Archive for November, 2007

Mithras Myths

November 5, 2007

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.


  1. M.P. Speidel, Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God (Leiden, E.J. Brill 1980), p. 2.
  2. Manfred Clauss: The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries, R. Gordon trans., (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press 2000), p. 7.
  3. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 7.
  4. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 62.
  5. Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68.
  6. ‘Mithras’, in Encyclopedia of World Mythology (London, Peerage Books 1975), p. 162.
  7. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 70.
  8. ‘Mithras’, in World Mythology, p. 162; Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 70-1.
  9. ‘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.
  10. F. Cumont, T.J. McCormack, trans., The Mysteries of Mithras, 2nd Edition (Chicago, the Open Court Publishing Company 1910), p. 195.
  11. ‘Mithras’, World Mythology, p. 162, ‘Chapter 8: the Sacred Narrative’ in Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 62-101.
  12. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 110.
  13. Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 68-9.
  14. Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 95-98.
  15. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 110l; R. Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford, OUP 2006), p. 22.
  16. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 109.
  17. 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.
  18. Stewardson and Saunder ‘Mithraic Liturgy’, in Laeuchli, Mithraism in Ostia, p. 71.
  19. 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.
  20. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 72.
  21. Clauss, Roman Mithras, pp. 73-4.
  22. Clauss, Roman Mithras, p. 72.
  23. F. Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra, pp. 196-7.
  24. Beck, Mithras Cult, p. 54.
  25. R. Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London, FontanaPress 1996), p. 128.
  26. 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 at Frank Walton’s Rational Response Squad blog between Kabane52 and the Rational Response Squad’s Rook Hawkins.

Medieval Faith and Fossils

November 3, 2007

One of the sad products of contemporary post-Enlightenment thinking is the failure to recognise just how scientifically sophisticated the Middle Ages could actually be. In the popular imagination, the Middle Ages are simply a space between the glories of ancient Greek rationalism and philosophy and their rediscovery in the Renaissance, which is when science got back on its feet. Between those two points, so the popular wisdom goes, science was dead, suppressed by Christian theology and the tyranny of the Church. You can’t imagine Adam Hart-Davis of the BBC’s What the Romans/ Stuarts/Victorians/ Aztecs/Islam/ Chinese/ Did For Us ever doing a comparable series on what the Medieval’s actually did for us.

Yet despite of the loss of much Classical learning in the military chaos of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages was a time of intellectual adventure and scientific advancement, and medieval scientific theories can strike the modern reader as surprisingly modern.

Take the issue of fossils, for example. The contemporary scientific attitude which sees the emergence of Darwinism as the acme of the scientific investigation of the emergence of terrestrial life can lead to an attitude which looks down on the Medievals as so ignorant, due to their acceptance of the Biblical account of the Earth’s creation that they had no idea about geology and fossils until Lyell and co. in the late 18th and early 19th centuries put them right. It’s an attitude that’s profoundly, utterly wrong.

The great Muslim philosopher Avicenna had some very sophisticated ideas about geology and fossil formation, and his book De Mineralibus was immensely influential when translated into Latin. Avicenna and his Christian followers considered that the world had indeed been covered by water, as suggested by some ancient Greek philosophers, but also that dry land and mountains had emerged through the deposition of sediments and the eruption of submarine earthquakes. The mud thus raised hardened into rock through the action of the sun’s heat and the ‘congelation’ of water, in the same way that stalactites and stalagmites were formed, though he also believed that some form of precipitation was also brought about by heat and there was an unknown ‘mineralising virtue’ which caused the clay to petrify. Fossils were merely the plants and animals caught in this mud.

