Were cultists of Mithras marked with a sign on their foreheads?

The great French scholar Pierre Petitmengin has kindly sent me an off-print of the new Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea (CTC 2008).  This is a list of new publications about Tertullian, Cyprian, and the other ante-Nicene Latin Fathers, with a short review of each.  It has long been essential reading for Tertullianists (at whom it was originally aimed).

Item 42 is Luc Renaut, Les initiés aux mystères de Mithra étaient-ils marqués au front? Pour une relecture de Tertullien, De praescr. 40, 4 , in : Bonnet, C., Ribichini, S., Steuernagel, D. : Religioni in contatto nel Mediterraneo: modalità di diffusione e processi di interferenza, Actes de colloque (Côme, mai 2006), Rome, 2008 (Mediterranea, IV, 2007), p. 171-190.   He questions whether Tertullian actually said that initiates of Mithras were marked on their foreheads.

Tertullian says this in De praescriptione haereticorum 40:4, as he works up to the end of the work and points out the pagan origins of what is peddled as “christian” by the heretics.  Here is the Holmes translation:

if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown. 

And Refoule’s Latin text:

si adhuc memini Mithrae, signat illic in frontibus milites suos. Celebrat et panis oblationem et imaginem resurrectionis inducit et sub gladio redimit coronam.

Only Tertullian tells us of this rite.  The ritual meal that includes bread (and water, although Tertullian does not say so) appears in the mosaic in the Ostia Mithraeum that depicts the seven grades of initiands and their special meals.  The crown worn by Mithras cultists is discussed in Tertullian’s De corona militis.  The image of a resurrection is as far as I know otherwise unknown. 

Renaut proposes that the text might be corrupt.  Instead of in frontibus he suggests in fontibus.  This would translate as sets his marks on his soldiers in the waters.  In other words, this would refer to pagan “baptisms”, such as those mentioned by Tertullian in De Baptismo 5 and indeed just beforehand in De praescriptione haereticorum 40:3.

The reviewer, the great scholar Jean-Claude Fredouille, is naturally cautious.  He points out that the fontibus version would make Tertullian’s rhetoric a little “lame” (boiteux) if we end up with two references to baptism in a single sentence.  Renaut is aware of this idea, and suggests that there are two forms of the baptism meant here, paralleling Christian baptism and confirmation which Tertullian distinguishes in De resurrectione carnis 8:3 and Adversus Marcionem III, 22:7.

It’s an interesting idea.  I myself would tend to resist it, on the grounds that there is no actual evidence of a corruption, and the fact that the emendation would be convenient — as disposing of one of the “parallels” between Jesus and Mithras that dim people exult over — is not adequate reason to emend the text. 


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