From Andrew Benson's book The Origins of Christianity and the Bible.
The mysteries were cults into which a person was initiated (taken in). The initiate was called "mystes," the introducing person "mystagogos" (leader of the mystes). The leaders of the cults were the "hierophantes " (revealer of holy things) and the "dadouchos" (torchbearer).
Several mystery religions existed before the Hellenistic era. Their great period began when the Romans imposed peace upon the Mediterranean world, during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus, towards the end of the first century BCE (a few decades before the birth of Christianity). In the first century CE various mystery religions existed side-by-side throughout the Roman empire. Almost every city of the eastern Mediterranean had a temple dedicated to a god or goddess of a mystery religion. These religions were so widespread that many Roman officials and emperors participated in them.
Here are some examples. In Alexandria Ptolemy IV Philopator (reigned 221-205 BCE) was a devotee of Dionysus. In Rome Emperor Augustus (reigned 44 BCE to 14 CE) was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries and a devotee of Apollo. Under his rule, in 28 BCE, a splendid temple of Apollo was built on the Palatine Hill. At about 34 BCE the Roman general Mark Antony, after his successful expedition to Armenia, entered triumphantly into Ephesus casting himself in the role of the savior god Dionysus. He was received by ecstatic maenads (women participants in orgiastic Dionysian rites). Gaius Caesar (Caligula), the Roman emperor from 37 to 41 CE, instituted his own mystery religion and was initiated in it. Isiac frescoes dating from the time of the emperor Caligula were found in the ruins on the Palatine Hill at Rome. Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69-79 CE) became a devotee of Sarapis after he participated in a miracle (a cure of a lame hand and a cure of a vision problem) in Alexandria (at 70 CE). Domitian (reigned 81-96 CE) built a huge temple for Isis and adopted the Egyptian dietary laws after the priests of Isis saved his life. The Isis temple that the emperor Domitian erected on the Campus Martius (the Field of Mars) in Rome at the end of the 1st century CE was a stately building. Trajan (reigned 98-117 CE) is depicted on his triumphal arch as sacrificing to Isis. The Roman emperors Septimus Sevirus and Caracalla, who ruled jointly from 198 to 211 CE, were devotees of Sarapis. Caracalla appeared on his coins as "Sarapis Cosmocrator." He called himself "Philosarapis" (lover of Sarapis).
The cults of the mystery religions were influenced uniformly by the ideas of the Greek philosophers. A few of them existed before the turn of the Era, but several more appeared at about the turn of the Era. They reached their height of popularity during the times of early Christianity. Christianity was born during a period of proliferation. Christianity itself in the beginning consisted of many cults that existed independently and had very diverse doctrines. Because of such diversity, it is debatable whether Gnosticism was just another cult of Christianity or whether it was a separate religion.
The following features were common to all mystery religions. Admission to the community was by a rite of initiation, a solemn consecration. The initiation was held in secret, which explains why they were called "mysteries." The consecrated were joined by this mystery and were separated from the unconsecrated world, just as Christians set themselves apart from the world. (John 15:19) ... you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world ... (KJV)
Plato indicated that the members of the mystery communities considered each other brothers:
"Dion attached to himself two brothers ... men whose friendship was not derived from philosophy, but from ... mutual entertaining and sharing in religion and mystic ceremonies."
(Acts 15:7) After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers ... (NIV)
The mystery followers were bound by an oath to keep the mysteries secret. The actual initiation was preceded by numerous rites of purification such as fasting, baptism, and confession. The Christian theologian Tertullian (ca. 155-220 CE) wrote, "In certain mysteries, e.g. Isis and Mithra, it is by baptism [Latin: per lavarum] that members are initiated ..." Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-211 or 215 CE) wrote, "... in the current Mysteries among the Greeks ceremonial purifications hold the premier place."
The mystery religions practiced baptism before Christianity. The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr did not want to admit that the Christians copied the pagans. He explained the pagan origin of baptism by claiming that the demons learned about baptism from Isaiah and taught it to the pagans: "... the demons prompted those [the pagans] who enter their temples ... to sprinkle themselves also with water; furthermore, they cause them to wash their whole persons."
Plutarch mentions the confession of sins by mystery initiates during the ritual of initiation. "When Antalcidas was being initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace, he was asked by the priest [to confess] what especially dreadful thing he had done during his life ..." John the Baptist preached confession of sins before baptism: (Mark 1:4-5) John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. (KJV) Confession of sins was a common practice among the early Christians: (James 5:16) Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed. (KJV) (1 John 1:9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (KJV)
After the preliminaries, there followed the delivery of the sacred symbol or signal. (Christians, too, used symbols, such as the fish and the anchor.) The initiation culminated in the vision of the deity, in which the appearance of light played an important part. During the ceremony of initiation at the greater mysteries of Eleusis, the initiate would see a bright light and would receive the revelation of the mysteries. Similarly, Paul saw a bright light on the road to Damascus. He had a vision of a deity: Jesus. He received the gospel of Jesus by revelation. (Ephesians 3:3) ... how the mystery was made known to me by revelation ... (RSV) Thus, Paul was initiated to the mysteries of Christ.
With this vision the initiate of the mystery religions attained union with the deity and thus was endowed with eternal life. (Likewise, after Paul saw the vision of Jesus, he attained union with him and was endowed with eternal life.) Another symbolic rite was the vesting of the robe of the deity. By putting on the robe, the initiate "put on the deity." Likewise, Paul "put on Christ." (Galatians 3:27) For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (KJV) The mystery initiates after their initiation adopted a new name. Likewise, when Saul accepted Jesus he adopted a new name: Paul. Also, Simon (a Jewish name) took the name Peter (a Greek name). (Mark 3:16) And Simon he surnamed Peter. (KJV) Revelation states that all believers will receive new names. (Revelation 2:17) To him that overcomes I will give ... a new name ... (KJV)
Initially, salvation from Hell through the Zoroastrian messiah was introduced by the Zoroastrians. This idea slightly modified was adopted by the mystery religions during the turn of the Common Era. The promise of salvation from the cycle of reincarnation and the escape to a heavenly world was the main characteristic of all the mystery religions. Only the soul that had lived a pious life three times could be liberated from that cycle. These religions emphasized individual salvation (an idea emphasized in Christianity). Christianity adopted salvation from Hell, not from the cycle of reincarnation.
Within the mystery communities the class distinctions of the secular world, such as differences in nationality, race, or economic and social position, were null and void. Free men and slaves, the important and the insignificant, all were brethren within the community. The early Christians adopted this practice. (Galatians 3:28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (KJV) Except for Mithraism (which was a man's religion), the women of the mystery religions associated freely with men.
There is a distinct difference between the words "secret" and "mystery." A secret is usually knowledge that is hidden. A mystery is a truth that can be understood only by revelation from God. The mystery is more like an enigma, a riddle, or a puzzle. The words "secret" and "secrets," which appear in all the books of the Old Testament (except in Daniel), refer to lack of knowledge, not to lack of understanding. Daniel was completed during the Hellenistic era, when mysteries were popular. In Daniel God gave a dream to Nebuchadnezzar that included a mystery, whose explanation was revealed to Daniel by God.
The word "mystery" (Gr. mystirion) is a key word in Christianity. It appears in the New Testament 22 times in the singular and 5 times in the plural. The following verses indicate that Christianity was established as a mystery religion. (1 Timothy 3:16) Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great. (NRSV) (1 Timothy 3:9) they [the deacons] must hold fast to the mystery of the faith ... (NRSV) (Luke 8:10) The mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. (KJV) (Ephesians 3:9) ... the mystery, which from the beginning of the world has been hid in God ... (KJV) (Ephesians 5:32) This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. (NASB) (Colossians 4:3) ... so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ ... (NASB) Hellenistic Christianity was "the mystery of Christ," like "the mystery of Dionysus" or "the mystery of Isis." More than once Paul mentions "the mystery of Christ." (Ephesians 3:4) When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ. (RSV) In the following verse Paul makes it clear that Christianity is a mystery religion. (1 Corinthians 4:1) This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (RSV) Paul wrote that resurrection was a mystery. (1 Corinthians 15:51) Lo! I tell you a mystery. (KJV) His gospel was a mystery. (Ephesians 6:19) ... that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel ... (KJV) (Colossians 1:26) the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints [the Hellenist Christians]. (KJV) (1 Corinthians 2:7) But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery. (KJV) (Ephesians 1:9) Having made known to us the mystery ... (KJV)
In accordance to Paul, the Christian church father Clement of Alexandria invited pagans to be initiated in the mysteries of Christianity. He wrote, "Then you will have the vision of my God, and will be initiated in those holy mysteries, and will taste the joys that are hidden away in heaven ..." He describes Christianity as "sacred mysteries." He talks about initiation and Jesus marking the initiates with his seal. "O Truly sacred mysteries! O pure light! In the blaze of torches I have a vision of heaven and of God. I become holy by initiation. The Lord [Jesus] reveals the mysteries; he marks the worshipper with his seal ..." The Dionysians were marked with the seal of Dionysus, the sign of ivy leaf.
Ignatius of Antioch, (died ca. 110), bishop of Antioch, Syria, in his letter to the Ephesians wrote, "... you are ... fellow-initiates with [apostle] Paul ..."
The mystery religions did not promise their believers a universal resurrection. The belief that the dead will rise and will live on this planet with their god is almost unique to Judeo-Christianity.
The mystery followers believed in reincarnation. When a wicked person dies his or her soul leaves the body and goes to the underworld to be punished and purified. After that, it returns to the world and enters the body of a newborn animal or human. On the other hand, when a truly righteous person dies his or her soul leaves the body and joins the eternal company of his or her god. As we mentioned elsewhere in this book, the doctrine of reincarnation found its way into the Wisdom of Solomon and into the Gospel of John.
Judaism was unpopular because it promised rewards only to the Jews. But the gods of the mystery religions were popular because they offered salvation from sin and the promise of eternal life to everyone regardless of their nationality. So did Christianity. (Romans 10:12) For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich to all that call upon him. (KJV)
The gods of the mystery religions died and rose. So did the god of Christianity. The mystery initiates secured immortality for themselves by physically reenacting the death and resurrection of their god. Paul wrote that the Christian initiates symbolically die and rise with Jesus. (Romans 6:3, 5-6, 8) ... so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we will be also in the likeness of his resurrection. ... our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed ... if we are dead with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (KJV)
Several mystery religions (such as the religion of Isis, Sarapis, Mithra, and various Gnostic sects ) originated in Egypt, Syria, and Persia. They emphasized personal salvation. They promised to bridge the gap between man and god, so that man would be elevated to the rank of deity. Thus, an initiate would become sinless like his god. Paul wrote (Romans 8:29) ... to become conformed to the image of his son [Jesus]. (NASB)
In contrast to the Old Testament, which pointed out the gap between God and humankind, those religions promised their believers union with the gods. So did Christianity. (Galatians 2:20) It is no longer I that lives, but Christ lives in me. (KJV) After his death the mystery initiate would live in the presence of his god. Plato wrote, "... whoever goes uninitiated and unsanctified to the other world will lie in the mire, but he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods." Likewise, for Christian believers. In the other world they will dwell with God. (Revelation 21:3) ... He [God] will dwell among them, and they will be His people, and God himself will be among them ... (NASB) (2 Corinthians 5:8) I ... prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home [in the other world] with the Lord. (NASB)
In the mystery religions this personal relationship with the deity was also attained by the initiate through a sacred meal. The initiate ate "holy food," and it was as though he ate the deity and thereby became a deity. The chief ritual in the mysteries of Dionysus, Attis, Isis, Mithra, and Orphism was this sacred meal. The meal was shared "in association."
The Qumran Essenes (many of whom joined the Jewish Christians, the original followers of Jesus imitated the pagan associations and their sacred meals in common. They centered many of their meetings around their meals. The early Christian called these meals "agape meals" or "feasts of charity." (Jude 1:12) ... in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear. (KJV) The following meals are probably agape meals. (Acts 6:1-2) ... their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. ... It is not desirable to neglect the word of God in order to serve the [meal] tables. (NASB)
The rest of the Jews, too, were influenced by the Greeks. They adopted sacred meals, which are mentioned in the Mishnah (Berakot 8). Their meals included hand washing, lighting lamps, blessing and breaking of the bread and blessing a cup of wine. However, the bread and wine of the Jewish meals did not symbolize the body and the blood of their god. Likewise, the last supper mentioned in Mark 14:22-24 was a common Jewish sacred meal.
