Mithras versus Christ: a Centuries Old Dispute?
Introduction The background to the eastern mystery cult of Mithras was outlined in 'Mithras Sol Invicti: an Initiates Guide'. With the detail in mind, this article seeks to question the oft quoted parallels between Mithraism and Christianity that have led to so much deliberation on whether Christianity is a re-branded version of Mithraic beliefs. The subject remains a contentious issue even today, with much of the ‘informed’ debate thinly veiling either a Christian or anti-theistic atheist bias . This article does not promote one faith or belief system over another, but simply seeks to understand the persistent misconceptions, and the arguments and counter-arguments made by the protagonists on each side.
While both religions became popular in Rome in the 2nd-century AD, it is claimed Mithraism had far older roots. As was stated in “an Initiate’s Guide”, the earliest etymological incarnation, Mitra, was a prominent deity of the Rigveda, a collection of hymns to various Indian deities in the Vedic period (1500–500 BC). It is thought that this Indic god found his way West into Persia to become the Indo-Iranian god Mithra. Yet, as ‘History for Atheists’ author Tim O’Neill points out in his thought provoking Great Myths series, whether Mithra is directly derived from Mitra is far from certain.
Enter the late 19th-century scholar Franz Cumont, once the foremost western expert in Mithraism, to confuse things further. He promoted the idea that the Persian Mithra was adopted by the Romans and spread across their Empire from the East much as Christianity would later. For Cumont anything that could be said of Mithra or Mitra was synonymous with Mithras and vice versa. Yet, despite the similarities in the names, according to Tim O’Neill: ‘the current thinking is that the Roman cult actually arose in Rome itself and spread east and north from there, rather than being imported from the east and spreading west.’ The Roman version, therefore, should be viewed as an entirely new sect that adopted ‘the name and costume of a Persian god to establish a veneer of antiquity and respectability’ (O’Neill, 2016). As O’Neill suggests, the creators of Mithraism would have wanted to avoid accusations of being what the Romans ‘called superstitiones - new religious sects that did not have the dignity of ancient belief and practice. Christianity and, later, Manicheanism were both persecuted partly because they were seen as “novel superstitions”.’ Even so, Roman Mithraism still had to compete with a host of other cults all vying for followers including those of Manichaeism, Gnosticism and the worship of Heracles, Cybele, Isis, Osiris, Dionysus and the god Serapis, a syncretic fusion of Osiris and Dionysus. And let us not forget the religions and mysteries of the Jews, Stoics, Pythagoreans, Orphics and Neoplatonists. Despite the challenges, Mithraism spread via the Roman military and merchants, with clusters of activity, judging from the archaeology, along the River Danube frontier.
Competing Faiths? It took at least a century for Christianity to become a major religious movement competitive with others in the Roman Empire. It has been estimated there were perhaps 10,000 Christians in AD 100, and not more than 200,000 a century later. A rapid spread of the faith occurred in the late 3rd- and early 4th-centuries AD despite proscriptions under the emperors Decius (AD 249 - AD 251) and Diocletian (AD 303 - AD 305). The persecutions led to the punishment and execution of many Christians as subversive criminals, although not nearly in the numbers claimed by later Christian apologists, and with little if any evidence of them being fed to lions.
In ‘The Origins of Christianity’, Ernest Renan promoted the idea that Mithraism was the prime competitor to the spreading Christian faith in the 2nd through the 4th-centuries AD. It has been proposed, for example, that both the emperors Commodus (AD 180 - AD 192) and Diocletian (AD 284 - AD 305) championed the cause of Mithraism, although the claims are rather dubious as there is little evidence for Mithraic worship being accorded official status as a Roman cult. Regardless, if Mithraism was an established, albeit exclusive, cult devoted to social justice, what led to its demise? Rather simplistically, Christianity would prevail with the rise to power of Constantine, and especially after he delivered the ‘Edict of Milan’ in AD 313 that guaranteed a freedom of worship for all religions, including Christianity. There is probably some merit in supporting the idea of the two faiths competing against each, but not necessarily for ideological reasons. Rather, if the model for ‘religion’ is considered in more business-like terms, then competing for worshippers at the expense of your rivals makes perfect sense to ensure the faith survives and flourishes. All being ‘fair in love and war’ led, ironically, to Christianity’s own persecution of the competition.
