"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

Jesus Puzzle – Was There No Historical Jesus? Part Two

May 11, 2011

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

Earl Doherty

Part 2: On Comparing the Cults and Christianity

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 Wagner’s 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. 13B

The Mystery Cults and Christianity

Part Two:


With Part One’s survey of the major mystery cults of the ancient world in view, we can address the thorny question of their relationship to Christianity. Was the religion of Paul simply another branch of the multi-faceted tree by which men and women of the day sought relief from the pains and apprehensions of life and refuge from the fear of death? Was it part of a common quest for a belief in salvation beyond the grave? Or was Christianity so different and distinct that it could lay claim to originality and unique truth? We will look at a number of commentators’ views on the subject. The first is a representative example of the apologetic agenda, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (1987), a textbook for undergraduate classes in Christian universities by Everett Ferguson; here we will also take a few side glances at Walter Burkert’s 1987 Ancient Mystery Cults. The second is by a theologian of the mid 20th century, Fr. Hugo Rahner, who wrote a well-known paper for the Eranos meeting of 1944, “The Christian Mysteries and the Pagan Mysteries.” Finally, a respected scholar, Jonathan Z. Smith, has made two contributions to the question, an Encyclopedia article in 1977, and a more recent book which has become something of a classic in this field: Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (1991). In the succeeding article (13C), I will be taking a detailed look at perhaps the most influential book ever written on this subject, the 1963/1967 Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries, by Gunter Wagner.

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Backgrounds of Early Christianity: Everett Ferguson

Everett Ferguson is Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University (in Texas). The orientation of apologetic defense in his book, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, is quiescent much of the time, for he surveys a wide range of ancient politics and culture. But it emerges when he is addressing the mystery cults and certain philosophies which are perceived as comparable to Christianity. In his Introduction, he claims to occupy a neutral ground in his assessment of similarities and differences between Christianity and the cults, and yet he takes refuge in the stance that “Christian faith does not depend on uniqueness” and that “Questions of parallels are historical questions, not faith questions” [p.xiv]. He admits that he details differences more than similarities, and pointedly mentions that where major similarities are found, more often than not the prior attestation is in Christianity, without mentioning that there are qualifications to be imposed on an evaluation of the latter state of affairs.

In his summary section to the mystery cults, “Mystery Religions and Christianity” [p.237-240], the university copy I was using bore dramatic underlinings by some unknown borrower at all the passages where Ferguson offers observations of alleged ‘contrast’ that seem meant to reassure those with Christian interests and counter any disquiet produced by his prior discussion of the cultic rites and myths. These are fairly standard claims put forward by many apologists, in books and on websites. We will look at these points of contrast in detail and consider the question of how significant they are and what effect they have on the overall picture.

Ferguson echoes a common opinion of apologetic-oriented writers. It is essentially an accusation that those who have seen pervasive common elements between the mysteries and Christianity have done so “by (unconsciously) starting with Christian ideas, using them to interpret the data about the mysteries, and then finding the mysteries as the source of Christian ideas” [p.237-8]. But let’s observe here that this coin has an opposite side to it as well. Defenders of Christian distinctiveness—if not uniqueness—have often done their best to describe and define the elements of Christianity in ways which present the best face of differentness to that of the mysteries; then they appeal to such differences as ‘proving’ the distinctiveness if not uniqueness of Christianity.

On Resurrection

The first point to address is the all-important question of resurrection. Ferguson says [p.238-9]:

Parallels to the [Christian] 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.

I have made the point earlier that there are different forms of ‘resurrection’. All are variants on the basic idea of ‘conquest of death’ by the god, and all have the same result regardless of their differences, namely the guarantee of some form of positive afterlife for the initiate. Probably no pagan savior cult envisioned in its myth the resuscitation of the mourned-over corpse of the god to the status of a former living person, even temporarily. When the ‘dying and rising’ concept was initially attached directly to the agricultural cycle, the earliest myths, such as that of Eleusis or in the even earlier myths of Inanna or Tammuz, had to do with the descent of the deity to the underworld, not always presented as an actual death, and his or her reemergence to the surface. When such myths began to be applied to humans and their fate, they had to undergo a mystical deepening which embodied much more than the plant and food cycle; they had to encompass human death and what lay beyond—in a different world, since the dead, in universal experience, did not come back to this one. In very early societies, such as the Sumerian and Egyptian, the king/pharaoh was the representation or incarnation of the god who conquered death. While alive, such rulers celebrated the annual rebirth of the sun and plants as a type for the more important rebirth they would undergo from this world to the next, a privilege and fortunate fate which came to be appropriated by the nobility and then potentially by everyone. Thus the dying and rising gods of seasonal vegetation expanded their quality and import. As Mircea Eliade puts it [The History of Religious Ideas, vol.1, p.67], life and death constituted the two moments of a single process. This “mystery,” perceived after the discovery of agriculture, becomes the principle of a unified explanation of the world, of life, and of human existence; it transcends the vegetable drama, since it also governs the cosmic rhythms, human destiny, and relations with the gods. The myth relates the defeat of the goddess of love and fertility in her attempt to conquer the kingdom of Ereshkigal, that is, to abolish death. In consequence, men, as well as certain gods, have to accept the alternation life/death. Dumuzi-Tammuz disappears, to reappear six months later. This alternation—periodical presence and absence of the god—was able to institute “mysteries” concerning the salvation of men, their destiny after death.

This is why the acceptance of the inevitability of death is reflected so strongly in the various cultic myths, in the dying and mourning elements of the rites, such as in the ‘passion week’ of Attis. But as I have said before, no religion celebrates death per se, as a finality, with no associated reversal of the coin (despite what modern scholars seem to want to claim). The ‘rising’ may be evident and unmistakeable in nature, but for humans it has to be taken ‘on faith,’ which is why such a faith is always linked with and placed in something beyond the material, namely in a god and his experiences, in supernatural processes that become embodied in myth, or in the mystic deepening of old myths. Rites take on an ever more mystical sacramentalism (as in Pauline baptism). Because such things evolve into ever more sophisticated versions at the hands of ever more sophisticated minds does not mean that they are not all expressions of the same thing or do not share a common root and impulse.

It is simply incidental to claim, as Ferguson does, the distinction between the pagan gods’ fate after death with that of Jesus. Both are designed to confer the same effect on the believer, which is what matters. If Osiris “became ruler over the dead, not the living,” the same can be said for Jesus. The resurrected Christian who goes to heaven is part of “the dead” and not “the living,” in the sense of the departed from this world, the same as “the dead” pagan. And Christ in heaven is the same as Osiris in the underworld. Both are rulers over “the dead” in that same sense. The location of the happy afterlife is hardly significant. (A heaven in the sky simply sounds better to us than an eternity under the ground.) In essence, they are exactly the same, and Osiris gives such benefits to his devotees as much as Jesus to his. We as a culture, and Christianity in its writings, may have managed to paint a brighter, fuller picture of the Christian afterlife than did the mysteries, but this is in large part because we have the greater literary production of the two, and such things were not expressed openly in the cults.

Christians eventually came to focus on a rising in flesh for Jesus, partly under the influence of Jewish concepts of a kingdom of God to be set up on a transformed earth, something which would require a rising in some form of flesh. We have largely lost that ‘millenarian’ focus, so that modern Christianity seems to suffer from a schizophrenic attitude toward the afterlife. The soul will be saved, but so will the body, as resurrected at the end of the world—all of it in Heaven. The exact nature of one’s afterlife form and how it will function is, I think, a woolly matter in the minds of most Christians. At least the ancient Greek was more clear: the body is dumped onto the material refuse heap, and the soul containing the real essence of the individual is exalted to the true world of spirit.

To his comment on resurrection, Ferguson appends this remark:

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.

There are a few caveats here. Collectively, the pagan cults had a long and deep heritage of centuries behind them. The concept of a savior “Christ” was of new vintage, with no attendant mythological ‘stories’ such as the mysteries had had time to develop and evolve. And the nature of Christ’s resurrection looks very different in the early epistles from that presented in the Gospels. As I said in my response to John in Reader Feedback 27,

Not only do Paul and other epistle writers fail to tell us that Jesus rose from the dead in flesh, or returned to earth after his resurrection (the “seeings” of 1 Cor. 15:5-8 are better understood as visions, all of them like Paul’s own), the early Christian writings tell us explicitly where Jesus went immediately after his rising from death: to Heaven, to take his place at the right hand of God. 1 Peter 3:18-22, Ephesians 1:20, Hebrews 10:12, the hymns of Philippians 2 and 1 Timothy 3:16, exclude any period on earth. (Can we really believe that if there was such a thing, not a single epistle would make mention of it?) In other words, Jesus after his death (which to judge by the early writers is in myth, not history) is resurrected to the afterworld, there to receive his devotees. That is the resurrection which is the “firstfruits,” with the resurrection of believers to follow into the same place. This is all that Paul presents to us. Christ’s is a resurrection just like that of Osiris and Attis.

Now, this would be true even in the context of an historical Jesus. But Paul and the others are equally silent on any historical setting whatever for the death and resurrection of their Jesus, which is one of the factors which makes the mythicist scenario possible and compelling. If we were to judge by the earliest Christian writings (instead of reading the later Gospels into them), we would find no real distinction between the god’s resurrection in Christianity and in the cults. It is true that Christianity envisioned the death and resurrection of Jesus as a “one-time” event, but this concept was applied to the mythical setting, not to history. Consider Galatians 4:4. When was it that God “sent his son”? “In the fullness of time,” which has no temporal or historical significance, especially considering that the “sending” is stated as that of the “spirit” of the son into believers’ hearts (4:6) and that what has happened in the present to bring an end to the term of the Law is the arrival of “faith” (3:23, 25), not of Jesus. Even in Hebrews, which actually uses the term “once for all” (hapax), the word appears in the context of a sacrifice made in heaven, in the heavenly sanctuary, not of an appearance on earth. It is used to make a contrast with the repeated sacrifices of animals by the priests on earth, whereas Jesus had to make his sacrifice only once (in heaven). The key passage 9:24-26 employs the idea of “appearance” once for all in that heavenly context. It is a spiritual event, not an historical one. This may be a distinction from the view of certain Platonic philosophers (like the 4th century Sallustius, or Plutarch in Isis and Osiris) that the myths of the savior gods represented timeless truths, a spiritual process that “always is so,” as Sallustius styles it; but this can be put down to cultural differences and is hardly critical in view of the silence on any historical context for this ‘one-time’ quality to the Christ event. In any case, Ferguson exaggerates the contrast because, as he himself has recognized elsewhere, the “repeated” feature of the god’s dying and rising as founded in nature’s cycle has receded into the background in the cults, where the interpretation of the death and resurrection of the god takes on a quality no different from a ‘one-time’ event, being the guarantee of the initiate’s similar triumph over death.

On Baptism

Ferguson also points out [p.239] that

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 grace-gift of God given to faith in the recipient….All converts to Christianity received baptism, whereas initiation in the mysteries was for an inner circle of adherents.

