A Nightmare for Christians: The Origins of Their Faith

Not quite the greatest story ever told

There are topics that aren’t mentioned from the pulpit or in Sunday School. One example: how can—how should—faith claims be tested? How is valid knowledge acquiredEpistemology is not a word commonly used by the laity, but the concept is crucial. “Take it on faith”—take our word for it, is stressed by clergy, based on centuries of tradition. But that is avoidance of epistemology, i.e., arriving at sound methodology to find out what is actually true. Folks are trained not to be curious or skeptical.


Another shunned topic: Christian origins. Exactly how did the Christian faith arise? The laity willingly accept “the greatest story ever told”: Jesus was predicted in the Old Testament, was born according to plan, preached, healed, and performed sensational miracles. He “gave his life” as a ransom for many; after his resurrection he appeared to the apostle Paul, who spread the gospel that believing in the resurrected Christ was the key to eternal life. The church grew sensationally as its gospel was spread, and eventually became the dominant faith of the Western world. Lack of curiosity and skepticism have enabled this na├»ve concept of Christian origins to prevail. 


But the reality is a nightmare for Christian propagandists, i.e., preachers and priests who don’t want their congregations looking “behind the curtain.” The ancient context in which Christianity arose was complex. There were so many currents of thought flowing from different directions—so many intellectual influences—hence it takes a lot of study to grasp what actually happened: how Christian theology emerged. It turns out that “the greatest story ever told” isn’t what it seems—in fact, falls far short of that claim.


A good place to start in trying to get a handle on what actually happened is Derreck Bennett’s essay in the new anthology edited by John W Loftus and Robert M. Price, Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist? Bennett’s essay is titled, “Dying and Rising Gods.” The plural is a clue that Christian theology is in trouble: the Jesus story seems to have taken on the superstitions of other ancient cults. Some years ago, on Easter morning, a devout friend posted on Facebook: “He is risen!” I resisted the temptation to ask who “He” was. She had no idea that other cults in the early Christian environment attached their hopes for eternal life to their own risen gods. 


But just how many were there? That is, how common was the belief? Bennett opens his essay with a discussion of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, published in 1890:


“Frazer proposed that various deities from antiquity were modeled after the yearly cycle of vegetation, undergoing death and resurrection in a symbolic portrayal of seasonal death and rebirth. The implications for Christianity were clear, thus the topic has never been without controversy.” (p. 46)


Bennett describes the considerable pushback to The Golden Bough. Some scholars argued that the beliefs of others cults differed enough from the Christian story that Jesus was safe; apologists could take heart that their faith had not been sullied. 


Other scholars weren’t so sure. Bennett notes that M. David Litwa (Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God) concedes “that the corporeal immortalizations of, e.g., Asclepius, Heracles, and Romulus form the backdrop for understanding the earliest depictions of Christ’s resurrection and apotheosis. Litwa makes the case that, like Jesus, these figures were raised in a new and glorified body, by which they were deified and made immortal.” (p. 49) Bennett also includes a long quote from John Granger Cook’s Empty Tomb, Resurrection, Apotheosis, one sentence of which is especially helpful: “Just as the Greek of the LXX and NT has its place in the matrix of classical Greek, so the resurrection of Christ can be placed in the matrix of the bodily resurrections of cult figures from the Mediterranean world.” (p. 50 in Bennett’s essay, p. 143 in Cook)


One of the lessons I learned way back in Sunday School was that Israel committed great sin in worshipping the false god Baal. This was brought back to me by Bennett’s discussion of Baal:


“Steeped in the culture of their Canaanite ancestors, many Israelites continued to worship the major storm and fertility god, Baal. Despite the condemnation of such practices in 1 Kings 18 and Hosea 2, the Baal myth made its impression on scripture…the myth of Baal’s death at the hands of Mot, and subsequent restoration to life, was almost certainly known to the Israelites.” (p. 51)


So, the irony! The bad-guy god Baal helped fuel Christian theology much later:


“Resources and scholarship firmly establish that Baal was a dying and rising god, the risen son of El, who conquered death and reigned henceforth upon his heavenly throne. Given Jewish familiarity with the Baal myth—the long constancy of his worship in Israel and the indelible mark his story made up on the Scriptures —it should come as no surprise that Baal served as a prototype of Christ, the risen Son of God who vanquished death, was enthroned as Lord, and comes upon the clouds of heaven in power and glory.”  (p. 53)


Egyptian theology seems to have played a role as well. Bennett notes that “the impact of Egyptian religion had upon Judeo-Christianity is unmistakable. And Osiris’ place of prominence is the Egyptian pantheon seems to have captured the imaginations of many throughout the Mediterranean world, even up to the Greco-Roman period.” (pp.54-55) Bennett quotes several Pyramid Texts illustrating Osiris’ return to life:


“Osiris awakes, the languid god wakes up, the god stands up, the god has power in his body.”


