In chapter 7 of Bart Ehrman’s latest work, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, he purports to refute the relevance of dying and rising gods to nascent Christianity. In fact, he claims that no such myth was making the rounds in antiquity! He does so primarily by regurgitating the claims of Jonathan Z. Smith, without even a hint of awareness that Robert M. Price, whom he claims to refute, took Smith to task in Deconstructing Jesus (pp.88-91).
Now, I have no quarrel with Ehrman’s assertion that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. I have entertained the idea of mythicism (i.e. the case that Jesus was purely mythical), but I am not entirely convinced of it. I also agree with Ehrman that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection arose in a Jewish context, i.e. the apocalyptic belief in the resurrection of the dead, as seen in Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 26:19, and Daniel 12:2. More on this later.
Where Ehrman completely drops the ball is in his assertion that the dying and rising god mytheme is sheerly fanciful and of no relevance to Christianity. Were there no dying and rising gods in antiquity? Looking strictly at primary sources, you be the judge:
Osiris! look! Osiris! listen! Arise! Live again! (Pyr. 258 ff.)
Osiris! thou wert gone, but thou hast returned; thou didst sleep, but thou hast been awakened; thou didst die, but thou livest again! (Pyr. 1004 ff.)
(A History of Religious Ideas–Volume 1, p. 98)
Regarding Dionysus, “The saga of the Titans and the Night-festivals agree with the episodes of dismemberment, return to life, and rebirth related of Osiris,” declares the 1st-2nd century historian Plutarch.
The Greek philosopher Philodemus (1st C. BC) mentions the miraculous births of Dionysus: “the first from his mother, the second from the thigh, and the third when, after his dismemberment by the Titans, Rhea gathered together his limbs and he came to life again.”
Ehrman repeats Smith’s claim that Osiris’ destination in the afterworld disqualifies him from resurrection. However, Osiris’ destination in the afterworld makes him no less resurrected than does Jesus’ destination in the Christian afterworld–Heaven. Both serve as the abode of the hereafter for righteous souls. Regarding the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, James P. Allen, Curator at the Department of Egyptian Art, states:
The ancient Egyptians would not have recognized the title of this book. The texts translated here were given the collective name “Book of the Dead” in modern times because they are usually found in scrolls of papyrus or on other objects that were buried with the deceased in Egyptian tombs … The modern title “Book of the Dead” is misleading, because the texts are not about death but about life: specifically, eternal life which every Egyptian hoped to attain after death (p. 11).
Prior to his arrival in the afterworld, where, like Jesus, Osiris acts as Ruler and Judge, there is indeed an initial return to the land of the living. See Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge’s Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection for iconographic evidence of Osiris bodily rising from a funerary bier:
As the myth relays, this took place on earth via the ministrations of Isis, Nephthys, and Horus. Therefore, the image conveys an earthly resurrection of the god. Osiris is even said in the ancient texts to ascend upon a ladder to heaven, indicating that he initially rose to life here on earth. What’s more, according to the I-Kher-Nefert stele (circa 1875 BC), the sacred representations of the myth at Abydos presented the risen Osiris before a crowd of joyous celebrants, after which he departed upon a solar boat to the heavenly realm.
It is equally bogus to suggest that Osiris did not rise in a physical body. As comparative religion scholar S.G.F. Brandon relates, Osiris’ resurrection was “conceived of in completely materialistic terms, involving the use of a reconstituted physical body.” Pyramidal texts reveal an emphasis on the corporeal reconstitution of the god, confirming Brandon’s claim:
“I have come to thee…that I may revivify thee, that I may assemble for thee thy bones, that I may collect for thee thy flesh, that I may assemble for thee thy dismembered limbs, for I am as Horus his avenger, I have smitten for thee him who smote thee…raise thyself up, king, Osiris; thou livest!” (1684a-1685a and 1700 = Utterance 606; cf. also 670)
“Osiris, collect thy bones; arrange thy limbs; shake off thy dust; untie thy bandages; the tomb is open for thee; the double doors of the coffin are undone for thee; the double doors of heaven are open for thee…thy soul is in thy body…raise thyself up!” (207b-209a and 2010b-2011a = Utterance 676)
States Dr. Price, “The long constancy of the mytheme of Osiris’ resurrection, from the ancient pyramid inscriptions to the Hellenistic period, ought to make us wary of Smith’s constant suspicion that later, Christian-era mentions of the resurrections of Attis, Adonis, and the rest must be late innovations. In the case of Osiris, which we can trace, it is certainly no innovation. Why must Smith assume it was a late addition to the myth in the other cases? It is a fundamental methodological error to assume that a phenomenon must have arisen just shortly before its earliest attestation.”
(Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 90-91)
To Ehrman’s credit, he does rightfully refute the false parallels promulgated by the conspiracy film, Zeitgeist, and amateur scholars like Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy of The Jesus Mysteries. And he is probably right about belief in Jesus’ resurrection having arisen from apocalyptic Judaism. Since Christianity began as a sect within Judaism, that would have been the most immediate source. However, there are two caveats here:
1) Judaism itself most likely inherited the doctrine of the mass resurrection of bodies from Persian Zoroastrianism after Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon. Resurrection was upheld by the Pharisees (contra the Sadducees), whose very namesake hints at an etymological root denoting “Persian”. In Hebrew, “Pharisee” (Parash) is only one letter off from “Persian” (Paras)–also pronounced Farsi or Parsee. This could be written off as mere coincidence if the Pharisees hadn’t arisen during Persian rule. The long and short of it is, even if Jesus’ resurrection stems from Judaism, it’s still a pagan idea inherited from Zoroastrianism.
2) Even if belief in Jesus’ resurrection arose first in a Jewish context, there can be little doubt that, upon Hellenistic soil, the idea of Jesus’ resurrection became intertwined with that of the dying and rising gods of the ancient mysteries. This is quite apparent based on the salvation scheme reflected in Paul’s Epistles, which mark Christianity as a near-replica of the pagan cults. Part of that scheme, the doctrine of atonement for sin, derives from the Old Testament, as Paul’s Christianity was a syncretism of Judaism with the mystery religions. But, it is the mystical experience of dying and rising with the deity through ritual initiation that Paul takes over from the mysteries, reflected variously throughout his Epistles:
…having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:12).
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
Though nowhere is this more vividly expressed than in Romans 6:3-5:
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
Compare this passage with initiation into the mysteries of Isis, represented in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, whereby the participant “approached the frontiers of death” in unison with Osiris and, by “a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace,” they “returned … in a manner reborn … set once more upon the course of renewed life.” Likewise, the Christian neophyte is “baptized into Christ Jesus … into his death … buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … [they] too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Both passages reflect the ancient Egyptian formula: “As Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise”–a formula that dates back to burial inscriptions from the 2nd millennium BCE. Whether in Christianity or the mysteries, the initiate undergoes a spiritual death and rebirth by being mystically united with the dying and rising god, sharing in their experience of death and resurrection.
Bart Ehrman is a top-notch textual critic. However, he is not an expert of any sort in the field of comparative religion and mythology. He should stick to doing what he does best. Because this ain’t it.