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.
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!
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.