|A series of articles on
The study of Jesus from a mythographical perspective is the examination of the narrative of Jesus, the Christ ("the Anointed") of the gospels, Christian theology and folk Christianity as a central part of Christian mythology. Such study may also involve comparison between Christian beliefs about Jesus and beliefs about other gods or mythological characters. The relevance of myth to the study of Jesus and the Gospels is generally rejected by modern scholarship.
Instead, the study of Jesus Christ as myth is popularly associated with a skeptical position toward the historicity of Jesus. Proponents of a mythical origin of Christianity allow that some gospel material may have been drawn from a historical preacher or preachers, but they hold that these preachers were not in any sense "the founder of Christianity"; rather they contend that Christianity emerged organically from Hellenistic Judaism, dubbed the "Christ myth theory". However, the study of parallels between the narrative of Christ and other mythological figures does not prejudice Jesus' historicity, and is open to several interpretations besides ahistoricity:
In current scholarly discussion, the application of foreign myth to understanding Jesus and the New Testament gospels is of doubtful relevance. Scholars look towards understanding Jesus within first century Palestinian Judaism as opposed to pre and post-Christian mythologies. However, current theories surrounding the mythological aspects of the Christ arose from 19th century scholarship on the formation of myth, in the work of writers such as Max Müller and James Frazer. Müller argued that religions originated in mythic stories of the birth, death, and rebirth of the Sun. Frazer further attempted to explain the origins of humanity's mythic beliefs in the idea of a "sacrificial king", associated with the Sun as a dying and reviving god and its connection to the regeneration of the earth in springtime. Frazer did not doubt the historicity of Jesus, however, stating, "my theory assumes the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth... The doubts which have been cast upon the historical reality of Jesus are...unworthy of serious attention."
Myth as a category describing the miraculous in the Gospels came to prominence in the nineteenty century, especially by D.F. Strauss who included all the miraculous in the Gospels. For Strauss, myth was interpreted as the expression of an idea in narrative form in contrast to a truely historical event. Strauss' rationale  James D.G. Dunn describes the logic behind this movement as: "Since “myth” was used as a category to describe the foundational stories of other religions, including miraculous births and the like, why should it be withheld from the equivalent stories about Jesus?" However, the impact of Strauss' approach to the miraculous and understanding of myth have not lasted.
The most influential of the books arguing for a mythic Jesus was Arthur Drews's The Christ-Myth (1909) which brought together the scholarship of the day in defence of the idea that Christianity had been a Jewish Gnostic cult that spread by appropriating aspects of Greek philosophy and Frazerian death-rebirth deities. This combination of arguments became the standard form of the mythic Christ theory. In Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), Bertrand Russell stated that even if Jesus existed, which he doubted, the public does not "know anything" about him.
Rudolf Bultmann in his 1941 lecture New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Message called on interpreters to replace traditional theology with the philosophy Martin Heidegger, an endeavor intending to translate what Bultmann considered "theology in story form" into a format palatable to a literate modern audience.
Pinchas Lapide in the 1970s and 1980s was a strong proponent of recovering historical, Jewish, Jesus from beneath the layers of Christian mythology. Lapide saw the historical Jesus as a rabbi in the Hasidean tradition of Hillel and Hanina Ben Dosa, and in the context of Jewish independence struggle against Roman occupation. In The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), edited by John Hick, a team of seven British theologians argued from a position within the Church that God's incarnation in Christ is mythical.
Contemporary to Rudolf Bultmann's interpretation of the New Testament narrative as valid theology in story form, Christian mythologists such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien understood the narrative of Christ's sacrificial death of atonement for humanity as a "true myth" with the special property that it had been enacted historically in time and space. Lewis wrote, "The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened." In this view, mythological predecessors of the "drama" of Christ were inspired glimpses of divine truth that would only become fully manifest at an appointed moment and place, viz. in Roman Judea. For these authors, the mythological elements in the story of the Christ do not undermine but rather enhance the transcendental truth of the gospel.
