Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions?

Was the story of Jesus based on ancient pagan mythology?
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Christianity is based on the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Christians believe that God sent his only son down to walk among humans and die for their sins. But compared to pagan religious myths, was the greatest story ever told actually told before, with only the names and places changed? There are numerous parallels between the events in the New Testament and ancient pagan mythology.

1 The Virgin Birth

The virgin birth echoes earlier myths.
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Jesus was born to a virgin, Mary. Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology is full of virgin births. Egyptian god Horus had a virginal mother, Isis. A star in the east signalled Jesus' birth and he died by crucifixion. The founding king of Rome, Romulus, was also a virgin birth. He was also “Son of God,” as was the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules to the Romans). Whether these myths influenced the Jesus story or not, the Christmas holiday has a pagan origin. The Bible doesn’t specify a date for Jesus’ birth, nor did early Christians celebrate it. Church leaders adapted the pagan mid-winter festival to their own purposes in the fourth century.

2 The Resurrection

Jesus rose from the dead, just like many gods.
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Jesus rose from the dead, three days after his crucifixion. Horus, too, enjoyed a similar comeback. Sumerian goddess Ishtar, Greek god Dionysus and the Persian deity Mithra all lived again after their deaths. Many of these earlier gods were born in mid-winter then died and rose at the spring equinox, which Christians celebrate as Easter. In some cases, as with Ishtar, the time lapse between death and walking again is three days, the same as Jesus.

3 Apocalypse

The Book of Revelation may have been a reaction against Roman pagans.
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The New Testament’s concluding Book of Revelation, with its dramatic and mysterious story of the apocalypse, is almost as famous as the Gospels. There are many apocalypse stories in pagan mythology as well. But the Book of Revelation, written sometime around A.D. 90, may have been a response to a Roman cult that threatened to convert the early Christians, by force if necessary. Though written in symbolic language, the Book of Revelation, this viewpoint holds, is a dire warning to early Christians against joining the religion of the same people who destroyed the Temple and murdered Jesus.

4 Religious Scholars Deny Pagan Influence

If the story of Jesus is based on earlier pagan mythology, isn’t it possible that Jesus’ existence is itself a myth? Christian theologians deny the possibility, and they spell out detailed arguments debunking the “pagan Christ” theory. They say that “pagan” theorists focus only on superficial parallels between the Gospels and earlier myths, ignoring the important differences. They also note that the “pagan Christ” theory offers scant evidence of how the Gospel authors heard of the myths when pagan cultists guarded them as secrets. In some cases, there was no possible contact between the Gospel authors and pagans. Even if the Jesus story doesn’t sound completely new, they say, it is still possible to keep the faith.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.