The 5 myths of Christmas Day 4. In this series we’ve been looking at the 5 common myths about Christmas that pop up every year.
The First Three Myths
On day one we saw how early Christians calculated the date of Jesus’ birth. They believed that Jesus conceived, born and died on the 25th of different months. We also showed that the early Christians believed that Jesus died on the same day he was conceived. All this is in the writings of the early church fathers and dates to the early 200’s AD.
The next myth we looked at was that early Christians stole the date of Jesus’ birth from the Roman pagan cult of Sol Invictus. We discovered that there were many dates used for this celebration. December 25thonly appears well after the early Church fathers were on record believing in that date being Jesus’ birthday.
In our last post, we explored the idea that the celebration of Saturnalia was the source of our modern Christmas celebration. Skeptics will often asserted that this Roman festival predated Christmas. But as we saw, there is no evidence that the celebration took place on December 25th. We also noted that the evidence we have shows that the celebration was actually held on December 17th.
Today’s Myth: Jesus Is Just A Retelling Of The Persian God Mithras
Another popular challenge leveled at Christmas is that Jesus is just a retelling of other dying and rising god stories. Mithras is by far the most popular diety that people try and liken to Jesus. Popular legend tells that Mithras “was born of a virgin, in a cave on December 25th. His birth was attended by shepherds. He too was known as the “Good Shepherd”, “Way, truth and light” and “Messiah”. When he died, he was buried in a tomb and arose again after 3 days.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? This is either an extraordinary coincidence, or someone copied the story! The early Christians must have been fools to fall for such a trick! How did they get away with such blatant plagiarism?
Well, the truth is, they weren’t copying anything. Despite what you may see on fake documentaries like “Zeitgeist” and “Religulous”, these claims about Mithras are mostly false. But to understand Mithras, we have to make a couple of distinctions.
Two Gods In One
As we’ve seen in our previous myths, the timing of things is critical. You can’t copy from someone if their story doesn’t exist yet. And in the case of Mithras, skeptics use a bit of slight of hand to try and make their case look stronger that it actually is.
There are actually two Mithras legends. The first stems from the area of Persia in the 700’s B.C. There are no written accounts of Mithras from this time. The only thing we have to go on is carvings and murals with no description. This makes any drawing any conclusions from them extremely difficult. We simply don’t know for sure what the pictures are depicting.
The second time Mithras pops up is as a Roman cult religion. We do have written accounts of what this cult believed about Mithras, but the writings also come much later in history, well after Christianity had established itself in Rome.
It needs to be understood that these two traditions are not one continuous religious tradition. The worship of Mithras ceased in Persia, and was picked up several centuries later by the Romans. Skeptics have tried to link the two together and connect them. But the truth is there is simply no evidence that the two are linked.
Dispelling The Myths
But are the claims about Mithras even true? Most of them aren’t. For instance, Mithras wasn’t born of a virgin. He was born out of solid rock, leaving a hole in the side of a mountain. His birth was attended by shepherds, but in an interesting twist, the shepherds appear before any humans were supposed to exist in the world. Adding to the difficulty is that the accounts that include shepherds appear over 100 years after the New Testament documents were in circulation. The chances are actually much greater that Mithraic cults stole the story of Jesus than the other way around.
But what of the claims that Mithras was called the good shepherd and the Way, the truth and the life? No evidence in any source that refers to Mithras as the good shepherd. There is also no tradition of Mithras being called the way, the truth and the light.
Rising From The Dead?
Well, surely Mithras rose from the dead on the third day after being buried, right? Sorry, this one is false as well. There is no mention of Mithras ever dying. Tertullian did record that the Roman Mithraic cult would re-enact resurrection scenes, but this was well after the New Testament times. The early Christians could not have stolen the idea from them.
This all leaves us with little to support the idea that Jesus was just a copy of Mithras. Ronald Nash, an expert in Mystery religions of the near east has this to say on the subject:
“Allegations of an early Christian dependence on Mithraism have been rejected on many grounds. Mithraism had no concept of the death and resurrection of its god and no place for any concept of rebirth – at least during its early stages…. During the early stages of the cult, the notion of rebirth would have been foreign to its basic outlook…. Moreover, Mithraism was basically a military cult. Therefore, one must be skeptical about suggestions that it appealed to nonmilitary people like the early Christians.”
4 Down, 1 To Go
Having debunked our first 4 myths about Christmas and Jesus, we’ll look at our final myth in the next post. The fifth day of Christmas myths is the idea that Jesus was a retelling of the Egyptian god Horus. But before we go, I’d like to share with you my favorite response to the Mithras legend from the people at Lutheran Satire. Enjoy!
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For more information about the Mithraic cult, you can check out these resouces:
The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World) by David Ulansey (Oxford University Press, 1989),
Mithras, the Secret God by M. J. Vermaseren (Barnes and Noble Publishers, 1963),
Mithraic Studies (Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies – 2 Volumes) edited by John R Hinnells (Manchester University Press, 1975).