The desperation with which Jesus Myth sympathizers cling to the possibility of Christian copying of Mithraism is good evidence of their willingness to sacrifice reason and dispassionate inquiry. As a mini-case study I will look at the way a Jesus Myth website (jesusneverexisted.com) advances the Mithra-Christianity Copycat Theory (in an article titled, "Dress Rehearsal for Christianity"). This is Part 1. The article itself is not well organized, so please have patience as I work through it section by section.
The site leads off with a list of 14 impressive sounding books identified as “Sources.” Although a few choice quotes are extracted from some of these books, most of the site's assertions are unsupported by any reference (to the listed sources or otherwise). For those tidbits that have citations, they generally are unrelated to the task of proving that Christianity copied Mithraism. Indeed, one of the books they cite so completely contradicts the site’s theory that it is hard to see how they can claim to have read it, much less claim that it is as a source. Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity states that “chronologically and geographically any influence by Mithraism on the origins of Christianity seems excluded.” Page 271 (emphasis added).
Ferguson acknowledges some interrelated exchanges of surface elements of the mystery religions and Christianity in the fourth century, but firmly rejects the notion that the formation of Christianity is indebted to Mithraism:
[T]here is very little evidence for much Christian indebtedness in the first century, and especially in Palestine. Hence, the search for pagan influences in early Christianity has focused on Hellenistic Christianity and especially on Paul as channels through which pagan ideas reached a religion that began on jewish soil. This too has failed to be substantiated.
Backgrounds of Early Christianity, page 280.
Ferguson goes on to explain that these mystery religions, including Mithraism, were “worlds apart” from Christianity on the issue of resurrection, redemption from sin, baptism, the sacramental meals, and even vocabulary. Id. at 280-82.
The actual argument apparently starts out referring to Mithra as the “Bull Slayer” and characterizing its success throughout the Roman Empire. There is not a single primary or secondary source cited. The only parallel suggested with Christianity is between Mithra slaying a bull and Saint George slaying a dragon. It is hard to imagine that even the authors of the site find any significance in this “parallel,” given that the first narrative of St. George and the Dragon dates to the Eleventh Century. Saint George himself is a figure from the Third Century.
Origins of Mithraism
The site then goes on to claim that Mithraism goes back “in one form or another” for two thousand years. The site claims that Mithraism worked its way into the Roman Empire when Pompey’s troops entered Syrian in the 60s B.C. Again, there is not a single primary or secondary source offered. Moreover, the devil is in the details. The worship of a Mithra god does go back beyond Christianity. But that is not to say that the mystery religion form of Mithraism goes back beyond Christianity. Most historians believe that the mystery religion form of Christianity was quite different than the Persian form of Mithra worship. The mystery religion version, or western Mithraism, did not become established in the Roman Empire until the late first or, more likely, second century.
Furthermore, the reference to Pompey is quite distorted. There is no evidence that Mithraism became established in the West through Pompey’s troops. In actuality, as record by Plutarch in his Life of Pompey, there were a band of pirates operating out of Cilicia. Some of them, according to Plutarch, practiced a form of Mithraism. What that form is or what the details of its observance were we do not know. Pompey cleared the seas of the pirates, destroyed their bases, and dispersed their community. There is no evidence that any of the pirates practiced the western form of Mithraism. There is no evidence that this point of contact lead to the spread of Mithraism into the Roman Empire. Indeed, given that there is no evidence of a substantial Mithriac presence in the Roman Empire until the second century, it seems unlikely that this episode lead to anything.
The site claims that the Mithraic ritual of descending into a pit and being sprinkled with the blood of a bull is the “forerunner of Christian baptism.” Again, there is no reference to any secondary or primary source. So there is no evidence about the specific nature of the practice, when it was practiced, or where it was practiced. If we do not know when this practice began, how it can it be claimed to have been a forerunner of Christian baptism?
Further, even assuming chronological priority, the comparison hardly demands a judgment that Christianity copied Mithraism. The Christian ritual obviously involves water instead of the blood of an animal. This suggests relation to the use of water to represent cleansing. Even if the Christian ritual is to be related to blood in some way, it would be the blood of Jesus -- the God Himself -- rather than that of an animal (and one killed by the god at that).
Additionally, the most likely and plausible explanation of origins is Jewish. The Gospels all record that the Christian forerunner to Christian baptism was a Jewish ritual practiced by John the Baptist. That John the Baptist was baptizing believers in water is confirmed by Josephus. Given the assured presence of this practice in Palestine during the time of Christianity, and that early Christian writers’ express indebtedness to a Jewish teacher for the practice, why would we make the leap to claim that a very different ritual from another time and geographical location was responsible? The answer is that only those determined to find a pagan link to Christianity and promote the notion that Jesus did not exist would do so.
The site next contends that Mithras had a rock which was his tomb and place of “re-birth.” Again, there are no cites supporting the assertion that this was a tomb, much less a place of re-birth. It is generally recognized that Mithras was “birthed” out of a rock. Whether this “tomb” and “re-birth” is attested anywhere, and just as importantly, from when such concepts might date, is nowhere supported.
Next, the site claims that “The rock connection was later re-worked into the legend of Saint Peter.” Again, there is no discussion or evidence explaining the “legend” or the “connection.” In what way is the figure of Peter supposed to have been based on a story of a god being birthed out of a rock? It is not as if Peter is Jesus’ father after all. Indeed, Peter was Jesus’ follower. Here, the simplest explanation is the most likely. There was a prominent figure named Peter in early Christianity (Paul’s letters refers to Peter as a leading figure in the 50’s, 1 Clement refers to him similarly in the 90s) and it is not a stretch for someone -- either the founder of Christianity or one of its early members -- to make the connection that this foundational figure name means “rock.” Once again we see how the copycat enthusiasts are willing to grasp at exotic, unnecessary straws to the detriment of simple, direct facts supported by all of the evidence.
The site claims that “the most popular Romanised form of Mithraism was Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, whose re-birth was celebrated as the climax of the mid-winter Saturnalia, on 25th December.” This is, at best, an oversimplification. Mithra played a role in Sol Invictus for a while, but so did two other gods.
Part 2 will continue taking up the supposed parallels in order as time permits.