Was Christ Jesus A Myth Derived from Mithra, the Persian Sun God?
|Copyright © 2011 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
A Competing Religion in Rome
A scant fifty years before Jesus was born down in Israel a version of a Persian cult was imported into the city of Rome, capital of the Roman Empire. Mithraism was the worship of Mithra, the Persian sun god, along with the adoration of a number of other related greater and lesser deities. Possibly originating as long ago as 1500 B.C.E. the religion, and its associated deities, underwent some degree of evolution in concept, name, and form.
In its Roman form during the 3rd Century A.D. the sun god was said to have been born of a virgin goddess in an off-earth celestial cave, though in its more original Persian form Mithra had been said to have been born from a mother rock without need of a father. Roman tradition sets the time of year of Mithra's birth (or deliverance from the rock) as the winter solstice, December 25. Various traditions list the sun god as being surrounded by either eight or twelve celestial bodies, perhaps calling them zodiac symbols would be more accurate, as his constant companions.
Mithraism hit its greatest zenith of popularity in Rome during the 3rd Century, and is thought to have even found favor among a few Roman emperors. Of course, a zenith implies a decline to follow, and Mithraism did quickly fade. The upstart Jewish offshoot cult, Christianity, was sweeping across the world and was directly involved in driving Mithraism into obsolescence in Rome. Christianity became dominant not just in Rome proper, but throughout and beyond Rome's empirical borders in Europe, England, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
One Myth Is Theorized To Have Spawned Another
In the past decade it has become popular in atheistic circles and on the websites of religious skeptics to focus on the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism with an eye toward asserting that Jesus is a myth that was evolved from out of the Mithra myth. While this makes for an interesting bull session in a college student lounge, it is almost always accompanied by misstatements and withheld information leading to faulty conclusions.
Which Religion Came First?
First of the errors or misstatements about the Mithra myth is that it was the oldest of the three religions of Mithraism, Judaism, and Christianity. This claim of greater antiquity for Mithraism is false. The earliest postulated date for Mithraism, in any of its varied forms, is about 1500 B.C.E. in Persia. There is absolutely no archeological or extant literary evidence to confirm such an ancient date, but we will let it stand unchallenged.
Judaism was begun when Abram (Abraham) was given a covenant by YHWH, the God of the Jews. Abram became the father of the Jewish race and instigated the worship of YHWH among his family. This happened at about 2000 B.C.E. However, it was not until between about 1500 - 1400 B.C.E that Moses formally codified the doctrines, theology, rituals, and laws of Judaism, committing them to written form. The last entries in the Judaic sacred texts (the Hebrew Bible which is now called the Old Testament) were penned about 400 B.C.E. by Malachi.
Unlike Mithraism, Judaism does have some extant literary and archeological evidence to substantiate its ancient date claims. One such fascinating piece of evidence is the victory stele of Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah. It mentions Israel by name and dates back to 1300 B.C.E. Israel was the name of Abraham's grandson for whom the nation of Israel was ultimately named. Since an Egyptian pharaoh was aware that the area of Canaan had been renamed for Abraham's grandson by 1300 B.C.E it gives strong testimony that Abraham's religion, begun in 2000 B.C.E., was also well entrenched. The very name "Israel" means "God/YHWH will rule" or "prevails with God/YHWH." This too speaks of the established religion of Judaism, the worship of the God, YHWH, having been internationally recognized by 1300 B.C.E.
Since Judaism is such an ancient and continuously practiced religion, its fame frequently makes it the target of atheist critics who claim that nothing about the Hebrew Bible is historically valid. Even historical figures such as King David are unfairly rejected as mythology or figures of fiction. Such allegations against the historicity of biblical figures are without evidentiary support, and therefore are without merit. For example, the 9th Century B.C.E. Jordanian Mesha Stele artifact boasts that King Mesha, of Moab, gained a military victory over Israel's King "Omri," over the "House of David," and over "YHWH," the God of Israel. By naming the name of specific Israelite kings (Omri and David) and Israel's God, YHWH, such extant archeological evidences affirm the antiquity of Judaism, YHWH as God, the national nature of Israel, the historical reality of King David, and therefore the general authenticity of the contents of the Hebrew Bible.
