Thursday, March 2, 2017

Did Christianity derive early beliefs from Mithraism?

Did early Christians use elements of the mystery religion of Mithras to form beliefs about Jesus Christ? And, just as importantly, why does this matter? Here’s why: If components of another religion, such as Mithraism, were borrowed, this would have devastating consequences for Christianity. Unlike beliefs of some religions, those concerning Jesus Christ are decidedly based in actual history and fact. If some of the biblical accounts of Jesus are mythological and did not really occur, the Christian faith is useless and we may as well put the Bible on the shelf next to Homer’s Odyssey and Aesop’s Fables. This website ( does not subscribe to the notion that whatever one believes and whatever religion works for you is fine. On the contrary, we base our beliefs on facts and sound reason. So, it does matter.

Who was Mithra?
In the Zoroastrian system, Mithra (also written as “Mithras”) was an ancient god in India and Persia (modern day Iran) around the 6th century BC. He became elevated to the principle god of light and wisdom in the Persian Empire around the 5th century BC. Around the 2nd century AD, Mithraism was popular among the soldiers in the Roman Empire because he was depicted as a warrior. The religion declined rapidly in the 3rd century AD.[1] The Encyclopedia Britannica provides the following description:
“The creation of the world is the central episode of Mithraic mythology. According to the myths, the sun god sent his messenger, the raven, to Mithra and ordered him to sacrifice the bull ... But at the very moment of the death of the bull, a great miracle happened. The white bull was metamorphosed into the moon; the cloak of Mithra was transformed into the vault of the sky, with the shining planets and fixed stars … One Mithraic hymn begins: ‘Thou hast redeemed us too by shedding the eternal blood’ … With the bull’s death and the creation of the world, the struggle between Good and Evil began: thus is the condition of man’s life … After the sacrifice, Mithra and the sun god banqueted together, ate meat and bread, and drank wine. Then Mithra mounted the chariot of the sun god and drove with him across the ocean, through the air to the end of the world.”[2]
One only needs to read the biblical accounts of the creation of the world and the death of Jesus Christ alongside the complete account of Mithra to note the monumental discrepancies between myth and history.

What was the taurobolium?
A ritual associated with Mithraism involved the taurobolium, described as a:
“bull sacrifice practiced from about ad 160 in the Mediterranean cult … The person dedicating the sacrifice lay in a pit with a perforated board placed over the pit’s opening. A bull was slaughtered above him, and the person in the pit bathed in the blood streaming down. Thus the ceremony, perhaps influenced by Christianity, gradually took on the elements of moral purification.”[3]
Some have suggested that the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ was derived from the taurobolium ceremony. But, as noted here, the dating of this practice was much later than the development of Christianity, which began around 33 AD. In his work on ancient Roman society, Samuel Dill explains:
“The first glimpses of the taurobolium appear before the middle of the second century, and the goddess figures on the coins of Antoninus Pius. A taurobolium for that emperor was offered ‘with intention’ at Lyons in 160 A.D.”[4]
In addition to this practice showing up much later than the sacrifice of Jesus, the god Mithra himself was not sacrificed; rather, Mithra slew a bull.

Franz Cumont
Belgian scholar Franz Cumont (1868-1947) is considered by many to be the leading expert of his time on the beliefs and practices of Mithraism. And, many have credited him with advancing the notion that Christianity followed and was derived from Mithraic teachings. However, even Cumont noted the timing of the spread of these beliefs as late in the first century:
“In the ancient religion of the Achemenides, Mithra, the genius of light, was coupled with Anâhita, the goddess of the fertilizing waters. In Asia Minor the latter was assimilated with the fecund Great Mother, worshiped all over the peninsula, and when at the end of the first century of our era the mysteries of Mithra spread over the Latin provinces.”[5]

In his influential book Mysteries of Mithra (1903), Cumont noted:
“At the time when this pagan monotheism sought to establish its ascendency in Rome, the struggle between the Mithraic Mysteries and Christianity had long begun. The propagation of the two religions had been almost contemporaneously conducted, and their diffusion had taken place under analogous conditions.”[6]
In his extensive research, Cumont concluded that Mithraic beliefs were advanced concurrently with Christian beliefs. He further noted, as the two religions continued to progress through the fifth century AD, some Mithraic practices may have been adopted by some so-called Christians, but not by orthodox Christianity: 
“Certain of its sacred practices continued to exist also in the ritual of Christian festivals and in popular usage. Its fundamental dogmas, however, were irreconcilable with orthodox Christianity”[7]

