Christ and Mithras: A Chestertonian Defense of Christian Myth

By Emily Lehman

We lumbered over the remains of stone pillars heaped like fallen stacks of spools, scraping our shoes over ancient foundations and glancing up at the Greek countryside in a day that vaguely threatened rain. “And this,” our guide said, “was the site of the cult of Mithras, the center of an ancient Greek cult that involved eating bread and drinking wine. Mithras was the son of a virgin. Born in a stable. Visited by shepherds.” She looked up, refusing to allow us to miss the point. “Sound familiar?” Students began looking uneasily at one another or laughing consciously. The group rambled on.

At the time of the Collegiate Scholars’ trip to Greece, I had recently studied Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and was exhilarated by the appearance of a Christ-like story in pagan mythology. My friends, though, seemed uneasy, even disheartened. Here I grasp toward an account of the situation in which we found ourselves, an attempt to understand the “Christian myth” in light of the other myths of the cultural world. I will make no attempt to substantiate the Christian myth, or to villainize pagan myths, or even to insist that the Christian myth is the best one there is. My point is simple: the fact that pagan myths reflect and anticipate the story of Christianity in often striking ways does not in any way cast a shadow upon the truth of that story.

***

The lingering concern at the heart of my friends’ dismay was, I think, this: the fact that the Mithras myth predated Christianity seemed to imply that it caused Christianity. On analogous lines, there is skepticism about the Scriptural story of Noah because of the way in which versions of a great flood linger in various cultures. Because it appears so often, some conclude it was merely stolen from other cultures and put into Scripture. The problem with this claim is many cultures’ remembering–or mythologizing–a worldwide flood seems to imply more that it did happen than that it did not. The widespread mythologizing of the flood leads to skepticism only if one is already a skeptic–if one doubts that the flood happened, then one will not think Scripture is right about it, but one need not aggregate various cultures’ myths to make that point. For the problem at hand, they are irrelevant.

My friends’ predicament does differ from this case, however; since the Mithras worshippers long predated Christ, one cannot make the claim that they were remembering a historical event common to Christianity and other cultures. Mithras’s unusual story seems to anticipate Christian stories, and thereby unsettles Christian believers. Why? Well, at first, the answer seems quite obvious. Surely a cultural anthropologist could make the claim that Christianity simply arose out of these earlier traditions, gleaning for itself out of pagan mythology the seeds of a world that would appeal to all mankind. But did it?

To answer this question, there are two questions one must ask first. The first is whether the Mithras story’s predating Christianity means that it caused Christianity. The second is why Christian believers hold Christianity to be true. The answer to the first question is fairly apparent; just because something comes before something else doesn’t mean it caused that other thing. It’s a pretty simple concept, but one that slips into argument almost unnoticed. There are various weaker conclusions one can draw–for example, that the Mithras myth isn’t derivative from Christianity, and therefore is not immediately ruled out as a component cause–but they are only tangentially relevant. At the very least, we would need more information to conclude that the myth of Mithras was the cause of the story of Christ.

But answering the second question will shed light on the first. Why do Christian believers hold Christianity true? They do not believe that it is true because people have believed in Christ since the ancient Greeks. Instead, they claim that a particular man called Christ walked the earth at a particular time, and that they have received trustworthy testimony to that effect. Rather than seeing their religion as having been drawn gradually out of ages of mythology, Christians believe in a singular event that transformed the course of history, about which they have written records and an oral tradition that they consider credible. Of course, this act of belief is complex–rather than being a simple conclusion from empirical evidence, Christian belief arises out of something called faith, a virtue and therefore in some respect a gift, though (depending upon one’s strand of tradition) allied in some way to human assent.

Whether or not the Mithras myth anticipates Christianity, then, is in a certain respect a moot point. Christians believe that Christianity is true on evidence apart from pagan mythology. The question of whether the Incarnation actually happened is a question that Christians, as Christians, already have an answer to. For those who are outside Christianity, the question of whether the Incarnation happened is perhaps best approached by attempting to discern whether the authority Christians place their faith in is in fact trustworthy. Whether or not pagan myths pointed to the Christian one is not a material point for determining whether or not the Christian myth is true. If they do anticipate the Christian myth, interesting; if they do not, also interesting. Either way, since Christianity as such does not rest its claims on pagan myths having or not having anticipated it, the question of Christianity’s truth is an independent question.

