“The question will arise, By whom is to be interpreted the sense of the passages which make for heresies? By the devil, of course, to whom pertain those wiles which pervert the truth, and who, by the mystic rites of his idols, vies even with the essential portions of the sacraments of God. He, too, baptizes somethat is, his own believers and faithful followers; he promises the putting away of sins by a layer (of his own); and if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown. What also must we say to (Satan’s) limiting his chief priest to a single marriage? He, too, has his virgins; he, too, has his proficients in continence…is it not clear to us that the devil imitated the well-known moroseness of the Jewish law? Since, therefore he has sown such emulation in his great aim of expressing, in the concerns of his idolatry, those very things of which consists the administration of Christ’s sacraments, it follows, of course, that the same being, possessing still the same genius, both set his heart upon, and succeeded in, adapting to his profane and rival creed the very documents of divine things and of the Christian saints.”
The Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian, (ca. 160 – ca. 220 A.D.)
When I first discovered (and wrote about) the connections and similarities between Jesus and Mithras several years ago, I was fueled with excitement. Wow! Mithras also had 12 disciples, was also born on Dec. 25th, his followers also had a communal meal where they ate bread and wine the symbolized their savior’s body and blood; they also had baptism for the forgiveness of sins – and Mithras even died and came back to life? And Mithras was a Persian god going back into Zoroastrianism, possibly a thousand years before Christ?
No wonder the internet is so full of websites repeating the same (unresearched and unvalidated) claims that Jesus is a Mithras copy or replica.
The truth, however, is much more complicated. In this article I’ll try to look at Mithras as objectively as possibly and determine what, if any, is the extant of his relationship to Jesus Christ.
History of Mithras
Mithra was originally a Persian sun god (or not exactly; sometimes he is equated with the sun, but sometimes higher or lower in rank), dating back to around 600bc if not earlier. Mentions of the god are found in both the Vedas and the Avesta (Hindu and Persian sacred texts); he became associated with Chaldean astrology and worship of Marduk, and finally came into conduct with the Western world through Alexander’s conquests. Mithraism spread rapidly through the Greek Empire and was well known by 100BC.
Mithraism was a religion of soldiers; stress was laid on brotherhood, fellowship, bravery, cleanliness, and fidelity. Initiation consisted of physical tests of endurance.
For example fasting is first imposed upon the neophytes for a period of about fifty days. If this is successfully endured, for two days they are exposed to extreme heat, then again plunged into snow for twenty days. And thus the severity of the discipline is gradually increased, and if the postulant shows himself capable of endurance he is finally admitted to the highest grades. (Pseudo-Nonnus)
Several Roman Emperors built temples to Mithra and put his face on coins. His popularity increased until the laws of Theodosius outlawed worship of Mithra (with a death penalty) in the end of the 4th century.
(For a more complete summary, see The Catholic Encyclopedia Online)
Influenced by Zoroastrianism, Mithraic cosmology is conceived of as a battle between light (Ahura Mazda) and darkness (Ahriman). In prehistory, the evil forces rose up to overthrow the good forces; however they were beaten and thrown into Hell. They escape, and find refuge on earth, where they wander and afflict man.
He was born, fully grown, out of a rock or a cave (thus his name, the ‘god of the rock’). Mithra is the mediator between man and god; Mithraics believed that through him (and through certain ritualistic processes in this life) they will achieve immortality. Mithra will come again at the end of the world, and thus prove himself never conquered.
Mithraism was a mystery religion; a religion that taught it’s truth in several different stages and only revealed wisdom when an initiate was prepared for it. There are several references to the ‘markings’ of Mithras; initiates seemed to get a cross tattooed on their foreheads – the cross was the symbol of the sun, and also the shape of the sword. Initiates had to prove themselves masters over their physical passions, through fasting and ordeals. It also appears that they were vegetarians (they believed in reincarnation/transmigration and so refrained from killing any animal, much like modern Buddhists.)
