Was Christianity Borrowed from Mithraism?
|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2002|
|Some contemporary critics of Christianity argue that this religion is not based in divine revelation but was borrowed from mystery religions, such as Mithraism. But an honest reading of the New Testament data shows that Paul did not teach a new religion or draw on existing mythology. Dr. Geisler lays out the argument for us.|
(from Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Book House, 1999)
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Pagan Source Theory
- 3 Evaluation
- 3.1 Jesus and the Origin of Paul’s Religion
- 3.2 Both taught that Christianity fulfilled Judaism
- 3.3 Christianity taught that humans are sinful
- 3.4 Christianity taught that blood atonement is necessary
- 3.5 Christianity emphasized Christ’s resurrection
- 3.6 Christianity taught salvation is by grace through faith
- 3.7 Origin of the Trinity
- 4 Mithraism and Christianity
- 5 Conclusion
- 6 notes
Some contemporary critics of Christianity argue that this religion is not based in divine revelation but was borrowed from mystery religions, such as Mithraism. Muslim author Yousuf Saleem Chishti attributes such doctrines as the deity of Christ and the atonement to the pagan teachings of the Apostle Paul and the doctrine of the Trinity to pagan formulations of the church Fathers.
Pagan Source Theory
Chishti attempts to demonstrate a vast influence of mystery religions on Christianity, stating, “The Christian doctrine of atonement was greatly coloured by the influence of the mystery religions, especially Mithraism, which had its own son of God and virgin Mother, and crucifixion and resurrection after expiating for the sins of mankind and finally his ascension to the 7th heaven.” He adds, “If you study the teachings of Mithraism side by side with that of Christianity, you are sure to be amazed at the close affinity which is visible between them, so much so that many critics are constrained to conclude that Christianity is the facsimile or the second edition of Mithraism” (Chishti, 87).
Chishti lists some similarities between Christ and Mithra: Mithra was considered the son of God, he was a savior, he was born of a virgin, he had twelve disciples, he was crucified, he rose from the grave the third day, he atoned for the sins of humankind, and he returned to his father in heaven (ibid., 87-88).
An honest reading of the New Testament data shows that Paul did not teach a new religion or draw on existing mythology. The foundation stones for Christianity are patently taken from the Old Testament, Judaism generally, and the life of a historical figure named Jesus.
Jesus and the Origin of Paul’s Religion
A careful study of Epistles and Gospels reveals that the source of Paul’s teachings on salvation was the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus. A simple comparison of both Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings will demonstrate the point.
Both taught that Christianity fulfilled Judaism
Paul, similar to Jesus, taught that Christianity was a fulfillment of Judaism. Jesus declared: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Jesus added, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:1617).
The Christ of Paul and Jesus is utterly at home in Judaism and foreign to the mystery cults. Paul wrote to the Romans: “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). He added in Colossians, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:16-17).
Christianity taught that humans are sinful
Both Paul and Jesus taught that human beings are sinners. Jesus declared: “I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them” (Mark 3:28). He added in John, “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Paul declared that all human beings are sinful, insisting that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He added in Ephesians, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Indeed, part of the very definition of the Gospel was that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).
Christianity taught that blood atonement is necessary
Both Jesus and Paul insisted that the shed blood of Christ was necessary as an atonement for our sins. Jesus proclaimed: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He added at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
Paul is just as emphatic. He affirmed that “In him [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Eph. 1:7). In Romans he added, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). Referring back to the Old Testament Passover, he said, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).
Christianity emphasized Christ’s resurrection
Jesus and Paul also taught that the death and burial of Jesus was completed by his bodily resurrection. Jesus told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:46). Jesus challenged, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days…. But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:19, 21).
After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken (John 2:22; cf. 20:25-29).
