By Mark McFall
This investigation of Mithraism will mainly focus on the critics assertion that Christianity borrowed the resurrection myth from Mithra. The reason that we will be zooming in on the resurrection and not similarities in sacraments is because the very heart of the Gospel rests in the resurrection narrative. If the resurrection was borrowed from pagan influences and did not historically happen, then as Paul says: "...if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain" (1 Corn. 15:14).
Assertions made by critics for a Mithra-Jesus connection abound in literature critical of Christianity. One such example can be found in the works of contemporary Muslim scholar Yousuf Saleem Chishti in his book "What is Christianity". Chishti writes:
"The Christian doctrine of atonement was greatly coloured by the influence of the mystery religions, especially Mithraism, which had its own son of God and virgin Mother, and crucifixion and resurrection after expiating for the sins of mankind and finally his ascension to the 7th heaven....If you study the teachings of Mithraism side by side with that of Christianity, you are sure to be amazed at the close affinity which is visible between them, so much so that many critics are constrained to conclude that Christianity is the facsimile or the second edition of Mithraism."1
Another leading proponent of that view is Acharya S in her critical book The Christ Conspiracy, she states that Mithra "was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again". 2 These alleged direct connections with Jesus must be backed with evidence - and as Christians we must demand such evidence.
Where Is That Evidence?
This subject basically comes down to who is more informed in Mithriac origins, and my intentions are to equip you with adequate critical information. What some critics seem to be unaware of is that attempts to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of Mithraism face enormous challenges because of the lack of information that has survived. In fact, we posses no existing texts of their belief system that come from the Mithraic devotees themselves (one is left wondering what sources Chishti knows about that the rest of Mithraic scholars are unaware of). The only references that we have concerning the beliefs of Mithraism are found in early Church fathers (for the reason of defending Christ’s uniqueness) and Platonic philosophers who used Mithraic symbolism for their own philosophical ideas.3
Archaeology And Timing
According to scholars, our late literary sources are extremely sparse concerning Mithriasm. However, there is an abundance of material evidence (i.e. artifacts) for the existence of Mithraism that has been found in underground temples (i.e. imitation caves) referred to as mithraeums.
Attempts concerning dating methods have been made in the past in an endeavor to place at least one of these mithraeum in the first century era. Professor Ronald Nash the author of The Gospel And The Greeks, captures one of these moments by the Swedish scholar George Widengren. He claimed that an excavation at Dura (Europos) is a mithraeum dated to A.D. 80-85 which points to the possible presence of a Mithraic cult before the end of the first century A.D..4 Critics who cite Widengren dating system should do well to know that Widengren himself has admitted that "the evidence is very uncertain."5 According to other scholars, including the noted mithriac scholar M.J. Vermaseren, the Dura Mithraeum that Widengren dated so early should be dated much later, in A.D. 168.6
Archaeologist have found in these subterranean mithraeums artifacts of carved reliefs, statues, and paintings, depicting a variety of enigmatic figures and scenes.7 These images are our only primary source of knowledge about Mithraic beliefs8 (there are no written accounts to aid us in interpreting these images). Mithraic scholars identify the particular depiction of Mithras in the act of killing a bull as the central icon of Mithraism known as the tauroctony or "bull-slaying scene." In this scene Mithras is accompanied by a dog, a snake, a raven, and a scorpion.9
According Nash, none of these representative "monuments for the cult can be dated earlier than A.D. 90-100."10 Nash identifies this as "one of the major reasons why no Mithraic influence on first-century Christianity is possible."11 Indeed, the bulk of out-side references for Roman Mithraism date between the 2nd-5th centuries.12These late literary out-side sources are the only means in which scholars (or critics) attempt to form reconstruction’s of what they think (uncritically) were the beliefs of earlier pioneers for the mystery cult. This type of reasoning is particularly bad scholarship and should not be left without challenge.
