By Vexen Crabtree 2017
Mithraism is an ancient roman religion from the 1st century BCE1,2. It flourished in the first few centuries CE by which time it had many features in common with Christianity3 (as did multiple religions and cults of the era3,4,5) including the motif of a crucified-and-resurrected god-man who comes to bring salvation from sin, and the primacy of 12 followers6. Mithraism and Judaism merged and became the Christianity that we know today. Jesus, son of the Hebrew sky God, and Mithras, son of Ormuzd are both retellings of the same myth. The rituals of Christianity coincide with the earlier rituals of Mithraism, including the Eucharist and the Communion in great detail. The religious language used by Mithraism became the language used by Christians. The idea of a sacrificed saviour is Mithraist, so is the symbolism of bulls, rams, sheep, the blood of a transformed saviour washing away sins and granting eternal life, the 7 sacraments, the banishing of an evil host from heaven, apocalyptic end of time when God/Ormuzd sends the wicked to hell and establishes peace.7,8. The archaeological picture is clear that Mithraism and Christianity developed out of the same religious culture but each going in (slightly) different directions. Neither religion had a "starting point" defined by a single individual or founder in the first century, but they are continuums of developing belief from the 1st and 2nd century BCE.
St Paul is often called the first Christian and 13 books of the New Testament bear his name: he was born as Saul of Tarsus in Tarsus, a major centre of Mithraism and he bears much of the responsibility for moulding Mithraism into Christianity9. Later Roman Emperors, Mithraist then Christian, mixed the rituals and laws of both religions into one. Emperor Constantine established 25th of Dec, the birthdate of Mithras, to be the birthdate of Jesus too. The principal day of worship of the Jews, The Sabbath, was replaced by the Mithraistic Sun Day as the Christian holy day. The Catholic Church, based in Rome and founded on top of the most venerated Mithraist temple, wiped out all competing son-of-god religions within the Roman Empire, giving us modern literalist Christianity.
“Spirit of Spirit, if it be your will,
give me over to immortal birth so that I may
be born again - and the sacred
spirit may breathe in me.”
Prayer to Mithras
Mithraism was popular in the Roman Empire with many Emperors following, not just the populace. It had seven sacraments, the same as the Catholic Church, baptism, and communion with bread and water. The Eucharist hosts were signed with a cross, an ancient phallic symbol which originated in Egypt, and the Egyptian cross (the ankh) still shows the original form which included the female symbol.
“More important even than the Vedic and Zoroastrian influences, the Mithras cult had a strong impact on Christianity. Mithras was the son of Ormuzd, and as a god of light himself, he engaged the powers of darkness, Ahriman and his host, in a bitter struggle. Mithras triumphed and cast his adversaries into the nether world. Mithras, too, raised the dead and will find them at the end of time. He, too, will relegate the wicked to hell and establish the millennial kingdom. [...]
Drews, too, believes that it was the influence of Persian, notably Mithraic, thought which led to the gradual transformation of the human figure of Jesus into a Godhead. Robertson thinks that the rock-tomb resurrection of Jesus is a direct transference of Mithras' rock birth, and that Jesus also became a sun-god like Mithras, so that they share their birthday at the winter solstice. Robertson, Niemojewski, Volney and others assert that as son-god Jesus had twelve apostles representing the twelve houses of the zodiac.”
“The monuments of the religions which we know as Roman Mithraism are amongst the most familiar of Western archaeological finds. They have been uncovered across the whole expanse of the Roman empire [in] a distribution which closely mirrors that of the Roman army. [...] Much is known of the internal organisation of the Mithraists, their initiation grades and ordeals, their communal feasts and probably potations. In passing we may note that the last are certainly of interest, not least for some formal resemblance to Christian rituals. Yet it has to be recalled that activities of a similar kind were common to the majority of ancient religions.”
A. D. H. Bivar (1975)5
The picture is clear is that Mithraism and Christianity both developed out of the same religious culture, carrying-on similar beliefs and practices to what was already popular, but each going in (slightly) different directions. It is apparent that neither religion had a "starting point" defined by a single individual or founder, but they are continuums of developing belief.
Zoroastrianism: The roots of Mithraism go back to Zoroastrianism, a Persian (Iranian) religion that became popular in Greece from 390BCE. It placed Mithras in the role of a deity equal to the sun god. Zarathustra, a Zoroastrian magi, had predicted a Messiah, and Jesus' birth was assumed by Paul to be his possible arrival. In the Persian holy texts, the Avesta, this Messiah will appear at the end of time and bring the triumph of good over evil and make a potion of immortality for mankind from the fat of a great bull mixed with Haoma juice.