Different from Bultmann, Lewis and Tolkien did not intend to demythologize the gospel, understanding myth as an intrinsic component of its truth. Instead, they felt a challenge to make use of their "subcreative" powers to rework these mythemes into mythologies of their own in their works of fiction.
In 1977, this line of argument received attention from academic theology, The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick. In this volume, a team of seven British theologians takes a position from within the Church to the effect that God's incarnation in Christ is mythical. They argue that
New Testament scholarship has shown how fragmentary and ambiguous are the data available to us as we try to look back across nineteen and a half centuries, and at the same time how large and variable is the contribution of the imagination to our "pictures" of Jesus [...] The metaphysical uniqueness of Jesus, as traditionally taught, has always been taken to have carried with it a unique moral perfection [...] It is impossible to justify any such claim on purely historical grounds, however wide the net for evidence is cast. So far as the gospels are concerned, the material in them is too scanty, and too largely selected and organized with reference to other considerations, to provide the necessary evidence.
Michael Green edited a response from evangelical theologians entitled 'The Truth of God Incarnate'.
Regardless of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, the titles accorded to him in the New Testament and later literature clearly establish him in the tradition of both Hebrew and Hellenistic culture, as a semi-divine or deified hero or sacred king (Christ or Messiah), and as a saviour (soter). This circumstance is by no means in contradiction to a historical figure as outlined by the gospel, it is rather the predictable interpretation of a story of a "dead and risen Son of God" by the Hellenistic public of the early centuries AD, and during the Constantinian shift (between the Edict of Milan of 313 and the prohibition of pagan cults by Theodosius I in 391) even a conscious amalgamation of the tenets of the early Church Fathers with established cult practice of Roman imperial cult. The identification of Christ with Sol Invictus and the establishment of the Pontifex Maximus as the "steward of Christ" in the Roman church is a result of this process of amalgamation. Similarly, Christian liturgy and liturgical calendar were modelled after Roman examples, e.g. the adoption of the festival of Sol Invictus to commemorate the Epiphany of Christ.
The basic theme of demonic imitation is that the devil also imitated the prophecies in the Old Testament so that he had a collection of stories similar to the ones told about Jesus. The purpose of this would be to mislead those seeking salvation either to follow false gods or to deny that in Jesus's case these events really occurred.
He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race: and (thirdly) that before He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated, in the same manner .... Those who believe these things we pity, and those who invented them we know to be devils.... But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvellous tales, like the things which were said by the poets. And these things were said both among the Greeks and among all nations where they [the demons] heard the prophets foretelling that Christ would specially be believed in; but that in hearing what was said by the prophets they did not accurately understand it, but imitated what was said of our Christ, like men who are in error, we will make plain. The prophet Moses, then, was, as we have already said, older than all writers; and by him, as we have also said before, it was thus predicted: "There shall not fail a prince from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until He come for whom it is reserved; and He shall be the desire of the Gentiles, binding His foal to the vine, washing His robe in the blood of the grape." Genesis 49:10 The devils, accordingly, when they heard these prophetic words, said that Bacchus was the son of Jupiter, and gave out that he was the discoverer of the vine, and they number wine [or, the ass] among his mysteries; and they taught that, having been torn in pieces, he ascended into heaven. And because in the prophecy of Moses it had not been expressly intimated whether He who was to come was the Son of God, and whether He would, riding on the foal, remain on earth or ascend into heaven, and because the name of "foal" could mean either the foal of an ass or the foal of a horse, they, not knowing whether He who was foretold would bring the foal of an ass or of a horse as the sign of His coming, nor whether He was the Son of God, as we said above, or of man, gave out that Bellerophon, a man born of man, himself ascended to heaven on his horse Pegasus. And when they heard it said by the other prophet Isaiah, that He should be born of a virgin, and by His own means ascend into heaven, they pretended that Perseus was spoken of. And when they knew what was said, as has been cited above, in the prophecies written aforetime, "Strong as a giant to run his course," they said that Hercules was strong, and had journeyed over the whole earth. And when, again, they learned that it had been foretold that He should heal every sickness, and raise the dead, they produced Æsculapius. And the devils, indeed, having heard this washing published by the prophet, instigated those who enter their temples, and are about to approach them with libations and burnt-offerings, also to sprinkle themselves...From what has been already said, you can understand how the devils, in imitation of what was said by Moses, asserted that Proserpine was the daughter of Jupiter, and instigated the people to set up an image of her under the name of Kore,...
