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.

Mithras : tauroctony

As Zalmoxis once said on RD.Net, Mithras was well known for his manly love of bulls...

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.

Mithras and the bull

There is a lot of bull about poor Mithras

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.”

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


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)

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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34 Responses to The Myth of the Pagan Christmas; or Why Stephen Fry was Wrong on Mythmas

  1. heyzeus7 says:

    Wonderful post, Chris. Thank you for this. Just as it’s fun for atheist apologists to keep regurgitating the old chestnuts about Christianity and pagan religion, it’s also a lot of fun for Christian apologists to keep demolishing them, or read the demolition jobs by others. Keep up the good work.

  2. Pingback: The Divine Conspiracy Blog » Blog Archive » Christmas

  3. Joel Monka says:

    You are quite correct in that people make too much of the Mithras/Christ thing, but that does not make Christmas any less Pagan- it’s just that the Roman bias of many historians draws their attention away from the hundreds of Pagan religions that were NOT co-opted by the Romans. Look at the trappings of Christmas- Holly, Mistletoe, the Tannenbaum, wassailing, Yule logs, etc.- these are all from more rural northern European religions, and have no more to do with Mithras than the Bible. And look at the Scandanavian traditions- the Julbock and the Jultomte-clearly derived from Thor. Note, too, that these rural religions ARE more nature based, and did pay attention to solstices.

    Nor does Mithras have anything to do with Easter. decorated eggs, bunnies, lillies, baked hams, etc., have a lot more to do with Ostara or Oster Hoch (sp?) than Mithras or Jesus either one.

    As to the exact date of Christmas, there is a pretty strong Biblical argument against Jesus being born on Dec 25- weather. What idiot would order a census requiring everyone to travel to their home village in the middle of winter? Even Israel gets freezing rain and other unpleasant conditions guaranteed to make travel difficult in December. And what shepards would be sleeping outside with their flocks in such conditions?

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Being a Dane (brewed in England) I’m quite passionate about Scandinavian traditions. However we have to be careful with Eostre – see my Easter post – However much good sense ,and i’ll write on Christmas traditions if i have time before December 25th. If not, as I’m a bit busy, may I suggest the brilliant (pagan as it happens, well Druid last time we spoke) historian Ronald Hutton’s book Stations of the Sun? 🙂

      cj x

      • Joel Monka says:

        Hutton is excellent, agreed. Neither did I mean to say that Easter is “stolen” from Pagan sources, except for the etymology of the name. But that doesn’t mean that the Christian celebration couldn’t have been conflated with other traditions, in so far as the non-Biblical symbolism.

        The date for Easter is derived from the Jewish calendar- but many other cultures used a lunisolar calendar as well, including pre-Christian Germanic cultures, which as a good Dane I’m sure you know. So while there is no corroboration for Bede’s goddess Eostre, there is plenty of evidence for goddesses of that general pattern and similar names, among people who used the same sort of calendar that the Jews did; the idea of an equivalent holiday is not beyond belief. And if there were a local holiday at the same time as Passover, it explains why they didn’t call Easter “Pascha”, like everybody else did.

      • Chris Jensen Romer says:

        Hi Joel, I think we agree here.I have never yet found a convincing etymology for our Easter, and I accept there may have been a dawn goddess, though I suspect it may have derived from the Gothic for “eastern”

        Ron is indeed a fine chap, and I have had the pleasure of annoying him at many a pagan moot. (For someone often condemned as a Christian apologist I have an unusual lifestyle shall we say!) Unfortunately Beast Rabban had left before I got up today or i would have sent Prof Hutton a Yule card back to the uni with him. Still such is life! My fondest memory of Hutton is hwen he gave a talk on Siberian Samanism, and I then read the short story ‘The She Wolf’ by Saki out loud, and he had the good grace to laugh! Actually, I shall post it now as a Christmas card. 🙂

  4. Kevin Lively says:

    Of course this does not validate Christianity one iota. In fact, it shows that all religions are arbitrary – why not worship Mithras rather than Christ? Not much between them, all just projections of the human ego.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      I agree, it certainly does not validate Christianity – it’s a historical question, not a religious one. As to Feurbach – yeah, we write ourselves on the heavens – but that doies not invalidate the possibility of religious truth either 🙂

  5. Derek says:

    Joel said,
    “As to the exact date of Christmas, there is a pretty strong Biblical argument against Jesus being born on Dec 25- weather. What idiot would order a census requiring everyone to travel to their home village in the middle of winter? Even Israel gets freezing rain and other unpleasant conditions guaranteed to make travel difficult in December. And what shepards would be sleeping outside with their flocks in such conditions?”

    Very well put. In all honesty, we’ll never know when Jesus was born. I would caution you however, in that Luke says the “registration” had everyone go “to their own towns”. Not, as has been popularly concieved, that everyone should toto their towns of ancestry. In recent commentaries on Luke Ive read that Joseph probably went to Bethlehem because he owned property there. Point being that Luke is not describing people flooding to towns they think their ancient ancestors came from.

    This does validate Christianity. It validates it against the common, uneducated claim that Christianity is invalid because all of it’s elements are based on clear, earlier pagan practices in which the obeject of worship is Mithra and not Jesus Christ. Why worship Mithra and not Jesus? The same reason I worship Jesus and am not an atheist, the same reason I worship Jesus and do not believe in Muhammad’s revelation of Allah.

    There is a subjective element to he sure, but there are also plently of obejective criteria one can weigh their beliefs against. As far as my journey goes right now, I have found Christianity to be much stronger than any of it’s rivals. Perhaps the reason humans have the tendency to religious worship is because there is in our nature something to that effect. Maybe?

    Good post!

    • Tom Ruffles says:

      “In recent commentaries on Luke Ive read that Joseph probably went to Bethlehem because he owned property there.”

      Hang on – if you own property somewhere, why would you end up in a stable rather than your own place? Rigid tenancy agreement?

      You don’t get convoluted logical gymnastics in Dudeism!

      • Joel Monka says:

        Good point, Tom. That touches on something I’ve long thought about the Christmas story, but have never seen any other commentary on- that what the manger scene really demonstrates is what heartless bastards the people of Bethlehem were. Seriously. I’ve seen travelers at a bus station pool their money to buy a crying girl a bus ticket home- but in the Christmas story, we have a teenage girl hours away from giving birth, and nobody will give her as much as a spot on the floor inside where it’s warm. No room at the Inn? What decent Inkeeper’s wife wouldn’t have told her husband to sleep on the floor and given Mary the bed? In fact, some women I’ve known, had they been that Innkeeper’s wife, would have told her husband and Joseph both to go sleep with the other animals, and she’d call them if and when they were needed.

        To me, the lesson of “Be nice to everyone, because you don’t know their role in the universe” and “As you do to the least of them” is an important one for children to learn- and here is the perfect illustration, and no one is using it.

  6. Thanks for this. I did figure out the 12 followers. On some Mithraic art there is a depiction of the signs of the zodiac. This does not appear in the stories and in fact it is just an indication that astrology was important in Mithraism but that is where they get the supposed 12 followers.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Stephen has a truly excellent blog, — Apologia — do take a look chaps: go via

      Yes Beek stresses the astrological element he sees as at the core of Mithraism. Also we can find 12 or 7 torchbearers depicted in icons of Mithras being pulled forth from the rock: but I don’t think we have to look to Mithras in any way to find why Jesus had 12 disciples, and for anyone who can’t see the obvious reason – Tribes of Israel chaps? 🙂 It’s amusing how convoluted explanations are created for the obvious, and how Jesus is taken out ofhis context and place by Jesus-Mythers and pagan Parallelists 😦

      cj x

  7. Tom Ruffles says:

    Chris, I have to disagree with your view that it is an historical question, not a religious one, and Derek’s comments show that it is definitely religious.

    I see a parallel here with the ridiculous criticisms of evolution made by those with a religious axe to grind, the subtext of their attacks that if evolutionary theory can be disproved, it supports a religious interpretation of Creation. Of course, even if evolutionary theory could be undermined, that does not validate creationism (of any variety) and therefore Christianity. There could be some other mechanism at work.

    Here we see a weak theory, that Christian festivals were based on pagan ones, being pulled apart, the implication being that if it can be demonstrated that there is no link between them, then that is support for the provenance of the historical Jesus, and therefore support for Christian theology. I do not possibly see how Joel can think that breaking the link between pagan and Christian festivals ‘validates Christianity.’ Even if it is shown that Christianity did not have these roots, that does not show why it is valid.

    For Derek, it seems to be about strength (though I have to say that on that score Islam seems to be showing itself somewhat more robust than Christianity), but I am with Kevin here – why not worship Mithras, or be, as I am, a member of the Church of the Latter Day Dude? Joel says that there is a ‘subjective element’ in choosing one religion rather than another, but I would say that it is more than an element. I think it was Terry Pratchett who said that we get the gods we deserve.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      If you like the Pratchett quote you will like the Greg Lake song I posted a few days ago, in my Christmas Shopping post.

      Nope, I disagree (and can’t find Derek who commented either? Do you mean JD? He’s a Princeton religion student not a dodgy Cheltonian!) I’ll explain why.

      Clearly, to a Christian this is all fairly irrelevant – as Justin Martyr said in I believe the third century, even if true we might expect divine revelation to be mirrored by the devil or foreshadowed in paganism. I’m not convinced by JM’s arguments, and they were complicated, but ultimately this is just a historical question. Most of my academic life was spent on Islam – I’m not a Muslim, but I studied early Islam extensively, as a matter of history, not faith to me.

