The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

by Adolph (von) Harnack
translated and edited by James Moffatt
Second, enlarged and revised English edition;
London: Williams and Norgate / New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908 (from the 2nd German edition)..
Theological Translation Library, volumes 19-20

From the German, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924)

[[being updated (also consulting the 4th German edition) and adapted by RAK for use in 2004 America]]

[[Book 4, Chapter 3, page 317]]



THANKS to Cumont's fine work, Les Mysteres de Mithra\1/ (1900, with a map illustrating the diffusion of the cult throughout the Roman empire),\2/ we now know the main features, as completely as possible, of the history of Mithraism and the extent of its diffusion. It is instructive to compare its spread with that of Christianity, for

A glance at Cumont's map, however, reveals at once the difference between the two religions; in fact it shows why the cult of Mithra could not gain the day, and why, its religion could not but be weak,, despite the wide extent, of its diffusion. For almost the entire domain of Hellinism was closed to it, and consequently Hellenism itself. Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, Bithynia, Asia, the central provinces of Asia Minor (apart from [[318]] Cappadocia), Syria, Palestine, and Egypt\4/ -- none of these ever any craving for the cult of Mithra. And these were the civilized countries KCrr' e'JOXV'Y. They were closed to Mithra, and as he thus failed\5/ to get into touch at all, or at an early stage at any rate, with Hellenism, his cult was condemned to the position of a barbarous sect or conventicle. Now these were the very regions in which Christianity found an immediate and open welcome, the result being that the latter religion came at once into a vital contact with Hellenism, which led before long to a fusion of the two., Lay a map of the spread of Mithraism (in the East) beside a map of the spread of Christianity, and you will observe that what is marked white in the one is black in the other, and vice versa. The historian at once sees that the former had to perish, and the latter to survive. Throughout the regions lying between the south coast of the Adriatic and the Taurus, between Pontus and the cataracts of the Nile, there was never any struggle at all between Mithraism and Christianity. Nowhere within these bounds, apart from a few towns upon the coast, was anything known of Mithra.

\1/ Cp. German ed. by Gehrich (1903); Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie (1903); and Roese, Uber Mithrasdienst (Stralsunder Programm, 1905). For attempts to connect Peter's primacy with Mithra, cp. Grill, Der Primat Petri (1904).

\2/ Eng. ed. and trans. of his smaller work by T. J. M'Cormack (1903 ; London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.).

\3/ The oldest dedicatory inscription to Mithra comes from a freedman of the Flavian house, circa 80 A.D., when Commagene and Armenia Minor, after Cappadocia and Pontus, had been added by Vespasian to the empire (cp. Roese, p. 27). It is a remarkable coincidence that the earliest Roman Christian writer, Clement, was also, in all probability, a freedman of the Flavians; cp. also the consul F. Flavius Clemens and his wife Domititlla, and also the fact that a Mithraeum underlies the ancient Clementine church at Rome.

\4/ With the exception of the cosmopolitan Alexandria.

\5/ When he finally got into touch with it, somewhere during the second half of
the third century, when Mithra became Demiurgus, Logos, etc., it was too late.


It was otherwise in the West. There Mithraism is not visible till after the close of the first century, and even during the second century its diffusion is still limited. But after the reign of Commodus it increases at a rapid rate, occupying province after province. From Cumont's map we can plainly see that soldiers were the real supporters or missionaries of the cult. Adherents of Mithra are most numerous in Dacia, Moesia, Noricum, Rhaetia, and Germany, always on the boundaries of these provinces--as well as in remote Britain and in the military Cappadocia. Next to the soldiers, it was Syrian traders, and especially Oriental slaves (as we learn from the ancient inscriptions), who spread the cult. But a diffusion of this kind counts for very little, and, as a matter of fact, while Mithraism permeated almost all the Western empire, it was of no importance. as a universal religion until about 180 A.D. This change occurred as soon as it was recognized at Rome that the imperial [[319]] cultus and Mithmism were calculated to afford each other mutual support. Cumont, has rightly brought this out in pp. 33-41 of his monograph (the section entitled "Mithra et le pouvoir imperial "), pp. 13-32 having been already devoted to a survey of the spread of the religion. The cult of Mithra now passed beyond the soldiers' tents and the settlements of the veterans, to reach the officers of the army and to penetrate the world where people were socially connected with officials of high rank and with the emperor. And it vivified the imperial cultus as it went (this cultus of the holy, the blessed, the invincible, the etemal One, the sun-king). In the third century Rome was simply the headquarters of the Mithra-cult, in which and with which the emperor was worshipped as co-essential with the sun, "consubstantivum soli." Middle and Upper Italy also, as well as the capital, had a large share in the cult.

