User:Fuzzypeg/Mithraism and Christianity

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Christianity and Mithraism[edit]

A debated legacy[edit]

Mithraism is most famous for its mythical and iconographic similarities to Christianity, and the theory that it is the origin of much of today's Christian doctrine. Christianity being a largely re-branded version of Mithraism is a controversial claim.

Ernest Renan, in The Origins of Christianity, claims that Mithraism was the prime competitor to Christianity in the second through the fourth centuries, although some scholars[who?] feel his claims that the emperors Nero, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and the Tetrarchs were initiates are dubious as there is little evidence that Mithraic worship was accorded official status as a Roman religion.

However, there are also strong similarities between core doctrines in Christianity and Mithraism. That Christianity adopted some imagery, icons or festivals is generally accepted (such as the adoption by Christendom of winter solstice or Saturnalia festivals as Christmas) but this does not necessarily reflect basic religious tenets. Similarly, Gnostic cults such as the Marcionites and Valentinians adopted the personage of Jesus or the concept of a Savior, without adopting underlying doctrinal elements held by the Roman Church.

Key similarities[edit]

Mithras was born from a virgin on December 25, a date later co-opted by Christians as Christ's birthday in 320 AD. A traveling teacher and master, Mithras also performed miracles. He had twelve companions as Jesus had twelve disciples. Mithras died for man’s sins and was resurrected on the following Sunday. The crucifix, water baptism and the breaking of bread and wine are also shared by both religions.[1]

Bull and cave themes are found in Christian shrines dedicated to the archangel Michael, who, after the legalization of Christianity, became the patron Saint of soldiers. Many of those shrines were converted Mithraea, for instance the sacred cavern at Monte Gargano in Apulia, refounded in 493. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mithraism was transferred to the previously unvenerated archangel.

Bull and crypt are linked in the Catholic saint Saturnin (frequently "Sernin" or "Saturninus") of Toulouse, France. The Mithraeum is retained as a crypt under his earliest church, evocatively named "Notre-Dame du Taur."

"The resemblances between the two hostile churches were so striking as to impress even the minds of antiquity."[2] Like Origen (an early Christian writer and in this respect a peculiarity among the other patristic writers), Mithraism held that all souls pre-existed in the ethereal regions with God, and inhabited a body upon birth. Similar to Pythagorean, Jewish, and Pauline theology, life then becomes the great struggle between good and evil, spirit and body, ending in judgment, with the elect being saved. "They both admitted to the existence of a heaven inhabited by beautiful ones ... and a hell peopled by demons situate in the bowels of earth."[2].

Both religions used the rite of baptism, and each participated in an outwardly similar type of sacrament, bread and wine. Both Mithra and Christ were supposedly visited by shepherds and Magi. It has been claimed that both Mithraism and Christianity considered Sunday their holy day, though for different reasons, although the evidence that Mithraists practiced weekly worship, any more than any other pagan religion of the time, is lacking. Many[who?] have noted that the title of "Pope" (father) is found in Mithraic doctrine and seemingly prohibited in Christian doctrine. The words "Peter" (rock) and "mass" (sacrament) have significance in Mithraism.

Mithraism and early Christianity considered abstinence, celibacy, and self-control to be among their highest virtues. Both had similar beliefs about the world, destiny, heaven and hell, and the immortality of the soul. Their conceptions of the battles between good and evil were similar (though Mithraism was more dualistic[3]), including a great and final battle at the end of times, similar to Zoroastrianism. Mithraism's flood at the beginning of history was deemed necessary because what began in water would end in fire, according to Mithraic eschatology. Both religions believed in revelation as key to their doctrine. Both awaited the last judgment and resurrection of the dead.

