On Jesus and Mithra, Part Four (Pages 8 – 11)

In the first century BCE, the most important center for Mithraic worship in the Hellenistic world was in the region of Cilicia, in the city of Tarsus. Officially, the patron deity of this city was the Greek demi-god Perseus, but as Ulansey points out, Perseus as he was worshipped in Tarsus, was identical to the Persian Mithra in almost every way. The Roman general Pompey, in his journals, points out the fact that the people of Tarsus worship Mithra[1] and this is the point of origin for the spread of the Cult of Mithra in the Roman world.

 

I want to preface my discussion of the relationship between Mithra and Perseus with an acknowledgement of the profuse pluralism at work in the Greco-Roman world at this time. Parallels to Mithra and Perseus can be found in the stories of many other heroes. Not all of the adventures attributed to Perseus should be attributed to Mithra and vice versa. In the Greco-Roman world the gods and heroes were regarded differently in different cities and different regions at different times. The heroes and gods in Greco-Roman mythology are extremely malleable and blend with one another quite extensively. However, in Tarsus the parallels between Mithra and Perseus go deep; as I will demonstrate shortly

 

According to Plutarch, Mithraism began among the pirates of Cilicia, the province bordering on the southern coast of Asia Minor. These pirates, whose ships “numbered more than a thousand, and the cities captured by them four hundred,” and whom Pompey was sent to subdue in 67 BCE, “offered strange rites of there own at Olympus, and celebrated there certain secret rites among which those of Mithras continue to the present time having been first instituted by them.”..For our purposes, the most important aspect of Plutarch’s evidence tracing the origins of Mithraism to the region of Cilicia is the fact that Cilicia—and in particular its capitol city of Tarsus—was the home of a deeply rooted cult of the hero Perseus.[2]

 

Among the Greeks Perseus is considered to be the founder of the city of Tarsus. Tarsus is the city bearing the name of the “Primal-Bull.” Perseus like Mithra is intimately linked to the sun, referred to as either: Apollo, Helios or Sol. Sometimes Apollo is depicted as making oblations before Perseus, just as Sol is sometimes depicted as kneeling before Mithra. Also, the order is at times reversed with Mithra or Perseus kneeling before the deity representing the sun.[3]

 

In Greek mythology Perseus is strongly connected with the Persian Empire. The Greeks believed that his son, Perses, was the founder of the Persian Empire. Furthermore, Perseus is always depicted as wearing a Phrygian cap indicating his Asiatic (read Persian) origins.

 

The evidence for a connection between the figures of Mithras and Perseus is of three kinds: first, there is the astronomical evidence consisting of the fact that the constellation Perseus occupies a position in the sky exactly analogous to that occupied by Mithras in the tauroctony; second, there are a number of striking iconographical and mythological parallels between the two figures, such as Perseus’ Phrygian cap, his connection with Persia, and the fact that like Perseus, Mithras always looks away from his victim; third there is the historical-geographical evidence linking the origins of Mithraism with Cilicia, the site of an important Perseus cult.[4]

 

The astronomical evidence cited above concerns the fact that the constellation Mithra-Perseus is located directly above the constellation of Taurus the bull so that if the two constellations are viewed together the figure of Mithra-Perseus is seen kneeling on the back of the bull, sword in hand to make the ritual cut, looking away from the sacrificial victim just as Mithra is always depicted in the artwork of Mithraic temples; in the tauroctony. These similarities are too many to ignore. The Cults of Mithra and Perseus were the dominant cults of the city. Each of these Gods are depicted time, and time again on Tarsian coins. Perseus is the patron deity of the city, and the city itself is named after the “Primal Bull” of Mithraic worship.  Mithra is Perseus at least in the worship directed at these figures in Tarsus.

 

The city of Tarsus figures prominently in syncretic link between Mithraism and Christianity. Tarsus began as a Hittite city in the second millennium BCE. The Greek historian and geographer Strabo[5] notes that it was a significant intellectual center “surpassing Athens and Alexandria.” It was known for its astronomers and produced the renowned philosophers Athenodorus and Nestor.[6] More significant to our thesis it was the birthplace and home of St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, a Pharisee and the most prominent writer of the early Christian Church.

 

None of my reading indicates that Paul was aware of or was influenced by Mithraism, but it is hard to imagine that such an astute individual as himself would not have been aware of the basic tenets of belief promoted by the major Cult of the city he called home. What is more is that Paul was a Pharisee. AS I have already indicated in my introduction to the origins of the Pharisaic sect; the beliefs of the Pharisee’s were at least sympathetic to the beliefs of Mithraites; including beliefs concerning the immortality of the soul, the notion of personal salvation and a belief in angels (the notion that humankind receives a ministry from God through the angelic host) were held in common by Mithraites and Pharisees alike.

 

It is my contention; that if Paul was not directly influenced by Mithraism he was indirectly influenced by Mithraic ideas simply by virtue of the fact that he was a Pharisee. Furthermore, the prominence of his ministry, and influence on Christian doctrine constitutes a second infusion of Persian cosmology on the Judeo-Christian tradition; the first being located within the Babylonian exile, and subsequent Diaspora.

 

First through the Pharisaic sect, and second through the teaching of St. Paul of Taursus (himself a Pharisee), Mithraism influenced the Judeo-Christian tradition. I do not contend that through Mithraism anything substantially “new” was imparted to the burgeoning Christian movement, but that the prevailing ideas of the “Persian-Mithraic worldview” were concretized.

[1] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 40, par. 1

[2] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 40, par. 1 and pg. 41, par. 3

[3] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 44, par. 1

[4] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 45, par. 2

[5] Strabo 64 B.C.E. – 21 C.E.

[6] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 68

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