As established above, since Judaism has evidence it arrived on the planet at about 2000 B.C.E. while Mithraism came into existence about 1500 B.C.E.(though no evidence exists for such a distant date) it is apparent that Judaism easily predates Mithraism by at least five centuries. Judaism is a far older and more mature religion. Judaism was also codified in written form beginning in 1400 B.C.E through 400 B.C.E., whereas Mithraism has no such equivalent extant written codes or theological expositions of a similar age. Moreover, since Jews moved throughout the Middle East, Persia/Asia, Europe, and Africa between 1400 B.C.E and the 1st Century A.D. carrying their ancient written codified religion with them on scrolls, it is entirely likely that Judaism had some impact on the younger evolving pagan mythology of Mithraism.
Interestingly, from about the 7th Century B.C.E. some documents hint that some amount of Mithraism may have been codified in writing. However, none of those hinted-at writings have survived or have yet been found by modern researchers. This lack of B.C.E. canon for Mithraism stands in stark contrast to Judaism whose laws and writings have withstood numerous invasions, exiles, and national disasters.
Jews took great care to ensure the survival of their sacred texts. For example, between 200 B.C.E. and 50 B.C.E. a group of Jews collected the whole of the Jewish canon, preserved it in jars, and hid the jars in caves at Qumran. The Jewish canon remained there, preserved from destruction, theft, and would-be redactors until they were found, displayed, and published in the late 1940's A.D.
These original versions of the entire Hebrew Bible were literally buried in the ground where they remained out of reach and "lost" during the launch of the Christian church in 33 A.D., the inception of the common Christian era in the 1st Century A.D., the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D., the fall of national Israel under the swords of the Roman cohort, and the attempted Nazi extermination of Abraham's entire race. Not until more than 2000 years later, when an independent Israel was reestablished in 1949 A.D., did the hidden Qumran scrolls come out of the ground. One major significance of these Dead Sea Scrolls is that they confirm that the Hebrew Bible underwent no editing or tampering by the Christian church. Whatever content the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament had in the 1st and 2nd Centuries B.C.E. is what they still contain today.
Did the Mithra Myth Spawn A Jesus Myth?
False claim number two is that the Roman version of the Mithra mythology spawned a new mythology called Jesus and Christianity. While it is likely true that Mithraism migrated into the Roman empire, specifically Rome, beginning about 50 B.C.E., there is no archeological evidence that the Jews adopted this religion down in Israel where Christ and Christianity were first revealed.
Strict Judaism was well entrenched in Israel during the 1st Century A.D. meaning paganism and idolatry were utterly detested. In that environment paganism for a Jew could be a capital offense, making Mithraism an undesirable religious model. Any Jew who proposed a new religious school of thought that appropriated any part of paganism, such as from Mithraism, would have been instantly rejected or persecuted out-of-hand. Jesus was scrupulously orthodox with regard to Judaism, but even He was viewed with some suspicion when He purged the temple of crooked vendors and later introduced the doctrine of the Eucharist. Had he, or His followers been overtly pagan in any respect it is likely that His career would have been instantly and disastrously ended long before His execution.
Of most importance is the fact that no written Mithraism ritual code, theological doctrinal exposition, or even a book of liturgies has ever been found that predated Christianity. All Mithraism orders of service or theological explications originated in the 3rd Century A.D. or later (the lone exception is one brief generic prayer consisting of several lines of text in one book of the Parsees). Since everything that is known about the religion / mythology of Mithra comes from documents that were written at least 200 years after the birth of Jesus, and 100 years after the New Testament canon was completed, and since the Jews in Israel had not embraced Mithraism, it seems there is little credibility for the theory that Christianity in any way was based on Roman Mithraism.
Though the authorship dates for Christian literature are hotly disputed by liberal and atheistic elements, conservative scholars generally agree that all the extant manuscripts of the Christian New Testament were completed by the end of the 1st Century A.D. These include the letters of Paul (among the first Christian Scriptures penned), letters from James, Peter, and others, the gospels (in Greek biographical format) of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, the historical narrative of Acts, and lastly the future-predicting book of Revelation by John which he wrote while imprisoned on Patmos. All these were written and were in circulation among the various churches before 99 A.D.