Did it form, we may ask, any real rival to Christianity throughout the West ? To this question, in spite of the swift and wide expansion of the cult, I cannot give an affirmative answer. In the first place, we know nothing about the number of its adherents in the different localities; we have much more accurate information upon the numerical strength of the Christian churches. Secondly, despite the deep significance of its mysterieses and concepfions--which on a superficial view, reveal many points of resemblance to those of Christianity\6/ -- [[320]] despite its flexibility and powers of assimilation, Mithmism seldom managed to rise, even in the West (so far as I know), to the higher levels of intellectual culture. Even when it did so, it was comparatively late in the day; and by that time Christianity was no longer in fear of any rival.\7/ The emperor and the army supported it, and this lent it an importance in wider circles. But a religion whose influence, properly speaking, was confined to the capital and to the outer circumference of the empire--a circumference of which large sections soon lapsed [[321]] definitely into barbarian hands--such a religion could not possibly win a decisive triumph over the world. Galerius would fain have enforced Mithraism, at the instigation of its priests. The cult had become a shield and safeguard for all the rest of the decaying cults. But the attempt failed, and Constantine gave the quietus to any hopes cherished by the priests of Mithra. Certainly, Julian's philosophic worship of the sun, with which even philosophic Hellenism finally tried to establish some points of contact, would have favoured Mithraism. Only, it proved itself abortive.

\6/ The fathers of the church do not seem to me (as against Roese, p. 28) to display any serious apprehensions about Mithmraism, although of course they are astonished at several points of resemblance between it and Christianity. See, e.g., Tert., de Proescr. xl. : " Tingit diabolus quosdam, utique credentes et fideles suos, expositionem delictorum de lavacro repromittit: et si adhuc memini, Mitbm signat illic in frontibus milites suos; celebrat et panis oblationem et imaginem resurrectionis inducit et sub gladio redimit coronam. quid quod et summum pontificem in unius nuptiis statuit? habet et virgines, habet et continentes" ("The devil baptizes certain folk, his believers and faithful ones, promising remission of sins after immersion. And if I still recollect aright, Mithra there sets a mark on the forehead of his soldiers, celebrates the oblation of bread, introduces a symbol of the resurrection, and wins a crown under the sword. And what are we to say of Satan restricting his high-priest to one marriage? The devil, too, has his virgins, and his chaste celibates ") ; also, de Corona, xv., and particularly a number of earlier passages in the Apology and Dialogue of Justin. As for the relation between Mithraism and Christianity, I would sum up my conclusions as follows. (i.) As religions of redemption, both had certain vital principles in common, which stretched far back (perhaps to the influence of Persian religion on Judaism; but how far?). Yet (ii.) the historical and Biblical conceptions of Christianity had nothing to do with Mithraism. (iii.) The rites and worship of the church show no trace of Mithra's influence; any coincidences are either specious or, so to speak, natural (due to the essence of both religions and to contemporary feeling, as well as to the religious substratum common to both). (iv.) So far as there is anything more than coincidences, it is more likely that Mithraism borrowed from the church than vice versa. This is Roese's opinion also. He writes as follows (pp. 28 f.), after depicting the coincidences and resemblances [e.g., the mystery of a divine sacrificial death, eternal bliss won by a conflict with fleshly lusts, crypts, priests, church, candles, lamps, catechumens, baptism, the meal of brotherhood with bread and wine, the reckoning of the week, Sunday, dies solis invicti= 25th December, birth in cave, the shepherds, apotheosis, etc.] : "What was the origin of these resemblances? In both religions the fundamental idea of a redemption is so essential, in its similarities and differences alike, to the origin and characteristic nature of each, that any derivation seems out of the question. With regard to the details of the sacred tradition and the external forms of worship, further investigation is needed to prove whether Mithraism borrowed from Christianity or Christianity from Mithraism, and if so to what extent. Two reasons, in my opinion, favour the conclusion (in spite of Cumont's and Dieterich's'scepticism) that the scale will incline in favour of Christianity in this new sphere of inquiry: (i) the extraordinary adaptation of Mithraism to the religions of those countries, from Babylonia to Italy, through which it hurried in triumph; (2) as regards details, the circumstance that, e.g,., the,representation of shepherds at the birth of Mithra occurs only on sporadic large altar-pictures of the cult, and even there only furtively, whereas, had it been a genuine part of the Mithra-legend, it would occur more or less plainly in all the crypts. . Further, although the celebration of a mystic meal can be shown to have formed part of other Oriental forms of worship (eg., that of Jupiter Dolicheus), still, the religious celebration of a love-feast of believers in Christianity, which went back to the Lord's supper, appears to be almost foreign to the primitive Iranian tradition as well as to the Chaldean."

