Friday, October 25, 2013
Who was Horus?
Horus is one of the oldest recorded deities in the ancient Egyptian religion. Often depicted as a falcon or a man with a falcon head, Horus was believed to be the god of the sun and of war. Initially he appeared as a local god, but over time the ancient Egyptians came to believe the reigning pharaoh was a manifestation of Horus (cf. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Horus”).
What about Jesus?
The skeptical claims being made about Jesus are not always the same. In some versions he was a persuasive teacher whose followers later attempted to deify him by adopting aspects of earlier god-figures, while in others he is merely an amalgamation of myths and never really existed at all. Both versions attempt to provide evidence that the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ are rip-offs.
In the 2008 documentary film Religulous (whose name is a combination of religion andridiculous), erstwhile comedian and political commentator Bill Maher confronts an unprepared Christian with this claim. Here is part of their interaction.
Christian man: How so?
Maher: Written in 1280 B.C., the Book of the Dead describes a God, Horus. Horus is the son of the god Osiris, born to a virgin mother. He was baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer who was later beheaded. Like Jesus, Horus was tempted while alone in the desert, healed the sick, the blind, cast out demons, and walked on water. He raised Asar from the dead. “Asar” translates to “Lazarus.” Oh, yeah, he also had twelve disciples. Yes, Horus was crucified first, and after three days, two women announced Horus, the savior of humanity, had been resurrected.
Maher is only repeating things that are and believed by many people today. Similar claims are made in movies such as Zeitgeist and Religulous and in pseudo-academic books such as Christ in Egypt: The Jesus-Horus Connection and Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth.
Often Christians are not prepared for this type of encounter, and some are even swayed by this line of argumentation. Maher’s tirade provides a good summary of the claims, so let’s deconstruct it, one line at a time.
Written in 1280 BC, the Book of the Dead describes a God, Horus.
In fact, there are many “books of the dead.” But there is no single, official Book of the Dead. The books are collections of ancient Egyptian spells that were believed to help the deceased on their journey to the afterlife.
The title Book of the Dead comes from an Arabic label referring to the fact that the books were mostly found with mummies (cf. The Oxford Guide to Egyptian Mythology, “Funerary Literature”). Some of these texts contain vignettes depicting the god Horus, but they don’t tell us much about him.
Our information about Horus comes from a variety of archaeological sources. What we do know from the most recent scholarship on the subject is that there were many variations of the story, each of them popularized at different times and places throughout the 5,000-year span of ancient Egyptian history.
Egyptologists recognize the possibility that these differences may have been understood as aspects or facets of the same divine persona, but they nevertheless refer to them as distinct Horus-gods (cf. The Oxford Guide to Egyptian Mythology, “Horus”).
Part of the problem with the “Jesus is Horus” claim is that in order to find items that even partially fit the life story of Jesus, advocates of the view must cherry-pick bits of myth from different epochs of Egyptian history.
This is possible today because modern archaeology has given us extensive knowledge of Egypt’s religious beliefs and how they changed over time, making it possible to cite one detail from this version of a story and another from that.
But the early Christians, even if they had wanted to base the Gospels on the Horus myths, would have had no way to do so.
They might have known what was believed about Horus in the Egypt of their day, but they would have had no access to the endless variations of the stories that laid buried in the sands until archaeologists started digging them up in the 1800s.
Horus is the son of the god Osiris, born to a virgin mother.
The mother of Horus was believed to be the goddess Isis. Her husband, the god Osiris, was killed by his enemy Seth, the god of the desert, and later dismembered. Isis managed to retrieve all of Osiris’s body parts except for his phallus, which was thrown into the Nile and eaten by catfish. (I’m not making this up). Isis used her goddess powers to temporarily resurrect Osiris and fashion a golden phallus. She was then impregnated, and Horus was conceived. However this story may be classified, it is not a virgin birth.
He was baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer, who was later beheaded.
There is no character named Anup the Baptizer in ancient Egyptian mythology. This is the concoction of a 19th-century English poet and amateur Egyptologist by the name of Gerald Massey. Massey is the author of several books on the subject of Egyptology; however, professional Egyptologists have largely ignored his work. In fact, his writing is held in such low regard in archaeological circles that it is difficult to find references to him in reputable modern publications.
In the book Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection (Stellar House Publishing, 2009), author D. M. Murdoch, drawing heavily from Gerald Massey, identifies “Anup the Baptizer” as the Egyptian god Anubis. Murdoch then attempts to illustrate parallels between Anubis and John the Baptist.
