Mithraism’s deep mark on Christianity


Mithraism’s links with Zoroastrianism come through Persia and through the common recognition ofa supreme being, Ahura Mazda who is all good, creator of the world and of all good things, including people. He is confronted by the Destructive Spirit, Anghra Mainyu who is the embodiment of evil and creator of all evil things. The best-known current link between Mithraism and Christianity is December 25, the sacred day of Mithras, which was chosen by Pope Julius I in 375 to be celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.

Mithras or Mithra was depicted as god of justice, war and the sun who offered salvation to his believers who could only be males. They became members of the cult after seven stages of initiation which included baptism in the blood of a bull and sharing a sacred meal. His name meant ‘contract’ and he rode though the air, driving a chariot drawn by four horses when he was operating as god of war.

Mithraism originated in Persia, that is, in modern-day Iran, which has recently suffered a devastating earthquake in the sacred city of Bam where over 30 000 people have been killed. The religion did not reach its peak however until it took over Rome at about the year 100. The exclusively male religion of Mithraism appealed especially to the Roman soldiers who carried it and its cultic secrets wherever the Roman Empire reached into the East, including Israel; into North Africa; and from Rome, North across Europe, across the English Channel and into Northern Britain. The seven degrees of initiation and sacred baptism in the saving blood of the bull conferred immortality on the soldier who was going into war.

When Christianity first appeared in Rome and elsewhere it must have appeared to be just another cult from the East. It promised, like many of the cults, salvation through a saviour who had died and risen and it practised similar rites of baptism and the sacred meal.

Mithraism was eventually outlawed in Rome and the Roman Empire, once the Emperors of Rome became Christians from the Fourth Century. It nevertheless left its marks on Christianity which became the State religion.

The worshippers of Mithras believed in a celestial heaven and infernal hell. They looked forward to a final day of judgement, complete with resurrection, and a final battle. Sundays were sacred and the birthday of the god was celebrated annually on December 25. After the accomplishment of the god’s earthly mission, it was said that there was a last supper with male companions before ascension to heaven and eternal protection from above.

Christianity has also preserved some of the outer trappings of the Mithraism which it criminalised, not only the timing of Christmas, the bishops’ adaptation of mitres as signs of office, the use of the term ‘Father’, and the wearing of cap, garment and ring plus the carrying of the shepherd’s staff.

One of the outstanding capabilities of Christianity has been, in the words of a noted scholar, the capacity “to absorb into its belief and practices those elements which it could take over without doing violence to its own essential faith ... and to adapt and transform the words and ideas of the world around it and make them vehicles for expression of its own theology. Much was taken over and baptised into the service of the Christian Faith”.

Christianity was able to deliver to its adherents and worshippers what earlier cults and religions could only promise and it could do it better.