This is a common claim made by skeptics of Christianity – that the religion’s central tenets were borrowed from pre-existing pagan religions like Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. However, a close examination of the evidence shows that while there may be some superficial similarities between these faiths, the core doctrines of Christianity are distinct and originated from Christ and the apostles.
Alleged Parallels between Mithraism and Christianity
Mithraism was a mystery religion centered around the god Mithras that was popular among Roman soldiers during the early centuries AD. Here are some alleged parallels between Mithraism and Christianity:
- Mithras was allegedly born of a virgin on December 25th.
- Mithras was considered a savior or messiah who offered salvation.
- Mithras held a last supper with his disciples before his death.
- Mithras was buried in a rock tomb and resurrected three days later.
- Mithras’ resurrection was celebrated every year.
- Mithras was called “the Light of the World.”
- Mithras had twelve disciples.
- Mithraism emphasized moral dualism between good and evil.
Based on these supposed similarities, skeptics claim Christianity simply adapted Mithraic beliefs and rituals to fit the story of Jesus.
Problems with Alleged Mithraic Parallels
However, there are significant problems with arguing Christianity borrowed from Mithraism:
- The alleged parallels are overstated. For instance, there is no evidence Mithras was born of a virgin. The December 25 date did not originate with Mithras but was a later addition. Mithras did not have a last supper or resurrection on the third day. And he did not have 12 disciples.
- The origins of these supposed parallels are late. The sources skeptics cite post-date the New Testament, so it is more likely Mithraism borrowed from Christianity rather than vice versa. The earliest Mithraic artifacts date from the 2nd century AD.
- Mithraism and Christianity have very different theologies. Mithraism was not monotheistic and did not teach salvation by grace. It focused on secret mysteries accessible only to the initiated, while Christianity was open to all.
- Early church fathers like Justin Martyr and Tertullian strongly rejected any connection between Mithraism and Christianity.
- The New Testament theology of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection was unique in the first century context. The parallels skeptics claim exist simply did not appear in any prior pagan religion.
Thus, attempts to link Mithraism and Christianity fall apart under scrutiny. The similarities have been greatly exaggerated. And Christianity has doctrinal coherence and historical proximity to the life of Jesus that Mithraism lacks.
Alleged Similarities with Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism was one of the ancient Persian religions founded in the 6th century BC. Here are some alleged similarities skeptics cite:
- Zoroastrianism taught both good and evil spiritual forces, similar to Christian concepts of God and Satan.
- Zoroaster spoke of a coming savior and resurrection of the dead.
- Zoroastrians believed in a dualistic battle between good and evil with good ultimately triumphant.
- Zoroastrianism heavily influenced Judaism after the Babylonian exile.
Therefore, critics claim core Zoroastrian beliefs in the intertestamental period made their way into the theology of Second Temple Judaism and thus Christianity.
Assessing the Zoroastrianism Objections
However, the Zoroastrian influence hypothesis has significant problems:
- Zoroastrianism was not purely monotheistic but involved worship of multiple gods subsisting under a supreme deity.
- There is no evidence of a Zoroastrian expectation of a personal savior rather than just an abstract triumph of good.
- Zoroastrianism did not teach bodily resurrection of believers as Christianity did.
- While there was some Jewish interaction with Zoroastrianism in the exilic and post-exilic period, the extent of borrowing and influence is debated by scholars.
- Key Christian doctrines like the incarnation and Trinity have no precedent in Zoroastrian thought.
- New Testament teaching on eschatology is drawn from Old Testament messianic prophecies rather than Zoroastrianism.
In the end, superficial similarities fail to account for the distinctive Christian doctrines taught by Jesus and expounded by the apostles that utterly transformed first century Jewish thought.
The Uniqueness of Jesus and His Teachings
Ultimately, the truth and power of Christianity rests on the historical Jesus revealed in the gospels – not alleged pagan parallels. Jesus’ teachings were radical and challenging. He claimed authority to interpret God’s laws differently than contemporary Jewish leaders (Matthew 5-7). He assumed the power to forgive sins, which Jews believed only God could do (Mark 2:5-12). And he allowed himself to be worshipped as God incarnate (Matthew 14:33; John 20:28).
