Mithra vs Jesus

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Back in the Roman era, Mithraism was perhaps Christianity's leading competitor for the hearts and minds of others. Today Mithraism is religiously a non-factor, but it still "competes" with Christianity, in another way: It is a leading candidate for the "pagan copycat" thesis crowd as a supposed source for Christianity.

Our walking papers are laid out for us by over a dozen things that Jesus supposedly has in common with Mithras and, by extension, Christianity allegedly borrowed to create the Jesus character. The points are:

  1. Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds.
  2. He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  3. He had 12 companions or disciples.
  4. Mithra's followers were promised immortality.
  5. He performed miracles.
  6. As the "great bull of the Sun," Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
  7. He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again.
  8. His resurrection was celebrated every year.
  9. He was called "the Good Shepherd" and identified with both the Lamb and the Lion.
  10. He was considered the "Way, the Truth and the Light," and the "Logos," "Redeemer," "Savior" and "Messiah."
  11. His sacred day was Sunday, the "Lord's Day," hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  12. Mithra had his principal festival of what was later to become Easter.
  13. His religion had a Eucharist or "Lord's Supper," at which Mithra said, "He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved."
  14. "His annual sacrifice is the passover of the Magi, a symbolical atonement or pledge of moral and physical regeneration."
  15. Shmuel Golding is quoted as saying that 1 Cor. 10:4 is "identical words to those found in the Mithraic scriptures, except that the name Mithra is used instead of Christ."
  16. The Catholic Encyclopedia is quoted as saying that Mithraic services were conduced by "fathers" and that the "chief of the fathers, a sort of pope, who always lived at Rome, was called 'Pater Patratus.'"

Our goal in this essay is to offer an overview of Mithraic belief and at the same time analyze each of these claims in terms of the evidence. In order to lay some groundwork, however, it will be necessary to briefly explore the goings-on over the past few decades in the field of Mithraic studies. There is a certain caveat emptor that will be necessary in order to help the reader understand exactly how critics are misusing their sources -- and what to be on the lookout for in future comparisons.

From Cumont to Ulansey: The Mithraic Studies Revolution

In 1975, Mithraic studies scholar John Hinnells lamented "the practical difficulty of any one scholar mastering all the necessary fields" -- linguistics, anthropology, history (Indian, Iranian, and Roman!), archaeology, iconography, sociology -- in order to get a grip on Mithraic studies. Hinnells of course is on target with his lament; we have made the same observation here regarding Biblical studies. But Mithraism being a relatively dead religion, there are no equivalents of seminaries keeping the Mithraic studies flame alive, and no past history of "Mithraic Fathers" who produced voluminous works and meditations upon Mithra.

Thus it is not surprising that for the longest time, from the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th, there was only one person in the world who could be regarded as any sort of authority on Mithraism -- and that was Franz Cumont.

Cumont worked with the thesis that Mithraic belief was of a continuous, fairly invariable tapestry from its earliest history up into the Roman period. The first remaining record of a god named Mithra appears as a deity invoked in a treaty dated 1400 BC [Hinn.MS, ix]; thereafter he is one of several Indo-Iranian gods, and he is known for giving orders, assembling people, and marshalling them -- perhaps with some militaristic overtones. He also appears as one who represents the concept of fidelity -- one of many such abstractions and personifications of virtues in the ancient East, such as Bhaga the god of sharing and Aryaman the god of hospitality (think of them as divine-level Care Bears, if you will).

As such, Mithra was the guy who went around dishing out punishment to those who broke treaties. He was the "guardian of the truth," "most dear to men," one "whose long arms seize the liar," who "injures no one and is everyone's friend," one who was all-seeing and all-knowing -- the sun was his "eye" on the world.

Mithra was responsible also for bringing rain, vegetation and health -- for in the ancient eastern mind, it is the moral behavior of persons (especially the king) that determines the national welfare and brings a fertile climate. If the king in your land broke a treaty, you would be advised to pack up if you were a farmer, because Mithra would soon be gliding in on his chariot with a boar shape on the front (accompanied by a divine sidekick representing Victory) to kick some tail and put things right [MS.27-51].

At other times Mithra was paired with a deity named Varuna, who was his superior. Varuna was the god in charge of helping men cultivate rice (although rice "ripening in the untilled soil" was still Mithra's business), so the two of them together oversaw the agricultural aspects of men's lives.

The ancient Mithra was a great guy. Lord of the Contract, Upholder of Truth. Peaceful, benevolent, protector, provider of a nice place to live and cattle, not easily provoked. A little later in Aryan history, he did become more of a warrior (previously, he had left a lot of the tail-kicking duties to Varuna), but then switched back to pacifism.

But then Zoroastrianism came along, and Mithra had some new things to do. He served as mediator between Ohrmazd and Ahriman, the good and bad gods of Zoroastrian dualism; but at the same time, he underwent something of a demotion as he became one of a group of seven lesser yazatas who served the upper-level deities [Cum.MM, 5] and was assigned some special escort duties: bringing demons to hell, and bringing souls to Paradise.

For a while after, things seem to have been quiet for Mithra. As late as the first century BC, Mithra is still associated with the sun along with Apollos and Hermes. [MS.129] So, why all this background? The problem was that Cumont was entirely wrong about very ancient (we shall say for convenience, Iranian) Mithraism being in continuity with Roman Mithraism.

For you see, the Roman Mithra was best known for his act of slaying a bull; yet there is no indication that the Iranian Mithra ever made his way into a bullpen for any reason. [MS, xiii] The Roman Mithra didn't appear at all interested in contract enforcement or escorting demons into hell. (Most likely, because demons are terrible tippers.)

And to make matters more complex, his followers in Iran, unlike the Roman Mithraists, did not worship in cave-like rooms (although Porphyry did think, incorrectly, that Zoroaster, the "putative founder of the cult," originated the idea of a cave as the image of the cosmos -- Beck.PO, 8), design levels of initiation, or pursue secrecy. [Ulan.OMM, 8]

There was simply no solid connection between the two faiths except for the name of the central god, some terminology, and astrological lore of the sort that was widely imported into the Roman Empire from Babylon anyway [Beck.PO, 87].

