Evidence for Jesus and Parallel Pagan "Crucified Saviors" Examined
|Pagan Parallel "Saviors" Examined
see also Part 2: The Evidence for Jesus
This is a detailed response to the claim that there are many parallel pagan gods and "crucified saviors" that rival Christianity's founder Jesus Christ. All the pagan names linked above appear in a scrolling background graphic of the DVD "The God Who Wasn't There" produced by amateur filmmaker and former fundamentalist Brian Flemming.
The DVD makes two major anti-Christian assertions: (1) Jesus of Nazareth didn't exist as a person in history (also called "mythicism"); and (2) the events of Christ's life in the Gospels were copied from "previous saviors" of non-Christian pagan religions. This article (Part 1) will answer the second claim; Part 2 will answer the first on historicity and the reliability of the New Testament. As a Catholic, those are the claims that interest me and matter to historical Christianity. Flemming's commentary dealing with his past Protestant fundamentalism, dispensationalism (the "Rapture"), Mel Gibson's bloody Passion of the Christ, statements from evangelical pentecostal preachers and the so-called "Religious/Christian right" while sometimes interesting, are irrelevant to historical Christianty, so I will ignore those.
Overlaying the background graphic is a scrolling list of "Some Attributes of Previous Saviors":
The argument is that since these same things are reported about deities of rival religions that pre-date the Christian religion (we'll see below that few if any even make such claims), therefore the New Testament and historical Christianity simply "copied" these elements from the non-Christian pagan religions. Other sources that make this argument are the infamous 19th century "freethought" tome The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves (discussed below) and The Christ Conspiracy (1999) by Acharya S both published by Adventures Unlimited Press (who also has books on UFOs and the "Lost City" of Atlantis).
In this article we'll examine nine general criteria for Christian parallels and put a green check ( for Yes) or red x ( for No) or question mark (for unknown) where appropriate. I've combined a few of Flemming's "attributes" into one ("performed miracles"), and ignored others ("rode donkeys into the city") since they are not as crucial, or there is no evidence for them in "previous saviors." The December 25th date is not in the Gospels and was adopted later by the Church (see a brief history of Christmas and Santa Claus) so I'll ignore that one as well.
I'll try to be as fair and objective as possible using standard scholarly sources (see my sources and links below). There is not an attempt in Part 1 to prove the validity of miracles or the historicity of these gods (although see Part 2: The Evidence for Jesus). This is merely reporting what the historical sources and religious documentation actually state about these pagan gods, religions, and myths. So for Jesus Christ from the New Testament we have the following :
The prominent three "parallel pagan" gods appear to be Dionysos (spelled Dionysis or Dionysus in the DVD), Mithras, and Osiris so I want to pay special attention to these three. They are mentioned in short interview clips with unsuspecting Christians leaving a Billy Graham crusade. "Have you heard of Osiris, or Mithras, or Dionysos?" (hear MP3 clip) with the common answer being "No" since most Christians, indeed your average person off the street, and even most well-read skeptics and atheists are unfamiliar with Greek, Roman, Persian or Egyptian religions and deities. So the argument goes: All of these gods and religions are based on myths, fables, or legends; Jesus is on par with Dionysos, Mithras, and Osiris.
If one has taken a mythology or comparative religions or humanities class these gods would be talked about. However, the information on them is readily available in any scholarly encyclopedia. My main source is going to be the multi-volume The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) edited by Mircea Eliade (see also the 2005, second edition edited by Lindsay Jones). Please visit your local public or university library for the relevant scholarship; it's probably best to avoid web sites at this point when you need historically accurate material produced by reputable scholars. In this "information age" where everything and anything is available with the click of a mouse, including extremely bad and bogus "research," one needs to check sources and credentials very carefully to separate the "wheat" from the "chaff" (Matt 3:12; Luke 3:17). To repeat what skeptic Richard Carrier says in the DVD:
Unfortunately for Brian Flemming and his DVD, I've checked. And I wish more people would.
This "parallel pagan" argument or "copycat" thesis is found on a number of web sites critical of Christianity (mainly hyper-skeptical or atheist sites), and several Christian apologetics responses are available as well (see sources and links below). One of the early "sources" of this argument is the 19th century pseudo-historical work of Kersey Graves The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors (35 pagan gods or religious leaders are listed in chapter 1, several of them overlapping Flemming's list) :
Apparently Kersey Graves himself accepted the historicity of Jesus Christ (unlike Flemming's DVD); he was not a strict "mythicist":
It should be noted that professional skeptic and historian Richard Carrier (featured in Flemming's DVD) has disavowed Kersey Graves as a reliable source and doesn't think much of the "parallel pagan" gods in Flemming's list. The supposed "parallels" either post-date Christianity's founding, or there is no good historical evidence in support of the "copycat" idea, or the "parallel" is simply mistaken. (Carrier suggests two more promising candidates -- Inanna or Ishtar of the Sumerians, and Zalmoxis of the Thracians -- not mentioned by Flemming).
Brian Flemming has agreed "Kersey Graves is full of crap" (see Beddru) and says he will produce a "second edition" of the DVD with the unreliable material and errors removed. While Flemming rejects the idea his DVD has anything to do with Kersey Graves' book, nevertheless the pagan parallel thesis is the same: "Just like the other savior gods of the time, Paul's Christ Jesus died, rose, and ascended all in a mythical realm." (Flemming from "The God Who Wasn't There" DVD, followed by a quote from Hebrews 8:4 which will be discussed in Part 2). And Robert Price from the DVD: "There are other similar savior figures in the same neighborhood, at the same time in history: Mithras, Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, and so forth. And nobody thinks that these characters are anything but mythical. And their stories are so similar, most of them in fact having some kind of resurrection or another...."
The assertion made by skeptics is that the story of Jesus found in the New Testament is patterned after the alleged "dying and rising gods" of antiquity that existed long before Christianity. This view became popular among scholars during the so-called "history of religions" school at the turn of the 20th century. The category of "dying and rising gods," along with the pattern of its mythic and ritual associations, received its earliest full formulation in the influential work of James G. Frazer The Golden Bough (1st edition 1890 in two volumes, 2nd edition 1900 in three volumes, 3rd edition in 12 volumes, 1906-1915, with an abridged one-volume edition published in 1922). This theme was repeated by other scholars of mythology such as Joseph Campbell who edited Pagan and Christian Mysteries (1955), and his more famous The Hero with a Thousand Faces (originally 1949), whose views were made popular through a 1988 PBS series "The Power of Myth" interviews with Bill Moyers. However, on the "dying and rising gods" motif the Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) concludes:
Smith is emphatic: "Some of these divine figures simply disappear, some disappear only to return again in the near or distant future; some disappear and reappear with monotonous frequency. All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case, the deities return but have not died; in the second case, the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity." (volume 4, page 521-522, emphasis added)
Boyd/Eddy state in The Jesus Legend: "While the claim that aspects of the Christian view of Jesus parallel, even are indebted to, ancient pagan legends and myths has a long history, it gained prominence with the birth of the history of religions school (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries....The history of religions school was extremely popular in academic circles for several decades, but owing to trenchant critiques by such scholars as Samuel Cheetham, H.A.A. Kennedy, J. Gresham Machen, A.D. Nock, Bruce Metzger, and Gunter Wagner, it eventually fell out of fashion." (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition [Baker Academic, 2007], pages 134,136).
