,” thus using his own resurrection to prove theirs (Histories 4.949596; though I do wonder if it was actually three days and not years, as that was the case in the resurrection cults of Osiris, Inanna, and Adonis, as we’ll see shortly). The story entails these cultists believed in their savior god’s bodily death and resurrection. Because that’s the only way the Greek polemic Herodotus is citing would make sense, as it imagines Zalmoxis appearing in his same body and visiting his followers to verify he was alive again—and not merely appearing in visions, nor as a ghost. Accordingly, Celsus, the earliest known critic of Christianity, included Zalmoxis in his list of resurrected deities (as attested by Origen, Against Celsus 2.55)

Inanna

Inanna is the earliest known resurrected god. For her, a clear-cut death-and-resurrection tale exists on clay tablets inscribed in Sumeria over a thousand years before Christianity, plainly describing her humiliation, trial, execution, and crucifixion, and her resurrection three days later. After she is stripped naked and judgment is pronounced against her, Inanna is “turned into a corpse” and “the corpse was hung from a nail” and “after three days and three nights” her assistants ask for her corpse and resurrect her (by feeding her the “water” and “food” of life), and “Inanna arose” according to what had been her plan all along, because she knew her father “would surely bring me back to life,” exactly as transpires in the story (quotations are from the tablets, adapting the translation of Samuel Noah Kramer in History Begins at Sumer). This cult continued to be practiced into the Christian period, Tyre being a major center of her worship. By then, there is some evidence her resurrection tale was shifted to her consort Tammuz, one of several resurrected deities the Greeks called Adonis.

Adonis

Adonis was the title of at least one if not several resurrected saviors by the time Christianity began, sometimes equated with Tammuz, or possibly only confused with Tammuz, but either way certainly a resurrected god. Tryggve Mettinger’s detailed study The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (2001) includes discussion of the pre-Christian manuscript of a private letter in which a man likens his ability to survive several deadly uprisings to Tammuz’s ability to always return from the dead (p. 201), which would certainly suggest Tammuz had by then become the center of his own resurrection cult. This is the same god for whose death even women in Jerusalem mourned (Ezekiel 8:14-15). There is no evidence he remained dead; that letter alone attests it was commonly known he returned to life.

In the 3rd century A.D. the Christian scholar Origen says in his Comments on Ezekiel (explaining the very same passage) that Tammuz was still worshiped in his own day under the title of Adonis, and as such “certain rites of initiation are conducted” for him, “first, that they weep for him, since he has died; second, that they rejoice for him because he has risen from the dead” (apo nekrôn anastanti). This is confirmed a century later by Jerome (Commentary on Ezekiel 3.8.14). Recent pre-Christian finds attest that indeed a period of rejoicing followed mourning the death of Tammuz, which matches Origen’s description (see Benjamin Foster’s discussion of this new evidence in “Descent of Ishtar to the Netherworld,” Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature [3rd ed., 2005], pp. 498-505). And we have this similarly described by a pagan author (either Lucian or someone else of the second century A.D.), who describes national ceremonies of mourning for Adonis’s death that are followed the next day by celebrations of his returning to life and ascending into outer space. Killed by a beast, he becomes “a dead person,” then he is buried and mourned, and the next day “they proclaim he lives” and he ascends (On the Syrian Goddess 6-8).

It’s far more likely the resurrection of this Adonis had been celebrated long before Christianity began than that it would be a recent innovation. Surely Origen would have known if it were, and made obvious sport of the fact. It would likewise be incredible that even at this early stage major pagan cults celebrated by entire nations would have fundamentally changed their entire religion in emulation of Christianity, which was a little known, wholly uninfluential cult that was rarely liked even when anyone had heard of it. This conclusion is pretty solid when combined with the pre-Christian evidence linking Tammuz to the same returning to life; and other evidence, such as the pre-Christian poem of Theocritus (Idyll 15), which discusses an Adonis celebration in Egypt, in which the death of Adonis is mourned, but then anticipates his return, concluding, “Goodbye, Adonis darling; and I only trust you may find us all thriving when you come next year!”

Romulus

Romulus was another widely-known, pre-Christian resurrected god. Not a personal savior, so far as we know, but a national one, in his exalted form named Qurinus. According to ancient sources this demigod was a pre-existent divine being who became incarnate in order to establish a Kingdom, conceiving a body for himself within the womb of a virgin (possibly by sexual means; it’s unclear), who was murdered by the Roman Senate (the Roman equivalent of the Sanhedrin), after which his corpse vanishes, the sun goes out, and people flee in fear and mourn his death; then he returns to earth alive again, resurrected in a new divine body, to preach his gospel to the disciple Proculus before departing to rule from on high. By some accounts Romulus ascended directly to heaven and his mortal body burned away in the sky; but either way, his mortal body dies (“I have finished my mortal life,” he tells Proculus, Dionysius says), and he returns to preach in an immortal body, then ascends to heaven, just like Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:35-50). Our fullest account comes from Plutarch (Life of Romulus 27-28), writing at the end of the 1st century A.D. But Romulus’s death and return to life are attested in numerous pre-Christian sources (Cicero, Laws 1.3 & Republic 2.10; Livy 1.16; Ovid, Fasti 2.491-512 and Metamorphoses 14.805-51; and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.63.3-4).

Asclepius

Asclepius was also a popular resurrected god. Christian apologists want to try and deny this by saying Asclepius merely, like Caesar, “rose to heaven” like a ghost upon his death. But that isn’t what ancient worshipers said. Celsus reported that “a great many Greeks and Barbarians claim they have frequently seen, and still see, no mere phantom, but Asclepius himself” (Origen, Against Celsus 3.24). Asclepius was killed by lightning strike and buried (Hesiod, Fragments 125; Euripides, Alcestis 1-7; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.22.57; Origen, Against Celsus 3.23). He was then restored from death to become a living god. As Ovid says, “by a god [he was] turned into a bloodless corpse, and then from a corpse became a god, twice renewing [his] fate” (Metamorphoses 2.647-648). That this was regarded a resurrection is fully confirmed by the narrative. Zeus killed Asclepius for resurrecting the dead, but when the slain’s father Apollo complained, Zeus relented and restored Asclepius back to life, this time as an immortal god. Ovid thus remarks that “Zeus did for [his son’s] sake that which he forbade be done” (Fasti 6.761); in other words, Zeus forbade raising the dead, but made an exception for Asclepius. It is thus understood that Zeus rose Asclepius from the dead. He had been a corpse. So he would have remained. But by a miracle of God, now he was alive, eternal and immortal, supernaturally powerful. Just like Jesus.

