Monday, January 30, 2006

Christianity, Saul, Paul, and Mithraism

A comment on Hunter Baker's post "Justice v. The Resurrection" has proposed a counterargument based on two easily refuted propositions. The first, a hypothesized scenario in which Paul conspires with a variety of people to fake the resurrection, is absurd because Saul was in fact one of the most prominent opponents and persecutors of Christianity after the Crucifixion. It was not until Saul met the resurrected Jesus while on the road to Damascus that Saul, now known as Paul, converted to Christianity. No one at the time ever claimed that Paul supported Christ until well after the latter's death. Hence he could not have been any part of a conspiracy to deify Jesus Christ.

The second proposition, that the story of Christ was based on Mithraism, is equally wrong. The Catholic Encyclopedia makes the following points, which are easily confirmed by even the most superficial research into Mithraism:

"A similarity between Mithra and Christ struck even early observers, such as Justin, Tertullian, and other Fathers, and in recent times has been urged to prove that Christianity is but an adaptation of Mithraism, or at most the outcome of the same religious ideas and aspirations (e.g. Robertson, "Pagan Christs", 1903). Against this erroneous and unscientific procedure, which is not endorsed by the greatest living authority on Mithraism, the following considerations must be brought forward. (1) Our knowledge regarding Mithraism is very imperfect; some 600 brief inscriptions, mostly dedicatory, some 300 often fragmentary, exiguous, almost identical monuments, a few casual references in the Fathers or Acts of the Martyrs, and a brief polemic against Mithraism which the Armenian Eznig about 450 probably copied from Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) who lived when Mithraism was almost a thing of the past -- these are our only sources, unless we include the Avesta in which Mithra is indeed mentioned, but which cannot be an authority for Roman Mithraism with which Christianity is compared. Our knowledge is mostly ingenious guess-work; of the real inner working of Mithraism and the sense in which it was understood by those who professed it at the advent of Christianity, we know nothing. (2) Some apparent similarities exist; but in a number of details it is quite probable that Mithraism was the borrower from Christianity. Tertullian about 200 could say: "hesterni sumus et omnia vestra implevimus" ("we are but of yesterday, yet your whole world is full of us"). It is not unnatural to suppose that a religion which filled the whole world, should have been copied at least in some details by another religion which was quite popular during the third century. Moreover the resemblances pointed out are superficial and external. Similarity in words and names is nothing; it is the sense that matters. During these centuries Christianity was coining its own technical terms, and naturally took names, terms, and expressions current in that day; and so did Mithraism. But under identical terms each system thought its own thoughts. Mithra is called a mediator; and so is Christ; but Mithra originally only in a cosmogonic or astronomical sense; Christ, being God and man, is by nature the Mediator between God and man. And so in similar instances. Mithraism had a Eucharist, but the idea of a sacred banquet is as old as the human race and existed at all ages and amongst all peoples. Mithra saved the world by sacrificing a bull; Christ by sacrificing Himself. It is hardly possible to conceive a more radical difference than that between Mithra taurochtonos and Christ crucified. Christ was born of a Virgin; there is nothing to prove that the same was believed of Mithra born from the rock. Christ was born in a cave; and Mithraists worshipped in a cave, but Mithra was born under a tree near a river. Much as been made of the presence of adoring shepherds; but their existence on sculptures has not been proven, and considering that man had not yet appeared, it is an anachronism to suppose their presence. (3) Christ was an historical personage, recently born in a well known town of Judea, and crucified under a Roman governor, whose name figured in the ordinary official lists. Mithra was an abstraction, a personification not even of the sun but of the diffused daylight; his incarnation, if such it may be called, was supposed to have happened before the creation of the human race, before all history. The small Mithraic congregations were like masonic lodges for a few and for men only and even those mostly of one class, the military; a religion that excludes the half of the human race bears no comparison to the religion of Christ. Mithraism was all comprehensive and tolerant of every other cult, the Pater Patrum himself was an adept in a number of other religions; Christianity was essential[ly] exclusive, condemning every other religion in the world, alone and unique in its majesty."

23 comments:

JC said...

Ah yes.... well I said at least some of that in a reply to the other thread. I hadn't heard a lot about Mithra before.

S. T. Karnick said...

Yes, I see that you were probably composing your comment as mine was posted. Thanks for your comments.

Kathy Hutchins said...

I think it's also worth noting that the high point of the "Christianity = tarted up Mithraism" theorizing was the first part of the 20th century, the exact same time that the German "demythologizing" theologians dominated the discussions of the historicity of the Resurrection. The same advances in historical research that sank Bultmann sank this Mithriac nonsense as well.

Tlaloc said...

Karnick I think you are taking my use of Paul in the hypothetical a little too literally. The point is not that Paul faked it but that someone could have. I have no idea if they did, nor who it was if they did. But since the "evidence" of ressurection works just as well as evidence of fraud it is really not evidence of either.

