Introduction

The validity of Christianity and the promise of salvation through the forgiveness of sins hinges on the historical truth of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. For skeptics to disprove the historical existence of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is to demolish the hope of eternal life for over a third of the world’s population. Those opposed to Christianity have created numerous objections to secondary and tertiary beliefs, which, if proven false, wouldn’t indicate the falsity of Christianity. Objections to the resurrection of Jesus are concerning due to the implications if such objections were valid. One such opposition to the resurrection account states that the narrative regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was not original, but simply borrowed from other ancient mystery religions.

One such religion that skeptics claim Christianity borrowed from is the ancient mythical religion Mithraism. However, the goal of this paper is to show how the theory that Christianity borrowed Jesus from Mithraism[1] is not a sufficient explanation for the origins of the Christian faith and the account of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. First, I will examine Mithraism, the supposed source of the borrowed Jesus account, and compare assertions of similarity with the claims of Christianity. Second, I will evaluate the logical soundness of allegations made by supporters of the borrowed Jesus theory and determine what, if any, logical fallacies are present within their claims. Finally, I will explore one of the biggest problems in the borrowed Jesus theory, which is the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

The Lack of Similarities in Resurrection Accounts

At first glance, skeptics make a compelling case against Christianity’s narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ by citing similarities of Mithraism, which appear to be the source of the Christian faith. In this first section, I will provide a brief background of Mithraism and the similarities, claimed by skeptics, supporting the assertion that the resurrection account of Jesus Christ was not original and should be considered mythical. However, I will demonstrate how the supposed similarities are, in some cases, unsupported and, at best deficient.

Mithraism is an ancient mythical religion, worshiping the god Mithra, which traces its origins to the period when the ancestors of the Persians and Hindus were of the same people group.[2] Mithra was seen as “a god of light, invoked together with Heaven … recognized as the protector of truth, the antagonist of falsehood and error,” and was believed to always watch with his hundred ears and his hundred eyes as Mazda’s protector.[3]

Skeptics have used the mystical god Mithra as an example of Christianity’s plagiarism in its creation of the mythical account of Jesus and his resurrection narrative. In the 2007 documentary, Zeitgeist, skeptics point to Mithra as having numerous similarities with the Christian accounts of Jesus Christ.[4]

As David Fitzgerald explains, “what we call Christianity came out of the cross-pollination of many different cultures’ religious thought, which came together into the great idea of the age – an intermediary savior god, a go-between for Heaven and Earth.”[5] D.M. Murdock in The Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ, states, like Christ, Mithra had “12 companions or disciples…considered the Way, the Truth and the Light, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah”, and like Christ, Mithra had “Twelve companions or disciples.”[6] Thus, Christianity should be thought of in the same manner as the mythical religions being followed before and during the 1st century CE as this is the same period Christianity began. The comparisons seen in Mithraism are one example amongst many other similar features mythical religions share with Christianity. Furthermore, according to skeptics, Christianity borrowed many of this religion’s traditions and beliefs. Most concerning is the assertion that Christianity borrowed the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from Mithraism, which would, as the Apostle Paul states in his first letter to the Corinthians, if Christ was not raised, then we’re still in our sin and our faith is futile; therefore, we should eat and drink for tomorrow we die.[7]

Yet, when we probe the historical data further, we find the claims to be weak in comparison and, in some instances, fallacious, which raises suspicions regarding the integrity of the claimants. First, Zeitgeist fails to provide any evidence for their claims of plagiarism by Christianity of Mithraism. Second, the claim of Mithras’ virgin birth is false; as Mithraism teaches, he was born out of a rock.[8] Third, in both books researched, Dave Fitzgerald provides only one source for his claims on Mithraism, which is to a link of Atheists.org, which is no longer valid. Thus, Zeitgeist and Fitzgerald lack evidential support.  Fourth, D. M. Murdock provides four different sources to back up the claims I quoted previously. Source one, Payam Nabarz states “Mithra is invoked as lord of the truth,” not the Truth[9]; source two, Zenaide Ragozin says “Mithra is light,” not the Light of the World[10], and source three, Franz Cumont confirms there were similar “ideas” of Mithras as redeemer.[11] Murdock’s fourth source, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. XVI, could not be found.[12] It takes three different sources to create the statement using truth, light, and redeemer. Even assuming “way” comes from the fourth, albeit unfound, source, there is a very selective analysis taking place to build a desired conclusion. The constructed narrative is exposed when we examine each of these sources within their proper context and compare them to the teachings of Christianity; the asserted similarities then vanish. Payam Nabarz says, “Mithra is invoked as lord of the truth; hence it is important to make this clear. The work with the Spirit, or Energy, is what matters, rather than any one theory … All you need to do is to call with an open heart upon Mithra: the Friend, Love and Sun. In other words, say “Friend” and enter!”[13]

