Jesus: Man or Myth?

For many years, I held the default position that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person, whose story was simply embellished along the lines of popular religious archetypes from the time. However, as my studies have ensued over the years, I’ve come, quite surprisingly, to relinquish this view, embracing instead the mythicist position–that Jesus Christ is a mythological figure, from top to bottom. There is a great deal of scholarship and material that one must digest before fully understanding this position, much of it highly complicated and intertwined in ways that are no less complex. For my part, I thought it best to simplify any such explications for the lay reader by use of a historical timeline–one that will hopefully elucidate the process by which Jesus Christ materialized over several millennia.

Tammuz, Ishtar, and Baal (3rd ML. BCE to 6th C. BCE)

The Babylonians worshipped Tammuz and Ishtar (Dumuzi and Inanna in Sumerian), both of whom were raised from the dead. Tammuz underwent a cyclical, or annual, return from the underworld. Ishtar, on the other hand, was killed while attempting to rescue Tammuz from the underworld. She was stripped of all her clothing beforehand and hung on a nail (crucified), after which she rose from the dead three days later. [1]

Baal was the Canaanite counterpart of the Babylonian Tammuz. He was one among the many sons of El (“God” in Hebrew). Ancient texts from Ras Shamra depict the resurrection of the slain Baal Aleyan, as conveyed through a vision of his father El. [2] Thereafter, he is enthroned as the king of gods and men, reigning over a new and peaceful era.

The Canaanite god, Baal


Isis and Osiris (3rd ML. BCE to 4th C. CE)

As recorded in the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, Osiris suffered a violent death at the hands of his brother Set. Isis pieced his dismembered body back together and raised him from the dead, after which he ascended upon a ladder to heaven. [3] [4] In the death and resurrection of Osiris, the ancient Egyptians saw the promise of their own victory over death, believing that they could be mystically united with Osiris upon death and raised, as he was, to eternal life. [5] Osiris himself reigned henceforth in the Egyptian afterworld, as ruler and judge of the dead. His worship persisted for several millennia, spreading into the Greco-Roman world until it was forcibly suppressed by the Church in the 4th century CE.

The Resurrection of Osiris


Dionysus and Attis (2nd ML. BCE to 4th C. CE)

Among the Greeks, particularly a sect known as the Orphics, Dionysus Zagreus was torn apart and consumed by the evil Titans (Giants), after which he was reborn, or resurrected, based on various myths involving the efforts of either Zeus, Rhea, or Demeter (On Piety 44; Libr. Hist. 3.62.6). According to both Philodemus and Diodorus Siculus, Dionysus was reassembled in the same fashion as Osiris, indicating religious syncretism with, or influence by, the Osirian cult. The same sort of salvation scheme, by which the devotee shares in the fate of the risen god, appears to have been at play. Gold leaves found in graves from the 4th century BCE state, “Now you have died and now you have come into being, O thrice happy one, on this same day. Tell Persephone that [Dionysus] himself released you.” [6]

Originally a god of Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), Attis died emasculating himself under a tree after he’d been driven mad by his consort. Cybele invoked Zeus to have his body preserved, never to rot or decay. At some point in the legacy of Attis’ myth, the mere preservation of his body morphed into a full-blown resurrection, leading to a “Passion Week” by the 1st century CE under the reign of Caesar Claudius. [7] [8] The resurrection of Attis appears to have had the same salvific benefits for members of his cult as did the risings of both Osiris and Dionysus. [9]

The Risen Attis


Asclepius, Heracles, and Romulus (6th C. BCE to 5th C. CE)

The Greek physician Asclepius healed the lame, the blind, and the paralytic, and raised the dead (First Apology 22:6). Zeus struck Asclepius down for bringing forth too many resurrectees, but later raised him from the dead to become an immortal god (Autol. 1.13; Dial. Mort. 13.1).

Heracles (variously known as Hercules) suffered and died upon a funerary pyre, after which he was bodily raised to heaven, leaving not a trace of his mortal remains behind (Bibl. Hist. 4.38.5). In the 1st century play Hercules Oetaeus, Hercules appears to his weeping mother Alcmene following his death and resurrection. He tells her to refrain from mourning, that he has been “granted [his] place in heaven” among the gods (1940-43; cf. John 20:11-15).

Romulus, first king of Rome, was begotten by the god Ares and a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia. According to Livy and Plutarch, the body of Romulus went missing, amid rumors that the Senate had conspired against him, though it was declared that he had risen to heaven to become the god Quirinus. Afterwards, he appeared before Proculus to deliver a Great Commission: “Go, and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Livy, Hist. 1.16.2-8; cf. Mt. 28:16-20).

Romulus, Legendary Founder of Rome


The Jewish Messiah and Persian Saoshyant (6th C. BCE)

Following the destruction of the Davidic monarchy and the exile of the Jews by their Babylonian conquerors, there arose a hope for the restoration of Jewish independence and sovereignty under a new king from David’s line (Isaiah 10:33-12:6; Micah 5:2-4; Zechariah 9:9-10; Ezekiel 34:22-24, 37:24). Though there are verses that would seem to suggest that this king, or messiah, would be a supernatural being, e.g., the titles of divinity bestowed upon him in Isaiah 9:6-7, these are better understood as hyperbolic and ceremonial expressions of royalty, to be taken no more literally than when 1 Kings 1:31 declares, “May my lord King David live forever!”

