Mithras versus Christ: a Centuries Old Dispute?

Pvdens
(Mark Hatch)
Introduction.

In ‘Mithras Sol Invicti: an Initiates Guide’ I outlined the background to this Eastern mystery religion. With the detail in mind, this article seeks to question the often quoted parallels between Mithraism and Christianity that have led to so much deliberation on whether Christianity is a re-branded version of Mithraic beliefs. The subject remains a contentious issue even today, with much of the ‘informed’ debate thinly veiling either an atheist or Christian bias. This article is certainly not intended to promote one faith over another, but simply attempt to unravel persistent misconceptions so we can better educate people.

While both religions became popular in Rome in the 2nd century CE, Mithraism was far older and more venerable at the time having been practiced as early as 1,500 BCE during the Aryan migration into both Persia and India. Mithras was worshipped across Asia from the Indus River to the Black Sea when the religion finally reached Rome in a version that first emerged perhaps a hundred years before Christ. Indeed, it took at least a century for Christianity to become a major religious movement competitive with others in the Roman Empire. Besides Mithraism, these included Manichaeism, Gnosticism and the worship of Heracles, Cybele, Isis, Osiris, Dionysus and the god Serapis, a syncretic fusion of Osiris and Dionysus - and not forgetting the religions and mysteries of the Jews, Stoics, Pythagoreans, Orphics and Neoplatonists. It has been estimated there were perhaps 10,000 Christians in 100 CE, and not more than 200,000 a century later. A rapid spread of the faith occurred in the late 3rd/early 4th centuries CE despite proscriptions under the emperors Decius (249-51 CE) and Diocletian (303-5 CE) that led to the punishment and execution of many Christians as subversive criminals (although not nearly in the numbers claimed by later Christian apologists, and without any evidence of them being fed to lions!).

Competing Faiths?

In ‘The Origins of Christianity’, Ernest Renan promoted the idea that Mithraism was the prime competitor to Christianity in the 2nd through the 4th centuries CE. Indeed, it has been proposed that the Emperors Commodus (180-92 CE) and Diocletian (284-305 CE) both championed the cause of Mithraism, although some academics argue the claims are rather dubious as there is little evidence that Mithraic worship was accorded official status as a Roman cult. Regardless, if Mithraism was an established albeit exclusive sect devoted to social justice, how was it assimilated by state-sponsored Christianity before being disposed of in name? Rather simplistically, Christianity eventually prevailed following the rise to power of Constantine and especially after he delivered the ‘Edict of Milan’ in 313 CE guaranteeing a freedom of worship for all religions, including Christianity. There is probably some merit in supporting the idea of the two faiths competing against each, but not necessarily for ideological reasons. Rather, if the model for ‘religion’ is considered in more businesslike terms, then competing for worshippers at the expense of your rivals makes perfect sense if the faith is to survive and flourish. All’s fair in love and war...which led, ironically, to Christian persecution of its competition.

After the failure of Emperor Julian, ‘the Apostate’ (361-63 CE), to revive Mithraism, Christianity’s dominance was sealed by the Emperor Theodosius’ decree of 380 CE:

‘We brand all the senseless followers of the other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches.’

A series of fourteen edicts followed, one per year, outlawing all pagan creeds in competition to Christianity and mandating the destruction of their temples. A notorious example of Theodosius’ policy was the destruction of the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria in either 389 or 391 CE. At the same time as the temple and its ornate statue of Serapis was destroyed, however, but the faithful turned their ‘fiery vengeance’ on the famous and irreplaceable Library of Alexandria situated nearby. Not content, countless shrines across the Mediterranean dedicated to Isis were also destroyed and a concerted effort was mounted to eradicate all traces of Mithraism. Nevertheless, the fight for dominance cannot completely overshadow the striking similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, and because the worship of Mithras pre-dated both Judaism and Christianity by many centuries, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the latter two religions, especially Christianity, adopted at least some of the Mithraic beliefs and ceremonies to recruit followers. What better way to introduce a deity, and spread the word, but by suborning existing religious practices into the new faith - it is a well attested process; consider Sulis-Minerva, as just one example.

Recycled Iconography.

The similarities (particularly the iconographical ones) between Christianity and Mithraism may be due to a number of different factors, but it is amazing to note just how many iconographical images considered today to be ‘Christian’ can be traced back to an origin in Mithraic art and architecture. One should, of course, take into consideration the fact that there is a distinct lack of information on Mithraism compared to what is known about Christianity. It is also important to remember that Mithraism was neither static nor homogeneous. Therefore, Mithraism from the 2nd century CE is quite different than Mithraism from the 3rd century CE. Likewise, just as Christianity varied from one region of the Roman Empire to the other, so too did Mithraism.[1]

Sol Invictus ("the Unconquered Sun") was the late Roman state sun god. The cult was created by the Emperor Aurelian in 274 CE and continued until the abolition of paganism under Theodosius I. The radiated solar crown is very reminiscent of Christís halo.
Solar symbolism was popular with early Christian writers. Jesus, for example, was considered to be the "sun of righteousness."
Franz Cumont was the first scholar to identify similarities between Christianity and Mithraism. Cumont argued that the two religions shared an attraction to nature that made it quite easy for Christian artists to borrow iconographical references from Mithraism. So, when one looks at Christian sarcophagi, mosaics, and miniatures from the third to the fifth centuries, one can see 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. Cumont argued that even though the church was opposed to the pagan practice of worshipping the cosmic cycle, these images nonetheless made onto Christian artistic impressions. This occurred, he continued, because the Christian artists made “a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture”. Cumont cited the images of Moses as an example of this phenomenon. For instance, when early Christian artists depicted their rendition of Moses striking Mount Horeb (Sinai) with his staff to release drinking water from the mountain, their inspiration was an earlier Mithraic reference to Mithras shooting arrows at rocks to cause the waters to shoot up.[2]
Franz Cumont (1868 - 1947) was the main proponent of the theory that Mithraism was an offshoot of Zoroastrianism as it had been practiced throughout Greater Iran ("Persia" in 19th century vocabulary). Cumont's student, Maarten J. Vermaseren, author of Mithras, the Secret God (1963), was very active in translating Mithraic inscriptions.

Another example of Mithraic iconography incorporated into Christian art is the scene of Mithras ascending into the heavens identified by M.J. Vermaseren. According to Vermaseren’s interpretation of Mithraism, after Mithras had accomplished a series of miraculous deeds, it was believed that he was carried into the heavens by a chariot. In various Mithraic depictions, horses driven by the pagan sun god, Helios-Sol, draw the chariot. In other instances, a chariot of fire belonging to Helios is being led into the water and is surrounded by the pagan god Oceanus and sea nymphs. When Christian artists wanted to use imagery to portray the soul’s ascension into heaven on sarcophagi, they used the biblical scene of Elijah being led into heaven by chariots and horses that were on fire. Vermaseren thus argued that the inspiration for this image came from the representations of Mithras’ ascent into the heavens by Helios’ chariot. The sun god provided inspiration for the flames on Elijah’s chariot and the Jordan River is personified by a figure resembling the god Oceanus.[3] The parallel is perpetuated by the adoption of the Mithras’ halo, representing the sun, in later representations of Apollo and in Christian images symbolising god- or sainthood.

