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A Paper Presented to Dr. Darrell Bock Dallas Theological Seminary
In Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Course NT901 Mystery Religion Research
by Joel Thomas December 2007
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction................................................................................................................... 1 Methodological Considerations .................................................................................... 5 Characteristics of Mystery Religions............................................................................ 9 General Characteristics ............................................................................................. 9 The mysteries of Eleusis ......................................................................................... 11 The cult and mysteries of Dionysus........................................................................ 13 The cult of Attis ...................................................................................................... 15 The cult of Isis ........................................................................................................ 16 The mysteries of Mithras ........................................................................................ 18 Summary................................................................................................................. 22 Examples of Popular Assertions ................................................................................. 23 Conclusion .................................................................................................................. 25
Introduction In beginning this study it is important to note that there are two basic categories of possible religious influences on Christianity from the ancient religious environment. The first category was religious influences derived from Judaism. This can clearly be seen in the attitude that Paul had in presenting his case before Herod Agrippa II in Acts 26:3. The importance of this scene is shown very clearly in Julius Scott’s book Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament when he states: “As the apostle Paul stood before King Agrippa II, he expressed gratitude that he could speak to one “familiar with the customs and controversies of the Jews.”1 (Acts 26:3) He assumed that to understand his case and by implication Christianity as a whole, it was necessary to have some awareness of Intertestamental Judaism.”2 Dealing with the body of literature represented by the Jewish background of the New Testament is a daunting task. There is a wide array of types of literature spanning a significant period of time but the literature has been documented thoroughly.3 This area of background material will not be dealt with significantly in this study. Our second category of background material is the various Greco-Roman religions. This second category is extremely diverse and encompasses a wide variety of religious practices
Acts 26:3 (NRSV). J. Julius Scott Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 17.
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 431-32.
2 and beliefs over a significant period of time. The breadth of this can be clearly seen in a quote from an article by D. E. Aune which states: “Thus Greco-Roman religions include not only those public and private cults which had developed out of archaic and classical Greek and Roman religious practices, but also the many native cults and mystery religions which had arisen on ancient Near Eastern soil and which had subsequently spread to the major urban areas of the Mediterranean world,”4 This is a very broad category which has individual pieces that are possible for influences on Christian but this study will restrict itself to examining possible connections between Christianity and the Hellenistic mystery religions. The background of this discussion is in the context of the academic quest to identify the “historical” Jesus because the various methods used and biases from the different approaches to that study popup in the way that various scholars approach our topic. Before going any further it is necessary to lay out the various quests and look at the assumptions that each have and identify how this would affect this study. The first quest for the “historical” Jesus coincides with the era of classical liberalism in the 19th century. This quest was characterized by two separate but equally important approaches to the identifying the “historical” Jesus. The first approach was a thoroughly rationalistic approach to the life of Christ with the goal of explaining the miraculous events recounted in the gospels with naturalistic explanations.5 The second approach was to see the
D. E. Aune, “Religions, Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Ralph P. Martin Gerald F. Hawthorne, Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 786. Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 18-19.
3 gospels as being primary mythological in nature and that the events recounted in the gospels were simply depictions of religious ideas made to look like historical events.6 The second quest on the other hand argued that the mythological approach went way too far and that a core kernel of historical truth could be discerned about the “historical” Jesus. This quest developed criteria to use to judge the authenticity of documents that purport to recount Jesus. The first criterion is the principle of dissimilarity. This principle postulates that for something to authentic it must be dissimilar to both 1st century Judaism and early Christianity. A second criterion is the principle of consistency. This principle argues that for something to authentic it must agree with other material that has been judged to be authentic. A third criterion is the principle of the necessity of multiple attestation. This principle states that for something to be judged as authentic it must be able to be identified in the different sources that were used in the gospels. A final criterion consists of linguistic and cultural tests. This by far is the most amorphous since it really only consists of a subjective judgment that the data seems to fit with first century Judaism in Palestine or perhaps that an Aramaic basis can be demonstrated.7 The outcome of this type of quest is finding a Jesus and early Christianity that is dominated by Greco-Roman culture as opposed to finding a Jesus and early Christianity that is rooted in first century Judaism.
N. T. Wright, “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol. 3 (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 799.
4 The third quest for the historical Jesus in contrast to the previous two quests sees the basis for understanding Jesus as needing to focus on the Jewish background of Jesus’ life.8 The results of this new quest are succinctly explained in a quote from Bock’s book Studying the Historical Jesus which states: “In general, those who participate in the third quest have tended to see far more historicity in the gospels that either of the previous two quests, showing a general respect for the general historical character of the Gospels.”9 In most cases scholars who postulate connections with Hellenistic mystery religions would be coming from the perspective and perhaps inevitable conclusions of the second quest for the “historical” Jesus. The argument of this paper is that the connections between early Christianity and Hellenistic mystery religions do not meet the burden of proof necessary to prove the possible links historically. This study will proceed in the following manner. First this study will examine two different methodologies that are used in examining potential relationships between early Christianity and Hellenistic mystery religions. Once that examination is completed one of the two methodologies will be used to evaluate the evidence that is presented in the remainder of this study. Secondly this study will present the characteristics of the various Hellenistic mystery religions from primary sources.10 Lastly this study will evaluate three examples from studies aimed at popular audience that assert links between Hellenistic mystery religions and early Christianity.
Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 147.
Ibid. All abbreviations in this paper conform to the SBL Handbook of Style unless otherwise noted.
5 Methodological Considerations There are two basic methodological approaches to potential relationships between Christianity and Hellenistic mystery religions. The first approach is exemplified by scholars such as Bultmann, Reitzenstein and Bousett11 and “sees the Gospels and Christianity as an adaptation and offshoot of the cults of Dionysus, Cybele, Attis, Isis and Osiris, Mithras and others.”12 This can be clearly seen the very first paragraph of the introduction to Rudolph Bultmann’s book Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting which states: The cradle of primitive Christianity as [a] historical phenomenon was furnished by late Judaism, which in turn was a development from Hebrew religion as evidenced in the Old Testament and its writings. Yet, despite the predominance of the Old Testament and Jewish heritage, primitive Christianity remained a complex phenomenon. At a very early stage in its development it came into contact with Hellenistic paganism, a contact which was to exercise a profound influence on Christianity itself. This paganism was itself equally complex. Not only did it preserve the heritage of Greek culture; it was also enlivened and enriched by the influx of religions from the Near East.13 This can also be seen in the first appendix of Richard Reitzenstein’s book Hellenistic Mystery–Religions Their Basic Ideas and Significance where he lays out his approach to the material. Reitzenstein states: “Hence in the investigation of them we shall do best to recognize the essential features or basic perspectives of that no longer Hellenic but Hellenistic religiosity
11 Michael Patella, Lord of the Cosmos: Mithras, Paul, and the Gospel of Mark (London: T & T Clark International, 2006), 2 n2. 12
Rudolf Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting, trans. R. H. Fuller (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1956), 11.
6 with which the greatest of all missionary religions, Christianity, struggled for centuries and by which it was necessarily influenced in considerable measure.”14 This presupposition is based on the concept that there was a great distance and perhaps even conflict between the basic belief systems of the the Palestinian Christian community and the Hellenistic Christian community. This presupposition can be seen clearly in a statement from the preface of Bousset’s book Kyrios Christos which states: “The great and decisive turning point in the development of Christianity is marked by the transition to GentileChristian territory in its very earliest beginnings.”15 This is presupposition (though tempered somewhat by Bousset) is derived from the theory proposed by F. C. Baur in the 19th century. Baur’s basic premise is well summarized in a statement from Craig Hill in his book Hellenists and Hebrews Reappraising Division in the Earliest Church when he states: ““Jewish Christianity,” led by Peter and James, was narrow and legalistic; “Gentile Christianity,” for whom the apostle Paul was the champion was universalistic and free, proclaiming the abolition of the law and, hence, the superseding of Judaism.”16 The problem with this methodological view is that it presupposes a conclusion that has not been proven. The Baur hypothesis is far from having been proven and in fact Hill’s book is an excellent counter argument directly against the Baur hypothesis. Based on the fact that the bias towards Hellenism greatly influencing early Christianity has not been proven by these
Richard Reitzenstein, Hellenistic Mystery–Religions: Their Basic Ideas and Significance, trans. John E. Steely, Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series, ed. Dikran Y. Hadidian, vol. 15 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Press, 1978), 111. Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus, trans. John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), 12. Craig C. Hill, Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division within the Earliest Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 6.
7 scholars but that it is simply assumed by them this methodology will not be used in this study to evaluate the effect of Hellenistic mystery religions on early Christianity. The second approach includes scholars such as Bruce Metzger, A. D. Nock, Günther Wagner and A. J. M. Wedderburn.17 This approach basically would not see the Hellenistic mystery religions as having an influence on the development of Christianity.18 Bruce Metzger lays out the issues involved with this issue in his article “Methodology in the Study of Mystery Religions and Early Christianity.”19 Before going any further one critical piece of data needs to be noted. Both of these groups would agree that apparent parallels have been noted from antiquity. In fact several early Christian writers including Justin Martyr20 and Tertullian21 noted similarities between Christianity and the Hellenistic mystery religions.22 In addition to this Origen cites Celsus23 as noting characteristics of Mithraism in his attack on Christianity.24 Metzger in his methodology does not assume that Christianity borrows from the Hellenistic mystery religions when these apparent parallels appear whereas the first methodology would most certainly assume influence on Christianity from the mysteries.
Patella, Lord of the Cosmos, 2 n3. Ibid., 2.
Bruce M. Metzger, “Methodology in the Study of Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” in Historical and Literary Studies; Pagan, Jewish, and Christian, ed. Bruce M. Metzger (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1968), 8-11.
Justin Martyr 1 Apol. 66 and Dial. 70. Tertullian Cor. 15 and Praescr. 40. Metzger, “Methodology in the Study of Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” 8 n2. Origen Cels. 6.22. Metzger, “Methodology in the Study of Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” 8 n3.
8 Metzger lays out three considerations that need to be dealt with when evaluating potential parallels in order to be able to judge whether these parallels were caused by influence from the Hellenistic mystery religions. The first consideration that Metzger proposes is that the potential parallel needs to be examined for its actual validity. Metzger makes an important point when he states: “Some of the supposed parallels are the result of modern scholar’s amalgamation of quite heterogeneous elements drawn from various sources.”25 Metzger goes on to point out that some scholars reconstructions of the beliefs and practices of the mystery cults consist of a great deal of speculation that fills in gaps in a way that provides connections to Christian belief or practice.26 The second consideration is that just because a parallel is shown to be valid does not mean that there is any causality. Metzger again makes this clear when he states: “one must inquire whether the similarities have arisen from more or less equal religious experience, due to equality of what may be called psychic pitch and equality of outward conditions, or whether they are due to borrowing one from another.”27 The third consideration is that even if borrowing can be shown to have occurred a scholar cannot assume that Christianity borrowed from the Hellenistic mystery religions. It is quite possible that reverse happened and that various mystery cults borrowed beliefs or practices from Christianity which was winning over their members.28 Based on the evaluation of the fact that Metzger does not make assumptions based on a bias about the nature of the early church as opposed to the first methodology, it is the position
Ibid., 9. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 11.
9 of this study that the second methodology should be used to evaluate potential parallels between Christianity and the Hellenistic mystery religions.
Characteristics of Mystery Religions General Characteristics One of the most significant problems in attempting to identify the characteristics of mystery religions is their very nature. Initiates of the mysteries were expected to not divulge the nature of the rituals or beliefs of the group therefore the amount of evidence that we have concerning them is restricted.29 In fact because of this much the literary evidence for their practices comes from their opponents such as the early Christian apologists.30 This is problematic since it is always preferable to hear a description of the beliefs and practices of a religious system from the adherents of that religious system rather than from the opponents. Hans-Josef Klauck sums this up quite nicely when he states: “It may sound a rather simple point, but the first thing to be said about mysteries is that they were secret cults. This sets them in a relationship to something else, viz. to the public cult in the city state, but also to the daily domestic ritual which was not secret. Mystery cults are averse to openness; they take place in secret, often at night. They are not universally accessible, but are reserved to a particular group of initiates.”31 One important point thing to note is these cults were a not a completely separate system from the remainder of Greco-Roman polytheism. Burkert sums this up nicely
29 S. Angus, The Mystery-Religions and Christianity: A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (New York: Scribner, 1925; reprint, New York: Dover, 1975), 39.
Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions, Fortress Press ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 87-88.
10 when he states: “Mystery initiations were an optional activity within polytheistic religion, comparable to, say, a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela within the Christian system”32 The mysteries seem to have been tapping into a need for an inward personal experience in religion that was not present in the public cult. This idea can be seen in Marvin Meyer’s article on mystery religions in the Anchor Bible Dictionary when he states “Unlike official, public religions, in which people were expected to show outward allegiance to the gods and goddesses of the polis, or state, the mystery religions stressed an inwardness and privacy of worship within groups that were frequently close-knit and egalitarian.”33 Klauck argues that this reveals a deep seated need for intimacy in religion when he states: “This contrast suggests the conclusion that there existed in the religious sphere a need for intimacy which the large-scale celebrations could not satisfy, as well as a need for something extraordinary that could not be found in the routine of daily life.”34 Even with the problem of secrecy we do have evidence that there seems to have been three component parts to the practice of the mysteries as seen in Plutarch’s35 discussion of the cult of Isis. The first component consisted of things that that were done. The second component consisted of things that were displayed. The last component consisted of things that were spoken, which was probably not extended teaching.36
Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 10.
Marvin W. Meyer, “Mystery Religions,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman, vol. 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 941.
Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 86. Plutarch Is. Os. 68. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 87.
