“According to Realencyclopaedie, the inscription Chrestos is to be seen on a Mithras relief in the Vatican”

I love modern legends.  They have been the stimulus for much of what I have done online.  The effort to research, access and document has given me many happy hours.

This morning I was sitting in front of the monitor, looking for inspiration and stimulation.  Then a Google Groups search on Mithras brought up this gem:

Christ: The Greeks used both the word Messias (a transliteration) and Christos (a translation) for the Hebrew Mashiach (Anointed). The word Christos is far more acceptable to some Pagans who worship Chreston and Chrestos. According to The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, the word Christos was easily confused with the common Greek proper name Chrestos, meaning “good.” According to a French theological dictionary, it is absolutely beyond doubt that Christus and Chrestus, and Christiani and Chrestiani were used indifferently by the profane Christian authors of the first two centuries AD The word Christianos is a Latinism, being contributed neither by the Jews nor by the Christians themselves. The word was introduced from one of three origins: the Roman police, the Roman populace, or an unspecified Pagan origin. Its infrequent use in the New Testament suggests a Pagan origin. According to Realencyclopaedie, the inscription Chrestos is to be seen on a Mithras relief in the Vatican. According to Christianity and Mythology, Osiris, the Sun God of Egypt, was reverenced as Chrestos..

The only “reference” for all these claims is to a post in a closed forum. 

If you search around the web for this stuff, you will find it repeated endlessly.  Some even add after the bold phrase “(I’ve seen it myself)” although since this too is repeated, one wonders just who the author was.

One claim caught my eye: the claim about the RE.  After much searching, I found a slightly different version here:

Who was this Chrestos or Chreston with which Christos became confused with?

We have already seen that Chrestos was a common Greek proper name, meaning “good.” Further we see in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopaedie, under “Chrestos,” that the inscription Chrestos is to be seen on a Mithras relief in the Vatican. We also read in J. M. Robertson, Christianity and Mythology, p. 331, that Osiris, the Sun-deity of Egypt, was reverenced as Chrestos. We also read of the heretic Gnostics who used the name Chreistos.

OK, so what does the RE say about “Chrestos”? 

Well, in the 6th half-volume (band III.2) the entry appears in columns 2449-2450, giving a list of people known by that name:

  1. A praetorian prefect under Alexander Severus (Dio. epit. book 80, 2:2), also given as prefect of Egypt in a papyrus fragment, where his name appears as Geminus Chrestus.
  2. A Roman geographer, mentioned by John the Lydian in De Mensibus IV 68 (p. 98ff of the Bonn edition) as talking about the Nile.
  3. An officer under Constans (Aurelius Victor, epit. 41, 22) ca. 350 AD.
  4. An African grammarian, ca. 357, mentioned in Jerome’s Chronicle under AA 2374.  But one manuscript gives the name as Charistus.
  5. A pupil of Herodes Atticus at Byzantion, working as a sophist and teacher in the second half of the second century. (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, p. 98, l.15 of Kayser’s edition).

And after that, we find the following entry:

6) Auf Grund der Inschrift eines Mithrasreliefs im Vatican (Cumont Mitras inscr. nr. 39; mon. fig. nr. 31) Χρῆστος πατὴρ καὶ Γαῦρος ἐποίησαν früher für einen Künstler gehalten. Doch bezeichnet, wie zuerst Brunn Künstlergesch. I 611 gesehen hat, ἐποίησαν nur die Weihung, πατὴρ im Mithraskult ein priesterlicher Titel ist. Kaibel IGI 1272. Loewy Inschr. griech. Bildh. 457. [C. Robert.] 


6) On the base of an inscription of a Mithras relief in the Vatican (Cumont, Mithras, inscrip. 39; mon. fig. 31) Χρῆστος πατὴρ καὶ Γαῦρος ἐποίησαν was previously taken for the name of an artist.  But it is now recognised, as Brunn saw in Künstlergesch. I 611, that ἐποίησαν refers to the consecration, and πατὴρ is a title for a priest in the Mithras cult. Kaibel IGI 1272. Loewy Inschr. griech. Bildh. 457. [C. Robert]

Indeed the text says:

Χρῆστος πατὴρ καὶ Γαῦρος ἐποίησαν

Chrestus the Pater and Gaurus made [this].

Let’s look at Cumont.  I found the stuff in vol. 2 of Textes et Monumentes, in p.211 in the section on Rome, which I had great difficulty navigating.

31. Bas-relief de marbre blanc [L. 0.71m, H. 0.41m, Ep. 0.05m], conservé au musée du Vatican, Galleria scoperta, n° 416 [doit être déplacé].  

