Written by: Brice C. Smith
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 Judeo-Christian tradition.
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 from 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.
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
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.