11 The mysteries of Eleusis Unlike some of the other mysteries the mysteries of Eleusis were a localized cult centered at Eleusis, which is between 12 to 18 miles west of Athens.37 Before looking at any of the practices of the Eleusian mysteries it is important to note that the foundational myth has been preserved in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.38 Marvin Meyers in his article on mystery religions lays out the basic thrust of the hymn when he states: “The dramatic story of Demeter and her dying and rising daughter Kore, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, narrates a mythic tale of the rape of Kore by Hades (or Plouton, “Wealthy One”), the grief of Demeter and her quest for Kore, and the subsequent founding of the Eleusinian mysteries by Demeter herself.”39 One particularly important passage40 seems to give some veiled insights into the practice of the Eleusian mysteries.41 From this passage there seem to be four key pieces of information. The first piece of information is that the participants sit on stools with their heads veiled. The second piece of information is that fasting seems to have been a component of the ritual. The third piece of information is that jokes and mockery were used to lighten an otherwise somber setting. The last piece of information was that a special drink (κ κεών) was used by the
Ibid., 91. Ibid. Meyer, “Mystery Religions,” 4:942. Hom. Hymn Dem. 192–211. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 92.
12 participants.42 The general nature of the κ κεών is that was a barley drink mixed with various other ingredients such as cheese, water and perhaps wine.43 The first two components seen in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter are also supported by a quote from Clement of Alexandria44 which states: “I fasted; I drank the draught; I took from the chest; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the chest.”45 This clearly seems to support the idea that fasting and drinking a special drink were a part of the ceremonies. In addition to this it seems there also seems to have been a sacred object that was shown during the mysteries. This sacred object according to the early Christian writer Hyppolytus46 was an ear of corn.47 One last consideration is that at its core the base myth related in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is about the crop cycle. Kore descends into Hades for four months of the year and then ascends back bringing fertility for crops.48 It seems that based on this fragmentary evidence, especially the κ κεών barley drink and the presentation of a freshly cut ear of corn that this mystery cult was primarily based around agrarian myths. Any attempt to associate this cult with Christianity must be rejected on that basis because Christianity is not an agrarian based religion.
Ibid., 92-93. Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 95. Clement Prot. 2.18. Hyppolytus Haer. 5.8.39f. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 101. Hom. Hymn Dem. 385-400.
13 The cult and mysteries of Dionysus The foundation of this cult is the god Dionysus. According to John Dillon’s article about Dionysus, Dionysus was “the Greek god of wine and ecstatic experience generally, and to some extent also of vegetation, and of death and rebirth. He was also remarkable as being subject to birth (from a mortal woman), death, and resurrection.”49 Before looking at the content of the mysteries it is important to note that the cult of Dionysus was at times highly favored and influential among the political elites. There are two examples that are significant. The first example is the political patronage of Ptolemy IV Philopater. He was so committed to the Dionysian cult that he issued a decree to attempt to force the Jews of Alexandria to participate in the Dionysiac mysteries.50 This can be seen in a passage from 3 Maccabees which states: He proposed to inflict public disgrace on the Jewish community, and he set up a stone on the tower in the courtyard with this inscription: 28 “None of those who do not sacrifice shall enter their sanctuaries, and all Jews shall be subjected to a registration involving poll tax and to the status of slaves. Those who object to this are to be taken by force and put to death; 29 those who are registered are also to be branded on their bodies by fire with the ivy-leaf symbol of Dionysus, and they shall also be reduced to their former limited status.” 30 In order that he might not appear to be an enemy of all, he inscribed below: “But if any of them prefer to join those who have been initiated into the mysteries, they shall have equal citizenship with the Alexandrians.”51 On the other hand the practices of the Dionysian cult were so scandalous to the sensibilities of the Roman Republic that in 186 B.C. the public practice of the sect was
John M. Dillon, “Dionysus,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 201.
Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 112-13. 3 Macc 2:27-30.
14 suppressed in Rome.52 An account of this event is recorded by the Roman historian Livy53 in his book The History of Rome from its Foundation.54 There are five pieces of information that can be gleaned from primary sources concerning the rituals of the Dionysiac cult.55 The first piece of information from Livy56 is that there seems to have been a time of sexual continence before the initiation.57 The second piece of information from Tacitus58 seems to one person was dressed as Dionysus and others were dressed in skins.59 The dressing as Dionysus seems to also be supported a wall painting on the wall of a villa in Pompeii. 60 The third piece of information is from Livy61 and indicates that there was an oath of loyalty to Dionysus.62 The fourth piece of information from the Pompeii villa wall painting is that the general focus of the mysteries of Dionysus was on love and sexuality.63 The last piece of information is that the idea of resurrection is seen on sarcophagi associated with the
Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, trans. Antonia Nevill (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 308.
Livy History of Rome 39.8-19.
The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Marvin W. Meyer, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 81.
Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 308-12. Livy History of Rome 39.9. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 308. Tacitus Ann. 9.31. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 308. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, 64. Livy History of Rome 39.18. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 308. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, 64.
15 cult of Dionysus. This type resurrection seems to be based on the annual cycle of nature.64 Based again on the agrarian based cycle and the sexualized content of the wall painting in the Pompeii villa it seems very unlikely that the cult of Dionysus would have influenced Christianity.
