• Did Christianity copy mythology?
• Can people be good without God?
Q. I have heard that the story of Jesus is just a copy of Mithras, “The Sun God” who was worshipped centuries before Christ was born. Is this true? Is there a relationship between the two? From what I have read, Christianity and Mithraism are very similar. – Tami
A. Thanks for your great question, Tami. Actually, I’ve received several in this same vein, so I want to give you a pretty detailed answer.
This claim about Mithras was popularized by Dan Brown in his novel The Da Vinci Code. Says one of his fictional characters: “Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian God Mithras… was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.”
That can sound pretty challenging at first. Did Christianity merely steal its claims about Jesus from this earlier mystery religion?
I deal with this issue in my book The Case for the Real Jesus through my interview with a leading expert in this area: Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi, whose doctorate from Brandeis University is in Mediterranean studies. He was a professor at Miami University of Ohio for more than 35 years until his retirement.
Yamauchi has been called “a scholar of scholars”; has studied 22 languages; has delivered nearly a hundred papers on Mithraism, Gnosticism and other topics at scholarly societies; and has written seventeen books, including the authoritative tome Persia and the Bible, which includes his findings on Mithraism. He was selected to deliver an academic paper at the Second International Congress of Mithraic Studies in Tehran.
Here’s an edited version of the discussion that I had with him in the basement of his Ohio house:
“Mithraism was a late Roman mystery religion that was popular among soldiers and merchants, and which became a chief rival to Christianity in the second century and late,” Yamauchi told me. “The participants met in a cave-like structure called a mithraeum, which had as its cult statue Mithras stabbing a bull, the so-called tauroctony.
“There are relatively few texts from the Mithraists themselves. We have some graffiti and inscriptions, as well as descriptions of the religion from its opponents, including neo-Platonists and Christians. Much of what has been circulated on Mithraism has been based on the theories of a Belgium scholar named Franz Cumont. He published Mysteries of Mithras in 1903. His work led to speculation by the History of Religions School that Mithraism had influenced nascent Christianity. However, much of what Cumont suggested turned out to be quite unfounded. In the 1970s, scholars at the Second Mythraic Congress in Teheran came to criticize Cumont.
“The Congress produced two volumes of papers. A scholar named Richard Gordon from England and others concluded that Cumont’s theory was not supported by the evidence and, in fact, Cumont’s interpretations have now been analyzed and rejected on all major points. Contrary to what Cumont believed, even though Mithras was a Persian god who was attested as early as the fourteenth century BC, we have almost no evidence of Mithraism in the sense of a mystery religion in the West until very late – too late to have influenced the beginnings of Christianity.
“The first public recognition of Mithras in Rome was the state visit of Tiridates, the king of Armenia, in AD 66. There is also a reference earlier to some pirates in Cilicia who were worshippers of Mithras, but this is not the same as Mithraism as a mystery religion.
“Mithraism as a mystery religion cannot be attested before about AD 90, which is about the time we see a Mithraic motif in a poem by Statius. No mithraea have been found at Pompeii, which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. The earliest Mithraic inscription in the West is a statue of a prefect under the emperor Trajan in 101 AD.
“The earliest mithraea are dated to the early second century. There are a handful of inscriptions that date to the early second century, but the vast majority of texts are dated after AD 140. Most of what we have as evidence of Mithraism comes in the second, third, and fourth centuries AD. That’s basically what’s wrong with the theories about Mithraism influencing the beginnings of Christianity.
“Gordon dates the establishment of the Mithraic mysteries to the reign of Hadrian, which was AD 117-138, or Antoninus Pius, which would be from 138 to 161. Specifically, Gordon said, ‘It is therefore reasonable to argue that Western Mithraism did not exist until the mid-second century, at least in a developed sense.’”
He picked up a photocopy of an article from a scholarly journal called Mithras, published by the Society for Mithraic Studies in the aftermath of the 1974 Iranian conclave of scholars. He read the words of E. J. Yarnold of Oxford University: “The fervor with which historians used to detect wholesale Christian borrowings from the Mithraic and other mysteries has now died down.”
Yamauchi continued: “As Ronald Nash and so many other knowledgeable scholars have concluded, the dating disproves that Christianity borrowed its tenets from Mithraism,” he said.
Indeed, Nash is emphatic: “The flowering of Mithraism occurred after the close of the New Testament canon, too late for it to have influenced the development of first-century Christianity.”
Manfred Clauss, professor of ancient history at Free University in Berlin, said in The Roman Cult of Mithras that it does not make sense to interpret the Mithraic mysteries “as a fore-runner of Christianity.” In his book Mithraism and Christianity, published by Cambridge University Press, L. Patterson concluded there is “no direct connection between the two religions either in origin or development.”
Gary Lease, professor of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and long-time executive secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion, noted that such eminent scholars as Adolf von Harnack, Arthur Darby Nock, S. G. F. Brandon, William R. Halliday, and Ernst Benz “have seen little evidence to support claims of such influence and mutual borrowing” between Mithraism and Christianity.
Said Lease: “After almost 100 years of unremitting labor, the conclusion appears inescapable that neither Mithraism nor Christianity proved to be an obvious and direct influence upon the other in the development and demise or survival of either religion. Their beliefs and practices are well accounted for by their most obvious origins and there is no need to explain one in terms of the other.”