Quoting Jesus, the Gospel of John, 14:6 says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Unlike Mithraism, according to Payam, the Bible does not teach Jesus is energy or that eternal salvation comes by saying the words “Friend and enter.” Furthermore, the very sentence of Ragozin’s that Murdock references continues to describe Mithra as having a “thousand senses and ten thousand eyes to see … ten thousand ears and ten thousand spies.”[14] But, it is Franz Cumont who clarifies and exposes the failures of Murdock’s assertions, explaining that Mithras was a redeemer in the sense of “reluctantly immolating his victim that he might create and save the human race.”[15] Furthermore, the “twelve disciples” Murdock claims Mithras had following him was sourced from Cumont. Yet, in Cumont’s book, The Mysteries of Mithra, which shows a stone tablet with twelve engraved images around Mithras, Cumont clearly explains those images to be the twelve signs of the zodiac, not disciples, followers or any other closely related belief that would parallel Murdock’s claim.[16]

Finally, in his book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Richard Carrier draws comparisons of ancient mediator beings that ascend and descend from heaven, opening gates, carrying messages between humans and God. This was not only taught in Mithraism, but was “clearly” the type of being that Jesus was.[17] However, Bruce Metzger counters by explaining that any formal resemblances should not “obscure the great differences in content” as it relates to the saving efficacy of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[18] Fitzgerald takes issue with Metzger on this point by claiming, “Metzger continues to shrug off the differences one after another … all of these parallels are dismissed, with no clear explanation.”[19] Fitzgerald’s issue with Metzger is purely subjective, vague, and demonstrably false, as Metzger’s twenty-page article provides cited, specific contrasts between early Christian teaching and Mithras.[20]

However, even if we dismissed Metzger, Franz Cumont, a source often used by skeptics, reveals the weakness of the borrowed Jesus theory by explaining that the “teachings and the passion of the God sacrificed on the cross, never flowed for the disciples of Mithra” and we are not positioned to be able to say what mutual influences were operative in the two religions of the day. Therefore, according to Cumont, any resemblances “do not necessarily suppose an imitation.”[21] Metzger, along with the very sources skeptics used for their assertions, all clearly show supposed similarities between Christianity and Mithraism are taken out of context, thus misrepresenting both religious belief systems of the first century and in our present day. Not only is the evidence used by skeptics to support their arguments undermined, as we will see in the next section, but skeptics draw false conclusions due to logical fallacies in their reasoning.

Fallacious Reasoning Produces Fallacious Conclusions

The next problem with the claim that Christianity borrowed from Mithraism is the conclusions drawn based on faulty logical reasoning. In this section, we will see how supporters of the borrowed Jesus theory commit several logical fallacies in their supporting arguments such as the post hoc ergo propter hoc, strawman, genetic fallacy, and the fallacy of equivocation.

David Fitzgerald concludes that Christianity should be considered one of the Hellenistic cults[22] versus the unique, true religion that provides the way back to God for fallen humanity. Fitzgerald states that a Hellenistic cult was any religious system that “offered individual salvation, obtained through ritual initiation into a set of ‘mysteries’…On these criteria alone, Christianity, with its promise of eternal salvation and initiation rituals,” is a mystery religion “beyond any doubt.”[23] If Fitzgerald’s conclusion were correct, this would provide support to the theory of Christianity being a copycat religion, and thus, it should be treated and assessed similarly as the other mythical religions of its time.