Mithraism had 7 levels of initiation, and tying it to other mystery cults, such as the Pythagoreans, Orphics or the writings of Hermes Trismegistus (all of which to my knowledge, believe in transmigration of the souls, the impurity of the body and the ‘7 worlds’ or planets that must be passed through after death; the right knowledge of proper procedure (as in the Egyptian book of the dead) being necessary to make the trip safely.) Celsus demonstrates below some of the complexity of this system:
After this, Celsus, desiring to exhibit his learning in his treatise against us, quotes also certain Persian mysteries, where he says: “These things are obscurely hinted at in the accounts of the Persians, and especially in the mysteries of Mithras, which are celebrated amongst them. For in the latter there is a representation of the two heavenly revolutions,—-of the movement, viz., of the fixed stars, and of that which take place among the planets, and of the passage of the soul through these. The representation is of the following nature: There is a ladder with lofty gates, and on the top of it an eighth gate. The first gate consists of lead, the second of tin, the third of copper, the fourth of iron, the fifth of a mixture of metals, the sixth of silver, and the seventh of gold. The first gate they assign to Saturn, indicating by the ‘lead’ the slowness of this star; the second to Venus, comparing her to the splendour and softness of tin; the third to Jupiter, being firm and solid; the fourth to Mercury, for both Mercury and iron are fit to endure all things, and are money-making and laborious; the fifth to Mars, because, being composed of a mixture of metals, it is varied and unequal; the sixth, of silver, to the Moon; the seventh, of gold, to the Sun,—-thus imitating the different colours of the two latter.” He next proceeds to examine the reason of the stars being arranged in this order, which is symbolized by the names of the rest of matter. Musical reasons, moreover, are added or quoted by the Persian theology; and to these, again, he strives to add a second explanation, connected also with musical considerations.
Slaying of the Bull
Unfortunately, Mithraic written texts and studies on Mithraicism (such as the many volumes on Mithras written by Eubulus, as recorded by Jerome) were destroyed by Christian persecution. What remains are the symbolic and graphical representations found in the cave-like Mithraic grottos.
Mithra is nearly always shown standing over a bull, slitting its throat. This led some early researchers to conclude that Mithraism revolved around the Taurobolium; the practice of slaughtering a live bull and drinking or bathing in its blood. (Ninian Smart)
Actually, as others have pointed out, there was no physical space for such a procedure in the Mithraim. “Seldom if ever would the initiate be sprinkled with the blood of a slain bull. (Frend 277)
Moreover, due to the overwhelmingly consistent astrological features found, it is more probable that the Bull-Slaying act of Mithra was a celestial event of great importance to the spiritual climate of the cult.
As we know (and as attested in the above picture) the constellations have remained intact for several thousand years. The bull above is surrounded by a Scorpion (scorpio), a Sea-Goat (capricorn), two fish swimming in opposite directions (pisces), a woman holding scales, (libra) etc. Mithra here is accomplishing some monumental task by slaying the astrological sign of Taurus, the bull.
Although I won’t go into it here – I believe the symbolism represents the fact that the spring equinox took place under the sign of Taurus, and thus when the sun was victorious over darkness (by being reborn at the end of winter) the battle is represented by Mithra slaying the bull. Another interpretation is that Mithraism originally developed during the end of the age of Taurus, (2400BC), and that Mithra was seen as causing the precession of the equinoxes and virtually self-manifesting the coming age of Aries (2400 – 200BC).
A further interpretation I have come across (Lactantius Placidus) is that the bull represents the moon (like Egypt’s moon/bull goddess Hathor); in which case this could symbolize an eclipse.
The following fragments also hint of similarity – such as Jesus bearing the burden of the cross:
“This bullock which he properly carried on his golden shoulders.”
“And the most important (orders?) of the gods I have borned on my shoulders and carried”
“You have saved us by shedding the external blood.”
Extracts from CIMRM 485 (dowden79)
It is not true that Mithraicism had no sacred writings; however, with the subsequent rise of the Christian empire, Mithraic texts were gathered and destroyed.
Syncretism and translation of gods
Many ancient passages referring to Mithras compare him to Apollo or Osiris; he is simply the Persian name for the ‘unconquerable sun’. Translation and synthesis of religions was a common trend in the 2nd and 3rd century; with the joining of races under the Greco-Roman empire, rather than fighting for supremacy, most people assumed that different cultures worshiped the same gods under various names. Thus Mithras was just another sun god, and desirable features or symbols from other cultures were blended together. When the Roman Empire celebrated Dec. 25th as the Day of the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus), followers of Apollo, Mithras, Osiris, Attis and other mystery cults could join together in celebration of light and goodness.
Moreover, as Mithraism believed in transmigration, One True God, the Logos (yes, Mithras was also given this title, which is based on Greek philosophy and used as early as Heraclitus c.500bc), the doctrine of Mithraism had nothing that conflicted with the philosophical underpinnings of Greco-Roman society, such as the Stoics or Neo-platonists.
Similarities between Jesus Christ and Mithras
So what has this mystery cult/astrological/bull slaying/vegetarian soldier god have to do with Jesus Christ? On the surface not much; especially when we interpret the Mithraic symbols metaphorically and the gospel stories literally, as has been done by ‘Orthodox’ Christianity from the beginning of the movement.
