Okay, it’s November, and with Christmas fast approaching I thought I’d better turn my attention to the ancient god Mithras. Since the 19th century antichristians have been claiming that Christianity is based, to a greater or lesser extent, on the ancient Roman cult of Mithras. This claim has been repeated and elaborated by contemporary atheist polemicists and propagandists like Acharya S and the Rational Response Squad to support their belief that Jesus Himself did not exist, but was merely copied and invented by the early Christians from existing pagan deities. In support of this position, it has been claimed that Mithras was born of a virgin, had 12 disciples, was crucified, ascended into heaven, and that his followers shared a ritual meal of bread and wine which served as the basis for Christian holy communion. However, these supposed parallels with Christianity either don’t exist at all, or are common to a number of religions.
Furthermore, although some of the speculation that Mithraism had a profound impact on Christianity was based on the sincere, though mistaken, speculations of respected and entirely respectable scholars such as the great Belgian classical scholar, Franz Cumont, there is a very sinister aspect to late 19th and early 20th century European fringe religious fascination with Mithras. To the volkisch neo-pagans in central Europe, Mithras was an indigenous monotheistic saviour god whom the ancient Aryans had worshipped, and whose replacement by the Semitic religion of Christianity had damaged the Aryans peoples of Europe intellectually and spiritually. The promotion of Mithraism as the true religion of the Indo-European peoples and the pattern on which Christianity was modelled was part of the wider, racial-nationalistic campaigns against Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage, a campaign that reached its worst excesses in the Nazi party.
Now let’s examine the historical cult of Mithras, and see if it matches the claims of Christ-mythers.
Firstly, it should be noted that Mithras is a genuinely ancient god. One of the most ancient documents recording his cult is a treaty from the 14th century BC between the Hittites and the Mitanni carved into the rock at Boghaz Koi, in which he is invoked as a witness. As one of the Spentas – the hypostases of the good god and creator, Ahura Mazda, Mithras was worshipped by the Achaemenid kings of Iran, and by Zoroastrians around the world today. However, there is a profound difference between the ancient Persian and Zoroastrian cults of Mithras and his Roman cult. Scholars of the Roman cult of Mithras consider that it ‘is originally and substantially a Greek religion with only a few Iranian elements.’ 1
Such scholars state that ‘no direct continuity, either of a general kind or in specific details, can be demonstrated between the Perso-Hellenistic worship of Mitra and the Roman mysteries of Mithras. The oft-repeated attempts to traces a seamless history of Mithras from the second millennium BC to the fourth century AD simply tell us something quite general about the relative stability, or, as it may be, flexibility, of religious ideas. We cannot account for Roman Mithras in in terms borrowed from Persian Mitra.’ 2
Roman Mithraism similarly evolved separately from and was not a predecessor to Christianity ‘There is another reason too for thinking that it makes little sense to treat the mysteries of Mithras as but one stage in a longer evolution. The mysteries cannot be shown to have developed from Persian religious ideas, nor does it make sense to interpret them as a fore-runner of Christianity. Both views neglect the sheer creativity that gave rise to the mystery-cult. Mithraism was an independent creation with its own unique value within a given historical, specifically Roman, context.’ 3
Now let’s examine some of the specific claims regarding the supposed similarity between Christ and Mithras.
The Virgin Birth
There is actually no parallel or influence here between Roman Mithraism and Christianity. Mithras was not born from a virgin, but from a rock. Indeed, one inscription to Mithras reads ‘To the almighty God Sun invincible, generative god, born from the rock.’ 4 The scene of Mithras’ birth from a rock was a particular favourite of the cult’s devotees, and is found in sculptures and medallions from all over the Roman Empire, from Rayanov Grich in Croatia, St. Alban’s in England, Cologne, Metz, Rome, Resca in Romania, Bingen and Trier. 5 Mithras was not always considered to have been born from a rock, however. A relief at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England shows the god being born from an egg, which itself becomes a celestial globe. 6 There is a similar scene at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, which shows Mithras being born from the cosmic egg surrounded by a zodiacal ring. 7 He also sometimes appears being born from a tree, possibly developed from stylised representations of the rock as a pine-cone. 8
So there was no conception of a virgin birth in ancient Mithraism. Zoroastrians do expect the Saoshyant, the Saviour who will eventually defeat the forces of Angra Mainyu, the god of evil, at the end of the world, to be born of a virgin. There is a profound difference between the virgin birth of the Saoshyant and of Christ, however, In Zoroastrianism, the Saoshyant will be born from the physical seed of Zoroaster, which has been taken by the yazad Neryosang and preserved in Lake Kayansih. The Saoshyant’s mother is expected to become pregnant after she bathes in that lake. The Zand, one of the Zoroastrian holy books, describes it thus:
‘Three times Zardusht [the prophet Zoroaster] approached his wife, Hvovi. Each time his see fell to the ground. The yazad Neryosang took all the light and power of that seed, and .. it was consigned to Lake Kayansih, in the care of the Waters …. It is said that even now three lamps are seen shining at night in the depth of the lake. And for each, when his own time comes, it will be thus: a virgin will go to Lake Kayansih to bathe; and the Glory (of Zardusht) will enter her body, and she will become with child. And so, one by one the (three) will be born thus, each at his own time.’ 9
Thus for Zoroastrians, the Saoshyant will be born from the spiritually transformed physical semen of a human being. It is not like Jesus, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and whose father is truly God Himself, rather than Joseph, who made no contribution to the process of physical conception.