Nevertheless, because Cumont was locked into the notion of continuity, he assumed (for example) that the Iranian Mithra must have done some bull-slaying somewhere along the line, and he molded the evidence to fit his thesis, straining to find an Iranian myth somewhere that involved a bull-killing (it was done not by Mithra, but by Ahriman) and supposing that there was some connection or unknown story where the Iranian Mithra killed a bull.

Cumont's student Vermaseren [Ver.MSG, 17-18] also tried to find a connection, but the closest he could get was a story in which Soma, the god of life (who, as rain, was described as the semen of the sacred bull fertilizing the earth), was murdered by a consortium of gods which included Mithra -- as a very reluctant participant who had to be convinced to go along with the plan.

But simply put, the Roman Mithra wasn't anything like the Iranian one. He dressed really sporty, with a Phrygian cap (typical headgear for Orientals of the day) and a flowing cape that would have made Superman green with envy. He slayed a cosmic bull and earned the worship and respect of the sun god. He had new friends, animals that gave him a helping hand (or paw, or claw) with the bull-slaying, as well as two torch-bearing twins who could have passed for his sons.

If this was the Iranian Mithra, he obviously went through a midlife crisis at some point. The only thing that remained the same was that Mithra kept a loose association with the sun, which was something many gods had.

By the time of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies in the early 70s, the lack of evidence of an Iranian/Roman continuity led Mithraic scholars to suspect that Roman Mithraism was "a new creation using old Iranian names and details for an exotic coloring to give a suitably esoteric appearance to a mystery cult" [MS, xiii] -- and that Roman Mithraism was Mithraism in name only, merely a new system that used the name of a known ancient Eastern deity to attract urbane Romans who found the east and all of its accoutrements an enticing mystery. Think of it as repackaging an old religion to suit new tastes, only all you keep is the name of the deity!

And what was that new religion? For years Mithraic scholars puzzled over the meaning of the bull-slaying scene; the problem was, as we have noted, that the Mithraists left behind pictures without captions. Thus in the 70s, one scholar of Mithraism lamented [MS.437]:

At present our knowledge of both general and local cult practice in respect of rites of passage, ceremonial feats and even underlying ideology is based more on conjecture than fact.

And Cumont himself observed, in the 50s [Cum.MM, 150, 152]:

The sacred books which contain the prayers recited or chanted during the [Mithraic] survives, the ritual on the initiates, and the ceremonials of the feasts, have vanished and left scarce a trace behind...[we] know the esoteric disciplines of the Mysteries only from a few indiscretions.

But before too long, Mithraic scholars noticed something (or actually, revived something first posited in 1869 that Cumont, because of his biases, dismissed -- Ulan.OMM, 15) about the bull-slaying scene: The various human, animal, and other figures comprised a star-map! The bull corresponded with Taurus; the scorpion coincided with Scorpio; the dog matched up with Canis Major, and so on.

What Mithra himself corresponded to took a bit longer to decide; Spiedel first made a case for a correspondence with Orion [Spie.MO], but Ulansey has led the way with the thesis that Mithra is here to be identified with Perseus [Ulan.OMM, 26ff], and that Roman Mithraism was founded upon a "revolutionary" discovery in ancient astronomy (which was closely linked to astrology in that time) that "the entire cosmic structure was moving in a way which no one had even known before" -- a process we now call the precession of the equinoxes. In line with the Stoic belief that a divine being was the "source of every natural force," the personifying of natural forces in the form of mythical divine figures, and the origin on the cult in Tarsus, a city long under Persian domination and where Perseus was the leading god, Perseus was the perfect choice -- but this wasn't the type of thing that the cultists wanted everyone to know about, so, Ulansey theorizes, they chose the name of Mithra (a Persian god), partly to cover the identity of Perseus (who was often associated with Persia), partly because of an alliance between the Ciclian pirates who first introduced Mithraism to the Romans and a leader in Asia Minor named Mithridates ("given of Mithra"). [Ulan.OMM, 89]

What has been the point of this diversion? The point is to give the reader a warning, to be on the lookout any time a critic makes some claim about Mithraism somehow being a parallel to Christianity. Check their sources carefully. If they cite source material from the Cumont or pre-Cumont era, then chances are excellent that they are using material that is either greatly outdated, or else does not rely on sound scholarship (i.e., prior to Cumont; works by the likes of King, Lajard, and Robertson).

Furthermore, if they have asserted anything at all definitive about Mithraic belief, they are probably wrong about it, and certainly basing it on the conjectures of someone who is either not a Mithraic specialist or else is badly outdated.

Mithraic scholars, you see, do not hold a candle for the thesis that Christianity borrowed anything philosophically from Mithraism, and they do not see any evidence of such borrowing, with one major exception: "The only domain in which we can ascertain in detail the extent to which Christianity imitated Mithraism is that of art." [MS.508n]

We are talking here not of apostolic Christianity, note well, but of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries, which, in an effort to prove that their faith was the superior one, embarked on an advertising campaign reminiscent of our soft drink wars. Mithra was depicted slaying the bull while riding its back; the church did a lookalike scene with Samson killing a lion. Mithra sent arrows into a rock to bring forth water; the church changed that into Moses getting water from the rock at Horeb. (Hmm, did the Jews copy that one?)

Think of how popular Pokemon is, and then think of the church as the one doing the Digimon ripoff -- although one can't really bellow about borrowing in this case, for this happened in an age when art usually was imitative -- it was a sort of one-upsmanship designed as a competition, and the church was not the only one doing it. Furthermore, it didn't involve an exchange or theft of ideology.

As to any other parallels, in the late 60s, before the coming of age of the astrological thesis, appeal was made to the "possibility of Mithraic influence" as appearing "in many instances" -- and then again, the idea that Mithraism borrowed from Christianity was said to have "not been taken seriously enough into consideration." [Lae.MO, 86] But regarded as more likely in any case was that the two systems "could have spoken to a Roman condition, a social need, and a theological question without having known of each other's existence.”

