Examining the Evidence: Is Jesus Christ a Copy of the “Pagan” God Mithras?

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As we briefly noted, the cult of Mithraism was an emergent secretive religion that begun in the late first century CE of the Roman Empire. It evidently flourished and its rituals became widely practiced across the Mediterranean world. Importantly, this refers specifically to the Roman cult of Mithraism, which itself is considered to have been a new religious movement under the Roman Empire, although the god Mithras himself, as we learn from the Greek historian Strabo (Geographica XV.3), predated the cult by several centuries and was worshiped by the Persians.

The Claim

Roman Mithraism is still one of the least understood ancient religions due to its secretive nature and the lack of textual sources written by those within its own ranks. Most of what we know of the religion comes from other writers (Roman historians and Christians), and historians have had to rely almost entirely upon archaeology. It is also one the most misrepresented religions given the efforts of pseudo-historians and persons with ideological axes to grind against the Christian religion. These ideologues have proposed that Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian religion, is a later copy of the pagan god Mithras. Although one can speculate several reasons for these claims it would seem that its proponents, of whom we shall refer to as “mythicists”, are aware that going after the founder of a major religious tradition is to essentially strike at the heart of that tradition. If one can show that Christ is knockoff of pagan gods then there is no point for Christians to proclaim him to be the unique, God ordained saviour of humankind. Essentially Christ would just be cut from the same legendary cloth as pagan gods of whom the contemporary mind certainly finds no reason to take seriously for salvation. Some of the mythicist proponents tend to venture even further to contend that Christ did not even exist as a historical figure. Importantly, such claims are not at all unique to Christianity or Christ as similar propositions have cropped up against the Prophet Muhammad and other religious figures, who have also been victimized by ideologues with axes to grind with those religious traditions. This entry is not intended to be a Christian apologetic, rather it an attempt to evaluate the claims and to determine the factuality of these claims based upon the available evidences for both the Christian religion and Mithraism.

Who is Arguing This?

Of a more personal side note, I discovered that the claims made by the mythicist proponents do not at all appear promising on the academic level. Given my search across several databases home to hundreds of academic journals at the university I attend not a single article crops up affirming the central premise of the mythicist claim that Christ is a copy of Mithras. The several published articles which are specifically on Christianity and Mithraism identify that the two were in competition within the Roman Empire, which is natural given that both traditions emerged within it. All the authors concede that there are gaps in historical knowledge concerning the Mithras cult given its secretive nature, and that almost everything known about it is based upon archaeology from which interpreters must infer. They tend to agree that Roman Mithraism ultimately declined and disappeared by the fourth century CE. Not one of the dozen authors I had the privilege of reading claimed that Christ and Mithras were cut from the same legendary cloth or that Christians stole themes from Mithraism and applied them to Christ. Only one scholar noted that there are indeed similarities between the two religions but at no point insinuates that the two religions are the same or stole symbols and themes from each other. The mythicist claim does not appear to be a topic of discussion within academic scholarship, or ever a part of the more recent developments that have occurred within this field over the last few decades. It is not propagated beyond the mythicists themselves, which suggests it lacks credibility in the eyes of experts within the field.

The Mythicist Claims

But as one would rightly say, this is not evidence that the mythicists are wrong. So lets examine the evidence itself in relation to the following claimed parallels to Christ:

1. Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th.
2. Mithras had 12 disciples.
3. Mithras sacrificed himself.
4. He was resurrected.
5. He was called the Messiah.

Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25th

The only materials from which one can learn about the birth and youth of Christ are the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both gospels affirm this birth to have been a supernatural phenomenon in that Christ was conceived by a woman who did not have sexual intercourse with a man. The problem with Mithras is that no sources mention a birth simply because no such source exists. The only evidence of Mithras’ birth come from sculptures which depict him being born from a rock while holding a torch and a dagger. Scholar of ancient history Manfred Clauss explains that,

“The sequence of images from the mythical account of Mithras’ life and exploits begins, so far as we can make out, with the god’s birth. The literary sources here are few but unmistakable: Mithras was known as the rock-born god” (1).