Notice here that Ferguson avoids using the term “initiate” for the recipient of Christian baptism, but there is no question that the latter was a rite of initation into the sect. It was a rite of linking to the god and his experiences, as Paul makes clear in his description of the process in Romans 6:1-10. The fact that the mystery cults did not treat their water rite as an initiation is because they had separate ceremonies for that purpose, following the water rite. And if the latter was a “preliminary purification,” then it was, broadly speaking, part of the set of initiatory rites. Ferguson also doublespeaks in making an entirely artificial distinction between what happens to the initiate in either case as a result of undergoing the rites. If the initiation as a whole marks the pagan reception of the god and his benefits by the devotee, this is in the same taxonomic category as the Christian reception of grace in the Holy Spirit, which is both from God and is God. To say that all converts to Christianity received baptism while the mysteries’ initiation was restricted to an inner circle is really a disguised tautology. Just as all new Christians chose to be converted and thereby received baptism, so did all those who chose to be initiated receive the benefit of the mysteries. The only concrete difference lay in the relative affordability. This point, however, is hardly significant.

Ferguson has also brought up a favorite point of difference repeated by many scholars. From the above quote: “the benefit of the pagan ceremony was effective by the doing (ex opere operato), whereas the benefit of baptism was a grace-gift of God given to faith in the recipient.” This is a prime example of my point that Christian scholars will define Christian features in ways designed to create artificial, if not false, distinctions. Considering that both cases involve imagined supernatural workings which can hardly be scientifically studied let alone verified, it is fatuous in the extreme to label one’s opponents’ rites ‘magic’ and one’s own legitimate spirituality. The idea of “ex opere operato” is that the act itself, the performance of the rite, generates the effect on the initiate, like a direct current operating under magical principles. The god or the process had no choice in the matter. Like magic, if you knew the right words, the secret names, the proper actions to perform, the result was automatic. Christian baptism, on the other hand, is being presented not as a rite that would automatically force God to confer some benefit on the participant, but as an act of faith from which God would bestow a gift. Such a distinction is little more than sleight of hand. The rite honestly undertaken in either case would bring the benefit; no pagan initiate would think he could fail to have the proper attitude and still put one over on the god. The Christian baptismal rite also appealed to the deity’s names, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And whatever force is imagined to be working between the performance of the rite and the response of the divinity it was directed at, it is ludicrous to think of scoffing at one while bowing down to the other. Paul’s concept of ‘dying with Christ’ in the baptism ritual is virtually indistinguishable on any rational plane from what the pagan initiate imagined was happening to him when he went through the rites in the mysteries of his own god.

Walter Burkert [Ancient Mystery Cults, p.101f] also weighs in on the question of baptism. For him, “baptism proper” is “immersion into a river or basin as a symbol of starting a new life,” another example of defining Christian elements so that their equivalents in the mysteries will not fit the profile. However, this is followed by an admission that there are some features in early Christian baptism that irresistibly remind one of pagan mystery initiations: the individual ritual upon application, often thwarted by oknos; the preparation and instruction; the nocturnal celebration, preferably on the eve of the great common festival, which is Easter; the use of milk and honey; and the curious detail of “stamping on goatskins” (the Eleusinian mystes is shown sitting on a ram’s fleece).

Burkert acknowledges that these are probably “some direct borrowings that took place.” Then he goes on with monumental naivete to say, “they are clearly additions to what John the Baptist did at the Jordan.” Not only does this accept the Gospel account as gospel, as though Christian baptism was initially modeled on some ‘pure’ historical precedent at the Jordan river, it ignores the obvious discrepancy between what is supposed to have been the “baptism of John” (in token of repentance, as in Acts 19:4 and supported by Josephus) and the Pauline version, regarded as involving reception of the Holy Spirit, something said (in Acts) to be unknown to John. It also ignores the fact that Paul, in all his reference to baptism, never once mentions Jesus’ own baptism by John at the Jordan. He never relates the significance of baptism as he interprets it to any of the features of that Gospel account, which might be presumed to be circulating in Christian tradition even before the Gospels were written. This would include the purported descent of the Holy Spirit into Jesus, which would have been an irresistibly useful parallel for Paul in his claim that at baptism the Holy Spirit entered into the initiate. Paul, moreover, is completely silent on the figure of John the Baptist in any connection.

Burkert concludes by noting that “Another ritual firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition, anointing, is likewise scarcely seen in mysteries.” This may well be true, but it simply highlights the fact that Christian rites and traditions are a mix, a syncretism, of the Jewish and the non-Jewish. The presence of the former does not, as too many scholars seem to try to intimate, rule out the presence of the latter, or absolves us from weighing the balance between the two influences and determining how much debt is owed to Greek thought and the mysteries themselves, especially in regard to significant aspects of the Christian salvation system.

On Rebirth

On the subject of rebirth, Ferguson says [p.239]:

Initiation into the mysteries has been presented as a “pagan regeneration” 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 latter may be largely true, in that the initiate did not primarily see himself as reborn shed of previous sins, although Ferguson himself has admitted that moral demands could accompany initiation (p.236, in connection with Mithras). This is something on which Paul lays emphasis. And yet, Paul also laid his supreme emphasis on faith, and rejected moral works as the basis for salvation. In fact, it would seem that his primary focus in regard to ethics was that the initiate was now free of the cumbersome Jewish Law, which could be seen at base as the proclamation of the abandonment of an ethical system, one he himself had no use for. (One wonders why.) Once again, it goes against common sense to maintain that a religious impulse tied to promises of regeneration and of salvation after death would not entail the concept of ‘rebirth’, regardless of whether we fail to find abundant language of that sort in a record so sparse. Ferguson himself [p.229] has admitted, echoing Burkert as noted above, that “a few inscriptions speak of the person [undergoing the taurobolium in the rites of Attis] as ‘reborn’, although one speaks of the person as ‘reborn for eternity’.” In a meagre record, the presence of “a few inscriptions” completely removes any legitimacy for suggesting that given ideas did not exist or were “rare.”

One of those inscriptions is Mithraic. Manfred Clauss [The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.104] recounts:

It is therefore intelligible that initiation was understood as a kind of rebirth. An unknown person scratched a graffito into the side-wall of the cult-niche of the mithraeum beneath S. Prisca in Rome: ‘Born at first light when the Emperors (Septimius) Severus and Antonius (Caracalla) were consuls, on the 12 day before the first of December, the day of Saturn, the 18 of the Moon’. That was 20 November AD 202. By analogy with the Sun’s birth at sunrise, the initiand is also ‘born’ through initiation into the mysteries.

Still, it would admittedly be good to find more references to the concept of rebirth. Burkert is kind enough to detail some of the suggestions we do have, notably in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, in which “the day following the night of initiation is reckoned as a new birthday; Isis has the power to change fate and to grant a new life” [p.99]. As well, Mithraic inscriptions (as noted above) and some taurobolium inscriptions “indicate that the day of the initiation ritual was a new birthday; the mystēs was natus et renatus” [p.100]. The situation is probably best summed up as Burkert says, “The taurobolium could also suggest an act of birth, when the initiate emerges from a cave in a garment dripping with blood; but there is no explicit confirmation.” The latter could apply to almost everything where the mystery cults are concerned. However, this does not justify declaring judgments which are always slanted in the same direction and clearly agenda driven.

That an agenda and a bias lie in the background is evident in this summary paragraph in Burkert [p.101]:

To sum up, there is a dynamic paradox of death and life in all the mysteries associated with the opposites of night and day, darkness and light, below and above, but there is nothing as explicit and resounding as the passages in the New Testament, especially in Saint Paul and in the Gospel of John, concerning dying with Christ and spiritual rebirth. There is as yet no philosophical-historical proof that such passages are directly derived from pagan mysteries; nor should they be used as the exclusive key to the procedures and ideology of the mysteries.

First of all, it is unrealistic if not ludicrous to complain of, or use as evidence, the fact that we have in the record of the mysteries nothing as “explicit and resounding” as all those themes and passages in the New Testament when the relative size of the literary record is so disparate, when secrecy was the hallmark of only one half of the equation, and when Christianity destroyed so much when it emerged triumphant. It is also ironic that scholars will have no hesitation in accusing the mysteries of borrowing from Christianity in the 4th century in the face of the latter’s growing influence and power, and yet have no sympathy for the idea that early Christianity may have done exactly the same thing in its early days, when it was trying to carve out its share of the market and could well have borrowed ideas from longstanding and popular rivals. It can be no coincidence that in 1 Corinthians 10-11, when trying to persuade the Corinthians to behave themselves better at the communal table and condemning any participation in similar pagan sacred meals (10:20-21), Paul would come up with (claiming revelation “from the Lord himself”) a sacramental understanding to be applied to the Christians’ own meal (11:23-26) which clearly suggests the influence of parallels in the mysteries. Of course, no Christian scholar would ever admit as much.

On Sacred Meals

We are not reliant on Paul for knowledge that the mysteries had sacred meals, although he does witness to their pre-Christian existence. In fact, as Ferguson says [p.239]:

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.

The latter is a debatable point. And one will note that Ferguson makes no mention of the idea that the early Christians thought of themselves as actually consuming Jesus’ own body as present in the bread. One presumes this is because such a doctrine became a Roman Catholic notion which later ‘reformists’ rejected, and Ferguson is not part of the Catholic outlook. If one wants to take Paul and some of the evangelists literally, Jesus identified the bread at the Lord’s/Last Supper as “my body.” Without this element, Ferguson is reduced to making distinctions only in regard to the frequency of observance, and in claiming that no thanksgiving or consecration aspect was involved. The latter would be a very difficult point to prove, since we know so little about the intricacies of the pagan rites. Helmut Koester (op cit, p.194-5) speaks of the cultic meals in the worship of Sabazius. This was a minor mystery-type deity who, in some circles of Asia Minor, was apparently syncretized with the Jewish Yahweh by Hellenized Jews, showing that the mystery cult phenomenon could even cross the Greek-Jew boundary. One wonders whether some of the condemnation of “judaizing” features in several epistles could be referring to groups like these. In regard to the cult of Sabazius, Koester notes:

There apparently were common cultic meals which—judging from the painting on the Vincentius tomb in Rome—seemed to symbolize one’s acquittal before the judge of the dead and reception into the everlasting meal of the blessed.

Could there have been a ‘thanksgiving’ element to such meals? One can hardly rule it out.

In regard to the cult of Dionysos, while noting that the rites and religious concepts of the mysteries of this god are not fully known, Koester does say that “the celebrations certainly included a common meal and the drinking of wine—Dionysus was, after all, the god of the vine.” In fact, it is with the cult of Dionysos that commentators make the observation that here we have the closest parallel to the presumed early Christian motif of “eating the god.” Such a cultic practice was rooted in the Dionysian myth of the devouring of the child Dionysos by the Titans, supposedly reflected in the indulgence of the early women celebrants in eating the raw flesh and blood of wild animals. Ferguson himself notes that “Since Dionysos was believed to appear in animal form and to be present in the wine, eating the flesh from a living animal and drinking wine could be understood as incorporating the god and his power within” [p.205]. Such an idea is certainly different from the Christian concept of the Last Supper, with the body and blood of Christ representing a “new covenant” with God, but this is simply a reflection of the different applications made of a common practice by different cultural groups. The covenant idea is specifically Jewish, and has been incorporated into the concept of Jesus as atonement sacrifice.

