Was the notion of a dying and rising Saviour, as recorded in the canonical Gospels, derived from pagan myths concerning the Canaanite god Baal, the Phoenician god Adonis, the Egyptian god Osiris, and others? This view was first popularised by J. G. Frazer in The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion (first published in 1890). Frazer thought that he had discovered a universal core in religion – a myth about a dying and rising fertility god, along with associated rituals – and this idea was taken up by some others, including Joseph Campbell.
The implication for the study of Christian origins is plain: it opens up the possibility that the Christian story of a dying and rising Saviour was just the latest manifestation of a universal myth.
Some recent scholars, including the historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith and semiticist Mark Smith, have declared Frazer’s thesis fantastical, the product of uncritical comparison rather than close analysis of the evidence.
According to Frankfurter, J.Z. Smith’s criticisms are as follows:-
comparison must always be towards differentiation in regard to a general category (“dying/rising god”) rather than in finding links across individual examples (“Osiris like Attis”);
concepts of “myth” and “ritual” must be defined and regarded as fundamentally separate dimensions for narrative;
one should avoid generalizing elaborate patterns across all religions; one should consider the evidence for a myth or a ritual as the product of a particular historical context, not as timeless outcrops of a widespread pattern;
one should not take similarity as evidence for genealogy or influence; and finally, in the face of evidence for gods who “die” but don’t “rise,” one should not impose the total Frazerian pattern but accept that one transition might occur without the other.
Robert M. Price, however, thinks Frazer’s work still holds water. Generally, Price holds that the Christian faith owes far more to myth than to history. He doubts the very existence of a man who bears any resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels. With regard to Christianity’s central assertion of a dying and rising Saviour, he takes the view that this was the last in a series of myths arising out of the universal religions core that Frazer thought he had identified. He writes: ‘if Frazer…was even half right, Jesus can easily be understood as the last in a long succession of resurrected redeemers and revivified gods.’
Mettinger has taken a somewhat mediating position, judging that the reaction against Frazer has swung too far. He thinks that some of the ancient myths do tell of dying and rising gods. He summarises his own book as follows:-
From the 1930’s through the rest of the century, a consensus has developed to the effect that the ‘dying and rising gods’ died but did not return or rise to live again. The present work – which is the first monograph on the whole issue subsequent to the studies by Frazer and Baudissin – is a detailed critique of this position. It is based on a fresh perusal of all the relevant source material from the ancient Near East, Egypt, and the Graeco-Roman world and profits from new finds of great importance. Modern theory in comparative religion and anthropology on the nature of rite and myth informs the discussion. The author concludes that Dumuzi, Baal, and Melqart were dying and rising gods already in pre-Christian times and that Adonis and Eshmun may well have been so too. Osiris dies and rises but remains all the time in the Netherworld. The deities that die and rise do not represent one specific type of god (e.g., the Baal-Hadad type) but are deities of widely divergent origin and character.
With regard to Christianity, however, he concludes:-
There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The riddle remains.
Of course, by the time of Christ most Jews already believed in a final resurrection. Those who look for mundane sources for such a belief often suggest (as hinted above) that it stemmed from Canaanite fertility cults, which celebrated the annual death and rebirth of their gods. The death and resurrection of Jesus then becomes the climax of such belief. There are, however, serious problems with this hypothesis:-
- it is unlikely that the Jewish prophets, who so strongly inveighed against pagan idolatry, would allow this key feature of pagan belief to slip in, as it were, through the back door;
- there is a world of difference between the development of (a) general belief in the annual death and resurrection of gods, putatively leading to belief in the death and resurrection of the god-man Jesus (which is what Frazer and Price would have us believe); and (b) a belief in a general resurrection of all people, preceded by the specific resurrection of one man (which is the actual historical sequence);
- none of the pagan gods was physically raised to life; they were either spiritual revived or had some kind of continued existence in the underworld;
Adela Yarbro Collins says that
The people of Israel were…familiar with myths in neighboring cultures about dying and rising gods, such as Baal and Osiris. These myths reflect the rhythms of night and day, summer and winter, dormancy and fertility. Though the Israelites did not conceive of their God as dying and rising, they apparently made use of these myths to understand their destiny as a people (Hos. 6:1–3; Ezek. 37:1–14). This language about the people rising from death to life as a nation may have influenced the emergence of the notion of individual resurrection.
However, even if the Jewish perspective on the afterlife was coloured by the beliefs of the surrounding nations, the belief itself was integral to the Jewish world-view, and not simply superimposed upon it. As K. L. Anderson says:-
Resurrection hope was associated with the following theological claims: Yahweh is the source of (new) creation, hence Lord over life and death; Yahweh is the covenant God of Israel, who keeps his covenant promises; and Yahweh’s kingdom ultimately will triumph and will include the final exaltation/enthronement of God’s covenant faithful
Here is a partial bibliography (I have not seen all the works cited):-
K. L. Anderson, art. ‘Resurrection’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (2nd ed.)
A. Y. Collings, art. ‘Immortality’ in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (revised ed.)
Peter Goodgame, The Saviors of the Ancient World
Jonathan Z. Smith, (‘Dying and Rising Gods,’ Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987), 4.521-27)
Mark S. Smith, ‘The Death of Dying and Rising Gods in the Biblical World,’ Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12 (1998): 257-313
Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (ConBOT 50; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001)