Opinions of a purely or primarily mythical Christ originate in the late 18th century with Charles François Dupuis. In works published in the 1790s, both argued that numerous ancient myths, including the life of Jesus, were based on the movement of the sun through the zodiac. Dupuis identified pre-Christian rituals in Syria, Egypt and Persia as representing the birth of a god to a virgin at the winter solstice, and connected this to the winter rising of the constellation of Virgo. The first academic advocate was the 19th century historian and theologian Bruno Bauer. Proponents such as Arthur Drews were influential in biblical studies during the early 20th century. The hypothesis is mostly considered obsolete in current scholarship, but a number of authors such as George Albert Wells, Earl Doherty and Robert M. Price have discussed similar ideas in popular literature in the 1970s to 2000s.
He is a scion of the royal blood of David, King of the Jews, King of Kings, and the divine Word incarnated. He is the predestined Saviour, recognized at birth by magi, but has to avoid being killed by Herod, by fleeing into exile. As an infant, he is part of the Holy Family often associated with the Holy Trinity in Christian symbolism.
As a grown man, he is baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus is identified as the Son of God and receives the Spirit of God in a form similar to a dove. After withstanding temptation to abuse his divine powers, he attracts a body of followers, the Twelve Apostles, and wanders around the land preaching and performing miraculous healing. In one instance, his transfiguration in front of his closest followers again reveals him as the Son of God, conversing with two important prophets of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah.
At the same time as the Son of God, Jesus is also the Son of Man, he is essentially both Man and God incarnate, transcending the status of demigod of half-man and half-god by being fully God and fully man at the same time in hypostatic union.
Following a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Last Supper where he gives a final sermon, he is betrayed, apprehended, flogged, and driven out to the place of execution, where he is crucified, accompanied by dark omens, both chthonic (earthquakes) and celestial (eclipse).
He dies and his body is prepared for internment and placed in a tomb. On the third day he rises from the dead and appears bodily resurrected to his followers, before miraculously ascending to heaven. For his death to atone for humanity, he is given the title Lamb of God, after the sacrificial lamb of Hebrew tradition, and as the Christ (Messiah, Anointed) in reference to his fulfilling of prophecies of a royal saviour. His followers are given the divine spirit in order to carry on his mission, and are charged with ritually commemorating his death in the sacrament of the Eucharist, involving symbolic ingestion of Christ's body.
Authors who move away from the understanding of Jesus emerging from first century Palestinian Judaism point to mythologies and themes present in wider Greco-Roman and Semitic cultures. These proponents may point to what they interpret as parallels- possibly arising from dependence. Mythemes pointed to include sacral kingship and "theophagy", the eating of the body of a fertility god, traced by Walter Burkert to a neolithic fertility rite surrounding a god who needs to die and rise again in order to feed the community, sublimated in the Christian eucharist.
In comparative mythology, there is always the danger of parallelomania, as Samuel Sandmel (1962) calls it, the excessive and superficial identification of what are really mythic universals. Sandmel cautions that
Self-taught amateur Egyptologist Gerald Massey argued that the deity of Horus and Jesus shared identical mythological origins in his 1907 book Ancient Egypt, the light of the world. His views have been repeated by theologian Tom Harpur, author Acharya S, and stand-up comedian Bill Maher. Theologian W. Ward Gasque composed an e-mail to twenty leading Egyptologists, including Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool Kenneth Kitchen, and Professor of Egyptology at the University of Toronto Ron Leprohan. The e-mail detailed the comparisons alleged by Massey which had been repeated by Harpur. The scholars were unanimous in dismissing any similarities suggested by Massey, and one Egyptologist criticized the comparison as "fringe nonsense."
To the right a 15th century painting by Fra Filippo Lippi of the Madonna. On the left Isis and Horus, the wife-sister and son of Osiris. "When Christianity was spreading across the Empire, it's clear that it deliberately took images from the pagan world in which it lived and into which it spread and used those images."
"The Egyptians of every period in which they are known to us believed that Osiris was of divine origin, that he suffered death and mutilation at the hands of the powers of evil, that after a great struggle with these powers he rose again, that he became henceforth the king of the underworld and judge of the dead, and that because he had conquered death the righteous also might conquer death...In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus, they perceived the prototypes of the Virgin Mary and her child."
Biblical scholar Bruce M. Metzger notes that in one account of the Osirian cycle he dies on the 17th of the month of Athyr (approximating to a month between October 28 and November 26 in modern calendars), is revivified on the 19th and compares this to Christ rising on the "third day" but thinks "resurrection" is a questionable description. In contrast Christ Myth proponent George Albert Wells refers to Plutarch's account and asserts that Osiris dies and is mourned on the first day and that his resurrection is celebrated on the third day with the joyful cry "Osiris has been found". He also argues that St. Paul's comparison of bodily resurrection with a seed being planted, and corn then growing (1 Cor 15:35-38), is based on Ancient Egyptian concepts in which the germinating seeds in Osiris beds represent resurrection.
Plutarch and others have noted that the sacrifices to Osiris were “gloomy, solemn, and mournful...” (Isis and Osiris, 69) and that the great mystery festival, celebrated in two phases, began at Abydos on the 17th of Athyr (November 13) commemorating the death of the god, which is also the same day that grain was planted in the ground. “The death of the grain and the death of the god were one and the same: the cereal was identified with the god who came from heaven; he was the bread by which man lives. The resurrection of the god symbolized the rebirth of the grain.” (Larson 17) The annual festival involved the construction of “Osiris Beds” formed in the shape of Osiris, filled with soil and sown with seed. The germinating seed symbolized Osiris rising from the dead. An almost pristine example was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter.
The first phase of the festival was a public drama depicting the murder and dismemberment of Osiris, the search of his body by Isis, his triumphal return as the resurrected god, and the battle in which Horus defeated Set. This was all presented by skilled actors as a literary history, and was the main method of recruiting cult membership. According to Julius Firmicus Maternus of the fourth century, this play was re-enacted each year by worshippers who “beat their breasts and gashed their shoulders.... When they pretend that the mutilated remains of the god have been found and rejoined...they turn from mourning to rejoicing.” (De Errore Profanorum).
The passion of Osiris is reflected in his name 'Wenennefer" ("the one who continues to be perfect"), which also alludes to his post mortem power.
Parts of this Osirian mythology have prompted comparisons with later Christian beliefs and practices.
Egyptologist Erik Hornung observes that Egyptian Christians continued to mummify corpses (an integral part of the Osirian beliefs) until it finally came to an end with the arrival of Islam and argues for an association between the passion of Jesus and Osirian traditions, particularly in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus and Christ's descent into Hades. He concludes that whilst Christianity rejected anything "pagan" it did so only at a superficial level and that early Christianity was "deeply indebted" to Ancient Egypt."