Given that the Christian canon was closed and already in common circulation by 99 A.D., and that the Hebrew canon was closed by 400 B.C.E., and that the Mithraism canon does not arise until after 200 A.D., serious doubt is cast on the theory that Christianity borrowed or copied anything from Mithraism. In fact, the early Christian theologians became incensed that more than a century after the Christian canon went public that the Mithra priests began plagiarizing words, concepts, practices, and rituals from Christianity. Consider the following objections and observations by the various Christian theologians of that time who witnessed the plagiarisms for themselves.
Early Church Theologians Charge Mithraism with Plagiarism
Justin Martyr (110-165 A.D.) in his famed Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 70, states that he had encountered some of the then-recent claims of the Mithra cult. He masterfully identified some of the passages of the Hebrew Bible from which the followers of Mithraism freely plagiarized, namely from Daniel and Isaiah 33. In chapter 66 of his First Apology (which means "defense of the faith") Justin accused the Mithraism leadership from the 2nd Century A.D. of plagiarizing the 1st Century Christian Eucharist ceremony and grafting it into their pagan rituals. Since there is no mention of a Mithraism Eucharist prior to Justin's complaint of plagiarism, the charge that the pagans pirated their form of Eucharist from the earlier Christian Eucharist carries immense credibility.
Similarly, Tertullian (died 240 A.D.) also wrote an apologetic in which is a major section about crowns, entitled The Chaplet. In chapter 15 of The Chaplet he exposed how the 3rd Century practices of Mithraism had begun to steal from the Christian New Testament the symbol of the crown. Specifically, Mithra priests forced their converts to wear special crowns on their foreheads as an external symbol that they renounced Christ and fully identified with Mithra.
There is no way to put too fine a point on Justin's and Tertullian's charges against 2nd and 3rd Century Mithraism that they plagiarized from ancient Judaism and from 1st Century Christianity. In his Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 60, Tertullian entitled the chapter, "No Difference in the Spirit of Idolatry and of Heresy. In the Rites of Idolatry, Satan Imitated and Distorted the Divine Institutions of the Older Scriptures. The Christian Scriptures Corrupted by Him in the Perversions of the Various Heretics." It is key to note that his charge is bolstered by his observation that the Christian Scriptures were already older than the new practices being implemented into contemporary 3rd Century Roman Mithraism.
Origin (about 185-230 A.D.), in a refutation of the broad ranging anti-Christian accusations from a man named Celsus, noted that 3rd Century Mithraism identified Mithra's "disciples" as not being human followers but were merely symbolic astrological bodies (chapter 22, Against Celsus Book 6). This is in sharp contrast to Christianity's twelve apostles who were real men and were living followers of Jesus; some of those human apostles penned their own eyewitness accounts of Jesus; copies of these accounts are extant to this day.
In contrast to the charges made by Christian theologians, there are no known plagiarism charges from Mithra scribes or priests against Christianity. This lack is particularly significant because the zenith of Mithraism writing was in the 3rd Century A.D., long after the Christian canon had closed. The pagans had the last word regarding their own religion. It seems abundantly obvious that in a desperate effort to save and reenergize their dying religion that Mithra's priests stole shamelessly from the better documented and more powerfully dominant growing religion of Christianity. It did not ultimately help, of course, as Mithraism very quickly faded away in the 4th Century A.D. Christ's predictions that the fledgling Christian church would grow from the size of a mustard seed (a few hundred followers at that time) to the size of a tree (a global presence) has been dramatically realized.
