It sounds like a plot that Dan Brown might have dreamed up: Christianity has nebulous but symbiotic roots in an underground pagan religion and the figure of Jesus himself was modelled on a pagan god worshipped by the Romans (Find out about what the Romans did in London by watching the Ancient World in London video).
The scenario sounds far-fetched and could even be shocking to Christians (if they thought it had any truth in it), but nonetheless, it’s a story that has been given some mileage, particularly among some historians and youtube broadcasters who persist in claiming that Mithras and Jesus were one and the same.
So what, if anything, has Jesus got in common with Mithras, the god and figurehead of a secret religion much-loved by the Roman army?
Well, for a start, the two cults were practised at the same time from the first to the fourth centuries AD. Mithraism (see the video below to find out more about London’s Temple of Mithras) became popular during the first century AD at the time when Christians faced persecution. Christians were blamed by the emperor Nero for starting the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and hundreds of them were consequently put to death. It’s not hard to imagine that this kind of behaviour might have driven them to practice in private, if not in secret. It wasn’t until Constantine the Great became emperor in the fourth century that Christianity went mainstream and was finally accepted as the official religion of the empire. Meanwhile, mithraism seems to have died out after the fourth century possibly because of its secret nature and because much of the Roman army would have been disbanded during the fifth century when the Western Roman empire fell.
The Religious Melting Pot
But mithraism and Christianity were just two of many sects and cults actively practised throughout the empire. As well as the pantheon of Rome’s pagan gods (many derived from Etruscan and Greek mythology), other religions from far-off provinces also took hold back in Rome, such as the cult of Isis and Serapis during the Flavian era. The Roman empire may have been a bit of a religious melting pot at that time, where some cults assumed some of the characteristics, rituals and imagery of others.
Mithraism never became the official imperial religion though. Rather, it was practised in secret in underground caves and cellars and no evidence has been found of any official doctrine or of its secret rituals. In fact, very little is known about mithraism at all. Most of the archaeological evidence we have comes from the mithraic temples dotted widely around the empire for example, there are two well-preserved mithraea in Rome, one in Ostia Antica and the Roman mithraeum in London. Statues and reliefs show the figure of Mithras usually dressed in Anatolian costume and wearing a Phrygian cap (a conical felt hat, often the symbol of freedom) standing behind a large, tired bull as he kills it with his sword or dagger. The scene is often set in a cave.
Just a Coincidence?
It seems at first glance that, apart from the fact that they were both practised from the first to the fourth centuries AD, there isn’t much that the Mysteries of Mithras, as the cult was called, and the sect of Jesus of Nazareth had in common. There are several connections though, including:
- Some scholars have suggested that Mithras was born on the 25 of December, although this is more speculation than fact. Of course that’s famously Jesus’s birth date too, but there is no evidence to prove that Jesus was born on that day either. It’s more likely that the celebration of these religious birthdays was assigned to a date that was already a winter festival celebrated by the pagan population at that time.
- It’s also been asserted that both Mithras and Jesus were born of virgins. This is slightly problematic because a more widely-accepted legend has it that Mithras was born as a fully grown adult and emerged from a rock (complete with Phrygian cap). If it’s possible for a rock to be virginal, then we could say that this is a similarity, but it seems to be scratching the bottom of the barrel a bit.
- Banqueting was also a central part of mithraism, and its temples had two rows of stone platforms on either side of an aisle, which could accommodate reclining diners. Eating implements, animal bones and cherry pips are often found in mithraea. This has attracted comparisons with the Last Supper, however, feasting is a part of most religions so it’s difficult to pinpoint this as something that connects Jesus and Mithras.
- There are examples of mithraea underneath Christian churches in Rome (beneath Santa Prisca and San Clemente) although elsewhere in the empire this is not so common. Is it possible that these underground mithraea were actually meeting places for persecuted Christians? And once it became safe to practise Christianity, they were free to build openly above ground? It’s hard to jump to this conclusion because mithraea aren’t often found beneath churches outside Rome.
- The idea of salvation also existed in mithraism. On the mithraeum underneath the church of Santa Prisca on the Aventine hill in Rome, there is some lettering that reads: et nos servasti . . . sanguine fuso (and you have saved us … in the blood that has been shed). This probably refers to the blood of Mithras’s bull. However, it’s not thought that Mithras’s ideal of salvation was the same as the salvation of Jesus in the afterlife.
In all, the arguments for saying that Jesus and Mithras might have been the same person are pretty weak. Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed as having been a living person while Mithras (born of the rock) is clearly a mythical god. There may be similarities in rituals, artworks and mythologies due to the fact that the two sects co-existed in the same culture for several centuries. This doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus and Mithras were somehow the same, but it’s easy to see how this idea is very intriguing for some. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Brown had started work on it already…