From time to time, some triumphant atheist or other challenges me with a list of supposed parallels between the biblical depiction of Jesus and the stories of other important religious figures (mythical or historical), such as Krishna, Tammuz, the Buddha, Muhammad, Mithra, Cadmus, Osiris and Baal.
The biographies of these characters are said to resemble each other right down to minute details: They commonly if not always came into the world via a virgin's immaculate conception; were born on Dec. 25; were adored as infants by angels, shepherds and visiting sages; performed miracles; taught New Testament doctrines; were regarded as divine; were crucified; atoned for human sin; descended into hell; rose again from the dead; and ascended into heaven.
The point of the list, of course, is to suggest that the story of Jesus is merely fictional, probably derived from myths about the death of vegetation in the winter and its miraculous rebirth in the spring.
It's a very impressive catalog of parallels.
It's also utterly bogus.
The ultimate source for the list seems to be an 1875 book by an American atheist writer named Kersey Graves, titled "The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity Before Christ."
And I'm being accurate when I describe the Graves book as the "ultimate source" for these ideas, since Graves supplies no references from ancient documents to back up his assertions. He simply announces them and then moves on as if he's proved them true. But they're nonsense.
Space permits only a hasty comparative analysis, and, since I'm the author of a biography of the founder of Islam, who is one of the figures identified by Graves as an exact parallel to Christ, perhaps I can be forgiven for focusing on Muhammad.
As a preliminary note, though, I need to say that the versions of this list that I've seen often confuse the Immaculate Conception — traditionally, Mary's coming into the world as the daughter of Joachim and Anna (according to the second century "Protoevangelium of James") without the taint of "Original Sin" — with the Virgin Birth, which is Mary's conception of Jesus without an earthly father.
But now on to business:
No Islamic text of which I'm aware claims that Muhammad's mother was a virgin at his birth. Muhammad's father is known in Muslim sources as 'Abd Allah, and he, in turn, was the son of 'Abd al-Mutallib.
Muhammad wasn't born on Dec. 25, but most likely near the end of April. Some relatively late legends surround his birth with miraculous events and have him working mighty wonders, but these folkloric tales probably arose out of competition with Christians, and neither the Qur'an nor the earliest, most reputable Islamic historical materials say anything about them. Muhammad himself explained that the reception of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, was his only (though sufficient) miracle.
Many of Muhammad's doctrines are comparable to those of the New Testament. But this is scarcely surprising, since he claimed to be a prophet in the tradition of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Still, many of his doctrines are quite distinctive.
Islam has never taught that Muhammad was divine, nor even a son of God. "God does not beget," says Qur'an 112:3, "nor is he begotten." To suggest otherwise, Muslims believe, is "shirk" or polytheism, the worst possible theological error.
Muhammad was most definitely not crucified, atones for nobody's sins and did not rise from the dead.
Early stories exist of Muhammad ascending into heaven, and, on that same journey, seeing some of the sufferings of the damned in hell. But these stories don't appear clearly in the Qur'an, they're always placed years before Muhammad's death, and they play no role in his life or in Islamic theology that's even remotely comparable to the function that the "harrowing of hell" and Christ's post-resurrection ascent have served in Christian lore and thought.
It's simply false to say that Muhammad's life precisely parallels that of Jesus. The differences are fundamental and far too numerous to be listed here. (Read my biography!) And when the same claim is actually examined with regard to Baal, Osiris, Krishna and the like, it fares no better.
If you're ever confronted with Graves' list or something like it, demand to see supporting references. Or, if you're pressed for time, just go ahead and laugh. It's not to be taken seriously.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.