Note: If you checked the blog after hearing my sermon on 1/3/16, this is the follow-up post to that sermon that I mentioned in the message. If you have not heard the message, glad you’re here! You can find the sermon context to this post in our sermons archive.
Every so often we have a conversation or hear a lecture or watch something that tells us that all we know about Jesus is a lie. Sometimes it’s not that overt, sometimes it is.
One such example is contained Bill Maher’s “Religulous" movie where he makes a case that the story of Jesus is a legend that has been borrowed or plagiarized from ancient near east myth stories like Horus, Osiris, Mithra and Krishna. In one particular scene, he focuses on the comparisons of Jesus and Horus.
He says, “Written in 1280 B.C., the Book of the Dead describes a God, Horus. Horus is the son of the god Osiris, born to a virgin mother. He was baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer who was later beheaded. Like Jesus, Horus was tempted while alone in the desert, healed the sick, the blind, cast out demons, and walked on water. He raised Asar from the dead. “Asar” translates to “Lazarus.” Oh, yeah, he also had twelve disciples. Yes, Horus was crucified first, and after three days, two women announced Horus, the savior of humanity, had been resurrected.”
It’s a heavy scene, the Christian faith is belittled, the sarcasm is thick and you are left with asking yourself, “Have I been lied to this whole time?” “What do we say to all of this?” “Is the story of Jesus a plagiarized legend that has carried on the over the years?”
Maybe you’ve experienced this in a university setting, or while watching a movie, or reading, or conversing. Suddenly every doubt is validated.
I spent a good bit of time in the sermon. I happen to be a Christian-Egyptian and while that doesn’t mean that I am an expert on ancient Egyptology, I have a vested interest given my background. Further, a good number of my friends are familiar with this and similar arguments and find themselves seeking perspective. I know I was not able to address all the specifics in the sermon and thought a blog post might be helpful for those interested in unpacking more and in having a summary of the points discussed.
Here’s the breakdown of the case and the points in response:
“Written in 1280 B.C., the Book of the Dead describes a God, Horus. Horus is the son of the god Osiris, born to a virgin mother.”
Egyptian mythology explains that Horus had two parents Osiris and Isis.
Osiris is killed by his rival, his brother, Se (or Seth), the god of the desert, and Osiris’ body is dismembered and scattered throughout Egypt and thrown into the Nile River. Osiris’ childless and grief-stricken wife Isis, is so distraught that she gathers his limbs and head, reattaches them somehow and long story short, is able to conceive a son with her husband’s corpse (I really wanted to keep a PG rating throughout the sermon, but if you look around online, it’s quite the story and nothing like the Jesus birth story).
Now, Osiris does not come back to life exactly, instead he becomes the god of the underworld. And their son, Horus in essence becomes Osiris’ replacement and Set’s new enemy.
As we examine the story, we can see how it starts losing its bite.
For one, this is not a virgin birth story. If you need bring your husband back from the dead, it does not qualify. It’s not Isis suddenly discovering she is with child and an angel telling her to name him Horus - again, this is nothing like the birth story of Jesus.
“He was baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer who was later beheaded.”
To borrow from Jon Sorrenson’s work on the subject, There is no character named “Anup the Baptizer” in ancient Egyptian mythology. We get this from the 19th-century English poet and amateur Egyptologist, Gerald Massey who wrote about Egyptian mythology. ‘Amateur Egyptologist’ is putting it politely as he had no formal training, and the Egyptologist community have largely ignored his work. If anything, it makes more sense that Massey borrowed that idea from the gospels and tried to update an ancient story with the John the Baptist piece.
“Like Jesus, Horus was tempted while alone in the desert …”
In short, no actual, legitimate Egyptologists have verified any of these claims. But we’ll do our best to come to close to what has been found.
Horus and his nemesis Set (or Seth) fought in the desert. But there is no temptation scene similar to how the temptation scene with Jesus and Satan as described in the Bible.
In one ancient account, Horus and Set reconcile their differences. As most know, Jesus and Satan never reconcile.
“… healed the sick, the blind, cast out demons, and walked on water.”