However, there are flaws with his reasoning in the statement above. If we examine the premises of his argument,[24] we quickly determine that his understanding of Christian rituals is flawed. Fitzgerald is conflating Hellenistic rituals believed in providing salvation and Christian rituals of symbolism that do not offer salvation; thus, committing the strawman fallacy and the fallacy of equivocation.[25] The definition of “ritual initiation” and “initiation rituals” are not the same thing, yet they are being used in this manner to support his argument (equivocation); Fitzgerald has misrepresented what Christianity believes about their symbolic rituals (strawman). This faulty understanding will result in an additional false conclusion and the introduction of the next fallacious argument.

David Fitzgerald concludes Christian similarities to Hellenistic cults through faulty logic. He then posits his ultimate conclusion, using two new logical fallacies: that the rise of Christianity and its similarities is because it “arose in the very same period as when all these other religions were so extremely popular, sharing all of these basics with them …”[26] But, saying that something is similar to something else by “selectively ignoring logical relevance” is committing the genetic fallacy.[27] The genetic fallacy is when a view is dismissed simply because of its origin. To commit the genetic fallacy, Fitzgerald must ignore the historical evidence and belief by the first century Christians that Jesus was a historical figure that died and was resurrected (unique to Christianity), and must highly contrast the mythological beliefs of the period. Second, Fitzgerald assumes that because the Hellenistic religions were in existence at the time Christianity arose, by necessity, Hellenistic beliefs were adopted into the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. He is committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore on account of this”) fallacy, which assumes that “just because one event precedes another event, the first event causes the second.”[28] Fitzgerald, due to multiple logical fallacies, has built a “house of cards” theory whereby each erroneous conclusion rests on top of faulty logical reasoning. By exposing the logical fallacies, and explaining the truth, the borrowed Jesus theory collapses and demonstrates the underlying foundation does not support its conclusions.

Jesus Christ is a Historical Figure

A third significant deficiency in the borrowed Jesus theory is the evidence that Jesus was a historical person. Many skeptics who promote the borrowed Jesus theory claim not only were beliefs regarding the resurrection of Jesus based on myth, but also the very existence of Jesus as a historical figure to be based on myth. Without a historical Jesus, there is no historical death, burial, and resurrection. Richard Carrier asserts that Jesus Christ is no greater of an explanation for the truth claims of Christianity as for the truth claims of proponents of mythicism[29], because even the mere existence of Jesus, as a historical person, is most probably false.[30] Carrier states, “even on the most outrageously generous estimates possible, there is barely a 1 in 3 chance Jesus existed. Which means, he probably didn’t.”[31] However, Michael Licona counters these claims by explaining that for Jesus to have never existed is to take a “fringe” position that “no widely respected scholar holds.”[32] In response, David Fitzgerald would counter Licona’s claim by explaining:

Biblical history has always been an apologetic undertaking in the service of Christianity. Even today, it remains the only branch of history still overtly dominated by believers. In fact, many biblical history scholars are not historians at all; they are ministers, theologians, or strong believers with specific denominational affiliations … As nonbelievers, we don’t need Jesus to be a myth … It’s no skin off my atheist nose if it turns out there was a Jesus after all, but Christian biblical scholars sure as hell can’t say the same if their situation is reversed.”[33]

The assertion made is that the consensus position held by biblical scholars is due to a theological bias that is influencing their ability to assess the historical data objectively. Fitzgerald, in a following quote, dials up his rhetoric by accusing Christian scholars of not seeing the extensive and fundamental similarities between the religions being due to “dogmatic reasons.”[34] However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As Licona points out, “perhaps no other group of historians contains greater heterogeneity than the community of biblical scholars.”[35] Licona’s statement is further supported by the fact that Bart Ehrman, in his book Did Jesus Exist, says “I think that there certainly was a Jesus of Nazareth who existed in history, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and about whom we can say a good deal as a historical figure” and that those supporting the view that Jesus was a myth open themselves up to “charges of intellectual dishonesty.”[36] In light of Bart Ehrman’s thoughts on the historical Jesus, along with the majority of scholarship and its heterogeneity, I am suspicious of Fitzgerald’s attempts to explain away his own bias. When considering the historical bedrock[37] for the life and fate[38] of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, I must question if it is not proponents of the borrowed Jesus theory that are holding forth “dogmatic reasons.” The historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, for Fitzgerald, Carrier and other supporters of the mythicism view, would be a death knell to their theory and change the conversation from the existence of Jesus to the identity of Jesus, thus laying bare the question that Jesus asked and we must all answer: “who do you say that I am.”

