"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

The Jesus Puzzle – Was There No Historical Jesus? Part One

May 11, 2011

in Christianity:,Idolatry,Pagan God's/Saviours,Saul/Paul of Tarsus

Earl Doherty

The Mystery Cults and Christianity – Part 1: Introduction and Survey of the Cults

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.


13A: Introduction and Survey of the Cults

Apologetics in modern scholarship on the Mysteries / Survey of Eleusis, Dionysos, Orphism, Isis & Osiris, Attis, Mithras

13B: On Comparing the Cults and Christianity

Divorcing Christianity from the Mysteries: Reviewing Everett Ferguson, Walter Burkert, Hugo Rahner, Jonathan Z. Smith

13C: A Review of Gunter Wagner’s Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries

A critical examination of this famous analysis of Romans 6:1-11 and defense of Christian independence from the Mysteries

13D: A Cult of Parallels: Pagan Myths and the Jesus Story

Did Christianity plagiarize mystery cult and Graeco-Roman hero mythology?

Bibliography: at end of Article One

Supplementary Article No. 13A

The Mystery Cults and Christianity

Part One:



As in any field of study, there are specialty areas within New Testament research. One of these is the subject of comparative religion. It may well be the longest-running specialty, not just for its centuries-old history in the scholarship of modern times, but for the intense focus it received in the early period of Christianity itself, when apologists had to defend the purity and validity of the Christian faith (as each of them saw it) in the face of the comparative religion of their own time, indulged in by such people as Celsus who compared Christianity with the religions of his own Graeco-Roman culture and found it wanting in originality.

On the other hand, unlike virtually any other field of study outside religion, and certainly within the general area of historical research, traditional New Testament scholarship has always entailed a speciality which could rightly be called an “industry,” that of apologetics. Some degree of apologetic intent can be found across the full spectrum of faith and professionalism, from the fundamentalist defense of full biblical inerracy to the best of modern critical scholarship. That degree, of course, varies in subtlety and sophistication, but it can always be identified by a certain amount of concern for preserving some aspect of credo, tradition, legitimacy or uniqueness for the ancient Christian phenomenon. When that concern overrides the pursuit of fully objective study and analysis, it introduces apologetics into the equation. Thus, in addressing the subject under examination in this article, it will not be possible to adopt a neutral academic approach, since modern scholarship on this subject rarely demonstrates such a quality. Addressing the presence of academic bias must be an integral part of the challenge.

Second only to the question of the historical existence of Jesus, the comparison of Christianity with the ancient religions known as the mystery cults has engaged the apologetic interests of traditional New Testament research more than any other. Perhaps it has even occupied first place, since the Jesus Myth has always been greeted with knee-jerk disdain and dismissal, leading few to actually undertake any rebuttal to it at all. (See my recent article “Alleged Refutations of Jesus Mythicism”.)

If the ‘problem’ of the mystery cults were to lie entirely in their relationship to Christianity as multiple expressions of ancient world religious thought and yearnings, it would be nothing more than an historical matter, though one fraught with difficulties of interpretation from an academic point of view. What exactly did the mysteries believe in? What did they and Christianity have in common? How did that commonality arise? What were their points of contrast and why? What insight do they provide into the ancient mindset or into the human instinct itself and how it interprets the world? Most important, what can a comparison of the Christian religion with the pagan cults tell us about Christianity itself, its origins, its initial state, its evolution…its claims to ‘truth’?

It is precisely the latter question which carries this field of study beyond the merely historical, because they add for the great majority of researchers a threatening dimension to the ‘problem’ of the mystery religions. This is not to say that modern scholarship on the cults, even though almost exclusively the province of biblical academics rather than secular historians (the latter, when they address the subject at all, as in the case of Michael Grant in his From Alexander to Cleopatra, p.224-231, do little more than follow the former’s lead), has not illumined and refined our understanding of the ancient mysteries from an historical point of view. Like all other fields of research, scholarship in this area ever advances; new knowledge is gleaned, new insights are achieved. This we certainly have need of, since intimate reliable knowledge on the mystery religions is elusive, and probably forever unattainable. We don’t have enough information, and what we do have is anything but clear. But there is also an evolution of interpretation of the knowledge and insight we do gain, and this is where subjectivity and special interests are continuing to play a role, and where progress toward uncovering an objective reality on the subject still moves along an erratic path. Just as New Testament scholarship has continually reworked its image of who and what the “historical Jesus” may have been, a picture that changes with distressing regularity from generation to generation with no consensus arrived at or permanence achieved, so too has the scholarship on the nature of the mystery cults and the ideas and impulses behind them proven changing and inconclusive. What may once have been a near consensus on what the savior gods of the mysteries represented and what they provided to their devotees has been called into question if not outright rejected by succeeding generations of scholarship. And, of course, the debate over their relationship to the doctrines and rituals of Christianity has changed along with it.

One of the accusations brought by the newer generation against the old has been that former study of the cults was guilty of bringing modern terminology and thought patterns to the study of the mysteries; this put such study already halfway to the goal of making close comparisons possible and inviting—even inevitable. The concept of “dying and rising,” for example, has been labeled a modern concept and a modern invention. While possessing a certain degree of legitimacy, this accusation is nevertheless an unrealistic exaggeration, and in the hands of many, an apologetic device. (In any case, if it’s true for the mysteries, it’s also true for ancient Christianity; no one has been more guilty of presenting Christian beginnings and its faith according to later concepts than modern scholars and theologians.) Deciding how we should interpret the ideas of the mysteries and early Christianity is complicated by the overriding concern of today’s scholarship to detach as much as possible the two thought-worlds of pagan cult and Christian faith. This apologetic agenda has skewed our understanding of both the mysteries and Christianity as a consequence.

One of the important insights into the ancient mysteries achieved in the last generation or two is that the mysteries cannot be regarded as monolithic, either in time or territory. While they may all have been of a single order they were not all of a single genus, and certainly not over the course of their history and their migration from one culture to another. They evolved. But again, what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. Modern scholarship has largely turned a blind eye on the corollary to that principle: the evolution of Christianity itself. If the mysteries cannot be treated as an unchanging block, neither can Christianity be seen as a static entity, brought into existence as a unique manifestation by the will of God. It, too, evolved over its first few centuries, and through many diverse threads. (The most important element of this picture, of course, one not admitted by most scholarship to date, is that those threads did not all proceed from a single historical point and figure of origin.) Overview

In the latter 19th century, the History of Religions school took shape, and being avant-garde and willing to examine Christianity in the light of its (i.e., Christianity’s) own time and the expressions of that time, quite legitimately began to perceive all sorts of parallels and common elements between the Christ faith and the Graeco-Roman mystery cults. In some circles, that perception grew into a mania. It also adopted as a methodological assumption the idea that commonality equalled deliberate borrowing, in one direction or another. As well, similarities became equivalences. And what moved one people or one cult to formulate rituals and doctrines of salvation must have been operable across the board.