In one account, Horus is poisoned by Seth, dies, and comes back to life with the help of his mother and another god named Thoth. The closest thing to Horus doing any healing however is the Egyptian people created a monument called "The Metternich Stella” that they would pray to in order for their loves ones to be healed. This idea that Horus had this “Jesus type of ministry” walking around Egypt healing, casting out demons, etc. does not exist in the mythology.
“He raised Asar from the dead. “Asar” translates to “Lazarus.”
“Asar" does not mean Lazarus, it means “Osiris." And Horus did not raise his father from the dead, his mother Isis did. And he did not really come back to life, but became a new deity, the god of the underworld. A true resurrection story would have him coming to life and helping his wife raise their new son Horus.
“Oh, yeah, he also had twelve disciples.”
In one account, Horus has 4 sub-gods that follow him. In another story he has 16 humans and an untold number of blacksmiths that go into battle with him. The only time twelve of anything shows up is in reference to a mural with twelve reapers but Horus is not included in the mural.
There is no similarity to Jesus where Horus has 12 disciples/students following him and receiving his teaching, and helping him do the work of his ministry.
It gets a bit ridiculous after a while and here it may be helpful to understand a bit of how ancient Egyptian mythology is organized. Unlike the way we often tell stories today, there is no origin narrative that informs the later narratives as the way Maher describes. There are countless sources, none more official than the other. So instead of an origin story informing other stories they created new stories, often with the same characters to be taught in each dynasty. And often the dynasties contradict the other. The closest and most reliable thing to an origin story that we have was compiled by a Greek scholar named Plutarch born 46 AD and died 127 AD. It’s worth noting that the most reliable exposition we have of the Osiris narrative happens thousands of years after the stories were told and was compiled by a Greek historian. It should also be noted that its accuracy has been long debated among the Egyptologist community but it is the earliest and closest compilation of origin stories they have.
“… Horus was crucified first, and after three days, two women announced Horus, the savior of humanity, had been resurrected… "
Quick history for sake of clarification - Crucifixion is an ancient practice but the Romans perfected it. This way of making a cross and nailing someone to it, often after flogging and making the person carry their cross, again was Roman style of execution. The ancient Egyptians did not practice that form. What we can find crucifixion practiced by ancient cultures by tying someone up to a tree and allowing them to die by asphyxiation, dehydration, or the elements.
Sources differ on what actually happened to Horus. As mentioned in the previous section, the dynasty stories often conflict with one another. Some have him stung by a scorpion, some poisoned and coming back to life with the help of his mother and another god. There is no evidence of Horus being crucified. The more well-know narratives do not have him dying at all, but eventually becoming the son god Ra.
In one century Egyptian mythology described Horus as the god of sky, in a different century he’s the god of war (likely because Egypt is at war) but he’s never been described as the “savior of humanity.” There is also no mention of three days, two women, etc.
With no death, we would dismiss the resurrection claim as well. Outside of when it was suggested on a message board something to the effect of resurrection being "the sun dies each night and resurrects in the morning" (apologies for not being able to find this link at the time of this posting but frankly, this feels like the biggest stretch of all).
It gets a bit awkward here as ancient polytheistic religion is a different world for us, especially as we are trying to compare this to the story of Jesus, whom virtually all historians believe he existed. Whether or not he is the Son of God is another question.
Simply put again, there are not any legitimate sources that validate Maher’s claims. The real key is finding these similarities in the original ancient Egyptian mythological sources and validated by actual Egyptologists, which is further complicated as there are so many variations of the same story. Thus, we can conclude there is no real evidence suggesting that the story of Jesus has been plagiarized or borrowed from other ancient near east myth stories.
Finally and as mentioned in the sermon, it’s my conviction that answering all of this is not going to come down to one key piece of data, but rather by meditating on the question that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Reading, researching, conversing is certainly part of it the goodness of being informed, but even this has its limits. Ultimately all of our beliefs hinge on acts of faith.
If you are up for more reading, I would suggest reading up on the historicity of Jesus. Here were the books I mentioned in the sermon:
- The Historical Jesus - Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary Habermas
- Lord or Legend - Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma by Gregory Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy
- The Thomas Factor by Gary Habermas
- Simply Jesus - A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright