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roman pagan religion, prophet zoroaster, early christian writings, striking parallels

The Pagan Origins Of Christian Mythology

Author: Brice C. Smith

elrond@MIT.EDU

The Judeo-Christian religions were founded in a region of the
world where savior religions existed for thousands of years.
Much of the symbolism and many of the stories in the Bible may
be traced to earlier myths of the Persians, Egyptians, and other
people from the near east. Under Constantine when the Roman
Empire adopted Christianity the festivals and stories were
further infused with the traditions of the earlier Roman pagan
religion. Constantine himself worshipped both Jesus and the
sun god Sol Invitus, the Romanized version of Mithra, until he
died. It is, therefore, crucial to the proper understanding of the
Bible to understand the influence that these ancient religions
had on the early Jews and Christians when they were forming
what was to become the Jeudo-Christian tradition.

Mithra



Among the religions that played large roles in influencing the
types of religious beliefs of the ancient near east,
Zoroastrianism was probably the must important. Zarathushtra
is the Iranian word for Zoroaster who founded this religion in
ancient Persia approximately 2000 BCE. In ancient Iranian
mythology, Ahura Mazda was the lord of light and wisdom,
originally an equal to Mithra the god of light and justice, was
elevated to the supreme being by the prophet Zoroaster. The
extent to which the writers of the Old and New Testaments were
acquainted with the Persians is evident in the numerous
references to the Medes and the Persians in the Bible.
Mithraism, an off-shoot of Zoroastrianism, holds many striking
parallels in symbolism and mythology to the latter Jewish and
early Christian writings.

One very interesting addition to the
Jewish mythology thought to have been taken from Mithraism is
Satan himself. Up to the time of the exile, the source of both
good and evil to the Israelites was God. After the exile from
Egypt, the doctrine of Mithraism became widely know to the
Israelites. Their writings then begin the claim that God is the
one God of the universe and that he is a God of righteousness.
They introduce the character of Satan to explain all of the evil in
the world. It is probable that the earliest writings about Satan
were actually modeled on the arch deity Angra Mainyu of
Zoroastrianism. The elaborate angelology and demonology of
the later Judaism, the idea of a divine judgment and a final
resurrection, and a future life which may be definitely described
all seem to have come at least partially from the mythology of
Zoroastrianism. An interesting side note to be mentioned here
is that it is commonly believed that the Magi who are described
visiting Jesus at his birth were Zoroastrian priests.

The
influence of Mithraism on Christian mythology is even more
pronounced. Mithra, a character already ancient by the birth of
Jesus, appears to be one of the models for the later mysticizing
of Jesus and his ministry. It is apparent that as each of the
gospels was written more and more mystery and magic was
accredited to Jesus. It is these additions to the story, added
many years after his death, that borrow heavily from the earlier
religions already well established in the near east. The story
and role of Mithra is very similar to that of Jesus. The
Zoroastrian religion centered on the struggle of Order against
Chaos, Light against Dark. In this battle the Sun-god was a
powerful ally for the side of light. Mithra was the son of the Sun-
god sent to Earth to aid in this battle against evil and to be the
savior of the world.

The Mithraic festival in celebration of
Mithra's birth was held on December 25, the recognized date of
Jesus' birth. Long before Christmas was celebrated, December
25th in the Roman world was the Natalis Solis Invicti, the
birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. This feast, which took place
just after the winter solstice, was in honor of the Sun God Sol
Invitus who was nothing more than the Roman adaptation of
Mithra. Mithra was said to have been born in a cave or grotto
where shepherds attended him and gave him gifts. This brings
to mind much of the story of Jesus' birth in a stable. Mithra, like
Jesus, is believed to have descended from heaven to earth,
shared a last supper with twelve of this followers, and redeemed
mankind from sin be shedding blood and rising from the dead.
Mithraism postulates an apocalypse, a day of judgment, a
resurrection of the flesh, and of a second coming of Mithra
himself when he will finally defeat the principle of evil. The
Mithraists even baptize their followers as Christians do, though
they use bull's blood instead of water.