      However this is often used to ‘disprove’ Christianity: falsification. So if it is did work, it would have religious implications sure. As falsification strikes a Popperian sympathiser like me as very useful, yes, proving the historical disproof nonsense does in a sense support the Christian claim, if it leaves the option open. Yet if I noted that some claims about Joseph Smith that I see are equally untrue, I certainly would not take that failure of purported falsification as a positive endorsement,and become a Mormon.

      I find some of the critiques of Enflield weak – I find other much stronger. The failure of one particular set of “naturalistic explanations” in light of the testimony and known facts does not mean that I immediately jump to say a RSKP or dead guy hypothesis.

      Likewise, while this historical question may well have some implications for peoples religious faith, it certainly does not suggest a validation. In fact one of the most passionate critics of the Mithras nonsense and an all round good bloke Timothy O Neill is a historian and avowed atheist who I know from, and with whom I find myself on much historical agreement. We botha gree on most of the facts – its our leaps of faith or non-faith which differ.

      cj x

  8. Tom Ruffles says:

    Chris, re Derek, he posted a comment on Joel’s at this time:

    “On December 23, 2009 at 12:20 am Derek Said:”

    I’m afraid I’m struggling with your logic. You seem to see historical disproof and support for Christian claims as linked opposites, so that demolishing the Mithras link strengthens the case for your variety of Christianity (if it leaves the option open), but you wouldn’t do the same for Mormonism (and then at the end you say it doesn’t provide a validation for faith anyway).

    If you conclusively destroy the Mithras link, you could still be left with a situation where they are both equally invalid. Taking the Enfield analogy, you might find some strands of evidence less persuasive than others – but none particularly persuasive. You could dismiss them all because on balance you decide that there were no paranormal phenomena occurring there. Why not the same with Christianity? As you indicate at the end of your comment, this is less about evidence than faith, which is often a rock against which evidence is helpless.

    Have a good Christmas, sorry, Winterval!

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Yes thats what I mean.

      The Mithras case is only meaningful in as far as it is an attempt at falsification. You could argue that if it succeeds historic mainstream Christianity fails. The failure of the falsification attempt in no way strengthens the truth claim of Christianity – as I said above “I agree, it certainly does not validate Christianity – it’s a historical question, not a religious one.”

      IF the Mithras stuff was true, conversely it would FALSIFY Christianity. The disproof of the falsification in no way strengthens the case, exactly as with my Joseph Smith analogy.

      In short I never suggested it did validate Christianity: it simply disposes of one objection. I hope that clears that up! 🙂

      Have a greats festive season (see today’s post)

      cj x

  9. Tom Ruffles says:

    “What one desires to believe requires little corroboration.”

    Douglas Blackburn, 1911

  10. sirrahc says:

    Good post on a fascinating subject, Chris. Interesting follow-up comments, as well.

    I’ve looked into the Mithras connection a bit myself and commented on it elsewhere but haven’t got around to doing a full post. I do have a related (2-part) post titled “Is December 25th Pagan?” over at

    Hope y’all find it of interest (even if it is off-season).


  11. MW says:

    I believe that there is a ‘lion’ associated with Mithraism. There was a lion headed figure depicted in a Mithraeum at Ostia, according to Wikipedia. There may well be a ‘lamb’ or at least some sort of ram in relation to the apposite astrological sign.
    A wonderful and thorough piece, though. Thank you.

  12. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    And many blessings to you. I see you ahev a really nice Women’s Mysteries?Goddess site, may 2011 bring you joy and peace.
    cj x

  13. Ed Wicke says:

    Really good stuff. I was astonished by the QI programme… but I suspect it wasn’t a serious attempt to give facts, merely an opportunity to throw some dirt. Was rather disappointed that SF stooped so low….

  14. Pingback: Christmas and its Christian Origins | Fair-Minded Notions

  15. Pingback: Is Christmas/Easter a Pagan Holiday? - Nyssa's Hobbit Hole

  16. Pingback: The Virgin Birth in Context | Curly's Corner

  17. Do you have the information saved from the links you provided? A couple of the links are dead links now. I visited them a few years ago and there was some interesting information I would like to share with others. Thanks

  18. Pingback: Christmas Special – Better Known

  19. Bri says:

    While I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of this Stephen Fry, I have done alota research into the solstice and Mithras Tammuz sun God’s Yule Father Time etc as a Christian who refuses to celebrate Xmas as it is clearly derived from pagan roots. I’m curious have you done any much research on the winter solstice bc even if you don’t you can do a quick google search and it’s right there so I’m finding it difficult to Understand
    The premise of this article.

  20. Pingback: Christmas is Not Pagan, Once Again – Cyber Penance

  21. Sam says:

    Xmas is derived from mithraism period. That doesn’t mean Christianity is all false. You get the good ones that follow His teachings and the bad that fall astray to man’s traditions led by false propheths..You wanna know the truth?, just read the bible. There’s no Xmas there..

    God bless you.

  22. Pingback: Christmas, Mithras and Paganism

  23. Pingback: Il Natale non è pagano! – Per Grazia


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