There will be a number of areas I will address in this opening article. The first is almost incidental to my purpose, although it is one that has been attended by the most controversy and changing opinion: the genesis of the mysteries and what their myths represented. This is a huge field, of course, much mined by mythologists quite apart from any current religious interests, and I don’t expect to be able to bring much new, let alone definitive opinion to it. The classic interpretation of the mysteries, on which the History of Religions school was largely based well into the 20th century and epitomized by J. G Frazer in his The Golden Bough, is the so-called “vegetation theory.” Simply put, the cultic savior gods were based on the agricultural cycle, the death and rebirth of plants. They and the rituals associated with them represented the life-giving round of light and heat governing plant growth, determined by the seasonal movements of the sun. Thus the “dying and rising” characterization given to these deities. Modern scholarship claims that this scenario has been discredited and abandoned, and other principles on which the mystery cults could have arisen or been based have been put forward. I am hesitant about the vigor with which the agricultural roots of the mysteries have been tossed out, and the claimed ‘discreditation’ of writers like Frazer. But what the ultimate answer may be, while a matter of great historical interest, is not critical to answering the more immediate question of comparison and dependency between the cults and ancient Christianity.

One element of the supposedly discredited ‘dying and rising’ scenario that remains critical, however, is the question of the so-called resurrection of the god. The apologetic interest in modern scholarship has made this feature the centerpiece of its rebuttal. It has often been claimed by those depending on a popular understanding of the History of Religions school that all the pagan savior gods were regarded as ‘rising from death’—even said to be on the third day. The various myths and rituals (with the exception of Roman views of Mithras) invariably focused principally on the death of the god, but other, usually more subtle elements, were regarded as pointing to a resurrection. It eventually came to be realized, and rightly so, that the latter was not so straightforward, especially in the context of applying fully-evolved Christian conceptions to the cultic myths. Suddenly, scholars were pointing out the obvious: none of the myths or deduced features (from things like frescoes) of any of the savior gods spoke of or pointed to a return to earth and a former life. Instead, it might better be characterized as a ‘conquest of death,’ with the god taking up an abode in the other world, usually an underworld. He became the “god of the dead.” This was not quite as doleful as it sounds, or as scholars would like to make it. We shall have to see just what this meant to the pagan devotee and how he or she viewed it. It is also closer to initial Christian conceptions than one might think, for in the epistles there is no portrayal of Christ’s resurrection as one in flesh, a return to earth. It is rather an ascent to heaven, to take his place at God’s right hand. We shall be looking at this in more detail later.

Scholars have gone so far as to question whether the pagan mystery cults should be styled “salvation” religions, an even more drastic attempt at disassociation from Christianity. This, too, we shall look at, though a preliminary response to such a tactical move ought to be the question: if they did not cater to the Hellenistic preoccupation, a signal manifestation of the age, to realize personal salvation to a better life and more glorious existence after death, what could have been their appeal? What made them the premiere religious expression of the period? Why were they regarded with such fervor, such exaltation, by those who became initiates, introduced to such wonders and insights that they regarded their lives and hopes as transformed? (Sound familiar?) What led to the intense devotion of so many to a whole range of similar deities, to the investment of time, trust and worship in these cultic figures, if they were merely “gods of the dead” who bestowed no benefits after this narrow, desperate life on earth was over? If the cults, in the hearts and hopes of the average person, were the voice of the age—and that includes Christianity—the modern scholarly attempt to denude them of any salvation significance is not only unintelligible, it is unpardonable.

But the most important area to be examined centers on the question of the similarities vs. the differences between Christianity and the cults. While the keptical approach has traditionally been to accentuate (and exaggerate) the former as a means of discrediting the validity of Christianity’s claims for itself, more, paradoxically, is to be learned about the nature of the Jesus faith by considering the alleged differences which apologetically oriented scholarship has traditionally appealed to.

For all that scholarship has managed to say about the mysteries (much of it contradictory), we really know very little about them. It is impossible to describe the rites of a single one of the cults, let alone identify the interpretations the devotees put on whatever experiences they underwent. Speculation is certainly possible, and many reconstructions have been attempted based on hints and deliberately obscure representations. Part of it is based on what Christian apologists like Clement of Alexandria and the 4th century Firmicus Maternus have to say about them, which is precious little. The injunction to secrecy about the rites and their meaning was universal, and pretty well universally observed. This is one of the distinctions made by scholars, that Christianity had no such injunction, and the faith with its consequent salvation was proclaimed to all and open to all, at no cost but faith and repentance. This is true, but such a distinction is unimportant and has no effect on the doctrines and philosophical underpinnings of either religious system.

There is one comparison of sorts to be made (and often is) in light of Mark 4:10-12 and parallels in Matthew and Luke. There, the evangelists have Jesus say that he teaches in parables in order that those on the ‘outside’ will have only superficial understanding; the true secrets of the kingdom of God are explained only to an elect. Much effort has gone into understanding what the evangelists are getting at here, since no one provides any meaningful explanation beyond saying that it conforms to a passage in scripture. It may simply be a feeble attempt by Mark, subscribed to in turn by Matthew and Luke, to rationalize why the preaching message has not enjoyed a wider success. I can think of no parallel to this concern for secrecy anywhere outside this passage in the Synoptics. In any case, there are distinctions of greater import to be made between the mysteries and Christianity, and there is no end to the making of them among modern scholars. To set this table of the ancient salvation banquet with its various dishes and beverages, we need to lay out the guest list of those in attendance.

Two principles need to be reiterated at the outset. One is that, as stated earlier, they were not as a group monolithic. They underwent evolution, and there were significant differences between them. Within each cult, the myth told of the individual god could vary in detail from place to place, or between different periods of the cult’s history. Second, while most of them had roots in Oriental precedents, in Egypt, Persia and the Levant, they underwent significant recasting when adopted by Greek and Roman societies, adapting themselves to older Greek models. It thus becomes a tricky exercise to make detailed comparisons between Christianity and the mysteries as a whole. Tricky, but not entirely invalid. At the same time, we must also be conscious of that similar factor of diversity within early Christianity and its own evolution.

The word “mystery” (mystērion) referred to a secret rite attached to a given deity which placed those who underwent it in a relationship with that god. This relationship granted them a hidden insight and guaranteed certain benefits both in this world and the next. The word was generally used in the plural (mysteries, mystēria)—the mysteries of Dionysos, the mysteries of Isis—to refer collectively to the rites, conferred insight and accrued benefits of the god, as received by the devotees. One was “initiated into” the mysteries of such and such a deity. A “mystēs” was one so initiated. The rite itself, which varied from cult to cult, involved an experience, usually in a group and conducted by a priest or priests of the cult, in which “things (were) seen/shown” (deiknumena), “things (were) heard/said” (legomena), and “things (were) staged” (dromena). All of which provoked a feeling or insight on the part of the initiate, if not some form of ecstatic vision—a virtual epiphany. Preparation for the rite could involve fasting or meditation, even isolation. The total experience gave the initiate an understanding of reality in terms of mystical experiences of the god and the role the god played in the workings of the world, along with a conviction that his or her new relationship with the god would bring a better fate in this life and a happy afterlife.