Avicenna’s ideas were taken up and extended by Albertus Magnus in his De Mineralibus et Rebus Metallicis of c.1260., in which he states:

‘There is no-one who is not astonished to find stones which, both externally and internally, bear th eimpressions of animals. Externally they show their outline and when they are broken open there is found the shape of the internal parts of these animals. Avicenna teaches us that the cause of this phenomenon is that animals can be entirely transformed into stones and particualrly into salt stones. Just as earth and water are the usual matter of stones, he says, so animals can become the matter of certain stones. . If the bodies fo these animals are in places where a mineralising power (vis lapdidficativa) is being exhaled, they are reduced to their elements and are seized by the qualities peculair to those places. The elements which teh bodies of these animals contained are transormed into the element which is the dominant element in them: that is the terrestrial element mixed with the acqueous element; then the mineralising power converts the terrestrial element into stone. The different external and internal parts of the animal keep the shape which they had beforehand. ‘

(De Mineralibus et Rebus Metallicis, book 1, tract 2, chapter 8, quoted in A.C. Crombie Augustine to Galileo: Science in the Middle Ages – Vol.1 5th-13th Century (London, Mercury Books 1952) p. 125).

Such fossils and their petrified remains could clearly be found around some of the world’s great cities, like Paris:

‘Evidence of this is that parts of aquatic animals and perhaps of naval gear are found in rock in hollows on mountains, which water no doubt deposite there enveloped in sticky mud, and which were precipitated by the coldness and dryness of the stone from petrifying completely. Very striking evidence of this kind is found in the stone of Paris, in which one very often meets round shells the shape of the moon.’ (Crombie, op. cit., p. 126, quoting De Causis Proprietatum Elementorum, book 2, tract 3, chapter 5).

Despite being based on the theory of the four elements, and seeing the process of petrification as far more rapid than modern geologists consider, the theory of fossilisation outlined there is surprisingly modern.

This could lead to some surprisingly rational, even scientific interpretations of the Genesis account of the Creation. Thierry of Chartres, who died c. 1155, in his De Septem Diebus et Sex Operum Distinctionibus, on the account of the Creation in seven days in Genesis, declared that to correctly understand the account of creation one needed a training in the quadrivium, the ancient and medieval school syllabus, and particularly mathematics, which provided the basis for all rational explanations of the universe. Thierry believed that in the beginning, God created space or chaos and the four elements. Some of the water was vapourised by fire to create the firmament above the Earth from the waters under the Earth. The reduction in water covering the Earth produced dry land, and the interaction of the Earth’s moisture and the air’s warmth produced plants and trees. The stars appeared as conglomerations in the waters above the firmament, and the heat developed by their motions hatched out birds and fishes from the terrestrial waters, and animals from the Earth itself. These animals included humanity itself, made in the image of God.

Although the process of Creation stopped at the end of the sixth day, this did not mean that new creatures did not subsequently appear. Following St. Augustine’s acceptance of the doctrine of ‘seminal causes’ proposed by Anaxagoras and the Stoics in the 5th century BC, Thierry believed that the germs of plants, animals and humanity had all been created in the first stage of creation, but that these germs later blossomed into the appearance of new creatures at the appropriate time.

Although this view is naturally wildly divergent from the contemporary scientific account, it does share with them a strong rationalist attitude to Creation, in which Creation is seen as a continous process of one cause generating its successor. However, although rationally considered, each cause is part of a divinely ordained and directed process.

Medieval theologians and philosophers had a subtle and sophisticated attitude towards God’s action in the natural world. Instead of the contemporary materialist attitude which sees a natural action as excluding divine agency, the Medievals saw the operation of the natural world occurring from both natural and divine causes.

The great 12th century philosopher and scientist, Adelard of Bath, who was one of the first to bring Arabic science to Europe, stated that the springing up of plants from the Earth should be attributed both to the will of the Creator, and to natural reasons. When his nephew asked him if it would be better to attribute all actions to God, because some phenomena did not seem to have a natural explanation, Adelard replied that:

‘I do not detract from God. Everything that is, is from Him and because of Him. But [nature] is not confused and without system and so far as human knowledge has progressed it should be given a hearing. Only when it fails utterly should there be recourse to God.’ (A.C. Crombie, op. cit., p. 26). The attitude of these medieval philosophers was strongly rationalistic. Adelard himself was contemptuous of those who relied on authorities, and stated firmly: ‘Those who are now called authorities reached that position first by the exercise of their reason … Wherefore, if you want to hear anything from me, give and take reason’. (Crombie, pp. 26-7).

