The Mithraic Cult And Christian Origins -- By: Allan Di Donato

Journal: Christian Apologetics Journal
Volume: CAJ 06:1 (Spring 2007)
Article: The Mithraic Cult And Christian Origins
Author: Allan Di Donato

The Mithraic Cult And Christian Origins

Allan Di Donato

Allan Di Donato is a candidate for the Master of Arts in Apologetics degree at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He has an M.A. in Classics from the University at Albany and is an instructor of Humanities at Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC.

One of the most challenging objections to the historicity of the New Testament documents and the uniqueness of first century Christianity is the accusation of wholesale borrowing from earlier pagan sources. Such accusations are common in the fields of comparative religion and mythology. Parallels have been drawn between the story of Jesus and other religious leaders, heroes, and pagan dying and rising gods. Though these parallels are found in stories from various cultures going back several millennia before the Christian era, the most prevalent challenge comes from what are known as the mystery religions or mystery cults. From among these numerous cults, Mithras, or Mithraism, presents the greatest challenge and most striking parallels.

The Issue of Christian Barrowing

To what extent is Christianity indebted to the cult of Mithras? Mythologists have long emphasized the idea that Mithraism and Christianity are alike in both doctrine and rite.1 Accusations of Christian borrowing from Mithraism have focused on several areas of similarity: parallels in myth, in ritual, and in message. Though these parallels have been the subject of intense study by modern scholars for just over a century, they did not go unrecognized in the ancient world. Pagan writers seized upon evidence in the mysteries to argue against Christianity, and early Christian apologists were not hesitant to admit that similarity did indeed exist. However, the existence of similarity is insufficient proof of Christian borrowing. A proper investigation must go beyond the parallels on the surface, and deal with issues often overlooked.

Any credible argument for Christianity’s dependence on Mithraism would hinge on Mithraism’s early development in the east. This, however, would not, in and of itself, prove such a position. Arguments based purely on chronology face the danger of committing the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy. Early development cannot support claims of dependence without proof of a causal connection. On the other hand, if chronological priority is not on the side of Mithraism, the argument has no hope of success.

To make a substantial claim, one must not only prove that Mithraism predates Christianity, but also that (1) minimally, their adherents had direct contac...

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