Left: Rendering of Mithras, ca. 100 B.C.
In this blog we examine the god-Man myth of Mithras (Mithra.)
In the oldest extant version of the legend of Mithras, found in the the Izeds (28 in number) appearing in the Zendavesta, Mithras was born on December 25th of the Virgin, Anahita.
The notion of being "born of a solid rock" can probably traced to certain writings of Church Father Justin Martyr who analogized Peter as the mystic "Rock" of the Church ("Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church") to the emergence of Mithraism with Mithras. J.M. Robertson ('The Origin Of Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World') speculates that Martyr's ruminations are "in touch with the Graecized but probably Semitic myth of the Rock-born Agdestis, son of Jupiter". In other words, not peculiar to Mithraism proper, but a subsequent syncretic addition which then became distorted into a "rock birth" by early Christians. Not suprisingly, probably because of the Agdestis- connection, Mithras is derived from the Latin "rock born" and that concept is perpetuated with the name.
A much older version, probably more accurate is cited in Robertson's Pagan Christs (p. 119) wherein he notes that according to a (Vendedadic) legend "Mithras shoots an arrow at a rock, and water gushes forth where the arrow strikes". The passage is believed by some scholars of pagan mystery religions to refer to either an incident where Mithras saves his followers who are lost in the desert, or that he uses his arrow to reveal an analog to the Judaeo-Christian Decalogue.
The Zendavesta, literally "text and comment," is the doctrine of Zoroaster (Zarathrustra), comprised in eight parts, written at different periods, but of which the earliest have been assigned to the date of B.C. 1200-1000. In its present form it was collected by Ardeshir, the founder of the Sassanian dynasty, from oral tradition, at the time when he re-established the ancient religion of Persia.
Aspects of Mithraism that later filtered into the Graeco-Roman world (in the form of emergent Mithraic cults) undoubtedly came from this text (the Izeds, wherein “Mithras” was chief and ruler) as well as others likely destroyed with the burning of the library at Alexandria. (See, e.g. J.M. Robertson’s ‘Pagan Christs’, 1966) . Many scholars believe the greater details including Mithras’ disciples, the full recounting of his miracles: including walking on water, raising the dead, changing water to wine etc. were in those destroyed manuscripts.
According to Plutarch, Mithraism first arrived in the Roman Empire through the Cilician pirates whom Pompey subdued, then brought back to Rome as slaves. (Many were actually believed to have been soldiers for whom Mithraism would have been the religion naturally embraced).
Mithraism was a mystery religion, so its historical legends would have always been more accessible than its precepts, rituals were held in strictest confidence – available only to the select few - as a secret society would. (Much like today’s FreeMasons who maintain absolute silence as regards their rituals.) As F. Zindler notes, no specific “works of Mithraism are known since like other Mystery Cults, it centered around a secret or body of secrets only known to those initiated into the rites. Most of our knowledge of it is derived from the iconography of its temples”.
A number of ancient authors (e.g. Porphyry) bemoaned the catastrophic destruction of many of the original works at the hands of the Christians. As we know from the example of Mikey, they can’t tolerate other books sitting on shelves next to their own – they either have to burn them or depict them in toilets.
Nonetheless, we do have enough in Ized 28 of the Zendavesta to document much of Mithras' mythological basis. Perusing through it there is no mention of battling a "bull" - which likely originated from the Graeco-Roman version of the myth, which was probably distorted by re-translations over centuries (much the same way the Christian New Testament has been).
In the actual Izeds (#23-#28) there’s no record of any “Bull”. There is a peripheral reference (by Porphyry) to Mithras as "the Bull of Demiurgos and lord of generation". But again, no "battle" with such. (so it's likely corrupted over time). Robertson (p. 121) speculates Porphyry's reference is actually based on a conceptual error mixing up the Mithraic seat at the equinoctial table (assigned to the Ram, Aries) "which also bears the sword of the Ram." He adds (ibid.): "The sword of the Ram is simply figured as a cross, since the sword IS a cross".
Nor is there account of any "battle with the Sun" (though Roman Mithraists, who worshipped in a Mithraeum, may well have introduced this myth synthetically, as a kind of backhand way of vengeance at the Roman Sun deity, Sol Invictus. After all the earliest Roman Mithraists were Cilician slaves brought to Rome under duress.)
We only know that he emerged with the virgin Anahita giving birth, then began his ministry which included numerous sermons, miracles – especially curing lepers and the handicapped. As scholar J.M. Robertson has pointed out: "The doctrine of the Logos - the Incarnate Word- which Christianity absorbed via the Platonic Jews of Alexandria, was already present in Mithraism" (See: 'Pagan Christs’, page 117)
Re: Mithras' birth date on Dec. 25th, one should note that just as Jesus' date of Birth (putatively on the 25th December) was ahistorical, most likely Mithras' was as well. The assignment of ancient god-man births to this date is understandable given the ancients investment in agriculture, and the Winter solstice marked the day of shortest daylight giving way to increasing lengths of day through Spring. (Perfect for planting in the northern hemisphere).
Some who complain about Mithraism insist there's no evidence that Mithras was a great teacher.
But this is belied in Ized 28. (We were introduced to this in our Comparative Religion class at Loyola, in 1966). In brief passages we see Mithras teaching the multitudes about son-ship and stewardship and the Logos-Trinity. In many ways his message echoes the ones seen in the Gnostic Gospels, and adhered to by the Gnostics. He taught that there was one reality and all were part of it. Each man was a divine “son” of the One God, as well as the doctrine of immortality of the soul. He taught that people must see their brothers as they see themselves and treat them the same. He also echoed the ancient ethical code from the time of Hammurabi:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Incredibly, this has found its way into Christian lore and writings, and claimed to be an original statement of Christ.
