Early Christian History

Christianity & the “Mystery Religions”

Christianity, in its earliest days, shared a good deal in common with the many “mystery religions” which became popular in the Roman Empire. In fact, it’s hard not to place Christianity among the mystery religions (even though Christian apologists refuse to do this). Here, I'll explain how they were similar and why I think Christianity should be counted among them.

Origins of “the Mysteries”

The mystery religions were very old, and at least in classical times, were derived from two chief sources. The first was the Egyptian mythology surrounding the god Osiris, his consort, the goddess Isis, and their offspring (primarily the god Horus). The second source was the Greek mythology surrounding the goddesses Demeter and Persephone.

Both of these traditions told of a god or goddess who “died,” either figuratively or actually, but was restored in some fashion. Both reflected the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in nature — particularly, the seasons.

While a direct connection between them is difficult to establish, both of these traditions may have, in turn, reflected an even older tradition: that of the “sacred marriage” of the Sumerian deities Inanna and Dumuzi.

In any event, these traditions had a primarily pastoral origin, and were likely connected with simple fertility traditions, which varied by location. This aspect of “the mysteries” is hard to miss. What’s less easy to see is the emphasis on secrecy and a multi-level initiation process. S. Angus, in his seminal work on the mystery-religions (The Mystery Religions) speculates that this may have been due to invasions or migrations; that is, the people of an area developed their own religious tradition, but as invaders or migrants moved in, they kept this tradition to themselves.

These pastoral traditions had solidified by the early first millennium BCE. In Egypt, the Osiris/Isis myth had become the basis for pharaonic power; the pharaoh was Osiris’s representative on earth, and descended from him through Horus. As the resurrected Osiris ruled the netherworld, the pharaoh ruled this one, and Horus ruled heaven.

Orpheus and “the Mysteries”

In Greece, the myths of Demeter and Persephone became connected with that of Orpheus, a musician-god of such artistry, that he moved the cold-hearted Hades to tears, with his song. Orpheus became considered an example of human excellence, and was revered by many, particularly by scholars, who saw him as a patron (along with Orpheus’s father, Apollo).

The Greek mysteries began to take a decidedly Orphean turn. Even so, adoration of Demeter and Persephone continued, especially at their sacred city of Eleusis (on the coast near Athens). Thus, two Greek mystery traditions developed. But they did not compete with one another.

The Orphean tradition eventually became the plaything of the educated. Inspired by Orpheus, the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras established a scholar’s colony. Under his tutelage, they lived lives of quiet contemplation, hoping thereby to learn the secrets of the Cosmos. Such scholars’ colonies appeared throughout the Greek world, beginning in the seventh century BCE.

Eventually Pythagoras became a character of legend, in Orphean tradition, said to have performed miracles due to his intellect and inspiration. The same is true of the early Greek physician Asklepius. Many of the Orphean communities were ascetic; they had little or no contact with outsiders, members were all male and celibate; they lived at a subsistence level; and studied often.

Dionysian Mysteries

The Demeter/Persephone tradition continued to grow and change, although along different lines. An additional character was introduced: Dionysus, the little-known god of the vine. He fit in well, also being a pastoral god, but he was changed into a god who was slain but restored. In this, the Greeks probably had been inspired by the Egyptian tradition.

Over time, the Demeterian element of this mystery tradition was eclipsed by the Dionysian. Also, scholars seem to have attempted to reconcile this mystery tradition with that of Orpheus.

Variations On A Theme

Variations were common. For example, a rather prolific mystery tradition which appeared about the time that the Romans became prominent, was that of Herakles. His myths were altered, also to make him into on Osirian resurrected god. In more distant places, the Greek mysteries were appropriated and localized; in Phrygia (in Anatolia), the stories concerned a deity named Attis. In Syria, it was Tammuz (from the Sumerian name Dumuzi).

All of these traditions had points in common, though: They concerned rebirth, and had a redeemer-godman at their core.

Over time they became even more subtle and comprehensive. They no longer concerned themselves solely with the birth-death-rebirth cycle of natural forces; no, this was seen as a metaphor for humanity’s own nature. Initiates of the mysteries believed they had transcended this cycle, and considered themselves “reborn” into a higher spirituality.

The Rise of Mithras

The religion known as Mithras is an ecletic mix; it concerns an old Iranian sun-god, Mithra, but seems to be mostly a Greco-Roman belief system. Many have speculated on its origins the reasons for its initial success. David Ulansey, in his groundbreaking The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, seems to have pinpointed the central “secret” of Mithras.

That secret involves the discovery of the precession of the heavens. That is, over a long period of time, the canopy of stars appears to shift to the east. This is not noticeable in a single lifetime, or even in many; it can be noticed only over hundreds of years. The Stoic scholar Hipparchus, who had access to Babylonian star-charts, seems to have figured this out. He did it by noting in which Zodiac constellation the Sun rises, on the morning of the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring). He determined that the Sun had been coming up in Taurus, but soon would come up in Pisces.

Hipparchus’s discovery came near the end of the second century BCE. Although not widely disseminated, it was an earth-shattering find, for before then, it had been widely assumed that the canopy of the skies was fixed. At any rate, this “secret” seems to have spawned the growth of a mystery religion, beginning in Tarsus, an Anatolian city with a large Stoic enclave. They appear to have used the figure of Mithra, a sun-god who in old Iranian and Zoroastrian tradition, was the patron of contracts and agreements, and who could act as a liaison between Ahura Mazda (the supreme deity of Zoroaster) and humanity.