As an example, we might make our first comparison with Christianity, and we’ll do it in reverse method to that which the comparative religionists are commonly accused of. We’ll apply mystery ideas and terminology to the Christian side and see where they coincide and where they differ. As a rite by which the initiate was brought into a relationship with the god, one could offer the example of Christian baptism, as laid out by Paul in Romans 6:1-11 and references elsewhere in the later corpus. Baptism could be administered individually or in a group, with input from a priest. The rite linked the initiate with Christ and his experiences (his death, burial and resurrection), though it also brought him/her into a relationship with God the Father as well, and the Holy Spirit. The reception of the latter, a stated feature of Pauline baptism, is in a general way equivalent to the pagan mystēs’ reception of insight and experience of the god, and both received guaranteed benefits: a transformed life in this world and ‘resurrection’ to a happy afterlife. The teaching which accompanied the baptismal rite laid out the god’s (Christ’s) role in the workings of the universe, his power over evil spirits for example, and outlined the mystical connection between the initiates (“the church”) and the god (as in Paul’s ‘Christ the head, believers the limbs’ in one ‘body’), and so on. It matters not that there are distinctions between the two expressions in the individual ideas, there is clearly a commonality of underlying basic concepts.

Modern scholarship focuses on playing up the differentiation in specifics. Nothing in Christianity was “secret” in the sense of being revealed only to initiates at the time of initiation itself, with a proscription against revealing the rites and their meaning to others. The early Christian writers use the same word “mystery,” but this refers to something that has been a secret, hitherto unknown to humanity or “hidden for long ages” by God, and only now revealed (as in Col. 2:2, “the mystery of God, namely Christ”) by apostles like Paul through revelation and a new reading of scripture. (No role for an historical Jesus there!) Apologists like to play up the ‘devil in the details,’ but this is a devil who is quite impotent, having little effect on the organism itself. Those common broad outlines, regardless of how different cultures applied them, places both in the same taxonomic order, if not the same genus; they are branches of the same tree growing from a common ancient-world soil of religious impulse and need. We will see more of these similarities, as well as distinctions, as we go along. In regard to other types of rites and ceremonies, such as a sacred meal, these are further commonalities, and with a bit of leeway in applying the concepts of “rites, insight and benefits” we would be quite justified in referring to “the mysteries of Christ” in the sense of rites and faith based on yet another savior god of the time.

Survey of the Major Cults


To return to our guest list at the table of salvation banquets, the oldest and classic “mystery” cult of the ancient Greek world was that of Eleusis, near Athens. Its roots are distant and obscure, but the rites at Eleusis go back at least to the 6th or 7th century BCE. With its myth of the grain goddess Demeter and her daughter Kore (Persephone), the latter kidnapped by the god of the Underworld and ultimately forced to spend part of the year with him beneath the earth and the other part on the surface, we have what is clearly a representation of an agricultural cycle. Initially a local cult, it was taken over by Athens and became a politically directed civic institution, with initiation open to ever wider circles until eventually anyone in the Roman empire could come to Eleusis and be initiated into its mysteries (though ‘fees’ were costly, another point of distinction with Christianity).

The staged drama within the initiation hall at the Eleusis site probably enacted some aspect of the Kore myth, while the “things shown” were sacred objects of unknown (to us) nature, displayed by the priest amidst the production of a sudden great light. Did Christianity have anything similar? Perhaps not as part of an initiation rite, but Paul does speak cryptically to the Galatians (3:1): “you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” Whether this referred to a speech, an effigy, a written proclamation, or even some sort of acted-out representation, is not known.

Despite its age, a paper delivered by Walter F. Otto at the 1939 Eranos (“shared feast”) meetings in Switzerland has some very interesting and insightful things to say about the Eleusinian mysteries [“The Meaning of the Eleusinian Mysteries” in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, vol.2: “The Mysteries,” p.14-31]. Otto refers to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which outlines the (non-secret) cult myth of the Eleusinian goddess. According to this hymn, those who took part in the mysteries “could look forward to a far better lot in the afterworld beyond the grave” [p.14], demonstrating quite clearly in a primary source that this was a “salvation” religion. Demeter was a goddess “whose unique favors included the promise of agricultural fertility, the ennoblement of human life, the cultural gifts which overcame the bestial in man.” The Athenian Isocrates in the 4th century BCE praised the Eleusinian goddess for the rites, “participation in which makes us look with joyful hope upon the end of life and upon existence as a whole.” Cicero, in an oration of 59 BCE, praised Athens (in its association with Eleusis) as “this city in which ‘humanity,’ religion and agriculture had originated, and from which these sublime gifts had been carried to all countries” [p.15]. In myth and the Homeric Hymn, Demeter and Eleusis gave agriculture to the world.

This we know to be a foreshortening of human and agricultural history, but it speaks to the esteem and sacred respect in which the mysteries were held, to the emotional investment placed in them by even the greatest sophisticates of the age. In the face of this, attempts by modern scholars to devalue them, to reduce them to little more than social guilds—which is more or less Walter Burkert’s evaluation in his Ancient Mystery Cults [1987]—is demeaning and reprehensible. Burkert calls it a “stereotype” that “the mystery religions are spiritual…indication of a basic change in religious attitude…the pagan in a search for higher spirituality.” For him this will not do, because “In this view, the mystery religions are considered religions of salvation, Erlösungsreligionen. This would make Christianity just another—indeed, the most successful—of the Oriental mystery religions” [p.3]. He laments the application of Christianity as a “reference system” to the mysteries, appealing in lockstep with many others to the “radical differences” between the two and the judgment that the mysteries were not even “religious” in the first place, when compared to the now-familiar Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Why not? Such “religions” as the three latter are concerned with exclusivity, each in demarcating itself against the others. The Graeco-Roman mystery cults “are never exclusive; they appear as varying forms, trends, or options within the one disparate yet continuous conglomeration of ancient religion” [p.4].

True enough, but does this distinction disqualify the pagan cults as “religions”? I won’t argue the ‘proper’ definition of the term here, but surely it is not so narrow as to exclude beliefs in different gods and processes of salvation which were accommodating to one another (what a concept!), much less a definition dependent on the dubious value judgment that rival, divisive—and in modern times threatening to world stability—faiths are of a superior nature. Besides, these days the term “religion” has become so diluted and encompassing that we can surely make room under its heading for manifestations followed by millions over centuries and covering half of the world known to the classical ancients.

