Jesus and the Mystery Religions
- January 14, 2019
- Sage Blalock
Over the course of the last century, some scholars have presented evidence that they believe shows that early first-century Christians, specifically Greek converts and Hellenized Jewish Christians, may have taken some of their beliefs and practices from Greek mystery religions. Regarding beliefs, those accusing the early Christians have highlighted supposed parallels between Jesus and the gods or central figures from an array of mystery cults. These parallels include features such as virgin birth, death and resurrection, and the death of the deity having the power to atone for the sins of the believer. Scholars who hold to the theory of Christian syncretism also state that the practices of baptism, in which the believer is purified of their sins, and a version of the “Lord’s Supper,” in which the group of believers metaphorically eat the body and drink the blood of the deity to remember his sacrifice, affirm their suspicions regarding syncretism. The primary religions that are said to have influenced Christianity which I will discuss are the cult of Isis and Osiris, the cult of Cybele and Attis, and Mithraism. Before carefully examining the validity of these parallels between Christianity and the mystery religions, I will briefly explain what mystery religions are and then give a mythological background for each of the aforementioned religions and their deities.
The mystery religions were very influential in the Hellenistic age. They are known as “mysteries” because of their secretive nature and practices. These mystery religions sprouted up in almost all regions across the Mediterranean world. However, for the sake of this essay, I will be concerned with three cults introduced earlier. In Asia Minor, the cult of the Great Mother, otherwise known as the cult of Cybele and Attis began. The cult of Isis and Osiris started in Egypt. And lastly, the religion of Mithraism was most likely formed in Persia. Although they were very private with their beliefs and activities, they did eventually become very popular throughout the Roman world. This surge in popularity could have been caused by many factors such as their inclusiveness, their claims of offering some form of salvation to initiates, and the hope of a better life in the here and now (Nash, p. 105-106).
All of these mystery religions shared a certain amount of traits that made them very similar in some ways. One such commonality is their focus on the vegetation cycle, in which life is renewed in spring and then dies again in the fall. This idea of a circle of life, so to speak, coupled with the influence of Hellenized philosophy created a special interest in the afterlife and how it works. Another trait shared by the mystery cults, as was said earlier, was the secret ritual and initiation rites. Initiates would be inducted and then given special knowledge that they were unable to share with those outside of their religious group. The mystery religions also shared a lack of doctrine or theology. Many historians and philosophers such as Aristotle pointed out that these cults were not geared toward convincing people intellectually, but appealing to their emotions in order to convert them. The most important commonality between the mystery religions was, for the followers at least, the “mystical experience that led to feel that they had achieved union with their god.” This supernatural goal enabled people joining the cults to achieve some kind of salvation and immortality (Nash, p. 112-115). Now that I have explained what the mystery religions were and how they operated, I will discuss the three examples relevant to this essay.
The first mystery religion that I will address is the cult of Isis and Osiris. This religion was formed in Egypt. It originally focused on the primary goddess Isis, the ruler of heaven, earth, the sea, and the underworld. In this myth, Isis takes Osiris as her husband. The religion was later altered under the reign of Ptolemy the First to replace Osiris with Serapis in order to ease the Hellenization process in Egypt. That aside, the original myth of the cult was more concerned with the figure of Osiris. According to the most common version of the story, Osiris was killed by his brother Seth, also called Set, and then put in a coffin which was placed in the Nile River. After discovering the coffin at the bottom of the River, Isis retrieved it and returned it to Egypt. Seth learned this and took back possession of his brother’s body. He then cut Osiris’s corpse in to fourteen pieces which he then spread across the land. Isis then began a long search and recovered all but one of these pieces (Nash, p.126-127). The only part had been unable to find was Osiris’s genitalia, which she replaced with a golden makeshift model. Osiris then became the ruler of his new home, the underworld. Two grand annual festivals were associated with this religion. The one pertinent to this discussion took place at the end of the month of October and beginning of November celebrating the search for and finding of Osiris’s body. This festival is closely tied to the cycle of the seasons as well as agriculture and fertility (Ferguson, p.270-271).
