Tag Archives: Roman Empire

Christianity and the False Dependence on Mithraism

The Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy. It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

Christianity emerged out of the historical, social and religious milieu of first century Palestine. The area was a part of the Mediterranean world unified under Hellenic cultural influences and Roman military might. The pagan Roman populace had grown weary of their pantheon of gods and the seeming dreariness of everyday life. There was a spiritual hunger for something more, something transcendent. As the empire expanded its arms to the east and to the south so it also brought in elements from these foreign lands to the mainstream Mediterranean lifestyle. These imported elements included the so-called “mystery religions,” or “mysteries” to help satisfy this spiritual hunger. These mysteries included among others the cults of Mithra, Isis and Osiris, Dionysus, Magna Mater, and Cybele and Attis. Of these, perhaps the most prolific and influential was the Mithraic cult centered about the Persian deity Mithra. Mithraism, the most renown of the mysteries, has often been compared to Christianity. Many modern scholars argue that there are a number of striking similarities between Christianity, and the mysteries and Mithraism. Moreover, many such modern scholars have argued that not only has Christianity relied heavily upon the mysteries for its theology and practices, but also that Jesus himself is merely myth and Christianity just another mystery cult.

This paper will show the fact that Jesus was indeed a historical person and that Christianity was not just another mystery cult. On the one hand, Mithraism was a mystery based on the story of Mithra. On the other, Christianity grew out of Judaism and was based on the real person of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the two divergent groups did have some superficial similarities. These similarities have wrongfully been construed to “prove” that Christianity was dependent upon Mithraism and the other mysteries. This paper will then show on which points the groups diverge. It will show how the pagan mysteries evolved and blended their theology so as to imitate the rapidly rising Christian movement. Similarly, it will reaffirm the historical nature of Jesus Christ, and the uniqueness of the religion He began. Ultimately, it will reveal the fact that Christianity emerged from Judaism as a unique religious movement based upon the historical person of Jesus Christ, and that it was different from and in direct competition with the pagan mysteries and Mithraism.

However, Christianity and Mithraism did have some apparent similarities that have been offered as proof of dependency. For example, the mysteries and Mithraism are considered religions of redemption similar to that of Christianity.1 The notion of a vicarious sacrifice for the sake of redeeming others seems to have been present. An inscription at the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome reads, “You saved us…by shedding the blood.”2 Mithra in effect saves his followers by reluctantly slaying the bull. Similarly, as Joseph Campbell points out, the mythology of dying and rising deities had been indigenous to the Near East for millennium.3 Mithra himself is the mediator, and also the god of light. He is born from a rock that was witnessed by on-looking shepherds similar to the birth of Christ. Mithra’s birth date is celebrated on December 25th. After killing the bull, Mithra then celebrates the love feast with his disciples at a “Last Supper.” At this last supper, Mithra offers an oblation of bread and a cup of water. After this he ascends into Heaven to be one with the Sun.4

Continuing in the teachings of Mithraism, at the end of the world there will be a resurrection of the dead in which Mithra will preside over the Final Judgment. Furthermore, Mithraism advocated an ascetic lifestyle. Life is a battle in that the initiate must struggle through the difficulties that may come. Abstinence was considered praiseworthy. They believed in Heaven and Hell and the immortality of the soul. The initiates went through a ritual washing of water, or “baptism” some would say. The initiates go through preparation and instruction and would be admitted into the mysteries in a nocturnal celebration on the eve of a great festival similar to the Christian catechumens entering the Church at the Easter vigil. Through an initiation process and ascending in the secret mysteries the person gains salvation. Many have compared these initiations and seven levels of Mithraism as a forerunner of the seven sacraments of the Church. Taking in all of these apparently close parallels between Christianity and the mysteries and Mithraism, many have concluded that Christianity is but myth and itself a mystery cult. As one author noted.

The obvious explanation is that as early Christianity became the dominant power in the previously pagan world, popular motifs from Pagan mythology became grafted into the biography of Jesus.5  The Christian Bible and historical Jesus at best would have just blended some aspects of the pagan mysteries into the true facts. At worst, the Bible and Jesus were pure legend in line with the Mithraism and the other mysteries.6

Despite these similar portraits between Christianity and the Mithraism, significant differences do exist. First off, just looking at the origins of the two competing religious movements reveals an abundance of dissimilarities. Mithraism was a cult based upon astronomy and astrology.7 Of course, astrology and soothsaying was explicitly condemned in the Bible.8 The initiates were to ascend through the seven spheres of the heavens. The Mithraic caves, or Mithraeums, where the ceremonies were held, were covered in a depiction of the zodiac mirroring the cosmos. Moreover, most Mithraeums had iconography of the Mithraic tauroctony. This key icon showed Mithras standing over the bull and slaying it. Given the complete astronomical orientation of the cult, as David Ulansey argues, Mithras in the iconography is actually the constellation “Perseus.” Seen from this perspective, the tauroctony was actually a “star map.”