The biggest difference between Mithraism and Christianity is that, from an early point in the movement, Christians began believing in Jesus as a human prophet. Although their stories of Jesus included the same symbols as found in Mithraism and other mystery religions – these were accidental, or inspired by the devil, and not to be interpreted in the same fashion as their parallels in other religions.
The main reason comparisons continue to be made about Mithras and Jesus Christ is that the early Christian writers told us that Mithraism was similar to Christianity! Today we can argue that – although they may have had a ‘meal’, it was no communion; or that Mithraic features that parallel Christianity actually were included into Mithraism much later and were actually copied from Christianity; or that those damning correspondences (such as both religions celebrating the birth of their savior on Dec. 25th) are simply unimportant.
However, Christians were obviously and continuously threatened both by the popularity of Mithraism and by its similarities to Christianity. This doesn’t mean of course that they were exactly the same; but it is certainly worth going back to the original texts and discovering just what they had in common.
“He is one of the gods, lower than Ahura Mazda (the Supreme Deity of Light of the Persians) but higher than the visible Sun. He is creator and orderer of the universe, hence a manifestation of the creative Logos or Word. Seeing mankind afflicted by Ahriman, the cosmic power of darkness, he incarnated on earth. His birth on 25 December was witnessed by shepherds. After many deeds he held a last supper with his disciples and returned to heaven. At the end of the world he will come again to judge resurrected mankind and after the last battle, victorious over evil, he will lead the choosen ones through a river of fire to blessed immortality. It is possible to prepare oneself for this event during life by devotion to him, and to attain a degree of communion with him through the sacramental means of initiation.” Mystery Religions in the Ancient World, Godwin 99
Another one of these devilish nuisances to Christian apologists is the Mithraic mark upon the forehead, a rite similar to that within Catholicism. In The Chaplet (De Corona), Tertullian comments on the “mimicry of martyrdom,” as well as the crown and the mark of Mithraism, and says:
Let us take note of the devices of the devil, who is wont to ape some of God’s things with no other design than, by the faithfulness of his servants, to put us to shame, and to condemn us.
The mark on the forehead as a sign of religious respect is well known to have been used in India for millennia. Even the Bible records Ezekiel (9:4) as marking the foreheads of the “righteous”:
And the Lord said to him, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.”
Concerning this Jewish mark, Lundy states:
The cross was marked on the foreheads of the men of Jerusalem that were to be spared from destruction, in Ezekiel’s time, for it was tau [T]; (9:4-6) it was stamped on valuable documents, coins, and on the necks of camels and thighs of horses; it was woven into garments; and in various other ways it was used before the Christian era as a symbol of ownership, of safety and of solemn compact.
O’Brien says that the Jewish mark was the “cross X,” as admitted by Jerome. Concerning this mark, the Catholic Encyclopedia relates:
Thus the Greek letter (tau or thau) appears in Ezechiel (ix, 4), according to St. Jerome and other Fathers, as a solemn symbol of the Cross of Christ”Mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh.” The only other symbol of crucifixion indicated in the Old Testament is the brazen serpent in the Book of Numbers (xxi, 8-9). Christ Himself thus interpreted the passage: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John, iii, 14). The Psalmist predicts the piercing of the hands and the feet (Ps. xxi. 17).
Nevertheless, despite its presence in Judaism, a Protestant Christian website protests that the sign of the cross itself is Satanic, representing a Mithraic ritual that has erroneously found its way into Christianity:
After baptism into the Mysteries of Mithra, the initiate was marked on the forehead. The sign of the cross formed by the elliptic and the celestial equator was one of the signs of Mithra.
There is no Biblical support for the inclusion of Mithraic ritual, which is the worship of Satan, in the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Creator of heaven and earth. It is a Satanic scheme to disguise the transgression of Gods laws under the title of “Christianity.”
Worship on Sunday
In the fifth Tablet of the Babylonian (Chaldean) Epic of Creation, by the great God Marduk, we read, lines 17 and 18: “On the seventh day he appointed a holy day, And to cease from all work he commanded.” (Records of the Past, vol. ix; quoted, Clarke, Ten Great Religions, ii, p. 383.)
Justin Martyr on Mithras
Justin is one of the earliest Christian apologists – he converted to Christianity around 130ad and was martyred in 165. Interestingly, Justin was kind of a spiritual tourist; he searched for a long time for a faith or religious teacher before settling on Christianity – however, he wasn’t willing to put in any time or effort (he was refused by a Pythagorean until he first learned about music, astronomy, and geometry, and quit another teacher when he was asked to pay a fee.) So in his quest for a free and easy faith, he found Christianity (many, like Justin, may consider these the virtues of Christianity – I do not.)
At any rate, Justin’s apologetic writings often refer to and make comparisons between Christianity and Mithraism.
And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (Emphasis added)
Justin also argues that the authors of Mithraism copied from the Old Testament (Mithras was born out of a cave because Daniel or Isaiah mentions a cave, etc). The argument is weak. Mostly Justin relies on “Diabolical Mimicry” – the idea that the Devil mimics Christianity in paganism to confuse people – and stresses that Jesus was real, and therefore, more valuable than the mere myths of the pagans.
Was Jesus originally a pagan mystery god?
The controversy stems from a damning set of historical circumstances. The gospels of Jesus Christ are open to allegorical interpretation because they harbor the same symbols as are found in other mystery religions and pagan cults. Those familiar with philosophy, astrology and esoteric symbolism (as were all educated Greco-Romans); found it hard to ignore those same symbols in the gospels, and told the Christians that they could teaching them what it really means. Obviously this fueled the bitter animosity, creating an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality. Mithras became almost a symbol of everything the Christians hated about pagan society. An illuminating anecdote from the Christian historian Socrates (305-438) illustrates the climate. He says that Emperor Constantius turned over a formerly pagan temple to the Christians, and in the process of cleaning it, they found the bones and skulls of human beings sacrificed to Mithra (in some kind of magical divination practice). We have no way to tell the truth of this statement; they may have raided a group burial ground for all we know. In fact from the language used “were said to have…” sounds a lot like rumor. I can picture the Christians, who were already accusing the pagan of deep, dark, ritual and satanic magic, finding a bunch of bones and being excited about the ‘proof’.
In the process of clearing it, an adytum of vast depth was discovered which unveiled the nature of their heathenish rites: for there were found there the skulls of many persons of all ages, who were said to have been immolated for the purpose of divination by the inspection of entrails, when the pagans performed these and such like magic arts whereby they enchanted the souls of men.
Demonstrating the righteousness, immaturity, lack of propriety and respect for tradition which made them so hated by their contemporaries, the Christians took all the bones and skulls and ran around town showing off – look what we found! We told you that Mithraism was satanic! The pagans were very pissed off, and butchered the Christians mercilessly.
…on discovering these abominations in the adytum of the Mithreum, went forth eagerly to expose them to the view and execration of all; and therefore carried the skulls throughout the city, in a kind of triumphal procession, for the inspection of the people. When the pagans of Alexandria beheld this, unable to bear the insulting character of the act, they became so exasperated, that they assailed the Christians with whatever weapon chanced to come to hand, in their fury destroying numbers of them in a variety of ways: some they killed with the sword, others with clubs and stones; some they strangled with ropes, others they crucified, purposely inflicting this last kind of death in contempt of the cross of Christ: most of them they wounded; and as it generally happens in such a case, neither friends nor relatives were spared, but friends, brothers, parents, and children imbrued their hands in each other’s blood. -Ecclesiastical History III, 2.
So although Christianity was the ‘legal’ religion, and was growing in property and riches and political power, they were still disliked; and in contrast, the majority of the citizens of Alexandria weren’t willing to bear insult to their god Mithras.
Christians argue that it is the sense and not the symbol which is important; and yes, it is true that Christianity was emerging as a very unique religion, at odds with everything around it. This does not, however, solve the problem of why Christianity takes and reinterprets (or fails to interpret) symbols that belong to older traditions.
Either A) these similarities are of no consequence to the story and were grafted onto the biography of Jesus later or B) the tradition of Jesus began as a mystery cult but lost the ability to interpret its own symbols.
Early Christians, including Justin Martyr, who lived during the formative periods of both, never raise point A. Justin says either the similarities were caused by the devil (which we refuse as a faith-based argument) or that Mithras got its ideas from the OT – a dangerous position which brings Mithra into the fold of the Judaic-Christian tradition.
If we take this problematic situation, and assume that the gospels are (as they appear to be) part of the same universal, overwhelmingly homogeneous religious climate that they were wholly submersed in, then we might profit from interpreting the symbolic aspects of Jesus Christ via the paradigm of the various other mysteries; assuming that they were originally intended to be so interpreted.
Thus we might argue that Jesus, (both true god and also lamb of god), on the cross, committing suicide/filicide) is symbolically no different from Mithras using a sword to slay the Bull; both can be interpreted astrologically – as can the fact that Christians became ‘little fishes’ to augment the beginning of the age of Pisces, or the four animals that were chosen to represent the four evangelists. Interpreting the symbols of Christian and openly comparing them to other pagan cults was the tradition in Western academic research throughout the enlightenment.