The Plutarch reference of Mithra
Prior To The New Testament
The response from critics to the lack of archaeology finds prior to 90 A.D., is to cite the historian Plutarch (aprox. 34-125 A.D.) who made reference to Mithras in the pre-Christian era. Plutarch writes:
"They themselves [the Cilician pirates] offered strange sacrifices upon Mount Olympus, and performed certain secret rites or religious mysteries, among which those of Mithras have been preserved to our own time having received their previous institution from them." (Plutarch, Lives13)
According to the critical view, "Plutarch reports that Mithraism was introduce to the soldiers of Pompey the Great by Cilician pirates. Although it didn't flourish until later, it may well have been introduced in some form in the first century B.C.E."14,15 They charge that there were "worshippers of Mithras in Rome in Pompey's time (67 BC)."16
In response to this, professor Nash comments that:
"...any conclusion along this line can be, at best, only an inference from Plutarch’s text, which itself makes no such claim. All Plutarch states explicitly is that some of the pirates practiced Mithraic mysteries and that some of them in all likely hood were taken to Rome as trophies of Pompey’s victory. But Plutarch himself does not state that Mithraism was established in Italy in or before 67 B.C.17
However, if the critics are right in their interpretation of Plutarch, it is only by speculations and assumptions that lead them (the critics) to assume that the alleged resurrection of Mithra was in practices as an ideology in its very earliest development in Rome. Even at its peek of popularity in the 2nd-4th centuries we are still left with no primary evidence to indicate a resurrection of Mithra.
It is also worth noting that Mithriac scholars of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies acknowledge that there exists today an ideology problem in tracing Mithraic belief. One scholar lamented that:
"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 on fact."18
Moreover, the Greco-Roman scholar Richard Gordon advises us that there is "no death of Mithras." 19So if there is no death of Mithras, how are we able to identify that there was any type of resurrection at all?
The lack of any artifacts dated prior to 90 A.D. seems to imply that Plutarch’s reference to the Mithras religion was in all probability to a very small and secretive society (if indeed the critics are right in interpreting Plutarch’s reference). The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization estimates that at its height in popularity [2nd - 5th centuries], it never encompassed more than 2% of the population.20 It is at this point, that when we look back and try to speculate what percentage of the population was influenced by a more primitive prototype of Mithriasm, that we begin to see the improbability of such an influence on the writers of the New Testament. Mithraism was basically a military cult which excluded women. Therefore, one must be skeptical about suggestions that it appealed to nonmilitary people like the early Christians.
Most critics are unaware that there are two distinct forms of this pagan mystery religion under the same name - Mithra. They are Roman Mithraism, and Iranian Mithraism. Critics more times than not confuse the two forms in an attempt to trace Roman Mithraism as far back as they can. However, these two versions of Mithraism have no direct connection with each other. Critics respond to this by saying:
"...Mithraism arose in the region of what is now Iran and spread to Rome. Roman forms of worship may have been different than those in Persia/Iran, but to say that there's no direct connection is like saying that the Russian Orthodox Church has no direct connection to Pentecostal Christian sects in North America - both are forms of Christianity.21
These types of comments are very prevalent on the internet, but there isn’t the slightest shred of evidence to directly connect the two beliefs. In fact, they are totally independent of each other. Let me explain: As mentioned earlier, the tauroctony (bull-slaying scene) of Roman Mithraism was located in the most important place in every mithraeum (temple). Thus, if the god Mithras of the Roman religion was actually the Iranian god Mithra, we should expect to find in Iranian mythology a story in which Mithra kills a bull.22
But according to Mithraic scholar David Ulansey, "no such Iranian myth exists," he says of this that "in no known Iranain text does Mithra have anything to do with killing a bull."23 Yet in Roman Mithraic temples which number into the hundreds (400 to 50024), we find the tauroctony (bull-slaying scene) located in every mithraeum. Surely if Iranian Mithraism was connected to Roman Mithraism we would expect to find the tauroctony in Iranian Mithraism.25 Yet, we do not find it even in one single instance. In other words there are no direct parallels in ancient Iran to the iconography which is the primary fact of the Roman Mithraic cult.
The distinction between Roman and Iranain Mithraism was also recognized by the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. They concluded that the Roman Mithraism was an altogether "new creation"26 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 accouterments an enticing mystery.27
The evidence seems to be pointing in the direction that Roman Mithraism was not fully developed before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., therefor it seems improbable that Christianity was influenced by Mithraism. From what we know, Iranian Mithraism was isolated to Iran having an association with the sun-god along with Apollos and Hermes28- minus the resurrection story. Roman Mithraism on the other hand had its association with the tauroctony (i.e. bull-slaying scene) in Rome, and it was later associated with a resurrection by literary writers that had no connection with the devotees themselves.