Secondly in regard to Mithras:
You claim that Mithras worship may have borrowed from Christianity which would be possibly but is incredibly unlikley given the following two facts:

1) Mithras predates Christianity by about two centuries.
2) Mithras worship was widespread and very powerful seeing as it was predominate amongsth the Roman military forces. Meanwhile Christianity was a small no name cult that was persecuted by the powerful.

Given that it's real obvious who borrowed from whom. Denial not withstanding.

JC said...

Karnick I think you are taking my use of Paul in the hypothetical a little too literally. The point is not that Paul faked it but that someone could have.
Not if Paul is the witness in question. If anyone started a conspiracy, it must have included the disciples and Paul---which begs the original question of why and how that could happen.

Tlaloc said...

"Not if Paul is the witness in question. If anyone started a conspiracy, it must have included the disciples and Paul---which begs the original question of why and how that could happen."

Not really, you are talking about events two thousand years ago. Whether Paul really saw Christ after the death is an open question. Did he see it or has his account been altered? Was he mistaken? Was he drunk?

There are a million different ways that you can get the story to look the same two thousand years later.

JC said...

From the other thread:
I said it already to Hunter but let me reinforce it: You have dedicated your life to a religion which is persecuted and the leader just died. Do you have a vested interest in keeping the faith going? Hell yes. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven afterall. The leader of a persecuted living faith still gets perks. The follower of a persecuted dead faith gets nothing.
Christians weren't persecuted until Christ died etc. Much of the persecution centered around people claiming to have seen the risen Christ.
Exactly what perks are you referring to? Being jailed, flogged, and/or stoned to death? And how exactly is the faith "living" if you know for a fact it is a complete lie?
Finally, the persecution would stop if a Christian ever recanted, so if the disciples were lying, they frequently faced strong incentives to come clean and move on with their lives.

JC said...

Did he see it or has his account been altered? Was he mistaken? Was he drunk?
I think it's pretty clear that he was confident in what he saw, given that he made a 180 turn from persecuting Christians to actively evangelizing all over the ancient world, and endured the same persecutions. Textually, the New Testament is by far the most reliable document from the ancient world.

It seems unlikely that a "mistake" or drunken hallucination would produce such a change and inspire such self-confidence. It seems still more unlikely that all of the resurrection witnesses would experience the same mistakes and drunken hallucinations. Sure, it's an open question whether he saw the risen Christ or not, but it is definitely not an open question that he and many others stubbornly claimed to have seen the risen Christ even when faced with great incentives to declare otherwise.

So we're back to the massive conspiracy theory again.

Tlaloc said...

"Exactly what perks are you referring to? Being jailed, flogged, and/or stoned to death?"

Gosh... money, power, attention. Notice that the faith didn't keep the idea of poverty around for very long. That went out the window about the same time Christ went up on the cross.


"And how exactly is the faith "living" if you know for a fact it is a complete lie?"

Well first of all they may not have considered it a complete lie, even assuming there was an out and out conspiracy. They may have thought they were doing what they could to preserve his teachings because they figured that was the lesser evil. Or maybe not, maybe they were just trying to recoup their losses. Or maybe... well I'll stop there because as I said there are a million different ways it could have gone down.

A faith is living, in the sense that I mean it, if it still has adherents who are propagating the faith successfully. Whether the faith is based on the truth is a totally different matter.

Faith is a product, whether people are buying it has nothing to do with whether it does what you claim.



"Finally, the persecution would stop if a Christian ever recanted"

A convenient claim but one I find very hard to swallow. People tend to be a bit more "grudge-y" about their religious persecutions.

Matt Huisman said...

So we're back to the massive conspiracy theory again.

Exactly. The most pathetically orchestrated conspiracy of all time. Can't get their stories straight, can't avoid persecution, can't find a way to make a few bucks during the whole thing.

What a bunch of morons. Seriously, if you're making the whole thing up - can't you accomplish some of the above?

JC said...

Notice that the faith didn't keep the idea of poverty around for very long. That went out the window about the same time Christ went up on the cross.
Nonsense. The early church placed a great emphasis on helping the poor.

Well first of all they may not have considered it a complete lie, even assuming there was an out and out conspiracy.
So they conspired to deceive a huge number of people about a very important event with eternal consequences, while simultaneously telling themselves that they weren't really lying, the attention was nice, and that it was all for the greater good?


"Finally, the persecution would stop if a Christian ever recanted." A convenient claim but one I find very hard to swallow.
Non-Christian historians (Josephus, I think, is one) have documented the persecution of Christians, their refusal to recant, and subsequent execution.



Then again, maybe every ancient historian was in on the conspiracy. Perhaps the early disciples recruited some rich donors and set up an endowment with a board of evil trustees, in order to perpetually bribe anyone who looked like he might write something that would survive for a few thousand years.
(Sorry for the sarcasm; I think this discussion is beginning to cross the line of sanity.)

Tlaloc said...

"Nonsense. The early church placed a great emphasis on helping the poor."

There is a huge difference between helping the poor and being poor yourself.



