Is the account of Jesus taken from the story of Serapis Christus?Question: "Is the account of Jesus taken from the story of Serapis Christus?"
Answer: Some people claim that the accounts of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament are simply recycled myths borrowed from pagan folklore, such as the myth of Serapis (or Sarapis), whom some label Serapis Christus. Other mythological characters sometimes associated with the story of Christ include Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Mithras. The allegation is that the myths of Serapis Christus et al. follow essentially the same story as the New Testament’s narrative of Jesus Christ, “proving” the New Testament writers borrowed qualities from pre-existing deities and applied them to Christ—or “proving” that Jesus never existed. Bible-believing Christians reject such claims.
The origin of Serapis worship is rooted in political expediency. Ptolemy I Soter, one of the generals who took over the Greek Empire after Alexander’s death, ruled Egypt from 323 BC to 282 BC. Wanting to unite the Egyptian and Greek segments of the populace under his rule, Ptolemy created a new deity that combined elements of Egyptian and Greek culture. He started with Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, and added the worship of Apis, the sacred Egyptian bull. Ptolemy then Hellenized the appearance of his new Osiris-Apis god—the Greeks wanted their gods to look like people, without animal heads. The result was Serapis, a god with long hair and a full beard who was the god of the afterlife, healing, and fertility. The cult of the composite god Serapis was never that popular in Egypt itself, but it later spread to other parts of the Roman Empire, where Serapis was also known as the patron god of sailors, the sun god, and even a replacement for Zeus, the chief god.
Those who attempt to manufacture a link between Serapis worship and Christianity base their claims on these assertions:
– Serapis looks like Jesus. Of course, no one knows what Jesus looked like, but the fact that Jesus probably had a beard (see Isaiah 50:6), combined with the fact that images of Serapis show him with a beard, is enough for some to confuse the two. Using this logic, we could say that King Henry VIII was simply an invention of people retelling the myth of the Norse god Odin—since both Henry and Odin have beards.
– Serapis healed like Jesus. The Bible records many instances of Jesus’ healing ministry (e.g., Luke 5:17–26), and these miracles were witnessed by scores of people. There is nothing mythological about eyewitness accounts.
– Serapis was an immortal god of the underworld, just like Jesus. To be more exact, Serapis was supposedly a god (Osiris) whose incarnation after death was a bull (Apis), according to the convoluted blending of Ptolemaic and Egyptian mythology. Jesus died for the sins of humanity (something Osiris never did) and was raised (as Himself, not as life-force within a bull) for our justification (Romans 4:25). “Seasonal resurrections” that correspond to the crop cycle have nothing to do with the sacrificial death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus. In fact, the Osiris myth does not really contain a resurrection at all: Osiris never comes back to life but simply continues an existence in the underworld. Nothing in all of ancient literature parallels the Bible’s record of the resurrection of Christ.
– Serapis was called “the Good Shepherd,” and so is Jesus. The problem is, no ancient literature exists in which Serapis is ever called “Good Shepherd.”
– Serapis was also called Christus or Chrestus, which corresponds to Jesus’ title of “Christ.” Given the wide acceptance of the Serapis cult in the Greek and Roman world, it should not be surprising that the cultists would call their god the “chosen one.” But we should note that the term Christ (or the Hebrew form, Mashiach) predates the origin of Serapis by hundreds of years (see Daniel 9:25 and Isaiah 61:1).
– The Emperor Hadrian wrote that worshipers of Serapis called themselves Christians. The letter identifying Christians with Serapis-worshipers was supposedly written in AD 134, but the document from which the letter comes, the Historia Augusta has been shown to be a forgery dating to AD 395. Hadrian did not write the letter, and the whole argument is a sham.
No, the account of Jesus was not borrowed from the story of Serapis. Nor did the Gospel writers borrow from the myths of Mithras, Attis, or others. Jesus was a real, historical person, and the four Gospels relate factual information about what He said and did.
Just because an event bears some similarities to a prior, fictional account does not mean that the later event never occurred. Fourteen years before the Titanic sank, novelist Morgan Robertson wrote of a massive ocean liner called the Titan that sank in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg—in the novel, the Titan did not have enough lifeboats on board for all of the passengers. The fictional Titan and the real Titanic also had similar sizes, speeds, and propulsion systems. That’s a far more extensive agreement than any pagan “source material” has with the real Jesus. Yet no one can reasonably argue that what we know about the Titanic is just an adaptation of Robertson’s book. Eyewitness accounts and good evidence prevent us from claiming that the Titanic is mythical, even if there was a similar fictional story already in circulation when the Titanic sank. Connections between Jesus and mythical characters from His time period are far less direct. We can be confident that the biblical Jesus wasn’t cobbled together from prior pagan beliefs. The historical and archaeological evidence against such theories is strong.
Recommended Resource: The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel
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Questions about Apologetics and Worldview
Is the account of Jesus taken from the story of Serapis Christus?