Martin Nilsson [The Dionysiac Mysteries, p.135-6] has made the interesting observation that an inscription found in Smyrna (Asia Minor) from the 2nd century CE seems to indicate that the sacred meal being observed by the mystae of Bacchus (the Roman Dionysos) was in danger of “desacralization,” that it was being turned into a mere indulgent dinner, and the inscription’s writer seems to be aiming to restore the sacred character of the meal against these misuses. This is a scenario virtually identical to what we find in 1 Corinthians 11. One of the writer’s noted prescriptions for the meal is that it should not involve cooking and eating of the “heart,” which suggests that meat was a chief element of what was consumed. Nilsson links this to the myth that the Titans did not eat the heart of Dionysos, which was rescued by Athena and brought to Zeus.

Perhaps the most secure interpretation of a sacred meal in the mysteries comes from Mithraism. Several Mithraic reliefs depict the sacred meal, a ritual reenactment of the second most important theme represented on Mithraic monuments: the meal shared by Mithras and the Sun god Helios following Mithras’ slaying of the bull. This mythical meal is celebrated on the carcass of the slain animal. Often the figure of the Sun god is presented showing deference to Mithras; Ulansey suggests quite compellingly that this represents the superior power of Mithras over Helios, since he is the god responsible for controlling the macro-movements of the heavens in the precession of the equinoxes, something Helios cannot equal. Such scenes also support the primary scene of the bull-slaying, which depicts grapes emerging from the death-wound in the bull’s neck and ears of wheat growing out of its tail: bread and wine, the two staples of the ancient world diet. The meal of the two gods, involving bread and wine, represents that bounty, a bounty proceeding from the sacrifice of the bull. This type of mythology is more common to the mystery cults, and yet the “bread of life” is also a motif in Christianity. By the actions of a god or gods, the earth and humans are provided with sustenance; nature’s operation has been personified in grand myths of divine activities. While there are certainly ground-level distinctions of a significant character, still, the death or underground descent of deities, the sacrifice of a bull, the crucifixion of Christ, all such things are the mythical constructs of the human mind, designed to explain the benefits seen as bestowed on humanity from the realm of divinity, both in this world and the next.

Justin Martyr, in the middle of the 2nd century, witnesses very clearly to the existence of a sacred meal among Mithraists which seems to him so close to the Christian Eucharist, both in regard to the bread and cup as well as the mystical incantations over them, that he must declare the similarity to be the work of the devil [Apology 61]. Such a pagan rite would hardly have arisen only in his own day, so there can be no question of borrowing from the Christian Eucharist. In fact, we must assume by Justin’s prior remarks in Apology 54 that such rites arose prior to the Christian ones, for he argues that the demons were able to counterfeit the latter because they could read what was being forecast about Christ in the Hebrew prophets!

Manfred Clauss in The Roman Cult of Mithras, has this to say about the Mithraic sacred meal [p.109]:

The Mithraists evidently believed that they were reborn through the consumption of bread and wine. The food was of course not simply actual or literal food, but also food in the metaphorical sense which nourished souls after death: the meal was the guarantee of their ascension into the undying light. In the case of these analogies, there can be no question of imitation in either direction. The offering of bread and wine is known in virtually all ancient cultures, and the meal as a means of binding the faithful together and uniting them to the deity was a feature common to many religions. It represented one of the oldest means of manifesting unification with the spiritual, and the appropriation of spiritual qualities.

Thus, to claim any degree of originality or uniqueness for the tradition known in the Gospels as the Last Supper, or for the Lord’s Supper as presented by Paul, who may well have invented it whole cloth based on the mystery practice, is nothing more than special pleading. Even Ferguson’s claim that prayers of consecration over the bread are distinctive to Christianity is compromised by one of the representations of the Mithraic meal in which Clauss points out that the right hands of the two presiding priests “are raised in a gesture of blessing. They are apparently speaking sacred formulae over the offerings on the small circular table in front of them.” Naturally, any words spoken would not be the same as those spoken by Jesus in the Gospels, or as presented by Paul. But the spirit would be the same. The bread and wine were representative of the bull, whose sacrifice gave life to the world; at the Last Supper, the bread and wine were representative of Jesus, whose sacrifice gave eternal life to the world.

On Redemption from Sin

The salvation the mysteries brought was a deliverance from fate and the terrors of the afterlife, not a redemption from sin. [p.239]

In light of all we have said—and even what Ferguson himself has said—the first part of this statement can hardly stand. What hairs are being split by saying the pagans had a terror of the afterlife? Orpheus was no more hell-oriented than Christians were, and most Graeco-Roman outlook was much less. The prevailing attitude toward one’s fate with the “shades” in Hades was that it was an empty, dismal existence; naturally, a happy afterlife was to be preferred, no less so than among the Christians. This is no distinction at all, except in regard to Ferguson’s second thought. But even here, he is guilty of an exaggerated spin. It is true that the pagan savior gods did not “redeem” in this sense, though even this needs modification in Orphic contexts. This is another apologetic whipping post, that the mysteries—and the Graeco-Roman mentality in general—were less morally oriented and ethically commendable than the Judaeo-Christian one. No society can exist or function without ethics, and despite the primitive and ‘immoral’ behavior (by our standards) of certain elements of Graeco-Roman society, high ethical standards could be found in many circles. Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus were writers and advocates of some of the greatest moral thought of the time, unsurpassed by anything in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. (Douglas Sharp, in his 1914 book Epictetus and the New Testament, was so struck by how close in their ethical views were Jesus and Epictetus that he naively wondered if Epictetus could have been a secret Christian!) Stoicism was all about ethics and proper social responsibility. Other philosophies also upheld pragmatic and responsible conduct as beneficial to personal fulfillment and society’s well-being, the latter being a focus which Jewish and Christian morality never achieved. One’s contribution to the state and social cohesiveness was a principle almost unique to Graeco-Roman culture; in the Judaeo-Christian the obsession was with one’s relationship to God. Others were judged in accordance with their adherence to religious truths, which in the Christian case were exclusive to themselves, an attitude far more divisive and destructive to happiness and social well-being than Graeco-Roman attitudes. Pagan religion had an open door policy: all gods, all faiths welcome, for many were the avenues to truth and salvation. Not a single religious war marred the landscape of Graeco-Roman history (the wars against the Jews were not on account of their beliefs but their rebellion against Rome), and there were no inquisitions against heretics. The persecution of Christians by the empire proceeded from the Christian refusal to take part in the state’s religious observances and acknowledge its gods, ceremonies that were more an expression of civic responsibility and cooperation for the sake of social and political cohesion than of conforming to a set of required faiths.

Ferguson’s “redemption for sins” is an apologetic catchphrase. The characteristic Christian sense of sin is a continuation from the traditional Jewish obsession with transgression against an obsessively strict God (something fed by an almost continuous history of subjugation by foreign powers, a situation which had to be explained in the context of Yahweh being the only true god). This neurotic fixation with “sin,” endemic in early Christian centuries (and which has largely continued to this day in Christian circles, to the great detriment of mental health and human self-image), led naturally to an interpretation of their own savior as one who redeemed from the effects of sin. It became the centerpiece of Christian soteriology, though it is curiously missing from the very earliest Christian expression: those ‘pre-Pauline’ hymns found in various epistles of the Pauline corpus. This focus on personal sin led to the Christian attitude that all things pagan were irredeemably rotten and immoral—which didn’t help Christians’ relations with their fellow citizens. That pagan society was a moral cesspool from top to bottom before Christianity came along is a sanctimonious fantasy, despite certain lamentable elements (Howard Fast’s trio of “slavery, crucifixion, the arena”). The Christians generally regarded almost all sexual activity as sinful, so pagan libertinism would certainly have suffered by comparison. On the other hand, atrocities committed in the name of the true religion, even between disputing sects and theological positions, were exempt from any negative judgment, and when the Christians acquired power in the 4th century they showed no morality or charity in their ruthless extermination of the mystery cults and the murder of many of their devotees.

It is true that the concept of Jesus’ vicarious atonement for sins is unparalleled in the mysteries. That seems to be an idea which has specifically Jewish roots, though not in a universalist sense. The Jews never believed they were suffering for humanity as a whole, despite the twist Christians put on the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53. The Maccabean martyrs suffered for Jewry, the Jewish state of the righteous they wanted God to liberate and exalt over other nations. The pagan cults never had politically aggrandizing ambitions, and one initiate was as worthy as another, in ignorance of state and cultural lines. If apologists want to claim a certain uniqueness in regard to Jesus’ death as redemption for sin, they are welcome to it. This does not mean, however, that an ethical dimension was not part of any of the cults. Helmut Koester speaks of “the moral demands” of the Cybele cult which were “severe and rigorous” (op cit, p.194) and even Ferguson speaks of such moral demands imposed in Mithraism. Nor does it mean that the Greek cults did not have a sense of sin, as we have seen in regard to Orphism, or that one of the aspects of salvation was a putting aside of the consequences of evil and attaining a moral life. Koester also speaks of the “consciousness of sin and guilt” which “played a significant role.” The Orphic soul could not enter its eternal heaven until it had been purified, though this was not accomplished simply by the death of Dionysos. But the path to this purification, to this redemption, was through the rites and tenets of the cult. So again, in the end the similarities are just as significant as the differences, and inhabit the same conceptual universe.

More of the same sanctimonious attitude is evidenced in Ferguson’s comment in his discussion of Stoicism. While admitting “similarities in Christian and Stoic ethical thought,” he maintains that “these instructions are placed in such a fundamentally different world view as to give them a different significance” [p.293]. Why? Because “Stoicism did not have a personal God; it knew only an imminent God,” and the Bible God is not equated with the world. Here, I must quote the passage in its entirety as an example indeed of different world views and the misplaced self-righteousness that is inherent in the apologetic one.

Stoicism’s consciousness of sin did not reach the depths of Jewish and Christian thought. Conscience has little significance unless there is a Person to whom it must answer. Stoicism shared the limitations of all philosophies in comparison to religion: A knowledge of universal ethical precepts, as such, is seldom sufficient to call out and organize a corresponding conduct. This only follows when a special religious motive or ground of obligation is united with the knowledge of the universal principle. Thus Stoicism, although denying the reality of the world’s distinctions, remained a philosophy for the few, because the basis of its ethics was intellectual. Not all persons can live on a high plane because the divine spark flickers but feebly in most. Christianity, on the other hand, appealed to the masses. It did so by relating all classes of people to a personal Savior with moral power.

Stoicism had no personal immortality. When one died, his divine part went back into the Whole. Stoicism was a creed of despair and acquiescence; it looked down on the Christian virtues that depend upon the affirmation “God is love.” Stoicism’s apathy basically denied the emotional side of human experience. Christianity by contrast brought joy and hope into the world.

Again, even where the teaching on social ethics was similar, the motivation was fundamentally different. Christians, ideally, act benevolently not merely in fulfillment of the obligation of a common kinship in the universe or even in God, but because they have learned self-sacrifice and active love from God in Christ. Self-respect, not love, was Stoicism’s driving force. For Stoicism, as for all Greek philosophy before Neoplatonism, the goal of humanity is self-liberation, and this goal is attainable. It did not know the redemptive love of a merciful God.