In contrast, Deman has interpreted the relationship between the similarities of Christian and Mithraic iconography quite differently[4]. Rather than looking at Christian art and trying to find reciprocal references from Mithraic art (as Cumont does when merely looking at the presence of the Sun or the Moon, for instance), Deman contests it is better to look for larger patterns of comparison. Thus, he wrote, “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.” The approach is certainly different from that used by Cumont or Vermaseren, but it seems particularly useful because it allows a comparison of artistic themes. Rather than looking at specific pieces and trying to make connections that that may or may not be evident, by examining and using holistic themes as templates it becomes easier to identify overall similarities and then apply them to specific pieces. To illustrate this, a useful examination is of what Deman calls the iconographical ‘creative sacrifice of Mithras’ compared to the ‘creative sacrifice of Christ’. In both scenes, the vernal sacrifice appears at the centre of the image. Above it, the sun and the moon appear symmetrically disposed from one another. Under the sacrifice, there are another two figures that appear symmetrically apart from one another. In the Mithraic scenes, the attendants of Mithras appear: Cautes, with upraised torch and Cautopates, with down-turned torch. In the Christian crucifixion scenes, created from the 4th century CE onward, the two figures beneath Jesus are typically Mary and John. In other instances, two characters will carry a raised and lowered object very reminiscent of Cautes and Cautopates. These characters appear as either two Roman soldiers armed with spears, or Longinus holding a spear and Stephaton offering Jesus a sponge soaked in sour wine. Sometimes, the two characters depicted are wearing similar clothes to those worn by Cautes and Cautopates in the earlier Mithraic depictions. Other features typical of the depictions of Mithras’ death to be found in Christian crucifixion scenes include possible references to the twelve apostles but represented by the signs of the zodiac, serpents, bear and leafy trees that surround central figure, and characters with their legs crossed.[5]

Shared Beliefs and Rituals.

"The resemblances between the two hostile churches were so striking as to impress even the minds of antiquity."
[6] 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 situated in the bowels of earth."[6]

Both religions employed the rite of baptism, and each participated in an outwardly similar type of sacrament, bread and wine. Both Mithras and Christ were supposedly visited by shepherds and ‘Magi’ at their respective births, although the Mithraic festival of Epiphany, marking the arrival of sun-priests (‘Magi’) at the saviour’s birthplace, was only adopted by the Christian church as late as 813 CE.[8] Interestingly, Osiris appears to be the first example of the mythological concept of a saviour god present in many faiths, including Christianity and Mithraism. Martin A. Larson certainly concluded that the general concept of a saviour must have originated from the saviour cult of Osiris[9]. 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], again providing a common basis for similar beliefs and rituals. Many commentators point to the parallels attached to the ‘virgin’ births of both. While Mithras miraculously emerged full grown from a rock, the petra genetix[11], and thus was not born of man or woman, the ‘virgin’ references in the story of Christ’s birth are largely due to a repeated mistranslation of the Hebrew word for a young girl or young woman (‘almah’) into the Greek ‘parthenos’ or virgin (the Hebrew word for a virgin is ‘bethula’). What does seem evident is both faiths adopted the ages old celebration of the winter solstice as their god’s birthday - the infamous 25th of December according to the Gregorian calendar.

Other Similarities.

It has been claimed that both Mithraism and Christianity considered Sunday their holy day, albeit for variously different reasons. Yet, solid evidence that Mithraists practiced weekly worship any more than any other contemporary religion is lacking. Regardless, other similarities between Mithraism and early Christianity included considering abstinence, celibacy, and self-control to be among their highest virtues. Likewise, both had comparable 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 [12]), 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, according to Mithraic eschatology, what began in water would end in fire. Both religions believed in revelation as key to their doctrine. Both awaited the last judgment and resurrection of the dead


Cautes and Cautopates flank Mithras on a typical Tauroctony.
Different Followers.

Although Christianity eventually rivalled the four century old cult of Mithras in Rome, the two religions were outwardly practiced by adherents of different social classes. Echoing its roots, Christianity was favoured in urban areas inhabited by the Jewish Diaspora, whereas Mithraism being indifferent to Judaism was to be found in more rural settings. Mithras was popular among soldiers (as suggested by the prevalence of mithraea at military sites), fostered elitism, barred women, and (as a mystery religion) promised knowledge that was hidden from outsiders. Christianity's message was simply more public, with slaves, women, and the poor welcomed into the brethren. Christianity thus enjoyed a broader appeal, even gaining a significant following in military ranks.
After the Constantian reforms of the early 4th century CE, one needed to be a Christian to gain promotion within the army or social advancement.


Moreover, while its teachings did not exactly 'foster elitism' as much as stand against it, Christian followers began to refer to themselves as milites ("soldiers"), in reference to the disciplined life to which they felt called. Those less disciplined and outside the faith were called pagani, borrowing the Roman military slang for "civilians".

