Magiwere a class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Persia who practiced astrology, medicine andmagic and were renowned in the ancient world for their wisdom. A legend of wise men honoring the baby Jesus was the equivalent of academic certification, despite the fact that astrology was forbidden among the Jews. The wise men gave to the Christ childgold,frankincense(a tree resin producing fragrant smoke when burned) andmyrrh(a tree resin perfume with antiseptic & pain-killing properties) the first Christmas presents. All were luxury items that only the rich could afford. This was a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah60:6 of the Gentiles coming with camels to bring gold and incense in praise of the Lord. The revelation of the Divinity of Christ to the Gentiles (the Wise Men) was anEpiphany(a word now associated with a sudden realization of a fundamental truth).Epiphanyis now widely celebrated in many Western countries as Three Kings Day or The Twelfth Day based on the tradition that the Magi found Jesus twelve days after his birth. (Joseph and Mary would have remained in the stable for 12 days.)

Claims of divinity were commonly associated with virgin birth in the ancient world. The Hindu god Krishna, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, Gautama Buddha and Zoroaster were reputedly the product of virgin births. Alexander the Great, Constantine and Nero claimed to have virgin births. Admirers of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Pythagoras claimed virgin births for these sages. In the ancient world virgin birth was a sign of distinction.

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The Autumn Equinox occurs around the 23rd of September, but it is over a month later that the impact of falling leaves and dying vegetation is most noticeable in most temperate climates. Ancient Aztec autumn celebrations of the memory of their deceased ancestors resembles European pagans honoring the souls of the dead and their ghosts at the end of October. The Roman Catholic Church may have assimilated pagan traditions by declaring November1st to be All Saints Day (revering saints & martyrs) and November2nd to be All Souls Day (revering all faithful deceased). Halloween is believed to have originated from the Celtic belief that the spirit world is closest to the world of the living on October31st. The Armistice that ended the first World War was signed on November11th, giving rise to another occasion to honor the dead in mid-Autumn.

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The Star of Bethlehem has been presumed to be a fulfillment of the prophecy in Numbers24:17 of a Star out of Jacob. Stars had also signalled the birth of Krishna, Lao-Tze, Moses and Abraham. Several attempts have been made to giveexplanations for the Star of Bethlehem. In the 14th century Albert Magnus (teacher of Thomas Aquinas) noted that the constellation Virgo rose above the horizon at midnight on December 24th at the reputed time of Christs birth. In 1606 the German astronomer Johann Kepler suggested that the star was the conjunction of Jupiter & Saturn on May 22nd, October 6th and December 1st, 7B.C. But Jupiter & Saturn would have been separated by a relative distance greater than two diameters of the moon so they could not have appeared as a single star. Jupiter & Venus actually overlapped on June 17th, 2B.C., but this would have been after the estimated 4B.C. death of King Herod. A supernova explosion occurred in the constellation Capricorn in 5B.C. and Halleys comet was visible in 11-12B.C. Chinese astronomers of theHan Dynastyrecorded a comet visible for seventy days in 5 B.C.

Midwinter sun festivals were celebrated in ancient Britain & Scandinavia. In Germanic & Scandinavian countries a huge log was carried into the house to serve as the foundation for holiday fires. The Yule log at Jultid (Yuletide) would burn for twelve days, and a different sacrifice would be made on each of the twelve days. Lighted candles and winter fires were used by sun-worshippers to encourage the rebirth of the Sun (as if some feared that days would continue to get shorter until the Sun ceased to return). Similarly tying fruit to the branches of trees was intended to encourage the coming of Spring.

During the midwinter festivalMakar Sankranti, Hindus bathe in rivers such as the Ganges (Ganga) and offer water to the Sun god. Makar (Makara) means Capricorn and Sankranti means transition, so the festival celebrates the transition of the Sun from Sagittarius to Capricorn, and the ascendancy of the Sun god into the Northern Hemisphere. It is the Sun god who transcends time and who rotates the Wheel of Time. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges can result in forgiveness of sins and help in the attainment of salvation. In mid-autumn Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs celebrateDiwali, the festival of lights signifying the victory of light over darkness (and of knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair).