Baal

Baal (or “Ba’al”) was one of the most ancient of resurrected gods. His death is probably the same mourned under the name Hadad-Rimmon in Zechariah 12:11. But whether or no, in pre-Christian texts Baal’s corpse is found by Anat, so in his myth the god is definitely dead; one text even outright says “and the gods will know that you are dead,” and multiple gods actually declare him dead; he is then buried, and funeral rites performed (Mettinger, Riddle, pp. 60-62). There are then clear references to Baal’s resurrection. In fact, his returning to life and then living forever are used as analogies in pre-Christian immortality spells (Mettinger, Riddle, pp. 69-71). Though this god was then not yet a personal savior but a metaphor for communal agricultural salvation, that was prior to Hellenization. He was transformed into one of the many personal savior gods of the region we hear of at the dawn of Christianity (Jupiter Dolichenus), but are allowed to know nothing about, owing to the Medieval Christian destruction of pagan evidence. For example, Hippolytus devoted two entire chapters of his Refutation of All Heresies to the mystery cults and their savior deities. Curiously, those are the only two books wholly destroyed. Go figure. What were the Medievals trying to hide? What did they not want us to read? I’ll let your imagination ponder.

Hercules

Melqart is another of the most ancient of resurrected deities, akin to Baal in both his origins and possible future co-option into later Hellenistic mystery cults. His legend became fused with that of Hercules. Centuries before Christianity, and attested by authors of the Roman period, Eudoxus of Cnidus wrote that Hercules was “killed by Typhon, but Iolaus brought a quail to him, and having put it close to him,” and ritually burning it, “he smelt it and came to life again” (Athenaeus, The Dinnersages 9.392d-e; see Mettinger, p. 86). And Josephus attests to ongoing celebrations of “Resurrecting Hercules” (tou Hrakleous egersin: in Jewish Antiquities 8.146; mistranslated in Whiston: see Mettinger, pp. 88-89). In both accounts, this is explicitly said to be a story of the Tyrian Hercules, which we know meant Melqart, whose base of worship was at Tyre.

Diodorus tells another story of Hercules killed by fire—dying of poison, he is burned on a pyre. Because his bones then vanished when Iolaus tried to collect them, the story goes, it was concluded Hercules was resurrected and ascended to heaven (Diodorus, Library of History 4.38.5). The supposition of resurrection upon the vanishing of a corpse was not only a common motif in antiquity, it is essentially the story told of Jesus (for a full study of this mytheme in antiquity see Richard Miller’s 2017 book Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity; and Ava Chitwood’s 2004 book Death by Philosophy). The addition of appearance narratives to seal the deal, also accompanies many of these tales (Romulus, for example). And there may have been such for Hercules. But in any event, it was clearly believed he had died, and been raised from the dead, and then ascended to heaven with divine power. Just like Jesus.

Mettinger finds a slew of pre-Hellenistic evidence referring to the “raisers of Melqart” and to Melqart as “the risen” and his ceremony as “the rising” (pp. 90-97). That I find ambiguous by itself, but it is more telling in context. As the remaining evidence for a resurrected Tyrian Hercules, the Hellenistic Melqart, remains conclusive. Perhaps the best evidence for Meqart is a votive object actually depicting the death, burial, mourning-of, and resurrection of Melqart (Mettinger, pp. 98-100; indeed, a three day sequence is here again implied: p. 102). As the second century wit Lucian observed, the popular belief is that upon death “all bodily things…a man strips off and abandons before he mounts up, like Heracles burning on Mount Oeta before deification; he too cast off whatever of the human he had from his mother, and soared up to the Gods with his divine part pure and unalloyed, sifted by the fire” (Lucian, Hermotimus 7; see scholarship in Not the Impossible Faith, p. 121, n. 13). Thus again, though his “resurrection” is portrayed as a direct ascent to heaven, nevertheless he died, was dead, and then cast off his corpse, and rose back to life, ascending, in his superior divine body, after its mortal material was burned away on the pyre.

An Endless Plethora of Risen Gods & Heroes

Mettinger doesn’t even cover but a fraction of the examples I just surveyed (nor any of those I’m soon to survey next), and he already can conclude “the dying gods are gods that rise or return to new life” (p. 217) and “there are…gods who both die and return long before the Christian era,” as he concludes for Tammuz, Baal, and Melqart; and even Osiris; and probably, he admits, the Levantine Adonis (p. 218). Add to these the examples I have and this becomes even more clearly the case. They aren’t all of the same exact “type,” Mettinger concludes (e.g. they aren’t all “storm gods”), but they do all exhibit a trend of “association and syncretism” (p. 218). And these “dying and rising gods were known in Palestine in New Testament times” (p. 220). So there is no explaining that away. Everything Mettinger then says is different between Jesus and the few gods he examines (p. 221) is all explicable as either the common framing of Hellenistic mystery religion or the Jewish element of the syncretism.

Jesus’s death and resurrection is a singular apocalyptic event rather than part of an eternal cycle…because that’s the Jewish contribution fused to the dying-and-rising motif. It’s exactly how a dying-and-rising god would be Judaized. Likewise the role of sacrificial-atonement blood-magic in framing his death, which is exactly a replication of Jewish temple atonement magic (Jesus thus becomes the Yom Kippur: e.g. OHJ, Element 18, pp. 143-45; pp. 402-07; etc.), foundational to Jewish soteriology. So we can already expect that in the creation of any Jewish savior cult, as well. Meanwhile the Hellenistic contributions include the role of Jesus as incarnated divine being (and thus demigod and not fully human), in this respect most closely modeling Romulus (who was also a pre-existent celestial who assumed a mortal body; and in myth, even born to a human woman), but as we’ve seen, many other resurrected mortals and demigods abounded to inspire the same concept. Likewise, the abandonment of the communal agricultural context and its replacement with an interpretation of future individual salvation, is exactly what happened to many other resurrected gods (such as Osiris and Adonis) precisely in consequence of the influence of the Hellenistic mystery religions.

