Merry Mithras!

The grinches are at it again. Every year at Easter and Christmas the tired old wheels start squeaking and some of the detractors of Christianity start wheeling out a few predictable canards, all connected to the idea that Christianity is just a copycat religion and that the accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth that we have in the New Testament were just borrowed from other older religions.

Generally these attempts are now limited to personal websites and message boards on the internet, as they are so discredited that bringing them up at, say, a conference on New Testament studies, would get one laughed all the way home. But, unhappily resigned to the fact that some people only know what they know about theology or biblical studies because they read it at a website, it’s worth addressing some of these claims.

I’ve already dealt with the claim that the virgin birth was borrowed from Buddhism and the claim that Jesus’ life is just a re-hashed version of the life of Osiris. Another common “copycat” theory that floats around online is the claim that Jesus is a mythical character copied from Mithras.1

According to Teabing in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, “Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian God Mithras — called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.” This depiction of Mithraism is widespread on the internet:

Mithra, a Persian sun-god, was virgin-born, in a cave, on December 25. His earliest worshippers were shepherds, and he was accompanied in his travels by twelve companions. The Mithraists kept the sabbath day holy and celebrated the Eucharist by eating wafers embellished with a cross. The great Mithraic festivals were the Birth (Christmas) and the Resurrection (Easter).
From John Jackson, “Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth.”

Other scattered sources add the claim that “Mithra was born in a stable.” And for good measure, Mithras, we are told by a few, was born of a virgin. J. Martin Knutsen tells us:

It seems that just before Jesus there was another god known as Mithras (or Mithra). Mithras, oddly enough, has the same birthdate as Jesus, but some 600 years earlier! Not only that, but he was also born of a virgin, with a few shepherds present. Mithras, a traveling teacher and master, had 12 disciples as he performed miracles. Just like Jesus, Mithras was buried in a tomb, died, and after three days was resurrected and rose again! (It must be the way gods did things back then.)

SOURCE

Freke and Gande set out the challenge:

Why should we consider the stories of Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, Mithras and the other Pagan Mystery saviours as fables, yet come across essentially the same story told in a Jewish context and believe it to be the biography of a carpenter from Bethlehem? [emphasis added]

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries (New York: Three Rivers, 1999), 9.

These sources are not general history sources designed to inform us about the cult of Mithras. They are articles written specifically for the purpose of arguing that Christianity is derived from a well known myth, as a way of showing that Jesus of Nazareth as depicted by Christians is a mythical figure, thereby discrediting Christianity. In other words, the sources are not dispassionate. In summary, here is what these writers tell us. Mithras, according to the Mithraic myths, was:

  • Born of a virgin
  • Born on the 25th of December
  • Born in a stable with shepherds present
  • Had twelve disciples
  • Was killed and buried in a tomb/cave
  • Rose from the dead three days after his death

If you were an unwary web surfer with no background in ancient mythology, you would be justifiably impressed by these similarities. Perhaps you’d even accept the claim that because of these similarities, it’s clear that Christianity just borrowed the Mithraic myth and added a new face: that of Jesus of Nazareth.

What’s incredible about these parallels is that of the six listed, every single one of them is either dubious or certainly false. Let’s look at them one at a time.

The virgin birth

As with Osiris and Buddha (see the links above where I discuss these examples), Mithras, in the myths told about him, is said today to have been born of a virgin. The notoriously unreliable infidels.org repeat the claim that Mithras was “Born of a virgin (a birth witnessed only by shepherds).” However their source for this claim is not a history book or a work detailing the beliefs of mithraism, or for that matter a peer reviewed article on ancient religion or mythology. Instead it is an article in The Humanist magazine. Like other sources who repeat this claim, neither the Humanist magazine nor the infidels website are able to cite scholarly support.

There were two accounts in the ancient world of the birth of Mithras – one associated with the Roman world in which Christianity originated, and another from Persia/Iran. By far the most common in the first century was the Roman myth of Mithras, in which he is not born from anyone, virgin or otherwise. Instead he was born out of a solid rock. As we read in Mithraic Studies, Mithras, “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.” [Franz Cumon, “The Dura Mithraeum” in John R. Hinnells (ed.), Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies (Manchester University Press, 1975), 173.

It is sometimes claimed that in the Persian variety of the myth, Mithras was born of the virgin goddess Anahita. However, some sources suggest that this is unlikely as an accurate depiction of the mythology. For example, the online Encyclopedia Mythica notes that “Anahita is sometimes regarded as the consort of Mithra,” rather than his mother.

This is confirmed by other scholars of Iranian myth, who indicate that rather than being born of a woman in Persian Mithraism, Mithras was, just as in the Roman version, born from a rock:

According to the “legend” of the mysteries Mithras was born from a rock, petra genetrix giving life to him. He is therefore de petra natus… We also know that Mithra was born on the shore of the river Araxes, Ps. Plutarch, De fluviis 23 par. 4 (where, however, a confusion is found in so far as this story is attributed to a son of Mithras), that his father hated women and therefore threw his sperm on a rock which afterwards was pregnant. These details are not as the great pioneer in Mithraic studies [Franz Cumont] assumed “de pure fantaisie”, on the contrary they are part of a birth myth attested among the Ossetians in Caucasus and have already in the Hurrian “Epic of Kumarbi” an unmistakable association. The localization of this scene of Mithra’s birth to the shore of the Araxes in Armenia confirms our presumption that north-western Iran and Armenia was the homeland of Mithraic mysteries. Also the shepherds who are seen on Mithraic reliefs in connection with the birth-scene possess their correspondence in Ossetic tales and Iranian salvation legends, and indicate likewise a north-western origin of the stories about Mithra’s birth.

G. Widengren, “The Mithraic Mysteries in the Graeco-Roman World with Special Regard to their Iranian background,” La Persia e il Mondo Grecoromano 76 (1966), pp. 444-45

What are we to make of this discrepancy? Perhaps there is no discrepancy. Those ancient sources that call Anahita a virgin do not, after all, call her the mother of Mithras. In fact, in spite of the grandiose claims about the purity and virginity of Anahita, John Mackinnon Robertson, a member of the Rationalist association who himself wishes to perpetuate the claim that Christianity drew from Mithraism, is nonetheless compelled out of honesty to acknowledge that ancient eastern texts describe, rather than a virgin birth of Anahita to Mithras, “that the God [Mithras] was born of the incest of Ahura Mazda with his mother [Anahita].” [J M Robertson, Pagan Christs: Studies in Comparative Hierology (London: Watts & Co., 1911) 419.]

In short: The Mithras myth familiar to first and second century Christianity in the Hellenist world into which it came was a Roman myth in which Mithras was born out of a rock, or a cave in the rock, and certainly not from a virgin. Even in the version of the myth that would be less familiar to them (if known at all) from Persia, there is considerable doubt whether any myth involving a virgin birth of Mithras existed, with sources suggesting that here too, Mithras was born from a rock because of his father’s sperm, with other sources suggesting that Mithras was born from the sexual union of a divine mother and son. Ideas of a virgin birth are doubtful, and to say as though it were uncontroversial that there existed in the first century Roman world a popular myth of the virgin birth of Mithras from which Christianity could draw simply is not accurate.

The 25th of December

This feature of the Mithras mythology requires little comment, for one primary reason: being born on the 25th of December is actually not part of the account of the life of Jesus, so it is frankly irrelevant if it matches the story of Mithras. That being said, out of mere interest it looks doubtful that Mithras was thought to be born on the 25th of December anyway. The 25th of December was the ceremonial birthdate of Sol Invictus, the pagan Emperor Aurelian’s Sun God. The sources that I can find indicate that he this was not used for Sol Invictus until the fourth century, when Christianity was already a few centuries old. While the earlier Mithras was a god of light and of the sun, this is no proof that he too was said to be born on the 25th of December. Another source (which I located via Wikipedia), Manfred Claus, said that “”the Mithraic Mysteries had no public ceremonies of its own. The festival of natalis Invicti [Birth of the Unconquerable (Sun)], held on 25 December, was a general festival of the Sun, and by no means specific to the Mysteries of Mithras.” [Clauss, Mithras: Kult und Mysterien (München, 1990), p. 70.] It is widely thought, and probably quite correctly so, that when this date was adopted by Christendom shortly before the death of Constantine, the intention was to overtake the pagan holiday and make it unimportant. But this was already several centuries after the beginning of Christianity.

In a stable?

I confess that I have absolutely no idea where this one came from. I can find no source – other than blatantly anti-Christian websites that quote no source of their own – that even suggests this. Without a single exception, all sources that I can find identify the place of Mithras’ birth as out of a rock, or in a minority of cases out of a rock cave.

Incidentally, the reference to shepherds in the Mithras myth is dubious. In the New Testament, angels appear to some shepherds and tell them that Jesus is born, so they travel to the place where he was born to visit him. In the Mithras story however, things are very different. For one, there’s no “birth” to speak of. Secondly, the men who are present and who help Mithras out of the rock are torchbearers, but that they are shepherds is not stated. Moreover, they are more like midwives than visitors after the birth (I’m told that Clauss describes their role in the previously cited work, pp 68-69).

Twelve Disciples

This particular claim is without any explicit foundation. Nothing in the Mithras myth mentions him having twelve disciples. However, Freke and Gandy make the claim that there is a parallel here. They point out that in a carving, Mithras is depicted slaying the bull, and he is surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac. Twelve! To say the very least, it is an unusual leap of logic. What is more, the carving itself is post-Christian, ruining its usefulness as an illustration of pre-Christian thought.

Death, Burial and Resurrection

This is where things start getting really confusing. None of the Mithras mythology depicts him being killed for humanity. In fact, he is not depicted as being killed at all. On the contrary, it is Mithras himself who does the killing! As is seen in the most widely use image of Mithras, he was said to have slain a great bull. Actually the very earliest reference to this event is from the close of the first century (AD 98-99), so it is post Christian, but setting that aside, Mithras’ death is not depicted at all. For the earliest reference to the slaying of the bull, see R. L. Gordon, “The date and significance of CIMRM 593 (British Museum, Townley Collection),” Journal of Mithraic Studies 2:2. Read it online here. As there is no depiction of Mithras’ death in any ancient mythology, there is likewise no depiction of any resurrection.

