Jesus is not Mithras

This is the time of year when posts and article start popping up claiming that Jesus is just a rehash of the old Persion god Mithras (or Mithra, Mitras or some other spelling), lining up all sorts of improbable coincidences like “Mithras was born from a rock, and rocks can’t have sex, so clearly that’s the same as a virgin birth.”

There’s a much simpler and more sensible origin for Jesus: Judaism.

I know this is a bold thesis, but I think Judaism has several things going for it as the ultimate origin of Christianity, so hear me out.

Judaism: Has a tradition that a messiah will come.

Judaism: Has a holiday at the end of December. (It’s called Hanukkah.)

Judaism: Also has a spring holiday that coincides with Easter.

Judaism: is literally the religion that Christianity sprang from.

The early Christian writer Hippolytus of Rome provides the first justification for situating Jesus’s birth on December 25th: because it is nine months after his conception, believed to coincide with the date of his death. This belief probably comes from an actual Jewish belief about prophets, albeit slightly mangled. For example, Moses is believed to have died on his own birthday (at 120 years old).

Furthermore, Hanukkah–also known as the “Feast of Dedication”–is celebrated on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev. It seems likely that when early Christians started using the Roman calendar, they translated the holiday directly to the 25th of December.

But wait, I hear you saying, doesn’t Christmas coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia?

It turns out that Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th, not December 25th. The holiday was later extended to last until December 23rd, which still falls two days short of December 25th.

Since people often denigrate Hanukkah as just “the Jewish Christmas,” let’s go back and review what the holiday is actually about.

In Hebrew, Hanukkah (also spelled “Chanukah”–it’s a transliteration of a non-Indo European word written in a non-Latin alphabet, so there’s no one proper spelling) means “dedication.” The Feast of Dedication officially marks when the Maccabees reconquered Jerusalem (from the Seleucids, Syrian Greeks) and re-instated traditional Jewish temple services in the Temple, which the invaders had been using for sacrifices to Zeus.

The Feast of Dedication is actually mentioned in the New Testament, in John 10:

22 Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. 24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in [d]doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

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Recreation of the Temple Menorah by the Temple Institute; By ariely 

One of the sacred objects in the Temple was the 7-armed menorah, famously depicted on the Arch of Titus. (The Hanukkah menorahs lit in people’s homes have 9 arms.) According to the Bible (Exodus 25), the plan for the menorah was revealed to Moses as part of the overall plan for the tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant resided:

31Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. 32Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. 33Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. …

 39talent of pure gold is to be used for the lampstand and all these accessories. 40See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.[1]

Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the menorah was placed inside, and it was this same menorah that the Maccabees were scrambling to find enough oil to light during their (re)dedication celebration. (Candles had yet to be invented.)

The menorah was looted by the Romans in 70 AD, after Titus conquered Jerusalem, and then probably carried off by the Vandals when they sacked Rome in 455. At this point, it disappears from history–and yet the sacred temple light lives on. You’ve probably seen it in a modern church, as altar lamps still hang in Catholic, Episcopal, and Anglican churches.

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Catholic Sanctuary Lamp

According to the Roman Missal of the Catholic Church:

“In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.”

The “presence of Christ” is in the physical form of the Eucharist.

Orthodox Christian churches also have a “menorah,” (though it is shaped rather differently from the Jewish ones):

In Orthodoxy, what other traditions in Christianity call the altar we call the Holy Table, and the space beyond the ikon screen is called the altar. Among items upon an Orthodox Holy Table will be a cloth ikon of Christ containing a relic, the gospels, a special ‘box’ we call a tabernacle which will contain the reserved sacrament for the sick, and candles. In the Russian tradition the number of candles we use reflect the Jewish Menorah, a seven branched candlestick as expressed in Exodus.

The sanctuary lamp is also found in many Protestant denominations:

It is also found in the chancel of Lutheran and Methodist churches to indicate the presence of Christ in the sanctuary, as well as a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.[3][4] … Other Christian denominations burn the lamp to show that the light of Christ always burns in a sin-darkened world.

And of course it is still found in synagogues:

Looking around the synagogue you will see the eastern wall, where the aron ha-kodesh (the holy ark) is located. The ark is the repository for the Torah scrolls when they are not in use. It also serves as the focus for one’s prayers. Above the ark is located the ner tamid–the eternal light — recalling the eternal light in the Temple (Exodus 27:20–21).

In each case, the sacred fire symbolizes the presence of God.