(Charles François Dupuis wrote about the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity as early as 1798, although his evidence may be untrustworthy. He follows basically an anti-diabolical-mimicry argument. ie ‘since the argument given by apologists both confirms and fails to explain the similarities between Jesus and Mithras; therefore they exist, and Mithras came first.’)
The problem of paradigm
However, these ‘allegorical’ similarities are simply refuted by those that believe Jesus was a historical person; and so arguing that the transcendent, mysterious sun god – despite the shared titles, customs and symbols – is the same as the meek and mild preaching shepherd that Christians have in mind when they think of Jesus (much less comparing the suffering servant with the victorious soldier) is a waste of time. Of course these two figures are not the same. In fact, for the biographical, psychological make up of the literary figure of Jesus Christ, we will profit more from an investigation of Orpheus, or Ascelpius.
However, there is something further I would like to point out; the relationship between Mithras and the archangel Michael. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Michael became the patron saint of soldiers; immediately usurping the role of Mithras. Mithraea were converted into shrines for Michael (for instance the sacred cavern at Monte Gargano in Apulia, refounded in 493); and many such shrines still have bull imagery. Michael is always shone standing over Satan or the Dragon, winged and with a sword and shield (much like Mithras, and exactly like Perseus). Michael is the field commander of the army of god.
In Catholic tradition, it is Michael who defeated Satan and Michael who will come back to defeat the antichrist at the end of times. Michael was also a great healer – founding healing springs and sites of medicine; taking over the traditional medicinal authority of Ascelpius.
It is likely that the soldiers of the Roman empire would never have been satisfied with Jesus (indeed, how are any soldiers to be satisfied with Jesus’ ethical ‘turn the other cheek’ and his Old Testament commandment of ‘Thou shall not kill’?) It seems that it would have been impossible for Christianity to be successful without the inclusion of St. Michael, who easily allowed Mithra worship to continue under another name. This should not be seen as the superiority of Christianity or the insignificance of Mithraism – rather it is a testament to the strength and popularity of the ‘god of the rock’.
Who came first?
“The only dated Mithraic inscriptions from the pre-Christian period are the texts of Antiochus I of Commagene (69-34 B.C.) in eastern Asia Minor. After that there is one text possibly from the first century A.D., from Cappadocia, one from Phrygia dated to A.D. 77-78, and one from Rome dated to Trajan’s reign (A.D. 98-117). All other dated Mithraic inscriptions and monuments belong to the second century (after A.D. 140), the third, and the fourth century A.D. (M. J. Vermaseren, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, 1956).”
– Edwin M. Yamauchid, “Easter: Myth, Hallucination, or History?”
According to Plutarch, a Greek biographer and Neo-Platonist philosopher, the worship of Mithras was first absorbed by the Romans around 70 B.C.E during Pompey’s campaign against Cicilian pirates. Mithra can be found to have been worshiped throughout Europe being that there are monuments to Mithra found everywhere from Scotland to India.
Although traces of Mithraic worship can be found to predate Jesus Christ, it is impossible to prove the more exact similarities – the baptism, communal meal, sign on the forehead, etc – did not develop only later in Mithraic worship. However, very similar themes are found in other mystery cults, which do go back much earlier than Christianity, and it is not difficult to argue that Mithraics borrowed these elements from early traditions, rather than Christianity.
The argument is often made that Mithras must have borrowed from Christianity. Bremmer, for example, in The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, argues “that the success of Christianity also influenced other religions either to revalue their belief in the resurrection (ie Zoroastrians) or to copy the belief (Mithraism, Attis). Success stimulates imitation – not only in economics, but also in the market of symbolic goods” (Bremmer 55). However, although Mithras and Attis may have come later than Jesus (which is in itself a statement impossible to prove), the ‘resurrection’ and other motifs could surely be traced back to Tammuz or Osiris, whose cults were definitely older. Moreover, the rites of Attis, especially, but also Mithras, seems to have been much more successful and widespread than Christianity was during the first several centuries of our era. Why would they borrow from Christians, a persecuted sect always at odds with their society, often ridiculed and identified as a ‘faith of fools’, rather than the socially acknowledged and much more powerful Egyptian or Persian religions?
The twisted argument that Bremmer and others make is that A) the Resurrection of Jesus can be traced to early Jewish sources (therefore Christians did not copy from the Pagans) and that similarities found in other cults then borrowed from Christianity. The problem with this reasoning is, that while Christianity did introduce a unique ‘resurrection of the flesh’ idea, other mystery religions universally believed in a spiritual resurrection, of the soul, out of the body, into one or many afterlives – a belief which can be traced to Pythagorean or Dionysian worship (such as found in the mysteries of Eleusis) at least for several centuries BC.