The cult of Attis There are two significant characteristics of the cult of Attis that need to be brought out. The first significant characteristic of the cult of Attis was that its priests castrated themselves in a frenzied form of worship.65 A poem by the poet Catallus66 provides a clear description of this.67 The early Christian writer Tertullian68 testifies to having seen this practice in person.69 The second significant characteristic of the cult of Attis is the taurobolium (the immersion in the blood of a bull).70 This was done for the consecration of the chief-priest of the cult.71 An account of this can be found in two sources. The first source is the early Christian writer Prudentius72 who recounts a taurobolium. The second source is an inscription that records a taurobolium held on April 15 367 A.D. which states “The most potent lord Sextilius Agesilaus Aedesius…father of the unconquered sun god Mithras, hierophant of Hecate, chief shepherd of Dionysus, reborn
Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 313. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 122-23. Catullus Carm. 63. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 123. Tertullian Apol. 15.5. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 47. Ibid., 51. Ibid. Prudentius Peristephanon 10.1011-50.
16 forever through sacrifices of bulls and rams.”73 This inscription gives us two important pieces of information about mystery religions. The first is that mystery religions were not exclusive. The second is that at least in the year A.D. 367 the taurobolium had taken on a sacramental nature. The castration of the priest of this cult would seem to have no connection whatsoever to Christianity and would in fact go against the idea of the spirit controlled life found throughout the New Testament because it came about during uncontrolled worship. The taurobolium has at least a superficial resemblance to Christian baptism but because the recipient is showered with blood and not water it seems best to not see any borrowing on the part of Christianity. It seems much more likely that this was assimilation by the mystery of two distinct Christian beliefs (the sacrifice of Christ to gain eternal life and Christian baptism) into one action rather than the other way around.74 This is especially true since the first evidence for a taurobolium comes from the 2nd century.75
The cult of Isis Plutarch76 is the primary source we have for the central myth of the cult of Isis.77 Ferguson sums up the myth very well when he states: According to the myth, Osiris, after ruling over the Egyptians in a beneficial manner, was plotted against by his brother Set (Gk. Typhon). The latter made a chest and at a banquet promised to give it to anyone who exactly fit into it. As had been planned, when Osiris entered the chest, Set’s men closed the chest and threw it into the Nile. Isis set out on a search for the chest and her brother-husband. She found it at Byblos on the coast of
Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity, 128. Ibid. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, 49. Plutarch Is. Os. 21-27. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 270.
17 Phoenicia and brought it back to Egypt. Typhon succeeded in getting possession of the body and cut it up into fourteen parts, which were scattered about Egypt. Isis then went through the country collecting the parts. She recovered all but the genitals, which she placed replaced by a gold image that was carried in procession. (This seems to combine two different traditions of the death of Osiris – that he was drowned and that he was murdered and dismembered.) Osiris became king of the underworld and helped his son Horus to gain victory over Typhon. Osiris did not return to this world or experience a resurrection properly speaking; his continued existence was in the netherworld.78 Apuleius79 is our most important account of the ceremonies and in particular the initiations of the cult of Isis.80 Ferguson brings out the nature of the spring festival found in Apuleius when he states: “They had the air of a costume parade, but consisted of religious personnel, as follows: women crowned with flowers along the way; other women and a mixed company carrying lamps, torches and candles; musicians playing pipes and a boys’ chorus singing a hymn about the procession; the initiates wearing white linen and carrying sistra (the men’s head were clean shaven); priests carrying various emblems of the goddess; and men dressed as various Egyptian deities.”81 In addition to this Nock argues that a person would have seen penitents sitting in front of the temple chanting for forgiveness from the goddess.82 Ferguson summarizes the data from Apuleius concerning initiation into eighth distinct characteristics. The first characteristic is that initiate had to be chosen directly by Isis. The second characteristic is that there was purification bath along with prayers. The third characteristic of the initiation was that there was a ten day fast from meat and wine. The fourth
Ibid., 271. Apuleius Metam. 11. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 271, 73-74. Ibid., 271-72.
A. D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (London: Oxford University Press, 1933; reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 80.
18 characteristic of the initiation was that on the night of the initiation that the initiate was clothed in a line robe and led into the temple. The fifth characteristic was that the initiation ended at dawn. The sixth characteristic was that the initiate came out of the temple wearing twelve stoles and carrying a torch in his right hand. The seventh characteristic was that the initiate was presented to the crowd. The last characteristic was that there was a three day banquet to celebrate his rebirth through his initiation.83 The idea of rebirth might seem similar to Christian conversion in some way but in reality the concept is very different. Ferguson again sums this up very well when he states: “the initiation into Isis freed him from the control of fate and magic.”84 This is very different from the Christian conception of new birth as becoming a new creation in Christ Jesus.
