The Myth of the Pagan Christmas; or Why Stephen Fry was Wrong on Mythmas
Almost everyone “knows” Christmas derived from Mithraism, or Saturnalia, or Yule, or whatever. From this weak claim often follows the stronger claim Christianity is really just reinvented paganism. I strongly suspect it is a nonsense, and in this post I will explain why… It all started for me when Stephen Fry repeated on QI the old chestnut about Mithras being celebrated on December 25th, and his supposed similarities to Christ. This annoys me, and the fact that it keeps being promulgated shows a remarkable lack of critical thinking, or willingness to examine the evidence. I have briefly summarised here some of the problems with this, and provided links.
Now if you hold it as an article of non-faith that this is true, fair enough. I like to challenge beliefs, and have mine challenged, but I do think this argument is an embarrassment. I refuse to be precious about others beliefs or lack thereof,and while this is a sceptical blog, this strikes me as an excellent chance to apply some sceptical and critical thinking… Anyway I decided to do a quick survey of modern scholarship. What I found was that in fact pretty much nobody in academia believes any of this anymore: no more than many of them believe in Christianity.
The solstices not important in Pagan antiquity?
Now according to scholars of Roman Religion, there were no religious festivals between Saturnalia (17th December, celebrated 17th – 22nd in some periods) and January. I am not convinced soltices featured largely in pagan religious thinking, based on my examination of the evidence. I suspect the obvious link may well be a result of modern neo-paganism where there are strong associations though with solstices. In fact my survey of ancient paganism has found very little evidence that the solstices were actually at all significant – it seems to just be something “everyone knows” again.
The Myth of the Myth of Mithras
A lot of people saw Stephen Fry on a QI Christmas special a few years back talk utter garbage about Mithras and the supposed many other Crucified god celebrated on December 25th. Let’s start with Mithras.We often see long lists of supposed analogies between Mithras, a middle eastern deity worshipped from India, trough Persia to Rome in various forms, and Jesus Christ.
Now if you want to know what we know about Mithras, we have two sources – the archaeological evidence, and the literary sourcesl . Sadly scholarship is not something that Mithras advocates seem to value much. In a spirit of boredom, and with a vague idea it might be handy for work, I undertook this challenge – well grabbed what we could from what was available — and looked ta what was to be found. :)
Two things became clear; one, was that many classicists seem to hate Christianity. Secondly, they don’t hold at all to the copy cat hypothesis!
I started with Manfred Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries, translated by Richard Gordon, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press 2000) Who better than a man named Claus, sorry Clauss, to study the issue of December 25th? :)
“Most of the parallels between Mithraism and Christianity are part of the common currency of all mystery cults and can be traced back to common origins in the Graeco-oriental culture of the Hellenistic world.” Clauss, p. 168.
The similarities Clauss finds are:
1. Water plays a significant part in the two religions.
2. Mithras the god is born from a rock. In the eastern Church, Mary, the theotokos, the mother of God, was linked as the rock from which Christ was born. (The latter appears to be the origin of the completely misstated and erroneous views of the birth of Jesus and the birth of Mithras, simplified and distorted beyond recognition. One of the Church fathers also noted that there was a belief in his day that Christ was born in a cave, and the Mithraic rites were celebrated in caves, or temples constructed to resemble them. Compare this with the usual claims about Christ and Mithras’ birth.)
3. To their followers Christ and Mithras were divinities of light and the sun. Christ is the Sun of Righteousness, Mithras the Victorious, or the Unconquered Sun. This was according to Clauss the Christians distancing themselves from the Pagan ideal.
4. Clauss accuses Christians of taking over Sunday and December 25th from Mithraism, note, however, the argument of many other scholars that December 25th was a Christian festival co-opted by the cult of Sol Invictus, if this actually happened (see later). Sunday had been observed by Christians since the 1st century, and there is no early evidence of a similar Mithraic festival.
Clauss really doesn’t eem to like Christianity, but due to its lack of internal organization the cult of Mithras had barely any means of defending itself against attacks by Christians and the abominations of the age. It was scattered in numerous small congregations which not recognizably connected with one another. There was no hierarchy to bind several congregations together p. 171.