As in so many other instances of philosophy and literature, parallel thoughts and social patterns can appear independently of one another as 'new' elements with the authentic consciousness of such newness."[ibid.] But such parallels have not been so much as suggested in the wake of the astrological thesis. Today (and even by Cumont) the parallels drawn between the two faiths (by professional Mithraic scholars) are almost entirely either "universal" religious traits (i.e., both had a moral code; what religion doesn't!?) or sociological: Both spread rapidly because of the "political unity and moral anarchy of the Empire." [Cum.MM, 188-9] Both drew large numbers from the lower classes. (And of course, numerous differences are cited as well: Christianity was favored in urban areas habited by the Jewish diaspora, whereas Mithraism was indifferent to Judaism and was popular in rural areas; Mithraism appealed to slaves, troops, and functionaries vs. Christianity's broader appeal; etc.)

It's a Conspiracy?

You may ask whether the copycat theorists know of any of this newer work on Mithraism by Mithraic scholars, and if so what they make of it. The answer is yes, they are becoming aware of it; but what they make of it is no more than a conspiracy. In her latest effort Acharaya says of the star-map thesis, and the lack of evidence that Mithra in his Iranian period ever slew a bull:

The argument is in the main unconvincing and seems to be motivated by Christian backlash attempting to debunk the well-founded contention that Christianity copied Mithraism in many germane details.

At the point when scholars like Ulansey are implicitly accused, as here, of being "motivated by Christian backlash" (or as elsewhere, of being covert Christians!), the critics are clearly holding a counsel of despair.

We are told, "In reality, the bull-slaying motif and ritual existed in numerous cultures prior to the Christian era, regardless of whether or not it is depicted in literature or iconography in Persia." No one doubts that the bull-slaying motif existed; the question is whether it appears as something that Mithra did in the pre-Roman era, and the other instances are completely meaningless in this context. Ulansey shows that Mithra's act was related to the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes; Acharya offers the response that:

In fact, the bull motif is a reflection of the Age of Taurus, around 4500-2300 BCE, one of the 2,150-year ages created by the precession of the equinoxes. The presumption by scholars is that the precession of the equinoxes was only "discovered" during the second century BCE by the Greek scientist Hipparchus; nevertheless, it is quite evident that the precession was well known, by the ruling elite and priestly faction, for millennia prior to its purported "discovery." That the ancients followed precessional ages is revealed abundantly in the archaeological record.

In stating this, Acharya places herself against not only Ulansey, but as Ulansey states, historians of science who agree that Hipparchus was the discoverer of the precession [Ulan.OMM, 76] -- as well as against evidence from Aristotle and others showing that such knowledge was not known prior to Hipparchus [ibid., 79]. She posits otherwise unknown and unnamed "ruling elite" and "priests" who allegedly knew about the precession; yet when it comes to details, all she has to offer is one example: "The change between the ages of Taurus and Aries is recorded even in the Bible, at Exodus 12, where Moses institutes the sacrifice of the lamb or ram instead of the bull."

The problem here at face value is that even if true, this would be in the wrong order, if Ulansey is correct: If Exodus is symbolizing the precession, it should be ordering the sacrifice of the bull instead of the ram, not vice versa, for the bull was killed according to Ulansey's record c. 300 BC. Not that it matters, since Exodus 12, the implementation of Passover, says nothing about bulls, as "instead ofs" or for any other reason, and a lamb is still not a ram by any stretch of the imagination. Achraya is blowing bubbles here.

That "Dupuis insisted upon the identification, as did Volney," is a nice personal insight into their lives, but means nothing. Bunsen's wild speculations also are without grounding; to wit: "Like Ormuzd, Mithras is represented riding on the bull, and Jehovah is described as riding on the Cherub, Kirub or bull." Mithras is nowhere shown riding a bull; he is on the bull's back, killing it; on the other end, where is it, and when, that Jehovah is said to be riding a cherub, and how, linguistically, does this get to "bull"? Solar myths in which other gods of no relation to Mithra (Apis, etc.) are depicted as or called bulls, and sacrifices of bulls in various places, are of no relevance to the issue; merely asserting that they are "essentially the same motif as Mithra slaying the bull" and quoting another of like mind does not make it so -- especially since there is no iconographic or literary evidence to prove this point.

Priming the Pump with Parallels?

We are now ready to embark upon the practical part of our essay in which we consider in turn each of the claims made of alleged "parallels" between Mithraism and Christianity.

  1. Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds.

    This claim is a mix of truth and obfuscations. Let's begin with the December 25th part by noting Glenn Miller's reply, which is more than sufficient: "...the Dec 25 issue is of no relevance to us--nowhere does the NT associate this date with Jesus' birth at all." This is something the later church did, wherever they got the idea from -- not the apostolic church, and if there was any borrowing at all, everyone did it, for Dec. 25th was "universally distinguished by sacred festivities" [Cum.MM, 196] being that it was (at the time) the winter solstice.

    Next, the cave part. First of all, Mithra was not born of a virgin in a cave; he was born out of solid rock, which presumably left a cave behind -- and I suppose technically the rock he was born out of could have been classified as a virgin!

    Here is how one Mithraic scholar describes the scene on Mithraic depictions: Mithra "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." [MS.173] Mithra was born a grown-up, but you won't hear the copycatters mention this! The rock-birth scene itself was a likely carryover from Perseus, who experienced a similar birth in an underground cavern. (Ulan.OMM, 36)

    I'll add here that it is no help to appeal to similar abuses of the term "virgin" by church writers who tried to force an illicit parallel between Jesus and Adam. All they're doing is abusing and misusing the term the same way that "copycat" theorists are. So likewise, later instances of syncretism are of no value for the case (e.g., the infant Jesus depicted within an egg shape, which reflects the church's assumption of symbols as the "winner" in an ideological struggle -- see below on art).

