When I was an atheist and attending undergrad, I use to go to the Freethinkers club on campus. I originally did this as a place to find like-minded people – it was little more than to go and say, ‘hey, let’s make fun of Christianity!’ Freethinkers, nevertheless, became a very important to me for multiple reasons. However, there’s one criticism that I’d like to focus on now. One of the disconcerting things that I found while in Freethinkers was that a lot of my athiest compatriots seemed to be so convinced that there was no God that they generally did not deal with apologetics beyond creationism (obviously this was not the case for everyone, though). I remember one meeting when we were discussing what topics to cover in the coming year I purposefully listed off a bunch of names and arguments one can find on the internet: the Kalam Cosmological Argument by William Lane Craig, the Tautological Argument, Alvin Plantiga’s Modal Ontological Argument, etc. The response I got was a blank face followed by one poignant question: “What is that?”
This criticism, which is really one lambasting ignorance, is not limited solely to atheists. Many Christians, unfortunately, are horribly misinformed on science, particularly on the subjects of evolution and sexuality. What aggravates me a bit more from the atheist camp though is that they are supposed to be skeptics, people who will pursue a thought or question to its logical conclusion, checking all possible answers, and then double-checking them, and then triple-checking them. However, why is it then that I find something like this:
Christianity was invented by Emperor Constantine, for political purposes, based upon the myth of Mithra, a Persian savior god born on December 25, son of a virgin. Mithra performed miracles and was later crucified. Pope Leo X (died 1521) called Christ a “Fable”. Later Pope Paul III expressed similar sentiments. Moses is based on the Sumerian life and legends of Sargon I, King of Akkad, “set in a basket of rushes and “cast into the river”. Egyptians kept exhausting hieroglyphic records. There is a complete absence of any record of Moses leading over 600,000 men, women and children away from Pharaoh’s army.
This comes from Samuel Butler, a Freethinker whose been posting on the college’s Freethinkers group on FaceBook. Now, please don’t misunderstand me, Samuel doesn’t strike me as a bad or unintelligent person. In fact when a friend and I both responded to one of his claims (which we both found overreaching) his response was one of thankfulness that we could have an exchange of ideas without feeling pressured one way or another. That, in and of itself, is a very commendable. However, the above paragraph is not. Let’s begin:
Christianity was invented by Emperor Constantine, for political purposes, based upon the myth of Mithra, a Persian savior god born on December 25th, son of a virgin.
I’m assuming that what Samuel means is that he adapted Christianity for political purposes, and meshed it with Mithraism so that it would be more palatable (or something along those lines). No matter what way you spin it, St. Constantine (yes, Saint, as he is in the Orthodox Church) didn’t invent Christianity as the Church had existed since Pentecost. I need not point any further than the Gospel accounts, the epistles of St. Paul, and the writings of all the Ante-Nicean Fathers (St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the didache, St. Cyprian, etc) to show a whole Tradition of Christianity long before St. Constantine’s conversion.1Hence my assumption why Samuel’s meaning was that Constantine adapted it, or perhaps invented it in the sense of creating his own Christianity based upon what already existed.But even then, what did Constantine change? Samuel’s contention can be found on the Christianity page of his blog:
Christianity is a copycat religion created by Emperor Constantine (for political purposes) based upon a myth (The Persian savior god Mithra, crucified 600 B.C. ? 400 B.C.?), which was based on other similar myths, all the way back to Chrishna of India (a mythical god that some claim was “crucified” or violently died around 1200 B.C.). There were 16 mythical crucifixions before Christ. The belief in the crucifixion of Gods was prevalent in various oriental or heathen countries long prior to the reported crucifixion of Christ. Of the 16 crucifixions, most were born of a virgin and about half of them on December 25th.
There were too many religions in Rome in 325 A.D. A Council was called in an endeavor to amalgamate the many religions of the Roman Empire into one. Christianity plagiarized older myths and legends historicized to suit the Roman Catholic Church while combining the numerous religions existing at the time (Krishna, Horus, Mithraism, Osirian, Isis, and many other mystery religions). For unity and to stop all the conflicts between the numerous religions, Christianity was INVENTED.
