Did Christianity spring onto the scene two millennia ago as a divine revelation that came directly from the one true God, as to this day some of its more fundamentalist adherents contend? Was there a real individual, a historical person, a genuine Jesus Christ—a preacher and, according to his followers, a theurgist and wonder-worker—who was crucified in Jerusalem? Was such a man the Messiah for whom many Jews longed?
I would venture to guess that most people who call themselves Christians today (there are estimated to be over two billion throughout the world, making it the single largest religion, although divided among thousands of sects), as well as many of other faiths, do not doubt that a historical Jesus walked on Earth. Of course many might doubt his reputed birth from a virgin, question his working of miracles (such as turning water into wine or raising the dead), and deny his resurrection after supposedly being dead for several days, but they still accept that there was a real Jesus. Indeed, there is a small industry that revolves around presumably identifying and tracking the historical Jesus. There are those who contend he survived being nailed to the cross. Another idea popular in some circles is that Jesus sired a bloodline by his wife (usually considered to be Mary Magdalene), which some claim can be traced historically through various Dark Age and Medieval lineages, such as through the Merovingian royal family in Europe (ruling in parts of modern France and Germany). Others would trace Jesus and his bloodline in the opposite geographic direction, such as to Kashmir, Tibet, or India. Still others attempt to identify Jesus and members of his immediate family based on the physical evidence of tombs and ossuaries (bone boxes) from first century Jerusalem. No matter which approach is taken, the point here is that it is assumed there is an historical man behind the myth of Christ.
On the other extreme are people like D. M. Murdock (also known as Acharya S., the pseudonym she used for her earlier works) who deny completely that there is any historical basis for the Jesus of Christianity. Murdock (in such books as: Acharya S., 1999, The Christ Conspiracy. Adventures Unlimited Press, Kempton, Illinois. Acharya S., 2004, Suns of God. Adventures Unlimited Press, Kempton, Illinois. See also her website http://truthbeknown.com for other works by her), builds on the research of such scholars as Gerald Massey (1828-1907) and Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934) who point out the many similarities between the ancient Egyptian religion and Christianity (which is not to say these earlier scholars held Murdock’s extreme views). Murdock argues that the Jesus of the gospels, ostensibly the founder and lynchpin of Christianity, never actually existed. He was a creation of those who “invented” the cult that was to become Christianity. Forget about arguing whether Jesus was the result of a god’s (presumably the one true God) miraculously inseminating a virgin (though Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time), or if he performed miracles and preached the truth, much less ponder the concept that he was killed and resurrected on the third day. This is all nonsense—or is it?
Ironically, it may seem to some, whether or not Jesus ever existed as a real person, the story of his life is rich in meaning and fits into a bigger and deeper picture than many professed Christians dare imagine. Whatever the reality or non-reality of a historical Jesus—total fabrication or obscure rabble-rouser and anti-Roman independence fighter upon whose personage many myths were grafted—Christianity as such, interpreted in hindsight, arose in the broader context of the Roman Empire from a syncretism of near-Eastern beliefs, incorporating especially Hellenistic, Egyptian, and Judaic elements, during the period of the Flavian, adoptive, and Antonine emperors of the late first and second centuries of the Common Era (AD). Furthermore, it is slowly becoming more widely recognized that the whole concept of a messiah, and even the specifics of such a messiah’s death and resurrection three days later, was an element of Jewish thought and tradition in the decades before the supposed historical Jesus was presumed to have lived and carried out his ministry and passion (see Ethan Bronner, 2008. “Ancient Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.” New York Times, issue of 6 July 2008). In this sense, there was nothing new about Jesus.
The Christian concept of Jesus as the Messiah fits into a broad historical, cosmological, and astrological context. The life of Jesus reflects many elements found in religious traditions current in the first and second centuries, as well as much earlier. In particular, the Jesus myth mimics important aspects of the well-known and widely popular mythology of the Osiris-Isis Cycle, and the later Greco-Roman Serapis and Isis cult derived from it. Indeed, with Osiris, Isis, Horus, and Set we see so many familiar “Christian” themes, I find it personally incomprehensible that this evidence of a connection between Egypt and Christianity can be so easily brushed aside by certain people who find such concepts inconvenient or even threatening to their religious beliefs. Listed below are a few examples discussed by Murdock, Massey, and Budge in their various works. Murdock elaborates on these further as well as recounts more, and I recommend her books to interested readers. (Note that there are many versions of the Egyptian myths, and the versions highlighted here are those that best parallel Christian beliefs.)
Osiris/Horus (father and son, to a certain extent interchangeable, just as in Christianity) died and was resurrected on the third day, just as was Jesus. The rebirth or resurrection, as one might expect, for both Jesus and the Egyptian deities traditionally coincides roughly with the Spring Equinox when the Sun moves north from below the celestial equator to above it.
Like Jesus, Horus was born of a Virgin (Isis), and descended from a royal lineage.
The birth of both Jesus and Horus, and indeed many other ancient deities as well, occurred on December 25 (correlated with the Winter Solstice when the Sun has reached its furthest point south in the sky and just begun to move north again), and both were born in a manger. In both birth accounts there is a star in the east and three wise men or kings visit the child.