    That leaves the shepherds, and this is one that is entirely true; although the shepherds did more than "attend" (unlike Luke's shepherds, they were witnesses to the birth; there was no angelic mediator), they also helped Mithra out of the rock, and offered him the first-fruits of their flock -- quite a feat for these guys in any event, considering that Mithra's birth took place at a time when (oops!) men had supposedly not been created on earth yet. [Cum.MM, 132]

    But the clincher here is that this scene, like nearly all Roman Mithraic evidence, dates at least a century after the time of the New Testament. It is too late to say that any "borrowing" was done by the Christian church -- if there was any, it was the other way around; but there probably was none.

    Mother Matters

    The Iranian Mithra didn't have a "born out of rock" story; his conception was attributed, variously, to an incestuous relationship between Ahura-Mazda and his mother, or to the plain doings of an ordinary mortal woman...but there is no virgin conception/birth story to speak of. [Cum.MM, 16]

    Acharya says that the Indian Mithra, "was born of a female, Aditi, the 'mother of the gods,' the inviolable or virgin dawn; this is simply yet another case of her applying terminology [a "dawn" as "virgin" -- so when does the dawn start "having sex" and how?] illicitly. So likewise this word game: "It could be suggested that Mithra was born of 'Prima Materia,' or 'Primordial Matter,' which could also be considered 'First Mother,' 'Virgin Matter,' 'Virgin Mother,' etc..." -- it can be "considered" no such thing except by vivid imagination; merely playing on the psycho-linguistic similarity of sound in the English words "matter" and "mother" and trying to equate "first" with "virgin" isn't going to do the job.

    Research Assistant Punkish adds: ADITI (according to an astrological website) means Free unbound. Boundless heaven as compared with the finite earth. A Vedic goddess representing the primeval generator of all that emanated. The eternal space of boundless whole, the unfathomable depth signifying the veil over the unknown. (Note, not matter/mother but generator of matter!) The Rig Veda describes it as the father and mother of all gods; it is named Devamatri, mother of all gods, or Swabhavat, that which exists by itself. She is frequently implored for blessing children and cattle, for protection and forgiveness.

    In the Yajur Veda, Aditi is addressed as the support of the sky, the sustainer of the earth, the sovereign of this world, and the wife of Vishnu. The Vishnu Purana describes Aditi, the daughter of Daksha and the wife of Kashyapa, to be the mother of 8 Adityas (q.v.). Wife of Vishnu or Kashyapa? A bit unlikely to be virginal then! Then we have this website - Magazine (comparative research on major religions) where we find: "According to the Rigveda (10/72/2) Brahmanaspati, like a craftsman, created the gods, and the gods in turn created 'Sat' from 'Asat'.

    The Rigveda (10/72/4-5) further says, "Daksha was born of Aditi and Aditi was born of Daksha, the gods were born of Aditi and Aditi gave birth to eight sons". This mantra suggests mainly two things - first, Aditi and Daksha took birth of each other, which proposition is never possible; second, the Creator of this universe was Aditi because she gave birth to the gods. But it ridicules more brazenly when refuting such points Rigveda (8/90/15) says: "Aditi was daughter of Adityas".

    In this connection, Rigveda produces more than one controversy as Rigveda tots up that Aditi was mother of Vishnu and so Rigveda (4/55/3 8/27/5) clarifies, "Aditi mothered Vishnu". But repudiating the same verse Vajasaney Samhita (20/60) and Taitirya Samhita (7/5/14) consolidates that Aditi was wife of Vishnu. The goddess, who herself is found in various controversies, is considered creator of this universe. Thus, these mantras fail to shed any meaningful light on the basic issue of the birth, motherhood and even creation of the universe by Aditi. (Creator And Creation In Hindu Perspective)

    Acharya now adds in her work iconographic evidence allegedly showing "the babe Mithra seated in the lap of his virgin mother, with the gift-bearing Magi genuflecting in front of them." One is constrained to ask how an icon reflects that Mithra's mother was a virgin, since it is obviously not stated. One also wants to know if any of this evidence is pre-Christian (it is not). Quoting others who merely say it is indicating a virgin birth, yet offer no more evidence, is not an argument.

    Finally, we are told of the "largest near-eastern Mithraeum [which] was built in western Persia at Kangavar, dedicated to 'Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras'." This is a very curious claim which is repeated around the Internet, but no source is given for it, and Acharya attributes it to a "writer" with no name or source.

    I believe, however, that I have found the terminal source, and it is a paper written in 1993 by a then-high school student, David Fingrut, who made this claim without any documentation whatsoever himself. His paper is now posted on the Net as a text file.

    That said, it is inaccurate to start with, since the building at Kanagvar is not a Mithraeum at all, but a temple to Anahita (dated 200 BC), and although I have found one source of untested value that affirms that Anahita was depicted as a virgin (in spite of being a fertility goddess!), she is regarded not at Mithra's mother, but as his consort (though it does offer other contradictory info) -- and it knows nothing of such an inscription as described; and the mere existence of the goddess Anahita before the Roman era proves nothing.

    Another fraudulent attempt to validate this claim has been made by connecting it to a "Professor, M. Moghdam" who allegedly wrote a paper that was supposedly part of the Second International Congress of Mithraic Studies. It wasn't, as a check of the contents showed. This professor is also alleged to have edited a book entitled Iran: Elements of Destiny, which does relate this claim, but as far as can be determined, this is an entirely different person and not a genuine Mithraic scholar. The book itself is written by a photographer and makes the claim with no documentation or illustration. Finally, other sources that make this claim add such qualifications as, "Anahita was said to have conceived the Saviour [Mithra] from the seed of Zarathustra preserved in the waters of Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan." Virginal conception? Please.

  2. He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.

    Aside from the fact that this is what we would expect from any major leadership figure, especially in a religious context ("He was a great god -- he taught us nothing!"), I have to say that this looks to be the first of several outright "ringers" in the set. I have found nowhere any indication that Mithra was a teacher, traveling or otherwise. (He probably could be called a "master," but what leading figure would not be? And a master in what sense? This is rather a vague parallel to draw!)

