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Jesus and the Pagan Gods

  • Jesus was a high priest of the ancient Egyptian religion of Isis and Osiris.
  • Jesus was a mythical person created by stealing from pagan mystery religions.
  • Jesus was just one of numerous “crucified saviors” found in various ancient religions.
  • The main features of Jesus’ birth, life, and death are reworkings of older myths and legends.

Claims such as these have been around for many decades—many dating back to the nineteenth century—and they continue to hold sway among those attracted to esoteric, New Age, and neo-pagan beliefs. With the success of The Da Vinci Code, the idea that Christianity is largely or even completely derived from pagan beliefs has reached a mass audience.

Extravagant Speculations, Suspect Sources

In the course of Dan Brown’s novel, the characters of “symbologist” Robert Langdon and historian Leigh Teabing tell the detective Sophie Neveu that the Virgin Mary was created from pictograms of the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing her son Horus, that Jesus is based on the pre-Christian pagan god Mithras, that his birth is partially based on legends about the Hindu god Krishna and other pagan deities, and that distinctively Catholic elements come from pagan mystery religions predating the first century A.D.

The Da Vinci Code relies heavily upon two books that provide much of the novel’s outlandish historical and theological notions: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, written Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, and The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Those books, in turn, relied on dubious or obscure sources (sometimes occult in nature) or simply leapt from proposition to theory to “fact” without sources or evidence.

Also evident in the Code is the influence of The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, written in 1875 by freethinker and anti-Christian Kersey Graves, from which Brown apparently got the ideas that Krishna was given gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” shortly after birth and that ancient adherents of the deity Mithras believed that he had been buried “in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.”

Graves’s role in promoting the claim that Christianity is simply reworked paganism is significant; his ideas influenced readers in the decades following publication of The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors and still make regular appearances (and are accepted as fact) on countless websites today. Graves’s work was praised by the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in a 1974 radio broadcast.

Little was known about Graves until 2004, when John Benedict Buescher, author of The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience, published his article “Who Was Kersey Graves?” (available online at Buescher exposed the blatantly biased and sloppy nature of Graves’s “research,” illustrating that he did no original work in examining ancient religion. Graves had little formal schooling and “virtually no foreign language training and no direct access to original sources—either literary or archaeological.” Not long after Graves’s book was published, “Cincinnati clergyman John Taylor Perry sifted through Graves’s sources. He found that even though Graves claimed that he had relied on 200 works, these were all filtered through a short list of primary sources, all of which overtly propagandized a Deist, atheist, or occultist agenda. Buescher writes:

They were part of a widely disseminated, standard library of Freethought literature. They included Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason, Master Freemason, self-described phallus worshiper and amateur antiquarian Godfrey Higgins’s Anacalypsis, heretical clergyman Robert Taylor’s The Diegesis, Constantin-François Volney’s The Ruins; or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, Louis Jacolliot’s The Bible in India, and Ernest Renan’s “romance” The Life of Jesus. These sources already had worked over random bits of facts and fabula, stringing them together out of context. Kersey took them and created his own extravagant speculations from them.

The creation of such extravagant speculations continues today in conspiracy-laden books such as Tom Harpur’s recently published The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light. Harpur, a former Anglican priest, insists that Christianity is almost entirely derived from ancient mystery religions—especially Egyptian, and based around Horus, the son of the goddess Isis. In turn, Harpur often draws upon the work of Gerald Massey, another nineteenth-century freethinker, who posited that true Christianity was thoroughly Egyptian in origin and Gnostic in theology. Harpur concludes that a human Jesus never existed but was created by a corrupt, power-hungry hierarchy, a reoccurring theme in such literature.

Solving the Mystery Religions

What does modern scholarship have to say about this alleged reliance of early Christianity upon pagan mystery religions (notably Mithraism) for construction of the “Jesus story”? A lengthy entry for “Mysteries” in The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion notes that the first part of the twentieth century was dominated by the notion that various pagan mystery religions had strongly influenced (or even produced) Christian theology and that those religions were believed to be “the essence of oriental religiosity.”

It was also believed that pagan mystery religions found in the Greco-Roman world focused upon “dying-rising” gods who offered salvation to those initiated into them, as Sir James G. Frazer asserted in The Golden Bough, an influential study in comparative folklore, magic, and religion. But scholars in the mid- and late-twentieth century challenged and eventually rejected these assumptions, demonstrating that the pagan mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world were quite different from those found in the ancient Far East. The Oxford Dictionary concludes that “their prominence in modern scholarship is quite disproportionate to their ancient profile.”

