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Jesus is Not a Mithras Redux

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Mithraism, as it is germane to Christian historical discussion, was a mystery religion adopted by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. (I am careful with my words here, as Mithraism has a previous historical incantation in ancient Persia, though its relationship to the Roman tradition, in practice and philosophy, is unclear at this point.) Some critics claim that Christianity borrowed from the traditions of Mithraism as a means of attracting followers, though these allegedly adopted Mithraic traditions were not actually authentic to Jesus. I believe it is safe to say that, on the basis of historical scholarship done by secular, Christian and Mithraic-oriented scholars, this claim is thoroughly without serious basis.

According to Mithraic scholar Franz Cumont, the first mention of Mithra was made in a treaty from 1400 B.C. (Other, more recent, scholars place this date at around 700 B.C.) At this time and after, Mithraic tradition indicated Mithra as a deity who gave orders and guidance to the military, as well as dispensed justice to those who broke political treaties. As the religion developed, the Mithraic story grew richer. Mithra became known as the provider of rain, bringing vegetation and health to the people. However, to the Persians who held to this tradition, Mithra was not the supreme deity, but subservient to another god, Varuna, who was specifically associated with the culture’s rice harvest. Some descriptions of Mithra have been translated, “Lord of the Contract,” “Upholder of Truth,” “Peaceful, benevolent protector,” and “Not easily provoked.” Even later mentions of Mithra characterize him again as a warrior, though at some point they seem to have reverted again to depicting him as a pacifist deity. When Zoroastrian religion developed in Persia (estimated at around 440 B.C., according to Herodotus’ The Histories), Mithra’s previous association with treaties developed into his role as a “mediator” between the gods of good and evil, Ohrmazd and Ahriman, respectively. He was considered part of a larger pantheon of seven deities that served the gods of the upper spiritual echelon. In this Mithraic-Zoroastrian incantation, Mithra’s role in the cosmos also included delivering the condemned to hell and the saved to heaven. By the first century B.C., Mithra was still associated with these themes, in addition to having some sort of relationship with the gods Apollos and Hermes.

The Roman Mithraic tradition seems to only be linked to the Persian Mithra by name, though in the Hellenistic and Roman traditions, he is referred to as Mithras (the Greek masculine form of Mithra). The Roman Mithraic story involves the heroic slaying of a sacred bull by Mithras, perhaps an astrological allegory, though the Persian details, treaty enforcement, agriculture, and escorting of souls, seem to no longer apply. According to Roman tradition, Mithras’ heroic slaying of the bull gained him the favor of the sun god. Other than tracking the evolution of the name of Mithras across the two traditions, scholars in the 20th century have failed to establish a substantial link between the two Mithraic traditions in terms of their actual beliefs. Rather, the latest scholarship in regard to Mithras suggests that the Romans founded their version of Mithraism in response to the astrological discovery of the movement of the heavens (now referred to as the precession of the equinoxes). Scholars who advocate the astrological thesis suggest that the Persian name of Mithras was given to the god who they believed orchestrated this movement (Perseus in the Roman tradition) due to an alliance at the time with a leader from Asia Minor named Mithridates and the influence of Mithraic Cilician pirates.

Despite what seems to be an obvious lack of related details between the Mithraic tradition and the origins of Christianity, critics nonetheless allege that certain details of the Christian tradition were adapted, if not outright “stolen” from Mithraism. I will examine some of the more inflammatory claims below:

Like Jesus, Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave. His birth was also attended by shepherds.
Many Christians are well aware that there is no Biblical basis for setting the date of the birth of Jesus on December 25th. History shows that this date was introduced as significant to Christ later by the post-apostolic church, no doubt influenced by the multiplicity of sacred festivals occurring at this time. According to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was not born of a virgin in a cave. In fact, Mithras was said to have been born, fully grown, from solid rock; the event leaving a cavity behind. There was no mention of a virgin. Interestingly, the story continues to describe Mithras being helped out of the rock by shepherds, who offer him a pick from their flock. Yet according to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was created prior to the creation of mankind. Consequently, the Mithraic “shepherds” cannot be legitimately compared to those of the Christian tradition. Lastly, the earliest existing record of this narrative is from around 100 years after the manuscripts of the New Testament, leaving no room for claims that the Christian tradition copied the story and attributed it to Jesus. (Note also that the later Persian Mithraic traditions recount his conception through the incestual copulation of the god Ahura-Mazda and his mother. The Christian virgin birth story is principally concerned with the humanity of Mary and God’s role in the creation of Jesus through her. There is no parallel between this and the Mithraic story.)