Some evidence exists in Egyptian tomb paintings and sculptures to support the idea that a ritual washing was done during the coronation of Pharaohs, but it is always depicted as having been done by the gods. This indicates that it may have been understood as a spiritual event that likely never happened in reality (cf. Alan Gardiner, “The Baptism of Pharaoh,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 36). This happened only to kings (if it happened to them at all), and one searches in vain to find depictions of Horus being ritually washed by Anubis.
Like Jesus, Horus was tempted while alone in the desert.
The companion guide to the film Zeitgeist outlines the basis for this claim by explaining, “As does Satan with Jesus, Set (aka Seth) attempts to kill Horus. Set is the ‘god of the desert’ who battles Horus, while Jesus is tempted in the desert by Satan” (p. 23).
Doing battle with the “god of the desert” is not the same as being tempted while alone in the desert; and according to the Gospel accounts, Satan did not attempt to kill Jesus there (cf. Matt. 4, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13).
The relationship between Horus and Seth in the ancient Egyptian religion was quite different than the relationship between Jesus and Satan. While Seth and Horus were often at odds with each other, it was believed that their reconciliation was what allowed the pharaohs to rule over a unified country. It was believed that the pharaoh was a “Horus reconciled to Seth, or a gentleman in whom the spirit of disorder had been integrated” (The Oxford Guide to Egyptian Mythology, “Seth”). In stark contrast, there is never any reconciliation between Jesus and Satan in Scripture.
Healed the sick, the blind, cast out demons, and walked on water.
The Metternich Stella, a monument from the 4th century B.C., tells a story in which Horus is poisoned by Seth and brought back to life by the god Thoth at the request of his mother, Isis. The ancient Egyptians used the spell described on this monument to cure people. It was believed that the spirit of Horus would dwell within the sick, and they would be cured the same way he was. This spiritual indwelling is a far cry from the physical healing ministry of Christ. Horus did not travel the countryside laying his hands on sick people and restoring them to health.
He raised Asar from the dead. “Asar” translates to “Lazarus.”
The name Osirus is a Greek transliteration of the Egyptian name Asar. As I mentioned earlier, Osirus is the father of Horus, and, according to the myth, he was killed by Seth and briefly brought back to life by Isis in order to conceive Horus. It was not Horus who raised “Asar” from the dead. It was his mother.
The name Lazarus is actually derived from the Hebrew word Eleazar meaning “God has helped.” This name was common among the Jews of Jesus’ time. In fact, two figures in the New Testament bear this name (cf. John 11, Luke 16:19-31).
Oh, yeah, he also had twelve disciples.
Again, this claim finds its origin in the work of Gerald Massey (Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World, book 12), which points to a mural depicting “the twelve who reap the harvest.” But Horus does not appear in the mural.
In the various Horus myths, there are indications of the four “Sons of Horus,” or six semi-gods, who followed him, and at times there were various numbers of human followers, but they never add up to twelve. Only Massey arrives at this number, and he does so only by referencing the mural with no Horus on it.
Yes, Horus was crucified first.
In many of the books and on the websites that attempt to make this connection, it is often pointed out that there are several ancient depictions of Horus standing with his arms spread in cruciform. One can only answer this with a heartfelt “So what?” A depiction of a person standing with his arms spread is not unusual, nor is it evidence that the story of a crucified savior predates that of Jesus Christ.
We do have extensive evidence from extra-biblical sources that the Romans around the time of Christ practiced crucifixion as a form of capital punishment. Not only that, but we have in the Bible actual eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. On the other hand, there is no historical evidence at all to suggest that the ancient Egyptians made use of this type of punishment.
And after three days, two women announced Horus, the savior of humanity, had been resurrected.
As I explained before, the story of the child Horus dying and being brought back to life is described on the Metternich Stella, which in no way resembles the sacrificial death of Jesus. Christ did not die as a child, only to be brought back to life because his grieving mother went to the animal-headed god of magic.
The mythology surrounding Horus is closely tied with the pharaohs, because they were believed to be Horus in life and Osirus in death. With the succession of pharaohs over the centuries came new variations on the myth. Sometimes Horus was believed to be the god of the sky, and at other times he was believed to be the god of war, at other times both; but he was never described as a “savior of humanity.”
Combating the never-ending list of parallels
If you do an Internet search on this subject, you will come across lists of supposed parallels between Jesus and Horus that are much longer than Bill Maher’s filmic litany. What they all have in common is that they do not cite their sources.
Should you encounter people who try to challenge you with these claims, ask them to explain where it is they got their information. Many times you will find that they originate with Gerald Massey or one of his contemporaries. Sometimes they have been repeated and expanded on by others. But these claims have little or no connection to the facts.