In addition, there is little or no evidence that most pagan mystery religions such as the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris or the cult of Mithras existed prior to the mid-first century in the forms described in The Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Sufficient source materials to reconstruct a reliable semblance of the pagan mystery religions did not exist until at least the second century.

“Far too many writers use this late source material (after A.D. 200) to form reconstructions of the third-century mystery experience and then uncritically reason back to what they think must have been the earlier nature of the cults,” writes Ronald Nash. Nash, E. O. James, Bruce Metzger, Günter Wagner, Hugo Rahner, and others have pointed out that the pagan mystery religions were quite different from Christianity in significant ways. They were based on an annual vegetation cycle, they stressed esoteric (hidden) knowledge, they emphasized emotional ecstasy over doctrine and dogma, and their central goal was mystical experience. They were also very syncretistic, taking elements from other pagan movements and shedding beliefs with little regard for any established teaching or belief system—completely contrary to the apostolic Tradition so intensely guarded by Christians.

History v. Myth: A Case in Point

There is a sharp contrast between the mythological character of pagan mystery religions and the historical character of the Gospels and the New Testament writings. In his study Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian, Bruce Metzger writes:

Unlike the deities of the mysteries, who were nebulous figures of an imaginary past, the divine being whom the Christian worshiped as Lord was known as a real person on earth only a short time before the earliest documents of the New Testament were written. From the earliest times the Christian creed included the affirmation that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” On the other hand, Plutarch thinks it necessary to warn the priestess Clea against believing that “any of these tales [concerning Isis and Osiris] actually happened in the manner in which they are related.”

A glance at Mithraism demonstrates how different from Christianity the pagan mystery religions were. Mithras was originally a Persian god depicted as a bucolic deity who watched over cattle. Mithraism was not introduced to the West and the Mediterranean world until the first century at the earliest, where it eventually attracted Roman soldiers. Contemporaneous with Christianity, this second form of Mithraism was for men only.

By the time Mithraism became popular in the Roman Empire it had changed from a public religion for the many to a mystery religion meant for the elite. It took on a Greco-Roman quality and absorbed elements of astrology and Platonic philosophy. Although scholars distinguish between the earlier Persian Mithraism and the later Roman Mithraism, most popular works straining to connect Mithras to Jesus do not. This failure to distinguish between the two forms of Mithraism has often resulted in the assumption that Roman Mithraic beliefs also existed in the earlier, pre-Christian form. But the Mithraic beliefs and practices that Christianity is accused of “stealing” did not come into vogue until the end of the first century, far too late to shape the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus. David Ulansey, author of The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, writes:

The earliest physical remains of the cult date from around the end of the first century A.D., and Mithraism reached its height of popularity in the third century. In addition to soldiers, the cult’s membership included significant numbers of bureaucrats and merchants. Women were excluded. Mithraism declined with the rise to power of Christianity until the beginning of the fifth century, when Christianity became strong enough to exterminate by force rival religions such as Mithraism. (“The Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras,” at

The Roman Mithras is “born” from a rock; he is called “the rock-born god.” He was commonly depicted as naked, wearing a cap and holding a torch and a dagger. In the Persian legends, he was born of a virgin mother, Anahita (once worshiped as a fertility goddess), who swam in Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan, where Zoroaster/Zarathustra had left sperm four hundred years earlier. The central feat of Mithras’s life on earth was the capture and killing of a stolen bull at the command of the god Apollo, symbolizing the annual renewal of life in spring.

Mithraism did not originally have a concept of a god who died and was then resurrected. Despite the claims made in The Da Vinci Code, there is no ancient account of Mithras dying, being buried “in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.” That assertion is taken (either directly or from a second-generation source) from The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, where Graves wrote, without documentation, that several pagan deities (including “Mithras the Mediator” of Persia) rose from the dead after three days’ burial. But E. O. James, professor of history and philosophy of religion at the University of London, noted that “in contrast to the other Graeco-Oriental Mystery divinities, the Persian saviour-god did not himself pass through death to life.”

A Different Gift of Life

James observed that Mithraism was not absorbed by Christianity but overcome by it, “because the Church was able to meet its adversary on the sure ground of historical fact.” Christianity went far beyond “the ancient seasonal drama with its polytheistic background” and offered initiates a “renewal of spiritual life and regeneration of outlook . . . to a degree unknown and unattainable in any rival system. Therefore, Christianity ultimately prevailed because it provided a different gift of life from that bestowed in the pagan cults.”

This is one answer to a question that critics either ignore or attempt to explain away with elaborate conspiracy theories: Why did Christianity not only survive the first, second, and third centuries but eventually thrive and spread globally, while all of the pagan mystery religions disappeared?


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