The similarities do not
stop there. The symbol of Mithra was the setting and rising sun,
which invoke images of Christ's death and resurrection. Both
religions also included a sacrament of bread and wine derived
from the last supper of their respective saviors. The influence of
Mithraism on Christianity is even more pronounced in the
symbolism and style of the later Gospels as well as in the
language and dress of the early Christian leaders. The style of
many Mithraic verses seem quite familiar to modern Christians.
A typical verse used in a Mithraic service is "Be of good cheer,
sacred band of Initiates, your God has risen from the dead. His
pains and sufferings shall be your salvation." It is clear that
many of the phrases used by Paul seem to draw heavily upon
the terminology and style of the Mithraic religion. Another
example of this borrowing of Mithraic symbolism is when Paul
says "They drink from that spiritual rock and that rock is Christ"
(I Cor. 10:4). Mithra was sometimes termed the god out of the
rock and Mithraic services were often held in caves. In fact the
Vatican hill in Rome that is sacred to Peter, the Christian rock,
was already scared to Mithra. Many Mithraic artifacts have been
found there. This should not be surprising when it is realized
that Mithraism was introduced to the Roman empire around 70
BCE, over 350 years before Christianity was adopted as the
official state religion, and that Tarsus, the home of Paul, was
one of the chief centers of Mithra worship in the ancient world.

The liturgy of the Eucharist that John describes requires the
converted to be born again. In John 3:3 Jesus states that "I tell
you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is
born again." This concept of rebirth is again not unique to
Christianity. It was in fact integral to the Mithraic religion for
2000 years before Jesus was born. In the Mithraic liturgy, it is
stated that it is necessary "so that [the speaker] may gaze upon
the immortal beginning with the immortal spirit that I may be
born again in thought." Along with the concept of rebirth, the
description of the Mithraic communion is nearly indistinguishable
form the Christian accounts. The prayer said at a Mithraic
communion is "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." This prayer may be compared to the Christian
communion story in Luke 21:19 when Jesus breaks the bread
and says "This is my body to be given up for you. This cup is
the new covenant in my blood which will be shed for you." It is
clear just how much influence the symbolism and terminology of
Mithraism had on the earliest Christian writers. The other stylist
influence that Mithraism had on Christianity is in the dress and
trappings used during religious services.

The Mithraic Holy
Father wore a red cap, garment, and ring and carried a
shepherd's staff. The early Christian leaders adopted the
Mithraic title of priest as well as their style of dress. Like the
Mithraic priests, the Christian's became Father' despite Jesus'
specific proscription of the acceptance of such a title. In
Matthew 23:9 Jesus states that you should "call no man your
father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven." The
Mithraic priest wore robes which featured the sword (cross) of
Mithra which are identical to the robes worn by Catholic priests
to this day. The Mithraic bishops wore a mithra, or miter, as
their badge of office which was also adopted by early Christian
bishops. During a mass, Mithraists commemorated the
ascension of the sun-god by eating a mizd, a sun shaped bun
with the sword (cross) of Mithra. The mass and the communion
wafer were likewise adapted to Christianity. The Roman
Catholic mass wafer has maintained this sun shape for over a
thousand years. No one would claim that the Judeo-Christian
religious tradition is taken entirely from one source. As I will
show, many similar adaptations were taken from Egypt, Rome,
and other ancient civilizations, but it is clear that the Persian cult
of Mithra was one of the most influential sources of mythology
and symbolism to the ancient Israelites who wrote the Bible.

Egypt



Another important source that the early Christians drew from
was the great civilization to the west, Egypt. Many of the pieces
to the stories surrounding Jesus which differ from Mithraism may
be found in the mythology of the Egyptians. Due to the vast
differences in writing systems, the Egyptian religion did not have
as strong an influence on the style of early Christian writings,
but the influence of the characters and the magic associated
with each is even more pronounced than it is for Mithraism.

