Would This Bother You?
There are many atheists who claim that Jesus never really lived. What if I told you that there was once an ancient religion which described God as a being who:
- Was born of a virgin on December 25th, in a cave, attended by shepherds
- Was considered a great traveling teacher and master
- Had 12 companions or disciples
- Promised his followers immortalityPerformed miracles
- Sacrificed himself for world peace
- Was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again
- Was celebrated each year at the time of His resurrection (later to become Easter)
- Was called “the Good Shepherd”Was identified with both the Lamb and the Lion
- Was considered to be the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” and the “Logos,” “Redeemer,” “Savior” and “Messiah.”
- Celebrated Sunday as His sacred day (also known as the “Lord’s Day,”)
- Celebrated a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper”
Would you recognize this religious figure? Sound like someone you know? Well, of course, we are describing the figure of Mithras!! What, did you think we were talking about Jesus? It sure sounds like Jesus doesn’t it? Would it shake your faith to discover that Mithraism was a popular religion in the Roman era, and actually competed with Christianity for the hearts and minds of believers? While Mithraism is no longer a viable religious belief system in our world, there are a number of atheists who are now assembling to argue that Christianity is simply a copycat of previously existing faith systems. Their argument is that Christianity is not true, and that Jesus never lived. He is simply a copied form of deity from a number of pre-existing mythologies!
Is He Really Like Jesus?
A first reading of these similarities is startling and for many Christians, these descriptions have caused them to stumble and doubt the true historicity of the man, Jesus Christ. So it’s important for us to examine the truth of these claims of similarity and to also see what the REAL mythologies can tell us about the heart of man that drives us to imagine what God might be like. There can be little doubt that there are a number of pre-Christian mythologies with dying saviors, but when we examine these figures closely, we’ll see that they only foreshadow the God who truly DID come to earth. These mythologies actually SUPPORT the claims of Christ. Before we begin to examine this mythology carefully, it’s important to recognize that a significant portion of what we just read about Mithras is simply FALSE, and lacks ANY archeological support whatsoever. Much of what is seen on this list is simply the effort of atheists to make Mithras look as much like Jesus as possible. So let’s take a look at the truth and see what it can tell us.
The Truth About Mithras
There are two distinct and non-continuous traditions related to Mithras, one coming out of the areas of India and Iran, and another more recently developed (in Roman times). Many experts have struggled to try to connect these as one continuous tradition, and in so doing, have distorted or misinterpreted the basic elements of the tradition and mythology. Much of what is known about Mithras comes from pictures and murals that have NO CAPTIONS, so the vast majority of scholarly work on this character is pure speculation. Let’s take a look at the claims we have already described and separate truth from fiction, and then try to understand the underlying hope of the people who invented the god called Mithras:
- Claim: Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th, in a cave, attended by shepherds
- Truth: Mithras was actually born out of solid rock, LEAVING a cave. He was NOT born of a virgin (unless you consider the rock mountain to have been a virgin). His birth WAS celebrated on December 25th, but the first Christians knew this was not the true date of Christ’s birth anyway, and both Mithras worshippers and the Roman Catholic Church borrowed this celebration from earlier winter solstice celebrations. Shepherds ARE part of the Mithras mythology, witnessing his birth and helping Mithras emerge from the rock, but interestingly, the shepherds exist in the birth chronology at a time when humans are not supposed to have been yet born. This, coupled with the fact that the earliest version of this part of the Mithras mythology appears one hundred years AFTER the appearance of the New Testament, points to the fact that it is far more likely that the Mithras legend borrowed from Christianity rather than the other way around.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: Clearly men dream and think about God, and when we do that, it is reasonable for us to imagine that God must be an incredibly strong being who would emerge in our world in a way that defies the natural order of things.
- Claim: Mithras was considered a great traveling teacher and master
- Truth: There is nothing in the Mithras tradition that indicates he was a teacher on ANY kind, but he was could have been considered a master of sorts. But why would we expect ANY deity to be anything less than a great teacher and master? Most deities and mythologies describe their gods in this way.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: If there is a god, it is reasonable to expect Him to have infinite wisdom and be the master of our lives.
- Claim: Mithras had 12 companions or disciples
- Truth: There is no evidence for any of this in the traditions of Iran or Rome. It is possible that the idea that Mithras had 12 disciples is simply because there exists a mural in which Mithras is surrounded by twelve signs and personages of the Zodiac (two of whom are the moon and the sun), and even this imagery is POST Christian, and cannot contribute to the imagery of Christianity (although it could certainly have borrowed from Christianity).