The next religion to analyze is the cult of Cybele and Attis, otherwise known as the cult of the Great Mother. Pessinus in Phrygia is believed to be the origin point of the cult. There are a few different myths regarding the figures of Cybele and Attis. One claims that Zeus fathered Agdistis, a wild and androgynous beast. Dionysus tricked the creature by getting it drunk and tying its genitalia to a tree while it was asleep. Upon awakening suddenly, Agdistis’ male reproductive organs were torn off. From this dismembered body part arose and almond tree. Then a figure known as Nana had fruit from the tree and became pregnant with Attis. Attis grew up and was to be married to the princess of Pessinus, but Agdistis had other plans. Agdistis had fallen in love with Attis and devised a scheme to stop the marriage. This plan resulted in Attis castrating himself. In another version of the story, Cybele was bound to Attis by “chaste passion” and required him to take a vow of perpetual celibacy. However, Attis developed a romantic connection with a nymph named Sangritis, breaking his vow. Cybele took revenge and murdered Sangritis causing Attis to lose his mind and mutilate his genitals. Attis dies in most of these myths as a result of his castration. However in a different version of the story, Attis is killed by either a fellow hunter or a wild boar while he is hunting. In the myth concerning Agdistis and the princess of Pessinus, Agdistis asks Zeus to bring Attis back to life. Zeus does not grant this, but does cause Attis’s body to not decay, his hair to continually grow, and his little finger to move (Ferguson, p. 283). A special ceremony called the taurobolium was very important to this religion. In this activity, the person entering the cult would enter a deep pit covered with a series of wooden planks. A bull would then be walked onto these planks and stabbed with a spear. The bull’s blood would pour onto the person in the pit, providing a ritual of purification for him or her. Some sources go as far as to say that this rite causes a person to be “reborn” (Ferguson, p. 285-286).
The third and final mystery religion I will explain is Mithraism. This cult is thought by some to have been developed from older religion in ancient Persia. This theory, however, is not conclusive. But the Hellenized version of this myth is the one that has drawn comparisons to Christianity and is, therefore, the myth I will discuss. One form of the Hellenized myth is centered on Mithras. This figure was a hunter, horseman, and archer who was known as “lord of the wide pastures” (Ferguson, p.287-92). Mithras’s most important moment was an incident when he killed a wild bull created by the god Ahura Mazda. The sun sent a raven to track down this creature and then Mithras and his hound found it. He then dragged the beast into a cave where he finally ended its life. From the animal’s blood came life and grain. “Life and energy” symbolized in the bull were therefore released for the good of the world and the human race (p. 292). This act of “releasing life” may have meant that Mithras offered some form of salvation for converts. However, simply becoming a member of this cult was not enough to earn passage into paradise. The initiate would have to pass through seven ranks to achieve this feat. These ranks are: Raven, Bride, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus, and Father. Each of these ranks is under the protection of a different god represented by one of the seven known planets at the time (p. 292-295).
Now that I have examined the myths and some of the relevant practices of the mystery religions, I will begin to investigate the comparisons between each of these and Christianity. I will begin with the cult of Isis and Osiris. There are two major areas in which this cult is compared to Christianity. The first of which involves baptism. Some scholars have tried to make a connection between Osiris’s coffin being sunk into the Nile and the Christian baptism. But there does not seem to be any evidence supporting that this event has any similarities whatsoever with the Christian baptism. In fact, Ronald Nash states that the coffin story “is about as relevant to baptism as the sinking of Atlantis.” However, there was a ritual washing involved in the process of initiation into the cult. Although this is much more like the Christian form of baptism, German scholar Gunter Wagner explains why it is not quite as similar as one may think: “This washing has as little as possible the appearance of a sacrament; evidently it was not intended to produce ‘regeneration’ or anything of the sort. The purpose of it seems to have been cleanliness, which was naturally regarded as a preparation for the holy rite that was to follow” (Nash, p.128). The “baptism” in this cult differs greatly from the Christian baptism which emphasizes the repentance and lifestyle change of the participant. According to the evidence, it does not appear that the Osiris myth or the initiation washing have any symbolic similarities to Christian baptism.
The second comparison between the Osiris cult and Christianity lies in the supposed death and resurrection of Osiris which is said to be the similar to that of Jesus. In the story of Osiris’s “resurrection,” after death he is made the ruler of the underworld by his wife Isis. To elaborate on this, Everett Ferguson wrote: “Osiris did not return to this world or experience a resurrection properly speaking; his continued existence was in the netherworld” (Ferguson, p. 270). In this story, Osiris does die, but he is never brought back to life on the Earth. This is not even comparable to the bodily resurrection of Jesus in the Christian tradition. In Jesus’s case, he was resurrected from the dead in a glorified physical body on Earth. Therefore, Christianity did not take a non-existent feature of the Osiris myth and apply it to Jesus.