Anup/Anubis is the equivalent of the Christian John the Baptist, and he baptizes and initiates Horus, just as John baptized Jesus; pivotal ages for both Horus and Jesus are 12 and 30.
Osiris/Horus, like Jesus, is a teacher and miracle worker; both he and Jesus had twelve companions or followers.
Set/Seth (Sut, Sata), more or less the equivalent of the Judeo-Christian Satan, “tempts” and does battle with Horus/Osiris; likewise Satan tempted Jesus.
Horus is said to have been anointed and beloved, the son of the god and solar deity, and acts as the light, the truth, the way, the messiah, the son of man, the lamb, and the shepherd; he was even referred to as the holy child, the anointed one, and has the epithet of Iusa (ever-becoming of the father)—all very similar to how Jesus is regarded.
We must also consider the cosmological meaning and significance of the Jesus Christ myth, and concomitantly the earlier myths and beliefs that were its predecessors. Thus the birth and resurrection certainly reflect both the daily cycle of the Sun (rising or birth, high noon or zenith, setting or death, the midnight nadir, and rising or rebirth the next day) as well as the annual cycle of the Sun (Winter Solstice, Spring or Vernal Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumnal or Fall Equinox, and Winter Solstice once again). The crown of thorns, placed on the head of Jesus when he was crucified, is an obvious solar motif representing the rays of the Sun. The twelve disciples or followers find correspondence in both the twelve months and the twelve constellations of the zodiac. The significance of the numbers 12 and 30 (Jesus was questioning and learning in the temple when 12 years old and began his ministry at around the age of 30 years) reflects astrological phenomena. Twelve is high noon. The twelve months are, in the classic Egyptian calendar, each composed of 30 days (for a total of 360 days, plus 5 days added to the end of the year). The twelve zodiacal signs in the heavens each span, ideally at least, 30 degrees (for a total of 360 degrees completing the full circle). The star in the east (possibly Sirius) and the three kings (possibly the three belt stars of Orion) are clearly stellar.
When discussing these issues, there is something we should not underestimate: The importance and influence of astrology during the early centuries of the Common Era. Logos can be translated as reason, and thus astrology can be viewed as the reason or logic of the stars, or applying logic and reason to the understanding of celestial phenomena. Though natal astrology (that which is most familiar colloquially today) played a roll in the Roman Empire (for a discussion of astrology in Greco-Roman Egypt, see James Evans, 2004, “The Astrologer’s Apparatus: A Picture of Professional Practice in Greco-Roman Egypt.” Journal for the History of Astronomy, vol. 35, part 1, no. 118, pp. 1-44.), arguably it was the deeper meanings and broader implications of astrology that were of primary importance. This astrological understanding is found throughout the Judeo-Christian Bible, and indeed it has been argued that this collection of ancient writings is primarily a reflection of astrological knowledge (Ron Watson, 2005, The Greatest Story Never Told, second printing. Pentex Enterprises, Littleton, MA).
Interestingly and tellingly, a series of coins was produced at Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned AD 138 to 161; most or all of the coins in this series were minted circa AD 144/145) bearing zodiacal themes. Individual coins were struck for each of the twelve zodiac signs, and each such coin included the sign’s ruling planet (in ancient times the “planets” in this context were the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). Additionally, various coins were struck depicting the entire zodiac, including a famous coin depicting on its reverse a double zodiac surrounding the conjoined heads of Serapis (essentially the equivalent of the older Osiris in this context) and Isis (Figure 1; the obverse of the coin bears the portrait of Antoninus Pius). An early Christian, or Gnostic/Christian, would (I believe) feel comfortable with such iconography, perhaps interpreting the central figures as simply variations on the themes, or different incarnations, of Jesus Christ and/or the Father of Christ with his mother or wife the Virgin Mary. They are surrounded by the twelve apostles (the zodiacal signs of the inner zodiacal circle), which encompass Earth and the terrestrial realm, and in turn are part of the larger cosmos and the progression of the aeons (the outer zodiacal circle). Here, on a “pagan” coin of Alexandrian Egypt of the middle second century we have, when understood in context, powerful Gnostic and proto-Christian motifs.
Other meanings have been attributed to this coin in particular, but such are not mutually exclusive with the understanding expressed above. Indeed, part of the richness of such symbology is the multiple layers of meaning seen in the same depictions. Thus, the double zodiac coins have been interpreted as a model or illustration of a contemporary astrologer’s board used for casting horoscopes of two persons simultaneously (for instance, husband and wife; see Evans, 2004). These same coins have been interpreted as commemorating the alignment of the Sothic (Sothaic) and Civil calendars, and the beginning of a new Sothic Cycle (also known as a Canicular Period), which happens only once every 1460/1461 years and occurred during the reign of Antoninus Pius. The Egyptian year of 365 days was slightly short of a full year, and thus lost a slight amount of time each year. After 1461 Egyptian years (1460 Julian/ Roman years of 365.25 days each) the start of the year had come full cycle again, to correspond with the heliacal rising (visibly rising at dawn with or just before the Sun) of the star Sirius (Sothis to the ancient Greeks, Sopdet to the ancient Egyptians), which in turn correlated with the annual flooding of the Nile. On a grander scale, these coins may also symbolize the precessional cycle and the changing of the world ages, with the inner ring representing the yearly zodiac cycle and the outer ring representing the so-called Great Year, or progression of astrological ages. Approximately two thousand years ago at the birth of Christianity the Sun had just entered the late degrees of the sign of Pisces, marking the beginning of the Age of Pisces; not coincidentally, an early symbol of Christianity was the fish, the sign of Pisces. Shortly (within the next century or two, depending on one’s analysis) we will enter a new age, the Age of Aquarius.
