Because of its evident relationship to Christianity, special attention needs to be paid to the Persian/Roman religion of Mithraism. The worship of the Indo-Persian god Mithras or Mithra dates back centuries or millennia prior to the common era. The god is found as "Mitra" in the Indian Vedic religion, which is over 3,500 years old, by conservative estimates. When the Iranians separated from their Indian brethren, Mitra became known as "Mithra" or "Mihr," as he is called in Persian.
The history of Mithraism reaches back into the earliest records of the Indo-European language. Documents which belong to the fourteenth century before Christ have been found in the Hittite capital of Boghaz Keui, in which the names of Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and the Heavenly Twins, the Nasatyas, are recorded. Further, the forms, in which the names are given, are not Iranian; and it almost certainly follows that, at the time when they were written, the Iranian and Indian stocks were not yet differentiated.
Mithra was seen as the creator of the world and the sovereign over all. He is the officiating priest. Like so many gods, Mithra was the light and power behind the sun. In Babylon, Mithra was identified with Shamash, the sun god. Christian authority and biblical commentator Matthew Henry (18th century) stated that "Mithra, the sun," was the god of King Shalmaneser V of Assyria, who in the 8th century BCE conquered Samaria and "carried away the Israelites." Mithra was also the god of Darius, conqueror of Babylon, who was considered the Messiah or Christos by Jews during the "Captivity." In fact, Mithra is Bel, the Mesopotamian and Canaanite/Phoenician sun god, who is likewise Marduk, the Babylonian god who represented both Jupiter and the sun. According to Clement of Alexandria and Appion, Mithra is also Apollo.
Mithra's popularity and importance is evident from the prevalence of the name "Mithradates" ("justice of Mithra") among Near Easterners by the seventh century BCE. In the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned the "Persian Mitra" (Bk. 1, c. 131). In time, the Persian Mithraism became infused with the more detailed astrotheology of the Babylonians and Chaldeans, and was notable for its astrology and magic; indeed, its priests or magi lent their name to the word magic. Included in the Mithraic development was the emphasis on his early Indian role as a sun god.
As stated, the priests of Mithra, and of Iranian sun and fire worship in general, were the Magi, or Magas. According to Srivastava's detailed analysis, the Magas entered India on a number of occasions over a period of centuries, prior to and during the common era. At this point, Indian sun worship became increasingly formalized, with elaborate rituals, temples and images sprouting up, and, from the 6th century CE onward, royal names began to have "Mihira" (Mithra) in them, after a millennium of integration (or reintegration) into Indian culture.
According to Plutarch, Mithraism began to be absorbed by the Romans during Pompey's campaign against Cilician pirates around 70 BCE . The religion eventually migrated from Asia Minor through the soldiers, many of whom had been citizens of Asia Minor, into Rome and the far reaches of the Empire. In fact, Mithraism can be found from India to Scotland, with abundant monuments in numerous countries. Syrian merchants brought Mithraism to the major cities, such as Alexandria, Rome and Carthage, while captives carried it to the countryside. In short, Mithraism and its mysteries permeated the Roman Empire. Among its secret society members were emperors, politicians and businessmen:
In the first Christian century there were in Rome associations of the followers of Mithra, probably organized as burial associations, in accordance with a common device of that period employed to acquire a legal status. The growth and importance of the cult in the second century are marked by the literary notices; Celsus opposed it to Christianity, Lucian made it the object of his wit. Nero desired to be initiated; Commodus (180-192) was received into the brotherhood; in the third century the emperors had a Mithraic Chaplain; Aurelian (270-275) made the cult official; Diocletian, with Galerius and Licinius, in 307 dedicated a temple to Mithra; and Julian was a devotee.
As has been remarked upon by a number of writers, Mithraism was a brotherhood with an all-male lodge-like structure much like the Masonry of the past several centuries. As Legge states:
…there is no doubt women were strictly excluded from all the ceremonies of the cult, thereby justifying in some sort the remark of Renan that Mithraism was a "Pagan Freemasonry."