David J. MacLeod argues that the resurrection of Osiris differs from Jesus Christ, saying
"Perhaps the only pagan god for whom there is a resurrection is the Egyptian Osiris. Close examination of this story shows that it is very different from Christ's resurrection. Osiris did not rise; he ruled in the abode of the dead. As biblical scholar, Roland de Vaux, wrote, 'What is meant of Osiris being "raised to life?" Simply that, thanks to the ministrations of Isis, he is able to lead a life beyond the tomb which is an almost perfect replica of earthly existence. But he will never again come among the living and will reign only over the dead. This revived god is in reality a "mummy" god.'... No, the mummified Osiris was hardly an inspiration for the resurrected Christ... As Yamauchi observes, 'Ordinary men aspired to identification with Osiris as one who had triumphed over death. But it is a mistake to equate the Egyptian view of the afterlife with the biblical doctrine of resurrection. To achieve immortality the Egyptian had to meet three conditions: First, his body had to be preserved by mummification. Second, nourishment was provided by the actual offering of daily bread and beer. Third, magical spells were interred with him. His body did not rise from the dead; rather elements of his personality - his Ba and Ka - continued to hover over his body.'"
A. J. M. Wedderburn further argues that resurrection in Ancient Egypt differs from the "very negative features" in Judaeo-Christian tradition, as the Ancient Egyptians conceived of the afterlife as entry into the glorious kingdom of Osiris.
Marvin Mayer notes that some scholars regard the idea of dying and rising deities in the mystery religions as being fanciful but suggests this may be motivated by apologetic concerns, attempting to keep Christ's resurrection as a unique event. In contrast he argues that the ancient story of dying and rising in the divine, human and crops, (with Osiris as an example), is vindicated and reaches a conclusion in Christianity.
Some believe that the close maternal relationship between Isis and Horus presented in ancient Egyptian imagery were incorporated into later Christian iconography. In particular, the depictions of Mary and Jesus from Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the Black Madonna of Częstochowa share many similarities to extant ancient Egyptian art depictions of Horus and Isis. Egyptologist Erik Hornung wrote that "There was an obvious analogy between the Horus child and the baby Jesus and the care they received from their sacred mothers; long before Christianity, Isis had borne the epithet 'mother of the god.'"
This is the result of early Christian exposure to Egyptian art. In a survey of "twenty leading Egyptologists" by Dr. W. Ward Gasque, a Christian scholar, found that all who responded recognised "that the image of the baby Horus and Isis has influenced the Christian iconography of Madonna and Child" but that there were no other similarities, e.g. no evidence that Horus was born of a virgin, had twelve followers, etc.
 Shed is an Ancient Egyptian deity, popularly called, 'the savior' and is first recorded after the Amarna Period. Representing the concept of salvation he is identified with Horus and in particular "Horus the Child". Rather than have formal worship in a temple or as an official cult, he appears to have been a god that ordinary Egyptians looked to to save them from illness, misfortune or danger. He is shown on the Metternich Stela as vanquishing danger in the form of a serpent, a scorpion and a crocodile.
The rise of "Savior" names in personal piety during the Amarna period has been interpreted as the popular response of ordinary people to the attempts by Akhenaten to proscribe the ancient religion of Egypt. Shed has also been viewed as a form of the ancient Semitic god Reshef. Shed can be depicted as a young prince overcoming snakes, lions and crocodiles.
Shed has been viewed as a form of savior, a helper for those in need when state authority or the Kings help is wanting. The increased reliance on divine assistance could even extend to saving a person from the underworld, even to providing a substitute, and lengthening a person's time in this world. In the New Kingdom Shed "the savior" is addressed on countless stelae by people searching or praising him for help.
Tammuz-Adonis is the Mesopotamian archetype of the dying and risen-again fertility god. His cult involved ritual mourning. The Pan-Babylonianist school in particular derives many later myths from this complex, popularized by Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, which further parallels Tammuz and Christ as well as Joseph and Osiris. Tammuz is paralleled to Christ in particular by his epithet, the shepherd.