To return to Walter Otto, he tells us that the display “of an ear of wheat plays a central role in the (Eleusinian) mysteries,” and in his day (prior to World War II) this agricultural basis was deemed by most to be sufficient explanation for the cultic myth and rite. Still, he has a bone to pick with this view. To regard the rape of Persephone as referring to the annual disappearance of vegetation doesn’t really fit the myth. In pre-Hellenic fertility god and goddess mythology, the earth loses that fertility when the deity descends to the underworld, as in the case of the Babylonian Ishtar. But in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, after the abduction of Kore by Pluto, nothing happens to vegetation until later, when Demeter, in her sorrow at losing her daughter, brings drought to the land and a failure of vegetation, seemingly as a blackmail device to get Zeus to have Kore returned to earth, at least part of the time. Moreover, the mythology says that it was only after Kore’s abduction and return that grain agriculture was established; thus the descent of Kore into the underworld would not represent the seasonal eclipse of “seed and harvest.” Otto suggests that the primeval myth contains elements more fittingly representing the earth mother who claims her own rights in competition with other gods, those of heaven such as Zeus, and those of the sea (Poseidon) and the underworld (Pluto). Even more important is the somewhat startling conclusion that, since grain and agriculture are dispensed to humanity by Kore only after she has been abducted to the underworld, where she becomes Queen of the Dead, returning to earth precisely to establish sowing and harvesting, it would seem that “Death is prerequisite to the growth of the grain.”

Otto sees in this a profound principle, an intuition innate to the ancient world but one “that seems extremely strange to modern thinking.” Among primitive peoples it still forms the basis of myth.

The substance of this intuition is that generation and fertility, and particularly the growth of grain, are indisolubly bound up with death. Without death, there would be no procreation. The inevitability of death is not a destiny decreed by some hostile power. In birth itself, in the very act of procreation death is at work. It is at the base of all new life. In the Bible, procreation, birth, and agriculture as well occur outside of paradise and appear only after death has been decreed for man. Certain primitive peoples of today still preserve a tradition—which is symbolically enacted at regular festivals—that a mythical woman had to die in order that the grain might spring from her dead limbs; and that only by initiation into her death can man become potent and life be renewed. This then is the core of the myth of Persephone, to which the Eleusinian Mysteries attach. Man receives the fertility which is indispensable to him from the hand of death. He must appeal to the Queen of the Dead. And this he can do; for here in Eleusis her divine mother mourned for her, here she returned to her mother, and here the goddesses created agriculture. But they did more. They provided also for the destiny of man himself: Demeter gave them a rite and a vision through which they might gain certainty that a happy lot awaited them after their death. [p.20-21]

I have gone into this in detail for a number of reasons. First, it is one illustration of the complexity and subtlety involved in modern study of the cults and the myths attached to them, and the uncertainty and debate which surrounds their interpretation. More importantly, it establishes the principle that in the ancient mind, death and life were two sides of the same coin, “indisolubly bound,” as Otto puts it. The cults always entail, as a first step, a “death,” usually of the god, although in Mithraism it is the death of the bull at the hand of Mithras. (That first step, of course, is also present in Christianity.) In the case of the most ancient myths, such as that of Demeter-Kore and the Phoenician and Babylonian myths, it is symbolically represented by a descent into the realm of death, the underworld. As well, the death of the god is very often paralleled by a symbolic ‘death’ undergone by the initiate as part of the rite, and a ritual emphasis is laid on mourning the god’s death, almost to the eclipse of any focus on a subsequent positive fate for the god. As we shall see, more recent Christian commentators have tried to turn that eclipse into outright denial, that no resurrection of any kind was envisioned for the god. This makes little sense, if only because it is an attempted denial of the second side of the coin, the other bound element. While many are the variants and much is the confusion raised by the diversity and evolution of the myths, most scholars are agreed that ultimately this type of mythology goes back to the principle of dying and rising in nature and agriculture, symbolized one way or another by the gods and their actions. If the genesis of it all lies in the double-sided feature of death and renewed life in nature, on the principle that death precedes renewed life, it is highly dubious that, in whatever later paths of thought which the cults and the ancients’ understanding of them may have followed, one half of that equation, the “renewed life” side, would have been abandoned or lost, that such gods would no longer be seen as rescued from death themselves and undergoing renewal or ‘resurrection’.

It also makes little sense that devotion to such gods would be possible, that initiation into the cults could have been so widely respected and valued, and have had such positive emotion invested in them, if they did not entail the element of guaranteed benefits, and especially of ‘resurrection’ from death to a happy afterlife. How could the death/life dichotomy not have been a part of the understanding, the perceived ‘system’ of the mystery religions? What else could have powered their appeal and longevity? And how could the initiates be convinced of a conquest of death for themselves if the same fate had not been enjoyed by the gods who were representative of the process? And yet that is precisely what today’s scholars have done their best to argue. Too much recent study of the mysteries seems to have lost the spirit of true inquiry and has instead settled into trying to discredit older theories, focusing above all on protecting Christian interests from contamination. Bruce Metzger, Gunther Wagner, Walter Burkert, Jonathan Z. Smith, are only some of the writers whose efforts seem bent in this direction.

In Otto’s proposal there is also a motif to be encountered in other mysteries, the idea that the savior deity becomes king or queen of the dead. Earlier, we considered the use of the phrase ‘god of the dead’ which tends to be served up by modern scholars with not always subtle derogatory overtones. We will find that this is in fact a central theme of the cultic myths, although it is not to be completely detached from the general concept of the dying and renewal of vegetation (as the mysteries of Demeter and Kore show); there is a subtlety here in the amalgamation of concepts and associations which the modern mind can too easily dismiss or fail to appreciate. I have remarked elsewhere on Otto’s concept that “without death there can be no life; without dying, no fertility.” In this age of secular preoccupation with finding ways to prolong individual life, we have little sympathy for the ancients’ (and primitive peoples’) ready acceptance of individual death as part of the great cycle of life. Survival could only be in terms of other worlds and other states, and they saw their savior gods as guaranteeing such things. The Christ myth is the surviving synthesis of that outlook.


The cult of Dionysos (later, the Roman Bacchus) was wholly indigenous to Greece. Originating in Thrace in the northern Aegean, it spread first across the Bosphorus strait into Phrygia (northeast Asia Minor) and later to the Greek islands and mainland, where it was firmly entrenched by the 7th century BCE. Unlike the Eleusis mysteries which were tied to one locale, Dionysiac rites could be celebrated anywhere. Throughout much of their early history, such rites were notorious. They were engaged in by women, outdoors in the forests and mountains, consisting of wild dancing and thrashings and frenzied shrieking. Flutes and cymbals often accompanied such ‘orgia’. And since Dionysos was the god of wine, intoxication was also a factor. The plays of the Greek dramatists and numerous representations on vases, cups and other artifacts depict the women who follow Dionysos, called “maenades” after the ‘madness’ that seemed to possess them. They were reputed to tear apart animals and eat their raw flesh. This wild element to the rites persisted in some circles for centuries, but as the cult spread to the cities and political circles of the Greek states, it was softened under the tutelage of various governmental bodies to make it acceptable to society as a whole. Men became involved in the rites, and processions and staged plays on Dionysian themes became common. When mystery rites were added to the old, now watered-down orgia in Hellenistic times, they were never conducted with the degree of secrecy characteristic of the other cults, and there are surviving frescoes depicting those ceremonies. When Dionysos became Orphic (see below), he also acquired ‘holy books.’

