This week the movie Son of God has taken to cinemas across North America and around the world. Merits of the movie aside, it takes the Biblical gospels as historical narratives, making them the basis for the script. But in recent years a very different view of Jesus has been making itself heard and gaining a following. In this view, the account of the miracle-working Jesus who rose from the dead after his crucifixion that we read in the Biblical Gospels, and which is portrayed in the movie Son of God, is merely a re-telling of a much earlier pagan Egyptian myth of a ‘son of god’ born of a virgin and resurrecting from the dead. Given the enormous implications that come from this controversy I thought it would be worthwhile to consider it.
The Pagan Christ theory of Osiris-Isis-Horus
Perhaps the best modern-day spokesman for this theory is Tom Harpur. A retired Anglican clergyman, a onetime seminary professor, a former religion columnist for the Toronto Star, and author of many best-selling heterodox books on the Bible – he has a large following who listens to what he says. In 2004 he published his bestselling The Pagan Christ where he forcefully advanced this view. Here is how he sums it up:
“The Christian myths were first related of Horus or Osiris, who was the embodiment of divine goodness, wisdom, truth and purity…. This was the greatest hero that ever lived in the mind of man – not in the flesh – to influence with transforming force; the only hero to whom the miracles were natural because he was not human” The Pagan Christ. p 77
Here is how he describes his conversion to this belief.
I was led inexorably to the conviction that Egypt was truly the cradle of the Jesus figure of the Gospels. Here already was the story of how the divine son “left the courts of heaven” as Massey puts it, and descended to earth as the baby Horus. Born of a virgin (through whom he “became flesh” or entered into matter) he then became a substitute for humanity, went down into Hades as the quickener of the dead, their justifier and redeemer, “the firstfruits” and leader of the resurrection into the life to come. Ibid p 77
The Biblical gospels were thus developed in the following way:
The truth is that the Gospels are indeed the old manuscripts of the dramaticized rituals of the incarnation and resurrection of the sun god Osiris/Horus, rituals that were first Egyptian, later Gnostic and Hellenic, then Hebrew, and finally adopted ignorantly by the Christian movement and transferred to the arena of history. Ibid p 80
And the implications are then that:
Unaware that the original mythos of messianic mystery, the virgin motherhood, the incarnation and birth, the life and character, the crucifixion and resurrection of the Saviour Son who was the word of all ages, the alpha and omega, was already part of the Egyptian religion since earliest times, the compilers of the New Testament missed the point entirely that the whole thing was meant allegorically. (emphasis his) Ibid p 81
In other words, what he and others are saying is that the account of Jesus found in the Biblical gospels is really derived (plagiarized even) from pre-existing Egyptian mythology, specifically the mythology surrounding the Egyptian gods Osiris, Isis and Horus. So who or what are these gods?
Egyptology background on Osiris, Isis and Horus
Sir E.A. Wallis Budge, knighted for his work with the British Museum on Egyptology described Osiris, the patriarch of this trio of gods, in the following manner:
From the hieroglyphic texts of all periods of the dynastic history of Egypt we learn that the god of the dead, par excellence, was the god, whom the Egyptians called by a name which … is commonly known to us as “Osiris”. The Gods of the Egyptians. Vol 2. p 113
…we find that the oldest religious texts known to us refer to him as the great god of the dead … and in fact he was in respect of the dead and of the Underworld what Ra (the primary Egyptian Sun god) was to the living and to this world. Ibid. p 115
Isis was associated with Osiris as his wife or consort and “is one of the goddesses most frequently mentioned in the hieroglyphic texts” (Ibid p 202). Budge summarizes Isis in the following way:
An examination of the texts of all periods proves that Isis always held in the minds of the Egyptians a position which was entirely different from that of every other goddess, and although it is certain that their views concerning her varied from time to time, and that certain aspects or phases of the goddess were worshipped more generally at one period than at another, it is correct to say that from the earliest to the latest dynasties Isis was the greatest goddess of Egypt…. Isis was the great and beneficient goddess and mother whose influence and love pervaded all heaven, and earth, and the abode of the dead, and she was the personification of the great feminine, creative power which conceived, and brought forth every living creature, and thing, from the gods in heaven, to man on the earth, and to the insect on the ground; what she brought forth she protected, and cared for, and fed, and nourished. Ibid. p 203
Horus was their son – a ‘son of god’.
Isis worship spreads from Egypt all over Graeco-Roman world
Though Osiris-Isis-Horus were originally Nile-based deities, the Egyptian Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt after Alexander the Great (ca 300 BC) started a patronage of Isis in the now Greek-speaking world that led to a spread of Isis around the Mediterranean. Temples to Isis were built in almost every major city of the Roman Empire.