As Ulansey argues, Mithraism was developed by Stoic philosophers in the city of Tarsus. The Stoics were philosophers steeped in astronomy and astrology. They had learned at the time of a revolutionary idea discovered by Hipparchus about the procession of equinoxes. Thus, they reasoned there must have been a great god who could have shifted the whole cosmos from the end of the age of Taurus. With Perseus directly above Taurus in sky, the Stoics then actually personified the constellation as their local hero, Perseus. Later, Cilician pirates, who themselves navigated by the stars and who had close contact with the wealthy and intellectuals, adopted the cult and changed the god from the Tarsus hero, Perseus, to Mithra. As testified by Plutarch, they then helped spread the new astrological cult of Mithra around the empire.9 Thus, the Persian myth of Mithra was superimposed upon the new astrological cult of Perseus begun originally by Stoics of Tarsus to account for the astronomical discovery of the procession of equinoxes.10

Because the Stoics are from Tarsus, the city St. Paul was from as well, many attribute Paul’s religion as just another mystery and one influenced in particular by Mithraism. This is an impossibility given what we know of Paul. Paul was a strict Pharisaic Jew schooled under Rabbi Gamaliel. In addition, there is no historical evidence that paganism had entered into the common life of the Jews.11 Paul was interested solely in preserving the Mosaic Law and strictly adhering to every letter of it. This can be witnessed in his early persecution of the nascent Church. Paul voiced the same abhorrence later for paganism. As he states in his letter to the Corinthians warning them about the dangers of idolatry and paganism, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and also the cup of demons.”12 In addition, Paul had extended contacts with the Apostles themselves. The Church in Tarsus was in effect the same as the Church in Jerusalem. Both, as one Church, held that to be Christian meant renunciation of all other “gods” and idolatrous practices. Moreover, the New Testament canon is clearly supported by Old Testament scriptures and prophecies. As such, Paul advocated belief in Christ alone. Christianity, like Judaism, was completely intolerant of any other religions. Paul’s religion was exclusive while the mysteries were merely one of many interchangeable myths. It is very difficult indeed to imagine that this same Paul with his zealous orthodox Jewish beliefs was susceptible to pagan influences and Mithraism.

Furthermore, the Mithraic practices differed widely with those of Christianity. To begin with, whereas Christianity was open to all, Mithraism was open only to men. Women were not allowed into the cult. Of the hundreds of Mithraic inscriptions none include that of a priestess or a woman initiate.13 Mithraism was in general a soldiers and merchants religion.14 The cult spread mostly through the Roman legions. The cult was highly personal and individualistic. In this sense Mithraism was not a religion at all. The very term “Mithracists” is a modern phrase not found in ancient literature.15 There was no sense of community, organization or solidarity.16 The pagan mysteries had no sense or equivalent of the ekklesia. There was no concern for the poor; no economic cooperation; no inclusion of the family unit. Many pagans converted, such as Tatian and Justin, for the very fact that they saw the hospitality that Christians treated each other with saying, “Look how they love one another!”17 The total inclusion and submission of family into a community of believers is ridiculous when applied to the mysteries.

Christianity from its inception, however, was focused on the community of believers as the body of Christ. Christianity was a public religion open to all. The “mystery” as referred to by Paul and the New Testament is used as some as proof by terminology of Christian dependence upon the mysteries. Yet, the whole point of the “mystery” of Mithraism and the other cults was to keep all knowledge secret. The secrets of the mysteries were to be known only by the initiates, again alluding to the highly individualistic nature of the mysteries. In Christianity, however, “mystery” was something that was previously hidden in the mind of God, but now has been revealed and is to be made known to all.18 Thus, unlike Mithraism and the mysteries, Christianity was at once dogmatically intolerant of other faiths, yet it was open to any and all people. Christianity was preached everywhere openly, while Mithraism was kept secret known only to the initiates.19 In this vein of secrecy, it is not surprising that although there is an abundance of archeological evidence of Mithraism, there are almost no literary references to it.20 Since it was a secret society of sorts, none of its dogmas or tenets were written down. What is known of the cult is solely through iconography.21 This, of course, is in complete contradiction to the comparatively copious amounts of writings from the New Testament and the early church Fathers.

In connection with these differences, Tertullian offers some first hand accounts. Tertullian was an eyewitness to the Roman soldiers and the Mithraism in their ranks. He says that Mithraism attempted to copy Christianity.22 Tertullian writing in the latter second century says that Mithraism, and by association military life, was incompatible with Christianity. Firstly, Roman legions were often followed by prostitutes, pimps, gamblers and con-men.23 He also speaks of the idolatry involved in serving in the military through sacrifices and capital punishment. In his Treatise on the Crown Tertullian says,

Blush, you fellow-soldiers of his, henceforth not to be condemned even by him, but by some soldier of Mithras, who, at his initiation in the gloomy cavern, in the camp, it may well be said, of darkness, when at the sword’s point a crown is presented to him, as though in mimicry of martyrdom,…and he is at once believed to be a soldier of Mithras if he throws the crown away – if he says that in his god he has his crown. Let us take note of the devices of the devil, who is wont to ape some of God’s things with no other design than, by the faithfulness of his servants, to put us to shame, and to condemn us.24

So, just as Christians who refused to wear the crown of the king were executed, so too the Mithraic soldiers mimicked that faithfulness in their initiation ceremonies. Yet, Tertuallian describes Mithraism as the “device of the devil,” and in contrast to Christianity, something that is shameful and to be condemned. Thus, Tertullian quotes Jesus in admonishing Christians in the military that they “can’t serve two masters.”