Author's personal side commentary on the early church theologians: It is to my sad personal amusement that I have observed many skeptics of the Bible deride men such as Tertullian as being utterly intellectually bereft for having credited satanic influences in the 3rd Century Roman Mithraism plagiarisms of Christianity. Apparently if a great learned man acknowledges a genuine belief in spiritual warfare then he is automatically relegated to the slag heaps of stupidity. Why is this amusing to me? Atheists cannot see that their blinding biases have forced them to equate spiritual faith in God with an absolute lack of mental capacity and an abject lack of schooling regardless of the glaring evidence that many God-fearers, such as Tertullian, possessed an immense and superior intellect and education. That kind of bigotry is a true and volitional blindness.
but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake. (2 Corinthians 4:2-5)
Similarities and Differences
Judaism is documented to be five centuries older than the postulated inception date of Mithraism. Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures predate virtually all writings of Mithraism. Christianity is a cultural and spiritual extension from out of Judaism--Christians are Abraham's spiritual children, Gentile followers of Christ are grafted into the spiritual vine of Israel, and Jews and Gentiles are united into a single metaphorical temple by their faith in Christ. Christianity is born out of Judaism, not paganism.
Knowing that the Mithra scribes copied words, concepts, and rituals from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and from the Christian church, it is not a surprise that the surviving 3rd Century A.D. self-descriptions of Mithraism have similarities with Christianity. In fact, similarities are virtually necessary. How can one religion plagiarize from another without showing similarities between them?
Yet, even the similarities, plagiarized or not, are not as compelling as some commentators assert. Jesus was never a sun god whereas Mithra was always a sun god. When Jesus called himself the morning star in Revelation 2:28 and 22:16, it was not some oblique reference to the sun being a star, as if that would make Jesus a sun god, but was a direct reference to Numbers 24:16-17, where a rising (morning) star is Jewish poetic imagery for deity and the sovereign authority to reign.
Mithra was born from out of a celestial rock-mother, or a celestial virgin goddess, depending on which variation of Mithraism you are researching. In either case, Mithra was not human and not born on earth. By way of contrast, Jesus was a real human born to an actual human girl, born right here on planet earth, lived an authentic human life, and died an agonizing human death at the age of 33. The town of His birth can be visited today, the town where His friends lived can be walked through (Bethany), and the city where He worshipped is still the holy capital city of Judaism. Though the month and day of Jesus' birth are unknown, the year of His birth is known just as is the year of His death is known.
Jesus chose twelve living human students whom He trained for three years, according to the Judaic rabbinic custom. These men, when trained, carried on the building of the religion when Jesus left and trained the next generation of leaders and followers. By contrast Mithra was surrounded by eight or twelve satellites, planet bodies, or zodiac figures--different traditions identify them differently. In any case, these celestial bodies were not disciples in the ordinary sense and so could not carry on the work of Mithra on earth.
A feature common to virtually all religions is the fellowship of a mealtime. However, Judaism celebrated a unique meal called the Passover, a very structured ceremonial meal of gratitude to God for salvation. Jesus, while celebrating the Passover during the last week of His life, reformulated the Passover meal into the Christian Communion, or meal taken "communally." In the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) the Communion meal was also called the "breaking of bread" and the "love feast" in which the celebrants are expressing gratitude toward Christ for their salvation. Gratitude is "eucharist" in Greek, and so oral tradition favored calling the Communion meal the Eucharist. Justin Martyr logged the charge that 2nd Century A.D. Mithraism had plagiarized the name and practice of the Eucharist from the Christian church.
A few critics of Christianity allege that Mithraism and Christianity shared the cross as a common symbol. They did not. Christians recognize the Roman instrument of execution, the crucifix, as the symbol of Christ's death. Opposite that, Mithraism honored an image of Mithra's fictional sword as its distinctive symbol. The sword of Mithraism is indicative of the ceremonial priestly cutting practices that have long plagued such pagan cults. Biblical Christianity embraces no such horrific cutting rite in its worship services, nor does it embrace the sword as a symbol of Christ.
Jews and Christians practiced ceremonial cleansing by immersion in water (baptism). By way of contrast Mithraism sprinkled its devotees with the blood of a freshly sacrificed bull. Mithraism's practice of sprinkling the worshippers with animal blood is best associated with pagan idolatry than with Judaism or Christianity.
Judaism and Christianity worship and recognize only one true God, YHWH. Christianity understands YHWH to be three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) while being just one Spirit, one substance, one nature, one God--the Trinity. Mithraism is polytheistic. Mithra is one of many gods, some greater than Mithra, some lesser. Some persons fancy Mithra to have had a loose contractual association with two other god-like figures, a sort of solar mutual defense pact. This pact was with his fictional mother (the virgin-rock) and his fictional brother, thus forming some kind of pagan triad. That contractual triad is entirely unlike the Trinity in every respect, but especially in regard to the matter of one God being of one substance.