The allegations of Mithraian influence on Christianity have been rejected by scholars in biblical and classical studies.29 According to the British scholar Norman Anderson:
"the basic difference between Christianity and the mysteries is the historic basis of the one and the mythological character of the other...the deities of the mysteries were no more than a nebulous figure of an imaginary past, while the Christ whom the apostolic (kerygma) proclaimed had lived and died only a few years before the first New Testament documents were written. Even when the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians the majority of some five hundred witnesses to the resurrection were still alive"(30) (1 Corn. 15:6).
In essence, what Paul was saying was: If you do not believe me, just go and ask them?" Certainly Mithraism could not - and did not - put their beliefs on the table as Paul did for all to examine at its most crucial point of development.
1) Citing Norman Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics pg. 490, and his quote from Y.S. Chishti, What is Christianity?, pg. 87.
4) Nash, The Gospel And The Greeks, pg. 147.
5) Ibid, citing from footnote on pg. 293 which references George Widengren, The Mithraic Mysteries in the Greco-Roman World With Special Regard to Their Iranian Background, Academia Nazionale dei Lincei (1966), pg. 452.
6) Ibid, Nash citing M.J. Vermaseren, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, (1956), p. 57.
12) According to Edwin Yamauchi, the exception to this late literary evidence would be found in one pre-Christian inscription located in the text of Antiochus I of Commagene (69-34 B.C.) in Eastern Asia Minor. Another possible text is dated to the first century A.D., from Cappadocia, and another from Phyrygia dated to A.D. 77-78, and one from Rome dated to Trajan’s reign (A.D. 98-117) (M.J. Vermasere, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, 1956). ( http://www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/yama.html ).
13) Plutarch, Lives. The Dryden's translation.
14) Nancy Todd, Errancy list (1/1/01)
15) Ibid, Nancy comments that: "The Plutarch reference speaks of secret initiatory rites (teletai) of Mithras which had endured to his (Plutarch's) own day. It seems far more likely that this is a reference to the prototype of the Roman Mithras rather than a reference to the ancient Persian Mithra....It seems most likely that Roman Mithraism had its origin in Asia Minor, perhaps among Persian elements in the population. What form it had in the first century B.C.E. is not known, but it seems reasonable to assume that at least some of the elements of full-blown Roman Mithraism originated in the Mithraic rites introduced to the Romans by these Cilician pirates." (1/26/01).
16) Debra, Errancy list (1/26/01).
17) See Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, pg. 148.
18) Cited from J.P. Holding’s article:Mighty Mithraic Madness and his reference from the Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester U. Press, 1975, xiii. pg. 437. ( http://www.tektonics.org/tekton_04_02_04_MMM.html )
19) Ibid, J.P. Holding citation of Richard Gordon’s work the Image and Value in the Greco-Roman World. Aldershot: Variorum, IV, 96 (1996).
20) The Oxford Companion to Classical
Civilization estimates that it never encompassed more than 2% of the
population, based upon the (extrapolated) number and size of Mithraea. (Source supplied by Nancy Todd on the Errancy list 1/24/01).
21) SarahRose Werner, e-mail correspondence on the Xtianity mailing list (1/05/01). After a response from myself and two other people on the list, Sarah admitted that she was incorrect. She writes: "My understanding was indeed outmoded - I was basing my statement on a theory that USED to be widely held. It's been some years since I revisited Mithraism, and I was[n’t] aware of more recent developments in the study of this religion. One of the pleasures of being on a list such as this one is the acquisition of new information" (1/06/01).
23) Ulansey notes that some have responded to this problem by focusing on an ancient Iranian text in which a bull is indeed killed, but the bull-slayer is not Mithra in this text but rather Ahriman - the force of the cosmic evil in Iranian religion. Those who believe that Ahriman later transformed into the god Mithra - do so on hypothetical grounds. There is no evidence in any known source that would indicate this. (The Cosmic Mysteries of Mithras). ( http://www.well.com/user/davidu/mithras.html )
24) According to the article on "Mithras" in the Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, "...over 400 find-spots are recorded, many of them excavated meeting places". Later in the same article, they extrapolate from the number of mithraea found in Rome and Ostia and speculate that there may have been as many as 700 mithraea throughout the empire.
25) David Ulansey argues convincingly in support of this position.
26) Citing from J.P. Holding’s use of the quote from the Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester U. Press, 1975.
29) Ronald Nash, Christianity and the Hellenistic World, pg. 119.
30) Citing Norman Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 492, In reference to his quote from Christianity and World Religions
Look for some of these reference books at https://www.christianbook.com home of CBD, Christian Book Distributors.
END Posted: 11/19/02