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Early Church Fathers on Mithraism: The Devil Got There First

by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S

Why did the religion of Mithraism so bother the early Christians that they were compelled to write against it?

Mithrasrelief von Neuenheim, 2. Jhrdt . Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe (Photo: Thomas Ihle at de.wikipedia)
Mithra slays the bull, surrounded by other scenes from his life. 

The early fathers of the Christian church discussed Mithraism's similarities to Christianity, unfavorably and with the intent to make it appear as if the prescient devil "aped" the coming Christ, based on interpretations of so-called "messianic prophecies" in the Old Testament. In other words, they essentially admitted that these similarities, parallels and correspondences between the religion and biography of the Perso-Roman god Mithra and the Jewish messiah Jesus existed before Christ supposedly lived, and that the Christian savior and religion were therefore unoriginal and not unique.

'Distorted from Prophecies'

Mithraism was so popular in the Roman Empire and so similar in important aspects to Christianity that several Church fathers were compelled to address it, disparagingly of course. For example, in his Dialogue with Trypho, patristic writer Justin Martyr (100-c. 165) acknowledged the mysteries of Mithra and claimed in chapter 70 that they were "distorted from the prophecies of Daniel and Isaiah":

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? (Roberts (1870), 2.186)

Justin MartyrJustin does not maintain that the Mithraic mysteries were copied from Christianity; his appeal to "prophecies" purportedly written centuries before is a tacit admission that Roman Mithraism, with rites already developed and known by his time, preceded Christianity. Martyr's suggestion also implies that the Mithraists knew the Jewish scriptures, which is improbable, unless those who created Mithraic rituals were Jews.

Even in the time of the emperor Vespasian, it was difficult, if not impossible, for a non-Jew (goy) to get his hands on the scriptures. In fact, it is alleged that one of the reasons for the befriending of the Jewish general and historian Josephus, as well as for the destruction of Jerusalem, was the emperor's desire to procure copies of the Jewish holy books or Torah. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 59a), it is debated whether or not a goy who reads the Torah should be put to death. In any event, Martyr is clearly indicating that various Mithraic rituals preceded Christianity, in his attempted explanation that their existence was the result of "prophecies."

The Mithraic Eucharist

As regards the Eucharist in specific, Justin says in his First Apology (66):

And this food is called among us Eucharistia, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body"; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood"; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (Roberts (1885), 1.185)

As discussed elsewhere, the phrase "which are called Gospels" is evidently an interpolation, as it not only is extraneous and gratuitous to the subject matter of the rest of the paragraph but is also the only time the term "Gospels" is found in Justin's works. Furthermore, the quotes Justin cites from the "memoirs," which are ostensibly a single text called the "Memoirs of the Apostles" also discussed elsewhere, differ from any found in the canonical gospels. (In-depth analysis is provided in Supernatural Religion by Walter Cassels.)

In any case, Martyr implies here that this Mithraic sacrament preceded Christianity and was not copied from the latter, since the "devil did it" argument is generally, if not always, used to explain away the similarities between Christianity and pre-Christian Paganism. If human beings had merely copied Christian rites and myths, why would Martyr not say so but instead irrationally ascribe the deed to a supernatural agency, thus putting himself at risk for incredulity and ridicule for what is now nearly two thousand years?

In his discussion of the Eucharist, Justin also relates that the Mithraic mysteries involve bread and water, like the Christian communion, attributing its presence in Mithraism to "evil spirits":

...And this very solemnity, too, the evil spirits have introduced into the "Mysteries of Mithra"; for you do or may know that when anyone is initiated into this religion, bread and a cup of water, with a certain form of words, are made use of in the sacrifice. (Taylor, lxiii)

It should also be noted that within the Egyptian religion, dating back some 3,000 years before Christ's alleged advent, the partaking in the sacred meal of bread and beer was germane to the salvational afterlife of the religious devotee. Such sacred meals could also be found in other pre-Christian cultures as well.

Mithraism and Baptism, Resurrection, etc.

Church father TertullianAdditionally, in his book The Prescription Against Heretics, Church father Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) acknowledges the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, in their use of baptism, a mark upon the forehead, the resurrection, the crown, etc. Like Martyr, of course, he blames these similarities on the devil, rather than admitting that Christianity took them from Mithraism:

Chapter XL.-No Difference in the Spirit of Idolatry and of Heresy. In the Rites of Idolatry, Satan Imitated and Distorted the Divine Institutions of the Older Scriptures. The Christian Scriptures Corrupted by Him in the Perversions of the Various Heretics.

