Debunking the Jesus Debunkers

Illustration by Slug Signorino

I first heard the claim that Jesus was a copycat of the Egyptian god Horus when I watched the so-called documentary Religulous. Horus supposedly walked on water, was born from a virgin, healed the sick, etc. Naturally, I was skeptical and tried doing some research but found only biased opinions that weren’t backed by much evidence. So what’s the deal? —Johnny Oregano

There’s more of a puzzle here than you might think. The notion that Jesus was copied from Horus is a stretch, of interest chiefly to people with an axe to grind—such as the writer and star of Religulous, Bill Maher. But it springs from the same questions that occur to anyone reading the foundation stories of the world’s great religions, and Christianity’s in particular: how much of this stuff really happened, and who dreamed up the rest?

Religulous (2008), an antireligious diatribe that takes on Islam and Judaism in addition to Christianity, presents a list of parallels between Jesus and Horus, the falcon-headed Egyptian deity identified with the sky and the rule of the pharaohs. In addition to those you mention, Horus supposedly had 12 disciples and was crucified, then resurrected three days later. Conclusion: Jesus is a myth.

The movie doesn’t say where it got these claims, but they may have come from The Pagan Christ (2005) by Tom Harpur, an Anglican priest and a longtime religion writer for the Toronto Star. Harpur in turns cites earlier authors, the most relevant of whom for our purposes is Gerald Massey, a poet and self-taught Egyptologist who published a massive work entitled Ancient Egypt, The Light of the World shortly before his death in 1907.

Massey argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition borrowed heavily from Egyptian mythology and that the “Jesus-legend” in particular was based on Horus. He lists 269 alleged parallels between the two figures, including those mentioned in the Maher movie. Massey contends Jesus and Christianity were concocted in Rome based on myths borrowed from Egyptian gnostics.

Massey doesn’t explicitly say why the Romans would do this. The best I can tell is that Christianity as we know it was invented to help the Roman emperor Constantine control the masses.

The point is, some take a view opposite that of religious fundamentalists: One side says everything in the Bible must be taken literally, and the other says nothing in it can be. That’s not to say neo-Masseyites are necessarily atheists. Harpur professes to be a Christian; he just doesn’t believe in the existence of Christ.

If it all sounds crazy, nothing Gerald Massey says will convince you it’s sane. The man was an eccentric whose work has never been taken seriously by scholars. His book is a weird mix of historical speculation, philology, and theory about the precession of the zodiac, all presented as fact with minimal supporting evidence.

Massey’s attempt to demonstrate that Jesus is merely a rewrite of Horus is tortured. Take the contention that Horus and Jesus were both of virgin birth. The most common legend about the birth of Horus is that the god Seth dismembered the body of Osiris, his older brother and husband of Isis. Isis collected the pieces of her husband’s body and sewed them back together, then took the form of a bird and fanned Osiris with her wings, reviving him enough to have sex and get herself pregnant with Horus. So it’s sex with a coma patient or necrophilia—not your classic virgin-birth story either way.

As for the crucifixion and resurrection, the party involved wasn’t Horus but Osiris, as per the above. Except Osiris wasn’t crucified—Seth initially had him nailed into a coffin. And he wasn’t really resurrected, just revived long enough to be a sperm donor, after which he died again.

Then again, there really isn’t a canonical version of the Horus story. Browsing through the stelae, I find a variant in which the child Horus is stung to death by a scorpion, then restored to life by the god Thoth. So OK, are there points of similarity between Jesus and Horus? I’ll be big about it and say sure. Is one copied from the other? Get out.

