|Mithras versus Christ: a Centuries Old Dispute?||
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!).
After the failure of Emperor Julian, the
Apostate (361-63 CE), to revive Mithraism, Christianitys
dominance was sealed by the Emperor Theodosius decree
of 380 CE:
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.
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 Christ’s 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.||
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 Vermaserens 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 souls 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 Elijahs chariot and the Jordan River is personified by a figure resembling the god Oceanus. 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. 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.
Shared Beliefs and Rituals.
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 saviours birthplace, was only adopted by the Christian church as late as 813 CE. 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. 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, 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, and thus was not born of man or woman, the virgin references in the story of Christs 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 gods birthday - the infamous 25th of December according to the Gregorian calendar.
Cautes and Cautopates flank Mithras on a typical Tauroctony.
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.
So which came first
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. 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. 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. 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.
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 others 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.
So who influenced who?
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.
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.