What’s the Difference between Jesus’s Resurrection and the Myth of Dying-and-Rising Gods?

One common objection to Jesus’s resurrection for the past two centuries holds that the earliest Christians “borrowed” the idea of Jesus’s resurrection from earlier “dying-and-rising gods” that were allegedly popular in antiquity. This objection takes a variety of forms, depending upon (1) how one defines “borrowed,” (2) the degree to which one thinks Christianity is “borrowed,” or (3) the content that one believes was “borrowed,” and so on. Additionally, these arguments are made at various levels, from popular to academic.

Given the variety of arguments, levels of arguments, and alleged dying-and-rising gods, one may wonder how to reason through all the issues. How, after all, can one get properly oriented to all the data and concerns such that they can be best prepared to respond to the widest number of concerns? A few introductory comments may be helpful.1

Well-known agnostic/atheist Bart Ehrman has argued against this view in a section called “Did the Earliest Christians Invent Jesus as a Dying-Rising God, Based on Pagan Myths?” and notes several problems with it.2 So our initial point is that even one of the most popular skeptics rejects this idea and dedicates some time to refuting it. While this isn’t an argument in itself, it does help demonstrate that it’s not only conservative evangelical Christians who argue against the view. I’ll present two of his arguments before introducing a third, each of which will help orient us to better address this type of objection and its varieties.

Three Arguments against the “Borrowed” View
First, though the view was popular among turn-of-the-twentieth-century scholars (James Frazer, Otto Pfleiderer, etc.), later scholars have heavily critiqued the hypothesis such that only a minority of scholars now think that there’s evidence of dying-and-rising gods. However, “even these scholars . . . do not think that the category is of any relevance for understanding the traditions about Jesus.”3 So the view has actually lost the minimal evidential and historical support it thought it had.4

Second, part of the reason for the decline of the mythical view is because the content, extent, and dating of the dying-and-rising gods accounts are highly problematic. The popular Egyptian god Osiris is one of the most common examples used to show Christianity has borrowed from other dying-and-rising gods. The ancient historian Plutarch (AD 46–119) recorded an account in Isis and Osiris 18 that describes the fate of Osiris. He reports that Osiris’s body had been dismembered into fourteen parts and of these fourteen, only thirteen were recovered by his wife Isis. The one exception was the “male member.”5 The parts were then reassembled and Osiris was brought back to life as ruler of the underworld.

As resurrection scholars Gary Habermas and Mike Licona note, this “was not a resurrection, but a zombification.”6 Ehrman similarly responds to this account by stating that “Osiris does not—decidedly does not—return to life.”7 The content of a reported analogy or parallel is often the best argument against any such parallel and Osiris highlights the stark contrast between Jesus’s resurrection and Osiris’s ruling of the underworld in a partial body.

These two points lead to a third consideration. To state the obvious, simply because something has one thing in common with something else, it does not follow that they have everything in common (let alone that it means there’s a causal link from one to the other). This discrepancy was famously pointed out by Samuel Sandmel in his article titled “Parallelomania,” in which he argues that literary parallels do not automatically or necessarily equate to evidence for the same source.8

Additionally, it is reasonable and understandable to consider that there were people in the ancient world who envisioned life after death to be similar in some ways to life before death. For example, since we experience life in our physical bodies, it would make sense that some would expect this to continue in the afterlife.9 Nevertheless, if we understand Osiris to have a bodily existence in the underworld, this is vastly different from Jesus’s bodily resurrection as a foretaste of the resurrection of believers and a demonstration of Jesus being the Prince of Life who defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:54–57).10

These Are Not Small Differences
While we can understand that some people would have held to a bodily afterlife in some way, this similarity alone is not sufficient by itself to establish that Christians borrowed or copied from others.11 The differences make a difference. A big difference. We see differences in the scholarly assessments, the evidential and historical reports, and the reports themselves. Such differences provide evidence for the uniqueness of Jesus’s resurrection. 


  1. For a concise introduction see Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Did Christianity Copy Earlier Pagan Resurrection Stories?,” in The Harvest Handbook of Apologetics, ed. Joseph M. Holden, repr. ed. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2022), 149–155. For a more detailed response see Gary Habermas, On the Resurrection: Refutations, vol. 2 (Brentwood, TN: B&H Academic, 2024 [forthcoming]), chaps. 12 and 13. For academic works more focused on the subject see Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East, reprint, Coniectanea Biblica Old Testament Series 50 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013); John Granger Cook, Empty Tomb, Resurrection, Apotheosis, vol. 410, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018).
  2. Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (NY: HarperOne, 2012), 221–241.
  3. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 223.
  4. Otto Pfleiderer is an example of one who uses minimal citations and references to support his argument. See Otto Pfleiderer, The Early Christian Conception of Christ: Its Significance and Value in the History of Religion, Kessinger Legacy Reprints (London: Williams and Norgate, 1905). See the citations listed above for more on the evidential and historical documentation for the alleged dying-and-rising gods.
  5. Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, Frank Cole Babbitt, ed., https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0239%3Asection%3D18.
  6. Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 91 (attributing it to Chris Clayton).
  7. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 228.
  8. Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81, no. 1 (March 1962): 1–13. See also Gary R. Habermas and Benjamin C. F. Shaw, “Ancient Dying and Rising Gods: An Analysis of Physicality, Similarity, and Causality,Eleutheria 6, no. 1 (June 24, 2022): 8–13.
  9. It would similarly make sense if there were those, like Plato, who envisioned an immaterial soul. After all, though we experience life in this world in our bodies, we also experience injury and pain in our bodies. Thus, a bodiless afterlife is understandable as an escape from bodily suffering. Here we are simply pointing out various possibilities the ancients would have considered.
  10. We should also note that resurrection was widely rejected as possible in the ancient world.
  11. An additional consideration we have not discussed is the fact that there is no positive evidence that any dying-and-rising god was present in or around Jerusalem during Jesus’s time. See Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 230.