Alleged Similarities
Some today have advanced the notion that Mithraism bears many striking similarities with Christianity and therefore was influential in the formation of early Christian beliefs and practices. Some of these borrowed beliefs are said to include:
1.    Mithra was born of a virgin
2.    He was born on December 25th
3.    He was a great traveler with 12 disciples
4.    His followers were promised immortality
5.    He sacrificed himself for world peace
6.    He was buried in a tomb and rose after three days
7.    He conducted a sacramental meal resembling Jesus’ last supper

If these beliefs pre-dated the beginnings of Christianity and were known in the same part of the world, the Biblical writers may have some explaining to do. Is that the case? Even if so, does similarity necessarily imply causality?

Dating the development of Mithraism
Edwin Yamauchi was interviewed concerning these issues by Lee Strobel for his book, The Case for the Real Jesus. Yamauchi obtained a doctorate in Mediterranean studies, has studied 22 languages, and written 17 books including Persia and the Bible, which includes his research involving Mithraism. Furthermore, Yamauchi was one of the scholars who attended the Second Mithraic Congress in Tehran, Iran in the 1970’s, during which the conclusions of Franz Cumont were examined.

Edwin Yamauchi addressed each of the alleged similarities between Mithraism and Christianity and his conclusions are listed here:
1.    Mithraism did not teach that he was born of a virgin; rather, the mythical Mithra was born out of a rock. Furthermore, he was born an adult, not a baby as was Jesus. And, Jesus was of course not born in a cave as the second century letter of Barnabas alleges. 
2.    The birthday of Jesus Christ is not mentioned in the Bible and is not known. In fact, the earliest birth date for Jesus celebrated by Christians was January 6th. The earliest time in which Dec. 25th was used by Christians is AD 336 when Emperor Constantine proposed this day – possibly appropriated from the sun god worship. December 25th is close to the winter solstice and was chosen by Emperor Aurelian for the dedication of his temple to the sun god.
3.     Mithra was not a traveling teacher of disciples.
4.    The belief of immortality may be inferred in Mithraism, but that is common to almost all religions, so is not significant.
5.    Mithra did not sacrifice himself for anyone, he killed a bull.
6.    After extensive study, Yamauchi knows of no references to Mithra’s death. And, consequently, there are no records of his resurrection.
7.    Any possible sacramental meal in Mithraism is unrelated to the Lord’s Supper because it was initiated much later, in the second century. Furthermore, the Christian meal is based on the Passover, begun during the time of Moses.[8]

Even if similarities exist between Mithraism and Christianity, we should not be surprised. Nearly all religions are similar in some ways, e.g. belief in the afterlife, a god who performs miracles, and so on. Allegations that early Christians borrowed from Mithraism have no basis in fact; rather, speculate based on the relatively close chronological proximity of the two belief systems. Also, many of the Mithraic beliefs vary significantly from those of Christianity, as seen above. Furthermore, the biblical record of Jesus Christ is established by eyewitness accounts written and circulated during the lifetime of other witnesses. Leonard Patterson, in his book Mithraism and Christianity, concluded there is “no direct connection between the two religions either in origin or development.”[9] Edwin Yamauchi summarizes by stating, “There’s no evidence of Mithraism influencing first-century Christianity. Far from assimilating Mithraism, the church fathers – from Justin Martyr to Tertullian – denounced Mithraism as a satanic imitation.”[10]

[1] The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (New York, NY:  Columbia University Press, 2007), 32286.
[2] "Mithraism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 04 Oct. 2008 <>.
[3]Taurobolium." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed 03 Oct. 2008 <>.
[4] Dill, Samuel, Roman Society: From Nero to Marcus Aurelius (New York, NY:  MacMillan, 1905), 549.
[5] Cumont, Franz, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1911), 65.
[6] Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithra, translated from the second revised French edition by Thomas J. McCormack (Chicago, IL:   Open Court, 1903), 188.
[7] Cumont, 206.
[8] Strobel, Lee, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2007), 170-173.
[9] Patterson, Leonard, Mithraism and Christianity (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1921),  94, cited in Strobel, 170.
[10] Strobel, 176.

No comments: