For my write-up today on Lee Harmon’s John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, I’ll comment on Lee’s comparison of Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 with the ancient Egyptian story of Osiris. In John 11, Lazarus has two sisters (Mary and Martha), and Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead on the fourth day after Lazarus’ burial. On page 203 of John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, one of the characters, Ruth, draws parallels between John 11 and the Osiris story. Ruth says to Matthew:
“Osiris has two sisters who weep for him when he dies. It is said of him, ‘You have slept, but you will awake; you have died, but you will live.’ He is instructed while dead not to decay, not to smell. Just like Lazarus. So his tomb is opened on the fourth day, like Lazarus. Horus approaches and commands, ‘Go forth: wake up!’ And his wrappings are removed…John’s story has been around for a long, long time Matthew.” John then says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
I should add that another point that is often made by people who draw parallels between the story of Lazarus and that of Osiris is that the names “Lazarus” and “Osiris” are similar.
The idea that there are parallels between the Gospel story about Jesus and Egyptian mythology is particularly popular in freethought circles, which seek to portray the Gospel story as a rip-off or as just another savior tale that draws on stock-elements. See this clip from Bill Maher’s Religulous. Some Christian thinkers, such as C.S. Lewis, have contended that such parallels are actually compatible with Christianity, for Egyptian mythology could have been foreshadowing the coming of Christ.
But there are also a number of Christian apologists, as well as scholars who are not beholden to Christian apologetics, who dispute that many of these so-called parallels indeed are parallels. See here at Yahoo Answers (only the answers here to the question about Lazarus and Osiris are not particularly well-documented), and also Maurice Casey’s critique of D.M. Murdock’s work here.
In this post, I’ll share some of what I found when doing online searches on this topic. I’ll be referring to wikipedia, which many consider to be a no-no. But the wikipedia article that I’ll be using cites scholarly sources. Plus, I’m not claiming that my post here is the final word on Osiris. Far from it. I’m not an Egyptologist. There’s a lot that I do not know. I’m writing this post to start a discussion rather than to end it. And your comments are welcome, as long as you don’t put me down.
Okay, here we go! D.M. Murdock/Acharya S is an author who believes that there are parallels between ancient Egyptian mythology and the Gospel story of Jesus. She wrote a book, Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection, which I would like to read someday, but I’m not buying it right now because it’s price is too high for my budget! On this site, Murdock has a chart listing what she considers to be parallels between the story of Osiris and the story of Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11. The reason that this chart is useful is that it actually refers to primary sources for the Osiris story. I do not know what all of those abbreviations mean, but “PT” stands for “Pyramid Texts.” You can find an English translation of one of the Pyramid Texts here. I myself have not plowed through the Pyramid Texts to see if I agree with Murdock’s interpretation of them. Trying to understand verse takes more work than I’m willing to put into this topic right now. But I’m linking to the texts, in case you or I choose to take a look at them sometime, for research purposes or out of curiosity.
The thing is, when wikipedia and the site here sum up the story of Osiris, I don’t see in their summaries much that resembles the story of Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11. Yes, Osiris has two sisters, Isis and Nephthys. But there are elements of the Osiris story that are not in the Lazarus story. Osiris’ brother Seth conspires with others to kill Osiris, out of an attempt to take Osiris’ throne and also Osiris’ wife-sister, Isis. Seth succeeds in his plot, and he scatters the body-arts of Osiris throughout the land of Egypt. But Isis, Nephthys, and others find most of those body parts and resurrect Osiris so that he can impregnate Isis with a son, Horus, who would be the new king. Osiris’ resurrection appears to be temporary, however. Osiris becomes the ruler of the afterlife, and Horus and Seth battle for kingship.
But what about Murdock’s reference to the parts of the Pyramid Texts that appear to present Horus resurrecting Osiris? The closest that I could find to this in the wikipedia article was the following paragraph:
“With great celebration among the gods, Horus takes the throne, and Egypt at last has a rightful king. The divine decision that Set is in the wrong corrects the injustice created by Osiris’ murder and completes the process of his restoration after death. Sometimes Set is made to carry Osiris’ body to its tomb as part of his punishment. The new king performs funerary rites for his father and gives food offerings to sustain him—often including the Eye of Horus, which in this instance represents life and plenty. According to some sources, only through these acts can Osiris be fully enlivened in the afterlife and take his place as king of the dead, paralleling his son’s role as king of the living. Thereafter, Osiris is deeply involved with natural cycles of death and renewal, such as the annual growth of crops, that parallel his own resurrection.”
You can click here to see the footnotes and the scholarly sources that the article sites for this particular paragraph. What appears to be the case is that Horus is enlivening Osiris, on some level, but Horus is doing so in order that Osiris might serve as king of the dead in the afterlife. The idea is not for Osiris to roam the earth once more, but rather for Osiris to serve his function in the realm of the dead. I wouldn’t say that there’s a perfect match between the Osiris myth and John 11, for the stories are different. And yet, I hope that I’ve taken some steps (however inadequate or preliminary) towards understanding the context for what Murdock considers to be parallels.
(UPDATE: On pages 205-210, Lee has a more extensive discussion about the parallels between elements of the Jesus story and other religions. He talks about scholars who are skeptical about many of the parallels, as well as refers to attempts by Justin Martyr and Tertullian to account for them, attributing them to mimicry by the devil.)
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