Growing up with a famous apologist father, I learned how to defend the faith early in my life. But as a college sophomore in the mid 90s, I hit a period of serious doubt. I got online and discovered the secular web, which was built largely around responding to my father’s book Evidence that Demands A Verdict. Doctors, lawyers, historians, and other really smart people challenged the faith I had adopted from my family.
While I knew my dad meant well, for the first time I really started to wonder: What if Jesus is not God? What if I grew up in another religion? Could Darwinism be true, and if so, what would it mean for my faith? And so on. But the biggest issue that really tripped me up was the claim that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was copied from the mystery religions of the ancient near east.
Ancient Mystery Religions
Adonis. Mithras. Osiris. Attis. As the story goes, these various pagan deities pre-date the historical Jesus and have remarkable similarities to the Gospel accounts. There are claims of virgin births, twelve followers, teachings in parables, working of miracles, and resurrections. Could Christianity have borrowed from these claims?
I look back now and find these claims incredible. But it was quite unsettling when I first encountered them. And because of the Internet, and movies like The Da Vinci Code, Religulous, and Zeitgeist, they remain popular today.
Three Quick Responses
Thus, when I helped my father with the recent update of Evidence that Demands A Verdict, I was determined to include the single best chapter responding to the “copycat theory.” Here are three simple truths from that chapter:
1. Christianity has Jewish roots, not pagan roots. First-century Jews loathed syncretism and refused to blend their religion with others. Jesus was Jewish. And Paul had been trained as an orthodox Jew. He held steadfastly to orthodox beliefs about the one true God and would have been unwilling to compromise them for pagan mythology no matter the cost (see Phil. 3:5-7).
2. The differences between Christianity and the mystery religions is greater than the similarities. For example, the mother goddess Cybele loved Attis. But Attis was unfaithful to his goddess lover, and in a jealous rage Cybele made him insane. In his insanity he castrated himself and fled into the forest, where he bled to death. Cybele was in overwhelming grief, so she returned Attis “back to life,” meaning the body of Attis continued to grow hair and his little finger moved. Is that a resurrection?
3. Parallels comparing the two prove nothing. Even if significant similarities did exist, they wouldn’t prove anything. Christians could have borrowed these ideas from the mystery religions. Or the mystery religions could have borrowed from Christian ideas. Or they could have independently arrived at similar truths. Similarities alone prove nothing about dependence.
Much more could be said in response to the copycat theory. See the chapter in Evidence if you want a detailed refutation. But here is the bottom line:
There is no compelling reason to think the first Christians borrowed from the mystery religions to concoct the core concepts of the Christian faith.
Sometimes I still hear new objections to the faith. But rather than descending into a period of doubt (as I did in college), I know that a good answer can be found if I am willing to track it down.
About the Author:
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, the National Spokesman for Summit Ministries, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.