|Mithras versus Christ: a Centuries
In Mithras Sol Invicti:
an Initiates Guide I outlined the background to this Eastern
mystery religion. With the detail in mind, this article seeks to
question the often quoted parallels between Mithraism and
Christianity that have led to so much deliberation on whether Christianity
is a re-branded version of Mithraic beliefs. The subject remains
a contentious issue even today, with much of the informed
debate thinly veiling either an atheist or Christian bias. This
article is certainly not intended to promote one faith over another,
but simply attempt to unravel persistent misconceptions so we can
better educate people.
While both religions became popular in Rome in
the 2nd century CE, Mithraism was far older and more venerable
at the time having been practiced as early as 1,500 BCE during
the Aryan migration into both Persia and India. Mithras
was worshipped across Asia from the Indus River to the Black Sea
when the religion finally reached Rome in a version that first
emerged perhaps a hundred years before Christ. Indeed, it took
at least a century for Christianity to become a major religious
movement competitive with others in the Roman Empire. Besides
Mithraism, these included Manichaeism, Gnosticism
and the worship of Heracles, Cybele, Isis, Osiris, Dionysus
and the god Serapis, a syncretic fusion of Osiris and
Dionysus - and not forgetting the religions and mysteries
of the Jews, Stoics, Pythagoreans, Orphics and Neoplatonists.
It has been estimated there were perhaps 10,000 Christians in
100 CE, and not more than 200,000 a century later. A rapid spread
of the faith occurred in the late 3rd/early 4th centuries CE despite
proscriptions under the emperors Decius (249-51 CE) and
Diocletian (303-5 CE) that led to the punishment and execution
of many Christians as subversive criminals (although not nearly
in the numbers claimed by later Christian apologists, and without
any evidence of them being fed to lions!).
In The Origins of Christianity, Ernest Renan
promoted the idea that Mithraism was the prime competitor
to Christianity in the 2nd through the 4th centuries CE. Indeed,
it has been proposed that the Emperors Commodus (180-92
CE) and Diocletian (284-305 CE) both championed the cause
of Mithraism, although some academics argue the claims
are rather dubious as there is little evidence that Mithraic worship
was accorded official status as a Roman cult. Regardless, if Mithraism
was an established albeit exclusive sect devoted to social justice,
how was it assimilated by state-sponsored Christianity before
being disposed of in name? Rather simplistically, Christianity
eventually prevailed following the rise to power of Constantine
and especially after he delivered the Edict
of Milan in 313 CE guaranteeing a freedom of
worship for all religions, including Christianity. There is probably
some merit in supporting the idea of the two faiths competing
against each, but not necessarily for ideological reasons. Rather,
if the model for religion is considered in more businesslike
terms, then competing for worshippers at the expense of your rivals
makes perfect sense if the faith is to survive and flourish. Alls
fair in love and war...which led, ironically, to Christian persecution
of its competition.
After the failure of Emperor Julian, the
Apostate (361-63 CE), to revive Mithraism, Christianitys
dominance was sealed by the Emperor Theodosius decree
of 380 CE:
We brand all the senseless followers
of the other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and
forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches.
A series of fourteen edicts followed, one per year,
outlawing all pagan creeds in competition to Christianity and
mandating the destruction of their temples. A notorious example
of Theodosius policy was the destruction of the Temple
of Serapis in Alexandria in either 389 or 391 CE. At the same
time as the temple and its ornate statue of Serapis was
destroyed, however, but the faithful turned their fiery
vengeance on the famous and irreplaceable Library
of Alexandria situated nearby. Not content, countless shrines
across the Mediterranean dedicated to Isis were also destroyed
and a concerted effort was mounted to eradicate all traces of
Mithraism. Nevertheless, the fight for dominance cannot
completely overshadow the striking similarities between Mithraism
and Christianity, and because the worship of Mithras pre-dated
both Judaism and Christianity by many centuries, it is not unreasonable
to suggest that the latter two religions, especially Christianity,
adopted at least some of the Mithraic beliefs and ceremonies to
recruit followers. What better way to introduce a deity, and spread
the word, but by suborning existing religious practices into the
new faith - it is a well attested process; consider Sulis-Minerva,
as just one example.
The similarities (particularly the iconographical ones) between
Christianity and Mithraism may be due to a number of different
factors, but it is amazing to note just how many iconographical
images considered today to be Christian can be traced
back to an origin in Mithraic art and architecture. One should,
of course, take into consideration the fact that there is a distinct
lack of information on Mithraism compared to what is known about
Christianity. It is also important to remember that Mithraism
was neither static nor homogeneous. Therefore, Mithraism from
the 2nd century CE is quite different than Mithraism from the
3rd century CE. Likewise, just as Christianity varied from one
region of the Roman Empire to the other, so too did Mithraism.
Invictus ("the Unconquered
Sun") was the late Roman state sun god. The cult was created by
the Emperor Aurelian in 274 CE and continued until the abolition
of paganism under Theodosius I. The radiated solar crown is very
reminiscent of Christís halo.
symbolism was popular with early Christian writers. Jesus, for example,
was considered to be the "sun of righteousness."
Cumont was the first scholar
to identify similarities between Christianity and Mithraism. Cumont
argued that the two religions shared an attraction to nature that
made it quite easy for Christian artists to borrow iconographical
references from Mithraism. So, when one looks at Christian sarcophagi,
mosaics, and miniatures from the third to the fifth centuries,
one can see images of the Heavens, the Earth, the Ocean, the Sun,
the Moon, the Planets, signs of the Zodiac, the Winds, the Seasons,
and the Elements. Cumont argued that even though the church was
opposed to the pagan practice of worshipping the cosmic cycle, these
images nonetheless made onto Christian artistic impressions. This
occurred, he continued, because the Christian artists made
a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan
scene into a Christian picture. Cumont cited the images
of Moses as an example of this phenomenon. For instance, when early
Christian artists depicted their rendition of Moses striking Mount
Horeb (Sinai) with his staff to release drinking water from
the mountain, their inspiration was an earlier Mithraic reference
to Mithras shooting arrows at rocks to cause the waters to shoot
Franz Cumont (1868 - 1947) was
the main proponent of the theory that Mithraism was an offshoot
of Zoroastrianism as it had been practiced throughout Greater
Iran ("Persia" in 19th century vocabulary). Cumont's
student, Maarten J. Vermaseren, author of Mithras, the Secret
God (1963), was very active in translating Mithraic inscriptions.
Another example of Mithraic iconography incorporated
into Christian art is the scene of Mithras ascending into the
heavens identified by M.J. Vermaseren.
According to Vermaserens interpretation
of Mithraism, after Mithras had accomplished a series of
miraculous deeds, it was believed that he was carried into the
heavens by a chariot. In various Mithraic depictions, horses driven
by the pagan sun god, Helios-Sol, draw the chariot. In
other instances, a chariot of fire belonging to Helios is being
led into the water and is surrounded by the pagan god Oceanus
and sea nymphs. When Christian artists wanted to use imagery to
portray the souls ascension into heaven on sarcophagi,
they used the biblical scene of Elijah being led into
heaven by chariots and horses that were on fire. Vermaseren
thus argued that the inspiration for this image came from the
representations of Mithras ascent into the heavens by Helios
chariot. The sun god provided inspiration for the flames on Elijahs
chariot and the Jordan River is personified by a figure resembling
the god Oceanus. The parallel is perpetuated by the
adoption of the Mithras halo, representing the sun, in later
representations of Apollo and in Christian images symbolising
god- or sainthood.
In contrast, Deman has interpreted the relationship
between the similarities of Christian and Mithraic iconography
quite differently. Rather than looking at Christian art and
trying to find reciprocal references from Mithraic art (as Cumont
does when merely looking at the presence of the Sun or the Moon,
for instance), Deman contests it is better to look for larger
patterns of comparison. Thus, he wrote, with
this method, pure coincidences can no longer be used and so the
recognition of Mithras as the privileged pagan inspirer of medieval
Christian iconography is forced upon us. The approach
is certainly different from that used by Cumont or Vermaseren,
but it seems particularly useful because it allows a comparison
of artistic themes. Rather than looking at specific pieces and
trying to make connections that that may or may not be evident,
by examining and using holistic themes as templates it becomes
easier to identify overall similarities and then apply them to
specific pieces. To illustrate this, a useful examination is of
what Deman calls the iconographical creative
sacrifice of Mithras compared to the creative
sacrifice of Christ. In both scenes, the vernal
sacrifice appears at the centre of the image. Above it, the sun
and the moon appear symmetrically disposed from one another. Under
the sacrifice, there are another two figures that appear symmetrically
apart from one another. In the Mithraic scenes, the attendants
of Mithras appear: Cautes, with upraised torch and Cautopates,
with down-turned torch. In the Christian crucifixion scenes, created
from the 4th century CE onward, the two figures beneath Jesus
are typically Mary and John. In other instances, two characters
will carry a raised and lowered object very reminiscent of Cautes
and Cautopates. These characters appear as either two
Roman soldiers armed with spears, or Longinus holding a
spear and Stephaton offering Jesus a sponge soaked in sour
wine. Sometimes, the two characters depicted are wearing similar
clothes to those worn by Cautes and Cautopates in
the earlier Mithraic depictions. Other features typical of the
depictions of Mithras death to be found in Christian crucifixion
scenes include possible references to the twelve apostles but
represented by the signs of the zodiac, serpents, bear and leafy
trees that surround central figure, and characters with their
Shared Beliefs and Rituals.