“The Hellenistic Mysteries of Isis eventually became a universal cult, recognizing no racial or geographic distinction” Helenistic Religions: An Introduction. Luther Martin 1987. p 72
So here we have it. A husband-wife-son trio of Egyptian gods that became ‘hellenized’ and worshiped widely through the Roman Empire and in the first century AD (at the time of the writing of the Biblical gospels) they (especially Isis) were perhaps the leading mystery cult in that pagan world. These are the bare-bone facts that no one disputes. What ‘pagan Christ’ proponents are saying is that this mythology was used to create (i.e. make up) the person of Jesus in the gospels. In that view, Horus, Isis and Osiris were transformed into Jesus the Son of God, Mary the Virgin Mother and God the Father by some shadowy first century community steeped in this mystery cult and which then authored the gospels.
Claims made in support of the Osiris-Isis-Horus theory for Jesus
And these proponents make very bold claims to substantiate this idea, writing as if the evidence incontestably supports this. Consider some of their statements:
Gerald Massey has traced 180 instances of close similarity or actual identity between Horus, the Christ of Old Egypt, and the Gospel Jesus (The Pagan Christ. p 77)
Harpur then lists the following items as evidence (from pages 83-84 of The Pagan Christ):
- Horus was baptized in the River Eridanus (Jordan) by a god figure named Anup the Baptizer (John the Baptist) who was later decaptitated
- Like Jesus, Horus had no history between the ages of 12 and 30
- Horus walked on water, cast out demons, and healed the sick
- Horus was transfigured on a mountain; Jesus took Peter, James and John ….
- Horus delivered a ‘Sermon on the Mount” and his followers faithfully recounted the sayings of Iusa
- Horus was crucified between 2 thieves, buried in a tomb, and resurrected. His personal epithet was Iusa or Iusu, the “ever-becoming son” of Ptah or the Father. Significantly Horus was called the KRST or “Anointed One’ from a word that was inscribed or painted on the lid of a mummy’s coffin millennia before Christianity duplicated the story
- Horus was the Good Shepherd, the lamb of God, the bread of life, the son of man, the Word, and the fisher
- Horus was not just the path to heaven but the way by which the dead travel out of the sepulchre. He was the god whose name was written as the “road to salvation” He was thus the “way, the truth, the life”.
Another author writes:
“The Son of God appears on earth borne of woman through union of the human species and the divine. Osiris’ and Jesus’ were paracletic virgin births… (The Egyptian Origin of Christianity 2002 by Lisa Ann Bargeman p 54)
Wow! To read these authors it does certainly seem as if the Gospels were pre-written in this pagan mythology. And many of us, given the boldness of the claims, think it must be true.
Pagan Greek testimony about Osiris, Isis and Horus
Given the brashness of these assertions you would think that there are many accounts of Osiris-Isis-Horus extant in the ancient pagan Egyptian and Greek literature. Accounts that describe what they did and said but that for some reason (perhaps because the church, once again, is fighting against the ‘truth’ coming out) most of us have missed them. We think that these accounts must be there but somehow missed by all except for these other proponents who somehow have gotten hold of them.
That could hardly be further from the truth. In fact, there is only one account preserved in the ancient literature that details the narrative of Osiris-Isis-Horus. As Budge, the noted Egyptologist, remarked:
“Unfortunately, however, we find nowhere in Egyptian works a connected narrative of the life, acts and deeds and sufferings and death, and resurrection of Osiris, the man-god, but we possess a tolerably accurate account of them in Plutarch’s…. The Gods of the Egyptians Vol 2. p 123
Plutarch is the only ancient writer who has passed onto us the account of these gods. However, Plutarch is actually an ideal witness for us. Plutarch lived from 45 – 120 AD. Thus he lived in the 2nd half of the first century – the time when the gospels were written. He lived at the same time as the apostles. He is thus in an ideal position to report for us the account of these gods. Because he lived at the same time as the composition of the gospels, the story that he reports to us would be the same one that these shadowy gospel writers had on-hand to use as the basis to make up the Jesus ‘son of god’ of the gospels (as per the ‘pagan Christ’ advocates). Budge describes Plutarch’s work as ‘so important’ because it is the only one giving a complete account of the doings of these gods.
So it was with great anticipation that I set out to read his narrative wondering if I would find corroboration of the amazing claims that these ‘pagan Christ’ proponents are preaching. And you can read the account of Osirus-Isis-Horus right here so that you can assess the 1st century pagan testimony first-hand for yourself.
Summary of Osiris-Isis-Horus pagan testimony
So let’s summarize Plutarch’s account. Osiris and Isis are brother and sister, being born of sexual intercourse between Rhea and Cronus (the corresponding Egyptian gods were Nut and Seb). But the sun (ie. Ra the sun god), averse to this union, cursed Rhea so she could not give birth on any day of the year. But Hermes (being also in love with Rhea) conspired to add extra 5 days to the year. [The ancient Egyptians had a 360 day year and then had five extra leap days. So these gods were born on these extra 5 days.] While themselves still in the womb of Rhea, Isis and Osiris had intercourse and Isis had a son – Horus. Isis and Osiris, as well as Typhon (the Egyptian Set) and Nephthys were then born as two husband and wife couples (presumably Horus as well) on these 5 days.
