Among popular atheist stories is that of Mithra, which skeptics often pull out as their poster child for ancient "savior" mythologies. By extension, the claim is then made that the stories about Jesus are similarly works of fiction. So, is this really the case? Would you be surprised that the claims of similarities to Jesus have been greatly exaggerated?
It is often claimed that Mithra was:
- Born of a virgin, in a cave, attended by shepherds
- Had 12 disciples
- Died, buried in a tomb, and rose after 3 days
- Called the "Good Shepherd", "The Truth", "The Light"
- Identified as both the Lion and the Lamb
- Born on Dec. 25th
- Performed miracles
- "Sunday" worship
How well supported and documented are these claims? As it turns out, not well at all.
- There are no "Mithric scriptures" to consult. In fact, much of what we surmise about the Mithric religion comes from Christians who wrote about what they observed of their practices.
- According to what legends we do have, Mithra was born out of rock, not a virgin, as an adult.
- Nor did he die. He rode the Sun's chariot straight to heaven after killing the bull, so he couldn't have been resurrected either.
- Though he was supposedly born on Dec. 25th, Christians didn't even begin to celebrate this date until the 4th century, so it is irrelevant to the origin of Christianity.
- There is no evidence that he had 12 disciples or traveling companions. In fact it is suggested that he didn't even travel.
- If the Mithric holy day was Sunday, which is not well established, it had no bearing on the Jews who traditionally worshiped on the Sabbath (Saturday) and only started to meet on Sundays because that was the day the Jesus himself rose from the dead!
- While Mithra was a sun-god (the house of the sun was Leo in Babylonian astrology), there appears to be no evidence that he was called the "Good Shepherd" or directly called "The Lion". The lion may have been his totem, in the same way that the owl was Athena's. Jesus, as a descendant of the tribe of Judah, has a far older claim on that symbol. Other claims to these kind of titles have been similarly discredited.
More could be said, but clearly just because these claims have been repeatedly made on the web does not lend credence to them. Critics of Christianity would be better served finding a different line of attack, since this and others like it should be embarrassing to seriously promote. Simply offering alternative "possible" theories does not a case make, especially in the absence of evidence! To be valid, the alternatives need to be "reasonable" as well. In this case, the Myth of Mithra is truly a stretch as a plausible explanation for the historical accounts of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, since much of what we know about Mithra comes from images and inscriptions from 2nd century Rome, one wonders who borrowed from whom (if at all).
While reading the book, Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace, I ran across a section on Mithra that motivated this post (pp. 149-150). I highly recommend the book and most likely will be writing a full review on it in the near future. I borrowed liberally from some of the points he made in his book. I also found numerous source references concerning this topic that may be of interest in the following Mithra blog post.