Mithras and Jesus: Two sides of the same coin (cont.)
By Flavio Barbiero
In fact, all the senators who figure in the inscriptions at the base of St Peters’ Basilica, alongside the titles of vir clarissimus (senator), pater, or pater patrum in the cult of Sol Invictus Mithras, also held a long series of other religious positions: sacerdos, hierophanta, archibucolus of Brontes or of Hecate, Isis, and Liberius; maior augur, quindecimvir sacris faciundis and even pontifex of various pagan cults. They were also in charge of the college of the Vestal Virgins and of the sacred fire of Vesta. In the senate, there was no manifestation of cult connected to the pagan tradition that was not celebrated by a senator adhering to the Sol Invictus Mithras. That same senator most of the time was backed by a Christian family.
So, what were they, pagan or Christian? The available evidence on this point is ambiguous. Also the character of Mithras himself, as he is depicted by Christian writers, is absolutely ambiguous. A long series of analogies exists between him and Jesus. Mithras was born on December 25 in a stable to a virgin, surrounded by shepherds who brought gifts. He was venerated on the day of the sun (Sunday). He bore a halo around his head. He celebrated a last supper with his faithful followers before returning to his father. He was said not to have died, but to have ascended to heaven from where he would return in the last days to raise the dead and judge them, sending the good to Paradise and the evil to Hell. He guaranteed his followers immortality after baptism.
Furthermore, the followers of Mithras believed in the immortality of the soul, the last judgment, and the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. They celebrated the atoning death of a saviour who had risen on a Sunday. They celebrated a ceremony corresponding to the Catholic Mass during which they consumed consecrated bread and wine in memory of the last supper of Mithras—and during the ceremony they used hymns, bells, candles, and holy water. Indeed, they shared with Christians a long series of other beliefs and ritual practices, to the point that they were practically indistinguishable from each other in the eyes of the pagans and also of many Christians.
The existence of a connection between Christianity and the sun cult from the earliest times is recognized by the church fathers, too. Tertullian writes that the pagans “. . . believe that the Christian God is the Sun, because it is a well-known fact that we pray turning towards the rising Sun, and that on the Sun’s day we give ourselves to jubilation” (Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1, 13). He attempts to justify this substantial commonality to the eyes of the Christian faithful, attributing it to Satan’s plagiarism of the most sacred rites and beliefs of the Christian religion.
Constantine believed that Jesus Christ and Sol Invictus Mithras were both aspects of the same Superior Divinity. He was certainly not the only one to have this conviction. Neoplatonism contended that the religion of the sun represented a “bridge” between paganism and Christianity. Jesus was often called by the name Sol Justitiae (Sun of Justice) and was represented by statues that were similar to the young Apollo. Clement of Alexandria describes Jesus driving the chariot of the sun across the sky, and a mosaic of the fourth century shows him on the chariot while he ascends to heaven, represented by the sun. On some coins of the fourth century, the Christian banner at the top reads “Sol Invictus.” A large part of the Roman population believed that Christianity and the worship of the sun were closely connected, if not the same.
For a very long time the Romans kept on worshipping both the Sun and Christ. On 410 pope Innocentius authorized the resumption of ceremonies in honour of the Sun, hoping with that to save Rome from the Visigoths. And in 460 pope Leo the Great wrote: “most Christians, before entering the Basilica of St Peter, turn towards the sun and bow in its honour”. The bishop of Troy openly continued to profess his worship of the sun even during his episcopate. Another important example in this sense is that of Synesius of Cyrene, a disciple of the famous Neoplatonic philosopher Apathias, who was killed by the mob in Alexandria in 415. Synesius, not yet baptized, was elected bishop of Ptolemais and metropolitan bishop of Cyrenaica, but he accepted the position only on condition that he did not have to retract his Neoplatonic ideas or renounce his worship of the Sun.
In the light of all of this, how should we consider the position of Mithraists towards Christianity? Competitors or cooperators? Friends or enemies? Perhaps the best indication is given by the coins minted by emperor Constantine until 320 a.D., with Christian symbols on one side, mithraic symbols on the other.
Were Jesus and Mithras two faces of the same coin?