As part of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s annual assault on Christianity, prominent among the ‘facts’ presented by Stephen Fry on QI’s ‘Christmas special’ was the remarkable number of similarities between Jesus Christ and the ‘ancient Roman sun god’ Mithras, who pre-deated him by several hundred years; the implication being that all Christianity was simply a rip-off of this pagan cult, and therefore even the existence of Jesus himself was nothing but copycat appropriation.
Among the ‘intersting facts’ cited on QI (and repeated on a Radio 4 programme on the morning of Christmas Eve) were that:
1. Like Jesus, the god Mithras also became man: he was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds.
2. He was considered a great traveling teacher and master.
3. He had 12 companions or disciples.
4. Mithras' followers were promised immortality.
5. He performed miracles.
6. As the "great bull of the Sun," Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
7. He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again.
8. His resurrection was celebrated every year.
9. He was called "the Good Shepherd" and identified with both the Lamb and the Lion.
10. He was considered the "Way, the Truth and the Light," and the "Logos," "Redeemer," "Savior" and "Messiah."
11. The leader of the Mithraic services was called ‘Il Papa’ (the Pope) and lived on Vatican Hill, in Rome.
Stephen Fry explained with a chuckle that all of this information was only uncovered again in the 20th century, and many Christians were ‘very annoyed’ about it… etc etc… because it showed the level of borrowing in Christianity from other religions.
Now, although I’m an atheist, and QI is one of my favourite shows, in the interests of historical truth I must say that it takes only a minimal amount of research to show that most of this is, for want of a better word, bollocks. The legend of Mithras changed constantly, as he was adopted by new cultures and given different things to do: Mithras started off as one of dozens of minor Indian gods, and at the time of the earliest surviving written reference to him, in a treaty of 1400 BC, he is basically a guy who goes around punishing people who break treaties or contracts. In some traditions he was a great warrior, in others he was a pacifist. He spread into Persia, and filtered into Zoroastrian mythology as one of seven minor spirits who were intermediaries between the Persian’s god of heaven (Ohrmazd) and their god of hell (Ahriman) – and helped get dead souls to the place they needed to go.
Then along came the Romans. The Romans loved religion and mythology, but weren’t particularly sure which religion was the right one, and so to play it safe often melted the best bits of any religion they came across into their own. As everyone knows, the Romans adopted the Greek gods wholesale, changing their names (Zeus to Jupiter, Poseidon to Neptune, Heracles to Hercules, etc), and then when they encountered the Egyptians worshipping gods with crazy dogs’ heads and birds’ heads etc, they decided: “Ah, no, what must have happened here is that when our own gods (by which we mean the ones we nicked from the Greeks) were being attacked by the Titans, they fled to Egypt for awhile to hide and regroup, and while they were there they put on animals’ heads to disguise themselves… yes… that will do.” When Roman soldiers in Babylon discovered Mithras, they took quite a shine to him, and came up with all sorts of new mythology about him to tie him into the Graeco-Roman tradition as a sun-god associated with Apollo and others.
Over time, worship of Mithras developed into something of a cult, and in the first centuries AD threatened to rival early Christianity in the battle for hearts and minds in the Empire. So there were many versions of Mithras, and as one scholar of Mithras pointed out in the 1970s, ‘At present our knowledge of both general and local cult practice in respect of rites of passage, ceremonial feats and even underlying ideology is based more on conjecture than fact.’ Still, those supposed Jesus parallels have no basis at all.
They were first listed in 1999 by one ‘Acharya S’ (pen name of D. Murdock), who argued in her book, ‘The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold’, that the character Jesus and the entire Christian religion were fabricated – ripped off from earlier pagan mythology – in order to unite the Roman empire. QI picked up her list of Mithras/Jesus similarities wholesale: even giving them in the same order as in her book.A little more research by the BBC would quickly have shown them to be nonsense.
1. First of all, in no version of the Mithras myth was he born in a cave, or of a virgin. In Roman legend Mithras was born out of a lump of solid rock – maybe emerging from it left a cave behind, and perhaps technically the rock had never had sex… but it’s hardly identical to Jesus’ birth in the gospel. What Stephen Fry failed to mention is that unlike the baby Jesus, when Mithras became human he was ‘born’ a full-grown man. In some Roman texts [written at least one century AFTER the birth of Christ] Mithras’s birth was indeed attended by shepherds (but not angels or wise men), who helped him out of the rock and gave him some food to eat, but in other versions Mithras was born before any other humans had been created on earth yet. The Persian Mithras, meanwhile, was attributed to an incestuous relationship between two gods: Ahura-Mazda and his mother. Acharya says that in Hindu tradition the Indian Mithras, “was born of a female, Aditi, the ‘mother of the gods’” who could be considered a virgin… Could she? Well, Acharya claims that the “largest near-eastern Mithraeum [which] was built in western Persia at Kangavar, is dedicated to ‘Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras’.” No it isn’t. Not only is her only source on that a paper written in 1993 by a then-high school student, David Fingrut, who made this claim without any documentation whatsoever himself, but the building at Kanagvar is not a Mithraeum at all, but a temple to the fertility goddess Anahita (dated 200 BC) – who virgin or otherwise is was a fertility goddess regarded not as Mithra's mother, but as his consort. Okay, so he was apparently born on 25th December – but that proves nothing: the Bible doesn’t attribute a date to Jesus’ birth, it was .
