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The Pagan Origins of the Resurrection Myth

The new cult of the dead and risen messiah originally had a purely Jewish following. It was when the apostle Paul (not one of the original disciples of Jesus) started preaching around AD40 that the number of Gentile convert starts to swell. We have seen that in the letters of Paul the belief about Jesus' death and resurrection was very basic and undeveloped. In his first epistle to the Corinthians (15:3-8), all he said was that Jesus died, buried and rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. Paul further added that Jesus was seen by Peter, the apostles, James and finally by himself. Nothing was mentioned as to the day of the week that Jesus rose. Nothing was mentioned of the discovery of an empty tomb by the woman. Where did all these ideas come from if they were not historical?

As with the case of the nativity, these ideas came from pagan beliefs that were permeating the world of the early Gentile Christians. The new religion preached by Paul had to compete with the class of mystery religions that were popular among the Gentiles during that period. [1]

Christianity's biggest rival during the first few centuries of its existence was Mithraism. Mithraism, the most popular of the mystery religions, had Persian roots and involves the worship of the Sun God, Mithra. [2] During this time, Mithraism was virtually the official religion of the Roman Empire, being very popular especially with the military. [3]

Many rituals and beliefs of Mithraism seemed so closely related to the Christian one that it becomes impossible to deny its influence on nascent Christianity. The Mithraists had a special day dedicated to their god. It was the first day of the week, which they appropriately called Sun-day, the "day of our Lord". [4] Mithra was the God of the upper and nether world and it is he who will judge men's deeds. [5] The Jewish thinker, Philo had already identified the Logos with the Sun, it was therefore natural and inevitable that the early Christians should identify Jesus with such a symbol. Sunday became established as the Lord's Day for the Christians as well. [6] From this observance of Sunday, the myth eventually evolved to connect the rising of Jesus with that day. It is worth noting that the Mithraist ritual involve the liturgical representation of the death, burial (also in a rock tomb!) and resurrection of the god Mithra. [7]

Other contemporary mystery religions no doubt contributed to the evolution of Christian mythology. The Syrian cult of Adonis also had a large following during the time of early Christianity. Adonis, which means The Lord (Hebrew: Adonai), was represented in the liturgy as dying and then rising again on the third day. And in this liturgy it was the women who mourned his death and who found him risen on the third day. [8]

The Egyptian cult of Osiris had a similar belief; for it was Osiris who was dead and rose again on the third day. [9]

Early Christian liturgy was also clearly absorbed and imported from the mystery religions. The Greco-Roman cult of Dionysius had their God, born of the virgin, Semele, being torn to pieces by the Titans. He was then resurrected by his mother. In commemorating his sacrificial death, the devotees ate bread and wine to represent his body and blood. The Mithraist too had a eucharistic celebration very similar to the Christian one. And it was also Mithraism who first came up with the sign of the cross, made on the forehead. It was the supreme symbol of their belief. The worship of Osiris too involve veneration of the Osirian cross, the emblem of their god. [10]

In fact the beliefs, rituals and liturgy of the mystery cults, which antedated Christianity [a], so closely paralleled the Christian ones that the early Church Fathers insisted that the devil must have had a hand in these cults! [11]

The historical origin of the central events of Christianity did not begin with the actual resurrection of a Galilean Jew. It began when Jewish religious philosophy was grafted onto Greco-Roman paganism.

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a.A typical fundamentalist apologetic sleight of hand is to claim that it was the pagan mysteries who copied the Christian story. In The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel quoted a fundamentalist apologist stating that "given the timing involved" it should be the pagans who plagiarized Christianity. [12] Neither Strobel nor his chosen scholar, gave any further evidence for their claim.

Yet this claim is demonstrably false- for a couple of reasons:

It is well known that these mystery religion preceded Christianity by at least a few centuries. The myth of Adonis was known to the Greeks as early as the fifth century BCE. The Egyptian myth of Osiris dates back to at least 4,000 BCE and was recorded in detail by the Greek biographer Plutarch (c46-120 CE). The Persian Sun-God Mithras was mentioned in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus (c480-c245 BCE). The cult of Mithraism reached Rome in the first century BCE. [13]

The way the early church fathers defended against the mystery religions showed that they knew these pagan myths antedated the Christian ones. Justin Martyr (c160-165) claimed that the devil plagiarized Christianity by anticipation with the pagan religions in order to lead people from the true faith. He claimed the myth of the virgin birth of Perseus, an ancient Greek legend that preceded Christianity, was pre-copied by the "deceiving serpent" (Dialogue with Trypho: 70). Similarly he asserted that the cultic rites of Mithraism had a diabolical origin (Apology 1:66). Tertulian (c160-c225) made the same claim: that it was the devil that provided this "mimicry". That the church fathers would resort to the absurd theory of pre-mimicry (i.e. the copy coming before the original) means that they could not make the claim that the pagan mystery religions copied from Christianity! Why couldn't they? Because it must have been well known to them and to their audience which came first! [14]


1.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p37
2.Ibid: p41
3.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p411
Hinnels, Dictionary of Religion: p216
4.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p411
Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p42
5.Ibid: p42
6.Guignebert, Jesus: p532
7.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p42
8.Ibid: p39
9.Guignebert, Jesus: p531
10.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p42
11.Ibid: p40-42
12.Strobel, The Case for Christ: p161
13.Guirand, The Larrouse Encyclopedia of Mythology: p9, 81-82, 314
Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia: p655-656
14.Freke & Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: p34
Price, Deconstructing Jesus: p91-93
Wells, The Jesus Myth: p100

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