Tuesday, 25 March 2014


The 1st Century Greco-Roman culture into which the Christian Gospel moved was a world of both established and emerging Hellenistic pagan cults. These so-called “mystery religions” (so named because of the secret ceremonies involved in their practice) had origins in Greece, Asia Minor and even further afield in Persia.

 It has sometimes been contended that Christian beliefs, especially those surrounding the redemptive work of Christ on the Cross, were simply borrowed from these pagan mythologies where, it is alleged, we frequently encounter stories reminiscent of virgin birth, vicarious death, and triumphant rebirth.

The Gospel, it has been claimed, was simply a rework of these existing mythologies.  

 The accusation reaches as far back as the 19th Century but seems to have enjoyed something of a rebirth itself in recent years (most notably a while back at the hands of “celebrity pastor” Rob Bell).

 Some, such as philosopher W T Jones place the blame for this pagan import into the supposedly simple religion originally founded by Jesus, not upon any of His Galilean disciples but (inevitably) on the apostle Paul who,
“…understood his vision of Jesus, the anointed of Lord, not in the narrowly Jewish sense of Jesus’ disciples, but in the wider Hellenistic culture in which he had been born.”
                                                                                W T Jones Medieval Mind p39

He goes on to say of the apostle that,
“If he had been a Greek, not a Jew the religion he fathered would probably have been just another Eastern mystery cult- an ethical and metaphysical dualism to which was attached the notion of a saviour god dying for his worshippers. Because he was a Jew, and a Jew of the Diaspora, he superimposed a mystery cult on a Judaic base.” 
                                                                                              Medieval Mind p47-48

Such assertions are flatly contradicted by our knowledge of the first Christians.

 The Christian revelation grew out of a base in Second Temple Judaism which was fiercely monotheistic. The worship of a Jew at that time was directed towards a transcendent God enthroned far above His physical creation, a Deity wholly without parallel amongst the nature gods of the surrounding paganism.

 Whatever the faults of that Judaism, it is indisputable that it had left behind its Old Testament flirtation with the idolatries of the surrounding nations. The Babylonian exile had purged that particular virus from its system and it never resurfaced despite crushing pressures towards pagan conformity at the hands of first the Greeks, then the Romans. 

 Ultimately the desperate struggles of the First and Second Jewish Wars that culminated in the Diaspora and the near-eradication of organised Judaism from the newly-termed “Palestine” in the 2nd Century can be directly attributed to this refusal to compromise to any kind of a pagan worldview.

This, we must remember, was the resolute Jewish world from which the early Church sprang. 

 As for the notion that it was the Hellenized Jew Paul who smuggled in pagan ideas,I have mentioned elsewhere  how untenable is this idea of a disconnect between Jesus and Paul given that the fact that the latter was probably converted within a year of the Crucifixion.

 The notion that Paul, once a Pharisee and a ferocious persecutor of the Church because of its perceived deviation from the Jewish religion, should then join its ranks and very quickly begin to fill the minds of those early Christians with fantastical tales of pagan gods is a belief beyond ridicule.

 To that we can add the fact that his ministry was clearly endorsed by the other apostles (Acts 15:22; Gal 2:9; 2 Pet 3:15-16) who seem to have exhibited no resistance to the importing into their faith of these Hellenistic absurdities. What, we may well ask, were Peter, James and John doing whilst these blasphemies were being enacted in their midst?

Despite being an obvious non sequitur , the accusation of pagan corruption continues to be made by the ill-informed and the mischievous, so believers do well to know how to effectively answer it.

The Gospel and the Greeks by Ronald H Nash is highly recommended as a resource in this area.

 Nash clearly outlines the impossible task faced by those who would seek to establish the claim that our Christian beliefs originated in the milieu of the mystery religion cults.

For one thing, he points out, there were many of these mystery religions and within each, the mythologies would change over time. This makes it difficult to establish precisely what would have been believed in any one of them as early as the 1st Century. Often it is possible to demonstrate that a particular cult did not manifest the forms of the myths that would characterize it in later times until well after AD100.

