Mithras and 25th December in Franz Cumont, English and French

The great Franz Cumont, the founder of Mithraic studies, was not well served by his publisher.  The latter permitted an English translation to be made, not of the whole Textes et Monumentes — which would have been of great use — but instead of merely the last portion of only tome 1, the Conclusions.  The work was published in 1903, and is online here and many other places.  But the footnotes that Cumont had given to that section in the full work, rather than being augmented for a stand-alone work, were abbreviated still further.

Cumont made many statements which connect Mithras, the 25 December as the late Roman festival of Sol Invictus on that date, and Christmas.  I thought it would be interesting to explore them.

A look in the English index gives this entry:

Christmas, 167, 191, 196, 202. 

while the French contains only the following entry (t.1, p373):

Noel, placée au 25 Décembre, 342, n. 4.

The entry on p.202 of the English has no connection to this subject.  But here’s what the English translation says, on p.167:

Possibly the sixteenth or middle day of the month continued (as in Persia) to have Mithra for its patron. On the other hand, there is never a word in the Occident concerning the celebration of the Mithrakana, which were so popular in Asia. They were doubtless merged in the celebration of the 25th of December, for a very wide-spread custom required that the new birth of the Sun (Natalis invicti), which began to wax great again on the termination of the winter solstice, should be celebrated by sacred festivals.

No footnotes, notice.  Here is the corresponding passage in Textes et monumentes, tome 1, p.325:

Par coutre, on n’entend jamais parler en Occident de la célébration des Mithrakana, qui étaient si populaires en Asie. Ils avaient sans doute été transportés au 25 décembre, car une coutume très générale voulait que la renaissance du Soleil (Natalis invicti), qui à partir du solstice d’hiver recommençait à croître, fût marquée par des réjouissances sacrées [1].

1) cf. Carmen. adv. pagan. (t. II, p. 52): Qui hibernum (hierium ms.) docuit sub terra quaere Solem, cf. Julien (t. II, p. 66); S. Léon (t. II, p. 68,1. 4); Corippe (t. II, p. 701. – Les textes qui nous parlent de cette fête ont été réunis par Mommsen, CIL, I, 2e éd., p. 338, mais ils concernent le culte officiel de Sol Invictus, établi par Aurélien, plutôt que les mystères de Mithra, et ne nous apprennent rien sur les rites de ceux-ci. Je note cependant que, d’après un auteur syriaque, on avait coutume lumina accendere, festivitatis causa. Sur la substitution de la Noêl à cette fête, cf. infra, ch. VI, p.342.

The statement is referenced, but only in the French, possibly because it refers to volume 2 of Textes et Monumentes, which does not appear in the English:

1) cf. Carmen. adv. pagan. (vol. II, p. 52): Qui hibernum (hierium ms.) docuit sub terra quaere Solem, cf. Julian the Apostate (vol. II, p. 66); St. Leo (vol. II, p. 68,1. 4); Corippe (vol. II, p. 701. – The texts which tell us about this festival have been collected by Mommsen, CIL, vol. I, 2nd ed., p. 338, but they concern only the official cult of Sol Invictus, established by Aurelien, rather than the mysteries of Mithra, and tell us nothing about the rites of the latter. But I note that, according to a Syriac author, there was the custom to lumina accendere, festivitatis causa. (burn a light, because of the festival). On the substitution of Christmas for this festival, see below, ch. VI, p.342.

Note that in all of this there is nothing to justify Cumont’s claim that supposed festivals of Mithras — for which he gives no evidence — were “doubtless” (speculation) merged with the Natalis Invicti on 25 December.  The reference, useful as it is, gives us only access to material about the Natalis Invicti.

Here’s p.190-191 of the English:

… It was in the valley of the Rhone, in Africa, and especially in the city of Rome, where the two competitors were most firmly established, that the rivalry, during the third century, became particularly brisk between the bands of Mithra’s worshippers and the disciples of Christ.

The struggle between the two rival religions was the more stubborn as their characters were the more alike, the adepts of both formed secret conventicles, closely united, the members of which gave themselves the name of “Brothers.”* The rites which they practised offered numerous analogies. The sectaries of the Persian god, like the Christians, purified themselves by baptism; received, by a species of confirmation, the power necessary to combat the spirits of evil; and expected from a Lord’s Supper salvation of body and soul. Like the latter, they also held Sunday sacred, and celebrated the birth of the Sun on the 25th of December, the same day on which Christmas has been celebrated, since the fourth century at least. …

All these very controversial claims are given with but a single footnote:

*I may remark that even the expression “dearest brothers” had already been used by the sectaries of Jupiter Dolichenus (CIL, VI, 406 = 30758: fratres carissimos et conlegas hon[estismos]) and probably also in the Mithraic associations.

We need hardly remark that such an expression might be used quite naturally in many forms of association, without any necessary reference to Jupiter Dolichenus, Mithras, Jesus, or indeed Noggin the Nog for all we know.

On p.339 of Textes et Monumentes we find the following:

C’est dans la vallée du Rhône, en Afrique et surtout dans la ville de Rome, où toutes deux étaient solidement établies, que la concurrence dut être particulièrement vive au IIIe siècle entre les collèges d’adorateurs de Mithra et la société des fidèles du Christ.