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: It is reasonable to imagine that God, if he was to come to earth, would then gather to himself disciples that would continue to share the truth with others.
- Claim: Mithras promised his followers immortality
- Truth: While there is little evidence for this, it is certainly reasonable to think that Mithras did offer immortality, although this is not uncommon for any God of mythology.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: All of us have a sense that there is more than this mortal life, and if there is a God, we would expect Him to exist outside and beyond this life. We would also expect him, if he loves us enough, to want to bring us to Him in his eternal life.
- Claim: Mithras performed miracles
- Truth: Of course this is true, for what god does not perform miracles, whether true or false?
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: It is reasonable to expect that if there is a God (a true God), He would have the power to perform the miraculous and control the forces of the natural environment.
- Claim: Mithras sacrificed himself for world peace
- Truth: There is little or no evidence that any of this is true, although there is a story about Mithras slaying a threatening bull in a heroic deed. But that’s about as close as it gets.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: It is reasonable to view God as wanting to save his children enough to come to their rescue, particularly if they are facing an eternal threat.
- Claim: Mithras was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again, and Mithras was celebrated each year at the time of His resurrection (later to become Easter)
- Truth: There is nothing in the Mithras tradition that indicates he ever even died, let alone was buried or resurrected! Now, Tertullian did write about Mithras believers re-enacting resurrection scenes, but he wrote about this occurring well after New Testament times. Christianity could NOT have borrowed from Mithras traditions, but the opposite could certainly be true.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: It is reasonable to assume that, if there is a God, he would be powerful enough to defeat death.
- Claim: Mithras was called “the Good Shepherd”, and was identified with both the Lamb and the Lion
- Truth: There is NO evidence that Mithras was ever called “the Good Shepherd” or identified with a lamb, but Since Mithras was a sun-god, there was an association with Leo (the House of the Sun in Babylonian astrology), so one might say that he was associated with a Lion. But once again, all of this evidence is actually POST New Testament, and cannot therefore be borrowed by Christianity.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: If God was to be associated in our minds with a symbol from animal life, we would expect him to have a strong representation, such as a lion.
- Claim: Mithras was considered to be the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” and the “Logos,” “Redeemer,” “Savior” and “Messiah.”
- Truth: Based on the researched and known historic record of the Mithraic tradition, none of these terms has ever been applied to Mithras deity with the exception of “mediator”. But this term is very different from the way that it is used in the Christian tradition. Mithras is not the mediator between God and man but the mediator between the good and evil Gods of Zoroaster.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: If there is a God, we would expect him to provide us with some way to know him, perhaps in the form of a mediator.
- Claim: Mithras celebrated Sunday as His sacred day (also known as the “Lord’s Day,”)
- Truth: This tradition of celebrating Sunday is only true of Mithras followers in Rome and it is a tradition that dates to POST Christian times. Once again, it is more likely to have been borrowed from Christianity than the other way around.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: Any true worship of God should and would involve a desire on the part of the believer to honor this God regularly
- Claim: Mithras celebrated a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper”
- Truth: Followers of Mithras did NOT celebrate a Eucharist, but they did celebrate a fellowship meal regularly, just as did many other groups in the Roman world.
The Reasoning Behind the Mithras Mythology: Believers of God would reasonably want to come together to celebrate their faith and unite under the same belief system.
So, What is Left?
From this quick examination of the Mithras tradition, we can see that he is formed from the rock of a mountain. His birthday celebration was later adopted at the winter solstice, just as the Roman Catholics did for the birth of Christ. Mithras was not a teacher like Jesus. He did not have twelve disciples like Jesus. He may have offered his followers immortality, as this was common for deity mythologies of all kinds. He was believed to have performed miracles, like other deities. He did not sacrifice himself for the world as did Jesus. There is no evidence that Mithras ever died, was ever buried or ever resurrected. In a similar way, there is no evidence that Mithras was ever called the “Good Shepherd” or associated with the lamb. He was loosely associated to the lion in that he was a sun-god associated to Leo. Mithras has never been called the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the “Logos,” “Redeemer,” “Savior” nor “Messiah.” He was called a “mediator” but in a very different way than Jesus. Followers of Mithras did celebrate on Sunday in the years FOLLOWING the Christian celebration of the “Lord’s Day”, and while Mithras followers did fellowship together, they did not celebrate a Eucharist of any kind. So in hindsight, how similar is Mithras to Jesus after all?