The question will arise, By whom is to be interpreted the sense of the passages which make for heresies? By the devil, of course, to whom pertain those wiles which pervert the truth, and who, by the mystic rites of his idols, vies even with the essential portions of the sacraments of God. He, too, baptizes somethat is, his own believers and faithful followers; he promises the putting away of sins by a layer (of his own); and if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown. What also must we say to (Satan's) limiting his chief priest to a single marriage? He, too, has his virgins; he, too, has his proficients in continence. Suppose now we revolve in our minds the superstitions of Numa Pompilius, and consider his priestly offices and badges and privileges, his sacrificial services, too, and the instruments and vessels of the sacrifices themselves, and the curious rites of his expiations and vows: is it not clear to us that the devil imitated the well-known moroseness of the Jewish law? Since, therefore he has sown such emulation in his great aim of expressing, in the concerns of his idolatry, those very things of which consists the administration of Christ's sacraments, it follows, of course, that the same being, possessing still the same genius, both set his heart upon, and succeeded in, adapting to his profane and rival creed the very documents of divine things and of the Christian saints... (Roberts (1870), 15.48)

"Mithra there...sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection..."

Numa Pompilius, legendary king of RomeHere Tertullian is acknowledging the resemblances between Mithraism, Paganism in general, and Christianity, using as an example some rites also similar that date back to the purported time of the legendary Roman king Numa Pompilius (753-673 BCE), nearly eight centuries before the common era.

One Latin edition of Tertullian's "Mithra" remarks is as follows:

Tingit et ipse quosdam utique credentes et fideles suos; expositionem delictorum de lauacro repromittit, et si adhuc memini Mithrae, signat illic in frontibus milites suos. Celebrat et panis oblationem et imaginem resurrectionis inducit et sub gladio redimit coronam.

The argument that this Mithraic commentary is a "gloss" may be a Christian apology, rather than scientific analysis.

Moreover, the Church father claims that these similarities were in imitation of the Jewish law, that Satan had "imitated and distorted the Divine Institutions" of the "Older Scriptures" or Torah. As stated, non-Jews could not readily know such things; hence, it must have been the apparently omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent devil, who is constantly getting the better of God!

In On Baptism (5), Tertullian describes baptism in the Roman Empire, but insists that it too is diabolical:

"Well, but the nations, who are strangers to all understanding of spiritual powers, ascribe to their idols the imbuing of waters with the self-same efficacy." (So they do) but they cheat themselves with waters which are widowed. For washing is the channel through which they are initiated into some sacred ritesof some notorious Isis or Mithras. The gods themselves likewise they honour by washings. Moreover, by carrying water around, and sprinkling it, they everywhere expiate country-seats, houses, temples, and whole cities: at all events, at the Apollinarian and Eleusinian games they are baptized; and they presume that the effect of their doing that is their regeneration and the remission of the penalties due to their perjuries. Among the ancients, again, whoever had defiled himself with murder, was wont to go in quest of purifying waters. Therefore, if the mere nature of water, in that it is the appropriate material for washing away, leads men to flatter themselves with a belief in omens of purification, how much more truly will waters render that service through the authority of God, by whom all their nature has been constituted! If men think that water is endued with a medicinal virtue by religion, what religion is more effectual than that of the living God? Which fact being acknowledged, we recognise here also the zeal of the devil rivalling the things of God, while we find him, too, practising baptism in his subjects. (Roberts (1887), 3.671)

Obviously, this baptism, so extensively carried out, was the order of the day long before Christianity had any influence. Indeed, baptism is a pre-Christian rite, found from India to Egypt, dating back thousands of years. How, then, did Mithraism take it from Christianity?

Religious Mark on the Forehead

Another one of these devilish nuisances to Christian apologists is the Mithraic mark upon the forehead, a rite similar to that within Catholicism. In The Chaplet (De Corona), Tertullian comments on the "mimicry of martyrdom," as well as the crown and the mark of Mithraism, and says:

Let us take note of the devices of the devil, who is wont to ape some of God's things with no other design than, by the faithfulness of his servants, to put us to shame, and to condemn us. (Roberts (1887), 3.103)

The mark on the forehead as a sign of religious respect is well known to have been used in India for millennia. Even the Bible records the Jewish prophet Ezekiel (9:4) as marking the foreheads of the "righteous":

And the Lord said to him, "Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it."

Concerning this Jewish mark, ancient Christian monuments expert Rev. Dr. John P. Lundy states (128):

The cross was marked on the foreheads of the men of Jerusalem that were to be spared from destruction, in Ezekiel's time, for it was tau [T]; (9:4-6) it was stamped on valuable documents, coins, and on the necks of camels and thighs of horses; it was woven into garments; and in various other ways it was used before the Christian era as a symbol of ownership, of safety and of solemn compact.