Dionysos was also the god of fertility, and his standard myth involves a descent to the underworld to bring back his human mother Semele. She had died while carrying Dionysos, fathered by Zeus, and Zeus himself had carried the unborn child to term in his thigh, making him immortal. These features, akin to elements of the Demeter-Kore myth, suggest not only some kind of nature renewal connection, but also a role for the god as a guarantor of immortality, of some form of ‘resurrection’ after death. Much of the rites associated with Dionysos seem to mark a celebration of life and fecundity, especially the sexual side of life; his symbol was the phallus, carried in processions in a basket (the “liknon”) rising out of a bed of fruit. In some contexts, it is Dionysos himself, the child, who is carried in the liknon.

In this regard, a resurrection motif can be found in Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris, where he is comparing Osiris with Dionysos and noting all sorts of common practices in the two gods’ rites. Martin Nilsson [The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistic and Roman Age, p.39-40] says: “Reading this passage as a whole [ch.35/364F] one certainly gets the impression that Plutarch has in mind not the awakening of a sleeping god but the raising of him from the dead. One is instantly reminded of the Orphic doctrine that the child Dionysos was dismembered by the Titans and reborn as the second Dionysos, and this myth is hinted at by the mention of the Titanika and their comparison with the dismemberments, returns to life, and rebirths of Osiris.” The key elements of the passage referred to in Plutarch are as follows:

They call him [Dionysos] out of the water by the sound of trumpets, at the same time casting into the depths a lamb as an offering to the Keeper of the Gate….Furthermore, the tales regarding the Titans and the rites celebrated by night agree with the accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis. Similar agreement is found too in the tales about their sepulchres. The Egyptians, as has already been stated, point out tombs of Osiris in many places, and the people of Delphi believe that the remains of Dionysus rest with them close beside the oracle; and the Holy Ones offer a secret sacrifice in the shrine of Apollo whenever the devotees of Dionysus wake the God of the Mystic Basket [liknon].

Thus Plutarch bears witness to resurrection motifs in the cults of both Dionysos and Osiris. Where Dionysos is concerned, scholars often style this as a ‘rebirth’ to a “second Dionysos.” But the Dionysos who has been rent and eaten by the Titans is not resurrected to the same state. Instead, in this Orphic myth his heart has been preserved, is eaten by Zeus, who then fathers a new Dionysos by Semele. These multiple myths and sources can be confusing to any study of the Dionysos cult, and were even confusing to some ancient commentators.

Dionysos and Orphism

At some point early in its career, the cult of Dionysos became associated with another set of myths and mysteries, those of Orpheus. Some scholars (see Walter Wili, “The Orphic Mysteries and the Greek Spirit” in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, vol.2: “The Mysteries,” p.64-92) regard Orphism as growing out of the Dionysian cult in the 6th century BCE, a kind of “reform” movement within it, to use Everett Ferguson’s phrase. It becomes difficult to separate out the Orphic elements from the Dionysian, since parts of the myths are intertwined and they share common organs. Similar myths are to be found in the catalogue of both Orpheus and Dionysos. Orpheus, who may be based on an historical figure of several centuries earlier, was a mythical singer whose music tamed wild animals; he was credited with introducing “culture” to the rough and barbaric world of pre-classical Greece. This was perhaps a representation of the evolution from the frenzied orgia of the original cult to more sedate observances and mysteries which eventually took their place.

But Orpheus also introduced other things which had far-reaching consequences for all of subsequent humanity. Orphism first gave Greek thought the idea that the soul was something separate from the body, having its own existence before and after its emplacement within the latter. The soul underwent a process of purification from the stain of the Orphic ‘original sin’, reflected in one of the Dionysian myths; this might entail the necessity for reincarnation (transmigration of souls). It also, earlier than any other culture including the Judaic, presented us with the principle of punishment and reward in the next world. It gave the Greeks a ‘sense of sin’. As Everett Ferguson puts it [Backgrounds of Early Christianity, p.124]:

There are two worlds—this world and the other world. One pays the penalty in one for sins in the other…[P]ersons could escape the cycle of rebirth by rituals of purification for self and for one’s dead relatives. An initiation could secure for one a happy afterlife. The sense of cyclical time remained nothing more than a theory, and the idea of transmigration never became axiomatic. The idea of rewards and punishments in another life and the conception of the soul as personality apart from the body very nearly did. A concern for another world entered Greek thought. Here for the first time in Greece the next life was geared in a significant way to each person’s action in this life.

From Orphism, this momentous duality of two worlds, rewards and punishments after death, an eternal soul and a temporary body—the latter being the prison of the former—passed to Plato (perhaps by way of the intervening Pythagoreans of the 6th-5th centuries BCE, who adopted Orphic doctrines) and from there to the mind of western man….to his infinite detriment.

The Orphic Original Sin involved one of the multiple myths and characterizations of Orpheus’ own god, Dionysos. The ritual act of the maenads in rending and eating the raw flesh of a wild animal was translated into the actions of the Titans in rending and devouring the child Dionysos. Zeus, angered at the Titans’ action, reduced them to ashes with his lightning bolts. From those ashes mankind arose, who thus inherited the Titans’ evil and sinful nature. However, at the same time, since the Titans had eaten Dionysos, humans took on a good, even divine element derived from Dionysos himself, and the tendencies toward good and evil lay side by side in humanity’s nature, warring with each other. It was the goal of humans to let their good nature triumph, to atone for past sins, to achieve the soul’s purity (aided through the transmigration between bodies) and reunite with the divine. One can recognize the roots of some of the fundamental ideas of Gnosticism in these myths, as well as key elements of Christianity. The religious philosophy of the ancient world was an evolving, interlocking organism, and to think of divorcing Christianity from these processes is the ultimate burial of one’s head in the sand.

That initiation into the Dionysiac mysteries guaranteed a happy afterlife is generally acknowledged. Walter Burkert (op cit, p.5) says: “The existence of mysteries proper, of personal and secret initiations with the promise of eternal bliss in the beyond, has recently been confirmed by the gold tablet of Hipponion, mentioning the mystai and bakchoi on their ‘sacred way’ in the netherworld.” And Nilsson calls attention (op cit, p.44) to the burial practices of Dionysian devotees, whose sarcophagi “show that the hope of a joyous afterlife was essential to them.”

The myths of Dionysos make him both a dying and a rising god, though this is never directly related to an agricultural cycle. Orpheus, too, in mirror image undergoes the same death as his god in the legend that he was torn to pieces by the Thracian maenads. Is this the first manifestation of that homologic parallel between a man and his god, the idea of both undergoing the same fate? Perhaps, although Orpheus’ killing is actually brought about at the instigation of Dionysos himself, perhaps representing a vengeful response to Orpheus’ softening of his original rites. Walter Wili [op cit, p.69] writes that this myth calls for an intrinsic interpretation that was seen even in antiquity (Proclus on Plato): the prophet suffers the same fate as his god….Thus the essential elements in the legend of Orpheus are sacred song, the other world, and the ennobling of man by song and transcendence, by the mysteries and the divine suffering of their founder. This legend was firmly established in the sixth century [BCE].”