 Nash highlights how the proponents of the theory will often seek to use Christian language to describe alleged likenesses between baptism or the Lord’s Supper & certain rites of the mystery religions. But in reality no such language would have been employed by the religion's adherents at the time and the comparisons invariably turn out to be overblown. Without question, this is an area where Parallelomania is allowed to run riot!

Upon examination of these supposed parallels between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we quickly discover that the pagan stories are actually wholly dissimilar from those which formed the core beliefs of the early Christians.    

 A few of the most popular examples will suffice to demonstrate this:  

Dionysus (Roman Bacchus)
According to this legend, the chief of the gods Zeus, disguised as a mortal, had a secret love affair with a mortal called Semele, until the god’s jealous wife Hera intervened, eventually resulting in Zeus consuming his lover with thunder and lightning. Here the story becomes typically bizarre,
“But Hermes saved her six-months’ son; sewed him up inside Zeus’s thigh, to mature there for three months longer; and in due course of time, delivered him.”
                                                                                Robert Graves Greek Myths p20 

This preposterous story has been used as evidence of a parallel to the virgin birth in pagan mythology. Dionysus is also portrayed as a "Son of God" figure and in rebirth narratives as a kind of "resurrected" hero.

Surely the fact that such assertions can be made based upon the kind of silly story presented above tells us much more about the men who would advance these theories than it does the origins of the Christian faith! 

Originating in Persia, Mithraism was one of the most important of the mystery religions, eventually growing to rival Christianity. However it is known to have had no substantial presence in the Roman Empire during the 1st Century and so could not possibly have played any part in the formation of early Christian belief.

In this example the parallel to the virgin birth turns out to be the fact that Mithra was born from a rock!

He is also presented by some as a kind of mediator between men and God. This is intended to make us think of Jesus, but in reality the supposed mediation of Mithra bears no relation whatsoever to the sophisticated High Priestly conception of Christ found in the Book of Hebrews. 

 Another alleged parallel with Christianity was that adherents had a meal of bread and water which Justin Martyr considered a satanic imitation of the Lord’s Supper (1st Apol. 66).  Imitation would appear to be the right word in this instance, since the Communion Meal in the Church long predates the emergence of Mithraism in the west so precedence is clearly established in favour of the Christian rite. 

Osiris & Isis
This was the great husband/wife team of Egyptian mythology, and various versions of their story appeared over time.Osiris was sometimes seen as the god of the Nile & in his famous work on the subject Alexander Murray describes how,
“The river, in its periodical inundations, was said to have married the earth (Isis, Rhea), and in its retreat to have been killed by the giant of Sterility (Seb, or Typhon), who was jealous, perhaps, of the wondrous fruitfulness of the marriage between the soil and the great river.”
                                            Alexander S Murray Who’s Who in Myth & Legend p296

Another version has Osiris murdered by his brother Seb, who then sank the coffin into the Nile. Isis recovers the body but now Seth dismembers it and scatters the pieces.  

The subsequent re-emergence of Osiris from the Nile is hailed by some as a “resurrection” account and even as a figure of Christian baptism! (see Nash The Gospel and the Greeks p127). 

 At least this nonsense differs from most of the rebirth narratives in pagan mythology which generally relate to the nature cycle.  Given that the natural world is “resurrected” each spring from the death of winter, and that human life and welfare is so dependent upon this re-emergence, it is inevitable that this should show itself in primitive pagan beliefs. The recurrence of “resurrection” myths amongst the mystery religions is therefore hardly surprising.  

 In fact what we actually see in these mythologies is that the same themes keep popping up purely because they deal with matters intrinsic to human existence -birth, death, the cycle of nature etc. In such simple agrarian societies there are surely only so many themes than can pop up!

And as Nash drily observes,
“The fate of Osiris’s coffin in the Nile is about as relevant to baptism as the sinking of Atlantis”