Although the category was largely abandoned by most reputable scholars and historians by the mid-20th century, there are exceptions. Tryggve N. D. Mettinger of Lund University in Sweden, wrote a recent (2001) scholarly critique challenging the modern consensus and attempts to "resurrect" the dying and rising theme. He nonetheless admits:
The category is still revived among the hyper-skeptical and "freethought" community (sometimes in the reckless non-scholarly form of Kersey Graves, sometimes in the revised James G. Frazer The Golden Bough form) as a supposed valid argument against historical Christianity. Evangelical author Ronald Nash has a book-length reply to these claims titled The Gospel and The Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (P & R, 1992, 2003 2nd edition). Nash examines in detail Hellenistic philosophy, the mystery religions, and Gnosticism and their relationship to early Christianity. He concludes:
In chapters 7 through 11 he examines the various Greco-Roman mystery religions and such pagan deities as Demeter, Dionysos / Bacchus, Orpheus, Isis / Osiris, Cybele / Attis, Mithra, Mithraism, and Zoroastrianism, etc. along with their supposed influence on the Christian sacraments and essential Christian beliefs (the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ). I highly recommend this book as a thorough Christian reply to the "parallel pagan" argument or "copycat" thesis. For a summary, see my Conclusion: Christianity versus Pagan "Mystery" Religions.
Below are the various pagan gods on Flemming's list with information about their places of origin, their births, their lives, circumstances surrounding their deaths (if applicable) and their supposed "resurrections" or "ascensions" (if applicable). The mythological character of these pagan gods and religions will be contrasted with the historical character of Christianity and Christ in Part 2: The Evidence for Jesus.
For more critiques of the DVD and its claims about the Gospels, St. Paul, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus, see Mike Licona's Review of "The God Who Wasn't There" and the sources and links below.
see also Part 2: The Evidence for Jesus
In classical studies, Adonis has been interpreted as a Greek symbol of the seasonality of vegetable life, the death of plants during cold, and their revival during spring. Despite an original Semitic provenance, there is no native mythology; what we know depends on later Greek, Roman, and Christian interpretations.
There are two major forms of the myth: the "Panyasisian" form, and the more familiar "Ovidian" form.
(Sources: see "Adonis" and "Dying and Rising Gods" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, and Drudgery Divine by Jonathan Z. Smith, page 101).
Attis (and Cybele)
Cybele is a goddess, probably of Oriental origin, known in the Greek world from approximately the seventh century BC. She became known in Rome as Magna Mater ("great mother of the gods") when her cult was imported to the city at the end of the third century BC. She is also known under variants Cybebe, Cybelis, and at Locri in Italy, Cybala. Cybele was adopted as goddess by the Phrygians who established her central cult in Pessinus. From Phrygia the cult probably passed to Sardis, capital of the kingdom of Lydia, and to Hellenic cities of Asia Minor and Europe. In several places, the cult of Cybele was combined with that of Attis (sometimes spelled Attys or Atys). In the picture (right), Cybele is depicted next to her lover Attis. She holds a tympanum and a staff. Next to her is her sacred animal the lion. The fact that Attis is shown as equal in size to Cybele suggests that in this case he was being worshipped as a god in his own right. Usually, humans appear smaller than gods in such reliefs (c. 230 BC, discovered in a Greek city in Italy, now in Venice Museo Archeologico).
From a distinction originally made by Hugo Hepding (1903), there is a "Lydian" version of the Attis myth that is marked by his killing by a boar; and a "Phrygian" version that ends with his castration and death. In the latter version, the sources in chronological order are Ovid, Pausanias, and Arnobius. In the account by Ovid, Attis is a beautiful Phrygian youth who consecrates himself to Cybele but then betrays her with the tree-nymph Sagaritis who dies from blows inflicted on her tree by the goddess. Attis is driven mad and finally emasculates himself. In one variation he is transformed into a pine-tree (Ovid in Metamorph X vv. 103-105); in another he is killed by a pine tree (Ibis, vv. 505-506, see Lancellotti, page 2, note 4). In the Arnobius version (Adv nat V, 5-7), Attis castrates himself under a pine tree. In no sense is this a death by "crucifixion" on a pine-tree. Attis' death is from loss of blood by his own castration.
In this longer Arnobius version, Attis' mother is Nana, the daughter of King Sangarius. She became pregnant and conceived Attis from a pomegranate fruit produced from the blood of Agdistis the fierce hunter, after an attempt by Liber to kill him. Endowed with extraordinary beauty, Attis became the favorite of Cybele along with Agdistis, both who were born from a huge rock called "Agdos." Attis dies from castration and the longer story ends like this:
The complex mythology of Attis is irrelevant to the question of dying and rising deities. In the Phrygian version, Attis is killed by castration; in the Lydian version, he is killed by a boar. In neither case is there any question of his returning to life. Two late, post-Christian theological reflections on the myth hint at rebirth: the allegory in Naassene Sermon and the "euhemerist" account in Firmacus Maternus (third book of De errore profanarum religionum from the fourth century AD), in which a pretended resurrection is mentioned, although it is doubtful this ever played any part in the actual cult.
The attempts in the earlier scholarly literature to identify Attis as a "dying and rising deity" depend not on the mythology but rather on the ritual of the five-day festival of Cybele on March 22-27. Some scholars saw the "Day of Blood" (March 24) and the "Day of Joy" (March 25) as an analogy of the Christian relationship between Good Friday to Easter Sunday, and reasoned that if there was "mourning" on the first day, the object of the "joy" on the following day must be Attis' "resurrection." But there is no evidence this is the case. The Day of Joy is a late addition to what was once a three-day ritual in which the Day of Blood was followed by a purificatory ritual and the return of the statue of the goddess to the temple. The Day of Joy in the cult celebrated Cybele, not Attis.
The sole text that connects the Day of Joy with Attis is a fifth-century AD biography of Isidore the Dialectician by the Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius who reports that Isidore once had a dream in which he was Attis and the Day of Joy was celebrated in his honor!
The ritual of the taurobolium (bull slaying) came to be associated with this cult at least from the second century AD and was frequently performed as an explicit homage to the emperor. At least in the fourth century AD the taurobolium was a kind of "baptism" performed with the blood of a sacrificed bull and described as such about 400 AD by Prudentius in his Peristephanon (10.1006-1050).
Neither myth nor ritual offers any warrant for classifying Attis as a dying and rising deity. There are some scholars who even question the "divine nature" of the original Phrygian Attis until he was turned into a "god" much later when imported in Greece and Rome (Lancellotti, page 10-11).
(Sources: see "Cybele" and "Dying and Rising Gods" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, and Attis: Between Myth and History by Maria Lancellotti, pages 1 ff).
Baal was a Canaanite weather and fertility god whose cult was widespread throughout the entire Levant area of the Middle East. By itself, baal means "lord" and can refer to other gods, but when used without qualification it almost invariably refers to Baal-Hadad ("the thundering one"). Baal has long been known from the Old Testament (see Numbers 25; Judges 6; 1 Kings 18; Hosea 2; Jeremiah 9). Baal's home was said to be Mount Tsefon, south of Antioch. His sister and consort was the goddess Anat. He is alternately the son of El and the son of Dagan. To assume that Baal, Yamm, and Mot were the three vying sons of El seems to fit better the context of the Baal myths. The cult of Baal took particular forms based on geographic locales: Baal-Peor, Baal-Sidon, Baal-Gebal, and others. The Old Testament expression "the baals" means Baal in these total manifestations.
The excavation of Canaanite cuneiform tablets from 1929 onward at Ugarit in Syria has provided scholars with a wealth of cultic and mythological material in which Baal is prominent. The most common epithets for Baal are "strong one," "rider on the clouds," and "Baal Prince (of the earth) [ba'al zebul artsi]." Although there is some disagreement among scholars as to how to sequence the relevant texts, the overriding theme of the Ugaritic poems that fit into the cycle is Baal's quest for and attainment of kingship over the gods, especially his rivals Yamm and Mot.
The story has Baal installing a window in his house and this allows Mot (which means "death") to enter (cf. Jer 9:21). Baal and his entourage descend into the belly of the underworld and the earth is now threatened with sterility because Baal can no longer bring the rains. In a rage, Anat attacks Mot, cuts him up and sows him in the fields. The death of Mot allows Baal to revive and bring back fertility. The encounter between Baal and Mot explains mythologically the agricultural cycles of fertility and sterility.
