Question: Is the New Testament account of Jesus' death and resurrection a re-hash of old myths?
This is a common claim, and the mythological comparison made most often is the ancient Egyptian story of Osiris. Below is a summary of the Osiris myth.
Osiris’ Death and Resurrection Myth
The story of Osiris, the principal ancient Egyptian deity of the afterlife, survives from writings known as the “Pyramid Texts” (2400–2300 BC), the Palermo Stone (2392-2283), and the “Coffin Texts” (2181–2055 BC), which contain portions (and substantially differing versions) of the myth. A play composed by the Greek historian / author, Plutarch (46 AD – 120 AD) retells the story.
The most original form of the story is found on the inside walls of sarcophagi (the Pyramid texts), which describe very graphically how Osiris is murdered and dismembered by his brother Set. The body is discovered by his two sisters, Isis and Nephthys, who build a sarcophagus to contain it. They reconnect his body parts and bring life temporarily back into the corpse, long enough for Isis to conceive a son (Horus) for Osiris. Set finds Osiris’ corpse, dismembers it, and throws into the Nile. Osiris’ and Isis’ son Horus collects the pieces, buries them inside a sarcophagus and gives it over to the underworld deity, Nut. Osiris’s body is restored to an embryonic state and transported to the afterlife.
Two things should be noted at the outset. First, the story details change in substance, not just in minor details, even in the very earliest sarcophagi. Second, no attempt is ever made in the Osiris myth to connect the characters to a distinct historical setting. It is told as a story, not as an historical event.
Jesus’ Historical Resurrection
Jesus’ resurrection is firmly established in history by those who witnessed and recorded the event. The accounts are so precise and close in time to the actual event that the eyewitnesses would have been laughed out of town for their flagrant lies if the resurrection had not happened! Instead, those who were not followers of Jesus had to come up with alternate explanations for the empty tomb (see Matt. 28:11-15).
Here are just a few of the many markers placing the resurrection of Jesus firmly in time and place as an historical event. The Gospel accounts record:
• the accurately identified Roman officials and Jewish leaders.
• the specific day, time and named individuals at the empty tomb (Matt. 28:1; Mk. 16:1-2; Lk. 23:56-24:4).
• the eyewitness testimony of the named women who first met the resurrected Jesus (Matt. 28:9-10; Mk. 16:9-11; Lk. 24:10-11).
• the many eyewitness accounts of the resurrected Jesus, identifying time and place: (Matt. 28:18-19; Mk.16:14-18; Lk. 24:36-41).
• The apostle Paul, roughly 25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, could personally identify more than 500 people who saw the resurrected Jesus, most of whom were still alive (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
The oft-cited criticism that the Gospel accounts do not agree with each other about the resurrection is simply not true. The differences are either extremely minor, or else not differences at all—just details included by some and not others. For examples, see my related Bible Gems posts. [i]
The fact is, the Gospels were written for the expressed purpose of providing accurate accounts of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus:
John 21:24-25 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.