2. He was considered a great travelling teacher and master. Acharya S gives no source for this – which is unsurprising, as there is no Mithraic literature which talks of him travelling anywhere or teaching anything – and anyway, who ever heard of a religious leader who WASN’T a teacher and master?
3. He had 12 companions or disciples. Nope. In Persian mythology Mithras has two disciples who are mini versions of himself, and carry his stuff for him. When the Romans adopted him they gave him a bunch of disciples – but not 12 – and these were CONSTELLATION ANIMALS, not people: a dog, a lion, a scorpion, etc. Acharya’s sole source for the ’12 Disciples’ thing is a Roman carving of Mithras slaying a bull (i.e. because when the Mithrasian Romans adopted him, they based him on their previous hero Perseus – who also killed a bull… and was also born from rock, incidentally): the scene is framed by 6 human-looking faces on each side. Aside from the fact that this particular carving significantly post-dates the Christian gospels (so that any borrowing would have had to be the other way), these figures have been identified by modern Mithraic scholars as representing zodiacal symbols. Indeed, Acharya herself, in a follow-up book, acknowledged this point – so QI’s mistake is even more unforgiveable.
4. Mithra's followers were promised immortality. Acharya reckons Mithraism “surely offered its initiates deliverance from some awful fate to which all other men were doomed, and a privileged passage to some ultimate state of well-being.” This is mere guesswork on her part [and so what if it was true? Vikings were promised an afterlife in Valhall too – in fact almost ALL religions promise some sort of afterlife] – the only hard evidence of a "salvational" ideology in Roman Mithraism is a piece of graffiti found in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum (a Mithraist "church" building, if you will), dated no earlier than 200 AD, that reads, "And us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood”… and the blood in question is that of the bull Mithra killed -- not his own. Next!
5. He performed miracles. Whoop-de-doo! How many ancient gods do you know who HAVEN’T got any magic powers?
6. Mithras sacrificed himself for world peace. Nope. Acharya arrives at this conclusion by twisting the bull Mithra killed to also represent himself. Acharya’s source on this is not any Mithraic scholar, but one Gwydion O'Hara, author of Sun Lore, and a high priest of the Wiccan Church of Canada! A real Mithraic scholar, Vermasaren, who has been very active in translating Mithraic inscriptions, has this to say: “neither any temples nor any inscriptions give any definite evidence to support the view of Mithras representing the very bull he slayed … and it was not for the sake of “world peace”. (And anyway, Jesus sacrificed himself for atonement from personal sin, not "world peace" either).
7. He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again. A complete dud. There is no reference in Mithraic literature to Mithras ever even dying – let alone being buried or resurrected.
8. His resurrection was celebrated every year. The only reference to Roman followers of Mithras celebrating his resurrection comes from Tertullian – a famous Christian writer and church leader from Tunisia in the third century. So once again, unless any earlier evidence ever emerges, one can safely assume that Roman Mithrasians were influenced by Christianity, not the other way around.
9. He was called "the Good Shepherd" and identified with the Lamb and the Lion.Nope. The Roman Mithras only ever had the symbol of the lion (in the same way that Athena’s symbolic animal was the owl, and Artemis’s was the deer). Romans chose the lion for Mithras because he was their sun god, and Leo was the House of the Sun in Babylonian astrology. And anyway, all the images of Mithras with a lion or two post-date Christianity by at least 100 years. And anyway, Jesus’ association with the lion comes from his membership of the tribe of Judah, which used the lion symbol even before Mithras made it into Persia!
10. He was considered the "Way, the Truth and the Light," and the "Logos," "Redeemer," "Savior" and "Messiah." All these titles are from sources that post-date the birth of Christ by at least 150 years (the Indian and Persian Mithras was always simply ‘the Mediator’: helping uphold treaties in India, and communicating between heaven and hell in Persia): and anyway Jesus’s titles are consciously taken from prophecies in the Old Testament, so unless Acharya is claiming that Judaism too was invented by the Romans…
11. The leader of the Mithraic services was called ‘Il Papa’ (the Pope) and lived on Vatican Hill, in Rome.Like Christians, Mithraic initiates called each other used familial terms such as “brother” and “father” (though unlike Christianity, women were not allowed to join the Mithraic religion – one of the main differences in fact… I’m surprised QI didn’t mention it). Thus, of course the leader would have been ‘Il Papa’ – ‘the Father’ – and what if he did live in Rome? It was the capital and biggest city in the empire – where the heck else would you want to set up your international headquarters? The USA and Canada both base their UK embassies in London – doesn’t mean one country was invented by ripping off the other… or does it? Bad example…
In conclusion, don’t believe everything you hear on humorous quiz shows, even on the BBC. [I suspect those opening histories on the host towns in Radio 4’s “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue” are somewhat oversimplified too…] And in Christmas of the year 4000, when both QI and Christianity are still going strong, but history is a bit fuzzy, look out for the BBC’s next attempt to discredit the Christian faith: “You see, there was this religion called the ‘Jedi Knights’ which was invented ‘Long long ago…’, so it pre-dates Christianity, and there was this chap called Obi-Wan Kenobi who wandered in the desert, and was a great travelling teacher and master, and rose from the dead... and Anakin Skywalker was born of a virgin and sacrificed himself to defeat evil… so you see, Christianity is complete plagiarism!”