For all their air of superiority, Ferguson’s comments point up the dubious wisdom of ranking the Judaeo-Christian self-image over that of Greek philosophy in perhaps its most commendable reflection, Stoicism. We can start right at the core idea: Ferguson’s declaration that “the basis of its ethics was intellectual.” This is really a code word for anything produced by the human mind itself rather than received through divine revelation, with a concomittant obligation to the dictates of that supernatural entity, the “Person to whom it must answer.” Christianity appealed to the masses because one could simply receive instructions on what one must do; no “intellectual” judgment was needed. One was absolved of all responsibility except to acknowledge one’s “personal Savior.” Ferguson is applying his own (religious) standards in calling “a creed of despair” anything which does not involve the concept of an afterlife, in classifying as “apathy” any philosophical movement not based on such grandiose and woolly aphorisms as “God is Love,” as though humans are only capable of love in the context of faith in the divine and that this is the full tally of human emotionalism. To add the condescending presumption that only with Christianity was joy and hope brought to the world places Ferguson squarely in the too numerous ranks of self-righteous scholars who deserve little respect and less trust for their conclusions within New Testament study and ancient history in general.

This is the most blatantly prejudiced passage in the book. But worse follows. Ferguson sinks into typically Christian self-congratulation. As for “love” being the driving force of Christianity, there are too many throughout history, from Jews to heretics, to women to witches, to modern atheists and many ordinary folk in between who have been on the receiving end of Christian “love,” who have experienced, both inside and outside Christian ranks, the intolerance and rigidity that characterizes most religion, to make this statement anything but risible, a prime example of the gulf between theory and practice. Social responsibility and self-respect are essential ingredients to any true and fruitful expression of love within human society, and to intimate that Stoics and other non-Christians of the ancient world were capable only of some inferior brand of humanity is the height of narcissistic arrogance, and unfortunately, all too typical.

Perhaps we might sum up what may be the greatest difference between paganism, as reflected in its salvation religions and its philosophies, and that of Christianity by noting Ferguson’s final comparison here. While Stoicism had no connection to any mystery cult and believed officially in no afterlife, its goal was indeed to achieve a self-liberation from the fears and failings of life—a goal Ferguson sneers at. In its stead he places “the redemptive love of a merciful God.” He considers it superior not only to place one’s fate and happiness entirely in the hands of an otherworldly being and abandon any attempt to achieve liberation through one’s own devices and humanity’s potential, he subscribes to the very un-Greek and non-Stoic evaluation that humans are so inherently evil and laden down with sin that we require a god’s redemption. Considering that Christianity has done its best to convince its adherents of this proposition, it is no wonder that Ferguson is forced to style his god as “merciful.” But even in this comparison, he is magnifying the differences. It is true that “The mysteries did not offer a god who came to earth to save humans. Their gods did not die voluntary to save mankind” [p.240]. The pagan savior was not a vehicle of atonement for some higher deity who required such a sacrifice to confer forgiveness on humanity. But if the cultic gods represented forces inherent in nature, if their representative actions produced salvation, then love and mercy toward humans had to be involved. Moreover, it could be looked upon as a love and mercy inherent in the workings of the world itself, rather than something external to it and dependent on the caprice of an unpredictable overseer who could be as adept at fashioning merciless punishment as merciful salvation. If there were no such things as love and mercy imputed to the cultic gods by their devotees, they would hardly have enjoyed the worship and devotion they clearly did for centuries. If Isis was the universal protectress of so many in so many walks of life, how could she not be envisioned as “merciful” or “loving”? Ferguson himself finds “a moving testimony to a deep, personal religious faith” [p.218] in Apuleius’ account of his initiation into the mysteries of Isis. This is not the only time one finds Ferguson’s scholarly integrity at odds with his Christian prejudices.

— ii —

A Theological Evaluation of the Mysteries: Hugo Rahner

There is another type of superiority that apologetic scholars have regularly appealed to as a means of demonstrating the impossibility of significant dependence of Christianity on the mystery cults: the superiority of doctrine. One of the best examples of this approach is a well-known paper delivered at the 1944 Eranos meeting by Fr. Hugo Rahner, entitled “The Christian Mystery and the Pagan Mysteries” [reprinted in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, p.337-401]. Here we can quote Rahner in a way that also provides a good insight into the character of the mysteries and their effect on those who underwent experience of the rites. It does indeed highlight an essential difference between the two expressions:

Closely related to this is a second peculiarity of the mysteries. They are a religion of feeling. They do not address themselves to the perplexed intellect of man, they are no “doctrine” or “dogma”…. This [Attis] mystery cult is “free from all dogmatism,” [Hepding] says, and the same is true of nearly all the ancient cults, and he continues: “Essentially it consists rather in the performance of certain old traditional rites. These are the fixed, enduring element; he who venerates the gods by exactly executing these prescriptions is eusebēs [pious, religious], according to the conception of the ancients….Common to all mysteries is a ritual that speaks to the feelings through powerful external techniques, through glaring light and sound effects and a polyvalent symbolism that sublimates the elementary actions into images of supersensory secrets. The godhead is thus brought much closer to the believers.”…[W]e are entitled to say that the mystery cult was entirely a religion of feeling. “The mystai are not intended to learn anything, but to suffer something and thus be made worth” runs a fragment from Aristotle. The aim of the initiation is “not to learn but to suffer.” [p.350-1]

If there is one thing that characterizes the western religions which have emerged out of late antiquity, in contrast to previous religions, it is “doctrine” and “dogma”—to history’s great sorrow. Rahner claims that the cult initiate does not “learn” but rather is induced to ‘hope’ through an emotional experience. That may be basically true, but it is difficult to imagine that no one ever ‘intellectualized’ the meaning that underlay those experiences or sought to understand how such hope could be ‘rationally’ supported, even if no such reflections were allowed to be set down for others to peruse; the Greek intellect was hardly devoid of a spirit of inquiry. Yet what, on the Christian side, constituted its “learning”? If the mystery cults did not address themselves to the “intellect of man,” in what way did Christianity? I will let Rahner speak to that:

It will be therefore my first duty to demonstrate to you…the essential difference between Christianity as a revealed religion and the Greek mysteries; between the “hidden mystery” of the Christians and the mustēria of the Hellenistic world: between the “natural mystery” of the Greek mystery symbolism and the “supernatural mystery” of the New Testament doctrine of salvation. [p.355]

Mysterion is the free decision of God, taken in eternity and hidden in the depths of the godhead, to save man, who in his sinfulness has been separated from God. [p.356]

Hence mysterion is always both a manifesting and a concealment of the divine act of salvation: manifest in the communication of the truth through the promised Christ; concealed in the unfathomable nature of the divine utterance, which even after its communication cannot be fully understood but is apprehended only by faith. For this mysterion is a supernatural drama transcending all human nature and all human thought, the drama of man’s acceptance as the son of God. [p.357]

[A]ll these are called mysterion, because they are acts and rites and words that flow from God’s unfathomable plan and that themselves in turn, in their visible, modest, unpretentious cloak, conceal and intimate and communicate God’s unfathomable depths. [p.358]

It is difficult to detect any “understanding” or “learning” here, where all is concealed with God, unfathomable, and dependent on faith. One hears echoes of Paul’s admission in 1 Corinthians 1, that to the intellect his doctrine of the crucified Christ appears as “foolishness”; we can hear the later voice of Martin Luther, that Reason “is the greatest enemy fath has,” that Faith “must trample under foot all reason, sense and understanding.” Rahner appeals even to Jesus himself, as speaking of “the mystery of the kingdom of heaven” [Mt. 13:11, based on Mk. 4:11], which must be, as Rahner puts it, “hidden beneath the cloak of parables ‘in order that they may see and yet not see, hear and yet not hear’ [Mt. 13:13].” One fails to see any addressing here of the “intellect of man,” which is indeed “perplexed” and remains so.

I am unaware of any sentiment expressed by the ancients in regard to the mysteries that the salvation processes they embodied were contrary to reason or could not be understood because they were hidden by the gods. Perhaps little emphasis (as far as we can tell) was placed on the idea of understanding those workings of salvation, but at least they did not openly declare the abandonment of all hope of doing so. The mythology-oriented mind of the Greeks may have felt that it intuitively understood the savior god myths, aided by the insights gained during the experience of the rites. Indeed, the demand for silence on the practices and meanings of the mysteries—so that the unworthy would not profane or adulterate them—implied that understanding was available, just that it could not be widely disseminated. Rahner quotes the Hermetica: “To expose this treatise imbued with all the majesty of God to the knowledge of the many would be to betoken a godless mind.” And the Pythagoreans: “The goods of knowledge must not be communicated to him whose soul is not cleansed” [p.364-5].

Christianity, on the other hand, regarded divine truths as essentially inaccessible, unfathomable, and only God could confer insight and knowledge.

Christianity is never a religion of the naked word, of mere reason and ethical law, but of the veiled word, of loving wisdom, of grace concealed in sacramental symbols—and hence also the religion of mysticism, in which the infinite depths of God are disclosed hidden behind simple words and rituals. But (and this is the specifically Christian element) God alone is the mystagogue and hierophant of these mysteries: only when His spirit confers the power of vision does man become an epoptes of the Christian mystery. [p.367]

Natural vs. Supernatural

Here is the fundamental difference between the outlook of the mysteries and that of Christianity. It is commonly said that the mysteries are at their core “naturalistic,” based as they were, ultimately, on the workings of the natural world, the cycles of nature, the regeneration of life. Christianity divorced itself from all that. Its basis became “supernaturalistic,” beyond the reach of nature and the perceivable, fathomable world. The workings of the world, including the human intellect, became irrelevant, even a negative force for self-destruction and damnation. This is, at heart, why there was so little progress in intellectual knowledge, social improvement, technological advance for a thousand years following the triumph of Christianity; these were things of the devil. And it was not until the Renaissance revival of ancient Greek learning and culture that the western world began to lift itself out of that deathly gloom of suffocating faith and dogma.

With doctrine and dogma rooted in the supernatural, Christianity was forced to take refuge in the admission that its truth is not accessible to reason. Indeed, it glories in such an admission, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians. God himself is relied on, not to provide a rational understanding of such doctrine, but the grace and faith needed to accept it. Commit intellectual suicide, and God will resurrect you to the saving world of revelation. Chrysostom said of the Christian mystery: “For it remains unfathomable to those who have not the right understanding for it. And it is revealed not by human wisdom, but by the Holy Ghost in such measure as it is possible for us to receive the spirit” [quoted on p.367]. Tertullian, in a much-quoted sentiment, said that the death of the Son of God “is by all means to be believed because it is absurd” [On the Flesh of Christ, 5]. The whole tone of Rahner’s presentation is that Christianity has ‘advanced’ over the mysteries by entering a non-naturalistic dimension which admits of irrational ideas that require the abandonment of the intellect and the withdrawal into a sphere that is necessarily defined as inaccessible to reason. “The Cross” as the basis of the Christian mystery, over the regeneration of the gods who represented the workings of nature in the pagan mysteries, was indeed a quantum leap, from the knowable to the unknowable, from natural to supernatural. Rahner contrasts the two on those terms:

The ear of grain, the sprouting tree, the bath, the life-giving union of the sexes, light and darkness, moon and sun, all these, precisely because they are so simple and human, provided, even in the natural mystery, the most suitable expression for the profoundest arrēton and aneklalēton” [both words meaning ‘something inexpressible’]….