"When inducted into the degree of Leo, he was purified with honey, and baptised, not with water, but with fire, as John the Baptist declared that his successor would baptise. After this second baptism, initiates were considered 'participants,' and they received the sacrament of bread and wine commemorating Mithra's banquet at the conclusion of his labors."[4]

Both Christianity and Mithraism were popular amongst soldiers. Mithraism was largely a soldiers' cult, and under emperors like Julian and Commodus, Mithra became the patron of Roman armies.[citation needed] Christianity also developed a huge following in the military, and even civilian Christians began to refer to themselves as milites ("soldiers"), in reference to the disciplined life they felt called to, while those less disciplined outside the faith were called pagani, borrowing the Roman military slang for "civilians".

Mithras had no mother, but was miraculously born of a rock, or the petra genetix.[5] His worshipers partook of a sacramental meal of bread marked with a cross.[citation needed] This was one of seven Mithraic ritual meals.[citation needed]

Some writers have said that a mithraeum on the Vatican Hill was seized by Christians in 376 AD. Among them John Holland Smith wrote that "Gracchus suppressed the worship of Mithras at the cave on the Vatican hill,"[6] however he cites no evidence. No Mithraeum is known on the Vatican hill[7] and the actions of Furius Maenius Gracchus are described only by Jerome,[8] who does not mention the location, which suggests it was a private shrine instead.

The Mithraic festival of Epiphany, marking the arrival of sun-priests ("Magi") at the Savior's birthplace, was adopted by the Christian church only as late as 813 CE.[9]

Christianity may have emphasized common features that attracted Mithras followers. Perhaps the crucifix appealed to those Mithras followers who had crosses already branded on their foreheads.[citation needed] In art, Mithras, a sun god, was normally depicted with a halo representing the sun.[citation needed]

Justin Martyr (100-165), in a discussion with the Jewish apologist Trypho, wrote: "'And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave, do I not perceive here that the utterance of Daniel, that a stone without hands was cut out of a great mountain, has been imitated by them, and that they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah's words? For they contrived that the words of righteousness be quoted also by them. ... And when I hear, Trypho,' said I, 'that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this.'" (Dialogue with Trypho, LXXVIII). Tertullian gives a similar account.

According to Martin A. Larson, in The Story of Christian Origins (1977), the first example of the mythological concept of the savior god which is present in many faiths including Christianity and Mithraism is Osiris. Larson concluded that the general concept of savior must have originated from the savior cult of Osiris. He also believed that the Essenes were Jewish Pythagoreans, whose members not only gave birth to Christianity as Essenes, but were directly influenced by Zoroastrian doctrine as Pythagoreans.[10] Mithraism, in Larson's view, was an established but exclusive sect devoted to social justice, and was assimilated by state-sponsored Christianity before being disposed of in name.

J. R. R. Tolkien explained the fact that there are some Mithraistic beliefs which predate similar/identical Christian ones by arguing that the similarities between the Christ story and pagan myths, such as Mithraism, can be explained by portraying the myths as imperfect reflections of divine truth.[11]

Other iconographical similarities[edit]

Franz Cumont was the first scholar to suggest that Christianity had borrowed iconographic themes from Mithraism, pointing out that Mithraic images of the Heavens, the Earth, the Ocean, the Sun, the Moon, the Planets, signs of the Zodiac, the Winds, the Seasons, and the Elements are found on Christian sarcophagi, mosaics, and miniatures from the third to the fifth centuries. According to Cumont the Church was opposed to the pagan practice of worshipping the cosmic cycle, but these images were nevertheless incorporated into Christian artworks, in which "a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture". Early Christian depictions of Moses striking Mount Horeb (Sinai) with his staff to release drinking water were, according to Cumont, inspired by an earlier Mithraic reference to Mithras shooting arrows at rocks causing fountains to spring up.[12]

