A COPYCAT RELIGION?
We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 2 Peter 1:16
“Nothing in Christianity is original,” claimed the novel The Da Vinci Code, adding that everything of importance in Christianity—from communion to Jesus’ birthday to Sunday worship—was “taken directly from earlier pagan mystery religions.”
The argument is simple: a whole bevy of mythological characters were born of virgins, died violently, and were resurrected from the dead in antiquity, but nobody takes them seriously. So why should anyone trust similar claims about Jesus that were obviously copied from these earlier pagan mystery religions?
This critique, popularized a century ago by European historians, has returned with a vengeance, becoming one of the most ubiquitous objections to the historical understanding of Jesus. It has spread around the Internet like a computer virus and been forcefully presented in numerous bestselling books.
The “parallels” appear stunning. According to proponents of this “copycat” theory, the pre-Christian god Mithras, for example, was born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, was considered a great traveling teacher, had twelve disciples, sacrificed himself for world peace, was buried in a tomb, and rose again three days later. How could Christians possibly explain away such obvious plagiarism?
Were the supernatural qualities of Jesus merely ideas borrowed from ancient mythology and attached to the story of the Nazarene by his overzealous followers after his death? Is Jesus no more divine than Zeus? Are the reports of his resurrection no more credible than the fantastical tales of Osiris or Baal?
The highly respected author and professor Ronald H. Nash explained in The Gospel and the Greeks that these theories were prevalent from about 1890 to 1940 but were largely answered and disproven by scholars. He lamented, however, the revival of these discredited theories. He said popular publications were “repeating claims and arguments that should have been laid to rest decades ago,” circulating “one-sided and misinformed arguments” and ignoring “the weighty scholarly opinion” that has already been published to refute their assertions. He later added, “Efforts to undermine the uniqueness of the Christian revelation via claims of a pagan religious influence collapse quickly once a full account of the information is available.”
To illustrate Nash’s point, we’ll unpack the example of Mithras in the next reading. For now, let me remind you of an old saying: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Truth for Today
In light of such attacks on our faith, keep Peter’s words in mind: “We did not follow cleverly devised stories... [We] were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).