What to Make of the Christ Myth Hypothesis

man wearing brown jacket and using grey laptop

Come back in time with me, all the way back to the magical year of 2007.  I had a beautiful, thick head of hair… My wife was pregnant with our first child. I was living in Eger, Hungary, where we had planted a church which I was pastoring, and I had just gotten broadband internet hooked up in our flat. There was this new thing around at that time called YouTube, we weren’t sure if it was going to catch on or not… I mean, who wants to watch videos on their computer???

There on YouTube, I came across this video called Zeitgeist, which is basically a big conspiracy theory that says that everything you’ve ever been told about everything is a lie, conjured up by people who want to control you. Overall, I didn’t take the movie seriously, but… the beginning of the movie made some pretty serious claims about Jesus and the Bible that gave me pause when I first heard them…

The Claims

For example, the video claimed that 3000 years before Jesus, the Egyptians had a god named Horus who was:

  • Born on December 25
  • Born of a virgin
  • His birth was marked by a star in the East
  • He was adored by 3 kings
  • He was a teacher at age 12
  • He was baptized and began his ministry at age 30
  • He had 12 disciples

Sound like anyone else you’ve heard of before? They went on…

BHgUOqGCUAEyAst.png
Stills from video

The basic premise of their claims is that all the stuff the Bible says about Jesus was just ripped off and plagiarized from other ancient religions. For a moment, these claims surprised me and shook me, because I had never heard this before, and I realized that if these claims were true, then Christianity is just a myth and is not true…

The Reality: the “Christ Myth Hypothesis” is a misinformation campaign

I figured it was pretty important to find out whether the things this video claimed were true, so I immediately went and did some research.

Here’s what I found: these claims are nothing new, they have been around for hundreds of years AND they have been disproven and are not taken seriously by anyone who knows anything about history because their claims are false.

Several books and films have been produced by “evangelical atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and Tim Harper which promote these claims as the basis for why people should abandon belief in the Bible.

Not only are the claims of the “Christ Myth Hypothesis” not true, but they are intentionally misleading, which is even worse. This is no mere misunderstanding, this is a misinformation campaign aimed at swaying people’s opinions using underhanded and dishonest means.

The Reality: Historical Facts Disprove the Christ Myth Hypothesis

One of the big claims of those who promote the Christ myth is that Jesus never actually existed.

How Do We Know that Jesus Really Existed?

Edwin Yamauchi, Professor of History at the University of Miami says this: “Any argument that challenges the claim of a historical Jesus is so ridiculous in the scholarly community, it is relegated only to the world of footnotes.”

Why? There are at least 10 sources, other than the Bible, that talk about Jesus as a historical person. Here are 2 examples:

  • Tacitus (Roman official):   “Nero fastened the guilt . . . (for a great fire that happened in Rome) on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44)
  • Josephus: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate condemned him to be crucified, those who had come to love him did not give up their affection for him.    On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life . . . and the tribe of Christians . . . has not disappeared.” (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.63–64)

Bart Ehrman is not a Christian, and yet he explains, “There is more evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ than there is for nearly any other person from antiquity,” and “Mythicists as a group, and as individuals, are not taken seriously by scholars,” because “the idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might as well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus.”

Another reason we can be sure that Jesus really existed is because of the rise of the early Christian church.

The rise of early Christianity doesn’t make any sense if Jesus never actually existed. It was a movement of people who claimed to have known, lived with, and witnessed the life, death and resurrection of this man, and as a result they willingly suffered persecution and death, including the torture and murder of their wives and children. Not even the leaders reaped any personal benefit from these claims at all. The history of early Christianity makes no sense apart from the fact that these people actually saw their leader crucified and then rise again.

Examining the Claims of the Christ Myth Hypothesis

Problem #1: Lack of Primary Sources

Problem #2: Gets basic facts about the Bible wrong

Let’s look at some of the specific claims, starting with the most popular: Horus.

Born on December 25
I hope I’m not ruining your Christmas, but Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. Nowhere in the Bible does it say when Jesus was born, in fact it is most likely it was not in winter, but in fall because it says in the Gospels that the shepherds were sleeping outside with their sheep – which they don’t do in Israel in December because it’s too cold.