M.J. Vermaseren claimed that the scene of Mithras ascending into the heavens was similarly incorporated into Christian art: after Mithras had accomplished a series of miraculous deeds, he ascended into the heavens in a chariot, which in various depictions is drawn by horses being controlled by by Helios-Sol, the pagan sun god. In other depictions a chariot of fire belonging to Helios is led into the water, surrounded by the god Oceanus and sea nymphs. Vermaseren argues that Christian portrayals on sarcophagi of the soul’s ascension into heaven, though ostensibly referencing the biblical scene of Elijah being led into heaven by fiery chariots and horses, were in fact inspired by representations of Mithras' ascent into the heavens in Helios’ chariot. The sun god, Vermaseren claims, provided inspiration for the flames on Elijah’s chariot and the Jordan River is personified by a figure resembling the god Oceanus. [13]

A. Deman suggests that rather than attempting to find individual references from Mithraic art in Christian iconography, as Cumont does with the sun and moon, for instance, it is better to look for larger patterns of comparison: "with this method, pure coincidences can no longer be used and so the recognition of Mithras as the privileged pagan inspirer of medieval Christian iconography is forced upon us." For example Deman compares what he calls the "creative sacrifice" of Mithras with the creative sacrifice of Christ. In both iconographic scenes the vernal sacrifice is central to the image, with sun and the moon symmetrically arranged above. Beneath the sacrifice two other figures are symmetrically arranged. In mithraic scenes these are Cautes and Cautopates, and in the Christian scenes, which date from the 4th century onwards, the figures are typically Mary and John. In other Christian instances however, these two attendants are other figures, and carry a raised and lowered object reminiscent of the raised and lowered torches of Cautes and Cautopates. Such figures may be two Roman soldiers armed with lances, or Longinus holding a spear and Stephaton offering Jesus vinegar off of a sponge. In some instances the clothes of these figures resemble those of Cautes and Cautopates in the earlier Mithraic depictions. Derman also compares the twelve apostles shown in Christian crucifixion scenes with the twelve signs of the zodiac common in Mithraic scenes, as well as identifying a cross-legged posture commonly found in figures in both sets of iconography. [14]

Theories regarding the origin of similarities[edit]

The similarities (particularly the iconographical ones) occur between Christianity and Mithraism are due to a number of different factors. Perhaps the best examination of the complexity of trying to identify these factors can be found in the article, “Christ and Mithra”, which was written by Samuel Laeuchli. Laeuchli offers four potential explanations as to the nature of these similarities. Laeuchli writes that it is important to distinguish that the four explanations must be constantly weighed against one another because more than one possible connection could be involved. It is therefore impossible to consider any of the following ideas as being one more ‘correct’ than another. In addition, there is a lack of information on Mithraism that scholars could access, compared to what is known about Christianity. It is also important to remember that Mithraism was neither static nor homogeneous. Therefore, Mithraism from the second century is quite different from Mithraism of the third century. Likewise, just as Christianity varied from one region of the Roman Empire to the other, so too did Mithraism. [15]

The first theory is that there was: “A direct influence of Mithraism upon Christianity. To anyone studying the material on Mithra, the possibility of Mithraic influence appears in many instances.” [15] Franz Cumont agrees with this view and writes that if any collusion of ideas did take place between the two groups, it occurred because the two groups were struggling against each other to become the moral leader within the Roman Empire. [12] This, however, would imply that Christian artists and architects conscientiously incorporated iconographical elements into their artwork intentionally. For instance, the Christian artists incorporated Mithraic themes to appeal to Mithraists so that they would convert to Christianity. Manfred Clauss, on the other hand, would disagree with this last argument. This issue, Clauss argues, is unhistorical for many reasons. Firstly, it exaggerates the missionary aspects of Mithraism as a mystery religion. Unlike Christianity, mystery religions, like Mithraism, did not intend to become the only religion of the Roman Empire. Their goals were to offer people the chance for a unique, individual and personal salvation. Clauss also recognizes the fact that there was undoubtedly an interaction between the two groups. [16] Scholar Martin H. Luther, for instance, also notes that in some instances, abandoned mithraeums (the places in which Mithraic cult ceremonies occurred) were taken over by Christians and turned into church houses. If there was any competition between Christians and Mithraists, Luther notes, it was merely for real estate, as the two groups both grew to the same level by about the year 300. [17] Therefore, any similarity, whether intentional or not, occurred because of an exchange of ideas and not because of a malicious plan on the part of Christians to try to destroy Mithraism or lure its believers over to Christianity. Furthermore, the proximity of the two institutions to one another suggests that a transfusion of ideas likely occurred.

The second theory was that there was: “A direct influence of Christianity upon Mithraism”. [15] If one is to accept the first of Laeuchli’s points as valid, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that Mithraists also borrowed ideas from Christians. According to Clauss, as Mithraism grew and spread throughout the Empire, it was influenced by the political, social, and economic realities of the day. At times, the movement developed in reaction to what was occurring in the Empire. Moreover, those who belonged to the Mithraic movement came from all walks of life. Their experiences and relationships to other people and institutions within Roman society also impacted the practice of Mithraism. [16] Luther also examines this point and reaches the same conclusion. Luther’s paper examines recent archaeological discoveries and draws similar conclusions about Mithraism. Luther estimates that at the beginning of the fourth century, there were roughly as many Mithraists in Rome as there were Christians, approximately 50 000 people belonging to each group. Likewise, as a result of the excavations in the ancient Roman town of Ostia, archaeologists discovered that the privately-owned mithraeums, dated to the second century, were located near public spaces such as barracks and bath houses. [17] This means that Mithraism by this point was a public movement. Therefore, an interaction between Mithraists and Christians was probable.

The third theory that Laeuchli identifies is: “A common root for Christian and Mithraic phenomena”. [15] According to some scholars in this area of research, the iconographical similarities between Mithraism and Christianity can be explained by the fact that the two movements shared a common origin in the Hellenistic part of the Roman Empire. Franz Cumont writes: “The propagation of the two religions had been almost contemporaneously conducted, and their diffusion had taken place under analogous conditions. Both from the Orient, they had spread because of the same general reasons…” [12] Therefore, because the two movements started out from Asia Minor (what Cumont calls the Orient), it is reasonable to conclude that a lot of the iconographical similarities come from this shared root. The implication is that some of the similarities are nothing more than coincidences from the part of Christian and Mithraic artists. Clauss too agrees with Cumont in this regard, and writes that some parallels can be traced, “to the common currency of all mystery cults or can be traced back to common origins in the Graeco-oriental culture of the Hellenistic world.” [16]

Laeuchli’s fourth theory is a combination of the three arguments, listed above. He identifies that there may also be another factor that is important to consider. Laeuchli writes that the two could have developed

...a common contemporaneousness resulting directly from [the root] source. Two religions could have spoken to a Roman condition, a social need, and a theological question without having learned from each other or even without having known of each other’s existence. As in so many other instances…parallel thoughts and social patterns can appear independently of one another as “new” elements with the authentic consciousness of such newness…if a religion moved into the Roman sphere, the soil would have altered the content of different religions, thereby creating striking parallels. [15]

Clauss too believes in this theory because, as he writes, Mithraism was a relatively isolated movement in its infancy, with unique origins. It grew independently from the both the religious traditions of ancient Greece and independent from the other mystery religions in the Roman Empire. [16] This is the reason why, for instance, water imagery is important to both groups. Christian artists depicted Moses using his staff to get water from a rock and the reason why Mithras used his arrows to achieve the same goal. [16]

A fifth option would be to regard the similarities as largely due to what might be termed 'evolutionary convergence'. Samuel Sandmel famously warned scholars of Biblical studies about the dangers of 'parallelomania', or the assumption that every parallel requires explanation in terms of direct influence. It is possible that similar ideas arose because they address similar human concerns, or that similar ideas are found because they draw on a common wider heritage of symbols and cultural ideas.


  1. ^ Leahey, T-H (2004). A History of Psychology: Main Currents in Psychological Thought (6th ed.). Pearson Prentice Hall.  pp. 77
  2. ^ a b Cumont, Franz (1911). Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism.  pp. 191, 193
  3. ^**.html
  4. ^ Larson, Martin A. (1977). The Story of Christian Origins.  pp. 190.
  5. ^ de Riencourt, Amaury (1974). Sex and Power in History.  pp. 135.
  6. ^ Smith, John Holland (1976). The Death of Classical Paganism.  pp. 146.
  7. ^ Platner (1929). Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. 
  8. ^ Jerome, Letter 107 (To Laeta) -- see discussion at Internet Infidels
  9. ^ Brewster, H. Pomeroy (1904). Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church.  pp. 55.
  10. ^ Taylor, J. Pythagoreans and Essenes: Structural Parallels (Collection de la Revue des Études Juives, 32). Leuven: Peeters. ISBN 90-429-1482-3. 
  11. ^ Wood, Ralph C. Biography of J. R. R. Tolkien. 
  12. ^ a b c Cumont, Franz (1956). McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.), ed. The Mysteries of Mithras. Dover Publications.  pp. 227-8. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Cumont_1956" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Cumont_1956" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  13. ^ Vermaseren, M.J (1963). Mithras: The Secret God. Chatto & Windus.  pp. 104-6.
  14. ^ Derman, A. (1971). Hinnells, John R., ed. “Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities,” in Mithraic Studies, vol. 2. Manchester University Press.  pp. 510-7.
  15. ^ a b c d e Laeuchli, Samuel (1967). Laeuchli, Samuel, ed. “Christ and Mithra”, in Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religion and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome. Northwestern University Press.  pp. 88. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Laeuchli_1967" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Laeuchli_1967" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Laeuchli_1967" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Laeuchli_1967" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  16. ^ a b c d e Clauss, Manfred (2001). Gordon, Richard(trans.), ed. The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries. Routledge.  pp. 168 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Clauss_2001" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Clauss_2001" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  17. ^ a b Luther, Martin H. (1989). “Roman Mithraism and Christianity”, in Numen, 36 no. 1 (June, 1989). Numen.  pp. 3-5. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Luther_1989" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).

  • Hooke, S.H. The Siege Perilous: Essays in Biblical Anthropology and Kindred Subjects (1970)
  • James, E.O. The Ancient Gods (1960)
  • Legge, Francis. Forerunners and the Rivals of Christianity (1915)
  • Smith, Homer. Man and His Gods (1952)
  • Beck, Roger "The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis," Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 88, 1998 (1998) , pp. 115-128.
  • Betz, H.D. "The Mithras Inscriptions of Santa Prisca and the New Testament," Novum Testamentum, Vol. 10, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1968) , pp. 62-80.
  • Martin, Luther H. "Roman Mithraism and Christianity," Numen, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jun., 1989) , pp. 2-15.
  • Vermaseren, M.J., Mithras, the Secret God, tr. Th. and V. Megaw, New York, 1963.
  • "Did The Mithraic Mysteries Influence Christianity?"
  • Mithraism and Precession A web page critical of Ulansey's theory regarding Mithraism and the Age of Taurus; the author's credentials are not given, and references to scholarly literature are not provided.
  • Ceisiwr Serith's Mithraism Page A concise summary of what is and isn't known about Mithraism, based on archaeological evidence.
  • Mithraism: Zorostrian Gnosticism According to David Livingstone, an early variation of Mithraism was practiced by Zoroastrian heretics, falsely called "Magi", and influenced the Greek Mysteries of Dionysus. However, these rudimentary rites were again transformed during Roman times, through the influence of Gnosticism.
  • Freke, Timothy and Gandy, Peter. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? New York: Harmony Books, 1999. Argues that pagan religions (including Mithraism) did influence the New Testament.