“After Ahura Mazda and together with Anahita, Mithra is one of the major deities of ancient Iran, one that later crossed the borders of the Iranian world to become the supreme god of a mystery religion popular throughout the Roman empire. In the Avesta and the later Zoroastrian literature Mithra turns up frequently.”
Baptism by Water: Many god-man cults involved baptism by water; from the sprinkling of holy water to full immersion. "In the mysteries of Mithras initiates underwent repeated baptisms to wash away their sins. Such initiations took place in March or April, at exactly the same time that in later centuries Christians also baptized their new converts, called 'catechumens'""The Jesus Mysteries" by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999) [Book Review]11.
Resurrection: "In the Mysteries of Mithras initiates enacted a similar resurrection scene. Having accomplished his mission on Earth, Mithras was said to have ascended to heaven in a sun-chariot. Like Jesus, who sits at the right hand of [God, Mithras was] enthroned by the God of Light as ruler of the world [and is] waiting in heaven for the End of Time, when he would return to Earth to awaken the dead and pass judgement"12.
Judgement and Salvation
The faithful to Mithra believed they would live in bliss after death until the Judgement of mankind. Mithra would then unlock Paradise for the faithful and come to Earth and kill all the unbaptised. All the dead would return from their graves to be judged.
All the wicked, the rejected and unbaptised would be destroyed by Mithra by fire, and those accepted into Paradise would live with Mithra forever with eternal life. After the annihilation of the unfaithful Mithra ascends into Heaven, at the end of time, after his Messiah has brought salvation to the saved, in a chariot of fire.
“Mithraism, whatever else it may have been in origin or in its later development, can be classified phenomenologically as a 'salvation religion'. For it surely offered initiates deliverance from some awful fate to which all other men were doomed, and a privileged passage to some ultimate state of well-being. In this sense, therefore, it can be ranked among a number of cults of diverse origin in the Graeco-Roman world”
S. G. F. Brandon (1975)3
As Christianity developed and especially as it flourished amongst the poor and illiterate, its mythological roots in Greek and Mesopotamian myths were forgotten. They came under criticism from the other pagans of the Roman empire, who ridiculed Christians for stealing - copying - pagan myths and then claiming them to be unique.The Church Father Tertullian tries to defend Christianity by arguing that it was The Devil who pre-emptively created Mithraism and other god-man religions, in order to discredit Christianity!
“The devil, whose business is to pervert the truth, mimics the exact circumstances of the Divine Sacraments. He baptises his believers and promises forgiveness of sins from the Sacred Fount, and thereby initiates them into the religion of Mithras. Thus he celebrates the oblation of bread, and brings in the symbol of the resurrection.”
“13 of the books of the Christian New Testament are the epistles (letters) of St. Paul, and Paul is the earliest and first Christian author for which we have historical writings14. Seven were probably written by Paul himself and six others have been written in his name by (anonymous) followers, some up to 80 years after his death. By the time the official Bible canon was produced, no-one knew that only some were genuine. The historical Paul probably did write 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon and Romans. Letters forged in the name of Paul are 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.15. Paul was born in Tarsus as "Saul" and adopted the name of Paul after converting to what is now Christianity. He was an early leader of the growing Christian churches around the Roman Empire, and the writings of St. Paul are the earliest existing Christian writings known to historians. Despite this, Paul never met Jesus and appears to rely mostly on Greek myths and legends, many of which he copied, placing Jesus at the center of them instead of their original heroes.”
He mixed the Hellenic Christ theme with the Messiah theme of Judaism, and the result was the theology around the sacrificial nature that the Christ of Christianity has.
“Paul mistook the Jewish "Messiah" to mean the Hellenistic "Christ". This happened before anything was written down; it happened during Paul's conversations with people as he was working through what had happened. A messiah is a person who is a great leader who leads your people to freedom. The title was taken by Jews from Persian culture. A christ is a god-king who dies as an offering to some divine being as a sacrifice in return for prosperity, especially agricultural prosperity. Both are anointed with oil as a mystical, sexual rite.”
Christos/ Jesus didn't exist(site down)
“It was in Tarsus that the Mysteries of Mithras had originated, so it would have been unthinkable that Paul would have been unaware of the remarkable similarities we have already explored between Christian doctrines and the teachings of Mithraism. [Footnote:] Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia, where, according to Plutarch [46-125CE], the Mithraic Mysteries were being practiced as early as 67BCE”
“During the 1st century BC, a cult of Mithra, made much progress in Rome, after enduring persecution, when some Emperors adopted the religion... Mithra became very popular among the Roman legionaries and later even among the Emperors. The worship of Mithra was first recognized by Emperor Aurelian and he instituted the cult of "Sol Invictus" or the Invincible Sun. Emperor Diocletian also a worshipper of Mithra, the Sun God, burned much of the Christian scriptures in 307 A.D.
This enabled Emperor Constantine to merge the cult of Mithra with that of Christianity that was developing much. He declared himself a Christian but at the same time maintained his ties to the Mithra cult. He retained the title "Pontifus Maximus" the high priest. On his coins were inscribed: "Sol Invicto comiti" which means, commited to the invincible sun. This new blend of the two faiths, he officially proclaimed as Christianity. Christianity spread all over the Roman Empire and Eastern Europe by massive persecution and brought an end to a variety of religions that flourished there.”
The Bull is seen as a symbol of Spring, of rebirth, and a very common carving is of Mithras cleansing himself in the blood of a bull. Mithras actually shares this feature with Gilgamesh, of ancient Mesopotamian myth16. Ritual killing of bulls and washing in its blood was believed to be necessary for cleansing, eternal life and salvation. This was followed by a meal of the bulls flesh. Life anew could be created from the flesh and blood of the sacrificed bull. If a bull was not available a substitute was used by poorer congregations, such as a ram, bread or fish. Most common of all, a sheep was used instead of a bull by the poor.
“The adherents of Mithras believed that by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again, just as life itself has been created anew from the blood of the bull. Participation in this rite would give not only physical strength but lead to the immortality of the soul and to eternal light. Justin also mentioned the similarity between the Mithras ritual and the Eucharist”
“According to the Mithraic myth, he would undergo a cultic transformation into a bull [or] a ram. He would be killed and his flesh and blood (or wine representing his blood) would be consumed by the faithful. The pictoral and sculpted scenes presenting this sacred meal were the ones which enraged Christian sensitivities, and many smashed-up Mithraeums show the traces of the fury of Christian iconoclasts. Tertullian [160CE-240CE] mentioned (De praescre., 40) this ritual of the Mithras which was a 'devilish imitation of the Eucharist'. He also mentions that the Mithraists enacted the resurrection.”
Christianity became a synthesis of Mithraistic thought on eternal life gained from the blood of the sacrificed saviour (like a bull), the ultimate sacrifice, and Jewish rituals of ritual animal sacrifice. Some say that Mithraists practiced human sacrifice16; and likewise, the cannibalistic elements of the Christian Communion, the Eucharist, and the imagery of the blood of Jesus washing away sins and granting eternal life (like Mithras), are all derived from this natural Roman merging of Judaism with Mithraism. The transformation of Mithras into a Bull or Ram which preceded the eating of his flesh and blood directly parallels the Christians Jesus' death and rebirth, his statement that his disciples should eat and drink his flesh and blood to wash away sin and gain eternal life. Plato (~420BCE-~347BCE) wrote with awe about the power of the Hamoa juice/wine used in the communion of mystery religions, in rites which resembled and predated later Christian versions of them17.
“Pagan practices which parallel the Christian communion appalled Justin Martyr, who complains that when Jesus told his disciples to drink of the cup, saying, 'This is my blood,' he gave this ritual to them alone, yet 'the wicked demons in imitation, in the Mysteries of Mithras, also delivered the command to do so'. He relates with horror that in these Mysteries, as in the Christian Eucharist, mystic formulas are pronounced over bread and a cup which are then given to one about to be initiated. As in Christianity, participants in Mysteries of Mithras had to undergo a long period of preparation before being allowed to partake in the 'holy communion'. When they did, they were offered a sacrament of water mixed with wine and bread or consecrated wafers bearing the sign of a cross! [...]
The holy communion in the Mysteries of Mithras was developed from older rites which used consecrated bread and water mixed with the intoxicating juice of a psychedelic plant called Haoma [but] replaced the Haoma, a plant unknown in the Occident, with the juice of the vine.”
Celebrating the light and fire caused from striking of flints is an ancient tradition. Mithra is said to be forced out of a rock, wearing the Phyrygian cap holding a dagger and a torch of light. Mithra's birth is celebrated on the Winter Solstice. Shrines were in caves, as they were in Zoroastrianism; "the fire temple of Zoroastrians [was] called Dar-i Mihr 'the house of Mithras'"16. Also in common with other vegetation myths and gods19 such as Osiris (Egypt), Dionysus (Greece), Attis (Asia Minor), Adonis (Syria) and Bacchus (Italy), Mithras was depicted as a harvester16. The Winter Solstice was the time of his birth and rebirth following his death, another theme that all such beliefs share in common. Some myths had the godman born on December the 25th, whilst others had the date as the 6th of January (both were dates of the winter solistce - the precise date changes as the equinoxes slowly change). As Christianity draw upon these stories, it was unclear which date was most Christian, and there was continued heated debate between proponents of each date20. In 313CE, Emperor Constantine declared December the 25th to be the correct date, therefore setting Christmas on the 25th of December, the birthdate of Mithras.
“In the gospels of the Christian New Tetament, One of Matthew's plotlines is the three visitors from the East who visit the newborn Jesus (Matthew 1:1-23). They say that a star came up in the East and that they followed it to Jesus's birthplace. The story is not contained in any of the other gospels. There were a number of early astronomers of that era who meticulously recorded star movements, especially any unusual ones. Although they record many other events, none of them record the one described by Matthew21,22; and the other elements in the story were noticed by anyone else either - despite the fact that a gift of gold would have been a momentous community-changing event. It is clear that the events described did not actually happen - so where does the story come from?
The language used in the Bible gives us information about the source of the stor. The Three Wise Men are "magi" and are called 'Star Readers' in Matthew 2:1, both indicating a Zoroastrian origin. The magi are given Zoroastrian titles and bear the same gifts as stated in Zoroastrian myths; Mithraism is a related religion that is an alternate version of Christianity from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE. The Magi, in particular, were the followers of Mithras (a solar god-man who dies and is reborn, with a birthdate of the 25th of December) - "Mithras' birth was even said to have been witnessed by three shephards"23. Like other stories surrounding Jesus's birth, the stories are actually copies of older stories, merely with Jesus's name being used instead of the original.”
“Mithra is essentially a deity of light: he draws the sun with rapid horses; [and] watches over the entire abode of the Aryans; he shines with this own light and in the morning makes the many forms of the world visible. [... and] in the Iranian world [Mithras is a deity who] ensures rain and prosperity and who protects cattle by providing it ample pasturage.”
“It may be mentioned here that the Greeks celebrated the birthday of their sun-god Apollo at the winter solstice. Another important point is the fact that the Christian Church abandoned the Jewish sabbath (contrary to the commandment of their God) in favour of the Mithraic day of the sun.”
Current edition: 2017 Apr 06
Second edition 2005 Feb 0324
Originally published 2002 Jan 2025
Parent page: Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?
2nd Century BCE+: Mithraism and Christianity1st Century: The Ebionites
Jewish Christianity - the OT laws must be upheld1st-7th Century: Gnosticism
The inferior OT god is subverted by the True God1st-14th Century: Adoptionism
Jesus was only human until his baptism1st-7th Century: Docetism
Christ only appeared human but was divine2nd-8th Century: Arianism
The Father is Greater than the Son2nd-5th Century: Marcionites
Jesus came to overthrow fake God of the OT4th Century: The rise of modern Christianity
Cappadocian, Nicene, Pauline and Trinitarian Christianity
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
"Zoroastrians" (1979) ISBN: 0415239036. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Boyd, James W. & Kotwal, Firoze M.
"A guide to the Zoroastrian Religion" (1982). Scholar's Press. A Nineteenth Century Catechism by Erachji S. Meherjirana, with translation and commentary by a modern Dastur (High Priest). Covers daily observances.
(2003) Lost Christianities. Hardback book. Published by Oxford University Press, New York, USA.
(2011) Forged. Hardback book. Subtitled: "Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are". Published by HarperCollins, New York, USA.
(1987, Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Religion. Hardback book. Published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, USA. 16 huge volumes. Eliade is editor-in-chief. Entries are alphabetical, so, no page numbers are given in references, just article titles.
Hinnells, John R.
(1975, Ed.) Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Published by International Congress of Mithraic Studies, Manchester University Press. Volume 2.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
Vermaseren, Maarten J.
(1963) Mithras, The Secret God. Published by Chatto and Windus, London, UK. A complete study of our knowledge of Mithraism..
As an example, the historian Bart Ehrman notes in "Lost Christianities" that "the pastoral letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus [...] claim to be written by Paul, but appear to have been written long after his death"
“Yet other books are pseudonymous - forgeries by people who explicitly claim to be someone else. Included in this group is [...] probably the pastoral Epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, quite likely the deutero-Pauline Epistles of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians, and possibly 1 Peter and Jude.”
“Virtually all scholars agree that seven of the Pauline letters are authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. [...] The other six differ in significant ways from this core group of seven. Three of them - 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus - are so much alike that most scholars are convinced that they were written by the same person. The other three are usually assigned to three different authors.”