The
four most import figures in Egyptian mythology needed to
understanding the Christian stories are Set, Isis, Osiris, and
Horus. In earliest times, Set was the patron deity of Lower
(Northern) Egypt, and represented the fierce storms of the
desert whom the Lower Egyptians sought to appease. However,
when Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt and ushered in the
First Dynasty, Set became known as the evil enemy of Horus
(Upper Egypt's dynastic god). In Egyptian religion Set, of Seth,
came to stand for the forces of chaos and destruction, of energy
misplaced. He was the opposer of light and the champion of
darkness. Set was the principle of all which burns and
consumes. In later periods, Set was identified with the Greek
genie Typhon who had a serpents body. The snake is a symbol
long associated with Set which undoubtedly influenced the use
of the snake as the evil influence in the story of Adam and Eve.
In the dynastic periods, when Osiris, Horus, and Isis were
worshipped, followers of Set were persecuted and his
priesthood was finally destroyed in the XXV dynasty. When the
Hebrews emigrated from Egypt during the XIX dynasty, it is clear
that they took with them the character of Set which was later
used along with Angra Mainyu as the model for Satan. Even the
word Satan was probably derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphic
Set-hen, one of Set's formal titles.

The next major Egyptian
character who had a large influence on the early Christians is
Isis. Perhaps the most important goddess of all Egyptian
mythology, Isis assumed, during the course of Egyptian history,
the attributes and functions of virtually every other important
goddess in the land. Her most important functions, however,
were those of motherhood, marital devotion, healing the sick,
and the working of magical spells and charms. She was the
sister and wife of Osiris, sister of Set, and the mother of Horus
the Child (Harpocrates). Isis was responsible for protecting
Horus from Set during his infancy; for helping Osiris to return to
life; and for assisting her husband to rule in the land of the
Dead. Isis figures strongly in the rites and symbolism
associated with Mary. She was considered to be the mother of
the king who is thought to be a God made man to rule over his
earthy kingdom. The cult of Isis was widespread in Egypt and
spread from there to Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine; to Asia
Minor; to Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Samos and other islands in the
Aegean; to many parts of mainland Greece - Corinth, Argos and
Thessaly amongst them; to Malta and Sicily; and, finally, to
Rome. In the first century BC, Isis was perhaps the most popular
goddess in Rome, from which her cult spread to the furthest
limits of the Roman Empire, including Britain: her only rival was
Mithras. An interesting side note to this is that the 'Black
Virgins', so highly reverenced in certain French cathedrals have
been shown to be in fact basalt figures of Isis. Many of the
parallels between Isis and Mary also figure in the parallel
between Horus, her son, and Jesus. Obviously the most
important similarity is that Isis was said to be a virgin when she
gave birth to Horus. This is, of course, to be compared to the
biblical story of the immaculate conception. As well as
similarities between their stories and their functions, there are
several similarities in the types of symbols and language
surrounding Isis and Mary. Isis is constantly referred to as the
honored one or as the holy one. She is referred to with
language like "Immaculate is our Lady Isis" which is nearly
identical to the language used about Mary. Cyril, the bishop of
Alexandria, openly embraced Isis and simply
anthropomorphized her into Mary.

Osiris was the god of the
dead, and the god of the resurrection into eternal life; ruler,
protector, and judge of the deceased. Osiris was the brother of
Set and Isis, who was also his wife by whom he fathered Horus.
Osiris ruled the world of men in the beginning, after Ra had
abandoned the world to rule the skies, but he was murdered by
his brother Set. Through the magic of Isis, he was made to live
again. By Dynasty XVIII, Osiris was probably the most widely
worshipped god in Egypt. Reliefs of Roman emperors,
conquerors of Egypt, dressed in the traditional garb of the
Pharaohs, making offerings to him in the temples exist to this
day. His death was avenged by his son Horus, who defeated
Set, castrated him, and cast him out into the Sahara. Horus
then became the divine prototype of the Pharaoh. As Heru-Ur,
"Horus the Elder", he was the patron deity of Upper (Southern)
Egypt. Initially he was viewed as the twin brother of Set (the
patron of Lower Egypt), but he became the conqueror of Set
around 3100 BCE when Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt
and formed the unified kingdom of Egypt.