Yet, again this exclusiveness of Christianity was not found in the mysteries. Mithraism was completely acceptable with other forms of paganism and even emperor worship. As Tiridates, king of Armenia, came to Rome on a state visit he is quoted as saying, “I have come to you, my god, to worship you as I worship Mithras.”25 Moreover, many Mithraicists were involved in more than one mystery. One could easily have been initiated into Mithraism without giving up his beliefs in say, Isis.26 The fluidity of the myths of the mysteries made them increasingly popular, especially by the end of the second century. It was at this point that Mithraism in particular became one of the favorites of the Roman aristocracy.27 Even the emperor Commodus who ruled from 180-192 AD was initiated into Mithraism which reflected a triumph of the cult.28 As one author noted the inclusive nature of the mysteries,

Thus, the use of the term “mystery religions,” as a pervasive and exclusive name for a closed system, is inappropriate. Mystery initiations were an optional activity within a polytheistic religion, comparable to, say, a pilgrimmage to Santiago di Compostela within the Christian system.29

These mysteries in general had some very foreign, and even, hedonistic rites in comparison to Christianity. Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of various tortures and humiliations involved in the Mithraic initiations.30 Other mysteries’ initiation rites included drugs and orgies. In some initiation rites they practiced the “taurobolium.” The taurobolium consisted of the initiate crouching in a pit covered in wooden beams on which a bull was slaughtered and the person was covered in its blood.31 This was a primitive practice adopted to give the initiate an “emotional high.” The Christian notion of a vicarious and voluntary suffering for others is not found in the mysteries, especially in Mithraism. Moreover, the “suffering god” myth is completely absent from Mithraism.32 Even more obvious, this form of animal sacrifice was not present in Christian practices. There was in Mithraism in particular a reduction of practices to the physical. For example, they would eat the raw flesh of the sacrificed bull.33 The notion of spiritual things or a spiritual communion as in Christianity was totally lacking in the mysteries. Salvation is seen more as a “magical liberation from the flesh,” than as the redemption from sin.34

There were other practices as well. As far as December 25th as the birth of Mithras and of Christ, it can be said that Constantine had in fact changed the celebration in 323 AD from the birth of the Sun, Mithras, to Jesus.35 In addition, Augustine writing some time later spoke of the Mithraic initiates as “flapping their wings like birds, imitating the cry of crows, others growl like lions, in such a manner are they that are called wise basely travestied.”36 These practices were in correspondence to the seven levels of initiation. Even these seven levels of initiation were not found in Christianity. There was also a “sprinkling of water” the Mithraicists used. Modern liberal scholars have anachronistically dubbed it a “baptism” using the Christian terminology. Of course, there is truly no evidence for a Mithraic baptism, especially one that was a symbol by emersion in water of dying and entering into a new life as in the Christian rite.37 Similarly, the modern liberal scholars have also dubbed the Mithraic feast a “Last Supper,” again imposing the Christian terminology. The “Mithra supper” involved bread and a cup of water. So, in this case, it was not bread and wine, and they did not become the “body and blood” of their “god.” Thomas Bokenkotter points out that even these similarities don’t necessarily indicate dependency. As he suggests, “Such primitive symbols are so basic to humanity that any religious person might use them to express an experience transcending this world.”38

What perhaps is much more interesting is the fact that the early Church Fathers all seem to agree that Mithraism had attempted to copy Christianity. It seems the most logical conclusion that Mithraism, in fact, tried to imitate the increasingly popular Christian religion. St. Justin had argued that the devil had foreseen the coming of Christ and Christianity, and so, he mimicked Christianity and the divine sacraments.39 Tertullian had argued as well that the devil had directly tried to copy Christianity.40 He also suggests that the soldiers were not really astute theologians so they tended to blend Christianity and Mithraism.41 Perhaps this is a large part of the reason why there could have been similarities between the two “religions.” Looking at the two divergent faiths, it is not difficult to see the evolution in teachings. Christianity, on the one hand, sprang forth from a strictly Judaic background. The Christian adherent had to renounce all other gods and idolatrous practices. As attested to by the Christian martyrs, no compromise was possible. On the other hand, there are the mysteries and Mithraism. By their very nature, they were all-inclusive. No one need reject their other gods or other beliefs to participate. Mithraism in particular was very fluid and adapted through time. This is evident looking back to the Mithraism of ancient Persia from which it came. The Roman Mithraism was an almost completely different religion from its origin. It had become, as Cumont depicted it, a “composite religion, in which so many heterogeneous elements were welded together.”42 Mithraism specifically attempted to establish its own superiority through a succession of adaptations and compromises with the other pagan mysteries.43 For example, Julian the Apostate tried to establish a universal pagan Church using a clergy and liturgy based on the Christian model.44 Christianity, however, unrelentingly fought against any compromises with paganism. As Cumont surmised,

