THERE ARE STRIKING RESEMBLANCES BETWEEN
MITHRAISM AND CHRISTIANITY
The resemblances between the two hostile churches were so striking as to impress even the minds of antiquity" (Cumont, 193). Like Origen (an early Christian writer and in this respect a peculiarity among the other patristic writers), Mithraism held that all souls pre-existed in the ethereal regions with God, and inhabited a body upon birth. Similar to Pythagorean, Jewish, and Pauline theology, life then becomes the great struggle between good and evil, spirit and body, ending in judgment, with the elect being saved. "They both admitted to the existence of a heaven inhabited by beautiful ones. . .and a hell peopled by demons situate in the bowels of earth" (Cumont 191).
Both religions used the rite of baptism, and each participated in an outwardly similar type of sacrament, bread and wine. Both Mithra and Christ were supposedly visited by shepherds and Magi. It has been claimed that both Mithraism and Christianity considered Sunday their holy day, though for different reasons, although the evidence that Mithradists practiced weekly worship, any more than any other pagan religion of the time, is lacking. Many have noted that the title of Pope (father) is found in Mithraic doctrine and seemingly prohibited in Christian doctrine. The words Peter (rock) and mass (sacrament) have significance in Mithraism.
Mithraism and early Christianity considered abstinence, celibacy, and self-control to be among their highest virtues. Both had similar beliefs about the world, destiny, heaven and hell, and the immortality of the soul. Their conceptions of the battles between good and evil were similar (though Mithraism was more dualistic), including a great and final battle at the end of times. Mithraism's flood at the beginning of history was deemed necessary because what began in water would end in fire, according to Mithraic eschatology. Both religions believed in revelation as key to their doctrine. Both awaited the last judgment and resurrection of the dead.
When inducted into the degree of Leo, he was purified with honey, and baptised, not with water, but with fire, as John the Baptist declared that his successor would baptise. After this second baptism, initiates were considered "participants," and they received the sacrament of bread and wine commemorating Mithra's banquet at the conclusion of his labors (Larson 190).
Although Christianity eventually rivaled the four-century-old cult of Mithra in Rome, they were practiced by different social classes. Mithra was popular among soldiers and had a certain elitism because it barred women, and like Gnosticism, it emphasized hidden knowledge. On the other hand, Christianity was a version that could be practiced by women and so it enjoyed a degree of populism. Under emperors like Julian and Commodus, Mithra became the patron of Roman armies (Cumont 87).
Mithra had no mother, but was miraculously born of a rock, or the petra genetix (de Riencourt 135). His worshipers partook of a sacramental meal of bread marked with a cross (Cumont 160). This was one of seven Mithraic ritual meals.
Mithra's cave-temple on the Vatican Hill was seized by Christians in 376 A.D. (J. Smith 146). The Mithraic festival of Epiphany, marking the arrival of sun-priests ("Magi") at the Savior's birthplace, was adopted by the Christian church only as late as 813 A.D. (Brewster 55).
Christianity may have emphasized common features that attracted Mithra followers, perhaps the crucifix appealed to those Mithra followers who had crosses already branded on their foreheads. In art Mithra, a sun god, was normally depicted with a halo representing the sun. In Christianity, the halo remains, but has lost its meaning because of the doctrinal prohibition against star gazing, as recorded in Halakaic sanctions.
Justin Martyr, in a discussion with the Jewish apologist Trypho, wrote: "'And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave, do I not perceive here that the utterance of Daniel, that a stone without hands was cut out of a great mountain, has been imitated by them, and that they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah's words? For they contrived that the words of righteousness be quoted also by them. . . . And when I hear, Trypho,' said I, 'that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this.'" (Dialogue with Trypho, LXXVIII). Tertullian gives a similar account.
According to Martin A. Larson, in The Story of Christian Origins (1977), the first example of mythological concept of the savior god which is present in many faiths including Christianity and Mithraism is Osiris. Larson concluded that the general concept of savior must have originated from the savior cult of Osiris. He also believed that the Essenes were Jewish Pythagoreans, whose members not only gave birth to Christianity as Essenes, but were directly influenced by Zoroastrian doctrine as Pythagoreans — a view probably shared by Cumont. Mithraism, in Larson's view, was an established but exclusive sect devoted to social justice, and was assimilated by state-sponsored Christianity before being disposed of in name.