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A "SIGH" About Osiris

An Evaluation of the Alleged Parallels between Osiris & Jesus

By Brian Lawson

I guess it isn’t over until it’s over. ITW’s own Mark McFall and skeptic Farrell Till have recently presented readers with large amounts of text while debating the alleged parallels between the god-man Osiris and the God-man Jesus Christ. ITW readers should be well aware of what I’m referring to. But just in case anyone is not familiar with this debate, they should go to the "Critics Corner" of this website. Once there, scroll down to the Debate/Discussion Forum where you will find several exchanges on the Osiris/Jesus issue.

At the time this article is written (Fall 2002), Farrell Till has posted his latest response entitled "Smorgasbord Debating". However, due to the format that Mr. Till chose to respond in, a format that is 42 pages in length (according to the printed preview screen), ITW did not present his arguments against McFall’s position in the twelve page hard-copy newsletter. However, feel free to follow the links to view Farrell Till's article on the internet.

While there has obviously been a lot of valuable information written in the debate, I believe that the real crux of the matter continues to be overlooked. This oversight has caused me to give a "SIGH" of annoyance about the Osiris issue. Hopefully, I’ll get over that frustration by expressing a few thoughts here.

Perhaps what is bothering me is that the answers to some vital questions continue to be assumed without being considered. The basis for the debate is that there are some potential parallels between Osiris and Jesus. However, the focus of our two debaters has been fixed on the details of the potential parallels. In summary, Till has attempted to show that there is a definite parallel between Osiris and Jesus, and McFall has attempted to demonstrate that Till has overdrawn his conclusions regarding the "resurrection" aspect of the potential similarities. Till’s focus appears to figure that if there is a definite parallel on some details shared between Osiris and Jesus that there exists a real problem for the validity of the Christian gospels. But this is really more of an assumption regarding the significance of any parallels that may exist. Farrell Till identified this assumed significance when he wrote:

"Are the resurrection accounts of Jesus different from these descriptions of Osiris's resurrection? You bet they are, but there are differences in the literary character Sherlock Holmes and Poe's Auguste Dupin, and there were differences in the tales of Moses' and Sargon's salvation in reed arks. The parallels, however, are striking enough that any reasonable person would recognize that the later stories were spin-offs of the earlier ones." (from: Smorgasbord Debating)

I interpret that statement as Till’s certainty that Christianity has invented fiction about Jesus assuming that it borrowed from a story about Osiris that was already in circulation. That conclusion, however, is a major leap over some important questions. The questions that have been overlooked, and that I am about to ask, will hopefully lead us to rationally examine the significance of any potential parallels between Osiris and Jesus. Following the questions, I will not attempt to provide definite answers. Instead, I will offer some of my own thoughts as I examine such questions:

1) Is it possible for parallels or similarities to appear between two or more written accounts without the more recent document(s) being established as a fictional "spin-off"?

2) How much similar detail is required in order to establish certainty of a "spin-off", or how little similarity would sufficiently disprove that notion?

3) What kind of parallel or similar detail provides strong evidence that one story was merely a copy of another?

4) What kind of parallel would lead one to believe that a later story is fiction because it is similar to a prior written story or account (fiction or non-fiction)?

Briefly examining the first question, one should realize that it is fair to propose that later accounts could be copies of prior accounts when such accounts share similarities. This is certainly possible. We would be rather hard pressed to consider it the other way around (that prior accounts could be copies of future written accounts) - that would be highly unlikely. Therefore, the first question asks us to merely consider if it is possible for the more recent written account to be genuinely historic if a prior written account contains any real parallel or similarity. Farrell Till’s conclusion appears to answer my first question with a definite "no". At least that seems to be his answer in the particular case of the resurrection story of Jesus. But, would he answer that question with a definite "no" in all cases? Personally, I wouldn’t in all cases, and neither do I believe that any reasonable skeptic would either.