After the failure of Emperor Julian, ‘the Apostate’ (AD 361 - AD 363), to revive Mithraism, a state-sponsored Christianity’s dominance was sealed by the Emperor Theodosius’ decree of AD 380:
‘We brand all the senseless followers of the other religions with the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles assuming the name of churches.’
A series of fourteen edicts followed, one per year, outlawing all pagan creeds in competition to Christianity and mandating the destruction of their temples. A notorious example of Theodosius’ policy was the destruction of the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria in either AD 389 or AD 391. At the same time as this temple and its ornate statue of Serapis was destroyed, the faithful turned their ‘fiery vengeance’ on the famous and irreplaceable Library of Alexandria situated nearby. Not content, countless shrines across the Mediterranean dedicated to Isis were also destroyed, and a concerted effort was mounted to eradicate all traces of Mithraism. Nevertheless, the fight for dominance cannot completely overshadow the striking similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, and because the worship of Mithras pre-dated both Judaism and Christianity by many centuries, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the latter two religions, especially Christianity, adopted at least some of the Mithraic beliefs and ceremonies to recruit followers. What better way to introduce a deity, and spread the word, than by suborning existing religious practices into the new faith - it is a well attested process; consider the syncretism of Sulis-Minerva  as just one example.
Recycled iconography? The similarities (particularly the iconographical ones) between Christianity and Mithraism may be due to a number of different factors, but it is amazing to note just how many iconographical images considered today to be ‘Christian’ can be traced to an origin in Mithraic art and architecture. One should, of course, take into consideration the fact that there is a distinct lack of information on Mithraism compared to what is known about Christianity. It is also important to remember that Mithraism was neither static nor homogeneous. Therefore, Mithraism from the 2nd-century AD is quite different than Mithraism from the 3rd-century AD. Likewise, just as Christianity varied from one region of the Roman Empire to the other, so too did Mithraism (Laeuchli, 1967, 88).
Franz Cumont was the first scholar to identify similarities between Christianity and Mithraism. Cumont argued that the two religions shared an attraction to nature that made it quite easy for Christian artists to borrow iconographical references from Mithraism. So, when one looks at Christian sarcophagi, mosaics, and miniatures from the third to the fifth centuries, one can see images of the Heavens, the Earth, the Ocean, the Sun, the Moon, the Planets, signs of the Zodiac, the Winds, the Seasons, and the Elements. Cumont argued that even though the church was opposed to the pagan practice of worshipping the cosmic cycle, these images nonetheless made onto Christian artistic impressions. This occurred, he continued, because the Christian artists made ‘a few alterations in costume and attitude transformed a pagan scene into a Christian picture’. Cumont cited the images of Moses as an example of this phenomenon. For instance, when early Christian artists depicted their rendition of Moses striking Mount Horeb (Sinai) with his staff to release drinking water from the mountain, their inspiration was an earlier Mithraic reference to Mithras shooting arrows at rocks to cause the waters to shoot up (Cumont, 1956, 188).
Another example of Mithraic iconography incorporated into Christian art is the scene of Mithras ascending into the heavens identified by M.J. Vermaseren. According to Vermaseren’s interpretation of Mithraism, after Mithras had accomplished a series of miraculous deeds, it was believed that he was carried into the heavens by a chariot. In various Mithraic depictions, horses driven by the pagan sun god, Helios-Sol, draw the chariot. In other instances, a chariot of fire belonging to Helios is being led into the water and is surrounded by the pagan god Oceanus and sea nymphs. When Christian artists wanted to use imagery to portray the soul’s ascension into heaven on sarcophagi, they used the biblical scene of Elijah being led into heaven by chariots and horses that were on fire. Vermaseren thus argued that the inspiration for this image came from the representations of Mithras’ ascent into the heavens by Helios’ chariot. The sun god provided inspiration for the flames on Elijah’s chariot and the Jordan River is personified by a figure resembling the god Oceanus (Vermaseren, 1963, 104-6). The parallel is perpetuated by the adoption of the Mithras’ halo, representing the sun, in later representations of Apollo-Helios (bottom left) and in Christian images symbolising god - or sainthood (bottom right).
