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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Proponents of the so-called "copycat" theory of Christian origins allege that Christianity is a myth based on the appropriation of various pagan beliefs. The most common source of beliefs supposedly borrowed is Mithraism. The alleged similarities between Christianity and Mithraism are usually overblown or distorted, but perhaps an even bigger weakness of the theory is timing. Simply put, Mithraism cannot be a source for Christianity if it came later.

Origins

As an initial matter, it can be difficult to establish parallels because of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Mithraism. Christianity was an open evangelistic religion whereas Mithraism was a secret, mystery cult. Christians announced their core beliefs whereas Mithraism hid them. Christianity left behind a wealth of manuscript evidence, whereas Mithrasm left very little. One implication of this is that given the paucity of evidence about Mithraic beliefs, commentators are able to read into Mithraism what they want. And they often do.

Proponents of the copycat theory may point out that Mithra himself is an old god who predates Christianity. This may be true, but is beside the point. Mithra is an ancient god, part of Persian religious belief that does in fact predate Christianity. But this is not the religion copycat theorists typically compare to Christianity. Rather, the Mirthraism compared to Christianity is Western or Roman Mithriasm. It is one of the mystery religions typical of the period that borrowed Eastern names but had little else in common with its forerunner. As recognized at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Roman Mithriasm -- the mystery religion version -- was “a new creation using old Iranian names and details for an exotic coloring to give a suitably esoteric appearance to a mystery cult.” John R. Hinnells, Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First Int’l Congress of Mithraic Studies, page xiii.

Accordingly, it is important to isolate the supposed religion of comparison. It is not enough to say that certain rites or beliefs were associated with Mithra and assume they must all predate Christianity because Mithra did. Not at all. Once must be careful to recognize the different strains of Mithraism and track the development of each supposed parallel. Persian Mithra and Western Mithraism were in essence two different religions.


Parallels

One can find extensive lists of supposed parallels between Christianity and Mithraism. These lists are problematic for a number of reasons. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss them all, but a few examples will reveal some of the common errors.

It has been argued that both Jesus and Mithra were born of a virgin. The earliest Christian attestations are in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, both written in the first century. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch also writes of Jesus’ virgin birth early in the second century. All agree that Jesus’ mother conceived him as a virgin. However, there are no references to Mithras being born of a virgin. Rather, the most common story of Mithra’s origins is that he emerged fully grown from a rock. There is no evidence of a virgin birth for Mithra, unless one really stretches the point and claims that rocks are inherently virgins. This is a common failing of the copycat enthusiasts and something to closely examine. Do not simply take these assertions at face value, request citations to actual evidence that Mithriasm had particular beliefs.

It has been argued that both Jesus and Mithra share the same birthday, December 25. It may be true that Mithra is associated with December 25, but this hardly proves the point. The earliest recorded date celebrated for Jesus’ birth day is January 6, as it is still observed in many Orthodox churches. The December 25 date was established probably by Constantine because of the popularity of Sol Invictus in the fourth century. It is unlikely Mithraism was the reason for selecting this date, as it was already significant. In any event, some copying 300 years after Jesus' life and 250 years after the writing of all of the New Testament documents does not prove the copycat theory. This is yet another common failing of the copycat enthusiasts. Establishing a similarity that can only be traced to hundreds of years after Christianity was well established proves nothing.

It has been argued that Mithra celebrates a sacred meal much like the Last Supper. This is so general as to be a worthless point of comparison when discussing origins. Moreover, there is an obvious precursor to the Christian meal, the Passover Meal. The ignoring of obvious Jewish elements of Christian belief while grasping for unlikely pagan parallels is a common error of the copycat enthusiasts. “The ritual meal was probably simply a component of regular common meals. Such meals have always been an essential part of religious assembly; eating and drinking together creates community and renders visible the fact that those who take part are members of one and the same group.” Manfred Clauss, Roman Cult of Mithras, page 113. More specifically, the Christian meal “is centered in the Jewish tradition of the Passover feast and the specifically historically recollections of Jesus’ last acts” while the meal in Mithraism “has its origins in Mazdean [Persians] ceremonies.” Gary Lease, “Mithraism and Christianity: Borrowings and Transformations, in Wolfgan Haase, ed., Aufsteig und Niedergang der Romischen Welt, Vol. 2, page 1324.