Cité : Zoega, p. 149, n° 15; cf. Kaibel, ISI, n° 1272.

Mithra tauroctone dans la grotte avec le chien, le serpent, le scorpion et le corbeau, mais sans les dadophores. Dans les coins supérieurs, à gauche, Sol sur un quadrige, à droite Luna sur un char traîné par deux taureaux. Dans les coins inférieurs, de chaque côté, un cyprès grossièrement dessiné. En dessous l’inscription n° 39.

Brisé en deux morceaux, mais sans restauration importante. Travail médiocre.

And the inscription itself is on p.100

39. Kaibel, ISI, 1272. — Voyez le monument n° 31.

Χρῆστος πατὴρ καὶ Γαῦρος ἐποίησαν.

Non videntur artifices esse Chrestus et Gaurus cf. Brunn, Hist. art., I, 611, qui cum recte iam Rochettius vidisset Chrestum fuisse patrem Mithrae, verbum ἐποίησαν ita explicabat ut esset consacraverunt [Kaibel].

It’s a tauroctony, in other words, a relief showing Mithras killing the bull, which has the inscription beneath.  All it shows is that a priest named Chrestus set up the relief.  It happens to be in the Vatican museum, but has no ancient connection specified with that location.

As ever, once we know the facts and return to the context of the original claim, we see that the reader is being misled by a statement which, literally true, is nevertheless  guaranteed to mislead everyone to suppose that “Chrestos” is another name for “Mithras”.

10 thoughts on ““According to Realencyclopaedie, the inscription Chrestos is to be seen on a Mithras relief in the Vatican”

  1. Ok, I didn’t know one of Mithras attendants was Helios — I meant in general, in the pagan world, was the designation Christos/Chrestos ever used in reference to some god other than Christ?

    I can admit that the relief is probably as you say, but there is a lot of evidence that this term was in use before Christ’s time in reference to Helios. The ChiRho that Constantine used dates back before Christ – it’s an anagram for the sun god…

  2. I’m not aware of such a usage, but then I have not looked.

    Now I can see from what you write that you’ve been reading some of the material that circulates online. My experience is that much of this type of material is incorrect insofar as it makes statements about matters of *fact* (I do not refer to religious opinions), things that anyone may look up, but which are not in fact the case, and the authors of which have not troubled to verify. This you may quickly discover for yourself by attempting to verify any of it against the primary sources, much of which is online these days.

    You say that “there is lot of evidence that this term [Chrestos] was in use before Christ’s time in reference to Helios” … do you know this, or did you read it somewhere? If the former, where is the evidence? I don’t mean to be difficult; but we need to ask these types questions — “show me the data” — whenever we are faced with such claims.

    The claim you reference about Chi-Rho likewise: do you know this, of your own research? Which ancient source records it? Or did you read it somewhere, and if so where?

  3. What do you think about the possibility that Chrestos on the relief refers to Mithradates Chrestos (or Chrestus)? Brother of Mithradates VI.

  4. I would ask what evidence supports the hypothesis. I don’t see that there is any. And … any brother of Mithradates VI (I have not heard of Mithradates Chrestos) would have been long dead by this time. For we don’t know of any Mithraic inscription dated before 100 AD, as far as I know.

    If it *were* true, it would be very exciting! It would link Roman Mithras to the cult of Mithra in Zoroastrian Pontus, and indicate that the royal house of that kingdom had a role in the creation of the Roman cult.

    Any idea where this idea comes from? (interested)

  5. Roger – Let me be very clear in that the question I posed to you was simply a “knee jerk” response to your blog post. It was a product of my wandering mind. I have not heard it from any other source.

    Nonetheless, it seems that Mithraism as a Roman Cult may be derived from ancient Persia in some way. Images of the Mithras, dressed like a Persian, and killing a bull, among other things, seem to echo the cults in the Kingdom of Pontus.

    Let me direct you to an interesting document.


    It’s a rather lengthy read. However, the chapter titled “The Religion and Cults of the Pontic Kingdon: Political Aspects” starting on page 249 provide an interesting look at the religion and cults of that era.

    As far as I know, Mithradates VI had only one brother and his name was Mithradates Chrestos. I’m sure you’ve googled it by now and as you can see there is plenty of evidence to support the existence of this brother. In addition, the linked document contains some information on Mithradates Chrestos.

  6. Thank you for your reply. When I got your original comment, I did some research on Mithridates Chrestus; I had just pressed post when I got your latest, so we crossed.

    I will certainly look at that book — it should be interesting! Too long to look at this evening, tho, so I will comment later.

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