Mithraism, at least in the fourth century, had therefore as its end and aim the union of all gods and all myths in a vast synthesis, the foundation of a new religion in harmony with the prevailing philosophy and constitution of the empire.45  In contrast, the direct Christian abhorrence to the mystery religions can be seen in Hippolytus’ condemnation of Gnostic sects for their dependence upon the mysteries! 46

It seems that Mithraism in its hopes for universal domination imitated and synthesized the beliefs and practices of the rising and increasingly popular Christianity in order to stay on pace with it. This dependency then of Mithraism upon Christianity can be seen too in the archeological evidence, or lack thereof. The characteristics of Mithraism are not in evidence truly before the year 100 AD.47 As Cumont described it, it was not until the end of the first century that “the name of Mithra began to be generally bruited abroad in Rome.”48 In fact, the earliest known reference to Mithraism is from around 80 AD.49

Mithraism reached the peak of its power around the middle of the third century while Christianity was still being brutalized.50 This again attests not only to the late date of Mithraism, but also to the hostility between the two creeds. Most of the evidence of Mithraism and the mysteries comes from after the year 200AD.51 Modern liberal scholars have tended to extrapolate from this late evidence, and then, to erroneously confer dependency of Christianity upon Mithraism. Moreover, there are no monuments of Mithraism before 90AD.52 Thus, it is clear that the flowering of Mithraism took place truly after the establishment of the Christian church and the writings of the New Testament canon. As Gunter Wagner summarized it, “Moreover, on account of the lateness of its spread, there is no question of the Mithras cult influencing primitive Christianity.”53

Now, perhaps the greatest dissimilarity between Mithraism, the mysteries, and Christianity, and perhaps the most obvious, was simply that they were myth and Christianity was historical. The fact remains that there never existed a historical person Mithra. He was an invention of man, a myth. On the other hand, Jesus Christ clearly was a historical person, not a myth. Mithraism, like the other mysteries, was a timeless myth intimately linked to the rhythm of nature of death and rebirth. Jesus Christ was a historical person with datable events. As Cumont saw it, “It was a strong source of inferiority for the Mazdaism (Mithraism) that it believed in only a mythical redeemer.”54 Paul in his writings is more than anything else a witness to the person of Jesus Christ. The New Testament books and epistles are almost all written before the close of the first century, and as such, should be counted as historical evidence to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. There were also some limited extra-biblical references to the person of Jesus and Christians. There is an abundance of second century Christian writings to substantiate this, such as from Iraeneus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Justin, Hippolytus, some of who had contact with the Apostle John.

As for the non-Christian writings there is some evidence as well. There were Roman historians at the beginning of the second century who referred directly to Christ. Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan in the year 112. An excerpt states, “..on a fixed day they used to meet before dawn and sing hymns to Christ, as though he were a god.55 Suetonius writes that “Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians..”56 More provocatively, the Roman historian Tacitus writes about the burning of Rome under Nero in 64AD that,

..he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius..57

Lucian of Samosata, a second century satirist writes “..the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world..58 Suetonius, another Roman historian writes about the Christians, “Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”59 Julius Africanus, a Christian writer of about 221 AD refers to a writing by the pagan historian Thallus in 52 AD saying that the sun was eclipsed at the time of Christ’s crucifixion.60

There were also a few references to Christ by Jewish sources, in particular, the historian, Flavius Josephus.   Although some dispute the text, and there probably were some later Christian additions to it, there is no reason to throw out the whole reference. Josephus, who was a contemporary to Jesus, wrote (from the unadulterated Arabic text),

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive;61

Josephus also later refers to the Apostle James saying, “..and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James..”62 Similarly, the Jewish Talmud, which clearly are not Christian forgeries, also mentions Jesus. One reference among a few of them states, “It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshua…because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel astray.”63

Therefore, although there are some similarities between Christianity and Mithraism and the mysteries, there are greater differences. The evidence indicates that Mithraism was dependent upon Christianity, not visa versa. Mithraism in particular was an astrological cult that would not have fit well with Christianity, and particularly, Paul’s condemnation of pagan practices. Mithraism was open only to men and was mainly a soldiers and merchants religion. Christianity was open to all. At the same time, initiates in Mithraism could freely participate in other religious cults, whereas the Christian catechumen had to renounce all gods and idols. Mithraism mystery was based on secrecy, and as such, no literary works have been recovered. Christianity’s mystery was to be proclaimed to the world, and as such, many Christian writings on doctrines and dogmas exist. The theologies of the two seem to vary on substance. Modern liberal scholars often times wrongfully apply Christian terminology to Mitrhaic practices lending to the idea of a greater similarity than actually existed. Mithra was not even a dying and rising god, and so, the “suffering god” myth does not even apply. Furthermore, there is no historical or archeological evidence that Mithraism in its Roman version preceded Christianity. The New Testament canon was already complete by the rise of Mithraism. Mithraism was based purely on myth while Christianity was based on the historical person of Jesus Christ. There are biblical and Christian, Roman, and Jewish extra-biblical writings to support the historical person of Jesus and Christianity.