Another complaint is the parallel between Mithras and Christ breaks down because there's no mention of "12 disciples" This is possible, but the truth is we may never know whether there were actually 12 disciples of Mithras, or 24, 10 or 5 or none. As noted earlier, most of the (Vendidad) and much older Mithraic manuscripts were destroyed when the Christians burned the Library at Alexandria. In Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, Episode 13, ‘Who speaks for Earth?’ he recounts the killing of Hypatia, one of Alexandria’s foremost woman scientists and also the library’s burning. J.M. Robertson ('The Origin Of Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World', Oxford Univ. Press, 1989) suggests than more than 300 manuscripts documenting the role of Mithras’ disciples were likely destroyed around the same time as Hypatia’s martyrdom.
The best advice here for Mithras naysayers?
“Evidence of absence is not absence of evidence.”
Some other Christians have complained Mithras underwent no bodily resurrection, but was "taken up in a chariot." Again, false! Ized 28 is most exhaustive on this issue and is confirmed in James Pullen’s (Origin of All Religious Myths- The New Testament Exposed) . Mithras was condemned to death, crucified, buried and then rose in an Ascension. No chariots carried him anywhere, so this is likely a derivation from a later Greco-Roman myth (especially the latter, wherein chariots were prominent and also symbolic).
Robertson observes (op. cit.)
"The celebration of the Mithraic mysteries, of the burial and resurrection of the Lord, the Mediator and Savior, the sacrament of bread and water...all these were in practice long before the first Christian Gospel of a Lord who was buried in a rock tomb."
Another common canard is that Mithraists copied from Christians to fabricate their god -Man not the other way around. This is totally false, and can be ascertained from Tertullian’s writings combined with just minimal reasoning ability. My class notes, e.g. from my Comparative Theology class are fortunately still in one of my old file boxes with Exegesis notes. The main theme, to summarize, is that the course was based on the original writings of Church fathers, including Tertullian, Justin Martyr and Julius Firmicus – all referencing Mithraic scriptures and references therein.
After describing the “Lord’s Supper’ for example, Justin Martyr evinces outrage as he writes (from my notes):
“WHICH THE WICKED DEVILS HAVE IMITATED IN THE MYSTERIES OF MITHRA, COMMANDING THE SAME THING TO BE DONE”
Tertullian also bears this out, scolding:
“The Devil, by the mysteries of his idols, IMITATES EVEN THE MAIN PARTS OF THE DIVINE MYSTERIES. HE ALSO BAPTIZES HIS FOLLOWERS IN WATER THAT PURIFIES THEM OF THEIR SINS”
As the notes indicate, a careless Christian reader might jump to the conclusion that the Mithraists copied from the Christians, but this simply isn’t so, on closer examination. The refutation of this notion inheres in the language of the same trio of Christian Fathers. They all speak, for example, of resemblance of Mithraic rites to Christian rites as being “the imitation of devils”.
But why such an obscure use of language, when they could simply have stated the Mithraists IMITATED their own works, and done? Why the need to introduce devils? This presumes a supernatural influence over and above ordinary human copying.
An answer becomes manifest when we examine more closely the words of Justin Martyr, who expressly argued that "the demons ANTICIPATED the Christian mysteries and prepared PARODIES of them BEFOREHAND"! (Pagan Christs, p. 118)
As Justin further writes (cf. from Loyola Theology notes):
“When I hear that Mithra was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent also counterfeited this.”
Addendum in notes: No one pretends the Pagan virgin myth in general is LATER than Christianity. Justin’s own words: "ANTICIPATED the Christian mysteries" can mean only one thing: he KNEW the Mithraic version PRECEDED the Christian version. What he said also underscored the arguments from Tertullian and Firmicus. He was so incensed that the Mithraists trumped the Christians' Savior myth on the timeline, that he attributed this to demonic work, aka the "imitation of devils".
Robertson (op. cit., p. 121) also cites other common symbols that the Christians appropriated from Mithraic traditions, including the Agnus Dei, or "Lamb of God". As he notes:
"The Christian assimilation of Mithraism is still more clearly seen in the familiar Christian symbol in which Christ is represented as a lamb, carrying by one forefoot a cross."
What about the way in which Christians have consistently copied images of Mithras and used them for Jesus? Robertson again (op. cit.) supplies an answer (p. 124):
"The Christian imitation, took place, be it observed, because the features imitated were found by experience to be religiously attractive."
It’s clear from this that the Mithras myth sticks in the craw of many biblical literalists and even orthodox non-literalists, since their dependency on the notion of one unique "Savior" exposes their egocentric certainty that the Dalai Lama warned about (previous blog). They simply can’t tolerate the idea that their God-man myths were prefigured in earlier pagan God men. While Catholics more or less accept it and shrug it off, since they make less of a big deal about salvation by “believing on the Lord JC”, the evangelicals lose it, since it means losing their unique claim to a pass into their heavenly reward.
What they ought to be doing is THANKING the Mithraists for providing a ready to use template for Christian copyists and re-translators (intent on using their good book in a PR campaign to lure unsuspecting unbelievers) to build their "Savior" myth on, and have everyone convinced he's unique. And......the sole, sure pass into the righteous afterlife (with harps, clouds and all).
Most amazing, despite this possessive protection of their “Savior” they still haven’t been able to explain why an “act of God” destroyed the 62 foot tall Jesus statue near Monroe, Ohio almost a week ago. One bolt of lightning frying the whole figure to a crisp, except for the steel frame. Maybe they’d be more energized had it been a statue of Mithras!