The wordYulemay come from the Anglo-Saxon wordgeol(feast), applied to December (geola, feast month). Or it may come from a Norse-Saxon word meaningwheel, referring to the seasonal cycles of the sun. Or it could have come from the ScandinavianJule(Jul), who was the god of sex and fertility. (Tide as in yuletide may have come from an Old English word meaning time, occasion or season.)

In the first chapter ofMatthewand in the third chapter ofLukethere are lengthy genealogies of Christ, possibly to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of being descended from David. The genealogies differ, even concerning the ancestors of David. Luke calls Jesus the son of Joseph. According to Matthew, Joseph is the husband of Mary, rather than the father of Jesus. Insofar as both writers declare a virgin birth, the ancestry of Jesus based on the ancestors of Joseph can only be symbolic.

Possibly because desert nomads preferred to travel by night rather than under the oppressive fiery Sun, the primary god of the ancient Arabians was the moon godHubal. Mount Sinai was reputedly named after the semitic lunar deitySin. The crescent associated with Islam originated from Artemis (Diana), who displaced Selene as the goddess of the moon, and who was the patron goddess of the city which became Constantinople. Emperor Constantine added the star symbol (representing the Virgin Mary). The Ottoman Turks later spread the star and crescent symbol of Constantinople over the Islamic world.

By the 8th century European churches were celebrating March25th as theAnnunciation, the date when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. Sainthood originally was only conferred upon martyrs who had died for Christ, but early in the second millennium the Blessed Virgin Mary became the chief saint of the Roman Catholic Church. (Canonizationwas not formalized in the Catholic Church until the end of the first millennium.)The Immaculate Conceptiondoes not refer to the virgin birth of Christ, but is a Catholic doctrine published in 1854 by Pope PiusIX that the Virgin Mary was born immune from original sin and remained free from sin her entire life. The Immaculate Conception, December8th, is a Holy Day of Obligation in which Roman Catholics are required to attend mass. In 1950 the Pope made an infallible declaration affirming theAssumption of Mary: that the body of Mary went directly to Heaven upon her earthly death. TheBranch Davidian Seventh Day Adventistselevate Mary to an even higher position by identifying her with the Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit), making her the feminine principle of the Holy Trinity. But according to Matthew1:20 Mary had been impregnated by the Holy Ghost.

According to Matthew, after Joseph discovered his betrothed was pregnant he was visited in his sleep by an angel who informed him that his wife would give birth to a son named Jesus (Matthew1:21-23). The angel told Joseph that his wife had been impregnated by the Holy Ghost and that he should go ahead with the marriage. Joseph and Mary may have been living in Bethlehem as their city of residence. Only Matthew mentions wise men and the Star of Bethlehem. Matthew2:11 describes the wise men as entering ahouserather than astable, and finding achildrather than aninfant. The wise men were apparently not present at the time of birth. King Herod ordered the execution of all children under the age of two (not just newborns), so Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus. After Herod died, the couple relocated to Nazareth because they did not think it was safe to return to the Bethlehem area again. There is no mention of a census.

Some historians doubt that the story of Christ in the New Testament is really a description of the activities of a single man. There were likely many, perhaps even hundreds, of individuals claiming to be saviors and prophets during that period. Thus, the Gospels could have been a compilation of stories and folklore that arose around the activities of many such persons.

Matthew does not mention the number of wise men or their means of transport (by camel, by foot, etc.) to Bethlehem. The idea that there werethreeMagi evidently came from the third century theologian Origen, possibly associated with the three gifts. The Syrian church claimed there were twelve Magi. Sometimes the Magi are described as kings. Not only may have there been more or less than three Magi, but some or all of them could have beenwomen. The reference to three kings could be a fulfillment of Psalms72:10, but this would not be consistent with the ancient Persian words,Majusian=Magi(priest of Zarathustra).