It was around 400 AD, when Pope Julius I changed when the day when Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, to December 25th — in order to subvert a pagan holiday which was celebrated on the Winter Solstice.

Christians have never actually believed that Jesus was born on Dec. 25th — that’s just the day we chose to celebrated it. If you want to celebrate it in August, go for it!  So, December 25 is not an actual parallel.

Born of a Virgin

Here’s how Horus was conceived: His mom was a goddess named Isis — his dad was a god named Osiris. Osiris got into a fight with another god and lost (it’s such a bummer when your god loses…) The other god cut Osiris up and chopped him into pieces, and then Horus’ mom came along and found Osiris’ severed phallus — and yada, yada, yada — she got pregnant, and that’s how Horus was conceived.

I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count as a virgin birth, and it’s certainly not a parallel to Jesus.

Star in the East — Attended by 3 Kings

Again, I don’t want to ruin your Christmas — but the Bible doesn’t say that 3 kings followed a star and arrived at the birth of Jesus. The only people who came at the birth of Jesus were the shepherds from the nearby fields.

In the Gospel of Matthew — it says that a group of magi came from the East, when Jesus was about 2 years old, but nowhere does it says they were kings… “Magi” were magicians, sorcerers, practitioners of Zoroastrianism (Persian traditional religion).

Furthermore, nowhere does it say that there were 3 of them. It says that they brought 3 gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh —but there were probably more than 3 of them. There could have been 15 or 20 or 100. So, again: this isn’t a parallel.

Teacher at 12 and Baptized at 30 

There aren’t any references to any of these things in ancient writings regarding Horus.  

12 Disciples

The Hieroglyphics show that Horus actually had 4 disciples — and they were: a turtle, a bear, a lion and a tiger. Also not a parallel

Some people say that Horus was crucified and then resurrected on the 3rd day. However, crucifixion didn’t exist in Egypt — it was invented by the Romans thousands of years later. Furthermore, in most stories of Horus, he didn’t die. In one story, he was killed and cut up into pieces, then thrown into a swamp, in which the pieces turned into a crocodile – and THAT is claimed to be a resurrection which was supposedly copied by the Gospels!

Mithra: Born of a Virgin

Mithra, legend says, was actually born fully-formed, out of a rock. That’s not exactly a virgin birth.

Other “Parallels”

Another resurrection parallel that is sometimes claimed is the Greek god Attis, but if you look at his story, here’s how it goes: Attis gets killed by his father, then his father asks Zeus to resurrect him from the dead, and Zeus said: “No. But, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll make Attis’ pinky finger move eternally, and his hair will grow forever.”

Again that’s not resurrection, and there’s no parallel at all with Jesus.

Conclusion & Further Resources

It’s probably not a great idea to get historical information from YouTube videos and blatant propaganda materials, and yet many people do.

What makes Christianity unique is that it is not based on abstract ideas, feelings, or concepts, but it is based on historical events which either happened or they didn’t. The good news is that because of this, the claims of Christianity can be studied and researched from a historical perspective. Actual scholarly research and material refutes the claims of the Christ Myth Hypothesis and corroborates the claims of the gospel.

For further reading/listening, I recommend:

 

Gilgamesh, Richard Dawkins, & the Problem of Facts

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I’ve received some questions both on that page and on Calvary Live regarding the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Near East text which contains a flood narrative.

Some people claim that this text proves that the biblical story of Noah and the flood is just borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient Near Eastern mythology, and is not to be taken literally. This is part of a larger conspiracy theory which claims that much of Christianity is actually borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient Near Eastern mythologies, e.g. that Jesus was just borrowed from the Egyptian story of Horus and Isis.

Over the course of the next several posts, I will address various aspects of this conspiracy, and show why no real scholars believe this is true. The reason? Because it is simply not factual. It requires building a narrative which only sounds plausible until its claims are checked, at which time it becomes clear that they are not based on actual facts, research, or history.

Richard Dawkins & the Folk Religion of the New Atheism

Richard Dawkins is what you might call an “evangelical atheist”, which means that he isn’t content with just being an atheist himself, he is on a mission to convert the world to his views.

In his recent book, which is aimed specifically at converting children and young people to his brand of atheism, he claims that the Old Testament story of Noah comes from a Babylonian myth, the legend of Utnapishtim, which in turn was taken from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.

