This page in brief.
It isn’t uncommon on the internet to find claims that christianity is just a copy of some pagan religion, and Jesus is no more historical than some mythical pagan god. One of the most common claims centres around the Roman mystery religion of Mithraism. What does the evidence tell us?
Historians are almost totally agreed. Christianity did not borrow from Mithraism. The claimed parallels are mostly invented, and Mithraism came on the scene too late. The “evidence” for the claims is mostly based on outdated authors whose views have long since been overturned by historians.
Mithraism was a mystery religion practiced in the Roman empire, probably only by men and especially by soldiers, in the first to fourth centuries. Followers went through a series of secret initiations and rituals (that’s why it is called a ‘mystery religion’), and met in underground temples (called a mithraeum), many of which have been found by archaeologists.
Mithras should not be confused with Mithra, a Zoroastrian god worhiped in Persia/Iran centuries earlier. Many sceptics link the two, but although scholars believe the name has been copied, they have concluded that the two gods/religions have very little else in common.
The alleged similarities to Jesus
It is claimed that Jesus is a copy of Mithras, with the following among the similarities:
- Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds bearing gifts.
- He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
- He had 12 companions or disciples.
- Mithra’s followers were promised immortality.
- He performed miracles.
- As the “great bull of the Sun”, Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
- He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again.
- His resurrection was celebrated every year.
- He was called “the Good Shepherd”, identified with both the Lamb and the Lion. He was considered the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” and the “Logos,” “Redeemer,” “Savior” and “Messiah.”
What do the scholars say?
The sceptics’ claims are based on outdated information.
A century ago, some of these views were held, mostly because there was limited evidence to refute them. But beginning almost 50 years ago, scholars have concluded that most of the claims cannot stand.
Confusion between Mithra and Mithras
It used to be thought that the later belief in Mithras grew out of the much earlier belief in Mithra. Scholars no longer believe this, because there is no evidence for it. Some of the sceptics’ claims draw on both religions and different points, giving the impression they were one religion.
No-one knows much about mystery religions
Very little is known about the later Mithraism, because no texts have been found. What we know comes from archaeology (hundreds of mithraea have been found, also scenes in reliefs such as that at the start of this post) and in the writings of christians and other pagans in the second and third centuries. As Prof Bart Ehrman says: “we know very little about mystery religions – the whole point of mystery religions is that they’re secret! So I think it’s crazy to build on ignorance”. However this makes it easier for “sceptics” to make claims about Mithraism.
The timing is wrong
Scholars have found no clear evidence of Mithraism until the mid to late first century, after christianity was established. Almost all we know of it comes from the second and later centuries. If there was any copying, it would have to have been the other way. But actually, scholars say the two are almost totally independent. Prof Ronald Nash: “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.”.
The claimed parallels are mostly spurious
Scholars say that, as much as we know about Mithraism, virtually none of the supposed parallels exist. here are a few examples:
- Mithras did not sacrifice himself. No-one knows if or how he died. Mithras killed a bull, and that is the source of the Mithraic ritual, known as taurobolium, of killing a bull and allowing the blood to drench the worshiper. There may be parallels between this ritual and Jewish animal sacrifice or the christian Eucharist, but the earliest reference to the ritual is the middle of the second century. Ronald Nash: “The idea of a rebirth through the instrumentality of the taurobolium only emerges in isolated instances towards the end of the fourth century A.D.; it is not originally associated with this blood-bath. Indeed, there is inscriptional evidence from the fourth century A.D. that, far from influencing Christianity, those who used the taurobolium were influenced by Christianity.”
- Since there is no record of Mithras dying, there is no record of him being resurrected either.
- Mithras was a god, not a human, so he wasn’t a teacher and he didn’t have disciples. There is no record of him actually living at all.
- Mithras was not born of a virgin, but out of a rock (this is shown in some of the stone reliefs, we don’t have any actual accounts of this). And as the Bible doesn’t say that Jesus was born in a cave, nor was the date 25th December, the birth parallels are non-existent.
- There is no record of the christian terms like “Messiah”, etc, being applied to Mithras.
It would be pointless to go through every claim. According to the experts, virtually none of them have any validity. The only similarities are those which might be common among many religions.
I can find nothing to show that there are any parallels between the earlier Iranian Mithra cult and christianity either. For example, Prof David Ulansey said: “in no known Iranian text does Mithra have anything to do with killing a bull.”
The scholars are almost totally agreed. Christianity did not borrow from Mithraism. The claimed parallels are mostly invented, and Mithraism came on the scene too late. The “evidence” for the claims is mostly based on outdated authors whose views have long since been overturned by historians. But the claims get repeated on the internet, and they seem to have authority (until they are examined).
The late Prof Gary Lease of the University of California:
“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”
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References on Jesus and pagan religions
- Ronald Nash, Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University (2003): The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? and “Mystery Religions of the Near East,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 199, quoted in Wikipedia and Come Reason Ministries.
- Wikipedia Mithras in comparison with other belief systems and Mithraic Mysteries
- David Ulansey on Mithraism. He is also quoted in Mithras by Mark McFall
- Bart Ehrman is quoted in Wikipedia: The Jesus Mysteries
- Gary Lease: Mithraism and Christianity in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, p1329 (1980)