In 64A.D. the Roman emperor Nero is believed to have started a fire in Rome, which conveniently cleared ground for the expansion of his palaces. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire, beginning a Roman policy of persecution that lasted more than two centuries. To avoid persecution the Christians decked their homes with holly, and the second bishop of Rome (circa 130A.D.) declared that the Nativity of Christ should be celebrated during the Saturnalia period. (It was a movable feast, a single day was not specified.)

The constellation (Zodiac sign) visible at dawn on the day of the Spring Equinox has been regarded as of special significance (currently changing from Pisces to Aquarius due to the 26,000 year precession of the Earth the advent of the Age of Aquarius). The chief holiday for the ancient Hebrews was usually celebrated at the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Although this holiday was originally a celebration of Spring, it was later celebrated in remembrance of the Exodus fromEgyptand was calledPassover. The holiday entered Christian celebration by the fact that Christ was reputedly arrested and crucified at Passover. (Scholars disagree on whether theLast Supperwas a Passover meal.) Because Christians insisted that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday, the Council of Nicea decreed that Easter be the first Sunday after the fourteenth day of a lunar month (Paschal Full Moon, which is approximately the first full moon) following the date of the Spring Equinox (which is often incorrectly assumed to be March 21st). Easter can occur on any date from March22nd to April25th. In the first centuries of Christianity Easter was by far the most significant Christian holiday (holy day) and Christmas was not a holiday at all.

The Summer Solstice was widely celebrated with late June midsummer festivals throughout ancient (pagan) Europe. The celebration of the Nativity of John the Baptist at that time is believed by some scholars to be another example of attempts by the Catholic Church to assimilate pagan holidays for the purpose of converting pagans to Christianity during the first millenium A.D.

Mithras was a divine being borne of a human virgin on December25th, his birth watched and worshipped by shepherds. As an adult, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox Mithras had a last supper with 12 disciples (representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac). Mithraism included Zoroastrian beliefs in the struggle between good & evil, symbolized as light & darkness. This militaristic black-and-white morality (including a final judgment affecting an afterlife of heaven or hell) probably accounted for the popularity of Mithraism among Roman soldiers. Mithraism was like an ancient fraternity: a mystery cult open only to men which had seven degrees of initiation including the ritual of baptism and a sacred meal of bread & wine representing the body & blood of Mithras. Late in the second centuryA.D. Commodus became the first Roman emperor to be initiated into Mithraism. The priests of Mithraism were calledFather Christians at the time were forbidden to use Rabbi or Father in reference to church leaders based on the admonition in Matthew23:89.

The word for Easter in most of the Romance Languages is a variant of the Hebrew Passover, but the English word is unrelated to these forms. Possibly, the English word Easter is derived from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre (source of the word estrogen). Or it may have come from Ishtar/Astarte the Babylonian/Chaldean Venus who was the consort of the sun-god. Or it may have come from the same root as east, associating the source of the rising sun with the resurrection (rising) of Christ. Sunrise service, painted eggs and rabbits have all symbolized rebirth and fertility in Spring celebrations from ancient times. Celebration of motherhood (mothers day) is also most often in the Spring, another possible association with fertility.

Among all peoples of the world, the most common times for celebration are the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Considering that the austerity and bleakness of Winter (in contrast to the relative abundance and warmth of Summer) would be so impactful upon the lives of primitive peoples living in temperate climates these festival times and evenSun-worship should come as no surprise. Stonehenge and hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout the world were constructed to receive a shaft of sunlight in their central chamber at solstice dawn.

In the 4th century A.D. the mother of Constantine brought bones purportedly belonging to the three wise men to Constantinople. In 1158A.D. three bodies were found in an ancient chapel in Milan, Italy, which were believe to have been come from Constantinople and assumed to have been the remains of the Magi. Because Milan was part of the Holy Roman Empire, the archbishop of Cologne, Germany took possession. The bones currently reside in aCathedral in Cologne. Some relics were returned to Milan in 1903.


