In the hundred years before and the few hundred years after the death of Jesus, the most popular pagan religion in the Roman Empire was Mithraism. Many of the main mantras of Mithraism found their way into the Bible and the traditions of Christianity.
It was one of the oldest religious systems on earth, dating from the dawn of written history, circa 2000 BCE, long before Judaism, and before the primitive Iranian race divided into the branches that became Persian and Indian. It dominated Persia and the vast regions of the Orient in ancient times, so when the Christ myth was new, Mithraism was already ancient.
It involved the idolization of the Indo-Iranian sun-god Mithras. It was a monotheistic religion, a feature sometimes falsely claimed by Christians to be the monopoly of Judaism and Christianity. Zoroaster, a Persian philosopher who gave final form to the faith, lived at least six hundred years before Christ.
The Persians who practiced Mithraism influenced the Jewish scripture writers during the Babylonian Captivity.
The religion entered Europe following the conquests of Alexander the Great. The faith found its way to Rome in the 60s BCE, when Pompey’s legions first encountered it in Syria and brought it back home. Its foremost fans in the Roman Empire were the legionnaires (a soldier in a Roman legion).
It spread with great rapidity, and was patronized and protected by a number of emperors up to and including Constantine. Several of them built temples to Mithras. By the year 200 CE, it flourished throughout the empire. It had spread widely throughout the army, and also among traders and slaves. Mithras was even proclaimed the principal patron of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Aurelian in 274 CE. Sites of Mithraic worship have been found in Armenia, Britain, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, North Africa, Persia, Romania, Syria, and Turkey. It reached its zenith during the third century, only to be stamped out by Christianity in the fourth.
There were no Mithraic scriptures. The religion revolved around reverence of the sun. The character Mithras was the son of the “sun god.” Mithras represented fidelity, manliness, and bravery. The cult emphasized fellowship and brotherliness and a secret bond among its members. It excluded women. The mysteries of Mithras were celebrated in underground temples, built in imitation of caves, called methraei. In every Mithraic temple, the place of honor was occupied by a tauroctony, a representation of the character Mithras killing a sacred bull. Mithras is depicted as an energetic young man, wearing a cap, a short tunic that flares at the hem, pants, and a cloak that streamed out behind him. Mithras grasps the bull so as to force it into submission, with his knee on its back and one hand heaving back its head while he stabs it in the neck with a short sword. This scene was reenacted in real life, when each initiate into the religion was baptized in the bull’s blood, partaking of its life-giving properties.
Joseph Wheless, writing in the 1930s, provided some of the following insights into Mithraism. Mithras was the mediator between God and humans. The ethical system was built upon the principle that a war raged between good and evil. A Good Spirit had given men his divine revelation and law through the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster). An Evil Spirit tempted people to transgress the Law. Humans had free will, able to place themselves on the side of good or evil. The believers were the good guys who battled on Mithras’ side.
After death, one’s destiny was decided according to whether the Good Spirit had been obeyed. Virtues and vices were enumerated and estimated. Special value was attributed to the virtues of adherence to religious practices, truthfulness, purity, and generosity to the poor. Importance was placed on the necessity of goodness in thought, word, and deed. It was hoped one’s soul would pass over a bridge into a happy eternity, heaven. Heresy, untruthfulness, perjury, sexual sins, violence, and tyranny were especially frowned upon. The wicked soul fell from the bridge into hell.
There is no doubt that Paul, the creator of Christian theology, incorporated Mithraic ideas into what became Christianity, for example his description of the last supper (discussed shortly.) Some commentators have even suggested Paul was a Mithraic priest. Later Christian pioneers copied details of Mithraism too.
There are some remarkable similarities between Mithras and Jesus. Mithras was born on the twenty-fifth of December, three days after the winter solstice. Long before Jesus, every year in Rome, in the middle of winter, his birth was celebrated. The sun “dies” on December 22, the winter solstice, when it stops in its movement south. On December 25, the Natalis Invictis, the rebirth of the winter sun, it resumes its movement north. At the first minute of December 25, the temples of Mithras were lit with candles, priests in white garments celebrated the birth of Mithras, the son of God, and boys burned incense. It was only in the fourth century that Christians chose the twenty-fifth of December to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Mithras’ virgin mother was the “mother of God.” He was baptized and remained celibate throughout his life and performed miracles. He was called “the Good Shepherd” and the “Light of the World,” terms that came to be used when referring to Jesus.
An Evil Spirit tempted Zoroaster, promising him power over the whole world as a reward. This is exactly how the Devil allegedly tempted Jesus (see Matthew 4:1–11).
Mithras celebrated a “Last Supper” with his twelve disciples, who each stood for a sign of the zodiac.
Mithras sacrificed himself by dying on a cross for the sins of mankind. His body was laid to rest in a rock tomb. He descended into the underworld, and then conquered death by rising to life again three days later.
For those who worshipped him, invoking the name of Mithras was supposed to heal the sick and work miracles. They believed he would grant them immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. They drank wine and ate bread, which symbolized the blood and body of Mithras.
The “fathers” of the Mithraic religion conducted worship ceremonies. The chief of the fathers, who lived in Rome, was called Pater Patratus. A Mithraic holy father wore a red cap and a ring and carried a shepherd’s staff, attire afterwards adopted by Christian bishops.
