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Exploding the Mithras Myth

Mithras

In an effort to cast doubt on Christianity, skeptics will attempt to point out parallels between the beliefs and practices of Christians to those of the Roman cult of Mithras. In this article we will examine the most commonly encountered parallels and answer their claims.

Lists of parallels can be found in skeptic literature or by searching the Internet and they usually appear as follows:

  • Mithras preceded Christianity by roughly 600 years.
  • Mithras was born on December 25.
  • He was considered a great teacher and had twelve disciples.
  • Mithras also performed miracles.
  • Mithras was called “the good shepherd,” “the way, the truth and the light,” “redeemer,” “savior,” and “messiah.”
  • He was identified with the lion and the lamb.
  • He was buried in a tomb and after three days he rose again and his resurrection was celebrated every year.
  • Mithraism had a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper” that involved consecrated bread and wine.
  • Their initiation ceremonies included a baptism to remove sins.

Who was Mithras?

 
Worship of the god Mithras became popular among Roman soldiers at its peak in the second and third centuries. Much of what we know about this religion comes from ancient reliefs and other sculptures. Because no written documents defining the mythology and ritual beliefs of Mithraism exist, scholars can only do their best to interpret the elements pictured in the surviving artwork.

The basic myth begins with Mithras being born when he emerged from a rock. In this scene he is most often depicted as a youth, carrying a torch, a dagger, and wearing a soft cone-shaped cap with the top pulled forward (also known as a Phrygian cap). The most popular image of Mithras depicts him slaying a bull; thought to be the first act of creation (Manfred Claus, The Roman Cult of Mithras, p. 81).
 

Does Mithraism predate Christianity?

 
Prior to the first century A.D., belief in a Zoroastrian divinity named Mitra was common among the ancient Persians. “Mitra (or miθra in the Old Iranian dialect of Avestan) means treaty or contract. Mitra was believed to be treaty and contract personified” (Claus, p. 3).

The most popular hypothesis holds that Roman soldiers encountered this religion during military excursions to areas known today as Iran and Iraq. For many years scholars believed that the Roman mystery cult was based on the ancient Persian god, thus predating Christianity. This assumption begins with early twentieth-century Belgian archaeologist and historian Franz Cumont (cf. Cumont’s book The Mysteries of Mithra).

While Cumont’s work is regarded as pioneering in the field, many recent scholars have challenged his assumption. According to John Hinnells at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies held in 1971, “We must now conclude that [Cumont’s] reconstruction simply will not stand. It receives no support from the Iranian material and is in fact in conflict with the ideas of that tradition as they are represented in the extant texts. Above all, it is a theoretical reconstruction which does not accord with the actual Roman iconography” (John R. Hinnells, Mithraic Studies, vol. 2, “Reflections on the bull-slaying scene”).

Manfred Claus, a professor of ancient history at the Free University of Berlin, also supports this position: “The mysteries cannot be shown to have developed from Persian religious ideas, nor does it make sense to interpret them as a forerunner of Christianity” (The Roman Cult of Mithras, p. 7).
 

Was Mithras born on December 25?

 
According to inscriptions on candle votives and other works of art found in Mithraeum, there is a link between Mithras and the Roman sun god Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun). In some cases it appears the Mithraists believed that Mithras and Sol were manifestations of the same god. In others they appear to be two gods united as one. And in yet others they appear to be two distinct gods. These connections are difficult to understand given our limited knowledge of the belief system, but they are important because they help to explain why the birthday of Mithras was celebrated on December 25.

In A.D. 274, the Roman Emperor Aurelian gave the cult of Sol Invictus official status alongside the other traditional cults of the Empire. According to a manuscript known as the Chronography of 354, the birth of Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25. Given the fact that the Mithraists equated their god with Sol in one way or another, it is understandable that they would then appropriate the established date as their own.

The problem for the skeptic is that no evidence exists to suggest that Aurelian was a Mithraist, or that he even had Mithraism in mind when he instituted the feast of Sol Invictus. The date of the festival became important to the Mithraists because they equated their god with Sol.

Another interesting fact about the Chronography of 354 is that it is the earliest mention of the feast of Sol Invictus being celebrated on December 25. Coincidentally, the celebration of the birth of Christ by Christians is also mentioned as having been on that day. Pope Benedict XVI comments on this before he became pope:

"The claim used to be made that December 25 developed in opposition to the Mithras myth, or as a Christian response to the cult of the unconquered sun promoted by Roman emperors in the third century in their efforts to establish a new imperial religion. However, these old theories can no longer be sustained. The decisive factor was the connection of creation and Cross, of creation and Christ’s conception." (Joseph Ratzinger; The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 107)

As Pope Benedict points out, the Christians came to date Christ’s birth on December 25 based on a belief that his conception and Passion were thought to have occurred on the same day of the year (The Spirit of the Liturgypp.105-107). There is no evidence that there was any attempt by the Christian community to “baptize” a pagan celebration.
 

