Did the Early Christian Faith Borrow From Pagan Resurrection Myths Like Mithra?
I have had skeptics of the Christian faith tell me that very little of the New Testament story of Jesus is original. According to some critics, like novelist Dan Brown in his "The Da Vinci Code," first century Christians just copied ideas about Jesus from a popular Roman religion known as "Mithraism." Mithra was indeed a god of the ancient people of India and Persia, and over a period of time, followers of Mithra migrated to the Roman Empire. Soon, the story goes, the followers of Jesus incorporated legends of this sun-god of the Persians.
For example, according to stories circulating in modern fiction (and supposed "facts" people have told me) Mithra was born of the virgin goddess Anahita on December 25. Mithra was a great teacher and had 12 disciples. Mithra sacrificed himself and was resurrected and ascended into heaven. His followers eat cakes, symbolizing his body, to commemorate his life, death, and resurrection. Mithra's disciples also practiced baptisms for new converts, and Mithraism was a missionary faith that competed with Christianity in the first century (however Mithraism died out after the fifth century).
Here is a very good video detailing the supposed similarities and distinctions between early Christianity and Mithraism:
If you listen to the skeptics, it sounds like Christianity was not so unique after all, doesn't it? These parallels would be pretty convincing ... except that almost none of it is true. Many of these supposed similarities are either terribly exaggerated or simply made up.
But let's back up to what we know and don't know about this interesting Roman religion. The first thing that stands out in an historical/critical analysis of Mithraism is that we have almost zero literary evidence about its beliefs. In fact, the only literature we do have about Mithraism is from either Christian writers (like Tertullian in the late second and early third century), or Platonic writers (like Plutarch). It seems that historically the religion of Mithra in the Roman Empire developed AFTER the Christian faith, not before or during the days of the apostles.
The religion of Mithra simply has NO sacred texts — no holy scripture — available to us. This is very unlike Christianity, which incorporates the Hebrew Old Testament and the later revelation of the New Testament, and has mountains of manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek with various translations in Latin and Syriac, as well as commentaries and lectionaries.
Because of the lack of literature regarding this religion, we know next to nothing about its beliefs and the meaning of its paintings, statues, and inscriptions. What people say about it is actually more urban legend than anything factual. Mithraism was a "mystery" religion that kept its beliefs pretty "close to the vest" — revealed only to its initiates.