5. There was a ritual meal in Mithraism. Justin Martyr expresses surprise at the similarity. He was writing about 150 AD and claimed it was a diabolic imitation. It was the Christians who raised the question of the similarity, and Tertullian was to continue the theme. Clauss notes an offering of bread and wine is known in virtually all cultures, and the meal as a means of binding the faithful together and uniting them to the deity was a feature common to many religions. It represented one of the oldest means of manifesting unification with the spiritual and the appropriation of spiritual qualities. Now the Christian eucharist clearly and explicitly derives from the Jewish Passover meal, celebrated since antiquity. The blessing of the consecrated elements the bread and wine in the eucharist is based on the baruch ha-matzoh, the Jewish meal time grace.
As an aside reading Clauss reminds one more than anything of the incredible symbolic and mythological distance between the Gospel narratives and the activities of Mithras, which are far, far stronger and more obvious than the supposed similarities.
Anyway, to cite one version, from a well known source fo the supposed likenesses, which we keep seeing…
# Mithra was born on December 25th.
Nope, no evidence for this at all. So in fact, there are no early references at all to Mithras having been celebrated on December 25th. The Cult of Sol Invictus was indeed celebrated on this day once at least, but scholars make a distinction between the two these days – and that celebration was actually instituted in the reign of Elagabulus (218-222AD). It is generally considered to be part of the post-Christian reaction: December 25th was being popularised as the date of Christ’s birthday then, most popularly by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221AD book. And just to be pedantic, the differences between Mithra (Persian) and Sol Invictus as worshipped in Roman culture were huge. (see Michael P. Speidel Mithras-Orion: Greek Hero and Roman Army God (Leiden, E.J. Brill 1980), if you want to pursue this point.
# He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
# He had 12 companions or disciples.
Not found these yet, but there is no mention anywhere of this. He is surrounded by the torchbearers in iconography, is this where that came from?
# He performed miracles.
Yep, who didn’t?
# He was buried in a tomb.
# After three days he rose again.
# His resurrection was celebrated every year.
# Mithra was called “the Good Shepherd.”
No he wasn’t. The two torchbearers who lift him from the rock had been likened to shepherds – Clauss (p.69) specifically denies that they are shepherds in any way or form, and refutes this nonsense. The version here is a garbled version of the claim. The rest of it has no basis at all in fact.
# He was considered “the Way, the Truth and the Light, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.”
# He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
He is associated with the serpent and the raven. Maybe in bad light, or they were wearing fancy dress? Er, no. Well not that I have found so far. If I find it I’ll tell you straight away. He was associated with firing arrows in to a rock to create springs, and above all else killing a bull, creating life by doing so. Does that help? He did have sex with a rock that gave birth to his son, later killed in a duel with Aries and turned in to a mountain. Oddly enough you rarely hear that bit. He was born himself by springing naked from a rock, holding a torch and dagger and wearing a phyrgian cap.
# His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
Any proof of this? Like any at all? Hulllooo down there? Earth calling evidence???! I can’t find any.
# Mithra had his principal festival on what was later to become Easter, at which time he was resurrected.
Really? Er, so how come I can find not one word on this anywhere, apart loony from loony websites derived from each other? As Easter’s date quite clearly derives from the ancient Jewish Passover festival’s date, as it says in the Bible, why the heck would anybody in their right mind believe the date derived from some mythical Mithraic ceremony know one has ever actually seen any evidence for??? This is simply rubbish I’m afraid. All of it. It’s Erich Von Daniken for modern conspiracy theorists and Christianity bashers. At least one decent pagan site run by a Mithras worshiper (and a decent scholar) sets this nonsense right.
# His religion had a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”
Well it had a meal as part of the religious rites. My money however, and i think any sane pundits, is on the theory the Christian Eucharist derives exactly from where it says it does – the Jewish Passover meal.
