Is the Myth of Osiris and Isis a Source Used by the New Testament Writers?
Did the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis influence the writers of the New Testament as a source to explain the Christian ideas of the Messiah and his resurrection?
Above: Family of Osiris. Osiris on a lapis lazuli pillar in the middle, flanked by Horus on the left and Isis on the right (22nd dynasty, Louvre, Paris)
Osiris, the divine ruler, is murdered by his jealous brother Set, a god associated with chaos. Osiris' sister-spouse Isis resurrects him so that he can conceive an heir, Horus. Osiris then enters the underworld to become the ruler of the dead. Once grown, Horus fights and defeats Set to become king.
Set's association with chaos, and the identification of Osiris and Horus as the rightful rulers, provided a rationale for portraying the pharaohs as the upholders of order and for succession of the pharaohs.
At the same time, Osiris' death and rebirth were related to the Egyptian agricultural cycle, in which crops grew following the periodic flooding the River Nile. It also provided a framework for the resurrection of human souls after death.
Some scholars suggest that of all savior-gods from Egyptian mythology worshipped at the beginning of the Christian era, Osiris may have contributed more details to the evolving Christ figure than any other.
Osiris had over 200 divine names, including familiar Christological names such as Lord of Lords, King of Kings and God of Gods. He was called the Resurrection and the Life, the Good Shepherd, Eternity and Everlastingness, the god who "made men and women to be born again."
Is the Jesus Story a Retelling of the myth of Osiris and Isis?
According to the renowned British Museum Egyptologist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge (1857–1934), "From first to last, Osiris was to the Egyptians the god-man who suffered, and died, and rose again, and reigned eternally in heaven. They believed that they would inherit eternal life, just as he had done."
One Egyptian text states, "As truly as Osiris lives, so truly shall his follower live; as truly as Osiris is not dead he shall die no more; as truly as Osiris is not annihilated he shall not be annihilated."
* Osiris' coming is announced by Three Wise Men. These are the three stars Mintaka, Anilam, and Alnitak in the belt of the Orion constellation, which point directly to Sirius, Osiris's birth-star in the east.
* Angelic voices herald the coming of the Universal Lord Osiris.
* Osiris flesh was eaten in the form of communion cakes of wheat called the "plant of Truth". Osiris was Truth, and those who eat his flesh become Truth, each of them another Osiris, "a son of god."
* As Egyptian mythology evolved, the cult of Osiris affirmed that no god except Osiris could bestow eternal life on mortals.
Renowned Egyptologist and Professor Emeritus of Basle University, Erik Hornung, argues for an association between the passion of Jesus and Osirian traditions, particularly in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and Christ's descent into Hades. Hornung suggests that although Christianity rejected anything "pagan" it did so only at a superficial level. He insists that early Christianity is "deeply indebted" to Ancient Egypt."
Left: Statue of Isis nursing Horus (Louvre, Paris)
Christian apologist Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, insists that it is a mistake to equate the afterlife in Egyptian mythology with the biblical doctrine of resurrection.
According to Yamauchi, to achieve immortality the Egyptian had to meet three conditions:
(1) His body must be preserved by mummification.
(2) Nourishment must be provided by the actual offering of daily bread and beer.
(3) Magical spells must be interred with him.
His body did not rise from the dead; rather elements of his personality, his Ba (conscience) and Ka (soul), continued to hover over his body.
Dean for Biblical Studies at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa, David J. MacLeod (Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary) argues convincingly that close examination of the Osiris story shows that it is very different from Christ's resurrection. He points out that Osiris did not rise; he ruled in the abode of the dead.
As a result of the intervention of Isis, Osiris is able to lead a life beyond the grave. But this is a merely replica of earthly existence. He will never again come among the living and will reign only over the dead.
Macleod describes the revived Osiris as a "mummy god." I agree with his conclusion: “The mummified Osiris is hardly an inspiration for the resurrected Christ."
That the stories of Osiris and Isis influenced how the New Testament writers expressed certain ideas associated with the Christ-event is plausible.
However, the "myth" that the Gospel narratives and New Testament Christology are no more than a Jewish retelling of the Osiris stories is busted.
Postscript: Artifacts of the Myth of Osiris and Isis
Temple of Isis at Philae, an island in the Nile River in Egypt, built in the reign of Nectanebo I (380-362 BCE).
The story of Osiris and Isis is represented everywhere on the temple walls. The monuments on the islands at Philae provide examples of pure Egyptian art centuries after the last of the Pharaohs had ceased to reign more so than any others in the Nile valley.
Nevertheless the sculptures of this temple have been heavily mutilated by zealous of the early Christians and later by the Iconoclasts in the eighth century CE, who ingratiated themselves with the Byzantine Empire by the destroying of heathen images as well as Christian ones. (Iconoclasm means the deliberate destruction of religious icons and other symbols or monuments.)
This is one of many regrettable examples in history of the willful destruction of global religious cultural heritage by over-zealous or fundamentalist adherents of a particular religious group.
I recommend the following books and resources for further study of ancient Egyptian history, mythology and culture.
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