In the Northern Hemisphere, theWinter Solsticeoccurs around December 21st, when the Sun is at its greatest distance below the celestial equator. The Spring Equinox occurs around March 21st when the sun crosses the celestial equator, and days have the same duration as nights (equinox comes from a Latin word meaning time of equal days and nights). The Spring Equinox marks the beginning of Spring, and for the ancient Mesopotamians was the beginning of their new year festival. The Mesopotamians believed that their godMardukdid battle with monsters of chaos at the end of the year. Their own king was to be slain so that he could assist Marduk in the spirit world. But to preserve the king, a criminal was made into a mock king, who was treated as if he was a king until he was slain. Year-end celebrations in which masters acted as slaves and slaves acted as if they were masters became popular in several regions of the Mediterranean. The festival was transformed into the PersianYalda(birth) winter solstice celebration, which remains a social occasion in present-day Islamic Iran.

The symbolism of light and dark, beginning and end, and birth and death can evoke powerful emotions. The death of a loved-one or a divorce can be a traumatic interruption which forces a re-examination of life by many who are not inclined to such reflection. Dark hours of the soul can transform the experience of life. Sometimes there is a rebirth, with new hopes, like the beginning of a new year.

Early in Medieval times legends arose of the Three Wise Men in art & literature which described them in detail. These legends are the product of artistic imagination without grounding in historical documentation, but are treated as seriously as other Christmas traditions.Melchiorwas an elderly Arabian king with a long white beard who brought gold.Balthasarwas a young Moor (North African from the Algeria/Morocco area) who brought myrrh.Caspar(or Gaspar) was a man from the Far East bringing frankincense. Sometimes Caspar represents Europe, Balthasar represents Africa and Melchior represents Asia. There is great variation in the identities of these three, as to which one symbolizes a particular race, age or culture. This romantic image could symbolize that Christ was a gift to all Gentiles of the known world. But according to Matthew2:1, they all came to Jerusalem from theEast.

If shepherds near Bethlehem were watching their flocks at night during the birth of Jesus, then the birth would not have been in a winter month like December. If John the Baptist (cousin of Jesus) was really born in late March and Christ was six months younger, then Jesus would have been born in September.

When the RomanJulian Calendarwas adopted in 46B.C., the shortest day of the year was December24th. The following day, December25th was the first day of the year in which daylight increased the rebirth of the Sun. But the Julian Calendar established a year that was longer than the solar year by about 11minutes, amounting to about one day every 130years. By 1582A.D. the shortest day of the year had shifted to December12th. The new 1582A.D. Roman CatholicGregorian Calendarmoved the shortest day of the year to December22, and shortened the calendar year from 365.25days to 365.2425days.

In ancientEgypt, Osiris and his wife Isis were reputed to have been divine secular rulers of Egypt until Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Seth. Seth cut the body of Osiris into pieces and strew them about the land. Isis gathered up the pieces with the exception of the penis, which had been eaten by a fish and restored Osiris to life. Isis magically recreated the penis, and became impregnated by Osiris before she mummified him. When resurrected, Osiris then dwelled in the underworld as the king of afterlife & judge of the dead. Isis nonetheless gave birth to the divine child Horus the younger. In fourth-century Alexandria, Madonna could have been a reference to the mother goddess Isis or Saint Mary. The last Egyptian Temple of Isis was converted to a Christian Church in the sixth century AD.

Around 220A.D. the unpopular Syrian-born Roman emperorElagabalusattempted to replace Jupiter withSol invictus(unconquerable Sun) as the head of the Roman pantheon. In 270A.D. a professional army officer named Aurelian rose to be emperor and was able to reunite the Roman Empire through military might. In 274A.D. he attempted to unite the religions of the empire under the state cult ofSol invictus. Aurelians new temple enshrined the Sun gods of Babylonia (Baal, Bel or Marduk). Although Mithras was not formally acknowledged,Natalis solis invicti(birth of the unconquered sun) was, nonetheless, on December25th. By the time of the reign of the military despotDiocletian(284305A.D.) ten percent of the Roman Empire was Christian. The attempts by Diocletian to impose the state religion on everyone led to the last and most terrible of all persecutions. But many people saw the Roman State as a greater enemy than the Christians, who were respected for their willingness to die for their beliefs. Slaves & upper-class women (who were excluded from other religions) were drawn to a god with a human face who espoused justice & love.