Mithras was also considered a great traveling teacher and master.
This particular attribute is probably one of the most common identifiers of just about every spiritual leader in history. However, there is no mention in Mithraic tradition of Mithras being an itinerant teacher like Jesus. If this claim is to be taken seriously as evidence that Christian tradition appropriated from Mithraic tradition, one must also take into account the travels and teachings of other spiritual figures like Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed, etc.

Mithras had 12 disciples.
The Persian Mithra was often associated with the god Varuna, such that one might infer that they were considered a pair. However, in this tradition Mithra is short 10 companions. In the Roman tradition, Mithras was accompanied by two entities, created after his own image, named Cautes and Catopatres. They have been said to represent day and night or spring and fall or life and death. Mithras was also associated with the snake, the dog, the lion, and the scorpion, likely due to the astrological origin of the Roman tradition. Still, Mithras’ companions only add up to 6 at most, taking all into account. Some claim that a Mithraic stone carving, which depicts the famous bull scene with one vertical row of six images on each side, proves the “12 disciples” connection. However, most current Mithraic scholarship attributes these to zodiac representations. In addition to acknowledging that since the carving itself dates to well after the time of Jesus, any connections to the Christian tradition of 12 disciples would have to implicate Mithraism as the copycat, not Christianity. In the other direction, one would have to claim that Christianity stole the number twelve from astrology- likely a much more difficult case to make.

Mithras offered eternal life to his followers.
Like the “traveling teacher” connection, this claim no more implicates Christianity as it does just about every religious tradition that posits life after death. Incidentally, the only specific mention of a Mithraic offer of eternal life to his followers exists in a piece of writing dated to 200 A.D., which has been translated, “and us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood.” In Mithraic tradition, the blood is not the blood of Mithras, but that of the bull he slaughtered, and “saved” referred to being approved to ascend through other levels toward immortality. It was clearly not the same type of salvation that is taught in Christian theology.

Mithras performed miracles.
While both the Iranian Mithra and the Roman Mithras traditions recount acts of great power done by Mithra(s), this is hardly an incriminating fact. Like the teaching and offering of immortality, this is another common attribute of any religious figure. To make this claim worthwhile, one would have to show similarities in type of miracle (i.e. Mithras walked on water, healed the blind, or raised the dead).

Mithras sacrificed himself for mankind.
Some Mithraic scholars have tried to depict Mithras and the bull he had slain as one and the same, construing the story to represent that Mithras gave his own life. However, the narrative in no way suggests this. At best, Mithras could be considered heroic for his victory over the bull, though more likely is the modern interpretation that the bull slaying story corresponded to astrological themes. However, this has no comparison to the Christian claim that Jesus died as atonement for the sins of mankind.

Mithras was buried in a tomb, and after three days, He rose again.
In Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian writes, “if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan), sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crow.” This is the only reference from which some Mithraic scholars claim a correlation between Mithraic and Christian traditions. Unfortunately, having been written after the New Testament, there is no evidence that what it describes predates Christianity. Nor is there really any compelling aspect to Tertullian’s description that would indicate that these practices were authentic to Mithraism or even appropriately compared to Christian tradition.

Mithras said, “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”
There is no evidence for this saying being attributed to Mithras. Scholars have, however, found this saying attributed to Zarathustra, though in a medieval document (remember that Zarathustra, the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, is thought to have lived some time around 2000 B.C.). Though followers of Mithras were known to have fellowship meals, at which was eaten bread, water, wine and meat, such circumstances were common to meals shared by many people in many different contexts.

It should be emphasized that none of the alleged similarities between Mithras and Jesus can be shown to apply to the Persian Mithra, but only to the Roman Mithraic tradition, which did not really flourish until after the time of the New Testament. That said, the alleged connections are quite dubious, as I explained above. In fact, no archeological evidence for this tradition can be argued to exist from any earlier than A.D. 90. This seems to suggest that the re-emergence of Mithras in the Roman context preserved the name of the Persian deity, yet adopted a new set of traditions more closely linked to the many mystery religions of the time. In any case, the overall Mithraic tradition should actually be thought of as two distinct movements, having little to do with one another beyond having a god of the same name.