This becomes all the clearer when we start casting a wider net and look for all myths of resurrected gods and heroes, of whatever kind.

When making fun of Christians for their absurd religious beliefs, the 2nd century critic Celsus listed a number of other resurrected gods and heroes whose myths he accused the Gospels of emulating. He says legends of returning from the dead included Zalmoxis, Pythagoras, Rhampsinitus, Orpheus, Protesilaus, Hercules, and Theseus. Some of these were actual resurrection myths; others, just visitors to (and lucky escapees from) the land of the dead. But either way, Origen says Celsus was “maintaining that these heroes disappeared for a certain time, and secretly withdrew themselves from the sight of all men, and gave themselves out afterwards as having returned from Hades, for such is the meaning which his words seem to convey” (Against Celsus2.56). In other words, Celsus was offering a polemical explanation of pagan resurrection myths (that they were all actually cons), just like the critics Herodotus was citing for Zalmoxis, and then suggesting the Christians were doing the same with Jesus. But this again entails that popular belief held these resurrections to be real. And accordingly, Origen’s only defense is not that these were not really dying gods, or not really claiming to have died, but that Jesus couldn’t have pretended to have died, as Celsus was alleging these other gods had done. Origen thus fully accepted Celsus’s point: that resurrected gods and heroes were a commonplace in popular mythology. Origen could only argue that Jesus was the only real one.

Zalmoxis and Hercules we already covered. But what did Celsus mean by citing Pythagoras, Rhampsinitus, Orpheus, Protesilaus, and Theseus? Pythagoras himself reportedly claimed to have returned to earth after being trapped in the underworld for “two hundred and seven years,” though our sources don’t say how he claimed to have ended up there (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras 15). Rhampsinit (probably in fact Khaemweset) was a legendary Egyptian Pharaoh who visited Hades and escaped (Herodotus 2.122); but since he went there alive (not by having died), his story isn’t a resurrection myth. It is more akin to the tale of Odysseus, descending to the land of the dead and returning unharmed (thanks to magic). Orpheus similarly visits the underworld alive, and escapes intact. Possibly Pythagoras meant something similar. So Celsus is only including these as examples of men who (he is implying) just “made up” a sojourn among the dead and a return to the living, albeit not via resurrection. The others are more interesting…

Protesilaus is killed on the shores of Troy. Definitely dead. Thus fulfilling an oracle that he would indeed be killed. He is then allowed to rise from the dead for a brief time to visit and have sex with his wife (for a list of ancient sources assembling the story, see James Reeson‘s Ovid Heroides, p. 115). As Mark Fullmer says in his 2007 book Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective, “the Neronian novelist Petronius overtly mocks the notion of resurrection” by equating the “resurrection” of his penis (from impotence: Petronius, Satyricon 140.frg.2) to the resurrection of gods and heroes like Protesilaus. An analogy, Fullmer notes, that entails audiences of the first century understood the return of Protesilaus as a physical resurrection, and not just a ghost. Fullmer surveys many other examples of the mockery of resurrection stories (which meant, pagan resurrection stories) in ancient prose, evincing an awareness of the popularity of belief in it among the lower classes; likewise (he documents) in ancient fiction, with people being mistaken for dead, tombs found empty, and their returns to life imagined miraculous. There were plays put on that even had dogs die and rise from the dead! (Plutarch, On the Cleverness of Animals 973e-974a) This entails a whole zeitgeist of resurrection mania that these works were poking fun at or satirizing.

Theseus, the legendary Athenian king, is an even better example. He was seen by soldiers rising from the grave and fighting on the side of the Athenians at Marathon. Pausanias reports that Athenian art commissioned just thirty years after the war even depicted Theseus “rising from the ground” at Marathon (Description of Greece 1.15.3; see scholarship in Not the Impossible Faith, p. 121, n. 12). Plutarch, ever one to find corpses distasteful, calls this a ghost (in Life of Theseus 35-36), though obviously Theseus needed a body to physically fight enemy soldiers. Since obviously that meant he could be touched the same way the risen Jesus was, Theseus must have been taught to have risen in a new, supernatural body—the body of a god—leaving his flesh in the grave. Just as Paul likely taught of Jesus. Similarly of Romulus and Hercules (but unlike Osiris), the body of flesh that dies gets burned away or disintegrated or left behind, and they regain life in a new, divine body of superior stuff. Just another theological tweak on resurrection as a general concept.

Celsus elsewhere added Dionysus and Asclepius to his examples of resurrection myths (whom we’ve already discussed), and also the Dioscuri. The Dioscuri were half-mortal brothers who die repeatedly in order to switch places in the underworld, which fact entails they rise from the dead back to life repeatedly as well, else they could not keep dying (Against Celsus3.22). And they weren’t the only pair to do this. We know of several other pairs like this; and indeed Pliny the Elder said gods “living and dying on alternate days” were popular in public belief (alternis diebus vivientes morientesque: Natural History 2.5). Just another way to be a dying-and-rising god.

Celsus likewise adds the merely mortal Aristeas of Proconnesus, who died, and whose corpse disappeared, then was found alive again, having returned from the land of the dead—as effectively a resurrection as one can have (Origen, Against Celsus 3.26). Notably, Jesus did the same, his corpse having risen from where it was laid, and returning to visit his disciples only after visiting the underworld (1 Peter 3:18-19), just like Aristeas (whose story dates even before Christianity, in the widely read Histories of Herodotus, cf. 4.14).