There are many
striking similarities between the stories surrounding Osiris and
Horus and those surrounding Jesus. I will first describe the
similarities between their stories and then I will talk about the
similar themes and imagery used in the stories. Horus was born
to the virgin Isis as Jesus was to Mary. Horus was born in Annu,
the place of bread, where a star announced his birth. Jesus was
born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, with an eastern star
leading the Magi to his birthplace. Horus was baptized with
water by Anup the Baptizer at the age of thirty just as Jesus was
baptized at thirty by John the Baptist. Horus had twelve
followers known as Har-Khutti and Jesus had his twelve
followers known as disciples. Horus was carried off by Set to
the summit of Mount Hetep where they did battle. Jesus was
carried off by Satan to the Mount where Jesus was tested by
Satan. After Horus' death he was wrapped in a mummy
bandage that was woven without seam just like the vesture of
Christ is without a seam. And finally there was That-Aan who
bore witness to the word of Ra and to the testimony of Horus just
as John bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of
Jesus. The stories of Osiris also shows many similarities to
Jesus. Osiris was considered to be the bringer of
enlightenment. He forced no man to carry out his will. He
induced them to practice what he preached by means of gentle
persuasion. His lessons were often imparted to his listeners
through hymns or songs. Much of this may be seen in the later
writings about the ministry of Jesus.

Of course, the most
important similarity between the stories of Osiris and Jesus is
their death and resurrection. Osiris was killed by his brother
Set, his body stripped, torn to pieces, and finally scattered
about. In this way, the death of Osiris bears similarity to the
death of Jesus when his body is stripped and his clothes were
divvied up among the soldiers. Osiris was then resurrected with
the aid of his wife/sister Isis and his son Horus and in doing so
became the lord of death and the keeper of the afterlife. This is
mirrored in the story of Jesus' resurrection and subsequent
mastery over death. Each year Osiris was the subject of the
Abydos passion play, a ritual that stretched from the Old
Kingdom up until around 400 CE. The Abydos passion play
depicts the slaying of Osiris and his followers by Set. The figure
of Osiris is then torn to pieces by Set, after which his remains
are gathered up by his wife, Isis, and son, Horus, who then
restore him to life. This ritual is mirrored by modern day
Christians during Easter when the death and resurrection of
Jesus is reenacted in modern passion plays. Some of these
stories about Horus are accredited to Osiris and vise versa, but
what is clear is that much of the mystical aspects that were
added to the later stories of Jesus' ministry drew heavily from
the earlier Egyptian texts with which the writers were
undoubtedly familiar.

Even more startling than the plot
similarities are the symbolic similarities between the Egyptian
and Christian stories. Horus was associated both with the lion
and with the lamb as was Jesus. Horus was identified with the
Tat or cross as well as with the shepherd's crook and the rod.
This association was first made through Isis, his mother. In an
ancient Egyptian text Isis states that "I am the staff of his power
in his youth, and he is the rod of my old age." This association
was strengthened by the pharaohs, who were called Kings of the
Kingdom and The Great Shepherds of Their Flock. In the
tradition of Horus, who was called "The Good Shepherd", the
pharaohs carried the staff and rod as the symbols of their
heavenly power . Jesus' association with the cross goes without
saying but he was also portrayed as the Good Shepherd, and in
Rev. 12:5 and 19:15 he is said to "rule with a rod of iron." There
are also Old Testament associations between God and the
shepherd's crook and the rod. In the Book of Psalms the
famous line "Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will
fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy Rod and thy Staff, they
comfort me" ( Psalms 23:4 ) points to the influence of the
Egyptian traditions.

Horus was known as Iu-em-Hetep, he who
comes in peace, Horus the avenger, and Horus the afflicted one.
Latter Jesus would be called the bringer of peace, he who brings
the sword, and the afflicted one. Horus was the sower and Set
was the destroyer in the Harvest field. Horus was identified with
the plant, the shoot, and the natzar. Jesus was the sower of
good seed and Satan the sower of tares. Jesus was also
associated with the "true vine".