This is very far from the image of the Middle Ages as anti-scientific and credulous, even though the science there had to conform to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Even so, it’s in stark odds to the charicatured image of Christian attitudes to science and faith presented as fact by evangelical atheists such as Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan.

Contemporary historians and scientists are rediscovering the vital role of the medieval period in the formation of modern science. Recently there have been reissues of the works of Robert Grosseteste, who, according to A.C. Crombie, the great historian of medieval science who I’ve quoted above, was of paramount importance in establishing the tradition of experimental science. However, the basis of contemporary science in Christian theology is regrettably still little recognised. The mighty Bede, whose blog Bede’s Journal and associated website, Bede’s Library, are excellent resources for anyone wishing to explore science from a Christian perspective as written by an historian of science, has had immense trouble getting his book, God’s Philosophers, published. One publisher who rejected his book told him that he wasn’t going to accept it because he was an atheist, though he wished him good luck in finding another publisher elsewhere. This is a sad indictment of the state of contemporary popular science publishing, and the apparently deliberate neglect of the Christian origins of modern science.

Yahweh – Tribal War God or Only God?

November 1, 2007

Vigilante, one of the great guys who posts his comments and observations over at Frank Walton’s awesome blog Atheism Sucks, has remarked on the need for a resource to counteract some of the claims regularly made against God and Christianity by atheists. One of these claims, which he recommends should be specifically addressed, is the statement that the God of the Bible, Yahweh, is really only a tribal war god. Now I’ve also come across this type of comment before, and absolutely agree. It’s one of those statements, which is blandly made as if it were obviously true. However, like many such statements, it is only partially correct and needs to be carefully critiqued.

Now there is clearly some truth in that statement. The Bible clearly describes Yahweh as the God of Israel. The other nations surrounding Israel also had their own national gods – Qos was the god of Edom, Asshur of the Assyrians, and Chemosh of Moab. These gods were believed to reside in their temples and shrines, and bring victory in battle to their worshippers. The Babylonian Weidner Chronicle, supposedly correspondence between from king Damiq-ilisu of Isin to Apil-Sin of Babylon or Rim-Sin of Larsa, stresses the power of Marduk in giving sovereignty and victory to his worshippers: ‘Naram-Sin ravaged the populace of Babylon, and twice he (Marduk) called up the Gutian armies against him [He/They put to flight (?)] his people as with a donkey-goad [and] he (Marduk) gave his royal sovereignty to the Gutian armies.’ (from ‘Late Bronze Age Inscriptions from Babylon, Assyria, and Syro-Palestine’, Frans van Koppen, Kyle Greenwood, Christopher Morgan, Brent a Strawn, Jeff Cooley, bill T. Arnold, Eva von Dassow, and Yoram Cohen, Historical Sources in Translation: The Ancient Near East, Mark W. Chavalas, (ed.) (Oxford, Blackwell 2006), p. 167.

Similarly, the Bible often describes the Lord in very martial language, as expressed in 2 Samuel 7:26 ‘And let thy name be magnified for ever, saying, The Lord of hosts is the God over Israel; and let the house of thy servant David be established forever’. This very martial conception of God is also expressed in Psalm 18: 34-50, which has the lines ‘He teacheth my hands in war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms. Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation; and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great’. Psalm 68 also describes the Lord’s warlike prowess in delivering His people and raising them to a position of international honour and rule: ‘The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels’, (v. 17); ‘But God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses.’(v.21); ‘because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee’ (v. 29), and ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God. Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord; Selah; To him that rideth upon the heavens of heavens, which were of old; lo, he doth send out a voice, and that a mighty voice. Ascribe ye strength unto God: his excellency is over Israel, and his strength is in the clouds. O God, thou are terrible out of thy holy place; the God of Israel is he that giveth strength and power unto his people. Blessed be God.’ (vv. 31-5).