Again, the differences are not relevant: it was simply understood that each of the Dioscuri would rise from the dead each year, and subsequently die; that Aristeas died, and rose back from the dead. And these are humans and demihumans. So it wasn’t just gods who rose from the dead in popular mythology. Resurrections were everywhere. The type of resurrection could vary (it could be an eternal resurrection in a supernatural body, like Romulus, or back to a merely mortal life again, like Aristeas), but that’s simply a matter of esoteric theological tweaking of a more generic yet ubiquitous concept: that men and gods could be, and often were, raised from the dead.

And that’s not all.

Not only was Asclepius a resurrected demigod (as I’ve already discussed), but he was himself the preeminent “resurrector of the dead,” a prominent reason pagans held him in such esteem. Since Celsus’s contemporary Justin could not deny this, he was prompted to claim that “the Devil” must have introduced “Asclepius as the raiser of the dead” in order to undermine the Christian message in advance (Dialogue 69). Most famously, before his own resurrection, Asclepius had raised various other people from the dead, by some accounts Tyndareus (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 29.1; Lucian, The Dance 45); by others, Hippolytus (Apollodorus, Library 3.10.3); and by yet others, Capaneus, Hymenaeus, Glaucus, Orion, Lycurgus, the daughters of Proetus, and on and on (see the collection of sources in Edelstein & Edelstein, Asclepius, pp. 39-41). In other words, countless stories of resurrected dead people abounded, just in relation to the legends of Asclepius alone. Hence Aelius Aristides, a devout follower of Asclepius, simply assumed all his pagan audience believed a god could resurrect a dead man (Funeral Address in Honor of Alexander 32.25).

And then, as I wrote years ago in Not the Impossible Faith:

Indeed, Lucian and Apuleius both report the common belief that resurrecting the dead (“calling moldy corpses to life,” as Lucian mockingly put it) was one of the expected powers of a sorcerer, and sorcery was very popular among the majority of pagans. Hence Apuleius has his fictional sorcerer Zatchlas raise Telephron from the dead. But among ‘historical’ claims, Apuleius relates a ‘medical’ resurrection performed by Asclepiades. Apollonius of Tyana was also believed to have raised a girl from the dead using a spell. In the 4th century B.C. Heraclides of Pontus recorded that through some mysterious art Empedocles “preserved the body of a lifeless woman without pulse or respiration for thirty days” and then “he sent away the dead woman alive.” Proclus reports that Eurynous of Nicopolis was “buried before the city by his relatives” but then “returned to life following the fifteenth day of his burial” and lived many more years, and that Rufus of Philippi, a pagan high priest, “died and returned to life on the third day,” living long enough to tell his amazing story.

Pliny the Elder reports there were numerous such tales believed by many people, with and without the role of magic. He says Varro reported on two different occasions seeing “a person carried out on a bier to burial who returned home on foot,” besides witnessing the apparent resurrection of his own uncle-in-law Corfidius. Pliny also reports that the sailor Gabienus had his throat cut “and almost severed” yet returned from the dead that evening, to report on his visit to Hades. Plato records a similar story related by Alcinous about Er the Pamphylian, who “was slain in battle” and ten days later his body was recovered and brought home, then “at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day, as he lay upon the pyre, he revived” and “after coming to life he related what he said he’d seen in the world beyond.” In a similar story, the Syrian commander Bouplagus rises from the dead on a body-strewn battlefield (despite having been stabbed twelve times) as Roman soldiers were looting the bodies, and chastised the Romans for looting the dead. The Lady Philinnion returned to life to visit her lover. The villainous Aridaeus fell to his death but returned to life “on the third day” to relate his trip to heaven, and was so transformed by what he learned there that he led a life of impeccable virtue thereafter. Timarchus spent two nights and a day in a sacred crypt, during which time he died, visited heaven, and returned.

Ultimately, Pliny the Elder says he also knew of “cases of persons appearing after burial” but chose not to discuss them because his book was about “works of nature, not prodigies.” This nevertheless proves such tales were transmitted and believed by many people. Pliny himself doesn’t say what he believed, only that these stories weren’t the subject of his book. But he still records numerous returns from death, and as we’ve seen there are many, many more. There were also legends and stories of people resurrected by magic herbs. There appears to have been a popular belief that the Emperor Nero would or did return from the dead. Several cases of “ghosts” returning from the grave are also recorded where the “ghost” clearly had a physical body. Resurrection was actually a common theme in pagan sacred fiction. Petronius even made fun of that theme by having his hero embark on a pilgrimage to “resurrect” his impotent penis, and Plutarch mentions a play attended by Vespasian in which a dog played at dying and rising again from the dead.

Primary sources for every one of those claims are supplied in the book (NIF, pp. 88-89; notes on pp. 122-23). We shouldn’t be at all surprised that Lucian would tell us the pagan Antigonus had told him, “I know a man who came to life more than twenty days after his burial, having attended the fellow both before his death and after he came to life” (Lover of Lies 26). As Fullmer rightly says, “the concept of resurrection was not ‘altogether alien to Greco-Roman thought’ before the advent of Christianity, but rather occurs in popular thinking” (Resurrection, p. 72).

Taking Stock

All these different kinds of dying and rising, all these different resurrections of dead men, gods, and demigods—so many kinds, so many versions, so popularly believed—demonstrates that the ancient public was everywhere enthralled with the idea of resurrection, or returning from the dead. And they believed countless myths of exactly that. And even turned some of those myths into hopeful models of worship for their own personal salvation: the risen god, bestowing on them the same gift of a future return to life. They would have debated what kind of future life they’d want to return to—in the same flesh that died, or flesh improved and made immortal, or a wholly new superior body altogether—but for every fancy, there was a myth to satisfy them. The Christians also debated what kind of resurrection they wanted to await them; they were no more unified on that point than the pagans. But they were no different from them either. The Christians were not selling something new. They were actually getting in on an already popular game.