Let’s begin to illustrate. Suppose that I summarize the lives of two historical persons: Both were male humans. Both were married and had children. Both were U.S. citizens. Both served in the military. Both served in the House of Representatives. Both became president of the United States. Both were Republican. Both were defeated in their bid for a second term. This demonstrates some similarities between Gerald Ford and George Bush (Sr.). Interesting parallels? Yes. Shocking? Not really. But readily we can see that it is possible for two real people to live real lives and share some parallels and or similarities. I share parallel experiences with my contemporaries and those who have lived prior to me. I may often go day to day doing the exact same things as other persons from the past or present. Shocking? Not really. We expect that there are some similarities and parallels between two separate but real people. I believe that Farrell Till would acknowledge that. So what is his issue with Osiris and Jesus? Perhaps my second question will help us understand, but let’s examine another illustration before we go there.

This time, let’s consider the potential parallels or similarities between any fictional character and any real person. We know from experience that a wide range of parallels and similarities exist between real persons and fictional characters. These similarities can reflect the general culture shared by both, or they can identify only what some persons share in common - like a common career, or a common disease, etc. These similarities may be broad in that the fictional and non-fictional individuals share the honor of overcoming problems and/or tragedies in their lives, perhaps then moving on to help others. Quite often the written fiction is based on a true story, but the parallel "true story" is not always first. (I will provide a fairly decent example later on in this article.) Overall, I suspect that most of us have observed similarities existing between two or more written accounts without the more recent account being established as a fictional "spin-off." Therefore, my guess is that many reasonable persons answer with a "yes" to the first question in my list of four.

Now, let’s consider the second question: How much similar detail is required in order to establish certainty of a "spin-off", or how little similarity would sufficiently disprove that notion? Getting back to Osiris and Jesus, let’s consider all of Till’s suggested parallels. He summarized them for us in Smorgasbord Debating as he wrote:

"Overall, then, the "observable parallels" in the Egyptian and New Testament resurrection myths would be (1) a god was incarnated in a human body, (2) that body was mutilated, (3) the god-man was resurrected from the dead, and (4) the god-man ascended into heaven."

Here we have 4 "observable parallels" alleged in a sea of differences between the two (please refer to Mark McFall’s portion of the debate for an understanding of the differences - The Resurrection of Osiris According to Farrell Till & especially OH-SIGH-RIS).  But suppose that I can establish more than 4 similarities or parallels for two real persons, or between a fictional person written of prior to a non-fictional person exhibiting or experiencing the same things. Would Farrell Till deny that the latter person existed? Would Farrell Till automatically deny the claims that the more recent person written of really did what people claim that he did, or deny that he experienced what people claim that he experienced? Overall, then, numbers probably don’t matter much - at least that’s my guess. Sure, I’ll admit with Till, because of these 4 parallels, that Christianity may not have been the first to pose the idea of a resurrected-god-type figure. But he has gone on to say that, "any reasonable person would recognize that the later stories were spin-offs of the earlier ones." Because he has said so on the basis of 4 similarities, and because I believe neither he nor anyone else would do the same in every other situation with more than 4 similarities or vague parallels, it just simply can’t be a matter of quantity. I am figuring that Farrell Till is a reasonable person and that his conclusion must be based on something else.

Therefore, my thought is that such a conclusion focuses on the kind or the quality of the parallels. That brings us to both questions 3 & 4 as I’ve posed them above. Let me restate them:

3) What kind of parallel or similar detail provides strong evidence that one story was merely a copy of another?

4) What kind of parallel would lead one to believe that a later story is fiction because it is similar to a prior written story or account (fiction or non-fiction)?

It is rather difficult for me to establish the exact weight of a parallel that would make one certain that a more recent story is merely a copy, or that a later story is definitely fiction because of such a parallel. I would think that a greater amount of similar details would be helpful for true "weight", but in the case of Osiris and Jesus, we just don’t have the numbers. However, it could be that the 4 "observable parallels" are of an essential matter to the religions which follow after what is claimed - thus making a 5th parallel in our case. Perhaps, but one must continue to assume that the more recent claim, that of Christ, is fiction in order to assert that any borrowing has occurred. The prior idea, which in this case is widely understood as fiction, does not provide strong evidence that the later is fiction as well. The kind of parallel doesn’t appear to do anything more to prove Till’s point that the later story must be fiction. Let me explain why I maintain this:

1) We shouldn’t be surprised that humans who believe in a god (or gods), would imagine that the divine beings would represent themselves in human form. Such thinking prior to an allegedly true occurrence does not necessarily invalidate the claim of the future reality. The parallels of Osiris might rather serve as evidence that a true God had conditioned the minds of men to consider such a concept before it materialized in history. Although this involves my own theistic assumption, we could reasonably consider it as an option to what Till has proposed.