Conclusion

Skeptics of Christianity have often provided thoughtful and honest objections to the Christian faith. When presenting these claims, the responsibility belongs to the one making a claim for evidential support. The evidence provided should be able to withstand scrutiny and, under scrutiny, give the best plausible explanation of an event, thing, or belief. As demonstrated in this paper, the theory that Christianity borrowed Jesus from Mithraism does not meet this requirement and fails as a sufficient explanation for the origins of the Christian faith and the account of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. First, the examination of Mithraism, the supposed source of the borrowed Jesus account, showed the assertions of similarity with the claims of Christianity were mostly unsupported, lacking in evidence and, at best, weak in their supposed similarities. The evaluation of the logical soundness of assertions of the borrowed Jesus theory exposed examples of logical fallacies present within their claims leading to numerous faulty conclusions. Finally, the evidence that Jesus was a historical person places supporters of this theory outside of historical scholarship and exposes them to charges of intellectual dishonesty. In closing, one is well within reason and plausibility to conclude that a more critical question for us to ponder than “was Jesus borrowed from myth” is to wonder “was Jesus who he claimed to be.” 


Footnotes

[1] For this paper I will be using the term “borrowed Jesus theory.” The scope of this term is specific to the assertion that Christianity borrowed from the ancient mythical religion Mithraism and is not to be confused with any assertions of borrowing from any other religions.

[2] Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903), 1, Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid., 1,3.

[4] “Mithra of Persia was born of a virgin on December 25th, he had 12 disciples, and performed miracles and upon his death was buried for three days and thus resurrected. He was also referred to as the truth, the life and many others. Interestingly the sacred day of worship for Mithra was Sunday.” Zeitgeist: The Movie, directed by Peter Joseph, featuring Chogyam Trungpa, Jordan Maxwell, and George Carlin (Gentle Machine Productions, 2007), 0:14:22 to 0:15:54, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B0149GYE3O

[5] David Fitzgerald, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. III: The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion (Create Space, 2017), chap. 19, Kindle Edition.

[6] D.M. Murdock, The Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ (United States of America: Stellar House Publishers). chap. Horus of Egypt, Kindle Edition

[7] Paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 15 verses 16-17, 32

[8] Vermaseren, Maarten, Mithras: The Secret God (London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1963), 75.

[9] Payam Nabarz, The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2005), 16.; The Truth as recorded in John 14:6

[10] Zenaide Alexeievna Ragozin, The Story of Media, Babylon and Persia: Including a Study of the Zend-Avesta or Religion of Zoroaster (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888), 69., the Light of this World as recorded in John 8:12

[11] Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903), 192-193, Kindle Edition.

[12] Murdock, Origins of Christianity, Bibliography.

[13] Nabarz, The Mysteries of Mithra, 16.

[14] Ragozin, The Story of Media, Babylon and Persia, 69.

[15] Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, 192-193.

[16] Ibid., 117, 122.

[17] Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), Chap. 5, Kindle Edition.

[18] Bruce M. Metzger, “Considerations of Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity.” Harvard Theological Review, Vol. XLVIII, no. 1 (January, 1955): 1-20, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1508450. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.

[19] David Fitzgerald, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. III: The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion (Create Space, 2017), chap. 21, Kindle Edition.

[20] Metzger, “Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” 2-20. By reading just the first six pages of Metzger’s study Fitzgerald would be presented with: Divergent results based on ambiguous evidence; Distinctions to be made between pre vs. post Constantinian Christianity; Examples of cultic adoption of pagan practices; Dating of evidence regarding the mystery religions. Fitzgerald’s claim is demonstrably false.

[21] Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, 194-195.

[22] Mithraism is considered to be a Hellenistic cult.

[23] Fitzgerald, Mything in Action, Vol. III, chap. 21, Kindle Edition.

[24] See Appendix [A1]. Fitzgerald: Christianity is Hellenistic Cult] for syllogism.