Christians would later interpret such passages literally, as well as misapply those like Isaiah 53, which, in its original context, has nothing whatsoever to do with the messiah, but expresses the hardship of the quintessential Israelite captive to Babylon, as well as his eventual vindication at the hands of Persian intercessors. Even within Rabbinical Judaism, some Jews would come to view the 53rd chapter of Isaiah as a prophecy of the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah, extending the notion of sacrificial atonement for sin from mere animals to actual men, as had been done in the case of Eleazar (4 Macc. 6:29-30), though this idea does not persist in modern Judaism.

Interestingly enough, however, many Jews would come to embrace the religious ideas of their Persian liberators, e.g., the coming of a virgin-born savior, Saoshyant, who would inaugurate a Final Judgment and resurrection of the dead (Yašt 19.11, 13.129). These were fundamental elements of Persian Zoroastrianism, which entered the biblical stream in the 6th century BCE works of Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, and their later redactors. Jews who embraced such views were called “Pharisees” (from Farsi/Parsee), denoting “Persians.” This is precisely why the Pharisees upheld belief in the resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees did not.

Faravahar, symbol of Zoroastrianism


Philo’s Firstborn Son of God (20’s CE)

A contemporary of the apostle Paul, Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who merged Greek and Jewish ideas to form his own Greco-Judaic synthesis. Philo’s ideas were born out of the Hellenistic climate of his day and age, when Jews, Greeks, Romans, etc. were exposed to one another as never before, largely due to the conquests of Alexander the Great. In his works, Philo spoke of a celestial being, or Jewish archangel, whom he referred to as the “firstborn son of God,” the very “image of God,” and God’s “agent of creation” (Conf. 62-63, 146-47). He describes him as a “being most perfect in all virtue,” who was able to “procure forgiveness of sins” (Mos. 2.134). However, Philo never made mention of any historical personage in nearby Palestine who supposedly embodied these ideas. They were, for him, merely a philosophical and religious abstraction, i.e., “not a man, but a divine word” (Fug. 108).

Philo of Alexandria


Paul’s Christ Jesus (50’s CE)

Of the thirteen epistles attributed to Paul, only seven of them are authentically written by him. [10] Those are 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. And they represent the earliest known form of Christianity, written decades before the Gospels and Acts. In these authentic letters of Paul, Christ is preeminently a dying and rising savior god like that of Osiris, Dionysus, and Attis. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is extended to his devotees (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). The rite of baptism mystically unites the believer with the death and resurrection of Christ, so that they too can live eternally (Romans 6:3-5). Following his resurrection, he is exalted to the heavenly spheres (Philippians 2:8-9), like Romulus and Heracles. His death is an atoning sacrifice (Romans 4:25), in line with the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament and the vicarious suffering of Eleazar, etc. Like the Zoroastrian Saoshyant, he will inaugurate the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:23). And, in lockstep with Philo, Christ is the firstborn Son of God (Romans 8:29), the celestial image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), and God’s agent of creation (1 Corinthians 8:6), able to procure forgiveness of sins (Romans 3:23-24).

Paul’s Christ Jesus is nothing more than an amalgamation of religious ideas that permeated the ancient Mediterranean world. There is no mundane reference to any historical person, whatsoever. No biographical details like that found in the later Gospels. Paul never mentions Mary or Joseph, a ministry or miracles, a trial by Pontius Pilate, the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, any association with John the Baptist, etc. In fact, Paul gives no historical context for Christ’s crucifixion, but places the blame on the archons and aions, the demonic rulers of this age (1 Corinthians 2:8), much like the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah, where Satan and his angels crucify him prior to his celestial resurrection (9.14). Paul’s self-proclaimed knowledge of Christ comes primarily from scripture and revelation (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Galatians 1:11-12), not from any recent, historical source. Even where Paul states that he was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and descended from David (Romans 1:3), he is relying on scriptural pesher, not historical data. And, while Galatians 1:19 mentions a James, “the brother of the Lord,” Paul is using an epithet that was bestowed upon all baptized Christians (1 Corinthians 15:1; Philippians 1:14), not a description of an earthly sibling.

All told, there is nothing of biographical value in Paul’s letters. Nothing evincing a recent, historical man, but, rather, a syncretistic confluence of dying and rising gods, Hellenistic heroes, Zoroastrian eschatology, and Greco-Judaic, philosophical prototypes. Our earliest Christian testimony suggests that Jesus Christ was a figure born out of ancient myth.

Jesus the Christ


[1] Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (Harper Perennial, 1983), 64.
[2] George Al Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (American Sunday School Union, 1946), 535-539.
[3] Samuel A. B. Mercer, The Pyramid Texts. “Resurrection, Transfiguration, and Life of the King in Heaven, Utterance 676.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. (2010).
[4] James P. Allen, trans., and Peter Der Manuelian, ed., The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 57. See also J. Gwyn Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1980), 1-2.
[5] S.G.F. Brandon and E.O. James, ed., “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the ancient Near East.” The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation (Manchester University Press, 1963), 17-33.
[6] Sarah Iles Johnston and Fritz Graf, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (New York: Routledge, 2007), 36–37.
[7] G.A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1992), 202.
[8] Gary Forsythe, Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History (New York: Routledge, 2012), 89.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bart Ehrman, Forged (New York: HarperOne, 2011).





One Response to “Jesus: Man or Myth?”

  1. Joseph P. Hester, Th.M., Ph.D. Says:

    I came to the same conclusions many years ago. Thanks for your scholarship on this matter.

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