For over three hundred years the rulers of the Roman Empire worshipped the god Mithras. Known throughout Europe and Asia by the names Mithra, Mitra, Meitros, Mihr, Mehr, and Meher, the veneration of this god began some 4000 years ago in Persia, where it was soon imbedded with Babylonian doctrines. The faith spread east through India to China, and reached west throughout the entire length of the Roman frontier; from Scotland to the Sahara Desert, and from Spain to the Black Sea. Sites of Mithraic worship have been found in Britain, Italy, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Armenia, Syria, Israel, and North Africa.
In Rome, more than a hundred inscriptions dedicated to Mithras have been found, in addition to 75 sculpture fragments, and a series of Mithraic temples situated in all parts of the city.
One of the largest Mithraic temples built in Italy now lies under the present site of the Church of St. Clemente, near the Colosseum in Rome.
The widespread popularity and appeal of Mithraism as the final and most refined form of pre-Christian paganism was discussed by the Greek historian Herodotus, the Greek biographer Plutarch, the neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, the Gnostic heretic Origen, and St. Jerome the church Father. Mithraism was quite often noted by many historians for its many astonishing similarities to Christianity.
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The faithful referred to Mithras (REMEMBER, 4000 years ago!) as “the Light of the World”, symbol of truth, justice, and loyalty. He was mediator between heaven and earth and was a member of a Holy Trinity. According to Persian mythology, Mithras was born of a virgin given the title ‘Mother of God’. The god remained celibate throughout his life, and valued self-control, renunciation and resistance to sensuality among his worshippers. Mithras represented a system of ethics in which brotherhood was encouraged in order to unify against the forces of evil.
The worshippers of Mithras held strong beliefs in a celestial heaven and an infernal hell. They believed that the benevolent powers of the god would sympathize with their suffering and grant them the final justice of immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. They looked forward to a final day of judgement in which the dead would resurrect, and to a final conflict that would destroy the existing order of all things to bring about the triumph of light over darkness.
Purification through a ritualistic baptism was required of the faithful, who also took part in a ceremony in which they drank wine and ate bread to symbolize the body and blood of the god. Sundays were held sacred, and the birth of the god was celebrated annually on December the 25th. After the earthly mission of this god had been accomplished, he took part in a Last Supper with his companions before ascending to heaven, to forever protect the faithful from above.
However, it would be a vast oversimplification to suggest that Mithraism was the single fore-runner of early Christianity. Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were plenty of other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected. Many classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father. Virtually every pagan religious practice and festivity that couldn’t be suppressed or driven underground was eventually incorporated into the rites of Gentile Christianity as it spread across Europe and throughout the world.
The Lord’s supper was not invented by Paul, but was borrowed by him from Mithraism, the mystery religion that existed long before Christianity and was Christianity’s chief competitor up until the time of Constantine. Paul’s “home-town” was Tarsus, from where Mithraism began. In Mithraism, the central figure is the mythical Mithras, who died for the sins of mankind and was resurrected.
Believers in Mithras were rewarded with eternal life. Part of the Mithraic communion liturgy included the words, “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.”
Originally Mithra was one of the lesser gods of the ancient Persian pantheon, but he came to be regarded as the spiritual Sun, the heavenly Light, and the chief and also the embodiment of the seven divine spirits of goodness; and already in the time of Jesus he had risen to be co-equal with, though created by, Ormuzd (Ahura-Mazda), the Supreme Being [J.M. Robertson, /Pagan Christs/, p. 290.], and Mediator between him and man [Plutarch, /Isis et Osiris/, ch. 46; Julian, /In regem solem/, chs. 9, 10, 21.]. He appears to have lived an incarnate life on earth, and in some unknown manner to have suffered death for the good of mankind, an image symbolizing his resurrection being employed in his ceremonies [Tertullian, /Praescr/., ch. 40.]. Tarsus, the home of Paul, was one of the great centers of his worship, being the chief city of the Cilicians; and, as will presently appear, there is a decided tinge of Mithraism in the Epistles and Gospels. Thus the designations of Jesus as the Dayspring from on High [Luke, i. 78.], the Light [2 Cor. iv. 6; Eph. v. 13, 14; I. Thess. v. 5; etc.], the Sun of Righteousness [Malachi iv. 2]; and much used in Christianity, and similar expressions, are borrowed from or related to Mithraic phraseology.
