There is a popular concept in many circles which postulates that Christianity is based off of pagan religions. The idea that Jesus, His birth, life, death and resurrection is based off of pagan mythology, has been answered in a previous article, "Is Jesus A Copy Of Pagan Gods?" Perhaps one of the more prominent claims involves the religious cult of Mithra (or Mithras) known as Mithraism. Allegedly, Christianity borrowed the concepts of baptism from Mithraism, along with birth and resurrection, and the celebration of the birth of Mithras on December 25. At face value, this sounds similar to Christianity, and has persuaded more than a few individuals to believe that Christianity is false because it borrows from Mithraism. In this article, we will examine Mithraism, its teachings, and whether or not Christianity borrowed from it. (Photo credit: CristianChirita, October 2008 permission under GFDL)
First off, it should be noted that simply because similarities are found in different religions does not mean that Christianity copied - or borrowed - from any religions any more than a similarity between two paintings would mean that one painting was copied from another. Second, simply because an individual makes an assertion or postulates something does not make it true. Great claims require evidence, and if such claims about Christianity are made, a case would first have to be established. With this understanding, what was Mithraism? Now called Mithraism or Roman Mithraism, the Mithraic mysteries was a mystery religion practiced within the Roman Empire from the first to the fourth century AD. Mithra was a Persian god who featured prominently in Zoroastrianism, with a Hindu parallel, Mitra, adapted to the Greek Mithras. This religion was called the Mysteries of Mithras or the Mysteries of the Persians by the Romans. The religion itself was rather popular among the Roman military.
What do we know about Mithraism? What sources do we have? Frankly, there are no written works from the religion which survive to yield insightful information, though there are a few brief references in Greek and Latin works. According to David Ulansey, Ph.D. Religion, "in the absence of any ancient explanations of its meaning, Mithraic iconography has proven to be exceptionally difficult to decipher." We do have about four hundred and twenty archaeological sites from which we have gleaned information related to this religious cult. There have been approximately 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of tauroctony, and about 400 other related monuments, according to Manfred Clauss in the work, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries. The Romans also considered the mysteries as having some Persian and Zoroastrian sources. Tauroctony likely comes from the Greek ταυροκτόνος (tauroktonos) meaning, "slaughtering bulls." It can be difficult to interpret some of the material on Mithras, because most of what we know about Mithraism comes simply from the reliefs and sculptures.
Now, what of the claim that Jesus and Mithras are similar due to their "birth date?" The birthday of the "Sun of Righteousness" was the "birthday of Mithras, the sun god worshiped by people in what is now Iran - and by many Roman soldiers. Mithraism was a bloody cult, which may have been one of the attractions for solders." It was celebrated on December 25, as adherents of the Christianity-Mithraism connection have pointed out. While it is true that the birth of Mithras was celebrated on December 25, it is also true that it was also celebrated on the Winter solstice. None of the available records show that the pagan god was ever claimed to be a teacher, Mithras did not have twelve disciples, and he also had no bodily resurrection. Along with this, a historical and religious issue arises, since Mithras was born out of solid rock, and not of a virgin woman. Mithras is also recorded as having battled first with the sun and then a primeval bull, which was thought to be the first act of creation. Mithras proceeded killed this cosmic bull, which then became the ground of life for the human race.
|2nd-3rd century relief portraying Tauroctony|
In sculptures and reliefs, Mithras is shown as having been born of the rock as one already in his youth, emerging with a torch in one hand and a dagger in the other. He is also portrayed in the nude, showing holding his legs together and wearing a Phrygian cap. There are variations, however. For example, in one instance, he has a globe in one hand, and other cases he is holding a thunderbolt, a bit reminiscent of Zeus in Greek mythology, whose Greek counterpart was Jupiter and his Etruscan counterpart was Tinia. In Mithraism, Mithras was the god of war, battle, faith, justice, and contract. Allegedly, Mithras also rose from the dead on the third day, was called the "Son of God," along with baptism having been borrowed from the Mithras religion. But is this actually the case?
As aforementioned, what we know of Mithraism essentially comes from archaeology, though there are a few recorded mentions of it. The Thebaid (c.80 AD), an epic poem by Statius, makes reference to Mithras in a cave, wrestling to a being with horns. The context of this struggle is a prayer to the Phoebus, one of the most important Greco-Roman gods. Another reference is from the Greek biographer Plutarch (46-127 AD), who says that the "secret mysteries... of Mithras" were practiced by pirates of Cilicia. He goes on to say that "They likewise offered strange sacrifices; those of Olympus I mean; and they celebrated certain secret mysteries, among which those of Mithras continue to this day, being originally instituted by them." The historian Dio Cassius (2nd-3rd century AD) conveys that the name "Mithras" was spoken by Tiridates as he was about to receive the crown, telling the emperor that he honored him as Mithras. The philosopher Porphyry (3rd-4th century AD) gave an account of the origins of the Mysteries in De antro nympharum (The Cave of the Nymphs). Some consider it to be an inaccurate depiction of the mystery religion, for various reasons, but nevertheless, Ulansey points out that Porphyry "confirms... that astral conceptions played an important role in Mithraism."