The mysteries of Mithras Before going any further it is important to note that no literary evidences have survived (if they every existed) from the followers of the mysteries of Mithras.85 The primary evidence that we have is from archaeological evidence. There are two significant related pieces of archaeological evidence. The first piece of archaeological evidence is that many mithraic centers of worship, known as mithraeum, have been found. 86 The second piece of archaeological
Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 274-75. Ibid.
Manfred Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries, trans. Richard Gordon (New York: Routledge, 2001), 169. R. Merkelbach, “Mithras, Mithraism,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman, vol. 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 877-78.
19 evidence is that within these mithraeum a distinct cultic icon, known as a tauroctony, has been found. The tauroctony shows Mithras slaying a bull. 87 There are two basic approaches to the development of Mithraism. The first approach was proposed by Franz Cumont argued in the late 19th century that the mysteries of Mithras are directly connected to ancient Zoroastrianism.88 This approach was critiqued in a paper that R. L. Gordon presented at the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies in 1971. Gordon argued convincingly that the links that Cumont made between Zoroastrianism and the mysteries of Mithras were incorrect.89 This article caused scholarship to look in a different direction for the origin of the mysteries of Mithras and freed mithraic studies from the assumption of a Persian origin. This change of focus allowed for a new approach to the origin of Mithraism that proposed that the mysteries of Mithras actually developed within the Roman Empire.90 This section dealing with the mysteries of Mithras will be divided into three parts. The first part of this section will consist of examining the origins of Mithraism with special emphasis on the dating of the evidence. The second part of this section will examine possible connections between Mithraism and astrology. The last part of this section will consist of an attempt to reconstruct the rituals of Mithraism for extant primary sources.
Aune, “Religions, Greco-Roman,” 793.
Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, trans. Thomas J. McCormack (New York: Dover Publications, 1956; reprint, New York: Cosimo, 2007), 1-32. R. L. Gordon, “Franz Cumont and the Doctrines of Mithraism,” in Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, ed. John R. Hinnells, vol. 1 (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1975), 217-18. David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 12-14.
20 The examination of the evidence for the origin of the mysteries of Mithras consists of two pieces of primary source evidence. The first piece of evidence is the testimony of the Roman author Plutarch in his account of the life of the Roman general Pompey.91 Plutarch recounts the suppression of the Cilician pirates in the first century B.C. who were terrorizing the Mediterranean Sea.92 In reference to Mithraism Plutarch states in reference to the Cilician pirates that they “celebrated there certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them”93 Apart from this the next available evidences comes from around 90 A.D. This evidence is summarized nicely by Manfred Clauss when he states: The earliest securely dated evidence for the cult of Mithras does not stem from Italy but from the provinces; in each case, however, in connection with people originally from Italy. An important example is the dedication of a centurion of the cohors XXXII voluntariorum civium Romanorum from Nida, behind the Wetterau-limes in Germania Superior (Heddernheim/Franfort am Main), that is, a unit recruited, unlike most auxiliary units, from among Roman citizens – primarily Italians at this period ( V 1098). The cohort was stationed in Nida ony until the end of the first century AD, when it was transferred to Ober-Florstadt, a little further to the North-East. The inscription is thus probably dated before about 90.94 The second part of this section deals with two different astrological interpretations of the mithraeum and the taurotony. The first interpretation was proposed by Roger Beck and it is based on the idea that the mithraeum was designed to display to the initiates of the mysteries of
Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, 36-37. Plutarch Pomp. 24.1-5. Plutarch Pomp. 24.5 Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, 21.
21 Mithras the ascent and descent of souls through the known cosmos.95 He bases this idea on a passage from Porphyry which states: Likewise the Persian mystagogues initiate their candidate by explaining to him the downward journeys of the souls and their subsequent return, and they call the place where this occurs a “cave.” First of all, according to Eubulus, Zoroaster consecrated a natural cave in the mountains near Persia, a flowery cave with springs, to the honor of Mithras, the creator and father of the universe, since the cave was for him an image of the cosmos that Mithras created. The objects arranged symmetrically within the cave were symbols of the elements and regions of the cosmos. Later, he continues, after Zoroaster, the custom of performing the mysteries in caves and grottoes, whether natural or artificial caught on among others as well.96 A second very different astrological interpretation of the tauroctony is by David Ulansey. Ulansey proposes that: To summarize briefly, a group of Stoicizing intellectuals in the Cilician capital of Tarsus interested in the traditional Stoic concerns of astrology, astral religion, and astronomical cycles learned of Hipparchus’ discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. They hypothesized the existence of a new divinity responsible for the new cosmic phenomenon, a divinity capable of moving the structure of the entire cosmos, and thus a divinity of immense power. In typical Stoic fashion, they then personified this new cosmic being in the form of their own native god, Perseus, the hero both of Tarsus and of the heavens (owing to his being also a constellation). The fact that a highly appropriate symbol for the precession would be the death of the bull (because the last constellation the spring equinox had been in, according t Hipparchus’ discovery, was Taurus the bull) was then combined with the fact that the constellation Perseus lay directly above Tarsus, producing the image of the bull being killed by the hero directly above him. The image signified that god’s tremendous power, which enabled him to end the Age of the Bull by moving the entire universe in such a way that the spring equinox moved out of the constellation Taurus.97 The last part of this section will examine the sacred meal of the cult of Mithras from evidence that can be gleaned from several early Christian authors. The first author that speaks of
Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 16-17.