As mentioned earlier, the gods of the mystery religions, such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Zagreus-Dionysus, had died and were resurrected. The idea of a god dying and rising is much older than Christianity. It existed among the Canaanites several centuries before the Hellenistic era. The Canaanites believed that their god Baal (son of the god Dagon)] was being murdered each spring by Mot and coming to life in the Fall.
Here is an interesting version of the myth of Baal, which contains parallels to the passion of Jesus. The Babylonian-Canaanite god Baal (also known in the Hellenistic era as Bel or Marduk) died and rose again. In the Ugaritic text The Baal Epic there is a passage where Baal fell under the power of Mot (death), so he died. The goddess Anath found him, buried him, and mourned him. Anath seized Mot, who personified death, and destroyed him. Because of her victory over death, Baal revived and returned to his throne.
According to another version, Baal was arrested (like Jesus). He was sentenced, chastised, and was sent away to die with a criminal (Jesus was crucified with two robbers), while another criminal was freed (Barabbas was freed in place of Jesus). According to this version, a woman cleansed away the blood that was oozing from the heart of Baal , which had apparently been pierced by a spear or a javelin. Afterward, Baal was found in a mountain, where he was being watched over. The goddess Anath prepared a nest for him and cared for him. (Women went to the grave of Jesus to care for his body.) Finally, Baal, or Bel-Marduk, came back alive and well from the mountain. Such myths circulated before the birth of Christianity.
The following quotation reveals how similar Christianity was to the Greek mystery religions. Justin Martyr wrote, "When we say that God created and arranged all things in this world, we seem to repeat the teaching of Plato; when we announce a final conflagration [of the world], we utter the doctrine of the Stoics; and when we assert that the souls of the wicked ... after death, will be ... punished, and that the souls of the good ... will live happily, we believe the same things as your poets and philosophers ... When ... we assert that the Word, our ... Jesus Christ, who is the first-begotten of God the Father, was not born as the result of sexual relations, and that He was crucified, died, arose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, we propose nothing new or different from that which you say about the so-called sons of Jupiter." Justin wrote these lines to win pagans to Christianity. He tried to tell them that Christian beliefs were not much different from their pagan beliefs. The Greek mystery religions preceded Christianity.
In the following passage Porphyry accuses Origen for copying from the Stoics the figurative interpretation, which was the interpretation also used by the Greek mystery religions. "... He [Origen] used the books of Chaeremon the Stoic and Cornutus, from whom he learned the figurative interpretation, as employed in the Greek mysteries ..." The Greek mystery religions used allegorical interpretation before Christianity.
Some pagans laughed at the Hellenist Christians for adopting the ideas of Plato and the mystery religions. Tertullian wrote, "... we are laughed at for proclaiming that God will judge, for just so the poets and philosophers set up a tribunal in the world below." Further on in this passage Tertullian mentions the river Pyriphlegethon, originally mentioned by Plato. He acknowledges the striking similarities between the pagan descriptions of eternal life and the corresponding descriptions in the New Testament. Twice he refers to Christianity as "our mysteries." He claims that the religious ideas of Christianity are older that their pagan parallels. He falsely accuses the Greek philosophers and poets for borrowing from Christianity.. "Now whence, I ask you, do the philosophers and poets find things so similar? Whence indeed, unless it be from our mysteries [Christianity]. And if from our mysteries which are the older, then ours are truer and more credible when the mere copies of them [your mysteries] win credence. If they invented these things out of their feelings, then our mysteries must be counted copies of what came later, a thing contrary to nature. For the shadow never exists before the body, nor the copy before the truth."
Justin Martyr and Tertullian claimed that the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity were due to Mithraism's demonic imitation of Christianity. They denied that it was Christianity who imitated the mystery religions. Clement of Alexandria suggested that Christianity was indeed the mystery religion with "truly sacred mysteries." These mysteries offer the pure light and vision of the only true God. The pagan mysteries he called shameless and corrupt.
Celsus, considered Christianity as one of the mystery religions. In his discussion of Christianity, he mentions "the other mysteries," that is, the mystery religions besides Christianity. Referring to Christianity Origen wrote "... we call them our mysteries."
Christianity was essentially one of the mystery religions of the first century. Clement of Alexandria claimed it was the best, and rightly so because it managed to wipe out its competitors and forerunners.
More than five centuries before the arrival of Christianity, at Eleusis (a small town outside Athens) the people established the Eleusinian mysteries.There they reenacted the myth of Demeter's search and her reunion with her daughter Persephone. Every year two Eleusinian ceremonies were held: the Greater mysteries, in honor of Demeter and Kori, and the Lesser mysteries, in honor of Kori alone.
The Lesser mysteries were a preparation for the Greater ones. They were performed at Agrae on the river Ilissus (outside Athens) in the month of Anthesterion (February-March). Because of the oaths for secrecy we have sparse testimony of what exactly took place in the initiation ceremony. Something was recited, something was revealed, and acts were performed. Also, the initiates took an oath of secrecy before preparing for the Greater mysteries. The penalty for revealing the mysteries to outsiders was death. The initiates of the Lesser mysteries waited at least one year until they could participate in the Greater mysteries, which were held at Eleusis in the month of Boedromion (September-October). The Greater mysteries included baptism in the sea, three days of fasting, and the completion of the mysterious central rite. These acts completed the initiation, and the initiate was promised rewards in the life after death.
At first, the Eleusinian mysteries were restricted to the citizens of Eleusis and Athens. But during the Hellenistic era (which began at about 331 BCE) they became open to non-Greeks. In the 2nd century BCE they spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BCE) wrote, "... the mysteries of Eleusis, ... by reason of their very great antiquity and sanctity, have come to be famous among all mankind." They survived until the end of paganism (sometime around the end of the 4th century CE). Many prominent Romans, including Sulla, Anthony, Cicero, and Atticus, were initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries.