There are a few other references to Mithras and the religious cult. For example, the Mithras Liturgy presents the idea that Mithras is the sun god Helios. Evidently, then, we know a few things about said cult. But did Christianity derive baptism from Mithraism? In his book, The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel interviewed Gregory A. Boyd, Ph.D., who is well known for his criticism of the Jesus Seminar along with his written works against their thinking and finds, including several other books. When Boyd was asked about the "mystery religions" and ancient pagan gods which some believe Jesus is based off of, which includes Mithraism, Boyd replied:
"While it's true that some mystery religions had stories of gods dying and rising, these stories always revolved around the natural life cycle of death and rebirth. Crops die in the fall and come to life in the spring. People express the wonder of this ongoing phenomenon through mythological stories about gods dying and rising. These stories were always cast in a legendary form. They depicted events that happened 'once upon a time.' Contrast that with the depiction of Jesus Christ in the gospels. They talk about someone who actually lived several decades earlier, and they name names - crucified under Pontius Pilate, when Caiaphas was the high priest, and the father of Alexander and Rufus carried his cross, for example. That's concrete historical stuff. It has nothing in common with stories about what supposedly happened 'once upon a time.'"
Boyd continued, "And Christianity has nothing to do with life cycles or the harvest. It has to do with a very Jewish belief - which is absent from the mystery religion - about the resurrection of the dead and about life eternal and reconciliation from God. As for the suggestion that the New Testament doctrines of baptism or communion come from mystery religions, that's just nonsense. For one thing, the evidence for these supposed parallels comes after the second century, so any borrowing would have to come from Christianity, not the other way around. And when you look carefully, the similarities vanish. For instance, to get to a higher level in the Mithra cult, followers had to stand under a bull while it was slain, so they could be bathed in its blood and guts. Then they'd join the others in eating the bull. Now, to suggest that Jews would find anything attractive about this and want to model baptism and communion after this barbaric practice is completely implausible, which is why most scholars don't go for it."
Indeed, according to Stephen M. Miller, "As the story goes, Mithras was born with a knife. He later rode and killed the cosmic bull, whose blood fertilized all vegetation and gave life to the planet. Cult members worshiped Mithras by killing bulls and standing in a put below the corpses to let the blood wash over them. They were literally washed in the blood of the bull. Christians, on the other hand, thought of themselves as 'washed... in the blood of the Lamb' (Revelation 7:14)." Regarding the celebration of Christ's birth of December 25 and how it related to Mithraism, "Christians argued that their celebrations on December 25 had nothing to do with trying to Christianize pagan sun worship. As one anonymous Christian explained in the AD 300s, 'We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.'" Though mere speculation, perhaps part of the reason December 25 was used as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ was partially to counter the celebration of the birth of Mithras. To note, the birth of Jesus was very likely not in December, but more than likely in one of the spring months. This is one of the common misconceptions surrounding the birth of Jesus - that He was born on December 25. From what we can glean from New Testament documents, Jesus was not born on December 25, and the argument for similarity between Christianity and Mithraism on this point is therefore without basis, as is the claim concerning baptism.
What of the claim that "Son of God" comes from Mithraism, and not Christianity? This is a fallacious claim, and is historically inaccurate. Christians believe that there are references to Jesus, who is called "the son," found not only in Psalm 2, but also in Proverbs 30:4, "Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know!" Luke 1:32 and Matthew 3:17 also demonstrate that the Son who is being referred to is Christ, with other points of the passage further clarified by John 3:13, Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, Acts 1:9-11, and Ephesians 4:9-10. Another passage to consider is Hosea 11:1, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." This is quoted as a fulfillment of prophecy concerning the young Jesus in Matthew 2:13-15, which also implies that there is a Father. Other references include Exodus 4:22 and 2nd Samuel 7:14. Certainly the phrase "sons of God" also appears in both Testaments, however, this simply means that those who accept Jesus as savior are adopted as sons (and daughters) into God's family (John 1:12-13).
