Debunking the "Dying and Rising Gods" Theory

The “dying and rising gods” theory is a currently popular argument against Christianity which states that Jesus was a copycat - or rather that the disciples were simply copying other pagan gods when they claimed that Jesus died and rose again from the dead.

Although this theory has been debunked in the past, it occasionally rears its ugly head requiring a fresh effort to dismantle it. In the following passage taken from his book, Did Jesus Exist?, atheist Bart Ehrman provides just such a demolition of this copycat nonsense. Ehrman writes:

“[Consider] the instance of Osiris, commonly cited by mythicist as a pagan parallel to Jesus. Osiris was an Egyptian god about who a good deal was written in the ancient world. We have texts discussion Osiris that span a thousand years. None was as influential or as well known as the account of the famous philosopher and religion scholar of the second Christian century, Plutarch, in his work Isis and Osiris. According to the myths, Osiris was murdered and his body was dismembered and scattered. But his wife, Isis, went on a search to recover and reassemble them, leading to Osiris’ rejuvenation. The key point to stress, however, is that Osiris does not—decidedly does not—return to life. Instead he becomes the powerful ruler of the underworld. And so for Osiris there is not rising from the dead.

“[Jonathan Z.] Smith maintains that the entire tradition about Osiris may derive from the processes of mummification in Egypt, where bodies were prepared for ongoing life in the realm of the dead (not as resuscitated corpses here on earth). And so Smith draws the conclusion, ‘In no sense can the dramatic myth of his death and reanimation be harmonized to the pattern of dying and rising gods.’ The same can be said, in Smith’s view, of all the other divine beings often pointed to as pagan forerunners of Jesus. Some die but don’t return; some disappear without dying and do return; but none of them die and return.

“Jonathan Z. Smith’s well-documented views have made a large impact on scholarship. A second article, by Mark S. Smith, has been equally informative. Mark Smith is a scholar of the ancient Near East gods and Hebrew Bible who also opposes any notion of dying and rising gods in the ancient world. Mark Smith makes the compelling argument that when [Sir James George] Frazer devised his theory about dying and rising gods, he was heavily influenced by his understanding of Christianity and Christian claims about Christ. But when one looks at the actual data about the pagan deities, without the lenses provided by later Christian views, there is nothing to make one consider them as gods who die and rise again. Smith shows why such views are deeply problematic for Osiris, Dumuzi, Melqart, Heracles, Adonis and Baal.

“According to Smith, the methodological problem that afflicted Frazer was that he took data about various divine beings, spanning more than a millennium, from a wide range of cultures, and smashed the data all together into a synthesis that never existed. This would be like taking views of Jesus from a French monk of the twelfth century, a Calvinist of the seventeenth century, a Mormon of the late nineteenth century, and a Pentecostal preacher of today, combining them all together into one overall picture and saying, “That’s who Jesus was understood to be.” We would never do that with Jesus. Why should we do it with Osiris, Heracles, or Baal? Moreover, Smith emphasizes, a good deal of our information about these other gods comes from sources that date from a period after the rise of Christianity, writers who were themselves influenced by the Christian views of Jesus and ‘who often received their information second-hand.’ In other words, they probably do not tell us what pagans themselves, before Christianity, were saying about the gods they worshipped.

“The majority of scholars agree with the views of Smith and Smith: there is not unambiguous evidence that any pagans prior to Christianity believed in dying and rising gods, let alone that it was a widespread view held by lots of pagans in lots of times and places.” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 228-230.)

I think he may have updated his view on this in his more current book, “How Did Jesus Become God.” He writes at length about the existence of half-human/half-divine gods during the time before and of Jesus.

Also, he’s talked a lot in the past about Appolonius of Tyana (sp?)…who had a history similar to Jesus, and was said by his followers to have died, then risen.


hmmm… curious…
Knowing that pharaohs were regarded as living gods, what was the deal with their mummification?
Not that any of them has actually risen (as far as I know, outside of Hollywood), but it seems to me that the there existed the belief that it was a possibility.

Did the Egyptians anticipate the possibility of resurrection?

Or were they more concerned with preparing the departed for the next life?

Tektonics have great resources on the individual claims, be it the claim that Jesus was copied from Horus or that Christianity stole from Zoroastrianism.

Wasn’t it for preserving the body for when the soul returns to have a vessel which to inhabit?
I need to brush up on my ancient egyptian…

It seems to be a 50-50 case, here…

In order to live for all eternity and be presented in front of Osiris, the body of the deceased had to be preserved by mummification, so that the soul could reunite with it, and take pleasure in the afterlife.
After the mummy was prepared, it would need to be re-animated, symbolically, by a priest. The opening of the mouth ceremony was conducted by a priest who would utter a spell and touch the mummy or sarcophagus with a ceremonial adze – a copper or stone blade. This ceremony ensured that the mummy could breathe and speak in the afterlife. In a similar fashion, the priest could utter spells to reanimate the mummy’s arms, legs, and other body parts.

The priests, maybe even the king’s successor, move the body through the causeway to the mortuary temple. This is where prayers were recited, incense was burned, and more rituals were performed to help prepare the king for his final journey. The king’s mummy was then placed inside the pyramid along with enormous amount of food, drink, furniture, clothes, and jewelry which were to be used in the afterlife.

The dead is “reanimated” for his afterlife… I’m at a loss, but can see how it could have evolved to a dying-rising man-god.

At AF, this thread would have a hundred responses by now. Interesting, huh? :hmmm:

Let’s enjoy the peace and quiet, in here, then! :wink:
I think that over there, some people don’t have that much respect for Ehrman - he is working in an establishment that promotes belief, he’s already a non-believer, so it’s best for him not to shoot himself in the foot even further by proposing some more uncomfortable ideas… Better go along with the “majority of scholars”, than lose his job.
Personally, I don’t know the man, I don’t have the required training and availability of materials to study what he studies, so I can’t comment on its accuracy, from a position of any authority.
It is curious to note that, in your OP, Ehrman simply describes what the other guys think, or have discovered. It doesn’t seem like he makes any claim of his own view in that subject in particular… perhaps he’s not convinced, but doesn’t want to make that position known.

Do people only claim that there were other dying and rising gods prior to christianity?
Are there any other features that the christian god has that previous gods in the region also had?

A lot of people claim that Christianity borrowed from other religions/gods, but a lot if it is made up. Check out the link I posted previously to Tektonics(sp?), which refutes the unfounded claims people spout regarding this.

Cheers, man!
I missed it the first time around, sorry! :blush:
tektonics… lol, reminds me of an electronics brand, tektronix.

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