The late Bronze Age texts of Ras Shamra narrate the descent into the underworld of Aliyan Baal ("the one who prevails; the lord") and his apparent return. Unfortunately, the order of incidents in several texts is uncertain, and there are several gaps in the narrative. In the major narrative cycle, Baal is challenged by Mot, ruler of the underworld, to descend into his realm. After some initial hesitation, and then copulating with a cow, Baal accepts the challenge and goes down to the lower realm, where he is said to be "as if dead." After a gap of forty lines, Baal is reported to have died. Anat descends and recovers his corpse, which is properly buried, and a successor to Baal is appointed. Anat seeks out and kills Mot. After another forty-line gap, El declares, based on a symbolic dream, that Baal still lives. After another gap, Baal is described as being in combat with a group of deities. Much depends on the order of incidents. The text appears to be one of descent to the underworld and return -- Baal is "as if he is dead" and he then appears to be alive.
In another even more fragmentary cycle, Baal-Hadad goes off to capture a group of monsters, but they pursue him. In order to escape, he hides out in a bog where he lays sick for seven years during which the earth is parched and without growth. Hadad's brothers eventually find and rescue him. This is a "disappearing-reappearing" narrative since there is no suggestion of "death and resurrection."
There is no evidence that any of the events in these texts were ritually reenacted. Nor is there any suggestion of an annual cycle of death and rebirth. The question whether Aliyan Baal is a "dying and rising deity" must remain sub judice (Latin for "under judgment").
(Sources: see "Baal" and "Dying and Rising Gods" in The Encyclopedia of Religion).
Bacchus is simply a Roman/Latin name for the Greek god Dionysos (or Dionysus). Apparently Brian Flemming didn't know this since he includes both in his list. This is an attempt to have two "parallel pagan" gods for the price of one. See Dionysos for a complete evaluation of this deity and the comparison to Christ and Christianity.
Again, I'm not going to spend any time on the next three since they are either irrelevant, or there is very little documentation on these pagan gods.
Balder is a Norse deity, a son of Odin, whose mythology dates to the end of the 11th or 12th century AD:
The irrelevance to early Christianity is obvious. We have a case here of "who lost the keys to the DeLorean" as apologist J.P. Holding muses (a reference to Back to the Future). Why Flemming includes this in his list I do not know. Kersey Graves mentions Odin of the Scandinavians (page 30), and Acharya S mentions Balder and Frey of Scandinavia in her book (page 106) so this may be the source.
Flemming has already admitted his mistake on this one. "Beddru of Japan" is found once in Kersey Graves' book (page 30), and once in Acharya S (page 106) and there is no documentation provided who this "god" was or is. It may be a corruption or variation of the name "Buddha" (therefore perhaps Chinese or Indian in origin) but that is just speculation. In an interview for the "Rational Response Squad" Flemming admits he should not have included this one:
Thank you, Brian. We'll consider the case closed on Beddru.
Devatat (or Deva Tat)
The same goes for this one. The source is Kersey Graves (page 30, "Deva Tat, and Sammonocadam of Siam") and Acharya S (page 106, "Codom and Deva Tat of Siam"). No documentation is provided for "Deva Tat" or "Sammonocadam" or "Codom" of Siam. J.P. Holding's article ("I Tawt I Taw a Deva Tat") suggests this may be another variation on the name Buddha ("A seventh [set of names] is Datta, Dat-Alreya, That-Dalna, Date, Tat or Tot, Deva-Tut or Deva-Twasta"). If Flemming means "Buddha" why not just say Buddha. Apparently Kersey Graves and Acharya S think Deva Tat (and Beddru) is a distinct deity from Buddha since they include both in their lists.
Dionysos (or Dionysus)
Dionysos (also spelled Dionysus, the name means "celebration") is the Greek god of wine and of all liquid elements in nature, including the sap in trees and the blood in young animals. He is often pictured holding a wine cup (kantharos) and wreathed with ivy (picture right), an evergreen that symbolizes the rebirth of this "twice-born" son of Zeus (or "Jupiter"). The youngest of the Olympian gods, he is somewhat insecure about his divine identity because he was conceived in the womb of a mortal woman, Semele. Again, this is not a "virgin birth" since "Zeus had many offspring....Zeus had numerous liaisons with both goddesses and mortals. He either raped them, or used devious means to seduce the unsuspecting maidens." ("Zeus" in Encyclopedia Mythica). Dionysos' semi-divine status may account for his consistent interest in mortals and wine drinkers. There are several miracles involving Dionysos with wine, growth miracles, and others (see the miracles of Dionysos or here).
The name of the god Dionysos first appears on a clay tablet from the Greek bronze age, over three thousand years ago and is therefore our oldest living symbol. The earliest surviving Dionysiac myth is in Homer: Adriadne is killed by Artemis "on the testimony of Dionysos" (Odyssey 11.325). The first mention of Dionysos as embodying an abstract principle is by the philosopher Herakleitos [or Heraclitus], who lived from the sixth into the fifth century BC. When Christianity was establishing itself in the ancient Mediterranean world, the cult of Dionysos was its most geographically widespread and deeply rooted rival (Seaford, pages 3, 4, 76-77, 110).
As the god of masks, Dionysos appears in many forms, but he most loves to disguise himself as a god of the city, posing as a political deity and expressing absolute power. His political career begins in the seventh century BC on the island of Lesbos. Here he appears alongside Zeus and Hera in the common sanctuary as the god who is an "eater of raw flesh" (Alcaeus, Fragment 129). Dionysos is a god of contrasts who is at once the patron god of civic drama and a god worshipped in the wilds of nature.
The wild side of Dionysos is often most visible, both in myth and in ritual, and may be explained by his apparent origins in Phrygia (Near East) or Thebes (Greece), and his connections with Thrace. He is a god of animal incarnations and transformations, and his rites (orgia) included the tearing apart of animals (sparagmos) and eating them raw (omophagia). Dionysos' subversive character is expressed in his rejection of the sacrificial system of eating food cooked according to the proper order (roasted then boiled) in favor of omophagia, the desire to eat raw flesh. The most extreme form of omophagia is allelophagia, in which men devour one another, becoming like wild beasts and ferocious animals. Such behavior allows them to escape from the human condition and get "outside themselves" by imitating those animals least subject to domestication.
Dionysos can be found in two parts of Delphi: in the heights of mount Parnassus, where the members of the Thyiads, the "Agitated Ones," gather every other year in the Corycian cavern to honor him in the secret liturgy of the trieteris ("triennial festival"); and in the sanctuary of the Pythia, in a tomb-cradle beside the golden statue of Apollo, where he waits in mortal slumber until his servants come to wake him and where the "Pure Ones," the priests of Apollo, privately offer sacrifice to him.
Dionysos and Apollo are particularly joined in Orphic thought and its theogonic discourse, which was wholly at variance with Hesiod's theology. In the succession of divine ages described in Orphic theogony, Dionysos is at once the last ruler and the first. In the last age he appears in the guise of a child who is lured by the Titans with toys -- a spinning top, a devilish rhombus, and a mirror -- and then slaughtered and devoured after being first boiled and then roasted. In being torn apart, scattered abroad, and broken into seven pieces, Dionysos experiences for himself the effects of the utmost differentiation, in accord with the process that began after the first age under the aegis of Phanes-Metis, another name for Dionysos. Apollo buries the remains of Dionysos' murdered body at the foot of mount Parnassus, shares the sovereignty of the oracle with the primordial power Night, and finally becomes the Sun, the greatest of the gods even to Orpheus himself, rising to the summit of Mount Pangaeus in Dionysos' Thracian kingdom.
