Abstract Deities, (Not Quite) Divine Rulers, Mithraism

I finished Helmut Koester’s History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age.  I have three items.

1.  I found something that Koester says on pages 362-363 to be interesting.  Koester says that ancient Roman religion usually viewed their deities as “abstract powers rather than as anthropomorphic divine persons”, but Etruscan and Greek influence led the Romans to personalize their deities a little more and to introduce cultic statues.

2.  A few posts ago, I discussed the notion of a divine king in Hellenism, and I said that Koester presents examples of such a concept occurring in imperial Rome, as well.  In my latest reading, however, Koester presents more nuance to that picture.  He discusses the ambivalence that Rome had towards regarding its rulers as gods.  Whereas Greeks regarded their rulers as epiphanies of a deity, the Romans “worshiped transcendent powers which, under special circumstances, might become active in exceptional human beings” (page 367).  Koester also states that it’s unclear whether the emperor cult of Augustus worshiped Augustus as a god or rather his genius, or protective deity.

But Koester is clear that some Romans were less shy about declaring themselves to be gods.  Mark Antony and Caligula did so, and there were cases in which such occurred amidst controversy.  But other Roman rulers, such as Julius Caesar and Tiberias, were more reluctant to be considered gods.

3.  Koester discusses the cult of Mithras, an eastern mystery religion.  According to Koester, “Mithras was received by the Romans without resistance and, at the end of [the third century] CE, he even became the official god of the Roman state” (page 372).  Mithras was venerated by Parthians in the Hellenistic Period, but Koester denies that it was a mystery religion at that point.  He thinks that it became a mystery religion when it migrated “to the west at the beginning of the Roman imperial period” (page 372).

Mithraism only initiated men, and it primarily attracted soldiers, sailors, and merchants.  The “cult legend” of Mithras goes like this: Mithras was born on a rock on December 25, and shepherds brought him gifts.  Mithras kills a bull, and its blood and semen bring new life, “but a snake tries to drink the blood and a scorpion poisons the semen” (page 373).  The sun, moon, planets, and four winds behold the sacrifice, and Mithras eats the bull’s meat and blood with the sun (the god Helios/Sol) as part of a covenant ceremony.  According to Koester, Sol then “kneels before Mithras, receives the accolade, and they shake hands” (page 373).  In terms of the Mithraic ceremony, an initiate was reborn and became a soldier of Mithras, and “The highest step of the initiations was to be identified with the sun (Sol)” (page 373).

I thought it was important for me to pay attention to what Koester says about Mithraism because of the popular debates over whether Christianity plagiarized its ideas from Mithraism.  A number of skeptics say “yes”, whereas many Christian apologists retort that Christianity developed before Mithraism became popular.  Koester’s chronology (if I’m understanding it correctly) appears to assume that Mithraism became part of Rome in the early days of the imperial period, which (if I’m not mistaken) is when Christianity developed.  At the same time, there are similarities and differences between Christianity and Mithraism.  Similarities include the notion of rebirth, eating flesh and blood, and shepherds visiting a prominent person at his birth.  The difference is that Mithras kills a bull, whereas Jesus does not.  Plus, the Mithras story appears to have more fantasy elements (if you will) than the Jesus stories, which are provided with more of a historical setting.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Abstract Deities, (Not Quite) Divine Rulers, Mithraism

  1. tdhigg01 says:

    I’m currently studying early Christianity (within the first three centuries AD) and I thought your post was pretty interesting, especially regarding the Imperial Cult. However, I would like to correct some ideas, if I may.

    The similarities between Mithraism and Christianity are only present if one is unfamiliar with Biblical teaching. You did bring up some very interesting points, however. But, as for the issue of rebirth: that was common to many Near Eastern religions – new converts were considered born into the religion. It is a common symbol, in other words. Eating flesh and blood is also symbolic for the Christian (see my post on the Lord’s Supper for more on that), and that misunderstanding was used by the Romans to legitimate persecution. And it’s interesting that you mention the shepherds. But the difference being that Christ was by no means a prominent person; rather, he was born of a lowly carpenter.

    It is important to remember that cultures will invariably have some similarities due to a wide variety of circumstances, such as trade, war, migrations, etc. But these similarities do not mean that on thing proceeds from another. History, and the development of ideas, is much more complicated than that. Overall, I did really appreciate your post.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Good points. That’s why a number of scholars have grown weary of parallelomania.


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