What Cicero saw in the Eleusinian mystery religion and its similarities to Christianity

In Cicero’s dialogue “On the Laws,” a character comments on the Eleusinian mysteries:

“For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those mysteries. For by means of them we have transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and have been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy but also for dying with a better hope.”

So there you have four points that sound like outcomes from an evangelical conversion experience: (1) transformation from sinfulness to fullness, (2) knowledge of the source of life, (3) joy in this life, and (4) hope for life after death.

That quotation from the Cicero dialogue was found in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Here I’m including it as an additional note to some of my previous posts about ancient mystery religions, including this one and this one and this one. If you read the dialogue quotation with these three links in this paragraph, Cicero’s character seems to add something more than mere external and descriptive similarities between ancient mystery religions and Christianity. He seems to add something that maps with Christianity in the realm of interiority and values: enlightened living, joy for this life, hope for a wonderful afterlife.

It’s worth mentioning that the two most influential Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, saw these kinds of similarities not as challenges to Christianity but as supports for Christianity. Generally speaking, they believed the myths, poems, and philosophies of the ancient world were different kinds of divine revelation that prepared people for the advent of Christ — in Lewis’s famous phrase, “myth became fact,” meaning myths or pieces of myths were historically actualized and tied together in the Incarnation.

That being said, having been grown up with simultaneous influences of two very different strands of American Bible-skimming fundamentalism, I have to say the ancient mystery religions and their similarities to Christianity are a huge challenge to Christian faith (again, follow the above links). As a friend and I were saying the other night, the ancient mystery religions, sharing so many similarities to Christianity, challenge the assumptions and claims that there never was anything like Christianity before.

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