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Mystery Religions and Christianity

The study of Christian origins has been responsible for much of the study devoted to the mystery. Early researchers tended to make generalizations without regard to meth.odological problems. There was a tendency to interpret one cult by another and so construct a general "mystery theology" or common "mystery religion." Not uncommonly this was done by (unconsciously) starting with Christian ideas, using these to interpret data about the mysteries, and then finding the mysteries as the source of the Christian ideas. Early Christian authors, it seems, did this too, only their conclusion was that the similarities came from demonic imitation of Christian rites. The Christian writers of the early centuries may have exaggerated the similarities, either from defensive.ness or from the same psychological process as modern researchers, or (as seems more likely) because they could make apologetical capital for the truth of Christianity by claiming demonic imitations in paganism.

Major methodological difficulties are the scarcity of our information (the initiates kept their secret) and the lateness of much that is preserved. Early Christian authors are, in fact, a major source. How well informed were they? Did they really know as much as they claimed, or did they pass on rumor and gossip? How reliable are they? Did they really understand even what they knew? Most important of all for the origins of Christianity -- does their information (particularly interpretations of the meaning of the rites) hold for the pre.Christian period also? The mysteries underwent changes in new environments. Where the Christian authors were not reading them through the eyes of the church, there is the possibility that the mysteries themselves adopted Christian ideas. Borrowing need not have been in only one direc.tion. On the other hand, there definitely was, by the fourth century and in some cases earlier, Christian borrowing of outward gestures from the mys.teries (e.g., the magical hands dedicated to Sabazius show the thumb and first two fingers raised and the other two fingers bent in the same position used by the Catholic clergy in blessing), of terminology (for apologetic purposes by Clement of Alexandria and more extensively for interpretive purposes by the Cappadocian fathers in the fourth century), and of artistic motifs (eg: meal scenes), even as there was borrowing from pagan religion in general of ceremonies (processions), of ideas (geography of Hades), of funerary practices (cult meals for the dead), and even of deities (now dis.guised as Christian saints). Nevertheless, there is very little evidence for much Christian indebt.edness in the first century, and especially in Palestine. Thus the search for pagan influences in early Christianity has focused on Hellenistic Christianity and especially on Paul as channels through which pagan ideas reached a religion that began on Jewish soil. This too has failed to be substantiated. The larger question is of primitive Christianity's relation to the mysteries on a conceptual basis, apart from the above.mentioned methodological considerations.

Comparison of Mystery religions and Christianity


Parallels to the resurrection have been suggested in the "dying and rising savior.gods." But the "resurrection" of these gods is very different from what is meant by that word in Christian belief. There is nothing in the myth of Osiris that could be called a resurrection: the god became ruler over the dead, not the living. The myth of Attis contains no specific mention of a resurrection though it has been thought the gladness following mourning in his cult presupposed some such notion. The Adonis myth perhaps most clearly indicates the resuscitation of a god, but even here it is not strictly a resurrection. These beliefs are more closely allied to the cycle of nature, and the mysteries seem to have had their origin in the agricultural cycle. Even this element does not seem prominent in the mysteries of the Roman period where urban life had weakened the connection with the soil. But insofar as paganism offered "dying and rising gods," these gods are a world apart from Christ's resurrection, which was presented as a one.time historical event, neither a repeated feature of nature nor a myth of the past.


Initiation into the mysteries has been presented as a "pagan regenera.tion" in which there is a rebirth and a kind of mystical union with the deity. The terminology of regeneration is rare in connection with the mysteries and then as a metaphor for a new life. The idea of rebirth does not appear to be specifically connected with moral renewal. The salvation the mysteries brought was a deliverance from fate and the terrors of the afterlife, not a redemption from sins. The initiate was brought into the special favor of the deity and promised his or her protection in this life and often a blessed immortality in the afterlife. The union with the deity in the form of a sacred marriage, in spite of much that has been said, is not proved in the mysteries. There was no divinization, becoming children of the god, or receiving the divine nature.


There are no true parallels to baptism in the mysteries. Where water was applied it was done so for a preliminary purification, not as the initiation itself. The manner in which the initiation into the mysteries and baptism in the New Testament worked was entirely different: the benefit of the pagan ceremony was effective by the doing (ex opere operato), whereas the benefit of baptism was a of God given to faith in the recipient. (Ideas perhaps derived from the mysteries influenced the thinking and practice of some Christians, and that from a quite early period [e.g., the misunderstand.ings about baptism and Lord's Supper reflected in the warnings of 1 Cor. 10:1ff.].) All converts to Christianity received baptism, whereas initiation in the mysteries was for an inner circle of adherents.

Fellowship Meals

Sharing meals was a common religious activity in paganism, Judaism, and Christianity, and there are certain similarities in all these meals. The significance of the "communion," however, was different in each case. The weekly memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the specific note of thanksgiving (Eucharist) in the prayers of consecration provide no pagan counterparts.


Christian baptism was a "repentance" baptism and so connected with a moral transformation of the believer, who was promised the gift of the Holy Spirit as the power of a new fife. Whereas Christianity welcomed the unworthy, the pagan mysteries were for those already pure individuals who met accepted social standards. Of the mystery religions only Mithraism seems to have offered a supernaturally sanctioned ethic and moral earnestness com.parable in some way to Christianity. This is not to say that the mysteries were incapable of higher, spiritual aspirations, but that had nothing to do with their essence. There was, to be sure, a personal attachment to a god. The nearest thing to Christian conversion in the mysteries was that of Lucitis to Isis (Apuleius, Metamorphoses ii); otherwise conversion was mainly to philosophy. Plutarch could find rich meaning in the myth and rites associated with Isis and Osiris, but any philosopher could find anything he wanted in the ceremonies, for no doctrine as such was involved. Thus, one could receive spiritual benefit and meaning from the rites, as well as emo.tional uplift, but that was largely a matter of what one brought with him or made of them, and not what inhered in the system.


The mysteries did not offer a god who came to earth to save humans. Their gods did not die voluntarily to save humankind. And there is no reason why they should, since the consciousness of sin was not so acute nor was there a strong desire for a new ethical life. The mysteries were not for everyone; for one thing they were expensive. Initiation was for the inner circle, not for the whole community of worshipers. The initiatory rites themselves were kept secret (one wants to keep a good thing at home), unlike the Christian "mystery" (mystirion), which was an "open secret," something previously hidden but now revealed and proclaimed to all.

The New Testament did not use the technical vocabulary of the mys.teries. Although there are some superficial similarities of language, even these have different meanings (as the word mystirion itself). Christianity remained "intolerant": it was an exclusive faith, whereas one could accu.mulate all the initiations he could afford and adherence to one deity was not a denial of others. Christianity established a worldwide brotherhood to an extent that the mysteries did not. Christianity imposed no racial or social bars. It became truly international. Although the mysteries moved in this direction, they never lost their identification with their national origin to the extent that Christianity was freed from Judaism.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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