Ah, Mithra, we meet again. You see, the final nail in the coffin that made me leave my theistic agnosticism and embrace atheism was when I saw a YouTube video about Mithra. I instantly believed this and embraced my new found lack of belief in a deity. Of course, it only took me a few google searches later to find out that the idea that Mithraism influenced Christianity (not to mention all these other pagan gods listed) was a load of bunk that no scholar – regardless of their religious beliefs – took seriously. So what does Butler claim specifically on his website?:
His birth in a grotto was attended by magi who followed a star from the East. They brought “gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” and the newborn baby was adored by shepherds. ____, one of a trinity, stood on a rock, the emblem of the foundation of his religion, and was anointed with honey. After a last supper with Helios and 11 other companions, ____ was crucified on a cross, bound in linen, placed in a rock tomb and rose on the third day or around 25 March (the full moon at the spring equinox, a time now called Easter after the Babylonian goddess Ishtar). The fiery destruction of the universe was a major doctrine of ______ism-a time in which _____ promised to return in person to Earth and save deserving souls. Devotees of ____ partook in a sacred communion banquet of bread and wine.
Archeologists have found as many as 718 monuments or statues of ____ at Ostia (near Rome-Author) and close to 300 in Rome. A ____ shrine was uncovered under St. Paul’s cathedral.____ was a god, a son of a god, born of a virgin on December 25.”
In other words Mithra was:
- Was revered by three magi who brought him gifts (identical to those brought to Christ)
- Was born on December 25th by a virgin
- Was a member of a trinity
- Had a last supper and death identical to Christ’s
- Was resurrected at the same date that Easter is now celebrated
- Was to return to earth to save the faithful while the rest would perish
- Was a son of God
- Had miscellaneous archeological claims that I’m far less interested in
One by one, shall we? Note that I am taking practically all of this information from Patrick Holding’s page on this very subject. I will cite the specific sources when possible, but otherwise it can be found there. I highly recommend that you read the web-page (scroll down to the end if you want the systematic debunking) as it is far more in depth than this here.
Was revered by three magi who brought him gifts (identical to those brought to Christ)
Not exactly. While there were indeed three shepherds at Mithra’s birth, they were direct witnesses to it as opposed to the shepherds in the Gospel accounts who were told by an angel. Furthermore, they helped Mithra during his birth by pulling him out of the rock that he was being born by. The shepherds did give gifts to Mithra, but they weren’t identical to those given to Christ but instead offered parts of their own flock for a feast. However, the internal contradiction of this story was that Mithra’s birth took place before the creation of man – even though three shepherds somehow helped him out of a rock.3The first evidence for this tale also post-dates the New Testament by a century.4
Was born on December 25thby a virgin
As Holding aptly points out, the New Testament never gives and exact date for the birth of Christ and the celebration of Christ’s nativity on December 25th far post-dated the Apostolic times.6 As such, Mithra wouldn’t have had a direct influence at all on the formation of Christianity. So why then was December 25th chosen for Christ’s birthday? While David Withun has given an apologetic for the date, claiming that the Christians actually had it first, commentators have pointed out that the texts he uses aren’t sufficient to establish what he’s arguing. I would like to provide a different explanation.
In his book, The Winter Pascha, Fr. Thomas Hopko does admit that Christianity purposefully chose the same date that was used for Sol Invictus, or the Nativity of the Invincible Sun. The Church was not doing this in any sense to claim that pagans took the date from them, nor were they saying that this was the historical date of Christ’s birth. It was put on the same day to show that Christ was the “True Sun” and that pagans had inappropriately worship the sun. The hymn of the Nativity in the Orthodox Church served as an attack on their view:
Your Nativity, O Christ our God
Has shown to the world the light of wisdom
For by it those who worshiped the stars
Were taught by a star to adore You,
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know You, the Orient from on high.
Thus the influence here is of no real consequence, and doesn’t show at all that Christianity was invented. This was a theological response to paganism, not a pagan influence on the dogma of the Church.
Was a member of a trinity
This is true of Iranian Mithraism but not Roman Mithraism8 (which is what Christianity would have been borrowing from in its days of formulation). Even then, this seems to be tri-theism9 which is a far cry from Trinitarianism.