The apostle Paul also stressed the need of the resurrection for salvation. To the Romans he wrote: “He [Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Indeed, Paul insisted that belief in the resurrection was essential to salvation, writing, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Christianity taught salvation is by grace through faith
Jesus affirmed that every person needs God’s grace. Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:25-26). All through the Gospel of John Jesus presented only one way to obtain God’s gracious salvation: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (3:36; cf. 3:16; 5:24; Mark 1:15).
Paul taught salvation by grace through faith, affirming, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9; cf. Titus 3:5-7). He added to the Romans, “To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (4:5).
A comparison of the teachings of Jesus and Paul on salvation reveals clearly that there is no basis for speculating on any source of Paul’s teachings other than that of Jesus. Christianity was rooted in Judaism, not in Mithraism. Indeed, Paul’s message of the gospel was both checked and approved by the original apostles (Gal. 1-2), demonstrating official recognition that his message was not opposed to that of Jesus (see Habermas, 67-72). The charge that Paul corrupted Jesus’ original message was long ago answered by J. Gresham Machen in his classic work, The Origin of Paul’s Religion and F. F. Bruce, Paul and Jesus.
Origin of the Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity does not have a pagan origin. Pagan religions were polytheistic and pantheistic, but trinitarians are monotheists. Trinitarians are not tritheists who believe in three separate gods; they are monotheists who believe in one God manifested in three distinct persons.
Though the term Trinity or its specific formulation does not appear in the Bible, it faithfully expresses all the biblical data. An accurate understanding of the historical and theological development of this doctrine amply illustrates that it was exactly because of the dangers of paganism that the Council of Nicea formulated the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. For a brief treatment of the history of this doctrine see E. Calvin Beisner, God in Three Persons. Two classics in this field are G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, and J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines.
Mithraism and Christianity
From the foregoing it is evident that Judaism and the teachings of Jesus were the origin of Christianity. It is equally clear that Mithraism was not. Chishti’s descriptions of this religion are baseless. In fact he gives no reference for the similarities he alleges.
Unlike Christianity, Mithraism is based in myth. Ronald Nash, the author of Christianity and the Hellenistic World, writes:
- We do know that Mithraism, like its mystery competitors, had a basic myth. Mithra was supposedly born when he emerged from a rock; he was carrying a knife and torch and wearing a Phrygian cap. He battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation. Mithra slew the bull, which then became the ground of life for the human race. [Nash, 144]
Christianity affirms the physical death and bodily resurrection of Christ. Mithraism, like other pagan religions, has no bodily resurrection. The Greek writer Aeschylus sums up the Greek view, “When the earth has drunk up a man’s blood, once he is dead, there is no resurrection.” He uses the same Greek word for “resurrection,” anastasis, that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 15 (Aeschylus, Eumenides, 647). Nash notes:
- 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. [ibid.]
Mithraism flowered after Christianity, not before, so Christianity could not have copied from Mithraism. The timing is all wrong to have influenced the development of first-century Christianity (ibid., 147).
All the allegations of Christian dependence on Gnostic or mystery religions have been rejected by the scholars in biblical and classical studies (ibid., 119). The historic character of Christianity and the early date of the New Testament documents did not allow enough time for mythological developments. And there is a complete lack of early historical evidence to support such ideas. The British scholar Norman Anderson explains:
The basic difference between Christianity and the mysteries is the historic basis of the one and the mythological character of the others. The deities of the mysteries were no more than “nebulous figures of an imaginary past,” while the Christ whom the apostolic kerygma proclaimed had lived and died only a few years before the first New Testament documents were written. Even when the apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians the majority of some five hundred witnesses to the resurrection were still alive. [Anderson, 52-53]
N. Anderson, Christianity and World Religions
E. C. Beisner, God in Three Persons
F. F. Bruce, Paul and Jesus
Y. S. Chishti, What Is Christianity?
G. Habermas, The Verdict of History
J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines
J. G. Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion
R. Nash, Christianity and the Hellenistic World
G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought
H. Ridderbos, Paul and Jesus