Christmas is a rather pleasant time even for a disgruntled, old reactionary like me. Despite not being a Christian, the Christmas story can still bring a lump to the throat and the songs and carols from my childhood fill me with pleasant nostalgia. The only downside is having to listen to blokes in skirts with dubious authority moralizing and to an aging monarch make a banal speech.
Anyhow you all know how the story goes. God so loved us that he sent his Son to live with us in human form to die for us with the object of saving us all from sin. The Christmas story concerns the birth of Jesus to fulfill that obligation. (Now I can argue on many grounds that this was an unnecessary and unlikely event but in the spirit of Christmas I will leave that for another day.) For 2000 years the West has been dominated by the idea that Christianity is sacred and unique. The various forms of paganism that flourished prior to Christianity have come to be despised, in contrast, as superstitious, idol worship.
Most of us have little knowledge of the pagan religions beyond perhaps the Greek myths we learnt at school. We have been persuaded by the early Christians, who were trying desperately to gain a footing for their new religion, that the beliefs of their pagan competitors were at the best primitive or at the worst inspired by Satan. In trying to differentiate themselves from the pagans, they highlighted their differences and brushed over their similarities.
Yet the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, pointed out that underlying all the mythologies, Christianity included, was “the same anatomy”. In many belief systems there is the story of God who becomes man and who subsequently dies but is resurrected. (Does this sound familiar?). In Greece it was Dionysus, in Italy Bacchus, in Egypt Osiris, in Asia Minor Attis, in Persia Mithras. In their writings about such matters the classical scholars Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy refer to the mythical godman using the combined name “Osiris-Dionysus”.
History tells us the Greek, Herodotus, sometimes called “the father of history”, journeyed to Egypt some five hundred years before the birth of Christ. Here, on the shore of a lake on the Nile he witnessed a huge ceremony celebrating what he termed “the passion of Osiris”. Sometime later, Pythagoras spent 22 years in the temples of Egypt becoming an initiate. After his return to Greece, his disciples inspired by Pythagoras’s Egyptian experience, transformed a minor God, Dionysus, to the equivalence of Osiris with a similar mythology of miracle birth, death and resurrection.
So the story of a God who became man and so on was quite prevalent in the Middle East by the time of Jesus.
Let us return to the Christmas story. The pagan godman in many instances also experienced a virgin birth just as the Jesus myth portrays. Attis’s mother is the virgin Cybele. Adonis’s mother is also a virgin, Myrrh (an interesting name that occurs in another context in the story). Dionysus’s mother is the virgin Semele.
The early Roman Catholic Church was quick to distance itself from these pagan connections. However, it is striking that the Christian apologist, Justin Martyr who lived only a century after the assumed death of Christ wrote,
“In saying that the Word was born for us without sexual union as Jesus Christ our teacher, we introduce nothing beyond what was said of those called the Sons of Zeus.”
It is interesting too, that neither the Gospels of Mark nor Paul refers to the virgin birth. Paul writes that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” which hardly sounds miraculous at all. Nor indeed does the Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas (discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and thought to predate most of the New Testament Gospels) mention a virgin birth. And John seems to have dismissed the virgin birth story and on two occasions in his Gospel refers to Jesus as the “son of Joseph”.
Some biblical scholars speculate that as Christianity came to dominate in some of the areas where paganism previously prevailed, it usurped some of the elements of the pagan mythology to facilitate the attraction of pagan converts.
The conventional myth has Jesus being born in a stable. However in the gospels the Greek word translated as stable is katalemna which according to Freke and Gandy can alternatively be translated as temporary shelter, or cave. In mythology the cave often represents the womb of mother earth. Dionysus and Mithras were both purported to have been born in caves.
After the birth Jesus is visited by the “Three Wise Men” and three shepherds. In the gospels the “Three Wise Men” are actually called the Magi. The Magi were the followers of the legendary godman Mithras. His birthday was celebrated on 25 December just like Jesus and his birth was said to have been witnessed by three shepherds.
In the Jesus story, the “Three Wise Men” were purported to have found Jesus by following a star. The myth of Adonis told how his coming was foretold by the rising of a star. In Egyptian mythology the Morning Star (which we know as Venus) was called Isis and she was the consort of Osiris. For millennia she was associated with Sirius at the foot of the constellation of Orion. Freke and Gandy report that the first appearance of Sirius was taken as an omen of the rising floodwaters of the Nile. This was thought to be due to the world-renewing power of Osiris. Thus the star foretold the coming of the Lord.
Some of the mythical godmen were believed to have been born on either January 6 or December 25. Indeed early Christians argued over whether Jesus’ birthday was one or the other. Whatever the date it seems quite likely that it was chosen to be the day of the winter solstice. This is the shortest day of the year, which signals the turning point of the year and the returning of the life-giving sun. Due to the precession of the equinoxes this date has changed over the centuries from January 6, through to December 25 and now to December 22. The winter solstice was the time of a number of pagan feasts and it is likely, as in many of the other aspects of the Christmas story, Jesus’ birthday was also stolen from pagan tradition.
I could go on to point out the many other parallels between the story of Jesus and the other mythical godmen, from baptism, performance of miracles the temptation of Satan and the trial in the desert right through to his death and resurrection. But I just wanted to focus on the Christmas story so will elaborate no further.
Bishop John Shelby Spong has warned us that embellishing the Jesus myth with theistic motifs is in error. If there was an historical Jesus (and of that I am not convinced) he was certainly a man and not the Son of God. The theistic Jesus is a product of some of the gospel writers and the early Christian followers attempting to compete with the other Osiris-Dionysus figures that populated the competing strands of paganism in the Middle-East. Spong comments, “The theistic God-pattern born in human anxiety was not original to Christianity. Can Christianity now throw off theism’s chains? So totally has the Christian story been entwined with the theistic definition of God that the collapse of the latter threatens to trigger the collapse of the former.”
But going back to my original statements, I wouldn’t want you to think because I don’t believe in literal truth of the myth of the Christmas story I am anti-Christmas. I am glad that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas and I am glad Scrooge was converted to be an advocate for the Christmas cause. It is a nice story. More than that, as I have continually stated in my writings, the principal truths of Mankind are propagated by myth, parable and metaphor. The birth of the mythical Christian godman is a delightful and engaging story. Partly that is because many elements of the story have been cherry picked from similar pagan traditions. But despite that it reflects some useful truths even if you don’t take it literally. (Remember the Buddhist admonition, “When the sage points to the moon, the fool sees the finger”!) And I would like to gently remind Christians, that no matter how attractive the story is, it is not uniquely Christian.
I deliberately withheld this piece until after Christmas, not wanting to spoil the Christmas celebrations of my many Christian friends. I trust all my readers, Christian and otherwise, have had a great festive season and I wish you all peace and well-being for the New Year.
[NB; There is plenty of literature from respected sources to support the position put above:
The two sources I referred to directly were:
- The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy
- A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong ]