Going Dutch for Mithras

Does anyone have access to M. J. VERMASEREN, Mithras de geheimzinnige god, (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1959)? If so, can they locate the passage for me which appears on pp.103-4 of the English translation (not made by Vermaseren), and reads:

Justin records that on the occasion of the meal the participants used certain formulae comparable with the ritual of the Eucharist, and in this connection mention may be made of a medieval text, published by Cumont, in which of Christ is set beside the sayings of Zarathushtra. The Zardusht speaks to his pupils in these words: ‘He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation….’ Compare this with Christ’s words to his disciples: ‘He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall have eternal life.’ In this important Persian text lies the source of the conflict between the Christians and their opponents, and though of later date it seems to confirm Justin’s assertion.

Is the portion in bold given in French, perhaps?


14 thoughts on “Going Dutch for Mithras

  1. It’s on page 83 of the Dutch edition. The quote is offered in Dutch. (I would certainly not exclude the possibility that Cumont’s medieval Persian text was influenced by Christianity.)

  2. Any chance you could give us the Dutch for this paragraph above? I’m looking to see who is responsible; Vermaseren, or his translators.

    I’ve been looking into this story in great detail. The whole passage above is highly misleading. No “Persian text” exists, for instance.

    In Arabic literature, collections of sayings by poets and philosophers circulate. This is because of the fondness in that culture for sententious aphorisms and the like. Think of the Arabian Nights culture, of Aladdin and Ali Baba. The accuracy of the attribution takes second place to the wit, charm and humour of the point made. The nearest modern analogy would be a modern joke book, where a compiler would not hesitate to adjust the words or attribution, so long as it improved the joke. This popular form of literature is found in late Greek literature, and in Syriac, but massively extended in Arabic.

    In Christian Arabic texts, there are collections of “sayings” by pagan philosophers, predicting the life and works of Christ. These are treated as prophecies, and set alongside Jewish prophecies of the Messiah for apologetic purposes.

    The sayings themselves are almost entirely bunk, and have no origin in antiquity. Probably they arise because of the lack of quotation marks in ancient mss. A philosopher may be quoted by a Father as saying something; the Father then gives an interpretation; and some subsequent reader looking for quotes mistakes where the words of the philosopher end and the patristic words begin.

    Cumont was told by Arabist Giorgio Levi della Vida of a Garshuni text in the Mingana collection, Ms. Syr. 142, which contained this saying. Della Vida supplied him with an Italian translation (most of which is still among Cumont’s papers in Rome). I have had this Garshuni text translated and it is here. Cumont then received a letter (unpublished, among the Cumont papers) telling him of another ms.. Mingana Syr. 481. This I have also had translated and is here. If you look in the same section of my collection, you will find another four texts of the same kind.

    So we are not dealing with anything Persian at all. The attributions wander around from one speaker to another. The saying is not found in some book called the “Zardusht” — the Zardusht-nama does not contain this text.

    The saying has nothing to do with Mithras. It is attributed to Zoroaster (Translating this name differently above, in Vermaseren, is hideously misleading — does Vermaseren do this in the Dutch?). And Zoroaster is just one of a number of people, seen as “sages” (as in the Greek Legend of the Seven Sages) and who may therefore have words of wisdom attributed to them.

  3. Any chance you could give us the Dutch for this paragraph above?

    [83] “Justinus vermeldt dat de maaltijd gepaard ging met enige formules (met’ epilogoon tinon).” Ook deze kunnen veel gelijkenis vertoond heb-[84]ben met die van het Avondmaal. Een middeleeuwse tekst, welke door Cumont werd gepubliceerd, is in dit verband bijzonder interessant. Want hierin wordt de waarheid van Christus gesteld tegenover het woord van Zarathustra; deze Zardasht sprak nog tot zijn leerlingen: ‘Wie niet van mijn lichaam zal eten en van mijn bloed zal drinken, zodat hij zich met mij vermengt en ik mij met hem vermeng, die zal het heil niet hebben…’. Maar Christus sprak tot zijn leerlingen: ‘Wie Mijn Lichaam eet en Mijn bloed drinkt, zal het eeuwig leven hebben.’ Deze belangrijke tekst plaatst ons midden in de strijd tussen de Christenen en hun tegenstanders en kan, hoewel laat in datum, misschien de bewering van Justinus bevestigen.

  4. “The sayings themselves are almost entirely bunk, and have no origin in antiquity.”

    This is not unique. Many things are attributed to ancient Iranian religion that are not really there. That the Christians copied the use of 25 December from ancient Mithraicists is a case in point; there is no evidence for this, and Christian use of this date seems to antedate the oldest Mithraic texts about it.

  5. Thank you very much for the Dutch! So Vermaseren used two different words for “Zoroaster” in one line!?! And… I wonder if he misunderstood the French himself, then. Would “…Zarathustra; Zarathustra sprak …” be good Dutch, or does there have to be an article before the second Zarathustra”?

    Are there any Mithraic texts at all that refer to 25 Dec.? I don’t think there are, you know. What there is, is a reference to Sol Invictus, the late Roman state cult, having a festival on that date. That is known only from the Chronography of 354, in part 6 (which I have online).

  6. “Vermaseren used two different words for “Zoroaster” in one line!?!”

    Yes; I think the second spelling renders the manuscript text. I mean, he uses “Zarathustra” when he himself is speaking about the prophet, but uses “Zardasht” to stay close to the medieval spelling.

    There is no article before “Zardasht”; it looks like it’s meant as a reference to a man, not to the title of the book. The English translator may have added that one.

    “What there is, is a reference to Sol Invictus”

    You are right.

    I find it hard to imagine that Vermaseren did not understand Cumont’s French; Vermaseren still belonged to a generation that was better in French and German than in English.

  7. Heh heh. This is the great thing about this myth; that it deceives even people as well-educated as you Jona. Vermaseren isn’t quoting a manuscript. He’s never seen it, and can’t read Karshuni anyway. He’s quoting Cumont. And Cumont hasn’t seen the manuscript either; all he has is the Italian typescript translation by Giorgio Levi della Vida. So this spelling has materialised from that chain of second-hand stuff somewhere; and, being like the spelling of the medieval text, the “Zardusht-nama”, confuses everyone.

    Thanks for your linguistic notes! This is very helpful. Vermaseren was one of Cumont’s pupils, so should certainly have understood French, and Cumont’s French. So — can you confirm this for me? — the “The” is the addition of the English translator to Vermaseren’s text?

    Is there a footnote in Vermaseren’s Dutch version that identifies which papers by Cumont are referred to? There isn’t in the English, you see. I wonder if the translator went back to look at them.

  8. can you confirm this for me? — the “The” is the addition of the English translator to Vermaseren’s text?
    Yes, that is correct.
    Is there a footnote in Vermaseren’s Dutch version that identifies which papers by Cumont are referred to?
    No. And you should devote an article to Vermaseren’s misunderstanding / uncritical attitude.

  9. you should devote an article to Vermaseren’s misunderstanding / uncritical attitude.

    The quote has gone very far, in its English version, and has created quite a few more myths itself. Not sure that Vermaseren is the bad guy here, although careless, yes; so much as his incompetent translators.

    I’m considering a scholarly article on the paragraph and what really lies behind it, but since I’ve never submitted an article in my life, I’m not sure how to go about it.

  10. I was not talking about a scholarly article, although I can help you with it. What I am really hoping for is that you summarize the long message above.

  11. Where the English translation of the Dutch goes really weird is in the last sentence. The original speaks of “this important text” – Deze belangrijke tekst – the English translation reads “this important Persian text”.

    FWIW Google translates the last sentence as “This important text places us in the battle between the Christians and their opponents and, though late in date, perhaps confirmms the claim of Justin.” (slightly rearranged)

  12. Thanks Andrew for highlighting that — I hadn’t got as far as translating it. But that last bit echoes pretty strongly what Cumont was saying. Introducing “Persian”… oh dear.

    I like the Dutch word ‘tussen’ — must relate to the English word “tussle”!

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