Looking back, deeper into the Bible, we find other instances where fire symbolized God’s presence:

The menorah itself, with multiple “branches” covered in buds and blossoms, is reminiscent of a flowering tree or bush, like the burning bush encountered by Moses.

When the Israelites walked through the desert, they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.

When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments, God was again likened to fire (Exodus 24):

12 And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them. …

15 And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. …

17 And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.

And in the story of Abram who became Abraham (Genesis 15):

He said, “Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him. …

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: 

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El Greco, Pentecost

And in the New Testament, Acts, Ch 2:

1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

“Pentecost” is actually a Jewish holiday. It is partly a harvest festival and partly a celebration of when God gave Moses the books of the Torah (aka the Bible).

I regard the Jewish holiday calendar as cyclical, with many layers of meaning built into each holiday. Pentecost, (aka Shavuot), is both an early harvest festival and a Torah festival. Sukkot is a fall harvest festival similar to Thanksgiving, but it also celebrates the time the Israelites spent wandering in the desert during the Exodus (with overtones of a Jewish wedding). Judaism is an old religion, and meaning has built up over time as people have lived their lives in different ways.

The fact that two different religions celebrate similar holidays on similar dates is not, a priori, sign that they copied each other. I think it very likely that people of all sorts, from all over the world, have placed important holidays on dates like “the solstice” and “the harvest” because these are easy dates to keep track of. You know when the harvest is in; you know when the days are short or long. Other days, well, those are a little trickier to keep track of. Festivals that take place at the same time of year took on similar elements because those elements were common to the times–Sukkot and Thanksgiving both involve lots of food because they are harvest festivals, not because they are copying each other. Winter solstice celebrations involve fire because people light fires to keep themselves warm during cold winter months.

Christmas/Chanukah similarly show many layers of meaning. At the most basic, we have a solstice celebration: the temples and hearths need cleaning and the sacred fires are kindled at the start of winter. We have the historical observance of an actual, historical event–the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, as related in 1 Maccabees:

52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year,[b] 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. 

Interestingly, the Seleucid Empire’s control of the Temple symbolically dies here on the same day it was born.

Hanukkah is also, according to the account given in 2 Maccabees, a delayed Sukkot festival (Sukkot is normally 8 days long in the diaspora). Sukkot, the festival of tabernacles, was probably delayed either due to the Seleucids banning traditional Jewish holidays, as the Maccabees complained, or due to the war raging in the country at the time. A further fourth reason for Hanukkha is given in 2 Maccabees, the celebration of a similar miracle performed by Nehemiah during the rebuilding of the Temple a few hundred years before.

What does it mean for early Christian authors to assert that Jesus was born on Chanukah, died on Passover, and the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on Shavuot (Pentecost)? Not only does this situate Jesus firmly within the Jewish liturgical year, it is a specific claim about who Jesus is.

For Jews, God’s presence in the world is the Torah, hence why the eternal light burns near the Torah scrolls in synagogues. In churches, this is of course the Eucharist.

The transition from Word to Eucharist is eloquently expressed by John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  …

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

For Christians, Jesus is the presence of God in the world symbolized by the menorah’s flame. 

What does it mean for modern authors to assert that Jesus was Mithras? It is a claim that  the New Testament is a bunch of malarkey and Jesus was, rather than an historical personage, a plagiarised pagan deity.

But let’s take a closer look at Mithras and the claimed parallels. According to Wikipedia:

Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a Roman mystery religion centered on the god Mithras. The religion was inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian god Mithra, though the Greek Mithras was linked to a new and distinctive imagery, and the level of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice is debated.[1] The mysteries were popular among the Roman military from about the 1st to the 4th century CE.[2]

Certainly Mithraism was popular in the area and some of its iconography is similar to later Christian paintings and statues. Christians may have borrowed stylistic motifs from Greek and Roman art, since there were no iconographic representations of God in traditional Judaism.

But let’s look at the more substantive claims.

The pro-Mithra camp usually makes a list of attributes Mithra and Jesus supposedly have in common, eg:

Mithra has the following in common with the Jesus character:

  • Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.
  • The babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds.
  • He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
  • He had 12 companions or “disciples.”
  • He performed miracles.
  • As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
  • He ascended to heaven.
  • Mithra was viewed as the Good Shepherd, the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.
  • Mithra is omniscient, as he “hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him.”
  • He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
  • His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
  • His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”
  • Mithra “sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers.”
  • Mithraism emphasized baptism.

There are two problems with such lists. First, reducing any religion to a bullet points tends to render it almost unrecognizable, and second, many of these points are just plain wrong.