The title Zagreus ("torn") refers to Dionysos' birth in which the Titans tore him limb from limb when he was a baby. Apollo took the remains of his body and buried them next to the tripod in his temple at Delphi. Athena saved his heart and took it to Zeus so Dionysos could be re-born.
Richard Seaford in Dionysos (2006) summarizes the myth:
In another version of the myth, Semele asks Zeus to grant an unspecified favor, and got him to swear by the river Styx that he would grant it. Unable to break his oath, Zeus came to her armed in his thunder and lightning, and Semele was destroyed. However, Zeus rescued the unborn child from the mother's ashes and sewed the fetus in his thigh until he was ready to be born. Thus Dionysos is sometimes called the "twice-born."
There are three ways in which Dionysos' death may be interpreted as derived from mystery-cult:
The crude dismemberment myth can also be interpreted as riddling allegory:
The transition from anxiety to joy is envisaged (e.g. Plato Laws 672b; Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3.5.1) as the transition from mental fragmentation to mental wholeness (Seaford, page 112 ff).
Dionysos is frequently associated with underworld deities and transforms the underworld. On some of the dedicated terracotta plaques (pinakes) from Lokri in southern Italy, Dionysos appears before the enthroned Persephone, queen of the underworld, or before her and Hades enthroned together. In a description of the underworld reported by Plutarch (Moralia 565-6), there is a very pleasant place like "Bacchic caves" with "bacchic revelry and laughter and all kinds of festivity and delight. It was here, said the guide, that Dionysos ascended and later brought up Semele." The Roman poet Horace (Odes 2.19.29-32) imagines the fierce guardian of the underworld, the three-headed dog Cerberus, gently fawning on the departing Dionysos. He was brought into relation (sometimes as lakchos) with the chthonian goddesses of the Eluesinian mysteries, Demeter and Kore. The funerary gold leaf found at Pelinna in Thessaly (late fourth century BC) instructs the dead to "say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you." Dionysos is not the ruler of the underworld but ensures the well-being of the initiate in the underworld. Dionysos' round trip to the underworld is found in most detail in the plot of Aristophanes' Frogs.
In more than 150 cities of Asia Minor and the islands, Dionysos appears in the guide of Bakcheios, the god of the bacchanals -- those who, like him, have become bakchoi. "Many are those who carry thyrsi; few are the Bacchants" (Plato Phaedo 69c). To the initiate is reserved the experience of frenzy and possession, seeing the god face-to-face and sharing his madness and delirium.
In Ephesus, in the late sixth century BC, the philosopher Heraclitus denounced those who prowl in the night, the "magi, Bacchants, and mystics." From the discoveries at Olbia on the shores of the Black Sea, Dionysos first appears as the initiator in the sixth century, long before a Scythian king had enrolled in the band of Bacchus (Greek Bakchos) in this same city, where he was fond of going for aesthetic pleasure a la grecque ("in the style of the Greeks") even to the extent of becoming a follower of Dionysos. This initiation was already known to King Scylas (Herodotus 4.79). What Herodotus implies in his account of Scylas going through with the initiation (telete) is stated clearly in Euripides The Bacchae in the voice of Dionysos. The initation seems to denote an experience in which the Bacchant comes face to face with his god; he becomes as much a Bacchus as is Dionysos. The lord of the Bacchanalia refuses to reveal this experience to Pentheus; these are unspeakable things (arreta) that non-Bacchants may not know (Herodotus 1.472). At Cumae in the fifth century BC, a similar formula prohibited entry to a Greek cemetery "save to those who have been initiated to Dionysos."
In connection with Dionysos the Initiate who, under the name of Mustes has a temple between Tegea and Argos (Pausanias 8.54.5), we find esoteric practices and rules of secrecy. Near Mantinea, in a great ancient chamber known as the megaron, the honey companions (meliastai) worship Dionysos, a neighbor of Black Aphrodite (Pausanias 8.6.4). At Brysai, on the slopes of Mount Taigetos in Laconia, only women are permitted to view the statue of Dionysos, ensconced in an open-air sanctuary, and the sacrifices they perform are carried out in the greatest secrecy (Pausanias 3.20.3). Males are also excluded on Lesbos, at Aigai, and on the island shores of the Atlantic described by Posidonius. The privilege of experiencing a private, face-to-face encounter with Dionysos or of being truly "possessed" by him is restricted to women. The Dionysian "union" is an individual allegiance that rejects kingship or feudal ties and, in the fluid form of the private thiasos, creates associations and communities independent of authority and outside control of the state.
Dionysos is always the lord of dementia and of the ability to get outside oneself. Dionysos is truly himself only in unyielding madness, when the mania creates, through murder, a taint, a miasma, a sickness or pestilence. One must be cleansed of this stain and it is urgent to escape the plague, for in it appears the contagious power of those who fall into madness, which affects an entire town or even a whole country. In the mania of Dionysos is a taint that the god himself experiences in the course of his life (Apollodorus, Library 3.5.1).
The worship of Dionysos with its formalized mythology, establishes itself within the sphere of purification called for by the insanity that the "stranger" carries. Dionysos the Purificator (Lysios) is the opposite side of the bacchanal, the god who leads men and women astray in his frenzy. This "dual god" is shown by his pairs of neighboring temples, at Thebes, Corinth, and Sicyon. The unclean madness that forms the basis of his cult is always part of him, however disciplined and civilized Dionysos may seem in the pantheons of cities unmindful of his fundamental wildness.
As for the similarities between the Dionysos cult and New Testament Christian faith, Seaford notes in chapter 9 "Christianity" :
Seaford also talks about the ancient and ubiquitous process of syncretism in the Mediterranean area (where the Dionysos myth is also equated or associated with Osiris, Cybele, Serapis, Dysares, Attis, Sabazios, Mithras, Hekate, Liber, Fufluns, page 128) but states:
(Sources: see "Dionysos" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, and Dionysos  by Richard Seaford, also "Semele" and "Zeus" in Encyclopedia Mythica).
Hermes is the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia, born in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. This not a "virgin birth" as Zeus is said to "impregnate" and "make love" with "furtive passion." From a young age, Hermes was a skilled thief, lookout, nocturnal prowler, and bringer of dreams (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 13-15). By noon on the day of his birth, he was playing the lyre which he invented, and by evening he stole Apollo's herd of sacred cows. Hermes' thieving reveals the god's precocity and explains the change in the character of Apollo from shepherd to a god of prophecy and music. Thanks to Hermes' thefts and tricks, various gods and heroes came out of battle victorious. Later he obtained the caduceus, a magnificant and opulent wand that wards off misfortune and carries out divine intentions. Apollo granted Hermes a kind of prophetic power known to the Fates.
Hermes' world is one of peace and frivolous delight. He likes neither deadly conflict nor the honors it procures. As a shepherd, he loves high mountains and spacious pastures. From his breath arise fertility and fecundity of flocks. A night god, Hermes guides souls and protects travelers; it is he who silently pours "sleep" into the eyes of mortals. The lord of roads, Hermes leads souls to the land of the dead. He alone can accomplish this task because, like Hades, he is both trickery and darkness. Herald by day and night, Hermes knows no frontiers. Like the lyre he created, his steps bring men gaiety, love, and gentle sleep.
(Sources: see "Hermes" in The Encyclopedia of Religion and "Hermes" and "Maia" in Encyclopedia Mythica).
In ancient Egypt several gods are known by this name, but the most important was the son of Osiris and Isis, identified as king of Egypt. Horus fought with Seth, and despite losing an eye, was successful in avenging the death of his father Osiris, becoming his legitimate successor. Osiris became king of the underworld, and Horus king of the living. By the fifth dynasty (2498 - 2345 BC), the Horus-king also became "son of Re" the sun god by personifying mythologically the entire older genealogy of Horus as the goddess Hathor, or "house of Horus" who was also the spouse of Re and mother of Horus.
Horus was usually represented as a falcon, and one view is as a sky god whose outstretched wings filled the heavens; his sound eye was the sun, and injured eye the moon. Another portrayal in the Late Period was as a human child suckling at the breast of his mother, Isis. Some see a "pagan parallel" here with Catholic portrayals of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, but mothers with children is common to all cultures, religious or not. A Catholic Answers tract notes:
The two principal cult leaders for the worship of Horus were at Bekhdet in the north where very little survives, and at Idfu in the south, which has a large well-preserved temple dating from the Ptolemaic period (c. 300 - 30 BC). The earlier myths involving Horus, as well as the ritual performed there, are recorded at Idfu.
(Sources: see "Horus" in The Encyclopedia of Religion).
Krishna (or Krsna)
Krsna (Krishna) whose name means "black" or "dark" stands alongside Rama in the Hindu pantheon as one of two preeminent avataras of the great god Visnu. In a quote from the Bhagavata Purana, "Krsna is God himself" ("Krsnas tu bhagavan svayam" 1.3.27), not merely a portion or manifestation of the divine fullness. In the devotion of contemporary Hindus, he more than any other figure symbolizes divine love (prema), divine beauty (rupa), and a quality of purposeless, playful, yet fascinating action that bears a peculiarly divine stamp. In recent centuries Krsna has been adored principally as a mischievous child in the cowherd settlement (Vrndavana) where he launches his earthly career as a matchless lover of women and girls who dwell there. In earlier times, heroic and didactic aspects of Krsna's personality have played a more forceful role in his veneration.
The most important icon of Krsna as the divine lover becomes prevalent in Orissa and Karnataka in the 12th and 13th centuries AD and later spreads throughout the subcontinent. A second popular image shows Krsna taming the evil snake Kaliya (picture right) whose presence had poisoned the Yamuna River upon whose waters all of Braj, humans and cattle alike, depend. Child or adolescent, Krsna is always a thief of the heart.
Many scholars feel that Krsna and Visnu were originally two independent deities. It is unclear when the two cults merged, but this certainly happened by the time of Visnu Puranas (c. fifth and ninth centuries AD) which declares Krsna in both his pastoral and royal roles to be an avatara of Visnu, although there are indications it is older. In the considerably later Bhagavata Purana one has a comparable vision of Krsna's supremacy, but this time the supremacy of Krsna Gopala is more at issue. Here the playful cowherd dances with all the milkmaids (gopis) of Braj at once. This amorous dance is an image of divinity and humanity identified in one another, an absorption made possible by intense devotion (bhakti).
Krsna is worshipped in homes and temples throughout India and has become the devotional focus of the Hare Krishnas movement (ISKCON) beyond Indian shores. Worship consists of a series of eight daily darsans (ritual "viewings") in which the god allows himself to be seen and worshipped in image form by his devotees. His clothing, jewelry, and flower decorations may be altered many times during the course of a day, and different forms of devotional song are sung as the god's daily cowherding routine is symbolically observed. In the Braj country surrounding Mathura, which attracts pilgrims from all over India in festival seasons, the ceremonial observances are amplified by dramas in which Krsna makes himself available in an especially vivid manner to his devotees through child actors. In Sanskrit aesthetic theory, drama is thought to comprehend all the arts, and Krishna is frequently depicted in Indian art, dance, and music more than any other god.
As to birth, Krsna was of the royal family of Mathura, and was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki, and her husband Vasudeva. The previous seven sons were normal conceptions and births, it was only the eighth that was miraculous.
Here we see the material vs. spiritual antithesis of Hinduism: Krsna "never entered the womb of Devaki...." but the God was already there in her mind and heart.
This "miraculous birth" is very different from the Christian concept of the virginal conception and Incarnation of Christ. According to the Bible, Jesus was Mary's first, Mary indeed carried Jesus in her womb for nine months, and Mary was a virgin before and when she gave birth. Catholics, Orthodox, and the original Protestants believe that Jesus also was Mary's one and only son. But I will count this as a "virgin birth" for Krsna.
The long Indian epic-poem the Mahabharata (Book 16: Mausala Parva) has an account of Krsna's "resurrection and ascension" to heaven witnessed by the hunter Jara who mistook him for a deer. The relevant passage reads thus:
The earliest testimony for the complete text of the Mahabharata dates to the first century AD by the Greek sophist Dion Chrysostom, with portions dating to the 6th century BC or earlier. There are also miracles, magical stories, or holy antics associated with Krsna as a child and infant in this same epic poem.
Mithras (or Mithra)
Mithra (the word means "contract, covenant") is one of the major deities of ancient Iran (Persia) along with Ahura Mazda and Anahita, but one that later crossed the borders of the Iranian world to become the supreme god of a mystery religion popular throughout the Roman empire. In the Avesta and Zoroastrian literature Mithra turns up frequently. He is known from many sources: inscriptions of the Achaemenids beginning with Artaxerxes II (404 - 359 BC); on coins of the Kushan empire he is named as Mioro and depicted as a solar deity; in Parthian and Sogdian Manichaeism he is the tertius legatus or "messenger"; in Persian Manichaeism he appears as the spiritus vivens ("spirit of life"). The testimony of Plutarch in Life of Pompey is important in understanding the religion's development in Rome. Plutarch's source is more ancient (perhaps Posidonius) so the Roman cult can perhaps be traced to 100 BC. Statius in the Thebais (about 80 AD) describes an image of Mithra Tauroctonus (the "bull-slayer" picture right) and attests to the arrival of the cult in Rome itself. This was the beginning of the wide diffusion of Mithraism that occurred under the Flavian emperors in the last quarter of the first century AD.
The Mithraic mysteries spread between the end of first century and the fourth century AD, gradually dying out toward the end of that period. They spread throughout a great part of the Roman empire: Rome and Ostia, Latium, southern Etruria, the Campania, and Cisalpine Gaul in Italy; other sites include the main ports of Sicily; Austria and Germany along the Rhine; the Danubian provinces; the valley of the Rhone and Aquitania in France; Belgium; England in the London region; to a lesser extent in the Iberian Peninsula and Macedonia; and in limited Mediterranean areas along the Asian and African coasts. For the most part the evidence is archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic. The greatest scholar of Mithraism, Franz Cumont, attempted to reconstruct the religion's mythology, theology, cosmology, eschatology and rites based on the numerous sculptural reliefs that have been preserved.
Mithra is essentially a deity of light; he draws the sun with rapid horses; he is the first to reach the summit of Mount Hara at the center of the earth; he shines with his own light in the morning and makes the many forms of the world visible; he is a divinity both of light and salvation. In the Iranian world he has a clear significance as a warrior god, and has the traits of a divinity who ensures rain and prosperity and protects cattle by providing it ample pasturage. The nature of the Iranian god as one of salvation can be inferred from myriad indications: in the Parthian epoch there existed a great syncretic myth of the Cosmocrator Redemptor, of which Mithra, born of a rock or out of a cave, was the protagonist. His rock-birth, later celebrated on December 25, was accompanied by special signs and luminous epiphanies taken as a symbol of royal initiation.
The Mithraeum was a kind of temple which served as a meeting place for followers of the religion. It was a replica of a cave (spelaeum), partly underground, in which Mithra caught the mystic bull and killed it. Built in a long rectangle, it had lateral brick benches where participants could sit and gaze at the image of Mithra Tauroctonus ("bull-slayer") placed in the special niche at the end of the cave. Water played a purificatory role in Mithraism, and a natural or artificial spring had to be near every Mithraeum.
