Was Jesus a Copycat?

want to describe someone, and I am sure you will immediately know who I am referring to. This person was born of a virgin on December 25, in a cave attended by shepherds. He was a great travelling teacher with 12 disciples, who promised his followers immortality. He sacrificed himself for world peace, was buried in a tomb, and rose after 3 days. He was called the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Logos, the Redeemer, and the Saviour. Who could I be talking about? If you guessed Jesus, you would be wrong. That is a description of Mithras, a religious figure that existed long before Jesus ever did. Christians copied the story of Jesus from this religion as you can see.

The above statement is a widely circulated claim, and one that should be taken seriously. The internet is littered with numerous videos, articles, and blogs, purporting to disprove Christianity with things like this, and they have shaken the faith of many Christians with their claims. But should they? Is Jesus really just a carbon copy of other gods like Mithras, Horus and Osiris?

I want to start by saying that it is really hard to take this challenge seriously. This entire theory has been thoroughly debunked by scholars dating back to the 1800’s. But somehow, the online skeptic crowd still seems to think it’s a great reason to not be a Christian, and have convinced many others to believe this lie. In all honesty, I feel bad for anyone who feels the need to fabricate stories like this as an excuse to reject God. I have a strong suspicion that any Christian who tried to be so dishonest in their attack on atheism would likely be chased right off the internet. That being said, let’s take this challenge as a serious one and see what we come up with.

First and foremost, let’s deal with the facts. How many of the descriptive elements listed above are ones that Jesus shares?

  1. Born of a virgin – All known Mithraic traditions depict him emerging from a rock, fully grown and naked, wearing a hat, and holding a dagger and a torch. Does a rock count as a virgin?
  2. Born on December 25 – While Mithras was loosely associated with December 25, I don’t think anyone actually believes that Jesus was born on that day. It is almost universally accepted by scholars and historians that His birthday is unknown.
  3. Born in a cave attended by shepherds – Jesus was never described as being born in a cave. Ever. And once again, Mithras was born out of a rock.
  4. A great travelling teacher with 12 disciples – Mithras was a god, not a teacher. He didn’t have 12 disciples, or any for that matter.
  5. Sacrificed himself for world peace – Mithras was known for killing a bull. He certainly didn’t die for anyone’s peace. Not to mention that Jesus didn’t die for world peace either, but rather for the sins of humanity.
  6. Buried in a tomb and rose in 3 days – There are no traditions at all about Mithras ever dying. So I guess that rules out a resurrection…..
  7. Mithras was never referred to as the Good Shepherd, or any of the other titles listed.

In reality, little is known about Mithras, because we have almost zero textual evidence regarding him or his followers. In fact, most of what is known about Mithraism comes from second century Christian writers, describing it as a copycat cult. Any apparent similarities between Christianity and Mithraism are most likely due to the fact that Mithras followers copied Christians – not the other way around.

Whenever I encounter someone who believes this to be a good explanation for the origins of Christianity, I usually have a couple of standard questions:

1: Have you ever read any primary sources for these claims, as in the actual historical documents? Or did you get them from Youtube? (the latter has always been the case so far)

2: Christianity emerged in a fiercely mono-theistic, Jewish context. Does it really make sense to believe that the early disciples thought they would convince any Jews by trying to make Jesus sound like some pagan deity?

If they had actually done that, Christianity as we know it would not exist today. It emerged however, on the strength of the eyewitness claims of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples went to their deaths proclaiming to have seen, talked with, ate with, and touched the resurrected Jesus. The early church exploded from that movement, and by the 300’s it had taken over the Roman Empire without shedding a drop of anyone’s blood. Except of course, that of all the people who were martyred for their refusal to deny Christ. Trying to brush historical facts like these aside with “copycat religion” claims, simply does not do justice in explaining the way Christianity emerged, or how it changed the world.

For followers of Jesus who encounter claims such as these, we need not be alarmed at all. We should however, be ready to dispatch these misguided ideas with truth, both for seekers, and for those in the church who may be shaken by them.

Although I focused on Mithras, many skeptics and sensationalists have substituted other gods like Horus, Osiris, Attis, Krishna and many others. Of all of them, Mithras is the closest, although not by much as anyone can see.

For further easy reading on the subject, I recommend The Case For The Real Jesus by Lee Strobel, in which he discusses the subject with Dr Edwin M. Yamauchi.

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