Mithra was born from a rock [Firmicus, /De errore/, xxi.; etc.], as shown in Mithraic sculptures, being sometimes termed ”the god out of the rock”, and his worship was always conducted in a cave; and the general belief in the early Church that Jesus was born in a cave is a direct instance of the taking over of Mithraic ideas. The words of Paul, “They drank of that spiritual rock … and that rock was Christ” [I Corinthians x. 4.] are borrowed from the Mithraic scriptures; for not only was Mithra “the Rock”, but one of his mythological acts, which also appears in the acts of Moses, was the striking of the rock and the producing of water from it which his followers eagerly drank. Justin Martyr [Justin Martyr, /Dial. with Trypho/, ch. 70.] complains that the prophetic words in the Book of Daniel [Daniel ii. 34.] regarding a stone which was cut out of the rock without hands were also used in the Mithraic ritual; and it is apparent that the great importance attached by the early Church to the supposed words of Jesus in regard to Peter – “Upon this rock I will build my church” [Matthew xvi. 18.] – was due to their approximation to the Mithraic idea of the /Theos ek Petras/, 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.
The chief incident of Mithra’s life was his struggle with a symbolical bull, which he overpowered and sacrificed, and from the blood of the sacrifice came the world’s peace and plenty, typified by ears of corn. The bull appears to signify the earth or mankind, and the implication is that Mithra, like Jesus, overcame the world; but in the early Persian writings Mithra is himself the bull [J.M. Robertson, /Pagan Christs/, p. 298.], the god thus sacrificing himself, which is a close approximation to the Christian idea. In later times the bull is interchangeable with a ram; but the zodiacal ram, Aries, which is associated with Mithra, was replaced by a lamb in the Persian zodiac [Bundahish, ii. 2.], so that it is a lamb which is sacrificed [Garucci, /Les Myste`res du Syn. Phrygien/, p. 34.], as in Easter concept of Jesus. That this sacrifice had originally a human victim, and that it later involved the idea of the sacramental death of a human being, is clear from the fact that the Church historian, Socrates, believed that human victims were still sacrificed in the Mithraic mysteries down to some period before A.D. 360 [Socrates, /Eccles. Hist., bk. iii., ch. 2.].
Thus the paramount Christian idea of the sacrifice of the lamb of God was one with which every worshipper of Mithra was familiar; and just as Mithra was an embodiment of the seven spirits of God, so the slain Lamb in the Book of Revelation has seven horns and seven eyes “which are the seven spirits of God” [Revelation v. 6.]. Early writers say that a lamb was consecrated, killed, and eaten as an Easter rite in the Church; but Easter was a Mithraic festival [Macrobius, /Saturnalia/, i. 18.], presumably of the resurrection of their god, and the parallel is thus complete, in which regard it is to be noted that in the Seventh Century the Church endeavored without success to suppress the picturing of Jesus as a lamb, owing to the paganism involved in the idea [Bingham, /Christian Antiq./, viii. 8, sec. 11; xv. 2, sec. 3.].
The ceremonies of purification by the sprinkling or drenching of the novice with the blood of bulls or rams were widespread, and were to be found in the rites of Mithra. By this purification a man was “born again” [Beugnot, /Hist. de la Dest. Du Paganisme/, i. p. 334.], and the Christian expression “washed in the blood of the Lamb” is undoubtedly a reflection of this idea, the reference thus being clear in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins”. In this passage the writer goes on to say: “Having boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which he hath consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say his flesh … let us draw near … having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” [Hebrews x. 19.]. But when we learn that the Mithraic initiation ceremony consisted in entering boldly into a mysterious underground “holy of holies”, with the eyes veiled, and there being sprinkled with blood, and washed with water, it is clear that the author of the Epistle was thinking of those Mithraic rites with which everybody at that time must have been so familiar.
Another ceremony in the religion of Mithra was that of stepping across a channel of water, the hands being entangled in the entrails of a bird, signifying sin, and of being “liberated” on the other side; and this seems to be referred to by Paul when he says: “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” [Galatians v. 1.].