Next, I will examine the similarities between the myth of Attis in the Cybele cult and the accounts of Jesus in the canonical gospels. Scholars have made a variety of comparisons between Attis and Jesus such as virgin birth, death and resurrection from the dead, and this death atoning for the sins of others. While it is true that Attis birth is very different from most, the claim that he is virgin born does not appear to be accurate. First of all, in the Attis story, Zeus’s physical seed falls on to the Earth creating Agdistis. Agdistis, Attis’s father, later has a cruel trick played on him by the god Dionysis. Because of this, Agdistis lost his genitalia which fell onto the ground and created an almond tree. Therefore, the almond tree and Agdistis’s genitals are one and the same. Then Attis’s mother Nana took the fruit of this tree into her bosom. This is how Attis was conceived. Although this is certainly not the typical “how I met your mother” story, it is not like Jesus’s birth story in any way other than being somewhat supernatural. For Jesus, his mother was overcome with the Holy Ghost and then Jesus was conceived. So in the Attis story, the dismembered male genitals of Zeus’s offspring impregnate a nymph after she consumes the fruit of a tree that they create. But in the Jesus story, a woman is overcome with the power of God and receives a divine gift into her womb in the form of Jesus. It does not seem that these stories have anything in common but the fact that they each involve of divine figures.
The next link made between the two involves their deaths and subsequent resurrections. In the story of Attis, he either goes mad and castrates himself or is stabbed with a spear in a boar-hunting accident, both of which result in his death. In these stories, Zeus plainly refuses to bring Attis back to life. However, he does grant Attis’s body the abilities to both never decay and have slight movement in his little finger. The only evidence that is available that people in antiquity even applied the idea of resurrection to Attis comes in the fourth century C.E. by Firmicus Maternus who did this through interpreting the myth according to the agricultural cycle. He did so by seeing Attis as “the grain cut down by the sickle and planted to grow again” (Ferguson, p. 283). The only form of this story that even has Attis “return to life” has him come back as an evergreen tree (Nash, p. 130). Obviously this claim is not the same as, or even close for that matter, the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died on the cross, was entombed for three days, and then became alive again in the same body he had before his death. According to this evidence, it is apparent that early Christianity did not borrow the idea of the resurrection of Jesus from the cult of the Great Mother because this idea did not even exist in the cult until nearly three and a half centuries after Christianity began.
There also exists a theory that Attis’s death was thought to atone for the sins of others like the death of Jesus. However according to J.P. Holding, the only historical evidence we have of anyone associating Attis’s death with any kind of salvation comes from a writer named Damascius, who lived from 480 C.E. to 550 C.E. As Holding says, Damascius had a dream in which the festival of Attis celebrated “salvation from Hades.” This means that this idea, if it ever was held by the cult, most likely did not surface until this time. This, however, has been in the Christian movement virtually from its beginning. So, it is not likely that Christianity took this from the cult of the Great Mother.
Some scholars also claim that certain rituals in the cult of the Great Mother were adopted by early Christianity. The taurobolium is probably the most well-known of the rituals. For the purposes of this essay, it is also the most relevant. This ritual involves a “bathing,” so to speak, in a bull’s blood. Sometimes, the taurobolium has been described, using Christian vocabulary, as a “baptism of blood” as well as producing a kind of rebirth in the initiate. But as Ronald Nash states, even some scholars who use this language are not committed to follow through with it by claiming it is simply “coincidental.” Gordon J. Laing, one author Nash cites as doing this very thing, said the following: “There is certainly no evidence that the Christians derived it from the cult of the Great Mother. The earliest known taurobolic inscription is dated A.D. 133, but Paul had already preached the doctrine that men must be born again long before” (Nash, p. 132). In fact, Robert Duthoy made the claim that the taurobolium progressed through three stages from just a sacrifice to the rite of consecration. The first stage is approximated to last from 160 to 250 C.E. when the ritual was only a sacrifice to Cybele. In the second stage, ranging from 228 to 319 C.E., a greater importance was placed on the bull’s blood. Then finally in the third stage this was seen as a rite of purification, which Duthoy suggested could be evidence of Christian influence on the cult. Therefore, it seems highly improbable that the taurobolium influenced the Christian baptism in any way.
Now, I will discuss the parallels between Mithraism and Christianity. Some of the major similarities between the key figures of the two are virgin birth and death and resurrection for the sins of followers. There are also said to be some resemblances between the Lord’s Supper in Christianity and a sacramental meal in Mithraism. I will first address the claims of virgin birth in these stories. The story of Jesus’s virgin birth is almost universally known and has already been stated in this essay, so I will focus on the account of Mithra’s virgin birth. This claim faces problems immediately because the myth simply does not say that Mithra was the product of a virgin birth. In the myth, Mithra came forth from a rock “carrying a knife and torch and wearing a Phrygian cap” (Nash, p. 134). Although he was clearly born in a supernatural way, this story claims he was born from a rock or cave, not a female of any kind. Since this is the case, one cannot say that Mithra was the offspring of a virgin birth.