Indeed so, for there is much to provoke wonder and even reverence in the material universe, reverence that need not invoke the supernatural, nor contravene rational principles and require one to admit a judgement of apparent ‘foolishness’. The mysteries were essentially a reading of the perceivable universe and what fate humans could look for within it, even if scientific understanding of its features was largely erroneous. Christianity, on the other hand, operated on an entirely different plane and with a new divine content, in the mystery of the Cross. [p.371]

The Cross had nothing to do with the workings of nature, or with “simple and human” experiences of life. Life became superfluous to the concept of salvation. The widespread impulse to martyrdom, so startling and incongruous to the ancients (though it had a precursor in Judaism), demonstrates this. The idea of allowing oneself to be executed for uncompromising faith in one god would have been unthinkable to the Greeks; the situation would simply never have arisen. Christianity’s vaunted ethics were more a denial of life, designed to guarantee the attaining of the next world. Such ethics, unlike those of a philosophy like Stoicism, lacked all focus on the betterment of society, on commitment to general social responsibility and making this world work. Proper faith was paramount and salvation was accessible only to those who adhered to it. The product of such an outlook was social divisiveness, and an unprecedent animosity toward others, as found on the pages of many Christian apologists whose condemnation of pagan practices and beliefs drip with venom and self-righteous execration. (We will see some of that in the writings of the 4th century Firmicus Maternus in the next article.)

A Sanguinary Preoccupation

While the mystery cult myths could certainly be about blood and death, a natural preoccupation of ancient man in the everyday experiences of life that he had so little control over, Christianity enthroned this theme in an unprecedented way. Rahner revels in the ‘mystery of the Cross’: “the agony, the blood, the bleeding heart” [p.371]. For him,

The vision of the Christian mystic, illumined by faith, mounts upward from the Cross on which the Creator and Logos died to the starry firmament of Helios and Selene [sun and moon], penetrates the profoundest structure of the cosmos, the structure of the human body, and even the forms of the everyday things that serve him: and wherever he looks he sees the form of the Cross imprinted on all things. It is as though the Cross of his Lord had enchanted the whole world. [p.372]

This is certainly a prime case of theology’s ability to put a whitewashed face on a primitive and repugnant concept, on the prehistoric principle now abandoned in every other sphere of thought: of blood sacrifice needed to placate an angry god. Rahner’s drenching of the universe in the suffering, blood and death of Christ is something the mysteries never achieved, and it colors—if not discredits—all that Christianity claims for itself. Rahner quotes Clement of Alexandria, who maintained that (in common with mystical Greek philosophy) the signs given to us by divinity tend to be obscure, “in order that research should try to penetrate to the meaning of enigmas and thus ascend to the discovery of truth.” Rahner seconds this:

The divine word of Scripture is a mystery, and behind the audible meaning of its words and images, of its whole historical narrative, are concealed unknown realms of the spirit and unsuspected possibilities of ascent to the imageless truth. [p.366]

Through such a morass of mystery, concealment and the admittedly unfathomable mind of God, what legitimate, usable, verifiable “truths” could possibly be uncovered that would be accepted by all of humanity, not just the mystics? When truth is sought on “a more real, transcendent realm jutting into this dark world, a miniature sketch of the vast divine ideas that are the source and ultimate goal of all created thought” [p.366], what are the chances that these ‘truths’ will bear any relation to actual reality, to the world revealed by sober, objective science and rational intellect? The pagan mysteries did not themselves stand close to reaching the truths of actual reality. But when Christianity supplanted them and withdrew even further into its fantastical supernatural world of “the cosmic mystery of the Cross, the epitome of the structural law of the universe” [p.375], when the future became envisioned as the cross “shin[ing] in the heavens at the end of the earth’s visible history to foreshadow the coming of the transfigured Christ,” when a God is envisaged as one who “imprinted on the cosmos the fundamental scheme of the Cross” and “secretly looked toward (its) coming” in the murder and death of his Son, western humanity suddenly faced what would be almost two millennia of lost ground to make up. In the face of such an outlook on reality, how was the world to be capable of creating a sane society and a healthy mind? Unfortunately, that question still needs to be asked.

It is the curse of the evolved human mind to see an overblown significance, a hidden glory and cosmic meaning, in the completely natural and impersonal phenomena of the world we find ourselves in. While it may once have had an evolutionary survival advantage (though even that is debated by evolutionary anthropologists today), what we need now is salvation from our own ‘ascent’ into mysticism and the supernatural.

Myth vs. History

Finally, Rahner commits the usual fallacy of reducing all this grand and exalted mystery of the Cross and God’s revelation to an historical event, the crucifixion of an historical man by Pontius Pilate on the hill of Golgotha. He appeals to Kittel who lectured that

The gospel of Christ crucified is utterly unmythical….It does not speak of a remote legend, but of an immediately near, realistic, brutal, wretched, and terrible episode in history. [p.359]

This, of course, is the major difference from the mysteries alleged by subsequent Christianity from Ignatius on. Indeed, Rahner and the scholars that he favors express amazement that any scholar of comparative religion—who are in his day starting to fade into ‘discredited’ obscurity—could have ventured comparisons which try “to derive the basic doctrine of Christianity from the mystery religions.” The future will “fail to understand that the idea of an inner kinship between the mysteries and Christianity in so many basic concepts could ever have been put forward with so much seriousness.” For, “Christian revelation is not myth but history.” [p.359]

Someone should have told that to Paul, who never speaks in terms of history, let alone recent history; to the writer of Hebrews who locates Christ’s sacrifice in heaven and tells us that he had never been on earth; to countless other epistle writers who make no room for an historical Jesus in their descriptions of the faith and its genesis. Here, of course, lies the solution to the fallacy. The cosmic mystery of the Cross belongs not on a mundane hill outside Jerusalem as a result of jealous High Priests and an oblivious Roman governor, but in a truly cosmic setting of divine and heavenly processes in the greater spiritual world, revealed by God through revelation and scripture, and by the voice of the Son who speaks from that scripture. This is indeed the picture created by Paul and other early mystics who have entered the mythological world of the mystery cults and created a new one. With their more mundane Gospels, the evangelists set up a huge disparity, and out of their crude and contradictory Jesus of Nazareth theologians and scholars have struggled ever since to resurrect the original cosmic Son.

— iii —

“Dying and Rising Gods”: Jonathan Z. Smith

Jonathan Z. Smith first weighed in on the apologetic side to dismiss any significant connection between Christianity and the mysteries in an article for The Encyclopedia of Religion (1977) on the subject of “Dying and Rising Gods,” later in a full-length study of the process of comparison, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (1991). The earlier piece adopts a one-track strategy which a few others have followed, but rarely with such a single-minded determination. To wit, that there was no such thing as dying and rising gods in the ancient world.

Modern scholarship has largely rejected, for good reasons, an interpretation of deities as projections of natural phenomena….There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.

In his survey of seven cases of reputed dying and rising gods in antiquity (Adonis, Baal, Syrian Haddad, Attis, Marduk, Osiris, Tammuz), Smith gives us four accounts of divinities descending to the underworld and then reascending, to which might be added the classic example of such, the myth of Demeter-Kore in the Eleusinian mysteries; yet somehow none of these are allowed to be regarded as representing cycles of nature, “projections of natural phenomena.” While criticizing other scholars for reading positive interpretations of dying and rising into fragmentary or ambiguous or uncertain texts and artifacts, Smith himself manages to draw the opposite conclusion from these same sources, usually appealing to such argumentation as “not necessarily equivalent to dying and rising” or “such an understanding is unlikely.”

But I am going to bring in another voice here, that of Robert Price who in his Deconstructing Jesus [p.88-91] rebuts Smith’s article in incisive fashion and exposes it for what it clearly is.

It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons.

Smith’s first error is his failure, as I see it, to grasp the point of an “ideal type,” a basic textbook definition/description of some phenomenon under study….Smith, finding that there are significant differences between the so-called dying-and-rising-god mysths, abandons any hope of a genuine dying-and-rising-god paradigm. For Smith, the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, and the others, do not all conform to type exactly; thus they are not sufficiently alike to fit into the same box—so let’s throw out the box! Without everything in common, Smith sees nothing in common.

Smith’s error is the same as that of Raymond Brown, who dismisses the truckload of comparative religion parallels to the miraculous birth of Jesus: This one is not strictly speaking a virgin birth, since the god fathered the child on a married woman. That one involved physical intercourse with the deity, not overshadowing by the Holy Spirit, and so on. But, we have to ask, how close does a parallel have to be to count as a parallel? Does the divine mother have to be named Mary? Does the divine child have to be named Jesus? Here is the old “difference without a distinction” fallacy.

Smith claims that all those trips to the underworld in the old myths do not necessarily involve death. Price counters:

But what does it mean to say someone has descended to the netherworld of the dead? Enkidu did not deem it quite so casual a commute “to Hell and back” as Smith apparently does: “He led me away to the palace of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness, to the house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no coming back.” One goes there in the embrace of the Grim Reaper. Similarly, Pausanias: “About the death of Theseus there are many inconsistent legends, for example that he was tied up on the Netherworld until Herakles should bring him back to life.” Thus to abide in the netherworld was to be dead, even if not for good.

Baal’s supposed death and resurrection does not pass muster for Smith because the saga’s text has big holes in it “at the crucial points.” Mischievous scholars may like to fill them in with the model of the resurrected god, but Smith calls it an argument from silence. Is it? Even on Smith’s own reading, the text actually does say that “Baal is reported to have died” after descending to the underworld. There he is indeed said to be “as dead.” Anath recovers his corpse and buries it. Later El sees in a dream that Baal yet lives. After another gap Gaal is depicted in battle. What is missing here?

Of course, Smith floats the same objection to gods like Osiris “rising” which I have pointed out above, that they did not return to earth but proceeded directly to the underworld. To which Price replies:

Osiris, Smith admits, is said even in very ancient records to have been dismembered, reassembled by Isis, and rejuvenated (physically; he fathered Horus on Isis). But Smith seizes on the fact that Osiris reigned henceforth in the realm of the dead. This is not a return to earthly life, hence no resurrection. But then we might as well deny that Jesus is depicted as dying and rising since he reigns henceforth at the right hand of God in Heaven as the judge of the dead, like Osiris.

And so on. There is an agenda here, and it is not honest, unbiased scholarship.

Price makes the point that in the Graeco-Roman mysteries there was no exclusivity; consequently a convert to Christianity would have assumed in undergoing baptism in the new sect that there was no necessity to abandon other savior god cults he might have already joined, those of Mithras, Attis, Isis or Dionysos. Paul himself, in 1 Corinthians, more than hints that Christian converts were also taking part in feasts to idols and false gods (8:7); they “sit down to a meal in a heathen temple” (8:10). As Price puts it [p.92], these are “open gates,” and thus “we would be amazed not to find a free flow of older ‘pagan’ myths and rituals into Christianity.” Here Price sees in Paul’s condemnation “the beginning of the process to exclude the other faiths as rivals and counterfeits of Christianity. But the barn door was, as usual, shut after the horse had got out (or rather, in!).”