Even those scholars in the 19th century who claimed that the Christian doctrine of the Virgin birth, the adoration of the Magi and the visit of the shepherds admitted they had no evidence for this. 10 Thus the claim that Christ’s virgin birth must have been taken from Zoroastrianism or Mithraism simply doesn’t stand up, and must be rejected.
This simply doesn’t occur at all in the Roman cult of Mithras. The events in the god’s life, at least as reconstructed from existing iconography, are the birth of Mithras from a rock or tree, his shooting at a cloud to bring forth rain; his shooting at a rock, which causes a spring to gush forth; cutting the corn; taming and sacrificing the holy bull; his contract with the sun god; a holy meal, and final ascent to heaven on the chariot of the sun god. 11 It is true that the bread broken in the communal meal held by the initiates of the cult of Mithras was marked with a cross, but this was for ease of breaking the bread and does not represent any event in the god’s life. 12
The Twelve Disciples
These simply don’t appear in Roman Mithraism either. There are a number of animals shown present at Mithras’ birth, including the Greek god Chronos, a raven, dog, serpent and scorpion, as well as two figures, Cautes and Cautopates, bearing torches. These torch-bearers sometimes appear to be helping Mithras out of the rock, but there is no connection with the Christian birth narrative and they cannot be called ‘shepherds’. 13 They may instead represent the gods Sol and Luna, or the rising and setting sun, or alternatives Cautopates may represent death, while Cautes joy, fertility and new life. 14 It’s possible that the idea of 12 disciples for Mithras arose through confusion with astrological imagery found in the cult motifs, such as the birth of the god from the rock and the slaying of the bull. However, these are very definitely signs of the zodiac, not 12 earthly humans. So again, there isn’t a parallel with Christianity.
The Ritual Meal
The initiates of the cult of Mithras did, however, share a meal of bread and wine that was seen by the Christian apologists Justin Martyr and Tertullian as pagan distortions and parodies of the Christian eucharist. It’s considered that the ritual meals held in the Mithraic temples were a symbolic re-enactment of the celebratory meal Mithras and the god Sol held after Mithras’ slaying of the bull, which produced the universe. 15 Scholars of the cult of Mithras state very clearly that neither Christianity nor Mithraism borrowed anything from the other regarding this, as the sharing of a communal meal is a common element in many religions all over the world.
‘In the case of these analogies, there can be no question of imitation in either direction. The offering of bread and wine is known in virtually all ancient cultures, and the meal as a way of binding the faithful together and uniting them to the deity was a feature common to many religions. It represented one of the oldest means of manifesting unification with the spiritual, and the appropriation of spiritual qualities.’ 16
The Mithraic ritual meal may not have been an exact parallel to the Christian eucharist either. It’s assumed that both Christian eucharist and the Mithraic ritual meal consisted of bread and wine, but the Mithraic ritual meal may also have included cake and meat – bull, cock, ram or pig, grapes, and less, frequently, fish. The krater containing the blood from the sacrifice of a bull, in re-enactment of Mithras’ slaying of the primeval bull, may have held water as well as wine a substitute. 17 Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the Mithraic liturgy, suggesting that it consisted of a sacrifice of an animal or bird in commemoration of the bull-slaying by the cult’s Pater as representative of Mithras, the coronation of the Heliodromus, the Courier of the Sun, the member of the grade representing the sun, by the Pater, representing Mithras, a pact, perhaps made by offering part of the sacrifice on the small alter by the Pater and Heliodromus, followed by the cult meal with the Pater and Heliodromus as chief officials, which represented the future ascent of the participants’ souls to Mithras and Sol. 18 If this reconstruction is correct, then the supposed parallel to Christian holy communion is much weaker, as animal sacrifice was firmly rejected by the early Church, which ridiculed its persistence in paganism.