Tertullian [Tertullian, /Praescr./, ch. 40.] states that the worshippers of Mithra practiced baptism by water, through which they were thought to be redeemed from sin, and that the priest made a sign upon the forehead of the person baptized; but as this was also a Christian rite, Tertullian declares that the Devil must have effected the coincidence for his wicked ends. “The Devil”, he also writes, “imitates even the main parts of our divine mysteries”, and “has gone about to apply to the worship of idols those very things of which the administration of Christ’s sacraments consists”.
In this rite he must be referring both to the baptismal rite and also to the Mithraic eucharist, of which Justin Martyr [Justin Martyr, /1 Apol./, ch. 66.] had already complained when he declared that it was Satan who had plagiarized the ceremony, causing the worshippers of Mithra to receive the consecrated bread and cup of water. The ceremony of eating an incarnate god’s body and drinking his blood is, of course, of very ancient and originally cannibalistic inception, and there are several sources from which the Christian rite may be derived, if, as most critics think, it was not instituted as an actual ceremony by Jesus; but its connection with the Mithraic rite is the most apparent.
The worshippers of Mithra were called “Soldiers of Mithra”, which is probably the origin of the term “Soldiers of Christ” and of the exhortation to Christians to “put on the armour of light” [Romans xiii. 12. Compare also Ephesians vi. 11, 13.], Mithra being the god of Light. As in Christianity, they recognized no social distinctions, both rich and poor, freemen and slaves, being admitted into the Army of the Lord. Mithraism had its austerities, typified in the severe initiation rites endured by a “Soldier of Mithra”; and the Epistle to Timothy, similarly, exhorts the Christian to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” [2 Timothy ii. 3.]. It also had its nuns and its male celibates [Tertullian, /Prascr./, ch. 40.]; and one of its main tenets was the control of the flesh and the repudiation of the world, this being symbolized in the initiation ceremony, whereat a crown was offered to the novice, who had to reject it, saying, as did the Christians, that it was to a heavenly crown that he looked. We hear, too, of hymns which could be used with equal propriety by Christians and Mithraists alike [/Rev. Arch./, vol. xvii. (1911), p. 397.]. The Mithraic worship always took place in caves, these being either natural or artificial. Now the early Christians, openly and for no reasons of secrecy or security, employed those subterranean rock chambers known as catacombs both for their burials and for public worship. Like the Mithraic caves, these catacombs were decorated with paintings, amongst which the subject of Moses striking the rock, which, as I have said above, has a Mithraic parallel, is often represented. The most frequent theme is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd; and although it is generally agreed that the figure of Jesus carrying a lamb is taken from the statues of Hermes Kriophoros [Pausanias, iv. 33.], 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 [/Hymn to the Delian Apollo./], 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 [/Encyc. Brit./, 11th ed., vol. xvii., p. 623.].
The Hebrew Sabbath having been abolished by Christians, the Church made a sacred day of Sunday, partly because it was the day of the resurrection, but largely because it was the weekly festival of the sun; for it was a definite Christian policy to take over the pagan festivals endeared to the people by tradition, and to give them a Christian significance. But, as a solar festival, Sunday was the sacred day of Mithra; and it is interesting to notice that since Mithra was addressed as /Dominus/, “Lord”, Sunday must have been “the Lord’s Day” long before Christian times. December 25th was the birthday of the sun-god, and particularly of Mithra, and was only taken over in the Fourth Century as the date, actually unknown, of the birth of Jesus.
The head of the Mithraic faith was called /Pater Patrum/, “Father of the Fathers”, and was seated at Rome; and similarly the head of the Church was the /Papa/, or “Father”, now known as the Pope, who was also seated at Rome. The Pope’s crown is called a tiara, but a tiara is a Persian, and hence perhaps a Mithraic, headdress. The ancient chair preserved in the Vatican and supposed to have been the pontifical throne used by St. Peter, is in reality of pagan origin, and may possibly be Mithraic also, for it has upon it certain pagan carvings which are thought to be connected with Mithra [J.M. Robertson, /Pagan Christs/, p. 336.].