How Could They Have Imagined That?
Even with all the differences between Mithras and Jesus, it is still striking that early men would imagine a God with even a few similarities, don’t you think? How could that happen? Is it really possible that someone could imagine something that could later become a reality, even if only in part? Well, let’s take a look at another example from history. What if I told you that a man named Morgan Robertson once wrote about a British ocean liner that was about 800 feet long, weighed over 60,000 tons, and could carry about 3,000 passengers? The ship had a top cruising speed of 24 knots, had three propellers, and about 20 lifeboats. What if I told you that this ocean liner hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in the month of April, tearing an opening in the starboard side forward portion of the ship, and sinking along with about 2,000 passengers? Would you recognize the event from history? You might say, “Hey, that’s the Titanic!” Well, you would be wrong. While all these details are identical to the Titanic, the ship I am talking about is the “Titan” and it is a fictional ship described in Robertson’s book called “the Wreck of the Titan” or “Futility” (Buccaneer Books, Cutchogue, New York, 1898). This book was written fourteen years BEFORE the disaster took place, and several years before the construction was even begun on the Titanic! In addition to this, other writers and thinkers had also started to develop a mythology about such large ships. In the 1880’s, the well known English journalist, W. T. Stead also wrote an account of a sinking ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic, and by 1882 had added the detail that an iceberg would be the cause of the disaster. There are also quite a number of recorded premonitions on the part of passengers who cancelled at the last minute before boarding the Titanic for its maiden voyage in 1912, citing that the ship would suffer a similar fate.
How could all these people foresee something like this? How could Robertson foresee this so accurately? Well, it is quite possible that these men and women had a prophetic gift of sorts (after all, even atheists will concede that some among us are at least more intuitive than others), but it is also possible that they simply observed the world around them, thought about the possibilities, examined the history of man leading up to the era, and imagined what an ocean liner like this might be like. Clearly they did actually imagine something that was close to the truth of history. Now if a thousand years from now we were examining the truth of the Titanic in history, and we discovered the story of the Titan, do you think we would find ourselves saying, “Hey, that story about the Titanic is a lie, it was just a re-creation of a prior mythology called the Titan!” I hope not. I hope, instead, that we would evaluate the evidence related to the existence of the Titanic, read the eyewitness accounts, study the impact the event had on history, and then make a decision about the event. I would hope that a prior mythology would not stop our search for the truth. And let’s face it, the similarities between the Titan and the Titanic are far greater than the similarities between Mithras and Jesus.
What Was in the Heart of Those Who Created Mithras?
So, is there also something in the heart of man that drives him to seek God and try his best to understand and know him? Is there something in the heart of man that encourages him to dream and imagine mythologies about God, just like he might imagine a boat like the Titanic? The Bible certainly maintains that God has placed the truth of his existence in the world around us:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
And the Bible also tells us that God has given us a conscience that testifies to his existence:
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)
Why should we be surprised that as people created in the image of God, we would have a mind and a heart that dreams about the nature of our creator? If God has placed his moral truth in our heart, and hinted at his existence with the wonder of the created world around us, it is reasonable that even before anything was directly revealed in the Bible, men and women thought, imagined and dreamed about the nature of God (just like some obviously thought about large ocean liners!) We would actually expect these mythologies to bear a resemblance to the reality of God’s nature once it IS revealed to us, just as the Titan resembled the Titanic!! And that appears to be the case with Mithras. But let’s be realistic about the Mithras similarities. They are NOT all that powerful and striking; especially when we investigate them and see that the vast majority of the claims of similarity are simply not historically verified. They are lies.
But go back for a minute and re-read the reasoning of the creators of the Mithras mythology. Think about what motivated them. They reasoned through the notion of God, based on what they saw in their environment and the seed of God’s conscience planted in their heart, and decided that if there is a God, (1) He must be an incredibly strong being who could emerge in our world in a way that defies the natural order of things, (2) He must have infinite wisdom and have the power to be the master of our lives, (3) He would love us enough to gather to himself disciples that would continue to share the truth with others, (4) He must exist outside and beyond this life, and if he loves us, he would want to bring us to Him in his eternal home, (5) He must have the power to perform the miraculous and control the forces of the natural environment, (6) If He loves us, he would want to save his children and come to their rescue, (7) He must be powerful enough to defeat death, (8) He would communicate with His children and represent himself strongly, (9) He would love his creation enough to provide us with some way to know him, perhaps in the form of a mediator, (10) His existence would result in believers who want to honor this God regularly, and (11) These believers would reasonably want to come together to celebrate their faith and unite under the same belief system.
