Mithraism: Formidable Rival to Early Christianity
During the first two centuries of the Christian era, two competing religions that shared many similarities flourished in the Greco-Roman world: Christianity and Mithraism. For a time, the followers of Mithra outnumbered those of Christ, and it was not until the third century AD that Christianity clearly emerged as the dominant religion of the declining Roman empire.
Mithraism had its origins in the Zoroastrian religion of the ancient Aryan peoples of Persia (Iran) and India, which honored Mithra as a god. By the fifth century BC, Mithra had become the principal Persian deity. Closely associated with the sun, he was worshiped as the god of light and wisdom.
After entering the Roman world around the year 70 BC, the cult of Mithra quickly gained adherents. By the second century it had grown to be one of the great religions of the Roman empire, more widespread than Christianity. As late as 307 AD, the Emperor Diocletian consecrated a temple on the Danube River to Mithra, “Protector of the Empire.”
Mithra in a typical representation, shown slaying the sacred bull from whose body came all the good things of earth.
Because Mithra (or Mithras in Latin and Greek) denounced social injustice and preached the brotherhood of man, Mithraism found widespread acceptance among slaves, the poor and the exploited. Many of its downtrodden devotees were willing to die for their faith.
The religion was also widespread in the mercantile class and, because Mithra taught the necessity of stable government, among civil servants. Emphasizing courage and military virtues, Mithraism had a particularly strong following in the Roman army, and soldiers regarded Mithra as the ideal comrade and fighter.
While its devotees included a number of Roman emperors and many senators, Mithraism remained most popular among the lower classes and among people of Semitic, “Syrian,” and Near Eastern origin.
A fundamental feature of Mithraism was the dualistic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Mithra, who gave to his devotees hope of blessed immortality, represented the fearless antagonist of the powers of darkness. A central article of faith was the story of Mithra’s capture and sacrifice of a sacred bull, from whose body sprang all the good things of the earth.
Mithraism was a demanding religion, which its followers took very seriously. Devotees were held to rigorous moral and ethical standards. Fasting and continence were strongly encouraged. Like the “soldier” of Christ, the “soldier” of Mithras regarded himself as a warrior on the side of good against evil. Its elaborate rites and ceremonies, which were restricted to men, took place in secret in impressive temples called Mithraeums, hundreds of which were established in Italy, Germany, Britain, France, Spain and northern Africa.
Reflecting common Oriental origins, Christianity and Mithraism shared many similarities in both doctrine and ritual. The followers of each creed shared belief in a great flood and a sacred ark, atoning sacrifice, immortality of the soul, a last judgment, the resurrection of the flesh, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. In each religion, priests presided over rituals that made use of bells, candles and holy water. Devotees of Mithra took part in a sacred communion banquet of bread and water (and possibly wine) — a ceremony that paralleled the Christian Eucharist.
In The Story of Christian Origins (p. 184), Dr. Martin Larson compares the two great religions:
- Each taught almost identical doctrines concerning heaven and hell, the last judgment, and the immortality of the soul.
- Each practiced the same sacraments, those of baptism and communion of bread and wine.
- Regeneration through the second birth was a basic doctrine of both, and each had the same conception concerning the inter-relationship of their members — that all were mystical brethren.
- Each believed that its founder was mediator between God and man, that through him alone was salvation possible, and that he would be the final judge of all.
- Each taught the doctrine of primitive revelation.
- Each emphasized the constant warfare between good and evil, required abstinence and self-control, and accorded the highest honor to celibacy.
Even after they had become active competitors, Larson goes on to note, Christianity borrowed significant elements from Mithraism. In time, Christians made Sunday, which the apostolic church had never observed but which had always been sacred to the Mithraists, their holy day. Still later, they made the 25th of December, which had always been celebrated as the birthday of Mithra, the birthday of their Christ.
Mithraism was not able to compete successfully with Christianity, and it declined rapidly in the late third century AD. Why?
One major factor, it seems, was its attitude towards women. With its emphasis on masculine virtues, and with participation in its ceremonies restricted to men, Mithraism held little appeal for women, who were regarded as the source of dangerous erotic desire. Another, perhaps decisive reason was that, unlike Christianity, the followers of Mithra were not able to point to a historical god-man savior. Mithra was an obviously mythical figure.
As Christians gained greater power during the third century, they ruthlessly persecuted the devotees of Mithra (along with the followers of all other competing creeds), and by the fourth century Mithraism had all but entirely disappeared.— M. W.
From The Journal of Historical Review, March/April 1993 (Vol. 13, No. 2), page 34.