Swedish scholar Tryggve N. D. Mettinger (I can only wonder how his first name is pronounced!) is professor of Hebrew Bible at Lund University in Sweden and a member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, Stockholm. Although he claims that there were in pre-Christian antiquity a few cases of myths of dying and rising gods, he makes two important admissions in his monograph, The Riddle of Resurrection. Firstly, he affirms that he is going against a “near consensus,” and a consensus held not by Christian scholars, but by historians in general. Secondly, while he suggests that there existed myths of gods rising from death, he never suggests that the accounts are similar to that of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact he concludes the opposite:

There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.

Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wicksell, 2001), 221.

Incidentally, while Mettinger goes against the scholarly consensus and says that there were in fact some dying and rising god figures prior to Christianity, he does not list Mithras as one of them, simply because there is absolutely no evidence of any myth of Mithras dying and rising from the dead. This claim has been pulled out of thin air.

This is really sufficient. Any more subtle similarities between the new Testament accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and pre-Christian mythical tales about Mithra are going to be trivial compared to these six. These are the ones that make Jesus look like a re-hashed Mithras, and yet each and every one of them is simply not supported by either New Testament scholars or specialists in Mithraic studies.

They sound sensational and scandalous, and if they’re on the internet, they must be true, right? Remember, the next time you see someone making claims like this, ask them a simple question: What’s your source? By source of course, I mean ancient source. Modern sceptics can say whatever they like – and as we see all the time, they do!

This is one grinch that isn’t going to steal Christmas.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Although there is a Mithra and a Mithras in different ancient traditions, the copycat theory that I frequently observed makes no distinction between them. []

23 thoughts on “Merry Mithras!

  1. In debunking the various comparisons between Buddha, Osiris, Mithras, and Jesus, have you seen any indication that popular attempts to make Jesus into simply another extension of some original myth are primarily a phenomenon of the modern era? Victorian works like Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” and Max Mueller’s work on Aryan / solar mythology, for example, were extraordinarily popular among the educated classes and both works lent themselves to the claims you have debunked. Likewise, just as the sociological and anthropological waves from those works seemed to have died away, other comparativists / structuralists such as Joseph Campbell seemed to rehash and repopularize the same old claims. I believe Campbell in particular focused on the Osiris / Jesus parallels. But has this kind of pop culture, anti-Christian comparativism always been around, or did it start with the modern age?

  2. Dan, this sort of thing started in the late 19th century. That’s where it began to get some scholarly attention, and it was debunked there in the early 20th century. Since then, no peer reviewed research has supported these copycat claims, and they would now be regarded in scholarly publications as frankly embarassing.

    So in scholarly circles these theories enjoyed a very short tenure in the laste 19th/early twentieth century. What we’re seeing now in this online phenomenon is people who have had a very small taste of the subject and have latched onto it as though it were new and exciting, apparently not realising that these attempts at copycat deconstructions have really been put to bed a century ago.

  3. Claiming Mithras was born in a stable may be a post facto claim as this is the popular Christian view of Christ’s birth, though there is evidence that Jesus was born in a house.

  4. Under “Twelve Disciples” you said, “This particular claim is with any explicit foundation.” I assume you meant “without”, but don’t wish to leap to conclusions.

  5. Great post…

    I have heard the claim form some atheists that being born of a rock IS a virgin birth!

    According to them – the rock was a virgin at the time of the Mithraic conception.

    Bizarre.

  6. I know that I’m piling on a little late, but I thought I might add something of interest. According to ‘Ancient Mystery Cults’ by Walter Burkert (Harvard, 1989), even Mithras’ rock mommy might not have been a “virgin”: “Normal mythological logic demands that an ejaculation onto the rock have previously taken place… perhaps by Kronos-Saturnus, who is shown sleeping in the reliefs.” (pg. 155, n. 40)

  7. These alleged parallels are not as strong as the well-documented parallels between John the Baptist and Elijah.

    Both of them wore a leather belt.

    This parallel led Jesus to declare that Elijah had returned.

    Can these copy-cat theories come up with parallels as strong as both people wearing a leather belt?

    I would like to see them try!

  8. FYI: Tryggve is roughly Trig + vuh. The r is made in the back of the mouth softly and is not gutteral, like French. The Scandinavian languages are full of odd diphthongs and triphthongs. Berlitz makes no attempt to teach them exactly in their books. They are best learned as a small child. All three common r(s) are also used depending on region (French, English, Scottish).

  9. When asking for proof are you referring to an ancient text of some sorts?
    Ive been looking into this topic myself as of late and appreciate your point of view.
    Although a little biased it seems youve done more homework then a lot of skeptics.
    Im hoping all the book burning the christians did doesnt hurt the attempt at providing
    some sort of proof of these claims if there is any. It seems Christians will go to great lengths to be right as do the anti christians. Id just like the truth. Thanks again 🙂

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