The ancient Egyptians celebrated the passion (suffering before fatal dismemberment) of the god Osiris, and celebrated his resurrection in the Spring, coinciding with the flooding of the Nile (and rebirth of vegetation). The Greek god Dionysus was also a god of fertility whose resurrection was celebrated in the Spring. In the ancient MediterraneanOsiris-Dionysusmystery religions celebrated life, death and rebirth through secret rites involving sacramental wine. (The Greek historian Plutarch described Dionysus as a Greek version of Osirus.)

Despite the intense persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire, Christianity continued to win many converts from paganism. Many of the former pagans were unwilling to relinquish their traditional winter solstice celebrations. When Constantine replaced Diocletian as Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 305A.D. he ended all of the persecutions. Constantine was said to have accepted Christianity in 312A.D. on the eve of a battle when he had a vision of a cross of light superimposed upon the sun. Persecution of Christians ended in both the Eastern & Western Empires in 313A.D. when Constantine & Licinius issued the Edict of Milan. Constantine sought to unify Sun-worship and Christianity into a single monotheistic state religion. (Although Constantine was baptize


December feasts were common in Europe because it was necessary to slaughter cattle that could not be fed during the winter and because the meat could be preserved by the cold weather. With the completion of the harvest and snow on the ground, farmers were loaded with provisions. There was not much work that could be done, so there was time to relax, to feast, to celebrate and to engage in social activities.

According to LukeMary was visited in her sleep by the angel Gabriel, who informed Mary that she would give birth to an infant named Jesus (Luke1:26-38). Joseph and Mary were living in their home in Nazareth at the time, but were required to go to Bethlehem because of a census for taxes. They could find no inn in Bethlehem, so Jesus was born in a stable and visited by shepherds, not wise men. Then they returned to their home in Nazareth. There is no mention of a flight to Egypt, of wise men or of a massacre of babies.

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Myths and dieties in the ancient world (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, Rome) often had similar legends for gods of different names, some some of these legends were reportedly incorporated into Christianity. Aside from his vigin birth on the winter solstice, the god of wine (Dionysus in Greece, Bacchus in Rome) was said to turn water into wine, and wine was ritualistically regarded to represent his blood. YouTube videos document claims that link Christian traditions with paganism:

For a critical Christian response to these claims, see:Was Jesus a Copy of Horus, Mithras, Krishna, Dionysus and Other Pagan Gods?

Similar celebrations were held atKalends, the Roman new year festival held January1st to January5th. People stayed up on Kalends Eve to celebrate the new year with drinking and singing. Gambling was normally illegal in Rome, but was permitted and enthusiastically practiced during these festivals. People spent lavishly on gifts for others as well as for self-indulgence. Slaves were relieved of their duties and partied as equals with their masters. Social inversions (mock rulers) were part of the entertainment, inspired by earlier Mesopotamian traditions.

Natural explanations cannot account for a star being directly above a 20-meter radius on the surface of the earth such that it could be followed to such a specific location, unless the star was not high above the earth: … and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. (Matthew 2:9). A natural explanation for a supernatural event may undermine the claim that there was anything supernatural about the event at all.

The birth of Christ is described in only two of the four gospels:MatthewandLuke, which were written independently not long after the year 60A.D. Both Matthew and Luke evidently borrowed from the writings ofMark, but had no knowledge of each other. The common features of the two accounts of the birth of Jesus are the location in Bethlehem, the father named Joseph and the virginity of Mary. Both of the evangelists probably wrote in Greek. The birth of a Godly Father who would be the Prince of Peace was prophesized by the Old Testament (Isaiah9:6). The birth of Christ in Bethlehem was said to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy (Micah5:2), but the Bethlehem Ephratah referred to in Micah was a person (1Chronicles4:4), not a town. Luke and Matthew agree that Jesus of Nazareth grew up in Nazareth, but give different explanations for the Bethlehem birth.