The influence of astrology on
the stories of Horus and then later on the story of Jesus goes
far beyond the star that signaled both their births. Horus was
known as the Morning Star or as he who gives the Morning Star
to his followers just as Jesus was. Horus also spoke of the
paradise of the pole star Am-Khemen just as Christians have the
Holy City lighted by one luminary that is neither the Sun nor the
Moon, which makes it most likely the pole star. Along with the
symbolic comparisons, some of the sayings attributed to both
deities also show the influence of the Egyptians on the early
Christian chroniclers and to those who later translated the Bible.
Horus says "It is I who traverse the heavens; I go around the
Sekhet-Arru (the Elysian Fields); Eternity has been assigned to
me without end. Lo! I am heir of endless time and my attribute
is eternity". Striking a remarkably similar cord, Jesus later says
"I am come down from Heaven. For this is the will of the Father
that everyone who beholdeth the Son and believeth in Him
should have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."

Another similarity in speech is when Horus says that "I open the
Tuat that I may drive away the darkness." Jesus is later quoted
as saying "I am come a light unto the world."

One final example
is when Horus says that "I am equipped with thy words O Ra
(the father of heaven) and repeat them to those who are
deprived of breath. These were the words of the father in
heaven." Jesus speaks with much the same feeling when he
says "The Father which sent me, he hath given me a
commandment, what I should say and what I should speak.
Whatsoever I speak, therefore, even as the Father said unto me,
so I speak. The word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father's
which sent me."

Finally the most important similarity between
the Egyptian religion and Christianity is the concept of a holy
trinity. The tradition of the trinity goes back to the Amon
theology of the Rameside period. The one god has three
appearances or forms which are combined and treated as a
singular being. In the later periods, the Egyptian trinity was
taken to be Atum the Father, Horus the Son, and Ra the Holy
Spirit. This is of course paralleled in the Christian trinity of God
the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is clear that
not only the Persian cult of Mithra, but also the ancient pagan
religions of Egypt strongly influenced the formation of the Judeo-
Christian religion which grew up trapped between these two
giants.

Conclusions



With all of these comparisons and similarities, I have not
intended to imply that the Bible is merely plagiarized from these
earlier sources. Nor have I intended to prove the that the Bible
is a work of fiction. What I have intended to show, and what is
apparently clear, is that when the founders of the Christian faith
set out to document the life and message of their founder,
Jesus, they drew from the best sources of religious doctrine
available.

Just as any other writer, the writers of the Bible were
influenced by their own cultural biases and view points as well
as by the religious figures they met. And as time went on and
Christianity was adopted and spread throughout the Roman
Empire and the rest of the world, it is not surprising that it was
infused with the religious doctrine, symbolism, and mysticism of
the cultures it encountered.

To show that these were not just
isolated examples from two religions, here is a list of over thirty
saviors who were said to have descended from heaven, taken
the form of men, and furnished evidence of their divine origin by
various miracles and marvelous works. Each laid the foundation
for salvation, all were worshipped as Gods or sons of Gods,
many were said to have been born to virgins, and many were
also said to have been crucified. The list includes such figures
as Chrishna of Hindostan, Budha Sakia of India, Salivahana of
Bermuda, Zulis and Orus of Egypt, Odin of the Scandinavians,
Crite of Chaldea, Baal and Taut of Phoenecia, Indra of Tibet,
Bali of Afganistan, Jao of Nepal, Wittoba of the Bilingonese,
Thammuz of Syria, Atys of Phrygia, Xamolxis of Thrace, Adad of
Assyria, Deva Tat and Sammonocadam of Siam, Alcides of
Thebes, Mikado of the Sintoos, Beddru of Japan, Hesus or Eros
and Bremrillah of the Druids, Thor of the Gauls, Cadmus and
Adonis of Greece, Hil and Feta of the Mandaites, Gentaut and
Quexalcote of Mexico, Universal Monarch of the Sibyls, Ischy of
the island of Formosa, Divine teacher of Plato, the Holy One of
Xaca, Fohi and Tien of China, Ixion and Quirinus of Rome,
Prometheus of Caucasus, Mohamud or Mahomet of Arabia. So,
truly, the study of the Christian faith must be a study of world
faiths. For if we ignore or dismiss the beliefs of others, even
those of ancient civilizations, then we are missing an essential
part of our own faith.

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