    At any rate, since there is no evidence for this one in any of the Mithraic literature, we issue our first challenge to the pagan-copycat theorists: How is it shown that Mithra was a "great traveling teacher"? What did he teach, and where, and to whom? How was he a "master" and why is this a similarity to Jesus?

  3. He had 12 companions or disciples.

    I have seen this claim repeated a number of times, almost always (see below) without any documentation. (One of our readers wrote to Acharya asking for specific evidence of this one...she did not reply, although she had readily replied to a prior message.) The Iranian Mithras, as we have seen, did have a single companion (Varuna), and the Roman Mithra had two helper/companions, tiny torch-bearing likenesses of himself, called Cautes and Cautopatres, that were perhaps meant to represent the sunrise and sunset (whereas "Big Daddy" Mithra was supposed to be noon), spring and autumn, the stars Albedaran and Antares [Beck.PO, 26] or life and death.

    (Freke and Gandy attempt to link these twins to the two thieves crucified with Jesus! - Frek.JM, 51 - because one went to heaven with Jesus [torch up] and one went to hell [torch down]!) Mithra also had a number of animal companions: a snake, a dog, a lion, a scorpion -- but not 12 of them.

    Now here's an irony. My one idea as to where they got this one was a picture of the bull-slaying scene carved in stone, found in Ulansey's book, that depicts the scene framed by 2 vertical rows with 6 pictures of what seem to be human figures or faces on each side. It occurred to me that some non-Mithraist perhaps saw this picture and said, "Ah ha, those 12 people must be companions or disciples! Just like Jesus!"

    Days later I received Freke and Gandy's book, and sure enough -- that's how they make the connection. Indeed, they go as far as saying that during the Mirthaic initiation ceremony, Mithraic disciples dressed up as the signs of the zodiac and formed a circle around the initiate. [Frek.JM, 42] Where they (or rather, their source) get this information about the methods of Mithraic initiation, one can only guess: No Mithraic scholar seems aware of it, and their source, Godwin, is a specialist in "Western esoteric teaching" -- not a Mithraist, and it shows, because although writing in 1981, well after the first Mithraic congress, Godwin was still following Cumont's line that Iranian and Roman Mithraism were the same, and thus ended up offering interpretations of the bull-slaying scene that bear no resemblance to what Mithraic scholars today see in it at all.

    To be fair, though, Freke and Gandy do not give the page number where Godwin supposedly says this -- and his material on Mithraism says nothing about any initiation ceremony. However, aside from the fact that this carving is (yet again!) significantly post-Christian (so that any borrowing would have had to be the other way around), these figures have been identified by modern Mithraic scholars as representing zodiacal symbols. Indeed, the top two faces are supposed to be the sun and the moon! (See also a similar carving herein)

    Table for Twelve?

    Acharya in her latest now acknowledges that Mithra's dozen are the zodiac, but goes on the defense by saying, "the motif of the 12 disciples or followers in a 'last supper' is recurrent in the Pagan world, including within Mithraism" -- with the Mithraic supper compared to the Last Supper (see below). She also adds: "The Spartan King Kleomenes had held a similar last supper with twelve followers four hundred years before Jesus.” This last assertion is made by Plutarch in Parallel Lives, 'Agis and Kleomenes' 37:2-3."

    This is only partly true -- I was alerted to this passage by a helpful reader: "For [Cleomenes] sacrificed, and gave them large portions, and, with a garland upon his head, feasted and made merry with his friends. It is said that he began the action sooner than he designed, having understood that a servant who was privy to the plot had gone out to visit a mistress that he loved. This made him afraid of a discovery; and therefore, as soon as it was full moon, and all the keepers sleeping off their wine, he put on his coat, and opening his seam to bare his right shoulder, with his drawn sword in his hand, he issued forth, together with his friends provided in the same manner, making thirteen in all." It's a "last supper," but it isn't invested with any significance in itself (least of all, atoning significance! -- and these guys clearly had to have a "last meal" at some point!), and the twelve companions don't have any real role beyond this pericope. We'd put this one down as natural coincidence (as there are people with five, 10, or other numbers of companions as well).

  4. Mithra's followers were promised immortality.

    This one is no more than a guess, although probably a good one: As one Mithraic scholar put it, Mithraism "surely offered its initiates deliverance from some awful fate to which all other men were doomed, and a privileged passage to some ultimate state of well-being." [MS.470]

    Why is this a good guess? Not because Mithraism borrowed from Christianity, or Christianity borrowed from Mithraism, or anyone borrowed from anyone, but because if you don't promise your adherents something that secures their eternity, you may as well give up running a religion and go and sell timeshares in Alaska!

    In practical terms, however, the only hard evidence of a "salvational" ideology is a piece of graffiti found in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum (a Mithraist "church" building, if you will), dated no earlier than 200 AD, that reads, "And us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood." [Spie.MO, 45; Gor.IV, 114n; Verm.MSG, 172] Note that this refers to Mithra spilling the blood of the bull -- not his own -- and that (according to the modern Mithraic "astrological" interpretation) this does not mean "salvation" in a Christian sense (involving freedom from sin) but an ascent through levels of initiation into immortality.

  5. He performed miracles.

    Mithra did perform a number of actions rather typical for any deity worldwide, true or false, and in both his Iranian and Roman incarnations. But this is another one of those things where we just say, "What's the big deal?" We agree with Miller:

    It must be remembered that SOME general similarities MUST apply to any religious leader. They must generally be good leaders, do noteworthy feats of goodness and/or supernatural power, establish teachings and traditions, create community rituals, and overcome some forms of evil. These are common elements of the religious life--NOT objects that require some theory of dependence...The common aspect of homo religiosus is an adequate and more plausible explanation than dependence.

