The Pagan Shadow of Christ?
By Professor Roger Beck
Last updated 2011-02-17
Suppose that we view the Roman empire of the first four centuries AD as a market in which assorted religions competed for business. In business, enterprising firms raid each other for useful ideas and marketing strategies.
Did the upstart Christian firm borrow from pagan salesmanship, or vice versa, or was there a two-way flow of borrowings? Or did the rival firms not compete, but rather follow different strategies independently?
This article will survey the field, gradually narrowing the focus to the most plausible candidate for a source of pagan influence on Christianity (or vice versa) — Mithraism, or, as its contemporaries called this religious cult – the ‘Mysteries of Mithras’.
The prime method of keeping the gods ‘onside’ was blood sacrifice.
We’ll begin with the big picture, retaining the metaphor of businesses competing for custom. We could see competing pagan firms as the innumerable cults of the gods and goddesses across the empire.
But in fact almost all those cults were not in competition at all. They are better seen as complementary enterprises – the locally controlled branches of a multi-national.
The firm’s function was twofold: (1) to secure and retain the goodwill of the gods and thereby the wellbeing of the empire and its communities; and (2) to preserve the socio-political order through appropriate activities, principally the festivities of the local religious calendars.
The prime method of getting (and keeping) the gods ‘onside’ was blood sacrifice. The glue which kept each level of society in its proper place was the system by which imperial and local élites fed and entertained the masses (the famous ‘bread and circuses’) in return for respect and acquiescence in the divinely sanctioned order of things.
It is not difficult to see how emperor-worship, a franchise for which rival cities competed avidly, fits into this picture: the emperor’s powers of benefaction were of an order that seemed to eclipse those of mere mortals.
In addition to the cult of a particular god in a particular temple in a particular city, the firm also licensed outlets for specialised services and products, notably: (a) oracles to foretell the future and explain the present, and (b) healing shrines, which offered the best that antiquity had to offer in human as well as divine medicine.
Brand loyalty was assumed, not enforced. In any case the religion business made few demands on the ordinary citizens of Rome and the communities of her empire. Opting in was not a deliberate choice, and opting out was not an option.
Only national groups were allowed a distinct religion. Rome greatly respected institutions which could legitimately present themselves as ‘traditional’ and ‘ancestral’, and thus as agents of a sound and conservative status quo.
Judaism effectively withdrew from the arena of religious competition.
Judaism was just such an ancestral religion. It was licensed not only in its homeland but in the diaspora communities elsewhere in the empire. In the homeland, Judaism was focused on the cult of Jahweh in the Temple in Jerusalem, a cult of blood sacrifice of a type familiar to the Romans, peculiar only in its exclusive monotheism.
In 70 AD Judaism underwent a great sea change: with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD at the climax of the first rebellion, the sacrificial cult ended. Judaism as we know it today is the descendant of the religion of the synagogues of the diaspora and of Palestine after the second rebellion (ended 135 AD).
Proselytizing was then strictly forbidden, so Judaism effectively withdrew from the arena of religious competition.
By elimination this leaves us with a group of religions known as the ‘mystery cults’. The Greek word mystêrion denotes initiation: a ‘mystery’ is something into which you are initiated.
Baptism initiates you into the Christian mystery, for example; and yes, early Christianity both can and should be classified with the pagan mystery cults.
Fellowship in a bleak world, where pain and poverty are the norms, is a precious commodity.
Initiation brings you into a relationship with the god or gods of the cult. Much as Christian initiation brings you into a relationship with Jesus, the Christ, so initiation into the pagan mysteries brings you into a relationship with ‘Egyptian’ Isis, or ‘Persian’ Mithras, or home-grown Dionysus-Bacchus, or one or other of the several Great Mother goddesses and their junior consorts (Cybele and Attis for example).
If asked to define the essence of the ‘relationship’ in a single word most initiates would probably reply with the Greek or Latin words (sôtêria, salus) meaning the state of being ‘safe and sound’, of being ‘saved’.
‘Salvation’ is also a fair translation, provided we remember that for most pagan initiates it would mean physical and material protection, health and well-being vouchsafed by the god, with or without the bonus of spiritual rescue now and in the hereafter.
By initiation into a mystery you enter a community of fellow initiates. Now fellowship in a bleak world, where pain and poverty are the norms, is a precious commodity. In market terms, it enhances a firm’s competitiveness.
Apart from Judaism, only two religious ‘firms’ in antiquity developed this feature of community life to the full: Christianity and Mithraism.
Mithraism: a rival?
The Mithraists were worshippers of the ‘Unconquered Sun God Mithras’, as the inscriptions call him. We know a good deal about them because archaeology has disinterred many meeting places together with numerous artifacts and representations of the cult myth, mostly in the form of relief sculpture.
From this evidence we know that the cult was the last of the important mystery cults to evolve and that it thrived in the second and third centuries AD and waned in the fourth as élite patronage was gradually transferred to Christianity.
The cult was limited to men (not a good strategy for maximising market share), popular with the military (hence over-represented in the frontier provinces), with a large constituency in the city of Rome and its port Ostia.
It consisted overwhelmingly of those a notch above the absolutely poor, a religion of the reputable but not of the élite. While Christianity developed hierarchically and strove to form and maintain a single Church – at least in principle – Mithraism remained comfortably local.
We know of no Mithraic authority higher than the ‘Father’ presiding over his group of thirty or so brother initiates: no Mithraic bishops or pope, and no orthodoxy to define and squabble about.
Typically, the Mithraic meeting place was a medium-sized room, furnished with solid platforms on the longer walls. On these ‘side-benches’ the initiates reclined for the cult meal, which was their principal ceremony.
This cult meal was both an actual feast and a ritual memorial, unlike the Christian eucharist which developed solely into a sacramental ritual. In the Eucharistic sacrament, Christians memorialise Christ’s self-sacrifice by partaking of Christ’s body and blood in the form of bread and wine.
The Mithraists in their cult meal memorialised the feast which Mithras and the Sun shared as they reclined on the hide of the bull sacrificed by Mithras in the sacred story. One needs only add, because of rampant misinformation, that the actual killing of a bull played no part in Mithraic ritual.
The discovery 30 years ago of a Mithraic pottery vessel with scenes of ritual moulded on its sides allows another significant comparison.
One of the seven persons represented is a Mithraic ‘father’ aiming an arrow at the initiate – a much smaller, cowering, naked figure. From painted scenes and references elsewhere we know that initiation by terror was normal in Mithraism.
What is exciting about this newly discovered scene is that the ‘father’, who is dressed like Mithras himself, initiates by re-enacting one of the god’s feats, the ‘water miracle’, in which Mithras fires an arrow at a rock face and miraculously elicits water. The element of water reminds one of the Christian initiation, the water of baptism.
We have two striking instances of the analogous development of ritual and sacramental symbolism.
So here we have two striking instances of the analogous development of ritual and sacramental symbolism occurring at approximately the same time in two different religions growing up within imperial Rome.
There were, however, other features of Mithraism which afford no comparison with Christianity: an exotic structure of grades of initiation within individual communities:
‘Raven’ to ‘Nymphus’ (untranslatable) to ‘Soldier’ to ‘Lion’ to ‘Persian’ to ‘Sun-Runner’ to ‘Father’; the use of astral symbolism as an esoteric language; initiation into what a contemporary source described as a ‘mystery of the soul’s descent and return’ into and out of life on earth; calling their meeting places ‘caves’ — our term ‘Mithraeum’ is modern — because a cave is an ‘image of the universe’ and thus an appropriate venue for symbolic soul-travel; the use of interior rooms and actual caves (where available) as Mithraea to reinforce the point that as a symbolic universe a Mithraeum is an inside without an outside; the furnishing of the Mithraic ‘cave’ with ‘symbols of the climes and elements of the universe’ to match the microcosm with the macrocosm and so enable the mystery.
It is seldom possible in history to prove a negative. One cannot say definitively that Mithraism did not influence Christianity — or Christianity Mithraism.
Readers must judge for themselves whether the similarities are sufficient to suggest influence one way or the other, but as yet no medium of transfer has been identified.
No Mithraist mentioned Christianity (unsurprising given the paucity of the written record) and although a few Christian authors did refer slightingly to Mithraism, none spoke of it as a serious competitor, let alone as the source of serious ideas.
Find out more
Religions of Rome (Vol. 1: A History; Vol. 2: A Sourcebook) by Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Ancient Mystery Cults by Walter Burkert (Harvard University Press, 1987)
The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun by Roger Beck, (Oxford University Press, 2006)
The Roman Cult of Mithras by Manfred Clauss, translated by Richard Gordon (Edinburgh University Press, 2000)
The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan, translated by Antonia Nevill (Blackwell Publishers)
The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark (Harper Collins, 1997)
Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity by Leif E. Vaage (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006)
About the author
Professor Roger Beck is an emeritus professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. As well as Greek and Roman religion and the mystery cults, his research interests include the ancient novel and ancient astrology. His book, A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, will be released this autumn by Blackwell Publishing.