I then turned to Roger Beek’s The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 2006. It’s a heavy book, technical, and interesting — Chapter 6, Cognition and Representation with its material on neurology and evolutionary psychology is especially fascinating but contentious. This is the kind of book which people who believe Religious Studies is a) isolated from the scientific mainstream and b) has no purpose or content, should try to read. I am going to start by saying that if that those who assert that Paul’s Christology is derived from Mithraic ‘doctrine’ and mythology they should really read chapters 7 to 9 inclusive of this book, and then explain how Christianity resembles the iconography, mythology and cosmology described therein. I’ll briefly discuss the book, but I would encourage all interested parties to read it – it is highly technical, and I can not begin to do it justice here.
The book begins with the now traditional comment on how Franz Cumont (1910) the first major figure in Mithraic studies has been long superseded, and then looks at problems in the traditional ways of interpreting and understanding Mithraism. It never even seems to occur to Beek that Christianity and Mithraism are not absolutely distinct — some interesting insights from Beek though
“Mithraism typically expressed itself in and through the medium of the visual arts, just as early Christianity typically expressed itself in and through the medium of the spoken word, and before long the written word.” p.20
Beek notes that one of the problems is that the methods of scholarship devised for studying early Christianity have been applied to Mithraic studies, where they may not be as fruitful, and may be highly deceptive. He notes the centrality of the Tauroctony, the Bull Killing, as we might expect. At no point did I discover any suggestion that Mithras was ever associated with the Bull, and was sacrificing himself: this appears to be one of the many spurious myths created by the Pagan Christ authors. It is noted several times that the symbols of a dog, snake, scorpion and raven are included in the tauroctony. Guess what? no lions or lambs!
On Christianity and Mithraism Beek writes
“Both originated in the first century CE (Mithraism a decade or so later than its peer), and both grew and flourished in the same milieu.” page 54
I think this leaves little room for the Mithras = Christ myth, but moving on, Beek’s position here is that Cumont misunderstood the “religion of Roman Mithras”. he saw it as a doctrinal faith with beliefs, modelling his understanding on Christianity — a misunderstanding. From Burkett ‘s Mystery Cults (Harvard, 1987) I had already discovered that the Mysteries were not like Christianity or Judaism – they made no exclusive claims, but rather offered initiatory routes to experiential/theurgic understandings. I think a closer analogy might be like a medieval Christian going on pilgrimage to a shrine of a saint, or a modern Catholic paying especial devotion to the Virgin Mary by conscientious recitation of the rosary. I may have misunderstood – but that is the picture I get: a set of mystical initiations based upon symbolic truth – a mystical freemasonry might act as one analogy perhaps? Most Mystery cults were not exclusively initiatory – you could worship Isis without initiating in to her mysteries – but Roman Mithraism was. Yet you could worship Mithras, Isis and the Roman State gods with no clash at all — you were adopting a personal cult, but it did not claim to represent universal reality the way Judaism or Christianity or even Roman Paganism did.
A couple of passages of Beek seemed worthy of mention, while off the topic in question, seem directly relevant to the topic of this forum generally –
Moving on, more from Beek…
Same brain, same mind. Consequently, one may argue with some confidence from the way we form ‘religious’ representations now to the way the ancients formed them then. Given the comparatively rapid and radical shifts of culture, we are on much firmer ground with the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic than with the socio-cultural.” p.95
I’ll skip a bit, and end with my favourite quote from Beek – if you find this interesting you really might want to pick up his book…
Here one may surely assume that just as there is nothing distinctly ‘religious’ about the mental event of forming representations of beings not normally encountered in the natural world, so the concomitant neural events do not differ, or do not necessarily differ, according to whether or not the representation’s belong to the subjects religious world. Different neuronal groups do not fire in different ways whenever the mind is, as it were, ‘doing religion’. The human brain has no dedicated circuits for religion or ‘the sacred’.
I found that all rather interesting, though contentious.
Anyway another book, this time published 2006, done, and I’m no closer to finding any evidence to support the famous claims of a Mithras – Christian parallel – indeed quite the contrary. I also read Burkett, Mystery Cults, Harvard, 1987, as mentioned.
Ok, moving on, I think the next stage is to show where this all started — with the work of Franz Cumont in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He is always cited as the scholar who said Mithraism was the source of Christianity, and while his work has been endlessly critiqued and superseded, especially since the 1950’s, his archaeological/historical investigations of Mithraism were the first great modern treatment of the subject. So here we are addressing the very father of the Mithras/Christ movement – and so what did he really have to say?
