The Salvation Myths of Ancient Cults

The differences between myths and gospels Rainbow

A usual objection against the Resurrection of Christ is caused when non-Christians give their objections by comparing Gospel's accounts with the mysteries of ancient polytheistic religions. The usual objection is that the accounts of Gospels and the Book of Acts are not so original and that they can be found in, and even inspired by, other mystery religions. Let us take the case with resurrection. An alleged example of resurrection in ancient myth is provided by the early Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris. The myth has Osiris being murdered by his brother Seth who then sinks the coffin containing Osiris' body in the Nile River. Osiris' wife, Isis, the goddess of heaven, earth, sea, and the unseen world below, discovers her husband's body and returns it to Egypt. Seth, however, regains the body, cuts it into fourteen pieces, and scatters it abroad. Isis counters by recovering the pieces. According to Ronald Nash, former head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University, in his Christianity And The Hellenistic World, observes

It is at this point that the language used to describe what follows is crucial. Sometimes those telling the story are satisfied to say that Osiris came back to life. But some writers go much too far and refer to Osiris' "resurrection."

Nach's later discussion continues:

Which mystery gods actually experienced a resurrection from the dead? Certainly no early texts refer to any resurrection of Attis. Attempts to link the worship of Adonis to a resurrection are equally weak. Nor is the case for a resurrection of Osiris any stronger. After Isis gathered together the pieces of Osiris' dismembered body, he became "Lord of the Underworld." As Metzger comments, "Whether this can be rightly called a resurrection is questionable, especially since, according to Plutarch, it was the pious desire to devotees to be buried in the same ground where, according to local tradition, the body of Osiris was still lying." One can speak then of a "resurrection" in the stories of Osiris, Attis, and Adonis only in the most extended of senses. And of course no claim can be made that Mithra was a dying and rising god. French scholar Andre Boulanger concludes: "The conception that the god dies and is resurrected in order to lead his faithful to eternal life is represented in no Hellenistic mystery religion."

If the "savior-gods" mentioned above can be spoken of a resurrected, then we need to differentiate Jesus' resurrection from theirs. Jesus was a person of history who rose from the dead never to die again. He appeared in the flesh several times before his ascension, and the story was told by eyewitnesses. James D. G. Dunn concludes:

The parallel with visions of Isis and Asclepius (...) is hardly close. These were mythical figures from the dim past. In the sightings of Jesus we are talking about a man who died only a few days or weeks earlier. (Dunn, James D. G. The Evidence for Jesus. Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1985. p. 71)

Another issue related to the resurrection has to do with the amount of time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Attis is supposed to have come back to life four days after his death, one account has Osiris being reanimated two or three days after his death, and it is even suggested that Adonis may have been "resurrected" three days after his death. In the case of all three, there is no evidence earlier than the second century A.D. for the supposed "resurrection" of these mystery gods. Norman Anderson states that

if borrowing there was by one religion from another, it seems clear which way it went. There is no evidence whatever, that I know of, that the mystery religions had any influence in Palestine in the early decades of the first century. And the difference between the mythological experience of these nebulous figures and the crucifixion "under Pontius Pilate" of one of whom eyewitnesses bore testimony to both his death and resurrection is again obvious. (Anderson, Norman. Jesus Christ: The Witness of History. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985; pp. 53-54)

Scholars and lay people alike have recognized for almost two millennia a clear distinction between the reports of the gospel writers and the creators of the myths of the mystery religions. For example, Walter Künneth, professor of systematic theology at Erlangen University in Germany, states concerning the exclusiveness of the gospel:

The message of the resurrection did not appear to the contemporary world to be one of the customary cult legends, so that Jesus Christ would be a new cult hero standing harmoniously side by side with other cult heroes. But the message was in terms of strict exclusiveness: One alone is the Kyrios ("Lord"). Here every analogy fails. This witness, in contrast to the tolerance of the whole mythical world, comes with an intolerant claim to be absoluteness which calls in question the validity and truth of all mythology. (Künneth, Walter. The Theology of Resurrection. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1965. p. 62)

Read through a number of the Greek myths and then read through the gospel accounts and you will notice a marked difference in the overall flavor of the material. Concerning the Gospel of John, often the most criticized of the gospel narratives, Blaiklock says.

I read him often in his simple Greek without translating and always gain an overwhelming impression of his directness, his intimacy with theme and reader. Simply read the story of the wedding at Cana and feel the homely atmosphere, Mary's embarrassment, the best man's feeble joke (chapter 2). Follow on to the story of the rabbi (chapter 3) who came in the night and was annoyed at first because the answer to the question he was not allowed to ask was given by allusion to the books of Ezekiel and Numbers (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Numbers 21:4-9). And then read the story of the conversation at Sychar's well, with the Samaritan fighting her losing battle of words with the strangest Jew she had ever met (chapter 4). Read on the poignant account of the Passion Week with its climax in the vivid resurrection stories, paralleled for simple reality only by the narrative in Luke. Simply read. These men were not writing fiction. This is not what myth sounds like. This is history and only thus set down because it was reporting. (Blaicklock, E. M. Jesus Christ: Man or Myth? Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984. pp. 77-78)

New Testament translator and scholar J. B. Phillips describes his experience this way:

I have read, in Greek and Latin, scores of myths, but I did not find the slightest flavor of myth here. There is no hysteria, no careful working for effect, and no attempt at collusion. (...)
One sensed again that understatement to think is more "British" than Oriental. There is an almost childlike candour and simplicity, and the total effect is tremendous. (Phillips, J. B. The Ring of Truth. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1967; p. 77)

There is only one ready explanation. Four men, under the dire compulsion of a truth which made them free, wrote of what they saw, or of what immediate and reliable eyewitnesses reported to them. It is as Rousseau said, men who could invent such a story would be greater and more astonishing than its central figure.

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