Timing


As discussed above, although loosely connected to a forerunner we can call Persian Mithraism, Mithraism as a mystery religion in Roman lands does not precede Christianity. In other words, Christianity and its core doctrines came first. Thus, it cannot be the result of Mithraism. The Pauline corpus was written from approximately 49 to 60 AD. The canonical Gospels were written before the end of the first century, likely from approximately 60 AD to 90 AD. The core beliefs of Christianity, therefore, were literally in writing by the mid-first century.

The origins of Western Mithraism, on the other hand, are best traced to the second century. “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.” Ronald Nash, Gospel and the Greeks, page 137. See also Edwin Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, page 510 (“It is therefore reasonable to argue that Western Mithraism did not exist until the mid-second century, at least in a developed sense.”). Even if we grant Mithraism several decades, it still is an implausible candidate for influencing Christian origins. If one finds the parallels irresistible, it would be more reasonable to conclude that Mithraism copied Christianity -- as some ancient Christian apologists alleged.

Conclusion

Given the failure of the parallels and the fact that Christianity precedes Western Mithraism and its associated beliefs, the best conclusion is that Mithraism fails as a candidate for the copycat theory of Christian origins. As one Mithraic specialist concludes:

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.

Gary Lease, “Mithraism and Christianity: Borrowings and Transformations," in Wolfgan Haase, ed., Aufsteig und Niedergang der Romischen Welt, Vol. 2, page 1316.

16 comments:

"There is no evidence of a virgin birth for Mithra, unless one really stretches the point and claims that rocks are inherently virgins."

lol... I dunno, man, I've seen some pretty perverted rocks.. :-/

In all seriousness, great post. That's one of the things that bothers me about a lot of skeptical attacks on Christianity. They often preys upon the gullible/ignorant. In many ways, that's the fault of Christians who, for whatever reason, simply take these arguments at face value. The Christmas parallel is a great example of that, although it's also apparently an example of the ignorance of the skeptic as well in regards to Christianity.

Having looked into several of these so-called parallels myself (for example, as listed in that ridiculous Zeitgeist movie on Youtube) I've found that the reality of the background is usually far different from the claim. It makes me wonder whether these antagonists do it on purpose or honestly out of ignorance themselves.

I agree! Excellent post Layman!

Layman wrote:
"It has been argued that Mithra celebrates a sacred meal much like the Last Supper. This is so general as to be a worthless point of comparison when discussing origins. Moreover, there is an obvious precursor to the Christian meal, the Passover Meal."

Early Christian writer disagrees with you. Justin Martyr (1 Apology) wrote that devils imitated Eucharist ritual the in mysteries of Mithras. Jews would never even consider to eat someone's flesh and blood.


Layman wrote:
"The origins of Western Mithraism, on the other hand, are best traced to the second century"

In reality Western Mithraism can be traced back to over 100 years before Christianity. Please read the Life of Pompey by Plutarch.


Layman wrote:
"The December 25 date was established probably by Constantine because of the popularity of Sol Invictus in the fourth century."

People point to Christmas because it is a good example how Christians copied a pagan traditions even when 3rd century church fathers rejected this idea. Even today when this is well known Christians are happy to keep this tradition showing people don't mind keeping adopted pagan traditions.


Unfortunately your "timing" and "sacred meal" ideas are incorrect and your Christmas example show how Christians were happy to adopt, so your conclusions seem to be unsupported. (note: I do not advocate that Christianity was copied from Mitraism)

Leslie said...
"[skeptics] often preys upon the gullible/ignorant. In many ways, that's the fault of Christians who, for whatever reason, simply take these arguments at face value."

Please do your own research and do not take Christian, skeptics or my claims at face value. See my comments above.

Early Christian writer disagrees with you. Justin Martyr (1 Apology) wrote that devils imitated Eucharist ritual the in mysteries of Mithras.

Please provide chapter and verse. You do realize that the First Apology is over 65 chapters long.

I know that the apologists claimed that there was some Mithraic mimicry of Christianity. What is odd is that you accept their word for this uncritically. The only specifics noted by Martyr are that bread and water are used in the Mithraic rite while incantations are made. Had no one thought of eating bread and drinking water while saying religious things in a religious meal before? Does this really sound like compelling parallels suggesting copying to you? Of course not. In either direction.

Jews would never even consider to eat someone's flesh and blood.

I was not aware that the early Christians practiced cannibalism.

If you are referring to the Eucharist, then of course you are not referring to Christians eating flesh and blood. You are claiming that no Jew would ever partake in a religious meal that involved the eating of bread and drinking of wine with allusions to flesh and blood. In response to that, you get a big fat "Says who?"