At the end of time, the story is strikingly similar to that of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelations. A colossal combat takes place between the savior, Mithras, his sidekicks, and demons, who will be destroyed. Mithras orchestrates the resurrection of the dead, the judgment and then the renewal of the whole world. A terrible fire rages, which cleanses all creatures; the wicked are cleansed of all stains. A new heaven and earth appear.
Mithraism was flexible, universal and appealed to all classes in society, yet Mithras was not an historical god-man savior. Nor was he directly connected to Judaism. He had to be replaced by a more suitable candidate; someone who the common people could relate to, and who undermined uncooperative Jews. Enter Jesus.
The Church Fathers Justin, Origen, and Tertullian were very familiar with Mithraism. The standard explanation they gave for the unmistakable similarities with Jesus was contemptible; that Satan had gone back in time and copied contemporary Christianity. Critics at the time were not slow to point to the truth: Christianity had simply reproduced the popular patterns of a prominent pagan cult.
There were some differences between Christianity and Mithraism. There were no bulls in Christianity. Mithraism was tolerant of other cults; Christianity was exclusive, condemning every other religion in the world, even Judaism.
When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, Mithraism was driven from the scene by attacks from Christians. It had no hierarchical organization, lacked a professional clergy, and was heavily dependent upon State patronage, so soon came to an ignominious end. During the reign of Emperor Gratian (367–383 CE), its sanctuaries were sacked of their wealth and wound up. Christians seized Mithra’s cave-temple on the Vatican Hill in 376 A.D. The Vatican was built on top of it. Their architectural and theological foundations were both Mithraic!
Thirty years later, the Emperor Theodosius made worship of Mithras punishable by death. Mithraism vanished, vanquished by the cult of Christ.
In the first four centuries CE, there was a huge trade network from Europe all the way to China. Goods were not the only commodities traded; philosophies, traditions and manuscripts were shared amongst the world’s people. Rome absorbed the gods of the provinces it conquered. By the end of the first century, there were so many foreign gods that almost every day of the year celebrated some divinity. Roman citizens were encouraged to give offerings to these gods to maintain the “Pax Deorum” (the peace of the gods.) The cults, including Christianity, vied with their contemporaries for supremacy, and borrowed ideas from each other. Gods who became men, sons of gods, births to virgin mothers on or near the 25th of December, baptisms, miracles, healings, deaths due to hanging on trees or crucifixion, risings from the dead, and belief being the basis for salvation, were all traditional themes. Here are some examples.
Krishna, the central character of an Indian myth dating back to 1400 BCE, had his birth signaled by a star in the East and attended by angels and shepherds. His father was a carpenter. A tyrant slaughtered thousands of innocent infants to get the baby. Krishna survived and grew up to raise the dead and heal lepers, the deaf and the blind. He was killed around age 30 and the sun darkened. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and became the second person of a trinity. Christianity, over the centuries, has repeatedly failed to make any headway in India. One of the reasons for that is that many Indians have recognized it as an imitation of their own traditions.
Buddhist monks travelled to Egypt, Greece and Asia Minor four centuries before Christ. Buddha, traditionally said to have lived c 600 BCE, was born to the virgin Maya. A king threatened the baby’s life. He was baptized in water, taught in a temple at age 12, healed the sick, fed 500 men from a small basket, walked on water and taught the parable of the prodigal son. His followers were obliged to take vows of poverty and to renounce the world, sex and family.
Attis of Phrygia, popular in Galatia and Rome, was a crucified and resurrected son of god. He was born to the virgin Nana. He was slain for the salvation of mankind on “black Friday,” was resurrected after 3 days and his body became bread eaten by his worshippers.
Dionysis of Greece was born in a manger to a virgin on 25th December, performed miracles, turned water into wine, was eaten in a Eucharistic ritual, and in one version of events rose from the dead on March 25th.
Stories about Osiris of Egypt predate Christ by thousands of years. His birth was announced by 3 wise men. He was called the resurrection and the Life and the Good Shepherd. He suffered, died and rose again. His flesh was eaten as wheat cakes. He had a son called Horus, whose birth was announced by a star in the east and attended by 3 wise men. He was born of the virgin Isis-Meri on the 25th December in a cave. At age 12 he was a teacher in a temple, then disappeared for 18 years, returned into circulation and was baptized at age 30. He had 12 disciples, performed miracles, exorcised demons, raised men from the dead, walked on water, delivered a sermon on the mount, was crucified between two thieves, and was buried for 3 days before he was resurrected from the dead.
There were many others, including Adduk and Marduk of Assyria, Adonis, Aesclepius, Apollo, Hercules and Zeus of Greece, Alcides of Thebes, Hermes of Greece/Egypt, Issa of Arabia, Jupiter of Rome and Serapis of Egypt who had striking similarities to the Christian mythology.
Jesus had to be distinguished from these other gods, so the church fathers had to make a big deal out of how he came “in the flesh.” They then derided other gods as mythical.
It is obvious that what became the Christian faith was a heady, plagiarized mix of Judaic, Mithraic, and other pagan myths. The existence of all these characters, so nearly identical in their characteristics, constitutes an ancient universal mythos that has been hidden from, or else not acknowledged by, Christians.
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