    Of course, our pagan-copycat theorists are welcome to try and draw more exact parallels, but as yet I have seen no cited example where Mithra turned water into wine or calmed a storm.

  6. As the "great bull of the Sun," Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.

    This description is rather spun out into a sound-alike of Christian belief, but behind the vagueness lies a different story. Mithra did not "sacrifice himself" in the sense that he died; he was not the "great bull of the Sun", but rather, he killed the bull (attempts to somehow identify Mithra with the very bull he slayed, although popular with outdated non-Mithraists like Loisy and Bunsen, were rejected by Vermaseren, who said that "neither the temples nor the inscriptions give any definite evidence to support this view and only future finds can confirm it" [Verm.MSG, 103]; it was not for the sake of "world peace" (except, perhaps, in the sense that Cumont interpreted the bull-slaying as a creation myth [Cum.MM, 193], in which he was entirely wrong).

    Mithra could only be said to have "sacrificed himself" in the sense that he went out and took a risk to do a heroic deed; the rest finds no justification at all in modern Mithraic studies literature -- much less does it entail a parallel to Christ, who sacrificed himself for atonement from personal sin (not "world peace").

    Is That the Best Authority?

    Tekton Research Associate Punkish has added this: ...[T]he footnote [in Christ Conspiracy] reads O'Hara, which in the bibliography is Gwydion O'Hara, Sun Lore. Now if you look this guy up on you find his book reviews are not very positive, in fact he's the sort of person, like Barbara Walker, who makes things up. What kind of authority is he? He isn't: he's a writer on pagan practices and he was once a high priest of the Wiccan Church of Canada at a time when it was an ideal rather than a reality (!)...sounds like another nut. What's Acharya doing using this guy instead of a Mithraic scholar?

  7. He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again.
  8. His resurrection was celebrated every year.

    I have to classify these two as "ringers" -- I see no references anywhere in the Mithraic studies literature to Mithra being buried, or even dying, for that matter [Gordon says directly, that there is "no death of Mithras" -- Gor.III, 96] and so of course no rising again and no "resurrection" (in a Jewish sense?!) to celebrate. Freke and Gandy [Frek.JM, 56] claim that the Mithraic initiates "enacted a similar resurrection scene", but their only reference is to a comment by Tertullian, significantly after New Testament times!

    Tekton Research Assistant Punkish adds: The footnote is for Tertullian's Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 40 which says, "if my memory still serves me, Mithra there (in the kingdom of Satan), sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown" their argument relies on Tertullian's memory, and it isn't the initiates but Mithra who does the celebrating and introduces an *image* of a resurrection! How is that at all related to initiates acting out a scene?

    Wynne-Tyson [Wyn.MFC, 24; cf. Ver.MSG, 38] also refers to a church writer of the fourth century, Firmicus, who says that the Mithraists mourn the image of a dead Mithras -- still way too late! -- but after reading the work of Firmicus, I find no such reference at all.

  9. He was called "the Good Shepherd" and identified with both the Lamb and the Lion.

    Only the third aspect has any truth to it as far as I can find from Mithraic studies sources: The lion was regarded in Roman Mithraism as Mithra's "totem" animal, just as Athena's animal was the owl and Artemis' animal was the deer [Biv.PM, 32]. Since Mithra was a sun-god, there was also an association with Leo, which was the House of the Sun in Babylonian astrology.

    But aside from this evidence all being post-Christian, one may ask what the big deal is. Do we expect the Christians or the Mithraists to say, "Darn, we can't use the lion, it's already taken by the other guys?" Should Exxon give up their tiger because of Frosted Flakes? But if you really want to get technical, Jesus owned the rights to the lion symbol as a member of the tribe of Judah long before Mithras even appeared in his Iranian incarnation (Gen. 49:9).

    There are other associations as well: In the Roman material, one of Mithra's companions in the bull-slaying scene is a lion; the lion is sometimes Mithra's hunting and feasting companion; Mithra is sometimes associated with a lion-headed being who is sometimes identified as the evil Zoroastrian god Ahriman [MS.277]; one of the seven stages of initiation in Mithraism is the lion stage.

    Mithra is only called a lion in one Mithraic tale (which is part of Armenian folklore -- where did the writers of the NT pick that up?) because as a child he killed a lion and split it in two. [MS.356, 442]

  10. He was considered the "Way, the Truth and the Light," and the "Logos," "Redeemer," "Savior" and "Messiah." Acharya now adds in her latest work the titles creator of the world, God of gods, the mediator, mighty ruler, king of gods, lord of heaven and earth, Sun of Righteousness.

    We have several titles here, and yes, though I searched through the works of Mithraic scholars, I found none of these applied to Mithra, other than the role of mediator (not, though, in the sense of a mediator between God and man because of sin, but as a mediator between Zoroaster's good and evil gods; we have seen the "sun" identification, but never that title) -- not even the new ones were ever listed by the Mithraic scholars.

    There is a reference to a "Logos" that was taught to the Mithraic initiates [MS.206](in the Roman evidence, which is again, significantly after the establishment of Christianity), but let it be remembered that "logos" means "word" and goes back earlier in Judaism to Philo -- Christians borrowed the idea from Philo, perhaps, or from the general background of the word, but not from Mithraism.

  11. His sacred day was Sunday, the "Lord's Day," hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  12. Mithra had his principal festival of what was later to become Easter.

    We'll consider these two together. The Iranian Mithra had a few special celebrations: a festival on October 8; another on September 12-16, and a "cattle-pairing" festival on October 12-16 [MS.59]. But as for an Easter festival, I have seen only that there was a festival at the spring equinox -- and it was one of just four, one for each season.

    In terms of Sunday being a sacred day, this is correct [Cum.MM, 190-1], but it only appears in Roman Mithraism, and the argument here is apparently assuming, like Cumont, that what held true for Roman Mithraism also held true for the Iranian version -- but there is no evidence for this. If any borrowing occurred (it probably didn't), it was the other way around.

  13. His religion had a eucharist or "Lord's Supper," at which Mithra said, "He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved."

