Pagan parallels to Jesus: the forgotten sons of God
By Nicholas Covington
Article ID: 1336
“And when we say also that… [Jesus] was produced without sexual union, and that He… was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.”
“…And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus. And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Æsculapius.”
-Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapters 21-23.
I’m tired of misinformation in two extremes: On one hand, we have nontheists who claim that Jesus is a carbon copy of Osirus or Dionysus, but often not giving the reader the primary sources to back this claim up. On the other hand, we have Christian apologists claiming either that no pagan parallels to Jesus exist, or that all the parallels are vague, general, and weak. My intention is to end this campaign of misinformation by describing the pagan parallels to Jesus as well as the differences.
I have divided this essay into two sections: The first discusses gods for which I have found a great number of parallels (Romulus and Heracles), the second discusses gods for which I have found only one or a few parallels. This is not the final word on the subject, as I am sure there are a great many parallels I have yet to discover. Let me also note that I have gone out of my way to make sure my sources are, as much as possible, pre-Christian. Most of the texts I cite were written when Christianity was a rare and little known sect (and therefore unlikely to influence other cults. [For a good review of the estimates of how common Christianity was in the first century, see Richard Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 18]).
Major pagan parallels to Jesus
This was written about by Titus Livius (who died in 17 CE) in his book The Early History of Rome and by Plutarch in Numa Pompilius (written circa 75 CE, around the same time Mark’s gospel was written).
Romulus is born of a vestal virgin, which was a priestess of the hearth god Vesta sworn to celibacy (Early History of Rome, 1.3-1.4). His mother claims that the divine impregnated her, yet this is not believed by the King (there is a certain irony to this since Romulus is later hailed as “God and a Son of God”, meaning that his mother’s seemingly far-fetched tale was true after all). Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, are tossed in the river and left for dead (A “slaughter of the innocents” tale which parallels that of Matthew 2:13-16).
Romulus is hailed as the son of god. He is “snatched away to heaven” by a whirlwind (It is assumed that the gods took him), and he makes post mortem appearances (See The Early History of Rome 1.16). In his work Numa Pompilius, Plutarch records that there was a darkness covering the earth before his death (Just as there was during Jesus’ death according to Mark 15:33). He also states that Romulus is to be known afterwards as ‘Quirinus’; A god which belonged to the Archiac Triad (a “triple deity” similar to the concept of the Trinity). This information may be found in the second paragraph of the translation of Numa Pompilius (hyperlinked above).
Although Jesus and Romulus are both known as kings, Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not an earthly one as is that of Romulus (John 18:36). Furthermore, the life of Romulus is mainly composed of military conquests and other such things which do not bear the slightest parallel to the life of Jesus as told by Paul and the gospel writers.
This was written about by Ovid (who died about 17 CE, according to Funk and Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia) Diodorus Siculus in the Library of History Book 4. Diodorus lived from 90 to 21 BCE (According to his entry in Funk and Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia).
Heracles is the Son of a god (Zeus). In Library of History 4:9:1-2, it is recorded that Zeus is both the father and great-great- great grandfather of Heracles, just as Jesus is essentially his own grandpa, being both “The root and offspring of David” (Revelation 22:16) as he is part of the triune God which is the father of Adam and eventually of Jesus. Both are doubly related to the Supreme God. Diodorus writes that,
“For as regards the magnitude of the deeds which he accomplished it is generally agreed that Heracles has been handed down as one who surpassed all men of whom memory from the beginning of time has brought down an account; consequently it is a difficult attainment to report each one of his deeds in a worthy manner and to present a record which shall be on a level with labours so great, the magnitude of which won for him the prize of immortality.”
-Library of History, 4:8:1
Jesus is also said to have done a very large number of good works. John 21:25 says that: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
Hera tries to kill Heracles as an infant by sending two serpents after him (Library of History, 4:10:1) yet Heracles survives by strangling them. This parallels Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in an attempt to kill Jesus (Matthew 2:13-16).
Heracles makes a descent into Hades and returns from it with Theseus and Peirithoüs (4.26.1), just as Jesus descends into Hades as well as a spirit prison (See The Testament of Benjamin verse 9 and 1 Peter 3:18); Though Jesus does not bring anyone up from it.
After death, Heracles’ body is not found and he is assumed to have been taken by the gods:
“After this, when the companions of Iolaüs came to gather up the bones of Heracles and found not a single bone anywhere, they assumed that, in accordance with the words of the oracle, he had passed from among men into the company of the gods.” (Library of History, 4:38:5)
In another version of the myth (found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IX, 211-272), Heracles dies in a fire, so that his flesh is burned up and only his spiritual self (‘that which no flame can destroy’) is left. Zeus carries him up to heaven. This parallels Jesus’ agonizing death, as well as his ascent to heaven.
