The Myth of Mithraic Influence

Last night, Susan Fulford left this comment:

You do realise of course that the resurrection story was quite a common theme in the mystery religions at least 400 years before the supposed death of Jesus. In fact if you check your classsical history and check the cult of “Mythras” , you will find that Mythras was around (according to the Persians), around 400BC. His birth date was 25 December and he had 12 helpers or “disciples” who preached his doctrine. Also he was put to death but rose again. The Mythras cult was not the only one which expounded the resurrection story. there were several, all of which existed 100’s of years before Jesus lived. I suggest you read up on these mystery cults so that you can get a more informed and wider view of the historical background. That is, look at all the facts!

Ordinarily I would just delete this. I doubt she is really interested in any kind of dialog and probably meant to just be a pain in my side. But this business about Jesus’ Resurrection is important. If it is true, it is the most important business in human history. So, I’m going to take on the idea that Christianity borrowed from the cult of Mythras.

I fear this may bore some of you. I’ll do my best to make this concise and interesting. Again, this is one of those statements that gets made from time to time as an attempt to shut the mouths of Christians who insist on speaking of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus as if it actually happened. It would be wise to have some kind of response at the ready.

Okay — to set the stage: There was a time when Mithraism actually competed with Christianity for people’s loyalty. Today, Islam is on the rise. Celebrities join the Church of Scientology regularly. You might have a friend who recently announced that they have become a Buddhist.

You never hear of someone joining Mithraism anymore. It is essentially a dead religion.

But it’s still a factor in this one arena: It is where skeptics (usually — as we shall see — skeptics who haven’t done a lot of homework) are most likely to point and claim that Christianity is a copycat religion.

This theory comes from some strange books that have been released in recent years (The Christ Conspiracy and Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled by Acharya S and The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty are among the most popular). These books make the claim that what we believe about Jesus is mostly stuff the ancient Persians believed about Mithras first. Only later did people take those beliefs and apply them to Jesus. In fact, the theory is now being bandied about that Jesus never actually existed but was created (a theory no historian in his or her right mind actually believes).

Among the things allegedly borrowed from Mithraism:

  • Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25 in a cave
  • Mithra was an itinerant teacher with 12 disciples
  • Mithra performed many miracles and promised his followers eternal life
  • Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace
  • Mithra was buried in a tomb and rose from the dead after three days
  • Mithra’s followers continued to spread his teaching and celebrated his resurrection annually — on the day that has now become Easter
  • Mithra’s followers referred to him as the Good Shepherd, the Lion, the Lamb, the Way, the Truth and the Light, Logos, Redeemer, Savior and Messiah
  • Mithras wanted his followers to gather on the first day of the week to celebrate a “Lord’s Supper”
  • These gatherings would be overseen by “Fathers” and the Father of all the Fathers (kind of like a Pope) lived in Rome

Okay, I’m going to spend some time delving into all this in the coming days. I’ll need to do a little background first — to talk about Mithraic studies in general over the past few decades.

For today, I’d like to hear from you.

Does any of this matter? Why should we care whether or not Christianity has incorporated ideas and concepts from other religions — even myths?

4 Responses to “The Myth of Mithraic Influence”

  1. Adam Dickison Says:

    Well, if any one part of the Bible is made up or suspect then I think, to be intellectually honest, we have to hold the rest of it as suspect. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and is, in fact, a legend copied from other mystery religions, then why should I believe any of the bible? Salvation, creation, the holy spirit, etc.. all become meaningless and I might as well do what I want. (that is the whole of the law, according to some…..)

  2. Matt Dabbs Says:

    Rob Bell has made that popular as of late from his book Velvet Elvis. Ben Witherington gives it a brief critique here in point #2.

    The gist of what he has to say is that Christianity almost certainly came about prior to the Mithra story which means, in his words, that is has no relevance to a discussion of the NT. They were not meant to be talking about real people and so a “virgin birth” was not talking about a physical event.

    This kind of argumentation needs to be addressed. We need to be honest with it. In the end we will find there is nothing to it when the facts are presented fairly and accurately.

  3. Darin Says:

    Yes, I ran into this one several years ago which sent me to research the idea.

    It didn’t take long and I didn’t even need Christian scholars to tell me it wasn’t accurate. Non-Christian scholars were my source material though I can’t recall the exacts.

    When I figured out it was a secret society that had no writings it didn’t take long to unravel the falsehood of the statements.

    I do think it is important and especially today with people looking so openly at other religions.

    Doubters need to know.

  4. Nick Gill Says:

    I think it would also be very useful to know more about earliest Christianity’s religious counterparts. How the church handled such cults can help inform our relationships with other schools of thought.