Measured Against Reality

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Cult of Mithras

I’ve been putting this off for a long while. I may have written about it in a response to Mr. Fantastic, but don’t feel like desperately trying to find it.

Anyway, it is the most damning thing about the history of Christianity, and, as I mentioned a few days ago, one of the biggest reasons I think Christianity is bunk.

What is it?

It is Mithraism, the cult of Mithras, a “mystery cult” from, at the latest, the first century BC. It originated in the Middle East (probably Iran), and bears similarities to Zoroastrianism (which may predate Judaism as the first true monotheistic religion).

It also bears a striking similarity to the story of Jesus. This movie does a good job of enumerating them. In fact, the movie’s treatment is similar to the way I first heard it, during a lecture on religious plurality in the Imperial Roman Empire (after Augustus become Emperor). If you scroll down on the Wikipedia link, you’ll see a section that also describes the similarities, and you’ll note that the authors take pains to describe that this isn’t certain.

However, I have yet to meet a historian who doubts that the cult of Mithras predates the founding of Christianity, contains basically the same narrative, and was present in Judea at the time of Christianity’s founding. Given that this lecture was team-taught by five archaeologists/historians, all of whom specialized in ancient Rome, and one of whom specialized in the religions of ancient Rome, and they only taught consensus materials, no current controversies, I can only come to one conclusion: Jesus’ narrative was ripped off from the cult of Mithras.

In context, this isn’t too surprising. Much of the Bible was borrowed from other religions/myths, and vice-versa. One of the books I read for that class was a collection of ancient documents, and the author put the locations of biblical versus that were similar to lines of the text in its margins (and he even noted that he didn’t get all of them). Many of these works predate the work in the Bible.

As an example, the story of Moses’ birth is a very, very common one. Many ancient, middle-eastern kings were said to have been put in a basket in a river, to be found by someone and eventually coming into the throne. If I recall correctly, the number is somewhere around 400, but the point is that these regional stories were used very frequently. Cultures contacted each other and shared their mythologies, and they would adopt each others’. This cultural transfusion was very common, as indicated by the written record.

Personally, I think this demolishes the credibility of Christianity (as well as Judaism, and I would assume Islam as well). Their sacred books are cobbled together from myths and proverbs scattered throughout space and time, and they don’t contain any more divine revelation than any other work of fiction. All of the different instances of Biblical authors borrowing material from preexisting sources lead inexorably to this conclusion.

In the specific case of Mithras, it casts extreme doubt on whether Jesus even existed, which in turn demolishes his status as savior. Combined with the fact that there is only one other contemporary reference to Jesus, it’s highly unlikely that he ever existed, at least as portrayed by the religion bearing his name (this one reference is from Josephus, a Roman historian from Judea. He wrote within “living memory” of Jesus, but his only mention of him is as “a doer of great deeds”, and according to historians the passage was likely inserted by a later Christian author copying his work, as it is not in the same style. Given that the Romans were meticulous about the goings-on of their empire, and that, according to the Gospels, Jesus caused quite a ruckus, this is troubling).

I realize that this entry has gone off in many directions, and I haven’t argued particularly strongly as to why the cult of Mithras is so damning to Christianity (and I haven’t cited many sources. If you think I’m lying or wrong, I don’t particularly care. But I don’t cite things I know). To me, the fact that this cult existed and is so remarkably similar to the story of Jesus in the Gospels is enough in and of itself. It is a clear instance of one culture adopting the mythology of another to suit its needs (Judea needed a messiah, Mithras masked as Jesus provided one, although not the military one many people were seeking).

The Bible is nothing more than another ancient middle-eastern mythology. It has value only for its literary, historical, and sociological impact. It is a work of fiction, albeit an important one. Nothing more, nothing less.


  • Yea, everything you say is true, but it is also easily combated. Think of how many real life events resemble literature... the sheer number of stories that have been written down on paper or stone tablets or rolls of papyrus means that just about anything that has ever been written could be called a cobbled together version of something else. Also, many real-life events could be said to resemble literature; does that mean that they didn't happen? Or is it just coincidence? In other words, one could know everything you have just written here, and still believe in Christ, the only difference is faith.

    And just for the record while I was raised Catholic, I'm not convinced, and consider myself more of a spiritual agnostic than a Christian. So I'm not saying that Christianity is definitely true, but I'm saying that these arguments don't make it false.

    By Anonymous Kevin, at 6:27 PM, December 19, 2006  

  • Heh, you're right, this IS the strongest evidence against Christianity. Of all the anti-Christianity literature I've ever read, the only ones I could not refute and of whose rebuttals I could not find in apologetics were those of the Jesus Mysteries - Gnosticism, and all of that. How the story of Jesus closely matches other (older) ancient tales of heroes and gods, so much so that it seems ripped off.

    I've no idea what to say in reply, so congratulates on finding the one major stumbling block to Christianity.

    When I first read such arguments, and found myself unable to answer any of them (kevin has shown how it may not prove anything, but even then he had to concede that what you said was true) I became in doubt of my faith.

    In the end I guess it was my faith that pulled me through. Faith that was based on the fact that I'd felt the presence of God. Delusional, maybe. People of other religions have experienced it, perhaps. That's why I don't like using this argument, although it's the one that personally convinces me most - that because I have experienced God, I know He exists.

    Meanwhile, when I comment on your blog, it's not to try and convert you or anything. (: It's just nice to have a little discussion sometimes, especially when you write things that are a little more controversial. I remain in deepest respect of your intellect. (:

    By Blogger JeNn, at 8:04 AM, December 20, 2006  

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