Phoenician alphabet, c. 1050 BCEThe word for "mark" in Hebrew is תו or tav, reflecting the τ or tau of the Greeks. Both the Greek and Hebrew letters are derived from the Phoenician alphabet, in which the letter "t" is an "x."

Concerning the Jewish mark, the Catholic Encyclopedia ("Cross," 4.519) relates:

Thus the Greek letter (tau or thau) appears in Ezechiel (ix, 4), according to St. Jerome and other Fathers, as a solemn symbol of the Cross of Christ--"Mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh." The only other symbol of crucifixion indicated in the Old Testament is the brazen serpent in the Book of Numbers (xxi, 8-9). Christ Himself thus interpreted the passage: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up" (John, iii, 14). The Psalmist predicts the piercing of the hands and the feet (Ps. xxi. 17).

Nevertheless, despite its presence in Judaism, in an article entitled "The Cult of Sol Invictus," a Protestant Christian website protests that the sign of the cross itself is Satanic, representing a Mithraic ritual that has erroneously found its way into Christianity:

After baptism into the Mysteries of Mithra, the initiate was marked on the forehead. The sign of the cross formed by the elliptic and the celestial equator was one of the signs of Mithra.

There is no Biblical support for the inclusion of Mithraic ritual, which is the worship of Satan, in the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Creator of heaven and earth. It is a Satanic scheme to disguise the transgression of Gods laws under the title of "Christianity."

While the writer wishes to denigrate all religions other than an imagined "pure Christianity," he nonetheless clearly contends that Christianity, or Catholicism in specific, took from Mithraism, and not vice versa. Obviously, the cross would not have been copied by Paganism from Christianity, as it is an ancient sacred symbol that pre-dates the Christian era by centuries and millennia. In fact, the cross was the "universal symbol of life and immortality," as well as of the sun god, entirely appropriate for Mithra.

OrigenIn Contra Celsum (6.22), Church father Origen (184/185-253/254) quotes Celsus as relating the Mithraic mysteries, which included the soul's movements through the seven heavenly spheres. This celestial soul-cleansing "ladder" begins with the leaden Saturn and ends with the golden sun. The Persian theology, says Origen, also includes "musical realms." From Origen's condemnation of Celsus, it is evident that Celsus compared Mithraism with Judaism and Christianity, apparently accusing the latter two of copying the Persian religion. In book VI, Origen says:

For the mysteries of Mithras do not appear to be more famous among the Greeks than those of Eleusis, or than those in Aegina, where individuals are initiated in the rites of Hecate. But if he [Celsus] must introduce barbarian mysteries with their explanation, why not rather those of the Egyptians, which are highly regarded by many, or those of the Cappadocians regarding the Comanian Diana, or those of the Thracians, or even those of the Romans themselves, who initiate the noblest members of their senate? But if he deemed it inappropriate to institute a comparison with any of these, because they furnished no aid in the way of accusing Jews or Christians, why did it not also appear to him inappropriate to adduce the instance of the mysteries of Mithras? (Roberts (1885), 4.583)

Ironically, the prolific and highly influential Origen--considered one of the best educated of the early apologists--was later himself condemned as a "heretic"; yet, the church continued to use his writings to gain converts.

Another early Christian author who writes about the analogous elements found in both Paganism and Christianity, and attributes these resemblances to the devil, was Julius Firmicus Maternus (4th cent.). It is apparent from Firmicus's contentions in De Errore profanarum religionum (4) that he believed the mysteries to have been prefigured by the devil. In other words, they anticipated Christianity.

The bottom line is that Mithraism in one form or another existed for centuries prior to the common era and thus predated Christianity. The contention that many of the "biographical" details assigned to Jesus Christ in the New Testament represented attributes of older gods such as Mithra is verified by the protestations of the early Christian fathers that the "devil" anticipated the advent of Jesus Christ, as purportedly predicted in the Jewish scriptures, and caused the Pagans to mimic this Jewish messiah in their gods and goddesses.


"The Cult of Sol Invictus."
Roberts, Alexander, et al. eds. Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vols. 2 & 15. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1870.
  --Ante-Nicene Fathers, vols. 1 & 4. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885.
  --Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1887.
Lundy, John P. Monumental Christianity. New York: J.W. Bouton, 1876.
Taylor, J. The True Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1855.

Further Reading

Mithra: The Pagan Christ
Was Mithra's Mother a Virgin?

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