Here’s a comparison of Judaism and Sikhism, for example:

  • Both religions stress the importance of wearing hats
  • Sikh and Jewish prayers both assert the existence of one God.
  • Both started in Asia.
  • Sikhs have gurus, who are teachers. Judaism has rabbis, who are also teachers.
  • Sikhs and Jews both worship in dedicated religious buildings.
  • Both forbid religious iconography.
  • Both teach that God is formless and omnipotent.
  • Judaism has “10 commandments”. Sikhism has “10 Gurus”.
  • Sikhs have a ritual bathing ceremony called “Amrit Sanchar.” Jews have a ritual bathing ceremony that takes place in a ritual bathing pool, the mikvah.
  • Both have sacred texts

There you have it. Judaism and Sikhism have so much in common, they must be copying each other. I’m sure if you met a Jew and a Sikh in person, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

1. The first claim, that Mithras was born on December 25th, is basically wrong. Zoroastrians celebrate Mithras’s birth on the solstice, or December 21st. In the 4th century AD, in some parts of the Roman Empire, the festival’s date was shifted to December 25th, probably due to issues with the calendar (leap years).

The claims that everyone was celebrating Mithras’s birthday on December 25th are extrapolated from Roman celebrations of the solstice (Sol Invictus). Since some people equated Mithras and the sun, the logic goes, therefore everyone who celebrated the solstice was actually celebrating Mithras.

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Mithras born from a rock, marble, 186 AD: just the spitting image of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, isn’t he?

2. Second, Mithras is most commonly depicted as born not from a virgin, but from a rock. The statues are very clear on this point. Only in a few isolated traditions is Mithras given a human mother; these were not the dominant traditions in the area. Even if we are generously metaphorical and allow the claim that Mithras was born in a cave, rather than directly from a rock, Jesus was not born in a cave. Jesus was born in a stable, where animals are kept, or possibly even the lower floor of a home where animals were kept during the winter.

3. Pretty much all babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes. I’ve swaddled my own babies. Oh no, I’ve produced gods.

4. I’ve found nothing confirming that Mithras was laid in a manger. He looks too big in most of his “birth from a rock” statues to be laid in anything, anyway, because he emerged fairly grown up.

5. Mithras is generally depicted attended by two torch bearers, Cautes and Cautophates. They symbolize sunrise and sunset, as Mithras is a solar deity. Occasionally, they are depicted holding shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.

The presence of shepherds at the nativity isn’t really an important theological point in Christianity. Neither is Cautes and Cautophates occasionally holding shepherds’ crooks in statues. These symbols are not meaningfully similar.

6. Empty claim: Anyone can walk around and teach things.

7. The claim that Mithras had 12 companions or disciples is taken from depictions of Mithras alongside the Zodiac. I don’t think anyone was claiming that Mithras was literally accompanied by Pisces and Cancer.

8. Empty: Pretty much ever religious leader/saint/prophet has performed “miracles.”

9. Mithras did not sacrifice himself as a bull. He killed a bull. The bull-killing scene is the most common depiction of Mithras, so it’s hard to figure out how someone could get this wrong. Let’s let Wikipedia describe the scene:

In every mithraeum the centrepiece was a representation of Mithras killing a sacred bull, an act called the tauroctony.[a][33] … The centre-piece is Mithras clothed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap; who is kneeling on the exhausted[34] bull, holding it by the nostrils[34] with his left hand, and stabbing it with his right. … A scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. A raven is flying around or is sitting on the bull. … The two torch-bearers are on either side, dressed like Mithras, Cautes with his torch pointing up and Cautopates with his torch pointing down.[36][37] Sometimes Cautes and Cautopates carry shepherds’ crooks instead of torches.[38]

A Roman tauroctony relief from Aquileia (c. 175 CE; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

The event takes place in a cavern, into which Mithras has carried the bull, after having hunted it, ridden it and overwhelmed its strength.[39] Sometimes the cavern is surrounded by a circle, on which the twelve signs of the zodiac appear. Outside the cavern, top left, is Sol the sun, with his flaming crown, often driving a quadriga. A ray of light often reaches down to touch Mithras. At the top right is Luna, with her crescent moon, who may be depicted driving a biga.[40]

In some depictions, the central tauroctony is framed by a series of subsidiary scenes to the left, top and right, illustrating events in the Mithras narrative; Mithras being born from the rock, the water miracle, the hunting and riding of the bull, meeting Sol who kneels to him, shaking hands with Sol and sharing a meal of bull-parts with him, and ascending to the heavens in a chariot.[40]On the back side was another, more elaborate feasting scene.

