To What Extent was Christianity Influenced by Mystery Religions?

These notes summarize two articles that address this issue. The first one by Bruce Metzger is the better of the two.

Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity

By Bruce Metzger[1]

Thesis

The investigator must maintain a high degree of caution in evaluating the relation between the mysteries and early Christianity. The central doctrines and rites of the primitive church appear to lack genetic continuity (not find their source in) with those of antecedent and contemporary pagan cults.

Information about mystery religions is fragmentary – not much is available until the 3rd – 5th centuries A.D.. Opinions on the influence of mystery religions on Christianity range between these two views:

  • A minimum of outside influence came to bear upon primitive Christianity.
  • Central doctrines in the church were influenced by the mystery religions.

Important considerations

A. It is important to distinguish between the faith and practices of the earliest Christians and that of the church during subsequent years. Post-Constantine Christianity was influenced by some aspects of mystery religions.

  • Some saints were replaced local demi-gods (evident from similarities in name and description).
  • Statues of Isis holding baby Horus and the Egyptian Queen of Heaven inspired the cult of Mary.
  • Sabazios, the nomadic horseman sky and father god of the Phrygians, blessed his adherents with a characteristic gesture (three fingers raised, the thumb and other finger bent down). The Catholic bishop of the west gave (and still gives) his blessing to the faithful with the same gesture.
  • Processions in which sacred objects are carried for display.
  • The tonsure of priests (shaving the center of the head bald with a ring of unshaven hair around the bald spot).

B. The limited information we do have about the mystery religions is mainly from the 3rd – 5th centuries and doesn’t necessarily reflect what they were like in the pre-Christian era. We can’t assume that practices mentioned by Christian authors predate Christianity.

C. Mystery religions shouldn’t be spoken of as a single entity or combined into one overall mystery religion. Each had unique features; the mystery religions varied widely.

D. The early Palestinian church was composed of Christians from a Jewish background whose generally strict monotheism and traditional intolerance of syncretism must have militated against wholesale borrowing from pagan cults.

E. Palestine has been extremely barren in yielding archaeological remains of the paraphernalia and places of worship connected with the mystery religions.

F. There are some parallels between mystery religions and Christianity, but…

  • close similarities and phraseology don’t necessary imply borrowing either way. The uniformity of human nature sometimes produces strikingly similar results in similar situations where there can be no suspicion of any historical bridge by which the tradition could have been mediated from one culture to another.
  • don’t uncritically assume that the mystery religions always influenced Christianity… why can’t it be the other way around?

G. There are significant differences between Christianity and the mystery religions.

  • Christianity has notable absence of terms used in contemporary pagan religions.
  • Claims about Jesus were anchored in history… the deities of the mystery religions we nebulous figures of an imaginary past
  • Christian beliefs weren’t secretive… they were “people of the book” and the book was available for anyone to read.
  • In the earliest phase, Christian sacraments were God’s blessing conveyed to unworthy recipients. In mystery religions, sacraments often are seen as creating an immortal element in the individual but with no effective change in the moral self for the purposes of living.

H. Despite the supposed connection with similar practices in mystery religions, the influence for baptism and communion is tied most closely to Jewish proselyte baptism and the Passover meal.

I. There are significant differences between the saving efficacy of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the motif of a dying and rising savior-god in some mystery religions.

  1. In all of the mystery religions, a deity dies by compulsion, not by choice.
  2. Christ’s death is seen as a victory, not an unfortunate twist of fate imposed on him.
  3. No attempt is made in any of the mystery religions to undergird belief in a resurrection with historical evidence.
  4. Supposed parallels with deities that raise “on the third day” either post date the birth of Christianity or are based on questionable evidence.
  5. Isis reanimated Osiris with the help of magic, but he then became lord of the underworld, a far cry from a bodily resurrection.

J. The mystery religions have a cyclical view of history based on the cycle of the seasons, unlike the linear view of history in Judaism and Christianity. They also lack the spiritual and moral understanding of the meaning of history in Christianity.

Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions?

by Ronald Nash[2]

Ronald H. Nash is professor of philosophy and theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He joined the RTS faculty in 1991 after retiring from Western Kentucky University, where he served as professor of philosophy and department head for some 27 years. Nash is a graduate of Brown University and received his Ph.D from Syracuse University. He is the author or editor for more than 20 books.

He wrote The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (1992)

Outside of Judaism and Christianity, the mystery religions were the most influential belief systems of the first century A.D.

They were called “mystery” religions because they often involved secret ceremonies known only to the initiated. Being a full participant was seen to offer some kind of salvation.

There were also public cults like the Greek Olympian religion that people participated in.

Different regions in the Mediterranean adhered to different mystery religions.

  • Persia:
    • Cult of Mithras (Mithraism)
  • Syria and Palestine:
    • Cult of Adonis
  • Greece:
    • Cult of Demeter
    • Cult of Dionysius
    • Eleusian Mystery Religions
    • Orphic Mystery Religions
  • Asia Minor:
    • Cult of Cybele and Attis
  • Egypt:
    • Cult of Isis
    • Cult of Osiris

There were shifts in the perspective of mystery religions from 1st to 3rd century:

  • A shift toward eclecticism or synthesis.
  • A shift away from state religion and towards to private belief.

Common traits of the mystery religions (remembering that each one had significant differences):

  1. Use of an annual vegetation cycle.
  2. Secret ceremonies or mysteries often in connection with initiation.
  3. Mysteries center around a myth where deity returns to life after death or triumphs over his enemies. Offering of a new life.
  4. Little or no use for doctrine and correct belief. Primarily concerned with the emotional life of followers. Inclusive, not exclusive.
  5. Immediate goal: mystical experience; ultimate goal: redemption, salvation, immortality.

Most of the info we have about the mystery religions comes from 3rd-5th centuries A.D. Nash warns against drawing conclusions about first century mystery religions from 3rd century data.

Nash offers details about the cult of Isis and Osiris, the cult of Cybele and Attis, and “the Taurobolium.”

The Taurobolium

  • A rite that entered the cult of Cybele and Attis sometime in the middle of the second century AD (Nash offers no evidence to support this date). Initiates stood or reclined in a pit as a bull was slaughtered on a platform above them, bathing them in the warm blood of the dying animal. Some say Christian language “being washed in the blood of the lamb” / “being sprinkled in the blood of Jesus” originated in this rite. But this is unlikely, because this practice postdates early Christianity.
  • Some say that taurobolium also influenced Paul’s doctrine in Romans 6 of being identified with Christ’s death and resurrection. But the idea of death and resurrection was never associated with taurobolium.

Mithraism

This belief system emerged too late to influence the New Testament. So did the Mithraic ritual meal involving placing a piece of bread and cup of water before initiates to eat and drink.

Contrasts between the death of Jesus and the death of so-called deities in the mystery religions

  1. None of them died on behalf of someone else like Jesus did.
  2. Only Jesus died for sin.
  3. Jesus died once and for all, unlike the mystery gods whose repeated deaths and resuscitations depict the cycle of nature.
  4. Jesus’ death was an actual event in history.
  5. Unlike the mystery gods, Jesus died voluntarily.
  6. Jesus death was a triumph, not a defeat.

The belief that pre-Christian mysteries used “rebirth” as a technical term is totally unsupported. There is also no evidence contemporary with what would have been pre-Christian mysteries that suggests they saw their initiation rites as a rebirth.

Additional arguments against Christianity depending on the mystery religions:

  1. Similarity does not prove dependence.
  2. Similarities are often exaggerated or fabricated.
  3. Information about pagan religions post dates primitive Christianity and can’t be extrapolated back to the first century.
  4. Coming from a background of strict Judaism, Paul would not have consciously borrowed from pagan religions.
  5. Christian exclusivism further makes borrowing unlikely.
  6. Paul’s religion was grounded in historical claims.
  7. Remaining parallels between Christians and mystery religions can be explained by the pagan religions borrowing from the Christian ones.

[1] https://www.frontline-apologetics.com/mystery_religions_early_christian…

[2] https://www.equip.org/free/DB109.htm