[25] Patrick J. Hurley, Logic: The Essentials, (Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2016), 76, 109.

[26] Fitzgerald, Mything in Action, Vol. III, chap. 21, Kindle Edition. See Appendix [A2]. Fitzgerald: Christianity Same Time Period

[27] Kenneth R. Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2007), 57, Kindle Edition.

[28] Hurley, Logic, 90.

[29] The term mythicism is a broad term that believes Christianity is a myth. The borrowed Jesus theory, as used in this paper, would fall within the claims of mythicism.

[30] Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, chap. 10, Kindle Edition.

[31] Ibid., chap. 12, Kindle Edition.

[32] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 62, Kindle Edition

[33] David Fitzgerald, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. I: The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion (Create Space, 2016), chap. 1, Kindle Edition.

[34] Fitzgerald, Mything in Action, Vol. III, chap. 21, Kindle Edition.

[35] Licona, Resurrection of Jesus, 62, Kindle Edition.

[36] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 333, Kindle Edition.

[37] Licona, Resurrection of Jesus, 55, Kindle Edition.Historical Bedrock are facts so strongly evidenced that they are virtually indisputable.

[38] Licona, Resurrection of Jesus, chap. 4, Kindle Edition. See Appendix [A3]. Historical Bedrock of Jesus of Nazareth as a Historical Figure

Works Cited

Carrier, Richard, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), Kindle Edition.

Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithra. (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903), Kindle Edition.

Ehrman, Bart D., Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. (New York: HarperOne, 2012), Kindle Edition.

Fitzgerald, David, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. I: The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion. (Create Space, 2016), Kindle Edition.

Fitzgerald, David, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. III: The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion. (Create Space, 2017), Kindle Edition.

Hurley, Patrick J., Logic: The Essentials. (Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2016).

Licona, Michael, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), Kindle Edition.

Metzger, Bruce M., “Considerations of Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity.” Harvard Theological Review, Vol. XLVIII, no. 1 (January, 1955): 1-20, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1508450. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.

Murdock, DM, The Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ. (United States of America: Stellar House Publishers), Kindle Edition.

Nabarz, Payam, The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World. (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2005).

Ragozin, Zenaide Alexeievna, The Story of Media, Babylon and Persia: Including a Study of the Zend-Avesta or Religion of Zoroaster. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888).

Samples, Kenneth R. A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test. (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2007), Kindle Edition.

Vermaseren, Maarten, Mithras: The Secret God. (London: Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1963).

Zeitgeist: The Movie, directed by Peter Joseph, featuring Chogyam Trungpa, Jordan Maxwell, and George Carlin (Gentle Machine Productions, 2007), 0:14:22 to 0:15:54, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B0149GYE3O

Appendix

[A1]Fitzgerald: Christianity is Hellenistic Cult

Premises:

  1. Any religion offering individual salvation through ritual initiation into a set of mysteries is a Hellenistic cult
  2. Christianity offers, baptism & eucharist, salvation through ritual initiation
  3. Therefore, Christianity is a Hellenistic cult.

Assessment: Premise 2 is false based on a Biblical understanding of the Christian faith. Salvation through any ritual or act on behalf of the person would be salvation by works. Salvation comes through faith alone (trusting) in who Jesus is (God) and what He did on the cross (paid for our sins).

[A2] Fitzgerald: Christianity Same Time Period

Premises:

  1. If Christianity arose in the same time period that Hellenistic cults existed, Hellenistic cults would have shared basic beliefs that would influence Christian beliefs.
  2. Christianity arose in the same time period that Hellenistic cults existed.
  3. Therefore, basic beliefs of Christianity were borrowed from Hellenistic cults.

Assessment: Premise three’s plausibility is based on ignoring historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, holding misrepresentations of Christian beliefs and concluding similarities between beliefs that would not exist if assessed within the proper context.

[A3] Historical Bedrock of Jesus of Nazareth as a Historical Figure

  1. Jesus thought of himself as an exorcist, a miracle-worker and God’s eschatological agent. (Licona, 280)
  2. Jesus died by crucifixion. (Licona, 302)
  3. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them. (Licona, 303)
  4. Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him. (Licona, 303)