Indeed, the pre-Christian historian Theopompous wrote that “according to the [Zoroastrian] Magi, men will be resurrected and become immortal” in the apocalypse. The notion of resurrection itself, especially of the whole world at a designated end-times, was itself pagan. It only entered Judaism in the centuries before Christianity arose. By then, Christians might not have even known the idea had originally been pagan; though the Zoroastrian teaching remained widely known across the Empire, and even became a component of the extremely popular salvation cult of Mithraism around the very same time Christianity began, Mithraism being in effect a Hellenization of Persian Zoroastrianism into a more familiar mystery religion. (See my full discussion of this fact in Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 85-86 & 100-05.) Various different ideas of resurrection were likewise adopted by different Jewish sects; there was no single, monolithic, “Jewish” idea of resurrection, but many and various ideas of it. (See my discussion of this fact in The Empty Tomb, pp. 107-18.)

In these worldviews at the time, it was essentially being taught that we too would rise from the dead to become gods. Christianity was not unusual in suggesting the same. Even its use of a model example in its savior figure, was likewise emulating a popular practice of constructing dying-and-rising savior gods, in whose triumph over death we too can share, through baptism and communion.

Conclusion

Many of these gods had other myths, with different stories and fates imagined for them. But this was also true of Jesus, for whom competing Christian sects (as well as anti-Christian polemicists) wove and taught different stories of what actually happened to Jesus, how his resurrection was actually effected, and so on. In some versions, Jesus never dies (e.g. someone else takes his place on the cross in disguise, as per the teachings in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth). In some versions, Jesus never rises (e.g. he only lives on spiritually in heaven, as per the teachings in the Gospel of Thomas). But just as we can choose to focus on one popular version of his myth that we want to explain (the one in which he is an actual dying-and-rising god—either rising in his restored corpse, per the Gospels, or a newly made super-body, per Paul), so we must do the same for the other dying-and-rising gods we are tracing the same motifs to.

The resurrection of Jesus, for example, has more in common with the reanimated Dionysus born of Semele from a potion, than from the one born by a second sexual conception by Zeus—in which account (known only from Late Antique fabulists), Zeus is the one who ate the dead heart of the slain Dionysus, and thus imbued with the requisite atoms to pass on again, he re-inseminated Semele sexually rather than asexually (and Dionysus is thus re-conceived from atoms of his corpse and reborn, through this much more exceedingly complex chain of events). Their stories are still very different, but when looking for elements of influence (like the idea of an asexual conception of a demigod by a mortal woman), it’s the actual precedents we want to examine. Not stories that didn’t have an influence. Jews abhorred the idea of divine beings engaging in sexual reproduction. So when any Jew was constructing his own resurrected savior god, “born of a woman,” he needed to look around for ideas of gods conceiving by a mortal woman that didn’t involve sex. There were many such models around to inspire the idea (I discuss several in my article on virgin births). Having his demigod slain and resurrected as a baby also didn’t suit the needs of the messianic model a Jew would need, so obviously other models were looked to there as well (other gods, whose death-tales would better suit the final apocalyptic atonement sacrifice that Jewish soteriology required). But Dionysus is nevertheless one of many widely-known instantiations of a common motif of the miraculously born, dying-and-rising savior god—each, like Jesus, just as unique as the next: from Dionysus to Osiris, Zalmoxis, Inanna, Dolichenus, and Adonis (not to mention Romulus, Hercules, and Asclepius).

It simply cannot be claimed that the Jewish authors of the idea of their own miraculously born, dying-and-rising savior, were in no way aware of nor at all influenced by the widespread instantiation of exactly that kind of savior all around them, in practically every culture they knew. That’s simply absurd. The coincidence is impossible. Which is why even ancient Christian apologists were not so foolish as to claim this—or even more absurdly, that no such dying-and-rising savior model even existed. Of course it existed. And they well knew it. They chose to blame it on the Devil. Plagiarizing the idea in advance, to try and set up a culture that would then dismiss the Jesus story as just another myth akin to the others the Devil conjured. This is a ridiculous defense, akin to claiming evolution is obviously false because the Devil “planted all the fossils.”

No. The only plausible reason for why some Jews ever came up with a Jewish dying-and-rising savior god in precisely that region and era, is that everyone else had; it was so popular and influential, so fashionable and effective, it was inevitable the idea would seep into some Jewish consciousness, and erupt onto the scene of “inspired” revolutionizing of a perceived-to-be-corrupted faith. They Judaized it, of course. Jesus is as different from Osiris as Osiris is from Dionysus or Inanna or Romulus or Zalmoxis. The differences are the Jewish tweaks. Just as the Persian Zoroastrian system of messianism, apocalypticism, worldwide resurrection, an evil Satan at war with God, and a future heaven and hell effecting justice as eternal fates for all, was Judaized when they were imported into Judaism. None of those ideas existed in Judaism before that (and you won’t find them in any part of the Old Testament written before the Persian conquest). No one claimed they were “corrupting” Judaism with those pagan ideas (even though in fact they were). They simply claimed these new ideas were all Jewish. Ordained and communicated by God, through inspired scripture and revelation. The Christians, did exactly the same thing.

It’s time to face this fact. And stop denying it. It’s time to get over it already. Resurrected savior gods were a pagan idea. All Christianity did, was invent a Jewish one.

28 comments

  1. Could you please quote how the pyramid texts relevant to the resurrection of Osiris are translated by James P. Allen (the most recent translation)? You’re only using Samuel A. B. Mercer’s translation from 1960s. It wasn’t very well received at the time and our understanding of the language apparently improved since that time. Allen’s translation is unfortunately behind a paywall. Thanks 🙂

    Reply
    1. There is only one point worth noting, which I’ve emended the paragraph throughout to make clear, which is that the spells are sung to the resident Pharaoh, to evoke the same fate for him as Osiris, so literally the statements are about the Pharaoh, but the spells also make clear this is the same thing done to Osiris. That doesn’t make any difference to the point, but I’ve made sure that’s clear anyway.

      Reply
  2. Dear Richard, the information in this discussion is excellent, proving continuity between Jesus Christ and the ancient dying-rising mytheme.

    However, I disagree with your opening description of the Gospel resurrection story as a prank. Your use of such a term distracts from the serious content and intent of your argument. Rather than the “prank” hypothesis, a better explanation of how this mytheme entered the gospels can be based on the scholarship presented in a recent book, The Memory Code, by Lynne Kelly.