Heracles makes no post-mortem appearances as Jesus does (this is in all gospels except Mark, of which the last twelve verses are a later addition). Heracles is not credited as being a wise man or a teacher and does not heal the sick as Jesus does (though he does perform “Twelve Labors” which are super-human tasks but certainly do not parallel the works of Jesus). Heracles is poisoned and sets himself on fire to relieve the pain; Jesus was crucified. These parallels simply show some basic themes of Jesus’ life (being the son of god, the slaughter of the innocents, being taken by God at death) were present in Greco-Roman mythology.
Minor pagan parallels to Jesus
Pausanias wrote of the Dionysian water-to-wine miracle in the 2nd Century CE (about the same time as the gospel of John was written). It is likely that this ritual had been around for many years, and so it is therefore more likely that John borrowed this miracle story from the Dionysus cult than the other way around.
Dionysus was also the son of a god who had taken on mortal form. One miracle story in particular bears strong resemblance to a gospel story, the transformation of water into wine:
“Greek traveller Pausanias reported in his Description of Greece that in Elis, three pots are brought into the building by the priests [of Dionysus] and set down empty in the presence of the citizens and of any strangers who may chance to be in the country. The doors of the building are sealed by the priests themselves and by any others who may be so inclined. On the morrow they are allowed to examine the seals, and on going into the building they find the pots filled with wine. Paus. VI, 26, 1-2
This Dionysian wine ritual was incorporated into Christian imagery by the Gospel of John. According to this gospel, the first public act of Jesus was to transform jars of water into wine–the typical Dionysian epiphany miracle. By employing this well-known Dionysian convention, the Gospel at its outset establishes the presence of Jesus as a divine epiphany. 10 To dismiss the Dionysian use of wine simply as the occasion for mere drunken revelry and debauchery–which did occur–would be as misleading as to understand the Christian use of wine similarly–which also occurred, for example, according to Paul, in the sacramental excesses practiced by the Corinthian church ( I Cor. 11:17-22).” [Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction by Luther H. Martin, p.95
Isis, the mother of Osiris, was called “The Great Virgin” (p.13, James Stevens Curl, The Egyptian Revival).
Osiris was killed on the seventeenth day of the month and his body was found on the nineteenth of the month (Jesus was killed on Friday and raised on Sunday: In each case we see the “three day” motif, [See Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 39]). Though it is not quite clear in Plutarch’s work, it appears that Osiris was raised sometime after his corpse was found, torn into pieces, and put back together again by Isis (Osiris is mentioned as being alive again after these events).
It is interesting to note that while Osiris was amongst the people, he “gave them laws” and “taught them how to worship the gods” (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 13); Just as Jesus had given his disciples new commandments (Not to even look upon a woman lustfully) and taught them how to pray (See “The Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6:9-15).
Perhaps the biggest difference between Osiris and Jesus is that Osiris is very clearly a lunar deity, while Jesus is not. Furthermore, Osiris is dismembered into fourteen pieces, a tale which bears no resemblance to anything in the gospels.
Listen to what Plutarch says about the Zoroastrian beliefs:
“Theopompus says that, according to the Magi, one of the Gods shall conquer, the other be conquered, alternately for 3,000 years; for another 3,000 years they shall fight, war, and undo one the works of the other; but in the end Hades shall fail, and men shall be happy, neither requiring food nor constructing shelter: whilst the God who hath contrived all this is quiet and resting himself for a time, for that God may well slumber, but not long, like as a man reposing for a moderate space. The religious system of the Magi is of the aforesaid character.” (On Isis and Osiris, 47, emphasis mine).
Compare to Revelation 7:16 and 20:14 (which discuss things to happen after the apocalypse): “Never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. …Then Death and Hades were cast into the Lake of Fire.”
In chapter 46, Plutarch also tells us that Mithras was seen as a “mediator” just as Christ was a mediator (1 Timothy 2:5).
The goddess Inana descends into the underworld, is killed and hung on a nail, left dead for three days and three nights, is resurrected, and ascends into heaven (See Inana’s Descent, verses 164-175 and 273-281). This story dates no later than the second millennium BCE, and so preceded the New Testament by millennia. Besides the death and resurrection of Inana, the story contains no parallel to the Jesus story.
There is an old Buddhist tale in which a disciple of the Buddha is able to walk on water because of his great faith. This story is a near exact parallel to the story of Peter found in Matthew 14:22-33. You can read the story for yourself here, in this old translation of the Dhammapada.
One may think it incredible that the early Christians would have known about a Buddhist legend. However, Randel Helms informs us that there were Buddhist missionaries telling this tale in the Middle East as early as the second-century BCE. (See page 81, Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions).
Zalmoxis was written about by Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE, long before Jesus.