And thus, six centuries before Christianity, we have the first grand coalescence of the principle that has been governing popular religious thinking for two and a half millennia and counting: that salvation lies in knowledge of and association with a god who is himself a participant in the principle of renewable life and survival of death. If this began in prehistoric roots of the renewable life of vegetation and the gods who supervised it, who embodied it, it mutated into more complex renderings of gods who controlled the processes of life and death in general, and who underwent them. By attaching oneself in parallel to the god and his experiences, in a way becoming part of him in those experiences, one took on those divine processes of renewable life and the survival of death. In direct line to this mystic thinking, Paul six centuries later could say: we have been baptized into Christ’s death, and we shall undergo a resurrection like his (though Gunter Wagner, among others, does his best to reinterpret Romans 6 away from any such mystical understanding: see Article 13C).

Of course, the Dionysian resurrection (god and initiate) is different from that reputed of Jesus in the Gospels. Ferguson makes the pointless comment that neither Dionysos nor the initiate into his mysteries was thought of as “rising from the dead.” Of course not, if this means returning to one’s life on earth in flesh. Rather, the focus was on an afterlife in another world. There is some question as to Dionysos’ status as “a god of the dead.” That seems not to have been his original role, though in some places he later became identified as such. But in his Orphic guise, he was involved in the cult’s concerns over rewards and punishments in the next world. In a letter to his wife following the death of their young child, Plutarch refers to “mystic symbols of the Dionysiac mysteries” (into which he himself had been initiated). He consoles her with the thought that these symbols mean that their daughter was too innocent to have acquired any stain and will enjoy a happy afterlife [Consol. ad uxorem, p.611D].

The Orphics not only focused on a moral life, they envisioned a judging of the dead which determined their fate in the next world. Considering that Hebrew thought contained very little, if anything, about a fate in an afterworld determined by one’s behavior in this one, even long after Orphism took shape, we can identify this element in Christianity’s moral outlook and next-world expectations as rooted in the Graeco-Roman tradition, rather than anything inherently Judaic. Even the Orphic concept of “hell” with its punishing demons preceded the Judaeo-Christian one. To accuse the ancient world of having virtually no ethical integrity before Christianity came along is the height of apologetic fatuousness, and is all too common among even mainstream biblical commentators. And that’s not even taking into account the sophisticated ethical concerns of groups like the Stoics and Cynics.

Isis and Osiris

Now we move to the three major mystery cults that have roots in “oriental” precedents, which when established in Graeco-Roman society adopted much of the Greek model. The most important of these was the cult of Isis and Osiris. Isis became the closest thing to a universal deity achieved by the ancient world, claiming that all gods and goddesses were really expressions of herself. She became the most widely popular divine figure of the first two centuries CE. Her roots in pre-Hellenistic Egypt are complex, and go back into prehistoric times. I’ll briefly quote Helmut Koester [Introduction to the New Testament, vol.1, p.184):

Isis was the goddess of the royal throne and thus the mother of Horus, the mythical representation of the living Pharaoh. Osiris, probably in his origin the god of the shepherds of the Nile’s eastern delta, became the mythical embodiment of its fertile lands, which flooded every year and were thus restored to new life. His enemy, therefore, was Seth, the god of the desert. At the same time, Osiris was the god of the dead, and in this function he was identified with the dead Pharaoh: he represents the life of the deceased king in the world of the dead….That Osiris was also connected with Isis is apparently the result of royal and throne mythology: because Isis was the mother of Horus, now the living king, Osiris, the dead king, became her husband and the father of Horus.

The myth of Isis and Osiris is well-known, though details vary, since multiple myths have been conjoined. Osiris is captured by his brother Seth, killed and dismembered, and his parts buried across Egypt. Isis searches for him, finds all the pieces except for the phallus, which she renders artificially and from this conceives and gives birth to Horus, who later takes his revenge on Seth for his father’s murder. The now-immortal Osiris (representing the dead pharaohs) became ruler over the dead in the underworld.

Whether Isis’ reassembly of Osiris can technically be called a “resurrection” to this world is an esoteric point, but he did at least have enough life in his reassembled body to father Horus. (Nothing is said about eating or appearing to followers.) But the significance of that act related to the furtherance of life in the succeeding pharaoh and the provision of a son who was himself something of a savior figure. In terms of benefits to the devotees of Osiris, it related to one’s fate in the next life where Osiris was established as king. Thus, the idea of a resurrection in flesh (other than to father Horus) would have been irrelevant to the myth. The rites of Osiris, before they were converted into a Hellenistic mystery, were not undergone by living initiates, but were performed on the dead (whoever could afford them, or who had access to such privileged-class amenities), to guarantee them a life with Osiris in the afterworld. In the Hellenistic cult, that guarantee was conferred on initiates during life, though still at some cost.

Osiris himself underwent a syncretistic evolution in post-Alexander Hellenistic Egypt by being morphed into an artificially created god known as Serapis. For political reasons, Ptolemy I had the priests combine Osiris with a cult of a local sacred bull, Apis, giving it Greek features and mysteries of a Greek nature. When Isis spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world, it was with this transformed Osiris. But Osiris/Serapis soon became eclipsed by Isis herself, who acquired rites of her own, temples and priests, as well as her own “I am…” aretalogies, declaring herself ruler of the universe, protectress of virtually everything, controller of fate, responsible even for the movement of the stars. This rivals the hymnic aretalogy of the Christ-Son given in Colossians 1:15-20, who contains within himself the complete being of God, pre-existent, sustainer of the universe, everything created by and for him. Both proceed from the same impulse: to create a god who controls life and destiny, but is at the same time accessible, concerned with the fate of humanity. The mark of theology has always been its freedom to fashion gods in the image of one’s needs and desires.

Isis became an expression of the prehistoric figure of the Earth Mother goddess, in line with the Greek Demeter and the Phrygian Cybele and many others around the world. One observation we might make in passing is that such female deities were usually in association with male deities or figures: Aphrodite with Adonis, Cybele with Attis, Ishtar with Tammuz, Isis with Osiris. And they end up mourning for him at his death. (The Eleusinian case is distinctive in one aspect: the mother mourns for her daughter.) This was apparently a compelling and necessary feature to give a dying god, and it was not lost on Christianity. The mater dolorosa became a motif associated with Jesus. Paul knows nothing of her, but the Gospel phase eventually introduced her when John placed Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross, mourning over her son’s demise.