The early church proclaimed Jesus as the risen Lord in the very city where He was crucified. Their willingness to face persecution and martyrdom indicates they truly believed they had seen the resurrected Christ (Acts 4:1-20). And Christianity utterly transformed monotheistic Jewish beliefs in an unprecedented way by worshipping Jesus as God incarnate.
The radical nature of these developments in first century Palestine cannot be explained by gradual borrowing from other religions. As N.T. Wright concludes:
“Nobody was expecting this kind of thing; no kind of conversion-experience would have generated such ideas; nobody would have invented it no matter how guilty (or how forgiven) they felt, no matter how many hours they pored over the scriptures…It is only comprehensible as something that actually happened, something to which the early Christians were trying to respond…” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p701-702)
In the end, the historical evidence indicates the early Christian proclamation of Jesus’ divinity, incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection represented a radical innovation in Jewish monotheism that cannot be explained by mere syncretism or religious borrowing.
Jesus as the Fulfillment of Messianic Prophecies
Rather than deriving their theology from pagan myths, the New Testament authors repeatedly appeal to the Old Testament as the source that gives coherent meaning to the mission and message of Jesus.
Jesus Himself chastised the religious leaders for not understanding the Old Testament properly:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)
And after His resurrection, Jesus explained how He fulfilled what the Old Testament anticipated:
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)
The apostles and New Testament authors develop this theme extensively, citing specific Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah to demonstrate Jesus was the fulfillment. A few examples:
- Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) – Matthew 2:6
- Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) – Matthew 21:4-5
- Jesus would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12) – Matthew 26:15
- Jesus’ side would be pierced (Zechariah 12:10) – John 19:37
- Jesus would die an atoning death for sin (Isaiah 53:5) – Romans 4:25
- Jesus would be raised on the third day (Hosea 6:2) – 1 Corinthians 15:4
This approach is utterly distinct from pagan mythology. The New Testament authors root the necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection firmly within God’s redemptive plan revealed to Israel through prophecy. Christianity was not borrowed, but rather the fulfillment of Judaism.
Early Church Fathers Defended Uniqueness of Christianity
The early church fathers recognized Christianity was distinct from the mystery religions and pagan myths. Justin Martyr wrote:
When we say that the Word, who is the first birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Dialogue with Trypho, ch 70).
Justin acknowledged the superficial similarities but maintained the essential theology of Christianity was fundamentally different than pagan myths.
Augustine also contended against the idea Christianity borrowed from pagan religions. Concerning alleged parallels with the cult of Mithras, he wrote:
The Pagans…said that this worship of God…was instituted by those men to imitate the Christian religion. For this Mithras of theirs was said to have been born on the 25th of December…But the true religion, which alone is the right one, began much earlier; and it was later when men corrupted by demons invented a counterfeit to lead the weak into error (Augustine, Sermon On The Words of the Gospel of Matt. 2. c.370-430 AD).
For Augustine, any similarities were the result of Mithraism copying Christianity, not vice versa. The church fathers recognized Christianity as an utterly distinct revelation centered on the historical, risen Jesus.
Conclusion: Christianity Stands on the Testimony About Jesus
It is understandable skeptics look for pre-Christian religious sources from which Christianity might have borrowed. But in doing so, they impose false parallels and overstate superficial similarities while neglecting the radical theological and historical differences.
Christianity has a coherent origin story – that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, resurrected, and seen risen by eyewitnesses. Their testimony launched a Messianic Jewish movement that worshipped Jesus as Lord while radically reinterpreting monotheism around His identity. This is a historical fact in need of explanation, not easily dismissed as syncretism.
The center and foundation of Christianity is built on the eyewitness testimony recorded in the New Testament that God became incarnate in Jesus to live the perfect life fulfilling the Old Testament, die the atoning death for sin, and rise again conquering death. This gospel message remains unique in all of human history.