 2) We shouldn’t be surprised that human beings, especially in a religious environment, would express some sort of hope of eternal life. This is a common hope, and entire civilizations that predate Jesus Christ have expressed the idea of a religious figure offering some essential element leading to hope in everlasting life. A similar hope might share a similar concept - a living person dies and is brought back to life. Christian belief is that such a hope is realized because the example of resurrection is a real Person who lived, died, and resurrected as a matter of historical fact. James Patrick Holding made similar remarks in his comments about the McFall/Till debate on Osiris & Jesus:

"We should not be surprised to find many [religions] proposing solutions that take similar steps, but this is more because there are certain constraints on what would be regarded as a reasonable solution to these problems. A deity, whether real or imagined, would be expected to be able to defeat death -- somehow. And that deity inevitably would do something for the sake of men to show their power over death and encourage men to follow them...A real God would be expected to solve real problems with real solutions. The real solution would be grounded in human action or response." (See Holding’s complete comment.)

3) We have already considered that real persons can share parallels and similarities with fictional characters. Now for an interesting example of parallels between a fictional character and a real character where it is clearly established that the fictional character predates the historical: Both were male humans. Both had last names that start with the letter "A", have "D" in the middle, and a letter "N" at the end. Hence, their last names even sound a little bit alike. Both are written of as U.S. citizens. Both are said to have gone on a journey to the moon. Both took their mission to make scientific observations. Both went with two other travelers. Both took their journey to the moon from a launching place in the state of Florida in the United States of America. Both made their launch while being watched by spectators from all over the world. Both made it to the moon. Both made it back to earth and landed in the Pacific ocean. Who are these two persons? One is the fictional character Michel Ardan written of by Jules Verne in his companion novels "From the Earth to the Moon" (dated 1865) and "Round the Moon" (dated 1870). This was written at a time when a trip to the moon was a mere fantasy. But our historic character is Edwin E. Aldrin who (on July 16, 1969) is said to have taken his voyage on the famous Apollo 11 flight to the moon with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins. Between the two we can observe some minor and some major parallels, but we do have a striking example of parallels shared between a prior fictional character and a later non-fictional character. Furthermore, we have the fictional account posing something that men hoped to experience but was then realized later on in human history. All of this is to illustrate only that reality may share similarities and parallels with fiction written in advance.

Overall, I believe that Farrell Till is in error when he said that "any reasonable person would recognize that the later stories [are] spin-offs of the earlier ones". First, he is in error if he is asserting that "later stories [are] spin-offs of the earlier ones" in all cases where there are similarities between the two. We can observe that this is not true in all cases. Secondly, he is in error if he has concluded that "any reasonable person" would agree that Christianity has borrowed from Egyptian myths because of the parallels that we observe between Osiris and Jesus. I am justified in observing that Jesus may have some parallels with Osiris while reasonably believing that Jesus is (or at least may be) a real historical person who did what the New Testament writers claimed that He did. Why? Because we have observed that the significance of vague parallels is not equal to what Farrell Till has so confidently assumed.

Well now... I think that I am able to give a "SIGH" of relief rather than a "SIGH" of annoyance. I am not relieved because I think that I have convinced anyone of my point of view. But I am relieved now that I have taken the opportunity to get a few things off my chest. I hope that the questions that I’ve asked and the thoughts that I’ve shared will at least help ITW readers to analyze the significance of the potential parallels between Osiris and Jesus. These thoughts and questions may be applicable in other comparisons between the writings of Christianity and other ancient literature. But I have yet to believe that even the most probable parallels in this particular comparison (of Osiris and Jesus) pose any threat to the validity of the gospel. The possibility may exist that the Christian claims about Jesus are fictional and somewhat borrowed from the fictional writing about Osiris. As a Christian, I may be biased, but I believe that I may rationally believe that the Christian claims are true as I observe the alleged parallels that Jesus and Osiris share.

END                    Revised: 09/22/04