Plagiarism is serious business in academia. When most people hear the term, they might equate it with “copying” or “borrowing,” thus overlooking the seriousness of the offense. In truth, plagiarism involves not only the outright theft of intellectual property but passing off someone else’s ideas as one’s own.
Some critics today argue that Christianity plagiarized existing beliefs of the time, taking ideas from other religions and stitching them together in what we now call Christianity. These individuals, called “mythicists,” believe that early Christian writers created a fictional Jesus, drawing upon pre-existing pagan elements found in ancient mythology. Some of these ideas, they claim, came from the mystery cults popular at the time.
The term “mystery cult” was not one that the ancients used for their religions. Modern scholars created the term, which accurately captures the sense of the secrecy that governed the lives of those involved in these ancient religious groups. (Note: the word “cult” here means a system of religious belief associated with a specific figure, such as the cult of Attis, the cult of Cybele, or even the imperial cult which involved devotion to the Roman emperor.) These religions provided an alternative to the more institutionalized expressions of worship. Formal religious worship to the gods was part of public life. The mystery cults restricted participation to those who had gone through a secretive initiation process.
Mythicists frequently claim that nothing in Christianity is original. Indeed, the parallels they offer startle many believers unfamiliar with the issue. They claim that other divine figures—such as the Egyptian god Horus or the Persian Mithras—were born of virgins, had twelve disciples, died for the sins of the world, and resurrected after three days in a tomb. Figures as diverse as Attis, Krishna, and Thor supposedly suffered crucifixion. Further, most of these figures served as great teachers of wisdom who healed and performed other miracles. Christians must understand any close reading of the original myths will reveal these claims as patently false.
One of the most significant problems involved in this issue is the fact that critics of Christianity often adopt biblical language to describe pagan practices. This gives the illusion of similarity when Christian terminology would have struck pagans as quite foreign. We can see one example of this in descriptions of the taurobolium—the sacrifice of a bull or ram in which an initiate would stand under the animal and allow its blood to wash over him—which mythicists frequently call a “baptism.” Some writers have gone so far as to claim that the initiate was “washed in the blood.” This alleged parallel seems irrefutable if the reader does not understand that the ritual had nothing to do with baptism or washing away sins. Instead, it was a purification custom with only temporary benefits, unlike Christ’s sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-14).
Mystery cults had several features that differed sharply from Christianity. Only initiates received the secret teachings of the cult and were given strict orders to share them with no one else. By way of contrast, Christians have always believed that the gospel message should be preached to everyone freely (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20; Lk. 24:47). Further, mystery cults did not expect exclusive membership. A person could join more than one of them, contrary to the expectations of Jesus (John 14:6). Finally, mystery cults also expected a monetary contribution for joining, which was steep enough to exclude some people from participating. Genuine Christianity does not discriminate against the poor, nor does it offer privileges available only to the wealthy (Jas. 2:1-15).
Scholars see virtually no connection between Christianity and the mystery cults in the early Roman Empire. Only two of these cults seem to predate Christianity (the Eleusinian and the Dionysian Mysteries), while evidence of the others postdates the founding of the church. Some scholars believe that if any relationship existed, it is likely Christianity that influenced the mystery cults instead of the other way around.
Christians can evaluate mythicists’ claims for themselves by asking several simple questions. First, do they refer to alleged parallels in the original myths, or do they merely describe or summarize them? Numerous connections vanish upon close inspection of the ancient literature. Second, do they cite the work of recognized scholars? We can count on one hand the number of mythicists who have terminal degrees in the fields relevant to the discussion. Finally, do they use precise descriptions? The keys to mythicists’ arguments hinge upon using Christian terminology to refer to pagan practices and obscuring vital differences between biblical and mythological concepts.
Christianity provided a new and exciting way to look at the world and interact with its Creator. The suggested similarities between it and the other religions practiced in the first century cannot withstand scrutiny. Believers may rest assured that the biblical writers did not plagiarize pagan beliefs.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. congregation in Arlington, TX.