    Kelly argues that prehistoric societies viewed knowledge as power, and used an initiation system whereby simple public stories were treated as portals into secret wisdom. As you say, “They involved secret teachings reserved only to members (and some only to members of certain rank).” This means the public versions camouflaged the secret meaning.

    Now consider your comment about Osiris, that “the secret “true” belief taught among the initiated priesthood was that Osiris becomes incarnate, dies, and rises back to life every year.” This annual death and rebirth trope, so similar to the Christian story of Easter, has a direct analogy with the sun, which in agrarian societies is the ‘source of light and life’ upon which all depend, and which is born and dies each day and over the course of the year through the seasons.
    Therefore, a plausible explanation for the meaning and presence of this widespread mytheme is that the dying and rising Gods were always allegories for the sun, including its apparent three day ‘death’ while its rising and setting positions stand still at the winter solstice.
    Rather than a prank, the more likely explanation is that the original writing by Mark adopted the same secret initiation allegory method, using the story of Jesus Christ as personification of the sun, but keeping that meaning among those “secrets of the kingdom” that Jesus said are reserved for the initiates (Mark 4:11), while the general public were only given the parable of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

    Then, as the literal gospel story became wildly popular, the original symbolic meaning was suppressed as Gnostic heresy. A key point here is to see that the non-existence of Jesus entails that the path of causality in the evolution of Christian faith was the reverse of the claim of the church. Rather than starting with a historical Jesus who was then turned into a Gnostic allegory by heretics, the allegory of the sun came first, and the literal faith only came later, as a degraded corruption.

    The term “mytheme” is a useful term from structural anthropology to explain the memetic evolution of myth, illustrating the cultural continuity between the Jesus Myth and predecessor stories. A mytheme is well defined at wikipedia as “a fundamental generic unit of narrative structure from which myths are thought to be constructed — a minimal unit that is always found shared with other, related mythemes and reassembled in various ways or linked in more complicated relationships. For example, the myths of Adonis and Osiris share several elements, leading some scholars to conclude that they share a source, i.e. images passed down in cultures or from one to another, being ascribed new interpretations of the action depicted, as well as new names in various readings of icons.”
    My reading is that the ‘shared source’ of mythemes such as Adonis, Osiris and Jesus is veneration of the sun.

    Considering your description of Mithraism as “in effect a Hellenization of Persian Zoroastrianism into a more familiar mystery religion”, surely the same applies to Christianity as a Hellenization of Judaism, originally intended for secret mystery Gnostic initiates?

    Reply
    1. Joe Lee March 30, 2018, 10:01 am

      “Considering your description of Mithraism as “in effect a Hellenization of Persian Zoroastrianism into a more familiar mystery religion”, surely the same applies to Christianity as a Hellenization of Judaism, originally intended for secret mystery Gnostic initiates?”

      Well, yeah. That’s basically the point of the whole post. And his allusion to a “prank” was just playing off the fact that Easter is on April Fool’s this year. After all, mystery religions are essentially “fooling” the uninitiated into believing the histories of these gods are literal and not allegorical. You’re overthinking it just a little.

      Reply
      1. Or perhaps you are underthinking it? A prank is a practical joke or mischievous act. While the April Fool date this year is worth a joke, calling the story a prank adopts a condescending tone that sends an entirely wrong message about the original method and intent of the origins of Christianity.

        My view is that Mark’s Gospel is a camouflaged Platonic mystery allegory for the sun. This hidden meaning was concealed in order to protect the security of the initiated community, following the same method as other initiatic and shamanic traditions. Now while it is reasonable to call a shaman a trickster, the tricks always have a serious intent, referring to an underlying meaning.

        In the case of Christianity, the underlying meaning is an accurate perception of natural order, following Plato’s allegory of the sun from The Republic, and using Plato’s method of the Noble Lie of the Golden and Iron Ages.

        None of that has the meaningless jape quality of an undergraduate prank, intended solely to deceive and confuse the victim so the foolish prankers can laugh at his expense. Use of such joking language mocks and derides the serious intent of the actual founders of Christianity who wrote the book of Mark.

        Reply
        1. That isn’t what Mark’s Gospel is doing. His allegory is not astral but socio-political (I show this in Ch. 10.4 of OHJ). And Mark himself is condescending about his actual intent to deceive (Mark 4:9-14). That was the method and intent of that Christian author. The word “prank” is very colloquial, but it’s a deliberate timely joke on the present ironic conjunction of two holidays. In its extended meaning, it’s literally accurate. Mark was trying to make fools of literalists. To hide the truth only told to insiders. Whereas by the time we get to John, John is outright lying to his readers to deceive them, forging evidence and testimonies to manipulate them. That’s beyond condescending. It’s sinister. But alas, it’s what happened. We’ve earned the right to be flippant about it.

        2. Thanks very much Richard, I appreciate your reply. I take the view that Mark’s allegory was astral, and that the dying and rising metaphor is a great example of how ancient Christianity and other mythologies anthropomorphised sun worship. I will get out my copy of OHJ and see how your argument relates to that hypothesis.

    2. What Joe Lee said is already on point. I’ll only add that the Gospel stories are analogous to pranks in two respects:

      First, they were deliberately designed to fool outsiders and protect insider secrets (as Jesus himself explains in Mark 4), a fact I discuss in On the Historicity of Jesus (e.g. Elements 13 and 14 in Chapter 4). Anyone who takes them literally, is being fooled. Deliberately.

      Second, by the time we get to Luke and certainly John, they are deliberately fabricating events to sell them as evidence (to “convince” the lower ranks of the church membership of certain dogmas, such as regarding the nature of the resurrection and early church infighting, and the evidence for it). I cover this in the respective sections on those Gospels in Chapter 10 of OHJ.

