It may come as a shock to hear some who say Christianity borrows the beliefs of ancient mystery religions. Was the story of Christ, Christmas itself, just taken from the pages of pagan religions? Is the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the resurrection and salvation from sin copied from ancient Greek and Roman cults? If so, this would seem to suggest that Christianity is a copycat religion. Perhaps, no more true than other religions with made-up stories about gods no one believes today.
So, What Are Mystery Religions?
Such religions began in ancient Egypt, Greece, Asia Minor, and the region of Iran/Syria. They are an outworking of polytheism, the belief in many gods. They are called ‘mystery’ because some of their beliefs and practices involved secret ceremonies known only to select adherents. They appealed more to people’s emotions offering a psychic or mystic experience to bring union with their gods. They became popular during the Hellenistic Age and the Roman Empire. Little evidence of what mystery religions believed or practiced exists before the second century A.D. and most of what we know about them comes well after this time.
Four Major Mystery Religions
#1 The cult of Demeter and Dionysus.
Known as the gods of soil and wine.
#2 The cult of Isis and Osiris.
Originated in Egypt but was brought into the Hellenistic world around 300 B.C. Isis was the goddess of heaven, earth, and sea. Osiris was her husband.
#3 The cult of Cybele and Attis.
Was also prominent in the Hellenistic world. Cybele was worshiped as the mother of all gods. In 204 B.C. it became the first mystery religion introduced in the Rome Empire.
#4 The cult of Mithras or Mithraism.
Was picked up by Roman soldiers in the region of Iran/Syria and became the most significant mystery religion in the Roman world. It had little importance during the first century but became popular after Christianity.
Beginning in the 1890s – 1930s some scholars, especially in Germany, attempted to make the case that Christianity was just another Hellenistic mystery religion. Such that important Christian beliefs were borrowed or dependent on similar beliefs found in the mystery religions. As the claim goes, all such religions include a savior-god who dies for those he will deliver after he is restored to life.
Here are my top five reasons mystery religions did not influence Christianity . . .
1. Scholars wrongly infused Christian terms into the mystery religion.
These scholars made two errors here. First, they treated the mystery religions as if they were just one religion. This makes it sound as if they were unified, sharing common beliefs that would influence Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Second, scholars used Christian terms to describe the beliefs and practices of mystery religions and then marveled at the unbelievable parallels they have discovered between the mystery religions and Christianity. This is nothing short of circular reasoning, oversimplification, and exaggeration.
2. The use of pagan words in the New Testament does not prove dependence.
Some scholars argued that the title ‘Lord’ (kyrios) was first applied to Jesus in Antioch because of the influence of Hellenistic Christians rather than early Jewish Christians.
As others have pointed out: the record concerning the use of kyrios for any pagan god in mystery religions is quite incomplete. Even if there is such use, it does not demonstrate influence because it is a generic term. It would be like saying other religions today using the generic term ‘God’ copied Christianity.
The main reason against this view is that there is good evidence as to where the practice of applying ‘Lord’ to Jesus came from. Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:22 uses the Aramaic term for ‘Lord’ literally marana that, which is the language spoken in the early Jerusalem church. Hence the use of ‘Lord’ for Jesus began with Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, not Hellenism. Add to that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, used by the apostles and the early believers, uses kyrios for Yahweh. This shows that early Christians were not transferring a pagan title to Jesus but were proclaiming Jesus to be Yahweh of the Old Testament.
3. The Virgin Birth and deity of Jesus Christ are unique.
That Christianity copied the story of the virgin birth has been suggested based on the cult of Dionysus (Greek). Here Dionysus is said to be the offspring of the Greek god Zeus and a human mother. Mithraism says Mithra was born out of a rock. Jesus’ deity has also been compared to the divinization of Alexander the Great, who was supposedly virgin-born by the gods and did wondrous deeds. Similar claims are made for Apollonius, a first-century neo-Pythagorean.
In response to this, first, it is worth noting that the Gospel’s show no literary marks of myth genre, as do these pagan stories. The Gospels are deeply rooted in history, with identifiable geographic locations, clear time frames, named rulers, and known history surrounding their accounts. Second, no Greek myth corresponds to a literal incarnation involving the monotheistic God. The Greeks were polytheists which the early Christians opposed even under persecution. Finally, these other divine-men stories in the ancient world developed well after the time of Christianity and such claims are 150 to 1000 years after the person died. There was usually a political or financial motive to embellish their lives with such accounts. All this suggests Christianity was more of an influence on these religions than the reverse.
And keep in mind that accounts of Jesus’ life are multiple, grounded in historically reliable documents, written during the lives of eyewitnesses with a mere gap of 50 years or less between the events and the first letters of the New Testament. Far too short to allow the development of myth to overshadow the hard-historical core of the gospel.
4. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are unapparelled in the Ancient world.
As the myth goes, Osiris was murdered by his brother. Following a long search Isis, his wife, finds his dismembered body and in some versions, Osiris comes back to life. In other versions, however, he becomes ruler of the underworld.
Ronald Nash, in his book The Gospel and the Greeks, gives us several differences between Christ and the so-called savior-gods. Here are just a few . . .
First, none of the savior gods died for someone else. It is only Jesus who dies for sinners. No mystery god dies even for sin. Second, Jesus died once for all. Mystery gods repeatedly die and come back annually to match the vegetative cycle of nature. Third, Jesus’ death was an actual event in history. These Pagan cults are telling mythical stories with no historical ties. Fourth, Jesus’ death was voluntary. He willingly laid down his life. Jesus suffered and died but was not defeated. He triumphed over death through his physical and permanent bodily resurrection.
Furthermore, no mystery god such as Attis or Mithras can be linked to dying and rising stories. This is because no early claims exist, or the stories are significantly different than the Gospel accounts of Christ. Any mystery teaching approaching the Christian understanding of ‘resurrection’ is well after the time of Christ.
5. The Christian redemption from sin offered through faith alone is exclusive.
Christianity from the start was exclusivist. Following in the footsteps of the ancient Hebrew prophets, Christian communities were intolerant of other gods because of their uncompromising belief in one God. The New Testament is alien to any spirit of compromise or cooperation with any pagan god, belief or practice.
Nash again gives us three significant differences between Christian redemption and mystery religions: First, redemption in mystery religions was concerned with fate, necessity, and death. Christian doctrine was concerned with the human need to be saved from sin. Second, there is no parallel in mystery religions to the forensic or legal justification of the believer because of Christ bearing our guilt and sin on the cross. Third, while there was some ethical content to older Greek mystery religions, mystery cults did not produce a moral change or obligation to live rightly.
Rest assured, Christianity is unique, unapparelled and the only true faith. Pagan religions have not replaced Christmas with their myth. As you celebrate Christmas this year, know that the one and only true God has uniquely and miraculously made Himself known to us through the incarnation and birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah.
As the Apostle Peter wrote,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).