Mithras was a rather minor movement, until it became the plaything of Cilician pirates who plied the Mediterranean. They carried it to many places; in some places, it took root, while in others, it withered. The Roman general Pompey was sent to subdue these pirates, in 67 BCE; once he had done so, he was initiated into Mithras, as were most of his staff.

At this point, Mithras became almost a purely Roman phenomenon. Many of the Roman aristocracy joined, and almost all of the Roman legions. They carried it to all parts of the Empire, and in their hands, it became rather influential. It very nearly became the predominant religion of western civilization.

Much more than a religion, however, Mithras was a secret society, especially after the Roman legions had molded it to their liking. Its beliefs and proceedings were well-kept secrets. While all the mystery religions were secretive, Mithras seems to have been more protective of its doctrines, than any other. Moreover, unlike the rest, Mithras did not allow women to become intitiates. The reasons for this exclusion aren’t clear, mostly because we don’t have a full picture of Mithraic doctrines or customs.

Features of “the Mysteries”

The mystery religions all had different features; there was no uniformity among them. However, they had certain points in common. Among them are: There are more than this, but these suffice to make the point: The mystery religions had a good deal in common with each other, and with Christianity.

Mystery Aspects of Christianity

Beyond the bullet-points listed above, Christianity had other points in common with most mystery religions. Much of the material in the “genuine” Pauline epistles, reflects belief in a mystical godman (whom Paul calls “the Christ"). Also significant is the fact that Paul, formerly Saul, was a native of Tarsus, in his day still the chief seat of Mithras, and a Stoic refuge. The influences in his writing are obvious, if one simply knows to look for them.

Other early Christian writings contain certain phrases borrowed from the mystery religions — sort of like code-words. For example, the opening verse of the gospel of John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the original Greek, the word translated “Word” is λογος, or logos. This term had a special meaning, in the philosophies of the mystery religions: It signified the creative power of speech, and by extension, the manifestation of wisdom. In the context of the verse — which is the creation of the world — this is clearly what is being alluded to!

The same is true of many other verses in the New Testament: They are almost in code, if you will, having special meaning above and beyond what is overtly indicated, for those initiates who had learned to understand these special terms.

And the rituals likewise had a special, additional layer of meaning. Baptism, for example, is a metaphorical representation of the believer’s death, and his rising out of the water, represents his rebirth into a new spiritual life. The sacrament of communion, in which (some) Christians believe they ingest the body and blood of Jesus Christ, had another meaning; it indicated the constant process of taking in the divine “force,” or logos or wisdom — it is a basic part of the life of the initiate, as routine as eating.

For all of these reasons, I cannot help but associate Christianity with the mystery religions. There are too many similarities for a relationship between them not to have existed.

Christianity Vs. “the Mysteries”

It’s no coincidence that Christianity saw the mystery religions — and their derivative mystical traditions such as Gnosticism — as its chief competition. Early Christians argued extensively against the “mysteries,” and when it appeared that Christians were veering into mystery-territory, heresy-hunters appeared to stop them.

In southern Gaul, for example, a mystical version of Christianity founded by Valentinus, became popular, in the second century. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, penned a diatribe against it, known as Against Heresies, around 180 CE. His main argument was that Valentinian Christianity was neither scriptural nor apostolic, and therefore it had to be wrong.

Other Christians faced the accusation, by pagan critics, that their beliefs were simply a weak copy of older pagan traditions. Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr responded by asserting that Satan had somehow anticipated the career of Jesus Christ, and had inspired the older pagan traditions, as a way to sidetrack people! (It’s worth noting that even Justin Martyr did not deny the obvious similarities between Christianity and “the mysteries,” even if he came up with this rather lame rationale to explain them away.)

It’s rather odd, then, that a movement which likely started as a mystery religion would eventually reject all of its own “mystical” content, and go after other faiths, based on that rejection. This is one of many paradoxes that surround the origins of Christianity. Unfortunately, later Christians destroyed many records of the period, so we may never know precisely why this happened.

Death of “the Mysteries”

Well ... the mystery religions never really died out. Christianity survived, and dominated western culture. Within it sprang many mystical traditions, many of them inspired (indirectly) by the mystery religions, but which were accepted as parts of Christianity. The hermitic, monastic, and mendicant movements are examples of this.

The reason for Christianity’s victory is both obvious and simple: Politics. It so happened that it became popular among the intelligentsia of the eastern imperial cities — especially in places such as Antioch, Alexandria, Nicaea, Carthage, etc. These cities had managed to ride out the turbulence of the first three centuries of the Empire. Roman Emperors, beginning with Constantine, needed the support of the eastern cities, if they were to make the Empire work. So Constantine, in 313, declared tolerance for Christianity, making it safe to be a Christian. Later Emperors added even more favors to the young religion (with the exception of Julian “the Apostate” who made an abortive attempt to make Mithras the state religion of Rome).

Once they had Imperial favor, Christians began ruthlessly stamping out all other religions. In other words, they did to others what had been done to them for nearly three centuries! They coerced conversions, and destroyed texts and monuments which were sacred to other religions.

For this reason, as well as the mystery religions’ own inherent secrecy, we have little to go on, in trying to learn about them. This is unfortunate, as we know that the mystery religions had inherited millennia of tradition. The loss to humanity is incalculable.

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