Good Shepherd ring: Christian or Mithraic?
A gold ring was discovered from an underwater wreck outside the port of Caesarea, Israel. The remains found with it included silver Roman coins of the third century. The ring has an octagonal external shape with a gemstone and an engraved figure of a boy in a tunic carrying an animal (identified as a sheep) over his shoulders. Helena Sokolov, a curator at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) coin department who researched the Good Shepherd ring, said that while the image exists in early Christian symbolism, representing Jesus as a caring shepherd, tending to his flock and guiding those in need, finding it on a ring was rare.
Most news reports (Smithsonian, AFP and Reuters etc.) all seem to quote the same archaeologist who made the announcement saying the 'Good Shepherd' was an early Christian symbol from the second century.
However I have my doubts. Christians did not go in for images of Christ, except when the 'church' became mixed with the surrounding religions (syncretism). Certainly not the Jewish Christians, the Nazarenes.
The figure appears to be that of a young boy with short, Roman-style hair.
I wondered whether it was derived from Mithraism -- which came from the East and spread as far as Britain. The ring figure wears something at the calf or ankle. Are they boots? If so they seem to be non-Jewish.
I found the following image in Mithra, ce dieu mysterieux by Martin Vermaseren.
The design dates from the second century from the Mithraeum (Temple of Mithra) at Neuenheim, near Heidelberg, Germany. The tunic and hair style seem similar.
It would be easy for the animal to be down sized to become a sheep. That's a bit more logical and feasible than hanging a bull around your neck. It would also open a syncretic path to confusion, then deception, of 'true believers' among the Nazarenes to submit to the central religious powers of Rome.
For what purpose would this modification be done? In the second century a religious struggle was engaged between Mithraism and Christianity. The ring makes this ambiguous. How can anyone distinguish whether this is supposedly a Christian symbol (albeit idolatrous) or a Mithraic one?
The octagonal shape may represent the seven stages of Mithraic initiation rites leading to the gemstone.
Mithra is usually associated with killing a heifer. That is far from a Christian symbol. He is pictured on its back and cutting its throat with a dagger. But not always. The Mithraeum at Rome contains a verse about Mithra 'carrying the young bull on his shoulders': 'qui portavit umeris invencum.' So the basic design is perfectly consonant with Mithraic theology.
Is the ring Mithraic or early Christian? Is it syncretic, meant to deceive?
Let's examine the classical figure of Mithra and the bull.
The only thing that the figure on the ring lacks is the Phrygian cap which is typical of Mithra. For any deception to take place the first thing that had to go was the Phrygian cap. Christ obviously did not wear a Phrygian cap!
Trousers! What! A figure of "Christ" wearing trousers?
If they gem engravers meant to deceive Nazarenes and Jews they made a mistake that shows the deception. The figure on the ring is not wearing calf boots. As the statue shows Mithra was wearing trousers under his tunic. The well-defined markings at the calf do not indicate a boot but the bottom edge, the turn-ups, of a pair of trousers.
A fatal flaw if the originators or modern religionists wanted to pass it off as 'Christian'.
Trousers were the garments of Scythians and those 'barbarians' outside the Roman Empire. They included the Arsacid Parthians and Scythians of Israelite extraction. Christ called them the 'lost sheep of the house of Israel' Matt 10:6. His brother James wrote a Letter to all twelve tribes outside the land of Israel, James 1:1.
What would the Mithraic heifer mean to the people of Caesarea and northern Israel?
The Golden Heifer (Golden Calf) was the center of Israelite idolatry out of Egypt. For the northern ten tribes their retention of heifer worship led them into the Assyrian captivity. They were then exiled for this idolatry beyond the Euphrates into what became the Persian Empire, the Greco-Macedonian and later the Parthian Empire.