In any event, we know various Jews did engage in the eating of bread and drinking of wine with the relevant allusions. Paul for one and if you are one of the fringers who claim Paul was not a Jew in the face of all evidence, then there still remains the fact that many of his companions were Jews. Apart from Paul and his companions and members of his churches who were Jewish, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were most likely Jews as well, yet they record the Last Supper as well.

I have seen this remark made before and its really is a silly one.

In reality Western Mithraism can be traced back to over 100 years before Christianity. Please read the Life of Pompey by Plutarch.

Please give me a cite, not a book. It is 40 pages in my translation and you haven't even told me what to look for much less where.

In any event, you are likely referring to a reference to a band of pirates that may have practice a form of Mithraism, among other beliefs. This hardly proves that Mithraism was established in the West. Indeed, it seems to indicate otherwise given that Pompey speaks of how sacrilegious were these pirates and notes their religious beliefs were a mark of distinction. Nothing is mentioned about any belief that parallels any Christian belief. In any event, modern scholars are dubious about Pompey's belief that Western Mithraism can be traced to these pirates.

People point to Christmas because it is a good example how Christians copied a pagan traditions even when 3rd century church fathers rejected this idea.

Choosing a date to celebrate a holiday is hardly compelling evidence for the notion that the foundational beliefs of Christianity were borrowed from Mithraism. Not to mention how absurd it is to translate back 300 years the behavior of elite Roman Christians to persecuted Jewish peasants and gentile converts.

Unfortunately your "timing" and "sacred meal" ideas are incorrect and your Christmas example show how Christians were happy to adopt, so your conclusions seem to be unsupported. (note: I do not advocate that Christianity was copied from Mitraism)

You have offered one vague reference on the timing, that in fact fails to prove your point.

So too with the comparison with the Last Supper. If you want to prove me wrong on specific parallels, please show me evidence that the Mithraism practice a meal similar to the Last Supper, that the Last Supper was not influenced by the obvious Jewish heritage, and that Mithraism's practice of this supper predates Christianity's to any significant degree.

Had you actually read Plutarch and Justin Martyr before raising them?

"Please do your own research and do not take Christian, skeptics or my claims at face value. See my comments above."

You seem to have missed an important aspect of what I've said. I have studied plenty of these things on my own, actually, engaging myself in appropriate research towards the claims. What I have found is that the claims are bogus to a point that is usually inexcusable.

Layman,

So you have not even checked the primary sources, including the Christians writings, about Mithraism but you claim that I "accept [early Church father's] word for this uncritically". Maybe you should read those yourself before making such claims and reject early Church father writings. Interestingly other commentators here write that your post was "great".

So check Justin Martyr 1 Apology short chapter 66 and let's not forget that he lived when Mithraism was popular. You might as well read Tertullian The Prescription Against Herecis chapter 40. Plutarch Life of Pompey chapter 24 tells how Mithraims was well known in the Eastern Mediterrain well before Jesus. You seem to be quick to dismiss it. I wonder how Plutarch knew about Western Mithraism if it according to you appeared after his writings.


Layman wrote:

"You are claiming that no Jew would ever partake in a religious meal that involved the eating of bread and drinking of wine with allusions to flesh and blood... Paul was not a Jew ...Matthew and Mark were most likely Jews as well.. I have seen this remark made before and its really is a silly one"

Paul, Matthew and Mark accepted that Jesus was the son of God and believed in his resurrection, that makes them Christians. Christians had some different traditions than Jews.


Layman wrote:
"Choosing a date to celebrate a holiday is hardly compelling evidence for the notion that the foundational beliefs of Christianity were borrowed from Mithraism"

A straw man, I did not claim that. Please read my post again. I wrote that "People point to Christmas because it is a good example how Christians copied a pagan tradition even when 3rd century church fathers rejected this idea."

Leslie,

I understand that you have studied plenty, but my point was also not to always take Christian apologist at the face value, many of them have more agenda than knowledge. (I'm not referring to Layman as I don't really know him well) BTW you stated "The Christmas parallel is a great example of that". Why do you think Christians adopted this ancient Pagan/Roman mid winter celebration when people like Origen denounced it?

So you have not even checked the primary sources, including the Christians writings, about Mithraism but you claim that I "accept [early Church father's] word for this uncritically". Maybe you should read those yourself before making such claims and reject early Church father writings. Interestingly other commentators here write that your post was "great".