Was Mithras considered a great teacher who had twelve disciples?

 
It is a stretch to claim that Mithras was a teacher in the same way Jesus was. Unlike Jesus, Mithras was never believed to have been a real historical person who actually walked the countryside imparting knowledge to his followers. The claim that Mithras had twelve disciples is best summed up in the companion guide to the film Zeitgeist:

"Mithra surrounded by the twelve “companions” is a motif found on many Mithraic remains and representing the twelve signs of the zodiac....The point here is not whether or not these companions are depicted as interacting in the same manner as the disciples of Jesus but that the theme of the god or godman with the twelve surrounding him is common enough—and with very popular deities in the same region—to have served as a precedent for the Christian Twelve with Christ at their center." (cf. Zeitgeist: The Movie Companion Source Guide)

It is true that there are depictions of astronomical symbols in Mythraic remains, but as Manfred Claus explains, “Scarcely less numerous are the modern attempts to explain them in detail. But this cannot be done without making assumptions that are themselves highly speculative” (The Roman Cult of Mithras p. 87). The speculation on the part of the writers of Zeitgeist is that there is any interaction at all between Mithras and the twelve symbols of the zodiac. The signs do appear in sculptures, but their purpose and meaning is altogether unclear.

Jesus did not have pagan astrology in mind when he chose twelve disciples to represent the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). In Scripture, the number twelve represents divine authority and appointment as well as governmental foundation, perfection, and completeness. That there is any reliance on the significance of the number twelve to pagan astrology is pure speculation.

Twelve is a number of significance in many cultures, but that doesn’t mean that any one culture borrowed it from another. For instance, the Twelve Nidānas in Buddhism identify the origins of suffering and ignorance, yet most scholars would not point to any causal relationship between early Buddhism and the mystery religions of the first-century Romans (cf. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, p. 168).
 

Did Mithras also perform miracles?

 
One source for the notion that Mithras was believed to have performed miracles comes from a quote by John R. Hinnells’ Mithraic Studies that appears in the Zeitgeist Companion Guide as follows:

"[T]he side panels of many Mithraic reliefs and paintings are interpreted as representations of the primeval life of the god, in which he performed miracles, experienced various adventures, and celebrated an archetypal communion meal before he ascended to heaven." (cf. Zeitgeist: The Movie Companion Source Guide)

This quote by Hinnells is taken out of context. As presented here, it would appear that the author supports the idea that the reliefs and paintings depict Mithras partaking in acts that are also attributed to Jesus. The chapter that this quote is taken from is actually a critique of the work done by Franz Cumont. In it, Hinnells is refuting the idea that these reliefs should be interpreted against the background of Persian Zoroastrianism and how doing so is problematic given the lack of evidence connecting the two belief systems (cf. Mithraic Studies vol. 2, p. 290-312).

By definition a miracle is “a sign or wonder, such as a healing or the control of nature, which can only be attributed to divine power” (glossary of Catechism of the Catholic Church). We have the testimony of the followers of Jesus that he performed miracles. We do not have this type of affirmation in the case of Mithras. In its place we have speculative interpretations of Mithraic artwork by a few scholars who begin from a false premise.

Was Mithras called “the good shepherd,” “the way, the truth and the light,” “redeemer,” “savior,” and “Messiah”?
Of these five titles, only the terms redeemer and savior can be verified with any certainty, but the Mithraists themselves did not use them to describe their god. Instead, they are generally found in the works of scholars who draw parallels between Christ and the gods of the Roman mystery religions.

In response to this claim, Ronald H. Nash explains, “Worshippers of Mithra believed that after death the souls of Mithra’s true disciples are lead by Mithra himself . . . to their final blessed destination. This belief allows Mithra to be called, rather loosely, a ‘redeemer-god’” (The Gospel and the Greeks, p. 135).

That Christianity and Mithraism are religions of redemption is not in dispute; however, the nature of redemption and the characteristics of the redeemer bear almost no similarities. Redemption in the mystery religions dealt primarily with deliverance from daily hardships, while redemption in the Christian sense is for the remission of sins. The belief that a man was entirely unable to overcome sin by his own effort but rather relied on the grace of God would have been foreign to the worshippers of the Roman cults.
 

Was Mithras identified with the lion and the lamb?

 
One is hard-pressed to find any evidence that Mithras was identified with a lamb, but there are indications that the image of a lion held some importance in the cult of Mithras. “Lion” was even the name of one of their initiatory grades (The Roman Cult of Mithras, p. 135).

