Mithras in the Apocalypse of Adam

At the 2nd Internation Congress for Mithraic Studies, held in Tehran in 1975, Edwin Yamauchi, a scholar specialising in the field of pre-Christian gnosticism, delivered a paper on the Nag Hammadi Gnostic text, the Apocalypse of Adam.[1]  The work is of uncertain date, although transmitted to us in a coptic codex of the 4th century, and a translation is online.

Unfortunately Yamauchi’s paper is not accessible to me, but the topic is an interesting one, to which the author has returned since.[2]

The text contains a passage which discusses thirteen numbered “kingdoms”, which are all “faulty explanations of the Illuminator”.  An early editor, A. Bohlig, perhaps influenced by Cumontian ideas that Mithras was a Zoroastrian deity, asserted a number of supposed references to Mithras.  Yamauchi ably disposes of these.

Much more interesting is a really possible reference to the birth of Mithras from a rock!  The text runs:

A cloud came upon the earth.  It enveloped a rock.  He originated from it. (80, 21-25).

 The rock-birth of Mithras is one of the distinctive pieces of iconography of the cult.  Yamauchi argues, cogently in my view, that if this is indeed a reference to Mithras, then it must push back the date of the Apocalypse of Adam.  His reasoning seems worth reproducing:

Though Mithra(s) was an ancient Indo-Aryan god, who is attested as early as a treaty between the Hittites and the Hurnans (14th cent. BCE), it was not until the late first century CE that we have evidence of the Roman mystery religion, which we call Mithraism. No mithraea were found, for example, at Pompeii or Herculaneum, which were buried by Mt. Vesuvius in CE 79. There is an allusion to Mithras dragging a bull into a cave in Statius (CE 80). Some Mithraic scholars do not believe that the development of a Roman Mithraism antedates the reign of Hadrian.[57] Though we have numerous examples of Mithraic rock birth motifs attested in Europe, we have none from Egypt. Robert Bull found a mithraeum at Caesarea, which is dated to the fourth cent. CE.” The only Mithraic site in the Near East which attests the rock birth motif is Dura-Europos, where the mithraeum is dated to CE 168.

Reference 57 is to his own paper from Tehran, of which this is, therefore, only a summary.  But I had not seen the statement about the absence of a Mithraeum at Pompeii before, and it is a valid point.

I must admit that I am unconvinced that we should see this passage in the Apocalypse of Adam as referring to Mithras.  It’s not really specific enough.  Anyone might imagine someone or something “born of earth”, or “born of a rock”.  We would need more, to be certain.

The paper also contains a salutary warning on the use of Zoroastrian texts, which is relevant to the study of Mithras as well as to gnosticism:

The first editor, A. Bohlig, discerned references to Mithras in the series of kingdoms Bohlig finds such references in kingdoms seven, eight, ten, and eleven.”[44] A scholar who has recendy highlighted the Iranian elements, both from Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, in the tractate is Andrew Welburn.[45] Welburn suggests that the frequent references to the “virgin birth of the Illuminator” (Kingdoms 3, 4, 6, and possibly 1) are best explained as allusions to the stories of the Saoshyants or “redeemers,” who were bom from Zoroaster’s seed, which had been hidden in a lake.[46]

In a more general monograph, which is informed by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner,[47] Welburn also discerns such Iranian influence in the reference to the Magi episode in Matthew.[48] According to Welburn, “At any rate, the eschatological star-child was in some circles also the reappearing Zarathushtra, and in Christian versions he becomes Jesus.”[49]

Welburn prefers to see the incarnations of the thirteen kingdoms in the Apocalypse of Adam as those of the prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) rather than Mithra, by noting the assimilation of Zarathustra to Mithra in Parthian times. He refers to the tradition of ”Zaratas, who appeared in Babylonia[50] and was honoured as the founder of the Mithraic cult in its syncretistic form.[51]

But there are many things amiss with Welbum’s use of Iranian traditions to explicate Matthew and the Apocalypse of Adam. First of all, though the word magos was originally an Iranian word, it came to mean “astrologer” and is clearly used in this sense in Matthew[52]. To support his comments on the connection between the magi and Iran, he appeals to the medieval Syrian Chronicle of Zuqnin. The earliest reference to Zoroaster as the source of the prediction about the star and savior is found in Theodore bar Konai (9th cent. CE).[53] The view that Zoroaster was the founder of Mithraism is found in Porphyry (3rd cent. CE).[54] The traditions about Zoroaster’s seed giving rise to the Saoshyants are taken from late Pahlavi works which were not composed until the 9th-10th centuries CE![55] Though there are Greek traditions about Zoroaster, who appeared as Zaratas, there has been no evidence of Zoroastrianism found in Mesopotamia.[56]

44. A. Bohlig, “Die Adamsapokalypse aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi als Zeugnis judisch-iranischer Gnosis,” OrChr 48 (1964) 47-48.
45. A. Welburn. “Iranian Prophetology and the Birth of the Messiah: the Apocalypse of Adam,” ANRW II.25.4 (1988) 4752-94.
46. Ibid.. 4757.
47. A. Welburn, The Beginnings of Christianity: Essene Mystery. Gnostic Revelation and the Christian Vision (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1991) 26-29.
48. Welburn, 86.; idem, “Iranian Prophetology,” 4785: “On the other hand, a certain stratum of Christian tradition held on to Zoroastrian connections, as is shown by the visit of the Magi in Matthew …”
49. Welburn, “Iranian Prophetology,” 4789.
50. On this Pythagorean tradition, see M. Boyce and F. Grenet, A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. 3: Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule (Leiden: E. J. Brill. 1991)523-24.
51. Welburn, “Iranian Prophetology,” 4774.
52. See my Persia and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1990), ch. 13; see also my “The Magi Episode,” Christos, Chronos, and Kairos. ed. J. Vardaman and E. Yamauchi (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989) 15-39.
53. Boyce and Grenet, A History of Zoroastrianism III, 450.
54. Ibid, 548.
55. On the lateness of many key Zoroastrian documents see E. Yamauchi. “Religions of the Biblical World: Persia,” ISBE, VOL 4, rev. ed, ed. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1988) 123-29. idem. Persia and the Bible. ch. 12. On the complete dearth of Persian religious texts from the critical Parthian Era (250 CE – 225 CE) see my review of E. Yarshater, ed.. The Cambridge History of Iran III: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods in American Historical Review 89 (1984) 1055-56.

I give all these references because it is really quite difficult for the general reader to get a handle on some of these issues, since few of us are Persianists.  The question of what kind of material was the Greek pseudo-Zoroaster literature, and to what extent it really was Persian in nature, is one that every Mithras enthusiast will find of interest, since it may relate to how Persian Mithras could possibly be.

But the very late date of much Zoroastrian material is really critically important to remember.  The majority of Avestan material, dating from the Sassanid period when it was first written down (and perhaps modified in the process? as a conscious act of rivalry to the activity of Constantine in support of Christianity in the same period?) was largely destroyed by the Moslems.  This includes the Great Avesta, found in every fire temple after the 4th century A.D.

  1. [1] 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.
  2. [2] Yamauchi, The issue of pre-Christian gnosticism reviewed in the light of the Nag Hammadi texts, in: John D. Turner, The Nag Hammadi Library After Fifty Years: Proceedings of the 1995 Society of Biblical Literature Commemoration, Brill, 1997, p.72 f. The discussion is on p.81.
  1. No Comments