I have read them. But I get annoyed when people give broad cites to references. Especially copycat theorists who are largely ignorant of their primary sources.

So check Justin Martyr 1 Apology short chapter 66 and let's not forget that he lived when Mithraism was popular.

Umm. I referred to this above. All Martyr says is that Mithraism's meal included eating bread, drinking water, and uttering some incantations. I do not find that strong evidence that the two rites were very similar. Do you?

And where does Martyr say that Mithraism is popular? He says it exists, but how widespread does he claim it is?

Also, Martyr wrote to defend Christian beliefs to a pagan emperor. One tactic he employed was to show some similarities with pagan beliefs that were not considered threatening. He refers to Plato and pagan poets for example. By claiming similarities between a tolerated cult and Christianity, he was putting it to the emperor that Christianity was no unique threat. As Martyr says, "And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies.

His fall back position is, "Look Emperor, nothing is going on here that should trouble you. We're just another odd religious cult but are not threats to the empire."

You might as well read Tertullian The Prescription Against Herecis chapter 40.

Tertullian wrote more than 100 years after the New Testament canon was complete, more than 150 years after Paul's letters were all written, and after we agree that Mithraism became established in the West. Nor does he give many specifics about Mithraic rites.

Plutarch Life of Pompey chapter 24 tells how Mithraims was well known in the Eastern Mediterrain well before Jesus. You seem to be quick to dismiss it. I wonder how Plutarch knew about Western Mithraism if it according to you appeared after his writings.

My recitation of Plutarch was much more accurate than yours. He does not say that Mithriasm was "well known" in the Eastern Med. He says it was practiced by a group of pirates. Nothing is said about what their beliefs were, whether they were practicing Persian Mithraism or some version of it or the eventual western mystery religion that derived its god from that Persian belief system.

Plutarch wrote well into the second century, so that fits into the timeline. In any event, Plutarch was 4 when the first book of the New Testament was written. So this does not help the thesis -- which you coyly claim not to advance but defend ineptly -- that Mithraism was a source of borrowing for Christianity.

Paul, Matthew and Mark accepted that Jesus was the son of God and believed in his resurrection, that makes them Christians. Christians had some different traditions than Jews.

They were Christian Jews.

If we are going to just play definitional games, then what is your point in claiming to know what all Jews would or would not do 2,000 years ago? I assume it was supposed to mean something. Please explain your point.

A straw man, I did not claim that. Please read my post again. I wrote that "People point to Christmas because it is a good example how Christians copied a pagan tradition even when 3rd century church fathers rejected this idea."

How is it a good example? The people pointing to it that we are discussing point to it as an example of how Christianity is a copycat religion that borrowed its basic beliefs from pagan religions. But if the borrowing was so limited, so insignificant, and so late, how is it a "good example" of anything of the sort? What is it s good example of?

Many fundamentalists will go agree with you and say that the Catholic Church is a copycat religion that stole pagan ideas and perverted Christianity. So what is your point?

"my point was also not to always take Christian apologist at the face value, many of them have more agenda than knowledge."

Fair enough, and for the record, I try not to.

Why do you think Christians adopted this ancient Pagan/Roman mid winter celebration when people like Origen denounced it?

I don't know why. But for me the real question is how the fact that they did this has anything to do with the veracity of Christianity. So what if some of the people who claimed Christianity decided to attach Jesus' birth to a once pagan festival? I don't understand the problem.

Similarly, you bring up Justin Martyr's comments, and I've had another skeptic bring this argument up to me before. First of all, Martyr's comments on the Eucharist in relation to mithraism appear to be incidental, so I'm not sure you can make much of them. Secondly however, and perhaps more importantly, from what I read it appears Justin Martyr is claiming that they had copied the Eucharist after it had been established, which would fit quite well with what Layman is saying. Furthermore, Justin Martyr says that it is part of an initiation ceremony, which is not the case in Christianity. Anyway, no matter what Martyr says I am in no way forced to accept it. In fact, I disagree with a number of early Christian writers on doctrinal matters where I feel they have gone out of step with apostolic teachings. Early doesn't always mean correct.

On top of all this, it should be said that the Mithraism that developed into a mystery religion looks nothing like early Christianity. Mithra never did anything like what Jesus is said to have done. He did what the ancients thought gods and godesses should do....stay in the heavens and give protection when he was invoked.