\7/ It must be admitted, however, that we still know very little about the content of the cultus ; the literary tradition is extremely reticent upon this point, though Dieterich's discovery of a liturgy (ie., the liturgy of the sacrament of immortality) has certainly extended our knowledge to a surprising and significant degree. It is probable, though of course not certain, that we have here an actual liturgy of Mithra.

If Mithraism, as such, is not to be regarded either as a very dangerous rival, or as the rival, to Christianity, it is idle to look for any soecial pagan religion--except the imperial cultus of the state-religion\8/ -- which would seriously threaten the Christian propaganda. The Fathers of the church must have known if any special religion was their chief opponent, and if so what. But they are silent on the subject. Their opposition is directed against the state-religion, i.e., against the state and its idea of religion. Everything else was more or less une quantite negligeable, which might excite anger or ridicule, but nothing more. Even the widely spread religion of Egypt forms no exception to the rule;\9/ for in my opinion Domaszewski is wrong in holding tht it formed the unifying element in the East since the days of Hadrian\10/ (Mitteil. des rom. Instituts, xvii. pp. 333 f.) We may adduce Celsus at this point. What sort of religion does he set in motion against Christianity, in his elaborate 'A((((( (((((? None and all! He is too much of a philosopher to oppose the imperial cultus simpliciter to Chirstianity; hence he could not go too far against the Christians. But ot make play with a special religion!--only a fanatic could do that! Such religions only survived in conventicles [[322]] and as superstitions, since the day when the Romans vanquished the country and its deity. There was nothing for it then but to recommend all pagan religions impartially "which existed by favour of the state." Choose which you please--none is exclusive. Or rather, Celsus impartially refused to recommend any. He would appeal to the patriotism which could not tolerate any ((((((( ("atheism"), but which prescribed nothing beyond the cult of the imperial Divus.

\8/ Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (Gesch. der griech. Religion, reprinted from the Jahbuch der Fr. Deutschen Hochstifts, 1904, pp. 23 f. ) has brilliantly shown how this is to be understood and appreciated.

\9/ Cp. Erman (Die Aegyptische Religion, 1905, pp. 240 f.) on the religion of Egypt, its diffusion throughout Europe, its simplification, and its spiritualization.

\10/ As Reitzenstein has shown (Poimandres, 1904); the significane of this religion has hitherto been underestimated, but I do not think its influence upon the best kind of Christianity was serious.

