This explanation of Paul and the Mystery Religions is intended to help you understand how the church replaced Yeshua's teachings with a mythology that was current in the religions that appealed to the gentiles during his time. It is, in the end, a support for Yeshua's teachings, not an attempt to disgrace them.
If you haven't heard about Mithras yet, you will in the next few years. There are many who are so disillusioned with the church that they want to destroy everything associated with it, and in so doing, they would heave Yeshua's teachings onto the compost pile with the tattered remnants of the church. That must not happen. I explain Mithras and the man-god mythologies here so we can separate them from Yeshua and embrace his teachings; I do not present them to denigrate Yeshua.
The early followers of Yeshua in the Jerusalem church had the problem of appealing to the Jews, who saw Yeshua's ignominious death as scandalizing. Paul had the same problem in appealing to the Jews, but he and the Greco-Roman missionaries also had the problem of converting the pagans, who didn't understand the conception of a Jewish messiah. But the time was short—they had to bring as many pagan converts into the fold as possible so they "would not perish, but have eternal life."
The beliefs of the Jewish followers of Yeshua were still Jewish; Yeshua was the messiah who would return and rout the Romans to establish the Kingdom of Israel. However, those appealing to the pagans and god fearers (non-Jews who worshiped with the Jews) had to make some changes in their presentation of Yeshua for non-Jewish hearers. The promise for the pagan converts was that Yeshua was a Messiah for all of humankind (not just the Jews) and that they could have eternal life without becoming Jews by just believing that Yeshua was the messiah for humankind, whom they termed the savior. The pagan converts would then not "die," but would have eternal life because of their belief.
These missionaries to the pagans had a major problem, however. Many pagans believed in a god named Mithra (or Mithras). Mithra was an ancient god, so he had tradition and the sacred tenor that an ancient history brings, just as Yahweh had for the Jews. He dated from around 1400 BCE, before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. However, Mithra was even more widely accepted than Yahweh, Moses' god. He was known, in various forms, in India, Persia, Greece, and throughout the Roman Empire. For the Greeks and Romans in the first century, Mithras (with an "s") was the chief figure in a mystery religion called Mithraism that held prominence in the Roman Empire all the way through third century CE, especially among the military. His influence spread as far north as Hadrian's Wall and Germany.
So the followers of Yeshua had to convince the followers of Mithras that they should abandon Mithras and follow Yeshua. That would be today like standing outside St. Paul's Cathedral handing out leaflets telling Roman Catholics they should abandon Jesus Christ and follow a new God named Paul Bunyon.
But Yeshua and Mithras had something important in common. Mithra's followers were promised immortality and he had been entombed and rose from the dead, proving that immortality was available to those who believed in him. The promise of immortality and his rising from the dead were also the central tenets of Yeshua's message as the early church promulgated it. Those weren't the central tenets of Yeshua's message as he gave it, but the early church was intent on converting people because they were certain Yeshua was going to return any minute to establish the Kingdom of God and as many people as possible needed to be converted to get them into the fold before the return. The promise to entice them to convert was eternal life in Yeshua's Kingdom of God.
But Mithras already promised eternal life in Mithras' Kingdom of God, so why should the Mithraites convert to following Yeshua? Paul and the other followers of Yeshua outside of the Jerusalem church took care of the problem. They just made some adjustments in the story of Yeshua's life so the pagan believers in Mithras would feel at home with the Jewish Messiah. In the earliest sources (Paul's letters, written around 50 CE to 65 CE, a very early gospel termed the Q source we know from sayings in Luke and Matthew that are not in Mark, written before 70 CE, and Mark, the earliest gospel, written just after 70 CE), there was no miraculous birth and only modest supernatural occurrences in Yeshua's life. By the time Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels (around 90 CE), the story was quite different; Yeshua had a host of supernatural events surrounding his birth and death. The question is, where did these events suddenly come from?