So which came first…

With the many similarities, can we come to any conclusion on whether Mithraism was an influence on Christianity. Franz Cumont postulated this position and wrote that if any collusion of ideas did take place between the two groups, it occurred because they were struggling against each other to become the moral leader within the Roman Empire [13]. Cumont’s view would imply, however, that Christian artists and architects conscientiously and deliberately incorporated iconographical elements into their artwork - perhaps in an appeal to Mithraists encouraging their conversion to Christianity. Manfred Clauss disagrees with this last argument, arguing that it is unhistorical for many reasons. Firstly, it exaggerates the missionary aspects of Mithraism as a mystery religion. Unlike Christianity, the mystery religions 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. Yet, Clauss also recognises that there was undoubtedly an interaction between the two groups[14]. Scholar Martin H. Luther, for instance, notes that in some instances, abandoned mithraea were co-opted by Christians as early churches. If there was any competition between Christians and Mithraists, Luther argues, then it was merely for real estate, as the two groups both grew to the same level by about the year 300 CE[15].

One theory therefore suggests that 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 destroy Mithraism or lure its believers to Christianity. The proximity of the two faiths argues for the likelihood that a transfusion of ideas occurred.

A second theory concludes 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[14]. In examining recent archaeological discoveries, Luther also reached the same conclusion, estimating that at the beginning of the 4th century CE, 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 mithraea, dated to the second century, were located near public spaces such as barracks and bath houses[15]. This suggests that Mithraism by this point was a public movement and as such, an interaction between Mithraists and Christians was probable.

A third theory identified by Samuel Laeuchli argues for “a common root for Christian and Mithraic phenomena”[1]. According to some scholars, 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, albeit having started out from Asia Minor. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that many of the iconographical similarities come from this shared root, which implies that some of the similarities are nothing more than coincidences on the part of Christian and Mithraic artists. As Clauss writes 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.”[14]

A fourth theory combines the three arguments listed above. Laeuchli writes that the two faiths 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.”[1]

So who influenced who?

A fifth option would be to regard the similarities as largely due to what might be termed 'evolutionary convergence'. Rather than assume that every parallel requires explanation in terms of a direct influence, it is possible that similar ideas arose because they address similar human concerns. Comparable ideas are found because they draw on a common wider heritage of symbols and cultural ideas. Perhaps the tensions between Mithraism and Christianity should be viewed simply as ideologies competing for resources, i.e. believers. Ideologies, however, have an unnerving habit of actively despising and destroying any conflicting view or perceived threat to its own assumed truth. That which cannot easily be extinguished is often selectively co-opted. The familiar images, festivals and rituals, those advancing the cause or belief, are absorbed into the brand.

 
References:

1. Laeuchli, S. (1967), “Christ and Mithra”, in Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religion and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome, Northwestern University Press, p. 88.
2. Cumont, F. (1956), in McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.), The Mysteries of Mithras, Dover Publications, p. 188.
3. Vermaseren, M.J. (1963), Mithras: The Secret God, Chatto & Windus, pp. 104-6.
4. Derman, A. (1971), in Hinnells, J.R., “Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities”, in Mithraic Studies Vol. 2, Manchester University Press.
5. Derman, A. (1971), in Hinnells, J.R., “Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities”, in Mithraic Studies Vol. 2, Manchester University Press, pp. 510-7.
6. Cumont, F. (1911), Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, pp. 191 & 193.
7. Larson, M.A. (1977), The Story of Christian Origins, p. 190.
8. Brewster, H. Pomeroy (1904), Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church, p. 55.
9. Larson, M.A. (1977), The Story of Christian Origins.
10. Taylor, J., Pythagoreans and Essenes: Structural Parallels, in Collection de la Revue des Études Juives, 32, Leuven: Peeters, ISBN 90-429-1482-3.
11. de Riencourt, A. (1974), Sex and Power in History, p. 135.
12. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Periods/Roman/Topics/Religion/Mithraism/David_Fingrut**
13. Cumont, F. (1956), in McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.), The Mysteries of Mithras, Dover Publications, p. 188.
14. Clauss, M. (2001), in Gordon, R. (trans.): The Roman cult of Mithras, Routledge.
 
©RMRS 2010