Porphyry Antr. nymph. 6. Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, 93.
22 this meal is Justin Martyr.98 Justin Martyr saw similarities, which he thought were satanically inspired, between the Lord’s Supper and the analogous mithraic ritual but more significantly he also states that the mithraic meal consisted of bread and water.99 Tertullian100 also alludes to the sacrifice of bread as being part of mithraic practices but with no mention of the use of wine.101 In addition to the meal we have a small amount of information concerning the initiation of Roman Mithraism from several sources. The first piece of information, from Tertullian102, is that the initiate was crowned with a crown at the point of a sword.103 The second piece of information, Firmicus Maternus104, is that the initiation concluded with a handshake.105
Summary In summary we have seen from looking at the characteristics of several mystery cults that there is no clear evidence of influence on Christianity. In the case of both the mithraic cultic meal and the taurobolium of the cult of Attis it has been shown that they are very different from similar New Testament practices. Now that we have examined the practices and beliefs of various mystery cults this study will examine three examples in works targeted for a popular audience of assertions that Christianity is influenced by various mystery religions.
Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, 108. Justin Martyr 1 Apol. 66. Tertullian Praescr. 40. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, 108-09. Tertullian Cor. 15. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, 103. Firmicus Maternus Err. Prof. Rel. 5.2. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, 105.
Examples of Popular Assertions The first example of popular assertion is found in an article by Shmuel Golding contained in an article in a book with the shocking title, The Book Your Church Doesn’t Want You to Read. Before looking at the argument of the article it is important to note that the article completely lacks any citations of sources. The basic argument of the article is that Paul was influenced by Mithraism because he was from Tarsus and because supposedly Paul used mithraic like phrases. One key argument he makes is that there Paul borrowed the idea of Christ being the rock which followed Israel in the wilderness in 1 Cor 10:4 from Mithraism. 106 Because he does not cite a source for this it is hard really to tell what he is talking about but he seems to be attempting to connect the inscriptional evidence for Mithras shooting a rock with an arrow and water coming forth, known as the water miracle, to 1 Cor 10:4.107 The major problem with this is that the allusion is unquestionably referring to a Jewish tradition that developed concerning the events of Moses getting water from rocks in the wilderness in Exod 17:6 and Num 20:7–13.108 It seems that by the time of Christ these actions by Moses had been interpreted allegorically in Jewish circles. This can be seen in Philo109 where he associates the rock with the wisdom of
Shmuel Golding, “Paul: First Christian Heretic,” in The Book Your Church Doesn't Want You to Read, ed. Tim C. Leedom (San Diego: Truth Seeker, 1993), 203.
Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, 71-74.
Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 726.
Philo Leg. 2.82.
24 God.110 Since the interpretation is based on an event that was recorded significantly before the first evidence of Mithraism in the first century B.C. this argument should be rejected. The second example of a popular assertion for a link is found in a book by Acharya S. The book is actually a much broader attack on all of Christianity. The evaluation of this book could probably in and of itself be a complete study. With reference to the mystery religions the book has the following passage which states “The Christians form of the Eucharist is highly similar to the ritual practiced as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, in detail, as was unhappily admitted by Christians from the beginning. The Eleusinian Eucharist honored by Ceres, goddess of wheat and Bacchus/Dionysus, god of wine.”111 The first problem with this statement is that the author asserts incorrectly that the Dionysus was a part of the mysteries of Eleusis. The second issue is that the author is incorrect concerning the nature of the cultic practices at Eleusis. It seems the author thinks that early Christian references to the cultic meal of Roman Mithraism are actually references to the mysteries of Eleusis. The last issue is that the author simply states the assertion without giving any supporting documentation. The last example of a popular assertion for a link is found in a book by Payam Nabarz about Mithraism. Nabarz points out several influences he sees Mithraism as having on Christianity. This study will deal with only two which deal directly with potential influence on the apostle Paul. First he argues that when Rom 1:23 speaks of the changing the image of the invisible God into images of men and animals is a reference to animal masks possibly used in the
Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, trans. James W. Leitch, Hermeneia, ed. George W. MacRae (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 166. Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999), 200.