Cybele and Attis

The Phrygian Cybele was the Great Mother goddess of the ancient world par excellence. Her worship came to Rome during the Hannibalic War, officially adopted by the state (204 BCE), and it immediately, it seemed, produced results favorable to the Roman struggle with Carthage. Like the cult of Dionysos, which influenced Phrygia from neighboring Thrace, the rites associated with Cybele were originally wild and ecstatic, leading to the self-castration of her priests, known as Galli, a practice which continued into the Common Era. This extreme measure of dedicating oneself to the goddess’ service probably gave rise to the myth of Cybele’s Attis and his self-castration. Originally a shepherd boy and lover of Cybele who betrayed her with a nymph or by marrying a king’s daughter (the myth varied), Attis underwent a long evolution, eventually reaching the status of a solar deity and savior god by the time of the 4th century CE. He became the subject of much philosophical speculation (as by Julian the Apostate) about the generation of life and the relationship between the upper and lower worlds of spirit and matter.

Commemorating the myth of his death and, apparently, a certain concept of ‘resurrection,’ the rites of Attis became embodied in a so-called ‘passion week’ celebration whose features are very similar to the Christian Holy Week observance and mythology. It even took place at the same time of year: March 15 to 27 on the Roman calendar. The festivities included a mourning for his death, with Attis attached to a tree (the one under which he died as a result of the castration); then both Attis and the tree were buried. Two days later came a day of rejoicing (the Hilaria), which by the 4th century represented a “saving” of the god which conferred a guarantee of similar salvation for the initiate into the Attis mysteries (as quoted by Firmicus Maternus in the mid 4th century, although some scholars identify his comments with the cult of Osiris). Exactly when this element, the Hilaria, was added to the festivities is a matter of debate. The festival was established officially in Rome under the emperor Claudius (mid 1st century CE), but its exact components at that time are uncertain. However, temple frescoes and artifacts from that period and from the previous century portray Attis in ways which suggest that he has attained immortality and can confer the same on devotees. Maarten Vermaseren regards this as an expression of “resurrection” for Attis—a term, however, which needs defining and is not to be equated with the portrayal of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels. (For a fuller discussion of these matters, along with a more detailed comparison with their Gospel and Pauline equivalent expressions, see my Response to John in Reader Feedback 27.)

The rites of Attis included a sacred meal and a form of baptism known as the “taurobolium.” In this rite the recipient descended into a pit over which a live bull on a grill was slaughtered, the animal’s blood pouring down over him. This blood baptism “accorded expiation for sin and granted rebirth to the initiate, normally for the period of twenty years (in one case it is said ‘in all eternity’)” [Koester, op cit, p.193].

In regard to the origins of the Attis cult, Maria Lancellotti [Attis: Between Myth and History, 2002] suggests an alternative to an agricultural basis, namely in a genesis somewhat akin to that of Osiris. The cults of both gods began essentially as cults of the dead, but attached to dead kings (Pharaohs in Egypt) who were regarded as continuing their existence in a “divine” dimension in the afterworld, to which the privileged in this world could follow and join them. (Though as we saw in regard to the Osiris myth and its connection with the annual flooding of the Nile, a nature cycle could possibly have been present in Attis’ prehistoric roots.) Lancellotti traces the Attis tradition, whose home lay in Phrygia/Lydia of western Asia Minor, to royal Hittite funerals (although the transition from the realm of royalty to shepherd herder attached to the Mother Goddess remains obscure):

These funerals mark the transition of the king (and queen) from the human to the “divine” dimension. Dead kings, in fact, were accorded a cult modelled on the cult of deities in the temples….Attis would appear to be, in fact, an ancient member of the royal clan for whom there was a cult similar to the cult reserved for dead monarchs in the Hittite period….The fall of the Phrygian monarchy led to a transformation of the political situation which the religious institutions also had to take into account….A new dynastic model founded a priestly theocracy, although it had strong continuity with the preceding funeral cult. [p.152-3]

With such beginnings in a funeral cult attached to a dead king, and the envisioning of that king as one who takes up an “effective permanence in the Netherworld (and) is to some extent active and functions positively on behalf of the living” [p.154], I might suggest that this theory gives us a clue (as does the similar tradition of Osiris) to the evolution of such figures into ‘saviors’. Members of the cult, which eventually involved initiation and the undergoing of certain rites, came to see themselves as enjoying guarantees from such divinized kings and joining them in the Netherworld after death. Thus we can see that any concept of ‘resurrection’ is to be interpreted as the survival of the ‘savior’ and his devotees in the afterlife, and not a rising/return to the material world. This would explain not only that favorite distinction with the (post-Gospels) resurrection of the Christian Christ, but why the discernable aspect of the pagan cults is so prominently the death and ritual mourning element. It is the death, like the death of Christ, which has ‘enabled’ salvation. Because the savior proceeds only to the Netherworld, there is less focus to be placed on the post-death ‘event’ in the observances of the cult; nor can that transition be reflected in the earth-based myth itself.

Scholars and apologists are thus misled into pointing to that apparent void in the cultic rites: the lack of celebration of the god’s ‘resurrection’ or return. There was no return; rather, it was a passing on to the next world. The god’s benefits to the believers flowed from there and would be realized there after death. This distinction cannot be emphasized enough. And ironically, there is a companion distinction that also cannot be emphasized enough and to which scholars are generally blind. In early Christianity, as reflected in the epistles of Paul and other writers, one finds a similar void in attention paid to the resurrection of their Christ Jesus as an ‘event’. Paul has much to say about “Christ crucified,” about his death as a saving act, atoning for sins. Paul suggests, in his letter to the Galatians [3:1], that some kind of scenario of the crucifixion of Christ (in the spiritual realm at the hands of “the rulers of this age” [1 Cor. 2:8]) was presented to his listeners, and perhaps this was a missionary practice in his circle. Other renditions of the crucifixion and its effects appear elsewhere, as in Colossians 2:15 (again in an apparent spiritual-realm setting). But where is the focus on the resurrection, on Easter Sunday, on the empty tomb and the appearances in flesh? No such thing exists in the epistles. There are a few references to God “raising Jesus from the dead,” and of the believer being “raised with him” to a new life, but there is no more sign of a focus on this as an ‘event’ or of it being reflected in ritual observance than there is in what we can see of the pagan cults. In fact, less, for in myth Osiris was at least brought back to function as the progenitor of Horus. (It goes without saying that in the entire non-Gospel record of earliest Christianity, there is no sign that anyone knew of the ‘location’ of the tomb from which Jesus rose or that it was a holy site that anyone ever visited. The same is true of Calvary.)

