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.
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!
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”…..