La lutte entre les deux religions rivales fut d’autant plus opiniâtre que leurs caractères étaient plus semblables [2]. Leurs adeptes formaient pareillement des conventicules secrets, étroitement unis, dont les membres se donnaient le nom de “Frères” [3]. Les rites qu’ils pratiquaient, offraient de nombreuses analogies : les sectateurs du dieu perse, comme les chrétiens, se purifiaient par un baptême, recevaient d’une confirmation la force de combattre les esprits du mal, et attendaient d’une communion le salut de l’âme et du corps [4]. Comme eux aussi, ils sanctifiaient le dimanche [5] et fêtaient la naissance du Soleil le 25 décembre, le jour où la Noël était célébrée, au moins depuis le IVe siècle [6].

2) Dom Martin insiste déjà sur nombre de ces analogies dans son Explication de divers monuments singuliers, 1739, p. 271 ss.
3) Minut. Felix, c. 9, § 9l, cf. supra, p. 318, n. 4, et Waltzing, Corporations profess. I, p. 329, n. 3.
4) Cf. supra, p. 319 ss.
5) Cf. supra, p. 119 et p. 325, n. 12. Le rapprochement a été fait dans l’antiquité, cf. Tertull, Apol., 16; Ad nationes, 13. — Il ne peut pas cependant y avoir eu d’action du mithriacisme sur le christanisme, car la substitution du Dimanche au sabbat date des temps apostoliques.
6) Cf. infra, p. 342, n. 4.

Again we have many more notes; but for the main claim, only note 6 “See below, p.342, n.4”.

On p.195-6 of the English we find the following:

We do not know whether the ritual of the sacraments and the hopes attaching to them suffered alteration through the influence of Mazdean dogmas and practices. Perhaps the custom of invoking the Sun three times each day,—at dawn, at noon, and at dusk,—was reproduced in the daily prayers of the Church, and it appears certain that the commemoration of the Nativity was set for the 25th of December, because it was at the winter solstice that the rebirth of the invincible god,* the Natalis invicti, was celebrated. In adopting this date, which was universally distinguished by sacred festivities, the ecclesiastical authority purified in some measure the profane usages which it could not suppress.

*See above, p. 167.

And on p.342 of the French this:

Nous ignorons si le rituel des sacrements et les espérances qu’on y attachait, ont pu subir en quelque mesure l’influence des pratiques et des dogmes mazdéens. Peut-être la coutume d’invoquer le Soleil trois fois chaque jour, à l’aurore, à midi et au crépuscule, a-t-elle été reproduite dans les prières quotidiennes de l’Église [3], et il paraît certain que la commémoration de la Nativité a été placée au 25 décembre parce qu’on fétait au solstice d’hiver le Natalis Invicti, la renaissance du dieu invincible [4]. En adoptant cette date, qui était universellement marquée par des réjouissances sacrées, l’autorité ecclésiastique purifia en quelque sorte des usages profanes qu’elle ne pouvait supprimer.

3) Usener, Gotternamen, p. 186, n. 27. Cf. cependant Duchesne. Origines du culte chrétien, 2e éd. p. 431 s.
4) Le premier qui ait mis ce fait en lumière, est Philippe del Torre (Mon. veteris Antii, p. 239 ss.) et non, comme on le dit d’ordinaire, Wernsdorf, De origine solemn. natalis Christi, Wittenberg, 1757. – Les principaux textes sont réunis par Mommsen, CIL, I 2e, p. 338. D’après un extrait que me communique M. Boll, le calendrier de l’astrologue Antiochus (Monac. gr., 287, f. 132), donne au 25 décembre l’indication: H(li/ou gene/qlion: C’est le plus ancien témoignage que l’on possède, et il est très important pour déterminer l’origine de la conception paienne (cf. Macrobe, I, 18, § 10). Sur l’histoire de sa transformation, cf. Usener, Das Weihnachtsfest, I, 1889, p. 214 ss. – Un passage récemment découvert du commentaire d’Hippolyte sur Daniel (IV, 23, p. 243, éd. Bonwetsch, 1897), donne déjà la date du 25 décembre pour la naissance du Christ, mais peut-être est-il interpolé (Hilgenfeld, Berl. Phil. Woch., 1897, p. 1324 s.). Il est certain que cette date, pour la célébration de la Noel, fut fixée à Rome par le pape Libère en 354, et qu’elle fut adoptée plus tard en Orient. – Diverses fêtes paiennes marquaient l’époque du solstice d’hiver; cf. Epiphan. Adv. haeres, t.II (t. II, p. 482 ss., éd. Dindorf).- M. Duchesne (Origines du culte chrétien, 2e éd., p. 250 ss.), propose une explication nouvelle du jour choisi pour la Noel. On y serait arrivé par des calculs chronologiques en partant de la date du 25 mars, que l’on croyail être celle de la mort du Christ. Cette explication n’exclut pas la première. – Cf. aussi infra, note additionnelle C.

The shoddy note in the English replaces a detailed note by Cumont, in which he gives details of reasons to suppose that Christmas replaces the Natalis Invicti.  Whether this argument is well-founded is not our present concern; we need merely note that Mithras is not mentioned anywhere in all of this, nor in the sources.  Nor, indeed, does Cumont say that it is.  He merely introduces this material in the middle of talk about supposed Mithraic influence on the church, and allows the reader to conclude what he will.  

Let us finally look at “additional  note C”, referenced in footnote 4 of the French.  It appears on p.355 of tome 1, and is headed “The sun, symbol of Christ”.  But the word “Mithra” is not mentioned at all.  Instead it charts how the Christians came to think of sol iustitiae and suggests connections with a solar festival on 25 Dec.

The statements that Cumont makes are very positive.  But he is merely speculating; for when he has data, he gives it, copiously.  But no data appears indicating any connection between 25 Dec. and Mithras; and the most Cumont can say is “probably”, “doubtless”.

I confess to finding no probability, and doubting entirely.

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