Mithras and Christianity

CIMRM 2186. Mithras riding the bull. Sibiu Museum, Romania.

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 at the time that Renan wrote, before Cumont had collected the sources, very little was known about Mithras.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

The following links are sometimes offered, so deserve discussion.

1. "Virgin Birth"

S. Stephano Rotondo. The birth of Mithras from the rock.

It is sometimes said that the birth of Mithras was a virgin birth, like that of Jesus.

No ancient source gives such a birth myth for Mithras. Rather Mithras is always described as born 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

3. Salvation

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 palms outstretched.

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 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

1Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 66: "For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body; "and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood; "and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn."
2Renan, E., Marc-Aurele et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882, p. 579: "On peut dire que, si le christianisme eût été arrêté dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eût été mithriaste."
3Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, p.175: '"Needless to say," continued Yamauchi, "Renan's work, published nearly 150 years ago, has no value as a source. He knew very little about Mithraism, and besides, we know a lot more about it today. Yet this is a quote that's commonly used by people who don't understand the context. It's simply farfetched."'. Yamauchi delivered a paper at the IInd International Congress on Mithraic Studies in Tehran in 1975; E. Yamauchi, 'The Apocalypse of Adam, Mithraism and Pre-Christian Gnosticism', J. Duchesne-Guillemin (ed.), Études Mithraiques, (Acta Iranica IV; Leiden/Teheran/Liège, 1978), pp. 537-63. In "Pre-Christian Gnosticism, the New Testament and Nag Hammadi in recent debate", Themelios 10.1 (September 1984): 22-27, online here, Yamauchi refers to "my attempt to date the ApocAd on the basis of the allusion to the well-known Mithraic motif of the 'birth from a rock' (CG V, 80.24-25) in a paper which I presented at the IInd International Congress of Mithraic Studies at Teheran in 1975.90 On the basis of the epigraphic and iconographic evidence collected by M. J. Vermaseren, I sought to demonstrate that this topos was not known before the second century AD and that the probable provenance for knowledge of such a motif for a Gnostic writer was Italy." Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?" Christianity Today on March 15, 1974 and March 29, 1974. Online here.
4J. A. Ezquerra, tr. R. Gordon, Romanising oriental Gods: myth, salvation and ethics in the cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras. Brill, 2008, p.202-3: "Many people have erroneously supposed that all religions have a sort of universalist tendency or ambition. In the case of Mithraism, such an ambition has often been taken for granted and linked to a no less questionable assumption, that there was a rivalry between Mithras and Christ for imperial favour. ... If Christianity had failed, the Roman empire would never have become Mithraist." Google books preview here.
5Gary Lease, "Mithraism and Christianity", in: ANRW II, p.1328: "To be specific, it is clear that the few scattered remarks in Christian polemical literature against Mithraism, together with the scanty archaeological remains of the Mithraic religion, do not bear out a direct influence of one religion upon the other."
6Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.17, referencing Origen, "Contra Celsum" book 6, cc.22-24 where a ladder of seven steps is described, similar to one used by the Ophites. Clauss states that the borrowing was by the Mithraists, but nothing in Contra Celsum seems to say so.
7Franz Cumont, "The Dura Mithraeum", in Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester U. Press, 1975, p. 173: "Following the cataclysm, we attend the birth of Mithra. As usual, the young θεὸς πετρογενής, already 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."
8David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. Oxford U. Press, 1989, p.35: "Another interesting area of similarity between Mithras and Perseus concerns the fact that both figures are connected with underground caverns. The Mithraic mysteries were often conducted in subterranean sanctuaries, or, where this was impossible, in temples made to look like underground caves. It is thus worthy of note that Perseus was believed to have been born in just such a subterranean enclosure. According to the story as told by Apollodorus, when Acrisius, the grandfather of Perseus, "inquired of the oracle how he should get male children, the god said that his daughter would give birth to a son who would kill him. Fearing that, Acrisius built a brazen chamber under ground and there guarded Danae. However, she was seduced, as some say, by Protus, whence arose the quarrel between them; but some say that Zeus had intercourse with her in the shape of a stream of gold which poured through the roof into Danae's lap. . . . Acrisius afterwards learned that she had got a child Perseus." If we do have here a connection between Perseus and Mithras, then there may also be a connection between Perseus' birth in the underground chamber and the so-called birth from the rock of Mithras, an event often depicted in Mithraic iconography."
9The statements by Franz Cumont are discussed here. Manfred Clauss, The Roman cult of Mithras, p.66: "Light comes from the firmament, Mithras is the god of light, the new light which bursts forth each morning from the vault of heaven behind the mountains, and whose birthday is celebrated on 25 December. A late antique Syriac commentator describes this festival, and correctly observes that it later developed into the birthday of Christ: 'It was in fact customary among the pagans to celebrate the festival of the Sun's birthday on 25th December and to light bonfires in honour of the day. They even used to invite the Christian population to these rites. But when the teachers of the Church realised that Christians were allowing themselves to take part, they decided to observe the Feast of the true Birth on the same day.80' It may be that the Mithraists also celebrated the birthday of their god in public in a similar manner." The note 80 reads "Cited in CIL 12 338-9." Clauss is mistaken here, however; the text is 13th century, by the scholiast to Dionysius bar Salibi, and does not refer to Mithras.
10Roger Beck, "Merkelbach's Mithras", Phoenix 41.3, 1987, p.296-316, p. 299, n. 12.
11Clauss, Manfred. Mithras: Kult und Mysterien. München: Beck, 1990, p. 70: "... erwähnenswert wäre dass das Mithras-Kult keine öffentlichen Zeremonien kannte. Das Fest der natalis Invicti, der 25. Dezember, war ein allgemeines Sonnenfest und somit keineswegs auf die Mithras-Mysterien beschränkt. Es gab also im Mithras-Kult nichts vergleichbares zu den großen Feiern und Festlichkeiten anderer Kulte ...".
12Steven Hijmans, "Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas", Mouseion 3, 2003, p.377-398.
13Journal of Mithraic Studies vol. 2
14Panciera, Il materiale epigrafico dallo scavo del mitreo di S. Stefano Rotondo, in: Mysteria Mithrae (conference 1978 published 1979).
15Turcan, Robert, "Salut Mithriaque et soteriologie neoplatonicienne," La soteriologiea dei culti orientali nell'impero romano,eds. U. Bianchi and M. J. Vermaseren, Leiden 1982. pp. 103-105
16Beck, Roger, Merkelbach's Mithras, p.301-2
17Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.71-2: "The theme of the water-miracle is elaborated mainly in the Rhine-Danube area. Mithras is usually represented sitting on a stone and aiming a flexed bow at a rockface, in front of which there kneels a figure. Another figure sometimes grasps Mithras' knees in supplication, or stands behind him with his hand on his shoulder. The scene is particularly striking on the large altar from Poetovio I ... Mithras here is aiming his bow at a rockface, from which water will shortly gush forth - a person is standing in front of it ready to catch the water in his cupped hands. ... We may note that the figures who are generally shown taking part in this scene with Mithras are clothed just like the god. They must be the torch-bearers, present here just as they are at the rock-birth and the killing of the bull. This scene can thus be connected with one of the lines in the mithraeum under S. Prisca in Rome, which is addressed to a spring enclosed in the rock: 'You who have fed the twin brothers with nectar'.8 6 The spring is Mithras; the twins to whom he has given heavenly nourishment are the torch-bearers." (The Ptuj / Poetiovo reference seems to be CIMRM 1584)
18Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.72 continues: "Apart from the cult-meal, the water-miracle offers the clearest parallel with Christianity, spreading through the Empire at the same period as the mysteries of Mithras. The thinking that underlies these features of each cult is naturally rooted in the same traditions. The water-miracle is one of the wide-spread myths that originate from regions plagued by drought, and where the prosperity of humans and nature depends upon rain. Each in his own manner, Mithras and Christ embody water, initially as a concrete necessity, and then, very soon, as a symbol. Christ is referred to in the New Testament as the water of life. Many Christian sarcophagi depict the miracle of Moses striking the rock with his staff and causing water to flow (Exodus 17.3-6), as a symbol of immortality."
19Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 40: "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."
20Per Beskow, "Branding in the Mysteries of Mithras?", in Mysteria Mithrae, ed. Ugo Bianchi (Leyden 1979), 487-501. He describes the entire idea as a "scholarly myth". See also FAQ by Dr. Richard Gordon.
21Luc Renaud, Les initiés aux mystères de Mithra étaient-ils marqués au front? Pour une relecture de Tertullien, De Praescr. 40, 4, in: Bonnet, C. / Ribichini, S. / Steuernagel, D. (ed.), Religioni in contatto nel Mediterraneo antico : modalità di diffusione e processi di interferenza, Actes de colloque (Come, mai 2006), Pisa / Rome, Fabrizio Serra Editore (Mediterranea, IV), 2007, p. 171-180. German translation here.
22A. Deman, "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in: John R. Hinnells, Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, Manchester University Press, 1971, pp. 507-17. p.507.
23A. Deman, "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in: John R. Hinnells, Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, Manchester University Press, 1971, pp. 507-17. p.508.
24Franz Cumont, tr. Thomas K. McCormack, "The Mysteries of Mithras", Dover Publications, 1956, pp. 227-8.
25A. Deman, "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in: John R. Hinnells, Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, Manchester University Press, 1971, pp. 507-17. p.509.
26M. J. Vermaseren, "Mithras: The Secret God", Chatto & Windus, pp. 104-6.
27A. Deman, "Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities," in: John R. Hinnells, Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, Manchester University Press, 1971, pp. 507-17. p.510.
28Milton Luiz Torres, "Christian Burial Practices at Ostia Antica: Backgrounds and Contexts with a Case Study of the Pianabella Basilica", Diss. 2008, p.72.: "There is also a mithraeum seemingly converted to Christian use at the Baths of Mithras (Fig. 6)."
29Ronald Hutton, "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles;their nature and legacy", Blackwell, 1991, ISBN 0631189467, p.260.
30David Stocker, "A Hitherto Unidentified Image of the Mithraic God Arimanius at Lincoln?", Britannia 29, 1998, p.359-363.

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