In the movie Zeitgeist, former evangelical Christian turned anti-Christian movie-maker argues the Jesus stories were copied by the story of Mithra, the Zoroastrian angelic Divinity of Covenant and Oath.
According to the movie, the parallels are as follows:
1) Mithra was born of a virgin
2) He was born on December 25th
4) His followers were promised immortality
5) He sacrificed himself for world peace
6) He was buried in a tomb and rose after three days
7) He conducted a sacramental meal resembling Jesus’ last supper
Mithras religions do pre-date Christianity and these religious beliefs were known by Christians in the early Roman Empire, but the parallels are not historical. The evidence against its being copied by early Christians include early church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian denouncing Mithraism as a satanic imitation of Christianity. – copying them would be the last thing they wanted to do. 2
Moreover, it seems the opposite is true – the specific teachings of their messiahs seem to have arisen after Christianity became popular. As Christianity gained favor in the Roman empire, these other religions began to copy elements of it, perhaps to keep their followers from converting to the new faith.
Even the Encyclopedia of Religion (1987) concludes:
“The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts….In most cases, the decipherment and interpretation of texts in the language native to the deity’s cult has led to questions as to the applicability of the category. The majority of evidence for Near Eastern dying and rising deities occurs in Greek and Latin texts of late antiquity, usually post-Christian in date.” (“Dying and Rising Gods”, volume 4, pages 521, 522 article by Jonathan Z. Smith, from The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade) 3
A simple comparison between these ancient pagan gods and the Easter story explains why the scholarship is so conclusive that Christians didn’t copy these ideas.
Edwin Yamauchi is a top Mithras scholar. Yamauchi has a doctorate in Mediterranean studies, has studied 22 languages, and written 17 books including Persia and the Bible. The Mithras religion is said to have started in Persia before coming to the Roman Empire. Yamauchi was also one of the scholars who attended the Second Mithraic Congress in Tehran, Iran in the 1970′s. 4
Yamauchi addressed each of the alleged similarities:
1) Mithraism did not teach that he was born of a virgin; rather, the mythical Mithra was born out of a rock. Furthermore, he was born an adult, not a baby as was Jesus.
2) The birthday of Jesus Christ is not mentioned in the Bible and is not known. In fact, the earliest birth date for Jesus celebrated by Christians was January 6 th . December 25 th is close to the winter solstice and was chosen by Emperor Aurelian for the dedication of his temple to the sun god.
3) Mithra was not a traveling teacher of disciples.
4) The belief of immortality may be inferred in Mithraism, but also in Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Church of Latter-Day Saints, Hinduism, and Buddhism, so this “parallel” is irrelevant.
5) Mithra did not sacrifice himself for anyone, he killed a bull.
6) After extensive study, Yamauchi knows of no references to Mithra’s death. And, consequently, there are no records of his resurrection.
7) Any possible sacramental meal in Mithraism is unrelated to the Lord’s Supper because it was initiated much later, in the second century. Furthermore, the Christian meal is based on the Passover, begun during the time of Moses. 5