The driving force of these comparisons appears to be a deliberate application of language resembling that used in Christian tradition to traditions that never actually used that language in the first place. For example, referring to the “birth” of Mithras to a “virgin” is absurd given that, according to Mithraic tradition, he was not “born” in the human sense at all, but came into being out of lifeless solid rock. Perhaps one might claim that the lifeless solid rock, having never before had an entity emerge from it, was “virgin-like,” but that would be an extreme stretch in language and meaning, and more akin to an intentional characterization of Mithraic tradition in Christian terms. Similarly, if Mithraic tradition could be shown to teach that Mithras instructed his followers to gather together in a fellowship meal, it would be misleading to refer to this as a Mithraic “last supper.” Even if Roman Mithraism did hold to traditions similar to Christianity, it would be false to assume that simply because the two traditions existed similarly and contemporaneously one must have preceded or caused the other. Like liberal Biblical scholars that give priority to Gnostic sources on Jesus, though they date long after the canonical Gospels, those that desire to establish a link between Mithras and Jesus must contend with the fact that the existing sources for Roman Mithraism are all post-Christian and cannot be said to have influenced Christian doctrine.

I do find it strange that these allegations persist despite the overwhelming fact that the historicity of the character of Mithras is incomparable to that of Jesus of Nazareth. Given that Mithras is obviously a mythical character, and that no evidence exists to show that a man name Mithras actually lived at some point in history and had followers in the same sense as the Christian disciples, the notion of Mithras actually participating in historical events and teaching actual people is significantly questionable. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence, attested to by multiple independent sources, that Jesus was a historical figure that actually lived in first century Palestine, assembled a group of followers, the teachings of whom were recorded by multiple sources, and was actually put to death by Roman authorities. Given the amount of historical knowledge that exists about Jesus of Nazareth, the suggestion that the Christian tradition “re-branded” Jesus with Mithraic characteristics implies an unfathomably large conspiracy without a bit of evidence to back it up.

Some sources on Mithraism

Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont

The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief that Shaped the Christian World by Caitlin Matthews and Payam Nabarz

The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries by Manfred Clauss

The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, by David Ulansey

Written by Christopher Butler

October 7, 2006 at 1:35 am

Fundamentalism and the ‘Virtue’ of Moderation

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In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s radio program On Point (listen to the program here), author John Updike discussed his latest novel, Terrorist, which depicts the life of an eighteen year-old American Muslim turned terrorist. Within the discussion, which reflected not only upon the book, but also upon issues related to religious extremism and its effect on our current culture, Updike made several comments specifically in regard to religious fundamentalism. While I have not yet read Terrorist, though this program has certainly encouraged me to do so, I would like to address some of Updike’s comments as I think they are particularly indicative of a modern misunderstanding of fundamentalism in the philosophy of religion.

Updike introduces the novel by reading from its opening passage, which describes his main character, Ahmad’s, point of view toward his American peers and authority, and describes those who claim to be religious as weak and unauthentic. While he describes Ahmad’s attitude toward the insipidness of American religion and culture as being “extremely disgusted,” Updike himself would only claim to be “moderately disgusted.” Incidentally, a caller, who reminded Updike that for the Muslim (and I would argue also for the Christian) there is no and should not be any separation between the sacred and the secular, really propelled the conversation toward religious fundamentalism. Updike attempted to brush off the comment by asking to see an example of a thoroughly religious and morally perfect society- indicating that this should be the result of fundamentalism. Of course, this is obviously not realistic. Later, Updike responds to another caller who indicts fundamentalism as the root of all modern problems by commenting in agreement,

“I am myself a Christian and go to church, but there does seem to be a point at which fundamentalism Christianity becomes a dangerous and really crazy, crazy thing. These mothers who kill their children to send them to heaven…take a shortcut to heaven… are the kind of thing that also motivates suicide bombers. Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation.”