25 mithraic initiation.112 There are two problems with this assertion. The first problem is that he does not provide any evidence for the existence of the masks let alone evidence for a connection. The second problem is that the most natural contextual reading of this text is that Paul is simply referring to the generic idolatry rampant in Greco-Roman culture. The second argument for a connection between Paul and Mithraism is that the armor of God passage in Ephesians 6 was influenced the presence of warriors for Mithras in Tarsus while Paul was growing up.113 This argument might hold much more weight if it were not for the fact that Paul was writing to the province of Asia and not to Tarsus and even then nothing in the context of the passage hints at this. Also Nabarz asserts that what Paul is saying is violent and contradicts what Jesus taught.114 The problem with this is that the violence is clearly spiritual and directed towards the devil.
Conclusion It is the conclusion of this study that there is no conclusive evidence for any mystery cult influence on the foundation of Christianity. In fact if anything it seems that a much more likely and profitable type of inquiry would be looking for polemical attacks in the New Testament against the various mystery cults. In looking at the examples presented in this study of examples of assertions contained in works targeted at a popular audience it is obvious that they generally do not understand nature and evidence for mystery cults. In fact it seems that they are simply using random evidence and assertions to attack Christianity.
Payam Nabarz, The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005), 47.
26 Bibliography The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World. Edited by Marvin W. Meyer. 1st ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Edinburg: T. & T. Clark, 1866-72. Reprint, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973. The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. The New Testament Background: Writings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire That Illuminate Christian Origins. Edited By C. K. Barrett. Revised ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Angus, S. The Mystery-Religions and Christianity: A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. New York: Scribner, 1925. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1975. Apuleius. The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses. Translated by E. J. Kenney. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Aune, D. E. “Religions, Greco-Roman.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Ralph P. Martin Gerald F. Hawthorne, Daniel G. Reid, 786-95. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Beck, Roger. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Bock, Darrell L. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002. Bousset, Wilhelm. Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus. Translated by John E. Steely. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970. Bultmann, Rudolf. Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting. Translated by R. H. Fuller. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1956. Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987. Clauss, Manfred. The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries. Translated by Richard Gordon. New York: Routledge, 2001.
27 Clement. Exhortation to the Greeks: The Rich Man's Salvation: To the Newly Baptized. Translated by G. W. Butterworth. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919. Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Translated by James W. Leitch. Hermeneia, ed. George W. MacRae. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. Cumont, Franz. The Mysteries of Mithra. Translated by Thomas J. McCormack. New York: Dover Publications, 1956. Reprint, New York: Cosimo, 2007. Dillon, John M. “Dionysus.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman, vol. 2, 201-02. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. Golding, Shmuel. “Paul: First Christian Heretic.” In The Book Your Church Doesn't Want You to Read, ed. Tim C. Leedom, 203-04. San Diego: Truth Seeker, 1993. Gordon, R. L. “Franz Cumont and the Doctrines of Mithraism.” In Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, ed. John R. Hinnells, vol. 1, 216-48. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1975. Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996. Hill, Craig C. Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division within the Earliest Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. Klauck, Hans-Josef. The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Liddell, Henry George et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Livy. Rome and the Mediteranean. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books, 1976. Maternus, Firmicus. Firmicus Maternus: The Error of the Pagan Religions. Translated by Clarence A. Forbes. Ancient Christan Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, ed. Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas Comerford Lawler, vol. 37. New York: Newman Press, 1970. Merkelbach, R. . “Mithras, Mithraism.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman, vol. 4, 877-78. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
28 Metzger, Bruce M. “Methodology in the Study of Mystery Religions and Early Christianity.” In Historical and Literary Studies; Pagan, Jewish, and Christian, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, 124. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1968. Meyer, Marvin W. “Mystery Religions.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman, vol. 4, 941-45. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Nabarz, Payam. The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005. Nock, A. D. Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. London: Oxford University Press, 1933. Reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Origen. Contra Celsum. Translated by Henry Chadwick. 1st paperback ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Patella, Michael. Lord of the Cosmos: Mithras, Paul, and the Gospel of Mark. London: T & T Clark International, 2006. Philo. The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged. Translated by Charles Duke Yonge. New updated ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing, 1993. Plutarch. Lives. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb Classical Library. Vol. V. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917. Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library. Vol. V. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936. Porphyry. On the Cave of the Nymphs. Translated by Robert Lamberton. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1983. Reitzenstein, Richard. Hellenistic Mystery–Religions: Their Basic Ideas and Significance. Translated by John E. Steely. Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series, ed. Dikran Y. Hadidian, vol. 15. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Press, 1978. S, Acharya. The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999. Scott Jr., J. Julius. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995. Tacitus. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. Revised ed. London: Penguin Books, 1971.
29 Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. Turcan, Robert. The Cults of the Roman Empire. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. Ulansey, David. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Wright, N. T. “Quest for the Historical Jesus.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol. 3, 796-802. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.
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