So, How Did God Eventually Appear?
OK, these eleven driving motivations have clearly contributed to the thinking of those who originally created the mythology of Mithras. As humans, we can evaluate the environment around us and form a reasonable notion about the God who created it. While Mithras is MUCH different from Jesus, it is interesting to note that God eventually met and exceeded the expectations of those who dreamed about Him. Jesus is everything we might have hoped for, and so much more. He is powerful and defied the natural expectation upon his emergence into our world. He has infinite wisdom and the power to be the master of our lives. He loves us enough to gather to himself disciples that will continue to share the truth with others. He exists today outside and beyond this life, and he loves us enough to bring us to Him in his eternal home. He has the power to perform miracles and control the forces of the natural environment. He wants to save his children and come to their rescue. He is powerful enough to defeat death. He communicates with His children and represents himself strongly. He loves us enough to provide us with a way to know God the Father, representing Him as a mediator. Jesus meets the expectation that early God seekers had and exceeds their expectation in every way!
Paul Told Them That God Was Greater Than Their Expectations
That really shouldn’t surprise us, because Paul told early God seekers this very thing as he was addressing the people of Athens on Mars Hill, two thousand years ago. He told these Greek thinkers and seekers that while they had imagined the nature of God (just as Mithras believers had also dreamed about God), there was actually a TRUE God, Jesus Christ, who came into the world and exceeded their expectations:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Paul seemed to recognize that God had an answer for all those who had been dreaming about His nature. God was not unaware of all the mythologies that preceded His appearance in the form of Jesus Christ. He knew everything that these cultures had imagined and dreamed about Him. He saw how they had shaped their gods. He knew how they had described them with miraculous powers and abilities. Why should it surprise us that God would eventually appear and prove to mankind that He was the ONE TRUE GOD by simply MEETING our expectations, point for point (and then surpassing these expectations along the way)? It should not surprise us that God might, in some way, CHOOSE to appear in a form that is consistent with the expectations of man, particularly when God wants his creation to recognize him. God could simply be saying, “Children, I know you have imagined me to be a certain way. In some small measure you have imagined correctly. In many other ways you have been very far from the mark. Let me show you who I am. Watch me meet all the expectations you had about my nature. Let me help you believe by the miraculous life that I will live among you. Let me rescue you in a way you could never have dreamed of.”
Jesus Ends the Search
Maybe that’s why in the long lineage of mythologies and descriptions of God, Jesus completes the list. There are no significant mythologies that follow Jesus. Ever wonder why? Is it simply because the human race developed past such fables? Or is it because the human race developed past its own immaturity to the point and place where God finally determined it was time to appear in the flesh? Perhaps God decided that the time in which he had “overlooked such ignorance”, was now complete, so He presented himself in a way that ended all mythology. He appeared in TRUE power and glory, putting all prior mythologies to rest forever; meeting and exceeding anything we could ever have hoped for.
Christianity Continues to Thrive
While there are actually very FEW similarities between Mithras and Jesus in detail, there are similarities between them in the underlying expectations early seekers had for God. Jesus simply meets the hopes and dreams of these seekers as the true incarnate God. While Mithraism is now a dead religion, Christianity continues to thrive. Why? Because the Mithras tradition is inconsistent with the geological history of our world, inconsistent with the archeological history of humanity, and unsupported by textual evidence. In contrast, Christianity still continues to speak to the minds of seekers today. It has strong geological and archeological consistency with what we see in our world and strong textual evidence to support the earliest of claims. Atheists have tried to portray Mithras as something he isn’t in order to make us believe that Jesus never existed at all. But the story of Mithras should only encourage us to believe in the God who exceeds our expectations!
Note: In researching this expansive topic, we purchased and read three important and dissertational volumes related to the Mithras Cult. These later works are far more reliable than 19th century scholarship (which is often cited by some of the conspiracy theorists who claim that Jesus is a re-working of Mithras), and we highly recommend these books for further research:
The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries
(Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World)
by David Ulansey (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Mithras, the Secret God
by M. J. Vermaseren (Barnes and Noble Publishers, 1963)
(Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies – 2 Volumes)
edited by John R Hinnells (Manchester University Press, 1975)