These days the big think in many conservative evangelical circles is to excavate ‘true Christianity’ from 20 centuries of pagan contamination. While I can sympathize with the sentiment, there’s an awful lot of specious rubbish in the movement. Any possible early church father quote is used to demonstrate early contamination with pagan ideas, and anything that doesn’t match the agenda of restoring the original Jewishness of Christianity (again a sentiment I generally sympathize with) is evidence of this contamination. One of the most egregarious of these is Richard Rives.
One of his most recent 3 minute videos declaring that the cross is a pagan symbol is based entirely around quotes from the late 2nd, early 3rd Century theologian and writer Tertullian. However, Rives (catch phrase ‘Just the facts’) is very disingenuous with the quotes. He makes them seem to say the opposite of what Tertullian said and support Rives favourite theory that modern day Christianity is derived from Mithras worship. He achieves this by bracketing the quotes with totally unsupported and unsubstantiated quotes about the ancient world. He starts by saying that all the pagans of Tertullians day knew that the cross image came from pagan worship. No evidence for this given. He then asserts that Tertullian is challenged over this and tries to explain. No evidence for this – the quote certainly is about misconceptions about Christian practice and counter arguments to criticisms. The particular charge is that Christians venerate the cross. Essentially Tertullian says what’s the problem with that, since particular forms (possibly cross-like) are venerated in the standards of victory used in Roman religion. He is referring to the Roman army especially, where it is true that Mithraism was strong. His point is that reverence for a symbol happens in other religions. This is not the same as acknowledging that the cross was co-opted from paganism. After all, the simple fact is that a cross shape, as in Roman standards, is an eminently practical shape for various purposes. It reminds me of the old tale about the insanity of trying to remove all crosses of any kind. Fences would have to go among other things.
Then Rives states that Tertullian says Mithraists put a symbol, similar to the Christians, on the foreheads of their devotees. He tries to leave the impression that it was a cross symbol, even though Tertullian doesn’t imply this at all. Many religions put symbols on the foreheads of devotees – forehead is a logical place – a public display on a part of the anatomy easily viewed and seen as important, the source or the mind. In the bible, God puts symbols on foreheads in Ezekiel, and in Revelation, but also the anti-christ has his mark there also. It was a standard place to ‘brand’ a devotee. There is absolutely no reason to assume that Christianity borrowed such a practice from Mithraism. Again Rives makes a statement without supporting evidence – that pagans of the day knew full well that the cross had been a pagan religious symbol for centuries before Christ, implying that Tertullian is very much on the back feet, defensive of necessity. But this ignores the fact that a) symbols are mutlivalent, and more importantly b) there were many different forms of crosses. Just because Christians had a cross symbol would not mean Tertullian’s audience would have linked it to the many different cross symbols in use. The Christian symbol was unique in that it was based on the execution device the Romans used so ubiquitously. It wasn’t borrowed from another religion.
Ironically Rives used the same flawed arguments that crack-pot anti-Christian conspiracy theorists use. There is a small, but vocal deluded movement to say that Christianity was just a re-hash of ancient mystery religions, particularly Mithraism. Most of the parallels are vastly over-drawn, often totally imaginary or co-incidental. But the interesting thing is that most mainstream scholars today would argue that the ‘Christian-like’ elements in Mithraism are only evidenced in later centuries, after the rapid rise of Christianity. In other words, if there was any borrowing it was the wrong way round for Rives and his wretched revision of history. Despite his ‘Just the facts’ tagline, Rives is presenting a perversion of true Christian history.
If you want more information on the real issues over the relationship of Christianity and Mithraism, you could do worse than look at the very comprehensive discussions here and here, or at this general discussion about related issues about Tertullian and the earlier church father Justin Martyr here, or the brief but pertinent disussion that does deal with the real Jewish roots of Christian practices said to be ‘pagan’ here.