Many skeptics claim that the resurrection of Jesus originated from pagan myths about “dying and rising” gods—commonly called the “copycat theory” of Christianity. James G. Frazer popularized this view in his book The Golden Bough (1914), though more recently, others have followed in his footsteps.
Atheistic documentaries like Brian Flemming’s The God Who Wasn’t There (2005), Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist (2007), and Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) all have popularized the view that the early Christians borrowed the concept of the resurrection from pagan myths about “dying and rising gods” (e.g. Dionysus, Mithra, Baal, Adonis, Attis, Demeter, Persephone, Aphrodite, Isis, Osiris). To see their case for yourself, see Zeitgeist and begin at 5 minutes into the film.
Did Christianity copy its core doctrines from Pagan myths? What should we think of this common skeptical claim?
In this first installment of a series of articles on the topic, we will begin by merely quoting from skeptics who reject this oft-purported claim.
Dr. Tryggve Mettinger (a Swedish professor at Lund University) has written the most comprehensive account of the dying and rising god motif. He himself affirms the concept of “dying and rising gods.” Yet he concedes that he is in the strict minority: “There is now what amounts to a scholarly consensus against the appropriateness of the concept [of dying and rising gods]. Those who still think differently are looked upon as residual members of an almost extinct species… Major scholars in the fields of comparative religion and the Bible find the idea of dying and rising deities suspect or untenable.” For instance, Jonathan Z. Smith (historian from the University of Chicago) writes, “All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case, the deities return but have not died; in the second case, the gods die but do not return.”
Skeptic Matt Dillahunty (of Atheist Experience) writes, “The first third of the film (Zeitgeist) is an unscholarly, sophomoric, horribly flawed, over-simplification that tries to portray Christianity as nothing more than the next incarnation of the astrologically themed religions that preceded it. Like all conspiracy theories, they combine a few facts, focus on correlations and build an intriguing story that seems to fit the pieces together nicely—provided you don’t actually dig below the surface to find out where they might have gone wrong.”
In describing the German higher critical school which gave birth to this entire theory (Religiongeschichtliche Schule), critical scholar Maurice Casey writes that this is “now regarded as out of date” and “significantly mistaken.”
Regarding the Cross and Atonement, atheistic critical scholar Bart Ehrman writes, “Where do any of the ancient sources speak of a divine man who was crucified as an atonement for sin? So far as I know, there are no parallels to the central Christian claim. What has been invented here is not the Christian Jesus but the mythicist claims about Jesus… The majority of scholars agree… there is no unambiguous evidence that any pagans prior to Christianity believed in dying and rising gods.” He adds, “None of this literature is written by scholars trained in the New Testament.”
In order to assess the truth of a claim, we cannot just appeal to what scholars say, but rather to the merits and validity of their arguments. (In further articles, we do exactly this.) However, before we even survey and analyze the evidence, the conclusions of these critics and skeptics above should cause us to pause: If Christianity truly borrowed its central themes from earlier pagan religions, then why do even skeptics and critical scholars reject such claims?
 Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. 3rd Edition. Volume 4:1. London. 1914.
 See Freke, Timothy, and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “original Jesus” a Pagan God? New York: Harmony, 2000. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light. New York: Walker, 2005.
 Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising God’s” in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001. 217.
 Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising God’s” in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001. 7, 17.
 Jonathan Z. Smith. “Dying and Rising Gods.” Eliade, Mircea, and Charles J. Adams. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 522.
 Casey, Maurice. Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. 1.
 Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 214, 230.
 Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 2.