In the course of time, when Osiris was king, he was murdered by his brother Typhon by tricking him to lie in a coffin that was fitted to him so that it killed him. The coffin with Osiris’ body was thrown into the Nile where it drifted away. When Isis heard what had happened to Osiris in great grief she went to look for his body. (During this time she learned that Osiris had had sexual relations with Nephthys – Typhon’s wife – and Nephtys had given birth to Anubis whom Isis cared for because she was afraid that Typhon in his jealousy would kill that son). She found the coffin stuck in a tree which had grown around it. The king of the city cut down the tree that encased the body to make a pillar to support his house. Isis went to this king and nursed his children so that she gained his favor such that she could get this pillar that contained the coffin which in turn contained the body of her dead husband Osiris which she brought back to Egypt. But Osiris’ mortal enemy, Typhon his brother, who had killed him in the first place, then took the body and cut it in 14 pieces and hid each piece throughout Egypt. So Isis then went in a papyrus boat (which protected her from crocodiles) up and down Egypt searching for these body pieces. She found all the body pieces except his male organ which had been eaten by a fish, but she made an exact replica and consecrated it in a festive way.
Isis was able to re-assemble the body of Osiris and incanted over him so that he came to life again. Osiris then trained his son Horus (remember he had been conceived way back when Osiris and Isis were themselves still in the womb of Rhea) for combat so that Horus could avenge his death by defeating his enemy Typhon in combat. So Horus and Typhon engaged in a series of battles and Horus defeated him. But he is restrained from killing Typhon because Isis pleads for clemency. In his rage Horus then decapitates Isis (in some seedier versions as Plutarch says) and the account then concludes with Isis and Osiris having sexual relations and producing the crippled Harprocrates.
Voila – the storied account of Isis, Osiris and Horus from which Jesus of the gospels was supposedly made up!
Plutarch on Osiris-Isis-Horus: Relevant but Ignored
Absolutely stunning is the fact that though he mentions Plutarch twice in other matters, Harpur never refers to Plutarch’s account of Isis-Osiris-Horus. In fact, I cannot find one analysis of Plutarch’s account (or even an acknowledgement of its existence) in the various ‘pagan christ’ books that I have read. They advance their theory by ignoring the testimony of Plutarch because anyone can see that this bizarre story could never have served as the brain-child for Jesus of the Gospels, the Son of God begotten of an actual virgin, raised from the dead as a tangible event of history, and that by his own power so that we could have life. As Plutarch himself said of the account he relates, it cannot but be “abnormal and outlandish opinions about the gods” and “if such deeds and occurrences actually took place, then ‘Much there is to spit and cleanse the mouth’”. But this is the primary testimony, circulating in the 1st century, that we have of these widely worshiped gods when the gospels were supposedly made up from this set of myths. We cannot ignore Plutarch for an important reason.
The Biblical gospels were written in Greek, to a Greek-speaking world, by Greek speaking authors. Whatever we may find in Egyptian hieroglyphics (and I plan to look at the ‘Book of the Dead’ later) the gospel authors would not have been able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics to get their ‘story’ from the ‘Book of the Dead’. How would they have been able to read and digest the ancient (to them) hieroglyphics that only a vanishingly specialized few have ever been able to read since hieroglyphics had long before the 1st century given way to scripts made from letters? The account in Greek in 1st century AD would be the only account that the gospel authors could even possibly have known – not a hieroglyphic one long hidden in the deserts of Egypt waiting for modern Egyptologists to unearth. Budge assesses that Plutarch’s story is substantially the same story that is corroborated in the few Egyptian hieroglyphics that are extant on the narrative about Osiris, Isis and Horus. Plutarch had the gist of the story for which there are only passing references in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Our first witness in this case has been heard – there is no way that Osiris, Isis and Horus, in Plutarch’s account could conceivably be the basis for Jesus of the Gospels. I plan to look in more depth at a very important source in this discussion, the works of Gerald Massey (1828-1907), probably the father of the pagan Egyptian myth theory, as well as the Egyptian ‘book of the dead’ and some of Harpur’s detailed ‘evidences’. But before we look to see if these sources reveal the ‘smoking gun’ that proves the pagan Egyptian origins of Jesus there is another important avenue to explore – the testimony of the pagans (Egyptians even) of the first and second century who came to follow Jesus of the Gospels. Did they find Jesus, or understand him, through the venue of the Orisis-Isis-Horus mystery cult? We take up their testimony, preserved for us in many volumes, next.