You should challenge the person making the claim to produce a primary source or a statement from a scholarly secondary source that has a footnote that can be checked. Then make sure the sources being quoted come from scholars with a Ph.D. in a relevant field, such as a person who teaches Egyptology at the university level.
Due to the mass of misinformation on the Internet and in print on this subject, it is important to respond to these claims using credible sources. Fortunately, there are many good books on Egypt and Egyptology in print. But there are also bad ones, so make sure to verify the author’s credentials before purchasing them.
The study of ancient Egypt has come a long way since its beginning in the 1800s, and new discoveries are being made even today that improve upon our understanding of the subject. It’s safe to say they will do nothing to bolster the alleged Jesus-Horus connection.
The Horus mythology developed over a period of 5,000 years, and as a result it can be a complex subject to tackle. But you don’t have to be an Egyptologist to answer all of these claims. You just need to know where to look for the answers—and to be aware of the claims’ flawed sources.
Still, this argument is widely made, and so it needs to be addressed. Atheism (and here I mean the so-called “weak atheism” that does not claim proof that god does not exist), is just the lack of god-belief – nothing more and nothing less. And as someone once said, if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.
That really ought to end the discussion right there. Clearly, a mere lack of belief in something cannot be a religion. In addition, atheism has no sacred texts, no tenets, no ceremonies. Even theists making this argument must know all that. So they must have something else in mind when they trot this one out, but what is it? What are they really thinking? Well, if you look at various definitions of religion, the only things that could possibly apply to atheism would be something like this:
6. Something one believes in and follows devotedly
4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
Obviously I don’t know if that’s what they mean – I don’t read minds. But I can’t see what else it could be. They must be referring to certain activities of atheists – writing books and blogs, financing bus ads, joining atheist groups, etc. They think atheists are “religious in their atheism” as one person put it to me – the word “religious” being used here colloquially to mean something felt very strongly, or followed enthusiastically. But this definition of religion is so broad that virtually anything people enjoy doing very much, or follow strongly or obsessively, is a religion. It’s a definition of religion that is so broad that it’s meaningless. In reality, most of the things that people follow enthusiastically, are just hobbies. And ironically, although not collecting stamps is not a hobby, getting involved in atheist activities (writing books and blogs, attending atheist meetings) might well be a hobby for some people. But it is a hobby, not a religion.
I’m sure that argument won’t convince all theists to abandon this rhetorical trope they love so much. To really address the argument, we have to define religion, and then see if atheism fits the definition. While I don’t think I can define religion completely, I think I can state the minimum that religion has to have to still be a religion. And it seems to me that there is one thing at least that is common to all religions. It’s this. In my view, religion at a minimum, has to have the following characteristic:
Religion must include something you have to accept on faith – that is, without evidence commensurate with the extraordinary nature of the belief.
Most religions will include other things too, but they must require faith. Of course, not all things that require faith are religions, but all religions must require faith.
The minimum definition covers all the religions I’m familiar with. For example, it includes any religion that involves belief in god or gods – something you have to believe in without evidence. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism… all require you to believe in god or gods as a minimum, without evidence. The minimum definition would also include religions that don’t require belief in god, but require faith in other things. For example, I believe it would include Buddhism, which (for example) includes the belief that living beings go through a succession of lifetimes and rebirth. It would also include Scientology – no evidence for Xenu, that I’m aware of. Maybe you can think of some actual religions that would be excluded, but I haven’t been able to so far.
So religion requires belief without evidence. And by that definition atheism cannot possibly be a religion because atheists do not have to believe in anything to be an atheist – either with or without evidence. QED.
Now, some religious people may say, “but that’s not my definition of religion”. To which I say, OK, then give me your definition. Give me your definition of religion, that doesn’t require belief without evidence, that includes your religion, the others I named, and atheism. And it needs to be better than the two dictionary definitions I cited above. Give me that definition. Because here’s the thing. The problems I have with religions are:
They are not based on fact or on any reasonable evidence commensurate with the claims they make. In many cases, the claims they make are plainly absurd and are actually contradicted by the evidence.
Religious proponents demand respect, and adherence to their delusions by others. This despite (1) above.
Those are the aspects of religion that I object to. Clearly atheism doesn’t fit 1 (or 2) above, so it is nothing like any of the religions I object to. If your religion does not require belief without faith, then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. Assuming, of course, all the tenets of your religion are actually backed up by evidence extraordinary enough for the extraordinary claims your religion makes. But they never do.
In my view, theists will have their work cut out to deny this minimum requirement for religion. Come on – they even refer to their religion as “my faith”.