This claim caught the attention of George Heath-Whyte, a researcher at Cambridge who specializes in Assyriology and Near East history. Heath-Whyte then took to Twitter and wrote a scathing thread of tweets exposing the slew of factual errors in Dawkins’ book.

This was recently covered in an article on The Spectator titled, “If Richard Dawkins loves facts so much, why can’t he get them right?” The article summarizes the inaccuracies identified by Heath-Whyte in his chain of tweets.

Screen Shot 2019-09-28 at 2.27.43 PM.png

Here are a few highlights:

‘Well let’s start with “The Utnapishtim story … comes from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.” WHAT. The version of the Gilgamesh story that contains the flood narrative of Utnapishtim is NOT written in Sumerian, but Babylonian (Akkadian).

‘There are older Sumerian stories about the character Gilgamesh, none of which contain a flood story. There is even a Sumerian flood story too, but it’s not the flood story he’s talking about.

‘It seems he’s talking about a weird mix of one Babylonian flood story about a guy called Atrahasis and another Babylonian flood story about Utnapishtim (the latter being a part of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh)…

‘… but come on Dawkins, even Wikipedia could have told you that neither of these were written in Sumerian.’

That’s pretty embarrassing for a man who had just told Krishnan Guru-Murthy that he wants ‘to rid the world of all claims that are not evidence-based’. But Heath-Whyte was just getting into his stride.

‘Problem no. 2: “Arguably the world’s oldest work of literature, [Gilgamesh] was written two thousand years earlier than the Noah story.”

‘So he’s just stated that Genesis was written “during the Babylonian captivity” (sixth century BC), and now he’s stated that (what we assume he means to be) the epic of Atrahasis, or the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, was written 2,000 years earlier – so roughly 2600-2500 BC.

‘Most likely Atrahasis was written less than 1,300 years before the Babylonian captivity, and the version of Gilgamesh that included a flood story was probably finished less than 1,000 years before the Babylonian captivity, and likely quite a few centuries less than a thousand.

From the above-linked article:

Other mistakes identified by Heath-Whyte: Dawkins mixes up the animals in the Gilgamash and Genesis flood stories, and claims that the Sumerian flood legend, like the story of Noah’s Ark, ends with a rainbow. 

‘There’s no rainbow mentioned in any Mesopotamian flood story. Anywhere. There just isn’t,’ says Heath-Whyte, adding that in any case the former Oxford professor for the Public Understanding of Science has misidentified a Sumerian god. 

I think we can take Heath-Whyte’s word for it. Not only can he read the cuneiform in which Gilgamesh is written, but he can also write it.

If These Claims Are Not Historically Accurate, Where Do They Come From?

Continuing from the above-mentioned article:

Just when Dawkins must be wishing that a non-existent God would send a flood to cover his embarrassment, he delivers the killer blow. As he says, even Wikipedia would have put the professor right on these matters. So what was his source? ‘A quick Google search suggests that Dawkins’ source for a lot of this stuff may be a cute little website called HistoryWiz.’

I checked, and he’s right: this is the version of the Gilgamesh as mangled by HistoryWiz, which invites you to ‘step into the past… Let the wizard take you to a different time’. 

Alas, it looks as if you really do have to step into the past in order to consult the wizard. The site is ‘copyright 1998-2008’, there are loads of broken links and the design, c. 2000, is quaintly rudimentary. 

It seems clear that Richard Dawkins and others who make these claims about Gilgamesh are so committed to the conclusion they already religiously believe, that they are not concerned with real scholarship when it comes to creating their narrative.

The “New Atheism,” we might say, is a kind of folk religion which has its own shared beliefs, stories, and mythos, which are not actually based on fact or history.

In my next article I will explain what the Epic of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim character are, and how we should understand them in relation to the Bible.

Following that, I will discuss the “Jesus Myth” and the theory that what the New Testament says about Jesus is borrowed from ancient Egyptian and Near East mythology. What I hope to show in the end, is that these theories do not hold up to even the most basic fact-checking scrutiny, and are part of a mythos created by New Atheists and other who would try to discredit the Bible and erode faith in it.

A further question which follows from this is: Why are some people opposed to Christianity and the Bible? – a question which I plan to address as well.