Most Christians think that Jesus’s story — son of God, born of a virgin, rising victorious from death, bringing salvation, etc. — is unique in history. However, Jesus is actually one of a long line of similar, purported gods to emerge from the ancient Middle East and surrounding areas.
Here’s a brief list of some of the notable ones who preceded Jesus, that Dr Richard Carrier researched and was able to confirm are solidly backed up by ancient documentation:
Adonis — Adonis was a dying-and-rising god from ancient Syria.
Inanna — Inanna was an ancient Sumerian goddess. She is one of the oldest known gods of this type; her story is inscribed on clay tablets dating about 1700 BC. In her story, she descends into Hell, is stripped naked, tried in a kangaroo court, stricken dead by a death spell, and then her naked corpse is nailed up. Then, three days later, her minions came down and fed her the food of life, and she resurrected and ascended to glory. So, her story bears many of the same elements that were later incorporated into Jesus’s story, such as trial and punishment, dying and rising, crucifixion, and three days in Hell. Her cult was one of the leading ones worshipped around Jesus’s time, in the city of Tyre. Jesus is depicted as visiting Tyre. One of the largest temples there would have been the temple celebrating Inanna’s death and resurrection. Tyre was one of the major ports in the region, so a lot of pilgrimage and and lot of trade went through there.
Osiris — The Osiris cult was a dying-and-rising god cult that originated in Egypt, then spread all over the Mediterranean. In the Osiris cult, people who were baptized in Osiris’s death and resurrection were saved in the afterlife. It is not plausible that the Osiris cult, popularly being preached in Egypt before the emergence of Jesus, did not influence the incorporation of baptism, resurrection, and afterlife salvation into Christianity. Egypt neighbored Judea, had a large Jewish population, and many among those Jews made pilgrimages to Judea and back.
Romulus — Romulus was the Roman state god. His death and resurrection were celebrated in annual passion plays throughout the Roman empire, in the time immediately before the emergence of Jesus. Thus, Romulus was a well known example of a dying-and-rising savior god (however, he was a savior of the Roman empire, not a personal savior) in Judea, which was a province of the Roman empire.
Zalmoxis — Zalmoxis was a Thracian dying and rising god dating 5th to 6th century BC. Zalmoxis’s death and resurrection assured followers of eternal life, especially those who participated in a ritual meal (i.e., a Eucharist). Zalmoxis’s cult is described in The Histories of Herodotus. The Histories was one of the standard school texts in rhetoric schools of the time. Anyone who learned Greek well enough to be composing stories such as the Gospels of the Bible would have passed through that level of education, and thus would have read Herodotus. Ergo, they knew about the Zalmoxis cult.
All of the above are gods who died and rose again. All of them are savior gods, that grant eternal happiness after death to those who worship them. All of them are the sons or daughters of God, serving God as the intermediary for your salvation. All of them underwent a “passion.” All of them obtained victory over death, which they shared with their followers. All of them were claimed to be historical figures, with stories setting them in human history, despite never actually existing. All of them were popularly being worshipped in the Mediterranean and Middle East at the time that Jesus emerged on the scene. And all of them are indisputably documented, with these features, before Christ. There was a dying-and-rising savior god trend sweeping through all of the national cultures of the Mediterranean, and Jesus was the one to emerge in Judea.
There are many more instances before Christ in the same area or within regions close enough for contact, with features that Christ later shared. Perseus, Horus, Krishna, Attis, Dionysus, and myriad others, were divinely conceived without sexual union. Zoroaster, Buddha, and various others, were tempted by the devil to give up their ministries to rule the world. And so on with Tammuz, Baal, Horus, Glycon, etc.
What do Christian apologists have to say about this? Modern day apologists tend to take either one of two approaches.
(1) It’s a lie. Those are all hoaxes.
Whether out of their own ignorance or out of cynical belief in your ignorance and unwillingness to research for yourself, most apologists these days simply deny that these claims are real. We’re separated enough from Bronze Age Middle East and Asia Minor that they can often get away with simply saying it’s not so. Furthermore — unfortunately — there really is a lot of poorly-cited, overreaching material on the topic (such as the movie Religulous, and books by Kersey Graves, and Acharya S. / D.M. Murdock), which seems to bolster the apologist’s claims that it’s false. Despite the topic being muddied by questionable research, there’s solid substantiation available for many parallels with those prior to Jesus, such as the ones listed above.
(2) Yes, but they’re not identical to Jesus.
When denial doesn’t work, modern apologists tend to point out that there may be some similarities, but they’re not completely identical to Jesus. While no religion is completely identical to another religion (or else it would simply be that other religion), we have here cases which (in my judgment) are too close to be mere chance.
Early Christian apologists did not have the luxury of denying the reality of these other, older religions with parallel characteristics, which were still current or within memory. Instead, they handled the issue by accepting the existence of similar prior religions, while trying their best to spin that fact in a way that supported Christianity.
(1) They argued that if you believed that stuff about other gods, then it’s not much of a stretch to believe the same about Jesus, too.
For example, around the year 150 AD, Justin Martyr wrote (Apology 21):
“When we say that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.”
Yes, that was intended to be taken as an argument in favor of Christianity. That might seem unpersuasive, but what else could he say? Well, there is one more thing…
(2) They argued it must’ve been the work of Satan to plant these other cases before the coming of Jesus, to instill doubts.
For example, Justin Martyr also wrote:
“For when they say that Dionysus arose again and ascended to heaven, is it not evidence the devil has imitated the prophecy?”
“For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter’s] intercourse with Semele… and when they relate, that … having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?”
“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”
This “the Devil came ahead of Jesus, planting parallel religions” argument, as an explanation of Christianity’s relationship to the similar religions that preceded it, is perhaps the flimsiest apologetic I know of — and it remains standard Christian doctrine, to this day. When one believes with blind faith, this is the quality of argument one may have to ultimately found one’s beliefs upon.
To those outside of the Christian faith, it appears that most or all of what we know about Jesus from the Bible and from extra-biblical lore is really an amalgamation of the beliefs in the surrounding cultures at that time. The Jews seem to have been influenced by their neighbors to make a Jewish version of nearby personal savior cults.
Make of that what you will.
[Note that the first half of this post borrows heavily from Richard Carrier. For more information, please seek out his books, lectures, and other work. You can also find more information from the works of David Fitzgerald, Raphael Lataster, and Hector Avalos.]