The second comparison often made between Mithra and Jesus is associated with their deaths and resurrections for the sins of mankind. While these features are clearly present in the New Testament in the writings of Paul and the gospel writers, the same cannot be said for Mithra. In Mithra’s myth, his greatest feat is the killing of a special bull which was said to have created human life. In this story, Mithra does not die at all, let alone for the sake of atoning for anyone’s sins. The only death in the story is the cosmic bull that he killed. It appears as though the claims of Christianity stealing these redemptive death and resurrection ideas from Mithraism are nonsensical and false.
The supposed parallels between the Lord’s Supper in Christianity and a ceremonial meal in Mithraism serve as the final comparison in this essay. The Lord’s Supper is representative of the life and death of Jesus. The participant eats bread, symbolizing the body of Christ, and drinks wine, symbolic of the blood of Christ shed at the cross, as a way to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made to save those who would believe in from sin and death. The Mithraic ceremony involved eating bread and drinking water. Could it be that this practice influenced Paul or any of the other early church fathers? As Ronald Nash states, the answer is an emphatic no. This is because no evidence for this practice shows up until the early second century. He says “the problem with the Mithraic rite is its late date, which precludes its having any influence on Paul” (Nash, p.141).Therefore, it looks as if the late dating of the evidence suggests that Christianity did not take this ritual from Mithraism.
Although each of the mystery religions has been briefly illuminated and its comparisons to Christianity have been examined, a larger issue still persists. Why exactly are scholars with syncretistic perspectives making these claims that upon further review are being proven highly improbable and unlikely? The answer could be found in some scholars interpretations of the information available on the mystery religions. Everett Ferguson points out what he sees as part of the issue. He says the methodology behind the study of the mystery religions is likely the culprit:
“There was a tendency to interpret one cult by another and so construct a general ‘mystery theology’ or common ‘mystery religion.’ Not uncommonly was this done by (unconsciously) starting with Christian ideas, using these to interpret data about the mysteries, and then finding the mysteries as the source of the Christian ideas” (Ferguson, p. 297).
However, this is not a mistake made exclusively by non-Christians as Ferguson states:
“Early Christian authors, it seems, did this too, only their conclusion was that the similarities came from demonic imitation of Christian rites. The Christian writers of the early centuries may have exaggerated the similarities, either from defensiveness or from the same psychological process as modern researchers, or (as seems more likely) because they could make apologetical capital for the truth of Christianity by claiming demonic imitations in paganism” (Ferguson, p. 297).
One question this raises is how exactly did the mystery religions affect early Christianity? While it does not appear that the mystery religions had much of an impact whatsoever in the first few centuries of the Christian movement, it is obvious that around the fourth century some of their aspects were brought into Christianity. These aspects ranged from magical hand gestures to theological ideas like the geography of Hell of Hades and other gods, who have now been disguised as saints (Ferguson, p. 297). These ideas have since been corrected following the Protestant Reformation, which sought to return the church to its purest form from the early years of Christianity.
Before I conclude this essay I will reference some of the closing arguments made by Ronald Nash in The Gospel and the Greeks. These are some of the arguments he makes to explain the weaknesses in the syncretistic claims: First, the arguments made by syncretists illustrate the logical fallacy of false cause because they assume that since two movements exist side by side that one must have caused the other. The second, the alleged similarities between Christianity and the different mystery religions are either exaggerated or simply made up. The third, the chronology for these claims is wrong because all the evidence used to support these claims is too late to be authentic. Fourth, Christianity was grounded in historical events whereas the mystery religions were based on myths. Fifth and finally, although many of these parallels are far-fetched and exaggerated, the parallels found in the later forms of these religions may show that they, in fact, borrowed from Christianity (Nash, p. 180-187).
After observing all of the aforementioned evidence, it seems clear that the early Christian doctrines concerning Jesus virgin birth as well as death and resurrection for the sins of the world were most likely not influenced by the Hellenistic mystery religions of the time. These parallels, which are precarious at best, do not even show up in the evidence available until much later, centuries later in fact. This suggests the possibility that the borrowing of core doctrine occurred in the opposite direction. It appears as though the mystery religions may have borrowed certain aspects of Christianity and its popular Jesus to increase interest in their own religious activities while Christianity began to rapidly expand. But even this may not be entirely true, because these supposed parallels were not taken seriously until the mystery religions were reinterpreted using Christian terminology. Therefore, it appears that real evidence supporting a theory of early Christian syncretism is, at most, unconvincing and, at least, non-existent.
Daniel, Prayson. “Refuting Attis Myth Parallelism To Christianity.” With All I Am. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <http://withalliamgod.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/refuting-attis-myth-parallelism-to-christianity/>.
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of early Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003. Print.
Holding, J.P. . “Tekton Apologetics.” Attis, Cybele, and Jesus. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.
Nash, Ronald H.. The gospel and the Greeks: did the New Testament borrow from pagan thought?. 2nd ed. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2003. Print.