In contrast, Deman has interpreted the relationship between the similarities of Christian and Mithraic iconography quite differently (Derman, 1971). Rather than looking at Christian art and trying to find reciprocal references from Mithraic art (as Cumont does when merely looking at the presence of the Sun or the Moon, for instance), Deman contests it is better to look for larger patterns of comparison. Thus, he wrote, ‘with this method, pure coincidences can no longer be used and so the recognition of Mithras as the privileged pagan inspirer of medieval Christian iconography is forced upon us.’ The approach is certainly different from that used by Cumont or Vermaseren, but it seems particularly useful because it allows a comparison of artistic themes. Rather than looking at specific pieces and trying to make connections that that may or may not be evident, by examining and using holistic themes as templates it becomes easier to identify overall similarities and then apply them to specific pieces. To illustrate this, a useful examination is of what Deman calls the iconographical ‘creative sacrifice of Mithras’, typically referred to as a ‘tauroctony’ or bull slaying (pictured below), compared to the ‘creative sacrifice of Christ’.
In both scenes, the vernal sacrifice appears at the centre of the image. Above it, the sun (Sol) and the moon (Luna) appear symmetrically disposed from one another. Under the sacrifice, there are another two figures that appear symmetrically apart from one another. In the Mithraic scenes, the attendants of Mithras appear: Cautes, with upraised torch and Cautopates, with down-turned torch . In the Christian crucifixion scenes, created from the 4th-century AD onward, the two figures beneath Jesus are typically Mary and John. In other instances, two characters will carry a raised and lowered object very reminiscent of Cautes and Cautopates. These characters appear as either two Roman soldiers armed with spears, or Longinus holding a spear and Stephaton offering Jesus a sponge soaked in sour wine. Sometimes, the two characters depicted are wearing similar clothes to those worn by Cautes and Cautopates in the earlier Mithraic depictions. Other features typical of the depictions of Mithras’ death to be found in Christian crucifixion scenes include possible references to the twelve apostles but represented by the signs of the zodiac, serpents, bear and leafy trees that surround central figure, and characters with their legs crossed (Derman, 1971).
Shared Beliefs and Rituals? ‘The resemblances between the two hostile churches were so striking as to impress even the minds of antiquity’ (Cumont, 1911, 191 & 193). Like Origen (an early Christian writer and in this respect a peculiarity among the other patristic authors), Mithraism held that all souls pre-existed in the ethereal regions with God and inhabited a body upon birth. Echoing, therefore, the Pythagorean, Jewish, and Pauline theologies, life then becomes the great struggle between good and evil, spirit and body, ending in judgment, with the elect being saved. ‘They both admitted to the existence of a heaven inhabited by beautiful ones...and a hell peopled by demons situated in the bowels of earth’ (Cumont, 1911, 191 & 193).
Both religions employed the rite of baptism, and each participated in an outwardly similar type of sacrament: bread and wine. Both Mithras and Christ were supposedly visited by shepherds and Magi at their respective births, although the Mithraic festival of Epiphany, marking the arrival of sun-priests (‘Magi’) at the saviour’s birthplace, was only adopted by the Christian church as late as AD 813 (Brewster, 1904, 55). Interestingly, Osiris appears to be the first example of the mythological concept of a saviour god present in many faiths, including Christianity and Mithraism. Martin A. Larson certainly concluded that the general concept of a ‘saviour’ must have originated from the cult of Osiris (Larson, 1977, 190). He also believed that the Essenes were Jewish Pythagoreans, whose members not only gave birth to Christianity as Essenes, but were directly influenced by Zoroastrian doctrine as Pythagoreans (Taylor, 2004). Once again this theorises a common basis for similar beliefs and rituals. Many commentators point to the parallels attached to the ‘virgin’ births of both. While Mithras miraculously emerged full grown from a rock, the petra genetix (de Riencourt, 1974, 135), and thus was not born of man or woman, the ‘virgin’ references in the story of Christ’s birth are largely due to a repeated mistranslation of the Hebrew word for a young girl or young woman (‘almah’) into the Greek ‘parthenos’ or virgin; the Hebrew word for a virgin is actually ‘bethula’. This, albeit significant, translation mistake aside, both faiths seemingly adopted the ages old celebration of the winter solstice as their god’s birthday - the infamous 25th of December according to the Gregorian calendar. Or did they?
