Many Christians are unaware that an increasing number of people in the world see Jesus as nothing more than a mythological figure. A recent study conducted by the Barna Research Group revealed that four in ten people in England do not believe Jesus was a historical person. 22% of the population believes him to be a fictional or mythological creation.
Although unsupported by scholarship, the Jesus myth is often promoted in the media. Documentaries such as Zeitgeist, the Movie; Religulous; and The God Who Wasn’t There present the case that Jesus was a pagan god plagiarized from ancient myths. This point of view—called mythicism—is a relatively recent one in the history of biblical studies. The following points are some helpful points to keep in mind when speaking with advocates of mythicism.
- None of the so-called “virgin-born” gods were actually virgin-born. The accounts found in ancient myths makes this clear. Mythicists frequently describe the births of gods with supernatural elements as “virgin” births even when the child was conceived by normal means. For example, the Egyptian god Horus is often argued to be virgin-born, however many ancient inscriptions and depictions contradict this idea. Mythicists also claim a birth that is merely supernatural is “virgin” even if the mother had already given birth to other children (such as the Hindu figure Devaki, who already had seven children before Krishna was conceived). In the case of Mithras, there was no mother at all – he was born from a rock known as the petra genetrix.
- Mythicists frequently describe episodes from the lives of other gods that are not found in the original myths (e.g., the god having twelve disciples or performing miracles such as walking on water, turning water to wine, or casting demons into a group of pigs). Instead, these details are drawn from the four Gospels and wrongfully attributed to mythological deities. This happened frequently in literature produced in the 1800s and early 1900s, but persists today in the work of modern writers who appeal to this earlier literature.
- Mythicists also describe the events found in ancient myths with Christian language, making the Bible and pagan mythology sound much more similar than they really are. For example, a rite for priests in the cult of Cybele was for the individual to stand beneath a bull who was slaughtered with a sacred spear. Blood would wash over the priest, which cleansed and consecrated him. Mythicists often describe this as a “baptism” even though members of the Cybele mystery cult never used this term.
- None of the so-called crucified saviors of the world were actually crucified. Osiris was drowned by his brother Seth, the infant Dionysus was eaten by Titans, Krishna was shot in the foot by a hunter, Adonis was gored by a bull, and so on. Other gods, such as Hermes, Horus, and Mithras, never die.
- The four New Testament Gospels resemble ancient biographies (Greek bioi), rather than mythology. The Gospel writers were careful to connect their work with actual events, places, and persons. Mythology had very few such details, which were generally considered unimportant by ancient pagans.
- Ancient writers treat Jesus as a historical person (e.g., Josephus), even when they are hostile to Christianity (e.g., Tacitus, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata). Mythicists often attempt to discredit these ancient sources without providing adequate reasons for doing so. For instance, critics claim the references to Jesus in the writings of Josephus have been known as fraudulent for centuries. Critics provide no evidence of such claims from modern scholars of Josephus, the vast majority of whom believe that Josephus’ reference to Jesus is authentic.
The historicity of Jesus is a settled issue for virtually all scholars, including those self-identifying as agnostics and atheists. Given a close examination of the facts, it would seem that much of the criticism leveled at Christianity by mythicism is little more than an exercise in wishful thinking.