As mentioned earlier, the secret observances of the Eleusinian rituals included things recited, things shown, and things performed. According to Hippolytus (ca. 170-235 CE), a leader of the Roman Church, in certain Eleusinian mystery rites among the things shown to the initiates was a single head of grain. This grain was beheld in silence as a manifestation of the life in it, which symbolized the life in all. Paul compared the mystery of death and resurrection to the planting and the sprouting of a seed. (1 Corinthians 15:36-37) What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. (RSV) (John 12:24) ... unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (NASB)
The Eleusinian initiates were crowned with wreaths. Likewise, the twenty-four elders in Heaven have crowns of gold. (Revelation 4:4) ... [they] had on their heads crowns of gold. (KJV)
The writers of the New Testament did not only borrow ideas and themes from the Eleusinians but they also used the Eleusinian lingo. (2 Peter 1:16) ... but were eyewitnesses of his majesty ... (KJV) The word "eyewitnesses" in the Greek text is "epoptae." "Epoptes"(singular) was a key term in the Eleusinian mysteries. On a visit to the Greater mysteries the initiate reached the grade of "epoptes," that is, "one who has seen." After that, being endowed with "good hope," he looked to a brighter future in the next world. The mystery religions used such expressions as "the assembly (ekklesia)," "the voyage of life," "the ship," "the anchor," "the port," "the wreath" of the initiate, etc. The Christians adopted most of such terminology.
To avoid the place of punishment after death and go to the better world, the Eleusinian initiates (also the Dionysians and the Orphics) wore white garments, avoided sex indulgence, and practiced asceticism. The white garments were not common in pre-exilic Judaism.
The Essenes were known to wear white garments, emphasize celibacy, and live an ascetic life style. During the Hellenistic era white garments were the "blue jeans" of the righteous. They were popular in the New Testament. During his transfiguration Jesus' clothes became "as white as the light." According to Revelation, the elders in Heaven wear white garments.
During the initiation ceremony at the Eleusinian mysteries in the dark room of initiation the priest would produce a crown of light with tongues of fire around his head. First they shaved the head of the priest and covered it with a protective ointment. Then, they attached to the top of his head a circular metal container with alcohol, which was set aflame in the dark and would shine for a brief time. The crown of flame on the head of the priest was like a tongue of fire. This imagery was borrowed by the writer of Acts. (Acts 2:3) They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on [the head of] each of them. (NIV)
Long before Christianity the Eleusinians instituted the ritual of baptism as part of initiation into the mystery. The initiates were required to undergo a preparatory purification; they marched in a procession to the sea and washed their sins away by baptism. The Roman historian Livy (64/59 BCE to 17 CE) mentions that ceremonial washing preceded initiation into the mysteries of Dionysus. Through baptism they secured glorious immortality in the afterlife. Their message was "new life grows out of every grave."
For the Eleusinians being born again and securing forgiveness of sins by submersion in water was a mystery. Baptism symbolized the purification of the soul. Tertullian wrote, "... in the Apollinarian and Eleusinian rites they are baptized, and they imagine that the result of this baptism is rebirth and the remission of the penalties of sins ..."
The mystery religion ritual of baptism was adopted first by the Essenes and then by the Christians. The Essenes borrowed the ritual of baptizing either from the Eleusinians or the Pythagoreans. During their initiation they made a covenant with God, which included baptizing and repentance. The Manual of Discipline (a.k.a. Rule of the Community) required sincere repentance before baptism and entering the covenant. (1QS 5:13-14) "Those [candidates] will not enter into the water [of baptism] ... for they are not purified except they repent from their wickedness." The Manual describes the procedure of entering the covenant. (1QS 3:8-9, 12 ) "... through the submission of his soul to all God's ordinances ... he may purify himself with the water-for-impurity and sanctify himself with rippling water ... this will become for him a covenant of eternal Communion [with God]."
Ritual purification with water was part of early Judaism. For the most part it involved ceremonially washing the hands, while in a few instances it required washing the whole body. It was done to remove uncleanness after touching something unclean, such as a corpse. There are distinct differences between the Hebrew rituals and the Essene rituals of baptism. The Hebrews washed their bodies whereas the Essenes practiced total immersion. The Damascus Document forbade baptism in bodies of water insufficient for immersion. The Hebrews did not perform such ritual for those who entered Judaism whereas the Essenes did. Sometime during the first century CE proselyte baptism was introduce to Judaism.
The Essenes and John the Baptist practiced baptism before the early Christians. John was in many ways was an Essene. He lived like the Essenes of Qumran and preached similarly. Mark indicates that he did not baptize "in the name of Jesus Christ." John was not a Christian, yet Mark implies that the sins of his converts were forgiven. (Mark 1:4) John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission [forgiveness] of sins. (KJV) Josephus, too, wrote that John the Baptist urged the Jews to baptize for the remission of sins and the purification of the soul. Baptism for the forgiveness of sins was an established practice before Jesus. The early Christians borrowed baptism from John the Baptist.
Like the mystery followers, early Christians conducted baptizing at the time of initiation. Peter ordered baptizing as soon as they repented. (Acts 2:38) Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins ... (KJV)
Christianity was a continuation of pre-existing beliefs. As we will further examine, it was created by the fusion of Judaic and Greek beliefs. Such syncretism was common during that era. Religions were put together using elements of other religions. All mystery religions shared common beliefs. People were not offended by such inter-borrowing. The mystery religions were not competing with one another. They got along harmoniously. People belonged to several mystery religions simultaneously. Only Christianity prohibited its converts from belonging to other religions. This was not a problem in the beginning. However, when Christians grew in numbers (in the second century CE) the other religions became offended by Christianity's competitiveness and its lack of sharing. As a result, they started persecuting the Christians.
Related to the Eleusinian mysteries were the cults of Dionysus (the Greek god of fertility) and the Orphics. In the Dionysiac mystery the initiates would go into a temporary sacred madness and their soul would wing its way to unite with the god Dionysus. The soul would be "with god" or "in god." The initiates became "e n qeoi " (enthei), that is, they dwelled "in god." The idea of dwelling "in god" appears in John's letter. (1 John 4:15) Whosoever will confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him, and he in God. (KJV) Paul often used the expression "in Christ." (Galatians 3:28) for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (KJV) (Romans 16:7) ... my fellow prisoners ... who also were in Christ before me. (KJV) (2 Corinthians 5:17) Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. (KJV) "In Christ" is equivalent to "dwell in Christ." It reflects the Mystic Union or the Mystic Communion, which was practiced in the mystery religions of that period.