Happy Birthday The belief that the Romans’ Mithras was born on December 25th is a unsubstantiated ‘fact’. It seemingly arose out of a confusion between a feast celebrated as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’, with the fact that Mithras Sol Invictus is one of the titles found in Mithraic inscriptions. The Roman cult of Sol had a long history which eventually became the official ‘sun god’ of the later Roman Empire, and a patron of soldiers. On December 25th, AD 274, the Emperor Aurelian made the worship of Sol Invictus, which had originally been introduced to Rome from Syria by the Emperor Elagabalus, an official religion alongside the traditional Roman cults . The mistake is to simply conflate the two and to assert that since ‘Sol Invictus’ always referred to Mithras, then December 25th was the date of the festival of his birth. As Tim O’Neill points out in his Great Myths series, there are multiple problems with this conflation.
To begin with, the evidence is thin and rests mainly on one slightly ambiguous entry in the so-called ‘Calendar of Philocalus’, an almanac and list of significant dates and events dated to AD 354. Part VI shows an entry for December 25th that reads: ‘N.INVICTI.CM.XXX’. This is generally transcribed as ‘N[atalis] (“birthday” or “nativity”) INVICTI (of the “unconquered one”) CM (circenses missus “games ordered”) XXX (“30”)’ and translated as ‘Thirty games were ordered for the birthday of the unconquered one’. It is presumed this refers to Sol Invictus, but is far from definite. Moreover, there is little evidence beyond this entry that the festival was celebrated any time before the mid-4th-century AD.
Other Similarities It has been claimed that both Mithraism and Christianity considered Sunday their holy day, albeit for variously different reasons. Yet, solid evidence that Mithraists practiced weekly worship on a specific day any more than any other contemporary cults is simply lacking. Other similarities between Mithraism and early Christianity included considering abstinence, celibacy, and self-control to be among their highest virtues. Likewise, both had comparable beliefs about the world, destiny, heaven and hell, and the immortality of the soul. Their conceptions of the battles between good and evil were similar (though Mithraism was more dualistic (Fingut, 1993)), including a great and final battle at the end of times, much as in Zoroastrianism. Mithraism's flood at the beginning of history was deemed necessary because, according to Mithraic eschatology, what began in water would end in fire. Both religions believed in revelation as key to their doctrine. Both awaited the last judgment and resurrection of the dead.
Different Followers Although Christianity eventually rivalled the four century old cult of Mithras in Rome, the two religions were outwardly practiced by adherents of different social classes. Echoing its roots, Christianity was favoured in urban areas inhabited by the Jewish Diaspora, whereas Mithraism being indifferent to Judaism was to be found in more rural settings. Mithras was popular among soldiers (as suggested by the prevalence of mithraea at military sites), fostered elitism, barred women, and (as a mystery religion) promised knowledge that was hidden from outsiders. Early Christianity's message was simply more public, with slaves, women, and the poor welcomed into the brethren. Christianity thus enjoyed a broader appeal, even gaining a significant following in military ranks. Moreover, while its teachings did not exactly ‘foster elitism’ as much as stand against it, Christian followers began calling themselves milites (‘soldiers’), a reference to the disciplined life to which they felt called. Those less disciplined and outside the faith were called pagani, borrowing the Roman military slang for ‘civilians’ .
