In an earlier blog post I commented on a published email exchange between skeptical biblical scholar Bart Ehrman and Frank Zindler, former editor of American Atheist Magazine. During the exchange, Zindler took the position that many elements of Christianity are in fact ripped-off from the Roman mystery cult of Mithras. This time I’ll tackle another of his claims from that exchange.
Mr. Zindler believes that the office of the papacy is directly descended from a supposed Mithraic leader who shared many of the same attributes. To make his point, Zindler quotes from Arthur Drews' The Legend of Saint Peter: A Contribution to the Mythology of Christianity:
In Rome there exists a so-called 'chair of Peter,' allegedly connected to the 'first Roman bishop.' In reality, however, its decoration shows it to be derived from the Mithra cult. In particular, it shows the zodiac as well as the labors of the sun god on its front side, and allows absolutely no doubt that the priest who exercised his powers of office from the chair was not the Christian, but rather the Mithraic Pater Patrum [Father of Fathers] or the Pater Patratus—as the high priest of the Persian rock god chose to be called. Like the present ruler of Roman Catholic Christianity, he too had his See upon the Vatican Hill. Moreover, he enjoyed the protection of Attis, the dying and resurrecting young god of the Phrygian mysteries formerly recognized by the state, who with his mother Cybele, the archetype of the Christian Mary, had long been worshipped upon the Vatican Hill. Attis also bore the name of Papa, i.e., "Father." And "Father" simultaneously is the name assumed by the high priest of this god who, like the "Successor upon the throne of Peter," wore a tiara upon his head and likewise possessed the power "to bind and to loose.
There is, of course, the so-called sella gestatoria, 'the chair of peter,' which he is supposed to have used when he was the first bishop. It was exhibited publicly for a while in the sixties of the last century, but then prudently it was withdrawn again from the gaze of the profane crowd. That it had no relationship with Peter was only too apparent.
This is the perfect example of typical mythicist strategy: Pack as many claims as you can into a single argument. This makes the argument seem more credible to someone who may not have encountered it before, and it can be rather intimidating because there’s a lot here to refute. Zindler’s citation can be boiled down to three essential points:
- The Chair of Peter has inscriptions on it that were popular in Mithraism. This seems to indicate that the chair belonged to the Mithraic Pater (Father).
- This “Father” also had a See on Vatican Hill and a dying and rising god protected his authority.
- Therefore, the office of pope is really an extension of the Mithraic Pater.
These may sound like ridiculous claims to you, and they should. But even the most absurd claims deserve an answer because there are many people like Zindler who genuinely believe them.
The Real Story Behind the Chair of Peter:
There is an actual “Chair of Peter.” It’s an ancient wooden chair encased in a sculpture by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini located in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There is some question about the authenticity of this particular relic.
While the Original Catholic Encyclopedia concludes that “there is no reason for doubting the genuineness of the relic preserved at the Vatican,” Pope Benedict XVI was much more cautious in declaring it genuine.
The Vatican State website also explains very plainly, “Inside the Chair is a wooden throne, which, according to tradition, was used by the first Apostle. It was, however, actually a gift from Charles the Bald to the Pope in 875.”
Mithraism was dead and gone hundreds of years before this, and so it seems the chair cannot be traced back to a time when the cult had any influence at all.
What about the decorative zodiac?
The zodiac was hardly confined to the Mithras cult. In fact, it is a coordinate system based on the path of the sun on the celestial sphere that was widely used in the Roman Empire and beyond. Various cults throughout time have made use of it, but this does not mean that it is always and everywhere a sign of occult influence.
This matters because Zindler tries to connect the chair to a specific cult based on its decorative elements (It’s very hard to tell exactly what is depicted on the chair from old photographs). It does not follow that the appearance of these signs is enough to connect it to any particular cult, and the appearance of the zodiac would not be surprising given the Church’s long history of interest in the science of astronomy.
What about the “sella gestatoria”?
To make an already weak argument even weaker, Zindler’s quote states,
There is, of course, the so-called sella gestatoria, ‘the chair of peter,’ which he is supposed to have used when he was the first bishop . . . That it had no relationship with Peter was only too apparent.
It’s actually called the Sedia gestatoria (chair for carrying) and it has nothing to do with the Chair of Peter. Contrary to the claim, there was more than one and the Vatican never hid any of them. They were used to carry popes until 1978 when the famous “Popemobile” replaced them.
Zindler makes other interesting claims about the supposed connection between Mithraism and the papacy. In my next blog post we will investigate the role of the Pater Patrum to see if it really had any similarities to the office of the pope, the history of Vatican Hill, and the other claims made by Zindler.