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FIRST-PERSON: Did Christianity ‘borrow’ from other religions?

Editor’s note: This column is the third in a five-part series examining the claims of “The Da Vinci Code,” which hits theaters Friday, May 19.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–I recall reading in 1988 of an ancient religion older than Christianity in which a pagan deity was said to have been crucified between two thieves, wore a crown of thorns while on the cross, was regarded by his followers to be the good shepherd and savior of the world, and then rose from the dead three days later. The story shocked me. The details were too similar to have been a coincidence. Had Christianity copied from another religion?

In “The Da Vinci Code,” author Dan Brown claims that Christianity borrowed extensively from pagan religions. Nothing in Christianity is original, he says. The pre-Christian god Mithras — called the son of god and the light of the world — was born on Dec. 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days, Brown tells us.

Even Christianity’s weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans, we’re told. “Originally,” Da Vinci Code character Robert Langdon says, “Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun. To this day, most churchgoers attend services on Sunday morning with no idea that they are there on account of the pagan sun god’s weekly tribute — Sunday.”

Can we find any truth in what Brown claims? Did Christianity borrow from other religions? Let’s take a look.

In 1988 I discovered after further review that there are indeed claims of dying and rising gods in other religions — some of which are very similar to the Christian records. What is of great interest is that every single one of those accounts postdate Jesus by more than 100 years! While in a number of instances the religion in which the dying and rising god appears predates Jesus, the account itself, where we find the dying and rising god, postdates Jesus. It appears that it was these other religions that were influenced by Christianity rather than the other way around. A prime example is Brown’s mention of Mithras. The religion of Mithras predates Christianity. But we do not have an early report of Mithras with all of the details mentioned by Brown. I am unaware of any account, even a late one, of a Mithras who dies, is buried in a rock tomb, then resurrected in three days.

T.N.D. Mettinger is a senior Swedish scholar who has written what is perhaps the most recent academic treatment of dying and rising gods in antiquity. He states that the scholarly consensus is that none of these pre-date Christianity and that the few who think differently are viewed as an “almost extinct species.” Although Mettinger himself admits to going against the consensus, believing there are as many as five pre-Christian accounts of dying and rising gods, he admits that two of the five are uncertain. Of the remaining three, one is said to live again but is never seen by anyone including the gods, while another appears in a report that is unclear. According to Mettinger, only one clear account of a dying and rising god predates Christianity. However, he adds that this account is so different from the Christian account that no parallel can be said to exist.

In summary, the consensus of today’s scholars agree that there are no pre-Christian accounts of dying and rising gods, and the most recent treatment of the subject is from a scholar who disagrees but adds that none are parallels to the resurrection of Jesus.

What about the day for Christian worship — Sunday? Was the change from the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday to the Christian day of worship on Sunday the result of Constantine? This is quite impossible. Constantine lived in the fourth century and Christian worship on Sunday started long before then. For example, around A.D. 55 the Apostle Paul mentioned meeting on the “first day of the week” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Luke mentions a similar practice (Acts 20:7). These were written more than 200 years prior to Constantine’s birth!

Brown’s historical inaccuracy is stunning. So apparent is this to scholars that even the atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman concludes, “[Brown’s] a novelist, not a scholar of history…. Even though he claims that his ‘descriptions of … documents … are accurate,’ in fact they are not.”

Some of Brown’s claims are easier than others for the layperson to answer. Although this is one of the more difficult to answer without further study, the above has been provided for you. And remember that your friends making the claim shoulder the responsibility of supporting it. Accordingly, anyone claiming that Christianity borrowed its major doctrines from pagan religions of its day shoulders the responsibility of supporting it, not just with a claim to the effect as Brown has done, but also by supplying references to the pre-Christian ancient writings which would lead to such a conclusion. Demand these references from your friend and take heart. They do not exist.
Licona is director of apologetics and interfaith evangelism at the North American Mission Board.

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  • Mike Licona