If you read that and conclude, “Yup, sounds just like Jesus, shepherds, and apostles,” I’m not sure what to say.

Since Mithras worship was part of a mystery cult, we have very few records of what actually went on in there.. We have archaeological remains, of course, which show mostly feasting. This is the claimed “eucharist.” These were big feasts which left a fair amount of trash behind. Calling any ritual feast a “eucharist” or “last supper” is certainly a stretch–we might as well note that I have a supper every evening. (And besides, there is a much closer parallel to the ceremony with the bread and wine found in Judaism.)

The presence of many cherry pits in the Mithraic garbage indicates that much of that feasting took place in summer, when cherries are ripe–around the time of the summer solstice. If Mithras inspired so much Christian ritual, then why doesn’t Jesus have a summer celebration?

As for what Mithras was called, we have very few actual written texts on the religion–unlike Christians, Mithras’s worshipers did not go around telling people what they believed. There is one inscription on a wall that reads “et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso” which translates to “And you have saved us… in the shed blood.” This is probably a reference to the killing of the bull, which was celebrated with feasting, rather than a Christ-like sacrifice. 

There is one reasonably complete surviving text that might have been part of a “Mithraic liturgy,” and it bears no relation to anything that goes on in a Christian church service:

At this level (lines 537–585), the revelation-seeker is supposed to breathe deeply and feel himself lifted up, as if in midair, hearing and seeing nothing of mortal beings on earth. He is promised to see instead the divine order of the “visible gods” rising and setting. Ritual silence is prescribed, followed by another sequence of hissing, popping, and thirteen magic words: “Then you will see the gods looking graciously upon you and no longer rushing at you, but rather going about in their own order of affairs.” After a shocking crash of thunder, another admonition of silence, and a magic incantation, the disk of the sun is to open and issue five-pointed stars. The eyes are to be closed for the following prayer. …

Next to come forth are the seven Pole-Lords, wearing linen loincloths and with faces of bulls. They have seven gold diadems, and are also to be hailed individually by name. These have powers of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes, as well as the capacity to grant physical health, good eyesight and hearing, and calmness (lines 673–692).The two groups of seven, female and male, are both depicted in an Egyptian manner and represent the “region of the fixed stars.”[16]

This might of course be some other mystery cult, there just aren’t any other texts that survived with enough complete sentences to actually read them. We do have a lot of statues similar to these pole-lords, but with the faces of lions instead of bulls.

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Lion-Headed figure from the Sidon Mithraeum, circa 500 AD

These statues are wild and we have no idea what they were for or what they meant. They might be related to a particular demon in Zoroastrianism, or they might represent the “lion degree” of initiation into the cult’s rites, or something else entirely. At any rate, we don’t find these statues in modern churches, and their importance within the Mithraic mysteries has not been transferred to anything in Christianity.

Any claim that Mithras was “called this” or “compared to that” or given particular attributes is on shaky ground given the lack of written records. Nothing in the normal Mithraic iconography looks like the peaceful good shepherd of Christianity. His association with Lions and Lambs is part of his general association with the zodiac, which contains both Leo the Lion and Aries the Ram–as well as Cancer the Crab and Scorpio the Scorpion. Why is Jesus not associated with scorpions, if Mithras was?

Mithras did ascend into Heaven, because he is a solar deity associated with the sun, moon, and stars, and heaven is where the stars are. Zeus lives in a kind of “heaven,” too, as do Odin and Thor.

I hope I do not need to keep refuting individual points. I’ve found nothing about baptism or Sundays associated with Mithras, and as for the marks on the foreheads of Mithraic initiates, Christians do not normally go around with marks on their heads, except on Ash Wednesday as a sign of mourning.

And the son/sun pun doesn’t even work in Latin. (Or Greek.)

My personal opinion is that the Mithras Cult operated rather like a modern Masonic Lodge or even a Rotary Club: a men’s club that periodically feasted together. (Mithraic cults didn’t accept female members.)

There are plenty of obvious pagan practice that survives in Christianity–the Christmas tress, for example. And the influence of pagan Greek philosophers like Plato on early Christianity is a subject worth whole volumes. We could even ask how much of Judaism owes its origins to Zoroastrianism, especially parts developed during the Babylonian exile. But at this point, I think it’s safe to say that people promoting the “Jesus was Mithras” story are either completely ignorant of Mithraism or purposefully trying to denigrate Christianity.

Have a merry Christmas, Chanukah, Mithras Day, or whatever you celebrate.