Though Rome dominated politically, the greatest city of the Hellenistic Age, which took place from 300 BC to 300 AD, was Alexandria in Egypt. Due to the numerous cultures that congregated in the city, whether Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Indian or Jewish, new esoteric creeds were formulated based on older traditions, a trend, referred to by scholars as syncretism.
However, upon closer examination it becomes apparent that, though they appear outwardly eclectic, the underlying theology of these schools was essentially the same, and could be attributed to either the Chaldeans or the Magi, or more specifically, the Magussaeans, and which later become the basis of the Kabbalah.
After their initial appearance in Babylon, the most important elaborations of the Kabbalah were evolved by the Greek philosophers. Otherwise, very little is known about the ideological developments in Judaism after the Babylonian Exile. However, the first important evidence of Kabbalistic doctrines in Judaism make their definite appearance among the Essenes, a sectarian Jewish community of the second century BC to the first century Ad, who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The doctrines did not represent the orthodox tradition of Judaism, but a departure from it in the form of those heretical teachings developed in Babylon. It was through a branch of the Essene community in Alexandria, known as the Therapeutae, that the doctrines of the Chaldean Magi, and their mysteries, were interpreted to create different school, the most important of which were hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism.
The Essenes were the first to develop that branch of early Jewish mystical thought which is known as Merkabah mysticism, and was concerned with mystical ascent to a vision of the Chariot, as described in Ezekial, which resembled that of the Orphic Phanes. These "creatures" were represented to have two sets of wings, the body of a man, cloven feet, and four heads, of a man, a bull, eagle and lion. Each representing one of the four seasons Zodiac and their corresponding constellations. The bull is Taurus, the eagle Scorpio, the Lion Leo, and the man Aquarius.
Numerous cults pervaded the Roman empire, dedicated to the fertility gods of ancient times, such as Dionysus, the Magna Mater, Isis, and so on, but particularly, among those attributed to the Magi, named the Mysteries of Mithras, were the most popular among the Roman soldiers.
There has been a great deal of discussion as to the origins of Mithraism, and the subject still suffers from a great deal of controversy. Franz Cumont, who founded the study of the subject at the end of the nineteenth century, believed the cult to have migrated from the heretical Magi, or Magusseans, of Asia Minor. His theory has been largely dismissed because scholars find no similarity between Zoroastrianism and those teachings of the mysteries. However, they fail to understand Cumont's original hypothesis.
Cumont didn't maintain that Mithraism evolved from Zoroastrianism, but from a heretical form of it. How we are able to determine the beliefs of this heretical form of the religion is from the numerous references found in ancient sources that purport to describe their teachings, and in the varied forms in which their ideas were adopted, mainly in the mysteries of Dionysus, or Orphism and in Greek philosophy.
However, while many of the basic doctrines of Mithraism were already elaborated by the early Magi, who were either Kabbalists, or Persians influenced by the Kabbalah, there were important developments that came only later. The most important of these was the doctrine of the ascent through the seven planets. Mystics were thought to undergo a ritual of death and rebirth, in imitation of the dying god, followed by an ascent through the seven planets, to return the soul to its initial state of purity, by removing the astrological influences the it had acquired from them on its descent into corrupt matter. The culmination of the mystic's quest end with direct union with the "true god", who is the dying-god, also known as Lucifer, who imparts to him the knowledge of magic.
The origin of this idea is to be found in Merkabah mysticism, which is characterized by scholars as marking the beginnings of the Kabbalah, and which in its earliest form was found among the Essenes. Having first been sent to the Euphrates in 63 BC to fight the Parthians, from 67 to 70 AD, the Fifteenth Appolonian Legion took part in suppressing the uprising of the Jews in Palestine, when 97,000 Jews, according to Josephus, were taken captive. This legion accompanied Titus to Alexandria, where they were probably reinforced by recruits from Cappadocia in Asia Minor. It seems to have been a curious mix of these several elements, after the Legion had been transported to Germany, that erected the first temple dedicated to Mithras on the banks of the Danube.
Like the "creatures" of Ezekial in Merkabah mysticism, the goal of the mystic's ascent in Mithraism culminated in the vision of the Leontocephalus, or Mithras as Phanes, sometimes with the head of a lion, others with the head of a man, and standing on a globe, featuring a "wheel inside a wheel", referring to the intersecting circle of the Zodiac and that of the celestial equator.
And while scholars claim they were developed through syncretism, the various philosophers of the Hellenistic Age were initiates of the mysteries, and their works represented the elaboration of the doctrines they found there. Most important of these was Neoplatonism, which claimed to derive from Plato, who was recognized to have, in turn, taken his doctrines from the Jews and Magi.
Another school is that of Hermeticism. The subject of Hermeticism has caused much confusion, due to the spurious claims of authors like Graham Hancock, and the claims of other occultists, of its supposed antiquity. However, Hermeticism, though apparently Egyptian, was developed in the period following the Persian occupation of that country, and the penetration of Magian influence. More specifically, Hermeticism was not a separate mystical tradition, but merely explored the alchemical aspects of the mysteries, which were thought to transform the initiate from lead, represented by Saturn, to gold, represented by the Sun, or union with the dying-god.
Similarly, the teachings of the mysteries were applied to Christianity, to form there heresy of Gnosticism. Controversial authors like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code have caused a lot of confusion over this subject by suggesting that Gnosticism actually represented a purer form of Christianity. However, as noted scholar of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel, has noted, more recently, scholars have begun to accept that Gnosticism developed through the introduction Merkabah mysticism into Christianity by Jewish heretics.
Mithraism had also been thoroughly immersed in the Empire before Rome's acceptance of Christianity, with which it shared several similarities. Though the development of the orthodox creed was largely formulated to counter the growing influence of the Gnostic heresy, the Christian fathers were themselves committed to interpreting Christianity in terms of Platonic philosophy. The man primarily responsible for the adaptation of mystery doctrines to the emergent Christian religion, despite his reputation as an enemy of heretics, was Paul, the thirteenth apostle. Thus, Jesus was equated with an ancient philosophical term, the Logos, meaning Word, and with the son of god, thereby becoming the dying god of the mysteries, whose death and resurrection was celebrated every Easter.