In a recent column that appeared in the Journal, the idea of Christianity as not unique was put forth, even arguing that it is dependent to a certain degree upon pagan religion (or pagan-influenced Judaism). To the author’s credit, it is noted that there is no proof that the major religions borrowed from each other, with a couple of exceptions involving Christianity. This requires a response, both on how orthodox Christianity views truth and other religions, and also to address the “copycat” idea.
First, it is important to remember that orthodox Christians have always recognized a fundamental principle: that all truth is God’s truth. This should not be a surprise, since God (by definition, if you believe in such) is the ultimate source of all things, including time, space, and matter. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, con-substantial and co-eternal with the Father and Holy Spirit, claims to be the Truth Incarnate (John 14:6). Because of this, we should not be surprised when we find throughout the world similar statements about matters of faith and philosophy, since we all live in the same world created and sustained by God. All humans naturally yearn for their creator, born with a “God-shaped vacuum” that only God can fill as C.S. Lewis (and others such as Augustine) aptly puts it. Moreover, the Holy Scriptures also attest that all mankind is created in the Image of God (Genesis 1-2, 5:1-3,), and that all have access to a certain amount of natural revelation, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:18-22), and that the law of God is written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15). So rather than being shocked by finding similarities in the religions in the world, it is to be expected! This can be seen in the early figures in the history of the Church, such as the Greco-Roman convert Justin Martyr calling Christianity “the true philosophy,” or Clement of Alexandria postulating that God gave the Greeks philosophy just as he gave the law to the Jews. However, orthodox Christians still maintain people can only can come to the Father through the work of Jesus Christ exclusively (John 14:6), and that false religions can be even malevolent in character (I Timothy 4:1, I Corinthians 10:20).
It is unfortunate then, that there are some modernists who claim that these easily observed similarities of human experience equate to some sort of inherent dependency. Much of this line of reasoning comes from the discredited “history of religions” school that was in vogue in the late 19th century into the middle of the 20th century, which sought to read a certain progressive view of culture into the religions of the world, past and present. One way in which this idea has become popularized is claiming that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is somehow based on pagan mystery religions or Gnostic sects, with figures as diverse as Mithras, Osiris, Dionysius, and Attis being postulated as “sources” for the Christian narrative. Sometimes this is also expanded to other religions such as Zoroastrianism because of a supposed reliance of Judaism on Persian thought via the exile. Most of these supposed parallels are only such if the very loosest forms of similarity and definitions are utilized, and are often a case of trying to find what one wants to find. In the words of 20th century liberal historian Adolf Von Harnack, “By such methods one can turn Christ into a sun god in the twinkling of an eye, or one can bring up the legends attending the birth of every conceivable god, or one can catch all sorts of mythological doves to keep company with the baptismal dove…the wand of “comparative religions” triumphantly eliminates every spontaneous trait in any religion” (Quoted in “Reinventing Jesus 227, by Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace). It should be noted also that often the dependencies arrived at are the reverse of what skeptics are asserting, with paganism trying to imitate Christianity!
For examples of this, let’s examine two proposed sources for Christianity that appeared in the aforementioned article, Mithras and Zoroaster. Contemporary scholarship asserts that the Roman version of Mithras (not in continuity with the Persian version earlier) arose in the 1st century A.D. in Turkey, and there are no features of what we know as Roman Mithraism existing before 100 A.D (Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, 322-323). This is important, since Christianity was founded 60-70 years before this, meaning if there is any dependency, it is Mithraism reacting to the spread of Christianity. It also seems that Mithraism was a religion of the soldiers, meaning it did not spread among the masses like Christianity, and excluded women. Mithras also did not experience a death or resurrection (at least not a true physical death, and the Tertullian reference to this is again much later, and based on his recollections), which eliminates much of the supposed Eucharistic/Sacramental parallels. The idea that Mithras quotes a parallel to John 6 in a sort of Eucharistic celebration comes from a medieval text published by Cumont, meaning if there is any copying, it is Mithraism responding to Christianity. It is true that Justin Martyr alludes to some sort of celebration in the mid-2nd century, but this is again 100 years after the founding of Christianity, and no formula is included (for more on Mithras, see http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/mithra.html ).
When it comes to Zoroaster, there exists no scholarly consensus on who did the borrowing, with some arguing that the Persians learned from the Jews (such as Daniel or Ezekiel). Our primary source for Zoroaster, the Avesta, dates from the 4th century A.D., with our earliest manuscript showing up in the 1200’s. There is also a huge range of dates regarding the figure of Zoroaster himself, and given the late date of the main sources, one should not expect a consensus anytime soon. Contrast this with the huge amount of manuscript evidence for the New Testament (over 5800 manuscripts, some dating to the 2nd century), and also how early books in the Old Testament contain the ideas supposedly borrowed. The book of Job for example, is dated by many scholars to the divided Monarchy (over 300 years before the exile, and Gleason Archer dates it back to Moses as the earliest book), and includes the figure of Satan, and the idea of the bodily resurrection (Job 19:26-27). The “devil-equivalent” in Zoroastrianism is the dualistic opposite of the good god, which is not congruent with the Judeo-Christian worldview, in which nothing can be the opposite of God, since everything derives from God (for more on Zoroaster, see http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/zoroaster.html).
There is simply nothing like the Christian message, that of the creator Triune God of the universe (not finite “gods”) taking on flesh through His creative power for the salvation of man. Taking Christian concepts and reading them into the past, searching for similarities does not change this. Truly at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.”