The conclusion must be that through adaptations and synthesizing aspects of various cults and religions, Mithraism evolved from its Persian origins into a pagan Roman mystery cult. Christianity, on the other hand, stubbornly refused to give into any pagan influences or idolatry. Despite being forced to endure over three hundred years of persecutions and martyrdom, the Church continued to grow and thrive. Quite the opposite was true of Mithraism and the mysteries. They continued to import and meld together aspects of pagan practices, eastern myths, and Christianity for public consumption. The Mithraic cult’s ultimate aspiration was to rule the empire and to impose Mithras as the greatest of the gods. However, as Beckert describes it, “..with the imperial decree of 391/392 AD prohibiting all pagan cults and with the forceful destruction of the sanctuaries, the mysteries simply and suddenly disappeared.”64 Thus, as soon as Mithraism lost state protection the whole structure crumbled. In contrast, it is nearly unbelievable that Christianity rose from humble and victimized beginnings to become against all odds the state religion of the Roman Empire.

1Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1987), p.3.

2Ibid, p.112.

3Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology,(Viking Penguin, New York, 1964), p.334.

4Burkert, p.138.

5Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries, (New York, Harmony Books, 1999), p.6.

6Burkert, p.190.

7David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, New York, Oxford Univ.Press, 1989, p.93.

8Deuteronomy 18:10

9 Ulansey, p.40.

10Ibid., p.93.

11J.Gresham Machen, D.D, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, New York, The MacMillan Co., 1921, p.255.

121 Corinthians 10:21.

13Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, New York, Dover Publications, 1903, p.173.

14Burkert, p.7.

15Ibid., p.47.

16Ibid., p.48.

17Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, New York, Double Day, 1979, p.26.

18Machen, p.273.

19Bokenkotter, p.24.

20Burkert, p.42.

21Ulansey, p.6.

22Robert Day, et al., Christians and the Military: The Early Experience, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1985, p.25.

23Day, p. 49.

24Tertullian as quoted by Day in Christians and the Military, p.29.

 25Jack Finnegan, Myth and Mystery, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Book House, 1989, p.205.

26Machen, p.9.

27Cumont, p.81.

28Ibid., p.97.

29Burkert, p.10.

30Ibid., p.102.

31Ibid., p.6.

32Ibid., p.76.

33Ibid., p.110.

34Bokenkotter, p.25.

35Finnegan, p.208.

36Cumont, p.152.

37Burkert, p.101.

38Bokenkotter, p.25.

39Johannes Quasten, Patrology: Volume I, Westminster, MD, Christian Classics, 1990, p.200.

40Freke, p.28.

41Day et al., Christians and the Military, p.25.

42Cumont, p.30.

43Ibid., p.197.

44Fr. John Laux, Church History, Rockford, IL, Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1930, p.97.

45Cumont, p.187.

46Machen, p.249.

47Burkert, p.7.

48Cumont, p.37.

49Ulansey, p.29.

50Cumont, p.199.

51Dr. Ronald H. Nash, “Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions?,” 1994, p.3, accessed 11/15/00, (www.summit.org),

52Ibid., p.5.

53Gunter Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries, Edinburgh, Oliver & Boyd, 1967, p.68.

54Cumont, p.195.

55Laux, p.52.

56Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, San Bernadino, Here’s Life Publishers, 1972, p.83.

57Ibid., p.82.

58Ibid.

59Ibid.

60Ibid.

61Ibid., p.82.

62Ibid., p.83.

63The Jewish Talmud as quoted Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy in The Jesus Mysteries, p.138.

 64Beckert, p.53.

Matthew 24, Josephus and the Preterist Apocalypse – February 5, 2016

Olivet Discourse

In Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, that is, His foretelling to the Apostles while on the Mount of Olives about the destruction of Jerusalem and His Second Coming, He said, “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Mt. 24:34) Jesus was predicting to them that Jerusalem and the Temple were going to be destroyed in their lifetimes. He spoke of “the desolating abomination” in the Temple, prophesied by Daniel, a time of great tribulation, false prophets, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecutions, and signs in the sky. Many regard that these prophecies concern the Second Coming of Christ. These are also all markedly similar to the prophecies found throughout the Book of Revelation. So, that raises the question, was Jesus wrong? Did He wrongly predict that these apocalyptic events were going to happen to His Apostles in the first century? Certainly, the first century Christians, the Apostles and disciples were expecting an imminent return of Christ. The Book of Revelation opens with John describing, “what must happen soon.” (Rev. 1:1) Yet, we know Christ did not return in His Second Coming in that generation, and even now, 2,000 years later Christ has not yet returned. So, again, was Jesus incorrect?

