Have a Merry Mithras!?

Roman bas relief from 2nd or 3rd century depicting Mithras, a central figure of the "Mystery Religions" of the early Christian era, killing a bull.

Roman bas relief from 2nd or 3rd century depicting Mithras, one of the gods of the “Mystery Religions” of the early Christian era, killing a bull.

Who was born on December 25th? Born of a virgin in a stable with shepherds present? Who had twelve disciples? Who was killed and buried in a tomb, and then rose up three days later after his death? Students of the Bible might think the answer is obvious. Not so, according to a popular movement known as “mythicism”. For the “mythicists” this original ancient figure is Mithras, a Persian god. Christianity is really just a copycat faith of Mithraism. Should we be wishing one another a “Merry Mithras” instead during the Christmas season?

The “Christianity copied Mithraism” idea is becoming part of the popular culture. Similar arguments are made about other ancient pagan gods, including the ancient Egyptian gods Osiris and Horus. Early Christians simply borrowed pagan dying and rising god myths and put a Jewish veneer on them. You will find stories like this in today’s literature and media, such as in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (reference to Mithra on page 203, in Brown, 2003), in the Internet movie Zeitgeist, and in Bill Maher’s popular documentary movie, Religulous. This following clip from the movie by Bill Maher, host of the television show “Politically Incorrect,” though mostly about the Horus story, boldly makes the copycat claim as Maher interviews people at the Holyland Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida … oh, whey, oh!:

Like any popular claim, there is some grain of truth to be found, but often knowing the full story puts things within its proper context.  Some basic facts get jumbled around, too. For mythicism, it is very easy to make too much out of too little.   As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts”.

Bart Ehrman, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that while it is true that pagan gods like Mithras, Osiris, and Horus predate the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, the evidence for dying and rising god mythology in the pre-Christian pagan Roman empire is very, very slim. Faiths that center around figures like Mithras are classified by Ehrman in his Did Jesus Exist? and by other early Christianity scholars as “Mystery Religions”. Mithras is “mysterious”, because… well… we just do not know very much about him.

The original cult of Mithras stems back to Persian and Iranian myths prior to the Christian era. But Mithraism did not gain popularity in areas of the Roman empire until about the late 1st century A.D., decades after the Resurrection of Christ. Even then, the Mithras mystery was mostly common among the Roman military. Mithras worship was secretive, like a religious fraternity with rituals that required initiation in order to become a member. As is typical with many secret societies, conflicting rumors abound as to the nature of those secrets. Compare this to the open truth claims present in the Christian faith.  If anything, the early Christian movement made the prior claim that Mithraic faith often copied from Christianity, not the other way around.

Less anyone think that this argument is a case of special-pleading on behalf of evangelical Christians, it is important to note who Bart Ehrman is and many anti-mythicist scholars like him. Ehrman, a popular agnostic academic whose class material is available through the Teaching Company, has caused heartache for many Christian believers for rejecting the faith of his years at evangelical stalwart institutions like Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. But now Ehrman is a curious ally with evangelical apologists in defending the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Ehrman does not endorse the orthodox claim that Jesus is the “Son of God” or divine in any way, but he does reject arguments made by the mythicists that claim that Jesus never existed. Ehrman’s view of Jesus’ existence in history is the predominant and overwhelming view held by nearly all scholars of early Christianity, liberal and conservative.

Another early Christian era Roman bas relief depicting Mithras, Sol (the sun-god) and others joining in a banquet.

Another early Christian era Roman bas relief depicting Mithras, Sol (the sun-god) and others joining in a banquet.

What do we make of some of the specific statements made about Mithras? Was he born on December 25th? Actually, we have no idea  when he was born. Mithras worship was often associated with worship of the Sun-god, Sol. In some versions of the legend, Mithras shared a banquet with Sol. A winter festival of Sol does go back to December 25th among the Romans, so perhaps this is where the connection is. As to the connection with Jesus, we really are not sure when Jesus was actually born. At least we have no specific reference within the biblical text to nail down the date with total certainty (more at the end of this blog post regarding different theories about  the date of Christmas).

Was Mithras born in a stable from a virgin with shepherds present? Actually, all of the narrative evidence shows that Mithras was born from a rock, not a stable. Virgin birth? Doubtful, too, for many scholars. The available evidence suggests that most likely Mithras’ mother had an incestuous relationship, though different versions of the story vary. As far as shepherds being present at Mithras’ birth, some representations do show shepherds with their staffs while others show torchbearers with their torches.

What about the death and resurrection claim about Mithras? The classic legend says nothing about the death of Mithras, much less any resurrection. In fact, the only killing involving Mithras is that he sacrificed a bull on top of a grate. And the twelve disciples? Well, when Mithras killed the bull, he was surrounded by the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The Zodiac? Twelve disciples? Mmmm….Uh, yeah….

Though there are a few mythicist academic scholars, most popular proponents of the “Christianity copied Mithraism” view gain their information from the Internet. Why is this so? In the late 19th century, some scholars began to speculate about the Mithras connection with Christianity. Much of this work is now in the public domain and readily accessible on the Internet. But most of the work done to discredit the “Christianity copied Mithraism” theories was done during the mid to late 20th century, when copyright concerns generally still apply, and so are difficult to reference fully on the Internet. As a result, creative rumors based on out-of-date research in the public domain are quite common.