Comparison: Art or Science?

When we move on to Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, we find the art of comparing Christianity and the mystery cults converted to a science. This is both a history of two centuries of scholarship on the question as well as a dissection of the process of comparison itself. This original approach casts quite a bit of new light on the subject, and Smith adopts in this later work a more neutrally professional attitude, not sparing the more embarrassingly apologetic defenders of Christian uniqueness in his own field, such as Bruce Metzger.

He begins the book with a lengthy but interesting account of an exchange of letters over several years between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in which they discussed the lamentable evolution of the early Christian faith from an assumed original pristine and Jewish state as Jesus had presented it, to the later ‘Platonizing’ corruption it underwent at the hands of gentiles with their mystery cult thinking (Smith makes it clear that this exchange of views represented the spirit of the time). The great bugaboo here was the Roman Catholic Church and “Popery” which was responsible for this “corruption” in the interests of winning over the Roman world. The Protestant Reformation was regarded as a freeing of Christianity from this centuries-long degradation and a reviving of the original content and spirit of Jesus’ teaching. This Catholic-Protestant dichotomy, reflecting one of truth vs. corruption, the real Jesus vs. the Platonic Christ, is a theme which Smith demonstrates was an active force in scholarship for hundreds of years, and one can find traces of it even in the 20th century. (Jefferson and Adams, of course, had things backwards in more ways than one, placing their trust in the primacy of the Gospels and their picture of Christianity’s beginnings. Even today, Paul can still be portrayed as a ‘corrupter’ of Jesus’ message, converting the simple human preacher into a Platonic monstrosity which buried the man of Nazareth under a suffocating mysticism. Too bad Paul isn’t here to defend himself and give us an outline of the real nature of his Christ Jesus.)

Smith spends several very informative pages [26f] on that groundbreaker of the French Revolution and solar mythologist Charles Francois Dupuis, who is often credited with being the first true Jesus mythicist, adopting a systematic approach to bringing order out of chaos in the field of comparative religion. Dupuis also seems to have been the first to formulate a coherent theory of the “seasonal pattern” in which the movements of the sun are translated into the myths of the dying of the gods, Attis, Adonis, Osiris, etc., followed by the rejoicing attendant on the return of the sun and spring, and the god’s recovery. Dupuis regarded such gods as different manifestations of the same solar god of light. Christ, too, was a solar deity, “an instance of a universal, ‘seasonal’ pattern, who if he seems to have assumed a mortal body, like the heroes of ancient poems, this will be only the fiction of legend.” While rejecting Dupuis’ work as hopelessly outdated, Smith acknowledges that for the first time, Dupuis added to the comparative field “a rudimentary sense of depth,” and an attempt to formulate the larger picture.

On the Principle of Comparison

Before embarking on the modern comparative exercise, Smith examines the principle of comparison itself. He zeroes in on the essence of the apologetic strategy: the appeal to “uniqueness” in Christianity as a sui generis phenomenon, something arising on its own, completely original, with no precedent or debt to other belief systems contemporary or previous. Smith quotes Burton Mack [The Myth of Innocence, p.4]:

The fundamental persuasion is that Christianity appeared unexpectedly in human history, that it was (is) at core a brand new vision of human existence, and that, since this is so, only a startling moment could account for its emergence at the beginning. [p.38-39]

Mack and Smith have put their finger on the working mechanism that powers the apologetic defense of the “Christ-event”: since Christianity was “brand new,” unanticipated, unique, it needed a dramatic occurrence to explain this out-of-the-blue genesis, namely the death and genuine resurrection of Jesus. In order to preserve the uniqueness of that event, it was necessary to disclaim and disprove any connection or dependency on similar ‘events’ in other belief systems. Thus the perennial campaign to discredit comparative religion. This forceable disassociation makes possible the evaluation of Christianity as a distinctive and unprecedented phenomenon in the ancient world, which then requires a dramatic occurrence to explain. The whole exercise becomes patently circular. On the other hand, if Christianity was not unique, but dependent, at least in part, on the flavors of the time, if it was the growth of a new branch on an old and broad tree, possessing simply an “ordinary difference,” no such dramatic event is required to explain it (especially if the Gospel picture is a shoot of later growth).

In a less dogmatic tone than he used in the earlier “Dying and Rising Gods” article, Smith suggests that we have to abandon the “extra-historical categories of uniqueness—that somehow Christianity starts outside/above history and its time—and develop “a discourse of ‘difference’, a complex term which invites negotiation, classification and comparison, and, at the same time, avoids too easy a discourse of the ‘same’.” [p.42] He notes one way that has been adopted to preserve the ‘uniqueness’ of Christian doctrine and practice is to set up a division between the earliest Christians and the Church of later centuries. The latter (being Roman Catholic) was open to influences from the mystery religions as they were in the 3rd and 4th centuries (before the latter were run out of town by a triumphant Church after emperor Constantine’s conversion); but the early “apostolic” Christianity (read “= Protestant,” says Smith) was allegedly immune to such influences. The fact that the bulk of the evidence for the mysteries comes from the 3rd and 4th centuries invites comparison with the later Roman Church practices and what they may have absorbed (or vice-versa), whereas we have very little from the cults to compare to the alleged pristine “apostolic” phase. Smith does not spell it out (and perhaps he doesn’t have it in mind), but one wonders if we had as much light on the earlier turn-of-the-era period whether we might well find points of commonality between earliest Christianity and the mysteries that are now in the dark, or glint only tantalizingly from the surface of Paul’s letters.

As well, and this is a point Smith never properly addresses, “apostolic Christianity” draws its picture almost entirely from the Gospels and Acts, all relatively later documents. Paul was “the Apostle,” but any direct comparison of Pauline thought in the epistles with that of the mysteries is always performed through the filter of those later writings, using them to reinterpret him so as to downplay or ‘correct’ any resemblance to mystery rites or soteriology. Thus the purity of “apostolic” Christianity is preserved.

Smith quotes J. A. Faulkner (Did Mystery Religions Influence Apostolic Christianity?, 1924) who offers a very limited list of ‘safe’ comparisons: “Christianity did not get the fact of sin from this source, nor her method of dealing with it by repentance and faith in Christ…She had no secret meetings or initiations…Nor did she play on the pride of knowledge in general, as did Gnosticism and some of the mysteries. Her first disciples were plain men and not scholastically trained, and she welcomed everybody into her ranks and not simply philosophers and the learned. Nor did Christianity deal in ritual or spectacular display, thus being far removed from the mystery religions” [p.45; the hiatuses are Smith’s]. As for “sin”—which the exclusionary approach seems to seize on with such relish—this is indeed the “difference” par excellence, as I noted in discussing Ferguson above, but it speaks only to the motivation behind the commonalities of the salvation system. If we compared the anatomical differences between men and women by noting only those aspects related to sex, we might well conclude that each one came from a different species!

So how does Smith propose we approach the exercise of comparison without fooling ourselves with ill-disguised partisan preconceptions and tactical manoeuvrings?

The questions of comparison are questions of judgement with respect to difference: What differences are to be maintained in the interests of comparative inquiry? What differences can be defensively relaxed and relativized in light of the intellectual tasks at hand? [p.47]

He chides his own peers that this is “not the working assumption of many scholars in the field…frequently due to apologetic reasons.” Points of comparison which bear the mark of similarity are usually categorized in two ways: they are either “genealogy”—that is, they express descent from earlier forms, in the sense of borrowing or dependency; or they are “analogy”—that is, they are independent but parallel expressions proceeding from a common impulse in human nature, the result of the ‘psychic unity’ of humankind. The former, of course, is the more threatening and garners the most attention, “if only, typically, insistently to be denied.” He quotes Bruce Metzger, who spells out his ‘value judgment’ that only the former are significant for purposes of comparison (because they challenge Christian uniqueness). But then Metzger tries to have it both ways. In an article entitled “Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity” he claims that the resemblance between the Lord’s Supper and certain Mithraic ceremonies could be regarded as either. If ‘analogical’ it is simply “fortuitous,” a matter of chance; if ‘genealogical’ it is “the result of adaptation by Mithraic priests of an impressive rite in the Christian cultus” [p.49, n.16].

This is crafting one’s “methodology” in order to arrive at a desired result, and Smith has no hesitation in exposing and rebuking this blatant apologetic slant. (The late Bruce Metzger, a highly regarded scholar in his field, was one of those interviewed by Lee Strobel in the latter’s The Case for Christ, to establish the reliability of the Christian documentary record; with a methodology like that, Metzger’s task was easy. Of course, Strobel’s standards were anything but high.) But Smith also has a rebuke for those on the other side of the fence—referring to them as “amateurs.” The latter, he says, try to see every similarity as a case of genealogy: a borrowing or a dependence. Whether this is true or not (see Article 13D), those not in sympathy tend to build this up as something of a straw man. Apologists attack with glee the mania for parallels between Christianity and the mysteries, indulged in by those who have subscribed to the worst excesses of comparative religion. Be that as it may, I think Smith has gone unnecessarily far. Analogy is perfectly acceptable, especially in moderate cooperation with genealogy. There are indeed common impulses in the human psyche, leading to common expressions for the same needs and circumstances. Thus the often startling similarities of expression between widely separated geographical and cultural areas—sometimes with no possibility of a connected dissemination, as between the old and new worlds before Columbus, for example. But this, too, is a threat to Christian privilege and exclusivity, for if a non-true religion could arise bearing strong resemblance to the true one, it undercuts the latter’s claim to divine inspiration and direction, let alone uniqueness.

Smith is right, in that some comparative religionists need to dilute their ‘parallel-o-mania’ with a bit of analogical input. Almost every sect that looks back to a divine event or interaction with a deity develops a sacred meal as a commemorative, thanksgiving or ritual reflection. (What is more fitting, or available, to give to a god than food and drink, or more traditionally associated with a god’s own nature and bounty?) If the most fundamental religious impulse is to find a way to believe in a life after death, this is almost inevitably going to take the form of creating a deity who will bestow such a thing; and given our mystical predilections it should not be surprising that a process we would all tend to hit upon is the principle of the god undergoing the desired goal himself. It would indeed take a god to conquer death, but if we could just find a way to ride through that formidable barrier on his powerful coattails…

These are common developments which enjoy no exclusivity in any one expression. And yet, the reality is probably a combination of the two. Ideas are ‘in the air’ precisely because they are the current product of a common impulse in the human psyche, but each expression has also absorbed the example of, and been additionally motivated and influenced by, other expressions, a cacophony built largely of the same aural ingredients. As in music, each generation or period of composition has its characteristic sound, one gradually evolving, not because any individual composer (and certainly not the great ones) has been consciously copying his musical peers, but because he or she cannot think musical thoughts in isolation, but will build his own expression and innovations on what is currently being heard in the environment.

On Comparing Mysteries

So how does Smith apply his principles of comparison to the formation of a methodology for comparing Christianity with the mystery cults? He breaks the rest of his book into three sections: On Comparison Words, On Comparing Stories, and On Comparing Settings. The third of these does not directly relate to the study here and will not be addressed.

There is no denying that, on the face of it, Paul uses ‘mystery’ terminology. Traditionally, there have been two ways to get around this. One, that he had different meanings in mind for these words than those understood in the pagan cults; and two, even if there was sometimes a similar meaning to be found in them, Paul did this deliberately so as to win over Greek converts by presenting Christian doctrine and practice in terms of the words and ideas they could relate to; it was a necessary ‘accommodation’. (Note that the latter rationale must involve the acceptance that such mysteries and the understanding of their rites were in existence in the early 1st century CE.) Good examples might be 1 Corinthians 15:51, where Paul reveals the “mystery” of how we will all be changed at the last trumpet; or 14:2, when the one speaking in tongues speaks “mysteries.” And the process fed on itself, as the new converts embraced and enriched such terminology and understandings from precedents in their own past. (It should not escape us that this is tantamount to a degree of actual borrowing of ideas.)

Smith focuses on the single most important word in this regard, “mystery” itself, mysterion. Scholars in the field regularly point out that this term, as used in Christianity generally and by Paul in particular, does not refer to a rite that is secret, whose significance is revealed only to the initiate. Instead, it signifies a ‘secret’ that has been previously hidden by God, revealed only in the present time to such as Paul (1 Cor. 2:7, Rom. 16:25, Eph. 3:5, etc.). Many of these refer to the “mystery about Christ.” And yet, is the difference as wide as they imagine? This is a question Smith does not address. What was revealed to the initate if not secrets about the god (Christ), what he had undergone, and how this related to the destined fate of those to whom these mysteries were revealed? Whether such secrets were imparted through a dramatic private ceremony or through public preaching does not change their nature and effect, especially when emotionally supported by a baptismal rite which Paul himself casts as effecting a dramatic linkage with the god. Whether these were secrets kept hidden for so long by God (casting God in a questionable and somewhat disparaging light, which no Christian writer tries to explain or justify beyond speaking of “a fullness of time”), or whether they were secrets in the sense that they were not naturally evident but needed discovery through ritual experience and insight—and who is to claim that the latter is not a more conscionable system?—hardly changes the fact that both are revealed knowledge and both transform the recipient’s self-image and anticipated fate. While the ingredients may be slightly different and the flavors distinctive, both are baking the same sort of cake, both are offerings from the same culinary menu; the respective cooks are simply declaring the superiority of their own recipe and its nutritive value.

Another apologetic tactic which Smith calls attention to is the contention that, irrespective of the meaning given to “mysterion” by Paul and other early writers, the term has been derived not from the mystery cult milieu, but from the Old Testament, in its Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation. In fact, said H. A. A. Kennedy [St. Paul and the Mystery Religions, 1913, p.154-5], “Practically every leading conception in this sphere of Paul’s religious thought may be said to have its roots definitely laid in that soil [of the Greek Old Testament].” This was a famous, and still prized (by such as Bruce Metzger), defense taken up by Arthur Darby Nock some years later, “in a setting not innocent of apologetic concerns,” says Smith [p.66], despite Nock’s claim to be a disinterested historian of religion. This cultivated mirage of neutrality where New Testament research is concerned has been and continues to be standard fare in much of mainstream scholarship, on the basis of which many appeals to authority are still regularly made on this or that question, as mythicists are well aware, but it does not stand up to close examination. Nock was a prime example of this basic sham, and Smith, to his credit, has no hesitation in exposing him.

Nock claimed throughout his writings that even in Gentile Christianity of the 1st century, “each of its constitutive elements may be traced to a background in Judaism and that no postulation of influence from the mysteries is, therefore, required” [p,68]. This included, said Nock, the Christological titles used, the ritual activities of eucharist and baptism, all of which are explain by “Jewish conceptions” and “the linguistic usage of the LXX.”

Despite decades of eager acceptance of views like that of Nock by subsequent scholars, Smith decides to call him on it. He exposes two assumptions that lie behind Nock’s argument that the LXX can be seen as the ‘source-book’ for the terms used by Paul, such as mysterion, and the problems that lie in those assumptions. The first is the matter of chronology. The initial Pentateuch translation into Greek in Ptolemaic Egypt may have taken place in the 3rd century BCE, a good distance from Paul, but this ignores the many layers of its complex history and subsequent development, and what parts of it would have been available at what time to cast any alleged influence on the formation of New Testament thought and terminology. The second assumption is that the LXX was an accurate reflection in Greek of previous Hebrew/Jewish understanding. But this entails an even greater problem, for the translation of any document into Greek within a Hellenistic political and cultural system would hardly be guaranteed to preserve the original Hebrew thought-world. It will assume Greek understandings, especially when there is any uncertainty on the translators’ part. Even if the enterprise was undertaken in Jewish circles (initially in Alexandria), this was a milieu in which the formation of Hellenistic Judaism was under way, and well under way as the centuries progressed toward the turn of the era. Philo may be taken as an example of how Jewry in the Diaspora could thoroughly reinterpret its own scriptures according to Greek principles. So whatever influence the LXX might have had on early Christian writers, it was already in a heavily hellenized form.

In the case of the term “mysteries” in particular, Smith shows how Nock really cooked the books. The relatively rare appearance of the word in the LXX is found in a limited range of six documents (Daniel, Judith, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon and 2 Maccabees), all of which are late and do not reflect archaic Israel; some of them were probably even written in Greek originally. To a great extent, then, the ‘source’ books reflect as much Hellenism as Judaism. But Smith is able to narrow down the full extent of the sources considered by Kennedy and Nock, and this amounts to exactly one document: Daniel. But Daniel underwent “a complex historical process with a number of parallel, intersecting and revised versions.” Moreover, the date of its translation into Greek (likely from Aramaic) was “no earlier than the 1st century BC, quite possibly as late as the 1st century AD,” which makes Paul and Nock’s “Septuagint” in this regard “roughly contemporary.” This hardly bespeaks a Paul who has absorbed a longstanding tradition of LXX understanding of Greek terminology in traditional Jewish terms. Paul, in fact, shows no knowledge of Daniel whatsoever. On top of that, the actual usages of mysterion in the Greek Daniel do not conform to the accepted meaning as Paul uses the term, to refer to a revealed-after-long-hidden secret by God, or as some scholars put it, an “eschatalogical mystery,” one revealed by God as the imminent End approached. As for the other usages of mysterion in the LXX outside Daniel, these are even more distant in meaning from anything which could have supplied a precedent for the Pauline understanding of the word. Several occurrences in the Wisdom of Solomon actually “unambiguously refer, in a polemical fashion, to contemporary Hellenistic ‘mystery’ cults” [p.75].

Thus the entire case presented by Kennedy, Nock and those who followed them, is built on smoke and mirrors. Its purpose could only be to conjure up an argument, no matter how shaky or deceptive, to disassociate Christianity’s initial mysticism from any connection with the pagan mysteries and root it instead in a safe Jewish soil. Indeed, scholarship since the mid 20th century has in its general study been entirely oriented toward the same end and purpose, to characterize Christianity as essentially if not wholly a child of Israel, and bury the bloody umbilical cord of pre-natal nutrition from the pagan mystery cults. This strategy has given scholars the false confidence that they have exploded the problematic Mysteries connection, in much the same way that they assume a false confidence that the idea of Jesus mythicism has been laid to rest.

Smith sums up: “The notion of a singular biblical meaning of the term—indigenous to the Hebrew and translated into Greek—is wholly implausible in light of the evidence” [p.75]. He also points out the folly of relying on the meaning of words in isolation, without taking into account their context. Considering that Paul was in the process of tearing down fundamental Jewish concepts and requirements, and catering to Hellenistic needs hardly persuades one of his faithful and respectful regard for traditional Old Testament thought, or of a propensity to absorb and reflect it. The history of comparing words, Smith concludes, “has never been primarily a philological issue, but always an apologetic one” [p.83].

On Comparing Savior God Myths

Smith’s chapter “On Comparing Stories” centers, as one might expect, on the classic exercise of comparing the story of Christ’s death and resurrection with the genre of dying and rising gods in pagan mythology. It was James G. Frazer who brought that comparison to the forefront of scholarship’s thinking, beginning in the 1890s with the first edition of The Golden Bough, and subsequent editions over the next quarter century. “The ceremony of the dying and rising of the deity must also have been a representation of the decay and revival of vegetation.” Scholars for decades had little or no doubt that this was a legitimate interpretation of the dying and rising aspect of the pagan savior gods, and almost as many had little hesitation in presenting the Jesus story as having its conceptual roots in that ancient pattern, although for only a few did this translate into the non-existence of an historical Jesus.

Specific focus was placed on Paul’s conception of baptism as constituting “a symbolic and dramatic repetition of Christ’s death and resurrection,” and the evident mystical content of that rite, interpreted by Paul, as fitting the idea of parallel experiences between the death and rising of the god (Christ) and the symbolic death and rising of the initiate who undergoes baptism. Paul, after all, does seem to spell it out in Romans 6:3-5/8:

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection….Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. [NASB]

These ideas consitute the elemental principles of the mysteries writ large, and they have troubled and exercised the apologetic community since the early 20th century. (In the next article, I will look at the most renowned and determined case of grappling with this Pauline passage by any scholar: Gunter Wagner’s Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries.) Smith details the writings of Otto Pfleiderer at the turn of the 20th century, wherein the German scholar expressed the opinion that so striking is the connection of these ideas with Paul’s teaching of Christian baptism…that the thought of historical relation between the two cannot be evaded….The relation of these ideas and customs to Paul’s mystical theory of the death and resurrection of Christ and the participation of the baptized therein is too striking to avert the thought of influence by the former on the latter.

Pfleiderer points out 1 Corinthians 10:16-21 in which Paul himself makes a clear analogy (in order to claim distinctiveness) of his Lord’s Supper to some form of equivalent in pagan sacrifices:

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?…But I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. [NASB]

This passage of 1 Corinthians alone is strong evidence not only that pagan cults which bore resemblance in their rites to those of earliest Christianity were in existence, but that Paul was aware of them and sought to make distinctions. This, too, has exercised apologists. No less a stellar light than Rudolf Bultmann still maintained in 1965 that Paul’s understanding of baptism as an initiation-sacrament was understood as being in “analogy with the initiation-sacraments of the mystery religions. The meaning of the latter is to impart to the initiates a share in the fate of the cult-deity who has suffered death and reawakened to life—such as Attis, Adonis, or Osiris” [p.98]. Smith maintains that “current opinion” in scholarship is that Bultmann and so many others were wrong, that in fact “the matter is closed, that the comparisons have proved false.” But he has the good grace to point out that “the most careful recent student of the motif of ‘dying and rising with Christ’ in Paul has insisted, ‘the question of the relation of this motif to the mysteries, then, is not yet settled’.” [p.99, quoting R. C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology, p.32]

Except in the mind of apologists. Says Smith,

Since the pioneering researches of P. Lambrechts and the synthesis of the state-of-the-question by Gunter Wagner, it has become commonplace to assume that the category of Mediterranean ‘dying and rising’ gods has been exploded; in the succinct formulation of one (apologetic) scholar, “the description ‘dying and rising gods’ is a product of the modern imagination”, the latter being a quote from K. Prumm. Smith, for the first time in the book, now seems to openly align himself with the latter viewpoint. Harking back to his earlier article in the Encyclopedia of Religion, he lists all the ‘new’ scholarly objections to any comparison between the two expressions. “The majority of the gods so denoted appear to have died but not returned; there is dying, but no rebirth or resurrection” [p.101]. Well, the myths never claim a return to former life in flesh, although as I and Robert Price have pointed out, Osiris clearly was reanimated and fathered Horus (more than Jesus ever did in his temporary sojourn back on earth). “Rebirth” was exactly what Dionysos underwent, in both versions of his myth. Smith acknowledges that Lambrechts was subjected to “thorough-going critiques,” one of which was by M. J. Vermaseren, but in regard to the latter, “the implications he draws from the figure of Attis hilaris fall short of being persuasive.” Since he does not detail why, we don’t gain any insight into the relative merits of the case for and against ‘explosion’.

Smith expresses the objection that documents have been “misinterpreted” (as if misinterpretation is not an endemic peril on all sides, in all aspects of New Testament research), that comparative claims are to be found in “late texts from the Christian era (frequently by Christians) which reveal an interpretatio Christiana of another religion’s myths and rituals,” (as if Christian commentators could not get even the most basic things right about their religious rivals and read resurrection into cultic rituals and myths when it was not at all there). Origen (early 3rd century), Jerome and others “mention a joyous celebration, on the third day, commemorating the resurrection of Adonis (identified with Tammuz) as analogous to that of Christ,” but apparently they were all mistaken and simply read their own cultic myth into that of the mysteries. Further, “In the case of Attis, the mythology gave no comfort,” which should leave Smith at a loss to explain why such myths and their attendant rituals—equally barren of comfort, presumably—kept the Attis cult, and others, vibrantly alive for centuries and indulged in by millions. As for the early myths of descent to the underworld and reascent to the land of the living, found all over the Near East, these do “not conform to the usual stipulation of the ‘death and resurrection’ pattern.” This from someone who has advocated taking things in context and not trying to impose rigid restrictions where comparative exercises are concerned. And I refer back to Robert Price’s critique of Smith’s take on these descent-ascent myths as continued denials of what it means to enter and leave the underworld and the definition of “dead.” Indeed, when Smith repeats the new old saw that Osiris doesn’t conform to this ‘dying and rising’ pattern because his continued existence lay in the realm of the dead, we can see that the whole modern trend to divorce Christianity from the mysteries is one gigantic red herring industry. Not only is Osiris’ role as king of the afterlife realm a direct and personal conquest of death (just as it is for the human departed who follow and live with him there), this state of affairs is identical to the case of Jesus, who also conquers death by ascending to the right hand of God where he rules over the saved departed. In the early epistles there is no sign that such a death took place on earth in recorded history, or that anything of a material nature intervened between such a death and the ascent to heaven. At least we do have that in the Osiris myth.

It is ironic that Christian apologetic scholars criticize certain analysts of our time as applying ‘interpretatio Christiana’ to another religion’s myths and rituals, when the most blatant cases of such things are their own indulgences. Christian Gospel-based concepts are carried to the mystery cults and imposed on the latter’s presentation of ‘resurrection’ and then ‘exposed’ as not properly conforming, which then ‘proves’ that any resemblance is illusory and that all comparison is invalid.

Smith has the good grace, again, to note that such views “have not been without challenge by scholars of Late Antiquity” [p.103], but they “represent a genuine reversal in scholarly thought.” Indeed they do, and one is entitled to ask what gave rise to it. While the earlier understanding of the mysteries certainly needed a good degree of expansion and correction, particularly in regard to what we do not know about them with any certainty because of the paucity and obscurity of their literary and archaeological witness, one has to ask whether the underlying impulse to make this about-face was a reaction to the perils which earlier scholarship had finally made obvious by the mid 20th century. Perhaps to some degree it may be seen as an expression of desperation.

Regardless of the extent to which Smith sympathizes with this school of reversal, he steps back from the ultimate brink of the apologetic abyss by questioning its “eager” indulgence in an aspect of the new evaluation: namely, that the similarities between Christianity and the mysteries are not only not a case of Christian borrowing from the mysteries, they “demonstrate that the Mediterranean cults borrowed from the Christian” [p.104]. This has been an inviting corollary to the observation/claim that almost all the features of so-called similarity in the cults are drawn from the evidence of the 3rd and especially 4th century, when Christianity was a strong going concern and a powerful rival, thus prompting copying on the part of the pagan cults. If this were true, there is an inherent contradiction here. On the one hand, the new scholarship highlights the incompatible differences in concepts like resurrection in order to divorce the two, but then hedges its bets by saying that the similarities evident between pagan and Christian in the same evidence can be put down to borrowing in the other, permissible, direction. If physical resurrection of the Christian god was so appealing and so threatening, and the strategy in response was to plagiarize, why even in the 3rd and 4th century is there no sign of Attis and Osiris undergoing a revised resurrection and enjoying a physical return to earth in copycat fashion?

Smith, as I say, will not go there. “In no work familiar to me has this abrupt about-face [in regard to the direction of borrowing] been given a methodological justification” [p.104]. Smith, in fact, finds a basic methodological fault in the new scholarship’s failure to treat the mysteries as evolving organisms, with a centuries-old history and development behind them. Any internal changes that are made are done so from the point of view of the cult reinterpreting its own tradition, not because it is consciously at one point in time for deliberate political reasons borrowing from some external, let alone rival, entity. The same, of course, applies to Christianity, it being simplistic to imagine that early Christians like Paul opened the Mithraic manual to get some ideas on how to sacramentalize the Corinthian communal meal. But the contents of that ‘manual’ were part of the cultural milieu which Paul would have absorbed and which would have led his thinking in certain inevitable directions.

It is a fundamental mistake, Smith argues, to “freeze” the mysteries into one version of ‘dying and rising’ common for all periods—or indeed any other aspect of the cult myths and rituals—and place it up against a similarly imagined ‘single enterprise’ of the Pauline dying and rising of Christ, and think to arrive at something meaningful. The very theme of ‘dying and rising’ may be present in certain Christ-cult traditions, but “it is notably lacking in others.” The best example is Q, and we cannot even be sure that it existed in the mind of Mark, since there is no clear resurrection to flesh in the first Gospel’s original version. Smith might have added the first epistle of John which makes no mention of a resurrection, and not even a death by crucifixion is clear, only that “Jesus laid down his life for us.” The epistle of James has no atoning death, but regards salvation as conferred by “the [ethical] message you received” [1:21]. It is similarly missing in the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Odes of Solomon. ‘Dying and rising’ would also be an impossible idea for most 2nd century gnostics, Smith notes, even those that believed in some form of historical Jesus.

In connection with all those absences, there is an important question of chronology in regard to Pauline ideas of a dying and rising Christ. We tend to view the idea as basic to Christian faith right from the beginning (the evangelical apologists couldn’t do without it!), but the fact of it being missing in so many early Christian witnesses right from early times, and indeed well into the 2nd century in the apologetic writings of so many, is telling. This point nearly slips by us in a short note [p.111, n.46] in which Smith observes that Lindemann “is no more successful than Benoit…in discovering Paul’s ‘dying and rising’ theme in the second century literature.” The reference to Benoit concerns his observation as quoted by Smith that “nowhere, in all of the patristic literature of the second century can one perceive the least echo of the mystery according to which to be baptised is to die and be resurrected with Christ….[Paulinism] played no role in the development of baptismal theology in this period” [p.112]. And Smith links this with the question of the first formation of the Pauline corpus, which he places only in the mid 2nd century [p.110, n.44], since the Pauline ideas Benoit refers to cannot be found anywhere in the 2nd century and the Gospel concept of Jesus’ resurrection appears late, with the addition to Mark not detectable before the same time.

All of this indicates a development in Christian thought, in both basics and particulars, about a dying and rising of Christ that spans long periods in the same way that recent scholars now impute to the mysteries—certainly to some extent correctly, since no faith system is going to remain static for centuries and not undergo evolution. The point is, if nothing else, chronological considerations speak to a parallel development for both Christianity and the mysteries in which both could in some measure have fed on the other, though overall primacy must be given to the pagan cults because of their more ancient history and the general attitude expressed by both pagans and Christians of the 2nd century (as Celsus, Justin and Tertullian) that specific ideas held by both were older in the cults. While this to a great extent discredits the more naive claims of Christian abject borrowing from the mysteries, it also removes Christianity from claims of exclusivity and especially divine inspiration and originality, since that inspiration and originality seems curiously spread over a considerable length of time (during which God was having difficulty making up his mind, one supposes, and those drawn-out decisions were also being adopted by other deities’ followers).

Smith concludes from all this that we ought now to view the relationship between Christianity and the pagan mysteries “as analogous processes, responding to parallel kinds of religious situations, rather than continuing to construct genealogical relationships between them, whether it be expressed in terms of the former ‘borrowing’ from the latter, or, more recently, in an insistence on the reverse” [p.112-13]. This is a valid and commendable proposal, but it is also a case of putting the best face on the matter, in that it seems designed to absolve Christianity of the crime of direct borrowing. Behind that face, however, lies the unresolved question of exclusivity and originality which scholarship has been so anxious to preserve. Perhaps the crime has simply been pleaded down, from “premeditated plagiarism” to “involuntary absorption.” If Paul and other early Christians were constructing their doctrines and rituals according to the patterns of the time, as they had been evolving for centuries in the Hellenistic milieu they lived in, even if they brought fresh elements and perspectives to them (which everyone was doing in any religious context), this does not change the basic fact that there was a dependence on and derivation from the wider salvation theories of the age. Whether Paul is caught with his hand in the neighbor’s cookie jar or has bought the ingredients in the public market to bake his own, is a distinction that may bring comfort to some, but hardly removes Christianity from the general category of ancient savior god cults, or bestows on it the garland of divine truth.

*In the third article, the examination of apologetic defense of Christian uniqueness will be pursued further in a review of the most renowned and determined effort to date to discredit the mysteries and reevaluate the essential rite of Christian salvation: Gunter Wagner’s Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries.

To Part Three: A Review of Gunter Wagner’s Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries

Further Supplementary Articles:

No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate

No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John

No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?

No. 4: The Odes of Solomon

No. 5: Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria

No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel

No. 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity

No. 8: Christ as “Man”: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?

No. 9: A Sacrifice In Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews

No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question

No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John

No. 12: Crossing the Threshold of History: Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers at the Turn of the Second Century (Parts One & Two)

No. 13A: The Mystery Cults and Christianity: Introduction and Survey of the Cults

No. 13B: The Mystery Cults and Christianity: On Comparing the Cults and Christianity

No. 13C: The Mystery Cults and Christianity: A Review of Gunter Wagner’s Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries

No. 13D: The Mystery Cults and Christianity: A Cult of Parallels: Pagan Myths and the Jesus Story

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