The above passages have been mentioned to demonstrate that there are Hebrew Bible references to this "son" which pre-dates Mithraism by several centuries. While it is true that there are several similarities between Christianity and Mithraism, if there was any borrowing, it was Mithraism borrowing from Christianity. Christianity teaches that Jesus came to die for the sins of mankind, and in doing so, initiated the New Covenant. The major doctrines of Jesus as the son of God (Zechariah 12:10), who is born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), was crucified (Psalm 22), the doctrine of blood atonement (Leviticus 17:11), the resurrection (Psalm 16:10), and salvation by faith (Habakkuk 2:4), among other things, are found within the Hebrew Bible, which predates Mithraism.
For those who are not satisfied with the utilization of the Hebrew Bible as evidence, however, perhaps it would also be beneficial to examine one of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments. The Dead Sea Scroll fragment 4Q246 says, "Affliction will come on Earth... He will be called great... 'Son of God' he will be called and 'Son of the Most High' they will call him... His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom... He will judge the earth in truth and all will make peace." This fragment was written c.100 BC, which still predates Mithraism. This also indicates that when Jesus claimed to be the "Son of God," which the Jews understood as equality with God the Father (John 5:18), was also a claim to divinity. The early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr (103-165 AD), said of this cult, "Wherefore also the evil demons in mimicry have handed down that the same thing should be done in the Mysteries of Mithras. For that bread and a cup of water are in these mysteries set before the initiate with certain speeches you either know or can learn." Another apologist, Tertullian (160-220 AD), wrote that the "baptism" in Mithraism was a diabolical counterfeit of Christian baptism, essentially a distortion.
A final point to consider is historicity. Mithras, regardless of which religion we speak of - whether in Zoroastrianism, in Persian or in Mithraism itself, is a mythological being, and is not a historical person. On the other hand, Jesus is a historical person. Along with the twenty seven New Testament documents, which are continually affirmed by historical data and archaeological research, we have the testimony of the early church fathers, along with quite a few non-Christian sources, such as Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Flavius Josephus, Thallus, and others. We have more historical documents which make mention of Jesus and the events of His life and death (along with references to His follower's claim of His resurrection) than we do for Emperor Tiberius Caesar. If you remove Dr. Luke, who wrote the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts in the New Testament, this leaves only nine sources for Tiberius. Another example is Julius Caesar's "crossing the Rubicon," which is reported in two ancient sources, one of which is quoting the other. When compared to these and other examples, if we throw out the historicity of Jesus, we have to throw out a great deal of history as well.
Is Christianity derived from Mithraism? "Allegations of an early Christian dependence on Mithraism have been rejected on many grounds. Mithraism had no concept of the death and resurrection of its god and no place for any concept of rebirth -- at least during its early stages...During the early stages of the cult, the notion of rebirth would have been foreign to its basic outlook...Moreover, Mithraism was basically a military cult. Therefore, one must be skeptical about suggestions that it appealed to nonmilitary people like the early Christians." As Christianity spread throughout the known world, we find that other religions adopted certain Christian concepts. As noted by Bill Wilson, "While there are several sources that suggest that Mithraism included a notion of rebirth, they are all post-Christian. The earliest...dates from the end of the second century A.D." It is unlikely, then, that Christianity was derived from Mithraism. Rather, it was Mithraism which borrowed concepts from Christianity, as is the case with a few other religious systems of the time.
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Sources Beck, Roger. "Mithraism". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition. 20 July 2002.
 Geden, A. S. (15 October 2004). Select Passages Illustrating Mithraism 1925. Kessinger Publishing, 2004. 51.
 Ulansey, David (1991). Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries. New York: Oxford UP. p. 3.
 Ibid, .
 Miller, Stephen M. The Jesus of the Bible. 1st ed,. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing Inc., 2009. 48-49. Print.
 ""Is Jesus a myth? Is Jesus just a copy of the pagan gods of other ancient religions?"." Got Questions.org. Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 7 Jul 2011.
 Vermaseren, M. J.. "The miraculous Birth of Mithras". In László Gerevich. Studia Archaeologica. Brill. pp. 93–109.
 Statius: Thebaid 1.719 to 720
 Plutarch. Life of Pompey 24.
 Dio Cassius 63.5.2
 Ibid, . p18.
 Meyer, Marvin (2006). "The Mithras Liturgy". Qtd. in A.J. Levine, Dale C. Allison, Jr., and John Dominic Crossan. The historical Jesus in context. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 180.
 Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998. 121-122. Print.
 Ibid, .
 Qtd. by Francis Legge. Forerunners and rivals of Christianity: being studies in religious history from 330 B.C. to 330 A.D. 1950.
 Louis Bouyer. The Christian Mystery. pp. 70–.
 R. Nash, Christianity and the Hellenistic World as quoted in Norman Geisler, Baker's Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999, p. 492.
 Bill Wilson, compiled by, The Best of Josh McDowell: A Ready Defense, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993, p. 167.