The disparities are therefore clear, particularly because the sound mind would not consider a rock as analogous to a virgin. Moreover, regarding the claim that Christ and Mithras share the 25th of December as their day of birth is questionable on the basis that no source from the New Testament places Christ’s birth on this day. Further, we do not know if the 25th of December was in fact Mithras’ own birthday. According to Roger Beck, a reputable and published scholar in the field of Mithraic studies,

“In truth, the only evidence for it is the celebration of the birthday of Invictus on that date in Calendar of Philocalus. Invictus is of course Sol Invictus, Aurelian’s sun god. It does not follow that a different, earlier, and unofficial sun god, Sol Invictus Mithras, was necessarily or even probably, born on that day too” (2).

Besides this, the first mention that December 25 was Christ’s date of birth comes from Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 CE (almost two centuries after Christ’s death) and only later in the 9th century did it become a widely celebrated event with a specific liturgy. Although December 25th is celebrated fondly by Christians as a day for remembering the birth of Christ, many are very aware that it is unlikely to have been the day of Christ’s actual birth.

Mithras had disciples

It would also strike most as a stretch to say that Mithras had 12 disciples like Christ. Indeed according to the canonical gospels Christ had 12 disciples of whom he taught and revealed revelation to. Although one disciple would go down into history for betraying Christ they are often presented as dedicated to their master. In Roman Mithraism, Mithras had only two companions Cautes and Cautopates (as depicted alongside him on Mithraic iconography), not 12. The idea that Mithras had 12 disciples seems to come from the fact that Mithras appears alongside zodiac symbols on several reliefs. It is certainly a stretch, however, to call the zodiac symbols disciples and use it as evidence that Mithras had 12 of them like Christ did. It is far more likely that Mithraic initiates just thought of Mithras along astrological terms, given that astrological beliefs permeated Mediterranean religious and intellectual life. According to David Ulansey,

“Astronomical concepts must have been important in Mithraism, given the frequent appearance of astronom­ical symbols in Mithraic iconography. The 12 signs of the zodiac and symbols of the sun, moon and planets often appear together with the tauroc­tony and elsewhere in Mithraic art” (3).

Mithras sacrificed himself

Academic consensus is that the most historically certain event of the life and ministry of Christ is that he was crucified on a Roman cross. Several independent sources attest to this event but no such source ever records that Mithras died or that he ever died upon a cross. The closest that Mithras can be said to have been sacrificed is from a line preserved in the Mithraeum (Mithraic temple) under the Santa Prisca church in Rome which reads: “And us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood” (4). This is certainly one of the more disingenuous of the mythicist parallels. First it refers to the blood of a bull that Mithras had slain. It was not Mithras’ own blood, which clearly distinguishes it from Christian theology which teaches that it was Christ’s blood that was shed upon the cross for sins of human beings, not the blood of someone else or that it was blood produced by a battle with an animal. Moreover, this inscription dates to the second century CE, meaning that it came after the time of Christ (died 30 CE). If there was indeed any copying going on, which seems very unlikely, it would have been Mithraic initiates guilty of committing it.

Mithras was resurrected and he was called the Messiah

There exists no textual or archaeological evidence that Mithras was resurrected from the dead. It is true that the gospels present a Christ who was raised from the dead into a new body, but nothing analogous to this exists within Roman Mithraism. Historian Edwin Yamauchi also notes the lack of knowledge within this area,

“We don’t know anything about the death of Mithras… We have a lot of monuments, but we have almost no textual evidence, because this was a secret religion. But I know of no references to a supposed death and resurrection” (5).

Regarding Mithras being called the Messiah, no evidence exists that this was the case.

What About the Similarities?