Plato wrote that during the initiation, the initiates "search eagerly within themselves to find the nature of their god, they are successful, because they have been compelled to keep their eyes fixed upon the god ... they are inspired and receive from him character and habits, so far as it is possible for a man to have part in God." The mystery initiates believed that through the secret rituals they would gain secret knowledgeand thus accomplish a mysticalunion with the divine.This idea is clearly reflected in the following verses. (John 6:56) Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. (NIV) This is not something that the historical Jesus would have said. Even in a symbolic way, this statement is contrary to the law of Moses, which Jesus upheld.
Uniting with God was also an idea shared by the Stoics of that era. Seneca (ca. 4 BCE to 65 CE) wrote, "God is near you, he is with you, he is within you." Paul wrote (Colossians 1:27) ... Christ in you ... (KJV)
Here is a parallel between the mysteries of Dionysus and Christianity. The account where God miraculously loosened the fetters of Paul and Silas and opened the doors of their prison resembles an episode of Euripides' play Bacchae where Dionysus miraculously freed his followers (the Bacchae) by undoing their fetters and opening the doors of their prison:
"The captured Bacchae you [Pentheus] did put in ward, and in common prison bind with chains, they have fled to the meadows, loosed from bonds ... the fetters from their feet self-separated fell; doors, without mortal hand unbarred themselves. Yes, loaded with many miracles this man [Dionysus] ..."
(Acts 16:26) And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed. (KJV)
Even the places of worship were similar. The Dionysians worshipped in caverns. Early Roman Christians worshipped in catacombs, subterranean cemeteries.
The idea of God placing seals on the bodies of his followers did not come from the Old Testament. Yet it appears in the New Testament. It came from the Greek mystery religions. At the time of Antiochus the followers of Dionysus carried the seal of Dionysus on their bodies.
The seal of Dionysus
(3 Maccabees 2:29) those who are registered are also to be branded on their bodies by fire with the ivy-leaf symbol of Dionysus ... (RSV)
The seal of God
(Revelation 9:4) ... those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. (KJV) (John 6:27) ... on Him the Father, God, has set His seal. (NASB) (2 Corinthians 1:21-22) But it is God who ... has put his seal upon us ... (RSV)
(Psalms of Solomon 15:6) "For God's seal is on the righteous for their salvation." This book was influenced by the Greek culture. It was revered by the early Church.
The transfer of the Dionysian beliefs into Christianity was accomplished partly by Philo and the Alexandrian Jews who joined Christianity, partly by the Essenes, and partly by those who before joining Christianity worshipped Dionysus. As we will see further on, the religion of Dionysus was popular in Palestine before the advent of Christianity. Justin Martyr wrote, "... we [Christians] who, from every nation, once worshipped Bacchus [the Roman name for Dionysus], the son of Semele, and Apollo ... and Proserpine [Persephone] and Venus [Aphrodite] (... whose mysteries you also celebrate), and Aesculapius [or Asclepius], or any one of the other so-called gods, now, through Jesus Christ, even under the threat of death, [we] hold these [gods] in contempt ..."
The Orphics worshipped the infant god Zagreus-Dionysus, the son of Zeus from a mortal woman named Semele. Hera, the wife of Zeus, being jealous of her husband's infidelity, sent the Titans to slaughter and cut to pieces the newborn Dionysus. In one version of the myth the goddess Rhea gathered the limbs of the infant and Dionysus was resurrected. The Orphics commemorated with yearly rites the passion and resurrection of Dionysus, the son of God. Christians, too, have been commemorating every Easter the passion and resurrection of their god Jesus.
The Orphics (and the Dionysians) practiced the mystery of communion long before Jesus. They had sacramental communion with their god, Zagreus-Dionysus, who had suffered, died, and arose. Justin Martyr reported that they used wine and bread in their communion: "For when they say Dionysus was born of Zeus' union with Semele, and narrate ... that he was torn to pieces and died, he arose again and ascended to heaven, and when they use the wine in his mysteries, is it not evident that the Devil has imitated the previously quoted prophecy ...?" Justin Martyr acknowledged that the Dionysians were practicing communion before the Christians, but, he explained, they did so because the Devil imitated an ancient prophecy of the Old Testament.
Through the mystery of communion, the Orphics became one with their god. The Christian communion is almost identical to the Orphic ritual. (John 6:55-56) For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. (NIV)
The Orphics spread the idea that the world under the power of evil and that the body is a burden and a bondage for the soul, whose destiny is to escape this bondage and arrive at eternal and blessed life. They also promoted the belief that man's efforts to win salvation were powerless without divine assistance.This idea appears in the following verse of John. (John 6:44) No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. (NIV)
There are further parallels between the Orphics and the Hellenist Christians. The Orphics believed that Dionysus, being born from the divine Zeus and the mortal woman Semele, had a two-fold nature. Likewise, Jesus had a two-fold nature, divine and human. Dionysus was persecuted and murdered, yet was resurrected and became victorious. Jesus was persecuted, murdered, and was victorious through his resurrection.
Late texts reflecting Orphic eschatology put an emphasis on the role of Dionysus as king of the New Age. When Jesus returns he will be the king of the New Age. Though a child, Dionysus was made to reign over all the kings in the universe. Jesus is the king of kings.Dionysus was called "Lord." Jesus, too, was called "Lord." (Acts 2:36) God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (NIV)
The Orphics abstained from meat. Their vegetarianism had a deep religious justification. (They believed in reincarnation. They did not want to eat their ancestors.) Plato wrote, "... their offerings to the gods consisted not of animals but of cakes of meal and grain ... and other such bloodless sacrifices, and from flesh they abstained as though it were unholy to eat it ... those ... men ... lived what is called an 'Orphic life,' keeping wholly to inanimate food and ... abstaining wholly from things animate." By refusing to eat meat the Orphics (and the Pythagoreans) abstained from blood sacrifices, which were obligatory in the official cult of the Greeks. (In this they differed from the Dionysians, who conducted public sacrifices.) With this refusal, the Orphics expressed their decision to detach themselves from the city (set themselves apart) and renounce the world. They proclaimed their rejection of the Greek religious system. Likewise, the Hellenist Christians abstained from the Judaic blood sacrifices and renounced the world. (John 15:19) ... you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world ... (KJV)
Orpheus (from whom the Orphics received their name) and Dionysus went to Hades and returned. Jesus did likewise. Plato wrote, "Orpheus ... they sent back ... from Hades." The 1st century BCE Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily wrote "... he [Orpheus] dared the amazing deed of descending into Hades, where he entranced Persephone ... and persuaded her ... to allow him to bring up his dead wife from Hades, in this act resembling Dionysus; for the myths relate that Dionysus brought up his mother Semele from Hades." (Several demigods and heroes, like Pollux, Theseus, and Hercules, went down to Hades and came back. Jesus' story was modeled after them.)