But let’s not fixate on Horus. The real difference between Egyptian mythology and the story of Jesus is that the former is clearly a fable full of beings with super powers, whereas the latter is told in realistic terms with the occasional miracle thrown in. The simplest explanation for this is that the New Testament is largely about a real person, with embellishments added to impress the rubes or make a doctrinal point. I venture to say this was the working assumption among a sizable fraction of scholars for a long time, and many still hold to it. But I’d also say there’s a hardening realization that, setting aside obvious supernatural elements, we’ll never know which if any parts of the Gospel describe actual events and which are made up. —Cecil Adams

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Our Readers Say

Dear Cecil,

I have always been an admirer of your work. However, in this instance you may need to go back and do a bit more research. There are numerous examples of pre-Christian deities throughout the world who were of virgin birth, who died so that their people could live, and who were resurrected as a God or Savior. The story of Horus/Osiris is but one of many. The difference is often the loose translation of the term "virgin". Even biblical scholars debate the meaning of the word as it is used in the good book.

Kind Regards,


The author should have mentioned the rather verbose and repetitive books of Dorothy M. Murdock aka Acharya S. Her many books are actually one book repeated ad nauseum. She relies very heavily on Massey and in fact an online war between Acharya (and her minions) and fundamentalist Christians is being carried on via You Tube.

Instead of relying on Massey she should have explored the statement of Saint Justin the Martyr that the life of Jesus is reflected closely in the lives of the sons of Jupiter. That statement is on much firmer ground than any tripe cranked out by the eccentric and untrustworthy Massey.

We must not overlook that fact that much of the Life of Jesus is clearly Jewish midrash.

"The real difference between Egyptian mythology and the story of Jesus is that the former is clearly a fable full of beings with super powers, whereas the latter is told in realistic terms with the occasional miracle thrown in."

The story of Jesus is "told in realistic terms"? You must be reading a different translation than mine.
Jesus, as well as Paul and Peter in Acts, are magical beings with super powers. It is a different kind of fable than Egyptian mythology, but a fable nonetheless.
I wonder if some of you have gottenhold of "Jesus - A New Revelation" and The URANTIA BOOK?
I have just sent a legitimate comment as suggested by Michael Schaffer and would appreciate seeing it printed here.
Thank you.
Interestingly enough, I have heard about Jesus and the likes stories being very closely parallell to that of the Night Sky and how the constellations actually move. For example,on December 22, the Sun is at its lowest point in the Sky against the Crux constellation and is found just below the horizon or "The Son is dying on the Cross." This Solar action takes 3 days for it to rise again. Another aspect of Christianity relating to the Sky is the 3 Kings during Jesus' birth. The Star in the East was Sirius (Osirus?), and the 3 Kings are the 3 Stars found within Orions Belt, (Mintaka, Anilam, and Alnitak).Here is a great link that I found if you would like to look into it further. I find it very interesting that these stories and myths are taken and shared as historical facts of "real" people from the past, when they seem to be very clear representations of Solar movements, and Constellations. --Things in which people would have needed to know back in ancient times, since they were both nomadic cultures and agricultural people as well. Everything in theirs lives was determined by the Sky and the Seasons. THIS was their "Deity". Its wonderful to compare different "people" and stories to eachother, but I beleive they are just different representations of the same thing..--The Stars.
Great post by the way, Cecile! :) I love when people dig for further information and provoke questions to others. you say people who raise arguments about Horus parallels don't cite many sources but you've cited nothing as well. Wtf
"New Testament is largely about a real person", Jesus never wrote anything in his life, nor any other people in the world did during his lifetime. "Jesus is the son of god" is from other people words after his death, in old testament god created earth before sun and moon, Israel is first nation in the world ? Flood killed Dinosaur about 2400BC ? GENESIS is almost ridiculous! And too many mythological plagiarism from two bible, is that all god's idea?
The similarities between Jesus(0BC) and Buddha(500BC)

* Born as an incarnate god.
* Born from a virgin mother.
* As a child astounded teachers with knowledge.
* Fasted in the wilderness for forty days.
* Tempted while alone by the devil.
* Resisted the devil successfully.
* After the devil left, supernatural events occurred.
* Were vegetarians (fish excepted).
* Began ministry at thirty years of age.
* Attract large following mostly from lower classes.
* Attracted disciples who traveled with him.
* Attracted one disciple who was treacherous.
* Changed disciples' names.
* Encouraged celibacy for their disciples.
* Consecrated in a holy river.
* Performed miracles such as curing blindness.
* Death accompanied by supernatural event.

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