We find them in Mithras. The missionaries promoting Yeshua as the messiah for humankind simply wrote them into the narrations about Yeshua. A list of characteristics of Mithras follows. Remember that these were centuries old before Yeshua was even born. You'll see what was borrowed to make Yeshua more appealing to the pagan Mithraites:
Since all of these characteristics of Mithras predated Yeshua by fourteen hundred years, Mithraism could not have copied the Yeshua story; it had to be the reverse. These details about Yeshua were not in the earliest sources. They appeared later.
The early followers of Yeshua had the best of intentions, and the parallel in the promise of eternal life between Yeshua and Mithras was so clear, that they felt justified in adding to Yeshua's story between the times of the Mark and the Q document (50 CE – 70 CE) and the writing of the later gospels (90 CE – 110 CE). The writers of the gospels and Paul didn't know Yeshua, so they weren't really acquainted with him or his teachings. They just had the written and oral stories about him. It was quite easy to embellish the accounts to add Mithras' characteristics to make Yeshua look more appealing to the Mithraites and other pagans.
Paul contributed to that inclination. His focus on a suffering, sacrificial Christ for the salvation of humankind was undoubtedly influenced by Mithras worship. Paul lived in Tarsus, where the Mysteries of Mithras had originated. He seems also to have been heavily influenced by the Greek Christos images of a god-king who dies as an offering to a divine being to save humankind. Those influences helped shape Paul's focus on the Messiah bringing salvation and on belief as the only requirement for converts; spiritual growth as Yeshua described it didn't enter into Mithras worship, the Greek Christos, or Paul's teaching.
Yeshua abhorred violence and sacrifice, yet his story grew to be one of God sacrificing his son. Yeshua repeatedly called himself "Son of Man" (meaning human being) and "Son of God" (meaning servant of God). Yet the early church raised him to a Mithraic man-god.
In the second century CE, there was a resurgence of Mithras worship throughout the Roman Empire. What was especially attractive to the Romans was that Mithraism had rituals of worship observance and control, traits the bureaucratic, militaristic Romans found appealing. Mithraism was most popular among the military. When Constantine, who was a follower of Mithras, threw his political support behind Christianity in 321 CE, he expected the same ritual and control. The Christian church was happy to adapt to his wishes.
Constantine maintained his ties to Mithraism while professing to be a Christian. The rituals of Mithraism were important for the church to carry over to retain favor with the Roman Empire, so it simply adopted them. It was Constantine who changed the birth date for Yeshua from January 6 to December 25, Mithras' birthday. Customs such as dipping the fingers in holy water and making the sign of the cross were borrowed from Mithraism. The Mithraic cult was male-dominated, with men called "Fathers." The members below them were called "brothers." The Mithraic fathers wore the mitre caps the Christian bishops adopted and still wear today; the Mithraic Holy Father wore a red cap and garment, had an official ring, and carried a shepherd's staff. He was located in Rome. The Christian Bishop of Rome adopted all of these trappings. Christianity enthusiastically took on the traditions and rituals of Mithraism, making its rituals virtually indistinguishable from the Mithraic rituals. After the fourth century, the two religions had been blended into the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
There were so many similarities between Christianity and Mithraism that early church fathers such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr claimed that centuries before Yeshua's birth, Satan had created a false religion that shared many of the same rituals, traditions and beliefs Christianity would contain centuries later, in order to mislead people away from Yeshua after his birth and death. The explanation was so outrageous that it was never taken seriously. However, it was an admission of the fact that the customs, stories, and rituals central to Christianity were identical to those in Mithraism.
The transgression wasn't so much in embellishing Yeshua's story; it was in the fact that the church leaders from the first century on focused solely on conversion and belief while neglecting Yeshua's teachings about spirituality and the example of his life that modeled his teachings. Today, we know information about Yeshua and his times that the people didn't know in the first three centuries after his time, and in fact no one has known during the two millennia since his life. Today, we know the truth.
We now have two choices: