Is Jesus Christ a Mythical Entity Prefigured by Osiris-Horus Mythology? A Response to Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, Part 2

If the New Testament stories of Jesus Christ are not to be considered literal history, what is Harpur’s alternative explanation for them? As mentioned above, Harpur considers these accounts to be re-worked versions of ancient Egyptian mythology. He says, “The truth is that the Gospels are indeed the old manuscripts of the dramatized rituals of the incarnation and resurrection of the sun god Osiris/Horus that were…adopted ignorantly by the Christian movement and transferred to the arena of history.”[1] To support his theory, Harpur gives an impressive list of supposed similarities between the birth, life, death, and resurrection stories of Christ and those of Horus.

Harpur attempts to show striking similarities between the conception and birth of Jesus and the conception and birth of Horus. He equates the virgin Mary with the Egyptian Isis, and illustrates this connection by referring to the “nativity” carvings in the templeof Luxor; he claims that the hieroglyphics depict Gabriel visiting a virgin to inform her of her conception of the Christ, the birth scene in a cave, and three wise men kneeling before the infant.[2] Harpur stops short of claiming that the scene shows Isis and the infant Horus specifically (though others have postulated exactly that), but uses the existence of the carvings to support the idea that major elements of the biblical nativity story existed in Egyptian mythology as long as seventeen hundred years prior to what Christians consider the historical time of Christ.

There are significant weaknesses with Harpur’s assertion. First of all, he says that the virgin conception account was predated by ancient Egyptian mythology (as evidenced by the Luxorhieroglyphics) and claims there is a parallel between the biblical virgin and Horus’ mother Isis. The problem is, neither the Luxorcarvings nor Isismythology involve a virgin conception. Dr. Randa Baligh, an Egyptologist who earned her Ph.D. from YaleUniversity, states, “”In the scene he [Amenophis III] impregnates the queen…the woman impregnated was neither the goddess Isis nor a virgin, but the queen who had been married to the king for a while.”[3] Besides this, Isis is not portrayed as a virgin in other sources of Egyptian mythology; rather, she conceives Horus as the result of a physical union with Osirus’ corpse.[4] The three wise men of the inscription fare no better when the evidence is carefully considered. For one, the biblical account of the magi visiting the infant Jesus doesn’t specify the number of magi involved. It has been traditionally assumed that there were three, since three types of gifts are mentioned, but there is no conclusive textual evidence that confirms this.[5]

Harpur goes on to discuss several parallels between the earthly life of Jesus and the life of Horus. He says that just as the infant Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod, an evil being called Herut threatened the life of the infant Horus. However, there is no Herut in the Egyptian story of Horus’ birth, and the Herod of Scripture is a well-attested historical figure.[6] Harpur also compares Jesus’ baptism and Horus’. He says, “Horus was baptized in the River Eridanus (Jordan) by a god figure named Anup the Baptizer (John the Baptist) who was later decapitated.”[7] It is unclear where this idea originated; even when checking Harpur’s reference to Gerald Massey, there is no bibliographic information for any Egyptian text that documents this assertion. The trail ends with Massey. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses calls Anubis (a synonym for Anup) the “canine god of cemeteries and embalming.”[8] There is no mention of a role as baptizer or of a death by beheading.

Harpur also alleges that Horus, just like Jesus, had twelve disciples and that the number twelve has abstract religious significance rather than referring to twelve literal men. He says, “A vast flood of light is let in upon Gospel interpretation if it is understood that the twelve disciples of Jesus symbolized the twelve powers of spiritual light energy to be unfolded by a man in twelve labours (or stages) of growth, all imaged by the twelve signs of the zodiac.”[9] He then goes on to discuss the significance of the number twelve in both biblical and Egyptian theology. Unfortunately for Harpur, there isn’t any evidence at all that Horus’ followers were ever twelve in number.[10] Also, while the number twelve is significant in Scripture (the tribes of Israel, for instance) it is not a number that is significant in ancient Egypt; in fact the numbers that have significance in scripture (five, seven, twelve, and forty) do not have importance in Egyptian religions.[11]

One of the most prominent events in Jesus’ ministry was the raising of Lazarus from death in the town of Bethany, which is recorded in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John. About this account Harpur says, “John’s narrative at this point is lifted straight from ancient themes and then reworked to fit his own overall schema and purposes. Read allegorically, the way it is told in the Egyptian sources, this story is no problem. Read as history, it’s a plagiaristic (though well-meaning) forgery.”[12] In other words, the entire account is a modified version of the story of Horus raising Osiris from death. According to Harpur:

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Anu…was the theological name of an actual Egyptian city where the rites of the death, burial, and resurrection of Osiris or Horus were enacted each year…The Hebrews added their prefix for “house,” beth, to Anu and produced Beth-Anu, or the House of Anu. But because the u and the y were interchangeable in antiquity, we ended up with the New Testament counterpart Bethany. The point here is that when we read the Egyptian text, we find that the Egyptian Christ, Horus, performed a great miracle at Anu, or Bethany. He raised his father, Osiris, from the dead, calling unto him in the cave to “rise and come forth.”[13]

Harpur proceeds with more creative linguistics to allege that the name “Lazarus” comes from taking “The Osiris” (claiming that Egyptians used the definite article in conjunction with the name) and substituting the Hebrew prefix el (“Lord”) to get “El-Asar,” then adding a Latin suffix us (denoting a male name) to produce “El-Asar-us.”[14] He says the beginning e just “wore off” over time.[15]

Was the story of Lazarus completely plagiarized from the Horus-Osiris myth? It is extremely unlikely. First of all, Harpur fails to mention that the town of Bethanyis mentioned in all four gospels in relation to other events in the life of Christ.[16] According to Porter and Bedard, “Bethany was not a theological construct to make the reader think of the resurrection of Osiris but was a Jewish town near Jerusalem where Jesus spent time near the end of his ministry. This town continues to exist today and is known by its Arabic name, ‘el-‘Azariyeh, indicating its connection to the biblical Lazarus.”[17] Secondly, Harpur’s argument about the name of Lazarus is problematic. Besides the ridiculous linguistic contortions used to combine three languages into one name, it should be noted that “the Osiris” was not used in reference to the god Osiris in the way that “the Christ” was used as a title for Jesus; rather, “the Osiris” was used for each dead person who hoped for resurrection.[18] In addition, the name Lazarus appears in other areas of Scripture. A big problem for Harpur’s allegation is the fact that in one particular story, that of the rich man and Lazarus, the name is used in relation to the denial of a resurrection.[19] Porter and Bedard say, “It is also interesting to note that in 1873 the names of Mary, Martha and Lazarus were found in ossuary inscriptions in a tomb near Bethany…[this] clearly demonstrate[s] that the presence of a Lazarus at Bethany does not require dependence on the Osiris myth.”[20]

[1] Harpur, 80.

[2] Harpur, 80-81.

[3] Keith Thompson, “Zeitgeist Part One Exposed”: 2008 film. http://zeitgeistchallenge.com/?page_id=13.

[4] Bedard and Porter, 63.

[5] Bedard and Porter, 62.

[6] Bedard and Porter, 64.

[7] Harpur, 84.

[8] Hart, George, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses ( New York,NY:

Routledge, 2005): 25.

[9] Harpur, 86.

[10] W. Ward Gasque,  “The Leading Religion Writer in Canada…Does He Know What He’s Talking About?” George Mason University’s History News Network: August 9, 2004. Accessed at http://hnn.us/articles/6641.html.

[11] Porter and Bedard, 75.

[12] Harpur, 132.

[13] Harpur, 133.

[14] Harpur 133-134.

[15] Harpur, 134.

[16] Bedard and Porter, 76.

[17] Bedard and Porter, 77.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 78.