Not unlike many who comment on religious fundamentalism, often casting it as a direct catalyst of ignorance, hate, violence, and oppression, Updike demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the meaning of the term. On the one hand, Updike expresses disgust toward fundamentalism, but on the other, disgust for the shallow and vapid confession of many religious followers. It would seem to me that to be fundamentalist in regard to religion would be the antithesis of the shallowness and fickleness that many, like Updike, rightly criticize. However, I think the pejorative connotation, clearly intended within this discussion, of fundamentalism that has lately subsumed the actual meaning of the term, is unjustified. Rather, fundamentalism should be thought of as the comprehensive approach to religious life.

Religious fundamentalism is based upon the belief that certain religions affirm particular core fundamental beliefs. To call oneself a Christian, for example, in the fundamental sense, would mean that one believes certain particular things about Jesus Christ, his divinity, our relationship to Him, and the Bible. To believe otherwise would make the label ‘Christian’ dubious. Likewise, a fundamentalist Muslim would also affirm certain doctrines in regard to God, Muhammed, and the Koran. In neither case is extremist violence or force a part of the fundamentalist identity. While I won’t deny that these things have sometimes resulted from the irrational behavior of self-confessed fundamentalists, it does not follow that all fundamentalists are inherently irrational. In fact, I would argue that fundamentalism is a reasonable approach to the philosophy and practice of religion and reiterate that it would facilitate a comprehensive and thorough religious life.

Actually, Updike’s quote shows that his own view of the relationship between sacred and secular is backward. When he states that “Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation,” he seems to suggest that religion should take its cue from humanity, rather than humanity from religion. If religious belief is at all authentically theological, then this idea is obviously absurd. Religion is the human practice in response to the nature of God, through which humanity rightly aligns itself to that nature. But what does Updike mean by moderation, anyway? He appears to suggest that certain moral values are the result of a fundamental virtue of moderation. I would ask, moderation in regard to what? Moderation in and of itself is meaningless. If he means moderation in regard to the revelation of God, then he foolishly casts aside the intent of his own maker and arrogantly prioritizes his will over the will of God. If he means moderation in regard to truth in general, and therefore how truth applies to religious dogma regardless of its theistic authenticity, then by what measure are we to affirm moderation as an objective virtue? This moderation appears to be the same type of vapid creed by which Updike is “moderately disgusted.”

The call for religious moderation implicitly denies the possibility that certain religious doctrines could actually be objectively true. Since this assertion is impossible to justify, I would reverse the inertia of this discussion to again suggest that fundamentalism is actually the reasonable approach to religion. In other words, if a particular religion is true, then one aught to believe it and practice it comprehensively, not with some sort of ambiguous and arbitrary moderation. How could one be “moderately Christian,” anyway? Might one say, “I don’t believe that Jesus actually existed, nor do I really think there is a God in the traditional sense, but I am a Christian because the religion has taught me morality?” If so, on what basis does a religion founded upon a lie credibly instruct anyone on morality? Perhaps one could say, “I believe in Jesus, but I also believe that Buddha was right too.” In this case, one must either misunderstand Jesus or Buddha, as the contradictions between the two teachings are irreconcilable. Moderation in regard to religion denies either truth, power, or both.

Now, I certainly don’t take Updike for a fool. After all, he has produced Terrorist in the twilight of a long and critically successful literary career to which any American is culturally endebted. Despite his intellect, it is also true that some of the most brilliant thinkers make some of the most foolish blunders in thinking when it comes to matters of faith. Perhaps this is not the case for Updike. Perhaps it is more a blunder in semantics, and what he really had in mind was a behavioral moderation. If so, this is certainly something I could get behind as it relates to terrorism, which seems to be more of an outworking of emotion and irrationality then a fundamental approach to religion. But again, this is not moderation for moderation’s sake, nor moderation of religion or reason, but moderation in regard to rash human fallibility.