The first and second centuries were a time of change, the beginning of a new age, a new world order—a concept taken very seriously by a large proportion of the populace at the time. The Roman Empire had conquered, subdued, and consolidated much of the known world. But there were continued rebellions and uprisings in many quarters. Directly applicable to the birth of the new Egyptian-Jewish-Greek-Roman cult that we now label Christianity were the uprisings, followed by brutal suppressions and dispersals, of the Jews from the Holy Land. These occurred in AD 6673 and AD 132-135. This was a time when many looked for the Messiah, the Savior, and apparently the myth of the Savior was reified and enhanced during the formation of the religion that would eventually become known as Christianity. Some argue that this occurred in second century Alexandrian Egypt, in at least part founded upon or influenced by the writings of Philo. Alexandria at that time was a center of a large Jewish population, and Philo Judaeus (lived circa 20 BC to circa AD 50) was a prominent Jewish philosopher. Consciously a new syncretic universal religion was being created, one that by the early fourth century would be adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Any religion tends to have its sacred sites, relics, and other objects of veneration. These help consolidate and reinforce the beliefs among the masses. Christianity is certainly not lacking for such holy spots and artifacts. In ancient Egypt sacred sites and relics of Osiris, Isis, and Horus (and of course other gods, saints, prophets, and deities at different times and in different places) were popular and venerated, and also confirmed for the faithful that their gods and holy personages were “real.” This concept was simply transferred to Christianity, and to this day relics of early Christendom are venerated by the faithful. Among the most sacred, and sought after, relics associated with Christianity are the Holy Grail and the True Cross.
Many people interested in such matters cannot even agree on what the Holy Grail is. Is it the cup Jesus reputedly drank from at the Last Supper? This is the traditional view. Or is it the cup in which the blood of Jesus was collected from the wound in his side as he was dying on the cross? Or is the Holy Grail actually the womb of Mary Magdalene who sired the offspring of Jesus, and thus it represents his bloodline? Could the Holy Grail be a set of records or documents related to Jesus and his family and bloodline? It appears that there has never been unanimous agreement on exactly what constitutes the Holy Grail, much less definitive identification of its physical remains. The matter of the True Cross seems a bit more straightforward. The True Cross was the wooden cross that was reputedly used in the crucifixion of Jesus. According to legend, toward the end of her life the Empress Helena (who lived circa AD 250 to circa AD 330), the Christian mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Jerusalem and miraculously discovered the True Cross.
The True Cross, or at least the cross reputedly found by Helena, was being venerated during the fourth century, as described in writings of the time. In AD 614 Jerusalem was captured by the Sassanian Emperor Khusro (Khosrau) II and the True Cross was carted off as a spoil of war. In AD 628-630 (different dates are given by various authorities) the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius regained the True Cross, first taking it to Constantinople, and subsequently returning it to Jerusalem in AD 630. While being transported back to Jerusalem, a piece of the True Cross broke off or was removed. This fragment was burnt, the ashes mixed with clay, and from the clay small tokens, sometimes referred to as a type of pilgrimage tokens, were made commemorating the return of this most sacred relic to Jerusalem (Figure 2; on the obverse is pictured the True Cross with two indistinct figures beneath, variously interpreted as Saints Peter and Paul or the Emperor Constantine and his mother, the Empress Helena; the reverse bears what are apparently the marks of a piece of wood used to press the clay into the mold). Indeed, each token so produced became a miniature reliquary and sacred relic since it contains within its matrix a miniscule bit of the True Cross. These tokens continue to be highly prized and venerated by some Christians to this day, as do larger reputed pieces of the True Cross. Even if these tokens do not actually contain the ashes of the True Cross, they apparently do contain the ashes of the cross “discovered” by Helena in the early fourth century and venerated ever since.
So, are the veneration of relics, the belief in a savior god, the concept of holy places, and a general sense of the sacred and the divine, all nonsense and simply a primitive throwback to the Dark Ages? I would contend not, as relics and associated beliefs can serve a positive function, although any particular religion (Christianity included), if taken too literally, may be based on apparent historical and hagiographic falsehoods. The truth and significance of a viable religion lies deep in a nexus of historical, psychological, and social concepts that must be brought to the surface and explored in order to gain a full appreciation of the rich cultural heritage of humanity.
Robert M. Schoch, a full-time Boston University faculty member, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale. He is best known for his re-dating of the Great Sphinx of Egypt. His latest book is The Parapsychology Revolution (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008). Web site: www.robertschoch.com