The more popular claims of borrowing or influence between Christianity and the mysteries pertain to the birth/death/resurrection of Jesus Christ. What were the mystery religions?
The mystery religions (contrary to George James’ book Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy) were really Hellenistic religions, called ‘mystery’ because they involved secret ceremonies that were thought to bring their initiates some special benefits. They were more or less based on the annual vegetation cycle of life (spring) and death (fall).
Each religion originated from different areas. From Mesopotamia—Tammuz or Dumuzi (the Sumerian version); from Egypt—the cult of Isis and Osiris (later called Serapis); from Greece—the cults of Demeter and Dionysus which later developed into the Eleusinian and Orphic mystery religions; from Phrygia in Asia Minor—the cult of Cybele and Attis; from Syria/Palestine—the cult of Adonis and from Persia (modern Iran)—the cult of Mithra (twin brother of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda).
Before responding to one of the claims of borrowing or influence we point out that it is crucial to check the dates of the documents providing the evidence of borrowing or influence and the means of the borrowing or influence plus a careful look at the details of the alleged similarities.
Many have read or said that the biblical idea of Jesus having been born of a virgin is not only paralleled in other cultures but is drawn from one or other of these other cultures. The argument used is that since the biblical idea is later than a similar idea in another culture then the gospel writers borrowed the idea from that earlier source.
This claim with its line of reasoning has been extensively examined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by several scholars, the most accessible books being, possibly, James Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 1929 and J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 1958.
These two writers highlight a few things about people who make the contention and argue the way we indicated earlier.
First, they seem unaware of the fact that neither similarity of idea nor being later in time necessarily proves dependence or borrowing.
Secondly, they have been unsuccessful in showing how Matthew and Luke (Jewish-Christian in
worldview and thus averse to anything smacking of heathen idolatry), came to know of and be influenced by the alleged parallel from a heathen or pagan culture. Thirdly, and most critically, they have not been able to establish a real, historical case of virgin birth in other cultures.
James Orr says, “With respect now to my main contention, it must strike you, I know, as strange to hear that the heathen world has no proper doctrine of a Virgin Birth so continually are you told that pagan mythology is full of parallels of this kind.” (The Virgin Birth of Christ, 167)
Orr then considers “the popular mythological conceptions of the Greeks and Romans” such as “the fables of Hermes, of Dionysius, of Aesculapius, of Hercules, and the like” and concludes, “A god, inflamed by lust—Zeus is a chief sinner—surprises a maiden, and has a child by her, but it is by natural generation. There is nothing here analogous to the Virgin Birth of the Gospels.” (168)
The central point is the absence from the literature—mythical, not historical—of a virgin giving birth!
Next for consideration by Orr are “the fables set afloat about a philosopher like Plato, or rulers like Alexander or Augustus”. (170) Apart from the fact that the fathers and mothers of these individuals were well known, the claims made for them are not so much that their mothers were virgins but that each was sired by a god.
Plutarch, (c. A.D. 46-c. 120), in one of the accounts of Alexander’s special birth, has his mother saying about her son’s boast of being a child of Zeus, “Will not Alexander cease slandering me to Hera?”
Augustus promoted the idea that Apollo was his father. The claim was that his mother fell asleep in the temple of Apollo and was visited by the god in the form of a serpent.
Concerning Plato, Plutarch suggests that the begetting was before marital intercourse between Plato’s parents but we are not sure of the mother’s premarital behaviour. Diogenes Laertius (3rd century A.D.), drawing on the works of three writers before his time, including Speusippos, Plato’s nephew and successor at his Academy, says that they all mention a story circulating in Athens that Plato’s father, Ariston, tried unsuccessfully to get his mother, Perictione, pregnant. The god Apollo succeeded.
The central point again is the absence from the literature of a virgin giving birth!
Orr then turns his attention to “the legend of Buddha” (171), and in passing, indicates the problems concerning the dating of traditions about the birth of the Buddha.
“Our earliest source of information about [Gautama’s] life and teaching is found in the writings of the Pali canon . . . In the Pali canon, nothing is said about the birth of Gautama which could by any possibility be brought into comparison with our story of the virgin birth. But in the introduction to the Jakata book, which dates from the fifth century after Christ, we have the well-known story of the white elephant that entered the body of Maya, Buddha’s [married] mother, at the time when her child was conceived.” (The Virgin Birth of Christ, 339, my emphasis).
Once again the central point is the absence from the stories of a virgin giving birth!
Orr closes by examining the unsuccessful attempts to find virgin birth parallels in Egypt, Babylon, Arabia and Persia. (172-176) With specific reference to Egypt it must be noted that the mythical Horus, was the son of the mythical Isis and Osiris and the issue of a virgin birth for Horus does not arise in the Egyptian myth.
Craig L. Blomberg, professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, in his written response to a published debate between William Lane Craig and Dominic Crossan said, “. . . I remain unconvinced that the closest parallels to the accounts of Jesus’ virginal conception and other miraculous elements of the Gospels are found in pagan mythology. With respect to the virgin birth, J. Gresham Machen disproved this theory with copious evidence more than sixty years ago, and he has not been refuted.” (In Paul Copan, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (1998, 106)
Since ‘virgin birth parallels’ are missing, the careful reader of Matthew and Luke must deal with the virgin birth claim against the proven backdrop of the evangelists’ credibility and reliability as writers of material purporting to be history.
We must welcome all ideas, theories and claims, irrespective of how uncomfortable some of them might make us feel. What is of critical importance is that we subject all ideas, theories and claims, to logical analysis as we probe the truth-content of all such ideas, theories and claims.
A Renowned Christian Philosopher lays out the historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth. – Dr. William Lane Craig