"The resemblances between the two hostile churches were so
striking as to impress even the minds of antiquity."
Like Origen (an early Christian writer and in this respect
a peculiarity among the other patristic writers), Mithraism held
that all souls pre-existed in the ethereal regions with God, and
inhabited a body upon birth. Similar to Pythagorean, Jewish,
and Pauline theology, life then becomes the great struggle
between good and evil, spirit and body, ending in judgment, with
the elect being saved. "They both
admitted to the existence of a heaven inhabited by beautiful ones...and
a hell peopled by demons situated in the bowels of earth."
Both religions employed the rite of baptism, and
each participated in an outwardly similar type of sacrament, bread
and wine. Both Mithras and Christ were supposedly visited by shepherds
and Magi at their respective births, although
the Mithraic festival of Epiphany, marking the arrival
of sun-priests (Magi) at the saviours
birthplace, was only adopted by the Christian church as late as
813 CE. Interestingly, Osiris appears to be the first
example of the mythological concept of a saviour god present in
many faiths, including Christianity and Mithraism. Martin A. Larson
certainly concluded that the general concept of a saviour must
have originated from the saviour cult of Osiris. He
also believed that the Essenes were Jewish Pythagoreans,
whose members not only gave birth to Christianity as Essenes,
but were directly influenced by Zoroastrian doctrine as
Pythagoreans, again providing a common basis for similar
beliefs and rituals. Many commentators point to the parallels
attached to the virgin births of both. While
Mithras miraculously emerged full grown from a rock, the petra
genetix, and thus was not born of man or woman, the virgin
references in the story of Christs birth are largely due
to a repeated mistranslation of the Hebrew word for a young girl
or young woman (almah) into the Greek parthenos
or virgin (the Hebrew word for a virgin is bethula).
What does seem evident is both faiths adopted the ages old celebration
of the winter solstice as their gods birthday - the infamous
25th of December according to the Gregorian calendar.
It has been claimed that both Mithraism and Christianity considered
Sunday their holy day, albeit for variously different reasons.
Yet, solid evidence that Mithraists practiced weekly worship any
more than any other contemporary religion is lacking. Regardless,
other similarities between Mithraism and early Christianity included
considering abstinence, celibacy, and self-control to be among
their highest virtues. Likewise, both had comparable beliefs about
the world, destiny, heaven and hell, and the immortality of the
soul. Their conceptions of the battles between good and evil were
similar (though Mithraism was more dualistic ), including
a great and final battle at the end of times, similar to Zoroastrianism.
Mithraism's flood at the beginning of history was deemed necessary
because, according to Mithraic eschatology, what began in water
would end in fire. Both religions believed in revelation as key
to their doctrine. Both awaited the last judgment and resurrection
of the dead
Cautes and Cautopates flank Mithras on a
Although Christianity eventually rivalled the four century old cult
of Mithras in Rome, the two religions were outwardly practiced by
adherents of different social classes. Echoing its roots, Christianity
was favoured in urban areas inhabited by the Jewish Diaspora, whereas
Mithraism being indifferent to Judaism was to be found in more rural
settings. Mithras was popular among soldiers (as suggested by the
prevalence of mithraea at military sites), fostered elitism, barred
women, and (as a mystery religion) promised knowledge that was hidden
from outsiders. Christianity's message was simply more public, with
slaves, women, and the poor welcomed into the brethren. Christianity
thus enjoyed a broader appeal, even gaining a significant following
in military ranks.
|After the Constantian
reforms of the early 4th century CE, one needed to be a Christian
to gain promotion within the army or social advancement.
Moreover, while its teachings did not exactly 'foster elitism'
as much as stand against it, Christian followers began to refer
to themselves as milites ("soldiers"),
in reference to the disciplined life to which they felt called.
Those less disciplined and outside the faith were called pagani,
borrowing the Roman military slang for "civilians".
So which came first
With the many similarities, can we come to any conclusion on whether
Mithraism was an influence on Christianity. Franz Cumont postulated
this position and wrote that if any collusion of ideas did take
place between the two groups, it occurred because they were struggling
against each other to become the moral leader within the Roman
Empire . Cumonts view would imply, however, that Christian
artists and architects conscientiously and deliberately incorporated
iconographical elements into their artwork - perhaps in an appeal
to Mithraists encouraging their conversion to Christianity.
Manfred Clauss disagrees with this last argument, arguing that
it is unhistorical for many reasons. Firstly, it exaggerates the
missionary aspects of Mithraism as a mystery religion. Unlike
Christianity, the mystery religions did not intend to become the
only religion of the Roman Empire. Their goals were to offer people
the chance for a unique, individual and personal salvation. Yet,
Clauss also recognises that there was undoubtedly an interaction
between the two groups. Scholar Martin H. Luther, for instance,
notes that in some instances, abandoned mithraea were co-opted
by Christians as early churches. If there was any competition
between Christians and Mithraists, Luther argues, then it was
merely for real estate, as the two groups both grew to the same
level by about the year 300 CE.
One theory therefore suggests that any similarity, whether intentional
or not, occurred because of an exchange of ideas and not because
of a malicious plan on the part of Christians to destroy Mithraism
or lure its believers to Christianity. The proximity of the two
faiths argues for the likelihood that a transfusion of ideas occurred.
A second theory concludes
that Mithraists also borrowed ideas from Christians. According
to Clauss, as Mithraism grew and spread throughout the Empire,
it was influenced by the political, social, and economic realities
of the day. At times, the movement developed in reaction to what
was occurring in the Empire. Moreover, those who belonged to the
Mithraic movement came from all walks of life. Their experiences
and relationships to other people and institutions within Roman
society also impacted the practice of Mithraism. In examining
recent archaeological discoveries, Luther also reached the same
conclusion, estimating that at the beginning of the 4th century
CE, there were roughly as many Mithraists in Rome as there were
Christians, approximately 50,000 people belonging to each group.
Likewise, as a result of the excavations in the ancient Roman
town of Ostia, archaeologists discovered that the privately-owned
mithraea, dated to the second century, were located near public
spaces such as barracks and bath houses. This suggests that
Mithraism by this point was a public movement and as such, an
interaction between Mithraists and Christians was probable.
A third theory identified
by Samuel Laeuchli argues for a common
root for Christian and Mithraic phenomena. According
to some scholars, the iconographical similarities between Mithraism
and Christianity can be explained by the fact that the two movements
shared a common origin in the Hellenistic part of the Roman Empire,
albeit having started out from Asia Minor. It is therefore reasonable
to conclude that many of the iconographical similarities come
from this shared root, which implies that some of the similarities
are nothing more than coincidences on the part of Christian and
Mithraic artists. As Clauss writes some parallels can be traced
to the common currency of all mystery
cults or can be traced back to common origins in the Graeco-oriental
culture of the Hellenistic world.
A fourth theory combines
the three arguments listed above. Laeuchli writes that the two
faiths could have developed: A
common contemporaneousness resulting directly from [the root]
source. Two religions could have spoken to a Roman condition,
a social need, and a theological question without having learned
from each other or even without having known of each others
existence. As in so many other instances
and social patterns can appear independently of one another as
new elements with the authentic consciousness of such
if a religion moved into the Roman sphere, the soil
would have altered the content of different religions, thereby
creating striking parallels.
So who influenced who?
A fifth option would be to regard
the similarities as largely due to what might be termed 'evolutionary
convergence'. Rather than assume that every parallel
requires explanation in terms of a direct influence, it is possible
that similar ideas arose because they address similar human concerns.
Comparable ideas are found because they draw on a common wider
heritage of symbols and cultural ideas. Perhaps the tensions between
Mithraism and Christianity should be viewed simply as ideologies
competing for resources, i.e. believers. Ideologies, however,
have an unnerving habit of actively despising and destroying any
conflicting view or perceived threat to its own assumed truth.
That which cannot easily be extinguished is often selectively
co-opted. The familiar images, festivals and rituals, those advancing
the cause or belief, are absorbed into the brand.
1. Laeuchli, S. (1967), Christ and Mithra,
in Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religion and Christianity in the
Ancient Port of Rome, Northwestern University Press, p. 88.
2. Cumont, F. (1956), in McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.), The Mysteries
of Mithras, Dover Publications, p. 188.
3. Vermaseren, M.J. (1963), Mithras: The Secret God, Chatto &
Windus, pp. 104-6.
4. Derman, A. (1971), in Hinnells, J.R., Mithras and Christ:
Some Iconographical Similarities, in Mithraic Studies Vol.
2, Manchester University Press.
5. Derman, A. (1971), in Hinnells, J.R., Mithras and Christ:
Some Iconographical Similarities, in Mithraic Studies Vol.
2, Manchester University Press, pp. 510-7.
6. Cumont, F. (1911), Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, pp.
191 & 193.
7. Larson, M.A. (1977), The Story of Christian Origins, p. 190.
8. Brewster, H. Pomeroy (1904), Saints and Festivals of the Christian
Church, p. 55.
9. Larson, M.A. (1977), The Story of Christian Origins.
10. Taylor, J., Pythagoreans and Essenes: Structural Parallels,
in Collection de la Revue des Études Juives, 32, Leuven:
Peeters, ISBN 90-429-1482-3.
11. de Riencourt, A. (1974), Sex and Power in History, p. 135.
13. Cumont, F. (1956), in McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.), The Mysteries
of Mithras, Dover Publications, p. 188.
14. Clauss, M. (2001), in Gordon, R. (trans.): The Roman cult of