Mithras and Christianity
CIMRM 2186. Mithras riding
the bull. Sibiu
See also Mithras and other gods.
The idea of a relationship between early Christianity and the cultus of Mithras is based on a remark in the 2nd century Christian writer Justin Martyr, who accused the initiates of Mithras of imitating the Christian communion rite.1
Based upon this, Ernest Renan in 1882 set forth a vivid depiction of two rival religions: "if the growth of Christianity had been arrested by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraic."2 But Renan knew very little about Mithras, because he wrote before Cumont had collected the sources.3
In fact the two groups had different objectives, and the cult of Mithras did not aim at a universal role, even at the peak of its popularity.4
There is no evidence of direct influence in either direction between the cult of Mithras and early Christianity.5
The philosopher Celsus in the second century provides some evidence that Ophite gnostic ideas were influencing the mysteries of Mithras.6
1. "Virgin Birth"
S. Stephano Rotondo.
The birth of Mithras.
It is sometimes said that the birth of Mithras was a virgin birth, like that of Jesus. But no ancient source gives such a birth myth for Mithras. Mithras was born as an adult from solid rock.7
David Ulansey, who has suggested that Mithras might be the "outside name" of a cult of Perseus, has speculated that this idea derives from the myth in which Perseus was born because Zeus visited Danae in an underground cavern.8
2. The 25th of December
Both Cumont and Clauss have said that Mithras' birthday was December 25.9 But Beck states that this is not the case. In fact he calls this assertion 'that hoariest of "facts"'. He continues: "In truth, the only evidence for it is the celebration of the birthday of Invictus on that date in the Calendar of Philocalus. 'Invictus' is of course Sol Invictus, Aurelian's sun god. It does not follow that a different, earlier, and unofficial sun god, Sol Invictus Mithras, was necessarily or even probably, born on that day too."10
Clauss states; "the Mithraic Mysteries had no public ceremonies of its own. The festival of natalis Invicti [Birth of the Unconquerable (Sun)], held on 25 December, was a general festival of the Sun, and by no means specific to the Mysteries of Mithras."11
Steven Hijmans has discussed in detail the question of whether the general "natalis Invicti" festival was related to Christmas but does not give Mithras as a possible source.12
A painted text on the wall of the St. Prisca Mithraeum (c A.D. 200)13 in Rome contains the words: et nos servasti (?) . . . sanguine fuso (and you have saved us ... in the shed blood). The meaning of this is unclear, although presumably refers to the bull killed by Mithras, as no other source refers to a Mithraic salvation. However the servasti is only a conjecture.14 According to Robert Turcan,15 Mithraic salvation had little to do with the other-worldly destiny of individual souls, but was on the Zoroastrian pattern of man's participation in the cosmic struggle of the good creation against the forces of evil 16
4. The water-miracle
CIMRM 1584. Altar showing
Mithras, with a bow,
and a kneeling figure with
Monuments in the Danube area depict Mithras firing a bow at a rock in the presence of the torch-bearers, apparently to encourage water to come forth.17 Clauss states that, after the ritual meal, this offers 'the clearest parallel with Christianity'.18
5. "Sign of the Cross"
Tertullian states that followers of Mithras were marked on their forehead in an unspecified manner.19 There is no indication that this is a cross, or a branding, or a tattoo, or a permanent mark of any kind.20
The idea of the marking with a cross is probably a scholarly myth.21
6. Mithraic motifs and medieval Christian art
From the end of the 18th century some authors have suggested that some elements in medieval Christian art reflect images found in Mithraic reliefs.22 Franz Cumont was among these, although he studied each motif in isolation rather than the combination of several elements and whether they were combined in Christian art in the same way.23 Cumont said that after the triumph of the church over paganism, artists continued to make use of stock images originally devised for Mithras in order to depict the new and unfamiliar stories of the bible. The "stranglehold of the workshop" meant that the first Christian artworks were heavily based on pagan art, and "a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture".24
A series of scholars have since discussed possible similarities with Mithraic reliefs in medieval Romanesque art.25 Vermaseren stated that the only certain example of such influence was an image of Elijah drawn up to heaven in a chariot drawn by fiery horses.26 Deman stated that to compare isolated elements was not useful, and that combinations should be studied. He also pointed out that a similarity of image does not tell us whether this implies an ideological influence, or merely a tradition of craftmanship. He then gave a list of medieval reliefs that parallel Mithraic images, but refused to draw conclusions from this, as these would be subjective.27
7. Mithraic sites and material re-used by Christians
Several of the best preserved Mithraea, especially those in Rome such as at the Basilica of San Clemente, and that at Santa Prisca, are now to be found underneath Christian churches. There is at least one example where a Mithraeum at Ostia seems to have been converted to a Christian church.28
A study of early Christian churches in Britain concluded that, if anything, the evidence there suggested a tendency to avoid locating churches on the sites of former Mithraea.29
In the early 11th Century tower added to the church of St.Peter-at-Gowts in Lincoln, England, there is a very weathered relief incorporated into the masonry, possibly from an unknown Mithraeum in Roman Lincoln. It has been supposed to be a relief of the lion-headed god Arimanius, usually depicted with keys. It has been suggested that the relief may have been reused in the 11th century under the impression that it depicted St. Peter and his keys.30
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