Regarding the Christian eucharist, the evidence of the two eucharistic prayers in chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache seem to be based on the Birkat ha-Mazon, the Jewish table prayer. 19 Here the origin is both the commemoration of the Last Supper, and also an expectation of the Messianic banquet, which in Jewish belief will be held for the followers of the Messiah at the end of time.
The Ascent into Heaven
After the sacrifice, Mithras appears to have ascended into heaven on the chariot of the sun god, Sol, with whom he had made a pact. It is thus strikingly different from Christ’s ascent into heaven, alone and unaided. The only common element between the two is that heaven – the abode of God – is located in the sky, a view that is found in all religions.
The Water Miracle
One of the events in the Mithraic narrative which appears to have the closest resemblance to Christianity is Mithras’ bringing forth of water from a rock. In a number of sculptures and reliefs, chiefly from the regions of the Rhine and Danube, Mithras is shown sitting on a stone aiming a bow at a rock. One figure either stands behind him or clasps Mithras’ knees in supplication, while another figure kneels in front of the rock. A votive altar from Poetovio proclaims Mithras to be the fons perennialis, the ever flowing spring. 20 This is similar to the scenes on Christian sarcophagi showing Moses striking the rock in the desert to produce water as an illustration of the New Testament’s view of Christ as a water-bearing rock, such as in1 Corinthians 10: 4 ‘And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ’.
However, there is again, no question of influence from either religion on the other. Water played an important part in the mysteries of Mithras, and Mithraic temples could include water pipes, basins and cisterns, and were often located near holy springs, such as at Mackwiller, the Morava valley in Serbia and Bijelo Polje in Bosnia. 21 Thus the cult of Mithras was part of a widespread veneration of holy springs common in pagan Europe and the Near East. The importance of water, and the symbolism of water for life or immortality also derive from both religions’ origins in the arid conditions of the Near East, where drought was a perennial problem and real threat. ‘The thinking that underlies these features of each cult is naturally rooted in the same traditions. The water-miracle is one of the wide-spread myths that originate from regions plagued by drought and where the prosperity of humans and nature depends upon rain.’ 22 The symbolism of Christ as offering living water is based very solidly on Old Testament imagery for God. Jeremiah 17:13 describes God as ‘the Lord, the fountain of living waters’. The image of Christ as the rock that gives water to His followers, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 10: 4, comes from the incident in Exodus 17:1-7, where, finding themselves without water at Rephidim, the Israelites complained to Moses who struck a rock with his rod so that water came out of it. Its depiction on Christian sarcophagi was a way of representing Christ’s own words to the woman of Samaria, as recorded in John 4:14 ‘But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst: but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a w ell of water springing up into everlasting life’. If Mithraism did influence Christianity here, it was through the depiction of the water miracles of Christ and Mithras, with the water-miracles of Mithras forming the model for the depiction of Moses striking the rock at Horeb. 23 However, the underlying Christian symbolism is authentic to Christianity and Judaism and the witness of the Old and New Testaments.
Thus, Mithraism and Christianity actually aren’t that similar, and where similarities do occur it’s through their common origins in the Middle East, rather than through direct borrowing. Also, some contemporary scholars consider that where Mithraism did appear to be disconcertingly similar to Christianity, it was an illusion created by the scholars themselves, who viewed Mithraism through a model of religious development based on Christianity.
‘Clearly, Christianity was the paradigm. The Cumontian model was cloned from the then dominant model of Christianity, not deliberately but simply because that was the way the late nineteenth-century Western mind confronted religion.’ 24
Thus modern Christ-mythicists who see Christianity as modelled on the religion of Mithras do so because the intellectual model of Mithraism on which they base their theories is actually modelled on Christianity. Their image of the cult of Mithras is really Christianity, as seen through a distorting mirror of classical scholarship and pseudo-scholarship, rather than a true image of the ancient religion itself.
