Fresh off their failure with flat-earth claims, some atheists on my favorite message board are bringing on the copycat hypothesis. In case you’re not familiar with this one, let me summarize. The life story of Jesus Christ in the Gospels is actually copied from some pagan mythological character. Which character? Different claims abound. Some advocates seem to prefer saying that the Gospels were copied from some pagan source but won’t tell us which one.
In any case, the claim is untrue. Completely untrue. As we will now see.
(As always my goal here is to only give a summary response. Some sources for the facts I present will be included, and a list of further reading will appear at the end.)
The atheist who advances the copycat hypothesis usually begins by naming a Pagan deity. The three most popular seem to be the Egyptian God Horus, the Greek God Dionysius–also called Bacchus–and the enigmatic figure known as Mithras. The atheist will then say that the deity in question was born of a virgin, had twelve disciples, ordered his followers to eat his body in the form of bread and wine, was crucified, remained dead for three days, was resurrected, and perhaps had other similarities to story of Jesus in the Gospels. (Of course, if these people were truly atheists, surely they wouldn’t believe that Horus or Dionysius or whoever existed. What they actually mean is that these facts are supposedly true in the relevant mythology, but advocates rarely say that.) The atheist will then insist that these myths were written centuries before Christ, and that the entirety of Christianity is therefor plagiarized from pagan sources.
Such claims are simply wrong. When you stop believing everything you read on the internet and start checking reliable academic works or primary source material, you find not the slightest bit of evidence to back up what is being claimed. For example, let’s take a look at the character of Horus. The source material here, is the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is not a proper book at all, but a collection of ancient Egyptian writings spanning a long time frame. The authoritative translation of the texts s by E. A. Wallace Budge and is available online here. Budge also provides a summary of the legend of the god Osiris and his wife Isis; Horus was their son.
The relevant portion of the legend reads:
Isis sought her son Horus in Buto, in Lower Egypt, first having hidden the chest in a secret place. But Typhon, one night hunting by the light of the moon, found the chest, and, recognizing the body, tore it into fourteen pieces, which he scattered up and down throughout the land. When Isis heard of this she took a boat made of papyrus–a plant abhorred by crocodiles–and sailing about she gathered the fragments of Osiris’s body. Wherever she found one, there she built a tomb. But now Horus had grown up, and being encouraged to the use of arms by Osiris, who returned from the other world, he went out to do battle with Typhon, the murderer of his father. The fight lasted many days, and Typhon was made captive. But Isis, to whom the care of the prisoner was given, so far from aiding her son Horus, set Typhon at liberty. Horus in his rage tore from her head the royal diadem; but Thoth gave her a helmet in the shape of a cow’s head. In two other battles fought between Horus and Typhon, Horus was the victor.
An account of the battle is also given in the IVth Sallier papyrus, wherein we are told that it took place on the 26th day of the month Thoth. Horus and Set fought in the form of two men, but they afterwards changed themselves into two bears, and they passed three days and three nights in this form. Victory inclined now to one side, and now to the other, and the heart of Isis suffered bitterly. When Horus saw that she loosed the fetters which he had laid upon Set, he became like a “raging panther of the south with fury,” and she fled before him; but he pursued her, and cut off her head, which Thoth transformed by his words of magical power and set upon her body again in the form of that of a cow.
The virgin birth, twelve disciples, eucharist, crucifixion, resurrection, and all other supposed similarities to Jesus seem to have gone missing. Do some research on other characters supposedly similar to Christ and you’ll find the same thing. Dionysius, for instance:
According to one myth, Dionysus is the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman, (daughter of Cadmus of Thebes). Semele is killed by Zeus’ lightning bolts while Dionysus is still in her womb. Dionysus is rescued and undergoes a second birth from Zeus after developing in his thigh. Zeus then gives the infant to some nymphs to be raised. In another version, one with more explicit religious overtones, Dionysus, also referred to as Zagreus in this account, is the son of Zeus and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Hera gets the Titans to lure the infant with toys, and then they rip him to shreds eating everything but Zagreus’ heart, which is saved by either Athena Rhea, or Demeter. Zeus remakes his son from the heart and implants him in Semele who bears a new Dionysus Zagreus. Hence, as in the earlier account, Dionysus is called “twice born.” The latter account formed a part of the Orphic religion’s religious mythology.
It does seem clear that Dionysus, at least the Phrygian Dionysus, was a late arrival in the Greek world and in Greek mythology. He is hardly mentioned at all in the Homeric epics, and when he is it is with some hostility. A number of his stories are tales of how Dionysus moved into a city, was resisted, and then destroyed those who opposed him. The most famous account of this is that of Euripides in his play the Bacchae. He wrote this play while in the court of King Archelaus of Macedon, and nowhere do we see Dionysus more destructive and his worship more dangerous than in this play. Scholars have speculated not unreasonably that in Macedon Euripides discovered a more extreme form of the religion of Dionysus being practiced than the more civil, quiet forms in Athens.
Briefly, Dionysus returns to Thebes, his putative birthplace, where his cousin Pentheus is king. He has returned to punish the women of Thebes for denying that he was a god and born of a god. Pentheus is enraged at the worship of Dionysus and forbids it, but he cannot stop the women, including his mother Agave, or even the elder statesmen of the kingdom from swarming to the wilds to join the Maenads (a term given to women under the ecstatic spell of Dionysus) in worship. Dionysus lures Pentheus to the wilds where he is killed by the Maenads and then mutilated by Agave.
And then there’s Mithras. About this character very little is known. There were actually several different cults devoted to Mithras. One flourished in India and Persia around the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. A new one sprang up in Rome late in the first century A.D. The copycatists try to insist that Christianity was copied from this later, Roman cult, despite the fact that it came into existence generations later than Christianity. Quoting Dr. Edwin Yamauchi from The Case for the Real Jesus:
“Mithraism as a religion cannot be attested before about 90 A.D. … The earliest Mithraic inscription in the West is a statue of a prefect under the Emperor Trajan in AD 101. The earliest mithraea are dated to the early second century. There are a handful of inscriptions that date to the early second century, but the vast majority of texts are dated after 140 AD. Most of what we have as evidence of Mithraism comes from the second, third, and fourth centuries AD. That’s basically what’s wrong with the theories about Mithraism influencing the beginnings of Christianitiy.”
So how did the early Christians manage to copy from a source that didn’t even exist at the time? Only the advocates of the copycat theory know.