So, which came first? With the many similarities, can we come to any conclusion as to whether Mithraism was an influence on Christianity. Franz Cumont postulated this position and wrote that if any collusion of ideas did take place between the two groups, it occurred because they were struggling against each other to become the moral leader within the Roman Empire (Cumont, 1956, 188). Cumont’s view would imply, however, that Christian artists and architects consciously and deliberately incorporated iconographical elements into their artwork - perhaps in an appeal to Mithraists encouraging their conversion to Christianity. Manfred Clauss disagrees arguing that it is unhistorical for many reasons. Firstly, it exaggerates the missionary aspects of Mithraism as a mystery religion. Unlike Christianity, the mystery religions did not intend to become the only religion of the Roman Empire. Their goals were to offer people the chance for a unique, individual and personal salvation. Yet, Clauss recognises that there was undoubtedly an interaction between the two groups (Clauss, 2001). Scholar Luther H. Martin, Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Vermont, notes that in some cases abandoned mithraea were co-opted by Christians as early churches. If there was any competition between Christians and Mithraists, Luther argues, then it was merely for real estate, as the two groups both grew to the same level by about the year AD 300.
One theory therefore suggests that any similarity, whether intentional or not, occurred because of an exchange of ideas and not because of a malicious plan on the part of Christians to destroy Mithraism or lure its believers to Christianity. The proximity of the two faiths argues for the likelihood that a transfusion of ideas occurred.
A second theory concludes that Mithraists also borrowed ideas from Christians. According to Clauss, as Mithraism grew and spread throughout the Empire, it was influenced by the political, social, and economic realities of the day. At times, the movement developed in reaction to what was occurring in the Empire. Not only that but the followers of Mithras were drawn from all walks of life such that their experiences and relationships with other people and institutions throughout the wider Roman society would have influenced the practice of Mithraism (Clauss, 2001). In terms of the number of followers, more recent archaeological discoveries have resulted in estimates, at the beginning of the 4th-century AD, that there were roughly as many Mithraists in Rome as there were Christians, approximately 50,000 people belonging to each group. Excavations in ancient Ostia have revealed how embedded these cults were within the Roman town. Archaeologists discovered that the privately-owned mithraea, dated to the second century, were located near public spaces such as barracks and bath houses. From this evidence it would appear that by this point Mithraism was a public movement and as such an interaction between Mithraists and Christians was probable.
A third theory proposed by Samuel Laeuchli argues for ‘a common root for Christian and Mithraic phenomena’ (Laeuchli, 1967, 88). According to some scholars, the iconographical similarities between Mithraism and Christianity can be explained by the fact that the two movements shared a common origin in the Hellenistic part of the Roman Empire, albeit having started out from Asia Minor. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that many of the iconographical similarities come from this shared root, which implies that some of the similarities are nothing more than coincidences on the part of Christian and Mithraic artists. As Clauss writes some parallels can be traced ‘to the common currency of all mystery cults or can be traced back to common origins in the Graeco-oriental culture of the Hellenistic world’ (Clauss, 2001).
A fourth theory combines the three arguments listed above. Laeuchli writes that the two faiths could have developed: ‘A common contemporaneousness resulting directly from [the root] source. Two religions could have spoken to a Roman condition, a social need, and a theological question without having learned from each other or even without having known of each other’s existence. As in so many other instances…parallel thoughts and social patterns can appear independently of one another as “new” elements with the authentic consciousness of such newness…if a religion moved into the Roman sphere, the soil would have altered the content of different religions, thereby creating striking parallels’ (Laeuchli, 1967, 88).
Who influenced who? It is overly simplistic to suggest that Mithraism was the single forerunner of early Christianity. Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were plenty of other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected. Furthermore, many classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father. Such demi-gods pepper ancient Greek mythology.
Perhaps, therefore, a fifth option would be to regard the similarities as largely due to ‘simultaneous invention’ . Rather than assume that every parallel requires explanation in terms of a direct influence, it is far more probable that similar ideas arose because they addressed similar human concerns. Comparisons are found because they draw on a common wider heritage of symbols and cultural ideas. Perhaps the tensions between Mithraism and Christianity should be viewed simply as ideologies competing for resources, in this instance, followers (and their financial support). Ideologies, however, have an unnerving habit of actively despising and destroying any conflicting view or perceived threat to its own assumed truth. Virtually every pagan religious practice and festivity that could not be suppressed or driven underground was eventually incorporated into the rites of Christianity as it spread across Europe and throughout the world. So, the familiar images, festivals and rituals, those advancing the particular cause or belief, were selectively co-opted or absorbed into the brand.