So the weight of the evidence, including a close examination of the dates, fails to support the allegation that Christianity is based on the borrowing of concepts from Mithaism. But what about the numerous parallels between Mithraism and Christianity that popular writers like Brown have touted?
I pulled out a list of parallels between Jesus and Mithras and said to Yamauchi: “First, popular writers claim that Mithras was born of a virgin. Is that true?”
“No, that’s definitely not true. He was born out of a rock. The rock birth is commonly depicted in Mithraic reliefs. Mithras emerges fully grown and naked except for a Phrygian cap, and he’s holding a dagger and torch. In some variations, flames shoot out from the rock, or he’s holding a globe in his hand.”
I said, “And that means he wasn’t born in a cave, which some writers claim is a second parallel to Christianity.”
“Well, it is true that Mithraic sanctuaries were designed to look like caves,” he replied. “Gary Lease discusses that in his chapter on Mithraism and Christianity.”
I later examined Lease’s work. He makes the important observation that nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described as having been born in a cave. This idea is first mentioned in the letter of Barnabas at the beginning of the second century.
Justin Martyr said in the second century that Mithras’ cave was a demoniacal imitation of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave. However, Lease pointed out that scholar Ernst Benz “has shown conclusively that this Christian tradition does not come from a dependency on Mithraism, but rather from an ages old tradition in Palestine itself of holy shrines in caves.” Concluded Lease: “There is no doubt that the Christian tradition does not stem from the Mithraic account.”
Returning to my list, I said to Yamauchi: “The third supposed parallel with Jesus is that Mithra was born on December 25.”
“Again, that’s not a parallel, because we don’t know the date Jesus was born,” he said.
“What about the fourth parallel that Mithras was a great traveler or master with twelve disciples?”
“No – he was a god, not a teacher.”
“The fifth parallel is that his followers were promised immortality.”
“Well, that can be inferred, but certainly that was the hope of most followers of any religion, so that’s not surprising.”
“How about the sixth claim, which says that Mithras sacrificed himself for world peace?”
“That’s reading Christian theology into what’s not there. He didn’t sacrifice himself – he killed a bull.”
“The seventh parallel – and one of the most important – is that Mithras was buried in a tomb and rose after three days.”
“We don’t know anything about the death of Mithras. We have a lot of monuments, but we have almost no textual evidence, because this was a secret religion. But I know of no references to a supposed death and resurrection.” Indeed, Richard Gordon declared in his book Image and Value in the Greco-Roman World that there is “no death of Mithras” – and thus, there cannot be a resurrection.
“Eight, Mithras was considered the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Logos, the Redeemer, the Savior.”
“No, again that’s reading Christian theology into this.”
“Ninth, there was a sacramental meal in Mithraism that paralleled the Lord’s Supper.”
“Common meals are found in almost all religious communities. What is noteworthy is that the Christian apologists Justin Martyr and Tertullian point out the similarities to the Lord’s Supper, but they wrote in the second century, long after the Lord’s Supper was instituted in Christianity. They claimed the Mithraic meal was a satanic imitation. Clearly, the Christian meal was based on the Passover, not a mystery religion.”
Lease agrees there is no connection between the Christian and Mithraic ceremonies. “Nothing in any of the sources we have leads to a viable theory that the origin of the Christian meal is to be found in Mithraism, nor for that matter may one derive the Mithraic meal from the Christian.”
He noted that the Christian sacrament “is centered in the Jewish tradition of the Passover feast and the specifically historical recollection of Jesus’s last acts,” while the Mithraic feast “has its origins in Mazdean [that is, Persian] ceremonies.” He concluded: “There is simply no need to link these two events together in terms of derivation or direct influence.”
I hope this information is helpful to you, Tami. If you’d like more details, or a rebuttal to claims that Christianity was based on other mythological figures, please check out my book The Case for the Real Jesus. Amazingly, despite so many critics who have tried to discredit Christianity with such charges of plagiarism, the allegations tend to quickly evaporate under scrutiny.
Q. I was interacting with an atheist online and he said he didn’t need God to live a moral life and even follow the Ten Commandments if he desired. Of course, a short time later he was trashing Christians – so much for practicing the Golden Rule! But I think he raises a good question: can a person be good without God?
A. I’m hearing that question more and more, probably because of claims being raised by the so-called New Atheists. As I was getting ready to provide a response for you, I happened to receive my copy of Biola, the magazine from Biola University, one of my favorite schools. Flipping it open, I saw that one of the sharpest professors I know, Dr. Craig Hazen, has just written an article dealing with this specific topic!
Craig is the director of Biola’s outstanding master’s degree programs in Christian apologetics as well as science and religion. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He’s a novelist, too – in fact, he encouraged me to delve into fiction. His book Five Sacred Crossings is definitely worth a read.
Since Craig did such a nice – and pithy – job of answering your inquiry, I thought the best way I could serve you would be to give you this link to his piece. I trust that gives you what you need.
Have a question? Drop me a line at AskLee@LeeStrobel.com. We’ll answer as many as we can in upcoming newsletters.