The Transcendence Test

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Webster defines transcendence as ‘surpassing; excelling; extraordinary,’ as well as ‘beyond the limits of possible experience; existing apart from the material universe.’ (It should be added that when the word ‘apart,’ is used, it aught to refer to the state of being reserved in purpose and separate in essence, rather than simply by external factors of space and time.) God, regardless of the theological or philosophical perspective from which one approaches Him, is understood to be implicitly transcendent, as from a philosophical level we approach him as embodying that which we cannot be- supernatural, immortal, worthy of worship, etc. Anyone seeking to know Him does so out of the innate desire to transcend our physical existence. Our conscious minds force us to consider the nature of our existence on a metaphysical level, rather than simply a matter of chance and time, while our hearts yearn for eternity in a way that is unquenchable by worldly means.One way to begin exploring the concept of God is by considering objective morality, and how it seems to be in the nature of mankind to be governed by it. For the purposes of this article, I will bypass the systematic setup for establishing the relevancy of objective morality, and assume that it is recognized and accepted (for more information see Yearning for Eternal Purpose or perhaps a future post in which I will address a specific defense of objective morality). This objective morality by nature points us to God, as a law that is such and specifically developed for humanity must come from an intelligent source. However, the laws which constitute our objective morality are given for man, not for God. God, being all that we philosophically classify him to be (eternal, transcendent, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.), would have no need of governing Himself- in fact the suggestion of a self-governing god is somewhat ridiculous. Laws are given in relation to a defined standard; in this case, the law relates to the standard of God’s very existence- his Holiness. If God is holy, or set apart from all that is not God, then only He may set the parameters for how one may be reconciled to Him. When He commands that we shall worship no other gods except Him (Ex 34:14, De 4:19, De 8:19, De 11:16, De 30:17, etc.), it is implicit in this law that He would not be bound by it- not that God would have the freedom to worship other gods while we do not, but that it would be impossible for God to worship any other gods, as there are none. Worship is reserved for that which transcends its creation; God is the apex of transcendence.

In comparison, the 'god' of pantheistic thought is considered to be in and of 'all,' therefore that god is bound in essence by that which he creates. If that is true, then the pantheistic god cannot be fully transcendent. If he is not fully transcendent, then what does it profit anyone to worship him? By the ‘transcendence test,’ pantheism fails. It cannot adequately explain a source of objective morality, though many followers of pantheism affirm the existence of such a law. In another comparison, the gods of polytheistic thought are all bound to particular dominions. One can be worshipped apart from another; one has power in areas that another does not. If there are many gods, then they must each be ultimately finite. If each was not bound to dominion, then there would be one god, rather than many. What would it profit anyone to prefer one of these gods over another, as it would ultimately boil down to a case of cosmic side-choosing? This would certainly be a decision that a mortal could not adequately make. Furthermore, it is ironic that the gods of the pantheon are depicted as squabbling amongst each other in an almost sibling-like rivalry. They are often described as fighting for dominion, even bickering over the favor of mortals! A transcendent God would have no need of gaining the favor of His people- it certainly aught to be the other way around: that man would strive to meet and be reconciled to God. In fact, the Bible reads that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23),' a statement which clearly affirms man's separateness from God.

With monotheism clearly passing the test of transcendence, the next logical question is this: Of what nature is man’s reconciliation to God in regards to transcendence? It would seem that a fully transcendent God would require a transcendent means by which His people would know Him. This immediately presents a problem, even for the Christian, for, in our understanding of the scriptures, we recognize the passage of means from the carnally sacrificial to the spiritually sacrificial. God’s initial covenant with Israel involved a system of law and atonement through which man could be reconciled to Him, though at a distance. If this were simply the case, though it may have been changed by His fiat at a later point, one might question His methods. However, God spoke time and again through the prophets of a means that He would provide that would accomplish the reconciliation that even the law could not. When Abraham obeys God and prepares his own son for a sacrifice, God halts the offering and confirms what Abraham had said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb (Gen 22:8).’ A lamb is found caught in a thicket and presented to God, but the provision spoken of by God is one that is transcendent, not simply another of the same kind. Isaiah speaks of this: 'But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken (Isa 53:5-8).' This lamb of God, the transcendent sacrifice, is spoken of by the prophets as being the only sacrifice by which man can truly be saved, and promised by God for His people. Thus, when Jesus presents himself to John the Baptist, called by God to prepare the way for Him, John instantly recognizes this truly spectacular event and exclaims, ‘behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29)!’ The means of the hope of transcendence for man is in itself (an necessarily so) transcendent!

So what if we apply this ‘transcendence test’ to other religions? Judaism fails as it remains promising eternal salvation by man's effort through carnal sacrifice. Pantheism fails as it endeavors to make man himself his own sacrifice through a recurring process of paying back. Polytheism fails as it seduces man into quasi-transcendent experiences in worship of quasi-transcendent deities. But Christ Himself is the transcendent one, by whom man is reconciled to a transcendent God, in whom man has hope of transcending death, and from whom all transcendence emerges.