Christians can rest assured that credible research among scholars of early Christianity of all types affirm the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. It is true that sources outside of the Bible for the life of Jesus are limited to only a handful of examples, such as the Jewish historian Josephus. However, there is no legitimate reason to completely throw out all of the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as being without at least some historical value.  And that confidence by itself is yet another reason to keep the “Christ”  in “Merry Christmas!”   Sorry, Mithras!

Additional Resources:

Why do we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25? Many suggest that the December 25th date was selected as a way to “baptize” the Sun-god festival near the Winter Solstice popular in the Roman empire and make it “Christian”.   However, others suggest that the date was chosen without any reference to paganism at all but instead relied on calculations associating the date of Jesus’ death at Passover with the conception of Jesus. A widespread traditional belief extending back to ancient Judaism, though not found in Scripture, is that the great prophets of God died on the same day of the year as their conception or their birth. (UPDATE 2013: Further research indicates that the case that Roman Christians simply picked December 25 for Jesus’ birth as a way to “baptize” a pagan festival is based on yet another popular misconception. The more historically grounded approach to this question is actually more fascinating than what is commonly thought).

More on the Mythicists:

Perhaps one of the few mythicist scholars is Richard Carrier. Professor Carrier is currently working on a rebuttal to Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (note this interview with Ehrman), so we must wait to find out if he will bring up any new arguments and evidence to bolster his position.   Carrier’s thesis is essentially that Paul was the intellectual creator of Christianity, and that any historical human Jesus of Nazareth was most probably an invention of Paul and others in-line with Paul’s thought.

From an evangelical Christian perspective, a number of apologists have written extensively about the pagan mystery religion claims, such as here and here. Most of the scholarly work in this area in recent years comes from Edwin Yamauchi (see Lee Strobel’s, The Case for the Real Jesus) and recently deceased Ronald Nash.

Larry Hurtado, a British evangelical New Testament scholar, remarks that most scholars do not pay a whole lot of attention to the mythicists.   In a recent entry on his blog, Hurtado simply says that trying to engage the mythicists is pretty much like trying to demonstrate that the earth is not flat or that the Apollo moon landing was not filmed on some movie lot in California.

After writing this blog entry, I still find myself humming the tune to the Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian”…..

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

5 responses to “Have a Merry Mithras!?

  • John Paine

    Bill Maher is a sophomore (and cynic) looking for laughs. Give him a camera and he can say anything he wants. If he was looking for truth he would be taking on Wiliam Lane Craig, John Lennox, Lee Strobel, Hugh Ross, Tim Keller, and a host of others, not tourists standing in line on the street. His research leaves a lot to be desired. Maher is a good example of the difference between an atheist (which he is) and an atheist with integrity (which he is not). Thanks again for another well-researched post.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      John,

      Actually, Bill Maher did interview some heavy hitters for his film, such as Francis Collins, Ken Ham and a spokesperson for the Vatican Observatory. But apparently the way he approached a number of his interview subjects was under misleading and sometimes false pretenses, according to a few sources. For example, when Maher went to the Creation Museum to interview Ken Ham, his film crew deceived museum security and essentially snuck Maher in through a back door to get the interview. I may have some differences of opinion with Ken Ham, but Maher’s interview methods were a less than honorable way of treating Mr. Ham, much less anyone else.
      http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2008/10/04/religulous—vulgar-and-blasphemous/

      However, Maher is but an extreme example. What is more troubling and scary is that the “Christianity is a copycat” idea is being propagated more and more in the popular culture as a matter of fact.

      Clarke

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  • Jon Gleason

    Thanks for a good article, Clarke. I’m astounded at how quickly Christians are willing to accept some of the arguments of the mythicists, even if they don’t accept the whole position.

    Since you referred to 25 December, one other point which you may already know but which I’ve always found interesting. Edersheim built a tentative case for 25 December based on clues in the Biblical text. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.xi.vii.html

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Jon,

      Thank you for your feedback.

      The Edersheim reference is interesting. In the end, I am not inclined to think that changing the date for celebrating Christmas matters much. The Christian calendar in the West is pretty well set, though it would be nice for the Christian West to perhaps sync up with the Orthodox East who just celebrated a few days ago on January 7th, using the Julian calendar.

      Clarke

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  • Clarke Morledge

    Folks,

    If you like audio or have an iPod, there is a great resource that just came out on the Cult of Mithras by the BBC. The “In Our Time” podcast is put on by Melvyn Bragg, who is a really brainy guy who interviews top leading British scholars on a variety of intellectual topics. It is definitely secular in orientation but I find it to be generally conciliatory towards evangelical Christian faith. Each interview is about 45 minutes long.

    The latest episode on the Cult of Mithras argues that the connection between the Roman cult of Mithras and the Persian god Mithra, and even the Vedic god Mitra, could be linked together, but a growing number of scholars have their doubts….. another “nail in the coffin” for the “Christianity as copy-cat” theory with respect to Mithra(s).

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pg5nt

    Or via iTunes or just as an MP3:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/iot

    Clarke

    Like

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