In some Mithraeum there have been found statues of lions and depictions of them in reliefs, but it is not known what their significance or relationship to Mithras was. There is certainly no evidence that these lions either represent or are manifestations of the Roman god.

There are statues that have been found in some Mithraeum in the shape of a lion-headed man. Although there are no inscriptions to tell us who the Mithraists believe this god was, we do know that the Greeks gave the name Aion to an Egyptian god of time who was generally pictured in a similar way. Clauss suggest that because Mithras was thought to be “a god of the unfolding year,” his worshipers may have identified him with Aion (The Roman Cult of Mithras, p. 165).

While there may be some connection with Mithras and Aion, a lion-headed man has nothing to do with the imagery of the lion used to describe Jesus in Scripture. The lion is a powerful animal whose symbolic use in writing suggests strength. Jesus is described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5), but lion imagery is also used to describe the powerful enemies of the Christians (2 Tim. 4:17, 1 Pet. 5:8).
 

Did Mithraism have a Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper” that involved consecrated bread and wine?

 
Skeptics use a quote from early Christian apologist Justin Martyr to prove that the Eucharist was plagiarized from the liturgical celebration of Mithraism. The following excerpt is from his First Apology. In context, he is describing the Christian celebration of the Eucharist for his pagan audience:

"For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.
 
For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated; you either know or can learn." (First Apology, ch. 66)

The claim made by skeptics is that Justin is admitting to a parallel with the Mithraic celebration. To assume that the Christians borrowed this ritual from an earlier pagan cult requires one to hold to the assumption of Franz Cumont that the Mithraic ritual predates the Christian practice. But as I have already pointed out, many modern scholars downplay the idea that the practices of the Romans were anything like those of the earlier Persians.

It was not uncommon in ancient religious gatherings for the devotees to participate in a ritual meal as part of their worship. Commenting on the practice of the Mithraists, Clauss wrote, “The ritual meal was probably simply a component of regular common meals. Such meals have always been an essential part of religious assembly: eating and drinking together creates community and renders visible the fact that those who partake are members of one and the same group” (The Roman Cult of Mithras, p. 113).

There is no evidence that the Christians borrowed from the Mithraists in their liturgy. Jesus modeled the Eucharist after the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It is likely that the pagan mystery rituals were not even an afterthought, if they even existed at that time.

In addition to this, we must take Justin Martyr’s word for it when he describes the ritual of the Mithraists. There is no indication in any of Justin’s writings that he was ever a Mithraist himself, so it’s likely that his information is secondhand.

The archaeological evidence does not provide us much insight into the actual ritual meal, but according to Clauss, “Mithraists did not just receive bread and wine or water, as the literary sources seem to suggest, but were in addition served actual meals” (The Roman Cult of Mithras, p. 115). This point is further strengthened by the fact that in all of the Mithraeum there can be found various dishes, eating utensils, and small pits filled with the bones of pigs, cattle, fish, and lamb which may have been discarded there after the meal.

The truth is, we know very little about this ancient mystery cult’s ritual practices. Some scholars claim that this is due to Christians vigorously suppressing any knowledge of them, but that leaves unexplained the number of reliefs, statues, and places of worship that survived. It’s more likely that, as a “mystery religion,” the Mithraists may not have written anything down in order to preserve the mystery.
 

Did the Mithraic initiation ceremonies include a baptism to remove sins?

 
According to early Christian writer Tertullian, the worshippers of Mithras did use water in some way during their initiation ceremonies, but it didn’t end there. Tertullian writes:

"Likewise [the Mithraists] honor the gods themselves by washings. Moreover, by carrying water around, and sprinkling it, they everywhere expiate country-seats, houses, temples, and whole cities: at all events, at the Apollinarian and Eleusinian games they are baptized; and they presume that the effect of their doing that is their regeneration and the remission of the penalties due to their perjuries." (On Baptism, ch. 5)

This appears at first glance to be a slam-dunk for the skeptic, but Tertullian wrote this sometime late in the second century. We have no other evidence available to us that suggests the Mithraists practiced anything like Christian baptism prior to this witness.

The early Christians practiced baptism because it was instituted by Jesus Christ. The existence of an initiation theme in early Christianity does not mean it was borrowed from a pagan religion. As Mircea Eliade, author of a definitive study of pagan initiation rites, explains:

"Such a theme could have been taken directly from one of the esoteric Jewish sects, especially the Essenes, concerning whom the Dead Sea manuscripts have now added sensationally to our knowledge. Indeed, it is not even necessary to suppose that an initiatory theme was “borrowed” by Christianity from some other religion." (Rites and Symbols of Initiation, p. 116)

Some Jewish sects were already familiar with baptism. Pope Benedict XVI agrees that the people of Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, may have influenced both John the Baptist and Jesus. (cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 14). He then goes on to explain how this new baptism differed from other rites: “The baptism that [John the Baptist] enjoined is different from the usual religious ablutions. It cannot be repeated, and it is meant to be the concrete enactment of a conversion that gives the whole of life a new direction forever” (p.14).

This is a far cry from Tertullian’s description of pagans baptizing everything from their temples to their chairs, and seeking it out repeatedly as reparation for any wrongdoing. While initiation rites do exist in other religions, Christian baptism is unique among them.
 

Conclusion

 
The mythology and rites of the earliest Mithraists do not present themselves as close parallels to Christian beliefs and practices. When they do resemble Christianity to some degree, they can be found to be dated well after the establishment in the Christian religion.

We have also seen that many of the supposed parallels between Christianity and Mithraism are based on outdated scholarship that relies heavily on the assumption that the Roman cult was a natural extension of the ancient Persian religion rather than an entirely new late first-century system. Therefore, in the opinion of this author, our examination of the evidence is enough to dismiss the claim that Christianity is merely borrowed from this pagan cult.
 
 
Originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Catholic Answers Magazine. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Jordan Maxwell Show)

Jon Sorensen

Written by

Jon Sorensen is the Director of Marketing for Catholic Answers, the largest lay-run apostolate of Catholic apologetics and evangelization in the United States. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications in 2004 from Platt College, Ontario. Before coming to Catholic Answers, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials and corporate video. He has also produced motion graphics for several feature-length films. Follow Jon through his website, JonSorenson.net.

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  • jakael02

    Interesting article, I'll reflect on this. But I don't really have any comment.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      And yet....a comment. ;)

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    Right off the bat, if Mithras was born on December 25th, he couldn't have been the model for Jesus, who was born probably in September and not December...presuming of course that Jesus ever existed.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Urbane, I'm curious what evidence you have for the claim that Jesus "was probably born in September."

      Also, if you doubt Jesus existed, I suggest reading this article previously posted at Strange Notions: "Four Reasons I Think Jesus Really Existed".

      • Urbane_Gorilla

        Just Google "When was Jesus really born"...This is old often repeated information. There is no date of birth in the Bible, and apparently centuries later, it was decided to use a pagan celebration date to appeal to the masses.

        Here's one that discusses the actual date: When Was Jesus Born? - http://bit.ly/16xuF9I

        and another that discusses why Dec 25th was chosen: "Was Jesus really born on December 25th?" - http://bit.ly/16xuMls

        • Randy Gritter
          • Urbane_Gorilla

            In essence, the article just avoids the matter of Jesus' real birth date and casts doubt on the reasoning for choosing Dec 25th. Whether or not a person believes the date was chosen for one reason or the other, the Solstices are traditional dates celebrated in a variety of cultures and religions. If you go to Wikipedia for example and type in "Winter Solstice", you'll find a list of many such occurrences across the globe. That's too much of a coincidence for me.

          • Howard
          • Jon Sorensen

            My intent was not to show that Jesus was born on December 25th. I was explaining that no pagan god births can be found to be celebrated on that day prior to the calendar of 354.

        • Blake Woodcrest

          My apologies...I couldn't read fully what the others replied. The Oriental Orthodox do not celebrate the Feast of the Birth of Christ on December 25, rather the equivalent of January 7 (6th Leap Year). We have our own Liturgical / Indigenous Calendar as well. The Bible, even the KJV does give great historical reference to the Birth of Christ. The Gospel of St. Luke: "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria." This is key, because it is not merely 'christian' history.

          Another point is that Jesus, the Christ did not say, 'Celebrate my birthday!" This as you know is an Apostolic / Church Fathers' tradition. Again, we don't call the Feast of the Resurrection 'easter'. The later churches that were under the Roman jurisdictions superimposed the seemingly Christian practices upon the pagan customs / traditions...

      • Rafael Poggi

        Simple: if Jesus was born in late december, he would die due the extreme cold! Not only him, but his mother and father.

    • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

      It seems to me there is no reliable evidence at all for making an educated guess at the date Jesus was born. According to the old online Catholic Encyclopedia, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated in the early church. The first known instances of celebrating Christmas (or what became Christmas) date to about A.D. 200 in Egypt. It seems rather farfetched to assume that the date of Jesus's birth was remembered but not celebrated for two centuries. The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are of doubtful historicity, and even if they are taken for "gospel truth," they don't contain nearly enough information to narrow down the birth of Jesus to a particular day.