Having looked at these claims what should one make of the similarities between Roman Mithraism and Christianity? Indeed similarities exist. For example, Mithraism seems to also have a ritual meal, baptism, and provided the promise of immortality to initiates. At a first glance these appear similar to Christianity, but a closer analysis seems to reveal something different.

It is important to acknowledge that similarity does not necessitate a causal connection or influence of one tradition upon another. For example, we know of an aircraft that took off one morning and flew into a New York city skyscraper, which killed everyone on board and many people working in the building at the time. It caused a great deal of damage, the loss of life, circulated in news headlines, and is remembered to this very day. That was the fate of a B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building in 1945, yet the way we have briefly described the scene makes it sound very similar to the more recent tragedy of 9/11. But these similarities which exist between these two events certainly do not mean that 9/11 never happened or is a copy of the B-25 disaster. The point is that one could find similarities in virtually everything, but that does not help at all if a causal connection has not been established between two or more events. In light of the claimed parallels considered above, the mythicists have not achieved this, but that said an examination of the similarities are certainly warranted.

The Ritual Meal

An evidence mythicists frequently cite in favour of the claim that Christianity borrowed their idea of a ritual meal from Mithraism comes from one of Christianity’s own intellectuals: Justin Martyr (100-165 CE) and his First Apology. According to Martyr:

“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 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” (6).

If one takes the mythicists contention at face value the first challenge to their claim is that the First Apology was composed around 150 CE. It can therefore be questioned on the grounds that it was written a full 120 years after Christ inaugurated the Last Supper/Eucharist. It is therefore a late witness and one that, if really does assert Christianity stole the ceremony meal from Roman Mithraism (which it does not), is in contradiction to the much earlier gospel evidences and New Testament letters. The Apostle Paul, for example, writing around 55 CE, already showed an awareness of the Last Supper tradition in 1 Corinthians 11 (v. 17-34) which begun with Christ, almost a full century prior to Martyr’s Apology. Roman Mithraism did not exist at this stage, so Christianity could not have borrowed the ritual meal theme from it. What Martyr is really saying, moreover, is that it was the Mithraists who were imitating the Christian sacramental meal, and he attributes their acts to wicked devils. This suggests that Martyr noticed similarities between the Eucharist and the Mithraic ritual meal, and it certainly does not go as far as support what the mythicist is claiming, which is that Christianity stole the theme from Mithraism and applied it to Christ. That is surely stretching the case and would require convincing substantiation of which Martyr cannot provide for them. Moreover, the mythicist’s contention is further challenged on the grounds that common meals of a religious significance are found in almost all religious communities (8). It is hardly remarkable that there existed such meals in Christianity and Mithraism, and this is not in of itself a proof that there was borrowing going on between them. That aside, one might wonder as what to make of the differences. Although we know very little about the Mithraic ritual meal it does appear that they were actual meals (based upon discoveries of artifacts such as utensils, bones, plates) whereas for the Christians it was just bread and wine or water consumed as an act of remembrance (9).

Soul and its Immortality

What about the the concept of the soul and its immortality? Again, this is very unremarkable in religions. Even the Hindu and Shamanic traditions hold to notions of the soul and immortality, and no-one (although one might suggest that this is too not out of the realm of possibilities for a mythicist) would think that the gospel authors stole those symbols and themes and deliberately applied them to Christ. This is a common feature within religions and it is unremarkable that the Mithraists, like those within nearly every religious tradition, would believe in life after death.

Baptism

It does appear, going on what the Christian writer Tertullian (155-240) tells us, that the Mithraists had something that appears similar to baptism,

“Likewise [the Mithraists] honor the gods themselves by washings. Moreover, by carrying water around, and sprinkling it, they everywhere expiate country-seats, houses, temples, and whole cities: at all events, at the Apollinarian and Eleusinian games they are baptized; and they presume that the effect of their doing that is their regeneration and the remission of the penalties due to their perjuries” (10).