The Parthians and other Eastern countries, some of whose dynasties had kings with Israelite pedigree, often had Mithra as part of their name like Mithradates (Given or dedicated to Mithras). In the first century BCE, Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus fought three wars with Rome, and killed tens of thousands of Romans. He claimed to be of mixed Persian and Greco-Macedonian lineage, speaking the 22 languages of his subject peoples. Then Mithraism became the most popular cult of the Roman army. The slaughter of the young bull showed Mithra was master of creation.
In documents later released from the Roman archives, Titus made clear that his intent in destroying the Temple was to eliminate both Judaism and Christianity. The Temple was a City State to which Julius Caesar had pledged independence of religion.
Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and Jews scattered, the Romans tried by fair means or foul (mainly foul) to wipe out the Nazarene faith. While the Temple stood, vast riches in tithes and offering were sent from Phrygia, Pontus to Parthia, from Egypt to the Atlantic (Acts 2:9).
The Jewish Wars had depleted the Roman imperial coffers. So all Jews were forced to make the same Temple tax contribution but this time to Rome. For Roman tax collectors, the Nazarenes, who also contributed to the Temple and kept the Sabbath and festivals, appeared to be Jews. If they were non-Jews they were subject to severe persecution and contempt as traitors.
How could these last, remaining, obstinate people be turned to give not only money but mind and soul to Rome?
Syncretism was the usual path where societies modified the characteristics of the classical gods to fit local custom. That way everyone was in step to acknowledge the religious power of Rome. Deception and disinformation might blunt successive generations of Nazarenes who did not accept the Pontifex maximus and the worship of Caesar.
The question of 'Who is supreme god?' was posed when Christ was asked 'Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?' The coin that was shown to him bore a likeness and the title Pontifex Maximus, supreme priest of all religions in the empire. (Jesus, James, Joseph and the Temple, p325)
With the Resurrection and the failure of emperor Gaius Caligula in 41 CE to refute it by setting his imperial headquarters in the Temple, Rome suffered a major religious reverse. The ancient pantheon of gods from Jupiter, Minerva, Mars, died. With the death of paganism, masses were turning to some syncretic forms of Christianity or the simpler Sun worship of Sol invictus or Helios.
Then help for paganism came from the East, and the greatest enemies of the Jewish faith.
In the 200s the Severian Caesars, such as Elagabalus (also called Heliogabulus), were heavily influenced by Syrian Baal worship through marriage and offspring. They originated in Emesa, a center of Baal worship and were experts in syncretism. That made persecution of those who refused this disinformation and heathenism very difficult and even deadly for them. The Caesars maintained their powers over all religions through the office of Pontifex Maximus.
On 20 November in the year 202, Caesar Septimus Severus and his Syrian wife Julia Domna erected a Mithraeum on Rome's Aventine Hill in the former private villa of Hadrian.
The 25 December was the festival day at the Mithraeum to celebrate Mithra's birth and the coming of light. His birth was seen as a cosmic and miraculous event as the young god was ejected by a magic interior force from a rock (petra genitrix) welcomed by shepherds. Ready for action, he was completely naked except for his Phrygian cap, and armed with a flaming torch (or a globe) and a dagger.
This Mithra with the shepherds may have been combined with the dying cult of Hermes, the shepherd god. He is most often pictured near naked, occasionally in a tunic. Certainly no trousers.
The combination of these events and characteristics make it likely that Mithra was a prime object of the syncretism for wiping out remnants of Christianity and subjecting them to the religious monopoly power of the Pontifex Maximus. Believers would be faced with the crucial and lethal choice of deciding whether to accept images and rites that could, on the face of it, be ambiguous symbols they could accept. Or they could face the consequences if they refused.
Mithra was associated or identified with the Sun god, Sol invictus. The struggle between Mithraism and Christianity lasted beyond the reign of Constantine in the 330s. Constantine declared himself to be a worshipper of Sol invictus. That shows there is every reason to suppose that efforts were made to combine worship and symbolism of Gentile Christianity with Mithraism.