      According to Josephus, Jews didn't celebrate birthdays. That wouldn't mean that they didn't know them, but I wonder if anyone from the earliest days of Christianity had considered Jesus's birthday important (if it was known) why it wasn't written down. Of course, it could have been written down and lost. But it seems to me that the likeliest conjecture was that Jesus's birthday wasn't known, or if it was known, wasn't considered important. It is anachronistic to imagine that it was known and passed along by word of mouth for 200 years so that it could be celebrated one day.

      • ziad

        I do not know of any Christian that claims that Dec 25th is the actuall birthdate of Christ. Even the calendar year 1 AD is historically thought to be inaccurate. The main reason for the Dec 25th date is because many thought that the date of the conception and death of Christ was the same day. If that was true (which we have no idea-its mere speculations) then end of Dec is roughly 9 months from Easter. It is used for liturgical calendar purposes for celebration, not historical date

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        Taylor Marshall makes a compelling case for the December 25 birthdate here: December 25 is the Historical Birthday of Christ: Mary and Tradition.

        • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

          It strikes me that Taylor Marshall's account is somewhat anachronistic. For example,

          Ask any mother about the birth of her children. She will not only give you the date of the birth, but she will be able to rattle off the time, the location, the weather, the weight of the baby, he length of the baby, and a number of other details. I’m the father of six blessed children and while I sometimes forget these details (mea maxima culpa), my wife never does. You see, mothers never forget these details.

          It assumes mothers in 1st-century Palestine are exactly like mothers in contemporary America. We know that Jews didn't celebrate birthdays. How do we know that the average Jewish woman at the time would even have been able to answer, "What day of the week, month, and year is it today?" (I am not saying they didn't, but why assume they did?) Why should a mother in 1st-century Palestine have been any more good at remembering the dates of her children's birth than Marshall is today? We don't even know if Joseph and Mary were literate. But odds are that if one of them was, it would have been Joseph.

          Why should we believe that within the first few hundred years of Christianity, they got the day of the month right for the birth of Jesus when we now know that Jesus had to have been born 4. B.C. or earlier?

          Also, Marshall says

          Pope Saint Telesphorus (reigned A.D. 126-137) instituted the tradition of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Although the Liber Pontificalis does not give us the date of Christmas, it assumes that Christmas was already being celebrated by the Pope and that a Mass at midnight was added. I don’t doubt the tradition at all.

          However, the old online Catholic Encyclopedia says, "None of the statements in the 'Liber pontificalis' and other authorities of a later date as to liturgical and other decisions of this pope are genuine."

          The dating of the birth of Jesus seems to rest on the belief that he would have been born and died on the same day of the month. Is that a convincing assumption to make today?

          Once one has dispensed with the notion that Christmas established to replace or compete with a pagan holiday, I don't see that it makes any difference at all what the real birthday of Jesus was.

          • Howard

            'How do we know that the average Jewish woman at the time would even have been able to answer, "What day of the week, month, and year is it today?" (I am not saying they didn't, but why assume they did?)'

            Have you ever heard of anything called "the Sabbath"? Do you know why the women did not come to the tomb of Jesus on Holy Saturday? Are Jewish women even today frequently caught unprepared for sundown on Friday night?

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            Have you ever heard of anything called "the Sabbath"?

            Why yes, I have!

            But that does not dispense with the question I raised, which (please note) was only a question and not an assertion. It would have been necessary for observant Jews to know what day of the week it was, but not necessarily the day of the month or the year. Most Jews were illiterate in those days. No doubt the community kept track of the day of the week. But if you cannot read and don't have a calendar, how do you keep track of the month, the day of the month, and the year? Was it really of any importance in day-to-day life?

          • Howard

            First of all, you are suffering from a distorted perspective. The pattern of holy days may not be important to you, as it is not important to most Americans, so it becomes something that must be read about rather than being lived. That is far from the universal human experience, though.

            And your suggestion that the Virgin Mary did not have a calendar is laughable. She had a very good calendar, which in English is named THE MOON. Judaism uses a lunar calendar. Literacy is not needed to read the day of the month off the moon, but it does help to get away from the TV, Internet, and electric lights. My guess is that she could tell the day of the lunar month a good deal better than you!

          • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

            First of all, you are suffering from a distorted perspective.

            If only I could be more like you and the other good people.

            My guess is that she could tell the day of the lunar month a good deal better than you!

