Mithras and Christianity
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 Rather such similarities as exist are attributed to the common environment in which both arose.
The philosopher Celsus in the second century provides some evidence that Ophite gnostic ideas were influencing the mysteries of Mithras.6
1. Ideas found in both Mithraic myth and Christianity
In older scholarly literature there appear a number of supposed similarities between Christianity and the cult of Mithras. In general these are based on speculation, or arise from attempts to shed some understanding on the cult of Mithras by looking at Christian ideas.
Vermaseren in 1975 wrote that the similarities arise from the presence of both in a shared cultural world.7 Likewise, rather than seeing borrowing in either direction, Manfred Clauss makes the same observation.8
A number of extremely wild claims -- that Mithras had 12 disciples, was a wandering teacher, died and rose again, etc. -- are discussed instead under Mithras and Jesus.
1.1. Born on 25 December
Cumont stated that the birthday of Mithras was 25 December, on the basis that a solar feast took place on that date and Mithras would, of course, be included. The idea was only speculation, but has been widely taken up.9 Clauss repeats the claim.10 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."11
But later 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."12
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.13
A badly damaged painted text on the wall of the St. Prisca Mithraeum (CIMRM 485, c. A.D. 200)14 in Rome may contain 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. The servasti has been treated as certain; but it is in fact only a conjecture, and Pancieri, the most recent archaeologist to examine the item, states that this must be wrong.15 According to Robert Turcan,16 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 17
1.3. The water-miracle
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.18 Clauss states that, after the ritual meal, this offers 'the clearest parallel with Christianity'.19
1.4. Marked with the sign of the Cross
Some scholars have stated that initiates of Mithras were marked with the sign of the cross on their forehead. The idea has been described as a scholarly myth.20
The basis for the idea is found in Tertullian, who states that followers of Mithras were marked on their forehead in an unspecified manner.21 There is no indication that this is a cross, or a branding, or a tattoo, or a permanent mark of any kind.22
2. 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.23 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.24 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".25
A series of scholars have since discussed possible similarities with Mithraic reliefs in medieval Romanesque art.26 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.27 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.28
3. Christian re-use of Mithraic sites and monuments
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. In a number of cases churches were first built in the 5th century on top of ruined, high-prestige buildings, and some of these had once had Mithraea in the basements.29
There is evidence that the Mithraeum of the Baths of Mithras in Ostia may have been converted to a church by the middle of the 4th century. The date is based on the building technique, and the presence of the symbols alpha and omega.30
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.31
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, 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.32