The definitive answer is no. As Jesus Himself said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” (Mt. 24:35) Jesus’ words were initially fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The Jewish world, as they knew it in 70 A.D., did, in fact, come to an end. It was an apocalyptic end, as executed by the Roman Empire, against Jerusalem, Israel and Jewish Temple life. This is the Preterist interpretation (Latin praeter meaning “past”) of Christ’s prophecy, and the Book of Revelation. These eschatological prophecies were fulfilled in the devastations of the first century. The Catholic Church holds that these were a microcosm of the events, a type and foreshadowing, of what will happen at the end of the world, just preceding the Second Coming of Christ. The ultimate fulfillment of these prophecies will happen at the end of time, but were initially fulfilled here. The future fulfillment is called the Futurist interpretation. The Catholic Church holds the prophetic words of Christ are to be interpreted together, on multiple levels, and with multiple fulfillments, in both a Preterist interpretation and a Futurist interpretation. The Roman Empire of 70 A.D. and the Roman Caesars, foreshadow as a type, the yet-to-be, future empire of the Antichrist and the final Antichrist himself before the climax of history. As the Catechism teaches, Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.” (CCC 675)

Jesus was predicting the end of the Old Covenant and the removal of the central symbol of that Mosaic Covenant, the Temple. It was to be replaced by the Church, God’s New Covenant, and the New Jerusalem, made in the spiritual temples of Christian believers themselves. Christians, and the Church, the Body of Christ, is the New Temple, where the Holy Spirit dwells. Yet, Christ did not want the desolation of the Jews or Israel. He longed for them to believe in Him. As Jesus lamented over them, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate.” (Mt. 23:37-38) It is not hard to imagine the anguish Jesus felt with His foreknowledge of the destruction that lay ahead for Jerusalem. Jesus longed to save them, but many of them were unwilling to accept Him and His message. This rejection by the Jewish authorities, namely the Pharisees and Sadducees, reaches its climax when Jesus went on trial before the Sanhedrin and was condemned to death. As the Gospel plays out, the false prophets of the Jewish hierarchy, in collusion with the pagan Roman authorities, crucify and kill the Messiah. These are the same themes repeated throughout Scripture, especially in eschatology, concerning the false prophet, the pagan beast or empire, and the persecution of God’s people.

Flavius Josephus

What we are interested in here now, however, is the initial fulfillment, not the final, of these prophecies, the Preterist apocalypse. Fortunately, history has been blessed with firsthand accounts and witnesses to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Flavius Josephus, was a first century Roman, Jewish historian. He wrote extensive, detailed books from the time period called The War of the Jews. It is fairly amazing that any of the passages he wrote offer historical confirmation, sometimes in excruciating detail, of Jesus’ predictions concerning the fall of Jerusalem. For example, Jesus begins His Olivet Discourse by pointing to the Temple saying, “Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” (Mt. 24:2) Josephus affirms the fulfillment of this prophecy writing, “Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple…. it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited.” (Bk 7.1.1) In fact, the Roman army, three legions, surrounded the walled city and lay siege to it for many months, while the Jews were trapped inside.

False Messiahs

Many more parallel confirmations abound. St. Matthew writes that Jesus warns His Apostles to not be deceived by false Messiahs. He says, “See that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many.’” (Mt. 24:4-5) In the time period before the destruction of Jerusalem, in fact, many zealots and false prophets popped up misleading the people. Josephus records this too. He states, “Now, there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose upon the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God: and this was in order to keep them from deserting…. Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers..” (Bk 6.5.2-3) Josephus wrote more about them saying “These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration… and these prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty..” (Bk.2.13.4) Moreover, Josephus spoke about a certain “Egyptian false prophet” that “got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place..” Eventually, the Romans confronted them, and “the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive.” (Bk.2.13.5) The false prophets are related to what Josephus termed the “seditious, “robbers” and “zealots.” These are the ones that took over the city in 66 A.D. provoking the Roman siege. These are the ones that mislead Jerusalem at its fateful hour. Jesus similarly spoke about the false prophets telling them they will hear of “wars and insurrections,” but that will not yet immediately be the end.