Lancellotti admits that evidence in Attis symbolism suggests the concept of “immortality”: such things as “images of the pine cone, the branch, the poppy or the pomegranate flower” [p.161]. Yet she suggests that these “could refer to the Netherworld that the dead person is entering rather than to immortality.” But where is that immortality to be enjoyed if not the Netherworld? Is not Christian immortality to be enjoyed in the Christian “netherworld,” namely Heaven? Scholars are scarcely to be forgiven for being stuck in such misleading and myopic Christian thought patterns, for it skews their interpretation of the mysteries and serves their apologetic agendas. Lancellotti reveals her own in her comments surrounding the terms used for Attis’ ‘revival’ by the 4th century Firmicus Maternus. For her, they make “particularly clear the distance separating (Attis’) ‘resurrection’ and Christ’s. The risks involved in possible similarities between the Attis story and Christ’s are thus overcome precisely by demonstrating that the apparent “similarities” conceal instead an unbridgeable chasm” [p.158]. This is a “chasm” of modern scholars’ own excavation, and the “risks” speak of a danger only to Christian faith and privilege, not to dispassionate scholarship.


Somewhat like Attis, Adonis was a lover and companion figure to a major goddess, in this case  Aphrodite/Astarte, but unlike Attis he remained in her shade. He was native to Syria (Phoenicia) but enjoyed a limited success in Greece, with his myth of being killed by a boar during a hunt. The fact of mystery rites attached to Adonis and whether he could be styled a ‘savior god’ is uncertain, but Ferguson notes that there are traditions about a “resurrection” for Adonis from the 2nd century and that these were probably under the influence of the cult of Osiris—which is an admission that something resembling resurrection was attached to Osiris. We will look more closely at Adonis later when considering Gunter Wagner’s book in Part Three.


Mithras, or Mitra/Mithra in his pre-Roman form, was an ancient god whose territory stretched from Asia Minor to Iran and northern India, going back at least into the 2nd millennium BCE. He was a god of oaths and treaties (his name means “covenant”), due to the fact that as a sun god, he “saw all.” Mithra never enjoyed much success in the Greek Hellenistic world, and was to come into his own as a mystery deity only in the heyday of the Roman empire, under the name Mithras. By then, Mithras had lost any working connection to his Persian roots. He was primarily a god for men (women could not be initiated), and popular among soldiers. The cult functioned in small groups of people, using sanctuaries (mithraea) that were small and often in caves or even underground (mirroring the cave in which Mithras slew the bull).

The myth of Mithras is more properly referred to as a “cult legend,” since this account is not rooted in literary sources or in an ancient piece of mythology, but was put together in Roman times; it has been interpreted by modern scholars from reliefs, sculptures and paintings on surviving monuments, mostly in the mithraea. Mithras was born on December 25 by emerging from a rock, a birth apparently attended by shepherds. As an adult, he hunts a sacred bull, captures and drags it into a cave where he slays it with a short sword. From the bull’s blood and semen arise grain and the general vitality of nature. As Ferguson puts it [op cit, p.233]: this was the principal event for the Mithraic interpretation of reality. The bull-slaying was a creative and beneficial act. Life and energy (symbolized by the bull) were captured and released for the benefit of nature and human beings by this act. An inscription in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum on the Aventine in Rome says, “You saved us by shedding the eternal blood.”

The Mithraic ‘sacred meal’ is also represented on these monuments. Mithras and the Sun god seal a covenant between them over the body of the bull, eating the animal’s flesh and drinking its blood. The Sun is usually represented as deferring to Mithras’ superiority.

Because there seems to be no direct evolution from the Persian Mitra to the Roman Mithras (no Iranian myth, for example, has Mitra killing a bull), scholars have long debated how the cultic myth arose in Roman times. Various astrological theories have been advanced in the past, but the work of David Ulansey has recently formulated such a genesis in a compelling fashion. He set out to fully explain the tauroctony (bull-slaying scene) and its various elements in terms of astronomy, arising in Tarsus at the hands of that city’s long tradition of astral theology and based on the discovery by the astronomer Hipparchus around 128 BCE of the precession of the equinoxes. This “new” religion arose out of an interpretation of the heavens and its movements, a focus on the astral realm as a reflection of the activities of divinities.

This is not the place to attempt a detailed description of those astronomical movements (see Ulansey’s The Origin of the Mithraic Mysteries). Suffice to say that the ancients’ view of the immovable centricity of the earth (a ‘fact’ also supported by the Bible) led to the concept of the outer fixed sphere of stars revolving around the earth once a day, as did the sun. But the sun also had an additional movement of its own around the earth once a year, at an angle (the zodiac plane) to the celestial equator of the stars’ movement. The intersection points of these two planes were at the equinoxes, and the constellations of stars that appeared at those two points, because of a slight wobble of the earth on its axis, were ever so slowly shifting backwards around the zodiac circle. As Ulansey puts it in an Internet summary article:

Hipparchus’s discovery of the precession made it clear that before the Greco-Roman period, in which the spring equinox was in the constellation of Aries the Ram, the spring equinox had last been in Taurus the Bull. Thus, an obvious symbol for the phenomenon of the precession would have been the death of a bull, symbolizing the end of the “Age of Taurus” brought about by the precession. And if the precession was believed to be caused by a new god, then that god would naturally become the agent of the death of the bull: hence, the “bull-slayer.”

We know next to nothing about the actual rites of the Mithras cult and how those ceremonies reflected such astral mythology, but it is clear that the power of Mithras gave him the stature of a ‘savior god’, not by dying for sin, but through holding the keys to the workings of the universe and enabling those ‘in the know’ who were linked to him to pass through the celestial spheres and reach the realm of the gods and a fortunate afterlife. Again, as Ulansey puts it,

Given the pervasive influence in the Greco-Roman period of astrology and “astral immortality,” a god possessing such a literally world-shaking power would clearly have been eminently worthy of worship: since he had control over the cosmos, he would automatically have power over the astrological forces determining life on earth, and would also possess the ability to guarantee the soul a safe journey through the celestial spheres after death.

Considering that in the circles represented by Christian thought the demon forces separated earth from heaven, and that Christ’s primary role (to judge by early writings, including Paul) was to destroy the hindering powers of those sundering forces which interfered with humanity’s fate and the attainment of heaven, we can place both thought patterns under the same taxonomic genus of salvation concerns. We will return to this comparison later.

To Part Two: On Comparing the Cults with Christianity – continued in Part 2


(covering Parts 1-4)

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Boman, Thorleif: Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. SCM Press, London, 1960

Brandon, S. G. F.: History, Time and Deity. Manchester University Press, 1965

Burkert, Walter: Ancient Mystery Cults. Harvard University Press, 1987

Campbell, Joseph: The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. Penguin, New York, 1964

Campbell, Joseph, ed. Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, v.2 “The Mysteries”, Pantheon, NY, 1955

Clauss, Manfred: The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries. ET: Routledge, NY, 2001

Cooper, D. Jason: Mithras. Samuel Weiser, Maine, 1996

Cumont, Franz: The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism. Open Court, Chicago, 1911

Eliade, Mircea: A History of Religious Ideas. 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, ET 1978

Eliade, Mircea: Myths, Rites and Symbols. 2 vols., Harper & Row, New York, 1975

Ferguson, Everett: Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1987

Frazer, J. G.: The Golden Bough. MacMillan, New York, 1951 (orig. 1922)

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