In the Christian religion baptism involves the use of water, especially to immerse or submerge oneself within it, as a sign of commitment to Christ. Emerging out of the water symbolizes being cleansed by the blood of Christ and the intent of leaving the older sinful version of oneself behind. According to the gospels Christ himself was baptized, and the practice is mentioned by Paul in Romans 6 (v. 3-4). What should one make of this in relation to Mithraism as we learn from Tertullian? The same challenge proposed to Martyr above can be made to Tertullian, which is that Tertullian is writing this at a much later period, somewhere in the later second century CE. One cannot therefore merely assume that a writer composing his material at this date is a reliable witness to events within the earlier part of the first century concerning the alleged borrowing going on as Christians took the theme of baptism from the Mithraists and applied it to Christ. Further, these “washings” mentioned by Tertullian do not match baptism as it was conceived of by New Testament writers. A baptism for the Christian is a once of event, and it is not made to honour multiple gods, and certainly did not take the form of sprinkling water over objects like seats, houses, temples, and cities. According to Mircea Eliade, baptism of the New Testament is home within a Jewish, not pagan, tradition and “could have been taken directly from one of the esoteric Jewish sects, especially the Essenes, concerning whom the Dead Sea manuscripts have now added sensationally to our knowledge. Indeed, it is not even necessary to suppose that an initiatory theme was “borrowed” by Christianity from some other religion” (11).

Concluding Thoughts

Is Christ a copy of the god Mithras as he was conceived of within the Roman cult? Although this would be answered in the affirmative by the mythicist we have seen that the available evidences, views of scholars in the field, and an analysis of the claimed parallels and similarities between the two religious traditions, show this to be very unlikely. The mythicists hurt their reputation by appearing to force parallels (think the attempt to equate the zodiac symbols with Christ’s 12 disciples), being disingenuous with information (think concealing the fact that the eternal blood sacrifice for which the initiates are saved does not refer to Mithras but to the blood of the bull), and for clearly just making up data that do not exist (that Mithras was referred to as the Messiah). These unprofessional methods combined with the lack of academic interest in their spurious claims evidences why the mythicists will always be considered ideological amateurs by the experts. It is also clear that those promoting the mythicist view possess some level of disdain for the Christian religion, and perhaps for Christians themselves and/or their founder. It is difficult to fathom what other reasons would explain what is behind these claims which certainly cannot be justified on any evidential ground.

References

1. Manfred, Clauss. 2017. The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 18.

2. Beck, Roger. 1987. “Merkelbach’s Mithras.” Phoenix 41(3): 296–316. p. 299.

3. Ulansey, David. 1989. “The Mithraic Mysteries.” Scientific American 261(6): 130-135. p. 132.

4. Dieter Betz, Hans. 1968. “The Mithras Inscriptions of Santa Prisca and the New Testament.” Novum Testamentum 10: 62-80.

5. CRI. 2009. Defending the New Testament Jesus. Available.

6. Martyr, Justin. The Sacred Writings of Justin Martyr. Jazzybee Verlag. p. 39.

8. Manfred, Clauss. 2017. Ibid. p. 113.

9. Manfred, Clauss. 2017. Ibid. p. 115.

10. Tertullian, De Baptismo, ch. 5.

11. Elaide, Mircea. 1998. Rites and Symbols of Initiation. Washington: Spring Publications. p. 116.

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3 responses to “Examining the Evidence: Is Jesus Christ a Copy of the “Pagan” God Mithras?

  1. Pingback: Examining the Evidence: Is Jesus Christ a Copy of the “Pagan” God Mithras? — Bishop’s Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy | Reasoned Cases for Christ·

  2. There is a difference between immaculate conception as claimed by the Catholics and virgin birth which was practised by the Essenes. Zechariah, John the Baptist father was a supporter of the Essene community and a believer in the prophet Isaiah. “A virgin shall be with child”, was a precedent set for the Messiah to arise in Israel.

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