    It took me some digging to discover the actual origin of this saying. Godwin says that the reference is from a "Persian Mithraic text," but does not give the dating of this text, nor does he say where it was found, nor is any documentation offered. I finally found something in Vermaseren [Verm.MSG, 103] -- the source of this saying is a medieval text; and the speaker is not Mithras, but Zarathustra!

    Although Vermaseren suggested that this might be the formula that Justin referred to (but did not describe at all) as being part of the Mithraic "Eucharist," there is no evidence for the saying prior to this medieval text.

    Critics try to give the rite some ancestry by claiming that it derives from an Iranian Mithraic ceremony using a psychadelic plant called Haoma, but they are clearly grasping at straws and adding speculations of meaning in order to make this rite seem similar to the Eucharist. This piece of "evidence" is far, far too late to be useful -- except as possible proof that Mithraism borrowed from Christianity! (Christianity of course was in Persia far earlier than this medieval text; see Martin Palmer's Jesus Sutras for details.)

    The closest thing that Mithraism had to a "Last Supper" was the taking of staples (bread, water, wine and meat) by the Mithraic initiates, which was perhaps a celebration of the meal that Mithra had with the sun deity after slaying the bull. However, the meal of the initiates is usually seen as no more than a general fellowship meal of the sort that was practiced by groups all over the Roman world -- from religious groups to funeral societies. [MS.348]

  14. "His annual sacrifice is the passover of the Magi, a symbolical atonement or pledge of moral and physical regeneration."

    This is rather a confused statement, for it compounds an apparent falsity (I have found no indication that Mithra's "sacrifice" was annual, rather than a once-in-the-past event); it uses terms from Judeo-Christian belief ("passover", "atonement") to describe a rite from Mithraism, without showing any similarities at all. I see this as little more than a case of illicitly applying terminology, and until more detail is provided, it can be regarded as little else.

  15. Shmuel Golding is quoted as saying that 1 Cor. 10:4 is "identical words to those found in the Mithraic scriptures, except that the name Mithra is used instead of Christ."

    In response to this, I need to say that if Golding had some Mithraic scriptures in his possession, he needs to turn them over to Mithraic scholarly community at once, because they will want to know about them. Ulansey [Ulan.OMM, 3] tells us that "the teachings of the (Mithraic) cult were, as far as we know, never written down" and we "have been left with practically no literary evidence relating to the cult which would help (us) reconstruct its esoteric doctrines."

    So where is Golding getting this from? (A reader also noted that Paul is alluding the the Old Testament book of Numbers; so how does that square with a Mithraic origin for this verse?)

  16. The Catholic Encyclopedia is quoted as saying that Mithraic services were conduced by "fathers" and that the "chief of the fathers, a sort of pope, who always lived at Rome, was called 'Pater Patratus.'"

    Other critics add their own idea: Like Christians, Mithraic initiates called each other "brother" [Frek.JM, 67]. Both claims are true, but quite simply, so what? The use of familial terms within religious societies is a universal, and that's no surprise, because familial terms are the most useful for expressing endearment or commitment. Indeed, "kinship terminology" was used in Greco-Roman antiquity for fellows of the same religion or race, as well as of friends, allies, and even prospective guests [Keener commentary on Matthew, 370n].

    (I have seen no evidence that the Pater Patratus "always lived" at Rome, but even if he did, this would be of no moment: As the leading city of the Empire, where else would this person most likely have headquarters? This means no more than mainline churches all having headquarters in New York, or all foreign countries having embassies in Washington. Beyond that, we hardly need to defend "borrowing" when what is at stake is a church organizational structure that came into being many years after apostolic times.)

    Additional Points From Freke and Gandy

    Research Assistant Punkish adds these points concerning what is said about Mithra in The Jesus Mysteries:

    Having accomplished his mission on Earth, Mithras was said to have ascended to heaven in a sun-chariot - and the footnote refers you to Cumont, p138. Cumont is actually referring to Mithra watching over the first couple (a sort of Adam and Eve) and providing divine protection to humanity during a Noahlike flood! Not related to Jesus' mission, though omission of these details implies such, especially during a resurrection discussion.

    As for Mithras ascending to heaven, this is a misreading of the text. It is not Mithra, but the gods (e.g. Helios) with him who after looking after the humans, ascend, then Mithras crosses the Ocean in his chariot. The Ocean tries to engulf him and fails, and finally he joins the immortals' habitation. The term "ascension" is not uniquely applied to Mithras by Cumont.

    JM's claims to Christian eschatology parallels: they list, Mithras as right hand authority, God of Light, ruler of the world, waiting for End of Time, return to earth, awake dead & pass judgment. Footnote 258 p271 says "Cumont collates a mass of Mithraic eschatological doctrines identical to Christianity." This is a terrible misreading of Cumont pp145-146...I can't find anything about "ruler of the world", protector of humanity yes, ruler no. While Mithras is said to redescend together with a bull and separates the good from the bad (as "god of truth", not God of Light - the nearest we get is his title as the celestial father who receives the faithful in a resplendent mansion!), he sacrifices the bull before the assembled humanity which are raised from the dead yes, but the doctrine is an add-on to the immortal soul view - which sounds more like transmigration, and the resurrection is for the purpose of material enjoyment. The bull's fat and consecrated wine [not its blood] is offered to the just to gain immortality - yet it is Ormazd who executes the judgment - as annihilation of the wicked together with the destruction, not eternal punishment, of Ahriman and his demons, and a rejuvenated universe is the future happiness without evil. How is this identical to Christian eschatology as Freke and Gandy have claimed?

    That ends our listing, and thus our conclusion: In not one instance has a convincing case been made that Christianity borrowed anything from Mithraism. The evidence is either too late, not in line with the conclusions of modern Mithraic scholars, or just plain not there.

    11/2012: We offer now some commentary from an informed reader who has been an archaeologist, and who in 1974 I assisted to an excavation of a Mithreum in former Yugoslavia.