Zalmoxis taught the Thracians that:
“neither he, nor they, his boon companions, nor any of their posterity would ever perish, but that they would all go to a place where they would live for aye in the enjoyment of every conceivable good. While he was acting in this way, and holding this kind of discourse, he was constructing an apartment underground, into which, when it was completed, he withdrew, vanishing suddenly from the eyes of the Thracians, who greatly regretted his loss, and mourned over him as one dead. He meanwhile abode in his secret chamber three full years, after which he came forth from his concealment, and showed himself once more to his countrymen, who were thus brought to believe in the truth of what he had taught them.” (Herodotus, Persian Wars, 4.95, emphasis mine).
This needs some explanation: First, it needs to be said that when Herodotus speaks of Zalmoxis building an underground apartment into which he disappeared, this must be interpreted as a sort of ‘rational explanation’ on the part of Herodotus. The Thracians did not believe Zalmoxis merely hid. They thought he was really dead, otherwise they would not have accepted his reappearance as proof of the afterlife Zalmoxis taught.
So the parallels we have are the following: Zalmoxis was said to have risen from the dead, just like Jesus, he promised his followers an eternity with “all good things” which sounds an awful lot like the Christian heaven, and Zalmoxis’ resurrection was taken as proof that there would be an afterlife, as it was with Jesus (1 Cor. 15:14 “If Christ has not been raised… Our preaching is useless…”).
Besides the monotheism present in this belief, there are a few stark differences between Jesus and Zalmoxis, namely what Herodotus reports in Persian Wars 4.94:
“To this god every five years they send a messenger, who is chosen by lot out of the whole nation, and charged to bear him their several requests. Their mode of sending him is this. A number of them stand in order, each holding in his hand three darts; others take the man who is to be sent to Zalmoxis, and swinging him by his hands and feet, toss him into the air so that he falls upon the points of the weapons. If he is pierced and dies, they think that the god is propitious to them; but if not, they lay the fault on the messenger, who (they say) is a wicked man: and so they choose another to send away. The messages are given while the man is still alive. This same people, when it lightens and thunders, aim their arrows at the sky, uttering threats against the god; and they do not believe that there is any god but their own.”
Here is a story of Pythagoras which comes from Chapter 8 of Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras:
“One day, during a trip from Sybaris to Crotona, by the sea-shore, he happened to meet some fishermen engaged in drawing up from the deep their heavily-laden fish-nets. He told them he knew the exact number of the fish they had caught. The surprised fishermen declared that if he was right they would do anything he said. He then ordered them, after counting the fish accurately, to return them alive to the sea, and what is more wonderful, while he stood on the shore, not one of them died, though they had remained out of their natural element quite a little while. Pythagoras then paid the fisher-men the price of their fish, and departed for Crotona. The fishermen divulged the occurrence, and on discovering his name from some children, spread it abroad publicly. Everybody wanted to see the stranger, which was easy enough to do. They were deeply impressed on beholding his countenance, which indeed betrayed his real nature.”
The story parallels one found in John 15:5-11, where:
“[Jesus] called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’
‘No,’ they answered.
He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ‘It is the Lord,’ he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’ Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.”
Although Iamblichus (the writer of “Life of Pythagoras”) was born over 100 years after the gospel of John was written, the Pythagoreans had already been around centuries before the Christian movement, and therefore anything Iamblichus recorded may very well have been around long before the Christians.
Furthermore, the fact that John records the exact number of fish (153) which just so happens to be a triangular number, certainly of special importance to the mathematically-inclined Pythagoreans, indicates that the Christians borrowed from the Pythagoreans (not the other way around).
Finally, John’s story neglects to say that anyone bothered counting the fish! So how could John have known? The detail makes sense only in a story in which Jesus intuited the number of fish, which again suggests that the Pythagorean story is original.
There are other parallels between Pythagoras and Jesus (Pythagoras was the Son of a divinity, conceived when his father was away on a business trip [as Jesus is conceived when his mother was unmarried, and therefore had to abstain from sex] and taught in parables, see chapters 2, 8 and 23 of Life of Pythagoras), but I do not see any clear evidence that the Christians stole those elements from the Pythagoreans as we see in the fish-catching story.
How should one interpret these parallels? Perhaps some of these parallels, such as those between Zalmoxis and Jesus, are merely the result of similar human brains coming up with similar ideas. Perhaps others, such as the resurrection-after-three-days of Inana, are the result of similar Middle-Eastern cultural beliefs (See Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ”, published in The Empty Tomb).
Even more important is Dennis MacDonald’s suggestion: “Can one understand why the author targeted the particular antecedent and how she transformed it to serve her own ends? Marcan imitation frequently satisfies this criterion by exalting Jesus at the expense of the vices or weakness of the heroes in their models.” (Page 9, The Homeric Epics and Mark). Perhaps it is worth asking why the gospel writers may have borrowed these stories, and how the differences may reflect a desire to convey a different message. I believe I’ve spotted why Matthew altered the story of the Buddhist disciple walking on water. But I’d like the reader to study the passages and see for themselves. What do you think?