            You can guess, and I can guess, but the question I am raising is how did illiterate peoples in 1st-century Palestine orient themselves in time. What do you know about everyday life in 1st-century Palestine? Here is a tidbit of information that shows tracking time wasn't as simple as looking up at the moon:

            The lunar month on the Jewish calendar begins when the first sliver of moon becomes visible after the dark of the moon. In ancient times, the new months used to be determined by observation. When people observed the new moon, they would notify the Sanhedrin. When the Sanhedrin heard testimony from two independent, reliable eyewitnesses that the new moon occurred on a certain date, they would declare the rosh chodesh (first of the month) and send out messengers to tell people when the month began.

            The problem with strictly lunar calendars is that there are approximately 12.4 lunar months in every solar year, so a 12-month lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than a solar year and a 13-month lunar is about 19 longer than a solar year. The months drift around the seasons on such a calendar: on a 12-month lunar calendar, the month of Nissan, which is supposed to occur in the Spring, would occur 11 days earlier in the season each year, eventually occurring in the Winter, the Fall, the Summer, and then the Spring again. On a 13-month lunar calendar, the same thing would happen in the other direction, and faster.

            To compensate for this drift, the Jewish calendar uses a 12-month lunar calendar with an extra month occasionally added. The month of Nissan occurs 11 days earlier each year for two or three years, and then jumps forward 30 days, balancing out the drift. In ancient times, this month was added by observation: the Sanhedrin observed the conditions of the weather, the crops and the livestock, and if these were not sufficiently advanced to be considered "spring," then the Sanhedrin inserted an additional month into the calendar to make sure that Pesach (Passover) would occur in the spring (it is, after all, referred to in the Torah as Chag he-Aviv, the Festival of Spring!).

            Literacy is not needed to read the day of the month off the moon . . .

            What do you do if it's cloudy for an extended period of time? I suspect—but do not know—that keeping track of time was something that was more communal than individual.

          • Howard

            Your snide remark aside, you really ARE suffering from a distorted perspective. You live in a mostly literate (it may not be safe to push that point to hard, though), secular society that keeps time by electric clocks and a solar calendar. You are going to underestimate how much people can know without reading. You are going to underestimate how people counted the days to the next religious feast the same way kids do to Christmas. Because our months follow an odd, arbitrary pattern and no longer correspond to the phases of the moon, you are going to underestimate the ability of someone to look at a first-quarter moon and know what day it is. Because you belong to a society so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea, you will forget that people can tell time quite well from the position of the sun or stars.

            In fact, I don't know why you don't instead challenge the idea that the Evangelists could say at what hour the various events of Good Friday occurred -- especially since the sun was hidden for part of the day.

            Please note that no one, I think, would say that the Virgin Mary told the Apostles, "Jesus was born on December 25 according to the Julian calendar." More likely she would say something like, "It was five days after the Feast of the Dedication," or, "It happened on the first full moon after the Feast of the Dedication," or something like that, and someone else would later figure out where that had fallen on the Roman calendar. For that matter, many people today are likely to think of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami not as having taken place on December 26, but as having happened the day after Christmas. This is also consistent with the manner in which St. Luke gave the year of Christ's birth.

          • Howard

            Ugh. "... push that point TOO hard ...."

        • John Bell

          I look forward to his follow up piece investigating the birthdays of the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

  • 42Oolon

    First of all this author has no history or academic credentials and we cannot accept anything he says on authority. The fact that he is the director of marketing for Catholic Answers suggests a heavy bias and opens up his scholarship to confirmation bias. While he references some books, in the end we have to accept his word, which we should be cautious of given his bias.

    Secondly, he doesn't seem to deal with the biggest similarity that "He was buried in a tomb and after three days he rose again and his resurrection was celebrated every year".

    But most importantly, the only reason to raise Mithra is that it's cult shows that there were all kinds of beliefs in those days. The existence or non-existence of the cult and its beliefs has nothing to do with why I don't believe that a god exists and is ignoring me.

    • http://www.DeaconHarbey.com/ Dcn Harbey Santiago

      "First of all this author has no history or academic credentials and we cannot accept anything he says on authority."

      Hmmm Couldn't we just say the same thing about many if not all of the people who posts in this comment box?

      "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
      DHS

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        "First of all this author has no history or academic credentials and we cannot accept anything he says on authority."

        42Olon, please re-read our commenting policy, which explicitly prohibits ad hominem arguments. They're unhelpful, unfair, and irrelevant to whether the position in question is true.

        • 42Oolon

          My comment was not an ad hominem argument.. I am simply pointing out that we should not trust that he has evenly presented the evidence as we might with a credentialed expert. I am not saying he is wrong because of a lack of credentials.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            Then why mention his academic status in your comment? Jon clearly cited sources for every claim he made, and his article contained no appeal to credentials. Nowhere does he demand we take any argument on authority.

            To begin a comment by "poisoning the well" is in fact an ad hominem strategy meant to discredit the author.

          • 42Oolon

            I'll accept that and for what it's worth withdraw the comment. It think it was fair to point this out. I just wanted to dispel any notion that this was a professional statement of the history. If this is really the level of commenting that you feel violates your policy and could get one banned, I think it will put a chilling effect on my comments, which I am already being careful about.

          • cestusdei

            I have read the Klaus book he cites. His article is backed up with the latest and best scholarship.

      • 42Oolon

        We could, if they were posting on history. Of course.

    • Jon Sorensen

      This is why I went to great lengths to quote from mostly non-Christian historians throughout the article.

      • 42Oolon

        I appreciate that, but you'll excuse my skepticism. So, did you find that indeed the resurrection story occurs with Mithra?

        • Jon Sorensen

          I understand the skepticism. I did not find a resurrection story occurring with Mithra.

          • 42Oolon

            Where did the allegation of this come from in skeptic literature? Brief survey of the Wikipedia certainly agrees with you.

          • Jon Sorensen

            Kersey Graves wrote a book titled "the World's 16 Crucified Saviors" which has since been thoroughly debunked. Still, prominent atheists like David Fitzgerald cling to this outdated research.

          • 42Oolon

            Thanks.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "[I]ts beliefs has nothing to do with why I don't believe that a god exists and is ignoring me."

      Could you perhaps believe that a God exists and is *not* ignoring you?

      • 42Oolon

        Sure. It was a commenter here who have told me that the silence from the alleged god to my constant appeals to communicate means i am "waiting". I take that to mean I am being ignored. Do you have any tips on now to make contact?

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "Do you have any tips on now to make contact [with God]?"

          Sure. Pray sincerely and consistently. If you aren't sure how to pray, or whether it's effective, I suggest reading Dr. Peter Kreeft's profound, yet practical book, Prayer for Beginners.

          You might also consider taking "The St. Augustine Challenge": http://www.tothesource.org/1_12_2011/1_12_2011.htm

          • 42Oolon

            Thanks, but there is only so far I can go with no response. At this point it feels really silly doing these things. My sincerity is there, but it is hard because I do not even know what the god is supposed to be and no one here can tell me what to expect other than it is like getting to know a romantic partner that you never meet, hear or talk to in any direct way. I am sure you are open to other faiths bing true, but you would not agree to constantly pray to Allah and spend an hour plus reading a centuries old apologist and thinking about it.

            If the Christian god is real, he knows I am sincere, he has the power to reach me, and would want to reach me. I am going to continue praying sincerely once in a while, but what you suggest is too much.

          • Alejandro I. Sanchez

            Peace be with you.
            As a former skeptic I feel your pain. I, too, wanted someone to answer the many valid questions that we both shared at one time. For most of my adult life I was an agnostic so knowing where to begin was a challenge for me as well when I finally decided to put to rest the God question. And I will tell you that for me, I was definitely open to other faiths being true, or all of them being untrue.

            Let me just say that God indeed knows you're sincere and He does have the power to reach you. When I first started to pray, I prayed the God would appear to me in a way where I could no longer doubt Him. I wanted proof. But because God knows me, He knew that I would figure out how to explain away some kind of mystical apparition and then I'd be praying for Him to confirm it with another one, etc. Instead, God led me on a on-going journey, slowly and systematically revealing Himself to me. And as I look back at this journey that started almost four years ago, I know it is impossible for me to go back to my former way of thinking. I'm still a skeptic, but not about God/Jesus.

            I know skeptics will yawn and say that this is all subjective, as I used to say the same of others, but because you seem so sincere and open I just wanted to offer you some kind of hope. I would tell you to remain open but I think it's impossible to close yourself off once you've started asking questions.

            Peace

        • Loreen Lee

          Maybe it's possible to act "as if" you have faith, etc.that there is a 'G/god/final purpose, higher order of thought/being, a moral purpose, an ultimate truth, etc. (to satisfy even Buddhism) even if only as a thought experiment, and to see what might perhaps develop from there. I can assure you, however, that, from my experience in any case, it will always remain 'a search'!!!!!

        • Julius

          Pray.

    • 4ox

      But there is no death and resurrection story of Mithras. Also academics and historians of Roman religions pretty much throw the Mithras/Christ argument in the bin due to poor scholarship and lack of evidence.

  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

    I'm confused. Wasn't Jesus's Nativity originally set to the Julian and not the Gregorian calendar? I didn't think it originally coincided with December 25.

    • http://twitter.com/david_nickol David Nickol

      I'm confused.

      I am, too. Presumably Mary and Joseph would have followed the Jewish calendar, which has no month of December, so Jesus could not have been born on December 25 in their reckoning. Exactly what it means to say something happened on December 25 over 2000 years ago for people using a different calendar I am not sure. We do, of course, assign specific B.C. and A.D. dates to events that happened even longer ago. But since the Romans fiddled with their calendar a number of times, and since the calendar we currently use is not perfectly in synch with the sun and the moon, I am not sure how you arrive at an exact date for something that happened (probably) in 4 B.C. To get calendars to work out so that they don't drift away from the solar year, it is necessary to make adjustments, which are more or less arbitrary. For example, we have leap years in which we add a February 29th every fourth year, but there is no reason that I know of why the day must be added in February. It could be added as December 32, in which case December 25 would be on a different (astronomical) day than if the leap day had been added at the end of February.

      So while I could be wrong, it seems to me there is no real December 25 except in the sense that those who have the authority to draw up calendars and make adjustments in them are paid attention to.

  • ksed11

    Generally, the search for parallels is prone to subjectivism. You tend to find whatever similarities you’re looking for. This can be done for just about any person or subject matter.

  • 42Oolon

    A fair article and well referenced, and I have two comments.

    One, you seem to have left out the most important correlation, the resurrection and yearly celebration thereof. Second, this isn't a reason why anyone believes or disbelieves in the Catholic god, I recall some authors pointing to it to explain why the Romans picked Dec 25 for Christmas, it was already a big holiday for many Romans. This would seem to still stand.

    • Jon Sorensen

      If you re-read the article, I outlined the fact that there was no roman celebration on December 25 prior to The celebration of Christmas on that day. Some apologists argue that, if anything, the evidence indicates that it was the Romans who swiped the date.

      • josh

        "If you re-read the article, I outlined the fact that there was no roman
        celebration on December 25 prior to The celebration of Christmas on that
        day."

        This is not what your article says. You argue that the earliest known celebration on December 25 was a roman sun cult. (The earliest extant reference is, you claim, the calendar of 354 but I take it we don't know how much earlier the celebration had existed.) Is there any significant evidence that early Christians celebrated Jesus supposed birth on that day before the sun cult celebration became popular?

        • Jon Sorensen

          I'll try to clarify my point. We know that Sol Invictus was celebrated in October prior to the evidence of the 354 Calendar. The celebration occurred every four years beginning some time near the reign of Aurelian. There is simply no other evidence that any pagans at any time, (including the Romans) ever celebrated the birth of a deity on December 25. We do, however, have evidence from Hipolytus and others that the date was of significance to Christians much earlier. I'm not suggesting the pagans stole the date from Christians, but I do contend that there is zero evidence that pagans celebrated the birth of any of their deities before the Christians. That being the case, there is no way anyone can conclusively demonstrate from the historical record that Christians simply borrowed (or stole) the date from Mithraisim.

          • josh

            Thanks for the clarification. From the article (unless I missed something) it was not clear that we have any evidence for a Christmas celebration or a Mithra or other cult festival prior to the Sol Invictus one mentioned. Now I see that you are relying on Hipolytus for the date, who wrote in the early 3rd century. Hipolytus evidently chose his date to match up with his cosmology/eschatology dates and Passover, which was in turn meant to line up with an equinox, from what I read, and not from any earlier tradition. I wonder at what point other Christians started to adopt this date and celebrate it? (Which leaves open the possibility that they did adapt it from a pagan celebration, but you may have reasons to think not, I'm no expert here.)

            Anyhow, your point that we can't show that it was borrowed from Mithraism stands, I wasn't questioning that. The general point that parallels between Mithra and Christ are exaggerated by some is quite correct. However I feel this is almost a strawman, or at least a case of going after the weakest version of an argument one can find anyone articulating. Nothing wrong with debunking the gross distortions one can find on the internet, but there is a huge difference between the claim "Christianity was lifted whole-cloth from Mithra/Horus/Dionysus/etc." and "Christianity wasn't particularly unique and probably did borrow ideas and themes from other cults which were current at the time."

          • Jon Sorensen

            I'm not relying solely on Hipolytus (there are other examples like Polycarp and John Chrysostom), but the fact of the matter is nothing in the historical record suggests Sol Invictus predated Christmas because the earliest calendar with the Roman celebration on it has Christmas there as well. As far as picking straw men goes, many mythicists claim that other gods were believed to be born on December 25th, the exact day, and not just relating it to the solstice. The solstice was important to the Jews as well. It was important to everyone for agricultural reasons in the same way water is important to the survival of human beings, and so we see rituals involving water showing up in various religions. That doesn't mean one borrowed the idea or theme from another.

  • Alv V

    Thanks for this article, now I have something to refer to if anyone claim Christianity evolved from Mithraism.