Mithraism was in fact a private cult, esoteric and initiatory in nature, and intended for only the few. Though it professed universalism, the cult excluded women. It emerged in a predominantly military environment so was practiced and spread primarily by the Roman army. It was not only a soldier's religion since it appealed to other social and professional groups, public officials, and those involved in commercial enterprises.
In the Roman cult, initiates progressed through seven levels: Corax ("raven"), Nymphus ("bride"), Miles ("soldier"), Leo ("lion"), Perses ("Persian"), Heliodromus ("courier of the sun"), and Pater ("father"). Each grade was protected by a particular celestial body: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the moon, the sun, and Saturn, respectively.
From the total body of evidence we can infer that Mithra's central act of killing the bull -- in Zoroastrianism the work of Ahriman -- has a regenerative function: death produces new life, rich and more fecund. Mithra, the god of light who has saved creation from the threat of darkness, clasps the right hand of the Sun, and kneels before the Tauroctonus (bull). Mithraists consecrated the alliance between Mithra and the Sun through a banquet, which prefigured the ritual. Mithra reaches the heavens in the Sun's chariot. It is certainly this image of Mithra that most moved and exalted the initiate, for it renewed hope in the ascension of the soul beyond the planetary spheres all the way to aeternitas (in Roman mythology, a personification of eternity).
Manfred Clauss in The Roman Cult of Mithras, chapter 14 "Mithras and Christ" discusses the relationship between the two religions:
On the communion or ritual meal, which both St. Justin Martyr (1 Apology 66, c. 150 AD) and Tertullian (c. 200 AD) recognized as similar to the Catholic Eucharist, Clauss concludes:
The "bread and wine" (some sources suggest it was "bread and water" or water mixed with wine) of the Mithraic meal was not considered the "body and blood" of God (Christ) as it is in Catholic and Orthodox theology, the early Church Fathers, and the New Testament (1 Cor 10:16-17; 11:27-29; John 6:51ff; Matt 26:26ff). For the development of the Eucharist doctrine in early Christian and Catholic theology, see This is My Body: Eucharist in the Early Fathers.
(Sources: see "Mithra" and "Mithraism" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, and The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries by Manfred Clauss).
Orpheus was a Thracian enchanter around which a religious movement formed in the sixth century BC that modern historians call Orphism. There are traditions concerning the birth, life, and descent of Orpheus into the underworld; his singing among the Thracians; and his tragic death where he is torn to pieces by a band of women. The amulet of a "crucified Orpheus" (dated to the 3rd or 4th century AD, picture right) is now considered a forgery (see below, Orpheus and Greek Religion by Guthrie [2nd edition 1952, reprint 1993], page 265, note on page 278).
Orpheus, the citharist and enchanter, first appears around 570 BC on a small black-figured vase. He is shown walking with a determined stride and nearly surrounded by two Sirens, great angry birds with the heads of women. Before he becomes the founding hero of a new religion, Orpheus is a "voice" like no other. Just as birds leave the sky and fish forsake the sea at the sound of Orpheus' song, so too do Thracian warriors who come out of the forests. In full Thracian or Oriential dress, the vases of southern Italy depict Orpheus as he descends into the underworld, searches for his nymph wife Eurydice, or makes a daring journey to the heart of the realm of Hades.
Plato summarized the Orphic way of life and its strict rules in the Laws: do not touch beef, abstain from all meat, and offer the gods only cakes or fruit soaked in honey, for it is impious and unclean to eat flesh and to stain with blood the altars of the gods. The Orphics are renunciants and strive for saintliness. They devote themselves to techniques of purification in order to separate and cut themselves off from the world and from all who are subject to death and defilement. They seek to renounce completely the blood on altars, the eating of any flesh, and in doing so reject the Greek state's religious system and its differentiated gods.
The Orphic "gods" are bizarre. To begin, the Firstborn, the primal Generator and Generatrix, is called variously Phanes, Metis, Protogonos, or Erikpaios. Descriptions of this deity offer repeated affronts to the form of the human body: it has two pairs of eyes, golden wings, the voice of a lion and a bull, and organs of both sexes. There is Zeus who rules over the fifth generation of gods, and on the advice of Night, sends the Firstborn straight to the pit of his belly. Thus he becomes a womb, the shell of an egg whose dimensions are those of the All. In other tales this god marries his mother and impregnates his daughter-wife, who is also his mother -- a double incest. The Orphic cosmogony and theogony contains many baroque deities and polymorphic monsters. In the beginning was the totality, the oneness of the All, the completeness of Phanes within the perfect sphere of primordial Night. The succession of rulers passes from Phanes, via Night, to Ouranos and Gaia, Kronos and Rhea, and finally to Zeus. Zeus, born of Rhea (Demeter), marries a second Demeter, and later becomes husband of yet a third Demeter (Kore) who will give birth to the infant Dionysos. That Dionysos, who was actually present in the Firstborn, will institute the sixth and final generation of the gods.
Differentiation of the gods takes place first through sexual activity, then through marriage, which works toward the separation of the divine powers. In recasting the gods of others, Orphism gives a special meaning to the complicity of two rival powers: Dionysos and Apollo, the two gods who sum up the whole of Greek polytheism. But Dionysos and Apollo also meet and confront each other in the tragic biography of Orpheus, in particular the indirect manner in which Orpheus is slain. Every day at dawn, Orpheus scales Mount Pangaeus, the highest mountain in Thrace since he wishes to be the first to salute the Sun, the "greatest of the gods" and to whom he gives the name Apollo. Dionysos is filled with resentment at this daily ritual so he sends barbarian women (the Bassarai) to surround Orpheus, seize, dismember, and tear him to pieces. The instruments of Orpheus' death are women, the fiercest and wildest representations of the feminine gender since they appear with skewers, axes, stones, and hooks on Attic vases between 480 and 430 BC. These are women whom the voice of Orpheus is powerless to seduce, tame, or restrain.
W.K.C. Guthrie of Cambridge discusses the "amulet" or "seal" of a supposed "crucified Orpheus" as follows:
First, the date of the amulet is to the third or fourth centuries AD of the Christian era. Again, this is post-Christianity's founding, not pre-Christian. Second, the amulet may be the work of a gnostic sect combining both Orphic and pseudo-Christian ideas, as a tribute to Jesus' crucifixion. Third, an endnote in the 1952 second edition of Guthrie reads:
For more see the discussion in Guthrie, pages 261-271 on the relations of Orphism to Christianity. There is no doubt the early Christians and all in classical Greece were impressed by the personality and legends of Orpheus, as is attested in the early Christian art of the Roman Catacombs (Guthrie, page 264). There are several examples of crypto-Christian symbolism in the first three centuries AD especially in sepulchral art and inscriptions in Asia Minor (page 265). But "if there is borrowing by Christianity here, it is from the general religious atmosphere of the age, not from the Orphics" and "of course all resemblance ceases when we come to details" (pages 267, 268).
(Sources: see "Orpheus" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, and Orpheus and Greek Religion by Guthrie, pages 261 ff).
Osiris is the ancient Egyptian god of the dead and "resurrection" who presided over the judgment of the soul. He is the oldest son of Geb ("earth" personified) and Nout ("mother of the gods" and goddess of the sky), the husband of Isis, whose myth was one of the best known and whose cult was one of the most widespread in pharaonic Egypt. The mythology of Osiris is not preserved completely from an early date, but the essentials are related by Plutarch in On Isis and Osiris (De Iside et Osiride).
Osiris became ruler of the land, but was tricked and slain by his jealous brother, Seth. According to the Greek version of the story, Typhon (Seth) had a beautiful coffin made to Osiris' exact measurements, and with 72 conspirators at a banquet, promised it to the one who would fit it. Each guest tried it for size, and Osiris was the one to fit exactly. Immediately Seth and the conspirators nailed the lid shut, sealed the coffin in lead, and threw it into the Nile. The coffin was eventually borne across the sea to Byblos, where Isis, who had been continually searching for her husband, finally located it.