As for Mithraism, despite its outward pretensions to Persian origins and antiquity, it seems to have had a uniquely Roman iconography, theology and ritual, acting as an exclusive, male-only and secretive religious club.
Brewster, H. Pomeroy (1904), ‘Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church’, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.
Clauss, M. (2001), in Gordon, R. (trans.), ‘The Roman cult of Mithras’, Routledge.
Cumont, F. (1911), ‘Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism’, Open Court Publishing Co.
Cumont, F. (1956), in McCormack, Thomas K. (trans.), ‘The Mysteries of Mithras’, Dover Publications.
de Riencourt, A. (1974), ‘Sex and Power in History’, New York: D. McKay Co.
Derman, A. (1971), in Hinnells, J.R., ‘Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities’, in Mithraic Studies Vol. 2, Manchester University Press.
Fingut, D. (1993), ‘Mithraism: The Legacy of the Roman Empire's Final Pagan State Religion’, available online at Bill Thayers’ website LacusCurtius (accessed February 16th, 2021).
Larson, M.A. (1977), ‘The Story of Christian Origins’, New York: D, McKay Co.
Laeuchli, S. (1967), ‘Christ and Mithra’, in Mithraism in Ostia: Mystery Religion and Christianity in the Ancient Port of Rome, Northwestern University Press.
Taylor, J., (2004), ‘Pythagoreans and Essenes: Structural Parallels’, in Collection de la Revue des Études Juives 32, Leuven: Peeters.
Vermaseren, M.J. (1963), ‘Mithras: The Secret God’, Chatto & Windus.
1. Sadly it is not uncommon for anti-theistic atheists to misuse history and the use of biased, erroneous and distorted pseudo-history. An excellent counter to ‘New Atheist Bad History’ is Tim O’Neill’s blog ‘History for Atheists’.
2. Sulis was a deity worshiped at the thermal spring in Bath (Somerset) by the local Dobunni tribe before the Roman presence in the area. They may have believed that Sulis had curative powers. The goddess was worshiped by the Romano-British as Sulis Minerva, the primary deity of the temple spa. The link with Roman Minerva has led later mythographers to infer that Sulis was also a goddess of wisdom and decisions.
3. A tauroctony relief found near Mauls in 1579, now housed in the Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum in Bozen. The attempt to colour the relief is based on the colouring in the well-preserved frescos of the Mithraea at Marino and S. Maria Capua Vetere, and an explanation of the elements forming the relief may be found here. It is worth noting that the elements included in a particular Mithraic tauroctony vary greatly according to where, when and who carved the relief. Likewise, many surviving reliefs have been damaged such that certain elements may be missing.
4. The cult of Sol Invictus was first promoted in Rome under Emperor Elagabalus, without success. Some fifty years later, on December 25th, AD 274, Emperor Aurelian succeeded in establishing worship of the Syrian god as an official religion, alongside the traditional Roman cults. There was general agreement that, from Aurelian to Constantine I, Sol was of supreme importance, until Constantine abandoned Sol in favour of Christianity. The last inscription referring to Sol Invictus dates to AD 387, and there were enough devotees in the fifth century that the Christian theologian Augustine found it necessary to preach against them.
5. The term ‘pagan’ derives from Latin pāgānus meaning ‘rural or rustic’, and thus could be applied to someone who dwelt in the countryside. The meaning ‘not (Judeo-)Christian’ arose in Vulgar Latin, probably from the 4th-century AD. This sense may reflect that early Christians predominantly lived in towns (‘urbani’) and that worship of their new god had not expanded into rural areas. Later the use of pagan to mean ‘civilian’ may have been adopted from Roman army jargon for 'clumsy'. This sense is still prevalent today in military circles where those not serving are referred to as ‘civvies’.
6. The concept of simultaneous invention (also known as multiple discovery) is the hypothesis that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors. Multiple discovery is analogous to convergent evolution in biology, which is used to explain the independent evolution of similar features in species of different periods or epochs in time.