Evidence and Extraordinary Evidence
Some religious people will claim that their religious beliefs are backed by evidence. This is where it gets tricky, because many religious people genuinely believe their religion is rational and backed by evidence. For example, one Christian I debated cited that the evidence Christianity was real, was (and I quote), “the resurrection of Christ”. Of course, the resurrection of Christ, if it had actually happened, would be pretty good evidence for Christianity. But, unfortunately, there is no good evidence for the resurrection. Certainly, nothing close to the extraordinary evidence we would need to accept this extraordinary claim.
This needs explaining in more detail. Why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Well, all claims require exactly the same amount of evidence, it’s just that most "ordinary" claims are already backed by extraordinary evidence that you don’t think about. When we say “extraordinary claims”, what we actually mean are claims that do not already have evidence supporting them, or sometimes claims that have extraordinary evidence against them. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence.
On the other hand, the evidence we are offered in support of this extraordinary claim consists only of accounts written decades after the event, by people who were not there when the events described were purported to have occurred. We are offered nothing but hearsay anecdotes from superstitious people with a clear reason for wanting others to think the story true. This is hardly acceptable evidence to counteract the fact that this never happens. Christians might ask, what evidence would an atheist accept for such an extraordinary claim? And in reality, it is hard to imagine that there could possibly be any evidence good enough for us to accept the resurrection as true. Christians may claim that this is unfair, or that we are closed minded, but the fact that you are unlikely to find extraordinary evidence for this event 2,000 years after the fact, is hardly the non-believer’s fault. The real question, considering the weakness of the evidence, and the wildly extraordinary nature of the claim, is why would anyone believe any of it in the first place? The truth is, they accept it on faith. In fact, the acceptance of this story on faith alone is usually considered to be essential to the true believer. And although that was just Christianity, the same lack of evidence, and belief based on faith alone, applies to the claims of all the other religions that I’m familiar with.
Religions require belief in extraordinary claims without anything close to the extraordinary evidence that is required. Atheism requires no belief in anything. The contrast couldn’t be clearer.
But the believer has one final shot – one last desperate rhetorical item to fling at the atheist. Here we go.
More Faith To Be An Atheist?
The final argument many religious apologists throw into the mix is it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in god. That certainly took me by surprise the first time I heard it. I think what they’re trying to say is this. Atheists think matter just appeared out of nowhere, that something came out of nothing. But where did the matter come from? To think that matter appeared out of nowhere requires more faith than to think a creator made everything. Why is there something rather than nothing? To think that matter just appeared by itself, requires faith.
Atheists don’t think matter came out of nowhere. Atheists say we don’t know where matter came from; we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe one day we’ll know, or maybe we won’t. But we don’t know now. Theists are exactly the same. They don’t know either, but the difference is they make up an explanation (god). But it’s just a made up explanation – they have no reason to suppose it’s true, other than that they just like it.
And it’s a useless explanation. Unless they know something about this “God” – how he created everything; why he created it; what he’s likely to do next - it’s a lack of an explanation. It’s just a placeholder until a real explanation comes along. Except that the theist won’t be open to the real explanation when and if science is able to provide one. The god placeholder prevents investigation into any real tentative explanations. The theist who says god created everything, is the one with the faith – faith that “god” is the explanation and that no other is possible. The atheist is content to say “we don’t know”. For now, anyway. And it’s obvious that saying “we don’t know,” requires no faith. That may be a hard thing to do for people who want all the answers, but it certainly isn’t religion.
One last thing. Some theists have responded to the “if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby” argument by pointing out that non stamp collectors (aphilatelists?) don’t write books or blogs about not collecting stamps, don’t post anti stamp collecting ads on buses, don't ridicule stamp collectors, etc. This is meant to demonstrate that the “stamp collecting” analogy is weak. It actually demonstrates that the analogy is very good, since it highlights one of the main problems atheists have with many religious people.
Here’s the thing they are missing, and the real problem most atheists have with religion. If stamp collectors demanded that people who don’t collect stamps obey their stamp collecting rules, started wars with groups who collected slightly different types of stamps, denied non-stamp collectors rights or discriminated against them, bullied them in school, claimed you had to collect stamps to be a suitable person to run for public office, tried to get stamp collecting taught in schools as science in opposition to real science, demanded that people be killed for printing cartoons that made fun of stamp collectors, claimed that non-stamp collectors lacked moral judgment, made up ridiculous straw man positions they claimed non-stamp collectors took, and then argued against those straw men positions etc etc, - then non-stamp collectors probably would criticize stamp collectors in the way atheists criticize many religious people. And with good reason. Not collecting stamps would still not be a hobby. Or a religion.