A complete history of the Christian propaganda would include the history of the spread of each religion (Egyptian, Syrian, etc.) during the imperial perios. But this would not furnish much material for church history. Such cults were inwardly on the point of death. The sort of religion to which they had given expression in their classic phase was perishing. Once it came to be a question of combining religion with a confession, a question of personal religion, of religious philosophy and public worship, then Christianity, with its foothold on Hellenistic Judaism and its possession of the Bible, easily surpassed them. It was a struggle between dwarfs and a giant. Even their united forces failed to subdue their rival, and the more they tried to imitate his armour, the wekaer grew their opposition.

But what of Neoplatonism? What did it lack? Was it not monotheism, the cult of the sun, philosophy, and personal faith in one? Was it not in touch with earlier religions, and did it not take possession of the heritage left by civilization as a whole? It certainly had all these elements. It took possession of many important cults, recognized the sun-god in all, and hailed even to the "deus philosophurum" under his name. This made it about 300 A.D. really the most dangerous opponent of the church. Did its cardinal weakness consist in the fact that the fact that it came too late upon the scene, since the church had already appropriated the idealist philosophy as its own, had already shpaed its organization and penetrated deeply into the masses of the people?\11/ Or was it that Neoplatonism lacked the [[323]] exclusive note? To exclude Christianity alone was no use; the vagueness remained irreparable. Or again, was it weak because it was in a sense esoteric, though it vainly tried to throw off this esoteric element? Was it really unable to reach the common people? Was it a philosophy rather than a religion ? Or, finally, did it lack a "praesens numen," the Son of God made son of man (filius dei factus filius hominis)? This was Augustine's conviction. But the previous factors, we have mentioned all co-operated. Perhaps, however, the matter was still more simple. Perhaps it was not a question of one religion against another but simply of the state. The state withdrew its state-religion, and this meant the downfall of every religion which had hitherto been protected, together with its philosophy. All that was left was the religion which hitherto had neither been a state-religion nor enjoyed the protection of the state. The opposition party became now the ruling party. And yet--the great revolution was not carried out quite so smoothly. We have good reason to define precisely the content and the value of the rival powers. Nevertheless it remains true that while the church encountered ,opposition from other religions, none of them was specially dangerous to her, whilst her strongest opponent, Neoplatonisin, came too late upon the scene and proved too aristocratic.

\11/ Origen (Hom. xiv, 3, in Genes., t. 8, p. 255) has given a very characteristic opinion on the relation of Christian theologians to the idealost philosophy: "Philosophy is not in all points opposed to the law of God, nor in accord with it. For many philosophers write that there is one God, the Creator of all things. In this they agree with the law of God. Some add that God made and rules all things by His word, and that it is by the word of God that all things are regulated. In this their arguments agree not only with the law of God, but with the gospels. Nay, moral and so-calkd physical philosophies agrees in nearly all respects with us. But they differ from us in asserting that matter is co-eternal with the deity, in denying that God cares for mortal affairs, but that His providence is restricted to spheres above the moon. They differ from us in making the lives of men at birth depend on the courses of the stars, and in alleging that this world is eternal, and destined to no end. In many other respects they agree with us or differ from us" (" Philosophia neque in omnibus legi dei contraria est, neque in omnibus consona. multi enim philosophorum unum esse deum, qui cuncta creaverit, scribunt. In hoc consentiunt legi dei. Aliquanti etiam hoc addiderunt, quod deus cuncta per verbum suum et fecerit et regat, et verbum dei sit, quo cuncta moderentur. in hoc non solum legi, sed etiam evangeliis consona scribunt. moralis vero et physica quae dicitur philosophia pene omnia, quae nostra sunt, sentiunt. dissident vero a nobis, cum deo dicunt esse materiam coaeternam. dissident, cum negant deum curare mortalia, sed providentiam eius supra lunaris globi spatia cohiberi. dissident a nobis, cum vitas nascentium ex stellarum cursibus pendunt. dissident, cum sempiternam dicunt hunc mundum et nullo fine claudendum. sed et alia plurima sunt, in quibus nobiscum vel dissident vel concordant"). Origen says nothing about the incarnation or the resurrection.

[[end of 4.3.Appendix 3]]