The belief of praying for the dead is mentioned in the 12th chapter of 2 Maccabees (written sometime around 104 to 63 BCE). As mentioned earlier, this passage describes a number of Jewish soldiers who supposedly had committed a mysterious sin, and who were killed. After their death Judas Maccabeus ordered prayers on their behalf for their salvation. Inspired by the verses of 2 Maccabees, the Catholics believe that sins can be forgiven after death and that the prayers of the living are an effective way to accomplish this.
The idea of saving people "on the other side" originated in the mystery religion of the Orphics. Orphism exerted influence on the Hellenistic culture of the eastern Mediterranean long before Christianity. Although it was at its low point during the inception of Christianity, Orphism goes back to the 6th century BCE.
In The Republic, Plato mentions the Orphic doctrine of expiating the sins of the dead. He wrote, "...that they by means of sacrifices and incantations have accumulated ... power ... that can expiate and cure with pleasurable festivals any misdeed of a man or his ancestors ... they produce a bushel of books by Musaeus and Orpheus ... and these books they use in their ritual, and make not only ordinary men but states believe that there are really remissions of sins and purifications for deeds of injustice by means of sacrifice and pleasant sport for the living, and that there are also special rites for the dead, which they call functions, that deliver us from evils in that other world ..." "... the rites for the dead have much efficacy ..."
Diodorus of Sicily, while traveling in Egypt around 60 BCE, was struck by the following funerary customs that depict praying for the dead. As soon as the casket was placed on a floating bark, the survivors called upon the infernal gods and beseeched them to receive the soul of the deceased to the place reserved for pious men. The rest of the funeral crowd added its own cheers to the pleas of the survivors so that the deceased would be allowed to enjoy eternal life in Hades, in the society of the righteous.
The religion of Isis had its roots in the Egyptian religion of Osiris, which existed more than 2300 years BCE. According to the Pyramid Texts (ca. 2350-2100 BCE), Isis mourned for her murdered husband, the god Osiris. Osiris was a central deity of ancient Egypt. He was the god of the dead and the underworld. With his sister-wife, Isis, and their son, Horus, he formed the great Trinity of Abydos. During the Hellenistic era Egypt fell under the rule of the Greek kings, the Ptolemies, the successors of Alexander. To unite the Greeks with the Egyptians the Ptolemies promoted the syncretism of Greek and Egyptian religions. Consequently, the Egyptian religion of Osiris was fused with the Greek mystery religions. The result of this syncretism was the mystery religion of Isis and Osiris (better known as the mysteries of Isis).
Frank C. Babbit wrote, "That the worship of Isis had been introduced to Greece before 330 BC is certain from an inscription found in the Peiraeus [the port of Athens], in which the merchants of Citium ask permission to found a shrine of Aphrodite on the same terms as those on which the Egyptians founded a shrine of Isis [in Peiraeus]. ... In Plutarch's own town [Chaeronea, Boeotia] ... have been found two dedications to Serapis, Isis, and Anubis ..." The mysteries of Isis were established before the Christian era and became widespread around the Mediterranean during the first century CE. Josephus mentions that there was a temple of Isis in Rome at the time of Pilate. In another account he mentions that Caesar Tiberius (reigned 14-37 CE) destroyed the temple of Isis and threw Isis's statue into the river Tiber to punish the priests of Isis for something wrong they had done. The fact that at about the time of the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) Isis appeared on Greek and Roman coins signifies that this religion was widespread. Isis became identified with the Greek goddess Artemis. When Paul preached in Ephesus she was popular there. According to Acts, the Ephesian craftsmen who made miniature temples of Artemis-Isis started a riot against Paul because Paul's preaching was detrimental to their business.
During the formative years of Christianity the mysteries of Isis drew converts from every corner of the Roman empire. Her priests were dedicated missionaries, like soldiers crusading for her "hallowed name." "Isiswas tender hearted" as a mother. "The friend of slaves and sinners ... and the downtrodden." She was a savior goddess, like Jesus.
Here is a miracle shared by Christianity and the mystery religion of Sarapis. The historian Tacitus mentions that while Vespasian, the Roman emperor (69-79 CE), was in Alexandria he was called to perform a miracle in the name of Sarapis. He was given secret instructions by the local medical experts to make a blind man see by moistening the blind man's cheeks and eyes with his spittle. Vespasian did as he was told and won a reputation as a wonder-worker. At about the time of Vespasian Mark wrote the following. (Mark 8:23) ... when ... [Jesus] had spit on his eyes, and put his hand upon him, he asked him if he saw [anything]. (KJV) Using spittle to perform miracles was a common technique of the current magicians. Because Jesus used this technique the Jews accused him of being a magician. Tertullian wrote, "confronted by his power, they [the Jews] counted him a magician." Justin Martyr wrote, "Yet, though they [the Jews] witnessed these miraculous deeds with their own eyes, they attributed them to magical art; indeed, they dared to call him a magician."
Osiris (during the Hellenistic era was identified with Sarapis) was the god and king of the underworld while his posthumous son Horus was the god and king of the living. Osiris mummified represented resurrection into eternal life. His body was customarily wrapped in white funeral clothes. (As mentioned earlier, in the New Testament white clothes are the clothes of the righteous.) The only complete account of the Osiris myth occurs in Plutarch's Moralia: Isis and Osiris. Egyptian fragments support much of Plutarch's version.