Had a last supper and death identical to Christ’s
These claims are also both false. As for the last supper, the claim was made by Godwin and was supposedly from one of the Persian Mithraic texts (not the Roman ones), but it’s actual source was from a medieval text.10 Hardly prior to the birth of Christianity.
As for being crucified, this is absolutely false. Mithra went to fight a bull and slayed it, but at no point was he killed. There is no recorded death of Mithra whatsoever, and the Christian references to it far post-date the early Church, making such a ‘plagiarism’ unfeasible.11
Was resurrected at the same date that Easter is now celebrated
Mithra, having never died, could never have been resurrected12 (not to mention that resurrection in Christian terminology was completely different than from contemporary pagans who scoffed at the idea of a bodily resurrection).13
Was to return to earth to save the faithful while the rest would perish
While this seems to be true, the eschaton here is different from that of Christianity’s.14 Not to mention this may be from the non-Roman Mithra who had little to almost no connection with the Roman one (note this last point is conjecture as Cumon simply assumes there is a continuity between the two – something later scholars disagreed with – and as such doesn’t seem to make a distinction between the two in his book).15
Was a son of God
While it seems, from a brief look, that the Persian Mithra was indeed the son of Ahura Mazda,16 this is not parallel to how the Son is the son of the Father since this kind of Mithraism was incredibly Platonic.17 I believe that quoting Holding here will be of good use:
We have several titles here, and yes, though I searched through the works of Mithraic scholars, I found none of these applied to Mithra, other than the role of mediator (not, though, in the sense of a mediator between God and man because of sin, but as a mediator between Zoroaster’s good and evil gods; we have seen the “sun” identification, but never that title) — not even the new ones were ever listed by the Mithraic scholars.18
As for the sixteen crucified saviors trope, it’s been refuted elsewhere, and I will not be going over it in this post. As for pagan parallels at large, James Patrick Holding has a whole slew of articles that systematically shows this to be false. Samuel goes on to talk about Eusebius and the canonization of the Gospels, but his argument relies off of the use of Christian-pagan syncretism. Since such plagiarizing seems to be unfounded, the argument fails nevertheless. In my next post on this series, I will be discussing the two Papal quotes. Also, once again if I have offended anyone in this post (as I know, especially at the beginning, my tone was a little harsh) I apologize and ask for your forgiveness.
1 A Tradition that is remarkably in agreement in all major points of doctrine: the liturgical priesthood, the reality of the Eucharist and Baptism, Scripture and Tradition, the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, etc. While their language may not have always been as develop as the subsequent councils (for instance you will not see nearly as articulate a definition of the Trinity in the Apostolic Fathers as you will in those from Nicea onwards, i.e., Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius the Great, etc), the basic ideas are still there.
2 Butler, Samuel. CHRISTIANITY. Retrieved August, 2012. http://beyondallreligion.net/christianity/
3 Cumon, Franz. The Mysteries of Mythra. Republished 2007 by Forgotten Books. pp. 83-4
4 Holding, James P. Mithraism. Not an influence on Christianity. Retrieved August, 2012. http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/mithra.html
5 Cumon, Franz. The Mysteries of Mythra. Republished 2007 by Forgotten Books. pp. 83
6 Holding, James P. Mithraism. Not an influence on Christianity. Retrieved August, 2012. http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/mithra.html
7 Hopko, Thomas. The Winter Pascha. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997. pp. 119-20
8 Mitra. Retrieved August, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitra
9 Ahura. Retrieved August, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahura
10 Vermaseren, M. J. Mithras the Secret God. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.
11 Holding, James P. Mithraism. Not an influence on Christianity. Retrieved August, 2012. http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/mithra.html
13 cf. N. T. Wright The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.
14 Cumon, Franz. The Mysteries of Mythra. Republished 2007 by Forgotten Books. pp. 90
15 Holding, James P. Mithraism. Not an influence on Christianity. Retrieved August, 2012. http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/mithra.html
16 Mithra. Retrieved August, 2012. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/mithra.html
17 Holding, James P. Mithraism. Not an influence on Christianity. Retrieved August, 2012. http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/mithra.html