Jesus Vs Mithra – Debunking The Alleged Parallels

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By J.P. Holding| Back in the Roman era, Mithraism was perhaps Christianity’s leading competitor for the hearts and minds of others. Today Mithraism is religiously a non-factor, but it still “competes” with Christianity, in another way: It is a leading candidate for the “pagan copycat” thesis crowd as a supposed source for Christianity.

Our walking papers are laid out for us by over a dozen things that Jesus supposedly has in common with Mithras and, by extension, Christianity allegedly borrowed to create the Jesus character. The points are:

  • Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds.
  • He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  • He had 12 companions or disciples.
  • Mithra’s followers were promised immortality.
  • He performed miracles.
  • As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
  • He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again.
  • His resurrection was celebrated every year.
  • He was called “the Good Shepherd” and identified with both the Lamb and the Lion.
  • He was considered the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” and the “Logos,” “Redeemer,” “Savior” and “Messiah.”
  • His sacred day was Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  • Mithra had his principal festival of what was later to become Easter.
  • His religion had a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper,” at which Mithra said, “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”

  1. “His annual sacrifice is the passover of the Magi, a symbolical atonement or pledge of moral and physical regeneration.”
  2. Shmuel Golding is quoted as saying that 1 Cor. 10:4 is “identical words to those found in the Mithraic scriptures, except that the name Mithra is used instead of Christ.”
  3. The Catholic Encyclopedia is quoted as saying that Mithraic services were conduced by “fathers” and that the “chief of the fathers, a sort of pope, who always lived at Rome, was called ‘Pater Patratus.'”

Our goal in this essay is to offer an overview of Mithraic belief and at the same time analyze each of these claims in terms of the evidence. In order to lay some groundwork, however, it will be necessary to briefly explore the goings-on over the past few decades in the field of Mithraic studies. There is a certain caveat emptor that will be necessary in order to help the reader understand exactly how critics are misusing their sources — and what to be on the lookout for in future comparisons.

From Cumont to Ulansey: The Mithraic Studies Revolution

In 1975, Mithraic studies scholar John Hinnells lamented “the practical difficulty of any one scholar mastering all the necessary fields” — linguistics, anthropology, history (Indian, Iranian, and Roman), archaeology, iconography, sociology — in order to get a grip on Mithraic studies.

Hinnells of course is on target with his lament; we have made the same observation here regarding Biblical studies. But Mithraism being a relatively dead religion, there are no equivalents of seminaries keeping the Mithraic studies flame alive, and no past history of “Mithraic Fathers” who produced voluminous works and meditations upon Mithra.

Thus it is not surprising that for the longest time, from the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th, there was only one person in the world who could be regarded as any sort of authority on Mithraism — and that was Franz Cumont.

Cumont worked with the thesis that Mithraic belief was of a continuous, fairly invariable tapestry from its earliest history up into the Roman period. The first remaining record of a god named Mithra appears as a deity invoked in a treaty dated 1400 BC [Hinn.MS, ix]; thereafter he is one of several Indo-Iranian gods, and he is known for giving orders, assembling people, and marshalling them — perhaps with some militaristic overtones.

He also appears as one who represents the concept of fidelity — one of many such abstractions and personifications of virtues in the ancient East, such as Bhaga the god of sharing and Aryaman the god of hospitality (think of them as divine-level Care Bears, if you will).

As such, Mithra was the guy who went around dishing out punishment to those who broke treaties. He was the “guardian of the truth,” “most dear to men,” one “whose long arms seize the liar,” who “injures no one and is everyone’s friend,” one who was all-seeing and all-knowing — the sun was his “eye” on the world.

Mithra was responsible also for bringing rain, vegetation and health — for in the ancient eastern mind, it is the moral behavior of persons (especially the king) that determines the national welfare and brings a fertile climate.

If the king in your land broke a treaty, you would be advised to pack up if you were a farmer, because Mithra would soon be gliding in on his chariot with a boar shape on the front (accompanied by a divine sidekick representing Victory) to kick some tail and put things right [MS.27-51].

At other times Mithra was paired with a deity named Varuna, who was his superior. Varuna was the god in charge of helping men cultivate rice (although rice “ripening in the untilled soil” was still Mithra’s business), so the two of them together oversaw the agricultural aspects of men’s lives.

