Ancient Mystery Religions Prefigured, Possibly Shaped, Elements of Christianity


Ancient mystery religions and other pagan religious practices prefigured and might have even shaped elements of Christianity. Four sources and brief book excerpts support the claim:

(Boldfacing was added to the following excerpts. Italicized sections appear in the originals.)

Meyer & ‘The Ancient Mysteries’

The late Dr. Marvin W. Meyer of Chapman College, writing in the introduction to a 1987 book he edited, The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook — Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World:

“The mysteries were secret religious groups composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another….

“The word mystery (mysterion in Greek) derives from the Greek verb myein, ‘to close,’ referring to the closing of the lips or the eyes….

“Closed eyes brought darkness to the prospective initiate both literally and metaphorically, and the opening of the eyes was an act of enlightenment. Just as one of a baby’s first responses to the world is the discovery of light through the opening of the eyes, so the initiate, sometimes described as one reborn, also saw the light….

“The development of early agrarian or fertility festivals into the mystery religions involved, first and foremost, the conviction on the part of the worshipers that the cycle of nature related directly to human life. Plants and animals participated in a cycle of death and life, and so also did human beings. Death came to all the divine forces of nature — Kore, Dionysos, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, the Mithraic bull — but finally life was victorious. Kore returned from the realm of Hades; Dionysos vivified his devotees; Adonis rose from the dead; Attis gave an intimation of new life; Osiris reigned as king of the underworld; and the bull provided life for the world

“Ordinarily the mystai [initiates] partook of food and drink in the ritual celebrations, and sometimes they may have become one with the divine by participating in a sacramental meal analogous to the Christian Eucharist….”

MacMullen & Lane: Paganism as mother

In the preface to the 1992 book Paganism and Christianity 100-425 C.E.: A Sourcebook, editors Ramsay MacMullen of Yale University and Eugene Lane of the University of Missouri say:

“The emergence of Christianity from the tangled mass of older religious beliefs, eventually to a position of unchallenged superiority, is surely one of the most important single phenomenon that can be discerned in the closing centuries of the ancient world.”

They go on to say, however, little attention is given to “the body in which Christianity grew.”

They ask, “How about the mother? Will she not help determine the manner in which the child enters the world and, to some extent, its shape and nature?”

Then MacMullen and Lane give this illustration:

“In most regions of St. Paul’s or St. Augustine’s world, attendance at holy places on religious anniversaries was a time for friends and family together to enjoy the meal that followed the sacrifice. That was how reverence was paid to the sanctuaries of saints in the fourth century — not because those attending were still ‘pagan’ (they would have indignantly rejected any such label) but because the ceremony still lacked any distinctively Christian form.”

Placher

William C. Placher, professor at Wabash College, in his 1983 book A History of Christian Theology:

“The mystery cults — some imported, some homegrown in Greece — offered something many Greeks found spiritually more satisfying. Those who joined a mystery cult underwent a secret initiation. There they learned the story of a deity who had died but then risen to new life; and they became somehow united with that deity, so that they too would rise to new life after death. The mysteries offered a personal connection with a deity and a hope beyond death, and the emphasis on membership gave people a sense of belonging in a society where many traditional institutions had collapsed. All this provided Christians with an obvious analogy. Join our fellowship, they could say, and become one with Christ, participating in ceremonies of baptism and the sharing of bread and wine, and you, like Christ, will be raised from the dead.”

Hinson

E. Glenn Hinson of Baptist Theological Seminary in his 1996 book The Early Church:

“Numerous oriental religions thrived in the West when Christianity put in its appearances. The Mysteries of Eleusis, originating several centuries before the Christian era, were patronized by emperors from Octavian on. They used the planting of seed as a symbol of the promise of life that lies beyond death….

“The cult of the Great Mother, a fertility goddess connected with agricultural rites, enjoyed wide currency in the ancient world as far west as the British Isles. Acknowledged in Rome as a legitimate foreign cult in 205 B.C.E., by the time of Augustus it had gained immense popularity. Originally a wild and enthusiastic cult, involving even human sacrifices, it was modified by combination with the cult of Attis. The mythology of a dying and rising god replaced earlier orgiastic rites. A colorful pageantry combined with the promise of immortality to attract many. In time Cybele adopted the taurobolium, a bath in bull’s blood, popularized by Mithra. Symbolically ‘buried’ in a pit covered by a lattice-work of boards, the devotee was said to be purified of sins and raised to new life.

“Isis and Osiris, an ancient Egyptian cult, was introduced to the West by the Ptolemies. Soldiers, sailors, slaves, and popular writers disseminated it all over the empire. Its most attractive features were the myth of a dying and rising god and an appealing liturgy….

“Mithra, a Persian sect that grew out of Zoroastrianism, advanced westward by way of the Roman army during the Flavian era (68-96). Remarkably similar to Christianity in many respects, it turned out to be the strongest competitor, though limited by the fact that the cult excluded women. Like Judaism and Christianity, Mithraism emphasized morality. It viewed life as a perpetual struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, the gods and demons. Mithra, one of the lesser deities in the Zoroastrian hierarchy, identified with human beings in their struggle. Mithraic altars depicted Mithra astride the back of a powerful bull, hurling his dagger into its side as a serpent twines around one of the bull’s legs to lap up the blood spurting from the wound. To underline the importance of morality, Mithraism emphasized judgment. At death anyone stained with evil would be dragged by the emissaries of Ahriman to the depths of hell to suffer indescribable tortures, whereas the pure would ascend to the celestial realm, where the supreme god Ormuzd ruled. En route, Mithra himself would serve as the guide past the seven planetary spheres guarded over by angels. After a general resurrection, Mithra would judge all humanity once and for all and cause fire to consume all wicked spirits. Mithraism developed rites and organization similar to Christianity’s, but, since they were of late origin, most were probably borrowed. The most important right was the taurobolium, which promised immortality.”

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Again, boldfacing was added to the above excerpts. Italics belong to the originals.

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One response to “Ancient Mystery Religions Prefigured, Possibly Shaped, Elements of Christianity

  1. Pingback: Ancient Mystery Religions and Their Influence on Christianity: Adding Some Expert Testimony | Public Work