Natural Disasters

After this, St. Luke wrote that Jesus tells His Apostles “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place;” (Lk. 21:11) Similarly, the Book of Revelation records, “A loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, “It is done.” Then there were lightning flashes, rumblings, and peals of thunder, and a great earthquake.” (Rev. 16:17-18) Josephus confirms massive storms and earthquakes so large that they interpreted them as portending imminent disaster. Josephus writes, “..for there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshowed some grand calamities that were coming.” (Bk.4.4.5) The Book of Revelation also speaks about a plague of “large hailstones.” It says, and huge hailstones, each weighing about one talent (or, a hundred pounds), dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.” (Rev.16:21) Josephus offers a curiously matching description in his eyewitness account. He says,Now the stones that were cast were of the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and further. The blow they gave was no way to be sustained, not only by those that stood first in the way, but by those that were beyond them for a great space. As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white color, and could therefore not only be perceived by the great noise it made, but could be seen also before it came by its brightness; accordingly the watchmen that sat upon the towers gave them notice when the engine was let go, and the stone came from it, and cried out aloud, in their own country language, ‘The Son Cometh:’ so those that were in its way stood off, and threw themselves down upon the ground; by which means, and by their thus guarding themselves, the stone fell down and did them no harm. But the Romans contrived how to prevent that by blacking the stone, who then could aim at them with success, when the stone was not discerned beforehand, as it had been till then; and so they destroyed many of them at one blow.” (Bk.5.6.3)

Famine and Pestilence

The miseries were piled one upon another as the Jews were trapped behind the walls of the city, as the Roman soldiers encamped outside. For one thing, their food supply was running out. In fact, at one point their supply of corn, a major staple, was destroyed. (Bk.5.10.2) The robbers and the zealots had risen up against their fellow Jews, stealing their food, and leaving them to die. Josephus describes that the encampment around the city and the siege led to a famine so bad that it obliged them to chew everything, while they gathered such things as the most sordid animals would not touch, and endured to eat them; nor did they at length abstain from girdles and shoes; and the very leather which belonged to their shields they pulled off and gnawed: the very wisps of old hay became food to some;” (Bk.6.3.4) The famine was so terrible that, as Josephus bitterly reports, some turned to cannibalism. He tells the story of one desperate woman who ends up killing, cooking and eating her own baby. He reports the men who witnessed this horrible act, along with all of Jerusalem, “trembled.” Josephus states as a matter of fact that, “So those that were thus distressed by the famine were very desirous to die; and those already dead were esteemed happy, because they had not live long enough either to hear or see such miseries.” (Bk.6.3.4) The living envied the dead! Similarly, disease and pestilence spread through the city as it was held under siege. Josephus says, “And indeed the multitude of carcasses that lay in heaps one upon another, was a horrible sight, and produced a pestilential stench..” (Bk.6.1.1)

Mighty Signs from the Sky

Jesus said there would also be “awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” (Lk. 21:11) An incredulous Josephus wrote down what was witnessed in regard to miraculous phenomenon in Jerusalem before its destruction. Here Josephus tells of an ominous star, resembling a sword, that stood over the city; similarly, a comet continued in the sky for a whole year. He mentions a great light shone in the Temple making it as bright as daytime. Moreover, a massive brass and iron door, that required twenty men to open and shut it, swung opened by its own accord. One of the more incredible things witnessed was a heavenly display of chariots and armored soldiers running amidst the clouds. Also, a great noise was heard that sounded like “a great multitude,” saying “Let us remove hence.” As way of speculation, this may have been the voice of God declaring to all He would no longer remain in the Temple, and thus, the end of the Old Covenant. With the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews, the Great Diaspora, the Old Covenant ended and the New Covenant began, officially with the establishment of the Church in Rome. Josephus’ writings on these incredible phenomena are worth quoting at length:

“..while they did not attend, nor give credit, to the signs that were so evident, and did so plainly foretell their future desolation; but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them . Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eight day of the month Xanthicus, [Nisan,] and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day-time; which light lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it.

Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner, [court of the temple,] which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night. Now, those that kept watch in the temple came thereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared, that this signal forshewed the desolation that was coming upon them.

 Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one-and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.” (Bk.6.5.3)   

 The Abomination of Desolation

Returning to the Olivet Discourse, Jesus spoke about the “desolating abomination” of the Temple. He said, “When you see the desolating abomination spoken through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains..” (Mt. 24:15-16) Here, Jesus is referring to the prophecies that Daniel made in the Old Testament concerning the desolation of the Temple, and the end of the world. Daniel prophesied, “From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the horrible abomination is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days.” (Dn.12:11) This prophecy, as with other prophecies from the Bible, has multiple fulfillments over time. The initial fulfillment, and again a foreshadowing type of the Antichrist, the tyrannical Seleucid king, Antioches IV Epiphanes, who set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple in 167 B.C., thus desecrating it. Yet, Jesus refers to the prophecy again, applying it to the coming desecration of the Temple by the Romans. Even in the time of Jesus, the Temple had become a meeting place for evildoers, as Jesus had to drive them out of the Temple, saying they are making it a den of thieves. (Mt. 21:13) By the time 70 A.D. came around, Josephus makes a similar observation that the Temple had become filled with abominations. He wrote, “And now, when the multitude were gotten together to an assembly, and every one was in indignation at these men’s seizing upon the sanctuary, at their rapine and murders but had not yet begun their attacks upon them Agnus stood in the midst of them, and casting his eyes frequently at the temple, and having a flood of tears in his eyes he said, ‘Certainly, it had been good for me to die before I had seen the house of God full of so many abominations, or these sacred places that ought not to be trodden upon at random, filled with the feet of these bloodshedding villains.'” (Bk.4.3.10) And, just as Antiochus Epiphanes had erected the idol Zeus in the Temple, so did he put an end to the “daily sacrifice” (these were the lambs offered twice a day as proscribed in the Mosaic Law: Num. 28:3-4) in the Temple. Josephus records the same cessation with the Roman siege. He said, “..the sacrifice called ‘the Daily Sacrifice’ had failed, and had not been offered to God for want of men to offer it, and that the people were grievously troubled at it..” (Bk.6.2.1)  