In its attempts at distinguishing Catholicism from Mithraism and other Pagan religions, the Catholic Encyclopedia boasts that, unlike those ideologies, Christianity is intolerant and exclusive. One of the reasons Mithraism did not last, in fact, is because it excluded women.
Before its usurpation by Christianity, Mithraism enjoyed the patronage of some of the most important individuals in the Roman Empire. In the fifth century, the emperor Julian, having rejected his birth-religion of Christianity, adopted Mithraism and "introduced the practise of the worship at Constantinople." An assassination attempt allegedly was made on Julian by some of his Christian soldiers, whom he supposedly forgave. For Mithraism and Paganism in general, Julian's demise was the straw that broke the camel's back. In fact, after Julian's death "the attack of Christianity was definite and furious." Mithraism had existed for several centuries and had made a significant impact on the Roman world. Indeed, factoring in his pre-Roman roots, Mithra could be considered the oldest "Roman" god.
Mithraism's general shape was reached between 250-100 BCE, when its "system of ritual and doctrine took the form which it afterward retained," centuries before the advent of Christianity.
Mithra and the Bull
Christian backlash attempted to debunk the contention that Christianity copied Mithraism in many germane details. In reality, the bull-slaying motif and ritual existed in numerous cultures prior to the Christian era. In fact, the bull motif is a reflection of the Age of Taurus, around 4500-2300 BCE, one of the 2,150-year ages created by the precession of the equinoxes, which was well known by the ruling elite and priestly faction for millennia
The ancients likewise sacrificed bulls, in this case to Baliswara, the Indian version of Baal (+ Osiris), who is also the Bull. As Bel/Baal, Mithra was associated with the Bull long anterior to the Christian era. Writing decades before the era of Cumont, Col. Tod also asserts that the bull was sacrificed to Mithra by the Persians.
In reality, bulls were sacrificed in many cultures millennia prior to the common era, including on the Greek island of Crete, some 4,000 years ago.
Mithraism and Christianity
There is no question that Mithra's cult preceded Christianity. It is erroneously asserted that because Mithraism was a "mystery cult" it did not leave any written record. Numerous books by ancient authors, such as Eubulus, who wrote the history of Mithras in many volumes
These many volumes contained much interesting information that was damaging to Christianity, such as the important correspondences between the "lives" of Mithra and Jesus, as well as identical symbols such as the cross, and rites such as baptism and the eucharist. In fact, Mithraism was so similar to Christianity that it gave fits to the early Church fathers, as it does to this day to apologists, who attempt both to deny the similarities and yet to claim that these (non-existent) correspondences were plagiarized by Mithraism from Christianity. There are several problems with this argument, the first of which is that the god Mithra was revered for centuries prior to the Christian era.
Furthermore, by the time the Christian hierarchy prevailed in Rome, Mithra had already been the official cult, with pope, bishops, etc., and its doctrines were well established and widespread, reflecting antiquity. Mithraic remains on Vatican Hill are found underneath the later Christian edifices, which proves the Mithra cult was there first. In fact, while Mithraic ruins from the first and second centuries are abundant throughout the Roman Empire, "The earliest church remains, four in Dura-Europos, date only from around 230 CE."