***

There is, of course, one important objection that cannot be sufficiently dealt with in brief, so I will simply gesture toward an answer. The objection is an epistemological one. The ancient Greeks seem to have believed in Mithras in the same way that Christians believed in Christ, relating similar stories to the one that we relate, participating in similar rites. How can we be certain that we are not similarly deluded, if indeed we think the ancient Greeks were deluded? For one thing, we must realize at the outset that the similarity of the stories is what leads to particular uneasiness in this case, though really any epistemological challenge to Christianity could lead to similar uneasiness. It is disorienting to find that a certain ancient people believed something so strikingly similar to what we believe–an ancient pagan god who was worshiped by shepherds in a stable? Epistemologically, however, this is not any different from any encounter with people whose beliefs differ from our own. If (as in the Jimmy Stewart movie “Harvey”) a man believes that his best friend is a six-foot invisible rabbit, this is in a certain respect equally epistemologically threatening to the believing Christian, or really to any person. If someone believes something different from what we believe, then that is frightening because they, like we, have faith, and they, unlike we, are wrong (in our opinion). The question then must fall back upon the foundations of one’s belief: whether the one in whom one has believed is in fact trustworthy. Does Jimmy Stewart have the same grounds for believing in Harvey that Christians do for believing in the story of Christ?

Reassuringly, there is an additional distinction to be made here. Our childhood belief in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus was not the same kind of belief we had in the earth going around the sun. Cultural beliefs, though sometimes held as fact, are perhaps more often held as something in between fact and fiction, objects of cultural rather than intellectual adherence. Pagan cultures did not, to all appearances, “believe in” their mythology in the same way that Christians believe in theirs. Where Christians died at the stake for their one God, various pagan cultures happily incorporated the deities of conquered and conquering cultures. Where Christians struggled intensely to recognize the claims of the philosophers about truth with the historical narrative with which they were provided, in pagan culture philosophy and mythology ignored each other with impunity. Here I draw upon Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, where he lays out the situation of pagan mythology in relation to pagan philosophy:

Polytheism, or that aspect of paganism, was never to the pagan what Catholicism is to the Catholic. It was never a view of the universe satisfying all sides of life; a complete and complex truth with something to say about everything. It was only a satisfaction of one side of the soul of man, even if we call it the religious side; and I think it is truer to call it the imaginative side. But this it did satisfy; in the end it satisfied it to satiety. . . . Precisely because mythology only satisfied one mood, they turned in other moods to something totally different [i.e., philosophy.] But it is very important to realize that it was totally different. It was too different to be inconsistent. It was so alien that it did not clash. While a mob of people were pouring on a public holiday to the feast of Adonis or the games in honor of Apollo, this or that man would prefer to stop at home and think out a little theory about the nature of things. Sometimes his hobby would even take the form of thinking about the nature of God; or even in that sense about the nature of the gods. But he very seldom thought of pitting his nature of the gods against the gods of nature. (The Everlasting Man Part I Ch. 6)

Rather than conflicting with one another, philosophy and religion ran parallel and separate courses (in the main) until the advent of Christianity. The martyrs who died in the arena, the saint who punched someone in the face during the Council of Nicea, even the heretics who burned at the stake were fighting for no mere myth. Instead, they believed that Christianity had introduced something new into the world–something that brought truth and myth together. Christians believed in the truth of their myth in a way that other myth-believers simply did not do, and with the advent of Christianity man came to know a claim about truth that was also a historical reality, bringing the transcendent down to earth like a lightning strike. Nothing like Christianity had ever happened before. And its claims, unlike those of pagan mythology, are based upon faith–not irrational faith, but rather the virtue of faith based in the testimony of credible witnesses.

And what does this mean for my friends and me, rambling over Greek ruins? If we believe that Christianity is not based in pagan myth and we realize that whether one believes in Christianity has little or nothing to do with Christianity’s being anticipated by pagan mythology, then the exploration of the similarities between pagan mythology and Christianity becomes an exhilarating treasure hunt, like tracing out the constellations or searching for the author’s intention in a great novel. Every similarity between the Christian story and stories before it strikes one like an electric shock–here too!  At first, the pattern seems random. It seems that lightning sometimes strikes twice–and sometimes a dozen times, as over and over throughout the myths of the pagans the Christian finds the dying and resurrected god. As Chesterton might say, it begins to look like a plot. And the Christian might wonder whether he ought to be surprised at all, or whether, from the beginning of time, something in the heart of man knew the traces of the future, found them carved into the depths of his being and repeating themselves again and again in his dreams until the myth came true.

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