What Egyptologists say about Egypt’s role in Christian origins
In the contentious field of Christian origins, there remain those who – apparently absent of serious study of the subject – continue to insist unscientifically that Egypt, the massive culture that essentially dominated the Mediterranean for centuries, had little to no influence on Christianity.
As we know from the enormous amount of evidence I collected in my book Christ in Egypt, there are many parallels between the Egyptian religion and Christianity – some of them quite stunning. Those who have read my work also know that many Egyptologists themselves have noted these correspondences, and some of them were so certain of a relationship that they tried to prove the Egyptians had anticipated Christianity.
To argue against this idea represents ignorance of the subject matter, including the numerous opinions of these Egyptologists about supposed “Christian” ideas appearing in the Egyptian religion and mythology.
Here I will present a sampling of commentary by a number of well-known and respected Egyptologists (and others) dating from the present to the last couple of centuries.
Let me begin:
“…it is not improbable that even early Christian texts were influenced by ideas and images from the New Kingdom religious books.”
–Dr. Erik Hornung, The Valley of the Kings (9)
Renowned modern Egyptologist Dr. Erik Hornung, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Basel from 1967 to 1998, has been called “the world’s leading authority” on the ancient Egyptian religious texts.
At this point, need I really say more? Nevertheless, I will…
Another Egyptologist Dr. Siegfried Morenz, a director of the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Leipzig, is likewise to the point (Egyptian Religion, 251):
“The influence of Egyptian religion on posterity is mainly felt through Christianity and its antecedents.”
Furthermore, in his book The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West (73), Dr. Hornung summarizes:
Notwithstanding its superficial rejection of everything pagan, early Christianity was deeply indebted to ancient Egypt. In particular, the lively picture of the ancient Egyptian afterlife left traces in Christian texts; thus, among the Copts, and later in Islam, we encounter a fiery hell quite like that of the Egyptians… The descensus [descent] of Jesus, which played no role in the early church, was adopted into the official Credo after 359, thanks to apocryphal legends that again involved Egypt. Christ became the sun in the realm of the dead, for his descent into the netherworld had its ultimate precursor in the nightly journey of the ancient Egyptian sun god Re…
I cited this Hornung book in Christ in Egypt over 40 times – there’s much more there about the relationship between Christianity and the Egyptian religion. Notice the subtitle: “Its Impact on the West” – the entire book is designed to demonstrate how Egypt influenced “the West,” i.e., Christendom.
As part of this impact on the West, which includes Rome, Hornung (SLE, 70) discusses the Egyptian religion’s inroads into the highest strata of Roman society during the time of the Christian effort:
Claudius was also positively disposed toward Egyptian religion, and Nero expressed interest in the sources of the Nile. Nero also had an Egyptian teacher, Chaeromon, who saw to the dissemination of Egyptian knowledge at Rome. According to Suetonius, Otho (69 C.E.) was the first Roman emperor to participate publicly in the cult of Isis. Notwithstanding his well-known stinginess, Vespasian dedicated a large statue of the Nile to Rome, after a Nile miracle occurred during his visit to Alexandria in the year 69. Together with his son Titus, he spent the night before their triumph over Judea (71 C.E.) in the temple of the Roman Isis, which was first depicted on Roman coins that year. Titus is probably the anonymous “pharaoh” depicted in front of the Apis bull in the catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa in Alexandria. From the reign of Domitian on, Apis was represented on imperial coins.
There is much more about the Egyptian influence throughout the Roman Empire during the period in question, a substantial amount of which I provide in CIE.
In Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (115-6), respected German Egyptologist Dr. Jan Assman – a professor of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg from 1976 to 2003, currently at the University of Konstanz – remarks:
“Salvation” and “eternal life” are Christian concepts, and we might think that the Egyptian myth can all too easily be viewed through the lens of Christian tradition. On the contrary, in my opinion, Christian myth is itself thoroughly stamped by Egyptian tradition, by the myth of Isis and Osiris, which from the very beginning had to do with salvation and eternal life. It thus seems legitimate to me to reconstruct the Egyptian symbolism with the help of Christian concepts. As with Orpheus and Eurydice, the constellation of Isis and Osiris can also be compared with Mary and Jesus. The scene of the Pieta, in which Mary holds the corpse of the crucified Jesus on her lap and mourns, is a comparable depiction of the body-centered intensity of female grief, in which Mary is assisted by Mary Magdalene, just as Isis is assisted by Nephthys. Jesus also descended into the realm of death, though he did not remain there… Osiris remained in the netherworld, but he was resurrected and alive…
Note the phrase “Christian myth” here. Dr. Assman appears to know what he is looking at.
Regarding the title of his article “The Baptism of the Pharaoh,” Sir Dr. Alan H. Gardiner, one of the “premier” British Egyptologists of his day, remarks:
The analogy of our rite to that of Christian baptism is close enough to justify the title given to this article. In both cases a symbolic cleansing by means of water serves as initiation into a properly legitimated religious life.
(Note the apologetic tone that even this highly regarded Egyptologist must make to NT scholars and theologians, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the faithful.)
To insist that such a correlation in important doctrine between these highly intertwined religious cults is either non-existent or unimportant ranks as unscientific.
In his book Akhenaten and the Religion of Light (13-14), in discussing earlier renowned Egyptologist Dr. James H. Breasted and amateur Egyptologist Sir Arthur Weigall, Hornung remarks:
…[Breasted] noted the modernity of Akhenaten’s teaching and its anticipation of Christian attitudes and beliefs…
Arthur Weigall, the first biographer of this religious innovator, [said of Akhenaten] he established a “religion so pure that we must compare it to Christianity in order to discover its faults”… Weigall otherwise stresses that no other religion so closely resembles Christianity, and he compares the icon of the sun disk with its rays to the Christian cross and the Great Hymn to the Aten to Psalm 104…
…Thomas Mann…succumbed to the parallels with Christianity and attempted to categorize Akhenaten as an early Christ figure.
(Note that Hornung’s comment about Mann “succumbing” to Christian parallels concerns only the biographical material about Akhenaten, not the whole field of Christian origins vis-a-vis Egyptian religion, as his numerous other comments concerning associations demonstrate).
On p. 15, Hornung discusses Sigmund Freud:
…In his late work Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud characterized Moses as an Egyptian who transmitted Akhenaten’s religion to the tribes of Israel, and even in Islam there are voices that lay claim to Akhenaten as a precursor.
As we can see, there is abundant precedent from numerous quarters suggesting Egyptian influence on Christianity (and its precursor Judaism). What’s this? Egyptologist Dr. Assman evidently concurs!
Assman suggests that the ancient Egyptian religion had a more significant influence on Judaism than is generally acknowledged.
Prior to this modern generation – and contributing immensely to modern scholars’ knowledge base – came the works of such pioneers as Sir Dr. E.A. Wallis Budge was a well-respected Egyptologist who ran the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum. Some of his work is naturally outdated, as much has happened since his time. This outdated material largely revolves around dictionaries and discoveries that have occurred in the past century. Budge’s work was voluminous, and his tackling of the Egyptian religion remains quite valuable. He is one of the scholars who was so astonished by the Egypto-Christian parallels that he thought the Christian religion was the fulfillment of the Egyptian promise.
Here is just one quote out of many that Budge made concerning the blatantly obvious correspondences between the Egyptian religion and Christianity (Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life, 48):
In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus, they perceived the prototype of the Virgin Mary and her Child. Never did Christianity find elsewhere in the world a people whose minds were so thoroughly well prepared to receive its doctrines as the Egyptians.
In Egyptian Tales and Romances (12), Budge states:
The Christian Trinity ousted the old triads of gods, Osiris and Horus were represented by our Lord Jesus Christ, Isis by the Virgin Mary, Set the god of evil by Diabolus [Satan]…and the various Companies of the Gods by the Archangels, and so on.
And again, we hear from Budge (The Gods of Egypt, I, xv-xvi):
…at the last, when [Osiris’s] cult disappeared before the religion of the Man Christ, the Egyptians who embraced Christianity found that the moral system of the old cult and that of the new religion were so similar, and the promises of resurrection and immortality in each so much alike, that they transferred their allegiance from Osiris to Jesus of Nazareth without difficulty. Moreover, Isis and the child Horus were straightway identified with Mary the Virgin and her Son, and in the apocryphal literature of the first few centuries which followed the evangelization of Egypt, several of the legends about Isis and her sorrowful wanderings were made to centre round the Mother of Christ. Certain of the attributes of the sister goddesses of Isis were also ascribed to her, and, like the goddess Neith of Sais, she was declared to possess perpetual virginity. Certain of the Egyptian Christian Fathers gave to the Virgin the title ‘Theotokos,’ or ‘Mother of God,’ forgetting, apparently, that it was an exact translation of neter mut, a very old and common title of Isis.
Budge continues (“The Cult of Isis and the Worship of the Virgin Mary compared,” Legends of Our Lady Mary, 1):
It has been well said that the Egyptians were better prepared to receive and accept Christianity than any of the nations round about them. For thousands of years before St. Mark came to Alexandria to preach the Gospel of his Master Christ, the Egyptians believed in Osiris the Man-god who raised himself from the dead. He was held to possess the power of bestowing immortality upon his followers because he had triumphed over Death, and had vanquished the Powers of Darkness. He was the Judge of souls and the supreme lord of the Judgment of the Dead; he was all-wise, all-knowing, all-just, and his decrees were final and absolute. No man could hope to dwell with him in his kingdom unless he had lived a life of moral excellence upon earth, and the only passports to his favour were truth-speaking, honest intent, and the observation of the commands of the Law (Maat), coupled with charity, alms-giving and humane actions…,
Here is yet another Egyptologist who points out Egyptian priority of “Judeo-Christian” concepts: Dr. Ogden Goelet, a professor of Egyptian language and culture at New York and Columbia Universities. In his well-known edition of (The Egyptian Book of the Dead, 18), Goelet states:
“The Book of the Dead promised resurrection to all mankind, as a reward for righteous living, long before Judaism and Christianity embraced that concept.”
To assert that Judaism and Christianity “embraced” the notion indicates Goelet believes the idea was passed along from the Egyptian religion to Judaism and Christianity.
In this same regard, Dr. James S. Curl, a professor emeritus at the Queen’s University of Belfast, remarks (The Egyptian Revival, 66):
The Christian religion, it might be proposed, owes as much to the Nile as it does to the Jordan, and for the Church Alexandria should be at least as important as Jerusalem (whereas Rome absorbed influences from both cities). In both Western and Eastern iconography the attributes of Isis survived. Coptic stelai show the Mother and Child, identified as Christian by the Greek crosses on either side of the head, but the basic iconography of the image is that of Isis and Horus, translated into Mary and Jesus….
(Curl is not an Egyptologist, but since he has a PhD he must be right, according to the “logic” of credentialists.)
In this same regard, another professional scholar, Dr. Richard A. Gabriel, concludes (Jesus the Egyptian, 2):
…the principles and precepts of the Osiran theology of Egypt are virtually identical in content and application to the principles and precepts of Christianity as they present themselves in the Jesus saga.
(Gabriel is a historian, so also by credentialist “logic,” we must believe him uncritically.)
Egyptologist Dr. Bojana Mosjov summarizes the Christian effort nicely, bringing it all back to Alexandria, which is, I contend, the crucible of Christianity (Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God, xii):
It was in Roman Alexandria (30 BC-AD 394) that the new Christian religion blossomed, inspired by the writings of the Egyptian, Greek and Jewish philosophers.
As we can see, there is quite a bit of opinion by Egyptologists that Christianity was significantly influenced by the Egyptian religion. The debate can now be focused on how much influence upon Christianity there is and when it began. It is my contention that the Egyptian religion and mythology were utilized in the actual creation of Christianity, which, as Dr. Mosjov states, took place significantly at the Egyptian city of Alexandria, where Egyptian, Greek and Jewish precedents were utilized. Added to this Alexandrian crucible are Roman, Persian, Syrian, Indian and other European traditions.