Jan 17 2014

Mithras and Jesus

The phrase, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that,” is a good starting point for many skeptical discussions. I am not sure of the origins of the phrase, but I have heard it used frequently by my colleague, Ben Goldacre. I have used some form of it myself, and as it expresses a fairly basic skeptical concept, it has likely been independently used by many.

It is therefore difficult to say who “originated” use of that specific phrase as a rhetorical device. Most works are derivative to some degree, and the law recognizes that similar works can emerge from the culture without one being plagiarism.

When very specific details overlap, however, then some sort of direct copying (rather than just a common source of inspiration) is more likely.

I have encountered from many skeptical and atheist sources the claim that the Jesus mythology is heavily borrowed from pagan mythologies that predate Christianity; the Roman Mithras cult, for example. If true, this would be a sobering fact for any Christian.

Unfortunately, on close inspection it seems that the Mithras-Jesus claim has evolved into its own mythology. The error seems to be motivated by the desire to claim that the Jesus mythology was directly copied from earlier pagan mythologies. Therefore the claim is made that the mythologies overlap in specific details.

For example, Stephen Fry in this YouTube clip of his show repeats the basic claims – that the Mithras legend states that he was born of a virgin on December 25th, he says, “in a manger or perhaps a cave,” that he had 12 disciples, and that he died in order to save us but was later resurrected. The overlap in details seems very impressive, and certainly would be evidence of a common source.

However Mithras scholars don’t tell the story that way. The Roman cult of Mithras existed from about the 1st to 4th century ACE. There was also a cult of Mithras in Iran predating the Roman mythology, but there is no clear connection between the two. They are likely independent traditions.  Mithras worship was common for a time, and over 420 Mithras sites have been uncovered. However, there are no texts of Mithras. The mythology has had to be reconstructed entirely from iconography, and a few side references in contemporary literature.

The current reconstruction of the mythology is that Mithras was born out of the rock in a cave (not of a virgin in a manger). He did attract followers, although there is no evidence for the number 12. Mithras iconography does often incorporate the 12 signs of the zodiac, but this does not directly relate to his disciples. He did save his community, defeating a raging bull. That is the most common scene depicted in Mithras sites – Mithras defeating the bull. The next most common is Mithras dining with the sun god on the parts of the bull. It seems there is some confusion as to whether or not Mithras was the sun god himself, but the picture of him dining with the sun god implies that they were separate entities.

None of these details overlap with Christian mythology. The only detail that may overlap is birth on or around December 25th. This was common practice, however, to align significant religious days with existing holidays – around the winter solstice was a common pagan holiday, and it is likely that both traditions simply attached to this date.

There does not therefore seem to be any significant overlap in specific details, and there is no record of the Roman Mithras legend predating Christianity. The idea of a connection apparently came from a 2nd century Christian writer who complained that the Mithras cult had borrowed their communion ritual. The idea of a connection was then expanded upon in the 19th century, but modern scholars do not find any hard evidence of such a connection.

Similar claims are made for the Egyptian god, Horus – that he was born of a virgin, came as a savior, died and was resurrected. Horus mythology existed for a long time in Egypt and is very complex. The mythology evolved significantly over time. It does contain elements of a miraculous birth – his mother, Isis, used magic to become impregnated by his father, Osiris, after he was dead. Horus is both man and god in various traditions. He is also portrayed as a heroic savior.  There are no details, however, that would seem familiar to a Christian, unless connections were being deliberately forced.

Independent scholarly sources, not directly addressing the Christian connection claim but just summarizing current scholarship on the Mithras and Horus mythologies, do not support the notion that Christianity was directly borrowed from either of these traditions – no overlap in specific details.

However, we do see thematic overlap in many areas. This suggests that while not copied directly, these various mythologies were all part of the culture of ancient Western civilizations. There were many cults and mythologies developing out of this culture, all with variations on common themes.

For example, all three mythologies include a miraculous birth, if not specifically a virgin birth. All three portray their central figure as saviors and kings in some way. The themes of self-sacrifice, disciples, and some connection to the gods are also common. The figures are all part man and part god. These similarities are derivative, in the same way that all rock and roll songs are derivative of the rock and roll culture, or any art is derivative of the artistic tradition out of which it emerges.

In other words, the beliefs of Christianity do not come out of nowhere. They are not entirely new. They are part of the cultural traditions of the time. Christianity is not a copycat of the Horus or Mithras mythologies, but they all share a common cultural background.

It is unfortunate that the real implications of the various religious traditions of the time is obscured by an attempt to make the simpler and more dramatic claim (and demonstrably false) that Christianity was copied wholesale from an earlier tradition.

The story is indeed a bit more complex. I think, however, the core lessons are preserved. The best way to demystify any religious tradition is through comparative mythology. The historic record shows the cultural evolution of the various religious traditions. They did not come suddenly like a bolt out of the heavens. They evolved like every other bit of human culture, as a complex web of influences and cross contamination.

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