There is also a sinister, racist aspect to the elevation of Mithraism as a rival to and original prototype of Christianity. The 19th century volkisch neopagans of Central Europe embraced Mithraism as a particularly Aryan religion, a direct survival of the Ur-religion from the ancient homeland of the Aryan peoples. Following the attempts of the great anthropologist and scholar of comparative religion, Frederick Muller, to trace the origins of Aryan religion in a primeval solar cult, the 19th century Germanic neo-pagan milieu saw this original Aryan religion as a cult of the sun, and Mithras, as Sol Invictus, was seen as the true Aryan saviour cult, in contrast to the alien religion of Christianity with its roots in Judaism. This view of Mithras and Mithraism was taken up and expanded by Jung, who viewed Mithraism as religion of nature in contrast to the stifling forces of civilisation created by Christianity. ‘Two thousand years of Christianity makes us strangers to ourselves. In the individual, the internalisation of bourgeois-Christian civilization is a mask that covers the true Aryan god within, a natural god, a sun god, perhaps even Mithras himself.’ 25 While Jung most definitely was not a Nazi or even a proto-Nazi, he did share some of the racist views that there was a real cognitive difference between Jews and Aryans at certain points in his career. Jung’s book, Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido, which explored solar mysticism and Mithraism, was shaped by 19th century conceptions of Christianity as fundamentally alien to Aryans through its roots in Judaism.
‘Hence, for the educated volkisch neopagan circa 1911 or 1912 who may have stumbled across this work, it would seem that Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido was the scientific confirmation of everything that one would believe about the necessity for the repudiation of Christianity and the practice of sun worship.Jung’s volume is indeed the “volkisch liturgy”.’ 26
Thus the atheist conception of Mithraism is an ancient rival to and prototype of Christianity is not born out by the actual features of the religion itself, and the similarities to Christianity which some have seen in the cult are the product of the two religion’s common origins in the ancient Near East, and the distorted view of Mithraism by 19th century scholars who examined it through the concepts and model of Christianity, and so made it resemble Christianity more than it really did. Lastly, the continued persistence of the claim of Mithraism as the model from which Christianity was copied has been informed by 19th century Neopagan attempts to re-establish a rival Aryan religion to Semitic Christianity. The Christ-mythers who continue to promote Mithraism as the true origin of Christianity are very much following the intellectual programme of these Neo-pagans, though without adhering to their racism.
- M.P. Speidel, Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God (Leiden, E.J. Brill 1980), p. 2.
- Manfred Clauss: The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries, R. Gordon trans., (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press 2000), p. 7.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 7.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 62.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68.
- ‘Mithras’, in Encyclopedia of World Mythology (London, Peerage Books 1975), p. 162.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 70.
- ‘Mithras’, in World Mythology, p. 162; Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 70-1.
- ‘On the Three World Saviours, From the Zand’ in Mary Boyce, ed. and trans. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism (Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1984), p. 91.
- F. Cumont, T.J. McCormack, trans., The Mysteries of Mithras, 2nd Edition (Chicago, the Open Court Publishing Company 1910), p. 195.
- ‘Mithras’, World Mythology, p. 162, ‘Chapter 8: the Sacred Narrative’ in Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 62-101.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 110.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 68-9.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 95-98.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 110l; R. Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford, OUP 2006), p. 22.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 109.
- J. Stewardson and E. Saunders, ‘Reflections on the Mithraic Liturgy’ in S. Laeuchli, ed., Mithraism in Ostia: Mytery, Religion and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome (Garrett Theological Seminary/ Northwestern University Press 1967), p. 72.
- Stewardson and Saunder ‘Mithraic Liturgy’, in Laeuchli, Mithraism in Ostia, p. 71.
- M. Staniforth and A. Louth, eds. and trans., Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 188; J.F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville, Abingdon Press 1993), p. 26.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 72.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 73-4.
- Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 72.
- F. Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra, pp. 196-7.
- Beck, Mithras Cult, p. 54.
- R. Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London, FontanaPress 1996), p. 128.
- Noll, Jung Cult, p. 130.
Mithras and the Rational Response Squad
As avowed supporters of the view that Jesus is an entirely mythological figure, it’s not surprising that the vehement atheists of the Rational Response Squad should cite Mithras as one of the ancient religions from which Christianity was copied. The complete absence of any real support for their position can be seen in this debate http://rationalresponders.blogspot.com/2007/11/kabane52-forces-rook-hawkins-to-face.html at Frank Walton’s Rational Response Squad blog between Kabane52 and the Rational Response Squad’s Rook Hawkins.