Mithraism and Mythicism

Mithraism and Mythicism December 27, 2012

Mithras is one of the more popular figures for Jesus mythicists to point to as having been the precursor to and inspiration for everything Christians eventually believed about Jesus. There have been numerous attempts to address the misinformation about bogus and slim parallels online. But since the claims continue to be made (much as creationist misinformation continues to circulate with no apparent effect of its having been debunked on countless occasions), I thought I would mention a couple of Mithras-related resources that came to my attention in the past couple of days.

One is Roger Pearse's online materials related to Mithras, including a page specifically dedicated to Mithraism and Christianity.

The other is a podcast from the BBC radio show “In Our Time” with Melvyn Bragg about Mithras.

If pointing mythicists to actual information about Mithras and Mithraism fails to have an effect, I suggest that a back-up approach be to simply say that mythicism itself derives from Mithraism. Surely the similarity in the names is no coincidence…


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  • Don

    Just read the first webpage’s account of Philo. Almost entirely misleading… Sigh. And it is from a random amateur atheist webpage. I’m sure if I (someone doing a PhD on Philo of Alexandria) made a post about why I think evolution is wrong and posted information from some creationist page I would be lambasted for being ignorant and stupid, a sign that I just leap to nonsense claim to support my worldview. But I suppose the readers of that blog will lap it all up…

    • I agree. When someone is a vocal exponent of critical thinking and opponent of widely-held but false claims in one area, them embraces weak and fallacious arguments in another area, it is all the more frustrating.

    • Hilary

      I’m interested in Philo – we’re talking about the Greek Jew, right? – do you have any recomendations for good info about him, books, websites, journals available to the common civilian?

      • Don

        The best introductory books would be Schenck’s “Brief Guide to Philo” and Kamesar’s “The Cambridge Companion to Philo” Another good introduction would be Hadas-Lebel’s “Philo of Alexandria: A Thinker in the Jewish Diaspora”, but it is rather expensive, in fact ridiculously so for an introductory text. If you want an introduction that includes some texts from Philo then try Dillon and Winston’s “Philo of Alexandria: The Contemplative Life, The Giants and Selections”.

        • Thanks, Don, for the quick comment. I second your recommendations, and am sorry I didn’t manage to comment here sooner.

          For just reading Philo, the old Jonge translation is in the public domain and can be found online, but you can also get newer bilingual editions in the Loeb Classical Library, probably through a library in your area.

          As for web sites, Torrey Seland’s is a good place to start:

  • If I understand the Mythicists’ argument, it is that Jesus, just as other gods, was first worshipped as a god, then stories were made up later that he was incarnated. So was Mithras first worshipped as a god, then stories of his incarnation were made up later? Was Mithras believed by his worshippers to have been incarnated at a specific time and place?

    • roger_pearse

      There are no ancient texts that refer to an “incarnation of Mithras”. There is evidence that they referred to the birth of the god, from a rock. But in Greek mythology even Zeus was born, at some ill-defined period in the past.
      You see how pernicious the nonsense is? Christianity is not, qualitatively, the same kind of thing as Mithras. Someone suggested to me recently that being an initiate of Mithras was probably rather like being a free-mason today. That’s probably a very good analogy.

  • roger_pearse

    Appreciate the link – thanks. Most of these people peddling the myths are merely misguided. But sadly a few are actively dishonest.
    I would place Acharya S in that category, ever since she defended her claim that Mithras had 12 disciples by saying that Mithras is depicted surrounded by the 12 signs of the zodiac in some reliefs (true), some Christian paintings of modern times identify each sign with a disciple, therefore this proves that the ancients believed that Mithras had 12 disciples.

  • Leo Eris


  • Leo Eris

    I guess this is what passes for intellectual inquiry. Wow. And the etymological root of the word grace is clearly ‘god’s riches at christ’s expense.’ Wow.

    • I didn’t understand what the point of your comment was. Did you by any chance take the comment about Mithraism and mythicism to be a serious one, rather than as poking fun at what mythicists like Acharya S do on the basis of similar-sounding words and names which are etymologically unrelated?

  • the_Siliconopolitan

    As far as I can tell, the only one talking about Mithras at Coyne’s non-blog is Ben Goren in the comments. Richard Carrier as specifically spoken out against claims that Mithraïsm formed any sort of basis for Christianity.

    I understand you don’t like the idea that there might not have been a historical Jesus (I don’t know if there was, but I’m inclined to think that even if such a person existed we cannot reconstruct anything about his teaching, so he might as well not have lived), but you really shouldn’t try poisoning the well this way.

    Would it be considered intellectually honest of to conflate your faith with the crimes of the Catholic Church? You’re all Christians after all.

    • I am afraid I didn’t catch what the point was that you were trying to make here. I appreciate very much Richard Carrier’s points about arguments which mythicists should not use, and I wish a podcast he made some years ago on the subject were still available online. I eagerly await the day when he sees through Earl Doherty’s claims with the same acuity.

      • the_Siliconopolitan

        You linked to a Why Evolution is True post about Carrier in a sentence about Mithraïsm. Yet neither Carrier nor Coyne appears to discuss the subject in that post. Searching for “Mithra” only a commenter named Ben Goren (who’s inordinately fond of fondling the bowels of Christ) comes up.

        In effect you’re suggesting that all mythicists are the same and all claim the Christianity is just warmed over Mithraïsm. By way of analogy I tried to remind you that you’d likely be annoyed if I were to take you to task for the ideas of Westboro Baptist Church or the Roman Catholic Ditto.

        • I linked to Coyne’s post, in which a biologist who argues against fringe views in his own field adopts a fringe view in another, from the word “mythicism” in order to illustrate the phenomenon and the importance of the issue. I did not intend that to imply that all mythicists are the same, and apologize that you got that impression.

          • the_Siliconopolitan

            I see. That is a good point, and I have little problem with it.

            Sorry to impart bad motives to you.

  • Such ignorance ~ to conflate the words ‘myth’ and ‘Mithras’. I don’t usually stop to post negative comments but this sooooooooooo wrong, I had to say something. Myth comes from the Greek ‘muthos’ which literally translates to ‘word of mouth’ as myths were mystery stories that were orally transmitted. Mithras gets his name from Mitra the Vedic god, who found his way into Persia with the migration that way of the Indo-European tribes, and then the Romans adopted him.

    • I am guessing that you are a newcomer to this blog and to the topic of Jesus mythicism. That remark was satire, aimed at the fact that the Jesus mythicists often posit that Jesus derived from this or that source, based on similar-sounding words or names but ignoring etymology.

      I am sorry that you thought the remark was serious.

      • Susan Burns

        It is hard to take linguists seriously when they make up an entire proto language by combining every other European word that SHOULD be equivalent and calling it etymology. I do not think there ever was a proto Indo-European language unless you want to call it Hittite.

  • Geoff B

    Two points: 1) in response to “I linked to Coyne’s post, in which a biologist who argues against fringe views in his own field adopts a fringe view in another,” there is no reason to accept an assertion that one fringe view is equal to another. The fact of evolution is far and away resting on firmer ground than any belief concerning a “historical Jesus” and who that person might have been or what he might have taught. It is not even close to being adequately rigorous to appear on the blog of a “scholar.” At least not a self-respecting one or one that respects an honest dialogue over vacuous rhetoric.

    2) “I eagerly await the day when [Carrier] sees through Earl Doherty’s claims with the same acuity.” This comment is in the context of a discussion of the promotion of Mithras as a precursor to Christianity, in which you describe promoters of mythicism, presumably Doherty, as propagating the view that Mithraism was the “inspiration for everything Christians eventually believed about Jesus.” I find this to be outright dishonest. True, I am no expert on the views of mythicists…I’ve never read anything by Archaya S, but I have read Carrier and I have read many, many scholarly articles about early Christianity. I recently (earlier today) downloaded Doherty’s NGNM and Doherty says “we can place both thought patterns [Mithraism and Christianity] under the same taxonomic genus of salvation concerns.” This hardly justifies the statement in the post that lumps all mythicists into one camp promoting Mithraism as the “inspiration for everything Christians eventually believed about Jesus.” True, Doherty is not the only mythicist, but he does seem to be the root of the most acceptable form of the theory, so to claim “mythicists” make a certain argument when the main, most acceptable mythicists (Carrier, Doherty, as far as I know Wells) do not make that argument. Doherty does go on to make some comparisons but to place Mithraism and Christianity into the same “taxonomic genus,” the point being that each arose within a particular cultural context and shared similarities. Doherty acknowledges at several points that extant evidence on Mithraic practices are scant. He quotes acknowledged experts,though, for example, Manfred Clauss’s statement that “[t]he Mithraists evidently believed that they were reborn through the consumption of bread and wine…The offering of bread and wine is known in virtually all ancient cultures…It represented one of the oldest means of manifesting unification with the spiritual…” I have to observe that you have badly misrepresented this argument. I would have to say that you are not being intellectually honest here. As a scholar myself, albeit lower on the pay scale, I will have to take your opinions with a healthy grain of salt.

    G. Barrett
    University of Oregon

    • Thank you for your comment. I have been blogging about mythicism for so long, that I often take certain earlier discussions as given, something that I think is inevitable in a blog format. I’ve interacted with Carrier, and with Doherty, one multiple occasions. Here is a link to a round-up of round-ups of my earlier blogging about mythicism, going back several years.

      That the degree of certainty possible in biology vs. ancient history differs immensely is something I have emphasized time and time again. It is the use of denialist tactics to try to undermine conclusions reached with a relatively high degree of certainty in the context of what is possible in the relevant discipline that is the point when I make comparisons.