      As for the original and actual creed, which did not involve such stories, I already cover that in the article. The prank there is either in pretending to have had divine communications to sell a social reform movement, or having fooled themselves that their dreams or induced altered-state experiences were divine communications promoting and endorsing and ensuring the victory of that social reform movement. See my discussion of revolution cults in anthropology (e.g. the Cargo Cult analogy) in Element 29 of OHJ (Ch. 5). And of the science-backed possibility of actual or faked hallucination as the basis for founding new movements in Element 15 (Ch. 4).

      Reply
  3. Update: Made several slight wording changes in the article to ensure accuracy where needed (e.g. to include the fact that Zalmoxis seems to be a, possibly the only, savior deity not the son of a supreme deity, although we do not have complete or accurate accounts so as to be sure; and to clarify how the pyramid spells relate to Osiris; and so on).

    Reply
  4. Hi Richard. In this post and in your piece on the virgin birth, you mention ancient ideas about the Holy Spirit. In this post you touch on the idea that it was seen as a kind of “magical fluid”. Could you say more about ancient views of the HS, or point me to another post where you cover it more fully? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. In my article on spiritual bodies in The Empty Tomb I cover the evidence that the ancients regarded the Holy Spirit (the sacred pneuma) to be a physical substance pervading the universe. It is the “body” through which God effects his will. This was a widespread theological belief spanning both Judaism (cf. Philo) and paganism (cf. Stoic theology). But however one imagines it (ectoplasm, field energy, ghost stuff), it’s still a “something” that enters a person or does not. Fluid is just a convenient metaphor for the concept.

      Reply
  5. An Anonymous Nerd April 1, 2018, 10:11 am

    “Every dying-and-rising god is different. Every death is different. Every resurrection is different. All irrelevant. The commonality is that there is a death and a resurrection.”

    It’s depressing to see an actual, trained scholar try to flatten out the differences between ancient cultures like this and label them as “irrelevant.” And it was you that used that word. It’s similar to modern fringe history attempting to find evidence of an advanced “super civilization” and arguing forced commonalities among ancient cultures as evidence for it. Or, for that matter, the way Renaissance/early Modern Christians would try and pigeon-hole native myths into being flawed versions of Biblical passages.

    -An Anonymous Nerd

    Reply
    1. Uh. No. You must not be reading the article. I’m not saying they are irrelevant to their cultural engineers, I’m saying they are irrelevant to the theory of cultural diffusion. Not “irrelevant for any reason whatever” but “irrelevant only to that one issue.” Maybe try actually reading the article.

      Reply
      1. An Anonymous Nerd April 1, 2018, 11:08 am

        Insults are cute and all (and my but you went to the insults awfully fast), but you, not I, chose your words and concepts.

        If your point is “divine entities of various sorts dying and returning is a concept that doesn’t originate with Christianity,” you could’ve said that. You didn’t. You went way, way further than that.

        Here’s another example of what I mean. If you look here:

        https://grahamhancock.com/mathisend9/

        you’ll see a fringe history article that argues, ridiculously, that basically every swordsman image in ancient art, mythology, and culture represents the same diffused idea or image, a common-world wide idea found in the stars. (I posted there too and it looks like that author replied to me but I didn’t notice until now.) Similar to your piece, that author has to flatten out an awful lot of differences. You conveyed yourself similarly to that fringe author.

        -An Anonymous Nerd

        Reply
        1. If your point is “divine entities of various sorts dying and returning is a concept that doesn’t originate with Christianity,” you could’ve said that.

          Uh. That’s literally what my article says. Repeatedly. Again, maybe you should actually read it.

        2. An Anonymous Nerd April 1, 2018, 12:45 pm

          This reply is to the original author’s most-recent reply to me, wherein he selectively quoted my reply. (We seem to be at this site’s limit for length of a thread.) For ease of following the thread, I’ll quote his post in its entirety:

          [[ (Me, quoted by original author)
          If your point is “divine entities of various sorts dying and returning is a concept that doesn’t originate with Christianity,” you could’ve said that.(end me, quoted by original author)

          (original author’s reply)Uh. That’s literally what my article says. Repeatedly. Again, maybe you should actually read it.]]

          This is a great case of selective quoting — ironically similar to what he’s accusing me of: My very next sentence, for clarification, was: “You went way, way further than that.”

          Which he undeniably did, as I demonstrated, regardless of his selective quoting.

          I’m not aware of any knowledgeable person who denies that the Christian account is not the only description of divine resurrection in old world religions, mythology, and stories. If such folks exist, I’m not one of them. (And not just old world, I suppose: If memory serves there’s a Mayan story that involves a mortal man impregnating a goddess after the mortal man’s death, to create two demi-god figures — surely this’d be termed “resurrection” of a specialized type.)

          I just objected to the author’s pigeonholing of these accounts, because it reminded me of hyper-diffusionisn and other fringe concepts. Why he persists in being insulting in his replies I really can’t imagine.

          -An Anonymous Nerd

        3. Fred B-C April 3, 2018, 10:36 pm

          Yeah, Richard could not have been more clear. What he was saying isn’t “Cultural differences don’t matter”. Of course they do. They’re interesting and fascinating, and the specific details of how and why societies develop the cultures they do is sociologically fascinating. What he was saying is that “Differences don’t disprove common origin or cross-pollination”.

          In fact, here and elsewhere, Richard explains at length which parts are Jewish and which parts are not. He goes out of his way to identify how the hybridization works. Just like with any other kind of hybrid, cultural hybrids have traits of both “parents” or components. Christians are being as irrational as someone saying that an oatmeal raising cookie can’t be a cookie because, well, it doesn’t have chocolate chips in it.

          What’s so galling to me is that the Christian argument isn’t just “Well, yes, there’s some similarities, but it’s not sufficient to prove the spread of a mytheme and syncretism”, but rather something far more stupid. That’s a fine position to take, even if it doesn’t pass the stink test here. Syncretism is well-studied and there are reasonable ways to try to argue whether or not a specific constellation of traits are unique or not. Richard has made a case, one I find fairly compelling, that there’s a series of non-trivial cultural traits in Christianity that are sufficient to be diagnostic of common ancestry, rather than mere coincidence. But Christian apologists aren’t just saying “Sure, there were some other kinds of dying-and-rising gods, but there’s enough unique about our guy to make it a matter of coincidence [or, alternatively, that a dying-and-rising mytheme is a natural enough one that it could be originated dependently, so that Christianity would sort of be like the fossa to the Hellenistic lions]”. They’re literally denying that mytheme even exists.