I’m using Franz Cumont’s The Mysteries of Mithra, translated by Thomas J McCormack, Second Edition, The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, 1910. Yes, 1910. That is how recent the scholarship these claims are based upon is. And it will come as no surprise at all to readers of this blog to discover that Cumont never actually said many of the things we have been led to expect. In fact completely the opposite! I positively encourage you to check my findings- Cumont is also online.
Firstly, he seems to doubt Roman Mithraism preceded Christianity – Beek (2006) as you may recall places it a decade later.
Cumont wrote “The propagation of the two religions had been almost comtemporanously conducted, and their diffusion had taken place under analogous conditions.” p.188
He goes on, like every other Mithraic scholar, to discuss the two religions as separate faiths – which they clearly were.
He then notes ” a point of resemblance between the two antagonistic creeds was that at the outset they drew their proselytes from among the inferior classes of society; their propaganda was sat their origin essentially popular” (p.189)
Antagonistic? Yes. Cumont’s central thesis in this section is that the Roman Empire used Mithraism as a means of warding off the increasing influence of Christianity. If they were variations on a theme, or as alleged last night by another poster the same thing, why on earth would the Romans do this? Not a strong argument, but a point worth considering. And then he continues…
“By the side of these resemblances [yes, the ones above: appeal to poorer classes and dated from same era, spread quickly] considerable differences are to be remarked in the methods of procedure of the two adversaries.” p.189
Er, but this is the Cumont who thinks Christianity derived from Mithraism? No, he never though that at all. That’s what we have been told he thought. It’s not what his book says – but hang in there, because I have found why people might think that is what he said — I’ll get to that shortly…
So what are the differences?
* Christianity spread through the Jewish diaspora, and the Mediterranean – some scholars suggest up to 10% of the Roman Empire was Jewish or Judeo-sympathisers in the first century.
* Christianity was an urban phenomenon. Mithraism was urban and rural.
* Christianity was a missionary religion. Mithraism was a mystery cult, and decidedly not.
* Mithraism moved with its adherents – soldiers, political functionaries and slaves.
* Mithraism gained ground in the army and the political arena – areas where Christians owing to their pacifism and non-conformism were rare.
* Mithraism was strongest in the Danube – Christianity in Asia-Minor and Syria
Enough of the differences – Cumont then develops his ideas of a Mithraic doctrine – and here at last we come to the heart of the matter, and the alleged evidence for Christianity deriving from Mithraism.
And so, at last we come to the famous Cumont similarities of doctrine. Here is his list, based on his dubious reconstruction of Mithriac ‘doctrine’
1. Both used the term “brothers” for members.(note: I have found no later scholars citing this) Mithraism was a male cult, unlike Christianity where women were important in this period.
2. Both used baptism (note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
3. adherents received the power to combat evil spirits (note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
4. Expected salvation from a “Lord’s Supper”. (note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
5. Celebrated the birth of the Sun on December 25th, in the phase of the religion when the mystery cult was made a public religion. Now Cumont dates this crucially to 273AD, not 218-223AD. So then Africanus’ book (and December 25th as a popular Christian holiday) predate the Sol Invictus festival by fifty years…
6. Both preached abstinence, continence, renunciation and self control, as well as categorical systems of ethics. (So both were sexually repressive by pagan standards? :-) ) (note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
7. Both believed in a Heaven and Hell (IU would imagine so , but note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
8. Both believed in an a ancient Flood (as do many many religions but note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
9. Both believed in a Last Judgement, Resurrection of the Dead, Destruction of the Universe. (note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
10. Mithra was a ‘mediator’ similar to Christ as Logos as in Alexandrian theology, an intermediary, and part of a trinity. (note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
11. The killing of the Bull was a sacrifice to save humanity. (note: I have found no later scholars citing this)
12. Both used solar imagery.
You can read these for yourself in Cumont, p.191 to 193. Unfortunately, they are at the heart of the material that modern Mithraic scholars reject. You see the problem is that Cumont interpreted Mithraic iconography -statues, friezes, paintings etc, to generate his doctrinal system, using the only yardstick he had to hand – Early Christianity. And unsurprisingly he found they were similar!