From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, vol. XII:
"The birth of Mithra and of Christ were celebrated on the same day; tradition placed the birth of both in a cave; both regarded Sunday as sacred; in both the central figure was a mediator (mesim) who was one of a triad or trinity; in both there was a sacrifice for the benefit of the race, and the purifying power of blood from the sacrifice was, though in different ways, a prime motive; regeneration or the second birth was a fundamental tenet in both; the conception of the relationship of the worshipers to each other was the same -- they were all brothers; both had sacraments, which baptism and a common meal of bread and the cup were included; both had mysteries from which the lower orders of initiates were excluded; ascetic ideals were common to both; the ideas of man, the soul and its immortality, heaven and hell, the resurrection of the dead, judgment after death, the final conflagration by which the world is to be consumed, the final conquest of evil, were quite similar"
Christian apologist Sir Weigall outlines some of the correspondences with Christianity:
"Mithra appears to have lived an incarnate life on earth, and suffered death for the good of mankind, an image symbolizing his resurrection being employed in his ceremonies. Tarsus, home of St. Paul, was one of the great centers of his worship, being the chief city of the Cilicians; and…there is a decided tinge of Mithraism in the Epistles and Gospels. Thus the designations of our Lord as the Dayspring from on High, the Light, the Sun of Righteousness, and similar expressions, are borrowed from or related to Mithraic phraseology…. The words of St. Paul, "They drank of that spiritual rock…and that rock was Christ" are borrowed from the Mithraic sculptures…"
Mithraic art also was utilized within Christianity: One example is Mithra "shooting at the rock," from which flowed water, a scene that became "Moses smiting the rock" in Christian iconography. Mithra as Helios rising with the sun became Elijah in his chariot of fire, and Mithra slaying the bull was figured as Samson killing the lion. The images of "heaven, earth, ocean, sun, moon, planets, the zodiacal signs, the winds, the seasons, and the like, found on Christian sarcophagi and in mosaics and miniatures are…adaptations of Mithraic models. The Moses-Mithra parallel has been commented upon by a number of scholars who suggests a common origin of the motif. As another example of this mythical motif, the Greek sea god Poseidon, in a contest with Athena to win over the inhabitants of Athens, is depicted as striking a rock, from which a spring appears.
Further correspondences between Mithraism and Christianity can be found in the Christian catacombs -- another similarity to Mithra worship, which was practiced in caves -- where there are numerous images of Christ as the Good Shepherd:
…although it is generally agreed that the figure of Jesus carrying a lamb is taken from the statues of Hermes Kriophorus, the kid-carrying god, Mithra is sometimes shown carrying a bull across his shoulders, and Apollo, who in his solar aspect and as the patron of the rocks is to be identified with Mithra, is often called "the Good Shepherd." At the birth of Mithra the child was adored by shepherds, who brought gifts to him.
Indeed, like Christ, Mithra was considered the remover of sin and disease, the creator of the world, God of gods, the mediator, mighty ruler, king of gods, lord of heaven and earth, Good Shepherd, Sun of Righteousness, etc.
Mithra as the Mediator is unquestionably a concept that predated Christianity by centuries, and the deliberate reference to Christ as the Mediator at Hebrews 9:15 is an evident move to usurp Mithra's position. Concerning the Mediator, CMU relates:
The next dogma we shall notice is that of the Savior, or Mediator. This is evidently derived from the Christna of the Hindu trinity, who, as the Redeemer of the human race, was the most important of the three. This personification of the sun seems to have been adopted by the Persian lawgiver, Zoroaster, under the name of Mithra (which still meant Mediator), when he founded the religion of the Mithraics, or worshippers of the sun. According to Plutarch, Zoroaster taught that there existed two principles, one good, and the other evil; the first was called Oromazes, "the ancient of days," being the principle of good or light; the other, Ahrimanes, was the principle of evil, or cold and darkness. Between these two personified principles, he placed his Mithra, who, as the source of genial heat and life, annually redeems the human race from the power of evil, or cold and darkness. From this beautiful allegory of the sun is derived the Christian dogma of the Saviour, of which proof may be found even amongst the fathers. (See Tertullian, Adv. gentes.)…
The similarities between Mithraism and Christianity included their chapels, the term "father" for priest, celibacy and, most notoriously, the December 25th birth date which not of the birth of Jesus, but of the sun-god Mithra. Horus, son of Isis, however, was in very early times identified with Ra, the Egyptian sun-god, and hence with Mithra…
Another correspondence is that the Mithraic "Lord's Day," like that of other solar cults, was celebrated on Sunday, adopted by Christianity from Paganism. Robertson elucidates various other Mithraic-Christian correspondences:
From Mithraism, Christ takes the symbolic keys of heaven and hell and assumes the function of the virgin-born Saoshyant, the destroyer of the Evil One. Like Mithra, Merodach and the Egyptian Khousu, he is the Mediator; like Horus he is grouped with a divine Mother; like Khousu he is joined with the Logos; and like Merodach he is associated with a Holy Spirit, one of whose symbols is fire.