"So they conspired to deceive a huge number of people about a very important event with eternal consequences, while simultaneously telling themselves that they weren't really lying, the attention was nice, and that it was all for the greater good?"

Possibly. Again I point you toward Young Earth Creationists since you are so dubious that people could lie about something contrary to their faith.



"Non-Christian historians (Josephus, I think, is one) have documented the persecution of Christians, their refusal to recant, and subsequent execution."

You are mixing up your premises. First you say that if they recanted they were spared now you try to support that by saying if they didn't recant they weren't spared. Logically those are two unrelated things.



"Then again, maybe every ancient historian was in on the conspiracy."

Of course not.



"(Sorry for the sarcasm; I think this discussion is beginning to cross the line of sanity.)"

I have no problem with sarcasm but the reason it seems insane is entirely because it violates your beliefs not because it is at all implausible. Again it fits perfectly with the history of the period, with what we know about people, especially devotees, and how they react under duress.

Hunter claimed he had proof of Christ's ressurection. Obviously he doesn't. He has faith in it. That's fine. Just don't confuse the two.

Hunter Baker said...

You can't get anything right can you, T?

I didn't say I had proof (at least not final ultimate proof as you seem to imply) of anything. I said I had more evidence for the resurrection of Christ than for the existence of justice. I then offered part of the large corpus of various evidences for the resurrection.

It's sort of like a trial. You offer evidence for and you offer evidence against. The jurors decide for themselves.

Tlaloc said...

Look, this is really pretty easy: ask yourself about how cults work. They generally focus on a single charismatic individual to start. And that individual manages to convince a fair number of people of things that are ridiculous implausible. That Hale-bopp is alien spacecraft (Heaven's Gate), or the galactic tyrant Xenu who populated Earth still lives under a mountain imprisoned by a forcefield with a never ending battery (Scientology), and so on.

In the case of really successful cults like scientology they manage to live beyond the original creator's lifespan. They developed an administration layer we tend to call priests. These priests don't necessarily believe any or all of what they teach any more than the guys in infomercials really believe that spray paint on a guys head actually looks like hair.

It's a product. They are merchants selling packaged spirituality which we call religion.

To deny it can happen when you've seen it happen dozens of times in your own life is nothing more than willing blindness to the nature of mankind.

Look my wife is half native american. Mormons get really excited when they find out that she is a descendant of Bringham Young- until they find out she's his descendent because he raped her great great whatever grandmother. Then they kind of pretend they don't know her. Do you really think any of those mormons are going to record for posterity the terrible things done by their chuch founders? Of course not.

Luckily today there are enough independent sources that we can in fact find these things out and expose the church for what it is. Unluckily we don't have the same level of detail about early christianity. We can l=only proceed on what scraps we have and by using our knowledge of how religons and people work in general.

Or you can pretend that everything you are told by your church is true. I'm sure the mormons didn't believe my wife since their book doesn't say anything about the founders raping women.

Tlaloc said...

"I didn't say I had proof (at least not final ultimate proof as you seem to imply) of anything. I said I had more evidence for the resurrection of Christ than for the existence of justice. I then offered part of the large corpus of various evidences for the resurrection."

Sorry I didn't mean to imply in the ultimate sense. However as before there is an enormous amount of proof for justice. Since you continue to claim that you have more evidence of the ressurection I consider that a very strong claim. One that does not even remotely hold up when it is based only on prejudiced ancient accounts that cannot be verified.

Hunter Baker said...

Offer the case for justice. It will be interesting since you have claimed moral values don't exist.

Tlaloc said...

"Offer the case for justice. It will be interesting since you have claimed moral values don't exist."

On the contrary I very much believe in morals, I simply don't believe in universal morals.

However as for the case for justice did you read my earlier dileniation between a physical action and a mental construct? A mental construct can be said to exist of anyone believes in it precisely because it exists in the mental realm. Therefore Justice (which is a mental construct) most certainly and absolutely exists. It is a very common belief.

Now we can certainly argue whether the belief has any value in the physical world, whether it is logical, or whether it has a universality but there is no doubt that the concept of justice (in myriad forms) has been with humanity a long time.

JC said...

I would like to apologize for and withdraw my sarcastic comment. It was out of order.

Tlaloc said...

"I would like to apologize for and withdraw my sarcastic comment. It was out of order."

If you like, but really it's not a problem. I play rough and I don't mind the same in return.

JC said...

I don't mind if you "play rough," but I strive for civility when discussing such touchy subjects. I'm not always successful.

James Elliott said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hunter Baker said...

Sorry, James. I hold a few things sacred. I generally value your comments, but that one is extraordinarily offensive to a Christian and I suspect you would never commit an offense of the same order against a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. Well, actually the Muslim would be knocking on your door about now.

James Elliott said...

Well, I understand your deleting it, and I'm not going to raise a stink - your blog, your call - but I will correct one thing. I'll make Mohammed and Vishnu jokes all day long, so long as I avoid the long knives. Like George Carlin, I think religious idols are symbols, and I leave such things to the symbol-minded.