And there is the root of the Pagan Christ Mithras myth. However, let’s look at Cumont’s dodgy list and the wonderful 12 facts peddled today and see if he would have endorsed them…
# Mithra was born on December 25th – not in Cumont, or any other source. Cumont believes his festival was on December 25th, but crucually dates it to 50 years after Africanus’ book popularised it as the date of Jesus’s birthday, and it was the winter solstice and an obvious time for a solar festival anyway!
# He was considered a great traveling teacher and master. - not in Cumont, or any other source.
# He had 12 companions or disciples - not in Cumont, or any other source.
# He performed miracles - yes! A hit!
# He was buried in a tomb. Most people are, but nope not in Cumont, or any other source.
# After three days he rose again.not in Cumont, or any other source.
# His resurrection was celebrated every year.not in Cumont, or any other source.
# Mithra was called “the Good Shepherd.” not in Cumont, or any other source.
# He was considered “the Way, the Truth and the Light, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.” - not in Cumont, or any other source. Cumont did believe he had some of these attributes, but not these titles. Dubious – half right?
# He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb – not in Cumont, or any other source.
# His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ, not in Cumont, or any other source.
# Mithra had his principal festival on what was later to become Easter, at which time he was resurrected - not in Cumont, or any other source. Clearly thsi derived from Judaism to Christianity anyway!
# His religion had a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.” – the same, and true, there was a ritual meal in both. Clearly this derived from the Passover meal in Judaism to Christianity anyway!
So even Cumont, supposedly father of this whole connection, the one academic source which is claimed to support the association, doesn’t??? Somehow I am not surprised :)
So why did Cumont come to be so strongly associated with these claims, when he saw Christianity and Mithraism as distinct and antagonistic?
Because he believes that Christian art may have developed techniques and models from Mithraic poses. p.196 I think the passage discussing this on p.228, possibly cited out of context, may well be the real basis for the Pagan Christ myth.
So did Cumont think Mithraism and Christianity derived from one another, or were the same? Absolutely not — he goes on to say
“It would be wrong to exaggerate the significance of these likenesses.” p.197 He goes on to discuss these differences for the next three pages, and I think your patience may be exhausted for the moment. I was amused as his note it would have been a tragedy for physics if Mithraism had triumphed – he feels it would have retarded science far more than Christianity (p.198).
Yet whether you believe in Christianity of not, if you believe reason and truth are important, I ask you to consider – is there really any case? The best case I have found was proposed almost 100 years ago, is completely discredited in modern academia, and is in fact almost totally misrepresented by those who claim to be heirs to his ideas, as I hope my list demonstrated. So really – is it true that Mithras was Christ? No – it’s complete and utter woo. You may well disagree, and all I ask is that if you do, you provide me with evidence to back your assertions. And I would recommend as so often the excellent SkepticWiki here.
If not Mithras, Osiris or Horus?
OK, that took a lot less time than I feared. Before I hit the books, I decided to trace the claims backwards to their source as best as I could. The lady who provided the previous statements name came up, as did her books and website which one often sees linked. Then I saw her source – James Churchward…
Now I’ve kicked around in occult circles for years, and am friends with all sorts of believers, and have a good knowledge of this sort of thing. I also write roleplaying game supplements for various US publishers. I like this sort of stuff, and I knew that name instantly –I think those who propagate this stuff would be less than happy to acknowledge that one of the ultimate sources for their claims was
DO LOOK AT THE LINK!
Tom Harpur has poularised this stuff again recently in his book The Pagan Christ – I would read W Ward Gasque’s review if you want a consideration of his case. If you still need convincing it’s rot, look at Grenme’s brilliant analysis here. He goes through and demolishes each of the purported Jesus-Horus connections.
I grow weary. Tomorrow I will look at the Chronography of 354, when Mithras really was worshiped and the true reason why December 25th was accepted as Christ’s birthday. :) (Hint: it’s nothing to do with paganism)