Scholars of the Old Testament, such as Helmer Ringgren have also pointed out how God’s spirit in the Book of Judges gives Gideon, Jephtha and Samson the power to defeat the Israelite’s enemies. (see H. Ringgren, Israelite Religion (London, SPCK 1966), pp. 46-7). In these passages God ‘is the war god who leads the holy wars of his people’. (Ringgren, p. 46). However, scholars stress that these passages should be read within the context of the situation they describe, and that these martial traits are only one aspect of God’s character. ‘This does not simply mean that Yahweh was only or even primarily a warlike national god with atmospheric traits. It is the situation that leads to emphasis on these characteristics.’ (Ringgren, p. 46).

It should be noted that some of the warlike language describing Yahweh is ambiguous, and that contrasting images of God may appear in the same passage. The passage from Psalm 18 quoted above, verse 35 moves from God as the martial defender of the singer to stressing God’s gentleness: ‘Thou has also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great.’ This is part of the strong motif of God’s righteous mercy declared in verse 25: ‘With the merciful though wilt shew thyself merciful; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright.’

This ambiguity even extends into some of the epithets describing God in the Old Testament. One of the common phrases for God, which has traditionally been taken as indicating His warrior aspect, is ‘Lord of Hosts’, in Hebrew, Yahweh Sabaoth. These hosts are often considered to be the Israelite armies, based on the role of the Ark as a war shrine, such as in Samuel 6:2

‘And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him from Baale of Judah, to bring up from thence the ark of God, whose name is called by the name of the Lord of hosts that dwelleth between the cherubims.’

In this connection, it’s noted that ‘Lord of Host’s is explicitly linked with Yahweh as God of the armies of Israel in Samuel 17:45

‘Then said David to the Philistine, thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou has defied.’

However, in contrast to this, scholars like Ringgren have also pointed out that ‘the ark, as we have seen, is also connected with the conception of Yahweh as an enthroned king; and the vast majority of occurrences of “Yahweh Sabaoth” as a divine name are found in the prophets, where emphasis upon the warlike aspects of Yahweh is not suggested by the context.’ (Ringgren, p. 68). The hosts therefore described may also refer to the stars, as in Isaiah 40: 26

‘Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hat created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he called them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth.’

The hosts may also be the Lords’ angels in heaven, as described in Psalm 103:19-22:

‘The Lord hath prepared His throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all. Bless the Lord, ye His angels, that excel in strength, that do His commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless ye the Lord, all ye His hosts; ye ministers of His, that do His pleasure. Bless the Lord, all His works in all places of His dominion: bless the Lord, O my soul.’

Thus, the epithet is used not simply to describe God as warlike, but to emphasise His immense power and majesty. ‘In any case, “Sabaoth” is used particularly in those contexts that speak of Yahweh as the almighty Lord and king. The Septuagint accordingly often translates it as pantokrator, “all-powerful”.

Even within these passages extolling the warlike qualities of the Lord are verses indicating that Yahweh is far more than simply a god of war solely guarding Israel. For example, verse 30 of Psalm 68 asks God to ‘rebuke the company of spearmen, the multitude of the bulls, with the calves of the people, till every one submit himself with pieces of silver: scatter thou the people that delight in war’. The ‘people that delight in war’ are Israel’s enemies, here seen very much as militaristic aggressors in contrast to Israel. Furthermore, although Yahweh is God of Israel, He is far more than that. He is the God of all the Earth, whose kingdoms will come to praise Him. Indeed, Scripture makes it clear that God is sovereign over all the Earth who will eventually establish a reign of peace and justice amongst the nations as the Earth’s peoples worship Him. Isaiah 2:2-4 prophesises that

‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

And many people shall go and say, Com ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ The same revelation is given, in almost identical words, by the prophet Micah, in chapter 4: 1-3 of his book. This promise of universal salvation granted to gentiles as well as Jews is at the heart of the prophet Jonah’s ministry. God commanded Jonah to preach to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, powerful and hostile towards Israel. The book contrasts God’s mercy on Nineveh, whose king and people repent so that God does not destroy them, with Jonah himself, who runs from the Lord to avoid giving the prophetic message, and thus the opportunity to avoid God’s punishment, to the people of Nineveh, preferring that God’s salvation should be kept only to Israel. This universalism is present from the very beginning of the Bible. The covenant God makes with Noah not to destroy the world again is described as between God and ‘every living creature of all flesh that is on the Earth’, (Genesis 9: 16). As for war, Genesis states that God destroyed the world with the Flood because it ‘was filled with violence’. (Genesis 7: 11). This is very far from the idea of a God who delights in violence and warfare.

So, although Yahweh is the God of Israel, He is also the Lord of all the earth, and even within the Old Testament God is seen to call gentiles to communion with Him along with His chosen people. Jewish scholars such as Louis Jacobs and I. Heinemann have pointed to the universalistic framework in which the Jewish people were chosen by God to show the profound differences between God as the God of Israel and the idea of a tribal god. For these scholars the crucial difference is choice: Yahweh, the Lord of the universe, made a deliberate choice of Israel to be His people. This doesn’t occur in the relationship between a tribal people and their god.

‘The Biblical conception of the election of Israel has nothing in common with the idea of a tribal god protecting his people, responding to their attempts to buy his favour and capable of suffering defeat at the hands of some more powerful deity. The relation of a tribal god to his people is a ‘natural one’. He does not ‘choose’ his people any more than they are members of the tribe by choice. In the Bible it is the universal God who ‘chooses’. (Louis Jacobs, ‘The Chosen People’, in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest:A Reader (London, Routledge/ The Open University Press 1978), pp. 410-11.

The profound difference between the conception of Yahweh as the only God and the national gods of Mesopotamia is shown in the different attitudes towards national defeat and subjugation in Israel and Babylon. For ancient Israel, defeat and oppression by nations such as the Babylonians, Assyrians or Greeks could only be part of God’s unfolding plan, occurring through the Almighty’s will. No other gods existed, and so the foreign forces that conquered, enslaved and deported them could only be acting through the will of God. For the other nations in the Ancient Near East, such as the Sumerian city states, defeat by an enemy was the result of their national or city god being stronger. Israel’s entire conception of itself was informed by the knowledge that the Lord wasn’t just the God of the Jewish people, but the God of all the world who chose them as part of a wider plan for the world’s salvation. For scholars such as Jacobs and Heinemann, this has been made particularly clear in Isaiah 42: 5-7: ‘Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein: I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.’ Talmudic legend also stresses God as the God of all the Earth’s peoples. In one legend, the status of the Jews as God’s chosen people is explained as a result of the rest of the Earth’s nations rejecting God’s offer of communion except Israel.

The universal mission within Judaism to call gentiles as well as Jews to knowledge and love of God was taken over and developed in Christianity, so that as St. Paul said, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28).

As the only God, Yahweh is clearly more than just a war god as the Bible also makes abundantly clear. The violent imagery used of God reflects not only the turbulent history of the ancient Near East, but also the fundamental nature of human political life. For many political theorists, states have their origin in warfare and the need for military protection against enemies, and until very recently kings were war-leaders, expected to lead their nation’s armies into battle to defend their people. The violent depictions of God as a warrior scattering Israel’s enemies are part of a general picture of what kings have traditionally been expected to do: use their military prowess and resources to safeguard their realm and establish justice. Rather than being simply the activities of a war god, a specialised member of a wider pantheon of gods, the martial imagery and descriptions of the Lord in the Bible do so to illustrate the Lord as the monarch of the universe, scattering and destroying the wicked to establish peace and justice, in which God as the ‘Lord of Hosts’ is a compelling symbol of God as the true, almighty sovereign of the Universe, the pantokrator of the Septuagint.