Mithras and Jesus
See also Mithras and Christianity.
In certain sorts of literature, the claim is made that Jesus is merely a copy of Mithras. A series of statements are made about Mithras - born of a virgin, had a last supper, died, resurrected, etc - which do make him seem identical. This portrait of Mithras is entirely misleading. Some of the statements about Mithras being like Jesus have some basis, and the evidence for them is given under Mithras and Christianity. Other claims do not, and are wholly spurious, and mislead the unwary reader. In view of the wide circulation of these mistakes on the internet, it seemed useful to discuss a number of them here, and to reference them to some sample sources. Works referenced here are NOT scholarly unless otherwise noted.
1. On the nature and origins of modern "pagan parallels" literature
Collections of "sayings of the philosophers" were made in antiquity and into the medieval period. These are sometimes known as "wisdom literature" or gnomologia. One category of these consists of sayings which predict the coming and life of Christ, attributed to pagan philosophers or other notable figures. Collections of this kind formed part of the apologetic of the medieval church, which thus had a two-fold proof of Christianity; one from Jewish prophecies of Christ, one from pagan prophecies.1 Similarly early Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr, or Clement of Alexandria, were willing to point pagans to similarities in pagan cult myths, not to show that Christianity was the same as paganism, and still less derived from it, but rather to demonstrate that Christian teaching was not entirely novel or threatening and should therefore be legal.2
From the 17th century onwards, Protestant writers routinely accused the "Romanists" - the Roman Catholic Church - of basing its worship on pagan ritual.3 With the rise of anti-Christian movements such as socinianism in the 18th century, this developed in some writers into the claim that the Christ story was not different to that of older pagan legends and so was, by inference, equally untrue.
The French revolutionary writer Dupuis continued this line of thought in 1794.4 He seems to be the originator of the claims that Mithras was very similar to Christ. The French original5 is here, but the key passage of the 1872 American abbreviated translation runs as follows:6
It is chiefly in the religion of Mithras or the God Sun, worshipped under that name by the Magi, that we find mostly those features of analogy with the death and resurrection of Christ and with the mysteries of the Christians. Mithras, who was also born on the 25th December like Christ, died as he did; and he had his sepulchre, over which his disciples came to shed tears. During the night the priests carried his image to a tomb, expressly prepared for him; he was laid out on a litter, like the Phoenician Adonis. These funeral ceremonies, like those on good Friday, were accompanied with funeral dirges and the groans of his priests; after having spent some time with these expressions of feigned grief; after having lighted the sacred flambeau or their Paschal candle and anointed the image with Chrism or perfumes, one of them came forward and pronounced with the gravest mien these words: "Be of good cheer, sacred band of Initiates ("initiés,") your God has risen from the dead; his pains and his sufferings shall be your salvation."
Dupuis' claims are repeated in England by Joseph Priestley7, although he is otherwise rather sceptical of Dupuis, well before any scholarly investigation had taken place or was possible. Further examples may be found in the early 19th century onwards,8 and are repeated afterwards, usually in rationalist or deistic writings.9
Today such claims tend to be found in low-grade literature with an anti-Christian purpose, often making crudely false claims about what is or is not known about Mithras.10
2. Mithras had a "virgin birth"
Some non-scholarly writers say 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.11 Scholar David Ulansey, who has suggested that Mithras might be the "outside name" of a cult of Perseus, has speculated that the idea of a rock-birth derives from the myth in which Perseus was born because Zeus visited Danae in an underground cavern.12
3. Mithras "visited by Magi"
In 1882 American writer T.W. Doane claimed that Mithras, the "mediator between God and man", was visited by Magi at the time of his birth and given gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.13
In support of his claim, Doane offered two sources. The first is "King: The Gnostics and their Remains, pp. 134 and 149", a respectable source in 1864 when it was published.14 But King's statements are purely speculative and no evidence is offered.
Doane's second source is given as "Inman: Ancient Faiths, vol. ii. p. 353", which dates from 1868.15 Inman appears to have been a crank. But his statement is equally a piece of speculation, and does not even mention gold or frankincense.
Despite this, Doane's statement may be found, with or without reference, online in various places.16
No ancient source depicts the Magi attending the rock-birth of Mithras. He is, however, sometimes depicted attended by Cautes and Cautopates.17
4. Mithras "died on the cross"
The following claim may be found online:18
"3) According to Mithraism, before Mithra died on a cross, he celebrated a "Last Supper" with his twelve disciples, who represented the twelve signs of the zodiac.
No ancient source records that Mithras died, still less that he did so on a cross.
This claim may perhaps be the result of some careless reading of a passage in T.W. Doane, making various claims about Mithras and then Zoroaster.19
5. The "twelve disciples of Mithras"
The earliest appearance of this claim appears to be by Godfrey Higgins in 1836, where it is unreferenced and appears in passing.20 Higgins work was apparently quarried extensively by the theosophist Madame Blavatsky.21
The claim appears in an elaborate form in the notorious "Jesus Mysteries" of Freke and Gandy in 2001.22 It has been publicised by someone calling themselves "Acharya S", who turns out to be an American woman named Dorothy Murdock.23 Murdock was made aware that the claim was untrue, but has since elaborated and reiterated the claim. She knows that Mithras is depicted surrounded by the zodiac on a couple of reliefs, and proposes that these 'must' be disciples, since sometimes in renaissance Christian art the apostles are depicted with the signs of the zodiac.24
6. "...by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again..."
Two rather odd claims have appeared online recently, both from Alfred Reynolds, "Jesus Versus Christianity", (1993), pp.77-8.25
"The adherents of Mithras believed that by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again, just as life itself has been created anew from the blood of the bull. Participation in this rite would give not only physical strength but lead to the immortality of the soul and to eternal light. Justin also mentioned the similarity between the Mithras ritual and the Eucharist” (p.78)
No source indicates that the cult of Mithras held any such views. The only monuments that depict eating and drinking show Mithras and Sol eating the bull after Mithras has killed it. This relief is often the rear of a tauroctony, placed on hinges so that it could be turned around. The meaning of it is unknown.
There were 7 different ritual meals in the cult, attested by the Ostia mosaic, so this is not likely to be correct. It is another example of argument by selection, omission and misrepresentation, as the only way to make a carefully selected little-known Roman cult resemble Christianity.