As you said Layman, Dec 25 most likely began because Constantine was trying to put it on the same day as the popular deity, Sol Invictus, was worshipped.

I can't remember, but I think I read somwhere that the reason for this was to help pagans, who worshipped Sol Invictus, make a better transition in worshipping Jesus instead. Could you tell me if I am wrong here?

one salient point that has been overlooked in this discussion, Chris may have alluded to it, I don't recall, but it is not front and center as it should be.

Even though mithrism may have existed in the West 100 years before Christ, we have no evidence of what it contianed. We have no written documents of the group itself. The only evidence we have of any sort of paraells come from after the time of Paul.

It has been proven conclusively by the major scholar Franz Cumon, much loved by the Jesus mythes themselves, that the militarists were introduced to Christianity in AD 66 when they were sent from Ostia to short tours of duty in Jerusalem. The barrowing comes from Christianity to mithrism.

This one point deserves emphasis:

Cumont proved conclusively that the mithrism took from Christianity.

Layman wrote:
"All Martyr says is that Mithraism's meal included eating bread, drinking water, and uttering some incantations. I do not find that strong evidence that the two rites were very similar. Do you?"

I'm not sure but Justin Martyr thought so as he wrote that devils imitated Eucharist ritual the in mysteries of Mithras.


Layman wrote:
"Plutarch wrote well into the second century, so that fits into the timeline."

You should read the whole book. It is about the life of Pompey and that chapter deals with the issues around 67 BC. So again it does not fit into your timeline.


Layman wrote:
"Paul, Matthew and Mark ... were Christian Jews...what is your point in claiming to know what all Jews would or would not do 2,000 years ago"

OK. First you claimed they were Jews. If they were first century Jews, they could have followed the Jewish purity laws and would not have (symbolicly) drank blood.


J.L. Hinman wrote:
"Cumont proved conclusively that the mithrism took from Christianity."

Can you please provide a reference. Cumont accepts the Plurarch observation in his "The Mysteries of Mithra" (sacred-texts.com p.36-37) and notes that Mithraism become widely known not until the end of the first century. And as we have observed normally newer religions borrow from the older ones while the older ones try to distance themselves from the upstarts.

I'm not sure but Justin Martyr thought so as he wrote that devils imitated Eucharist ritual the in mysteries of Mithras.

You are not sure? Okay. Which way to you lean? Are you being intellectually honest?

The common elements cited are eating bread and drinking something while saying something religious. The drink is different: wine vs. water. There is no hint what the incantations are for the Mithraic rites and it may be that Martyr had no idea.

There is nothing here that supports the copycat theory. Admit it. You'll feel better.

You should read the whole book.

Is the whole book relevant to your point? Are we going to compare the amount of ancient histories we've each read? I hope your list is lengthy if we are going to see who has the biggest library.

It is about the life of Pompey

Yes, I am familiar with Plutarch's work and read other of his bios.

and that chapter deals with the issues around 67 BC. So again it does not fit into your timeline.

I've already addressed this point above. There is no reason to believe this was the same Mithraic rituals and that some form of Mithraic rituals were practiced by some members of a band of pirates in the Ancient Near East fits fine into my time line.

OK. First you claimed they were Jews. If they were first century Jews, they could have followed the Jewish purity laws and would not have (symbolicly) drank blood.

Ah. More definitional games. I ask again, "Says who?" How do you know this? Paul, several of his followers, and the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were all Jews. They all advanced or would have partaken of this meal. So obviously Jews could partake of a meal of bread and wine that symbolically alluded to flesh and blood. That these Jews believed Jesus was the Messiah does not remove them from Jewish status.

In any event, I ask again. What is your point? What do you think it proves if you are right that no Jew would have partaken of the Eucharist? I am trying to understand you. Help me. You're my only hope.

Can you please provide a reference. Cumont accepts the Plurarch observation in his "The Mysteries of Mithra" (sacred-texts.com p.36-37) and notes that Mithraism become widely known not until the end of the first century. And as we have observed normally newer religions borrow from the older ones while the older ones try to distance themselves from the upstarts.

I'm afraid you are confused. that tallys with what I said. Christianity older, so mithrism arrowed from it.

Mithrism became widely known at the end of the first century, that's after the Gospel were written don't you see that?

Mithra worship goes way back to India but the Western version didn't really get going until the first century. That has been proven to have been a cover for another cult. It wasn't really about the guy in India or persia.

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