She returns the body to Egypt where Seth discovers it, cuts the corpse into pieces, and scatters them throughout the country. Isis transforms herself into a kite, and with her sister Nephthys, searches for and finds all the pieces (except the male member, which she replicates), reconstitutes the body, and before embalming to give Osiris eternal life, she revivifies it, couples with it, and thus conceives Horus. According to the principal version of the story cited by Plutarch, Isis had already given birth to her son, but according to the Egyptian Hymn to Osiris, she conceived him by the revivified corpse of her husband. Later Horus avenges his father Osiris' death and succeeds him without completely destroying Seth.
The popularity of the cult of Osiris is explained by the recurring cycle of kingship, with each dead king becoming Osiris and being succeeded by his son, Horus. The cult was also important because of its emphasis on the "resurrection" of the god and a blessed afterlife. His true realm was not of this world, since he sat in perpetual rule over the dead. The Coffin Texts and the Book of Going Forth by Day provides the knowledge necessary for any individual to share in the afterlife of Osiris. This judgment is based on the protestations of innocence by the individual and a weighing of the person's heart against the feather of truth (maat). The "resurrection" of the god is also associated with fertility; pictures and figures of the god sprouting grain have been found among funerary furnishings. A further aspect of fertility is his identification with the flooding of the Nile River.
Jonathan Z. Smith in the article "Dying and Rising Gods" for the Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) relates the myth like this: Osiris is murdered, his body is dismembered and scattered. The pieces of his body are recovered and rejoined, and the god is rejuvenated. However, he doesn't return to his former mode of existence but rather journeys to the underworld where he becomes the powerful "lord of the dead." "In no sense can Osiris be said to have 'risen' in the sense required by the dying and rising pattern; most certainly it was never conceived as an annual event." The repeated formula "Rise up, you have not died," whether applied to Osiris or a citizen of Egypt, signaled a new, permanent life in the realm of the dead. Osiris was considered the mythical prototype for the distinctive Egyptian process of mummification. The descriptions of the recovery and rejoining of the pieces of his body are all elaborate parallels to funerary rituals: the vigil over the corpse, the hymns of lamentation, the embalmment, washing and purification of the corpse, dressing of the body, pouring out of libations, etc. The individual Egyptian dead became identified with and addressed as "Osiris" (earliest in the Pyramid Texts 167a - 168a). Iconographically, Osiris is always depicted in mummified form; he is a powerful god of the potent dead. "In no sense can the dramatic myth of his death and reanimation be harmonized to the pattern of dying and rising gods." (Smith, volume 4, page 524-525)
In an analysis of a debate on this topic, Richard Carrier says: "....I am not sure I understand [the] longwinded focus on the Osiris myth in the first place. This is easily the least persuasive parallel with Christianity among extant religions of the day. There are far more convincing cases for a pagan belief in a physical resurrection." (see "Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange")
Skeptic and classical historian Richard Carrier (featured in Flemming's DVD) says Osiris minimally fits the "dying and rising god" pattern while religious scholar Jonathan Z. Smith rejects that idea, and other scholars insist on calling Osiris not only a god of the dead, but a "god of resurrection." Bojana Mojsov in Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God (Oxford Blackwell, 2005) explicitly calls him "God of the resurrection who presided over the judgment of the soul." (page xvi-xvii).
(Sources: see "Osiris" and "Dying and Rising Gods" in The Encyclopedia of Religion, and Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God by Mojsov).
Tammuz is the Akkadian name for Dumuzi, an ancient Sumerian god whose cult is attested from 3500 BC to as late as the Middle Ages. A month was named after him, and its Akkadian form was borrowed with other month names into the Jewish calendar. Dumuzi is a type of "dying god" of fertility and vegetation, and into him merged a great number of originally independent fertility deities. The syncretistic nature of Dumuzi shows in litanies that formed part of the laments for him: they list as names Ninazu, Damu, Ningishzida, Alla, Lugalshudi, Ishtaran, Lusiranna, and Amaushumgalana. Even included are names of all the kings of the third dynasty of Ur and of Isin, who embody him in the rite of the Sacred Marriage.
Dumuzi is generally visualized as a young man or boy. Under some aspects he is of marriageable age; in others a mere child. He is dearly loved by the women who surround him -- his mother, sister, and later young bride -- and there is reason to assume his cult was predominantly a women's cult. The laments for him are by his mother, sister, and widowed bride, never by a father (cf. Ezekiel 8:14). The love for Dumuzi is for what he is rather than anything he might have done or achieved. He is being married, pursued, killed; he does not influence others by action, only by what he is: beloved or prey.
Several images of Dumuzi under which the god could appear include the following:
The assessment of the Akkadian Tammuz or the Sumerian Dumuzi as a "dying and rising god" has varied in the scholarly literature more than any other deity. Sumeriologist Samuel Noah Kramer revised his judgment three times (before 1950 he thought Dumuzi freed from death; between 1950 - 1965 he was considered solely a dying god; since 1966 he was willing to speak of "death and resurrection"). The ritual evidence is unambiguously negative. During the summer month of Tammuz, there was a period of wailing and lamentation for the dead deity. In third-century AD Christian authors we see the figure of Tammuz interacting with Adonis of Asia Minor. In all the varied reports, it is a relentlessly funereal cult. The young Tammuz is dead, and mourned. His life was the shoot of a tender plant; it grows quickly and then withers away. There is no evidence for any cultic celebration of a rebirth of Tammuz apart from late Christian texts where he is identified with Adonis.
Despite the lack of cultic evidence, some scholars supposed that the period of mourning for Tammuz must have been followed by a festival of rejoicing. This speculative conclusion seemed to gain support with the publication of the Akkadian Descent of Ishtar (see Inanna or Ishtar of the Sumerians / Akkadians). The text narrates the descent of the goddess into the underworld and her return. The concluding nine lines of the text contain a series of enigmatic references to Tammuz, Ishtar's youthful lover, in the land of the dead. Although the text nowhere mentions it, scholars supposed that the purpose of Ishtar's descent was to "bring Tammuz up." If so, this would place Tammuz securely within the dying and rising pattern.
Even on the basis of the Akkadian text alone, this interpretation is unlikely. There is no connection stated between Ishtar's descent and Tammuz. More detrimental to the dying and rising hypothesis are the actions performed on Tammuz which belong to elements of a funeral ritual. Ishtar is treating Tammuz as a corpse. Finally, the line rendered "on the day when Tammuz comes up" could refer to Tammuz simply greeting Ishtar in the underworld (i.e. coming up to her) or is a reference to the month of Tammuz. In the Akkadian version, Tammuz is dead and remains so. This understanding is witnessed in other Akkadian texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (6.46 - 50) where the hero insults and scorns Ishtar, reminding her that all her previous lovers, including Tammuz who heads the list, have died as a result of their relationship to her.
With the publication of the Sumerian prototype of the Akkadian text, Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld (Inanna is the Sumerian form of Ishtar) and the closely related Death of Dumuzi, these early texts made clear that the goddess did not descend to the realm of the dead to rescue her consort. Rather it was her descent that was responsible for his death.
(Sources: see "Dumuzi" and "Dying and Rising Gods" in The Encyclopedia of Religion).
Thor is the most popular god of the ancient Scandinavian peoples. The spread of his cult is abundantly documented in onomastic evidence (place and proper names). His name is found all over present-day Scandinavia in place-names designating either cult sites or places dedicated to him such as woods, fields, hills, brooks, and lakes. Equally abundant are personal names with Thor- as the first component. About one-fourth of the immigrants to Iceland had such names, according to Landnamabok. The Vikings venerated him as their most powerful god and honored him in their new settlements. Local sources report the worship of Thor by the Norse Invaders of Ireland; Thor's hammer, Mjolinir, appeared on the coinage of the Scandinavian rulers of York in the tenth century AD; there was apparently a temple dedicated to Thor by Varangian Northmen in Kiev in 1046; the Danes settling in Normandy are said to have invoked "Tur."
Artifacts such as Thor's hammer amulets bear witness to the strength and survival of his worship even some time after the conversion to Christianity (eleventh century AD). When Adam of Bremen visited the temple of Uppsala in the eleventh century, he noticed that although a triad of gods -- Odin, Thor, Freyr -- was worshipped there, Thor occupied the central position "because he was the most powerful of them all."
So we are talking the second millennium AD, again Back to the Future syndrome. What does this mythology have to do with early Christianity?
Zoroastrianism is one of the most ancient living religions, and takes its name from its founder Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) who probably lived around the beginning of the first millennium BC. It is the most important and best-known religion of ancient (pre-Islamic) Iran. Another name for Zoroastrianism is Mazdaism, derived from the name of the religion's supreme god, Mazda (meaning "wise") or Ahura Mazda ("wise lord").
The roots of the religion can be located in an eastern and south central Iranian, tribal, and basically pastoral society and developed further under the first Persian empire. Attempts have been made to distinguish between various phases: the religion contained in the Gathas or texts attributed to Zarathushtra himself are called "Zarathushtrianism"; the contents of the younger Avesta (partial texts from the 4th or 6th century AD) is called "Zarathushtricism"; and the religion of the later Sasanid period (3rd to 7th century AD) is called Zoroastrianism. These definitions can be extended to include the religion of the Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India today.
The primary innovation of Zoroastrianism which sets it apart from the religions of other Indo-European peoples in the Near East and Central Asia is its emphasis on monotheism (one God). Its outstanding feature resides in its radical dualism. Both aspects are fundamental to Zarathushtra's philosophical and religious doctrine, and because of his high esteem for speculation, the Greeks saw him more as a wise man than as founder of a religion. Monotheism and dualism are closely linked in the Gathas, and its purpose is to explain the origins of evil. The basis of dualism is essentially ethical: the nature of the two opposing Zoroastrianism spirits, Spenta Mainyu ("beneficent spirit") and Angra Mainyu ("hostile spirit"), who are twin children of Ahura Mazda, results from the choice they made between "truth" (asha) and the "lie" (druj), between good thoughts, words, deeds and evil thoughts, words, deeds. The choices made by the two spirits (Yasna 30.5) act as a prototype of the choices that man faces (Yasna 30.2, 49.3). The concept of Ahura Mazda as the creator of heaven and earth, day and night, light and darkness (Yasna 44.3-5), as well as the ethical context in which Zarathushtra conceived his answer to the problem of evil, demonstrates that the prophet was an original thinker and powerful religious figure who introduced radical changes to the spiritual and cultural world in which he was reared.
Halfway between a prophetic and monotheistic type of religion, Zoroastrianism incorporates elements and beliefs that also belonged to the great monotheistic religions that arose to the west of the Iranian world, and has persisted through thousands of years of Iranian history. It is a complex religious tradition, based on an ethical approach, and tends toward abstraction. Zarathushtra's creator god Ahura Mazda reveals that the prophet was a great religious reformer, a wise man in search of knowledge and enlightenment, rather than a follower of any traditional doctrine.
(Sources: see "Zoroastrianism" in The Encyclopedia of Religion).
The "mysteries" signify the secret cults of Greco-Roman antiquity permeated by Orientalism (see "Mystery Religions, Greco-Oriental" volume 10 in the New Catholic Encyclopedia [2003, 2nd edition] ). They form two groups: (1) Autochthonous Greek cults -- in Roman times only those of Eleusis and Dionysos [or Dionysus], with Orphism as a branch of the latter; and (2) Oriental cults, with only the Phrygian (Attis) and Egyptian (Osiris) cults developing into the complete form of a mystery religion, whereas the Syrian Adonis cult did not reach this stage. The question is whether the mysteries, in respect to origin, can be thought of as a whole. The answer must be affirmative, except for Orphism and Mithraism, which were artificial creations. The mysteries of Mithras have their own ideology and history. (NCE, volume 10, page 85-86)
The basic traits of the pagan mystery religions are summarized by Nash, in The Gospel and the Greeks, page 112-115 :
The Greco-Roman pagan religions found bodily resurrection difficult to accept. Man was regarded as a body with a soul, but it was the soul that was often believed to survive death. The dissolution of the body was regarded as inevitable (see "Resurrection, Greco-Oriental" volume 12 in the NCE). This view of man is quite different from the Old Testament where man is regarded as an "animated" body (a unity of body and soul, not a duality cf. Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 3:20-21; 12:7; and Matthew 10:28; 1 Thess 5:23; etc). Accordingly, Greco-Roman ideas on "resurrection" were quite different from the Christian concept (1 Cor 15; John 5:27-30; Phil 3:20-21; Revelation 20; etc).
The NCE article points out striking differences between the Christian and the Oriental beliefs: several "dying gods" were associated with the annual death and rebirth of vegetation; most of these gods were associated with a "goddess" who mourned her favorite's death and assisted his "resurrection" (Tammuz with Ishtar, Osiris with Isis, Adonis with Aphrodite, Attis with Cybele, etc); finally, with its strong moral emphasis the fully developed Christian doctrine is quite unlike the so-called "pagan parallel" religions.
The difference between the pagan "dying gods" and the meaning of Jesus' death are clear. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, page 160-161 states:
In the Catholic liturgical calendar, September 14 is the "Feast of the Triumph of the Cross" and was observed in Rome before the end of the seventh century AD. This day is also called the Exaltation of the Cross, the Elevation of the Cross, Holy Cross Day, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas. The liturgy of the Cross is a triumphant liturgy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the Christian meaning of the death of Christ:
1008. Death is a consequence of sin. The Church's Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man's sin. Even though man's nature is mortal God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. "Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned" is thus "the last enemy" of man left to be conquered. (cf. Genesis 2:17; 3:3; 3:19; Wisdom 1:13; 2:23-24; Rom 5:12; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:26; Vatican II GS 18 : 2)
1009. Death is transformed by Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father's will. The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing. (cf. Mark 14:33-34; Heb 5:7-8; Rom 5:19-21)
1010. Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." "The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him." What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already "died with Christ" sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this "dying with Christ" and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act (cf. Phil 1:21-23; 2 Tim 2:11) :
Pointing out the differences above is sufficient to show the uniqueness of Christianity and distinguish its theology from the non-Christian pagan religions.
Now let's summarize Nash's concluding section on Christian faith and the Mystery Religions which makes the following points why early Christianity is not dependent on the various pagan cults:
Jonathan Z. Smith in his book Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (1990) concludes:
Bruce Metzger, the great New Testament scholar and textual critic, is cited by Ronald Nash on this "reversal" :
This leads us to Part 2 on the historical evidence for Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament.
articles from The
Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Mircea Eliade (1987 [see also 2005,
"Dying and Rising Gods" from
volume 4 of The Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Mircea Eliade
articles from The New Catholic Encyclopedia
(2003, 2nd edition)
Dionysos by Richard Seaford (Routledge, 2006)
The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire by Roger
Beck (Oxford Univ Press, 2006)
Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God by Bojana Mojsov (Oxford
Attis: Between Myth and History by Maria Grazia Lancellotti
Hermes: Guide of Souls by Karl Kerenyi (Spring Publications,
The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New
Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? by Ronald Nash (P & R, 1992, 2003)
Mythology by Edith Hamilton
(Mentor / New American Library, 1969, orig 1940)
Copycat Thesis by J. P. Holding of Tektonics.org, several articles on
parallel "pagan saviors"
Deity by Wikipedia contributors
see also Part 2: The Evidence for Jesus
by P -- completed Christmas 2007
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