          I was aghast to see that Ehrman tried to deny the similarities between Osiris and Jesus. It’s literally elementary Egyptology to know that Osiris had a resurrection cult.

      2. Maybe it would have been better to avoid such language as “All irrelevant,” since that suggests that you are indeed treating them as “irrelevant for any reason whatever”

        Reply
        1. Um. No. That’s not how grammar works. “All irrelevant” does not mean the same thing as “Irrelevant in every way.” The word “all” refers to the subject (the features listed), not the object (the relevance framework of the features). The object (the relevance framework) is carefully laid out in the paragraph, and article itself. That’s why you should actually read the article. And not cherry pick sentences that terrify you because of your own reading comprehension fail.

  6. I Heart Heaumeaux April 1, 2018, 3:26 pm

    More a question than a comment here: am I misreading or was Dionysus born as a girl then became a boy? “Daughter of Zeus and Persephone” is what makes me wonder. If true, interesting. If typo, typo. Thanks.

    Reply
  7. Further on your point on “Mithraism being in effect a Hellenization of Persian Zoroastrianism into a more familiar mystery religion.”

    This is really interesting, given the common association of Mithraism with Rome rather than Greece (in my reading anyway). It leads me to a view of the centrality of early Hellenistic Platonism in the construction of Serapism in Egypt, Christianity in Israel and Mithraism in Babylon. The implication is that of these three competing memes, Christianity won the evolutionary struggle, and incorporated features of Serapism and Mithraism, which were all then mushed and hushed and crushed in the Constantinian settlement half a millennium later.

    Reply
  8. I have a question about the style of argumentation found in this article, as well as many other articles arguing that Jesus is essentially just another iteration of some broader phenomenon in religious history.

    Authors of these articles start by defining a set of deities that Jesus supposedly belongs to by listing properties that these deities have. This is what this article does as well (“They are personal salvation cults…” etc.). Then they list other deities that supposedly also belong in the set and show that these deities also have these properties.

    But for each of these deities, the articles usually only show that they have some of the properties and remain silent on the rest. Which leaves me wondering whether this is because we don’t have evidence demonstrating the deities also had these other properties or we even have evidence demonstrating they didn’t have them.

    Because if that’s the case, then claiming the deities are members of the set is problematic. It’d be like defining a set of objects sharing 10 properties and then claiming an object is a member of the set because it has one or two of these properties.

    Now, it’s obviously not required for every deity proposed to be a member of that set to have all the properties to qualify as a member, but if each of the deities can only be shown to have a small subset of the properties, and more importantly if each of the deities can be shown to have a different subset of the properties, than I’d seriously question whether the set exists at all.

    For example, do we know there was a personal salvation cult of Heracles? Do we know Heracles was claimed to guarantee the individual a good place in the afterlife? Do we know the cult of Heracles had membership that followers joined with? Do we know the cult of Heracles enacted a fictive kin group? Do we know the cult of Heracles was joined through baptism and maintained through commination? Etc.

    That’s why I’d be interested in a more complete overview of evidence for each of the deities having each of the proposed properties. I understand that’s too much for a blogpost, but does something like this exist in literature?

    Reply
    1. That’s an excellent question.

      Yes. In at least half of all cases, we do have complete verification (every property is attested), so we already know the set exists. Then there are a few cases where one or another property is not fully or clearly attested (owing most likely to loss of access to sources that would tell us), then we infer, based on the pattern established by the others. This is stated in the article, though I didn’t specify which was which, since I’m here only writing about the resurrection attribute. I am planning another that will deal with the baptism attribute, for example.

      With large-property, large-member sets (like the Rank-Raglan set), it isn’t even required that every member have every property (as theological diffusion and syncretism will often result in removing some from this or that instantiation of the pattern), only that putative members have more of them than chance can explain, and they all still correlate to some single key variable in the thesis (in their case, ahistoricity). But in the present article, we should expect fewer instances of that, lest the model be challenged. That doesn’t mean none (there could be, for example, some instances where the baptism part is not only unattested, but unbeknownst to us was actually removed for the same reasons of diffusion and syncretism, but the remaining elements kept). And in this article, it’s really only the dying and rising part that has to be a property of all members for the thesis to carry (hence Mithras was excluded and Attis sidelined as too ambiguous; though both still do have the passion element, the paschôn or suffering, which is a retained element they share with Jesus and other salvation deities; likewise they both have baptisms, etc.).

      In this case, I note that in the salvation deity trope (the only one you are referencing), they “most often shared…most or all” (thus not always) the listed qualities. Not all the dying and rising gods listed, are personal salvation deities (e.g. Romulus is not; or at least, so far as we know; in extant sources he was a salvation deity linked to the immortality of the state as a whole; and of Hercules-Melqart, we aren’t sure). And (more importantly to your question) not all who are personal salvation deities, have every attribute. But the only ones who don’t have full attestation are Zalmoxis and Adonis (we can suspect the fictive kingroup element, and the initiation element, but it’s not clear in our scant sources; and we don’t know if their initiation involved baptism), and Inanna (whom we know had a personal salvation cult still thriving at Tyre, for example, but no data as to its attributes at the time).

      Hence of “personal salvation deities” I list only “Dionysus to Osiris, Zalmoxis, Inanna, Dolichenus, and Adonis” (those now in bold, all attributes attested; so, three altogether, with another three having only some elements definitely attested) and I set as “not to mention” the others (Romulus, Hercules, and Asclepius) who are dying and rising gods that illustrate the same point stated, but not specifically personal saviors (so far as we know).

      Reply
      1. Awesome, thanks a lot. I find this article and the article covering the virgil birth to be the most enjoyable type of your articles, so I’d love to see you go through other aspects such as baptism!

        Reply

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