The Greek Eleusinian Mysteries were an initiation cult surrounding Demeter, her daughter Persephone, and the agricultural hero Triptolemus. The derived Hellenistic Orphic traditions syncretized Greek traditions with Egyptian and Mesopotamian elements. In the Orphic tradition, it is Dionysus who is killed and resurrected. Orphism puts strong emphasis on salvation in the afterlife. Orphism and Hermeticism strongly influenced Platonist mysticism which in turn was a formative influence on late antique Christian theology.
The worship of Mithras was widespread in much of the Roman Empire from the mid-2nd century CE. The Mithra cult in the Roman Empire was a syncretism of different religious motifs, centered on the god Mithras who emerges from a rock. Its closest similarities to Christianity are the story of the slaying of the bull by Mithras; a bull is captured and killed by Mithras when he plunges a knife into it and from the dead bull grain and plants are produced, that symbolize life. Mithras was a solar deity, closely associated with the Roman Sol Invictus.
The gospels present Jesus as a figure rooted in and foretold by the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, notably the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Daniel. Thus, Jesus' nativity is placed in Bethlehem to comply with Micah 5:2, and Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem is designed to answer Zechariah 9:9-10.
A small amount of material is unique to the gospel of Matthew, that is, not reconstructed for the hypothetical source document of the synoptic gospels ("Q"). In this Jesus is presented with strong parallels to Old Testament figures, most noticeably Moses.
Work done by prominent Q scholars such as John Kloppenborg identifies Q's genre as ancient Near-Eastern "instruction", which consistently attributes its wisdom to a human figure and not the personified Wisdom that one finds in the biblical book of Proverbs.
While historians of early Christianity concentrate on parallels with myths current in the Greco-Roman and Semitic cultures of the 1st century, parallels were also claimed to have also been found in Buddhism. In some cases, these have been interpreted as having a direct influence on early Christianity.
The possible influence of Buddhism on Christianity (and possibly of the Essenes) has been suggested, but with more emphasis on doctrine than mythology. Nevertheless, it has been noted that the life of Christ bears strong similarities to the life of Buddha. This was initially interpreted by certain Catholic missionaries in terms of the "demonic imitation" theory. More recently it has been taken by some scholars as far as a "Copycat Christ" theory, postulating that Jesus is simply a Judaistic retelling of the story of Buddha. Thus, T. W. Doane in his 1882 Bible Myths opined that "nothing now remains for the honest man to do but acknowledge the truth, which is that the history of Jesus of Nazareth as related in the books of the New Testament, is simply a copy of that of Buddha, with a mixture of mythology borrowed from other nations." (p. 286)
Max Müller in his 1873 Introduction to the Science of Religion noted that
Th. J. Plange in 1906 concluded that early Christianity was the product of Buddhist missionaries. Such ideas were critically reviewed by Richard Garbe in his 1914 Indien und das Christentum. Garbe noted that the similarities between Christian and Buddhist tradition have invited much dilettante speculation, but he nevertheless acknowledged some possible influence, in particular on later Christian legend (suggesting that Josaphat is a corrupted form of Bodhisattva, and identifying Eustachius and Hubertus with Samantabhadra). Garbe accepted the historicity of Christ, but identified four passages in the gospel narrative as borrowed from Buddhist scripture.
Jesus has in turn left traces in other mythologies. This holds for 2nd to 3rd century mystery religions and the emergence of Gnosticism; in Reinventing Jesus, the authors put forth the position that "Only after 100 A.D. did the mysteries begin to look very much like Christianity, precisely because their existence was threatened by this new religion. They had to compete to survive.".
Within Christian culture, the Christ myth is reflected in many allegories or mythologies, in post-Nicean apocrypha such as the Acts of Pilate, in medieval Mystery plays, Piers Plowman, The Pilgrim's Progress, Milton's Paradise Lost (and, more pertinent to Christ, Paradise Regained), sometimes advocated as historical (such as the "Jesus bloodline" theories), sometimes ostensibly "pure myth" or Biblical speculative fiction (such as C. S. Lewis' Narnia).