    I’ve followed developments ever since and I notice that apparently even the experts pay not enough attention to a much more significant dissimilarity with Christianity: Mithraism by all accounts was an on invitation only institution. You didn’t ask to be admitted, you had to produce an invitation. To my knowledge there was no apostolate and no propaganda. Nevertheless the Mithraic societies spread rapidly and given their mode of operation perfectly legal. But the key feature here is that they were the one to choose you and not the other way around. Hence, despite of minuscule numbers, the Mithras people wielded a disproportionate influence and at one point pervaded the military ranks down to the subaltern charges.

    Christianity on the other hand practiced an open door policy with only a token initiation procedure – which in itself must already have raised concerns with the authorities, if it didn’t downright violate legislation, and it was actively disseminating propaganda.

    In other words the Mithrea operated more like the lodges of modern Masons (no other comparison intended, just the modus operandi) than a religion for the masses. Although I do suspect that the Masonic loges and the Mithrea had and have something else in common: both don’t really knew and know how and under what circumstances they originated and therefore made up traditions and mythologies as they went along. (The reader wishes to stress that the comparison with the Masons is merely a reference to a common modus operandi, not to similarities of myth or message. However considering how influential both organizations had been in their heydays one can also compare on whom they exercised their influence: the Mithrea recruited their members from the upper echelons of society and especially the military. Similar the Masons: the Metropolitan police in London has still about 5000 officers associated with the Masons, a member of the royal family is master of the grand lodge.)

    There is also a legal point to consider: Christian gatherings without a licence from the authorities violated laws for the constitution of collegia – which could be anything: funeral societies, banquet societies, cult societies, chambers of commerce, or guilds. In all these instances a permit was required by law and depending on the paranoia of a regime at any given time disregard of the law could lead to repercussions. Many details in the Paulines reflect on this situation, when a formerly legal collegium (aka church) was in danger to lose its status as a religio licta due to the sudden influx of new members in large numbers. This generated a great deal of bickering and heresy hunting among the early Christians which then the later heresies inherited and fully developed at a time when Christianity was already religion of the state.

    Mithraism managed to undercut the legal pitfalls. I give you an example: the excavation site in Dura Europos shows that it all started from a private house in pretty much exactly 168 AD. (That’s just Dura, I am not reaching here.) There is an epigraph dedicated by Ethpeni, Commander of the Palmyrian archers. In 170 AD another epigraph by a certain Zenobius celebrates a modest renovation of the shrine; in 210 AD there is an overhaul and enlargement by Antonius Valentinus (now Dura II) and in 240 AD (Dura III) an extensive alteration and enlargement, the painter of the murals left his signature.

    Now: what is striking here is the lack of architectural uniformity among the various excavation sites – there seems to be no requirement for consecrated ground or particular alinements – elsewhere and in comparison with Dura, while by the same token the iconography is not only uniform but in all appearance derived from Italian models. The largest Mithreum in Bad Altenburg in Austria – the place where Diocletian demoted Constantine – was of course commissioned by the state, but most of them seem to have grown from private enterprises mostly by army personnel and started at a very small scale – a good way of circumventing Roman association laws and the military rule book.

    So, unlike the Masons, exclusivity was not so much a lure as a means to stay legal without the hassles of the licensing process.

    Update: Mithraic Manuscripts

    It has been said:

    Moreover, it is erroneously asserted that because Mithraism was a "mystery cult" it did not leave any written record. In reality, much evidence of Mithra worship has been destroyed, including not only monuments, iconography and other artifacts, but also numerous books by ancient authors. The existence of written evidence is indicated by the Egyptian cloth "manuscript" from the first century BCE called, "Mummy Funerary Inscription of the Priest of Mithras, Ornouphios, Son fo Artemis" or MS 247.

    In reality, that's just an excuse to explain away what the real Mithraic scholars (like Ulansey) have been saying is the real issue. In a social setting where 95% illiteracy was the norm, it's hardly a wild supposition to guess that a particular cult might leave little or no literary evidence -- especially one like Mithraism that wasn't evangelistic and so would see no advantage in the portability of a manuscript, especially given its expense. Destroyed? Um, no. But a very convenient explanation, since it happens to leave no proof or evidence by which it can be verified.

    Not that it matters. That "manuscript" is not a scripture, or a canonical document of Mithraism. In fact, this site says:

    Commentary: Apart from this MS, no documents or scriptures seem to be extant on Mithra.

    From the picture, all you can see if at most 5 or 6 lines, most of which are washed out badly. We certainly don't have the Mithraic version of John 3:16 here (or 1 Cor. 10:4, as Shmuel Golding would prefer). In fact what we have, as the description itself indicates, is a funerary inscription with dates on it -- the value ascribed to this is not having to do with Mithraism, but with the chronological aspect (hence, it is called with "calendars and almanacs" on this manuscript collection site). In other words -- there's nothing here to help with copycat fantasies.


  17. Beck.PO -- Beck, Roger. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras. London: Brill, 1988.
  18. Biv.PM -- Bivar, A. D. The Personalities of Mithra in Archaeology and Literature. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 1998.
  19. Cum.MM -- Cumont, Franz. The Mysteries of Mithra. New York: Dover, 1950.
  20. Frek.JM -- Freke, Timothy and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? New York: Harmony Books, 1999.
  21. Gor.IV -- Gordon, Richard. Image and Value in the Greco-Roman World. Aldershot: Variorum, 1996.
  22. Lae.MO -- Laeuchli, Samuel. Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religions and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome. Northwestern U. Press, 1967.
  23. MS -- Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester U. Press, 1975.
  24. Spei.MO -- Spiedel, Michael. Mithras-Orion, Greek Hero and Roman Army God. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980.
  25. Ulan.OMM -- Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1989.<
  26. Ver.MSG -- Vermaseren, M. J. Mithras the Secret God. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.
  27. Wyn.MFC -- Wynne-Tyson, Esme. Mithras: The Fellow in the Cap. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1958.
  28. Reader also recommends Iranica Online