The ancient Mithra was a great guy. Lord of the Contract, Upholder of Truth. Peaceful, benevolent, protector, provider of a nice place to live and cattle, not easily provoked. A little later in Aryan history, he did become more of a warrior (previously, he had left a lot of the tail-kicking duties to Varuna), but then switched back to pacifism.

But then Zoroastrianism came along, and Mithra had some new things to do. He served as mediator between Ohrmazd and Ahriman, the good and bad gods of Zoroastrian dualism; but at the same time, he underwent something of a demotion as he became one of a group of seven lesser yazatas who served the upper-level deities [Cum.MM, 5] and was assigned some special escort duties: bringing demons to hell, and bringing souls to Paradise.

For a while after, things seem to have been quiet for Mithra. As late as the first century BC, Mithra is still associated with the sun along with Apollos and Hermes. [MS.129] So, why all this background? The problem was that Cumont was entirely wrong about very ancient (we shall say for convenience, Iranian) Mithraism being in continuity with Roman Mithraism.

For you see, the Roman Mithra was best known for his act of slaying a bull; yet there is no indication that the Iranian Mithra ever made his way into a bullpen for any reason. [MS, xiii] The Roman Mithra didn’t appear at all interested in contract enforcement or escorting demons into hell. (Most likely, because demons are terrible tippers.)

And to make matters more complex, his followers in Iran, unlike the Roman Mithraists, did not worship in cave-like rooms (although Porphyry did think, incorrectly, that Zoroaster, the “putative founder of the cult,” originated the idea of a cave as the image of the cosmos — Beck.PO, 8), design levels of initiation, or pursue secrecy. [Ulan.OMM, 8]

There was simply no solid connection between the two faiths except for the name of the central god, some terminology, and astrological lore of the sort that was widely imported into the Roman Empire from Babylon anyway [Beck.PO, 87].

Nevertheless, because Cumont was locked into the notion of continuity, he assumed (for example) that the Iranian Mithra must have done some bull-slaying somewhere along the line, and he molded the evidence to fit his thesis, straining to find an Iranian myth somewhere that involved a bull-killing (it was done not by Mithra, but by Ahriman) and supposing that there was some connection or unknown story where the Iranian Mithra killed a bull.

Cumont’s student Vermaseren [Ver.MSG, 17-18] also tried to find a connection, but the closest he could get was a story in which Soma, the god of life (who, as rain, was described as the semen of the sacred bull fertilizing the earth), was murdered by a consortium of gods which included Mithra — as a very reluctant participant who had to be convinced to go along with the plan.

But simply put, the Roman Mithra wasn’t anything like the Iranian one. He dressed really sporty, with a Phrygian cap (typical headgear for Orientals of the day) and a flowing cape that would have made Superman green with envy. He slayed a cosmic bull and earned the worship and respect of the sun god. He had new friends, animals that gave him a helping hand (or paw, or claw) with the bull-slaying, as well as two torch-bearing twins who could have passed for his sons.

If this was the Iranian Mithra, he obviously went through a midlife crisis at some point. The only thing that remained the same was that Mithra kept a loose association with the sun, which was something many gods had.

By the time of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies in the early 70s, the lack of evidence of an Iranian/Roman continuity led Mithraic scholars to suspect that Roman Mithraism was “a new creation using old Iranian names and details for an exotic coloring to give a suitably esoteric appearance to a mystery cult” [MS, xiii] — and that Roman Mithraism was Mithraism in name only, merely a new system that used the name of a known ancient Eastern deity to attract urbane Romans who found the east and all of its accoutrements an enticing mystery. Think of it as repackaging an old religion to suit new tastes, only all you keep is the name of the deity!

And what was that new religion? For years Mithraic scholars puzzled over the meaning of the bull-slaying scene; the problem was, as we have noted, that the Mithraists left behind pictures without captions. Thus in the 70s, one scholar of Mithraism lamented [MS.437]:

At present our knowledge of both general and local cult practice in respect of rites of passage, ceremonial feats and even underlying ideology is based more on conjecture than fact.

And Cumont himself observed, in the 50s [Cum.MM, 150, 152]:

The sacred books which contain the prayers recited or chanted during the [Mithraic] survives, the ritual on the initiates, and the ceremonials of the feasts, have vanished and left scarce a trace behind…[we] know the esoteric disciplines of the Mysteries only from a few indiscretions.

But before too long, Mithraic scholars noticed something (or actually, revived something first posited in 1869 that Cumont, because of his biases, dismissed — Ulan.OMM, 15) about the bull-slaying scene: The various human, animal, and other figures comprised a star-map! The bull corresponded with Taurus; the scorpion coincided with Scorpio; the dog matched up with Canis Major, and so on.

What Mithra himself corresponded to took a bit longer to decide; Spiedel first made a case for a correspondence with Orion [Spie.MO], but Ulansey has led the way with the thesis that Mithra is here to be identified with Perseus [Ulan.OMM, 26ff], and that Roman Mithraism was founded upon a “revolutionary” discovery in ancient astronomy (which was closely linked to astrology in that time) that “the entire cosmic structure was moving in a way which no one had even known before” — a process we now call the precession of the equinoxes.

In line with the Stoic belief that a divine being was the “source of every natural force,” the personifying of natural forces in the form of mythical divine figures, and the origin on the cult in Tarsus, a city long under Persian domination and where Perseus was the leading god, Perseus was the perfect choice — but this wasn’t the type of thing that the cultists wanted everyone to know about, so, Ulansey theorizes, they chose the name of Mithra (a Persian god), partly to cover the identity of Perseus (who was often associated with Persia), partly because of an alliance between the Ciclian pirates who first introduced Mithraism to the Romans and a leader in Asia Minor named Mithridates (“given of Mithra”). [Ulan.OMM, 89]

What has been the point of this diversion? The point is to give the reader a warning, to be on the lookout any time a critic makes some claim about Mithraism somehow being a parallel to Christianity. Check their sources carefully.

If they cite source material from the Cumont or pre-Cumont era, then chances are excellent that they are using material that is either greatly outdated, or else does not rely on sound scholarship (i.e., prior to Cumont; works by the likes of King, Lajard, and Robertson).

Furthermore, if they have asserted anything at all definitive about Mithraic belief, they are probably wrong about it, and certainly basing it on the conjectures of someone who is either not a Mithraic specialist or else is badly outdated.

Mithraic scholars, you see, do not hold a candle for the thesis that Christianity borrowed anything philosophically from Mithraism, and they do not see any evidence of such borrowing, with one major exception:

“The only domain in which we can ascertain in detail the extent to which Christianity imitated Mithraism is that of art.” [MS.508n]

We are talking here not of apostolic Christianity, note well, but of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries, which, in an effort to prove that their faith was the superior one, embarked on an advertising campaign reminiscent of our soft drink wars.

Mithra was depicted slaying the bull while riding its back; the church did a lookalike scene with Samson killing a lion. Mithra sent arrows into a rock to bring forth water; the church changed that into Moses getting water from the rock at Horeb. (Hmm, did the Jews copy that one?)

Think of how popular Pokemon is, and then think of the church as the one doing the Digimon ripoff — although one can’t really bellow about borrowing in this case, for this happened in an age when art usually was imitative — it was a sort of one-upsmanship designed as a competition, and the church was not the only one doing it. Furthermore, it didn’t involve an exchange or theft of ideology.

As to any other parallels, in the late 60s, before the coming of age of the astrological thesis, appeal was made to the “possibility of Mithraic influence” as appearing “in many instances” — and then again, the idea that Mithraism borrowed from Christianity was said to have “not been taken seriously enough into consideration.” [Lae.MO, 86]

But regarded as more likely in any case was that the two systems “could have spoken to a Roman condition, a social need, and a theological question without having known of each other’s existence.”

As in so many other instances of philosophy and literature, parallel thoughts and social patterns can appear independently of one another as ‘new’ elements with the authentic consciousness of such newness.”[ibid.] But such parallels have not been so much as suggested in the wake of the astrological thesis.

Today (and even by Cumont) the parallels drawn between the two faiths (by professional Mithraic scholars) are almost entirely either “universal” religious traits (i.e., both had a moral code; what religion doesn’t!?) or sociological: Both spread rapidly because of the “political unity and moral anarchy of the Empire.” [Cum.MM, 188-9] Both drew large numbers from the lower classes. (And of course, numerous differences are cited as well:

Christianity was favored in urban areas habited by the Jewish diaspora, whereas Mithraism was indifferent to Judaism and was popular in rural areas; Mithraism appealed to slaves, troops, and functionaries vs. Christianity’s broader appeal; etc.)

We are now ready to embark upon the practical part of our essay in which we consider in turn each of the claims made of alleged “parallels” between Mithraism and Christianity.

1. Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds.

This claim is a mix of truth and obfuscations. Let’s begin with the December 25th part by noting Glenn Miller’s reply, which is more than sufficient: “…the Dec 25 issue is of no relevance to us–nowhere does the NT associate this date with Jesus’ birth at all.”

This is something the later church did, wherever they got the idea from — not the apostolic church, and if there was any borrowing at all, everyone did it, for Dec. 25th was “universally distinguished by sacred festivities” [Cum.MM, 196] being that it was (at the time) the winter solstice.

Next, the cave part. First of all, Mithra was not born of a virgin in a cave; he was born out of solid rock, which presumably left a cave behind — and I suppose technically the rock he was born out of could have been classified as a virgin!

Here is how one Mithraic scholar describes the scene on Mithraic depictions: Mithra “wearing his Phrygian cap, issues forth from the rocky mass. As yet only his bare torso is visible. In each hand he raises aloft a lighted torch and, as an unusual detail, red flames shoot out all around him from the petra genetrix.” [MS.173]

Mithra was born a grown-up, but you won’t hear the copycatters mention this! The rock-birth scene itself was a likely carryover from Perseus, who experienced a similar birth in an underground cavern. (Ulan.OMM, 36)

I’ll add here that it is no help to appeal to similar abuses of the term “virgin” by church writers who tried to force an illicit parallel between Jesus and Adam. All they’re doing is abusing and misusing the term the same way that “copycat” theorists are.

So likewise, later instances of syncretism are of no value for the case (e.g., the infant Jesus depicted within an egg shape, which reflects the church’s assumption of symbols as the “winner” in an ideological struggle — see below on art).

That leaves the shepherds, and this is one that is entirely true; although the shepherds did more than “attend” (unlike Luke’s shepherds, they were witnesses to the birth; there was no angelic mediator), they also helped Mithra out of the rock, and offered him the first-fruits of their flock — quite a feat for these guys in any event, considering that Mithra’s birth took place at a time when (oops!) men had supposedly not been created on earth yet. [Cum.MM, 132]

But the clincher here is that this scene, like nearly all Roman Mithraic evidence, dates at least a century after the time of the New Testament. It is too late to say that any “borrowing” was done by the Christian church — if there was any, it was the other way around; but there probably was none.

2. He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.

Aside from the fact that this is what we would expect from any major leadership figure, especially in a religious context (“He was a great god — he taught us nothing!”), I have to say that this looks to be the first of several outright “ringers” in the set.

I have found nowhere any indication that Mithra was a teacher, traveling or otherwise. (He probably could be called a “master,” but what leading figure would not be? And a master in what sense? This is rather a vague parallel to draw!)

At any rate, since there is no evidence for this one in any of the Mithraic literature, we issue our first challenge to the pagan-copycat theorists: How is it shown that Mithra was a “great traveling teacher”? What did he teach, and where, and to whom? How was he a “master” and why is this a similarity to Jesus?

3. He had 12 companions or disciples.

I have seen this claim repeated a number of times, almost always (see below) without any documentation. (One of our readers wrote to Acharya asking for specific evidence of this one…she did not reply, although she had readily replied to a prior message.)

The Iranian Mithras, as we have seen, did have a single companion (Varuna), and the Roman Mithra had two helper/companions, tiny torch-bearing likenesses of himself, called Cautes and Cautopatres, that were perhaps meant to represent the sunrise and sunset (whereas “Big Daddy” Mithra was supposed to be noon), spring and autumn, the stars Albedaran and Antares [Beck.PO, 26] or life and death.

(Freke and Gandy attempt to link these twins to the two thieves crucified with Jesus! – Frek.JM, 51 – because one went to heaven with Jesus [torch up] and one went to hell [torch down]!) Mithra also had a number of animal companions: a snake, a dog, a lion, a scorpion — but not 12 of them.

Now here’s an irony. My one idea as to where they got this one was a picture of the bull-slaying scene carved in stone, found in Ulansey’s book, that depicts the scene framed by 2 vertical rows with 6 pictures of what seem to be human figures or faces on each side. It occurred to me that some non-Mithraist perhaps saw this picture and said, “Ah ha, those 12 people must be companions or disciples! Just like Jesus!”

Days later I received Freke and Gandy’s book, and sure enough — that’s how they make the connection. Indeed, they go as far as saying that during the Mirthaic initiation ceremony, Mithraic disciples dressed up as the signs of the zodiac and formed a circle around the initiate. [Frek.JM, 42]

Where they (or rather, their source) get this information about the methods of Mithraic initiation, one can only guess: No Mithraic scholar seems aware of it, and their source, Godwin, is a specialist in “Western esoteric teaching” — not a Mithraist, and it shows, because although writing in 1981, well after the first Mithraic congress, Godwin was still following Cumont’s line that Iranian and Roman Mithraism were the same, and thus ended up offering interpretations of the bull-slaying scene that bear no resemblance to what Mithraic scholars today see in it at all.

To be fair, though, Freke and Gandy do not give the page number where Godwin supposedly says this — and his material on Mithraism says nothing about any initiation ceremony. However, aside from the fact that this carving is (yet again!) significantly post-Christian (so that any borrowing would have had to be the other way around), these figures have been identified by modern Mithraic scholars as representing zodiacal symbols. Indeed, the top two faces are supposed to be the sun and the moon! (See also a similar carving herein)

4. Mithra’s followers were promised immortality.

This one is no more than a guess, although probably a good one: As one Mithraic scholar put it, Mithraism “surely offered its initiates deliverance from some awful fate to which all other men were doomed, and a privileged passage to some ultimate state of well-being.” [MS.470]

Why is this a good guess? Not because Mithraism borrowed from Christianity, or Christianity borrowed from Mithraism, or anyone borrowed from anyone, but because if you don’t promise your adherents something that secures their eternity, you may as well give up running a religion and go and sell timeshares in Alaska!

In practical terms, however, the only hard evidence of a “salvational” ideology is a piece of graffiti found in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum (a Mithraist “church” building, if you will), dated no earlier than 200 AD, that reads, “And us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood.” [Spie.MO, 45; Gor.IV, 114n; Verm.MSG, 172]

Note that this refers to Mithra spilling the blood of the bull — not his own — and that (according to the modern Mithraic “astrological” interpretation) this does not mean “salvation” in a Christian sense (involving freedom from sin) but an ascent through levels of initiation into immortality.

5. He performed miracles.

Mithra did perform a number of actions rather typical for any deity worldwide, true or false, and in both his Iranian and Roman incarnations. But this is another one of those things where we just say, “What’s the big deal?” We agree with Miller:

It must be remembered that SOME general similarities MUST apply to any religious leader. They must generally be good leaders, do noteworthy feats of goodness and/or supernatural power, establish teachings and traditions, create community rituals, and overcome some forms of evil.

These are common elements of the religious life–NOT objects that require some theory of dependence…The common aspect of homo religiosus is an adequate and more plausible explanation than dependence.

Of course, our pagan-copycat theorists are welcome to try and draw more exact parallels, but as yet I have seen no cited example where Mithra turned water into wine or calmed a storm.

6. As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.

This description is rather spun out into a sound-alike of Christian belief, but behind the vagueness lies a different story. Mithra did not “sacrifice himself” in the sense that he died; he was not the “great bull of the Sun”, but rather, he killed the bull (attempts to somehow identify Mithra with the very bull he slayed, although popular with outdated non-Mithraists like Loisy and Bunsen, were rejected by Vermaseren, who said that “neither the temples nor the inscriptions give any definite evidence to support this view and only future finds can confirm it” [Verm.MSG, 103]; it was not for the sake of “world peace” (except, perhaps, in the sense that Cumont interpreted the bull-slaying as a creation myth [Cum.MM, 193], in which he was entirely wrong).

Mithra could only be said to have “sacrificed himself” in the sense that he went out and took a risk to do a heroic deed; the rest finds no justification at all in modern Mithraic studies literature — much less does it entail a parallel to Christ, who sacrificed himself for atonement from personal sin (not “world peace”).

7. He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again.

8. His resurrection was celebrated every year.

I have to classify these two as “ringers” — I see no references anywhere in the Mithraic studies literature to Mithra being buried, or even dying, for that matter [Gordon says directly, that there is “no death of Mithras” — Gor.III, 96] and so of course no rising again and no “resurrection” (in a Jewish sense?!) to celebrate. Freke and Gandy [Frek.JM, 56] claim that the Mithraic initiates “enacted a similar resurrection scene”, but their only reference is to a comment by Tertullian, significantly after New Testament times!

Tekton Research Assistant Punkish adds: The footnote is for Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 40 which says, “if my memory still serves me, Mithra there (in the kingdom of Satan), sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown”…so their argument relies on Tertullian’s memory, and it isn’t the initiates but Mithra who does the celebrating and introduces an *image* of a resurrection! How is that at all related to initiates acting out a scene?

Wynne-Tyson [Wyn.MFC, 24; cf. Ver.MSG, 38] also refers to a church writer of the fourth century, Firmicus, who says that the Mithraists mourn the image of a dead Mithras — still way too late! — but after reading the work of Firmicus, I find no such reference at all.

9. He was called “the Good Shepherd” and identified with both the Lamb and the Lion.

Only the third aspect has any truth to it as far as I can find from Mithraic studies sources: The lion was regarded in Roman Mithraism as Mithra’s “totem” animal, just as Athena’s animal was the owl and Artemis’ animal was the deer [Biv.PM, 32]. Since Mithra was a sun-god, there was also an association with Leo, which was the House of the Sun in Babylonian astrology.

But aside from this evidence all being post-Christian, one may ask what the big deal is. Do we expect the Christians or the Mithraists to say, “Darn, we can’t use the lion, it’s already taken by the other guys?” Should Exxon give up their tiger because of Frosted Flakes? But if you really want to get technical, Jesus owned the rights to the lion symbol as a member of the tribe of Judah long before Mithras even appeared in his Iranian incarnation (Gen. 49:9).

There are other associations as well: In the Roman material, one of Mithra’s companions in the bull-slaying scene is a lion; the lion is sometimes Mithra’s hunting and feasting companion; Mithra is sometimes associated with a lion-headed being who is sometimes identified as the evil Zoroastrian god Ahriman [MS.277]; one of the seven stages of initiation in Mithraism is the lion stage.

Mithra is only called a lion in one Mithraic tale (which is part of Armenian folklore — where did the writers of the NT pick that up?) because as a child he killed a lion and split it in two. [MS.356, 442]

10. He was considered the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” and the “Logos,” “Redeemer,” “Savior” and “Messiah.”

(Acharya now adds in her latest work the titles creator of the world, God of gods, the mediator, mighty ruler, king of gods, lord of heaven and earth, Sun of Righteousness.)

We have several titles here, and yes, though I searched through the works of Mithraic scholars, I found none of these applied to Mithra, other than the role of mediator (not, though, in the sense of a mediator between God and man because of sin, but as a mediator between Zoroaster’s good and evil gods; we have seen the “sun” identification, but never that title) — not even the new ones were ever listed by the Mithraic scholars.

There is a reference to a “Logos” that was taught to the Mithraic initiates [MS.206](in the Roman evidence, which is again, significantly after the establishment of Christianity), but let it be remembered that “logos” means “word” and goes back earlier in Judaism to Philo — Christians borrowed the idea from Philo, perhaps, or from the general background of the word, but not from Mithraism.

11. His sacred day was Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.

12. Mithra had his principal festival of what was later to become Easter.

We’ll consider these two together. The Iranian Mithra had a few special celebrations: a festival on October 8; another on September 12-16, and a “cattle-pairing” festival on October 12-16 [MS.59]. But as for an Easter festival, I have seen only that there was a festival at the spring equinox — and it was one of just four, one for each season.

In terms of Sunday being a sacred day, this is correct [Cum.MM, 190-1], but it only appears in Roman Mithraism, and the argument here is apparently assuming, like Cumont, that what held true for Roman Mithraism also held true for the Iranian version — but there is no evidence for this. If any borrowing occurred (it probably didn’t), it was the other way around.

13. His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper,” at which Mithra said, “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”

It took me some digging to discover the actual origin of this saying. Godwin says that the reference is from a “Persian Mithraic text,” but does not give the dating of this text, nor does he say where it was found, nor is any documentation offered. I finally found something in Vermaseren [Verm.MSG, 103] — the source of this saying is a medieval text; and the speaker is not Mithras, but Zarathustra!

Although Vermaseren suggested that this might be the formula that Justin referred to (but did not describe at all) as being part of the Mithraic “Eucharist,” there is no evidence for the saying prior to this medieval text.

Critics try to give the rite some ancestry by claiming that it derives from an Iranian Mithraic ceremony using a psychadelic plant called Haoma, but they are clearly grasping at straws and adding speculations of meaning in order to make this rite seem similar to the Eucharist.

This piece of “evidence” is far, far too late to be useful — except as possible proof that Mithraism borrowed from Christianity! (Christianity of course was in Persia far earlier than this medieval text; see Martin Palmer’s Jesus Sutras for details.)

The closest thing that Mithraism had to a “Last Supper” was the taking of staples (bread, water, wine and meat) by the Mithraic initiates, which was perhaps a celebration of the meal that Mithra had with the sun deity after slaying the bull. However, the meal of the initiates is usually seen as no more than a general fellowship meal of the sort that was practiced by groups all over the Roman world — from religious groups to funeral societies. [MS.348]

14. “His annual sacrifice is the passover of the Magi, a symbolical atonement or pledge of moral and physical regeneration.”

This is rather a confused statement, for it compounds an apparent falsity (I have found no indication that Mithra’s “sacrifice” was annual, rather than a once-in-the-past event); it uses terms from Judeo-Christian belief (“passover”, “atonement”) to describe a rite from Mithraism, without showing any similarities at all. I see this as little more than a case of illicitly applying terminology, and until more detail is provided, it can be regarded as little else.

15. Shmuel Golding is quoted as saying that 1 Cor. 10:4 is “identical words to those found in the Mithraic scriptures, except that the name Mithra is used instead of Christ.”

In response to this, I need to say that if Golding had some Mithraic scriptures in his possession, he needs to turn them over to Mithraic scholarly community at once, because they will want to know about them. Ulansey [Ulan.OMM, 3] tells us that “the teachings of the (Mithraic) cult were, as far as we know, never written down” and we “have been left with practically no literary evidence relating to the cult which would help (us) reconstruct its esoteric doctrines.”

So where is Golding getting this from? (A reader also noted that Paul is alluding the the Old Testament book of Numbers; so how does that square with a Mithraic origin for this verse?)

16. The Catholic Encyclopedia is quoted as saying that Mithraic services were conduced by “fathers” and that the “chief of the fathers, a sort of pope, who always lived at Rome, was called ‘Pater Patratus.'”

Other critics add their own idea: Like Christians, Mithraic initiates called each other “brother” [Frek.JM, 67]. Both claims are true, but quite simply, so what? The use of familial terms within religious societies is a universal, and that’s no surprise, because familial terms are the most useful for expressing endearment or commitment.

Indeed, “kinship terminology” was used in Greco-Roman antiquity for fellows of the same religion or race, as well as of friends, allies, and even prospective guests [Keener commentary on Matthew, 370n].

(I have seen no evidence that the Pater Patratus “always lived” at Rome, but even if he did, this would be of no moment: As the leading city of the Empire, where else would this person most likely have headquarters? This means no more than mainline churches all having headquarters in New York, or all foreign countries having embassies in Washington.

Beyond that, we hardly need to defend “borrowing” when what is at stake is a church organizational structure that came into being many years after apostolic times.)

That ends our listing, and thus our conclusion: In not one instance has a convincing case been made that Christianity borrowed anything from Mithraism. The evidence is either too late, not in line with the conclusions of modern Mithraic scholars, or just plain not there.

 

Sources

  1. Beck.PO — Beck, Roger. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras. London: Brill, 1988.
  2. Biv.PM — Bivar, A. D. The Personalities of Mithra in Archaeology and Literature. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 1998.
  3. Cum.MM — Cumont, Franz. The Mysteries of Mithra. New York: Dover, 1950.
  4. Frek.JM — Freke, Timothy and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? New York: Harmony Books, 1999.
  5. Gor.IV — Gordon, Richard. Image and Value in the Greco-Roman World. Aldershot: Variorum, 1996.
  6. Lae.MO — Laeuchli, Samuel. Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religions and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome. Northwestern U. Press, 1967.
  7. MS — Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester U. Press, 1975.
  8. Spei.MO — Spiedel, Michael. Mithras-Orion, Greek Hero and Roman Army God. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980.
  9. Ulan.OMM — Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1989.<
  10. Ver.MSG — Vermaseren, M. J. Mithras the Secret God. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.
  11. Wyn.MFC — Wynne-Tyson, Esme. Mithras: The Fellow in the Cap. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1958.9
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