The ChineseDongzhi(extreme of winter) Festival is viewed within the Yang and Yin philosophy as a time of returning of positive energy associated with lengthening daylight hours. The Sun is associated with yang(male), whereas the Moon & Earth are associated with yin(female). Family gatherings and reunions with feasting are the traditional means of celebration.

Some claim that the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah7:14 that the Lord himself shall give you a sign:Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son is a Greek mistranslation that the original Hebrew reads young woman(alma), not virgin(bethulah). Mark6:3 and Matthew13:55-56 refer to the brothers & sisters of Jesus, which some find difficult to reconcile with the idea that Mary remained a virgin. Either they were not the literal siblings of Christ or the commandment to be fruitful and multiply implies that procreation is not sinful. Luke1:36 can be interpreted to imply that Marys cousin Elizabeth also had a virgin birth.

(For a modern version, seeThe Digital Story of the Nativity.)

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Mary is described in the Gospels in connection with the Nativity or as the mother of Christ, and is mentioned only in passing in theGospel of Mark, the oldest of the Gospels. The rise of the prominence of Mary after the first centuries of Christianity may have contributed to the acceptance of the observance of Christs birthday. The mother of Constantine, who searched for religious relics in the Holy Land, promoted the importance of Mary and the Nativity. The Council of Ephesus was called in 431A.D. to resolve the dissention caused by the Patriarch Nestorius, who said that Mary had given birth to the human part of Jesus rather than the divine part. Nestorius called Mary the Mother of Christ. The Council declared Mary to be Mother of God and Nestorius was exiled. Notably, Ephesus was the location of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: theTemple of Artemis the site of the cult of goddess-worship honoring the Greek virgin goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans) who was the protector of both chastity and childbirth. In Rome the Vestal Virgins served the virgin goddessVesta.

It was the 6th century monkDionysius Exiguuswho created theB.C./A.D. system of datingbased on the birthdate of Christ. His calculations were not very good. Dionysius had Christ born on December25, 1B.C., seven days before January1, 1A.D. (no year zero). Luke3:23 says that Christ was age30 in the 15th year (about 27A.D.) of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (Luke3:1). Modern scholars now date Christs birth between 7BC and 4BC. Few historians believe that the census for taxation described in Luke2:1-5 is a reliable guide to the date of Christs birth. Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar had a census in 28B.C., 8B.C. and 14A.D. but these were only for Roman citizens. There is a record of a census in Judea in 6A.D. If the Bible is taken as written by fallible human journalists (who misremember & embellish) rather than the literal Word of God, then such information can only be regarded as possible clues.

Harvest festivals are typically celebrated later in warmer countries. Thanksgiving is celebrated in October in Canada, in November in the United States and was celebrated in December in ancient Rome. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, after whomSaturday is named.Saturnaliawas the most popular of Roman holidays, with Mardi-Gras-like street celebrations. Originally it began with a celebration on December17th (birthday of Saturn), but this was later extended to a week (December 17 to 23), and finally extended to end with feasting on December 25th (Winter Solstice in ancient Rome). Halls were decked with evergreens. There was an exchange of gifts, principally wax candles and little clay dolls. Authority figures, however, were given tribute in the form of urns, jewelry, coins or gold. Romans parading in the streets wearing masks and animal skins during Saturnalia began a tradition which continued later in Europe in the form of mummers.

The ancient polytheistic religions of Egypt, Persia, Babylonia and eventually Rome increasingly consolidated their pantheons of deities under a single primary god, usually a Sun-god. The Egyptians believed in a transubstantiation of their Sun-godRa into a disk-shaped wafer that could be eaten in a sacred ritual. The Persian Mithra (RomanMithras) held special prominence as god of day (light) and the only son of the God of Heaven. But some time before the 5th centuryB.C. the Persian prophetZoroaster(Zarathustra) taught a dualism based on the conflict between the God of Heaven and the God of Evil. Humans could choose between good (light) or evil (darkness) and on judgment day be sent to Heaven or Hell based on their choices. Mithras was identified as the redeemer prophesied by Zoroaster: the sun-god who would appear as a human being at the end of time.

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