The wicked god Seth-Typhon managed to kill his brother, the good god Osiris, and put his body in a coffin. He threw the coffin into the river Nile. The coffin floated all the way to the Phoenician city of Byblos. Isis, the wife of Osiris, searched for her dead husband, found the coffin, and brought it back to Egypt. However, Seth managed to get his hands on the coffin and cut Osiris' body into fourteen pieces, which he scattered. Isis found all the pieces, put them together, and resurrected him. This story has motifs that appear in the New Testament: the baptism, the death, and the resurrection of a good god, and the evil god (the devil), who tried to destroy the good god.
Resurrection was the main theme of the religion of Isis. "Born again" meant a mystical death that was followed by a spiritual birth (much like the Christian idea of "born again"). The Isiac followers believed in the symbolism of the seed that has to be buried and has to die for a new plant to spring up with more seeds. Plutarch wrote that in Egypt wooden boxes in the shape of Osiris were filled with earth and planted with seed of corn. The boxes were placed in tombs. The sprouting corn in this funerary context represented new life. (John 12:24) I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (NIV)
The initiates of the mystery of Isis (a.k.a. mysteries of Isis) were expected to confess their sins before their initiation. This was commonly a part of the initiation ceremony. The candidates recounted at length the misdeeds of their life (up to the time of their baptism) in front of a community of devotees who listened to the confession. Then they were baptized. They believed that the rite of baptism would wash away all initiate's confessed sins. They believed that from then on his or her life would be changed for the better because he had enrolled himself in the service of the savior goddess Isis. Apuleius (born ca. 124 CE, died probably after 170 CE), in his book Metamorphoses, wrote, "the act of initiation was performed in the manner of voluntary death and salvation obtained by favor." (Ephesians 2:8) For by grace you are saved through faith; [salvation] ... is the gift of God. (KJV)
The followers of Isis practiced 10-day fasting and abstinence from sex. Plutarch wrote, that the initiates practiced asceticism and abstinence from "lusts of flesh." Apuleius wrote, "the abstinence required by the rules of chastity was quite strenuous." Paul recommended abstinence from sex. (1 Corinthians 7:1, 9) It is good for a man not to touch a woman. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. (KJV)
An interesting small statue found at Cyrene (modern Shanhat, Libya) shows a female initiate of Isis. The bottom part of the woman is wrapped like a mummy, but the upper part is free. The woman is wearing the crown of Isis on her head. Thus, the statue portrays how an initiate during the initiation would first die and then rise in triumph. Likewise, Paul died through the law and rose through the death of Jesus. (Galatians 2:19-20) For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live to God I am crucified with Christ. (KJV) He told the Colossians that they were buried and risen with Jesus. (Colossians 2:12) Buried with him in baptism, wherein also you are risen with him through ... faith ... (KJV)
Themes on Christian caskets, like the figure of the Good Shepherd carrying his lost sheep, were taken over from pagan craftsmanship. (The Phrygian god Attis and the Canaanite god Baal were shepherds.)
Plutarch, in his book On Isis and Osiris, wrote that Horus (corresponding to Jesus), trying to avenge the death of his father Osiris (corresponding to God, the Father of Jesus), pursued Seth (corresponding to Satan). Seth escaped capture by turning himself into a crocodile (corresponding to the dragon, or serpent, of Revelation). Plutarch wrote that Seth was the enemy of Horus. (Satan was the enemy of Jesus.) He wrote that Seth was "the power of darkness." In Colossians the "power of darkness" is a term associated with Satan. (Colossians 1:13) Who [Jesus] has delivered us from the power of darkness ... (KJV) Plutarch wrote that Seth turned into a fire-red colored ("pyrrhos") crocodile. Diodorus, who lived in the 1st century BCE, concurs that Seth/Typhon was red. A fire-red dragon appears in Revelation. (Revelation 12:3, 9) And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great [fire] red [Gr. pyrrhos ] dragon ... And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan ... (KJV) In the 12th chapter of Revelation the pregnant woman is fleeing to the desert to escape this fire-red dragon. (Revelation 12:4, 6) ... the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And the woman fled into the wilderness ... (KJV) These verses may have been inspired by the Alexandrian tradition of the pregnant Isis fleeing into the marshes of the delta to escape Seth. In Revelation the woman was given two wings of a great eagle so she could escape to the desert from the dragon. (Revelation 12:14) And to the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness ... from the face of the serpent. (KJV) Isis is known to have two great falcon wings with which she blew air into the nostrils of Osiris and resurrected him. Plutarch wrote that Typhon (Seth) is the lord of the storm, who spits, roars in the sky, and is associated with the desert. The woman in Revelation escaped to the desert, and the dragon spit a river of water. (Revelation 12:15) Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. (NIV) The Greek text reads: to make her "potamophoreton." The word "potamophoretos" was a well-known title of Isis.
It is believed that Revelation was written somewhere in Asia Minor, either at Ephesus or the island of Patmos, which is across from Ephesus. Ephesus was a major center for the religion of Isis-Artemis.
Here is another parallel between the mystery of Isis and Revelation:
"In Sais the Statue of Athena, whom they believe to be Isis, bore the inscription: 'I am all that has been, and is, and will be ..."
(Revelation 1:8) I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, says the Lord, who is, and who was, and who is to come ... (KJV)
The legend of Horus has inspired Christian iconography. Saint George was associated with Horus. He was often depicted winning a fight against a crocodile-like dragon. A work in the museum of Louvre known as Horus St. George, possibly of the 4th century CE, depicts a man with the head of a hawk (Horus was portrayed in Egyptian frescoes with the head of a hawk) piercing with his spear a crocodile (Typhon-Seth) on whom his horse is trampling.
The Gnostic Christians mingled Horus with Jesus by blending several symbols of Christianity with the symbols of Isis and Horus. A bas-relief on the wall of an early Egyptian church belonging to the Memmonium at Abydos portrays Jesus sitting on a throne with the horned disc of Horus and holding a staff or crook similar to that of Osiris.
The influence of Isis is found in non-biblical Christian writings as well as in the New Testament. Paul's expression "I have become all things to all men"is a slogan of the mystery religion of Isis. Isis was known as "all things to all men."
The Phrygian (Anatolian) god Attis was identified with the Phoenician god Adonis. God Adonis died and was resurrected. Theocritus (born ca. 300 BC, Syracuse, Sicily --died 260 BC) wrote about this in his play the Idylls.
Attis was a very handsome shepherd (Jesus was portrayed as a shepherd) with whom the goddess Cybele fell in love. Attis betrayed her and entered into a love affair with a nymph. In her anger and jealousy Cybele killed the nymph. This caused Attis to go insane and kill himself. Cybele, who still loved Attis, mourned for him and resurrected him. This legend was handed to us by a pagan, Firmicus Maternus, who became a Christian in the 4th century CE.
The religion of Attis was first established in Phrygia, and in 204 BCE the goddess Cybele was formally welcomed into Rome. After that, the worship of the Great Mother became prominent in the Roman world. The worship of the Great Mother Cybele in Rome, along with the worship of the goddess Isis (the mother of Horus) in Rome, played a key role in inspiring the worship of Mary (the mother of Jesus) by the Catholic Church of Rome.
According to the mysteries of Attis (as handed to us by Firmicus Maternus), an initiate had to take part in the dying and rising of the god Attis. He went to the sanctuary that was in a dark cavern. He was symbolically slain and buried into the ground up to his neck. Then the congregation of the cult sang songs of mourning over the victim while in the dark. Suddenly, the cavern became illuminated by a bright light and the mystic priest called in a low voice, "Rejoice mystai! Lo, our god appears as saved! And we will find salvation, springing from our woes [pains]." By this ritual, the initiate who was buried became the god Attis during his initiation and, like Attis, the initiate symbolically suffered torments, was slain, and rose again. Inscriptions found read: "en aeternum renatus," that is, "he rose to eternal life." (Colossians 2:12) Having been buried with him in baptism ... you were also raised up with him. (NASB)(Galatians 2:20) I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me. (KJV) (Romans 8:17) we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together [with him]. (KJV)
We know that this religion preceded Christianity, but we do not know whether the above mentioned rite did also.
Mithraism had connections with Zoroastrianism, but its exact origin is not certain. It involved the worship of the ancient Indo-Iranian god of light, Mithra (or Mitra). Herodotus mentions Mitra as a god of the Persians. The Persian god Mithra was the chief ally of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. However, the worship of Mithra west of Anatolia had few connections with Zoroastrianism except for its emphasis on the eternal struggle between good and evil (dualism).
Mithraism appeared in the eastern Mediterranean at about the same time as Christianity. It did not become popular until after 100 CE when it spread from Syria and Anatolia throughout the Roman empire, reaching into Gaul and Britain. It became early Christianity's most serious rival.
So far, we do not have any historical facts that establish Mithra's influence on Christianity. To some extent the common beliefs of the two religions may have been the result of interborrowing. But it is important to note that such beliefs existed before the establishment of either religion and were widespread in the eastern Mediterranean. The study of Mithraism confirms the widespread religious syncretism of the Roman era.
Mithraism was the official religion of Roman soldiers. They acquired it during the 1st century BCE (before the time of Jesus) from the Parthians during their campaigns in northeast Asia Minor. We do not know how fast it spread in the beginning within the Roman army. It seems that it was established at about the time of the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE). Josephus recounted recounts the speech of Titus, the Roman general (the son of Emperor Vespasian), during the siege of Jerusalem. In his exhortation to his soldiers Titus spoke about life after death: "... the immortality of those men who are slain in the midst of their martial bravery. ... those ... that ... die in time of peace ... their souls are condemned to the grave, together with their bodies. ... [on the other hand], those souls which are severed from their fleshly bodies in battles by the sword ... are placed among the stars."The belief that the soldiers who died in battle became immortal while the civilians were all condemned to the grave was unique to Mithraism.
The mysteries of Mithra remained popular among the military (Mithra personified such soldierly values as victory, courage, and loyalty) and merchant classes. Women could not join Mithraism. By the 4th century it became one of the most powerful religions of the Roman empire. Along with other non-Christian sects, it suffered persecution by Christianity and was gradually eliminated after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the state religion. (History shows that Christianity was established mainly by Emperor Constantine's power, by destroying its competitors, and by securing the monopoly of religion in the Byzantine Empire and subsequently in the West.)
The completion of seven levels of Mithraic initiation conferred immortality. The ritual usually mimed death and resurrection. It was usually held in caves. It began in darkness and ended with torch light. The darkness and the torch light signified death and resurrection. In a certain ritual the initiates were buried or shut inside a sarcophagus. In another ritual the heart of a victim, supposedly a child, was roasted and distributed among the participants for eating. This, again, is similar to the Christian communion: eating the flesh of the god Jesus. The early second century apologist of Christianity, Justin Martyr, claimed that the Mithraists copied the Christians: "... Jesus ... took bread and, after giving thanks, said: 'Do this in remembrance of me ... In like manner, he took the cup, gave thanks, and said: 'This is my blood; ... The evil demons, in imitation of this, ordered the same thing to be performed in the Mithraic mysteries. For as you know ... bread and a cup of water, together with certain incantations, are used in their mystic initiation rites." This quotation confirms that sometime in the beginning of the second century communion was a widespread ritual among the followers of Mithra.
The followers of Mithra believed that Mithra will descend from Heaven to conduct the final battle against Ahriman and his forces. The dead will rise from their graves and Mithra will judge them, separating the good from the evil. Ohrmazd (the Father God of Mithra) will send down an annihilating fire upon the evil, upon Ahriman, and upon his demons. An endless reign of happiness and goodness will follow. These beliefs are similar to the teachings of Revelation.
The greatest festival of the Roman mystery religion of Deus Sol Invictus was held on December 25, at the time of the winter solstice. Also, Mithra's birthday was on December 25. He was the god of light. After December 25 the length of each day begins to increase. Thus, December 25 was regarded as the day of the rebirth of the god Sol (Sun) and of the renovation of life. Hellenist Christians borrowed this date and declared it as Jesus' birthday. (According to Luke, Jesus was born during a night of warm weather; probably not in the middle of winter. The shepherds were out in the fields keeping watch over their flock.)
In the mysteries of Mithra, bread and wine gave the initiates strength and wisdom in this life, and a glorious immortality in the afterlife. Such was the Mithraic ritual of communion. In a rare quotation that survived from an ancient text called the Liturgy of Mithra there is a passage that has a parallel in Christianity:
"Today, having been born again be ... out of so many myriads. ... Born again for rebirth of that life-giving birth."
(John 3:3) Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (NASB)