Now, a large part of the problems for Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire was its polytheism and imperial cult of emperor worship. Nero Caesar, who’s name in Hebrew adds up to 666, the mark of the beast from Revelation, reigned from 54 – 68 A.D., was a great persecutor of Christians, and is seen as a forerunner to and a type of the Antichrist. He also claimed to be divine. The refusal of Christians to participate in this imperial cult, of emperor worship of various Caesars, led to many of the early martyrdoms. St. Jerome, in his Commentary on the Book of Daniel, expressed this idea, “And so there are many of our viewpoint who think that Domitius Nero was the Antichrist because of his outstanding savagery and depravity.” This was no less true for the Roman soldiers, who participated in the imperial cultus, and even worshipped their own ensigns with the eagle. In the Jewish and Christian mind, this is all idolatry and blasphemy. Yet, Josephus wrote that the Roman soldiers brought their ensigns, especially the eagle emblem, and their idolatrous religion to Jerusalem. Then, upon entering and conquering the city, they set up their ensigns in the Temple and worshiped them, another fulfillment of the desolating abomination. Josephus wrote, “And now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy.” (Bk.6.6.1)

The Siege of Jerusalem

Now, in the corresponding passage in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is at hand. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. Let those within the city escape from it, and let those in the countryside not enter the city, for these days are the time of punishment when all scriptures are fulfilled… They will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken as captives to all the Gentiles; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk.21:20-24) Firstly, Josephus records that Vespasian had surrounded the city with his armies. He says, And now Vespasian had fortified all the places round about Jerusalem..” (Bk.4.9.1) He says they camped initially at the Mount of Olives, and then, they built in three days, a wall in that “encompassed the city.” (Bk.5.12.3) Yet, we know that the Christians actually took heed to the warning of Christ, as there are no recorded deaths of Christians, miraculously perhaps, within the city. They saw the armies of Vespasian and Titus in Judea and fled towards Jordan. Similarly, when there was a break in the siege of Jerusalem, upon hearing of Nero’s death, they took that opportunity to escape the city. The early Christian scholar Eusebius recorded it this way, “The whole body, however, of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella. To Pella those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem; and as if holy men had utterly abandoned the royal metropolis of the Jews and the entire Jewish land, the judgment of God at last overtook them for their abominable crimes against Christ and His apostles, completely blotting out that wicked generation from among men.” (Bk.3.5) The Christians had taken Jesus’ advice and fled to the mountains!

The Great Tribulation

The death and destruction visited upon Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is nearly unimaginable. Jesus Himself prophesied, “..for at that time there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect they will be shortened.” (Mt. 24:21-22) Josephus, as an eyewitness to these calamities, was able to confirm Jesus’ prophecy. Josephus wrote, “Whereas the war which the Jews made with the Romans hath been the greatest of all those, not only that have been in our times, but in a manner, of those that ever were heard of; both of those wherein cities have fought against cities, or nations against nations.” (Preface.1) He continued, “Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were..” (Preface.4) Josephus related that the siege began during the feast of unleavened bread, or Passover, meaning Jews from all over Israel and beyond would have been visiting Jerusalem, swelling the number of people in the city. (Bk.5.3.1) Josephus speculated that the number of people killed during the siege is at least 1,100,000, and the number taken captive at 97,000. What a massive calamity! Over a million people killed and nearly a hundred thousand taken into bondage. He wrote, “Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those that perished during the whole siege eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army, which, at the very first, occasioned so great a straitness among them that there came a pestilential destruction upon them, and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly.” (Bk.6.9.3) With that, the seven year tribulation from 63 A.D. to 70 A.D. came to an end, as Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and the Jewish people slaughtered and cast into a diaspora among the Gentile nations for the next two millennia. Therefore, Jesus’ warnings about the coming apocalypse, for that generation, were most definitely fulfilled. For its part, the early Church continued to suffer persecution and martyrdom under the Roman Empire, as Christians steadfastly refused to participate in imperial cults, emperor worship or sacrifice. This, just as Jesus had predicted, you will be hated by all nations because of My name,” (Mt. 24:9) and a foreshadowing of the final fulfillment of Christ’s words.