It has been asserted horses were used as images in both Mithraism and Christianity, thus making the religions similar in this matter. Yes, and no. It is true that horses are a means of conveyance for both Jesus and Mithra. For Mithra, he is often depicted riding in a Romanesque chariot pulled by horses; sometimes he is shown as just a sun orb in the back of a chariot. By way of contrast Jesus never rode on a horse while on earth and never rode in a horse drawn Roman chariot. John's prophecies indicate that one day He will return riding on a white horse to wage war with evil doers. Does that demonstrate a significant similarity in religions? Not really. Until the past two centuries, horses were about the only form of land transportation available to anyone, so the comparison is virtually meaningless.
Mithra and Jesus were both worshipped on Sunday. This is something of an irony. In fact, Sunday was literally named for one of the pagan sun-gods, just as Monday was named for the moon god and Thursday named for the pagan god Thor. The primitive Christian church usurped Sunday away from the sun gods to use as the day to meet in the common worship of Jesus because that was the day of the week He rose from death.
16th Century B.C.E. Judaism Source for Much of 3rd Century A.D. Mithraism
Without beating an already dead horse, it should be pointed out that much of Asian and Middle-Eastern paganism, like Mithraism and Samaritanism, were perverse imitations derived in part from the true and more ancient religion of Judaism. Judaism had been practicing such rituals as ceremonial cleansing (i.e. water immersion or baptism), prescribed feast days, ritual meals, a priestly hierarchy, animal sacrifices, altars, incense burning, formal liturgy, and wearing signs / phylacteries on their foreheads from as long ago as 2000 - 1500 B.C.E. Christianity did not borrow similar concepts from pagan religions, but merely carried them forward from Judaism.
Moreover, Judaism had long ago codified such original doctrinal concepts as: a "son of God" who went into and out of heaven (Psalm 2:2, 30:4), angels ascending and descending into and out of heaven (Genesis 28:12), twelve founding human-historical patriarchs (Genesis 35:22), depicting God as the good shepherd (Psalm 23:1, Micah 5:4), portraying God as a lion (Isaiah 31:4, Hosea 11:10, Amos 3:8), and YHWH being the original God of covenants / contracts (Genesis 15:18). Hebrew Scriptures also state that YHWH had the way of truth (Psalm 86:11) and light (Psalm 18:28), was the creator of all life (Genesis 1:1-31), and is the owner of everlasting spiritual life (Daniel 12:2). Indeed, YHWH has always been known as the Redeemer and Savior (Isaiah 60:16) at least five centuries before Mithraism was dreamed up by pagan men.
In short, YHWH (God) was recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures as the reality of everything that the Mithra myth would later aspire to imitate. Mithra was not the role model for Jesus, rather, YHWH was the model for both Jesus (the real historical man who was also God) and for the Mithra myth. In fact, as the Son of YHWH whose virgin birth was predicted in the Hebrew Bible some 800 years before He was actually born (Isaiah 7:14), Jesus had to be like YHWH in behavior, character, and nature. The fact that the Mithra myth borrowed blatantly from the Hebrew tradition necessarily means that Jesus and Mithra would have similarities.
In spite of the fact that the Mithra myth imitated the Hebrew God (YHWH) and borrowed many concepts found in the Hebrew-Christian Bible in no way sanctifies the myth; it was always a counterfeit of earlier originals. Jesus, on the other hand, being the human and living continuation of the story of Abraham, Israel, and David, does have corporeal and historical authenticity. This sets Jesus apart from Mithra and highlights the all important and necessary differences between a well documented human-divine life which changed the world, and a myth that was constantly adapted to and changed by the world.
The story of Jesus' life changes lives, makes men holy, and promises redemption from sin, even to this day. Mithra is today exposed as an all but forgotten myth which changes no life for the better. That is the eternal difference between Jesus and Mithra, between a genuine original and a counterfeit, and between reality and fiction.