Robertson thus compares Mithra with the virgin-born "Saoshyant," the Savior of the Persian religion. Roberston further asserts that the Mithraic mysteries included the "burial and resurrection of the Lord, the Mediator, and Savior (buried in a rock tomb and resurrected from that tomb)," as well as the bread-and-water communion and the "mystic mark" upon the forehead. Like the death and resurrection of Osiris, these mystical Mithraic rites were practiced and represented anterior to Christianity.
Lundy describes Mithra's death and resurrection:
Dupuis tells us that Mithra was put to death by crucifixion, and rose again on the 25th of March. By his sufferings he was believed to have worked salvation, and on this account he was called their Savior. His priests watched the tomb to the midnight of the vigil of the 25th of March, with loud cries, and in darkness; when all at once the light burst forth from all parts, the priest cried, "O sacred initiated, your God has risen. His death, his pains, and sufferings have worked your salvation"
Lundy cites the original French writings of Dupuis, which were multi-volume and condensed in the English translation, in which this Mithra information was expurgated. Dupuis wrote a century before Cumont, so he obviously did not use the latter's work; nor did Lundy rely on Cumont, who wrote in the decades following Lundy. In fact, Lundy takes much of his information from an unpublished book on Mithra by Layard, the English archaeologist and excavator of Assyrian antiquities.
Other elements found within Mithraism that are paralleled in Christianity include the miter or mitre, the bishops' headdress; the mizd, or "hot cross bun," which was shaped like the sun with a cross in the middle; and the mass. Another remnant of Mithraism within Christianity can be found in the phrases "soldiers of Christ" and "putting on the armor of Christ."
Moreover, the initiate into the Mithraic mysteries was considered the "son of Mithra," who became one with Mithra; he was also the "son of the Pater Patrum" ("Father of Fathers"). During the Mithraic mysteries, the initiate was often blindfolded, to be suddenly blinded by a great light, which represented the "moment of revelation," when the initiate became one with God. Obviously, Paul's conversion experience with the blinding light is a wink and a nod towards other initiates in the mysteries, who would certainly recognize it. It also served to validate that Paul was qualified to preach on the "good news" and the "kingdom of heaven."
Mithra's birth was analogous to the birth in caves of a number of gods, including Jesus. It was followed by his adoration by shepherds, another motif that found its way into the later Christianity. Evans says:
…early writers, including several of the [Church] Fathers, decided upon a cave as the true place [of Christ's birth], a decision exactly in accordance with the legend of a virgin, in a cave, on the 25th of December, symbolizing the renewed birth of the sun after the winter solstice.
Regarding the birth in caves likewise common to pre-Christian gods, and present in the early legends of Jesus, Weigall relates:
…the cave shown at Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus was actually a rock shrine in which the god Tammuz or Adonis was worshipped, as the early Christian father Jerome tells us; and its adoption as the scene of the birth of our Lord was one of those frequent instances of the taking over by Christians of a pagan sacred site. The propriety of this appropriation was increased by the fact that the worship of a god in a cave was commonplace in paganism: Apollo, Cybele, Demeter, Herakles, Hermes, Mithra and Poseidon were all adored in caves; Hermes, the Greek Logos, being actually born of Maia in a cave, and Mithra being "rock-born."
Weigall further states that the "swaddling clothes" motif in the gospel story is taken from the story of Hermes, who was likewise wrapped and placed in a "manger," which in the original Greek referred to a basket. Furthermore, Dionysus and Ion, the father of the Ionians, were each born in a cave and placed in a basket/manger. In addition, Mithra was accompanied by twelve companions. An image found in the Roman catacombs depicts the babe Mithra "seat in the lap of his virgin mother," with the gift-bearing Magi genuflecting in front of them. Such iconography was common in Rome as representative of Isis and Horus, so it would not be unexpected to find it within Mithraism.
According to Persian mythology, Mithras was born of a virgin given the title "Mother of God" The Parthian princes of Armenia were all priests of Mithras, and an entire district of this land was dedicated to the Virgin Mother Anahita. Many Mithraeums, or Mithraic temples, were built in Armenia, which remained one of the last strongholds of Mithraism. The largest near-eastern Mithraeum was built in western Persia at Kangavar, dedicated to "Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras."
Anahita is an Indo-Iranian goddess of some antiquity, dating back at least four or five centuries prior to the common era.
The cave-born Mithras was called "Theos ek Petras," or the "God from the Rock." Indeed, it may be that the reason of the Vatican hill at Rome being regarded as sacred to Peter, the Christian "Rock," was that it was already sacred to Mithra, for Mithraic remains have been found there.
Mithra was "the rock," or Peter, and was also "double-faced," like Janus the keyholder, likewise a prototype for the "apostle" Peter. Hence, when Jesus is made to say that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are given to "Peter" and that the Church is to be built upon "Peter," as a representative of Rome, he is usurping the authority of Mithraism, which was the official Roman cult at the time, precisely headquartered on what became Vatican Hill.
Mithra and the Twelve
Mithra had 12 "companions" or "disciples." The number 12 dates back millennia to the original sun-worshipping religions and the 12 signs of the zodiac. Furthermore, the motif of the 12 disciples or followers in a "last supper" is recurrent in the Pagan world, including within Mithraism:
[Mark] gave Jesus a last supper with twelve followers, identical in every way with the last supper of the Persian god Mithra, down to the bread and wine (14:22-26).
The Spartan King Kleomenes had held a similar last supper with twelve followers four hundreds years before Jesus.
Obviously, the Last Supper with the Twelve predates Christianity by centuries.
The sprinkling or splashing of the bull's blood is considered a baptism, especially since it is designed to convey immortality. Like this bloody rite, baptism with water, whether by immersion or sprinkling, is found in numerous pre-Christian religions/cults, dating back to ancient times. Baptism or lustration for the removal of evil or sins is also found in the Sumerian culture, 2000 or more years before the Christian era. It was taught in every religion and cult that used baptism that the water neutralized, expelled or absorbed the malevolent influences and so freed those who had come into contact with evil from its contagion because being the substance out of which the universe was created it was endowed with all its creative potentialities. The water's function was that of "washing away," purging, or in some way removing evil as a miasma. Moreover, the Baptism by water to remove sins is also an ancient Egyptian motif. Osiris takes upon himself "all that is hateful" in the dead: that is, he adopts the burden of his sins; and the dead is purified by the typical sprinkling of water.
This baptism for the remission of sins was "in vogue" in the 5th and 6th Dynasties, 2400 or so years before the Christian era. Such baptism doubtlessly existed in the neighboring Canaanite culture as well; it certainly was practiced in Palestine prior to Christ's purported advent. The sacred annual bathing of Palestine pilgrims in the river Jordan is the same now as it was in John the Baptist's time; and precisely the same as it is and always has been in the sacred rivers of Hindustan. It is a custom far older than Christianity, and universally prevalent. John the Baptist simply adopted and practiced the universal custom of sacred bathing for the remission of sins. Baptism of some kind has been the universal custom of all religious nations and peoples for purification and regeneration.
The Mithraic Eucharist
Another of these pre-Christian doctrines found in Paganism in general and Mithraism in specific is the Eucharist, Last Supper or Holy Communion. From early ages, the Mithraic eucharist has been recognized to parallel that of the Christians.However, the rite is likewise very old and certainly did not find its way into Paganism from Christianity. The Catholic Encyclopedia concedes that the eucharist is pre-Christian:
Mithraism had a Eucharist, but the idea of a sacred banquet is as old as the human race and existed at all ages and amongst all peoples.
The eucharist includes the "doctrine of transubstantiation," which claims that the wine or water and bread of the sacred meal are mystically and magically transmuted into the blood and body of the god, which, it is believed, creates union with the god. At the Mithraic ceremony, the following was said:
He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved. (Mithraic Communion M J Vermaseren, Mithras, The Secret God)
Obviously, as is the case with the eucharist itself, this ritual line is not original to Christianity. It was, in fact, part of the pre-Christian mysteries.
Discussing the typical reason behind initiation into a mystery religion, Guignebert also explains the meaning of the eucharist:
The initiate is assured, at any rate for a considerable period of time, that his fate will be the same as that of Attis at his inevitable death and a happy resurrection and survival among the gods his portion. In many of the cults of these savior and interceding gods, such as those of Cybele, Mithra, the Syrian Baals, and still others, the beneficial union obtained by means of initiation is renewed, or at any rate revived, by sacred repasts which the members, assembled at the table of the god, ate.
Concerning the last supper and transubstantiation, Weigall elucidates:
The ceremony of eating an incarnate god's body and drinking his blood is, of course, of very ancient and there are several sources from which the Christian rite may be derived Its connection with the Mithraic rite is the most apparent.
The "last supper" can be found within the Egyptian religion, again, as part of the mysteries. Furthermore, the Eleusinian Mysteries included the sharing of the Goddess Ceres's "body" (bread) and the God Dionysus's "blood" (wine), centuries before the Christian era. The eucharist is found also in Syria, an area in which Mithraism flourished. Indeed, the pre-Christian Essenes, some of whom became Christians, participated in not only baptism but also a "sacred meal":
The holy daily meal of the Essenes was preceded by the solemnity of a water baptism. The members of the secret society, who had sworn not to communicate a certain knowledge to the uninitiated, appeared in their "white garments as if they were sacred," they went into the refectory "purified as into a holy temple," and prayer was offered up before and after the sacred meal. It can only be compared with the Paschal meal of the other Jews. The bread figured in both, whilst among the Essenes water took the place of the wine at their meal on common days.
The ritual of theophagy, or the eating of gods/goddesses, Harwood further asserts, has been practiced by humans for thousands of years.
Another nuisance to Christian apologists is the Mithraic mark upon the forehead, a rite similar to that within Catholicism. The mark on the forehead as a sign of religious respect is well known to have been used in India for millennia. Even the Bible records Ezekiel (9:4) as marking the foreheads of the "righteous":
And the Lord said to him, "Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it."
Concerning this Jewish mark, Lundy states:
The cross was marked on the foreheads of the men of Jerusalem that were to be spared from destruction, in Ezekiel's time, for it was tau [T]; (9:4-6) it was stamped on valuable documents, coins, and on the necks of camels and thighs of horses; it was woven into garments; and in various other ways it was used before the Christian era as a symbol of ownership, of safety and of solemn compact.
After baptism into the Mysteries of Mithra, the initiate was marked on the forehead. The sign of the cross formed by the elliptic and the celestial equator was one of the signs of Mithra…. The cross is an ancient sacred symbol that pre-dated the Christian era by centuries and millennia. The cross was the "universal symbol of life and immortality," as well as of the sun god, entirely appropriate for Mithra.
The fact is that Mithraism was well established decades before Christianity had any significant influence. If Christian apologists will not yield to the well-attested assertion that Christianity "borrowed" from Mithraism in specific, they simply cannot deny that both copied from Paganism in general, from one or more of the numerous religions, cults and mysteries of the pre-Christian world. Hence, the effect is the same: Christianity took its godman and tenets from Paganism.