“Raise yourself, O King; receive your head, collect your bones, gather your limbs together, throw off the earth from your flesh…Rise up, O King, for you have not died!”


“Raise yourself because of your strength, may you ascend to the sky…may you have power in your body.” (p. 55) And Bennett includes a quote from S.G. F. Brandon: “…neither Osiris nor Christ resume their earthly lives but pass on to another world, where they acquire a new status and office, which in each case is that of savior and judge of the dead.” (p. 56)


Bennett notes: “Ultimately, both [Christ] and Osiris venture to the world beyond, where they are nonetheless raised to new life. The comparison is especially profound when we consider the salvific significance attached to these divinities and their conquest of death. In each case, the resurrection of the godman serves as the hope and guarantee of resurrection to eternal life for their devotees.” (p. 57)


Egypt was only one influencer, however. The folks in the pews usually don’t grasp the significance of the New Testament being written in Greek—and that the gospel authors commonly used the Greek version of the Old Testament. Although the language of the peasantry from which Jesus supposedly came was Aramaic, the pitch of the early Jesus cult was to the Greek-speaking world. Dennis MacDonald has shown that the author of Mark’s gospel drew from the Homeric Epics in the structuring of his gospel (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark). So it would have been extraordinary if New Testament theology had escaped the influence of Greek and Roman religious thought—including the belief in dying and rising gods. 


Bennett devotes six pages of the essay to a discussion of this influence, noting that Alexander the Great “inaugurated what is known as the Hellenistic Age, a time of unprecedented sharing of ideas between formerly disparate cultures, resulting in rampant religious syncretism.” (p. 58) Bennett describes several heroic figures who died, yet lived again—such as Hercules, whose story is told 


“…in the first century play, Hercules Oetaeus. There, he appears to his grieving mother Alcmene and implores her to refrain from mourning, that he has been ‘granted [his] place in heaven’ among the gods. Afterwards, he ascends to the realm above. One is instantly reminded of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene in the gospel of John, where he is in the process of ascending to the Father.”  (p. 62)


Of course, the stories of these various heroes differ in detail from the Jesus story—what else would we expect when human imaginations play such a big role? —but Bennett concludes: “Most illuminating are the vivid parallels to the darkness that befell Christ’s crucifixion, appearances to witnesses, declarations of divine sonship, and great commission before ascending on high.” (p. 64) 


For those who escape the Sunday School frame of mind, it’s not hard to see that the gospels are saturated with miracle folklore, fantasy, and magical thinking. Hence it’s hardly a surprise that Christianity also applied the rising-dying god myth to its central figure. Jesus could be just as fictitious as any of the superheroes that human imaginations have come up with. The context in which Christianity arose doesn’t boost confidence that the Jesus presented in the gospels actually walked the earth. The total lack of any contemporaneous documentation for a Jesus of Nazareth makes us suspicious anyway. Bennett suggests correctly: “Christ as the dying and rising messiah…must be understood as a composite figure, the culmination of a long, winding, and rich tradition of religious ideas from around the Mediterranean world.” (p. 65)


It strikes me as especially unfortunate that some early Christian theologians took the dying-rising god motif to toxic levels. It’s almost as if they wanted to see how far they could go in fooling the devotees; the author of John’s gospel was especially guilty. He invented the Jesus script in John 6, in which the holy hero assures his followers that eating his flesh and drinking his blood are the magic potions for achieving eternal life. Drinking the blood of a god. This is blatant tomfoolery, and cult weirdness! Yet it became a ghoulish ceremony at the center of Christian worship. Today we have to ask, “What are people thinking?” It would be a good idea for Christians to step back from such practices, try to gain some perspective. They should follow Bennett’s lead in studying the origins of their faith, and try to resist the eternal life gimmick, which is hardly unique to Christianity. Of course, for the priests and preachers, the show must go on. But the folks in the pews should be heading for the exit.  




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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